As part of its Wit and Wisdom Series, Garrison Keillor came to the Carpenter Center for one night last week and it seemed like he’d been here forever.
He stands before us, with eyes closed, as if he was channelling something far away. He fidgets with his hands. He coaxes, unsuccessfully, a wisp of blonde hair that refuses to stay put. He wears a black suit, red tie, shoes, and socks, all of which give him the look of a dishevelled and wistful clown masquerading as an undertaker who’s seen too much of the world’s vanities. Perhaps that’s why he often breaks out into a poem or a Lutheran hymn. It’s his voice, that soothing, “let me tell you a story” voice, which gains your trust, which gets you to believe in the mythic status of otherwise overlooked mundane things. He’s the aggrandizer of trivia, spinning it into gold. His would be the perfect voice of the pilot coming over the speaker in turbulent weather.
He serenades us with this sing-song voice, regaling us with tales that begin in one place, drift to some other place and miraculously end back where they started. He acquaints us with the various characters that people his hometown, each as exquisitely flawed as the other. He speaks of growing up on the prairie of Minnesota. We learn of the challenges of the climate (there’s a reason prairie children don’t wet their beds), of the no-hugging policy of Scripture, of the adorable characteristics of the Lutherans and the Sanctified Brethren. He tells us the outrageous story of the Lutheran Herdmen who attended The National Church Ushering competition held here in Long Beach. Of a young boy whose family inadvertently abandoned him in a gas station on a family station. Of his flight to New York to escape the draft as well as a misguided engagement to a girl whose sister he really loved. He narrates the story of two waitresses in the Chatterbox Café telling a story of a wife who shot his husband in the ankle as he leaped out a window because he had impregnated a much, much younger woman.
But what shines through this utterly captivating spectacle of a prop-less Nordic troubadour on a stage for two hours is how his stories of coming terms with himself provide the vehicle by which we come to terms with ourselves. Behind these tales are the lessons learned from a lifetime of observation and reflection. He’s particular eloquent about love, whose search he defines as our point for living. Love’s not for the timid, he says, though it does offer our only consolation, namely, for intimacy with our best-informed critic. It’s not about winning but about continuous jeopardy, which of course, for poetic souls, means there’s the daily prospect of falling in love over and over again.
As you listen to these tales, told by this prairie Homer, you realize that becoming a connoisseur of life’s precious moments makes this evening the perfect way to spend the last day of an otherwise endless summer.