The Art of Leaving Home

The art of leaving home

By Garrison Keillor

Moving out of an apartment, as I’ve been doing recently, convinces me, at last, to resign from American consumer culture and live with only bedding, one towel, two changes of clothing, a pair of shoes, and one suit to wear for shows and also to be buried in. Stationery, stamps, and a couple of pens. I own 21 coffee cups; I only need one. Nothing plastic, thank you. I will still fly Delta but I’ll lose 25 pounds to lessen the load.

The pleasure of moving is the excavation of the past. I open a box and here’s a photo of my fifth-grade class, the eager neatly-combed-and-dressed boy with glasses sitting behind John Poate is me. I am still that eager boy, heavier but anxious to do well. There is a letter from a fan of my radio show, “Every Saturday at 5 p.m., everything else ceased and we gathered around the radio.” Also, in a brown envelope, eight color photographs of my innards were taken by the surgical team that installed a pig valve in my heart: the valve is pale pink, and the innards are dark red. And there is a letter from a beloved aunt in 1995, reproaching me for traveling to Rome with my fiancée, engaging no doubt in premarital sex, embarking on a path of philandering and adultery, for which there would be no forgiveness. It’s a powerful articulate letter and I admire her for writing it, which she did out of love.

Four artifacts of a long life. The boy eager to do well and please his grandma and aunts. The radio guy who amused himself for two hours every Saturday and was, and still is, astonished to encounter people who listened to it. The recipient of a heart valve procedure to fix a hereditary defect that killed off several relatives in their late 50s. And the Sanctified Brethren boy, brought up on literal interpretation of Scripture, except we did have automobiles and went to doctors and attended public schools along with the unsaved.

I kept all these and other souvenirs. I never listened to the show myself and I have no memorabilia from it. It would only give me remorse that the show wasn’t better than it was. John Updike told me once that he rather enjoyed reading his early work but then he was a naturally cheerful man, rare for an author. Critics resented him for that and gave him grudging reviews; they preferred writers who had suffered, been imprisoned, exiled, or at least had abusive fathers. John was too American. There wasn’t much Russian or Spanish about him. He wrote because he was good at it and he knew it.

And now in my old age, I’ve found useful work as a stand-up cheerleader for adult cheerfulness, the basic goodness of life, a counter-voice to the diversity cops and agony aunts who’ve taken over publishing, journalism, public radio, and TV, and much of academia. DeSantis’s anti-woke campaign is stupidity on toast; the real problem with MacWoke is its penchant for dismal pessimism, its humorlessness. I grew up with fundamentalists who looked forward to the end of the world and now progressives do too.

I remember academia well, the layers of interlocking committees, the somber seriousness, the unquestioning reverence, the deadliness of official prose that got absorbed in people’s bloodstream and made them mummies, and I remember the liberation of leaving it in 1969 for a fledgling upstart radio station with one manager who was my age, 27, and thus my life was changed, all of which makes me suspicious of officialese, whether lefty or rightist. My aunt’s note about damnation was authentic, written from the heart, in her loving voice. The boy is eager to answer the questions correctly but also to write a book report that makes Mrs. Moehlenbrock laugh. The fan letter is mystifying: the thought of strangers who are friends, which is the basis of the business I’m in. The heart, open to the surgeon’s knife, tells me how fortunate I am to be alive. The procedure was not available to my elders who suffered from the same defect.

I pack them back in a box and leave it for the movers and I walk out the door, never to return, and head for the airport, looking forward to new confusions, life having been clarified, especially the aspect of good fortune. Every day I wake up and feel Wilbur’s valve operating is a very good day. As Charlotte told him, “You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing.” MSN

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