It was a long long time ago, a time when cassette tapes were the newest technology, when most phones still dialed, when gasoline was under 50 cents a gallon and copies were made by turning cranks on ditto and mimeo machines. It was a long time ago, when that idyllic family of the 50s was crumbling under the youthful rebellion of the sixties, when the war being fought no longer brought people together in solidarity but wrenched them apart on controversy and confusion. It was a long time ago, when college students were not so often pursuing careers as trying to find themselves. It was a long time ago, and believe me, those times? they “were a’changing.”
I was a junior at Cornell College, in the midst of everything, trying to figure out who I was, and who I should be and who I wanted to be. It was Holy Week and there were certainly shadows in my life, though I can’t quite remember which particular heartbreaks and headaches cast them. And then, to complicate my crisis, our American Literature professor gave us an assignment. Off the syllabus he admitted, but important. He wanted us to write an essay on any one of Henry David Thoreau’s writings. Students were writing well researched papers about politics and civil disobedience. They were academically analyzing who influenced Thoreau and who Thoreau influenced. Not me. Nothing scholarly from me. Nope. I wrote about myself. I couldn’t get beyond myself. And the title of my essay was ‘Why I am not at Walden Pond.”
Looking back I know exactly why I wasn’t at Walden Pond. First of all, I was in Iowa. Secondly, there is no way I could survive in a little cabin in the woods that had no heating or plumbing and which required skills unknown to a city girl who had never been camping but loved to go shopping. And given my persona then (and, in all honesty, still), being the only one to talk to with no one else to listen would have immediately driven me back to town.
But in those days it wasn’t so clear to me. We were supposed to being going back to the garden. We were supposed to be introspective and reflective. We were supposed to be able to quietly commune with nature and with our inner selves and somehow gain the insight to storm into the world to change the world.
So I wrote at some length about all the things within me that kept me captive. I ended my paper with the last lines of Thoreau’s book, hoping that his poetic writing might mask my own self confessed confusion. I turned it in sheepishly, knowing that something was usually better than nothing but maybe not so this time. I was surprised and terrified when Mr. Martin had them ready at our next class. “I don’t want to have to grade papers over Easter weekend” he claimed.
I looked at the front of mine. In red ink there was a “A,” with a slight qualification. ‘It is hard to grade something as personal as this. But you are very honest.” I was relieved. I paged through the paper quickly to check for any other comments. On the last page he had circled the lines I had quoted from On Walden Pond:
The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star. (On Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau)
And he wrote the words which have been the light in my shadows ever since. He wrote the words that have been my Easter in even my darkest days. In red ink he wrote the words which turned me inside out and right side up:
“Many happy morning stars.”
“Many happy morning stars.” Then I was amazed that Professor Martin would care enough about me to write those words. Now I am amazed at how far a few heartfelt words can go to touch a life and change a soul, and how long those words can last.
So I would say the same to each of you and all of you, in the midst of your own darkness, in the center of your suffering, in the wee shadows that threaten to dim the light of your life, in this Easter season of great hope and new life I would say to each of you and all of you,
“Many happy morning stars.”