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Perilous Times

I am thinking about moving to Texas so that I can be in open disagreement with the powers that be and express this freely, instead of living in colonies of liberal progressives where I must put tape over my mouth except when among close personal friends. Freedom of speech is watched closely where I live and we all know it. “What exactly is it you want to say that you can’t?” you wonder. It is something that, were I to say it, I’d be kicked out of the Democratic Party and my library card would be confiscated and I’d be barred from Amazon and Starbucks and the Episcopal church would make me sit in the Penitents’ Corner. So I’ll keep it to myself.

I grew up fundamentalist so I’m familiar with the drill. We couldn’t join marching band because we believed that rhythmic movement would lead to dancing, which then led to fornication. We never sang uptempo hymns, only dirges. Women kept silent in church because the sound of their voices would lead men to think impure thoughts. So the rigidity of progressive righteousness is familiar to me. I can live with it. I know which friends can be trusted and which cannot.

Back home, I sit peaceably at a table under a painting of prairie skyscape, flat foreground, power lines, and a vast expanse of cloudy sky.

Anyway, it’s been lovely weather and my family is enjoying robust health and my novel is finished and we escaped from the nightmare of Ikea, a vast warehouse of a store designed by psychologists to disorient the shopper. It’s popular among liberals who wish they were Swedish, everything is tasteful, there is a great deal of whiteness, everything is white or natural wood, and I suppose if you live with Swedish furniture and tableware you feel less complicit in our shameful treatment of the disadvantaged and our corruption of the planet, but the place makes me insane, wandering lost through the puzzle of aisles, and, handsome though some of the furniture is, it requires self-assembly, which would drive me straight to the brink. A list of directions makes me look for a gin bottle.

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Back home, I sit peaceably at a table under a painting of prairie skyscape, flat foreground, power lines, and a vast expanse of cloudy sky. I bought it at a gallery in St. Paul and it’s more and more appealing to me for reasons I can’t describe, which is true of great music, it is inexplicable and expands with time. Such as the Chopin piano études. I didn’t grow up on them, my mother played hymns on the piano, and back in my rocknroll days I looked on Chopin as music for social climbers, upper-class wallpaper, and now it speaks directly to me and not only the popular ones like “Tristesse” but all that I hear, which, thanks to YouTube, are at my fingertips. In its inimitable way, YouTube is likely to stick a commercial for weight-loss pills in the middle of an étude, but it matters not, this sickly Polish romantic offers an emotional bond that I seldom feel with songs of my own generation. They are souvenirs of a time past and I don’t need them.

I listen to Chopin and look at the woman sitting across the room and the music speaks of our years together, grievous times and strange episodes and endearment and harmony and all of it wrapped in love and kindness. The music passes between us without my having to say a word. If I were to write about our romance, it would be pale and self-serving compared to how Chopin treats it. The world rages around us and some people berate us for not being as angry as they are, but I sit here under the painted prairie while Chopin pours out his story, which is all the more powerful for having endured almost two centuries.

Great art endures and the souvenirs fade. Mary Oliver’s poem about the grasshopper who lies eating sugar in her hand, its jaws working back and forth, its enormous complicated eye gazing at her, and then spreads its wings and floats away: she writes, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” And James Wright’s poem about meeting the two Indian ponies in the meadow near Rochester, touching the long ear of one who has nuzzled his hand: he says, “Suddenly I realize that if I stepped out of my body I would break into blossom.”


If you look at the painted prairie, imagine the grasshopper in one hand and the pony’s ear brushing the other, while listening to Chopin, it makes for the launch of a beautiful day.

Garrison Keillor
Prairie Home Productions