From the Desk of Garrison Keillor
A prolific writer, Garrison Keillor is a frequent contributor to newspapers and magazines throughout the United States and abroad. To the right, you find a selection of articles published since 1989, and a few unpublished pieces.

The Art of the Embrace
From Life Magazine

February 1995

I saw the famous Eisenstadt picture of the V-J Day kiss in Life when I was a boy and thought it was sweet: the girl in the white dress standing, bent back in the arms of the sailor who is planting a hard kiss on her lips, with Times Square and grinning onlookers in the background. And now, in another era, one can look at it and imagine an act of harassment. It is only an embrace, but the woman's body looks stiff, as if this kiss is not her idea and she can't muster up enthusiasm for it; she isn't clinging to the sailor, she's just hoping he doesn't drop her on the pavement. The picture illustrates the great danger and achievement of an embrace --- to be any good, an embrace must be mutual, and there may be a chasm of uncertainty between the impulse and the deed, even when you hug your wife. Maybe she is still mad from when you came home an hour late ten minutes ago. You hug her and she says, "What's that supposed to mean?" All an embrace means is that you expect to find the one you reach for reaching for you.

My mother told me that, on V-J Day, when news came that the war was over, people were so overjoyed they dashed into the streets and hugged complete strangers, even in Minneapolis where we lived. The thought of that surprised me then and still does. People in the Midwest don't hug that much unless they're Italian. Even in a euphoric moment, swamped by emotion, a true midwesterner would be careful who he threw his arms around. To us, an embrace is too intimate to be conferred on mere acquaintances; it would feel insincere. In the show business, which I hang out on the periphery of, there are people who embrace anybody they've ever been introduced to. This seems almost as unnatural to me as eating off the floor. I have met people who, after we've talked about this and that, say, "I'd like to give you a hug if that's all right," which strikes me as too weird for words. A hug that has to be announced? But of course the huggee has no choice, though afterward, I'd like to hand them a card that says, "Thank you for hugging me."

To a shy midwesterner, an embrace is a profound and delicate statement, even the ordinary friendly hug you might give your dog, or your dad. It is never perfunctory, always full of feeling. The little girl embracing the elephant in this book must feel the enormity of the moment, and so do I, always, and always have approached it warily. Sitting next to a girl on the school bus, you put your right arm across the back of the seat behind her, testing her --- does she glance back in disgust, as if she thought it was a snake? No? Then you put your right hand onto her shoulder, a tentative embrace, a deniable one, and you lean slightly against her and smell her fragrance. You like this girl a lot. She is so memorable and exciting, you would love to put both arms around her. Maybe she wants you to. You want you to. But what would it mean? Would it mean only that you are fond of her at this sunny moment, which is the truth, or would she think it meant The First Step On The Road To Ba-dum Ba-dum Ba-dum?

A great romantic, as I was when I was sixteen, adores the distant unattainable love --- for me, that was Audrey Hepburn --- but then I needed to find someone to go to the dance with and that was the girl who I sat next to on the bus, who was stocky, had a flat nose and mousy hair, and was attainable. She towed me onto the gym floor, and we assumed the waltz position, with my left hand on her right hipbone, her left hand in my right hand, her right hand on my left shoulder, and the air full of saxophones. We danced a long time together because nobody else wanted to dance with either of us, and it was pleasant talking to her with her head against my shoulder and my cheek against her hair. I loved having her ear just below my mouth and to be in her arms, to sway, to feel her hand on my shoulder, to hold her hand, and to feel her hipbone move. Maybe her hair was mousy, but at such short range, it didn't matter. I kissed her eyebrow and we went out in the 1958 moonlight and sat on the grass and necked with great tenderness and curiosity.

I kissed her and was surprised how easy this was. So I did it again. I stroked her cheek and touched her hair. I touched my lips to her hair, I kissed her neck, I ran my finger along her hair line and down her neck to her collarbone, I put my arms around her and we lay on the grass facing each other, and it was lovely, right up until the moment I had to remind myself that this was the Road That Leads Over The Cliffs of Desire And Onto The Rocks of Regret, and to hold my horses, or else in five minutes we'd be high school dropouts living in her parents' basement with our tiny child named Melody and I'd be pumping gas at the Pure Oil station.

It surprised me how naturally it all came to us: holding hands, caressing, nuzzling, fondling, snuggling, the little ballet of affection, even kissing, which I had worried I might not be good at --- how there was no awkwardness, no comedy, no falseness, and how, in this language of touching, you can easily find what it is you really want to say.

Sex is glorious and earth-shaking, as well as necessary, but it is in touching each other, holding each other's hands, stroking the skin, that we are most eloquent. So many different ways to make a mutual nest of our bodies and put skin against skin. We humans can be awfully formidable with our intelligence jingling at our side and our ambition grinding away and our high standards fluttering in the breeze, and it is thrilling when someone slips through the defenses and puts an arm around us. Sex is an athletic act, like bowling except without the shirt, and like bowling it can sometimes be (yes, it can be) boring, but the small sweet gesture of an arm slipped around your waist somehow never loses its poignancy and surprise. Here we stand, old friend, side by side in a reflective moment, a great swath of silent history between us, and perhaps it is a mutual reflex, or perhaps one of us, you or I, wonders, "Is it okay to do this now?", and then, with one graceful motion, we are embracing and embraced. You move me, and I care for you, and there simply is no other way to say so.

Past Articles
  • Phil Keillor Benefit for the Tenney Park Shelter (04/17/09)
  • Bill Holm, 1943–2009 (02/26/09)
  • Happy New Year, Friends (12/29/08)
  • Talk of the Stacks (11/17/08)
  • What Makes St. Paul So Great? (09/03/08)
  • GK On Historic Preservation (10/05/07)
  • Welcome to St. Paul (09/23/06)
  • "Homegrown Democrat," Chapters 1-4 (08/10/04)
  • Sing the National Anthem—and Try it in the Key of G (07/02/04)
  • Holiday Greetings from Garrison Keillor (12/23/03)
  • Remembering Plimpton (10/01/03)
  • Crankiness in Decline, Says the Old Guy (04/19/02)
  • A Governor Works in Mysterious Ways (10/19/01)
  • In Praise of Laziness (09/10/01)
  • I Just Needed a Valve Job (09/13/01)
  • A Eulogy for Chet Atkins (07/03/01)
  • A Foot Soldier in God's Floating Orchestra (04/01)
  • Exile on Main Street (10/02/00)
  • Walking Down the Canyon (07/31/00)
  • The Mysteries of Prom Night (05/15/00)
  • How I Write (12/04/99)
  • The Christmas of the Great Flu (12/99)
  • Let Jesse Be Jesse (10/10/99)
  • The Rice, the Bat, the Baby (09/06/99)
  • Faith at the Speed of Life (06/14/99)
  • The Republicans Were Right, But (02/15/99)
  • Minnesota's Excellent Ventura (11/16/98)
  • The Dangers of Christmas (04/06/98)
  • Gasgate (11/10/97)
  • Talk Radio (10/97)
  • The Seven Principles of a Successful Christmas (09/08/97)
  • The Seven Deadly Sins—Envy (04/97)
  • You Say Potato (04/04/96)
  • The Poetry Judge (02/96)
  • With All the Trimmings (11/27/95)
  • In Autumn We Get Older (11/06/95)
  • Minnesota's Sensible Plan (09/11/95)
  • The Art of the Embrace (02/95)
  • The Voters are Angry (08/94)
  • Word Play (05/18/90)
  • We Are Still Married (12/18/89)
  • Elevator Tales
  • A Graduation Speech

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