Friday, March 03, 2006


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.


mg said...

i know you know this andy

but you really have a gift for words and telling stories. i enjoy reading all of your posts as i get something out of each and every one of them.

sorry the cash single wasn't for sale, but glad you got to touch it at least.

keep up with the posting. i really appreciate what you have to say.

ps. no joke, my word verification is "fuclg". what are the odds?

Anonymous said...


glad to hear that your family ahd a great time. your comments about laughing are appreciated.

speaking of laughing, check this things out...

incase the post does not clear, it is a toilet seat made out of a guitar. unintentional comedy if you ask me.

see you sunday


Anonymous said...

What? You don't have trackback?


nikkip said...

this makes me feel a littl better about my girls growing up. thanks, andy!

Princess Good Idea said...

Great writing. My kids are in elementary school right now. In Columbus. I'm hoping sticks around so when my boys are in college they can read this far back in my archives. Wondering what my kid's blogs will say one day.....

I grew up on that Neil Young song...
Heard a story told by one of the OSU professors who was at the school the day of the Kent State shooting. Intense times they were. Only wonder why all we've had so far is Cindy Sheehan thus far.

Aime aka princess good idea. :-)

danthress said...

Andy, this is a beautiful, important piece worthy of much discussion. Meditation and discussion on the opening quote from Marilynne Robinson would be a great place to start.

Last summer I wrote a haiku about the Christian life as I saw it:

serve, serve, serve, serve, serve,
serve, serve, serve, serve, great moment,
serve, serve, serve, serve, serve

Wondering if that haiku is true.

Or, is Marilynne Robinson's version more like:

for those who have eyes
to see, great moments, more great,
moments, great moments

Know what I mean?

teddy dellesky said...

great stuff. i love that god has always placed people in our lives that are farther down the road in life, parenting, etc. your wisdom and insight, among many others', give us great hope for the future of our own family and that the challenging times are only a small part of it all.

on another mom knew on of the girls that lost her life at kent, a friend's sister i think.

Anonymous said...

Just a funny note about the bread of life. In our church one day we went to get the communion bread to bring it down front only to find that a local homeless person had wandered in and partaken the whole loaf for a meal. Well in quick act of thinking, or maybe reacting we ended up running into the kitchen and broke apart the only thing bread related we could find: chocolate chip cookies. The Lord's supper never tasted that way before or ever since.

Andy Whitman said...

Hi, Chuck. I don't have trackback. I'm not exactly sure what trackback is, but it sounds like it might be a nifty tool that allows you to see when other people are talking about your blog on their blogs. And that would be a cool thing. How do I get it?

I did see your comments on my post on your blog (kind of manual vs. automatic trackback, I suppose). Thanks for that.