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.
“They call that Democrat Hill, cuz it’s one son-of-a-bitch.”
I was 18, riding my bike somewhere near Callaway, Nebraska (I think), and had paused before what was, admittedly, a beastly hill. Now, Nebraska isn’t completely flat; it does have some rolling hillscapes, but this hill was extraordinary among them. You know that sound that plays in old timey horror movies, when the main character finally sees the face of the monster? As I crested a turn and saw the hill, I heard that DUN DUN DUNNN, and pulled over to regroup.
I was new to cycling; I wore underwear underneath the padded shorts. You are not supposed to do that, which I learned too late. I was adjusting that situation when a farmer stopped to offer the joke above, which made me pause. Of course, this rhetoric is somewhat expected in small Midwestern towns. Isolation is rooted in the horizontal depth of the environment here, both physical and ideological. In one moment, the landscape can feel vast and inviting, and in the next moment, it can drive you away with its smallness. Live here long enough and you’ll understand that there is more to it than that; the real meaning is somewhere in-between. But the stereotype of ideological smallness is why many people leave, and why I often feel like a quirky tourist attraction when my friends come back from their newfound coastal cities for the winter holidays. “You’re still here. Huh.” Not a question mark in sight.
Underwear situation sorted after that fateful chapped day, over the next years, I leaned into the seduction of empty space, spending hours on my bike everyday, finding lonely landmarks to measure my own lonely heart. There’s a rusty skeleton of a bridge slowly being eroded by the Missouri River. There, I realized who my best friend was, and wrote her a letter. There are two trees up the river from Omaha that lean together and spell out the word “HI.” I discovered the worst sunburn of my life taking a break next to those trees, and my body still holds those scars. I once hit mud and skidded under my favorite railroad tracks and was so upset at wrecking my bike and so annoyingly stuck, dozens of miles away from my house, that I realized it wasn’t the mud that pissed me off, but the cruel words of my teacher the day before. There I was. On my bike. Finding meaning in nothing. And isn’t that what all good writers do?
Pedaling was a safe place to work out family drama, add nuances to my dreams, or to put it simply, be incredibly angry without anyone seeing me. Through my bike rides, I’ve collected dozens of these little landmarks. They hold who I was the first time I saw them, the second, the third, and so on. The landmarks, the bike rides, and the never-ending landscape of Nebraska, collectively acted as my first invitation to write.
And so I appreciate Nebraska for being a witness to my growth and giving me space to think. For being empty enough that I could elbow my way around it and work things out on my own. I sometimes wish Nebraska would grow with me. If I ever go back to Democrat Hill, I’ll think of who I was at 18, with my raw-bottomed teenage dreams, but I’ll also think of Joe Biden’s win in the 2nd Congressional District of Nebraska, a Democratic Hill of our own.
I think Midwest writers are beastly sons-of-bitches, popping out of what seems like nothing to challenge assumptions and give breath to this calloused environment, to offer voices for this underrepresented collection of weathered souls. DUN DUN DUNNN. Here we come.
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