Take an Iowa Staycation in Unapologetic Fairfield: West Des Moines Editor’s Notebook
As a small-town editor for five years, I had the best seat in the house in multicultural Fairfield, where some 60 cultures have figured out how to live mostly in harmony. How did capitalizing on the town’s plurality give it vibrancy?
I’m on staycation this week. I’ll be traveling around Iowa, visiting some of my favorite places.
About 240 of those road miles will be to go to Fairfield and back. Yes. That Fairfield. The little town in southeast Iowa that, in 1974, got a gift it didn’t recognize for, say 20 or 30 years. That’s when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s devotees bought the campus of a bankrupt private college and made Fairfield their North American enclave for the Transcendental Meditation movement.
Let me say this from the get-go. I love that place. Oh, I can hear you snickering. Please stop. There’s no jibe you can imagine that they haven’t been poked with before.
The men’s and women’s domes where people practice Transcendental Meditation on the Maharishi University of Management campus do look like a pair of gilt-covered breasts rising out of the good mother Earth, and the peace tower like something decidedly less feminine.
But increasingly, Fairfield’s comfortable enough in its own skin to laugh about it.
“Face it,” a friend in the meditation movement’s hierarchy once told me, mocking himself, “we do look a little absurd sitting around in our robes and crowns.”
That’s not the reason I love Fairfield, though.
I love it because community members have mostly moved beyond their eccentricities and are embracing Fairfield’s lack of convention as part of its charm.
To understand how enormously challenging it was to get to this place, do this: Enclose yourself in a 4-by-4 tile bathroom, tee off a golf ball, then stand back and watch where it goes.
Where are you going on your Iowa staycation? Tell us below in the comments. Still unsure? Read dozens of suggestions from our Patch Pros and others earlier this month.
That’s kind of what happened in the 1970s when practitioners of TM, an ancient Vedic tradition so steeped in esoteric mysticism that it seemingly invites skepticism, ran up against a native population that leaned toward conservative politics and traditional Christian values.
Back then, people read the absolute worst possible into others’ motives. You were in one camp or another, a townie or a ‘ru (that being short for guru). Tensions reached a pinnacle in the late 1990s when a member of the meditating community ran for mayor.
It was an acrimonious, extremely personal and emotionally exhausting campaign that left many people feeling that Fairfield had embarrassed itself and that something needed to be done to bridge the gulf.
So the town ordered group therapy for itself and put together a broad-based coalition of citizens, business leaders and elected officials to lead the process.
It was a cathartic process conducted over several years under the umbrella of an official community relations community and was open to anyone who wanted to leave cultural bias behind and possibly even laugh at how peculiar yagas and yajinas and yogic flying — or lovingly caring for 4-H livestock for a year and then selling them for slaughter — might seem when viewed in isolation and not as part of a larger tradition.
Necessarily, community leaders focused more on what they had in common than the differences that separated them. As they discovered, Fairfield was fearlessly entrepreneurial before the creative meditating community came to town. The same was true with artistic expression.
They discovered strong parallels bridging Fairfield’s past and future. Consider this one, elegant in its simplicity:
Confusion over kalashes – the golden ornament resembling a Hershey’s Kiss atop the growing inventory of buildings constructed according to Sthapatya Veda (pronounced sta-pot-yuh vay-duh) architectural principles – led to a discussion of cupolas, ventilating structures used for the first time in Fairfield by The Louden Co., which was recalled by history as an important player in the industrialization of agriculture.
Beautiful. And on it went, until Fairfield earned recognition as one of Iowa’s Great Places and its monthly 1st Fridays ArtWalk picked up the state’s tourism attraction of the year award.
There’s always something going on. On any given weekend in the summer, you might take in locally born theater infused with Broadway-caliber talent at a new performing arts center, catch a street concert, browse through an art gallery, attend an ecofair and then have trouble deciding which of the ethnic restaurants you’ll choose for dinner.
If Fairfield can do this, I find myself wondering every time I visit, why can’t other communities and even other nations? It’s a good cultural microcosm to study for any community that wants to get over what’s holding it back.
And that’s why Fairfield, comfortable in its skin, is under mine.
(Editor’s note: This column was adapted from an article I wrote for dsm magazine, published by Business Publications, in 2006.)