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. 

Gordon Grice grew up in Guymon, Oklahoma. These days he lives in Wisconsin with his wife and their three sons. His nonfiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and others. His books include “The Red Hourglass: Lives of The Predators.”

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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