It's possible all the writing I've done over the years has been in some way a response, a pushing back against the isolation and loneliness I felt at sixteen, driving an endless loop between home and school and work, speeding through the rolling country 'burbs of southeastern Wisconsin. There, a farm. There, a subdivision. There, a snowy field. Lots of trees. Another farm. Another subdivision. Endless fields. Growing up in this landscape my edges were smoothed; I was shaped. For me, this landscape was so cold, isolating, lonely. Constantly, I seek warmth, body, connection; I seek community, conversation.
Sunday, June 20, 2021
The #Midwessay: Jill Stukenberg, The Summer I Turned Forty
To some degree, all of us here are shaped by the landscape, by the way the highways bend, by the way one watershed tilts towards the lake, another to the river, and by all the cold and snow this winter. And yet, each of us inhabits a landscape uniquely our own, built of our own experience. We are Wisconsin-born, -bred, -rooted, but we live alone in our own version of wherever we are. And Essay Daily, this #Midwessay project, what are these but elaborate feelers, searching, finding, sharing, celebrating a coming-together? I'm not sure I care all that much about what a Wisconsin essay is or isn't. I just want to hear your voice, your thoughts, your stories. The Wisconsin essay is whatever you say.
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The Summer I Turned Forty
The summer I turned forty I bought a small sailboat. I’d returned to Wisconsin, and my parents
still lived on the shore of Lake Michigan’s Green Bay. Now all of us were older. My father helped me lift the 1969 Mossberg Mallard from the garage of the widow who’d listed it on Craigslist. My flatlander husband, who knew wind through its motion over corn, from its broad turning of the turbine blade, asked if I was sure I knew how to sail the thing.
I was teaching English, now for more years than I wanted to count. While I’d left the midwest decades ago--to live in the desert, to be a writer--here I was again. The midwest is a place for returning. Ask anything caught and twirling.
Of course I flipped the thing. And while I’d dunked Hobies as a teenager, and leapt from docks and swum up underneath the air pockets of submerged canoes, I’d forgotten how hard you can hit water, what it feels to swirl along in the dark until the tug of a lifejacket indicates up.
Luckily everything my mother taught me returned: turn the boat and detach the sail. I found shore and waved, with even more people in my life now to worry and disappoint, my parents and my young son. I was just hauling my forty-year-old ass back on board when I heard the hoots of the neighbor boys with whom I’d grown up--back then, collecting spent bottle rockets and flinging dead fish at one another. Burning dried-out Christmas trees on the frozen ice. Now men in their 40s, they’d been barbequing with their families but sprinted for kayaks when they’d seen me go over. My husband paddled out too, and then all of us were knotted in our too-small craft in too much wind, trying to laugh about our drifting, that we were out of breath and unsure how we’d get home.
I’m writing this near the end of the winter of 2021. After a long hard year everywhere, it’s the first time it’s ever seemed there might be reason again to live in rural places, sense in shrinking one’s circle of family and friends back to their earliest dimensions. Here in the midwest are the horizons against which our old dreams sprang, as large as comfortingly distant. Here is the place to which we return to ourselves.
Another day on the sailboat, a warm one, September, I come about to find myself in a wind line among a roost of migrating monarchs. Thousands of them spackle the air, frozen in the same wind propelling me, and we are sent together along the top of the muddy-green bay back to my parents’ beach.
Jill Stukenberg's work has appeared in The Collagist (now The Rupture), Midwestern Gothic, and Mutha magazine, and her novel Labor Day was a recent finalist for the Big Moose Prize from Black Lawrence Press. Jill is an Associate Professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point at Wausau, and she helps organize the Central Wisconsin Book Festival. She grew up in Sturgeon Bay and returns often to southern Door County for restorative soaks in the bay. Connect at jillstukenberg.com.
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