The Author Disembarks Almost
Posted: July 22, 2022
Thoughts of summer—and life—triggered by a New York subway mishap…
A beautiful summer day, sitting on a porch in Connecticut, looking at boats anchored in the cove, grateful that I don’t own one. It’s one foolishness I’ve avoided in my life: most of the other numbskull boxes I have checked and as I sit here enjoying the breeze off the water, I torture myself with memories of dumbness, mistaken romances, real estate stupidity, as vivid as the incident on Wednesday when, stepping out of a New York subway car, I paused to make sure it was 42nd, and the subway doors closed on my neck.
Yes, you read that right. I had bags in my hands, and I dropped them to try to pry the doors open, my head poking out, and couldn’t, and then a man pulled them open and I got out, turned and said thank you. He was a construction guy in an orange vest. He looked concerned. Then I remembered that Penn Station is at 34th so I had to catch the next train for one stop. I got on that train and got off without incident. So I’m a man whose head is caught in the doors while getting off at the wrong stop. There are worse things. The guillotine, for one.
I beat myself up because I’m an old fundamentalist and self-mortification is our specialty. And I’ve been having too much fun lately, which confuses me, doing shows in red states to crowds that include a good many Republicans who voted for the landslide winner in 2020 but nonetheless were warm and receptive to me who voted for the thief. In blue states, audiences are listening to make sure you check the boxes of Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, and Antiracism. These are people who don’t mind that many theaters refuse to do “Our Town” because the “Our” does not acknowledge that Grover’s Corners was stolen from indigenous people. I use the possessive pronoun in singing “My country, ’tis of thee,” which audiences in red states enjoy singing with me, and also our national anthem, ignoring the fact that Francis Scott Key did own slaves.
Back in the Sixties, when I was in my twenties, we sang “We Shall Overcome” and clearly we did not overcome, we only created new hairstyles. So we pass the torch to the young, some of whom feel the word “person” shows gender bias and want to change it to perself. To which I say, “Good luck with dat.”
Meanwhile, I study the pictures from the NASA telescope a million miles out in space, pictures of light emanating from suns billions of light years away, and I am made freshly aware of our insignificance on this tiny fragile planet circling our sun. There may be planets out there who are studying us and observing our decline and inevitable self-destruction, much as we observe a lightning bug flash and expire on a summer evening.
I am not disheartened by insignificance. I am content to be a bug. Insectitude is no problem at all. I grew up with stories in which God is seen as a person, or three persons, and He speaks to His people directly, but when I look at light that is billions of years old coming from an infinite number of galaxies, it shocks the imagination into gratitude for existence itself, nothing more, nothing less. It also makes my political registration less than interesting.
I feel this in church on Sunday morning. Feel myself disappear, my opinions, likes, dislikes, and believe myself loved by the Creator, and in that moment I am joined to others surrounding me, which was the feeling down South recently when we sang, “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds Thy hands have made,” and we were briefly united, all of us equally. I was onstage but still a firefly, singing bass.
I became an author because books appeared sort of permanent to me, and now I see it’s not true, but the recognition of brevity makes one grateful for this day, not assuming there will be another. I felt this when the subway doors bit me and I imagined the headline Author Decapitated On C Train but it didn’t happen.
Being bitten by doors is a chastening experience but it’s also a privilege to discover the kindness of strangers, a discovery worth the price. We are surrounded by goodness. The man in the orange vest was brought up to rescue the perishing. The country is full of those people. You and I are counting on that every day of our lives.
Garrison Keillor © 07.18.22
America's story teller, known for his heartland wit and wisdom, and for many years as the voice of Prairie Home Companion on NPR.