What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond. These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors
Viewing Large Bodies of Water
Back home, before the divorce blew my family up and down central Iowa’s spine, the neighbors and I played in the creek, in the back. There were our houses, our backyards, the swatches of lands our parents called, “The Back Forty,” the overgrown grass mowed every weekend, right up to the tree line and the creek was a few feet from there. The mouth of the water poured through this rusted kettle drum, though now I’m sure it wasn’t a kettle drum, just a piece of large-open pipe that looked like one, but the sweep of creek ran parallel to the train tracks, though the tracks were elevated so the two lines never touched. We followed where the kettle drum pointed, past the large basin our six-foot-tall neighbor would stand in and cut his feet in, over the makeshift rope and ramp we tiptoed over, and when it spat us out underneath the concrete tunnel underneath the track, which was wide as a bridge. On “The Other Side,” we were upriver, and we’d take our shoes off and walk in the cool water, letting the pebbles lick our feet. When I turned back, the kids had gone under the bridge, crossed the rope and ramp, and ran from the other side.
Back then we ran wild on thought, tracing our creek to the nearest pond, pooling into the nearest river, spilling into the nearest lake, where our water finally hit the ocean, hitting all the other oceans, making up the blue on any globe. But then we learned the impossibility of our logic in landlocked Iowa, a state defined by its absence.
Back in college, before the world got to me, I walked on the bridge across the Iowa River at many times of day. At five a.m. in the spring, glacial chucks of ice floated down stream so peaceful it’s like they weren’t moving at all. The river looked alive then with scales on its back. Come summer, with all the ice chunks melted, the water browned somewhere between sepia and chocolate. The river looked sick. Late at night, walking from a hookup across the river, the river blacked, reflecting the night sky. I always feared I’d fall and drown. The powers creeping at the surface of the water is what I feared the most. I’d stare down into the well of ink and see myself staring back at me and wait for the pair of white hands to pull me under, despite the height from the river’s face and the bridge.
Back then the literary essay spoke like no other form could. Eula Biss’ Notes From No Man’s Land blew my upbringing into constant gnawing, critique, pointing out the isolation plaguing my communities. I think of the kid who thought all the water, even the city run off he has his feet in, connects to every other body of water. This book was my first clash with the Midwessay, and though read cover to cover, and underlined, it provided the scaffolding of environment in the essay—how my landlockedness impacted my family, which in turn, impacted me.
Back in Chicago, the viewpoint, from the seventh floor of the apartment new to me, features a panorama of Lake Michigan—a line of endless—I often mistake for the ocean, until I saw the ocean. It was the morning, and a tractor raked the sand flat of the formerly named, “Hollywood Beach”, which served as the primetime cursing spot in Chicago, back when being gay was illegal. Now half the damn beach was toiled up, claimed with men in tight thongs. Then, I couldn’t talk to them, so I followed the waves back to their source, back to the horizon. Again, and again. Until the panorama of visible wind brought the blades of water to waves crashing against the shore.
Back when I first touched the ocean, I remember the slow buildup to the water, and the feeling of water seeping through my clothes, and then my head wet under water, and I closed my eyes suspended in the water. I thought of puddles and creeks, and rivers, and lakes, and the ocean. I was in the ocean, and the water I swam in had been everywhere all at once, and when I walked back to the shore of the beach, I’d say hi to the group of guys laying in the sun, while comforting the part of myself who grew up in the Midwest, telling him, “It’s okay. It’s okay. You can finally breathe.”
Harrison Cook is the Deputy Managing Editor for Guesthouse and a contributing writer at Hi-Fructose. He work is forthcoming from Foglifter Journal, Hotel Amerika, Gay Mag, Slate and elsewhere.