Sunday, June 27, 2021

The #Midwessay: Lisa Allen, It's Complicated: a Midwestern Triptych

It's Complicated: a Midwestern Triptych

Lisa Allen


My dad wrote me letters when I left for college, his handwriting open and plump, the royal blue of his ballpoint almost carved into the postcards and sheets of yellow legal pad—strokes that confident, that strong. In those letters he tells me he thinks I’m crazy, moving from Kansas to Chicago for college, says he wouldn’t live where I live for $10,000, says to remember to be good, to remember that he loves me. 
     My stepmother wrote to say she doesn’t really think he believes I’m crazy, but this is how men of his age say I miss you. She writes about plans for their annual barn party, how they will decorate the driveway with scarecrows and dress haybales in the big red barn with red checkered tablecloths and grill burgers and blast oldies so their guests—friends and kids of friends—can dance by lantern light, late into the night. 
     I am 18 and alone for the first time in a city I hoped would be nothing like home and can’t imagine choosing a barn party over the reggae bar in Wrigleyville or the corner dive in Roger’s Park. I ride the El to new parts of the city, max out credit cards on Michigan Avenue, get a job at a high-rise mall to afford museum and musical tickets. I stand too long at crosswalks and dodge taxi cabs and string symphonies in my head from horns and tire screeches and conversations not meant for me. I fill my time with shopping and Thai food and Indian lunch buffets on Devon Avenue and Jazz Fest and Symphony in the Park, classes and homework and papers typed on an electric Smith-Corona. I walk across the street from my dorm room to the student post office to collect boxes filled with cookies and quarters for the laundry room and letters. Reminders of home. I walk and I walk and I walk and I walk. I have a boyfriend who takes me to a secluded spot on campus, behind Madonna Della Strada Church, and we sit there together at the edge of Lake Michigan until we break up and then I sit there alone, with the waves, thinking about what everyone is doing at home, how everything here is nothing like home. 
     Home: small-town Kansas, county roads and dust clouds, streets I know by heart. Home: one bathroom for six girls, strip your sheets and vacuum your floor on Saturday, family dinners on Sunday. Home: folding chairs at the lip of the open garage door, Dad and I parked to watch the storm roll in as everyone else slept, him swigging scotch and telling me stories I’d already heard. Home: his sheriff’s officer uniform, sharply pressed; the scruff of his beard, red, when I nuzzle in; his voice, cheering me on as I round third and head for home. 


My youngest is waiting on college decisions. If they have their way, I’ll be moving them to New York or Seattle or California late this summer, will spend my first empty-nester Fall alone in a suburb in a state I couldn’t wait to leave when I was their age. 
     When I was in high school, I didn’t apply to colleges so much as I applied to cities. I applied to one smaller-town college in an adjacent, similarly Midwestern state, and answered the application question of “why do you want to attend [insert school here]” with “I don’t. My dad made me apply.” My youngest answered the same question on the application to the school in California with (I’m paraphrasing) I live in Kansas and have never seen the ocean and I’d love to live near the water.
     I still have the letters my Dad wrote me when I left home. I don’t remember when he stopped writing. But there was email and there were phone calls. And then there were jobs and then babies and then a wedding and a divorce (mine, not his) and a heart attack (his, not mine) and/and/and—and before anyone knew it, more than a decade had gone by, more than half my lifetime of me making a home in a different apartment in a different part of a city I never thought I’d leave. 
     When I’d visit family in Kansas, they’d ask me about the East Coast and my dad would tell the story of how, when he visited once, he followed me onto the bus and said good morning to everyone seated as he passed them and how no one wished him a good morning in return. Alone one night on the porch, both of us drinking (him, scotch, me wine) and watching a late-summer storm roll in, he said you like that, don’t you—not talking to anyone? 
     He and I didn’t talk about beliefs often, until recently. It was assumed that I believed what he believed, and for most of my life I did. For most of my life I went to church, for most of my life I towed the line. Until I didn’t. 
     Home: his recliner, where he dozes during Mother Angelica; the bald spot on his otherwise-gray head where I kiss him hello. Home: church on Sunday before the sunrise, the only other folks I see in the pews my teachers who’ve long since retired. Home: the fried chicken joint on 8th street, closed again between new owners. Home: microwaved Mexican food on Styrofoam plates at the tiny shop by campus, the one place we go every time we visit. Home: nothing to do but sit with him to watch TV, scream so he can hear me speak. 


He can’t write letters anymore. I knew one of the two signatures on a birthday card last summer was his because it was next to his wife’s, but it was a scribble instead of a signature, deflated and sloping and so thin I thought it might sink into the page. When we talk on the phone now he struggles with words. The strokes have hidden them from him. He knows what he wants to stay, he tells me, and it angers him that he can’t translate them from his head to his tongue. Except when he can, usually to tell me my politics are sinful or to use the wrong pronoun for my youngest kid. 
     After I hung up with him this morning, I spent time rearranging framed photos in my home—it’s a game, to move them as I dust, let the faces behind the glass live in different rooms for awhile. One of my favorites is a Polaroid of him holding me on the day they took me home from the hospital. He is sitting in a chair at my great aunt’s house, their patterned wallpaper a backdrop I remember as ‘70s chic, but it looks monochromatic now. Exhausted, almost. In that photo I can see my sleeping baby face, all cheeks, and him, in profile: smiling at me, Elvis sideburns and a pack of Marlboro Reds rolled in his right shirtsleeve. His hair is copper and thick, his eyebrows bushy. Barely 21.
     Sometimes I try to explain to my youngest that this is how I still see him when he calls: the impossibly young and fun guy who danced to ‘50s songs at his yearly barn party, the guy who cooked after-midnight-Mass-pancakes for a houseful of friends every Christmas Eve, the guy who waited up for me just so we could sit outside and watch the weather—even when he calls me a baby killer for voting Democrat; even when he makes homophobic jokes despite having a queer grandchild; especially when his voice fades and I can barely hear him say You know, it would be nice if you’d just come home and we could sit up and talk. I miss that, you little shit. 
     My youngest and I talk too much about their imminent move to college. Part of that process was picking schools in states with laws that will protect them as they become an adult. A blue state, unlike the red of where they’ve been raised. We talk about my making trips to visit them and when they ask me where I might live once this house is empty but for me, I toss considerations to the air as if gravity might solve the equation. Factors: finances, employment, proximity to an aging parent who, despite our differences, has been the one person in my life who’s never left. 
     I try to explain to my youngest that relationships are complicated when you love someone whose politics hurt someone you love. I try to explain the nuances of love and respect and obligation. I grow angry when I cannot find my words, let my voice fade as I say I’ll visit you and you’ll come home sometimes and it will all be ok. 


Lisa Allen’s work has appeared in Listen to Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We're Saying Now (Putnam 2015), Bacopa Literary Review (2018, 2019), the anthology Feckless Cunt (2018), Midway Journal (2019), Lily Poetry Review (2019 print, 2020 online), 3Elements Review (2019), and December Magazine (2020). She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction and an MFA in Poetry, both from The Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College, where she was a Michael Steinberg Fellow in Creative Nonfiction. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize (2019, 2020) and she is the co-founder of the virtual creative space The Notebooks Collective, as well as a founding co-editor of the anthology series Maximum Tilt. Visit her at

Fire season in Kansas begins in late winter, when frozen ground thaws and its dampness retards the pace of a creeping fire line. Ranchers set fire to pasture’s dry grasses and seedlings on the most calm day possible. Winds are a threat, sweeping from the Colorado Rockies across foothills, through the high plains, and across—and downward from—the high country. The scent of fired grasses blows east to the more populated towns, the sweet smell of grasses burning, an incense. This process, learned from Indigenous friends and relatives (before they were sold out to railroad companies and real estate brokers), sustains the pastureland for bison, cattle, horses, and deer who sometimes graze with cattle herds.
     In this season no person, writer or not, cannot help but be moved by the epic scale of the landscape. I am reminded of this as the season turns to this mode, particular to the grasslands. Once I drove through the Flint Hills after dark when fires still burned, snaking under a full moon, and then a spring snowstorm began. The gleam of blue moonlight on snow streaked with dendritic fire rivulets stunned me. How could I ever imagine my small life as central to the cosmos?
     All the writers’ works that represent Kansas essays in this collection live with this simple fact—the seasons and its weather will overwhelm any human enterprise, and even egos. Many of these writers’ work is new to me, and without question, I know there will be an underlying humility, even from those not born and raised in the Sunflower State. Survive a few ice storms, snow, high winds, and burning heat—and you are a member of the Kansas club. August and September are the months when fields of “weeds” are yellow with wild and a few cultivated sunflower crops. That is another marker of seasons that proceeds outside of people’s management.
     Other factors encourage the Kansas writers. A slower pace leaves time for reflection, reading, book clubs (High Plains Radio’s ambitious series, for example) and literary communities. I would guess there are more writers per capita than most places. Isolation leaves time for individuals to write, without distractions or traffic-filled commutes.
     No, the state is not all flat, nor all black-and-white as in The Wizard of Oz. But what if it were? Even more occasion for a good story. Denise LowKansas Coordinator.

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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