Out of great suffering comes beauty

Saginaw, Mich., might be sagging but we can admire it for producing poet and teacher Theodore Roethke, and for preserving his boyhood home.

Published February 13, 2008 11:00AM (EST)

I have rather low self-esteem, which is a handicap for a man in this line of work whom you, dear reader, expect to give you 750 words in the strike zone about the economic stimulus package and all those little government checks going out to 130 million of you in hopes you'll go buy candles to light against the darkness and maybe a rod and reel so you can teach a man to fish, but I can't and it's too late to rebuild self-confidence.

I write these words in a Ramada Inn in Saginaw, Mich., hometown of the poet Theodore Roethke, who wrote a poem that began, "I knew a woman, lovely in her bones, when small birds sighed she would sigh back at them." I came here to give a speech and afterward a man said, "Thanks for coming. It's so hard to get first-rate speakers to come to Saginaw." Which was sort of crushing to me.

Evidently they'd tried to get Alan Greenspan to come and read tea leaves for them and, failing that, had to settle for me. Oh well. Probably if Roethke himself had come to Saginaw, they'd have said, "Nice of you to come, Ted. We tried to get Louis Jenkins but he was asking too much money and demanded a first-class hotel."

My speech is titled "Aging: The Opportunity of a Lifetime" and at 25 minutes it's a little long. The audience was rather subdued, and who can blame them? Saginaw is sagging, along with the rest of Michigan, and you see guys sliding into the bars at 9 a.m. and you see the "For Sale" signs and feel in your gut the pain of people whose houses are their IRAs and you want to pull into their driveway and give them a hug, but nobody wants a tall guy with glasses and low self-esteem to throw his arms around them unless he is a buyer with his checkbook out and a ballpoint pen.

I almost said, "I suffer from low self-esteem," but I've met people with high self-esteem and that is a real affliction -- the big honkers barreling through airports hollering into their cellphones, who have less self-doubt than the average caribou, galloping around and making a big impression -- guys who used to attend my sales seminar, "Why Not Be the Best, Earn Buckets of Money, and Retire Before You're 50 to a Beach House on Barbados?" I remember them well. They paid $1,000 apiece to hear a whole string of clichés revarnished and covered with cat fur and afterward they said, "Thanks for your ideas. It's so hard to find inspirational speakers who really inspire you."

I'll tell you one thing. I wish I'd written "when small birds sighed she would sigh back at them" -- such a fine thought, and what did Alan Greenspan ever say in 10 words that moves you so much as those, assuming you have known a gentle woman with lovely bones who is so attuned to the world that she can hear the sighing of birds -- and I admire Saginaw for producing Roethke and for celebrating his centennial in May and preserving his boyhood home at 1805 Gratiot Avenue.

It will be a reminder to Saginaw that out of suffering come gifts of great beauty. Roethke suffered from bipolar disorder, was alcoholic, came back to Gratiot Avenue several times to recuperate from breakdowns, and died at 55. But he was a brilliant teacher. And he wrote "My Papa's Waltz" and exquisite poems about his father's greenhouses in Saginaw and the poem about the woman who sighed at birds.

You can sit in the Saginaw airport, as I did, waiting for persons unknown to you to ask you to carry something aboard the aircraft, worrying what they might do if you report them to the nearest authorities, and think of that woman lovely in her bones, when small birds sighed she would sigh back at them, and your mind is carried to thoughts of various women whose bone structure you have known and whose sighs, which you had imagined were about you and your finesse as a lover, were actually meant for nuthatches and chickadees, and that is an interesting idea to carry with you to Lincoln, Neb., the next stop on the tour. My new lecture is titled "Discover Yourself Through Vegetable Gardening" and I am generally available for booking all through March, April and May. Rates are negotiable.

(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)

© 2008 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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