Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The #Midwessay: Gordon Grice, Midwest Death Trips

Ancient mountains (now hills), ancient ocean beds (now plains and prairie), tornado alley, tablelands, highlands, cross timbers, caves, the Ozarks, cypress swamps and forest—we've got it all in Oklahoma, baby. This place favors writing about landscape—it's embedded in us in a way I suppose other writers feel. For me, why I write about Oklahoma, why I care about its history and future, the legacies it will and won't claim, has something to do with the sight of a flat blooming canola field straddling a wet red dirt road beneath striated grey and white clouds after a spring storm. And, that this place has been and is filled with a mix of people—displaced, wandering, outcasts who are still often overlooked. The late Barry Lopez (RIP; not an Oklahoman) wrote, "If we could speak more accurately, more evocatively, more familiarly, about the physical places we occupy, perhaps we could speak more penetratingly, more insightfully, more compassionately about the flaws in these various systems which, we regularly assert, we wish to address and make better." Each of the Oklahoma writers for this series speak to the physical place well, and each asks us to consider what that place (and its people) has to offer, or not. —Liz Blood, Oklahoma Coordinator

 




Midwest Death Trips

Gordon Grice


*

 
Can this really be the same notebook, here in my travel bag, that I took for the last family death? That was six years ago, but here are my journal entries, scribbled in hotel rooms. Writing goes slow in my ragged hand. 
     It was summer then. One entry tells of a thunderstorm. It came as if to verify my stories of Oklahoma, so my children would believe. They grew up near Minneapolis. The usual Oklahoma rain ripped through, tossed handfuls of lightning, then had somewhere else to be. From my hotel window I saw a child standing in it (not one of mine), just beyond the eaves, holding his hands out to grasp. 
     In the morning we found an elm tree had lost a branch thick as a thigh, its wood broken and blond.

*

“I never travel without my diary,” Oscar Wilde said. “One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”
     My old notebook is not sensational. Mostly it’s blank. Plenty of room for fugitive scribbles I’ll make on this trip. I don’t expect to get any “writing” done. But I know that, in the cannibal manner of my kind, I will eventually return to make something of these pages, or waste more paper trying.
     It’s winter now. The hawks start in Kansas, on an eternal stretch of Highway 54. On a post the first of them sits fluffed against the wind, chocolate spots on a white breast, decapitated—or so it seems, with its head tucked like a turtle’s. Five miles further on another glides over billows of winter grass, turns, stoops—but we’re beyond him, too fast to see what he’s about. The next I would have taken for a plastic bag tangled in last year’s weeds, except that we know their colors by now. We know he’ll step any moment into the air.

*

The night after he died I dreamt my father forded a snowy river, which was also the street we lived on when I was five. His white hair streamed behind him. On the far curb, he lay back exhausted. His feet dangled in the river. Or maybe he had no feet. In real life I had worried he’d lose them. They were always thick as snakebite and leaking plasma and he hated to take his diuretics. 
     “I worry about your heart,” I said to him in the dream. 
     “It only takes a heartbeat to turn things around,” he said. “Yesterday they thought I was finished.”

*

I live at the ends of a lightning bolt, north for everyday, south for death. It hurt my father when we left. Now he’s left. My move won’t hurt him anymore.
     I don’t know. Writing for me has something to do with where I came from. My wife said one time maybe all my writing troubles would disappear if we went home and stayed there. It’s a small town. It’s bleak. I was never happy there. 
     And yet. 




Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The #Midwessay: Kathryn Savage, Fly-Over

Ancient mountains (now hills), ancient ocean beds (now plains and prairie), tornado alley, tablelands, highlands, cross timbers, caves, the Ozarks, cypress swamps and forest—we've got it all in Oklahoma, baby. This place favors writing about landscape—it's embedded in us in a way I suppose other writers feel. For me, why I write about Oklahoma, why I care about its history and future, the legacies it will and won't claim, has something to do with the sight of a flat blooming canola field straddling a wet red dirt road beneath striated grey and white clouds after a spring storm. And, that this place has been and is filled with a mix of people—displaced, wandering, outcasts who are still often overlooked. The late Barry Lopez (RIP; not an Oklahoman) wrote, "If we could speak more accurately, more evocatively, more familiarly, about the physical places we occupy, perhaps we could speak more penetratingly, more insightfully, more compassionately about the flaws in these various systems which, we regularly assert, we wish to address and make better." Each of the Oklahoma writers for this series speak to the physical place well, and each asks us to consider what that place (and its people) has to offer, or not. —Liz Blood, North Dakota Coordinator





Fly-Over

Kathryn Savage


*

 
Lights flank tarmac. Everywhere, staircases on wheels waiting to be rolled beside small planes, wet from rain. At the airport, at night, in the Midwest, a plane descends slowly and I watch a man in a reflective vest out on the ramp wave it down like he's nudging a shy animal from the sky.
     Boarding the plane, a man in first class, the aisle, brazenly watches softcore on his cellphone. Women’s bodies tangle the way new puppies do, all that flesh and sucking. I take my seat, watch the others who board see his screen and look down instinctively. This is a small plane. We are shoulder to shoulder, flying between small midwestern cities. 
     I remember this party in high school. Then I'm going into a bedroom with my friend R and this guy who wants to have sex with us together. There was a desktop computer in the corner of the bedroom, screensaver rotating through a pattern of abstract geometric shapes. The emanating light dull and soft as the belly of a flower. We took our clothes off, licked and felt. We were clownish, a performance. Hair all down my back, skin strangely lit. I wanted to be a performance, a painted on grin of a body.
     The plane lifts. All last year, I kept recording dad's dying body with my phone. His voice, his walking, his words, so I could play him back. Then I couldn't watch any of it. To see him performing his living was also to see him performing his dying. After the funeral, me and some cousins screamed along to the radio, speeding and drunk through night-shaded cornfields. It was a beautiful feeling—the cool wind and the cigarettes we smoked down one after another and our shared youth and blood coursing between us. 
     Eric Gamalinda: “Because memory moves in orbits of absence.” The women on the man's phone in first class were on their knees in a kind of worship. They performed presence and aliveness so well. I used to want to be a good performance too. Then I changed. The cars I've driven too fast in. The bad parties. People I've loved and fucked and hated here. My Midwest is so many small monuments. Memories that orbit, and depart, and resurface. Here’s a memory: When we lived in extended stay motels, me and dad, I remember watching Arachnophobia starring Jeff Daniels and John Goodman. It was the first film I watched entirely while jumping on the bed. 




Monday, April 19, 2021

The #Midwessay: Becky Carman, It's Not That, Either

Ancient mountains (now hills), ancient ocean beds (now plains and prairie), tornado alley, tablelands, highlands, cross timbers, caves, the Ozarks, cypress swamps and forest—we've got it all in Oklahoma, baby. This place favors writing about landscape—it's embedded in us in a way I suppose other writers feel. For me, why I write about Oklahoma, why I care about its history and future, the legacies it will and won't claim, has something to do with the sight of a flat blooming canola field straddling a wet red dirt road beneath striated grey and white clouds after a spring storm. And, that this place has been and is filled with a mix of people—displaced, wandering, outcasts who are still often overlooked. The late Barry Lopez (RIP; not an Oklahoman) wrote, "If we could speak more accurately, more evocatively, more familiarly, about the physical places we occupy, perhaps we could speak more penetratingly, more insightfully, more compassionately about the flaws in these various systems which, we regularly assert, we wish to address and make better." Each of the Oklahoma writers for this series speak to the physical place well, and each asks us to consider what that place (and its people) has to offer, or not. —Liz Blood, Oklahoma Coordinator

 




It’s Not That, Either

Becky Carman


*


The colloquial Midwest is a huge swath that none of us can accurately draw borders around, so forgive me, Chicagoans, for focusing on the prairie, where our whole thing is talking about leaving or not talking about staying. Re: us, everyone else’s thing is fixating on our most apparent qualities. The bad ones. Thanks a lot, John Steinbeck (who was from California).
     From the inside out, it’s a chip on our shoulder—a conjoined pride and shame about our theoretically idyllic, if flyover, way of life, with our ample parking and slow summer nights and giant grocery carts. From the outside in, it’s the Dust Bowl and then corn fields and also complicated family dynamics centered around religion. 
     Even the prompt for this essay—”What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest?“—emphasizes the writerly burden of geographical and cultural exposition, whether to readers or to ourselves. We’re in the netherworld, called western but really central, with a coastless, varied landscape most people couldn’t describe if asked. Flat, kind of? But hills, sometimes. Cities! Small ones. Low cost of living and driving to food trucks, for some reason. Good veterinary schools. Nobody needs to ask Joan Didion what New York City is like to understand what she’s talking about.
     Being Midwestern is about recognizing one’s roots if not one’s home. As essayists, it’s apparently to write despite one’s circumstances instead of because. We cling to the idea of expatriates having done us proud instead of, more truthfully, abandoning us, trying to prove our worth. Anyway, humorist Will Rogers was born in Oologah, Oklahoma, left as soon as he could to make his name as a globetrotting Hollywood film star, and died in a plane crash in Alaska. We named Oklahoma City’s international airport after him.






Sunday, April 18, 2021

The #Midwessay: Phyllis Brotherton, My Midwessay

Ancient mountains (now hills), ancient ocean beds (now plains and prairie), tornado alley, tablelands, highlands, cross timbers, caves, the Ozarks, cypress swamps and forest—we've got it all in Oklahoma, baby. This place favors writing about landscape—it's embedded in us in a way I suppose other writers feel. For me, why I write about Oklahoma, why I care about its history and future, the legacies it will and won't claim, has something to do with the sight of a flat blooming canola field straddling a wet red dirt road beneath striated grey and white clouds after a spring storm. And, that this place has been and is filled with a mix of people—displaced, wandering, outcasts who are still often overlooked. The late Barry Lopez (RIP; not an Oklahoman) wrote, "If we could speak more accurately, more evocatively, more familiarly, about the physical places we occupy, perhaps we could speak more penetratingly, more insightfully, more compassionately about the flaws in these various systems which, we regularly assert, we wish to address and make better." Each of the Oklahoma writers for this series speak to the physical place well, and each asks us to consider what that place (and its people) has to offer, or not. —Liz Blood, Oklahoma Coordinator

 



My Midwessay

Phyllis Brotherton


*

The Midwest for me will always be home, and even though “home” has been many places over the years: Chicago, Tehran, Fresno, California, and now Reno, Nevada; Oklahoma City, my place of birth and life for the first 25 years, will always signify my origins and claims a forever hold on my heart. 
     What could be considered more “Mid” than Oklahoma City, a short 355 miles +/- south of Lebanon, Kansas, the geographic center of the 48 contiguous US states? What Neil Gaiman describes in American Gods as “a neutral ground where the modern and old gods can meet despite the war between them,” which seems particularly percipient, given the area’s 35+ registered Native American tribes and the crisscrossed remnants of former federally demarcated Indian Reservations. Though the West long ago was designated as everything beyond the Appalachian Mountains, exploration, migration and settlement later shifted that “frontier,” so that the vast expanse west of the Mississippi River became known as the West.
     My Midwessay would include the farm where I grew up, just south of Oklahoma City, where when asked, my family described, in our linguistic-lazy Okie accents, as “six miles south-a the airport, a mile west-a Meridian” and eight miles west of the town of Moore, where I attended all twelve years of primary and secondary school. The dirt road leading to our rented 100-year-old farmhouse nestled on forty acres, was lined all along the south side with hickory trees and still is, though they are shadows of their former selves now, ravaged by Wizard-of-Oz tornadoes and Northers certain to storm through every year, over and over, like clockwork. That rickety cellar door Dorothy stomped her foot on to get in, blown back again and again as she tried, was the spitting image of mine.
     The pecan tree in the backyard, beyond the cellar, windmill, and outhouse we used when the toilets clogged or the septic tank filled up, still stands in all its Papershell Cultivar glory. It watched our young family of four move in, shaded my Dad’s greyhound dog pens, and saw us pull out of the sandy driveway twelve years later, to a new home further south, all our own. On a visit a few years ago, on yet another drive-by to see how the place was getting on, I’m greeted by the owner, who shares that the tree, likely two centuries old by then, produced over 400 lbs. of pecans that year, almost ten times the average. I immediately write down this happy longevity story in my notebook. Of course, the old house and even the cellar by that time, only existed unseen below ground, since the former had been dozed and buried on its very spot, while the latter ultimately caved in on itself.
     For me, my Midwest Essay is full of color: the red dirt of the South Canadian River, the red cardinals perched on snow-drifted fenceposts, the golden sway of wheat fields, the black-green sky of a Cat. 5, the flaxen hair of broom corn, and the clear colorless glass of icy highways. And smells: fresh-baled alfalfa, the petrichor of raindrops on parched soil, the must of fallen leaves or the sharp scent of the first cold spell that pierces your nostrils like a dull knife. The Oklahoma winds could have their own dictionary, and maybe they do. All of this, the shade and scent of nostalgia, of childhood memory, of that place that was your first remembrance, and really your only—home. 



Saturday, April 17, 2021

The #Midwessay: Reed Karaim, North Dakota at Night

Winter. Bone deep cold. Oil. Wind. Fargo (you can still pose with the woodchipper from the movie at the Fargo Visitors Center). These are some of the first concepts that usually come to mind when people think of North Dakota. The essays presented here examine the complexity of North Dakota, “a state used as a punching bag for a place where nothing happens,” as Bronson Lemer writes. It’s not an easy state to love, but it is a hard place to shake.  —Pamela Pierce, North Dakota Coordinator

 


North Dakota at Night

Reed Karaim


*


We were young and we were already ghosts. Late at night, driving up and down the blank county roads that circled our small town, one of our favorite pastimes was breaking into the abandoned farmhouses that dotted the countryside. The eastern edge of North Dakota is flat, table-top land disturbed only by a few meandering rivers, the creeks and gulleys that feed into them, and planted tree lines, known as shelterbelts, that march up and down between the fields. At night it has the stark simplicity of a Dali dreamscape, the moon too bright, shadows too sharply etched, every brief rise in the earth, every tree and telephone pole enlarged in the darkness. If you forgot your chattering, half-drunk friends in the car and considered one for a minute, they seemed to carry an elusive significance, some strange weight that was hard to place but left you with a vague uneasiness, a sense of life too stark, too vivid, and passing too quickly.
     The abandoned farmhouses were castles in this twilight, towering ruins that blotted out the stars. There were a lot of them. At the end of the 20th century, North Dakota was a place with its future solidly behind it. The state had reached its peak population, a magnificent 682,000 people, in 1930, right before the Great Depression, and it hadn’t been close since. In a 70-year span in which the population of the United States had more than doubled, the rich farmland of the eastern half of North Dakota, the arid rolling grasslands of the west, had only grown more empty, the small towns spaced every few miles that were the heart of the state’s character and identity shrinking as if the desiccating summer winds were slowly turning them to dust. In the east, the land was still farmed, but there were fewer farmers every year, and when an elderly farmer or farm couple died or finally had to leave, the land would be sold, but there was often no one who wanted the house. They stood empty and forgotten. If there had been no heirs to auction off the belongings, they were left furnished, old couches and chairs, beds, books, table clothes, odd knick-knacks, all waiting in the dark. 
     Waiting for us, half-drunk, small-town teenagers, tumbling out of used Chevys and Fords, boys and girls, laughing, shouting, grabbing, shoving each other, spilling cherry vodka, blackberry brandy, Pabst Blue Ribbon as we trotted, staggered, skipped, walked warily through the wild, knee-high grass toward a deserted farmhouse, which I remember as all being tall and square with evenly spaced windows that dully reflected the moonlight when they weren’t broken into brighter shards of winking glass. Half the time the doors were ajar, long ago forced, other times we pried them open, sometimes someone went through a broken window, we heard a rusty lock click, and the door scraped open into a rectangle of elusive darkness.
     Haunting houses is what we called this low-grade breaking and entering. It is strange when you consider that we were so young, so full of the unfocused joy and rage of the young, that we assigned ourselves the role of ghosts. Part of it was simply that we liked to scare each other once we were inside. Half the fun was stumbling through the rooms, hiding against a shadowed wall or behind a moldering chair and scaring the living shit out of someone else. Part of it was that you could never be sure you weren’t going to seriously hurt yourself or worse: fall through a rotten floor or trip on something unseen to land on something sharp. You stumbled through the darkness on the faint edge of oblivion, one solidly stupid move away from becoming a real ghost, always a magnetic spot for teenagers.
     That’s all it really was for most of my friends, I’m sure. I don’t wish to make it more. But there was also something else that hung over those nights for some of us. We were staring into a narrowing, emptying future in the only place we knew and it gave our lives a moonlit translucence we had to defy by facing it, by turning it into a drunken lark. 
     Out there, far away, somewhere, the world was exploding, changing, becoming something new, and we were here, in a state that felt at best static and, at worst, to be fading out of existence. Our insignificance haunted us. North Dakota is forever the forgotten place, the place Jay Gatsby was from when he was James Gatz, a nobody farm boy dreaming of being someone else. In the late ‘80s a pair of sociologists proposed turning much of the state into a “Buffalo Commons,” giving it back to the herds of bison that filled the prairie before settlement. Their argument was it was emptying out anyway, so there was no reason not to hurry it along a bit for the benefit of the creatures that had a rightful claim. A few years later, a newspaper columnist from somewhere down south made the news by claiming he did not believe North Dakota existed. He had never spoken to anyone who had been there or who knew someone who had been there. In what was clearly a sad miscalculation, the state tourist agency flew him up to prove the state was real. He got out of the plane, took a look around and proclaimed he could be anywhere. He still didn’t believe it.
     Well, we were there. Some of us wanted to get the hell out. Some of us could not imagine leaving. But we were there and, driving too fast down the county roads at night, standing in front of a towering, deserted house, stepping into the interior darkness, facing the strange shadowed forms of abandoned lives, we were in defiance of our own irrelevance. I remember a night, a girl I wanted to impress, a big house still fully furnished, stumbling across floors that felt unsteady into a back room upon which ghostly sheets had been laid across all the furniture but for a single overstuffed chair that waited patiently for the dead to return. I had ventured deeper into the house than anyone, and I stood waiting in the shadows beside the chair, waiting for her and her friends to appear, so I could step out, hear them scream, let her know I had explored the darkened rooms on my own, had not been scared. Was very clearly not afraid of what waited ahead.
     Instead, they wandered down the hallway with Ricky Maple shepherding them, giggling as if in a poorly-done Halloween haunted house, and when they saw me, managed only a brief burst of drunken laughter and a single, exaggerated shriek as Ricky offered me a drink of cherry vodka. 
     I went to and dropped out of the state’s land-grant university, spent a few years working, pretending I wasn’t still rattling around in the empty rooms of my childhood, and then left North Dakota and never came back but to visit. In the first decade of the 21st century an oil boom hit the western part of the state and it started growing again. They laid out miles of new streets in the small cities in the oil patch, tossed up acres of tract homes, planned new schools and rec centers and strip malls for the thousands of oil workers from other states who were crowded into trailers and pre-fab housing that resembled nothing so much as the metal container boxes they stack on ocean-going transports. A trip through the west sent me driving across the oil patch at night and I remember the flames from the wells, which flared off excess natural gas, lighting the darkness like ordered rows of candles that stretched all the way to the horizon.
     A few years later they had almost all gone out as oil prices tumbled. The state was still wealthier than it had been, still had more people, still had some pumps pumping, still had a defiant swagger to its proclamations that its future remained as bright as ten thousand oil wells burning across the prairie like the world’s biggest birthday cake.
     Then Donald Trump ran for president telling America that everything you fear might be waiting in the shadows is real, all the monsters are really there, crouching in the darkness, waiting in the next room, and you are right to be afraid, you are right to angry, your existence is as threatened and as fragile as you imagined. You are half a ghost already. 
     North Dakota embraced him with the ecstatic frenzy of converts at a tent show revival. Trump won the state in a landslide in 2016, received even more votes in 2020. In my old hometown, people who had never seemed to show the least interest in politics were suddenly posting Trump banners, raising Trump flags, wearing hats proclaiming the past was the future. I saw then, for the first time, that we had always been terrified, we had been standing in the abandoned house pretending we were facing our fears, but the truth was, they had always been outside. Out there. The ghost mansions of our past were where we felt safe, a world we knew even as it died around us, even as we mocked it. The world without walls was the one that scared us, the country that marched on past the small towns and uniform fields of grain whispering reassuringly in the wind toward something clamorous, chaotic, changing and unknown. The future was our real haunted house, the rooms all too brightly lit and crowded with people and things we did not know or understand, the doors and windows all tossed open and, worst of all, absolutely no place to hide.





Friday, April 16, 2021

The #Midwessay: Debra Marquart, A North Dakota Story (1/...)

Winter. Bone deep cold. Oil. Wind. Fargo (you can still pose with the woodchipper from the movie at the Fargo Visitors Center). These are some of the first concepts that usually come to mind when people think of North Dakota. The essays presented here examine the complexity of North Dakota, “a state used as a punching bag for a place where nothing happens,” as Bronson Lemer writes. It’s not an easy state to love, but it is a hard place to shake.  —Pamela Pierce, North Dakota Coordinator

 


A North Dakota Story

Debra Marquart


*


There was a guy in my hometown named Ezekiel. Everyone called him Zeke. One day Zeke comes into the Red Owl to complain about a can of tuna that he bought in the store, which he’d just eaten for lunch. Just terrible, Zeke says. Worst thing I ever tasted. “Do you still have the can,” the store owner offers. “We’ll give you a refund.” Okay.
     Later that afternoon, Zeke comes in with the rinsed-out tin can. “This isn’t tuna,” the owner says. “This is cat food.”  Oh, Zeke says.
     The next week, Zeke comes back to the store for his weekly groceries. The clerks, by now have all heard about the cat food. Stocking the shelves, on breaks, at the checkout counter, they’ve been talking about it. The story has spread to the elevator, the farm implement, the drug store, and the bank. In barns, hayfields, and middle-school classrooms, at basketball games and at kitchen tables and over weak cups of coffee at Maggie’s Café—the swirlingest hotbed of gossip in town—it’s been discussed. None of this will reach the pages of the Napoleon Homestead.
     “You feeling okay, Zeke?” one of the clerks asks when she sees him grab a shopping cart. Yah, I’m fine, Zeke answers. I accidentally ate some cat food, you might have heard? he offers. Thought I might get sick. 
     “Oh,” the clerk replies, putting concern in her voice, as if she’s just now hearing this. 
     Yah, it was scary, he says. When I went to bed that night, I had to set the alarm for every hour, so I could wake myself up to check if I was dead. 





Thursday, April 15, 2021

The #Midwessay: Patrick Thomas Henry, The Campus Visit, March 2017

Winter. Bone deep cold. Oil. Wind. Fargo (you can still pose with the woodchipper from the movie at the Fargo Visitors Center). These are some of the first concepts that usually come to mind when people think of North Dakota. The essays presented here examine the complexity of North Dakota, “a state used as a punching bag for a place where nothing happens,” as Bronson Lemer writes. It’s not an easy state to love, but it is a hard place to shake.  —Pamela Pierce, North Dakota Coordinator

 



The Campus Visit, March 2017

Patrick Thomas Henry

*


You think of it often: the day that would lead you to become an accidental Midwesterner. Before you learn to live with a cold so pervasive that it forms knuckle-gnarled ledges of ice on the insides of your windows in the blanched eternity of winter, you’re riding shotgun on a driving tour of Grand Forks during a campus visit.
     It’s 2017 and the market for college teaching jobs in the humanities has been bleak. Worse markets are on the horizon. And despite that here’s North Dakota—far from the Mid-Atlantic and Appalachia, with the promise of potential employment, a place to write, a place to create. Never mind the winters. You can rationalize the bone-deep cold from a job you worked back in Pennsylvania during summers in high school and undergrad: ten-hour shifts in the -14º of an ice cream warehouse.
     But you keep this to yourself.
     Your future colleague delivers some factoids. The Red River flows north; in winter it freezes solid. When frozen, the river can support snowshoers and cross-country skiers. In spring and summer kayakers take to it. You nod, ask questions. The wing mirrors reflect the receding remnants of winter—muddy tire treads and salt-bleached stripes on the pavement, snow plowed into steep embankments. The piles are spreckled with gravel and green shards of glass, are belted with strata of ice. A fossil record of cold, a melting history.
     Your future colleague says those heaps could last until the end of April—or longer. You look at the remaining strips of ice along the roads. They resemble the hashed concrete of medians. You think of those massive snow mounds and Monet’s haystacks: the shapes are similar, both impressionistic humps, striated with homey earth tones.

A year after the campus tour, you’ll see it—the snow piles on the airport’s tarmac and the Target parking lot survive until May. That spring, when you begin to take long walks around your neighborhood, you’ll see one of these mounds in a field near the Dairy Queen on Columbia Road. 
     Each of the snow piles seeps brackish water, but you’ll imagine them melting with a glacial music: a cooing trickle, a wind chime tinkle.
     A mind of winter, you know, can make a concerto from the rustling of dead leaves.
     In “Last Snow,” Heid E. Erdrich writes that the last snowfall and its slow melt into slush “runs in first light / making a music in the streets we wish we could keep.” But you can’t hold onto it, you can only preserve the sensation of it in your marrow, what her poem calls the “stubborn calendar of bone.”
The animals of North Dakota record these winters in their bones, too. After the snow mound by the Dairy Queen evaporates, the ground squirrels emerge from their burrows. You’ll pause on your long walks to watch them rise on their hind legs. Even in June they’ve begun to scope out provisions for the next winter.

The driving tour of the city goes on—along the strip of fast-food chains on Washington Street, past the stalwart and vast-porched houses on tree-lined Belmont, by the opera house converted into a brewery, over a bridge into Minnesota and back. You and your future colleague find common territory in a conversation about Pittsburgh, the Steel City, its reputation as the “gateway to the Midwest.”
     Minutes later there’s a turn onto a side street, and then you’re weaving through the narrow streets and the slender houses by Grand Forks' Riverside Park, where every building seems to stand as if its joists are pinned shoulder-tight in anxiety.
     Or perhaps that’s your anxiety, projected onto the buildings: you still have a job talk to give, after all.

Featureless—that’s how William H. Gass derides Fargo, just an hour’s drive south of Grand Forks via I-29. (Gass was born in Fargo but notes that he was only six weeks old when his family decamped to Ohio.) He compares the North Dakota landscape to the space where he wrote his early stories: “a dining table, featureless as Fargo.”
     But a wooden dining table has its grain, evidence of its heartwood-deep patterns. Texture and topography exist, if you’re patient and willing to look.
     After all, patience makes you susceptible to surprise. In a good way. During the first semester of your gig, December advances suddenly and the facilities crews already have plowed the snow into immense bulwarks twice your height. You’ll tell your students that the pocked features of the mounds—all pitted snow and gravel and brown-black from exhaust—would make a perfect lunar surface for a stop motion film.
     You’ll think of Gass, how landscapes are featureless only if we refuse to detail them with contradictions. You’ll think of how Thomas McGrath prophesies the Dakota winter in “Beyond the Red River,” when he invokes the “winter lion, / body of ice-crystals and sombrero of dead leaves.”
     The sky above you is hazy, the clouds grey ribbons. It resembles steel wool, abrasive and cool. The temperature hovers around zero and the cold wires in your marrow.

Before returning you to the red-brick buildings of campus, your future colleague drives you toward the outskirts of the city, points to the blue edifices of the North Dakota Mill. It’s the only state-owned mill in the United States, you’re told. A vestige of prairie populism, your future colleague tells you.
     You wind down the window. The air’s so brisk it stops in your throat yet still you can taste it all: the pollen of spring, the bite of winter, the musk of snow mold, the yeastiness of chaff and grain.



Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The #Midwessay: Peter Grimes, U-Turn

Winter. Bone deep cold. Oil. Wind. Fargo (you can still pose with the woodchipper from the movie at the Fargo Visitors Center). These are some of the first concepts that usually come to mind when people think of North Dakota. The essays presented here examine the complexity of North Dakota, “a state used as a punching bag for a place where nothing happens,” as Bronson Lemer writes. It’s not an easy state to love, but it is a hard place to shake.  —Pamela Pierce, North Dakota Coordinator

 


U-turn

Peter Grimes

*


North Dakota is a state of the past. My wife grew up there and says the ’50s arrived in the ’80s. For me the state is personal history. Another wife and I relocated there from Cincinnati in 2011. We witnessed the queer sight of pump jacks bowing to the prairie we drove across that first summer. We were moving from the edge of the East to the edge of the West. In academia, we were always on the edge of something. We found the town of Dickinson in flux, a fracking boom underway in western North Dakota. The ground itself shook and belched toxic salt water; the locals were awash in strangers from Oklahoma, Idaho, West Virginia, Ohio. Once a quiet ranching town—or so we heard—The Western Edge was now the oily center, the color of money. What had it been like before? we wondered. What were we too late to see?
     We hadn’t come to climb oil derricks, not to bulldoze the top soil or work sixteen-hour days and buy matching jet skis for the man-made lakes. I’d gotten a job teaching writing at the state college. In our city sedans with bumper stickers from the future, my wife and I squeezed our way through the big white trucks that churned the red dust. What I came to know as Dickinson was what the locals, raised on family farms, at Lutheran potlucks, no longer recognized. Old folks on fixed incomes were moving to Bismarck and beyond. To Minnesota. To Arizona. Escalating crime scared off families who’d loved Dickinson for its buffer from all else. Write about it, I instructed my students, some of whom were from as far away as West Africa, but most of whom grew up in western North Dakota. What? they asked. Home, I said.  
     In my six years there, I glimpsed that side of North Dakota too. The past. The pre-boom holdover. Through the continuing education program at my university, I met school teachers, ranchers, lawyers, handymen, insurance agents, realtors, bar owners, reporters, mechanics, farmers, even oil workers from the last, mostly forgotten boom. I got to know names like Kostelecky, Fuchs, Selle, Mrnak, Kadrmas, Sarsland, Altendorf, Jahner. Names like strange and beautiful rock formations. It struck me how each person turned up in different settings. The dentist who also played a part in the high school musical who also raised goats who also was a democrat in a sea of red. I glimpsed the layer of every town that lingers like bones under fickle fortune. In Eastern cities, I’d never seen that sustaining mesh so close up, each thread visible at this size, the whole ready to catch those who fall. I felt safe.
     And feeling safe, I fell. I wanted a piece of the before, the pre-boom ideal that was past. I must have been stirred by the promise of buffered silence, waving flax fields, tongues of blue sky like I’d never seen. All around me, the center that once held wasn’t holding. The population exploded. The roads were broken, the store shelves empty. Man camps littered wheat fields. And there were all the spills. Even our school shuddered—enrollment unsteady, a scandal, an unhinged president, a suicide. The university proved neither ivory tower nor bunker. 
     The woman I met was much younger, had a child. I glimpsed a way toward something different, and my wife went back East. 
     That fall was the longest of my life. 2012. I felt the arctic cold of North Dakota when the leaves dropped and the snow piled up. My nose tingled. Everyone assumed I’d leave with the separation. No one quite knew what had happened. And when my secret relationship with the young woman didn’t work out, no one knew that part of my past. I stayed in North Dakota because it had been the plan. This job. My whole life had led to it, all those courses, a decade. I learned to be alone in a house in a subdivision on a prairie in a bustle. Me and a dog. The lights of the oil patch could be seen from space, I learned, and it gave me some comfort. I learned to search, to drive five hours and date women in Wyoming, women with children, to scour the Black Hills for purpose. Nothing worked out. I taught my courses. I switched around the furniture. I talked to myself and the dog. Then the dog died. Still I stayed. 
     And, perhaps by necessity, I began to need open spaces, like a place to set my mind. I drove. I wrote. I closed my eyes and found those threads, the warp and the weft. Online, I met a woman from North Dakota who was living in my home state of North Carolina. I heard the acquired Southern in her voice when we talked on the phone late into the night. It was like a call from my childhood, crushes I’d forgotten. We talked. We met. She moved back to North Dakota. Thanksgivings with her family in Jamestown became the meaning of the word, fifty people in a finished basement, pool table piled with pies and turkey and frog-eye salad, singing a prayer in front of the fireplace, then dispersing to fold-up tables. I liked to stay with her parents in quiet Kenmare, the routine of dice games and dinner at noon. This place my wife had been young, fantasizing about being kidnapped by Indians, a time in her life I would never know. 
     In 2017, I got a similar, better job back in North Carolina, and we moved again, this time together. Now I’m the one home, or at least in the place I grew up. Nancy has left her original state behind again. We still visit, of course, keep up with friends we made there on Facebook. Some have scattered across the West like cottonwood fluff. Others hold on. Her parents are getting older, and older. Every day I drive to work now, fifty miles through Cumberland and Robeson Counties, it’s past cotton and tobacco fields most North Dakotans have only read about. Slavery times. And I think of the wide-open interstate between Dickinson and Bismarck, hardly a car in sight, fields of purple flax and yellow canola, wheat, occasionally a falling-down barn in a coulee. Driving there, I used to think, where the hell am I? How did I end up in North Dakota? What has happened to my life? Now, I think, if I hadn’t gone there, I wouldn’t be here. Not the same place.   




Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The #Midwessay: Bronson Lemer, NoDak Defensiveness

Winter. Bone deep cold. Oil. Wind. Fargo (you can still pose with the woodchipper from the movie at the Fargo Visitors Center). These are some of the first concepts that usually come to mind when people think of North Dakota. The essays presented here examine the complexity of North Dakota, “a state used as a punching bag for a place where nothing happens,” as Bronson Lemer writes. It’s not an easy state to love, but it is a hard place to shake.  —Pamela Pierce, North Dakota Coordinator

 


NoDak Defensiveness

Bronson Lemer

*


Recently, I read a popular novel set in North Dakota. I enjoyed the story and the journey of the main character, but I just couldn’t get past how unfamiliar the North Dakota in the novel felt to me. Something about the setting felt off. The novel was supposed to be set during North Dakota’s recent oil boom, but I couldn’t feel the place the writer was describing. It didn’t feel like the North Dakota I grew up in, ran away from, and return to for yearly visits. So often my home state is used as a punching bag for a place where nothing happens, a place of empty spaces, and on the rare occasion when North Dakota is in the spotlight, I want it to feel right, true. More than just nothingness. I know “truth” is subjective, but reading that novel I wanted a North Dakota I could recognize.

When I write about my home state now, I can’t help but be defensive. I want to get it right. I want the reader to feel how beautiful and haunting the place can be. Often, I find myself thinking about a line from Debra Marquart’s memoir The Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere: “We children of North Dakota are programmed for flight. … When grown, we scattered in a kind of diaspora, a phenomenon known as “outmigration.” But we always feel the pull of our home ground.” I don’t live in North Dakota anymore, but I find myself often writing about this “flight,” the forces that pushed me away, and the tethers that keep pulling me back. These forces and tethers are influenced by my family, but also by the land itself. Writing into the mystery of why this place has such a hold on me is one way for me to document the complicated relationship I have with the place I grew up and to show you something I feel is true.




Monday, April 12, 2021

The #Midwessay: David R. Solheim, Loneliness is an Aspect of the Land

Winter. Bone deep cold. Oil. Wind. Fargo (you can still pose with the woodchipper from the movie at the Fargo Visitors Center). These are some of the first concepts that usually come to mind when people think of North Dakota. The essays presented here examine the complexity of North Dakota, “a state used as a punching bag for a place where nothing happens,” as Bronson Lemer writes. It’s not an easy state to love, but it is a hard place to shake.  —Pamela Pierce, North Dakota Coordinator

 


Loneliness is an Aspect of the Land

David R. Solheim

*


From a wide-angle, geographical perspective the Midwest is probably seen as that which isn’t coastal or mountainous in North America, excluding the Old South. That would pretty much be everything northwest of the Ohio River extending to the Rocky Mountains, and around the Great Lakes across the northern plains. In the US the Midwest changes on its southern edge somewhere around Oklahoma into the Southern and Southwestern regions. It also seems to me the Great Lakes themselves give a kind of costal flavor to the eastern third of that territory, and I tend to think of the Midwest as close to the 1803 Louisiana Territory from the Mississippi River west stopping short of the foothills of the Rockies and north of Arkansas to the Canadian border. My own life experience shrinks it a bit further to being the Missouri River watershed and especially west from the 100th meridian in the semi-arid rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains. It includes the many tributaries of the Missouri and surrounds some hilly rugged outcroppings such as the Black Hills and the Bighorn Mountains. Such a description/definition also eliminates almost all cities over a hundred thousand people.
     For most of my life, I have been a resident of this particular version of the Midwest and as writer think of it as the territory I write of and from. It wasn’t until I began graduate study in California that I begin to think of my homeland as a kind of life/career task, as before having much experience outside of the region, it didn’t seem that interesting. However, as I was beginning to see it from a distance I found it valuable as subject.
     Just as I was settling into what I thought would be my focus as a writer, I read the following paragraph from N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain:
A single know rises out of the plain in Oklahoma, north and west of the Witchita Range. For my people, the Kiowas, it is an old landmark, and they gave it the name Rainy Mountain. The hardest weather in the world is there. Winter brings blizzards, hot tornadic winds arise in the spring, and in summer the prairie is an anvil’s edge. The grass turns brittle and brown, and it cracks beneath your feet. There are green belts along the rivers and creeks, linear groves of hickory and pecan, willow and witch hazel. At distance in July or August the steaming foliage seems almost to writhe in fire. Great green and yellow grasshoppers are everywhere in the tall grass, popping up like corn to sting the flesh, and tortoises crawl about on the red earth, going nowhere in the plenty of time. Loneliness is an aspect of the land. All things in the plane are isolate; there is no confusion of object in the eye, but one hill or one tree or one man. To look upon that landscape in the early morning, with the sun at your back, is to lose the sense of proportion. Your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is where Creation was begun.
Reading that passage in the mid 1970s as I was thinking of myself as the writer who would present the Midwest to the world stopped me cold. Here what I hoped to do with and through my writing career had already been done and in one paragraph.
     I have since recovered and try to go about my business embroidering some details from my experience to enrich the tapestry of Midwestern writing, but I continue to believe that The Way to Rainy Mountain is the essential non-fiction book about the Midwest. Momaday is a great writer, and the book uses his skills in a multilevel experience. It is a memoir of his personal experience from childhood and retracing the mythic journey of the Kiowa to the southern plains, and it includes family and cultural history. It is also written in a variety of forms, beginning and ending with poems, including three essays, and three groups of multiple prose paragraphs or prose poems making most of the body of the book. The multi-level subjects and multiple formats made reading and re-reading it and enriching experience. 
     The paragraph from the Introduction presented above also establishes central elements of Midwestern experience and writing. Life on the prairies, the northern plains, or the upper Midwest, is essentially a solitary experience. The land and landscape is active, not a mere setting for events to take place. Weather is also an actor and full of extreme conditions. Humans share the experience with the flora and fauna of the territory, and like the weather, not always under the best of circumstances. In addition to prairie and hills, the landscape is dominated by rivers, and creeks, moving water. Human society and community is implied, but it has to be sought and created. 
     A second significant book in my Midwestern reading experience from a decade or so later is Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris. A major aspect of this book is that Norris is writing from and about the experience of extended time living in a small town on the prairie. Norris appears to adopt the characteristics of Midwestern life, I have delineated above, but she also depicts the complications of living in a community of other people, not all of whom are of the same cultural stock. One feature she does point out is that we Midwesterners seem to have universal nostalgia for the past. It may be a preceding generation, it may be one’s own childhood, or perhaps only the preceding decade; however, it is also a nostalgia for a past that probably didn’t actually exist as it is imagined from the present. There is a wide-spread sense that other times (and sometimes other places) were better than the present. I think this is an almost universal illusion that Midwestern writers confront, often in their own thinking as well as that of the society they might be critiquing. Norris makes it clear that she is friendly analyst and member of the society she depicts, but she is not a self-satisfied member of it, and feels the short-coming of small-town society in her experience there. The book does include significant spiritual meditations that are also a benefit of place, and that idea is even more fully examined in her later book, Acedia and Me.
     A third non-fiction classic of Midwestern writing is William Least Heat Moon’s Prairy Erth. Unlike the first two mentioned above, either of which could be read for the first time in a few hours, Heat Moon’s work here is encyclopedic and in fact took me several years of interrupted reading to complete. That is not to say that it is excessively difficult, or lacking in attractiveness to the reader, it is just a big book with lots of detail. For his undertaking Heat Moon went to a Kansas county near the physical centers of the country and continent and wrote about what he learned there. This process itself included many extended trips over several years. He chose the area because it was Midwestern, in the middle of the natural territory under discussion. In addition to being thorough about current conditions, weather, nature, and historical events, one of the insightful characteristics of the book is to use the grid of land measurement as its organizing principle. When one flies over much of the Midwest this grid is easily visible from the air and the flatter the agricultural land the more prominently the roads, fence lines, and cropping patterns reveal the way the landscape has been organized. Even the circles of center pivot irrigation fall within the squares of square mile sections and the larger pattern of Heat Moon’s book, the thirty-six square mile townships. This book covers the territory, giving the history of a particular piece of ranch or farm land, the demise of a ghost town, the wagon roads, the Native American peoples, and the material in a pack-rat’s nest. 
     A final contender in my sense of the mid-western nonfiction is Trees, Why Do You Wait by the late Richard Critchfield. Critchfield studied two agricultural communities particularly analyzing the changes they were going through toward the end of the twentieth century. His is both an ecological and social study showing the interaction of economy and social structure. The movement of the study suggests that the Midwest might be becoming too lonely and too isolate. That the informal movement towards Poppers’ idea of the buffalo commons is weakening the small towns, and people are living too far apart. There is a particular balance of scale, towns not too small and cities not too big that might achieve harmony for the inhabitants, and that such places contribute to national stability. The difficulty is to find the economic balance on the scale.
     There are several excellent memoirs of mid-western life such a Debra Marquart’s Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere, Larry Woiwode’s What I Think I Did, and Bill Holm’s The Heart Can Be Filled Up Anywhere on Earth. Giants in the Earth is the essential beginning reading of Midwestern fiction, but Woiwode, Louise Erdrich, and Larry Watson write fine contemporary fiction of the Middle West and there are excellent poets too numerous to mention.
     What makes Midwestern writing Midwestern, begins with Momaday’s outline: isolation, active landscape, active weather, interaction with the natural and agricultural biota, and finally the interaction with social structures of the small community. Those who live in the Mid-west and those who write about it have either chosen the place or been chosen by the place. Those living or writing in the Midwest, will continue to find ways to make peace with place and find satisfaction or even joy in being part of it.



Sunday, April 11, 2021

The #Midwessay: Heidi Czerwiec's Midwessay: North Dakota

Winter. Bone deep cold. Oil. Wind. Fargo (you can still pose with the woodchipper from the movie at the Fargo Visitors Center). These are some of the first concepts that usually come to mind when people think of North Dakota. The essays presented here examine the complexity of North Dakota, “a state used as a punching bag for a place where nothing happens,” as Bronson Lemer writes. It’s not an easy state to love, but it is a hard place to shake.  —Pamela Pierce, North Dakota Coordinator

 


Midwessay: North Dakota

Heidi Czerwiec

*

 



















—not of North Dakota, but lived there long enough—half my adult life—that I hate on it but my hackles raise when others do—state so nondescript, nothing but horizon—what author Debra Marquart calls “The Horizontal World”—“so flat you could watch your dog run away for three days,” my husband says—no one ever believed I lived there, insisting I must mean the Dakota with Rushmore, north of that blank, nothing inhabiting that space in the imagination—might as well mark it “Here Be Dragons” on the map, where normal rules don’t apply and even our river ran north, choking on its own ice, reflux flooding all that flatness, struggling to escape—



Saturday, April 10, 2021

The #Midwessay: Joshua T. Anderson, Loomings from the Deep North

Winter. Bone deep cold. Oil. Wind. Fargo (you can still pose with the woodchipper from the movie at the Fargo Visitors Center). These are some of the first concepts that usually come to mind when people think of North Dakota. The essays presented here examine the complexity of North Dakota, “a state used as a punching bag for a place where nothing happens,” as Bronson Lemer writes. It’s not an easy state to love, but it is a hard place to shake.  —Pamela Pierce, North Dakota Coordinator

 



Loomings from the Deep North

Joshua T. Anderson

*


Winter.
     When asked what it was like to grow up along the chipped-tooth edge of eastern North Dakota, the first word out of my mouth is always winter.
     Winter in North Dakota deserves the same treatment as the whale in Melville’s Moby-Dick. How Melville begins his grand adventure with the Etymology and Extracts sections. Tracks the word “whale” through its origins. Hunts it across its poetic, philosophical, and religious fragments. Across pages soaked in saltwater. 
     Call me Ishmael, I could say, and then lose myself mapping out North Dakota’s monstrous whiteness. 
     But I only have 500 words here. About 400 left, give or take.
     So I’ll just tell a story.
     The year is 1973. Maybe 1974. 
     It’s January. Twenty below zero. 
     My Uncle Lew and his buddies Jim and Pete are on their way home from a bonspiel curling tournament in Stephen, MN. 
     Stuffed in an old Ford pickup, they look like the fourth line of a hockey team: mutton-chopped goons and baby-faced bruisers.  
     The boys slurp beer foam from ice-cold cans. Crank up the Creedence to drown out the heater vents, hot as a dog’s mouth. 
     They don’t know the origins of the word “blizzard.” Don’t know that “blizzard”—meaning “a severe snowstorm”—is a Midwest colloquialism that first entered the lexicon in an Iowa newspaper in 1870. Don’t know that before this, Davy Crockett used “blizzard” to mean a violent, hail of rifle fire and a “blast of words.” 
     My uncle and his pals learn blizzard the hard way: when snow whips across the flatlands. The road nothing but howling ghosts.
     The pickup skids and slams into a snowdrift. The engine dies.
     In North Dakota, we no longer sacrifice our young to the harvest gods. We give them a case of Budweiser, a rebuilt V6. Miles and miles of prairie highway.
     The boys burn everything they can in the ash tray: pages from the truck manual, the crumpled dollars in their wallets, hacksawed bits of curling brooms, the Polaroids of their sweethearts. Everything, until all they have left is their bodies. Their breath. 
     For two nights and three days, the boys sit on each other’s feet. To pass the time, they click on the battery, listen to a stranded radio host beg listeners for food. The boys eat snow and keep each other warm telling jokes: “I’m so hungry I’d walk through this storm to eat that DJ,” Lew says.  
     On the third morning, wind still whipping across the road, Lew looks up and sees the tops of telephone poles. Blue sky. 
     This land swallows everything. The Red River. The annual flood. Down to the bottom of a glacial lakebed. So when Lew looks up, it’s Jonah’s view from inside the mouth of the whale. Except much fucking colder.

Before the land swallows that storm and everyone inside that old Ford, Lew hears a horn blast. “Sounded like a ship’s foghorn,” he’d tell me, years later.  And that’s what I hear, too, every time he tells it, even though I know it’s a firetruck, blasting through the snow drifts.
     When he told it to me again this February, I asked him why we love these stories. About frostbitten toes. Fingers amputated at the knuckle. Killer storms looming in the distance.
     “Because we survive,” he said.
     And in this one, we do.






Friday, April 9, 2021

The #Midwessay: Beeda Speis, The Pollyanna of 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 Beeda.Speis@gmail.com and I'll get your words turned in to the Powers-That-Be. —Beeda Speis, Ohio Coordinator









The Pollyanna of Ohio

Beeda Speis

*




I’ve lived in Ohio my entire life and currently reside less than twenty miles from my childhood home. I love it here. I love the ideology and the values of Midwesterners. I love the sense of community and family that seems to resonate everywhere. 
     We approach life a little differently:
  • We make eye contact with people we pass on the street and even smile and say “hi.”
  • If we’re riding the bus and a fellow passenger falls asleep, we wake them up when it’s their stop. When we get off the bus, we tell the bus driver, “thank you.”
  • We wave to the garbage collectors.
  • When we’re on an elevator, we don’t just stare in silence at the numbers over the door. We make small talk with each other and say things like, “Have a blessed day” when we reach our floor. 
  • We start conversations in the check-out line at IGA and may even share the gospel.
  • If we see a car broken down, we stop to see if they need a cellphone to call for help.
  • If we see an accident, we hang around to be a witness for the police report.
  • We welcome new neighbors with a home-baked dessert.
  • We introduce ourselves to newcomers at church.
  • In the aftermath of a disaster, we band together and pitch in to help clean up, provide food, tools, money, clothing, and emotional and spiritual support.
  • We know our neighbors and even our postal carrier by name.
  • We shovel the driveways and sidewalks of widows, single people, the elderly.
  • We enjoy garage sales, farmer’s markets, and flea markets.
  • We report things that are out of the ordinary in our neighborhoods and look out for our neighbors.
  • When someone starts mowing, everyone else in the neighborhood gets out and mows, too.
  • Our yards are adorned with gnomes, birdfeeders, and oversized thermometers.
  • For every celebration or setback, we cook and bake. Food is like love wrapped in cellophane.
I’m proud of all of these things, and although the characteristics may not hold true everywhere, they still seem to be a way of life for those I interact with. 
     I am thankful I can still see the goodness in the hearts of many after all of these years, and I attribute that quality to God, my family, and growing up in the Midwest.



Thursday, April 8, 2021

The #Midwessay: Kris Harrington, Getting Up That Hill


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 Beeda.Speis@gmail.com and I'll get your words turned in to the Powers-That-Be. —Beeda Speis, Ohio Coordinator

 



Getting Up That Hill

Kris Harrington

*

 
Mid-February and we are iced in here in Youngstown, Ohio, where deindustrialization has chipped away at our city since the late 1970s. We pride ourselves on self-reliance and grit because we cannot count on anyone in charge to fix things for us. Voices are salty and course. Beer is cold and cheap. Hearts are shielded and big. Yesterday, a friend who lives at the top of a hill on the northside near the freeway told me the story of why he has hung onto a pair of hand-me-down golf cleats for the past couple of decades. Although he is not a golfer himself, he keeps the cleats by his front door, just in case. If a car gets stuck on the street hill outside his home, as is common in these Ohio winters, the cleats will keep him clawed into the road ice, and he can help give a push to get the driver back on their way home. That everything might be useful, that people should be useful, undergirds how we live here in this place where industry used to be, where those of us who are still here are managing to get by. With a little help, we can get up that hill.  



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 Beeda.Speis@gmail.com and I'll get your words turned in to the Powers-That-Be. —Beeda Speis, Ohio Coordinator








Midwessay/Ohio

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.