This essay was awarded honorable mention in Notre Dame Magazine’s 2017 Young Alumni Essay Contest. It was originally published at magazine.nd.edu
My final night in Toledo, Ohio, I climbed up to the roof of my apartment building to watch the sunset. Brilliant orange hues silhouetted everything below the horizon a dark, velvety black, and only the banks poked above the skyline. The colors were bright and bold, beckoning me to stay.
Straight in front of me on North Superior Street, I could see the old newspaper building where I’d spent long hours that summer covering everything from robberies to school board meetings to controversial city investments. From above, the streets looked clean and still and silent, but I knew that was far from true. Up on the rooftop, I couldn’t see trash rolling through the roads or crooked “for sale” signs hanging in dusty windows. I couldn’t see the crime, deterioration and poverty, all hidden in plain sight.
I lived that summer in a building that once housed the famous LaSalle & Koch Department Store, and until 1984, one of the largest Macy’s stores outside of New York City. It had since been converted into massive loft apartments, but you could still see the Macy’s sign painted on one side, like a faded tattoo. As I watched the sunset that night on the roof while a couple on the far side clinked Coronas, I thought about my three months in Toledo. I’d been intensely lonely and completely out of my comfort zone, but reporting stories throughout Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan solidified a longer relationship I’d been building with the Midwest as a region, a fascination with the place and its history.
I knew I’d come back. After all, there were more stories to tell.
The first time I connected with the Midwest was through the words of Nebraskan poet Ted Kooser, when I was 16. I picked up one of his collections at a book festival near my home in New Jersey and couldn’t stop reading — the poems were nothing like what I’d read in school. His words were simple, beautiful and timeless. I did not find out until later that Kooser was in fact Poet Laureate of the United States at the time, the first selected from the Great Plains.
Kooser’s poems, with titles like “Dishwater” and “Creamed Corn,” find beauty in the mundane. Kooser takes basic daily occurrences and shows that just beneath the surface of everything and everyone is something extraordinary. He changed my perspective on what constitutes great writing. Now, I believe great writing is found not necessarily in complex plots or exotic settings but in people — their histories, struggles and challenges. And no region in America exemplifies this kind of writing better than the Midwest. Think Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a classic depiction of small-town America, or Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. The Midwest, of course, is vast and varied, but a common theme fueling its literature is a strong sense of place and a focus on the people who live there.
Another aspect of the Midwest that makes it ripe for great writing is its relationship with the past. While New York City, my current home, paints over the past as quickly as it can build new skyscrapers, the past seems to linger in the Midwest. When I lived in Toledo, everywhere I went I could see remnants of a time long gone — beautiful Victorian houses slowly decaying, an old theater that sat empty most nights, even hot dog joints that opened in the 1920s and haven’t changed much since. Toledo’s past hovers over every street, over every building that was once grand and isn’t anymore. In Rust Belt cities like Toledo, the past is so present, it’s almost a character in its own right.
I spent my formative years in the Midwest, and only after five years of living in New York City do I understand how much that impacted me — as a writer and as a person. Both sides of my family are from Brooklyn, New York — I have no roots in America’s heartland. But after four years at college at Notre Dame in South Bend, a few weeks in Iowa City in high school and, of course, my summer in Toledo, the Midwest now feels like home.
The region is a crossroads of cultural influences, but I believe it shares some common characteristics. For one, the land is mainly flat, surrounded by the Rockies on the West and Appalachians on the East, giving the region its distinguishing wide-open feel. While the small agricultural towns of the Great Plains differ immensely from the Rust Belt cities of the Great Lakes, I’ve found Midwesterners to be politer and more community-oriented than their counterparts on the East Coast. And while, in New York, most people come from somewhere else to achieve and transform, Midwesterners have a strong sense of identity and pride in their roots.
So which region better reflects me as an individual? The self-assured, quieter Midwest, or the more rushed, aggressive Northeast? Right now, I don’t long to live in the Midwest — I’m happy where I am, in a city that simultaneously excites and exhausts me. But every time I arrive back to Ohio or Indiana or Iowa, a part of me feels at peace. I love the predictability of main streets, the kindness of the people, and the brilliant summer sunsets that soar on for miles into the distance because the topography offers so few disruptions. Being in the Midwest reminds me there’s so much more to America than I know.
One summer morning in New York, I was on a subway train so packed that I couldn’t even put my left foot down — all of the floor space was taken up. After about 10 minutes of this discomfort, a woman in front of me got off the train, revealing one of my favorite poems by Kooser, “A Winter Morning,” on a billboard where advertisements usually go on the subway walls:
A farmhouse window far back from the highway
speaks to the darkness in a sure, small voice.
Against this stillness, only a kettle’s whisper,
and against this starry cold, one small blue ring of flame.
That poem greeted me like the familiar smile of someone you haven’t seen in a long time, and for a moment, the oppressive heat and crush of people vanished. Kooser’s words were a small but comforting reminder of my connection to somewhere else.
I know I’ll travel the long, flat roads back to America’s heartland again, before the future finally steamrolls its lingering past. I want to drive around the region, listen to the stories to be told there, learn more about these cities and where they’re headed. Maybe those wide roads will take me out to the rolling cornfields of Nebraska, or back to my former homes in Toledo or South Bend. But for now, I’ll find my Midwest haven in the worlds of Kooser and Robinson and Anderson, and escape, through their stories, to the places that have become a part of me, while the sirens of New York City wail incessantly outside.