I had on a peach rayon dress under the black robe and I was about to address the class of 1987. It was my idea for the three valedictorians to talk about the past, present, and future. Rob, whose best friend had died several years before of a rare disease, covered the past. He and I emailed years later about his lymphoma and my CFIDS (we both got sick in our twenties) but first my friend Kim was talking about the present. There were over 400 kids in cap and gown and at least a thousand people in the bleachers and I was terrified to stand in front of them and talk about the future. I had such severe stage fright, in fact, that I had been liberally using over-the-counter sleeping pills in the months before. My hair was big and lacquered that night.
My sister once talked about how she never saw adulthood as some great thing. We both felt a sense of dread about it. I was uneasy that night, as if I knew the cliff in front of me – knew it like a Wile E. Coyote who has scouted ahead to discover the angry anvil's possibilities.
I hadn't spent much time outside of Illinois, but was tired of the etherizing hum of crickets and cicadas and the flatness that was an unending taunt. The soil was rich in McLean County, and there was a palpable sense in Normal, Illinois that roots were still possible. Most of my high school memories involved driving, usually in grid patterns as if we were the worker insects, knitting something larger and never getting to enjoy its warmth.
People have been emailing me about my 20-year high school reunion but I can't go. As swiftly as I ran away from home to a radical hippie school in Ohio, fooled around with boys and girls, rode my Trek touring bike to peach stands, spent a month on a commune weaving hammocks, skinny dipped in a murky pond, and burned my eyes on poetry by geniuses, I got sick. Axioms aside, I couldn't go home again: I became too debilitated to make the trip back to Illinois.
Shannon wrote me last week. She was a brainy, pretty blond girl who seemed unstoppable. She spent a magical, life-changing year in Japan back then and told me everyone wanted to touch her hair. Now she travels to Africa for her work. As the only other out queer person from my class that I know of, she was conflicted when she read her yearbook inscriptions: "I came away with this odd sense of wondering, who the heck was I anyway? I only vaguely recognize myself in the words that others wrote to me."
My classmates must have known I was a psychological expatriate, because they wrote lines like: "Let me know what kind of wild, consciousness-expanding experiences you run into. Just don't go off and disappear into some Indian cult." And: "With our luck you'll be the first lady Pres. Good Lord what a country we'd have then." And: "You are deep, sensitive, warm, and alive. I will miss you. What an impact."
Reconnecting with Shannon was amazing. I didn't know any queer femmes in high school and didn't know I was one. My life has often felt like a magician's box, my body cut into three identities. I have my early, earthy embodiment, my college coming-out queer self, and the self who got sick at age 23 and rapidly became disabled. "It's important for us to have congruency," said my college friend on the phone yesterday. But she lives in the neighborhood where she grew up – a hip, culturally-enlivened place. It's different for those of us who are puzzled by split selves.
For me, these feelings are compounded by literal exile. Not only am I too ill to travel, but Illinois is too poisoned by chemicals to be a life-sustaining atmosphere for someone with severe chemical sensitivities. Last year in Massachusetts, the state decided to spray aerial pesticides over 120 miles away from my house, and the drift apparently caused my blood to turn black with a condition known as methemoglobinemia, a chemically-induced state where the blood can barely transport oxygen to the tissues. People with MCS can get a lot sicker – even die – from pesticide exposures. Dr. William Rea, who founded the Environmental Health Center of Dallas, told me that black blood from distant pesticides was something he had witnessed numerous times in people with MCS. The chemical industry – just like the cigarette corporations in past decades – maintains its own "research" institutions, legal teams, and PR spinners to make sure such stories of chemical canaries don't leak out. The chemically sensitive are, with Geiger bodies, too much of a scary harbinger of the future.
The future: I had no idea what it would be when I prattled on with my chemical-laden perm about the next phase in our lives. Now I am the future: symbolic, catastrophic, and drifted far from home.
In Illinois, it is impossible to get any distance from agricultural chemicals. Most members of my high school had a familial connection to farming or belonged to the Future Farmers of America. Willie Nelson's Farm Aid played its first concert just an hour from my hometown in 1985. In my high school years, the breadbasket was bought out by Agribusiness. Farm Aid has raised 30 million dollars to date to promote a family-farm based system of agriculture. But such homegrown efforts are up against monstrous forces.
It's hard to describe what a spiritual waste this is for those of us who grew up in Illinois. To most people, the landscape seems unremarkable, but it's the very spaciousness, the vacuity, that gives it a monastic holiness. As Thomas Simpson writes: "'Vacant' land, 'pragmatic' land, 'unmitigated' land, but land with a steep melancholy to it; these are truths of Illinois landscape, but not the kind you'll hear from a tourist office. Our writers describe how landscape shapes our character in ways we never notice. 'Rural Mid- westerners live marooned in a space whose emptiness starts to become both physical and spiritual,' argues David Foster Wallace in an essay about growing up in rural Champaign."
Indeed, as I addressed the Class of 1987 about the future, I felt my physical vulnerability as a visceral shiver. "In a land where you can see from horizon to horizon," Simpson continues, "where an apple core tossed on the ground can shortly sprout an apple tree and then an orchard, where we can justifiably describe certain January skies as 'literally leaden,' here in Tornado Alley we residents of Illinois may be inclined to a peculiar awareness of ourselves in relation to timeless and uncontrollable forces." In art class my senior year, one of the most beefy football players in school had sat next to me and painted nothing but fragile-looking watercolor barns. Even the most solid of us knew how easily we could topple.
I don't know why I got sick at age 23, but certainly the forecast for my chemical body burden was damning.
Ten years after I graduated from high school, Sandra Steingraber published her eco-expose, Living Downstream. Steingraber was diagnosed with cancer in her early 20's while she was a student at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, IL – Normal's twin city. She later gathered extensive data on pesticides in Illinois, and the statistics are mind-boggling. Eighty-nine percent of the land mass is agriculture, and ninety-nine percent of that agriculture uses pesticides. Only one out of ten steps in Illinois lands on uncontaminated ground. "A lot goes on in the 11 percent of Illinois that is not farmland," writes Steingraber. "Approximately fifteen hundred hazardous waste sites are in need of remediation – a list that does not include several thousand pits, ponds, and lagoons containing liquid industrial waste. And each year Illinois injects some 250 million gallons of industrial waste – which, until recently, included pesticides – through five deep wells that penetrate into bedrock caverns."
Organic Style Magazine later compiled data to rank the toxicity of 125 American cities. The two most toxic cities on the list – worse than New York or Los Angeles – were Chicago and St. Louis. If you draw a line between those two cities on a map, spanning a five-hour drive, you'll find my hometown smack in the middle. For me to move to Illinois, even if I could, would be like a kid with a peanut allergy moving into the Jif peanut butter factory.
Still, I can't convey the haunting, preternatural beauty of the sprawling fields. When I think about the environmental destruction of the Midwest I feel a deep regionalism, and anger at the corporate colonization of what used to be a vibrant landscape of tallgrass prairie. I have lived in states that pride themselves on environmental policy, and I have heard residents make derisive comments about the environmentally "backward" parts of the country – typically, in their eyes, the Midwest and the South. They rarely examine the economic forces behind environmental degradation or see their eco-purity as a facet of economic privilege.
Another person from high school I reconnected with was Teague, who experienced his own minor exile from our home state due to illness. His family moved him to Arizona before the end of high school because of his asthma, and the move in his case led to substantial health gains. Like me, Teague couldn't wipe the prairie out of his mind, and featured it in his aptly-titled first novel, The Pull of the Earth, which the Denver Post described glowingly as "a deceptively rich tale of contrast and continuity" set in Illinois. My forthcoming book of poetry, Pathogenesis, likewise features the Illinois landscape, often depicted in prairie plants largely decimated by agricultural intrusion. "I am sure the panic grass has a language of gestures," one poem begins. "I am sure the wild horses of forced surrenders/have run and bled in the knives of green."
If I could, I would travel back to Central Illinois because I believe there is timelessness there, maybe a local antidote. David Foster Wallace compares dusk in Illinois to a fugue state, where the landscape becomes "hypnotic, a mental state at once flat and lush, numbing and yet exquisitely felt." This hypnagogic experience is surely more than a kindled limbic system poisoned by Atrazine, but something as profound as I remember. I didn't know 20 years after giving a valedictory address about the future that I would be living with a futuristic illness, but I don't regret that Illinois soaked into my skin, or that I wandered in a near-psychogenic fugue of bodily degeneration before landing in the woods of Western Massachusetts. The Prairie is known for its ecology of rapid change. When Illinois was covered in tallgrass prairie, the landscape would alight in fierce, roaming fires called "The Red Buffalo" by local tribes. This was an essential part of the prairie ecosystem: the prairie had to burn to the roots to re-grow and thrive.
So here I am, Class of 1987, burning down to the roots to regrow. I hope to see you all in 2027.