Renewing the Heartland: Changing the way we see the midwest

by Emma Ryan, volunteer in Camphill Village Minnesota

Most of us have experienced “heartbreak” on some level.  We know that when the heart is not well, it affects the wellbeing of the rest of our body – we cannot eat, sleep, often even move.  The heart is more than a muscle, more than an organ; it is the center of us, both physiologically and spiritually. It holds our deepest secrets, fears, love, guiding intuition.  Our lifeblood flows from this center, in so many ways.

Our area of the country is often referred to as the “heartland” of the nation.  We have particular, quintessentially American values and customs that thrive in this heartland, and it is the people and cultures of this region that maintain the strength and love to keep the lifeblood flowing.  While often overlooked by those living closer to the coasts, those of us who call the Midwest home can feel the grounding and stabilizing force present in the natural spaces and communities of the heartland.

Those who have traveled often away from the Midwest can probably relate to the experience of how negatively – or perhaps dormantly – the rest of the country perceives our homeland.  We hear terms such as “flyover states,” that remind us that we are inconsequential, uninteresting and unoriginal. I’ve heard many things in my travels, from people out West who expressed how lucky I was to experience the beauty of their neck of the woods (true, but I made sure to ask them if they had ever been to Minnesota or Wisconsin, and assure them that we have more than our share of natural beauty to experience), to Californians who apologized after hearing where I was from and East Coasters who couldn’t fully grasp why I still wanted to live in Minnesota after visiting other Camphill communities.  Often, living here in the middle of America, I wonder at the obliviousness of other people’s perception of the heartland of our country. I’ve regularly heard people speak about us being so far away. So far from what, exactly? We are smack dab in the middle of it all, is the way I see it. In the middle of the beauty, the reality of life, and indeed the current turmoil of our nation. This mindset, combined with the assertion that the proud and attainable rural, Midwest ways of life are becoming more distant and abstract, are leading to a sort of identity crisis in the heart of our country – the heart that must be strong and steady for the rest of the whole to thrive.

When I am away from Camphill for too long, I become acutely aware of the individualistic, social-media based communities that dominate our country and encourage detachment and lack of deep human connection.  Surface-level interaction with the world around us leads to surface-level feeling; we begin to lose touch with our shared humanity. I experience a constant speeding-up notion that encourages a feeling of being lost, values and morals becoming suspect or even invisible.  Everything is changing and is able to be questioned; there is literally no stability when things are encouraged to transform so fast.

Of course, there are so many benefits to this rapid-speed culture that gives voice to all: injustices can be called to attention quickly, social justice and equality movements can swiftly gain widespread support, our global connections and opportunities for growth are greater than ever before.  However, we must find ways to renew and rejuvenate lost cultures, rather than leave them behind completely. True community values are needed and essential in the rural heartland. This is the lifeblood of our country and it is slowly being drained – we need to enliven this bodily process together – indeed, the integrity of the rest of the country depends on it.

When I look at the mission of Camphill Village Minnesota, “To create and sustain a community where people with and without disabilities live, work and care for each other to foster social, spiritual, cultural and agricultural renewal,” some of this rejuvenation is called to mind.  I get the feeling that often some who live here feel inadequate standing next to this lofty mission statement, that perhaps we are falling short or misrepresenting ourselves while faced with the very human flaws we deal with each day as we try to live and work together in the rural heartland.  However, I believe this intention and collective striving is precisely what is needed in our corner of the world today.

``I believe people need to be offered alternatives and to know that healthy, viable options exist - real community connections that can stretch into any group of people wanting to consciously take up deeper human relationship and an invigoration of the love that runs through the Being of the heartland.``

Camphill is one of the many communities needed in the Midwest to create an adequate movement towards social renewal and change.  We need to nurture this seed that has been started, and we also need to make sure this lofty striving can be propagated in other communities and pockets of our region.  People often don’t know that an alternative to the individualistic society they encounter exists – they see that the “American dream” of separate family living often no longer makes sense, but are disconcerted when looking for other options.  We perhaps are too humble about our way of life, focusing constantly on our shortcomings and what we can do better, rather than standing up and showing the world one way we have found to bring love back into our daily interactions with each person we meet.  I believe people need to be offered alternatives and to know that healthy, viable options exist – real community connections that can stretch into any group of people wanting to consciously take up deeper human relationship and an invigoration of the love that runs through the Being of the heartland.  This is not just a task for Camphill!

We face many struggles in our little community, and so often we feel especially like we are swimming against the tide living out in the rural Midwest.  We can feel that no one understands what we are doing, no one wants to come live with us, no one wants to stay – people are always pulled in other directions.  It can be easy to feel discouraged because of this, but I would argue that it is all that much more important to stand true and strong in this tumultuous environment – we are at the forefront of the disintegration of the existing American norm – and we must also be at the forefront of the movement for renewal, revival, deepening, and enlivening.

I observe further how we are in a unique position to take up the task of bridge-building.  Living in this particular location, where we are able to interact with and get to know local people and a certain culture that many of us in Camphill, coming from all around the world, would not interface with ordinarily if we weren’t called to this particular community.  I hope we bring to this area new ideas and concepts that rural Minnesotans might not often encounter, and indeed I hope we can continue to learn from our interactions with those with varying social, political and spiritual viewpoints. Looking around the country today, there seems to be so many labels placed on different groups of people – and a constant discussion of how these groups cannot understand each other’s lifestyles and points of view.  I believe bridge-building among different groups of people is incredibly important in the current state of our nation.

Many of us are familiar with the term “Minnesota Nice.”  This expression is nuanced and is perceived quite differently by many.  It refers not just to the kindness Minnesotans express to their neighbors and strangers, but has also been extended to indicate being nice to a fault – being nice when indeed you should be speaking your grievances directly or when you are being passive aggressive.  As I walk through our neighborhood, not a car drives by without a friendly wave; you can’t go to the local gas station without expecting a cordial exchange about the weather. Some feel that this simulated friendship is pointless, that it is lacking in true humanity and getting to know each other on a deeper level.  I feel, however, that more kindness from strangers and pleasant daily exchanges is just what we need right now, to begin on the path to deeper connection. What good is it to assume that these connections cannot go deeper, that the other person you are encountering is too different from you? There are people in my Camphill community who know each and every dark crevice of my soul; this is the love and understanding that buoys me through my daily life.  But when I think beyond my closest circles to the world outside, the global picture of humanity, I am overwhelmed. I remind myself: approach everyone as if you know the deepest, most human parts of their being and treat them accordingly. Recognizing this in our small, daily exchanges is the first step towards living love on a deep level and bringing renewal to our heartland.