Monday, May 16, 2022

The #Midwessay: Leslie Stainton, Michigander


Leslie Stainton


I’ve lived in Michigan for nearly 40 years—longer than any other place in the world—and I still find it hard to think of this as home. 
     I’m an East Coaster, born and raised in Pennsylvania. I grew up with day trips to Philadelphia and New York and Washington, summers in Virginia, three years of grad school in hilly central Massachusetts. 
     When I was a teenager, my mother’s best friend, a Bay City native, kept telling me how flat the land was in her home state. “We thought a speed bump was a hill,” she’d say in her flat Michigan twang, then wait for me to laugh. 
     So it was a surprise to find myself moving here in my 30s when I met a guy from the University of Michigan and impulsively agreed to marry him. Why not, I thought. It took me most of our five-year marriage to get used to the fact that I was actually living in the Midwest. (To this day I fantasize about moving back to Massachusetts.)
     From the start I marveled at how many big news stories seemed to start or end in this out-of-the-way state. The Lockerbie disaster. The Oklahoma City bombing. Flint’s poisoned water. And of course, 2020’s dry-run assault on a capitol and the near-kidnapping of our governor. (“We support That Woman from Michigan,” read the yard signs in my bubble town of Ann Arbor.)
     There’s something strangely central about this place that seems to be off most people’s beaten paths. 
     “I’ve lived in more precious spots,” says an Ann Arbor friend who did graduate work at Harvard and then taught at Williamstown. “But Michigan is more comfortable.”
     I’ve seen academics from both coasts chafe at this state’s modest offerings. No ocean views or five-star cities; no Chinatown. Our go-to restaurant in Ann Arbor is a steakhouse with pictures of the football stadium on the walls. (Proximity to Detroit Metro is one of the university’s biggest selling points.)
     On a trip to San Diego one March, I got to talking to a woman who was standing in line behind me at a theater. I mentioned that I was from Michigan and was enjoying California’s warmth. She looked at me like I was an Untouchable. “I’m so sorry for you,” she deadpanned. “I used to live there but I got out.”
     When did a tolerance for winter become a character flaw? 
     It can be cold here, and flat. Our skies are notoriously overcast (one year, meteorologists recorded a scant 11 hours of sunshine in all of November.) Unless you’re into car factories, there are few big tourist draws. Our largest city struggles. The state jewel is a mottled gray stone that’s mostly unremarkable until you polish it.
     Lately, though, I’ve begun to appreciate the topography of the place. Maybe it’s because I’m in my 60s now, less eager to tackle big climbs. There’s something endearing about a state that’s a little dull, like most of us. A place without majestic peaks or grand canyons. Comfortable in its skin. Not too demanding (unless you’re a Democratic governor in a pandemic year). A gentle place where you can occasionally feel like you’re achieving something, even though, really, you’re just pedaling slowly along a flat road in a straight, comfortable line. 


Leslie Stainton is the author of two nonfiction books, Lorca: A Dream of Life and Staging Ground: An American Theater and Its Ghosts, and is at work on a third book, about her slaveholding Georgia ancestors. She lives with her husband in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she bikes regularly along a mostly hill-less route.


Are you a Michigander? A Michiganian? Do you have thoughts or feelings about our fair water-bordered state and its literature? If an essay captures the workings of the mind, what is the mind of Michigan? Be in touch and send us something.

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

Monday, May 9, 2022

The #Midwessay: Leslie Lindsay, Fragmented Thoughts on Being a Missouri Girl in "The North"


Fragmented Thoughts on Being a Missouri Girl in "The North"

Leslie Lindsay 


1. When I first moved to Minnesota, on New Year’s Day 2002, it was snowing. I was wearing a parka. ‘Locals’ were wearing shorts.

“This is warm,” they cheered. 
“If this was warm, what is cold?” I inquired, a smirk on my face.
They assessed me with blank stares, like, ‘We don’t do humor and sarcasm.’

2. I grew up in the “Show-Me-State,” where we do a lot of showing, not telling. Show me your back forty. Show me your garden. Show me your wild, inventive ways. This leaks into my vernacular.

“You don’t say, Missour-ah,” a colleague commented. “Or do ya?”
“I don’t know. Show me,” I said. I might have winked.
“We drove through Misery on a trip awhile back,” he said. “Horrible place. The Ozark mountains. Steep, narrow roads, hillbillies.” 
“That’s not the area of Missour-ah I’m from,” I said with a glint in my eye. The irony was lost. 

3. Before I moved to Minnesota, my mother: 

a. Warned 
b. Threatened
c. Cautioned
d. Lovingly told
a. That’s one of the coldest places we have in our country.
b. Laura Ingalls Wilder lived there. 
c. You might have to learn to love ice fishing.
d. Are you sure? 

4. Show me your front porch. [1] Show me your local watering holes. [2] Show me your underground caves. [3] Where is your red earth? [4] Your locusts with wax-paper wings and fire-y eyes? [5] [I detested those; they were fine to leave behind]. Show me Anheuser-Busch beer [6], the Arch [7], and sticky cheese pizza on Saltines. [8] You don’t have Toasted Ravioli here? [9] What about flowering trees? [10]

The people of Minnesota have: 

[1] Closed-in three-season porches, like a vestibule to the front door. It’s often confusing to know which door to knock on. If you’re invited. And invited, you must. Minnesotans do not appreciate the ‘pop-over.’ [This is the first time I used the word ‘ante-room’ in conversation. In Minnesota, it’s where the snow boots, and house shoes are stored, the coats, gloves, scarves, mufflers, hats].

[2] “A Tavern, you mean?” We found a few good ones. Run by a British guy. With a Ploughman’s plate and Irish dancers on Friday nights. They didn’t have Anheuser-Busch, but we began to enjoy Summit and Schell.[6]
[3] No caves. Unless you count that ice fishing thing my mother mentioned. [See 3-c-c above]. 

[10] Very few red bud trees and dogwoods. Do they have sweetgum trees? Do they have any trees that flower? Very little. Lilacs. But not until May or June. Honeysuckle? I don’t think so. Locusts? [5] In the trees? In the red-earth ground? What’s red-earth? Mostly, it’s mosquitos. Because Minnesota is ‘the land of ten-thousand lakes.’ The mosquitos can be as big as the seventeen-year cicada I loathed. They are feared as much. 

[7] The “Twin Cities” where outdoor art sculpture presides: a giant cherry on a more-giant spoon, but not the arch. You can also see the tiny little spot where the Mighty Mississippi starts, just a trickle, really. You can jump over it. It’s not the same as the Archfront. At all.

[8, 9] Attend local Lutheran Church* and stay for the fish fry. They will serve lutefisk, not Imo’s pizza or barbecued brisket. Or barbecued ribs. Or barbecued anything. But if you’re lucky, you might get a delicious cookie salad or something made from a canned Pillsbury product. Remember: you must be invited. Minnesotans keep to their own kind. 

*In St. Louis, I grew up within a stone’s throw of about 809 Catholic Churches, soccer leagues, and peers in PSR. [Parish School of Religion]. In Minnesota, the predominant religion appeared to be Lutheran ELCA, and sometimes: Methodist. Being Catholic was more…unusual. 

5. I went to work one day and say, “Oh my word.” And also: “What in the name of Sam Hill is that?” A few other things bubbled to the surface. “Boy, that sure does smart, doesn’t it? I exclaimed, “Bless your heart!” and mumbled, “Bless your heart.” I also said, “Well—blessyourheart,” and walked away. If you’re from Missouri, you know how all of these have different connotations. 

6. They started calling me a “Southern Belle.” I couldn’t decide if their comments were because I had a bit of a twang, because I wore sweater sets and blazers to their plaid flannel and clogs, because I said, “Oh My Word” to their “For Pete’s Sake.” I may not have been raised on a dairy farm or shown prize-winning swine at the state fair, or consumed fried candy bars on sticks, but I did not come from a wealthy Southern family or a palatial home draped in crepe myrtle and Spanish moss. I came from the middle of the country. South to Minnesota, sure, but not the Deep South. 

7. Also, at work, I didn’t know how to say Oronoco, a nearby town. I called it “O-ron-o-co.” I got it wrong. Very wrong. I didn’t know that ‘uffda’ pretty much translated to ‘oh sh*t’ and I discovered the slight difference between Norwegian and Scandinavian. I taught them the difference between Appalachian and Ozark. 

8. “No, no,” I said. “Missouri is smack in the middle of the U.S. It’s Midwestern.”

a. “Ya took geography, eh?”
[Yes, ma’am. I’m from the middle of the country]

b. “Did ya bring your ‘sneakers’ to phyed?” 
[pronounced ‘fi-ed,’ not ‘fiz-ed,’ as we said in Missouri, or even just plain ol’ ‘P.E.’ Note: what are sneakers? We call them tennis shoes.]

9. In Missouri, we have ‘outer roads,’ in Minnesota, it’s a ‘frontage road.’ Minnesota has ditches and you sure as heck don’t want to get your car stuck in one during a white-out. In Missouri, the snow comes, it’s gone in 24-48 hours, tops. In Minnesota, you’re wearing sweaters October thru May. 

10. I went to one Twins baseball game. It was almost cold. It was nothing like the humid, hot-dog-thick air of Busch Stadium. 

11. Every town brings trauma and displacement for a writer. Some towns more than others. Rochester was it for me. The Mayo Clinic loomed large, a medical mecca of steel and glass and healing, but also: the IBM headquarters. It’s a company town consisting of families and tract homes, flatness and whiteness, in both landscape and people. I was not yet a family; just a couple. We were cold, and far from ‘home.’ 

12. I loved Northfield. But the 1920s stucco house we lived in had slanting floors. Nothing was square or plumb. It had a three-season porch and an old, shaded vegetable garden we could barely grow in. I started thinking of Minnesota as a dying construct. 

a. Sometimes I was fully immersed in my new home. 
b. Other times, I felt I was on the margins, trapped between being “a Southern Belle” and a Viking. Was I oozing sweetness and naivete or standing firm and stoic, a little bit stubborn, maybe? A hybrid Missouri-Minnesota girl? 
c. I made a life there. 
d. Two of them, in fact. They emerged with red hair and blue eyes. 
e. And I emerged, too. Fully grown. And changed. I knew the lingo, the place names. I made friends. I saw how the Midwest was divided into ‘upper’ and ‘lower,’ a construct I never once realized. 

13. The cows, the earth, the food. I’ve absorbed the lights and sounds and the character of this place, even though it’s not of me, it made me. 

a. Stronger
b. More resilient
c. Charming
d. Inventive

14. So much lives outside the boundaries of traditional documentation, even as an outsider.

15. I see now how the people of the Midwest are woven together like a patchwork field of color, dialects, and experiences. We are fibers of the earth, great swaths of golden wheat, yellow corn, brown rivers and green fields. We’re spooled together, like a loom of color, a glorious tapestry of humanity. In the end, Minnesota gave me “material.”


Leslie Lindsay's writing has been featured in ANMLY, The Tiny Journal, The Rumpus, Hippocampus, Psychology Today, Mutha Magazine, Ruminate’s The Waking, Manifest-Station, Literary Mama, Pithead Chapel, Cleaver Magazine, Motherwell, Visual Verse, Flash Frog Literary, Agapanthus Literary, and A Door = Jar, with forthcoming pieces in The Millions, Levitate, The Florida Review, and Brevity. Her memoir, Model Home, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. She was recently accepted to the Kenyon Writer's Workshop and has participated in Kathy's Fish's The Art of Flash. Leslie resides in the Greater Chicago suburbs and is at work on a memoir exploring ancestral connections. She can be found @leslielindsay1 on Twitter and Instagram.  


 Like fellow Midwesterner and incredible essayist Sonya Huber, I loathe the harmful writing advice of “show don’t tell.” Yet, I am also a writer born and raised in the Show Me State. While Missouri is steeped in Southern front-porch storytelling, the Middle West’s characteristic pragmatism, understatement, and complicated* past and present are perpetual in our prose. We want it both ways: to show and to tell, to be Southern and Midwestern. Ultimately, there’s a certain resilience and toughness Missouri essayists must harbor because we can’t assume you, dear reader, share our points of reference or understand why we stay or live in this place, however long. Ultimately, though, describing what others do not know or have the words for makes for wilder, more inventive stories. The Missouri essayists in this project share the very Midwestern joys and terror of what it’s like to be in a state with “no particular place to go.” What constrains and releases us may surprise you.

Missourians: we'd love to have more essays riffing and rumbling on the #Midwessay! Contact me at michaella.thornton at gmail and I'll be happy to include your thoughts and insights in this project.

 —Michaella A. Thornton

* And by “complicated,” I mean openly racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, ableist, xenophobic, and more. We have a lot to unpack and improve on here.