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
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