An Unsung Hero of my Own

This post originally aired as a commentary on Tri States Public Radio. To listen, go here.

NPR has started airing a new series called My Unsung Hero. Produced by Hidden Brain Media, its mission is to provide an antidote to the despair brought on by the daily news, with the goal of renewing faith in humanity. According to the HiddenBrain.org website, each episode reveals everyday acts of kindness and courage that have transformed someone’s life.

I know first-hand how daily news can cause despair—the issues are too many and too depressing to bother listing them—but after listening to a few episodes of My Unsung Hero I’ve started focus not on what’s wrong with the world, but what is good about it—not just what is good but who—because I have an unsung hero of my own: my partner, Doug Seyb.

A third-generation farmer, Doug grew up on his family’s farm in Donnellson, Iowa. While many others have traded rural life for an urban one, Doug chose to stay and nurture the land of his ancestors. He grows corn and soybeans to feed the nation. He also raises cows, who may be the most well-cared-for in America, given their access to fresh grass. Doug works hard, building his own fences and baling hay, and never complains, even when his body aches from the physical labor.

He serves on an education foundation board for the local high school, offering financial support to kids who want to go to college or trade school. He donates a large portion of his income to causes like Doctors Without Borders and Camp Courageous, a summer camp for the disabled, and also to public radio stations like this one. He contributes more than just money. He’s given 25 gallons of blood—so far—to the Red Cross, he recently delivered a year’s supply of firewood to widow on a nearby farm, and he subscribes to the Storm Lake Times to support the survival of local journalism, even though we live 500 miles away from the region the newspaper covers.

For 13 years, he hosted a music series, renting out Donnellson’s American Legion Hall and booking bands from all over the country to provide entertainment to our otherwise quiet community. He’s in the process of creating a new music series to raise money for the Democratic party and for Ukrainians, demonstrating just how much—whether in his hometown or on the other side of the globe—he cares about people.

He also cares about me. He has supported me during the many hardships I’ve faced in the seven years we’ve been together. He provided his muscular shoulder to cry on when my dad died, and when my 15-year-old dog died soon after. He has driven me to the airport every winter, braving icy roads, to save me from my Seasonal Affective Disorder. He has listened for hours as I’ve voiced my struggles over my career as a writer. He has also been there to celebrate every special occasion—birthdays, anniversaries, and sometimes just an ordinary day—quick to show up with a bouquet of flowers, a good bottle of wine, and a card that says “I love you.”

He finds joy in the simple things, like walking the creek after a rainstorm to hunt for arrowheads. He pays attention to minute details that most of us miss, like the patterns in the clouds, the sun shining through a spider web, and the way snow melts in stripes on the barn roof. He notices the butterfly on the fencepost and points out the trumpeter swans in the distance. He feeds the hummingbirds religiously and protects the meadow of wildflowers remembering how much it meant to the previous landowners. He cares about nature and the planet. To Doug every day is Earth Day.

He’s a man of few words, but when he does offer advice, his counsel is wise, and for someone who doesn’t travel often, his world view is expansive and all-inclusive. When I spin like a cyclone with worry or fear, he grounds me. As a farmer who plants seeds and waits for them to grow, he has taught me to be more patient. As a big tipper at restaurants, explaining, “That waitress needs that extra dollar more than me,” he has taught me to be more compassionate and generous. His practical way of wearing T-shirts and jeans until the threads disintegrate, and gluing the soles of his shoes together before even thinking about getting new ones, has taught me to be more conscious of waste and to buy less, which is better for the environment. And in his reticence to seek attention or praise—qualities of a true hero—he has taught me about humility. The world needs more unsung heroes like Doug—and like the others featured in Hidden Brain’s radio series.

The news will continue to cause anxiety and despair, which is why I encourage you to think about the unsung heroes in your own life. They’re out there, whether they’re strangers, coworkers, friends, or family. They may be old or young, have opposing beliefs, or speak a different language; Kindness does not discriminate. There is still so much goodness right in front of us. We just have to change our focus to see it.

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Beth Howard is an author and essayist. She blogs at www.theworldneedsmorepie.com. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.

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Past posts you might also like:

Need Hope? Jane Goodall Will Give You Some

Forget First or Second, I Am Third

Need Hope? Jane Goodall Will Give You Some

This post originally aired as a commentary on Tri States Public Radio. To listen, go here.

Author E.B. White once said, “I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.”

For me, planning my day is never the problem. I get up every morning determined to change the world – but only after I’ve had my coffee and listened to the news.

For the past two weeks, the top story has been Russia’s looming threat to invade the Ukraine, adding “the possibility of World War III” to the mountain of anxieties I already have. With the pandemic, the climate crisis, gun violence, greed, racism, and more, it’s a Mount Everest of despair. It feels so impossible to change anything, let alone have any influence at all, that I swing the opposite direction, figuring if we’re all gonna die, I might as well have “one hell of a good time.” And so, I help myself to the second slice of chocolate pie. I take the spontaneous trip to Cancun. I buy the $25 bottle of Cabernet instead of the $6 one and drink a glass too many. But all that’s done is pack on nine extra pounds and deplete my bank account.

Indulgence is not the answer.

I know I’m not alone in this feeling of futility to change the world. But I also know there are optimists among us who can inspire us to keep trying. Jane Goodall is one of them.

After hearing about her latest book, “The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times,” I ran out to buy it. Given that Jane Goodall is a naturalist, I was surprised to find it in the self-help section of the bookstore. But help is what I needed to ward off heart palpitations and further weight gain.

The book is coauthored by Douglas Abrams, who, in a series of interviews with Jane, presses the 87-year-old to answer the question: How can you still be hopeful when everything seems so dire?

She lists four reasons:

• the amazing human intellect
• the resilience of nature
• the power of young people
• the indomitable human spirit

We may have created the problems, but she believes with our intellect, we are smart enough to solve them. And that with our instinct for survival, our human spirit will drive us to not give up, even when there’s a chance we won’t succeed. Jane acknowledges that things are indeed dire, but she insists we can turn things around if we get together and act now. Every small action helps. Each of us must do our bit.

“Hope is contagious,” she says. “Your actions inspire others.”

This snowball effect makes sense, but where do we start? “It’s in nature where we can find the answers and the hope,” she explains.

The only time Jane has lost hope was when her husband died, but turning to nature helped restore it, claiming, “It was the forest that helped me most of all.” The natural world is also where she feels most connected with a Great Spiritual Power. She says it’s that power that gives her the courage and strength to keep going, to keep sharing her message and continue fighting for justice, environmental and otherwise.

I was surprised to learn that the grief we feel over climate crisis has a name – eco-grief. Jane suggests that our survival depends on confronting that grief and getting over our feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. We can find healing in nature, she reminds us, as well as wisdom, cautioning that when we lose the connection with the natural world, we lose our wisdom.

“The Book of Hope” is packed with many more of Jane’s insights and is absolutely worth reading. Equally inspiring, listen to Jane’s interview, titled “What it Means to Be Human,” on Krista Tippett’s “On Being” podcast.

This past weekend, I channeled my inner Jane Goodall, and went for a hike with three girlfriends. While walking through the forest and fields, we determined that in addition to picking up empty beer cans and other litter, which we do on all our hikes, we could plant more trees to replace the ones a local farmer recently cut down. These are the small but impactful actions we can take that add up to bigger change.

Energized by the sun, the wind in our faces, and the beauty of the landscape, we walked four miles, talking and laughing the whole way. Between the camaraderie of friends and the immersion in nature, our spirits were restored. And as a bonus, the exercise was a step toward dropping those extra nine pounds. In the words of E.B. White, our hike was “a hell of a good time.” And, best of all, it left me feeling hopeful.

My Pie Cookbook, Now in Paperback

Finally! It’s back! Now in paperback, and as an ebook.

If you just want to buy the book, you can get in on Amazon, IndieBound, or ask your local bookseller. If you want to hear the story of how the book came back into print, read on.

My cookbook, MS. AMERICAN PIE, originally published in hardcover in 2014, sold well at first, so well that the publisher did a second print run. But the book’s trajectory was shorter lived than anticipated, because several months after its release, I closed the Pitchfork Pie Stand and moved out of the American Gothic House.

Suicidal business move? Maybe. Good for my mental health? Definitely. Do I regret it? Sometimes. There’s so much I miss about the house, the pie stand, and the community that sprung up around it.

Anyway, the publisher was not too happy about my departure, and when the inventory sold out they wouldn’t print any more copies. “PLEASE,” I begged them, “people are still asking to buy it.” “No,” they said.

Welcome to the life of an author. Unless you are a legend like Julia Child, or your pie shop is still in business to guarantee ongoing sales, your cookbook will likely be left behind in the flour dust.

I had worked too hard on this book to let it die. So I got my text rights back from the publisher, and bought the design files from them, which included the layout, photos, illustrations, all of it. I paid way more than I will ever recoup in future book sales — I could have bought a car for less — but at least my book is back in print and once again available for purchase.

I had talked with other publishers about printing the second edition, but there were downsides to this. One, I’d give up my text rights again. Two, the book wouldn’t be out until 2022. And three, it would be printed in China, and the shipment may get stranded on a ship with all the supply-chain delays. This is why I opted tp self-publish it.

I’ve written about self-publishing before on my blog, about its advantages, about print-on-demand being better for the environment, about the satisfaction of having creative control. Yes, distribution to bookstores is a challenge, but the biggest challenge to self-publishing a full-color cookbook with a lot of photos is the cost. A self-published hardcover edition would have required me to raise the cover price from $28 to $40 — only to make 50 cents per copy. As it is, the price of the paperback is the same as the original hardcover — $28 — the lowest price allowed by the self-publishing platforms due to the sizable cut they take. My take on that is around a dollar per copy.

Clearly, I’m not in this for the money.

The feedback on the paperback version has been good. It’s got everything the hardcover has — it’s packed full with the same recipes (plus 2 new ones) — and because it’s lighter weight it’s easier to use. Also, you won’t have to wait for it — it’s available now! One customer got her copy the very next day. This means you can get my cookbook in time for Thanksgiving — and for Christmas presents. HINT!!

Thank you for encouraging me to get my book back out there. I really appreciate your support!

*****   To order go to Amazon, IndieBound, or ask your local bookseller.  *****

A Glimmer of Light to Keep Going

You can also listen to this story on Tri States Public Radio: https://www.tspr.org/post/commentary-glimmer-light

A stray dog showed up on our farm a few weeks ago. At first, he only came around at night, lurking in the shadows as we sat around the fire pit after supper. He was tricolored and as tall and lanky as a colt. I did an internet search and discovered he was a Treeing Walker Coonhound. He was young and puppy-like, probably about a year old, and judging by his aversion to being touched, he had likely been living on his own for a long time. Was he lost? Or was he dumped in a field by some heartless person who couldn’t be bothered with him?

I called several local vets and posted a notice on social media. People as far as five miles away had seen him, but no one claimed him. When we learned he had been making the rounds, we began referring to him as Rounder.

He continued to show up at our place, so I left food out for him. Soon he enough, instead of slinking away under the cover of darkness, he stuck around for breakfast. He joined us on our walks with our other dogs, napped on our porch, and stayed for supper. This went on for about five days. Having fostered animals before, I knew what was happening: Dogs adopt you and not the other way around. It’s how we came to have our other two dogs, a chihuahua from Arizona and a Spaniel mix, who turned up in Doug’s barn one January morning 17 years ago. They show up, you show them kindness, they stay. But just as we had gotten used to the idea that the coonhound was joining our family, he got spooked when our neighbor’s dog came through our yard and ran away.

I couldn’t call for him, because he didn’t know his name. And I couldn’t drive around looking for him, because he had taken off across a cornfield. When night fell, there was no point looking for him anyway. Distraught, my friends assured me he would be back by morning, but he wasn’t.

The world is already such a dark place these days, filled with unprecedented trauma and loss—the loss of almost five million lives due to the global pandemic, the decimation of everything from whole cities to whole species due to the climate crisis, and the dismantling of our American democracy due to a self-serving, uncompromising, win-at-all-costs mentality. And that’s just the big stuff. It doesn’t include all the personal grief, like the loss of parents, loss of income, and, ultimately, loss of hope for the future. All of this combined is so overwhelming, so unfixable, and so depressing, that we rely on little glimmers of light to keep us going. I can’t save the world, but if I could just save this one dog, it would give me that welcome glimmer of light, that helpful spark to restore some faith in life.

Rounder had seemed so happy with us, so eager to be part of our pack. And though we didn’t need another pet, I was happy with him, too. After less than a week, I had already formed a strong attachment. But he was gone, on the run again. My mind spun with all the bad things that could happen to him in rural Iowa. We live a mile from the four-lane highway; he could get hit by a car or a semi. Hunting season is starting; he could be mistaken for a deer and get shot by a hunter. Or, as it happens too often in rural areas, he could get shot or poisoned by a farmer who doesn’t want him on his land. Equally concerning, he was already so skinny and underfed, with winter coming, he could starve or freeze to death.

The second night he was gone I lit another fire in the fire pit. It’s what had attracted him to us in the first place, so maybe the smoke signal would lure him back. I held vigil for six hours, adding more logs and constantly looking in the direction where he had first appeared, but he never showed up.

When I finally stopped crying long enough, I reminded myself to take solace in the fact that we had gotten a few good meals in him, along with de-wormer and a flea and tick treatment. There was nothing more I could do but pray for the thing I wish for every stray animal—that he would find some other compassionate person to give him the safe home he deserved.

The next morning, when it was still dark, I heard a loud howl beneath my window. I’m used to be woken up by animal sounds on the farm—cows bawling, coyotes yipping, owls hooting, raccoons cussing. I would normally put a pillow over my ears and go back to sleep. But I knew this sound, this voice.

I smiled, jumped out of bed, and ran downstairs. I passed through the kitchen, where the Sunday paper was spread out on the table, every headline indicating the world was still a mess—another mass shooting, another GOP member downplaying the January 6 insurrection, another unvaccinated person infecting others with COVID-19. But for the moment, none of that could bring me down, because right outside the door was a long-legged coonhound waiting for breakfast. A glimmer of light brighter than the sun, Rounder was back.