I STOPPED IN a coffee shop on Sunday after church to get awakened from a feeling of blessedness and who should I run into but my Anoka High School gym teacher, Stan Nelson, who is 99 years old and still driving a car and making sense.
He looked at me and said, “Are you still having trouble with chin-ups and the rope climb?”
I was 17 at the time and now I’m 76, and I told him that I’ve managed to stay out of situations that might require me to climb a rope or lift myself up by a horizontal bar, so the answer is, no, it’s no trouble at all.
“You’re looking good,” he said. He’s looking good too, as if 99 suits him well enough. “You flunked the physical for football, didn’t you,” he said. I said, “Yes. Heart valve. They fixed it in 2001.” I opened my shirt and showed him the surgical scar on my sternum. He said he didn’t think I would’ve liked football anyway. I agreed with him about that.
It made me happy to see a man of 99 doing well. It puts everything else into perspective, all the mopey poetry I wrote in college, the long single-spaced anguished letters written to friends under the influence of Kafka and Kierkegaard, letters I fished out of a box a few weeks ago and found incomprehensible.
A perfect Sunday in July and it goes against my upbringing. I was brought up by people who went through the Great Depression and the war and who told me how hard life could be and I matriculated into prosperous times when a kid could put himself through the university working part time in the scullery or the parking lot and still pay rent, own a car, and drink beer now and then.
I’ve been independent since I could ride a bicycle. I never confided my problems to anybody; I just let them go unexpressed and eventually they evaporated. Or they became quirks. I was lucky. I married well. I got my heart sewn up by a surgeon and now I’m older than most of my aunts and uncles. I went to church and was forgiven and took Communion and now my old gym teacher is glad to see me.
Minneapolis is near where I grew up on the Mississippi. The city has grown, risen, spread, renovated, revolutionized itself since I was a boy — the old factories and warehouses are now expensive condos — and it’s lovely to walk around the old hometown, one foot in the past, while looking at the unimaginable present, the enormous towers, the young women checking their cellphones, the old lady wheeling her dog in a stroller: that didn’t exist back then.
I feel at peace with all of it and a great deal more. The children of my friends are engaged in good works, trying to help people addicted to opioids and heroin whose lives have fallen apart, who live in ragged encampments, desperate families with small children, a scene of wretchedness out of Dickens’s Oliver Twist in the midst of my prospering city.
I admire the doers of good works. I worry that they’ll forget to go to the state fair and eat cheese curds and ride the Ferris wheel in the dark.
Life is good. Power and influence are illusory. Rich people often get lousy health care. Doctors don’t give thorough digital prostate exams to Presidents and generals. Famous people are more likely to die in stupid accidents because their handlers are afraid to say, “Stop. That’s crazy.”
We live in treacherous times but so did my ancestor Prudence Crandall, who got booted out of Connecticut in 1831 for admitting young women of color to her school and so she fled to Kansas where she campaigned for women’s suffrage. She was a Methodist.
I like to imagine Prudence enjoying a summer afternoon in Kansas, writing fierce polemics against male supremacy and the racists who betray the very idea of America, and at the same time enjoying the music of meadowlarks and the taste of tomatoes eaten off the vine and the pleasure of shade in the midst of brilliance.
To change the world, you must start out by loving it. It’s fine to march but don’t forget to dance. The Lord is gracious. Come unto his gates with thanksgiving.
In other words, get over it. It isn’t about you.
Grab the rope and pull yourself up. Try.
© Garrison Keillor, 2019. Keillor lives in Minnesota.