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Column: Humility, with a touch of magic and whiskey

Column: Humility, with a touch of magic and whiskey


RURAL AMERICA – Just up the gravel road from my place a turkey vulture spent the better part of a week perched on one of the few remaining branches of a post-apocalyptic dead tree just off the road. I know why she was there. One need only drive by with a window open to know that something was dead and rotting in the ditch below the tree, and she had it all to herself. Turkey vultures are among the most useful animals on the planet, cleaning other dead creatures to the bone. Try to love them.

Exactly a half-century ago a partner and I were scrambling around on the roofs of barns here in eastern Iowa, nailing down asphalt shingles so that the farmer could sleep well, knowing that for the next thirty years his barn would not leak every time it rained. It was difficult, satisfying work. It was a time for figuring things out, just sort of feeling it for the first time.

Back then I was able to sling a bundle of shingles on my shoulder, climb a tall ladder to the edge of a barn roof, and heave it up. These days I can’t even pick a bundle off the ground. Very discouraging. We carried a small transistor radio to the roof, listening to Top 40 radio, and I was relatively sure that if the likes of Karen Carpenter, Freda Payne and Bobbie Gentry just met me they could easily fall in love with a well-tanned guy swinging a hammer and holding roofing nails between his lips like so many old cigarette butts.

Soybeans and corn look really good, especially the fields winding around hillsides, like M.C. Escher had mapped out a way for one deep green field to melt into the next. Cattle farmers around here are flying Donald Trump 2020 flags, and clearly there is much I don’t understand. Perhaps after a vaccine I’ll sit down with some of these good people. There is so much yet to learn.

Congressman John Lewis has died. Lewis fought the good fight his entire life, from civil rights marches in the 1960s until his death at age 80. In an email a friend wrote, "One hopes John Lewis died with some hope." That one caused me to pause. While everyone else talked about Lewis’ accomplishments over decades of beautiful activism this one sentence brought it down to the true, human level, the place where a man is on his death bed and his hope for a better America is still within his reach.

Isolation is becoming more and more burdensome. Those inclined toward depression must find it unbearable. We are, I think, by nature happiness bound, so we cast about for whatever causes a smile. The other night at dusk a gorgeous doe and her equally gorgeous twin fawns stepped through the high grass and bee balm onto my front lawn. Rain had just stopped and, for me, it was breathtakingly magical and for a moment it felt like maybe everything would be OK. That’s a bit sappy but I can’t help it, as there isn’t much to hang on to these days. Like my contemporaries, "The Lovin Spoonful," I believe in magic. A bit of whiskey helps.

I have long preached humility and I’m saying this directly to you: "Get over yourself. Not long after you have passed very few will remember you." It’s a fact that danced in front of me last week. I was enjoying a dinner alongside my old friend with Alzheimer’s and, in the way that the elderly do, I was relating to her some of my health issues. I ended by asking her something that told me I need to take my own advice: I asked her if she’d miss me if I died. Her response was immediate, "No." Brilliant.

Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County, Iowa. His book "The Iowa State Fair" is available from the University of Iowa Press.


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