A few weekends ago, five of my friends and I rented a van and drove down to Iowa for Grinnell's Reunion. It was our five year cluster, so the classes of 2002-03-and-04 were all lumped together on one side of campus. Grinnell does one big reunion weekend for everyone, so there were people on campus for their ten year (1998), twenty-five year (1983), thirty year cluster (1977-78-79), forty year (1968), fifty year (1958), sixty-five year (1943), and seventy year (1938). The older you are, the better the snacks.
The weekend was wonderful and intense and surprising and fun. The weather -- for the first time in MONTHS -- was absolutely perfect for two and a half consecutive days. Some kind of record, I'm fairly certain. There were more than four hundred people from my cluster there, so much of the weekend felt like freshman orientation, only instead of Where are you from/what's your tutorial/what dorm are you in/what do you think you might major in? it was Where are you now/what's your job/what have you been doing since graduation/what do you think you might do next?. Also, unlike freshman orientation, we already knew almost everyone, so instead of three days of deeply bonding conversations, it was three days of brief chats perpetually interrupted by "Oh hey! Um, forgive me a moment, but I HAVE to talk to --" and then a mad dash off to a new three-minute conversation with someone else you hadn't seen in five or six years.
In the middle of all this crazy chaos, somehow I also found time for a Dari Barn run (key to every Grinnell visit between May and October), a Harris Party, breakfast with my education prof Jean Ketter (which ended up being a sort of convocation of education nerds, in the very best way), a Titular Head screening, a bakery run (thanks for the donut, Mike!), some baby smooching and dog petting, multiple McNally's beer runs, coffee with my fiction professor and dear friend Mark Baechtel, a solitary stroll through the leafy streets of town, and a late-night Kum & Go run for oatmeal creme pies.
Reunion's a strange beast: so much hugging and partying and hanging out, a person might forget that Grinnell wasn't just a four year long huggy lovefest. I felt a little off-center for much of the time, like this wasn't exactly the Grinnell I remembered and I couldn't quite figure out why -- it wasn't that the buildings had changed or that not everyone I remembered from all my five years was there, or even the absence of a creeping dread about upcoming papers and books and guilt that you really should be working on something productive instead of lying around on Mac Field -- it wasn't until I walked by myself from Mark's house back to campus that I realized what was so different: I spent so much of my time at Grinnell alone, walking around the town on lovely spring evenings just like that one. Senior year I walked between 2.5 and 5 miles every day -- I particularly loved the loop west of the golf course out to Penrose and around. I took the long way back to campus, enjoying the satisfaction of a walk alone after coffee with an old friend.
I was surprised to find that the town itself is still as dear to me as a person. At times I have thought of Grinnell as a skeleton, fleshed out and breathing only with the addition of the people I love best. Turns out I have a deep connection to the streets themselves, the bones and sinews of my time under that Iowa sky. I miss the town. I miss the land. A part of me wants to away from this sooty gray city and claim a life for myself that includes a big green lawn, some dogs, leafy strolls through quiet streets at dusk....
I think if I'd been alone I would have spent an hour sitting up in the windowsill of the drawing studio, writing in my journal, just like old days, but as it was I had Natalie with me and so spent most of my unstructured time trying to show her what Grinnell was for me and help her to understand why all the Grinnellians she's met are so crazy about this dumb little town in the middle of Nowhere, Iowa. Hard to explain, myself, other than: it was home, and for the time that we lived there, it was the place to which we anchored ourselves and against which we pushed in our efforts to grow. And as such, I suppose, it's as much a part of us as anything else of that time.
Natalie has her own interpretation of her weekend in Grinnell here. I wrote about the weekend in my journal as we headed home that Sunday, winding through the green Iowa fields watching dark clouds give way to rainbows and listening the Garrison Keillor on the radio.
Whenever anyone mentions Iowa, I immediately say "It's a little gem." Iowa has the kind of beauty it takes a long time to see, unlike the states of the west with their showy, craggy, breathtaking beauty, or the states of the east with their crackling culture and deep roots and historical markers around every corner, or the states of the south with their shocking fecundity and abundance of bright, sensual flowers. Iowa takes time to love. I spent my entire first year there making fun of it, not realizing how deeply I loved it until the summer after my sophomore year when I was suddenly overcome with an intensely physical desire -- a yearning -- to walk along the wildflower paths between Quad and Burling, to stand beneath the budding fuschia crabapple trees and fill my ears with the heavy buzzing of summer bees.
Iowa. It takes time to grow into you, but once its wide horizons and July fields of floating fireflies move into your understanding of home, I don't know that you can ever unlock its hold on your heart.
Now, Iowa is suffering, and every time I read the news it hurts my heart. My friends are being forcibly evacuated from their homes in Iowa City; bridges are being shut down all over the state, barring access to cities like Cedar Rapids and Des Moines and Iowa City; houses and histories are being destroyed, daily. And there's no end in sight.
Reports from some of my friends:
Jeremy: "Driving home this afternoon, I got a phone call from a friend, saying he'd heard my street (Foster Rd. [in Iowa City]) was on the mandatory evacuation list. By the time I made it home, the cop at the intersection informed me it was true. In about 30 minutes, I randomly threw some clothes into bags, loaded up the dogs, turned off the gas, electricity, and water, and took off for Dubuque. The normally-90 minute drive took two-and-a-half hours. We had to detour through Cedar Rapids--a challenge since there was only one bridge open in Cedar Rapids (its entire downtown is underwater).
I don't know how long we're going to be evacuated; the property manager in our neighborhood said he'd heard three weeks. The latest I heard is that the Iowa River's flood stage is 22', the river is currently at 28', and the predicted crest on Tuesday is 33'."
Carolyn: "There was a team of 6 Grinnellians who were sandbagging until they were sent over the the Main Library to help bring up film reels from the Special Collections storage areas in the basement of the library. They had just finished clearing out the films when they were told that the whole operation was shutting down b/c the University is closing . . . so they left, leaving a huge part of the special collections materials sitting there in the basement."
Em: "i'm high and dry, thankfully, but am sick from what i see all around me here in iowa. mike's work is about to be flooded, so he's there shrink wrapping and loading what they can onto semis. my parents have a foot of water in their basement, and are pretty lucky to have that. my late grandmother's neighborhood is being evacuated - the entire area was destroyed in 1993, but the levee upgrades were a casualty of budget cuts and were never completed."
Liz: "last night at 1:30 AM the police knocked on our door to issue a mandatory evacuation for our neighborhood and told us we had 30 minutes to get out. Andrew ran up the street to get our car, as we have been parking it up the hill at a friend's house just in case the flood waters make the street impassable. There is already a low spot that has flooded, but as of Wed night it was passable by our camry. Because the police had just come to our door and told us to evacuate, he was worried that the water in the street was too high and drove on the sidewalk. And he drove at a faster than expected speed, as we were rushing to get out. The lovely Pigs of IC actually *pulled him over* and threatened to ticket, then arrest him. We stayed for 2 hours putting everything we could into a couple of friend's trucks and then getting everything up on blocks. Meanwhile the police harassed us that we needed to get out (even though the river wasn't rising and the street was no more flooded than before) and then finally they told us we had 5 minutes to get out or they would forceably remove us. 12 cops surrounded our house and continued to yell at us, despite my plea for them to find it in their hearts to let us get our house ready because this was our first home, we'd just moved in, and we didn't have flood insurance. And what difference would 20 extra minutes make? Luckily somehow we were able to get our house ready in those 2 hours.
This AM we went back down to our neighborhood and were again told we had only 1/2 hour to get our things and get out. We hid in our backyard and filled 25 sandbags using dirt from our compost pile, as we were afraid that if we went down the street to get sand we'd get arrested. I said a prayer of hope for our house and we left it, still dry. In '93 the river crested at 28.5 feet and was up to our sidewalk. It is supposed to get up to 33 feet this tuesday. This most likely means we will have 1-2 feet of water in our house. Sadly, we only put everything up 8" and we didn't sandbag our house because we helped with the levee in the hopes that it would hold back the flood waters. It's times like these when you're happy to have a roof over your head, your health and safety, friends who call/email to help out, and a partner to lean on through the whole thing." (See a picture of Liz's husband, my old friend Drew, in the Iowa Press-Citizen here.)
the University of Iowa: "UI employees who park in the Hancher and Main Library parking lots, the parking lots near USB, and the North Ramp, are asked to stay home unless they are essential personnel fighting the flooding. Those employees should also notify their supervisors." (UI's Floodblog is basically a record of the University shutting down, building by building and program by program.)
the City of Coralville (outside of Iowa City): "The Iowa River crest is now predicted to occur on late Monday night (assuming no more rain). The Army Corp estimates the current outflow from the reservoir is 34,000 CFS and have increased their projected peak rate on Monday to be 44,000 CFS. (Peak in 1993 was 27,000.) So it will get much worse before it gets better. The flow information on the Army Corp website is incorrect because their gauges are no longer functioning."
Iowa Governor Chet Culver has declared 83 of the state's 99 counties to be state disaster areas. Eighty-three.
Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan, and South Dakota are all struggling with flooding problems (or, in the case of Lake Delton, the opposite of flooding), but for some reason, it's Iowa that hurts my heart the most. It's like watching the baby of the family battle cancer.
If you're the kind of person who prays, you might want to say a few extra prayers for the people of Iowa today. If you're the kind of person who sends love out into the universe in hopes of positive manifestations, do that. If you're wealthy, send money. If you're close, go help sandbag. But whatever and wherever you are, keep Iowa in your thoughts today and in the days to come, because even after the flood waters recede, Iowa is going to need a lot of help.