I wrote this in September, 2008, after a reunion planning weekend at Kenyon.
September 15, 2008
When we were still students, my friend Rea used to talk about how she had this odd urge to walk up to people in the campus a cappella groups and start singing their solos to them. Especially funny as she was a Chaser, herself. I think we almost walked up to Adam Hunter Howard with plans to sing "Another Saturday Night" to him outside of Old Kenyon once. But, we didn't.
This weekend, though, I quoted P.F. Kluge to himself, and I could not be more thrilled.
On Friday night I was being wined and dined by the Kenyon College Alumni Office – and truly, they do know how to wine and dine us alumni. We were in the beautiful new Alumni Dining Room (I'm told this is an official name) that has, if I can figure it out correctly, replaced Lower Dempsey. I'll save most of my thoughts on the new Peirce for another time and place – suffice to say it is beautiful, indeed, but somehow not exactly Kenyon. It isn't that I want to live forever in 1997 (coughMattLavinecough) by any means, but I do wish they could have kept that beautiful terrace off the back of Peirce – you know, where we watched the fireworks from the night before graduation? I realize it didn't get a ton of use, but that view WAS epic. The Great Hall remains unchanged, except that the glass doors and windows on the left when you walk in no longer look outside, but look into the new addition. And you don't enter via the catwalk anymore. There is something about it that doesn't click in my brain completely, and I'm trying to NOT let it just be the part of me that also misses Word Perfect on the VAX and thinks that Andrew Quinn's full time job should be singing "Veronica" with the 1994-1995 Kokosingers every single night, on that little stage in the Great Hall, while Marc Lacuesta conducts.
But, of course, I digress. I was being wined and dined in the beautiful new Alumni Dining Room, sitting with my classmates as we filled our glasses (again and again and again) and toasted to '99 (again and again and again) and ate prime rib and roasted vegetables. Across the room I see Lisa Schott laughing with P.F. Kluge. P.F. KLUGE, HIMSELF. And now I need to digress with the utmost of purpose.
Alma Mater was published in September 1995, as I began my freshman year at Kenyon College. I was so ridiculously HAPPY to be at Kenyon I could not see straight. I realize I possess a certain enthusiasm generally, but this was beyond measure. Kenyon was my dream school in every sense possible. And I was there. And look! On prominent display in the Bookstore (you know, the capital-B Bookstore, as it was in the mid-90's, the current bookstore is a sad skeleton of former comfort and belonging) was this book about this place that was so special to me I couldn't even begin to believe my luck to be there. It was almost a guilty pleasure, a lavish indulgence to sit IN the place while reading ABOUT the place. I read Alma Mater that fall, spending my evenings in the Bookstore, escaping the noise and busyness of Gund dorm and the oppressive silence of the library. I was fascinated to read about this place for which I already felt this strange sense of ownership that contradicted my removed sense of awe. I was constantly doing the math, figuring when Kluge had been there, who those freshman boys in Lewis were now, who the faculty members he referenced were. They became celebrities to me – Kluge and the characters in his book and even the places – the Lewis apartment I longed to explore, even Kenyon somehow, on the whole. Celebrities that you read about in the grocery store aisle. Instead of "Justin Timberlake at In 'n' Out Burger" it was "Perry Lentz in Ascension." Except I was there, too. I was living my celebrity dream.
Although, in truth, the word 'celebrity' does not do the feeling I'm talking about justice – not at all. Celebrity and pop culture and the vacuous nature of such things is as far from how I experience Kenyon as you can imagine. No, this was the way I experienced "The Neverending Story" when I was six years old, the way I first heard – truly HEARD harmony and understood the power of the third above a note when i was seven. This was learning Canon in D on the violin and Bach's 1st prelude on the piano and listening to my old Sha Na Na record when I was eight or nine or ten. This was a glimpse of some truth that I couldn't quite understand. I was experiencing (and, more importantly, still experience) Kenyon – the sacred space of Samuel Mather lawn, an Adirondack on South Quad; the holiness of the gap trail and the quarry chapel and the fields of wild flowers between the two; the ritual of freshman sing and the Kokes coming to the dorms (and following them to the next dorm and the next dorm!) and Friday dinners in Peirce – the way devoutly religious people experience their faith. Frank Tuttle, Kenyon class of 1988, told me I was a "Kenyon Kid" when I was 13 years old in his Life Science class, before I had even HEARD of Kenyon. When I was a senior in high school visiting Gambier, still technically deciding between a few other schools and Kenyon, my mom saw me from afar walking down Middle Path. She told me years later that her breath had caught in her throat and she had started to cry because she knew, then and there, that her daughter was home. Home.
How profoundly the idea of home relates to the idea of memory and past and connection and place and promise and love and anger. These are the things I have thought so long and deeply about, that I have contemplated since I was even too young to be aware of such ideas. These are the things I am always searching for, in music, in words, in connections with people. The very end of Alma Mater focuses on this idea, as Kluge ties up his year at Kenyon, connects it to his own Kenyon experience in the 1960's. And the way he did as much struck a chord in me then, struck a chord in me every time I read it thereafter, and will, most likely, do so forever more. If I had easy access to the book at this moment I would quote the passage that begins "It comes back to memories…" and ends with "…memory holding onto love and keeping anger young." You should go dig it out if you can. And open a bottle of Cab.
All this to get to the story: last Friday night. The Alumni Dining Room. Lots of wine. Lots of memories. And then, P.F. Kluge.
I walked up to him and I reached out my hand and I said, "Professor Kluge, my name is Hilary Lowbridge, class of 1999, and I am profoundly honored to meet you." He smiled at me, he is quite the charmer, really, and we made small talk that I cannot remember verbatim. About how part of me still regretted not majoring in English (why didn't I? because Lentz had scared the crap out of me in American Lit, of course!) even though I wouldn't exchange my Poli Sci experience for the world. How people like Baumann and Van Holde (more of those Kenyon celebrities!) gave me the opportunity to think and question in a way I still use every single day. About how I had been, honestly, sort of intimidated by the Kenyon English department but had also been equally railing against the expectation of me to major in English – it had, after all, been one of my two shticks: Hilary and music. Hilary and writing. And at 18 years old I was so tired of meeting expectation so I found something (I thought was - haha) completely different. We talked about his books and the new one he has coming out and his 45th reunion coinciding with my 10th reunion. And then it happened.
I looked P.F. Kluge in the eye and said, "I really want you to know that there are few books that have moved me more profoundly than Alma Mater, and it is still a touchstone for me, not just in terms of Kenyon, but in terms of using words to express something that transcends the words themselves…" and I paused, and I gathered myself, and I said slowly and deliberately, HIS words, the one truest example I could offer him: "…memory holding onto love and keeping anger young."
I wish I could put into words the look in his eyes. I wish I could explain what it felt like to give his words back to him, the only gift I could possibly offer that could even come remotely close to expressing my gratitude. My seriousness. There was a heavy pause until he finally asked, "What was your name again? Why did I never have you in my class? And why, again, didn't you major in English?"
And for one fleeting moment, I was Home.