[Yesterday I gave a eulogy for Kurt Hall. We tell ourselves that eulogies are intended to honor the dead, and this is partially true. I think eulogies also help the living hold the space of mystery, and attempt to help us make sense of a particular life’s complexity. This second matter might be especially true when someone passes too soon. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded on either account, but I hope my thoughts might offer some solace to those who cared about and loved Kurt.]
Eulogy for Kurt G. Hall
We have, for a long time, used the seasons to measure our lives.
Born one day before the summer solstice, Kurt left us moments after summer’s last sunrise.
I miss our friend, and I’m sadder than I can say about his passing; yet I find some solace in recognizing the moment of his departure. Kurt was a creature of summer: we loved him because he was full of light, brilliant; warm and lively, quick-witted, charming and passionate.
I think he might be embarrassed if he heard me call him passionate. For that was part of Kurt, too. He was sophisticated, to be sure, but he was also a bit old-fashioned; and he didn’t easily let others witness what really mattered to him.
This week I found a letter he sent me in 1991, in which he ironically noted that he was a Gemini. I don’t think he put any faith in astrology, but I found him to be a perfect Gemini.
Gemini symbolizes the twins, Castor and Pollux, together known as the Dioskouroi. Although twins, they had different fathers, one a god and the other mortal. In their shared life, the twins found a balance between the eternal and ephemeral aspects of human existence. For the ancients, this symbolized our dual cosmology.
There was always a duality about Kurt; always, it seemed, like he was feeling or being two things at once.
Many of us knew him as outgoing and social, and perhaps only fleetingly saw that he was also deeply private and introspective. We experienced his generosity and his love, but simultaneously he often found it difficult to accept care in return. As charming and witty as he always was, I doubt he allowed anyone to witness his full brilliance. And no matter how fully we may have intuited his brilliance, he perhaps could not fully acknowledge or trust our admiration and love.
In the many years I’ve known him, I’ve seen so many people genuinely fall in love with him.
There are many moments in which I fell in love with him, but assuredly the most powerful was while walking with him in Ninigret Park. When we met, he worked there as a naturalist and teacher, and listening to him describe the park’s ecosystem I could palpably feel his connection to the land and the sea; and, more beautifully, I could sense his love of the world’s wildness.
At the time, he lived in a tiny apartment in Charlestown; and over the course of the first months of knowing him, he spoke regularly of his need to take time there to be alone and to think about the shape of his life. To my younger self this was maddening, because I wanted nothing more than to inhabit his world with him. It feels odd that it’s only now, twenty-two years later, that I can recognize, like Henry Thoreau, Kurt had the impulse to go alone into the natural world to figure out how to live deliberately.
Looking back, I’m not sure how successful he was in that errand, nor do I know how fully Kurt shared this period of his life with those he met later. For a time he continued to call himself a naturalist, and certainly he employed those skills when he worked at Southside Community Land Trust and Keep Providence Beautiful. He continued to be a teacher in those places, too—and later when he taught Spanish at the Hebrew Day School. But his sense of vocation shifted over time; and somehow this early sense of himself faded from his self-portrait.
Unlike Thoreau, Kurt loved the city, too. He inhabited Providence with a depth that I don’t think many ever experience. In the hours after his passing, I walked around the city taking in as many memories as I could. I found it was difficult not to remember him at every turn, and I’m grateful to realize that I traveled the city so fully with him.
We often equate people with one or two institutions or places, perhaps where they worked or where they lived. Certainly many of us will always remember Kurt tending bar at Downcity Diner, and we will think fondly of the care he took in attending to our enjoyment. While I liked seeing him at Downcity, I took greater delight in encountering him unexpectedly around town. Running into him this way was somehow always thrilling; in expressing his surprise at seeing you he always managed to make you feel special.
And he always met you with that incredible, devilish smile.
He had certain habits, and he seemingly took certain routes every day; yet he was unpredictable, too. One might run into him over coffee and a crossword, perhaps writing a letter, at a neighborhood café, but just as easily you might find him traversing a downtown street or running for a bus. It feels preposterous to admit this, but walking around the city, thinking of him, my mind kept wandering to the mall. Don’t get me wrong, Kurt wasn’t materialistic or really into malls, but something about Providence’s mall fascinated him. For a time, he would go out of his way to do business there—perhaps a little banking or just to buy something insignificant, like a pair of socks. I always suspected it allowed him to bring a little glamour into the everyday; or just to make something special of mundane chores. In a sense, this tells his story, tells the story of how he made others feel: a bit more glamorous, a whole lot more special. And, who among us doesn’t want that?
For years he’d convince me to meet him at the mall on Christmas Eve. We’d arrive mid-day, have a leisurely lunch, and spend the afternoon doing our Christmas shopping. I sometimes cheated and did some shopping the week before, but Kurt always told me to wait. The pace and timing of his plan prompted incredible anxiety in me; but he always maintained that his approach was best. I think it made shopping a bit more exciting for him, a bit of a sport. Regardless, his insistence that we do this each year transformed Christmas shopping from a task to be completed into an event with a glimmer of magic.
In gathering photographs for today’s memorial, Kara and I found a picture of Kurt at the “black tie” party that marked the mall’s opening. For months he told the story of attending this party, and the photograph reveals the detail in which he delighted the most. While the party was held in a finished section of the mall, Kurt and some friends found their way into the construction site. Looking smart in his tuxedo, a drink in one hand, he held a trowel in the other, as if engaged in some last minute construction. With incredulity and irony, he would ask, as the story’s punchline, How can they have a grand opening when the mall isn’t even finished?
As much as Kurt loved the natural world, he loved the unnatural, too; he took delight in artifice and exaggeration. The photograph of Kurt at the mall’s opening is just one of dozens we found in which he employs a prop, in which he tells some farcical story by making an exaggerated gesture in relation to some absurd element of the material world he’s encountered.
In talking with Anthony the other day, I was reminded that Kurt often looked forward to events in order to be disappointed by them. In ways I don’t fully understand, he seemed to enjoy our collective foibles and the missteps of rituals far more than their intended sentiment. He loved to tell the story of life’s imperfection and its blemished complexity.
I think about this now, in relation to our gathering, in relation to my words. I suspect, were he here, Kurt would be terribly annoyed at me right now– both embarrassed at the attention I’m paying him and also taking account of my clumsy sentiment. I have no doubt that he’d be turning to the person next to him and whispering some wry one-liner, at his own expense, with both perfect comedic timing and outrageous humor. And were he whispering to me, he’d surely make me laugh about my own absurdity.
I’m going to risk Kurt’s annoyance a bit more—it certainly isn’t the first time I’ve done so—and I want to reflect on a few more of his many virtues.
Kurt was an athlete: an accomplished diver while a student at the Moses Brown School; in adulthood he became an avid tennis player and enthusiast. He was a student of languages, fluent in at least four—but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he knew a few more. He loved puzzles and games; and if Facebook is to be believed—and I understand there are some witnesses here today—he was the funniest quizmaster in the history of the Wild Colonial’s pub quiz. Whether this is true or simply legend, I do not know. I do know that his team was good. Their victories, spurred by Kurt’s enthusiasm, secured them free passage to London. And that’s got to mean something.
He loved to dance.
Kurt was a good, smart writer. He loved literature and film. As evidence of this, I will point you toward his college film and theater reviews, copies of which are here tonight; and more personally, I’ll offer that he often left me notes convincingly penned in the voice of Jane Austen’s protagonists. Furthermore, he made me watch every Pedro Almodóvar film at least three times; and somehow he convinced me to watch the film, Howard’s End, at least three dozen times.
Kurt liked good food, and was a wonderful dinner companion. Some of my fondest memories are sitting with him at Hemenway’s, sharing a simple supper of raw oysters and clams.
While Kurt enjoyed food, he approached food experimentally and wasn’t always the best cook. When he was still living in Charlestown, we started a tradition. Each week we’d have dinner together, alternating locations and tasks. When I’d visit him, he’d make dinner and I’d buy wine, and the next week we’d switch. After the night he made a pureed soup out of unripe avocados and heavy cream—there may have been some considerable salt involved, too—we mutually concluded I had the greater knack for making dinner.
Once he moved to Providence, and we were seeing each more often, we realized we didn’t need these weekly dinners to keep in touch. Kurt suggested, rather than cancel our get togethers, that we mix it up. Never one to miss the opportunity for a theme party, Kurt suggested we try mystery dinners. In short, both he and I would invite another guest without letting each other know who we were bringing. This mostly worked well. Once, to Kurt’s puckish delight, it did not.
At some point, we’d usually tell our guests the story of mystery dinner, which sometimes led people to ask if they could come back another week. Soon enough the party grew, and more and more people, drawn more by Kurt’s magnetism than by ambiance or cuisine, began dropping by each week. After a few years of this, one night, Kurt and I only saw each other when crossing paths on the stairwell. He’d be ushering drinks to guests and I’d be bringing plates of food to the folks gathered outside. I counted the guests—thirty-one—and the next time Kurt and I crossed paths, I asked him if he was having fun. Exasperated, he exclaimed, No! It feels like I’m at work!
As the evening drew to a close, with that lovely bad-boy glimmer that sometimes came into his eyes, he suggested that the following week we shouldn’t show up; that we should skip our own party. So we made plans to have dinner at a restaurant across town, and for a time returned to the habit of having dinner alone.
So how to talk about the rest?
Kurt recently had some hard days. It would be unfair not to acknowledge this. As much as he worked to make others feel special, to bring magic to the world, he could not always meet the world joyfully. The tension of this last duality wore on him, and led him finally to pull away from the fullness of his life.
In recent years, Kurt and I drifted apart; and I regret that I was not able to find a way back to our friendship sooner. I feel fortunate to have shared time with him over the last month, and to have told him again that I love him. I wish I could have done more for him. I wish we had more time. I know others share my desire and regret.
Many summers, Kurt reminded me that day lilies come into full bloom on his birthday. Until my last summer I will remember this, and remember him when our gardens’ lilies begin to open.
I miss Kurt. I will miss him for the rest of my days.
It is very hard to eulogize our friend, to adequately try to say all there is to say, to know he’s not coming back, and to accept that we will never enjoy another leisurely meal together. I know I’m not alone in my grief.
Beverly, Kara, Mark, George: I cannot know your sadness. I believe that I’m speaking for everyone gathered here when I express how sorry I am for the loss of your son and brother. I know that Kurt loved you.
Like every summer, Kurt’s life was too short. That he will not enter autumn with us, that we will not know Kurt in his autumn, today feels unbearable. Our consolation is holding the days we had with him, cherishing them, and making something of them.
In relation to those who have passed, I believe that we have this obligation: we must honor them with beauty, grief and language.
Kurt brought immeasurable beauty and pleasure into our lives. We can carry forward this beauty, and in so doing keep the best of him alive.
Regardless of my suspicions about Kurt’s annoyance or chagrin, we can mourn and miss our friend with passion and sentiment.
And we can tell our stories of him with delight and laughter; and even perhaps with a hint of exaggeration and artifice.
Kurt would like that.
Mostly, I think, we should continue to love him and to speak of him truthfully and with complexity, so others might benefit from the meaning of his existence.
– Peter Hocking, Providence, Rhode Island, 27 September 2013