This is not an invitation. Frankly, if you don’t live here already, most of us would rather you stay where you are, although we can’t blame you for wanting to come. Oh, some of our businessmen and bankers and ministers and mayors and tourism promoters might, in the prejudicial atmosphere of their workplaces, look down and mutter something about growth being good for everyone, but really, when we’re home reading the paper or mowing the lawn, we like things here the way they are.
Still, just where—and what—is “here”? Do we draw the line at Nebraska or halfway through Wyoming? At Iowa or deep into Missouri? (My aunts and cousins still live in the little Iowa-Mississippi River town where I was born, a bicycle ride from Missouri, and have a suspicious-sounding twang in their voices. The first- and second-generation German-Americans in North Country, where I live now, tell me I still have a vestige of that same twang; they laugh nervously when they say it.) Does the Midwest go as far east as Ohio? Do cows really give better milk on Central Time?
And what if we solved the question of the Midwest’s geographical boundary and built a Great Wall (or maybe a “Durum Curtain”) high and wide enough to keep out everyone who heard about us and wanted in; What would it mean to live Inside? What is this place with the great colleges and college football teams (and the best wheat, beef, and corn in the world) but with otherwise few attractions for outlanders?
Well, as Oedipus said to the Sphinx, that’s a good question. Because the Midwest is like a warm spot in a cold pond: You know when you’re in it and when you’re not, but can’t exactly say when you start knowing—or what that warm spot’s made of The things most foreigners (from, say, Dallas or Schenectady) think about the Midwest may or may not be true. Are Midwesterners conservative? Not when you look at their congressmen’s voting records, or at those who recently have nearly made it to the Oval Office: McGovern of (where?) South Dakota, Mondale and Humphrey (may he be resting easily) of Minnesota. And not when you ask most farmers about farm aid.
On the other hand, there are the radio talk shows airing opinions in support of home schooling and against taxation of any kind and vehemently in favor of total submersion rather than mere sprinkling. Are Midwesterners mostly Democrats or Republicans? Hard to say. Democrats hold a slight edge in Senators and Congressmen from the region, two years from now it may all be different.
What about the huge ethnic enclaves in the Midwest, comprised mainly of Europeans and Norwegians? Well, sure; but New York and L.A. have a few thoroughly-assimilated-but-ethnically-conscious groups, too, as does the rest of the country; and we have our share of newly arrived Cambodians and Pakistanis and Mexicans. The Midwest seems to have more than its fair share of country-western and religious radio stations (it’s not the religion on the latter I mind, it’s what passes for music), but so do the South and the Southwest. A relatively large proportion of Midwestern citizens live elsewhere than in large cities, mostly because there are few large cities here—but I, for one, wouldn’t last a week on a farm, and I’m sure there are thousands like me. Our speech has been oft-described as “Hat,” most recently in the New York Times Book Review by Robert Bly, a Minnesota poet who ought to know—but many of us here feel the same way about the broad accents of a certain senator from Massachusetts. There’s the Midwestern work ethic, which, to their credit, the New England states (and many Protestants everywhere, I’m told) have embraced; and our weather, which is approximated, mildly, in Alaska.
See the problem? The harder we tread water trying to define that warm spot, the more uncertain we become. And yet, “here” is someplace special. Its boundary degenerates only under a strictly objective eye, one that takes in nothing but stone-hard facts—which have a way of becoming less unequivocally, vitally “true” in the company of human beings. Subjectivity is sometimes the only way to get at the truth. We fall in love because we cannot help it, not because we have weighed the good and bad traits of our beloved. It’s not blind love; it’s a knowing choice to be faithful, of the same species as patriotism; “My country, right or wrong,” scorned by ah kinds of groups (scorned most tellingly, one would think), is knowing love in the best cases, the kind a parent has for a renegade son or troublesome daughter. My love for the Midwest, where I was born and have lived always and where I hope I will die (a very long time from now), grows stronger each year even though I get no closer to an objective definition or justification of that love. A Southerner, who lives in perhaps the best-defined U.S. region, would have the same problem—but just try denying there is a “South.”
One answer, however, the simplest of all, keeps returning to me: The Midwest is singular and love-deserving because it is as close to Heaven as we can come on this earth.
Yes, I hear you falling out of your hammocks in Hawaii, pausing amid the endless thunder of Big Sur to wonder what drugs I’ve been taking. The world is full of fine places, and I’d love to visit them all someday. But capital-H Heaven will not, I think, be a holiday. Something tells me we’h all have work to do there; important, hard work; labors of real love for perhaps the first time. With the labors of love will come understanding, and with understanding, acceptance and the freedom it allows—and suddenly Paradise sounds an awful lot like Peoria or Council Bluffs, only warmer. Around here, life is one long practice for the real thing.
Even though God’s Workshop on Earth is managed by bungling human beings, the Midwest offers a nearly perfect blend of work and joy, freedom and responsibility. There’s lots of work to go around, and a relatively low unemployment rate. (Data can be massaged and facts used differently by different groups. I know people who figure everyone has a constitutional right to a job; to such people, even 1 percent “unemployment,” regardless of how we arrive at that figure, is a criminal violation.)
Farmers come to mind first, of course, when we’re talking about really hard work. Not much is harder than farming, even if you’re fortunate enough to have an air-conditioned tractor cab. All the farmers I’ve ever known have had dirty fingernails and two-tone arms and grit in their eyes and up their noses, at least until their nightly scrub-down. The smart, good ones manage to save a little every year for their old age and to pass on to their children. The others go bust. Even if you aren’t a farmer, though, your days in the Midwest are most likely made up of good, hard work, if you want it—at construction sites, in offices, factories, hospitals, television stations, stores, or in your own studio. If you’re extraordinarily lucky, you’ll have a job you love; if you’re just everyday, Midwestern-type lucky, you’ll have a job.
Joy in the Midwest comes from many sources: human relationships, the pursuit of hobbies and sports, work well done, and—were you wondering when I’d get around to this?—the land we live on. Each state in the Midwest is larger than many countries; the Midwest is huge, its landscape as varied as America herself Badlands moonscapes like ours in western North and South Dakota appear nowhere else in the world. The Midwest has prairie so flat and perfectly lush with wheat or corn or sunflowers it makes you dizzy to look around. Wooded hills tower over deepcut, narrow rivers in Minnesota and Illinois; the flat pewter of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers rests between small, much-older knobs of hills. It gets so hot here in the summer, sometimes, that our livestock suffocates and our cities have to ration electricity, and our winter cold spells regularly exceed 40 below.
Winter here, especially in the northern states, is an opportunity for personal valor—an opportunity some Midwesterners prefer to pass up. My brother recently moved to Mesa, Arizona (he’d lived all his life in Iowa, South Dakota, and Minnesota), selling everything he had and arriving there without a job; I found out only then, and was surprised that I’d never noticed before, that he’s always hated winter. He now works two jobs and makes less than he did at one in Minneapolis, and when I ask him what he likes so much about his new home, I get temperature and humidity statistics from him. A friend tikes it here because he enjoys pitting himself against the elements every day: venturing out when he needn’t, skiing, skating, snowmobiling. (He also jogs and lifts weights; in spite of all his exertions, I respect him.)
For me, winter is my once-yearly chance to dig in and see what I’m made of, an amusement for which I have little time in other seasons. The long cold (and my resultant long colds) gives me an excuse to read a lot, walk a little, bundled in my thoughts and other paraphernalia, sit by the fire in the dark and listen to the wind howl. (Often the wind on our hill is so fierce we can’t start a fire.) I feel—well, yes, I’ll admit it—like a pioneer: self-reliant, ready for anything, tough as a scrub oak rooted in rock. I have the urge to see old friends more often. My tastes grow simpler, my desires calmer.
But let’s say, just for the sake of argument (one more Midwestern winter pastime), that another long drought ground us into a dustbowl, and another Depression savaged our jobs, and we were all out of work. And let’s say, further—although the possibility is beyond my imagining—that we lost all our means of joymaking. It wouldn’t matter as much as it would in some places, because what ultimately makes the Midwest special is that here, to an extent unparalleled anywhere else, we’re free.
Now, that doesn’t mean you may, with impunity, take a meathook to my windshield if I perturb you, or that I am excused from paying my bills and acting responsibly. What it does mean—to a sometime bohemian who sometimes enjoys other bohemians—is that here in the Midwest we can all act a little crazy when we need to: without being arrested, usually without even being noticed, and still—his is the best part—without being surrounded by crazies. (Although, because we are such a large, diverse place, we do have our little ghettos of lunacy, especially in our bigger cities.) Think of it: We’re neither California, where one’s invitation to community seems to rest solely on one’s aberration and pique at all things normal, nor Managua (we have no Managuas in this country), where what is not standard is quietly crushed.
Here is a cornucopia of disinterested goodwill towards oddities, an amused politeness at the tender psyches of the genius and the artiste and the sometimes unbalanced (often indistinguishable); here we have both the security of being part of a sane, humdrum community and the stimulation of observing, or perhaps acting, the occasional eccentric. There’s room here for the dance instructor grocery shopping in his lavender leotard; the militant feminist, and the shy bride who just wants to have babies and keep her house spotless; the teenager clad in leather and chains; the oil rig or coal mine or harvest itinerant from Texas or Mexico; the flamboyant Marxist professor and his colleague who spends his spare time translating Old High German lays; the buttoned-down shopowner and the layered-look artist and the turtlenecked writer; Born-agains and Jews and Muslims, Christian Scientists and Quakers and Moonies, Junior Leaguers and right-to-lifers and the Posse Comitatus.
Here I can run my business or my family or my love life the way I want, and no one will think it proper to interfere unless it’s obvious that I’m hurting someone else. Here privacy is considered a part of community, and license is answerable only to its own excesses. Outsiders might think we’re “isolated” here, because fads and national paranoias are slow to reach us; the truth is that Midwesterners are too busy and involved with real life to spend much time fearing the corruption of civilization. And besides, it just won’t happen here: decency, charity, dogged skepticism, and a heartfelt laissez-faire are our defense, as solidly a part of us as our suspicion of gratuitous change and our dependence on the livestock market.
It’s no accident that, in addition to being the clearest hint of Heaven to come our way, the Midwest is also, barring certain details, a compelling synecdoche for the nation whose heartland it is. With that in mind, perhaps this should be an invitation: What I believe about the nation should hold for the region, too. So: If you think you can handle the sanity here, and are content to help us do what we do best, come on in. There’s plenty of room.