Oct. 30, 1996 - Wednesday night

March 23, 1997

Swift Class

Tarrytown Methodist Church

Austin, TX

Prairie Home Companion(s)

Romans 12:2. Be ye not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

Garrison Keillor and I think pretty much alike and write pretty much the same way. If you’ve ever head one of my talks, you’ve heard Garrison Keillor. And if you’ve ever heard Garrison Keillor broadcasting his Prairie Home Companion show on National Public Radio on Saturday evening, you’ve heard something that sounds a lot like Wayne Danielson.

A big difference, of course, is that Garrison is a better writer than I am, and he has made a lot of money. I’m jealous of that. But, in my own defense, I have a row of 26 notebooks on the shelf in my office containing more than half a million words I have been allowed to share with the people of this church — and I take some satisfaction in that. All in all, the outcome many not be so different for either of us.

An interesting question is, of course: why do we have these similarities in style and subject matter? The answer is, I think, we’re both Midwesterners, born about the same time, and immersed in a similar culture.

Garrison Keillor was born in Anoka, Minnesota, in 1942 and was graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1966. He lives in Saint Paul, where his broadcast originates. I was born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1929 and was graduated from the University o–f Iowa in 1952.  Garrison writes about a mythical Minnesota town so small it was overlooked by the mapmakers. It is called Lake Wobegon. And every monologue Garrison writes starts out with the same words, “It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon.” He began his radio show in 1974.

I write about my home town in Iowa and its mythical inhabitants or my own not-so-mythical family. My talks for the church always begin with one or two stories about something going on in the family now or something that went on years ago. Nothing much ever happens in my stories. It’s always a quiet week in the Danielson household. I began my talks in 1970. Last fall, the Fellowship Class gave me a nice plaque commemorating 25 years of talking. The plaque was a year late, and it came as a surprise, and I thought it was amusing that my talk that day — a talk much like those I had given so often before — was entitled “Business as Usual.”

Garrison Keillor usually just tells stories, paraÊbles really, and lets his readers or listeners guess what the underlying message is. That technique, which was well known as far back as Jesus himself, adds interest and suspense.  I usually start out the same way, telling stories and letting people try to figure out what the point of all this is anyway, but at the end I try to explain things by linking the stories up more or less with the scriptures of the day.  When I get explicit about the scriptures is when people kind of doze off, I’ve noticed. LaVonne has decided to drop her second job as technology specialist at Casis School at the end of May so that she can come home and help me get some of my words strung together for a book. She recommends that for the book I leave out the scriptural part and just tell the stories, and I’ll probably follow her advice. Let people guess, she says. Or in the words of the savior: (Luke 8:8) He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

It is clear that I attribute a lot of Garrison’s style to his Midwestern background: that enormous landscape, that awful weather, that unpredictable farming economy, that repressive culture, that loneliness, that brooding religion. The people are all the same — mainly Scandinavians and Germans, with some other Northern European types thrown in for flavor.  I remember once when the kids were little, we were on the way to grandma’s house in Iowa and stopped at a McDonalds in Northern Kansas — Linsburg I think it was. Paul, who was about six then, pulled on my sweater and whispered in a scared voice, “Dad, everyone in here looks like me.” I checked out the restaurant, and he was right. We had crossed some invisible divide into the Midwest. We had entered a country of clones. Everyone was the same. They may have been Swedes or Norwegians or Finns or Germans or Russians, but they all looked alike, blonde, broadfaced, pale.  And they all thought alike. They went to the same churches on Sunday. They developed the same guilts from their dysfunctional families. Aınd if you looked deep into their watery blue eyes, you could see that they all sought the same thing — some kind of relief — any kind of relief — from the monotony of life in the Midwest. If you’ve read The Bridges of Madison County, which is set in the endlessly rolling hills of southern Iowa not far from my hometown, you know why the Italian war bride Francesca, now middle aged, was willing to risk everything she had for one weekend with a traveling photographer from the National Geographic magazine.

Growing up in that kind of place makes you treasure anything that’s different — it makes you notice the one stalk of corn that’s different in a mile-wide field. It makes you appreciate a girl whose right eye —it’s still blue — aims a little bit to the side. It makes you want to run away and join the Navy when you’re seventeen instead of majoring in animal husbandry at Iowa State. It makes you understand why a Norwegian farmer in February will suddenly get up one morning and slay his entire family a…nd when they’re all nicely dead feed the cows and the pigs as usual and hang himself in the barn.  Growing up in the Midwest, makes you look for God not just in the Lutheran church on Sunday, but in the oddest of places — the ordinary lives of ordinary people.

I’d like to read some excerpts from Garrison’s monologue, Aprille. The title comes from the opening to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  I’m not sure whether students have to do it anymore, but when we were in high school in the Midwest, all of us had to memorize those first lines about spring, and how it made people want to go on “pilgrimages” — go somewhere and see something new and different — go somewhere and change their lives. Go on on Spring Break. Get in the car and drive a thousand miles south and fall in love with a dark-eyed girl on the beaches of Padre Island. Some of you may remember the opening lines in middle English:

When that Aprille with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath peÍrced to the roote

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which virtu engendered is the flour;

Whan Zephyrus eek with his sweete breeth

Inspired hash in every holt and heeth

the tendre croppes,and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne

And smale fowles maken melodye

That slepn all the nyght with open ye

(So priketh hem nature in hir corages):

Than longen folk to goon  on pilgrimages,

And palmers for to seken straunge strondes,

To ferne halwes couthe in sondry londes;

And specially, from every shires ende

Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende

the holy blisful martir for to seke

that hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.

I heard Garrison Keillor’s “Aprille” the night it was first broadcast on Prairie Home Companion.  I was driving somewhere with the family, and I listened to it on the car radio. I remember crying because the story was so typical and so true. Nobody in the family could understand what was the matter with me, and why I had to pull oveÓr to the side of the road and blow my nose on a totally inadequate McDonald’s napkin.

I think Aprille is a parable. Can you hear God in this story?


Who is the main pilgrim in this story? Lois Tollerud is for certain. She is 14 years old. It is a Sunday in early spring. She has just been confirmed. And she has simply got to get out of the house. Why?

She can’t stand the conformity. She can’t stand the monotony. She can’t express her feelings to her mother Marilyn or her father Daryl. She can’t express her feelings about her boyfriend Dave who wrote her a 27-page letter, more than she wanted to hear. The words from Saint Paul on her confirmation cake come to her like the writing of God on the stone tablets of the 10 commandments or the moving finger that wrote on the wall of the King of Babylon. Saint Paul’s words simply thunder at her:

Romans 12:2. Be ye not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good µand acceptable and perfect will of God.

How far her conforming life is from that thundering command. She is sure that she is losing her faith. She’s out of touch with God. She has to leave the house.

Out there in the bright spring light, she meets another pilgrim — Garrison himself. She’s startled and frightened at first. She doesn’t know who he is. Is he dangerous? Is he an angel with an angelic message? No, he’s just her godfather coming to pay her a visit on the day of her confirmation. He tells her a strange story about himself and his Aunt Lois on a bus trip, and how he pretended to be someone else, and how he found comfort in this. They go back to the house, to ordinary life.ì But somehow they have changed. The pilgrimage has had its desired effect. She realizes that everyone is changing. We pretend to be somebody else, and one day God helps us to come alive and we really are different. We are no longer conformed to this world.

What are the hidden messages from God in this and other works of Garrison Keillor? Here are some of them, I think: God is in the details. God is in the little differences. God is in the ordinary world — he drops in without an invitation, like a relative.  God is in all our stories.  God is in all our lives. God watches over all of us. God loves us anywhere, even in Lake Wobegon.  If we can’t find God in our daily lives, then we’re unlikely to find him anyplace else. The key thing is to escape the dullness of spirit that can overwhelm us. The key thing is to find the living spirit of God inside us, the spirit that comforts and renews.