BY THOMAS DEAN
It’s that time of year. Young adults are getting measured for caps and gowns, families are scrubbing down homes for graduation open houses, college admission letters are flying through the postal service, job interviews are proceeding apace, job offers are (we hope) coming in. Spring is a time when many young people are looking at the next phases of their journeys. In the midst of all this ceremonial hoopla, advice for life is in the air aplenty.
So it’s an entirely appropriate time for the Ice Cube Press to publish Letters to a Young Iowan, edited by Zachary Michael Jack. Subtitled Good Sense from the Good People of Iowa to Young Folks Everywhere, the volume is a compendium of reflections and advice from a wide swath of Iowans, mostly those who have remained here and some who have left. Zachary Jack—editor, writer, English professor, and Iowa Century Farm family member—sent out dozens of queries to people of many professions and backgrounds, asking, “What is the single most important piece of advice you would give a young Iowan?”
Dozens responded back, many of whom you will recognize, many of whom will be new to you. Familiar names include Governor Robert Ray (who wrote a foreword for the book), former Iowa Poet Laureate Marvin Bell, Dan “Mr. Science” Coffey, UI wrestling coach legend Dan Gable, “The Iowa Traveller” Cary J. Hahn, former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, former U.S. Representative Jim Leach, former Lieutenant Governor Sally Pederson, writer Mary Swander, former Iowa First Lady Christy Vilsack, and many, many more. The occupations of the contributors cover the gamut from farmers, small business owners, park rangers, artists, professional athletes, engineers, factory technicians, museum directors, lawyers, nuns, and on and on. (Full disclosure: I myself have a letter in this collection, though certainly dwarfed by greater lights.)
Robert Thayer, Jr.’s recent book LifePlace: Bioregional Thought and Practice posits that there are three fundamental questions in our lives: Who am I? What should I do? Where am I? Most of us focus our lives on the first two, spending much of our energy on figuring out our identity and determining what kind of action we need to take to be an effective part of this world. Letters has plenty of advice on how to do that. But identity and action are only parts of our lives. As I often advocate in this column, place also plays a major role in who and what we are—and, as Thayer posits, who we are and what we (should) do are entirely tied into where we are. Letters also offers much food for thought on being Iowan.
Ultimately, Letters to a Young Iowan, in its collective wisdom, shows how, in practical terms, all of these fundamental questions are woven together. The book is thus a good read for all, not just youngsters on the cusp of new horizons. We all need reminding of what is good in life, and we all need inspiration to stretch our minds and selves, no matter our age. Yet beyond dispensing some good advice, this book, in a different way from usual, sketches a portrait of who and what we are as a state and region—as a people, as communities, as a beautiful land. Many voices create a mosaic of Iowa culture-in-place through this collection, probing our spiritual, moral, practical, environmental, agricultural, intellectual, emotional, and artistic character.
So what is that advice to young Iowans? Well, get mud on your boots. Stay here. Go away. Believe in yourself. Listen to your elders. Don’t listen to your elders. Count your blessings. Write. Work hard. Do your best. Go to museums. Listen to God. Grow a garden. Shop at a farmers’ market. Wrestle. Become a leader. Trust others. Be nice. Listen to the corn grow. Fight factory farming. Embrace change. Embrace tradition. Know history. Learn a foreign language. Be fearless. Pay attention. Make stuff (and make it well). Give to others. Play in a cave. Love your hometown. And all this—and much more—is in only the first third of the book.