In the aftermath of the recent presidential election, much blame has been put on the voters from the rural Midwest, my native land. I’ll admit this is a complicated time for me. Like many of you, I’m angry about a Trump presidency and fearful for what lies ahead. The election has made it clear how difficult it can be sometimes to identify with a place that often doesn’t share your values. I live in an urban area now, but those small towns and farming communities of southeastern Illinois will always be home to me.
I grew up in a working class family. Early on, I learned that when it came to privilege in the world, my family didn’t have it. We were white, yes, and I was male, and that was something, but we had no status when it came to our socio-economic class, or the place where we lived, or the jobs that we held, or the schools we attended. I know, then, the way so many voters from the rural Midwest feel: overlooked, ignored, abandoned. I know their economic despair. I know their longing for a better life. These are the people, so the election results from my native county tell me, who overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump.
My father was a life-long Democrat; my mother, a Republican, was a Christian woman who voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976. I can’t imagine that she would have cast a vote for Trump had she been alive for this election because she was a woman, who, above all, believed in decency. She also loved books, and she taught me to love them, too. Somewhere along the line, it became clear that I had a gift for writing. Looking back on those days now, I can see that the one privilege I had came from the power of language.
Which leads me to the fact that I believe writing to be an act of empathy. We do our best to understand what it feels like to live inside someone else’s skin. We try to understand the sources of people’s beliefs and behaviors even if we don’t agree with them, even if they terrify us. This act of empathy is particularly important now. Please understand, I’m not agreeing with those who voted for Trump, nor defending them. I’m only saying it’s too simple—it’s dangerous, even—to cast dispersion on any one group, to practice the sort of suspicion and condemnation that has led to so much of the world’s wrongdoing. We have to consider the individual life. We have to understand there are good people everywhere. We have to understand that sometimes those good people can also be misguided or, in the worst cases, be evil. As any good writer knows, opposites co-exist.
With that in mind, I offer up the following excerpt from my essay, “Election Season,” contained in my collection, Such a Life. I wrote this piece ten years ago, but I hope it will resonate in our contemporary time. I told the students in my creative nonfiction workshop—students who were questioning the efficacy of our words in these post-election days—that we need all their voices, especially now. So, for what it’s worth, here’s mine.
(from “Election Season”):
When someone speaks of the Midwest, I think of small towns and farming communities like the ones in southern Illinois where I grew up, and not the cities like Columbus where I now live. To me the Midwest will always mean the countryside and the people who inhabit it. When I’m back in southern Illinois, as I am each summer, I like nothing more than to drive out into the country through the township where my father’s farm now belongs to another man. I like to watch the fields of timothy grass ripple out toward a distant tree line when the wind comes up. I like the way the land is marked off into square sections, the gravel roads running at right angles. The straight rows of corn and soybeans, so neat and orderly, are beautiful. I can pull off the road at one of the graveyards where my ancestors are buried and for awhile hear nothing but the wind moving through the trees, a squirrel scrabbling through the grass, a crow calling from overhead, a bobwhite’s two-note whistle. I like the farmhouses with their neatly tended gardens and their lawn ornaments—shiny gazing balls, carved wooden ducks with wings that circle with the wind, statues of deer and geese.
Sometimes I’ll see a collection of metal lawn chairs under the shade trees, or a glider in a breezeway, and I’ll know that come evening folks will gather there and for an hour or so their lives will be that simple—the gentle motion of the glider, the easy rock of the lawn chairs, the sun setting on another day of labor. Maybe someone will talk of the war in Iraq, or what Bush is doing to squeeze the farmer, or the price of gasoline, but eventually the voices will fade away and the world will exist the way it did before politics. Twilight will give way to dusk, and the fireflies will come out. Bullfrogs will croak from the pond in the pasture. The bright stars will twinkle overhead, and the earth will keep turning over, despite our own stupidity and everything we do to threaten it.
My first political memory is the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon election. I was five years old, and I remember being in our car along a gravel road outside a church that was the polling place for my parents. A man came up to the car and offered me an apple. It was a yellow delicious—firm and sweet—and I remember how good it tasted on that sunny November day. Indian Summer was lingering that year, and everything seemed to have a golden tone: the apple, the dried cornstalks, the yellow leaves on the hickory trees. How wonderful, I thought, this thing my parents called an election.
My father was in the car with me—babysitting, I suppose, while my mother was in the church casting her vote. He knew the man who gave me the apple. I remember that much. “Tell him thank you,” my father said, and I did.
Of course, everyone knew everyone else in Lukin Township, and once the election was done, they went back to their ordinary lives—the farmers and the schoolteachers and the oil field workers and the shop clerks. Summers, they helped each other bring in the hay; winters, they gathered around the radio at the Berryville General Store to listen to high school basketball games, or went to each other’s houses to play Euchre or Pitch. They might disagree about Kennedy, but in the end they were still these people in this township finding a way to get on with the living that had to be done there.
From time to time at harvest season, a farmer got down on his luck—maybe he got hurt in an accident or maybe he got sick and was laid up in bed—and then the other farmers in the township pulled together and brought in that man’s crop. They brought their machinery and they got the job done, no matter what their politics were. The season and the wheat or corn or beans in the fields didn’t care about politics and these men couldn’t afford to either. At such times it didn’t matter a whit who was a Republican and who was a Democrat.
I like to think, then, that there are certain things we hold in common here in the Midwest—a sense of fairness, a work ethic, a responsibility to our neighbors. I choose to live here, in part, because of the way I feel connected to the land and the climate. The flat plains suit me. I listen to friends from the east or west coast talk about how boring it is to drive across all those “I” states—Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio no less mind-numbing and banal—but to me there’s something about the way the roads run straight and the farmland stretches out on all sides, plain and unassuming, that comforts me. Perhaps it’s my Libra scales that always want to be in balance, but when I see the predictable landscape that some find lackluster, I feel at home, familiar with the right angles and squared corners. At the same time, I chafe against the fact that like the landscape the people here often hold fast to their conservative ways, feel threatened by anything that seems “liberal.” They can fence themselves in, close their minds and hearts to the ever-expanding awareness of human rights that is often more accepted in other, more diverse parts of the country. No doubt there’s a homogeneity here that numbs, that entrenches, that denies.
We can participate in a democratic society and think we’re making the right choices. We can give leeway to one group while denying the rights of another. We can turn a blind eye to the fact that we’re powerless when it comes to the earth turning over, summer’s growing season giving way to winter’s snows, one year becoming the next until so many have gone by we’re stunned by the fact that we stand in the here and now, when it seems like only yesterday we couldn’t see it coming to save our lives.