A fundamental geography

Remembering intensity, shared ghosts, and unconditional beauty

Despite a few years of distance, deep down I still believe that I live at Kenyon, or, more accurately, that Kenyon is my home. My actual childhood memories are not as basic to me as my memories of swinging at the Wiggin Street School playground or laughing under the upside-down tree at dawn. Kenyon is in my body and my dreams. It is my fundamental geography.

According to people who have never lived in Gambier, fall is our best season. But if you really know the College, you know that every season is painfully its best, from the snowdrops outside Palme signifying spring, to the joyful, heavily perfumed Middle Path flowers of early summer, to that maple near Gund Commons, flaming orange in the cold fog of early-morning October, to the snow outside Old Kenyon, refusing to melt in the old square shadow. Constantly walking, I used to close my eyes and feel this beauty because it was too much to see. Now I drive around a city, and on a bad day, everything outside Gambier seems either dirty or without history.

Kenyon's lovely old trees watch over a neurotic, high-strung, passionate community. People go crazy and leave school for treatment. There is an annual bonfire in which everybody burns relics of relationships, roommates, accidents. In a matter of weeks couples fall deeply in love and move in together; eventually they hate each other and steadfastly refuse to make eye contact on Middle Path during the approximately eighty times a day they pass each other.

There are not many alternate routes at Kenyon.

Middle Path, and all those classes on the lawns, and the one bookstore, and the post office, and the hour's drive to civilization, all make us intense. Soon you find yourself touching the stone stump in the middle of the Gates of Hell every time you pass it. And you actually get a little scared that night near Halloween when a cat runs in front of you and the bells strike twelve as you step through the gates. And you have to try not to cry at the end of Professor Shutt's ghost walk, when he tells the story of the Old Kenyon fire.

I went on the ghost walk during senior week. It was a beautiful, chilly night, with those stars that I swear exist only in the Gambier sky just north of town. In the end, the tears I felt approaching were linked to graduation as much as to ghosts, to what this place has that others neglect. Even death can mingle with beauty at Kenyon. The graveyard is beautiful.

Leaving Kenyon meant leaving unconditional beauty. It meant that news of a Kenyon death would come without the softness of a May morning on a bench on Middle Path, where one would like to hear all the good and scandalous and awful news of our little world. News comes now over the Internet, or the radio, or CNN; cold, brief, without hope, because Kenyon is hardly a blip on the screen outside Mount Vernon. And you have to contact Kenyon people, because no one else understands why you're so troubled that someone you didn't even know has died.

What no one else understands is that, even if the girl's name is only vaguely familiar, your best friend was in classes with her, and you saw her at Phling, and your old boyfriend mentioned her, and if you had a facebook you would recognize her, and, perhaps most compellingly, you know that she could have been any of us. We are so similar because of this little school.

This strange understanding exists in everyday as well as tragic moments. Running into someone who went to Kenyon, however long ago, or even someone whose child or friend went to Kenyon, is far more viscerally engaging than finding a second cousin or an old grade-school classmate. You do Kenyon geography, politics, professors, traditions. Mostly geography. And mostly in incomplete sentences, ending with knowing smiles, about the beauty. It is a good place, I say. I would go back.

And despite the terrible mornings when I woke up to remember departmental politics or my personal life falling to pieces, or to discover a biweekly case of strep or flu or whatever was going around, I really would go back.

There are no Friday luncheons at the Parish house where I live now. I rarely see the same person working at the bookstore where I shop, or if I do, I don't notice. And I go to the post office after hours to buy stamps from a machine. I feel less here, because there is less to feel. The only "us" is my little circle of family and friends, and the only beauty is a drive away, or purchased, or both.

And although we purchase our time at Kenyon, somehow the trees outside the bookstore, and the Adirondack chairs, and the grass, and the inalienable right to leave the door of your New Apartment open and brag that you don't know whether the keys even work, and the rest of what means anything, are free.

--Molly Westerman is an adjunct faculty member in English at Spalding University and Jefferson Community College. A year after graduating from Kenyon, she won an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in the humanities.

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