Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The #Midwessay: Bill Marsh, North Central

The essay, as we all know, is an attempt. It’s a way of telling about, relating to, examining, delineating, and explaining things: big things and small; elephants and moths; individual human lives and families; a neighborhood, a whole city; a state or a whole damn, glacially-ironed region.   

The Illinois essay, and the essayists who call Illinois home, are concerned and consumed by delineations, with explaining themselves and the state(s) they now find themselves in: Northshore vs. South Side; Chicago vs. the ‘burbs; Chicagoland vs. Downstate; corn and soybean futures vs. the actual plants themselves; mile-long parcels of flatness vs. many-storeyed city blocks; staying vs. leaving.

The Illinois essays that follow are indebted to many that came before (Chief Blackhawk, Eliza Farnham, Honest Abe, Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Studs Terkel, Mike Royko, John Hughes, and David Foster Wallace, to name a few) but are trying real hard not to live in the past. 

The essays that follow are curious about how many minutes it took you to get here. They are here to warn you that if a white boy in a Patagonia fleece tells you he’s from Chicago that he’s actually from Oak Brook or Highland Park. —David Griffith, Illinois #Midwessay Coordinator


North Central

Bill Marsh


I look for help in the middle of a snowstorm—inspiration (constraint?) in the falling and the fallen, the shoveled and the windblown. When it dumps like this, ask around and you’ll find there’s not much waffle or wiggle room. Love or hate. Embrace, resist. Hope, despair. For some, a seasonal burial can be comforting; for others, maddening, the coldest treachery. Everyone knows (or thinks they know) where they stand, so a simple question yields the slow-rolling weight of an honest answer—on all sides. Middle-way wisdom foregrounds a fierce but principled balancing act in the extreme. 
     This balance can be helpful when you run up against the historic tension between passing through and settling down, flyover country vs. kick off your boots and stay a while. Make up your mind, I’m tempted to say, but either way there’s the deep-soil layering of old, unpaid debt. Snow-covered or sunbaked, to the horizon in four directions, it’s still and always will be stolen land. The shape of it when I write about it (on it, through it) pits a settler-descendant outside against a resolute, achy inside sickened by centuries of bloodshed dressed as downy destiny. In one recurring nightmare, I’m setting up camp in a flooded graveyard. 
     These are the shortest, darkest days, midwinter. I have appointments (writing demons into practice) and need to get somewhere, but a road to nowhere proves impassable under all this heavy wet white stuff. Better to wait for spring’s reassuring melt and teasing temperatures. Even better to ward off that weary, loner sensibility on the lookout for dibs and greener pastures. State highways here to forever convey an endless stream of convivial content: soft-eyed, hard-edged, circumspect, complicit. At each mile marker, some feel pressured to set a new course. Others take the hint and get out of the way. 

Bill Marsh splits his time between Chicago, where he teaches college writing, and a small family farm in the Fox River valley, where he keeps bees and raises chickens. His essays have appeared recently in Copper Nickel, Lunch Ticket, and Ruminate Magazine. He’s on Twitter @prof_bmarsh. 

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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