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On the Importance of Welcoming The Stranger

alec vanderboom

(for Joanne)

I read these paragraphs and they made me catch my breathe in recognition. I've felt such similar feelings, only mine exclusion happened in the public school cafeteria at age 14 when I moved from the Big City to a small town in Central West Virginia. Joanne, everyone in the town he is describing is Catholic--probably most of them received the Eucharist each and every Sunday. God Bless the Stranger. I'm making my life's work to extend this corporal act of Mercy.

From Garrison Keillor, Creator of Lake Wobegon

(talking about his real life experiences moving to a small town in Central Minnesota to "live cheaply" while pursuing his writing career)

"Nobody ever welcomed us to town when we came in 1970. No minister visited to encourage us to worship on Sunday, no neighbor dropped in with a plate of brownies. Several times, I stopped at neighboring farms to say hello and announce our presence, and was met by the farmer, and we spent an uncomfortable few minutes standing beside my car, making small talk about the weather, studying the ground, me waiting to be invited into the house, him waiting for me to go away, until finally I went away. In town, the shopkeepers and the man at the garage were cordial, of course, but it I said hello to someone on the street, he looked at the sidewalk and passed in silence. I lived south of Freeport for three years and never managed to have a conversation with anyone in the town. I didn't have long hair, or a beard, didn't dress oddly or do wild things, and it troubled me. I felt like a criminal....

As I sat in the Pioneer Inn and recalled the years I spent in Stearns County, it dawned on me were Lake Wobegon had come from. All those omniscient-narrator stories about small town people came from a guy sitting alone at the end of a bar, drinking a beer, who didn't know anything about anything going on around him. Stories about prodigals welcomed home, outcasts brought into a circle, rebels forgiven: all from the guy at the end of the bar nursing a beer in silence. In three years only one man ever walked fifteen feet to find out who I was--he walked over and said "You live out there on the Hoppe place, don't you?" I said that yes, I did and he nodded satisfied that now he had me properly placed, and turned without another word and moseyed back to the herd. There was nothing more to say. He had no further curiosity about me, where I came from, or what I did out at Hoppe farm, or if he did, he felt that a conversation with me might lead to expectations on my part, might lead to my dropping in at his place for more conversation, perhaps asking to borrow his pickup or inviting him and his family to dinner, a whole unnecessary entanglement. So he walked away. It kind of broke my heart a little.

I'd been away from country people for a while and was under the illusion that they're hospitable and outgoing, and they're not. It's not that they're bad people. They are good Christian people, the soul of kindness. There is a hand-woven net of kindness in all of those little towns and people looking out for other people, visiting the sick, caring for the sick child so mom can go to work, inviting the widowed for supper, bringing food to the elderly, giving rides, driving old fold to Florida in January and flying down to drive them back home in April, coaching the teams and helping out at church and with Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and 4-H, daily acts of kindness. Everyone is generous to those in need, except to those in need of conversation, especially if you're not from here.

So I invented a town with a bar in which, if a stranger enters, he always turns out to have an interesting story. The stories were my way of walking fifteen feet and joining the circle. I had to invent a town in order to be accepted, like the imaginary friend I had in second grade, David, who walked to school with me.

The longer nursing his beer at the end of the bar is starved for company. He has little to say to his wife, who is depressed and has little to say to him. In the long shadows of a cold winter night, anxious about money, in dire need of society, he drives five miles to town and sits at the bar, where his pride and social ineptitude get in the way: he has no idea how to traverse those fifteen feet without feeling like a beggar. He can overhear the talk and it's about farming, of course, and hunting and trucks, and he has nothing to offer here. He goes back home to his typewritter and invents characters who look like the guys in the bar, but how talk about all sorts of things that he knows about, and soon he has replaced the entire town of Freeport with an invented town of which he is the mayor, the fire chief, the priest, the physician, and the Creator Himself, and he gets a radio show and through perseverance and dumb luck and a certain facility, the fictional town becomes more famous than the real town, and now when he goes to Freeport, some people come up and say "You're Garrison Keillor, aren't you?" A person could write a novel about this."

(Keillor, In Search of Lake Wobegon, pg 21-22_