Tuesday, May 18, 2021

The #Midwessay: Bridget Lillethorup, Chapped Butts and Bike Rides

A souvenir postcard, found on the web, says “Don’t think that all the gold/Is treasured in Alaska/For golden corn and Golden Rod/Enrich the state Nebraska.” Goldenrod, named Nebraska’s state flower in 1895, is a drooping profusion of gold that looks an awful lot like a sheaf of wheat. Often mistaken for ragweed, goldenrod is paradoxically the cure for ragweed allergies—a local herbalist taught me how to walk through the prairie in late summer and pick goldenrod at its peak, stuffing the stems into a Mason jar, covering them with Everclear, and letting the medicine cure for six weeks before straining it into bottles and taking a dropperful at a time, as needed. I’ve found the Nebraskan Midwessay to be goldenrod personified: understood only through its oppositional references while its author patiently undoes misconceptions. These essays on the Nebraskan Midwessay may confirm your cliches, but I’d encourage you to look closer: what appears to cause the problem is actually the solution.

Nebraskans: we'd love to have more essays complicating/confronting the #Midwessay! Contact me at kristinelangleymahler at gmail and I'll get your viewpoints included in this project.

—Kristine Langley Mahler

Monday, May 17, 2021

The #Midwessay: Jeff Alessandrelli, Round & Flat & Multifold

A souvenir postcard, found on the web, says “Don’t think that all the gold/Is treasured in Alaska/For golden corn and Golden Rod/Enrich the state Nebraska.” Goldenrod, named Nebraska’s state flower in 1895, is a drooping profusion of gold that looks an awful lot like a sheaf of wheat. Often mistaken for ragweed, goldenrod is paradoxically the cure for ragweed allergies—a local herbalist taught me how to walk through the prairie in late summer and pick goldenrod at its peak, stuffing the stems into a Mason jar, covering them with Everclear, and letting the medicine cure for six weeks before straining it into bottles and taking a dropperful at a time, as needed. I’ve found the Nebraskan Midwessay to be goldenrod personified: understood only through its oppositional references while its author patiently undoes misconceptions. These essays on the Nebraskan Midwessay may confirm your cliches, but I’d encourage you to look closer: what appears to cause the problem is actually the solution.

Nebraskans: we'd love to have more essays complicating/confronting the #Midwessay! Contact me at kristinelangleymahler at gmail and I'll get your viewpoints included in this project.

—Kristine Langley Mahler

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The #Midwessay: Beth Peterson, Things We Talk and Don't Talk About in the Midwest

We're back for round 2 of #Midwessay coverage starting back up this week, in which we re/visit essays and essayists from Midwestern states and those of us still in Midwestern states even if we live elsewhere. In our first round we published one week in each state, and now we're swinging back through to continue. Up this week is Michigan, coordinated by Ander Monson. 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.


 


Beth Peterson

Things We Talk and Don't Talk About in the Midwest

*

Fifteen minutes before Joe Biden and Kamala Harris put their hands on Bibles and swore the oath of presidential and vice presidential office, I was in a windowless clinic room in Grand Rapids, Michigan, getting four small incisions—biopsies—of the possibly cancerous masses of cells pressing against my back. As I laid on a brown table wrapped in paper, the doctor handed the nurse a thin plastic tube and the nurse drained the pink and red fluid that was filling that tube into something that looked like a jam jar. My close friend and neighbor Joyce stood behind me and put her hand on my forehead. 

*

In graduate school, I took a course about place from a famous visiting writer who flew in on a private jet once a month just to teach that one class. The plan was that she would send us written feedback on our work in the weeks in between.  In the end, most of my classmates never got any notes, even on their final projects. One day, a few months after the course ended, I did get a manila envelope in the mail. There was nothing written on my typed pages, just a single note on an otherwise-blank piece of paper stapled to the top: “Too Midwestern.” Baffled, I showed it to a friend in the class. “Maybe she means not enough happens in the Midwest,” my friend said, “or maybe she means there’s nothing worth saying about it.”  

*

On the night of the 2020 election, I stayed up late, with Joyce and her husband Gordy, watching the vote counts come in. I laid on one side of their tan L-shaped sofa; they sat on the other, watching states light up in red or blue on the television screen. Michigan didn’t make any decisions that night. “Not until every vote is counted,” our governor said. The next day and the day after that, I refreshed my phone again and again. And suddenly it had happened: Michigan had flipped for Biden. I didn’t call my family because I wasn’t sure how they had voted; politics had always been off the table for conversation. I did however text Joyce who responded with three exclamation marks. 

*

My brother and I were sitting at his long white kitchen table when I told him about the masses of cells, the growing pain in my back. It was a cold day, flurries floating about the window just outside. “Have you told mom and dad?” he asked. I told him I had not, that I didn’t want to worry them, that they had enough going on.  He nodded and then got up to refill my glass of water.
     Just that moment, my newly twelve-year old niece slipped from around the corner where she’d been listening quietly. “Are you going to be okay, Aunt Beth?” she asked.
     “Yes,” my brother responded before I could say a word, “And do not tell anyone what you heard in this conversation.” 

*

The doctor told me it would probably take a week before I would get back results. I waited nervously, startling each time an unfamiliar number showed up on my phone. In the meantime, my friend who works at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, called and offered that I could move in with her, her husband and her three-week old baby if I wanted to get treatment there. “Just say the word,” she told me. That same week, the counselor I had recently begun seeing in a sun-tipped office, backed by a snowy track of maples and oaks, suggested I repeat to myself “grounding phrases” every day until I got news—good or bad. “Today I am 39 years old. Today I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Today I am okay.” I said these phrases over and over, even long after that week was done. 

*

I watched the inauguration a few days after it actually happened. There were many good moments, but my favorite was when Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and George and Laura Bush all stood side-by-side on the Capitol steps. At one point, Laura Bush reached her hand out and held George’s inside his long black coat pocket. “It was a simple gesture,” I would later tell Joyce, “but it said so much.” 

*

It took less than a week—only three days, actually, for the doctor who had done the tests to get in touch with me. She didn’t call me on the telephone or schedule a visit for me to come hear the news in person. Instead, a message slipped through in an online medical portal set up by the doctor’s office. “Good news and bad news,” she wrote. “The biopsies were inconclusive.” She asked me to come back in and do it all again in a month.
     I will not respond, not for a few weeks at least. In the meantime, I will teach my classes and sort through months-worth of mail. I will buy succulents at a nearly-empty flower store and will daydream about repainting my living room in a very old house on a tree-lined street. I will hang new art on my wall, and I will listen to the newscasters analyzing how the Midwest had been so wrongly predicted four years before and maybe this time too.
     I will consider telling more people what is happening—colleagues, friends, neighbors—but then I will wonder if this thing is worth saying, or how one knows what’s worth it at all. 


Saturday, May 15, 2021

The #Midwessay: Amy Goldmacher, Midwessays Transcend

We're back for round 2 of #Midwessay coverage starting back up this week, in which we re/visit essays and essayists from Midwestern states and those of us still in Midwestern states even if we live elsewhere. In our first round we published one week in each state, and now we're swinging back through to continue. Up this week is Michigan, coordinated by Ander Monson. 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.


 


Midwessays Transcend

Amy Goldmacher


This past summer, I put out a call for submissions for essays by new, diverse writers on father-daughter relationships, to be collected and published in an anthology. I thought I could amplify the stories of women writers of color in Michigan who hadn’t yet or weren’t likely to publish on their own, so they could find an audience and a path to publication. This topic was important to me because I was twenty when my father died 27 years ago, and at that time, I did not see anyone like myself in books to help me understand the loss, help me grieve, and help me move on. Daughters’ relationships with—or without—our fathers affect us for better and for worse. Often, these relationships are too private to discuss. Until they are written and shared.

I think, reflecting back, what I was asking for by way of this anthology was to see how complex the father-daughter relationship can be, and how varied are the ways in which people make sense of themselves and the world through writing and sharing their stories. I didn’t realize I was asking for myself.

Essays came from everywhere. Not just from Detroit or Michigan. Not just from women. Not just from people of color. Not just from those writing with the intent to publish for perhaps the first time. Not just about father loss or father lack, but about connection and love.

The essays weren’t culturally or socially based in one place, like Michigan, or one time, as in this thing happened a long time ago, but from many places and times. Essays moved from India to the United States, or start in the aftermath of World War II, or extend between California and Taiwan, or begin upon a Japanese generation’s immigration, or reflect on ancient Chinese inheritance and heritage, or travel between where we grew up and where we choose to live as adults, or reflect events as recent as just a few years ago. The essays were thoughtful, deeply personal stories. They taught me that grief and identity shift and change. They reflected the learnings the writers acquired over time. They had a clear message for readers who need to see and hear from people like themselves, who had complicated relationships with their fathers, present or not.

The request for essays may have originated from the Midwest, but the diversity of authors and experiences showed me that even if we are not alike demographically or geographically, we still have commonalities and connections. How different they all were, yet how similar. I was not alone, and neither were any of these writers.


Friday, May 14, 2021

The #Midwessay: Christine Hume, A Metonymic Manifesto

We're back for round 2 of #Midwessay coverage starting back up this week, in which we re/visit essays and essayists from Midwestern states and those of us still in Midwestern states even if we live elsewhere. In our first round we published one week in each state, and now we're swinging back through to continue. Up this week is Michigan, coordinated by Ander Monson. 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.


 


A Metonymic Manifesto

Christine Hume

*

The midwessay: like a glitch, a lisp, a non-native accent, speech marked by impediment, pebbles in the mouth, too many mouths in the mind, clamoring. You try sounding out the word, continuously discovering the extent of your own incomprehension, so rich it becomes wealth. You contract and expand phonemes spastically, involuntarily smacking your lips mid-pucker where the word blacks out under the force of its own exertion; it sputters and flails around for the right cadence, coming to as you lick its wounds into disobedient shapes, sloppily lapping each syllable off your screen, biting off a new word, this portmanteau:  you chew its scenery. Outside it is snowing, of course, and it has snowed. Outside is ghost-hosting a virus and its variants. Outside something fugitive buried will surface in the spring. The sound of the word embarrasses like most things that come from your body, standing at your desk by the window, stunned in pre-masturbatory glaze, sunning in a post-prandial torpor. The midwessay is that kind of “between,” an essay that comes mid-thinking and st(r)ays because all thought is mid-thought unless it’s your last. The midwessay is the sound of your trying and thinking, raw and never-ending and moving on the page like a mood or a crush or a tornado alarm siren surging into the state of things.



Thursday, May 13, 2021

The #Midwessay: Katie Jean Shinkle, The Michigan Essay is a Bi-Essay

We're back for round 2 of #Midwessay coverage starting back up this week, in which we re/visit essays and essayists from Midwestern states and those of us still in Midwestern states even if we live elsewhere. In our first round we published one week in each state, and now we're swinging back through to continue. Up this week is Michigan, coordinated by Ander Monson. 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.


 


The Michigan Essay is a Bi-Essay

Katie Jean Shinkle

*

I want to speak specifically to the Michigan essay in the genre of #midwessay. 

The Michigan essay is a bi-essay. 

We are a divided situation, the Michigan essay, in more ways than one, but most ostensibly, two.

The Michigan essay, a subgenre of the Midwest essay as a whole, encompasses a bi-identity in a way that no other state owns in the same way. There is the upper peninsula and lower peninsula, and so the Michigan essay is most certainly one of the bi-axial, the bi-coastal—if we can think of coasts in a limited sense, the third coast, seemingly the best coast, Lake Michigan to Superior to Erie to Huron* and back again, West Michigan to East Michigan or North Michigan to South Michigan, though no one actually says that, they simply say Up North which could be anywhere north of where you are currently and not seemingly beyond to the thing connecting the peninsulas—a powerful and terrifying bridge, the Mighty Mac, the Michigan capitol of bi-identity. 

The Michigan essay is bi-convex inasmuch as it is bi-concave, bi-curious, certainly, bi-directional, most definitely bi-focal to the extreme, as one eye is short-sighted and one eye is hindsighted and they never quite work together in the way one imagines they should. The Michigan essay is bi-manual, requiring the use of all hands-on deck, and is most certainly about bi-location, as the Michigan essay rests in the absolute and extreme liminal.

Let’s talk Detroit for twenty seconds: Half of Detroit desperately wants to disconnect itself from the entire state, but oh no no, Detroit, you are part of what makes us great! And terrible! And you are stuck with the bi-identity just as much as the rest of us from the quarter-sized cities (e.g. Grand Rapids? Ranked a measly #113 in largest cities in the US to your far superior (all pun intended) #24 ranking) and the small struggling towns (everywhere else). The Michigan essay couldn’t do it without you, Detroit! Don’t deny us!

The Michigan essay is Say Yes! to Michigan, the slogan from of the 80s shifted to Great Lakes, Great Times, until the 2008 recession hit a monstrous blow, which then shifted to Pure Michigan; a good call since ain’t no good times happening during the recession, and, of course, most fitting since Michigan will always be a kind bi-linearity—will the great times arrive again? Possibly. Let’s not make a sign proclaiming it, though. No promises. 

Great Times! The Michigan essay is the essay reminding you to remember the research from CityLab in 2019 where they call Michigan part of the “stuck belt,” meaning their research shows people who are born in Michigan are most likely stay in Michigan for life, continuing to add to the bicipital/bi-cephalous feeling. Sure, the Michigan essay is the one who never left. Born, raised, gonna die. Though, the Michigan essay is also one who has gotten out, who couldn’t wait to leave, never returns, and lies about where they are from. It is also the one who left and returned, even for a moment. It is also one who can’t escape, no matter where they go, no matter how far away they move or travel or reject. It is one, where, once you cruise under the Welcome to Michigan sign, you automatically feel at home, you breathe a little easier, you feel a little lighter. Or maybe you are filled with dread, the darkness deeply housed in your body, a horror show. It is the one where you take in Lake Michigan from the Michigan shoreline sand dunes and you are filled with an enormity you cannot shake, even if you forget it immediately as soon as you look away. 

Maybe the Michigan essay loves itself a little too much, or hates itself equally, or hates that it secretly loves itself, but nonetheless has a deep understanding of what it is, where it comes from. The bi-glow of being a Michigan essay is being able to say I’m from fuckin’ Michigan, and being recognized as a certain kind of person, even if the receiver of the information doesn’t quite understand the bi-identity. 

The Michigan essay: You are either running from or to. You are ashamed or proud. You will physically fight someone who dismisses or ignores Michigan, who misrepresents Michigan, who misunderstands Michigan, who doesn’t recognize or validate your Michigan-ness. Or fuck Michigan forever. You yearn or you burn—and what is the difference? To be a Michigan essay is to bifurcate. Binary? Nah, you are fluid, even through the either/or. The spectrum exists as spectral. Here you live, even if you think you don’t. Even if you think you are above it. To be haunted by, and tasked with, your life’s work being the Michigan essay, is quite the bi-atch, indeed. 


*(Ontario doesn’t touch Michigan in the way I need it to for this essay so it is left out)



(My Michigan tattoo I got in 2002 because I’m from fuckin’ Michigan that’s why.)


Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The #Midwessay: Jane Piirto, "Swimming the Midwest"

We're back for round 2 of #Midwessay coverage starting back up this week, in which we re/visit essays and essayists from Midwestern states and those of us still in Midwestern states even if we live elsewhere. In our first round we published one week in each state, and now we're swinging back through to continue. Up this week is Michigan, coordinated by Ander Monson. 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.


 


Swimming the Midwest

Jane Piirto


Even though I knew it from my reading, imagine my gustatory shock the first time I swam in the ocean, in Atlantic City, NJ, the summer I worked there as a waitress. The water was salty!

When I swam in great bodies of water, tossed by white-capped waves, peppered by submerged sand, forced to my knees by the power of the rhythmic shoreline eddies, when the water came into my mouth it was fresh water, for my swimming had been in that geographic core of the Midwest, the Great Lakes—in Lake Superior, which is merely barely swimmable in the doldrums of August in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, when even then the coldness slashes the lungs in a long “oof” and the news is a virus among locals—“Lake Superior is swimmable”—and we all go to our favorite sandy beach nearby; in Lake Michigan, north of Chicago, near Fort Sheridan, where I worked as a GS-2 military pay clerk summers during college, and where my co-workers, college students from Wisconsin and Illinois and I had picnics after work on deeply sandy beaches where the water was calmer and warmer than Superior, and then, on the Michigan side, while camping near the majestic Sleeping Bear Dunes or visiting friends in the charming city of Traverse City; in Lake Erie, where my kids, husband, and I borrowed his father’s 36-foot boat, almost a small yacht, and spent weekends at Put-in-Bay near where Commodore Perry uttered “We have met the enemy and he is ours,” navigating among the hordes of tourists seeking the balmy waters and secret beaches only accessible by boat; in Lake Huron, at Mackinac Island, where we took a dip with our small, inadequate towels hanging on our rented bikes while peddling around that horseless-carriage-free historic refuge since the 1650s for soldiers and fur traders during the French and Indian War and the War of 1812; in Lake Ontario, camping on the way to Niagara Falls in western New York, where a sudden swift undertow began to carry my 9-year-old self out to the larger lake until my gurgles and sinking, gesturing arms led the lifeguard to dive in and save me (I loved swimming so much I went right back in after he delivered me to my scared parents because I didn’t want to be too traumatized to swim)—there in Atlantic City my tongue was shocked at the saltiness of the ocean, but not shocked at its similarity to these tideless five lakes of my homeland.

Of course, midwest swimming was not all in the Great Lakes. As a young mother doing my Ph.D. at Bowling Green State University, I would sneak off afternoons while my kids were outside playing, to a local quarry, luxuriating in my solitude among other beach-seekers in the flatlands of this northwest Ohio area, stroking my way across the quarry to a float anchored in the middle, watching the fish following my toes in the luminous limestone aqua water, a miracle of chemistry preserved in this fresh retreat, though my children took lessons at the local pool in the park, and we often swam in friends’ farm ponds; or, in the early 1970s in Watertown in eastern South Dakota (East River, thus Midwest), where other young mothers and I smoked cigarettes and drank wine in the afternoon, sitting on quilts on a wet brown sandy beach crossed by car tracks watching our kids roughhouse in the local Lake Kampeska, a popular northern pike ice-fishing site—in January my husband drove our station wagon onto the ice—in summer it took a long time to stride on the muddy bottom to a depth deep enough for diving. 

The best swims, though, were in the boreal forest and Precambrian shield rock-encompassed lakes and rivers of my native Midwest place, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In this area, many if not most people have second homes or cottages, regionally called “camps,” many of them with saunas built in imitation of their ancestors in Finland. The swimming after sauna is the most refreshing of all. We would “steam up” in the sauna, pouring “loylä” (cool water with a tinge of sacredness) on the heated rocks, which would sizzle with clouds that would billow up to us sitting naked or in bathing suits on the tiered wooden benches—and when we couldn’t stand our beating hearts and sweating hot bodies anymore, we would hurry out jogging down the path, and jump into the lake with a rewarding shout and a “whoosh” of relief; as kids we would do this over and over; as adults, we would wait, chatting in our lawn chairs or across the picnic table, until the kids had had their two or so hours of fun; then we would refill the sauna stove with wood, leisurely sweat up, and take only two or three trips from the sauna to the lake, the last one perhaps with an added-on slow crawl to the middle or across.

As neighborhood children, on the last day of school in June, we would hike through rocky outcrops, birch stands, and cedar swamps a mile or so to Cedar Lake, one of the 7 or so lakes within the city limits of my small (population 8,500 at that time, now 6,000) hometown of Ishpeming (among them Lakes Angeline, Teal, Bancroft, Sally, Deer, Cedar) to baptize ourselves for summer, our fingers side-blinding our eyes like draft horses to (“don’t peek!”) as we passed the end portion of the lake, called Rocky, where the boys swam naked (as they did in the high school pool), trudging uphill and down to where the girls would swim, at a location on the lake called Shallow. We would walk there, in good weather, several times a week. These glacier-carved lakes dot Upper Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and swimming in their sometimes brown tannic but more often translucent clear waters is a northern ritual. We were good swimmers—better, I have noticed, than many; first, because of the abundance of lakes and rivers in which to swim during our elementary school childhood years, and second, because our public high school, subsidized by the regional paternalistic iron mining company, had a pool where we had single-sex lessons once a week for four years, emerging as junior Red Cross lifesavers, knowing the ins and outs of kicks—flutter, frog—and matching strokes—crawl, back, breast, side. We even learned to dive. (Three steps, bounce, and off!)

As you can see, the stereotype of the Midwest as a vast, flat, agricultural geo-plain is tempered by knowing how and where Midwesterners swim in clear, deep waters.


Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The #Midwessay: Keith Taylor, "The Watery Borders of My Canadian Michigan"

We're back for round 2 of #Midwessay coverage starting back up this week, in which we re/visit essays and essayists from Midwestern states and those of us still in Midwestern states even if we live elsewhere. In our first round we published one week in each state, and now we're swinging back through to continue. Up this week is Michigan, coordinated by Ander Monson. 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.


 


The Watery Borders of My Canadian Michigan

 Keith Taylor

*

Sometimes I think that I write about Michigan just so I can figure out how or why I ended up living here for most of a lifetime. Perhaps that’s why many of us write essays about the Midwest: we have to explain to ourselves why we have found this often scorned place such an easy place to live in. Even how we’ve learned to love it. I’ve lived in Michigan for almost 50 years, and the state has been good to me. I have had interesting work; I’ve found places to publish me; I raised a child here.

But I am a Canadian citizen. I have never voted here. When people ask me why I’ve stayed, I say that I married a woman from Detroit who thinks life would be too frivolous if we lived more than a hundred miles from a car factory. There’s some truth in that, although in times of political tension—these times—I admit to a sense of relief that I could escape and Canada couldn’t keep me out. Everyone but my wife wants to move to Canada, right? She considers the move north only in the worst of times—these times—but thinks we would be cowards if we ran. I’m more comfortable with that kind of cowardice.

I am held by this place, the history, human and natural, of it. My wife’s family history in Detroit has kept us involved in the city, and I have come to admire it, respect it, even love it. It is a tough city, one that has had its moments of devastation. If someone could do a survey of the essays written about Detroit, most of them could probably be classified as “ruin porn,” not something I’m particularly interested in writing. I’m interested in the way the city survives, and in its position up against the power of the Detroit River, that fast flowing boundary place. 

On the other hand, I first felt at home in Michigan when I spent time in an old hippie cabin on ten acres surrounded by the Manistee National Forest, a scrubby second- or third-growth forest planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. It is not a dramatic landscape, nothing like the mountains and oceans and deserts that people usually write essays about. It was almost destroyed by resource extraction, fur then lumber. All of that accompanied by a brutal displacement of the native populations. Industrial pollution has affected every acre of Michigan’s forests. Yet despite all of this, I felt at home there, surrounded by those un-dramatic trees.

Five hours north of post-industrial Detroit, three north of the hippie cabin in the forest where I felt so comfortable, after crossing a couple of significant bridges, I can arrive in northern Ontario. Only an hour north of Sault Ste. Marie, I can get a sense of the northern forest of Canada, one of the last great wild stretches on Earth. All I need to do to get there is drive along the edges of the greatest system of fresh water the planet has ever produced, and then cross one of the major rivers connecting those Lakes.

Water. That’s what this place is to me. That’s what I discover when I make the attempt, the essay, to write about it. It’s not the same Midwest I felt in Indiana or would feel in Iowa. Maybe even not in some of those Midwestern states that border on the Great Lakes. The borders of my Midwest, this Michigan Midwest, are liquid, porous, portals to another place where I also belong.


Monday, May 10, 2021

The #Midwessay: Matthew Medendorp, "A Michigan Essay"

We're back for round 2 of #Midwessay coverage starting back up this week, in which we re/visit essays and essayists from Midwestern states and those of us still in Midwestern states even if we live elsewhere. In our first round we published one week in each state, and now we're swinging back through to continue. Up this week is Michigan, coordinated by Ander Monson. 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.


 


A Michigan Essay

Matthew Medendorp

*

A Michigan Essay takes water for granted, treats it an inevitability, as regular and dependable as Tim Allen wearing a collegiate Michigan sweatshirt on reruns of Home Improvement. As inevitable as the fact that when you bring up Tim Allen, someone in the room will bring up his mugshot, his cocaine trafficking conviction, and his time in a Kalamazoo penitentiary. Kalamazoo is the town my Dad grew up in and doesn’t like to go back to, even though it’s better than it used to be. A Michigan Essay will tell you where its family is from. A Michigan Essay likes to do this by pointing to the upturned palm of its right hand, or, if its feeling cheeky, the back of its left hand, because a Michigan Essay is shaped like a mitten. Kalamazoo is on the lower left palm line and is where my Dad’s parents still live. Well, that’s not strictly true, they live in Three Rivers, outside of Kalamazoo, in a double wide next to a small lake that gets its tap water from a bigger lake, the big lake, Lake Michigan. A Michigan Essay likes to talk about the fact that it has access to four out of the five Great Lakes: Erie, Huron, Superior, and Michigan itself. Sometimes, a Michigan Essay wears a tee-shirt about this. Most of the time when my grandparents aren’t in Michigan, they’re in Florida, at another trailer park that gets its water from a well, or someplace else. I don’t know, I’m guessing, but it doesn’t get its water from a lake, or a marsh, or the ocean, since that would be salty. It does get some sunshine. In the winter a Michigan Essay tries to get out when it can, to a place where there’s a bit of sun to go around. Or a Michigan Essay gets salt stains on its undercarriage. A Michigan Essay decides to be obstinate, proud of cold temperatures and gray skies, drink a lot of stouts and double IPAs, put on fifteen pounds of hibernation weight, and pray that when the spring melts the ice that increasingly doesn’t cover the lake, it also melts away the safety blanket of a beer gut. Usually, it doesn’t. A Michigan Essay is Reformed, believes in original sin as an immutable foundation, believes in it like it knows steelhead will run in the Manistee each spring. A Michigan Essay has a damp crumbling basement and an attic it annexed from Ohio. A Michigan Essay prefers not to talk about Ohio. In the summer, a Michigan essay waterskies on the weekends. Two things I’ve hidden from my Ann Arbor in-laws: I was born in Ohio, and I don’t waterski. They know about the Ohio thing, but I think they’ve forgot. They don’t know about the waterskiing, but I suppose they might know about it now. Also in the summer, a Michigan Essay likes to eat cherries, or likes to pretend to like to eat cherries and pick blueberries in a bluebird sky. When the weather turns, a Michigan Essay takes a color tour in Traverse City and there are two weeks to wear light jackets and pick apples and drive around the wineries of Old Mission. Even though it’s autumn, a Michigan Essay like to dip its toes in the big lake, because a Michigan Essay always ends back in the water, as surely as a Michigan radio will play a Pure Michigan advertisement, with Tim Allen’s clear, dulcet voice reminding you that, “if you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.”



Monday, May 3, 2021

Anandi Mishra, My Pandemic of Nonfiction Writing

I want to write an essay about writing nonfiction during a pandemic. Both are tough but also easy. You just need to get used to them. Attempting one inside the other, I decide to simplify. My nonfiction is not creative, it comes more from a place of hard work and slogging it out than anything else, although I might have described it thus so on a few occasions, so I decide before even starting that I’ll write this essay as a way of trying to understand where this format of writing comes to me.

Writing nonfiction is not new to me. I had always known the “essay” as something comprising three parts. Written in exams to describe mundane things and events and places and people. For both languages, English and Hindi, for all 12 years of academic life in school, we were required to write essays three times every year for exams. Then there were also the unit tests, and regular class homework. The topics, maturity and depth of these varied as the years passed. I remember till standard five we had grammar books for both the languages that came with essays as references. There were essay topics that I read and probably also wrote for the longest time. These were cultural standpoints, little windows for me to look into the life of a particular theme beyond the immediate periphery. These included the long, five or six paragraph long understanding of the cow, the nation, a mother, a festival, summer vacations or a fair. Delving deeper into discussing these essays then made me understand how anything can be a subject for an essay, a talking point, an extension of the writing self. 

In school I used to be one of the top five best essay writers. Back then, I did not know of the word “essayist”. In standard 11 I wrote an essay about loving a Hindi film actor who was known not as much for his acting skills as for his onscreen “kissing scenes”. It was a self-serious essay where I used words like “serial kisser” and “bold” to describe him. It was a pretty direct, forthcoming essay about not just accepting a side of my personality but also drawing it out on the bigger canvas of the essay. 

My English teacher corrected the essay and praised portions of it, leaving in-line compliments where she found something remarkable. It would still be 14 years till I would write my first nonfiction essay and get published in a literary journal. In these years I would also find my personal favourite essayist, an Indian English language writer whose book of essays took my world by a storm. 

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I had just moved to Delhi in 2017 when Sumana Roy’s How I Became A Tree was published. A seemingly unassuming collection of essays, this book came to become my talisman on all things “essays”. Before I started reading them, a question had visited me: What could these essays contain? Some comprehensions, to be sure—shining pieces of prose that transported me to a place full of a various knowledge about trees. As I dipped my toes into its pages, a few preternaturally sensitive assessments revealed themselves, fluorescently condensed thoughts that were at all times beyond any kind of writing stereotype. Above all, these essays were vast repositories of pleasant and dubious satisfactions on trying to come to terms with aspects of a subject that was so dear to the writer.

The first paragraph of the title essay (also the last one) goes like this: 

Outside my bedroom window is a papaya tree. It is like a mother to me—I take it for granted like I do my mother. This is not a lazy simile—our blindness to plants is pervasive and widespread. As I’ve said earlier, I’d spent much energy on recording the responses of a variety of plants and trees to the wind—the leaves of the bamboo and the mango, grass and the jackfruit.

Roy in this paragraph showed me what an essay could be: the journey of the mind on paper, in the form of the written word, tearing through uncertainty. She pointed me in the direction of the singular nature of the format, not so highly regaled among the writers I had been reading before. Her words in the essay collection took on a profound urgency. As I listened, I knew I was closer to something that would help me. Soon, I started hitching my way on these words to a place where words made better sense.

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The year 2020 would go on to become the year when we would all be constantly on the edge for one reason or the other. For me, personally, it would be the year when I would cry a lot more, work from home for the first time, get into online therapy, cook more than I had ever dreamt of and not just write whisky pretty notes in my journal, but also get them published. 2020 became my writing breakout year.

When everyone seemed to be losing themselves in reams of fiction, to get away from the real world and its horrors, I trained my attention towards the deeply internal world of nonfiction. I read and wrote more essays than ever before. And Sumana’s book became my companion to navigate through these parched lands during a tumultuous time.

Writing nonfiction came as a surprise to me. As someone who has wanted to be a writer since childhood, I never thought I would launch myself into the literary world as an essayist. As a reader, I had grown up on a steady diet of fiction doled out in thick volumes by Indian authors from far and beyond. English was the language they wrote in, but the grammar was that of thorough imagination. Coming from a thriving culture of the imagined world, changing gears into reading nonfiction was a pleasant surprise. Roy’s collection of essays in 2017 charted a new, formal understanding of the written word. Her essays trained my mind into thinking of translating my present moment, experiences and life into the written word in a novel, unprecedented way.

How I Became A Tree mixes memoir, literary history, nature studies and philosophy. In that, it propelled me to shift the gaze inward and think about writing what would soothe the creases of my mind in a pandemic year. I didn’t want to dwell on the imagined. From her writing, I gathered an architecture. A paragraph, depending how it was structured, could crack the open the yolk of my existential worries. In the form of essays, the phalanx of my monologues and soliloquies peppered with references, inspirations and examples, would blossom on the page in a literary form. Gingerly as I wrote essay after essay, I learned from the magic of Roy’s essays the precise deftness of the nonfiction form. 

One after another, under the aegis of my favourite writer’s essays, I discovered a voice of my own in a form so new. When I invested this borrowed faith in my words, a sliver, rather a flood, of writing emerged. I was dreaming in sentences, floating in reveries of the written word, all thanks to the promise I had glimpsed in Roy’s essays.

*

How I Became A Tree opens with a set of observations that might strike some as odd: 

At first it was the underwear. I wanted to become a tree because trees do not wear bras.

Then it had to do with the spectre of violence. I loved the way in which trees coped with dark and lonely places while sunlessness decided curfew hours for me. I liked too how trees thrived on things that were still freely available—water, air and sunlight; and no mortgage in spite of their lifelong occupation of land.

This invoked in me a susurration for the unknown. I was surprised but also piqued by her choice of opening paragraphs. I drew strength from the words, regaling in thwarted attempts then to capture my own small obsessions. 

I could sense that even in their most technical form, Roy’s essays came to afford her a relieving sense of anonymity. Unlike what I had thought of essay writing to be, she wasn’t forever having to explain herself in them. The essays were a decipherable surface, a sort of lexicon of imaginations, understandings and predictions of a writer’s life. At any given moment, these words could hide and reveal the deepest secrets of their writer without laying anything bare.

Years later, my essays too took on a similar route. I paid attention to their flow and realised how often they did half the world of decoding the mystery of self, effortlessly communicating my thoughts and feelings in a self-invented shorthand. I had always suspected fiction to be supercilious, even hollow and realised how behind it, much got lost in the process of self-explanation. The excess words often creating a menagerie that failed to have an integral meaning outside of the story. Whereas in nonfiction, there was no excess. The more the number of words, the more I could fit myself into them. 

*

It was impossible to rush plants, to tell a tree to ‘hurry up’. In envy, in admiration and with ambition, I began to call that pace ‘Tree time’.

Even at their vaguest best, there is nothing feigned about the vagueness of Roy’s words. They leave the exact impression she intends for them to leave. Creating a crater in their wake where the reader dips in and out of the stirring they offer. Roy’s writing revealed to me an intense knowledge of a kind that would fold and camouflage itself in these essays without coming across as overwhelming. It was the same with my essays.

I was struck by what seemed to be outlines, initial sketches of ideas, started filling themselves out during the pandemic. When I read Roy’s essays in the torrid summer of 2017, these ideas had existed in a nascent form. I had wanted them to be more than what they were, without being able to see where the extra would come from. In 2020, these gaps began to fill themselves.

It seemed to me that the interim time had given them a density of their own while the pandemic lent them a sense of urgency. I was soon raking up lived experiences and literary inspiration, spinning out essays both long and short.

The ethereality with which Roy experiences plant life on the page provided me the reckoning I had long waited for. The essays bring opposites together, creating a beautiful melange of undervalued, overlooked and otherwise unwritten narratives about a favourite obsession of hers. They inspired in me the urge to chase my hauntings similarly.

Trees are faceless, Roy writes. It was perhaps this that had brought me to them, to escape the scrutiny of the face. In the process of chronicling these diverse aspects, How I Became A Tree takes the form of a literary paean to all things unnoticed, in the process, giving me the courage to commit to the paper my own wild ideas.

In December 2020 when it was announced that Yale University Press and Yale Books would be publishing How I Became A Tree in America, I felt a strong sense of homecoming. The book that had nurtured my dreams would now be creating a ground beneath the feet of many more readers, all the while lending a grammar to all that that we don’t know we miss.

Preorder it here.


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Anandi Mishra is a Delhi-based writer and communications professional who has worked as a reporter for The Times of India and The Hindu. Her writing has been published by or is forthcoming in the Chicago Review of Books, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Aeon, Popula, 3:AM Magazine, and elsewhere. Her essay, “A Satyajit Ray Lockdown,” appears in the anthology Garden Among Fires (Dodo Ink, July 2020). She tweets at @anandi010.