Let me pry loose old walls.
Let me lift and loosen old foundations.
Beat me and hammer me into a steel spike.
Drive me into the girders that hold a skyscraper together.
Take red-hot rivets and fasten me into the central girders.
Let me be the great nail holding a skyscraper through the blue nights
into white stars.
--Carl Sandburg, 1918
The American Midwest is a great nail in my body. Its rusty gestalt formed me, and my heart pumps iron history through my arteries and veins. The Midwest broke me and made me strong. It formed my hard-edged will and chastised me with ice.
I’ve lived in Hawaii, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and Washington. I’ve traveled to 43 of the Continental United States and motored through Spain, Korea, India, Argentina, Haiti, Germany, England, and Mexico. I’ve rubbed elbows with people in the sovereign nations. Their names drip from my tongue: Navajo, Potawatomi, Lakota, Menominee, and Ojibwa.
I’ve embraced Midwest geography; most of it is not beautiful, however, some sites rival the rugged, purple Andes of Northwest Argentina, the coast of Barcelona, and the tumbling waterfalls hidden deep in Molokai’s rainforests.
The friendliest people don’t live in the Midwest, except once in a while we are the friendliest. I’ve discovered our mood often depends on the weather. At our best, we’ll open doors for strangers, donate to food banks, and drive our cars with kindness. I understand what’s shaped my home and its people, and I accept our misplaced pride and overly serious nature, for I have been shaped this way too.
Winter weather is the northern hammer we embrace. Its point is a foul fracking spear. Standing in an ice storm while the bloody maw of raw polar air tears at my face, I earn my wrinkles and empathize with the anvil.
Raised in cold, my heart beats with remnants of Scandinavian blood, and my mind is animated with faint memories of deep water, high rocky edges, dark days and nights. In a dream, I drank Meade from a brass chalice and struck flesh with sword. I sailed the seas and trusted the wind as it filled my sails. Weather was no deterrent to anything, ever. I was confident in the strength of my shoulders. My hands were strong and gripped with crushing power.
In another dream, I traveled to the wind center of ancestors in the sky, and when I landed on my knees along Interstate 94, the Lakota clown Heyoka, who speaks in opposites, said, “It’s all a joke.”
I’ve seen and heard the haunting sights and sounds of small town decay and the shadows from rusty alleys at night. Pints of broken whiskey bottles–some with golden liquid still in them--and ragged cats became easy pickings for teenagers in the morning. In this breadbasket of ambition and learning, I earned my pathos. I shot animals and drank whiskey. The Midwest’s rough edges bent and shaped me.
At 18, when the bars closed at 2:00 am, I stumbled out the door with my drums, and bicycled to a lonely place. Once I heard bagpipes piping their ditties in a morbid drone, a reedy hneeeeeeeehhhh to the gathering mist over a lake. I remember freezing, and I resented the cold night-time summer temperature; it rattled my body, and I cursed my place in the state of Wis-cold-sin.
I’m certain I can find, in every town, streets with large potholes and dreary bars filled with overweight beer drinkers, their eyes drooping like the minnows from their fishing hooks as they bet on wood tick games and take turns smashing the wood tick.
In my career, drunks and suicides challenged me. I watched young and old people die, and counseled prisoners in their cold irons bound. As a volunteer hospital chaplain, I spent time in emergency rooms listening to distraught mothers–much like the mothers of Ramah, Hiroshima, and Salvador–all of them wept for their children.
I loved and hated ice on my winter beard. I worshiped springtime bass leaping for dinner from beneath the lily pads, loved hockey and the smell of burning oak leaves. I was shaped to resist gossip and the stress of city life, and in adulthood I avoid both. I was made immune to pseudo-drama and I learned to ignore that which is trending. If I have conflict, I want it to be honest, and I want it to be real.
Midwest cred inhabits my bones and I understand its silent contracts: own your stuff, don’t be false, and in the winter stop and help if there’s a car in the ditch.
My heart belongs to the Midwest. My children were born and live there. Growing up, they learned the stingy lessons of its culture. As adults, they are charged with picking up dog poop in the spring and exerting their beautiful stubbornness during four seasons. They know stoicism and reticence. In a selfie world, this is a rare gift.
My Midwest life is plainly mapped, as Marilynne Robinson wrote, by “a collection of mundane anchors of constancy.” I hang my hat on these anchors: a deer in the woods, the dragonfly hatch in May, and the startling retort of hardwoods in frigid February.
I go to a small cabin in the north woods of this Middle Earth where I do not feel assaulted by noise; I go there to seek justice for myself and creation; I go there to enter the stillness, listen, and index the anchors of constancy.
This cabin remains a tenacious preachment to stubbornness. It’s not been updated or changed in sixty years except for the outhouse and the red-handled water pump by the front door. Water comes from below, not from city supplies through rusty pipes and faucets; do you remember Flint?
This place of hammer and saw, shovel and plane, pine and snow, smells of stiff ambition and a make-do gestalt. Built as a simple hunting camp, the structure exudes quality craftsmanship. Looking closely at the angles of the true 2 x 4 boards, it’s easy to see every cut was made by the power of arm and hand, a perfect north woods pride in geometry.
Surviving tornado-force winds, the yearly push and pull of cold and hot, nearby forest-fires and electrical wiring that's crustier than the oldest goat, this cabin remains the centerpiece in my breadbasket of memory. It’s the solid anchor in my storyboard.
A wood burning fireplace rests in the center of the cabin and serves as my world’s axis mundi; bloody fish on the table stain every page. Fireplace and fish would be the Foreword and Epilogue to my saga. The Gibson refrigerator and Dixon stove, tough utilities, would form the structural bones and the red pump would center my narratives’ beat.
In all weather, I walk outside to encroach upon the world of dead bugs on the toilet seat. Old snake skins have curled on the floor, and spider webs drape the doorframe. On the narrow, north-facing windowsill, dead flies form a grizzly pyramid to mortality and pile up like raisins under the refrigerator, dropped and forgotten.
I lift the snake skin, and think nothing else on earth feels like it. In my hand, it droops as a testament to an evolutionary movement of the cheese. Like the best humans, the snake evolves to survive. Some people visit me here. Most do not return.
In Northern Wisconsin, life tattooed a truth upon my bones. Its unsexy mantra was work for water. I embodied this creed and placed my bets on its marrow. Cliff Notes from this lesson plan tell me there is no golden parachute or sugar daddy. I learned from axe, shovel, hammer, saw, ice, snow, and the red water pump.
It’s the red wheelbarrow that matters, but it’s also the red pump. Its lesson was clear: if I want something, I have to prime the pump. That lesson became the true north version of my life’s reality, the unmasked joy of work and the compass of my life’s curriculum.
The clear contract of my script screams there is no bailout, the pump must be primed. Students in my classrooms reminded me of this pump. They had to be primed. They didn’t bite, but they snarled, snapped, and preferred to stay silent and hidden. I worked to draw them out, like clear water below the red pump. I worked all the levers but my students were like Dorothy and her companions on the yellow brick road, hoping a magical wizard would solve their problems.
They insisted I could, but I taught the lesson of the pump, the sobering moral in The Wizard of Oz—nobody else can do magic for you; nobody can make it all better. My curriculum disclosed the wizard’s secret: it’s all smoke and mirrors. They did not like it. Some, like Dorothy, got mad and then woke up.
I fear for the future and realize that deep down, dread links my name to my social conscience as a Midwest son of opportunity and achievement, opportunities that are increasingly hard to find. On my best days, dread is foiled by a dogged hope, by anchors of consistency, by joys understated, by healing in stillness, by justice most rare, by comfort in a burning log and the cackle of blue jay.
Once at my northern cabin, I stood on a ski trail and watched the moon ascend. In the woods, silhouettes of deer and paper birches–ladies of the forest–glistened against a white cover. Wrapped in layers and warm from exercise I took my stand against ice and the night. I was present, content, warmed by the mighty sinew of my thighs. I did not despair my bank account. I did not fear the future. I did not long for a wizard.
In a moment of truth, I leaned forward. Gravity took me down a gentle slope toward an icy shore. I breathed deeply and counted my existence as a simple drop in space, for I stood in good relation and was alive.
Cliff Notes from this lesson plan tell me there is no golden parachute or sugar daddy.
I stand in good relation to the constancy of a nail. It holds a cabin upright as its great anchor. Riveted to hard wood buildings and stubborn people by my Midwestern story, these mundane elements both haunt and massage me. They compel me to migrate back. Is it insanity? I left Hawaii and traveled back to . . . the Midwest?
At my cabin, these common things help me let go of fairy tales and hopes for a wizard. And now, once again, my life curriculum cycles back to lessons in love and service. I finally understand there is nothing else, and I embrace the certain hurt of this path.
I yearn to be that which holds together all things that need holding. I labor to live a worthy life and imagine myself a skyscraper stretching through blue night. I aim to keep good relations, to layer the shingles and pound them down, to stack the stones and cement them in, to pile the wood and cover it up. I will to build and mother something–or even anything–worthwhile.
My body hurts as all Midwestern bodies hurt, and my biology holds memories of hammers and nails, shovels and rakes, handles and water pumps. I remember the past while crumbling under the great now and its shadowy evolution. Shedding old skin, I pine . . . and imagine my soul emerging as a lightning bolt from a white star.
Each spring, the author makes a trek to his cabin from afar to meet the loons on Lake Casey as they arrive from the Gulf of Mexico. He pumps water, burns wood, and writes at the place he calls Oz.
Gregory Ormson is a former college instructor, and alumnus of Northern Michigan University, The University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, The Chicago Theological Seminary, and Trinity Lutheran Seminary. His work has been published in Quarterly West, Cutbank, The Good Men Project, Turk’s Head Review, and others. His philosophical writing is featured in eight national and international yoga journals from the U.S., Hong Kong, and India.His nonfiction writing earned recognition twice as a finalist and one Honorable Mention in three national contests. He is a member of the Author's Guild, and his agent is currently pitching his yoga book to publishers.He migrates north and south with the birds. Website www.gregoryormson.com, Twitter: @GAOrmson