Monday, April 19, 2021

The #Midwessay: Becky Carman, It's Not That, Either

Ancient mountains (now hills), ancient ocean beds (now plains and prairie), tornado alley, tablelands, highlands, cross timbers, caves, the Ozarks, cypress swamps and forest—we've got it all in Oklahoma, baby. This place favors writing about landscape—it's embedded in us in a way I suppose other writers feel. For me, why I write about Oklahoma, why I care about its history and future, the legacies it will and won't claim, has something to do with the sight of a flat blooming canola field straddling a wet red dirt road beneath striated grey and white clouds after a spring storm. And, that this place has been and is filled with a mix of people—displaced, wandering, outcasts who are still often overlooked. The late Barry Lopez (RIP; not an Oklahoman) wrote, "If we could speak more accurately, more evocatively, more familiarly, about the physical places we occupy, perhaps we could speak more penetratingly, more insightfully, more compassionately about the flaws in these various systems which, we regularly assert, we wish to address and make better." Each of the Oklahoma writers for this series speak to the physical place well, and each asks us to consider what that place (and its people) has to offer, or not. —Liz Blood, Oklahoma Coordinator

 




It’s Not That, Either

Becky Carman


*


The colloquial Midwest is a huge swath that none of us can accurately draw borders around, so forgive me, Chicagoans, for focusing on the prairie, where our whole thing is talking about leaving or not talking about staying. Re: us, everyone else’s thing is fixating on our most apparent qualities. The bad ones. Thanks a lot, John Steinbeck (who was from California).
     From the inside out, it’s a chip on our shoulder—a conjoined pride and shame about our theoretically idyllic, if flyover, way of life, with our ample parking and slow summer nights and giant grocery carts. From the outside in, it’s the Dust Bowl and then corn fields and also complicated family dynamics centered around religion. 
     Even the prompt for this essay—”What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest?“—emphasizes the writerly burden of geographical and cultural exposition, whether to readers or to ourselves. We’re in the netherworld, called western but really central, with a coastless, varied landscape most people couldn’t describe if asked. Flat, kind of? But hills, sometimes. Cities! Small ones. Low cost of living and driving to food trucks, for some reason. Good veterinary schools. Nobody needs to ask Joan Didion what New York City is like to understand what she’s talking about.
     Being Midwestern is about recognizing one’s roots if not one’s home. As essayists, it’s apparently to write despite one’s circumstances instead of because. We cling to the idea of expatriates having done us proud instead of, more truthfully, abandoning us, trying to prove our worth. Anyway, humorist Will Rogers was born in Oologah, Oklahoma, left as soon as he could to make his name as a globetrotting Hollywood film star, and died in a plane crash in Alaska. We named Oklahoma City’s international airport after him.






Sunday, April 18, 2021

The #Midwessay: Phyllis Brotherton, My Midwessay

Ancient mountains (now hills), ancient ocean beds (now plains and prairie), tornado alley, tablelands, highlands, cross timbers, caves, the Ozarks, cypress swamps and forest—we've got it all in Oklahoma, baby. This place favors writing about landscape—it's embedded in us in a way I suppose other writers feel. For me, why I write about Oklahoma, why I care about its history and future, the legacies it will and won't claim, has something to do with the sight of a flat blooming canola field straddling a wet red dirt road beneath striated grey and white clouds after a spring storm. And, that this place has been and is filled with a mix of people—displaced, wandering, outcasts who are still often overlooked. The late Barry Lopez (RIP; not an Oklahoman) wrote, "If we could speak more accurately, more evocatively, more familiarly, about the physical places we occupy, perhaps we could speak more penetratingly, more insightfully, more compassionately about the flaws in these various systems which, we regularly assert, we wish to address and make better." Each of the Oklahoma writers for this series speak to the physical place well, and each asks us to consider what that place (and its people) has to offer, or not. —Liz Blood, Oklahoma Coordinator

 



My Midwessay

Phyllis Brotherton


*

The Midwest for me will always be home, and even though “home” has been many places over the years: Chicago, Tehran, Fresno, California, and now Reno, Nevada; Oklahoma City, my place of birth and life for the first 25 years, will always signify my origins and claims a forever hold on my heart. 
     What could be considered more “Mid” than Oklahoma City, a short 355 miles +/- south of Lebanon, Kansas, the geographic center of the 48 contiguous US states? What Neil Gaiman describes in American Gods as “a neutral ground where the modern and old gods can meet despite the war between them,” which seems particularly percipient, given the area’s 35+ registered Native American tribes and the crisscrossed remnants of former federally demarcated Indian Reservations. Though the West long ago was designated as everything beyond the Appalachian Mountains, exploration, migration and settlement later shifted that “frontier,” so that the vast expanse west of the Mississippi River became known as the West.
     My Midwessay would include the farm where I grew up, just south of Oklahoma City, where when asked, my family described, in our linguistic-lazy Okie accents, as “six miles south-a the airport, a mile west-a Meridian” and eight miles west of the town of Moore, where I attended all twelve years of primary and secondary school. The dirt road leading to our rented 100-year-old farmhouse nestled on forty acres, was lined all along the south side with hickory trees and still is, though they are shadows of their former selves now, ravaged by Wizard-of-Oz tornadoes and Northers certain to storm through every year, over and over, like clockwork. That rickety cellar door Dorothy stomped her foot on to get in, blown back again and again as she tried, was the spitting image of mine.
     The pecan tree in the backyard, beyond the cellar, windmill, and outhouse we used when the toilets clogged or the septic tank filled up, still stands in all its Papershell Cultivar glory. It watched our young family of four move in, shaded my Dad’s greyhound dog pens, and saw us pull out of the sandy driveway twelve years later, to a new home further south, all our own. On a visit a few years ago, on yet another drive-by to see how the place was getting on, I’m greeted by the owner, who shares that the tree, likely two centuries old by then, produced over 400 lbs. of pecans that year, almost ten times the average. I immediately write down this happy longevity story in my notebook. Of course, the old house and even the cellar by that time, only existed unseen below ground, since the former had been dozed and buried on its very spot, while the latter ultimately caved in on itself.
     For me, my Midwest Essay is full of color: the red dirt of the South Canadian River, the red cardinals perched on snow-drifted fenceposts, the golden sway of wheat fields, the black-green sky of a Cat. 5, the flaxen hair of broom corn, and the clear colorless glass of icy highways. And smells: fresh-baled alfalfa, the petrichor of raindrops on parched soil, the must of fallen leaves or the sharp scent of the first cold spell that pierces your nostrils like a dull knife. The Oklahoma winds could have their own dictionary, and maybe they do. All of this, the shade and scent of nostalgia, of childhood memory, of that place that was your first remembrance, and really your only—home. 



Saturday, April 17, 2021

The #Midwessay: Reed Karaim, North Dakota at Night

Winter. Bone deep cold. Oil. Wind. Fargo (you can still pose with the woodchipper from the movie at the Fargo Visitors Center). These are some of the first concepts that usually come to mind when people think of North Dakota. The essays presented here examine the complexity of North Dakota, “a state used as a punching bag for a place where nothing happens,” as Bronson Lemer writes. It’s not an easy state to love, but it is a hard place to shake.  —Pamela Pierce, North Dakota Coordinator

 


North Dakota at Night

Reed Karaim


*


We were young and we were already ghosts. Late at night, driving up and down the blank county roads that circled our small town, one of our favorite pastimes was breaking into the abandoned farmhouses that dotted the countryside. The eastern edge of North Dakota is flat, table-top land disturbed only by a few meandering rivers, the creeks and gulleys that feed into them, and planted tree lines, known as shelterbelts, that march up and down between the fields. At night it has the stark simplicity of a Dali dreamscape, the moon too bright, shadows too sharply etched, every brief rise in the earth, every tree and telephone pole enlarged in the darkness. If you forgot your chattering, half-drunk friends in the car and considered one for a minute, they seemed to carry an elusive significance, some strange weight that was hard to place but left you with a vague uneasiness, a sense of life too stark, too vivid, and passing too quickly.
     The abandoned farmhouses were castles in this twilight, towering ruins that blotted out the stars. There were a lot of them. At the end of the 20th century, North Dakota was a place with its future solidly behind it. The state had reached its peak population, a magnificent 682,000 people, in 1930, right before the Great Depression, and it hadn’t been close since. In a 70-year span in which the population of the United States had more than doubled, the rich farmland of the eastern half of North Dakota, the arid rolling grasslands of the west, had only grown more empty, the small towns spaced every few miles that were the heart of the state’s character and identity shrinking as if the desiccating summer winds were slowly turning them to dust. In the east, the land was still farmed, but there were fewer farmers every year, and when an elderly farmer or farm couple died or finally had to leave, the land would be sold, but there was often no one who wanted the house. They stood empty and forgotten. If there had been no heirs to auction off the belongings, they were left furnished, old couches and chairs, beds, books, table clothes, odd knick-knacks, all waiting in the dark. 
     Waiting for us, half-drunk, small-town teenagers, tumbling out of used Chevys and Fords, boys and girls, laughing, shouting, grabbing, shoving each other, spilling cherry vodka, blackberry brandy, Pabst Blue Ribbon as we trotted, staggered, skipped, walked warily through the wild, knee-high grass toward a deserted farmhouse, which I remember as all being tall and square with evenly spaced windows that dully reflected the moonlight when they weren’t broken into brighter shards of winking glass. Half the time the doors were ajar, long ago forced, other times we pried them open, sometimes someone went through a broken window, we heard a rusty lock click, and the door scraped open into a rectangle of elusive darkness.
     Haunting houses is what we called this low-grade breaking and entering. It is strange when you consider that we were so young, so full of the unfocused joy and rage of the young, that we assigned ourselves the role of ghosts. Part of it was simply that we liked to scare each other once we were inside. Half the fun was stumbling through the rooms, hiding against a shadowed wall or behind a moldering chair and scaring the living shit out of someone else. Part of it was that you could never be sure you weren’t going to seriously hurt yourself or worse: fall through a rotten floor or trip on something unseen to land on something sharp. You stumbled through the darkness on the faint edge of oblivion, one solidly stupid move away from becoming a real ghost, always a magnetic spot for teenagers.
     That’s all it really was for most of my friends, I’m sure. I don’t wish to make it more. But there was also something else that hung over those nights for some of us. We were staring into a narrowing, emptying future in the only place we knew and it gave our lives a moonlit translucence we had to defy by facing it, by turning it into a drunken lark. 
     Out there, far away, somewhere, the world was exploding, changing, becoming something new, and we were here, in a state that felt at best static and, at worst, to be fading out of existence. Our insignificance haunted us. North Dakota is forever the forgotten place, the place Jay Gatsby was from when he was James Gatz, a nobody farm boy dreaming of being someone else. In the late ‘80s a pair of sociologists proposed turning much of the state into a “Buffalo Commons,” giving it back to the herds of bison that filled the prairie before settlement. Their argument was it was emptying out anyway, so there was no reason not to hurry it along a bit for the benefit of the creatures that had a rightful claim. A few years later, a newspaper columnist from somewhere down south made the news by claiming he did not believe North Dakota existed. He had never spoken to anyone who had been there or who knew someone who had been there. In what was clearly a sad miscalculation, the state tourist agency flew him up to prove the state was real. He got out of the plane, took a look around and proclaimed he could be anywhere. He still didn’t believe it.
     Well, we were there. Some of us wanted to get the hell out. Some of us could not imagine leaving. But we were there and, driving too fast down the county roads at night, standing in front of a towering, deserted house, stepping into the interior darkness, facing the strange shadowed forms of abandoned lives, we were in defiance of our own irrelevance. I remember a night, a girl I wanted to impress, a big house still fully furnished, stumbling across floors that felt unsteady into a back room upon which ghostly sheets had been laid across all the furniture but for a single overstuffed chair that waited patiently for the dead to return. I had ventured deeper into the house than anyone, and I stood waiting in the shadows beside the chair, waiting for her and her friends to appear, so I could step out, hear them scream, let her know I had explored the darkened rooms on my own, had not been scared. Was very clearly not afraid of what waited ahead.
     Instead, they wandered down the hallway with Ricky Maple shepherding them, giggling as if in a poorly-done Halloween haunted house, and when they saw me, managed only a brief burst of drunken laughter and a single, exaggerated shriek as Ricky offered me a drink of cherry vodka. 
     I went to and dropped out of the state’s land-grant university, spent a few years working, pretending I wasn’t still rattling around in the empty rooms of my childhood, and then left North Dakota and never came back but to visit. In the first decade of the 21st century an oil boom hit the western part of the state and it started growing again. They laid out miles of new streets in the small cities in the oil patch, tossed up acres of tract homes, planned new schools and rec centers and strip malls for the thousands of oil workers from other states who were crowded into trailers and pre-fab housing that resembled nothing so much as the metal container boxes they stack on ocean-going transports. A trip through the west sent me driving across the oil patch at night and I remember the flames from the wells, which flared off excess natural gas, lighting the darkness like ordered rows of candles that stretched all the way to the horizon.
     A few years later they had almost all gone out as oil prices tumbled. The state was still wealthier than it had been, still had more people, still had some pumps pumping, still had a defiant swagger to its proclamations that its future remained as bright as ten thousand oil wells burning across the prairie like the world’s biggest birthday cake.
     Then Donald Trump ran for president telling America that everything you fear might be waiting in the shadows is real, all the monsters are really there, crouching in the darkness, waiting in the next room, and you are right to be afraid, you are right to angry, your existence is as threatened and as fragile as you imagined. You are half a ghost already. 
     North Dakota embraced him with the ecstatic frenzy of converts at a tent show revival. Trump won the state in a landslide in 2016, received even more votes in 2020. In my old hometown, people who had never seemed to show the least interest in politics were suddenly posting Trump banners, raising Trump flags, wearing hats proclaiming the past was the future. I saw then, for the first time, that we had always been terrified, we had been standing in the abandoned house pretending we were facing our fears, but the truth was, they had always been outside. Out there. The ghost mansions of our past were where we felt safe, a world we knew even as it died around us, even as we mocked it. The world without walls was the one that scared us, the country that marched on past the small towns and uniform fields of grain whispering reassuringly in the wind toward something clamorous, chaotic, changing and unknown. The future was our real haunted house, the rooms all too brightly lit and crowded with people and things we did not know or understand, the doors and windows all tossed open and, worst of all, absolutely no place to hide.





Friday, April 16, 2021

The #Midwessay: Debra Marquart, A North Dakota Story (1/...)

Winter. Bone deep cold. Oil. Wind. Fargo (you can still pose with the woodchipper from the movie at the Fargo Visitors Center). These are some of the first concepts that usually come to mind when people think of North Dakota. The essays presented here examine the complexity of North Dakota, “a state used as a punching bag for a place where nothing happens,” as Bronson Lemer writes. It’s not an easy state to love, but it is a hard place to shake.  —Pamela Pierce, North Dakota Coordinator

 


A North Dakota Story

Debra Marquart


*


There was a guy in my hometown named Ezekiel. Everyone called him Zeke. One day Zeke comes into the Red Owl to complain about a can of tuna that he bought in the store, which he’d just eaten for lunch. Just terrible, Zeke says. Worst thing I ever tasted. “Do you still have the can,” the store owner offers. “We’ll give you a refund.” Okay.
     Later that afternoon, Zeke comes in with the rinsed-out tin can. “This isn’t tuna,” the owner says. “This is cat food.”  Oh, Zeke says.
     The next week, Zeke comes back to the store for his weekly groceries. The clerks, by now have all heard about the cat food. Stocking the shelves, on breaks, at the checkout counter, they’ve been talking about it. The story has spread to the elevator, the farm implement, the drug store, and the bank. In barns, hayfields, and middle-school classrooms, at basketball games and at kitchen tables and over weak cups of coffee at Maggie’s Café—the swirlingest hotbed of gossip in town—it’s been discussed. None of this will reach the pages of the Napoleon Homestead.
     “You feeling okay, Zeke?” one of the clerks asks when she sees him grab a shopping cart. Yah, I’m fine, Zeke answers. I accidentally ate some cat food, you might have heard? he offers. Thought I might get sick. 
     “Oh,” the clerk replies, putting concern in her voice, as if she’s just now hearing this. 
     Yah, it was scary, he says. When I went to bed that night, I had to set the alarm for every hour, so I could wake myself up to check if I was dead. 





Thursday, April 15, 2021

The #Midwessay: Patrick Thomas Henry, The Campus Visit, March 2017

Winter. Bone deep cold. Oil. Wind. Fargo (you can still pose with the woodchipper from the movie at the Fargo Visitors Center). These are some of the first concepts that usually come to mind when people think of North Dakota. The essays presented here examine the complexity of North Dakota, “a state used as a punching bag for a place where nothing happens,” as Bronson Lemer writes. It’s not an easy state to love, but it is a hard place to shake.  —Pamela Pierce, North Dakota Coordinator

 



The Campus Visit, March 2017

Patrick Thomas Henry

*


You think of it often: the day that would lead you to become an accidental Midwesterner. Before you learn to live with a cold so pervasive that it forms knuckle-gnarled ledges of ice on the insides of your windows in the blanched eternity of winter, you’re riding shotgun on a driving tour of Grand Forks during a campus visit.
     It’s 2017 and the market for college teaching jobs in the humanities has been bleak. Worse markets are on the horizon. And despite that here’s North Dakota—far from the Mid-Atlantic and Appalachia, with the promise of potential employment, a place to write, a place to create. Never mind the winters. You can rationalize the bone-deep cold from a job you worked back in Pennsylvania during summers in high school and undergrad: ten-hour shifts in the -14º of an ice cream warehouse.
     But you keep this to yourself.
     Your future colleague delivers some factoids. The Red River flows north; in winter it freezes solid. When frozen, the river can support snowshoers and cross-country skiers. In spring and summer kayakers take to it. You nod, ask questions. The wing mirrors reflect the receding remnants of winter—muddy tire treads and salt-bleached stripes on the pavement, snow plowed into steep embankments. The piles are spreckled with gravel and green shards of glass, are belted with strata of ice. A fossil record of cold, a melting history.
     Your future colleague says those heaps could last until the end of April—or longer. You look at the remaining strips of ice along the roads. They resemble the hashed concrete of medians. You think of those massive snow mounds and Monet’s haystacks: the shapes are similar, both impressionistic humps, striated with homey earth tones.

A year after the campus tour, you’ll see it—the snow piles on the airport’s tarmac and the Target parking lot survive until May. That spring, when you begin to take long walks around your neighborhood, you’ll see one of these mounds in a field near the Dairy Queen on Columbia Road. 
     Each of the snow piles seeps brackish water, but you’ll imagine them melting with a glacial music: a cooing trickle, a wind chime tinkle.
     A mind of winter, you know, can make a concerto from the rustling of dead leaves.
     In “Last Snow,” Heid E. Erdrich writes that the last snowfall and its slow melt into slush “runs in first light / making a music in the streets we wish we could keep.” But you can’t hold onto it, you can only preserve the sensation of it in your marrow, what her poem calls the “stubborn calendar of bone.”
The animals of North Dakota record these winters in their bones, too. After the snow mound by the Dairy Queen evaporates, the ground squirrels emerge from their burrows. You’ll pause on your long walks to watch them rise on their hind legs. Even in June they’ve begun to scope out provisions for the next winter.

The driving tour of the city goes on—along the strip of fast-food chains on Washington Street, past the stalwart and vast-porched houses on tree-lined Belmont, by the opera house converted into a brewery, over a bridge into Minnesota and back. You and your future colleague find common territory in a conversation about Pittsburgh, the Steel City, its reputation as the “gateway to the Midwest.”
     Minutes later there’s a turn onto a side street, and then you’re weaving through the narrow streets and the slender houses by Grand Forks' Riverside Park, where every building seems to stand as if its joists are pinned shoulder-tight in anxiety.
     Or perhaps that’s your anxiety, projected onto the buildings: you still have a job talk to give, after all.

Featureless—that’s how William H. Gass derides Fargo, just an hour’s drive south of Grand Forks via I-29. (Gass was born in Fargo but notes that he was only six weeks old when his family decamped to Ohio.) He compares the North Dakota landscape to the space where he wrote his early stories: “a dining table, featureless as Fargo.”
     But a wooden dining table has its grain, evidence of its heartwood-deep patterns. Texture and topography exist, if you’re patient and willing to look.
     After all, patience makes you susceptible to surprise. In a good way. During the first semester of your gig, December advances suddenly and the facilities crews already have plowed the snow into immense bulwarks twice your height. You’ll tell your students that the pocked features of the mounds—all pitted snow and gravel and brown-black from exhaust—would make a perfect lunar surface for a stop motion film.
     You’ll think of Gass, how landscapes are featureless only if we refuse to detail them with contradictions. You’ll think of how Thomas McGrath prophesies the Dakota winter in “Beyond the Red River,” when he invokes the “winter lion, / body of ice-crystals and sombrero of dead leaves.”
     The sky above you is hazy, the clouds grey ribbons. It resembles steel wool, abrasive and cool. The temperature hovers around zero and the cold wires in your marrow.

Before returning you to the red-brick buildings of campus, your future colleague drives you toward the outskirts of the city, points to the blue edifices of the North Dakota Mill. It’s the only state-owned mill in the United States, you’re told. A vestige of prairie populism, your future colleague tells you.
     You wind down the window. The air’s so brisk it stops in your throat yet still you can taste it all: the pollen of spring, the bite of winter, the musk of snow mold, the yeastiness of chaff and grain.



Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The #Midwessay: Peter Grimes, U-Turn

Winter. Bone deep cold. Oil. Wind. Fargo (you can still pose with the woodchipper from the movie at the Fargo Visitors Center). These are some of the first concepts that usually come to mind when people think of North Dakota. The essays presented here examine the complexity of North Dakota, “a state used as a punching bag for a place where nothing happens,” as Bronson Lemer writes. It’s not an easy state to love, but it is a hard place to shake.  —Pamela Pierce, North Dakota Coordinator

 


U-turn

Peter Grimes

*


North Dakota is a state of the past. My wife grew up there and says the ’50s arrived in the ’80s. For me the state is personal history. Another wife and I relocated there from Cincinnati in 2011. We witnessed the queer sight of pump jacks bowing to the prairie we drove across that first summer. We were moving from the edge of the East to the edge of the West. In academia, we were always on the edge of something. We found the town of Dickinson in flux, a fracking boom underway in western North Dakota. The ground itself shook and belched toxic salt water; the locals were awash in strangers from Oklahoma, Idaho, West Virginia, Ohio. Once a quiet ranching town—or so we heard—The Western Edge was now the oily center, the color of money. What had it been like before? we wondered. What were we too late to see?
     We hadn’t come to climb oil derricks, not to bulldoze the top soil or work sixteen-hour days and buy matching jet skis for the man-made lakes. I’d gotten a job teaching writing at the state college. In our city sedans with bumper stickers from the future, my wife and I squeezed our way through the big white trucks that churned the red dust. What I came to know as Dickinson was what the locals, raised on family farms, at Lutheran potlucks, no longer recognized. Old folks on fixed incomes were moving to Bismarck and beyond. To Minnesota. To Arizona. Escalating crime scared off families who’d loved Dickinson for its buffer from all else. Write about it, I instructed my students, some of whom were from as far away as West Africa, but most of whom grew up in western North Dakota. What? they asked. Home, I said.  
     In my six years there, I glimpsed that side of North Dakota too. The past. The pre-boom holdover. Through the continuing education program at my university, I met school teachers, ranchers, lawyers, handymen, insurance agents, realtors, bar owners, reporters, mechanics, farmers, even oil workers from the last, mostly forgotten boom. I got to know names like Kostelecky, Fuchs, Selle, Mrnak, Kadrmas, Sarsland, Altendorf, Jahner. Names like strange and beautiful rock formations. It struck me how each person turned up in different settings. The dentist who also played a part in the high school musical who also raised goats who also was a democrat in a sea of red. I glimpsed the layer of every town that lingers like bones under fickle fortune. In Eastern cities, I’d never seen that sustaining mesh so close up, each thread visible at this size, the whole ready to catch those who fall. I felt safe.
     And feeling safe, I fell. I wanted a piece of the before, the pre-boom ideal that was past. I must have been stirred by the promise of buffered silence, waving flax fields, tongues of blue sky like I’d never seen. All around me, the center that once held wasn’t holding. The population exploded. The roads were broken, the store shelves empty. Man camps littered wheat fields. And there were all the spills. Even our school shuddered—enrollment unsteady, a scandal, an unhinged president, a suicide. The university proved neither ivory tower nor bunker. 
     The woman I met was much younger, had a child. I glimpsed a way toward something different, and my wife went back East. 
     That fall was the longest of my life. 2012. I felt the arctic cold of North Dakota when the leaves dropped and the snow piled up. My nose tingled. Everyone assumed I’d leave with the separation. No one quite knew what had happened. And when my secret relationship with the young woman didn’t work out, no one knew that part of my past. I stayed in North Dakota because it had been the plan. This job. My whole life had led to it, all those courses, a decade. I learned to be alone in a house in a subdivision on a prairie in a bustle. Me and a dog. The lights of the oil patch could be seen from space, I learned, and it gave me some comfort. I learned to search, to drive five hours and date women in Wyoming, women with children, to scour the Black Hills for purpose. Nothing worked out. I taught my courses. I switched around the furniture. I talked to myself and the dog. Then the dog died. Still I stayed. 
     And, perhaps by necessity, I began to need open spaces, like a place to set my mind. I drove. I wrote. I closed my eyes and found those threads, the warp and the weft. Online, I met a woman from North Dakota who was living in my home state of North Carolina. I heard the acquired Southern in her voice when we talked on the phone late into the night. It was like a call from my childhood, crushes I’d forgotten. We talked. We met. She moved back to North Dakota. Thanksgivings with her family in Jamestown became the meaning of the word, fifty people in a finished basement, pool table piled with pies and turkey and frog-eye salad, singing a prayer in front of the fireplace, then dispersing to fold-up tables. I liked to stay with her parents in quiet Kenmare, the routine of dice games and dinner at noon. This place my wife had been young, fantasizing about being kidnapped by Indians, a time in her life I would never know. 
     In 2017, I got a similar, better job back in North Carolina, and we moved again, this time together. Now I’m the one home, or at least in the place I grew up. Nancy has left her original state behind again. We still visit, of course, keep up with friends we made there on Facebook. Some have scattered across the West like cottonwood fluff. Others hold on. Her parents are getting older, and older. Every day I drive to work now, fifty miles through Cumberland and Robeson Counties, it’s past cotton and tobacco fields most North Dakotans have only read about. Slavery times. And I think of the wide-open interstate between Dickinson and Bismarck, hardly a car in sight, fields of purple flax and yellow canola, wheat, occasionally a falling-down barn in a coulee. Driving there, I used to think, where the hell am I? How did I end up in North Dakota? What has happened to my life? Now, I think, if I hadn’t gone there, I wouldn’t be here. Not the same place.   




Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The #Midwessay: Bronson Lemer, NoDak Defensiveness

Winter. Bone deep cold. Oil. Wind. Fargo (you can still pose with the woodchipper from the movie at the Fargo Visitors Center). These are some of the first concepts that usually come to mind when people think of North Dakota. The essays presented here examine the complexity of North Dakota, “a state used as a punching bag for a place where nothing happens,” as Bronson Lemer writes. It’s not an easy state to love, but it is a hard place to shake.  —Pamela Pierce, North Dakota Coordinator

 


NoDak Defensiveness

Bronson Lemer

*


Recently, I read a popular novel set in North Dakota. I enjoyed the story and the journey of the main character, but I just couldn’t get past how unfamiliar the North Dakota in the novel felt to me. Something about the setting felt off. The novel was supposed to be set during North Dakota’s recent oil boom, but I couldn’t feel the place the writer was describing. It didn’t feel like the North Dakota I grew up in, ran away from, and return to for yearly visits. So often my home state is used as a punching bag for a place where nothing happens, a place of empty spaces, and on the rare occasion when North Dakota is in the spotlight, I want it to feel right, true. More than just nothingness. I know “truth” is subjective, but reading that novel I wanted a North Dakota I could recognize.

When I write about my home state now, I can’t help but be defensive. I want to get it right. I want the reader to feel how beautiful and haunting the place can be. Often, I find myself thinking about a line from Debra Marquart’s memoir The Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere: “We children of North Dakota are programmed for flight. … When grown, we scattered in a kind of diaspora, a phenomenon known as “outmigration.” But we always feel the pull of our home ground.” I don’t live in North Dakota anymore, but I find myself often writing about this “flight,” the forces that pushed me away, and the tethers that keep pulling me back. These forces and tethers are influenced by my family, but also by the land itself. Writing into the mystery of why this place has such a hold on me is one way for me to document the complicated relationship I have with the place I grew up and to show you something I feel is true.