Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The #Midwessay: Morgan Riedl, Midwessay/Ohio

There's one story that I keep returning to, over and over, writing and rewriting, turning it and tilting it this way and that so I can examine it from every possible angle. It's this story of growing up in Vandalia, Ohio, the "Crossroads of America". 
     I’m always at those crossroads, figuratively and literally. I’ve been there all my life. Sometimes it consumes me. Sometimes it plagues me. I’m there physically, psychologically, emotionally. My history is there. It’s where I’m most comfortable. 
     The crossroads are where East meets West and North meets South. It’s where Route 40 crosses Route 25 and where I-70 crosses I-75. If I did dare to leave, which direction should I go? Which path should I choose? Or, is the ideal path to stay put? Should I continue to live at the Crossroads, facing every direction but moving in no direction at all? What good is a crossroad if you don’t choose a path?
     All of the Ohio essayists seem to share this strange sense of wanting to leave or, for those who did leave, wanting to return. What is it about this place that makes people want to escape but then, draws them back? Read this weeks' essays to find out.
     Ohioans: We'd love to have more essays in conversation with the #Midwessay. Email your take on the subject to and I'll get your words turned in to the Powers-That-Be. —Beeda Speis, Ohio Coordinator


Morgan Riedl


Sometime during the year that unfolded after moving across the country with me and before leaving me in our new Ohio home alone, my now-ex laughed at the state being part of EST.
     “It’s not part of the East Coast. It’s not really east at all, so why is it even in the Eastern Time Zone?”
     I didn’t have an answer then, so I just laughed along at the incongruence despite feeling a little defensive of my home state. A Midwest Essay can chuckle while it goes to work.
     I grew up in Cincinnati, in the same small, suburban village my mother was raised in, where she and her parents still live today. But other than learning in middle school civics class that the state bird is the cardinal, the state tree is the buckeye (my stepfather would chime in here, “Go Bucks!”), and the state flag is the only one shaped in a “swallow-tailed burgee,” I didn’t think much about being an Ohioan. It was all I knew and all I was surrounded by, so like any aspect of an identity that is shared by most of a community, it became unconscious and unremarkable.
     In high school when a student transferred from California, we all envied his tan and “beach” blond hair, and the first question we asked was did he surf. He came from the western most margin of the contiguous 48, the land of Hollywood, and so, for a while anyway, he seemed exotic and spectacular. He sat at the popular table in the cafeteria and was voted onto the Prom court, and I wonder how much of his Californian identity won him that. How much his not being from Ohio, which was just so normal—in more honest words, boring—was admired by the rest of us. I also wonder now if he experienced any sort of culture shock on his arrival, in tandem with our awe of it. After all, it was a small town. The whole high school matriculated fewer than 500 students. We were mostly white—you could count the number of students of color on one hand. We were mostly straight—there was only one guy who lunchroom whispers guessed might be gay and even that was just rumor until he came out in college, there were certainly no out lesbians, and no one knew the term bisexual.
     While reading the work of mostly dead white men in English class, we learned that Mark Twain said, "When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it's always 20 years behind the times." While there is no evidence that Twain actually said those words, we believed them about our hometown and ourselves.
     So back then, I was eager to get out of here, only staying through college for the in-state tuition. I attended Miami University, often referred to as Miami of Ohio, though students like to say, “Miami was a university before Florida was a state.” The name comes from the Myaamiaki people, so I no longer feel it’s my place to defend the university beating Florida to the punch to use the name. Still, that knee-jerk reaction to go on the defensive is something I associate with Ohio. No one expects you to be proud of the state or being an Ohioan; it’s so often dismissed (like in Twain’s supposed words) that the Midwest Essay may find itself using space to defend its place in time.
     Even though finances dictated my choice to stay, Ohio has several notable universities, and I loved my time at Miami (again, my inclination to defend). Still, Ohio struggles with Brain Drain: students take advantage of the great educational opportunities, and then move away. Many go West. My sister went to Denver and there she frequented a bar dedicated to the Cincinnati Bengals. Even if Ohioans are leaving Ohio, they aren’t leaving it behind.
     I moved out West too, very much looking to leave Ohio behind, and began a different sort of education. I learned about the world while teaching in the high desert of New Mexico on the Navajo Nation and then I learned a lot about myself when I enrolled in a graduate program in the foothills Colorado. My mentor called it a Feminist awakening. I call it a becoming.
     It’s true I’d needed to leave Ohio to become, or at least understand, who I was, but just leaving Ohio or the Midwest wouldn’t have ever been enough. And, I learned later, it was never really about leaving the state; I had to leave myself, the self who was raised here, contained here. Then, I was far enough from the familiar to discover and explore parts of myself I’d squirreled away, like the part that was queer. Transformation is at the heart of the Midwest Essay.
     After nearly a decade gone, I returned to Ohio for more school. And on the summer drive back into the state, I stared out the window, remarking over and over again on all the green. Even at its most verdant, the West never looked like this. Ohio felt exotic rather than familiar, the way I’d imagined a homecoming to feel.
     That initial excitement was short-lived because almost as soon as we crossed the border into the state my girlfriend hated it, which made me worry that being back was a sort of regression, like the joke about Cincinnati. I recalled my antipathy for the state as a teenager and suddenly was experiencing it again. The location felt as stifling as the off-the-charts humidity. Daily, I calculated how much longer I would have to be here—how much longer I could make it last. A year later I had my answer. She was gone, and I was still here.
     I am still here.
     I won’t be here indefinitely, but I’m no longer counting down the days until I can move away. And when I do, I won’t leave Ohio or the part of myself that is Ohioan behind.
     That summer alone I relished the emerald hills. Spent afternoons reading in pastures while horses grazed around me. The trees crowding out the sky, no longer felt suffocating, but like they were cradling me instead. I took in the beauty of state parks like Stroud’s Run and Old Man’s Cave and learned about Ohio’s tremendous ecosystem diversity. I discovered and explored parts of Ohio I hadn’t known existed. It seems I’d needed to leave the state, and later be left in the state, in order to find the parts of Ohio I hadn’t been ready to appreciate before.
     And I met someone who found so much to love in Ohio, including me. But this isn’t about losing or finding a person. It’s about losing what holds us back and finding what moves us forward.
     Exactly how Ohio ended up on EST isn’t clear. When time zones were introduced in 1883 to coordinate interstate train travel, there were only 4, and Ohio wasn’t part of the Eastern zone (nor were many other states that seem more obviously “east” such as Georgia and Florida—again, my predisposition to defend). When the Interstate Commerce Commission took over zone management from the railroads in 1938, the border of the Eastern zone was pushed westward. Someone decided Ohio belonged in the East; I don’t know how they defended their decision. And Twain’s words about Cincinnati being decades behind the times were said (if he ever said them) before time changed in Ohio.
     I no longer believe those words anyway. Growing up, home was a place I was excited to leave. As an adult, Ohio is a place I am excited to be. Like the Midwest Essay, it’s remarkable (am I defending again?). And queer. It’s a place of transition. Of comings and goings. Where you can find a bit of everything that makes up this country in the land and people. Where time moves, not slower, but differently. Spectacularly. 

Morgan Riedl is a doctoral student at Ohio University and has an MA in creative nonfiction from Colorado State University. Her work has appeared in The Normal School, Sonora Review, Entropy, Essay Daily, and Brevity's blog.

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

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