The invitation is to write about an extraordinary experience in your life when you were Touched by God.
Meanwhile, I have been conducting Writing Workshops with members of the Academy, helping them learn how to express themselves in the written word. This has been an extraordinary experience for me and for them. Their essays are coming in, and we are collecting them in a book that will be available during the Event.
The experience has been extraordinary for me because it has triggered memories of how and when I became passionate about creative writing.
* * *
I was as freshman at Kalamazoo College, a small, liberal arts school in Michigan, founded in 1833.
This is me in the fall of my freshman year.
I am scared. No one in my family had ever gone to college, and I did not know what to expect. Not only that, but the Chicago Tribune had recently reported that Kalamazoo College ranked in the top 10 liberal arts colleges in the nation whose graduates went on to earn MD’s, and I had absolutely no scientific aptitude.
In fact, my primary concern is how I will measure up as a football player, having already been practicing for two weeks before school started. Yet, between me and the practice field are courses, five of them:
The History of Western Civilization
Introduction to Art
I had no confidence. I remember walking into my room in Harmon Hall after the first week, my desk littered with five syllabi and textbooks and notebooks, and I was already hopelessly behind.
One day in The History of Western Civilization, Lester Start was talking about euthanasia, and I wrote in my notebook: “youth in Asia.”
And then Larry Barrett threw me a life line.
Twenty of us gathered in Dr. Laurence Barrett’s classroom in Bowen Hall for Freshman Comp. Larry Barrett. Ph.D., Princeton; special field of study: John Milton. He is sitting on his desk, cross-legged, making searing eye contact with each of us in turn. He has the haircut of the times, a short flat top, his sport coat is dusted with chalk, his shirt collar ends are pointing up, his tie is awry across his chest, and he holds forth in a gruff, but loving manner. I loved it that his vocabulary is occasionally laced with mild profanity, like damn, piss and shit.
Here is the context for my inspiration. The standing assignment is this: Every two weeks, write an essay. No assigned topic. Write about what is important to you. It reminds me now of the opening stanza from Langston Hughes’ poem, Theme for English B.
The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
The way Larry handled these tender pages was inspired and inspiring. He asked us to type our essays on mimeograph masters. He would then run them off, each one identified with a number instead of a name. He handed out these precious packets, and he lovingly taught us how to read and write, using our own writing. Over the course of the semester, in spite of the anonymity of the numbers rather than our names, we began to recognize each others’ distinctive writing voices that were slowly developing.
So, one day, while reading through a packet, Larry came to my essay. He read the first three paragraphs without stopping for a comment, or correction. Then he looked up and said, “Do you know what that means? You bet your bootstraps you know what that means.” He went on to say that it was a model of coherence.
Well, that was it, and that was everything.
At that moment, I breathed in the divine, and that is the root meaning of the word inspiration, from the Latin, inspirare.
After class, I walked out of Bowen Hall, headed across the quad, and resolutely said to myself, “If I can write for Larry Barrett, I can write for anybody.”
I remembered a line we had read from E. B. White’s 1947 essay, The Second Tree from the Corner:
In the jungle of my fear I glimpsed the flashy tail feathers of the bird courage.
In this case, it was confidence, and this gave me courage for the days and nights ahead.
Soon after reading my paper in class, Larry called me into his office about another essay, one whose topic was, of all things, the lack of school spirit. I had written a sentence something like, “On a Saturday afternoon, instead of going to the football game, pallid science majors head across the quad to Upton Hall, the science building, with slide rules strapped to their sides.” He read that sentence aloud, then he said. “Give me some more of that.” I began seeing images in my mind, and immediately turned them into sentences, as he nodded in approval.
Then it happened again. Breathing in the divine. I got it that writing is simply paying attention to the first thoughts going through your mind, trusting them, and turning them into sentences. Writing is standing back, listening, and then stepping up. It is not just the province of dead white men in anthologies. You and I can write, right now.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
* * *
In the fall of 2002, Christine and I had been at the Academy for five years. One day I received a call from a woman who said she was Larry Barrett’s daughter, that he had recently died, and that in going through his papers she came across this note:
“Ask Ray Comeau to give my eulogy.”
A few days later, I stood at the lectern of Stetson Chapel that crested a small hill, crowning the beautiful campus of Kalamazoo College, reading his eulogy. As I was coming to the end of my reading, I felt an insertion of Light, and I stepped aside from the lectern and said, “Larry didn’t really go anywhere, he is with us now in spirit.”
After that luminous moment in the Chapel, I stepped back behind the lectern and finished my eulogy.
What Larry extended to me as a freshman, and what he is extending to us in this moment, is Love and Love is Eternal. His Love is in this room at this time. His loving presence is in our thoughts. In this respect, there is no death. There is only the peace of God. The Son of God is free and loving and eternal.
Hold Larry in your thoughts, as I read this sonnet from A Course in Miracles, the incomparable modern day scripture:
The grass is pushing through the soil, the trees
are budding now, and birds have come to live
within their branches. Earth is being born
again in new perspective. Night has gone,
and we have come together in the light.
From here we give peace to the world,
for it is here peace was received.
The song of our rejoicing is the call
to all the world that Love is eternal,
that time is almost over, and God’s Son
has but an instant more to wait until
His Father is remembered, dreams are done,
eternity has shined away the world,
and only heaven now exists at all.
Incidentally, the motto for Kalamazoo College, adorning its walls and its letterhead, is this Latin word:
Let there be Light.
* * *
Christine and I returned to the Academy, and as we walked in for Session on a Monday morning, we saw that Dear One was teaching in the Reading room. When he saw me enter, he said, “Did you know I was there?”
I realized, then, that it was his presence that filled the Chapel with Light, and I cracked up saying, “Yes,” and he rolled back on the couch, his feet came up, cycling in the air, as he laughed uproariously.
Thank you, Larry. Thank you, Dear One. Thank you, Father.