I’m full of contradictions, one set of which involves my lifestyle and another my surroundings. A weekend obituary and a separate, developing local debate had me thinking about them.
I live in a city, population 400,000, with nine eating establishments within a five-minute walk and all other aspects of midcountry American urbanity within 20 minutes’ travel, construction season notwithstanding. But it is, at times, not city enough for me.
On the other hand, I grew up primarily on the edge of a small town, with cornfields in front and bean fields behind — it varied by the year — but we were still within the city limits, and it wasn’t country enough. (Aside from wanting my family to have open land of our own, I desired a horse.)
It was in that vein that, when I discovered an appreciation for poetry 15 years ago (which, mind you, was 15 years after I graduated college with an English degree), I was a bit envious of Donald Hall.
Hall, an established poet, college professor and literary critic, had returned in midlife to a family homestead in rural New Hampshire. He had brought with him his second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. When they weren’t traveling on business, they spent their days eating, sleeping, walking the dogs by the pond and writing, finding inspiration in (Kenyon’s words) the sedges and ferns and aromatic earth. And Hall would spend his summer evenings watching baseball, that most soothing of sports.
I’m an introvert; it’s incontrovertible, so I loved the idea of such a quotidian but productive routine. I felt I could easily spend days at a time walking the land and working on creative endeavors, seeing no soul other than the love of my life. It sounded ideal.
But it wasn’t, not even for Hall. He beat cancer, but then the much-younger Kenyon developed it and died. Though they were strangers to me, I felt a great associative emptiness and fear over this outcome — this reminder that tragedy lies in wait for us all. But, as I discovered, corporeal death isn’t always its weapon of choice.
Not long after my divorce, when I was burying my grief in reading and thinking and was finding this new regimen, well, not intolerable, I detected another kindred spirit in Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Gilead.” Her character John Ames, before love found him late in life, spent long evenings in his study and late nights in his darkened kitchen, “getting by on books and baseball and fried egg sandwiches.” Brain food, then comfort food, for the lonely. A love affair with the abstract mind and a longing for tangible connection. Contradictions.
Donald Hall died on Saturday at 89. He had been married to Kenyon for 23 years, then spent his last 23 years where she’d left him. His themes evolved from nature to loss. I don’t know if he was a hermit — he had family; he had fame in his field (poet laureate: 2006-07) — although he certainly came to look the part in recent years.
I live alone in the house where my ex-wife left me. I haven’t tried particularly hard to change that. As the singer-songwriter Paul Simon once put it, I have my books and my poetry to protect me. But I also live within a metropolitan statistical area of 4 million, so my island is in a teeming sea of people. Simon’s was, too, when he wrote “I Am a Rock” in the 1960s, though he later distanced himself from the expression. And then he moved to the country.
My city of Minneapolis is, just now, embarking on a 20-year vision of increasing density. The idea doesn’t appear to be so well-received among those already living here, but the shape of it is still being defined, and in a general sense, I’m for it. Meanwhile, as I’ve done for years for entertainment, I scour the real estate apps, contemplating cheap properties with old farmhouses and acreage.
I’m never going to buy such a place, only daydream about it. It’s hard enough to be a rock and an island in the city. Maybe I wouldn’t have it any other way.
David Banks is at David.Banks@startribune.com.