When I graduated high school, I wanted nothing more than to escape the Midwest. Maybe it was just that eighteen-year-old itch to strike out on your own, far away from family, and see what happened. But maybe it was the cornfields and the summer humidity and the you-betchas that finally got to me. The way that endless expanse of sky over flatlands can suffocate with its infinity, the way the crickets and cicadas drone through hot and sticky nights, the way thunderstorms and blizzards and tornadoes swoop in with little forewarning to mess up the best-laid plans. Or maybe it was the seeming lack of glamour and excitement and culture, the provincialness and naïve sweetness.
Whatever it was, I hightailed it out. To Boston, where I was sure life was better. When the day came to leave, I wanted to click my heels and be gone. Instead, I got an interminable family road trip, stopping in every town and tourist attraction and diner from Chicago to Cambridge. How Midwest of us. I kicked and screamed the whole way--Enough already! I couldn’t move into my dorm and send my family on their way fast enough.
I remember so vividly that feeling of being trapped by the Midwest.
And I remember just as vividly that desperate feeling of wanting to come home. Five years gone—a stint in Paris, a summer in Eastern Europe, job prospects in NYC and Boston and Italy and Greece—and all I wanted was to come home.
Try as I might to leave Chicago and the Midwest behind for good, there were signs all along that I just couldn’t: The thick Chicago accent that came out of hiding after a few glasses of wine. My insistent clinging to “pop” and “gym shoes.” My underwhelmed reaction to Boston’s size and NYC’s architecture—and my rabid defense of Chicago’s gems to my coastal snob friends. My cravings for pierogies and sweet corn. My startling and inappropriate conversations with strangers. And this, the biggest sign of all: The way I could ease back into myself every time the plane home touched down at O’Hare, the excitement with which I mapped out the roads and geography I knew from above, the deep breath of relief as the sky and the skylines of home unfolded in front of me.
What I realize now that I didn’t realize then—and, really, what I needed to leave to learn—is that I am a Midwestern girl through and through. The East Coast never quite felt right—strangers who never make eye contact, doors never held open for the person walking in behind you, conversations never had at the grocery store or on public transit, smiles never shared. Try as I might, I never quite fit in the circles and societies of New England—or later, when friends migrated west, of California and the Pacific Northwest.
I’ve been thinking about my Midwesterness a lot lately. The end of grad school is in sight, and Fresh and I have started talking about where we want to be when we leave. Our last move, we hope, the move that will let us settle into a home for a long time to come. As usual, we’ve got the same Chicago/Denver divide, complicated by the possibility of an academic job hunt and two career amibitions to juggle. We know it won’t be so easy as just picking our next home. Some of this will be up to fate. And the possibility that we could end up in Boston or New York or San Francisco or DC or Denver—the possibility that we could end up leaving the Midwest, for good—leaves a knot in my stomach.
It took me a long time to come home, but whatever I was running from when I left at seventeen is long forgotten. What I know now is how happy I am to be here and how desperately I don’t want to leave.
What I know now: The balance of fun and hard work in Big Ten Badgerland—a balance I never experienced at Harvard, a balance that sets me free from the demons of competition and ambition and seriousness. And my reluctance to return to Cambridge, even for my ten-year reunion, for fear of reuniting with the discomfort of being out of place, of being a foreigner, an interloper—the feeling of being an out-of-place Midwesterner. I know now the joy of a life lived at a slightly slower pace, in a come-as-you-are city, among smiling neighbors who would happily discuss with you or a stranger the best way to drive downtown or the crazy weather or the latest in political snafus. And the self-confidence that comes with living in a place where appearances and status and pedigrees matter just a little less—where even the chubby farm girl is comfortable wearing a bikini on the beach, and where firemen and construction workers and lawyers and professors summer together, play together, grow old together.
What I know now is how good it feels to be home.
And I know this: The way my soul does a somersault when I dive into Lake Michigan. The open sky that parades clouds and fronts and layers of blue, endlessly shifting and dancing and towering. The song of cicadas that ebbs and flows through heat and still nights and late summer forests. The awe of discovering a new corner of beauty, unbeknownst to any outside the ‘fly-over zone,’ but happily discovered by mini-van driving families and Big Ten-bedecked couples. The terrifying beauty of a thunderstorm, the ominous magic of a tornado-threatening sky, the quiet delight of a blizzard and a fresh snowfall. And most importantly: The comfort of being in our own skin—however beer- and corn-fed or wind-blown or sun-wrinkled that skin may be.
As Fresh and I spent the past week camping under those skies, listening to those cicadas, diving in those lakes, discovering those corners, marveling at that weather, we kept giggling at and declaring our luck of being Midwesterners. Even driving through the scars of strip malls and suburbia, we knew. We’d look at each other with the twinkle of a shared secret: We’re so glad that this is where we’re from. We’re so glad that this is home.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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