Leaving Home
Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor

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Leaving Home



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Leaving Home

Copyright © Garrison Keillor, 1987, 1989


Back in Minnesota where I come from, a good many people look on New York City as a sinkhole of degradation and squalor, so if you leave there and come here, they view the move as a moral collapse. They say, “Well, we always knew he was headed that way. [...] He didn’t have us fooled.” To Christians, on the other hand, it’s not so big a deal. What’s Minnesota to a Christian? The sun shines and the rain falls, and if you move to New York, it’s no more than a blackbird flying up from the alfalfa and into the tall corn. Christians take a long view.

Leaving home is a kind of forgiveness, and when you get among strangers, you’re amazed at how decent they seem. Nobody smirks at you or gossips about you, nobody resents your successes or relishes your defeats. You get to start over, a sort of redemption.

Sweet corn was our family’s weakness. We were prepared to resist atheistic Communism, immoral Hollywood, hard liquor, gambling and dancing, smoking, fornication, but if Satan had come around with sweet corn, we at least would have listened to what he had to sell. We might not have bought it but we would’ve had him in and given him a cup of coffee. It was not amazing to learn in eighth-grade science that corn is sexual, each plant containing both genders, male tassel and female flower, propagating in our garden after dark. Sweet corn was so delicious, what could have produced it except sex?



Life is complicated and not for the timid. It’s an experience that when it’s done, it will take us a while to get over it. We’ll look back on all the good things we surrendered in favor of deadly trash and wish we had returned and reclaimed them. We may sit in a cool corner of hell and wish we had kept the ballpark, built the shops elsewhere, and not killed off all those cornfields.

The sense of smell is not an intellectual sense such as sight and hearing. We have so much language to describe how things sound and look—and so few words for how things smell and feel to our touch, our animal senses—so a smart guy like me thinks he can give up smell for the pleasure of smoking. A few days after I stopped, I began to notice the vast realm of smells that were lost all those years. I began breathing in a life I hadn’t felt since I was seventeen, like seeing grass after a quarter-century at the South Pole.




Nothing you do for children is ever wasted. They seem not to notice us, hovering, averting our eyes, and they seldom offer thanks, but what we do for them is never wasted. We know that as we remember some gift given to us long ago.



A Glass of Wendy “You know,” he said, “this last January I baptized the child of a girl who is the child of a couple I married. Three generations is about enough. When I get to where I’m burying people I baptized, I don’t know but what I’ll get confused and mix em up.” He said, “People here need somebody who’s got all his marbles, because, God knows, a lot of them don’t. So it’s time to retire.”



We don’t go in for nondenominationalism and tolerance. In the Bible we don’t find the word “maybe” so much, or read where God says, “On the other hand, uh, there could be other points of view on this.” So we go in for strict truth and let the other guy be tolerant of us.



“I know that when I’m dead my kids are going to want to heave this junk into a hole but they’ll feel guilty, so they’ll keep it in a box somewhere and pass it on to their kids. Damn souvenirs are like mercury in the bloodstream, except they’re hereditary too. You suffer from it and then give it to your kids.”

A man thinks of the Dimmerses’ history when he drinks a Wendy, especially the first Dimmers, who ran away from responsibility, shirked his duty to his country, reneged on his debts, seduced women and lied to them—but, hey, who’s perfect? Those are the very sins a man goes into a tavern to contemplate committing.



Seeds I imagine that atheists like it fine in Albuquerque, but the ones who know God and talk to God have asked God, “God, what is your country?” And God told them, “Well, I don’t like to single out one place over another, because of course there are good people everywhere, but if I had to pick one place, based on what I know, which is everything, I guess I’d have to say Minnesota.” Those Albuquerquians (and God knows there must be a few of them) must want to live here in the worst way. And March is a month when you can do that.



I put away my parka in April and put on a jacket. If it turns cold, that’s not my problem, I refuse to accept winter anymore. If we get a blizzard, let someone else worry about it, I won’t. There comes a point where you have to stand up to reality and deny it. [...] When I got fed up with weeding the garden, I’d look at the weeds and say, “That’s not weeds. I say that’s spinach, and I say let it stay where it is.”
Truckstop “Broad is the road that leadeth to destruction, and narrow is the path of righteousness”—that seemed to be true too, from what he knew of freeways. The preacher mentioned forgiveness, but Florian wasn’t sure about that. He wondered what this preacher would do if he had forgotten his wife at a truckstop and gotten lost; the preacher knew a lot about forgiveness theoretically but what would he do in Florian’s situation?



He was about to tell her that he hadn’t left her, he’d forgotten her; then she said, “I love you, Daddy. You know that.”

He was going to tell her, but he didn’t. It occurred to him that leaving her on account of passionate anger might be better than forgetting her because of being just plain dumb. There wasn’t time to think this through clearly. He squeezed her and whispered, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. I promise you that I’ll never do a dumb thing like that again.”

Dale It’s a wonderful thing to push on alone toward the horizon and have it be your own horizon and not someone else’s. It’s a good feeling, lonely and magnificent and frightening and peaceful, especially when you leave someone behind you who will miss you and to whom you can write.
High Rise

There was a thin high-pitched whine in the air from clouds of mosquitoes and gnats, but we’re used to that. It’s summer and this is Minnesota [...] Mosquitoes are what don’t show up in the gorgeous color photographs of Minnesota, and we’re not supposed to complain, but you ought to admire us for living here, it’s an accomplishment, not everybody could do it.

Collection It was about the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, the ones who came late getting the same wage as those who came early and stayed all day, a parable that suggests you need not listen carefully to the whole sermon from the beginning but can come in for maybe the last sentence or two and get the whole point.
In the old Norwegian synod you didn’t write in a Bible, not even little comments in the margin like “Good verse” or “You can say that again,” because every word in the Bible is true and you shouldn’t add any that might not be true, not even in pencil, because it undermines the authority of Scripture.



Life is Good They raised him to bear up under hardship and sadness and disappointment and disaster, but what if you’re brought up to be stoic and your life turns out lucky—you’re in love with your wife, you’re lucky in your children, and life is lovely to you—what then? You’re ready to endure trouble and pain, and instead God sends you love—what do you do?
Lyle’s Roof

It’s a primitive sense of justice: you do bad, and your Creator smacks you one—but there it is. One day you’re daydreaming at the wheel, you smash into someone’s rear end. She gets out of her car, looks at the busted taillight, and smiles. She’s relieved; she says, “Well, it could’ve been a lot worse.” You’ve just run into a guilty person. She did something in the past twenty-four hours that made her think the universe would land on her with both feet. She’d be covered with boils, wrapped in burlap, sitting in the ashes, flies on her, and lightning coming closer and closer, but all it is is a taillight. Not bad. She smiles and drives away. Now you start to feel guilty.



There’s a story about Lyle’s house, as there is about most houses in town. That’s why old people walk so slow, because they’re remembering all the stories. I’m not that old but I know a lot because I used to hang out with old people back when there used to be real old people. Now everyone is sort of my age or younger, and most people don’t know much more than I do. It’s disappointing to become a leading authority in the field when you still have so much you want to learn.



The Killer

A big mood swing, from belief in eternal happiness with a loving God to atheistic nihilism and despair in twenty-four hours in a town of less than one thousand population. Fall is a powerful season.

Maybe I had pursued pleasures of the flesh, but I had failed, and didn’t that count for anything?



Eloise It was warm and bright and the trees were in full color, magnificent, explosive, like permanent fireworks—reds and yellows, oranges, some so brilliant that Crayola never put them in crayons for fear the children would color outside the lines. Maple trees the color of illicit romance, blazing red sumac and oaks and aspen, such color that you weren’t sure you were in this world but perhaps had stepped through a seam in the tapestry and walked into a magical world. But the only trail through there is a cowpath, so you have to watch where you step.



Florian was grumpy because he hates to see the odometer roll on his ’66 Chev (like new, only forty-seven thousand miles on her). Low mileage is a form of youth to Florian, it means plenty of mileage to come.



Homecoming The drawback of secret ballots is the tendency on the part of a few to vote for the wrong person when nobody is looking, and once a girl other than the Queen got more votes for Queen, but those were not informed votes. The voters didn’t know what Mrs. Hoffarth knew, or else they didn’t have the best interests of Lake Wobegon High School at heart. The girl in question had been to the gravel pit, parked in a car with a boy and drinking beer, and Mrs. Hoffarth maintains that when you’ve been to the gravel pit, you shouldn’t expect to wear a tiara and ride a convertible down Main Street.




In the Sanctified Brethren church, a tiny fundamentalist bunch who we were in, there was a spirit of self-righteous pissery and B.S.ification among certain elders that defied peacemaking. They were given to disputing small points of doctrine that to them seemed the very fulcrum of the faith. We were cursed with a surplus of scholars and a deficit of peacemakers, and so we tended to be divisive and split into factions. One dispute when I was a boy had to do with the question of hospitality toward those in error, whether kindness shown to one who holds false doctrine implicates you in his wrongdoing.




Arlene said, “Have a cup of coffee, that’ll perk you up,” and usually that’s all a Norwegian needs. Norwegians have often been revived by this method, including some whose EKG showed a flat line—a sip of coffee on their lips and the pen jumped.



Exiles Between 1953 and 1961, he threw himself weeping and contrite on God’s throne of grace on twelve separate occasions—and this in a Lutheran church that wasn’t evangelical, had no altar call, no organist playing “Just As I Am Without One Plea” while a choir hummed and a guy with shiny hair took hold of your heartstrings and played you like a cheap guitar—this is the Lutheran church, not a bunch of hillbillies—these are Scandinavians, and they repent in the same way that they sin: discreetly, tastefully, at the proper time, and bring a Jell-O salad for afterward. Larry Sorenson came forward weeping buckets and crumpled up at the communion rail, to the amazement of the minister, who had delivered a dry sermon about stewardship, and who now had to put his arm around this limp soggy individual and pray with him and see if he had a ride home. Twelve times. Even we fundamentalists go tired of him. Granted, we’re born in original sin and are worthless and vile, but twelve conversions is too many. God didn’t mean us to feel guilt all our lives. There comes a point when you should dry your tears and join the building committee and start grappling with the problems of the church furnace and the church roof and make church coffee and be of use, but Larry kept on repenting and repenting.



New Year’s A warm, dry winter, with no snow for a month, just brown grass and some dead snow, and the Lake Wobegon Weather Bureau, which meets at the Sidetrack Tap, has never seen one like it. They’re getting fed up with it. They are storytellers, and it’s tiresome to have a phenomenon so unusual it doesn’t remind you of one that was similar but more so. A blizzard would make you think of some good blizzards of the past, and you could improve on them, but this January drought is only a novelty. It defeats memory. It brings conversation to an end. We wish it would snow.
Where Did It Go Wrong? Norway is a seafaring country and if you have Norwegian blood you’re happier and you operate best when you’re cold, wet, and sick to your stomach. Misery is what keeps a Norwegian going, and in warm sunny weather such as we’ve had, they get sick and go to pieces and get a case of Swedish flu caused by weakness on account of lack of suffering. (Swedish flu is like Asian flu but in addition you feel like it’s your fault.)
Hawaii As the Lord would have said in the Sermon on the Mount if he had had time, “Blessed are those who arrive early, wait to be seated, and sit where they are told.”

This was Minnesota, they were Lutherans, and you didn’t just fly over to Hawaii for your own pleasure because you wanted to. It wasn’t right. You walk in the Chatterbox and say, “Guess what? We’re going to Hawaii!” and someone’d say, “Oh. Say, that’s great. Sure wish I could afford to go on a trip like that. That must be nice, being able to take off and go like that.” And guild begins to fall like a gentle rain of rabbit pellets on your head. You shouldn’t go and you know it. The extravagance of it. The money you’re spending having a good time, while people you love are home, suffering, needing you.

We’ve lived in Minnesota all our lives and it took a lot out of us. My people aren’t sure if we’ll even like paradise: not sure that perfection is all it’s cracked up to be. My people will arrive in heaven and stand just inside the gate, shuffling around. “It’s a lot bigger than I thought it was going to be,” we’ll think. We’ll say, “No, thank you, we can’t stay for eternity,we’ll just sit and have a few minutes of bliss with you and then we have to get back.”

We were brought up to work hard, not complain, accept that life is hard, and make the best of what little we have, so when we come to the grandeur and grace of an eternal flower garden ringed by mountains beside the pale-blue coral sea under the continuous sun, we naturally say, “Oh no thanks, it’s too much, really, I don’t care for it, just give me some ice, please.”

When Lake Wobegon Lutheran women walk into heaven, they’ll think it’s church and look for the stairs to go down the basement, where the kitchen is. When the men arrive, they’ll look at the Father’s mansions and talk about siding: aluminum vs. cedar shakes.

My people aren’t paradise people, but when God loves you, then everywhere is paradise enough.



text checked (see note) Oct, Nov 2010

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