ORANGE CITY—Merlin Bylsma of Orange City is 64 years old, and he recently published his first book. He also drives a garbage truck in the mornings for Orange City Sanitation, a semiretirement gig following decades of providing elder care in home-based assisted-living facilities in Montana and Iowa.
“It’s an automated truck, so I do it alone. I like it. It gives me the opportunity to think, and I’m done usually by noon,” he said. “Is it glamorous? No, but it’s valuable.”
That’s the central premise of his new book, a collection of essays exploring several related questions: What does it mean to be a “somebody”? What does it mean to be a “nobody”? And do we need to think differently about who matters?
As Bylsma explains the genesis of his book, he is wearing a black T-shirt with white print: “A proud nobody.”
“It’s something I’ve had on my mind for a long time,” he said. “I’ve heard over the years a lot of people calling themselves ‘nobodies.’ They say, ‘Well, I’m just a nobody.’”
Bylsma said he hears it from adults, but kids and teenagers, too.
“But what is a ‘nobody’ versus a ‘somebody’?” he said.
Not a writer
Bylsma never identified as a writer, but the more he thought about it, the more compelled he felt to write some of those thoughts down. In fact, parts of the book were written in off moments in his garbage truck.
“Sometimes on the route, I’d have an idea, and I’d have to stop and write that down,” he said. “I keep a notepad with me, otherwise I’ll forget it.”
Bylsma’s new book, “Nobodies in a Somebodies’ World” is a series of essays written as an ode to the kind of work that keeps society functioning, but often goes unseen or unnoticed — toilet scrubbing, meter reading, laundering. The book was published by The Write Place, based in Pella, and each chapter is followed by discussion questions designed to engage readers in reflection on their own lives.
The world is full of professionals doing important work, Bylsma said — lawyers, doctors and entrepreneurs — but those “somebodies” rely on a lot of others, “nobodies” in the eyes of many, to keep the world turning.
“There are all these ‘somebodies,’ but how many ‘nobodies’ do it take to make their life possible?” he said. “There’s a lot more ‘nobodies’ in the world than there are ‘somebodies.'”
He wrote the book for those who run public transit, answer phone calls or put children down for naps. It’s a celebration of the quiet grind of stocking grocery shelves, caring for the elderly and serving food in school lunchrooms.
Bylsma is devoted to making that work visible, and to honoring all the “nobodies” who perform it, often without thanks or recognition.
“Where would we be without janitors, waitresses, power line workers and the millions of others who make the world run?” Bylsma said. “That’s why it has always greatly bothered me when people discount themselves as a nobody. All of us are essential.”
Bylsma said the COVID-19 pandemic, which put “essential workers” into the public vocabulary, has highlighted the contributions of these behind-the-scenes and often underpaid workers. Still, he sees the designation as somewhat arbitrary, obscuring the essential and important work of those who didn’t get classified as “essential.”
“Who’s to say who’s essential and who’s not?” Bylsma said. “Aren’t we all essential?”
Along with raising five children, Bylsma and his wife, Holly, originally from Rock Rapids, spent most of their lives as home managers of assisted-living facilities, caring for elderly residents who lived alongside them in their family’s home.
This sort of work — “care work,” which is historically underpaid and often performed by women — is one profession that is not appropriately valued by society, Bylsma said.
“What matters and what doesn’t? I think we mess up on that a lot of times,” he said.
Bylsma said the elderly, infirm, disabled and dying also are undervalued by society — or simply forgotten.
“They’re kind of like the throwaways,” he said. “Sometimes their family isn’t even interested.”
Over the years, Bylsma and his wife cared for 300-400 people in their home, which was licensed as a small-scale assisted-living facility.
“We had eight to 12 residents, living with us 24 hours a day — we did their meals, their laundry, made sure they had their meds,” he said.
Bylsma said he never met an individual who didn’t matter.
“Those people still had worth, but a lot of people did not give them any worth,” he said.
Bylsma said he hopes his book helps readers reframe what they consider to be a successful or meaningful life. He said it’s about making a difference — even a small one — in someone else’s life.
“That’s where you become a ‘somebody,'” he said. “That hangs on.”