Jodie Noel Vinson
The Midwest Essay is strong and limber, broad-shouldered, hard working. Digs deep. Makes a point.
Or three. A swish from behind the line, straight shooting. A dribble on the page, a dart toward the right margin then a drive in the paint.
It’s the brilliance of a golden sun—squint at the full-bodied, flaring orb of it—rising above a glowing plain.
Or is it the circle of silvery tinsel that catches in the candlelight casting shadows from the long leafed table in the old farmhouse; a well-rounded thought, beginning knotted to end, the precious angel halo of a pageant, a memory returned to sit deftly around golden locks, just above the ears.
Anyway, it’s something about the light, which, I should mention, can also be glaring. You’ll stand sunburnt and exposed to the ridicule of the world.
Or is it the heat, which clings to your skin and makes the sweat stand out from it in beads. It’ll curl your hair if you’re not careful. The damn humidity of it.
What I’m trying to say is that it’s more than just weather and not only climate. The Midwest Essay is atmosphere.
And, at the same time, solid ground.
It’s that person perpetually waiting for you in the warm yellow kitchen. The enigma of a life lived apart.
It’s a drive down Highway 20 through the college town, westbound, and all you can see out the windows on either side are the flickering green aisles, stalks way above your head.
Or maybe it’s a sprint down the rows of someone else’s field, a leap to the left over the soybeans to tug at that stubborn weed.
Or it’s the soil that drops in heavy, cloying clumps when uprooted.
Or the clay that sucks at your toes at the bottom of a muddy lake and won’t let you go.
Or maybe it’s a tick burrowed deep behind your ear.
The Midwest Essay lingers like light angling across a landscape. With no mountain to duck behind, you get every last ray of it.
It’s all there on the page. Honest. Modest. Bare-limbed. Often, it is swimming. Sometimes screaming. Mostly with delight.
It’s the creak then bang of a screen door in summer. The dinner bell that calls you back.
The voice of the Midwest Essay is often passive, but it can also be aggressive. Unassuming but alive. It also has a conscience, a small cricket incessantly chirping.
The Midwest Essay is a zucchini hidden under the shade of its own vines. In the sun, it grows bloated, over-ripe. If this happens, hollow it out and it will sail, a small boat bobbing in the lazy current of the nearest creek.
It’s something in the warm lake water, always dirt brown. With your cousins you strain the sand and clay and rocks from it and it falls from your uplifted fingers laughing and clear as a shared memory shot through with sunlight, only to regain its murky mystery with a splash.
It’s the fossil found on the shoulder of a gravel road. A small, scalloped reminder of what came before. That maybe where you stand now fish once swam. And maybe they will again.
There’s just that much possibility in the Midwest Essay. Something about those open horizons. Nothing standing in your way. Plow on til morning.
It could also be the leaves of that farmhouse table, fitted neatly between ends like a completed puzzle: an expanse, bounty-laden, that appears out of nowhere, as if always there. When the guests leave, it is shelved again behind the bureau.
Of course! It’s the harvest itself, never a clearer metaphor. Those creamy yellow kernels beneath the rough ridged husks. Pull the sticky silk strands away. Sink your teeth in.
The Midwest Essay tastes sweet, but will, at times, smell like manure.
And the joy in it will always find its equal in the melancholic fall of an autumn leaf. That slow spin back to earth.
Sometimes the Midwest Essay asks you to fit your foot to a larger print, letting it sink down to the packed snow below. The borders of it are well-defined, razor-sharp with a thin coat of ice. You can’t know where it leads. But there’s a light on in the house ahead and a pair of worn brown skates hanging by the door.
The Midwest Essay is the strength to leave. But let’s also admit that it’s the strength to stay.
The slow drip of a long icicle from a gutter, counting off the days til spring.
It’s the shimmering emerald of a stretching April lawn, almost neon in its newness. Beloved pets are buried in shallow graves beneath.
Or is it the pale ghostly green the sky could turn, just before a twister. Describe it if you can. A warning, a wonder, a cool basement nook, safe beneath stairs.
Then again, it’s not all security and productivity and mediocrity, just because it’s in the middle. The Midwest Essay is not a cliché. But you can see danger coming a mile away.
It’s the cyclonic funnel itself, sucking up everything in its path til all you’re left with is a blank page. A fresh start, or a finish.
If you’re not careful the Midwest Essay will write you to the edges. One day you’ll get on that road and the horizon will be clear. You’ve seen what the stalks have borne, and the fields are no longer barren; beansprouts about to unfurl. As you drive you’ll start to wonder what’s on the next page over.
You’ll stop to fill your tank and when you get out into the warm summer evening the Midwest Essay will be sung in the cicadas’ croon, a chorus rising from the roadside ditch, green-black in the dying light, but sparking with the occasional firefly. As if in answer, a lightning bolt crackles like a whip lashed across the sky.
The Midwest Essay always reads clearer in the rearview mirror, blushing with the sunset of your leaving.
Jodie Noel Vinson holds an MFA in nonfiction creative writing from Emerson College. Her essays and reviews have been published in Harvard Review, The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Ploughshares, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, and Electric Literature, among other outlets. Originally from Iowa, she now lives in Providence.
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