"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. 
In effect, the people who change our lives the most begin to 
sing to us while we are still in darkness. If we listen to 
their song, we will see the dawning of a new part of ourselves."

Rabindranth Tagore

Existential Intelligence is the sensitivity and capacity to engage questions about human existence – how we got here, whether we have a purpose, and whether there is meaning in Life. Existential intelligence embraces the exploration of aesthetics, philosophy, religion and values like beauty, truth, and goodness. A strong existential intelligence allows human beings to see their place in the big picture, be it in the classroom, community, world, or universe.

First proposed by Howard Gardner, existential intelligence is one of nine theorized intelligences and is considered to be amoral – that is, it and the other eight categories of human intelligence can be used either constructively or destructively.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Garrison Keillor and Me

I waited ten years for Garrison Keillor to use his evening at my house in a monologue, but since he never did, I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands.

It was September; the start of the symphony pops season and Garrison was the featured guest performer. On Thursday afternoon it occurred to us that this was a perfect opportunity for a party. Since our invitation was hastily composed and last minute, I didn’t expect it to be accepted, but Friday at noon I got the call. The morning rehearsal was ending; all the musicians were in high spirits, and yes, Mr. Keillor would accept the invitation to a party honoring the musicians, and looked forward to attending.

I spent Saturday morning at the grocery store. An international menu? Yes, that would do it. Dolmas (one of my specialties) pita bread, cheese and fruit, Tandoori chicken, a lovely Mexican picadillo, white bean dip and chips, home made fudge… so many ideas and so little time. Cooking was fully underway by two p.m., interrupted only by spurts of cleaning and strategic planning, most of which revolved around the number of chairs we owned and where they might best be positioned to encourage lively conversation.

We agreed that I would skip the performance in favor of being available when the first guests arrived at the concert’s end. John breezed out the door with a cheerful “See you at ten!” and I hopped in the shower. Plenty of time. A nap? Too excited. I fluffed pillows, adjusted porch chairs, and checked the icemaker. I opened wine. Why not let it breathe? I had a glass. Lovely.

The neighborhood children played tag in the moonlight. It was nearly nine o’clock. Maybe some guests would arrive early. I lit the candles and the fire in our backyard fire pit. I checked the icemaker. I garnished the fruit platter. I counted plates.

At ten fifteen guests began to arrive. The house filled quickly, buoyed by enthusiastic post-concert energy and alcohol. Lilting voices announced the arrival of our special guest. Here he was, accompanied by artistic director Phillip Brunelle. He offered me a bottle of wine, noting its Minnesota origins, and kindly thanked me for the invitation to join us. Symphony members crowded into the kitchen, surrounding the buffet set out on the butcher block table. I prepared to raise a toast to the evening.

Just as I lifted the glass and opened my mouth to speak, my seven year old careened into the room. High from the excitement of outdoor tag after dark, and fueled by the contagious energy in the kitchen, she slammed into me with a giant and joyful hug. Red wine from my uplifted glass exploded into the air, showering everyone standing around me. The gasps were audible. The silence was deafening. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Grab a plate. Help yourselves! I’ll be right back.”

When I returned to the kitchen, Phillip Brunelle and Garrison Keillor were standing in the doorway, in conversation with my dearly beloved trumpet player. Garrison turned to me. “John is telling us how much your father enjoys Prairie Home Companion.” he said.

“Oh YES!” I warmed to the image of my parents, fervent fans and weekly participants in the Prairie Home Companion phenomenon. What to say? How to emphasize their devotion? When I am excited my hands do the talking. They flew in both directions as I launched into my response. My hand caught Phillip Brunelle’s wine glass, just as I began to speak. For the second time that evening red wine sloshed into the air. This time it soaked Mr. Brunelle’s pristine white shirt cuffs. I blanched. John grabbed Brunelle’s elbow and propelled him toward the bathroom. Symphony members pushed past us, ready for round two at the buffet. Garrison disappeared into the dining room. I heard voices welcoming him to the table.

I stood alone in my kitchen. How could this be happening? But wait. Here was Garrison again, standing pleasantly in the doorway. He smiled at me and said, “I hear you are an artist. Why don’t you come and sit with us and tell us about the art you make?” I nodded and smiled. I filled a plate. I went to the dining room and sat at the place they had been saving for me.

“So tell us,” he continued. “What sort of art do you do?”

I paused and thought for a minute. “Oh nothing, really…” I said, faltering. “ Just a little dyeing; a little painting…” What did I do? Suddenly it seemed very hard to characterize.

The harpist jumped in. “Oh Mr. Keillor! I’ve been wondering...” she began. The rest of her sentence was lost on me. I got up from the table. Someone else slid into my chair. They were having a delightful time.

The party ended around 4 a.m. Musicians filtered out the front door, hugging us - profusely grateful for the evening. John and I stood on either side of Garrison while the symphony PR person took a photograph, which I still have. We three look exhausted, but congenial. When the door closed behind the last guest, a neighborhood friend stayed to help with dishes. We pronounced the night a success. Later, lying in bed, I laughed when John admitted he’d asked Phillip Brunelle whether the wine incidents might make their way into a monologue. Brunelle replied wryly, “Maybe not right away, but you never know.”

I’ve told this story to students a hundred times since that September night. While it has its comic moments, the important message it conveys is the elusive nature of self-esteem when we are growing into new roles as artists, musicians, writers or performers. I couldn’t claim ownership of my artist self that evening, but I could resolve to claim it fully eventually. This became an intentional effort, and one we must all make. Resolve to do this for yourself. Claim your right to be the authentic artist you deserve to be. Shy person Garrison Keillor did it. Jane Dunnewold did it. So can you.


  1. Loved this story. I have been a fan of Garrison Keillor since I can remember. I have a friend whose mother worked on the show and they often had the after parties at his mother's home. He said that you would be surprised at how shy Garrison is in person.

  2. Indeed! Stake a claim. Recognize the artist you are. I once startled my dear husband on vacation: A woman at the pool asked out of the blue, "Are you a quilter?" Accustomed to hear my usual self-deprecating reply, my husband was surprised to hear me say, "Yes, I am." It felt good. When people admire my work and say, "You're a real artist!" I simply say thank you and let their praise warm my heart. I learn and grow and learn some more, thank you for sharing a fun story and the realization that accompanied it.

  3. I loved your story so much! What an amazing experience! GK is coming here to Atlanta on my b'day weekend, but I haven't seen or heard of any tickets to the show arriving at our home. Darn! I guess I shouldn't have been so subtle when dropping hints! Last night we met a friend at a local art gallery and when he asked when he could see my work, I just demurred. Surprisingly, my husband became my promoter! I vow to do better in the future!


  4. Great story Jane. I'll think of it whenever I listen to GK on Saturday afternoons. I'm working harder at over coming my shyness, so now I can say if Garrison and Jane can do it , so can I!

  5. We seem to forget that none of us springs full blown into the role of "Artist" in any respect, whether it is doing the work or accepting the title.

  6. Great post, Jane and such a funny story...oh, the wine spills!!!
    I think that self-esteem can be very hard to come by in women. It took me 60 years and I am still not totally there.
    Love these words of yours about self esteem and being an artist:
    "but I could resolve to claim it fully eventually. This became an intentional effort, and one we must all make. Resolve to do this for yourself. Claim your right to be the authentic artist you deserve to be." I think that this is a pre-requisite to productivity and doing meaningful work. I am not there yet, but working on it. If you don't respect yourself and what you do, no one else will.
    Best to all of you,