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Ode: Ryan Allen "Living on the Edge"


   I’ve lived in many places in my life.   I’ve wandered, I’ve been lost. I’ve searched for things and people I didn’t even know I was looking for.

   I spy through a camera. The world is mad. I try but can’t find any sense. I turn the lens inward and I get even more confused. Where am I supposed to go? How am I supposed to be? I can’t seem to find my place. I’m in-between worlds: between clarity and madness, between being a father and being a son, between a prairie of wild grass and a forest of planted trees.

   I teeter on the razor’s edge.

I’m a fringe species.

   I’m not the only one.

   In the Loess Hills of western Iowa we’re caught in-between woodlands and prairie, but the line between grass and tree isn’t always static. Things are always moving, you see. At the equator the Earth spins at over a thousand miles an hour but our feet stay planted. My mind races a million miles a second, but my brain still hasn’t exploded. In the Loess Hills, distribution patterns have been dynamic since their dawn. A little tension keeps things interesting. Crisis can be opportunity, right?

   I want to believe this anyways. I have to. If I didn’t I wouldn’t know what to feel about my grandmother these days. And I definitely wouldn’t know what to say to her two warring sons, my dad and my uncle.

   They’re fifty years deep into their own Hundred Years War—each firing from their trenches, each one every now and again leaving their hole to make a charge at the other, to re-legislate their childhood and renegotiate their shared memories. My dad is pissed because he stayed close to my grandma. My uncle, pissed because my dad won’t cut him any slack because he didn’t. They’ve been fighting this battle for years. They fought it when she fell the first time and my dad wanted her to move with him to Indianapolis. And then again when she fell the second time. And now they’re fighting again after she’s fallen the third time and hit her head in the bathroom. And this time the gloves are off. These two sixty-plus year old men almost fought when last in a room together.

You see, my grandma loves Louisville. She doesn’t want to leave. She doesn’t want to live with my dad. My uncle supports this. He wouldn’t want to live with my dad either.

My dad, though, feeling a sense of entitlement because he has been her primary caregiver all of these years, wants her to come live with him. And his reasons aren’t bad: it’s a four and a half hour round-trip every time he goes to Louisville. And he’s no spring-chicken. He’s getting close to seventy years old himself. And he’s diabetic. And he just had both of his feet and knees operated on. And he wants to be able to have her close so he can see his mother more, so he can better provide for her basic safety and needs. And he feels that because my uncle can’t do these things from so far away that he should get to make all the decisions and that my uncle should bow to his desires.

These guys couldn’t be more different. One is anal. The other goes with the flow. My dad spent his professional life working in prisons. My uncle’s an actor and artist. My dad had kids. My uncle has none. My dad suppresses. My uncle expresses. My dad is good at yelling. My uncle likes to talk. My dad resents my uncle for this—because he shows his love for his mother by being her friend. The few hours my dad spends driving to Louisville to make sure my grandma’s checkbook is balanced, to make sure she has groceries, my uncle spends talking with her on the phone speaking of the old days, telling the old stories.

What neither of these men can see is that both of them are right. My uncle should listen to my dad more because he’s there more and he sees her and can better gauge her physical needs. But my dad should listen to my uncle more because he really talks to my grandma, and even more so, he listens, and can thus better gauge her emotional needs.

The gods these men pray to, if they pray at all, validate each cause equally.

“When two elephants fight it’s the earth that suffers.” It’s the civilians, the innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire, who pay the heaviest price.

That’s me: trying to hold my grandma’s hand from eight hundred miles away. You see, I understand where my dad is coming from because he’s my dad. A son, even a disillusioned thirty-something one, still wants to believe in his father. But I also see where my uncle is coming from because, like him, I left Louisville too.

We know what we’ve left behind.

I may live in Sioux City, Iowa but that place where my grandma is will always be my home. We return to where we came from. I know what it is to be rooted in a place even as the rest of the world above the ground spins. I wander still, but I am not lost. Not anymore anyways.

Now a father myself I know this to be true.

The boy has left Kentucky, but Kentucky hasn’t left the boy.  

   There, the bluegrass and the limestone make the bourbon sweeter, my mind calmer as I move from the valleys of the Ohio River to the hills and bluffs of Otter Creek.

   To my own children, this Kentucky will only be the place where their dad is from. They will, though, I hope, be able to drink their own land’s elixir. My Ohio is their Missouri. My limestone, their silt-blown loess.

   We know loess encourages long roots. The Yucca’s forty-foot roots seek and the find the deepest moisture.

We dig for the ghosts we need to believe in.

   We must adapt. We have to give to get. We have to change or we will die.

I look backward through time to my grandma to find a way home.

I look to the loess, to the Hills to guide me.

The plains spadefoot toad stays buried underground until early summer rains brings it to surface pools.

   The prairie shows us how to burrow, how to look within for answers.

   My grandma knows adaptation too.

   She survived the Great Depression and World War II and burying three siblings by the time she was twenty. She made it through an abusive marriage, a divorce, and still raised two boys to become good men. She knows how to get up each time she falls.

She will survive this latest trauma, I know it, because that’s what she does. She survives. But can we?

Can her sons find a way to play nice again?

Can her grandson learn to live without her lighting his way?

Can we all adapt before we mutate into the people and things we no longer recognize? Into what we never wanted or intended to be?


A community is the place where individuals interact. An ecosystem is the place where interdependent communities overlap. We don’t have to go it alone. There are plenty of beacons to light our path home.

The moon still glows. The sun still shines.

Sons and daughters morph to mothers and fathers, grandmas and grandpas.

If my grandma can learn to live without Louisville I can.

What we can’t live without is each other.

I pray my dad and uncle will see this before it’s too late.

Outside, snow lines the branches of trees.

My eyes gaze and roll and wander to the Hills.

My breath, I see, circles to blue skies and to heaven.


Ode presents an evening of true stories, told live in the lower level of Iowa State University Design West, 1014 ½ Design Place, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 25. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

Storytellers will share personal essays crafted around the theme of "Wherever you go, there you are: Giving an ode to travel and inescapable truth.”

For your listening enjoyment, we'll also have music by Northcutt.

Freewill donation. Give what you can.

Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. Sioux City Journal features reporter Ally Karsyn is the founder, producer and host. For more information, visit Ode on Facebook. Listen here to stories from past events, recorded and broadcast by Siouxland Public Media.


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