Spiritual Affliction: A Thank You Note to Oklahoma by Kate Strum

welcome to OK sign shaped like oklahoma (like a pan)

Most Memorable: October 2018

Hey. Please. This is not the Midwest. All right? Michigan is the Midwest, God knows why. This is the Plains: a state of mind, right, some spiritual affliction, like the Blues.
― Tracy LettsAugust: Osage County

I arrive to Stillwater from Michigan in August of 2012. The day is 116 degrees, and the AC is busted in the home I have rented, sight unseen. By morning, eggs tossed overnight have cooked onto the trunk of my car. People say weather talk is small talk, but I used to coach an outdoor sport where staying on top of the weather was paramount for the job, and I can’t kick the habit. While we move between climate controlled settings, I cling to the idea that I can still live according to the whim of the weather gods, that I must. The way I get to know a place is to run it. After shrugging off the eggs, I trip over a cable near some construction and skin my knee and shin. On my first day of graduate school, the wounds are still raw and people I don’t know keep asking me what has happened, what has happened and I wonder how many signs I should ignore before driving back north.

***

Stacey is my neighbor on 12th Street. It doesn’t take me long to see that I’m south of where I’m supposed live. Her husband, Bill, comes home from prison and I drive him to the Family Dollar for diapers for Stacey’s grandkids, because I can’t figure out how to say no and I don’t know what he was in prison for. The neighbors on the other side are less stable, but beyond them is the public library. I’m never in one place for long, but I’m traceable by license plates and library cards. The local coffee shop uses Styrofoam and I think maybe I am a time traveler. The landscape stays foreign—desolate, exposed, for what feels like forever, but then I forget to note when it no longer does. Friends from the North are envious in the winter without asking what it’s like here. They tell me I’m in the South, but Oklahoma seems to highlight the discomfort of each season, except for maybe fall, in which it’s warm until it’s cold and you even get foliage if the spring and summer are rainy. That summer is the hottest in a long time, everyone says, but I have no reference point. In winter I walk the dog through the ball fields near my house. With no natural features for protection, the wind slices us. I feel the clay in the infield press up into the outsoles of my shoes where it has frozen in sharp, jagged crests. Every so often I throw the baseball well enough for her to stride like a racehorse, across the outfield after it and then collapse to chew at its stitches. The winter keeps freezing and thawing and freezing and thawing. When the headwinds are strong enough, I say I am a writer and the sound disappears behind me before I have to hear it.

In those early days, I curl up with the poetry of Simon J. Ortiz and scour his books for references to Oklahoma. My undergraduate thesis on the bookshelf holds a 20-year-old’s musings on the way Ortiz writes about the relationships Native peoples have with the land. I have been far away from words for most of the nine years since, which is why I am in Oklahoma, to find them.

***

Before the year is out I am typing up divorce papers for Stacey and I feel bad once she serves Bill. I never meant to take sides. I am learning it can be dangerous to call yourself a writer. Stacey, Bill, the less stable neighbors, and me all leave 12th Street. I find a new place on the second floor, which I hope will keep me out of trouble, and then I go north that summer, because I’m still hanging on to the past. While I’m gone, my new landlord moves all of my things in for me, because people in Oklahoma will just up and do that. I thank him in August when I arrive in the middle of the night, after driving 21 hours straight through because Missouri is flooded and the dog flips the deadbolt on me from the inside while I am unloading and I trip on the stairs in the dark, by waking him to ask for a spare key while my toe bleeds on his kitchen floor. After we have both slept, I try again with brownies and the next two years are good years on the second floor.

***

I see the land. I drive all the way west through the Panhandle, stopping at one barely surviving structure long ago sanded soft by the Dust Bowl, to pray. Only later do I realize that some of my characters live there. I go to the highest point in Oklahoma to look down, but the morning is full of fog. I see the longhorn and the bison in Lawton and I hike up Elk Mountain in darkness and shamelessly inhale the sunrise. In the southeast I drive the byway. I look out over Lake Wister, hike across the border into Arkansas, and then back over, pressing the boundaries and testing their elasticity. I have to know what is Oklahoma, and what is not.

***

I write stories about Oklahoma in the genealogy room at the public library. I wonder if I have earned the right, but there is nothing to be done; that is what boils over. I may have had a few strokes of genius there and did have a lot of snacks, which are forbidden. I move to the city and take what they call a real job that is supposed to support my writing and it does.

Simon Ortiz comes to Oklahoma, and the timing is good. I go and hear him read. He is a presence and I can’t believe I am sitting a few feet from him listening to him read the verses I pored over before I knew the future. Afterward, I tell Simon about my thesis and ask him to sign it. He acts humbled and even a little embarrassed by my fuss. If we meet again I will tell him that I stopped wondering why I was in Oklahoma that night.

***

I heard last month was the hottest Oklahoma May on record by 0.6 degrees and six degrees warmer than average. It is only supposed to get hotter. Without insulation, my rent house is cold in the winter and hot in the summer. I keep the ceiling fans spinning fast on medium until my allergies can’t take it. I fall asleep listening to the condenser click on, click on. I’ll never have a blog, but if I did it would be called Running in Oklahoma, Summer 2018: A Near Death Experience. These extremes, they keep me honest, they keep me guessing, they keep me writing.

***

I am at once furious about what is wrong here and losing patience with the opinions of outsiders. I am home. I am marching at the capitol in the morning and late night on social media I am telling my friends on the coasts that they don’t get it. I shake my head when they read articles about rural America and think they know us. Oklahoma becomes too important and I’m trading my writing time for helping time. I write an ad for Craigslist: Hopeless joiner seeks soulless place to write. I do not post it. Instead I think of Simon and remember why I’m here.

***

We drink beer from brown bottles on the neighbor’s stoop. It’s so hot you can’t lie in the middle of the road at midnight. I let the dog out back and stand on the porch in my underwear, the air and my body the same temperature, and I wonder if I’ll ever be gone from here, and when I am if I will feel like Ida from Simon’s poem, To Change in a Good Way.

She missed Oklahoma
like Bill did too who always said
they were going to stay just long enough
to get a down payment, save enough,
for some acreage in eastern Oklahoma.

 

Kate-StrumKate Strum’s writing has appeared in Runner’s World, Like the Wind, Pilgrimage, and The New Territory, where she is founding contributor. Strum is a co-creator of The Conversation Workshops, an Oklahoma-based educational non-profit with a creative and brave anti-racism curriculum that fosters intentional dialogue about race for change-oriented communities. She wrote this piece for the KOSU Podcast ‘Dear Oklahoma’ where you can hear her read and discuss it. Find her on twitter @katestrum.

 

 

 

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

AUTHOR PHOTO CREDIT: Monica Burgess

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