116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
It was a homemade sign in a yard along a busy suburban Chicago street that drew my attention. The sign read “YOU ARE NOT ALONE,” and while I don’t know exactly what was going through the sign painter’s mind, I have to say that the message was comforting. For more than a year we have felt quite alone, cut off from others, cut off from ourselves. It’s a terrific sign, more effective than neon.
In addition to meeting family members in suburban Chicago, lately I’ve been driving the two lanes in eastern Iowa, listening to news on the radio, stunned by how our small towns have decayed, noting that in the yards of a couple of particularly sad homes flags are still flying for Donald Trump. The golden age of small towns in Iowa ended a half-century ago and I admit to some ambivalence about it. For many miles I drove parallel to train tracks where many Union Pacific engines were pulling hundreds of cars full of coal eastward and hundreds of stacked intermodal containers westward, which made me wonder where coal is being mined west of here.
Driving through a town on the Lincoln Highway I noted that what was once a store selling furs many years ago is now a store that sells monuments, what we used to call tombstones. From inappropriate glamour to unavoidable death. I had a great aunt in Chicago who enjoyed her furs and when she died my mother became the reluctant owner of them. Before she passed more than three decades ago, she gave me a mink fur stole which I took to a seamstress who made two beautiful teddy bears from it. I gave one to an aunt and the other one sits comfortably upstairs in a glass-front cabinet, enjoying the company of other stuffed animals.
During one of the news stories on the radio U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, (his name sounds like a character in a Dickens novel) was speaking and I swear he said, “I went tomato.” I wondered if it was a new phrase for going berserk or going nuclear. I rather liked it, but as he continued speaking I realized he had, in fact, said, “I went to NATO.” I have to tell you, being a little hard of hearing is sometimes great fun.
Whenever I do leave the woods I invariably enjoy myself. Last week I showed up at my doctor’s office as instructed where a very sweet young nurse asked some questions of me including, “Are you allergic to anything” “Yes,” I said, pausing for effect. “Banks.” Her laugh was huge, engaging, and beautiful. It was a small moment, and exactly the medicine I needed..
These days chipmunks are scrambling along the top of the stone wall I built in the woods more than two decades ago, lilac bushes have bloomed, wild plum trees in the hollow have shed their blossoms, a catbird is building a nest in a bush right outside of my kitchen window, and, at least in this moment, all seems right with the world, yet many of us keep nudging the machine in front of us, hoping for a free play. We should let it go, it’s not worth the effort. Enjoy whatever is happening in the moment, and remember, I am reliably informed that you are not alone.
Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County. His book “The Iowa State Fair” is available from the University of Iowa Press.