Leaving to find what’s here

BY NATE WHITNEY | MARCH 12, 2009 7:27 AM

All over Iowa City tonight, students will hit up Wal-Mart for suntan lotion, a new swimsuit, or maybe a suitcase. They’ll ditch their sweatpants and North Face jackets for flip-flops and those (hideously) fashionable plaid shorts that Abercrombie has been trying to cram into our collective dressers. Most will drive to Chicago, Cedar Rapids, or Moline to catch flights, while others will chug Rockstars and Red Bulls and roll to their destinations on four wheels.

The spring-break migration allows for a break in the madness and monotony of piles of papers and mounds of reading. It gives us respite from jobs and responsibility and allows for a short return to experiencing untainted youth in its most juvenile and irresponsible of forms. Students leave the bars and parties of Iowa City for the bars and parties of warmer climates, or sometimes just the ones in their hometowns.

But so many spring breakers now are taking on more tasks, they’re going to serve in New Orleans with Habitat for Humanity or performing river cleanup in some backwoods corner of the country. While some on leave from academia are pounding shots and nailing attractive co-eds, these do-gooders are pounding pavement and nailing, well, dry wall.

Two different approaches to mental and spiritual refreshment, both physically draining though for very different reasons. Both take us from our normal surroundings of the Ped Mall and the library to environments that serve to alter our thought processes, though one of these choices will likely serve to change our long-term perceptions of the world around us more than the other.

I like to think that there’s enough in Iowa City to open our eyes without needing a $380 plane ticket to a location with cockroaches the size of Keith Olbermann’s ego. Globally aware, progressive, inclusive, and relatively diverse, this town has plenty of servant opportunities, including ones we can indulge in on a daily basis instead of one week every year.

But when we leave our normal surroundings, we tend to take notice of the small things that we wouldn’t normally pay attention to. A change in location aids the resuscitation of our faculties, it brings about changes in our behavior and activity that may not otherwise be easy to effect. Often, leaving for awhile can make coming back that much better, whether because we open our eyes and our possibilities a little wider or just because the crusty sheets at the Tampa Airport Ramada Inn made us miss our comfy (and clean) bed.

I’m leaving in August. It’s a big move for me, one that will change my life significantly, and over the last few days, I’ve been asking myself just what I will miss in Iowa City, what things I won’t be able to experience in my new home. The obvious things that come to mind are Whitey’s shakes, the smell of masala on North Linn street, and the incredible multitude of free parking spots. But the things I’ll likely miss most are things I won’t realize I miss until I’m gone.

The monotony of day-to-day life masks the things we take for granted, it fosters complacency where it might not have existed before. The detailed routines we follow every day allow for little flexibility in our thought processes, restrict our analyzation of life situations, and worst of all, force us to grow comfortable to the point of boredom with the people around us, who truly give our lives the meaning and definition we have.

People make a place. Sure, they construct and maintain its infrastructure and give it life like bees do for a hive, but the personalities and the beliefs of our community make any town, area, or state what it is. Iowa City is fortunate to have a unique mix of old-fashioned “values” and inclusive “togetherness,” a confluence of youth and experience, a smattering of left in a state rooted in the right. The result is a tasty soft-serve swirl of uniqueness, yin and yang creating a location we call home but rarely fully understand, let alone appreciate.

The occasional changes we seek in our lives can be fueled by a week in the Bahamas or seven days constructing a green building in Detroit. What we often forget is they can also be found all around us, sitting hidden in the debris of our daily routine, right in our own backyards. It’s just that sometimes it takes leaving to remember why we were here in the first place.

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