It took me a week to gather the courage to attend a Students for Life meeting. Five minutes before the meeting was set to begin, I arrived at the appointed room in the student center and paced nervously outside the door. I’d never met anyone who was pro-life before, certainly not at Wesleyan; or maybe that wasn’t true, exactly, but I’d certainly not met anyone who was vocal about it.
My first month in Iowa, I told myself as I paced, I’d played it safe, doing work at vegan-friendly cafés and hanging out with liberal friends from my classes. But now it was time to have a real cultural immersion.
As a woman and a feminist, so-called pro-life beliefs offend me. But still pacing, I contemplated some lofty ideals: the possibility of learning from difference and finding common ground with those with whom we have seemingly nothing in common; the beauty of embracing divergent experiences and viewpoints. After all, I thought, if I’m going to do only Wesleyan-type things, then why the hell am I not at Wesleyan? Why am I in Iowa if not to challenge myself and confront difference?
I entered the room. Eight people were seated in desks arranged in a circle: six members and two leaders. I awkwardly shook hands with one leader, Marissa*, and introduced myself; she enthused that they were all happy to have me.
The two leaders began by explaining to me, the only new member, a few of the projects the group plans to do in the next 12 weeks. (“You mean trimester,” I automatically corrected in my head.) The biggest project, Marissa explained, is selling Chick-fil-A calendars to raise money to support one or two women who’ve decided against abortions and now will be forced to raise children without the support, financial or emotional, of their families. (So far, the calendar sales have raised about $350.)
“So that’s pretty much it,” Marissa said when she’d finished explaining. She asked me if I had any questions.
“Does the group have an official stance on abortion?” I asked.
I know it seems obvious, but I wanted to be exceedingly clear on this point. Perhaps, I thought, Students for Life simply celebrates life in all its forms. The members had, after all, mentioned the work they do for suicide prevention.
The room fell silent.
“Yes,” Marissa finally said. “We are definitely against abortion.”
But before the leaders could say anything else, the door swung open. A tall, elderly woman stood in the entryway. She was probably 75, bundled up in a winter coat and scarf, teetering slightly.
“Students?” she warbled. “For life?”
We all nodded in unison.
“I’m Cynthia Mellongard*,” she said. “I’m here to join the meeting.”
As Cynthia settled among us, the conversation turned to the possibility of selling reusable shopping bags with cheery slogans such as “Smile! Your mom chose life,” again to raise money for the non-aborted babies. Last year, the group gave the bags to a Catholic parish, which accepted donations.
“We want to expand to other parishes,” Marissa said, looking around the room expectantly. A few people volunteered to talk to their preachers and form alliances.
Cynthia cut in.
“You’ll laugh at me,” she said, “But what about asking the Jewish Student Center if they’ll sell the bags?”
The two student leaders laughed for what seemed like five minutes.
“No,” Marissa finally said. Here she lowered her voice to a confessional tone. “They filed a complaint against us in the past.”
“What happened?” I piped up, too curious to hold back, pen poised over the journal that lay on my lap.
Marissa narrowed her eyes. “We were chanting, ‘Life is beautiful’ outside the abortion clinic, and we were standing a little bit on the Jewish Student Center’s sidewalk,” she explained.
Cynthia Mellongard yelped and shook her head, clearly baffled at the nerve of the Jews to issue a complaint against the people on their sidewalk shouting at women practicing their legal right to get abortions.
“Isn’t there anyone at all who will defend an unborn baby’s right to live?” she plead upwards, eyes searching the heavens for someone, anyone, who’d join her righteous campaign.
This made Cynthia wonder, evidently, about everyone’s political preference. She derailed the conversation about the “Your mom chose life” bags to ask everyone whom they’d caucused for. Most said Rubio. I made the split-second decision not to lie and revealed myself as the only Bernie supporter present. Cynthia gasped.
“If we let the Democrats get in, the right to life is going to get pushed back so far, farther than it already is,” Cynthia scolded me.
I asked her whom she supported.
“Well, I was going to speak on behalf of Ben Carson at the caucus, but then it looked like he wasn’t polling well,” she said. “But then I saw that Rick Santorum was still running. I changed my mind in the last minute. It’s better to vote for someone who you know for sure is pro-life, even if you don’t think they’re going to win.”
The group leaders met eyes anxiously, clearly uncomfortable with the political turn the meeting was taking. They brought everyone’s attention back to the bags.
“One design, or two?” Marissa asked the room.
One of my fellow attendees spoke up.
“Two, so people can choose,” she said. “I always like giving people a choice.”
What the Midwest feels like
I’ve been thinking about how to put the feeling of the Midwest into words. It’s an awareness of the vast and quiet prairies beyond whatever civilization is immediate, I think, a sort of peace with the feeling of structure surrounded by non-structure. More specifically, the Midwest feels like carpeting in every room. It feels like everything is a little bit easier, and nobody spits at you on the street, and life costs what you can afford to pay for it, and there’s enough room to contain all of your belongings, and all directions are printed clearly, and if they aren’t, someone will point you to the right street. It feels like white brick. It feels spread out. It feels like there are more than enough printers to accommodate everyone’s printing needs.
In “Eat, Pray, Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert explains that every city has its own word. The same goes for college campuses, I think. Wesleyan’s would probably be “cool”; the word of Iowa is maybe “Nordic.” I’ve never seen so much blonde hair in my life. Most people seem northern European: tall, blonde, willowy, parka-clad, and perpetually smiling.
Oh my God
It upsets one of my roommates when people say “oh my God” in a negative way (“Oh my God, she needs to die,” for example. Side note: Am I a bad person?), so I’ve tried to begin saying, “Oh my gosh,” which usually turns into “Oh my godddsshhh” as I struggle to correct myself mid-expression.
A sentimental moment
On a break during a three-hour class, one of my classmates shyly approached me on our way into the bathroom.
“This is so weird,” she confided, “but I wanted to tell you that ‘Gossip Girl’ is my favorite show, and it’s so cool that you’re from New York.”
This was a clear reference to my introduction in class, in which I’d explained that my high school was one of Cecily von Ziegesar’s inspirations for “Gossip Girl.” I’d been doing that recently, with a decent amount of self-hatred, to contextualize my life.
I laughed and asked her to remind me where she was from. When she answered that she was from Council Bluffs, Iowa, I gasped loudly.
“You’re from Council Bluffs?” I nearly shouted at her. “The hometown of Farrah from ‘16 and Pregnant’ and later ‘Teen Mom’? And you think I’M lucky?”
All the time she’d been obsessed with the antics of rich kids on the Upper East Side, I marveled, I’d been dreaming of cornfields and high-school football games, and here we were, together, in a bathroom in Iowa, dreams and realities hooking together like puzzle pieces. It was a small moment, and it became awkward when we ran into each other again at the sink and didn’t have much else to say, but there was something oddly beautiful about the encounter.
* Name changed