Eyes on a City

It starts on a night with my Duluth inner circle. I am free, finally, after a frantic work marathon on a major grant application. We gather in a place where we can look out at the steely lake, waves churning outward, this first blast of a late autumn gale whose forbidding force I relish. Drinks turn to dinner, our schemes slowly forming, the trusted friends necessary to make life in a place like this. They share their plots and I spill out my own convoluted thoughts as clearly as I yet have, setting the stage for what may come next. They tell me to trust certain urges, to take command in ways I have not before. Rich and rewarded and renewed, we head on home.

Fresh eyes: a cousin and his wife on a trial run of a camper van life roll through for a few evening hours. They are new to the city, and it puts on its finest show. We traverse Skyline as the sun sinks toward the horizon, that orange glow cast back across the lake, and Duluth feels like it melts into its landscape, my guests glowing over houses clinging to hillsides and eclectic old grandees and the profusion of parks. A quick dinner and they are on their way, Duluth the last true city as they set out to the outposts of civilization of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Nature and culture, twinned and in harmony, or so we can make it if we believe.

Elegiac eyes: drinks on a patio with a friend headed south, one of several young talents this city has lost in the past few weeks. The draw it once had is still there, and there may yet be roads that lead back here. But pretty scenery is only worth so much: there are only so many seats, only so many options for a professional with any ambitions. Duluth can be a cruel home in one’s 20s for anyone who doesn’t have the clearest of paths, and particularly hard on those of us looking for creative outlets. It is a great city to come of age in and a great city to settle down in, but it struggles to fuel those of us who are still bridging that gap. I am only a degree removed from him, and there are more than a few days of doubt. After a year and a half of pandemic restrictions and some inspiring bursts outward this year, that urgency has never been stronger. My brain trust tells me to trust that urge. But where, exactly, does it lead?

Prodigal eyes: A high school friend and his wife wonder whether to turn a temporary sojourn into a permanent move. They’re as world-wise a couple as I know, but they find many reasons to be happy here. They try to weigh the value of career pursuit versus other things life, the virtues of Midwest humility against rarefied East Coast circles. We talk through some of the decisions I made, how much my hopes have come to match reality. I am not sure how much help I am, but these are not my choices to make. Not for them, anyway.

The eyes of a believer: On a free weekend day, I head up the North Shore, leaving before dawn. The sun looms behind a thick cloud on the lake as it crawls up over the horizon. Then, just north of Tettegouche, the moment of contact, the Creation of Adam: the sun explodes out above the cloud and its golden glint sears the lake and ignites the golden aspen and birch. I drive through a sea of brilliant luminescence, ridge and water and trees and the heavens above and me in a trance on the road I could drive into eternity. It is the most spectacular sunrise I have ever seen.

Later, further north, I tread a familiar path. Deep into a quiet gorge, up to a great rocky peak, punishing rises and falls, a fraction of the people of most great North Shore hikes. I write along the river and beneath a lonely tree protruding from the dome, and on the way back out, I pause to bask in the sunlight in a red pine grove with a view down the river valley to the still-resplendent waters. Back in a bustling Grand Marais I impulse-buy some North Shore sunrise art, if art can indeed capture the total immersion I felt this morning.

Spice-tinged eyes: My Dad and I watch Dune, our first in-person film since before the pandemic. He read the book to me as a kid (yes, this was the sort of book we consumed at bedtime when I was growing up), and we are pleased to see a faithful rendition, weighty and beautiful and perhaps more prescient than ever before. I’d forgotten how much my youthful self fantasized of being a Paul Atreides: entranced by vivid and lifelike dreams, trained into total control, one with his land and his people, hungering for some great destiny. Puberty safely freed me of any messianic aspirations, and adult eyes, better-versed in the Greek tragedies (among many other things) that inspired Frank Herbert, now see the moral ambiguity of this tale. But over these two weeks I’m delighted to feel that pull again.

Familiar eyes: UMD hockey, lively as ever; the MEA Weekend rush, that Minneostan holiday celebrating one last weekend of outdoor activity before the freeze. I do dry cleaning for the first time in eons and slide into a suit for the Duluth Chamber Dinner. There are fewer pre- and after-parties, no more sermons from the preacher of Duluth’s good word, the now-retired David Ross, and after so long without them the rituals of networking and sitting through strings of speakers, the rust comes off slowly. But friends old and new trail through and the bagpipers are still around and there is of course a chance to follow up afterward at Hoops and we are all content.

Watery eyes: On my way up the North Shore I listen to “This Is Water,” the 2005 David Foster Wallace commencement speech at Kenyon College. “We all worship something,” he tells us, and for me at age twenty-two that anchor in a liquid world was not a god nor money nor fame nor a person but a place. It is an unusual lover, austere and uncaring and sometimes exasperating but always here, and at least it is a version of it in motion, not some static memory of the past. A decade later I’m not sure if it was the right object of worship, but I have internalized it now, and though all the other possibilities have bubbled up from time to time, not one of them has yet broken the surface.

I may be ready for one to do so. But in the meantime, this particular bond will still fill my plate. There are elections this week, I have more travels ahead of me, and, after a necessary hiatus, it’s about time to start churning out some hockey content again. I’m not exactly sure where I’m going but I do have some idea of how to get there, these past few weeks offering up a roadmap for what that life looks like. And this place I have chosen as my home, well, may it continue to give me chances to make it real.

A Sense of Place in the Modern World

So many trends in this day in age cut against loyalty to a place. Being committed to one spot on the map seems to be either a luxury or a harsh necessity.

Just think about it. Finding a well-paying job (or simply a job) often requires travel and frequent movement as one climbs the ladder in search of the best opportunity. Well-educated people often uproot themselves and cluster together in a handful of economic centers that have a lot of interesting high culture. People who come from less-than-ideal backgrounds can escape them, and for many, that is no small victory. Economists speak glowingly about “creative destruction”—that is, the need to tear down old stuff and replace it with new stuff to keep the engines of economic growth firing at full steam. The two political parties’ platforms only rarely give nods to local interests; Democrats emphasize universal rights above local loyalties and often use a distant federal government as their instrument of choice to promote it, while Republicans tend to venerate the frictionless free market above all else. Throw in the technological advances of the past few decades, and people have never been so free to move about without setting down deep roots where they are.

The march of modernity is all bad for a sense of place. Mobility has actually declined somewhat in recent years, though I’d guess that has more to do with economic forces than some newfound commitment to certain locations. The internet makes it easier to connect to interesting people without ever leaving places that might otherwise not be the most stimulating places. It is also becoming increasingly easier to do some jobs from home, and some communities that are just flat-out nice places to live will prove resilient because of that. The mayor of my hometown of Duluth, Don Ness, made that argument in this recent Atlantic piece—he’s admitted that he is the anonymous mayor there. It’s a sensible point, but while this is nice for a city like Duluth, it’s not of much use to many other places. Building communities and growing cultures takes time and commitment, and it’s hard to find the people and capital to build them.

All of this movement is often viewed as a positive thing (the American Way, even), and as the media and other big institutions that drive culture tend to be full of people who have made plenty of career leaps, voices that question it don’t get much coverage. When they do, it’s often negative—and not always without reason, as the excesses and eccentricities of opposition groups merit a fair amount of the mockery they incur. This isn’t to say that all the national media hates or ignores small towns or Middle America—they continue to be a fantastic source for stories of virtue and laments for middle-class Paradise Lost—but most of them seem to view it as a different land to be mused about from afar, its decay inevitable. The people who really argue for something different are on the margins: environmentalists and lefty localists, certain conservatives who are actually interested in conserving things (usually communities, churches, and stable social orders), and a handful of literary figures who transcend those categories, like Wallace Stegner and Wendell Berry.

People from very diverse backgrounds agree with bits of their argument, even if they might not ever cohere into a political movement. These people generally respect things like political rights and an open economy, but they don’t think that loyalty to such ideals should come at the expense of personal ties. They are skeptical of abstraction and a life consumed by endless thinking. Instead, they focus on the relationships with people immediately around them, and because interpersonal relationships are at the center of everything, constant movement doesn’t much appeal to them. Family and friends are important, so they keep everyone close and recognize their debts to both their ancestors and their children. As a result, they’re comparatively thrifty and careful about their economic choices. They aren’t necessarily Luddites, but technology isn’t their favorite thing on earth, and if possible, they’d often rather repair things with their own hands than haul in an expensive expert to do the work. A number ground their localism in shopping locally and caring for their neighborhoods, and a number rely on houses of worship to provide community. There’s nothing glorious about this way of life, but it is one of steadiness and deep contentment, and it provides the strongest cushions possible when tragedy strikes.

Of course, it can all go wrong, as it has many times over the years. The most egregious examples are racial, religious, or other such barriers imposed by small communities with strong tribal instincts. Communities can be stultifying, or just stale. It is very difficult for one individual to stand up to an entire community, and when everyone knows one another, grudges can be even more toxic than when the enemy is a bit more abstract. These troubles can always be overcome, but they also require careful attention, and mean people have to think beyond the most convenient aspects of community as well.

A more benign trend among localists is a tendency to tip toward escapism. This is what religious conservatives will call the “Benedict Option,” though it’s not hard to find secular or left-leaning equivalents: people with a shared sense of morality retreating into their communities to hide from or wait out the collapse of the fallen modern world around them. If you want to be one of those people, be my guest; as long as you’re not shooting at those who don’t join you, you have that freedom, and the global economy isn’t going to take a hit because fifty people retreat into a self-sustaining commune or a homeschooling cooperative. I respect that, and I think the rest of society stands to learn from methods used in alternative schools or from Zapatista “good government” practices or the Amish freedom from being eternally plugged in.

I’m just not going to join them.

Why not? With a few obvious exceptions, those idealized communities never really last; the best we can do is pick and choose a few things from them that are worth adopting. Humans will always dream, and unless one has been within the culture for generations, people will grow restless and head out to explore the world on their own terms. It’s no secret that I’m a loyalist to community, but I didn’t come to appreciate that without spending an awful lot of my childhood dreaming about being somewhere else. I still do. I still love to travel, and I keep up with international news and pop culture and major sports. That makes it an awful lot easier to find common ground with people who aren’t from one’s little tribe, and so long as one has faith in one’s lifestyle, it isn’t going to corrupt anyone in some terrible way. I have less fear of moral decay than many religious conservatives, or even a healthy number of bourgeois liberals; somehow, it seems like you can always find people saying we’re all going to hell, and yet somehow, human nature seems to survive intact. The cloisters are a lovely place for a weekend of reflection, but there’s a bit too much Athens in my Jerusalem for me to stay there, and the same is probably true for most people out there. I can’t run away from the world. Yes, there’s an awful lot wrong with it, but it’s the only one I have.

Staying in touch with the world beyond my little fishbowl also keeps me from falling too far into blind obsession. I’ve shared some very pointed words about school board levies and local politicians on this blog, and I’m glad I have; Duluth is small enough that I’ve actually been able to dialogue with some people about these things and now have a modest readership. I’m proud of that, and I want to keep building on it. But I also don’t want to sit here preaching to a choir that nods and smiles, and I need constant reminders that there are other things out there that make all of this seem trivial. This blog’s wanderings into hockey or Greek philosophy or global affairs may seem like random whims, but there’s a design here: I’m trying to keep myself from ever being too caught up in these delightfully petty political circles I’m floating around in. And if need be, if Duluth doesn’t work out in the long run, I’m ready to pull up and move somewhere else. Roots aren’t easy to grow, but as long as the soil is halfway decent, they have a chance in most places.

There is wisdom in seeing life as an ongoing pilgrimage or journey from one place to the next, but too often that strikes me as a defense mechanism; a regrettably necessary means of making peace with roots that have rotted away. Sure, there are some people who just have a lot of wanderlust, or their own roots are among perpetual wanderers. Like the old line says, not all who wander are lost. But plenty of them are, or may be fully aware that their wanderings stem from old burdens or an inability to properly go home. The Jews did an admirable job of surviving, even thriving, when they were wandering the desert or scattered across Europe, but they always yearned for Israel. And while that home may seem a fleeting one when held up against the sweep of history, for our equally fleeting time on earth, it can make all the difference in the world. If life is a journey, it’s a much happier one when we have a warm bed to come home to at the end of the day’s adventures.

More than a Return

I’ve been a subscriber to the New Yorker for a few years now. When I first started reading it, I’d go through every issue cover-to-cover; but of late, for whatever reason, I haven’t been going through it with as much zeal as I once did, and I was getting backlogged.

Then they go and drop this thing on me:

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/04/08/130408fa_fact_matar

The article is, sadly, behind their paywall, so if you’re not a New Yorker subscriber and don’t know any elaborate ways around the wall, you’re out of luck. But pieces like this are the epitome of what a personal essay should be. It took me a long time to read it, as I was zoning in and out, my mind racing off on tangents spurred by the deep insights and elegant prose.

The author is Hisham Matar, a Libyan novelist who has spent most of his life in exile, and he has penned a gorgeous meditation on his messy relationship with his homeland, and the father it took from him. He recalls his father’s words following the family’s flight from Libya and the terrors of the Qaddafi regime:

I demanded to be returned to my country. My mother tried to console me. “Leave him be,” Father told her. “He’ll get used to it.” It was the cruellest thing he had ever said. Cruel and nearly true. Even then I knew, more from the voice than from the words, and also from the way he stood, not facing me, that he, too, was mourning the loss. There is a moment when you realize that you and your parent are not the same person, and it usually occurs when you are both consumed by a similar emotion.

That emotion later drove Matar’s father to return to his country and lead a rebellion against Qaddafi. He was imprisoned, and his family did not hear from him after 1996. He was missing, and presumed dead. But when Qaddafi fell in 2011, Matar and his brother are inevitably drawn back in search of closure. On his return trip to Libya after 33 years in Europe and the U.S., he writes:

This was the chasm that divided the man from the eight-year-old boy I was when my family left. The plane was going to cross that gulf. Surely such journeys were reckless. This one could rob me of a skill that I have worked hard to cultivate: how to live away from places and people I love. Joseph Brodsky was right. So were Nabokov and Conrad: artists who never returned. Each had tried, in his own way, to cure himself of his country. What you have left behind has dissolved. Return and you will face the absence or the defacement of what you treasured. But Dmitri Shostakovich and Boris Pasternak and Naguib Mahfouz were also right; never leave the homeland. Leave and your connections to the source will be severed. You will be like a dead trunk, hard and hollow.

What can you do when you cannot leave and cannot return?

But still, Matar must return. He must know. “I envy the finality of funerals,” he writes. “Whenever I hear of someone in Iraq, in Argentina, or now in Libya finding the bones of his disappeared scattered in a mass grave, I covet the certainty. How it must be to wrap one’s hands around the bones, to choose how to place them, to be able to pat the patch of earth and sing a prayer.”

What does Matar find when he goes home? Many things, all of them difficult to understand, and few offering anything in the way of closure. But, in the end, perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing.

Read the whole piece, if you can. Matar’s novels are definitely going on my reading list.