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.
Thursday, April 21, 2022
The #Midwessay: Sarah Cords, You Can't Go Home Again
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.
We'd love for you to join the conversation. Reach out @craigreinbold // craigreinbold[at]gmail.com
You Can't Go Home Again
I live in a Wisconsin suburb, almost exactly the midpoint between the city hospital where I was born, and the rural farm where I grew up. It’s appropriate that I live here. The “not quite there” middleness of the suburbs is a metaphor I have always lived. I left the farm at eighteen, but never really left. I made it to a city, except it’s not really a city. I work at writing, but I can’t make a living from it.
I am in the middle in every possible way. Geography, class, skill level, age, personality.
One of the most surprising things about the middle is how hard it is starting to be to stay in it. I bought into this suburban house twenty years ago; today, I couldn’t have afforded it. Each new writing job I take pays less than the job before it. The only reason I’ve ever had health insurance is because I married an accountant whose salary includes benefits.
Just lately it is even harder to stay in my house, my geographical middle. This is because my siblings and I are sharing caregiving duties for our elderly mother, trying to help her stay in her own house, which is a twenty-minute drive northwest from my suburban house. Her house sits across the driveway from the farmhouse where I grew up; my oldest brother still lives and farms there. It is her “retirement” house, where she and Dad moved after selling my brother the farm.
Even more so than the farm, that retirement house probably represents the watershed moment that set my parents’ futures (and mine). At one point in their lives, Mom and Dad had invested in a house “in town”—the suburb where I now live—with the idea that they would rent it out for a while, and move there when they retired. But when they sold the farm to my bachelor brother, they decided they wanted to be close to continue helping him with chores. They couldn’t leave the land. They sold the house in town.
So now, instead of popping ten blocks over to the house in my suburb where my parents once thought they would retire, I have to drive twenty minutes one way to help my mom take her pills, pay bills, and prepare meals. My siblings do the same thing, driving similar distances from their suburban houses. We try not to begrudge the caregiving work; it needs to be done.
But where it needs to be done? I hate the drive. I hate the 45-minute round trip on country highways, which the drivers behind me clearly think I should be doing at 70 miles per hour, even around curves, through deer-infested woods, and when the roads are covered with snow.
And what I do when I get there? In addition to never knowing just how Mom is going to be, part of my job there is helping her prepare meals. Good. Fine. I’ve got no problem helping Mom cook. But we also have to make meals for my farmer brother, who comes up to her house for dinner at noon (and often eats supper there later at night). My mother has been cooking for my brother now for sixty-two years. Arguably what we are doing is not helping my mom make her food, but helping her perpetuate the fiction that she is still cooking for herself and my brother. She regularly gets angry with my other siblings and I for “interfering” in her kitchen and with their meals, even though she is no longer physically or mentally able to coordinate the meal planning.
So now, sometimes I leave a meal for my own family and drive out to the farm in the dark to help my mom rattle around in her house and feed my bachelor brother. On these frigid February nights, I only have one thought when I arrive. I get out of my car on the hill where our farm sits, and that cold Wisconsin wind from the northwest takes my breath away, and I think: “Here I am again on this goddamn hill.”
I spent my first eighteen years on that hill, on that farm, helping Mom cook for our large family, and feeling itchy to get away, to a book, to a TV show, to a city, to anywhere else. Now I am itchy all over again. I get itchy when I hear about all my brother’s meal preferences (no noodles, no casseroles, no rice, no onions, hamburgers are acceptable but meatloaf is not, it goes on and on). I get itchy when I hear my mother’s complaints about the way he is running the farm, even though it’s clear his farming lifestyle is the only one of her children’s career choices that she understands and of which she fully approves.
Before her mind started to fail, my mother knew that I wrote things. She didn’t really know what I wrote or who I wrote it for, and the number of times she has looked at the Internet in her entire life could be counted on one hand. I come from people who grew food and milked cows. They don’t know what to do with job titles like “content creator” or “essayist.” I don’t really, either. But I was really bad at growing food and I’m afraid of cows. Is it my fault that I prefer to work the stubborn soil of my endless unbidden thoughts, to try and coax forth sustenance in the form of words?
I want to help Mom. I love her. I respect that the farm was her life. I know how much she gave to it. I can’t blame her for not understanding how I have come to love city sidewalks and my suburban life with a spouse who has health insurance. On the farm, we only had disaster insurance with breathtakingly high deductibles (the longtime curse of the self-employed). Each illness we had was an equation in waiting to see if it could get better on its own, or if we really did need to see a doctor. She can’t know how I look around, jealous, at my city neighbors, who all seem to install their parents in apartments and condos just down the block from them.
That’s not how it works when you’re from a farm family.
Once when I was trying to explain my history with the farm and the land it’s on to someone, I used the phrase “the tyranny of the land.” They didn’t know what I meant by that. What I meant was, when you’re a farmer, you don’t own the land. It owns you. If you want to reap food from it, you go to the land when it demands and on its terms. At least on our farm, our parents and us kids weren’t there for each other as much as we were all bound to do whatever the land and the animals needed, first.
For my mother, the farm was the community she needed. It was her livelihood and it was where she raised her children when she was strong. For my brother, the farm is the community he wants. I respect his long hard days, filled with physical work. To some extent I am jealous of his community: his farm, his family, his cousins and neighbors who also farm and fix tractors and do machining and other jobs that are done in unassuming metal sheds or one-story cinder-block buildings tucked away on the side of tiny country highways.
I never belonged on the farm. It was a good childhood, but I wanted something different for my adulthood. I don’t really belong in my suburb either. Deep down I don’t understand city people, particularly those who can just pick up and leave their home dirt and move whenever or wherever career advancement or their children beckon them.
In the Midwest, we drive everywhere, so it is fitting that I spend most of my time driving between, and working in, two communities, two communities of which I don’t really feel a part. It can be lonely, even when you’re in the middle of everything. I’m getting better at trying not to dwell on that, and how alone it makes me feel. Instead, as I drive, I think about words. I arrange and rearrange them in my head. If I could write those words, I wonder, is there anyone else out there who would read them and say, “Yes. That is the way I feel, too”?
In the meantime, I keep driving.
Sarah Cords is the author of Bingeworthy British Television, and has worked as a librarian, book indexer, fact-checker, children’s book author, journalist, and content creator. Basically, she spends her workday trying to make money from reading and writing, and then she relaxes by reading and writing. She lives in south-central Wisconsin.
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