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.
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.
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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