Ah, the flatlands! Driving east from Rockford, I’m finding the prairie very refreshing—all these wide vistas, this great expanse of sky. How I hated the plainness of it all (pun intended) when I went to college up here. Something in me is hungry for boundlessness. Today I’m heading back to my alma mater, Lake Forest College, for a visit with some old friends.
As I drove through McHenry County, farms were absolutely everywhere; the one other place I saw that wasn’t a farm was a tiny house that sold hay and straw.
But then things started changing. First I passed an ancient-looking stone silo right next to the road that was being used as a gatehouse for a large and rather grand home; a beautiful and intricately carved wooden door replaced whatever had been there originally. So strange to see this in the middle of farmland.
There were other oddities as well. A gigantic sign in front of an otherwise normal-looking farm proclaimed, “Mink Barn, Furs by Talledis, Fur Barn, 1/2 Mile.” (The sign depicted a woman wearing a fur coat. Not your normal farmer’s togs.) Then there was the sign for Illusion Farm, though the farm itself certainly seemed real enough.
In the middle of nowhere was a very small shopping plaza, with only three shops: Gifts from the Old Country European Imports; Dave’s Bait, Tackle, and Taxidermy (“Open 7 Days a Week”); and Lewis Chiropractic Center.
A little further on, I passed through Mary Town. Yes, that’s its real name. Not Mary, Illinois, but Mary Town. Appropriately, the sign in front of the Catholic church on Main Street (which was, I believe, the only church in town) read, “Come and Adore Our Eucharistic Lord.”
At Libertyville I passed Lamb’s Farm. My first college roommate, who was from Libertyville, volunteered there from time to time. They provide residential, vocational, and recreational services for about 250 developmentally disabled people on their 72 acres; it’s a working farm, too. Cool place.
I finally arrive in Lake Forest. Oh-so-tasteful Lake Forest. Astoundingly wealthy Lake Forest. When I attended the College, Lake Forest was the fifth richest town in the country. It’s where Ordinary People was set and filmed, where Tom Buchanan’s polo ponies in The Great Gatsby were bred. It’s where most of my classmates drove Beemers and wore the entire L.L. Bean catalog even though they hated anything more outdoorsy than skiing in Aspen, while I was on scholarship and financial aid and was working my way through college.
In my senior year, we put on a Madrigal Banquet. I was Henry VIII, and I had all six of my wives anachronistically sitting at table with me, alongside various other courtiers. We sang (very well indeed), the costumes were fun, the food was sumptuous (and eaten without benefit of silverware), and the whole thing was a huge hit, especially since we had done it from start to finish without faculty support. The dean of faculty, George Speros (a personal friend of Juan Carlos and Sofia, the king and queen of Spain), still calls me King Henry.
So I arrive back in Lake Forest, and it was as if Henry himself had come home, for all the hullabaloo they made over me. They put me up at a mansion next to campus, my old mentor Ron Miller took me to lunch, and the alumni association folks made me Class Agent, which meant that they’d pay my way back to LFC once a year for a conference in exchange for writing two fundraising letters a year for them. (That sweet arrangement ended a couple of years later when the new college president took over, dammit.)
Lake Forest represents a wonderful and terrible time in my life. I still haven’t been able to fully articulate all the ways I was changed by that place. I left there somewhat in disgrace—at my graduation ceremony, I received a blank diploma folder, since I had taken an Incomplete in my final course, a torturous but important independent study that they made me take the summer to complete, lest I never graduate at all. My professor wrote on the final paper, “In many ways, this is a brilliant and subtle piece of work. Shame it had to be extracted from you by such violent means.”
I had carried that feeling of failure with me for nearly fifteen years; now I was back, and being treated like royalty. It just didn’t compute. In my junior year I’d suffered a mental breakdown and a near-catatonic depression, the first volley in a very long battle with that darkness. But it’s also where I first grappled with issues of God and sexuality and spiritual meaning, and had found something real and substantive. This poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which became my mantra for a number of months during that bleak time, says it best:
NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
Tomorrow’s episode: Mirror Lake.