It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance -- for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. That is what I said in the Pentecost sermon. I have reflected on that sermon, and there is some truth in it. But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it? -- Marilynne Robinson, from Gilead
Kent State University, which has been around for a hundred years, and has paraded forth a million or so graduates during its time, is most famous for gunfire. On May 4th, 1970, after several days of intensifying confrontations between anti-war protesters and local police, the National Guard was called in and opened fire on the protesters, killing four young men and women. Two of them were Kent State students who were strolling between classes on a bright spring day, minding their own business, thousands of feet away from the violent confrontations.
I remember the times quite vividly. In Columbus, Ohio, where I lived, the Ohio State University closed its doors a month early. It just shut down and sent everybody home. Kent State touched off an inflammatory outpouring of grief and outrage at Ohio State and many other universities, and there was every indication that the students, had they stuck around, would have burned the whole damn campus to the ground. Neil Young wrote an anthem about it, and it was better than the Star Spangled Banner, more biting, more full of howling anger and pain, and nobody forgot the words:
Gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago
What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?
How can you run when you know?
Now my daughter strolls those Kent State walkways, and I worry. Anything can happen. Probably not gunfire from soldiers, although my paranoid mind refuses to dismiss the possibility. But just about anything else; rape, robbery, deadly bird flu sweeping the campus, food poisoning from the cafeteria, a broken neck from slipping on the ice, pneumonia from the chill Lake Erie winds. Worry. Fear. Paranoia. Welcome to my life.
So Kate, Rachel and I ventured up to Kent, Ohio last weekend to survey the potential carnage. From the very start my innate sense of melodramatic catastrophe was dealt a severe blow. Emily appeared to be suspiciously healthy and happy. She had an active social life, and her grades were good. She informed us that she had decided to change her name to Katryn, which is her middle name. Cool. First Kate, now Katryn. I’m thinking about changing my name to Kateman. But other than that little surprise, she seemed remarkably upbeat and confident, and unremarkably funny, because she’s always funny. The kid makes me laugh, and it was great to see her.
We wandered the campus, and it was cold; the coldest day of the winter, in fact. Everyone else had the sense to remain indoors, but we strolled the campus walkways, scanned the shops in downtown Kent, ventured in to a few stores as much to warm up as to shop. Then the three Whitman women spotted the vintage clothing store, which was my signal, as it always is, to get lost for a couple hours and fend for myself.
So I did. I found my way to Spin-More Records on Main St., down a block or so from the vintage shop, and found a little slice of vinyl heaven. There was the usual assortment of beat-up Peter Frampton and Eagles albums from the seventies, but a little digging also uncovered some hard-to-find Johnny Burnette rockabilly records from the fifties, and a Cannonball Adderly album I’d never seen, and some Moby Grape and Electric Prunes albums that must have provided hippie solace at one time, maybe even around the time of the Kent State shootings. Over in the corner, behind a glass case, were some old 45s, one of which appeared to be the Johnny Cash single “Get Rhythm” on Sun Records.
“Is that really an original Johnny Cash single on Sun Records?” I asked the owner, a grizzled old geezer named Phil. “Of course,” he said. “Want to see it?”
Does Johnny love June? So Phil unlocked the case and gingerly passed the sacred single over to me. “Damn,” I said, which is short for “I cannot believe I’m holding one of the rarest records in the world in my hands.”
“How much?” I asked him.
“Not for sale,” Phil told me. “It’s like that American Express commercial. Some things money can’t buy. This is one of them.”
Yeah, I understand that, Phil. So with an approving nod I passed the record back to him, being careful to hold it along its edges, making sure my fingerprints remained far away from those precious vinyl grooves. Go ahead and lock it away in that ancient reliquary of a dusty glass case. I get it. It’s like a splinter from the holy cross, a remnant of the chalice used at the Last Supper, a little chip of a martyr’s bone, something old and hallowed and precious beyond words. And so I bought a bootleg Pogues record from Phil, but I touched the hem of Johnny’s greatest single and lived to tell about it.
I rejoined Kate and Rachel and Em, er, Katryn and we headed to Starbucks. We procured our steaming cups of coffee and a giant cookie that we split four ways, sat down at a corner table and caught up on life. We talked about classes, and music, and roommates, and that moment where a kid catches the vision, when “what I want to be when I grow up” becomes more than a hazy future hope, and when the plan to get there starts to fall into place. We talked about everything and nothing. We were noisy, and we laughed a lot. We were a family.
Kate has had a recurring dream in which the four members of our family are simply sitting together, laughing with one another. If you’re going to have a recurring dream, that’s not a bad way to go. Some days, some months, that vision has seemed far removed from reality. But there we were, sitting in a Starbucks in frigid Kent, Ohio, laughing loudly, drawing disapproving stares from the studious types around us, being disruptively boisterous and silly, and I realized that the dream had taken on substantial flesh and bones. For a moment, for the space of a fading late afternoon in northeast Ohio, all creation had turned to radiance. Anything can happen. The shit can hit the fan at any time. But it occurred to me that at that moment I was perfectly, unreservedly happy.
Sometimes I think only the most devout saints or the craziest of men and women can live this way; live in this hypercharged, sacramental reality where the mundane world is touched with flame, where a Johnny Cash relic unites two musical pilgrims, where a Starbucks latte becomes a communion cup, an overpriced cookie becomes something like the bread of life. I am not a devout saint, and I don’t think I’m crazy, but I’m grateful for the glimpses. They don’t last, but they are worth taking out of memory’s pocket, holding them up to the light, examining them and savoring them. And all the way back home, on that long, boring stretch of I-71 between Cleveland and Columbus, I thought about the goodness and sweetness of life.