A few weeks ago, a story from Wisconsin anchored an episode of “This American Life.” The episode took an objective look at the political struggles in Wisconsin to see how they were affecting us as citizens of Wisconsin. The consensus garnered from anecdotal evidence showed that everything in Wisconsin had been significantly altered, no matter what political position you held.
As I listened to the story told by a Wisconsin ex-patriate, I was shocked at how much I was able to take in. It amazed me how commensurate our experiences and understanding of the situation were, as if we had both lived in Wisconsin since the beginning (after all, I am an expatriate of both Illinois and Wisconsin, to a lesser extent). I saw the rhetoric of the protests and the Governor fundamentally change what I had come to know as Wisconsin, a state as incredible as it is unassuming.
I’m not here to say Wisconsin has changed forever—it probably hasn’t. Quietly rumbling behind all the political nonsense is the Wisconsin I came to know asking that we behave like decent Badgers, all of us. But for the first time in a long time, Wisconsin has been at the forefront of something. I say “something” because we won’t know the full impact of what’s going on in this state until well after Governor Walker leaves office, forcibly or not.
But this is for Wisconsin and Wisconsin alone to figure out. Wisconsin doesn’t take things out on other people, it’s just there, and that’s how it wants to be. For me, Wisconsin acted as a laboratory and teacher. When I first moved to Wisconsin, it was all about taming the state and making it my own. I wanted to superimpose what I knew about the world, all 18 years worth, onto a state that seems to have existed since Pangea. My relentless attacks on the topography and demographics of Wisconsin were met with frustrating understanding and sincerity. All of my complaints were met with stubborn empathy.
Those were the first two years. I had fun in Wisconsin, but it seemed like any other college experience. I went to school, I had some friends, went to parties on the weekends, it was all pretty normal. But a lot changed during my third year, and this led to a whole different understanding of my place in Wisconsin.
The thing was, during my first two years I was missing the entire point of conflict. Wisconsin is an immovable object, it was never something I could beat, though I truly believed I could. During a lecture on ecological thermodynamics, every lightbulb I had in my head went off and I rushed out of the lecture to just go sit by the lake for the rest of the day. Without conflict, or something actively pushing us away from what we consider normal, we’re doomed to become stagnant and complacent.
From that moment on, Wisconsin became a challenge. The demography and topography didn’t irk me, they became the aorta and artery of the Wisconsin experience. I saw time in the glacial formations, and I began to see people who understood that growing up was about letting a person get a hold of what they need at their own pace.
But that was the hard part, figuring out that in order to learn anything about myself I had to smash it against an immovable object and see what bled out. Luckily for me, Wisconsin is a state of earnest optimism and empathy. It understood my actions throughout the duration of my time there, and just let it all happen. Can a state be wise and endearing? Yes, it can.
Wisconsin is by no means sexy. The prettiest parts of the state are filled with mosquitos and bears, the best architecture covered in cobwebs, but there is life there. Undeniable life that attracts people of a similar ethos to share their travels, laughs, food and beer. Last summer I drove to Colorado wearing a UW t-shirt while my friend wore a dopey Brewers stocking cap. We found Badgers everywhere, all too happy to share what they had discovered driving right through America’s heartland.
Wisconsin embeds a warmth in its residents, something that can be passed on and shared. Sure, things are different now, but it will normalize. The core of Wisconsin persists, and the stories being shared support these claims of generosity, compassion and understanding. These things make me miss the state already. I noticed that as I drove from Baraboo to Madison last night just before the rain started. Some of the hills were lit up with sun, others just shadows butting up against a reddening sky. I could see what I had been up against for five years, and I could see what had shaped me and my future.
Wisconsin, thank you for everything.
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