It's possible all the writing I've done over the years has been in some way a response, a pushing back against the isolation and loneliness I felt at sixteen, driving an endless loop between home and school and work, speeding through the rolling country 'burbs of southeastern Wisconsin. There, a farm. There, a subdivision. There, a snowy field. Lots of trees. Another farm. Another subdivision. Endless fields. Growing up in this landscape my edges were smoothed; I was shaped. For me, this landscape was so cold, isolating, lonely. Constantly, I seek warmth, body, connection; I seek community, conversation.
Part I: The Landscape
When I think of this landscape: cold, isolation, distance, loneliness.
I suspect all the writing I’ve done over the years has in some way been a response, a pushing back against the feeling I felt when I was sixteen driving endlessly between school and work and home with the moon already up as the sun sank and the snowy fields rolled away from me and I was nothing but energy passing through seawater and when I hit that hill with the old farm—decrepit barn, cracked silos—I’d gun my grandma’s old eight-cylinder Chrysler New Yorker, every foot of elevation pushing me higher and higher until I crested, a tsunami 100 feet high, and then the hill fell away and I crashed back down, trees, trees, fields, fields, and those trick clouds on the horizon that—never having been to the Himalayas—made me think maybe I was in the Himalayas, or at least someday I could go to the Himalayas, maybe, though I never have, and then I was home and I would dawdle outside in the cold, muscles tense, eyes on the ice-crusted field next door, breath floating up to the first stars out. Whew.
reeds cut for thatchingthe stumps now stand forgottensprinkled with soft snow
I got my first speeding ticket on that road, coming home from work. 69 in a 45. Later, my first accident. Foot on the gas, I was watching the sunset. Rear-ended a pickup.
That drive, that landscape, was so beautiful, and so crushing, and all I wanted was someone else to be there with me, to say, Oh yeah, this is beautiful, all of this, and crushing.
I suspect all the writing I’ve done these last two decades has been in service to this outpouring, outstretching, this stretching out, reaching out. And Essay Daily, this Midwessay project, what are these but elaborate feelers, searching, finding, sharing, celebrating a coming-together? I suspect my life—our lives?—or at least my writing life—our writing lives?—is largely in reaction to the landscape we come from. This landscape: cold, isolating, lonely. Constantly, I seek warmth, body, connection.
I write this landscape, and, obviously, this Wisconsin landscape writes me.
But there is more to this Wisconsin story.
So many ideas of Wisconsin are contained in that snow-covered, rolling landscape, but also in an imagined image of its inhabitants: middle-aged and white, mostly, with old Carhartt jackets (and that ubiquitous Carhartt hat—I have one, too!), and rubber-soled Sorels, and a giant snowblower, and some orange paraphernalia in the closet, and an F-150 or RAM in the driveway, and a rifle in the basement (“I have four rifles, actually, and some handguns, and an AR,” a coworker recently told me), and we put 7UP in our Old Fashioneds, and there’s a hot dish for dinner (wtf is supper?), and likely a flag—Packers, U.S., Don’t tread on me—like a phallus projecting from the front door.
These people, these caricatures, are everywhere here, sometimes in my own house, though of course not everyone fits the stereotype. Not everyone is middle-aged. Not everyone is white. Not everyone can afford, or even wants, Carhartt. Some trucks are Toyota. Some Wisconsinites speak Hmong, or Laotian, or Polish, or Serbian, or Spanish. But still, we are Wisconsin-born, -bred, -rooted. As such, we are raised to know the rules, and Wisconsin writers are no exception: Be respectful. Be contained. Be quiet. It’s not polite talk about that.
I’m here to talk about that.
Part II: A Wisconsin StoryWhen I was a kid, 8th grade—so, like, 13?—I was at a school function, or a game, or something. It was late, dark, wrapping up, and for whatever reason I was standing around outside next to a 6th grader, and because my little sister was also in the 6th grade, and because I was full-on a big brother, or whatever, I have no idea really, I asked this kid if he knew her, and then I asked, So, what do you think of her? And he replied, I know her, but I don’t like her. And I asked, Well, why not? And he said, Because she’s chocolate and I don’t like chocolate girls.
We're both from Wisconsin, my sister and I, truly—there is no hyphen in her self-identity—but she was born in Kolkata, India, formerly Calcutta. I'm white. She's brown. Not that either of those is a great descriptor of what our skin actually looks like, but the point is, that kid said this to me not knowing I was her brother. So, I picked him up—I was relatively big and he was small—and sort of threw him into a nearby parked car. Then the principal’s husband, who also worked at the school, appeared and pulled us apart and asked why I was so upset. I told him what had happened. He knew our family. He asked if I wanted him to call my mom, or call in his wife, the principal, but I didn't want to make trouble, didn’t want to embarrass my sister, so I just said, Forget it. Never happened.
Later, my sister was working the checkout at our small-town Pick’n’Save, the line was getting backed up and someone—a white man—shouted at her, “You lazy niggers can’t do anything!” And he stormed out. The management—a white man—didn't do anything, of course, or respond meaningfully at all, which is to say: Let’s just put it behind us. My sister’s boyfriend—also white—happened to be there, too, working another checkout lane. He told my sister she should quit, and he threatened to quit, too, in protest. But she wanted no part: Don’t worry about it. It’s fine. We’re moving on.
Later, my sister was doing a Y-turn near a park in our little town and she backed over a decorative rock someone had put at the end of their driveway. The rock got stuck under her bumper. She got out to take a look and the owner of the house/driveway/rock called the police. My summer gig—working for our little town—had me cutting grass literally across the street. The police car pulling up finally got my attention. I sauntered over—with my 18-year-old-white-boy-the-future-is-mine-I’m-shirtless-and-tan-showing-off-my-Calvin Klein-abs swagger—and asked what was going on.
The asshole had come out when the officer arrived. As I approached he turned and went back inside.
The officer called over one of the town’s volunteer firefighters and the three of us lifted the car’s rear-end enough to free the rock, no harm to it. We rolled it back to its home, near the mailbox, where it still lives.
The way I remember it, my sister got mad when I told our parents. No big deal, she said. Never make a big deal. Be respectful. Be contained. Be quiet. It’s not polite talk about that.
Of course, these are my stories, not my sister’s. She doesn’t tell stories, and that’s fine, though sometimes I want to push: she’s raising three brown kids now, still living out where we grew up. She works in schools probably as white as they were when we were young. Last summer, when the National Guard blocked BLM protesters marching near my house, she texted a link to a photo she’d found online (a photo I could have taken out my window), but absent commentary. I don’t understand this reticence, this holding back, but I move through the world and she moves through the world and our experiences are undoubtedly different, and I won’t understand it, and that is also fine.
But I do kind of understand.
There are stories I also don’t tell, because—to be real—I'm nervous. Feel vulnerable. Easy enough to Just let it be. No big deal. I tell myself, No one wants to hear these stories anyway. Anyway, politeness trumps honesty. We only watch blockbusters with happy endings here. We like our conflicts resolved, our lessons learned, our protagonists reflecting inward rather than speaking out. No ruffling. We fear discomfort. We fear offending.
Is that what makes a Wisconsin essay, then: the negative space; everything we don’t say; all the shit we don’t talk about?
Part III: The Shit We Don't Talk About
I’m a nurse in an emergency department on the edge of Milwaukee, situated in a mostly white, working class part of town. Think of the ER as the front door of the hospital. We’re open 24/7, no one knocks and anyone and everyone comes in. Some people come in two or three times a day. Some are legit sick, some are in crisis, some are dying, and plenty of others are just fine. Some people arrive in police custody.
Back when I was just starting out another nurse told me he’d had a middle-aged patient brought in intoxicated and belligerent. That’s a common patient here, but this patient also had a C5 fracture, and was losing sensation in his legs. When the nurse asked how this had happened the patient said, “The police threw me down a flight of stairs.” The nurse included this in his triage note, quoting the patient. The charge nurse at the time told him to remove the quote. He did, but was upset enough to tell me about it.
I was walking out to the lobby to retrieve a patient. The automatic doors swung open and suddenly I was looking at a police officer pinning a twenty-something man to the floor, a knee on his back, a hand on his head, and—as I thought to myself, That doesn’t seem necessary—the officer punched him in the kidney. Apparently, the man, who had been in the waiting room for an hour, without incident, had “gotten in officer’s face” and wouldn’t back down.
A 40s-ish man was brought in for medical clearance on his way to jail. We were getting vitals and he wouldn’t keep the pulse oximeter on his finger. One of the officers grabbed his arm, bent his middle finger back and held the pulse oximeter in place. We all stood there, another officer, me, an ER Tech, all like, What’s happening? Finally, the tech said, “You know, that’s not really necessary.”
A young guy—he looked like a kid, but was early 20s—came in asking to be taken to jail, saying he was a danger to others, that he was going kick someone’s ass. “Whose?” “Anyone’s.” He was handcuffed to the cot and I asked the officer at the bedside to release one arm so I could get blood work. As soon as the cuff popped off the guy reached up and half-heartedly hit the cop in his vest. Immediately, the officer brought his arm up—seemed to raise his whole body—and then slammed his fist down into the guy’s face.
A young black woman, 25 or so, was having a psychotic episode. She was handcuffed to the cot and she was fighting. Three officers held her down while myself and another nurse delivered some IM Haldol. As they let go she struck out, connecting a foot with an officer’s crotch. In no apparent distress, he and two others leapt on top of her. A fourth officer paused, looked me in the eye as I stood in the doorway, looked me in the eye, then turned to the patient and tazed her.
It’s taken five years, but I’ve recently started writing about my time in this ER. I'm a few essays in and I’ve covered some ground, told a lot of stories, hit on a number of things: old people dying, young people dying, homelessness, alcoholism, bed bugs, the peculiar boredom of working the front desk from 11 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., the gallows humor ER nurses are known for. On the docket: what it’s like to wipe a grown person’s poop, the amazing way a room resets between patients, how the body of a guy who jumped from the top of our parking structure looked exactly like the smashed-up bodies you see on TV, pop country vs. reggae on Saturday nights, the weird loneliness of stocking rooms way down at the end of the hall at 2 a.m., and how at the end of the day it’s all a blur and I can’t remember any of the patients I’ve worked with, then the drive home.
Everything I’ve written so far also seems to touch on the death of a three-year-old boy a few years ago. It’s a touchstone for me, I suppose, because my own boys were two and four at the time, and this death remains a reminder of their fragility, as the tinnitus that buzzes my left ear randomly throughout the day is a reminder of my own ongoing decay. I’ve hit on that story, but I’ve never really told it. I think of it as the most difficult story to tell, but it’s not; I just haven’t decided to sit down with it yet. When I do, I know it will have an audience. It’ll get published, it'll get Likes, it’ll get shares, it will be meaningful to people. Maybe stakes are a little higher than with the forthcoming poop essay, but it’s all life and death, and at the end of the day, when we’re switching on the TV to forget the day, life and death is the Hallmark story.
Truly, the most difficult story to tell, for me, isn’t so much life and death as the brutality I’ve seen some people endure in-between. Difficult to tell because these stories will rile, they will upset, they will piss people off; because many of my co-workers are married to police officers; because there’s always a Blue Lives Matter coffee mug at our workstation; because we depend on the police to help us when patients are violent, and maybe their use of force is sometimes justified; because, somehow, in our current discourse there is only White and Black and Blue and any gray gets washed away.
These stories are also difficult to tell because I look terrible in them, because the officer that tazed that young woman—as she was handcuffed to a bed, already restrained—I pass her in the hallway occasionally, and we exchange nods, and I imagine she sees me as an ally, because I am complicit. When I don’t speak up, I am complicit. I nod, and say nothing, and I am complicit.
In that moment, I stood there, self-conscious and thinking, Well, at least I can be here as a witness. As if witnessing is something. Another day, I witnessed a young black man being restrained by six officers and it was out of control. They were banging the door open, running into the room, yelling, pouncing, and as one officer pushed the man’s head to the side, his arm laying against the man’s neck, the man kept shouting, I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!
Of course this has become a mantra, and even I—standing there, witnessing—thought to myself, Really? I stood there, thinking, He’s talking. He must be fine. It’s just a slogan—I can’t breathe, as seen on hats and t-shirts and face masks—a shibboleth, then. And I didn’t say anything.
But what oh fuck what if that man actually hadn’t been able to breath? What was I thinking? That I would wait to speak up until he actually died? Is that what it takes? Am I so afraid to claim the gray space in-between where we might act and our actions will actually mean something?
This is the negative space. Where live the stories we don’t tell, the things we don’t say.
It occurs to me my sister has her own reasons for not telling her stories, and it’s possible they go beyond my own white, middle-class, Wisconsin-bred fear of discomfort, my ever-present fear of offending. I move through the world with an ease many people will never know.
I think about this: How would things have played out for a 13-year-old black boy assaulting a younger white boy outside of their school after a basketball game? Or if a shirtless, cocky young black man had approached that small town cop rolling up to inspect the property damage caused by his sister’s careless driving?
I understand why others might hesitate. But I have no excuse.
The worst is that I’ve always thought of myself as someone who stands up for others, someone unafraid to speak up and be a voice for those in need, to stand up to a bully, to brutality, to something so obviously shitty. Evidence to the contrary.
What a shit I’ve been. What a disappointment.
It seems I would rather embrace the comfortable-for-me status quo. And what could be more middle-ground, more Midwestern, more white and middle-class Wisconsin than that?
Craig Reinbold was once the managing editor of Essay Daily. He is a nurse in a Milwaukee-area ER. @craigreinbold