garrison keillor | the blessings of childlike wonder

27 12 2008


NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 165 | December 27, 2008

Christmas to New Year (2009)
‘Memoir’ Dispatches, #4

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth, end-of-the-year/holiday offering in words to date as I consider the various interpretations of December, winter, Christmas, the coming year. Previous postings include: “Down to the Lake”, “Carol Ordal” ( and a winter haiku by Imakito Oku at .


I can’t imagine a greater gift to American writing in our time, a writer for all seasons, than Garrison Keillor. There’s little I can add to all the well-deserved attention he has received thus far (a writer in his mere 60’s), all the work he has already committed to books, articles, radio, stage performances, good old-fashioned storytelling–not to mention one fine (somewhat overlooked) film, “A Prairie Home Companion” (2006) directed by Robert Altman, who never made a film that didn’t grab you: “Hey, I’m talking to you, Bub. Straighten up. Watch. Listen.” Altman (Kansas City, MO) and Keillor (Anoka, MN)—a perfect Midwestern match. “Prairie…” a film, a radio program, a Way (in the Eastern sense) about time, maybe a little ahead of its time–to be re-viewed years from now because it’s all there, everything—the way we like it. All one needs to know and love about the true heart of America.

We used to read newspapers because of the writers who talked to us in print every day. Spoke our language. Came out of our own neighborhoods or our neck of the woods. Tickled our funny bone. Made us feel the stories of people. New York had Jimmy Breslin. Chicago had Mike Royko. To mention only two–two of the very best.

We seldom see Breslin in the Midwest anymore. Royko’s been gone for years and has never been equaled. If you were lucky enough to grow up in Chicago, there was such wealth of good writing in newsprint you could hardly wait to get up in the morning, run down to the corner newshack, plunk your pennies down and see what they all had to say.

There’s a long history of writers with a sense of humor and humanity in American newspapers. Imagine opening your paper and reading Mark Twain in the morning. (Something else the troubled corporate newspaper scene in America today hasn’t paid enough attention to in their frenzied search for truth/meaning/salvation through marketing in a day and age gone cyber and too often, too meaningless.)

Imagine waking up in the morning, finding a real newspaper for sale at the local store…and opening the pages to Garrison Keillor–the Mark Twain of our time.

Now there’s hope for you. For the newspapers. For all of us.

If you don’t appreciate Garrison’s gift of words in this or any season—you’re probably way too far from home. —Norbert Blei


The Blessings of Childlike Wonder

by Garrison Keillor

It is the blessed Christmas season. But of course you know that. Unless you live 10 miles up a box canyon deep in the Wasatch Range with only your dog Boomer and are demented from drinking bad water, you are inhaling Christmas night and day and “Adeste Fideles” is stuck in your head like a 5-inch nail.

This Christmas I am in New York for the general dazzlement and variety. On Sunday St. Patrick’s was packed to the rafters for 4 p.m. mass in Spanish, the name Jesucristo drifting around the battlements, and a few blocks south the Jane Austen Society was meeting to discuss Christmas in Olde England, and in between, I stopped in a men’s store and bought six pairs of red socks. For myself.

Down deep I am selfish and don’t like to feel obliged to do what other people are doing— dancing, leaping, piping, drumming, welcoming the Christ Child with joyful hearts, etc.—at the times when other people are doing them. This city enables one to leap or pipe pretty much whenever you feel like it, even after 10 p.m. on weekdays.

The other day I took my sandy-haired, bright-faced daughter to dinner at 9 p.m., which is late for a 10-year-old, and introduced her to the idea of Ordering Whatever You Want, No Matter What Others May Think, and she got the chicken Kiev and for dessert an apple tart as big as a Gideon Bible. She is a good eater. She approached her meal with the quiet devotion that a chicken deserves. She loved the candles, the linen, the silver, the formality I enjoyed a tiny quail egg poached in a toasted brioche with a dollop of caviar, though, thanks to my upbringing, I eat my meals surrounded by gaunt Chinese children holding out empty rice bowls. And when the check arrives, I have visions of debtors’ prison, dank stone walls, a wooden bunk, a straw mat, water dripping, and so forth.

Here in New York, Mr. Madoff allegedly made off with $50 billion of other people’s money in a scheme, which is selfishness raised to a high level indeed, but the selfishness I am indulging is a simpler kind—for example, if I feel like having a mocha, I just step into a Starbucks and get one. A small one, no pastry but it feels luxurious, coming from a utilitarian background as I do. Why mocha? How does it further God’s work on Earth? I don’t know. I just like it.

A few weeks ago a pundit wrote about what a wonderful thing it would be to appoint Bill Clinton to the Senate to fill his wife’s seat, him being a former president and all, and then that idea vanished. Bloop. Bill called up a few people and said, “Whom are you kidding?” When a man can jet around the world and be received as a potentate and knock down a hundred grand every time he feels like giving a speech, he is not going to want to sit in the Senate chamber and hear old men drone on about Arbor Day and the crucial role of the forest products industry.

I feel the same way about Christmas parties. It isn’t fun to stand around making small talk with other people’s friends as they anesthetize themselves. But slipping into St. Patrick’s for mass in Spanish is pretty wonderful. It’s like a big family reunion at which I know nobody and so nobody is mad at me. Nothing said in Spanish offends me doctrinally or any other way I squeeze into the crowd, under the placid stone faces of saints, the sweet smell of burning wax and a hundred varieties of cologne, and feel the religious fervor, and tears come to my eyes, and I light a candle, say a wordless prayer, and out into the cold I go.

It brought back memories of Christmas Eve in Copenhagen 20 years ago and how beautiful the sermons were before I started learning Danish.

A man gets a keener sense of the divine in a church that is not your own. Maybe Luther and Calvin and Jan Hus and all of them were dead wrong and literacy is not the key nor an understanding of Scripture, and maybe the essence of Christmas is dumb childlike wonder, and the more you think about it, the less you understand. Which makes me glad I am no smarter than I am. Let’s go have lunch.

from The Chicago Tribune, December 25, 2008