Abigail Murrish on Our Midwestern Life

Abigail Murrish is Hoosier turned Ohioan, a born and bred Midwesterner. A year ago, she started a podcast, “Our Midwestern Life,” to tell the stories and share the wisdom of all the people around her. Women of Cincy sat down with Murrish to talk about the podcast, life in Cincinnati, and the differences between the national idea of the Midwest and real life here in the center of the United States.

Interview by Hillary Copsey. Photography by Stacy Wegley.

Why focus a podcast on “Our Midwestern Life?”

Each word has a meaning.

Life: I wanted something all encompassing. Nothing happens in isolation. My views about religion impact my views on social good, how I engage my community. I wanted life to encapsulate this idea that everything we have is interconnected.

Midwestern: I’m a lifelong Midwesterner. I love this portion of the United States that can easily be overlooked because it’s not flashy. But there are a lot of amazing people doing innovative good work for the common good. I wanted to bring those voices to the forefront.

Our: We live in community with one another. This isn’t just my life. My life affects the life of my neighbor. This is something we’re doing in community. It’s complicated and messy and beautiful.

What do you want people to take away from “Our Midwestern Life?”

It’s so easy to live our lives on autopilot. I hope that this podcast is a practical tool to kind of jerk us out of that. It certainly is that in my own life. You know, stopping to think: Should I post this to Facebook? Am I handling this relationship as I should? To that point, I really want to inspire people to live with wisdom and grace and whatever that looks like in the particular place where you are.

When I say place, I mean physical place – I’m in Norwood – but also the places I find myself in as a wife, a neighbor, a church member. How do I live with wisdom and grace in all those places for the common good?

And I want people to be inspired to live vulnerably, boldly. I want people to live in the questions. We don’t have to have answers, a five-step plan. I want to give people the tools and inspiration to ask hard questions and live into those questions.

How did your podcast, “Our Midwestern Life,” come about?

In college, I studied agricultural communications … and I had an intensive journalism study program in New York City, three weeks where we tried every kind of journalism you could. I loved radio. But at the time, radio jobs were hard to come by, and I didn’t really want that lifestyle of the radio. So, I shelved that love and went on to write, did a communications job for the Indiana government, then I moved to Cincinnati and started freelancing. I was doing more PR writing, and I realized I missed the journalism piece of finding the story, talking to people. Podcasting had started to come into its own and the technology to have a podcast was becoming much more affordable, much more accessible to people like me who have a budget. I decided I wanted to have opportunities to talk to people more, to record their stories, to not have the pressure of actually writing the stories – just do the part I love, which is digging out nuggets of information from people and helping their stories come to light, especially when it comes to hard, controversial, challenging topics.

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How do you find the stories?

Everyone on the podcast has a connection to the Midwest – they grew up here, they went to college here – some connection. I know lots of people who are doing really good things. I reached out to my contacts, on Twitter. I started thinking about people from my church, people at the grocery store. Everyone has a story if you can draw it out. So, just having an eye out for their stories and learning to ask the right questions to draw the story out and offer some wisdom about how we should live today.

What’s been your favorite story to tell?

Can I say two?

I talked with a woman from church who had been in the Broadway traveling tour of “Wicked.” She had been a swing, which means she played each role apart from the leads. Her husband had also been on Broadway. So we talked about what it looks like for dreams and hopes to shift. They came to a point in their careers – they had made it, living the dream in New York City – and then they left all that, moved to Cincinnati, started a family. We talked about what that evolution is like, letting life change you, letting yourself wake up in the morning and realize, this has been so good, but I’m ready for something else.

Another one I loved was with a former contestant of “Master Chef.” Her name is Tanorria Askew. She made it pretty far on the show. She lives in Indianapolis and is a private chef. But what we honed in on were these events she does called Unity Table. She’s an African American woman and she makes dinner for people and invites a guest list of white women and African American women to come together and talk about their experiences. It’s really powerful to see how she’s using food to draw people together.

What was your initial goal for “Our Midwestern Life?”

One of the things that inspired the podcast was my first friend in Cincinnati. My move to Cincinnati was a hard one, so I had one friend I really held onto in those first six months. Our friendship was really birthed sitting on her couch, drinking coffee, and talking about all things. I appreciated it because we didn’t just talk about generalities, like how’s life? Our conversations transcended to big ideas. So I wanted to give people tools and inspiration to live with wisdom and grace in their everyday life by talking with people who are not experts – I mean, the people I talk with are experts in their field, but they’re also people who are living whatever topic they’re talking about. I wanted to glean from them and let their stories shape how we live in the world.

Tell me a little bit about where you’re from and how you landed in Cincinnati.

I was born and raised on the southside of Indianapolis, in a small little rural town called Bargersville, Indiana. I lived there until I went to college at Purdue University, and that’s where I met my husband, Mike. We started dating my senior year of college, and then I moved back to Indianapolis after graduation. Mike moved back to Cincinnati. I was working. We got engaged. Having been born and raised in Indiana, I was ready to see another part of the country, even if it was just two and a half hours southeast. So I moved to Cincinnati after we got married in May 2014.

We moved originally to an apartment in Mount Lookout, which was wonderful, a great place to start. But as we were looking at homes, we realized those weren’t going to be places where we could buy our first home. We stumbled into Norwood by chance. Our church had just purchased an old church building in Norwood and rehabbed it, and so that put Norwood on our radar. One day, I was just randomly on the Sibcy Cline website, this house had gone up for sale. We came to see it that night, put an offer in the next day; it was accepted. We moved a month later. It was fast, but we have loved being in Norwood. I love the working class roots of Norwood. The sense of pride that people have in being from Norwood. I was thinking about this. When I was at Purdue University – Purdue is a university of about 50,000 students, but my program was about 50 students in total. And that’s kind of how I feel about Norwood to Cincinnati. You have the advantage of a bigger city, but you still have that close community feel.

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You work from home, as well. This is literally your home base, right?

I do. Pretty much everything in my life is anchored here in Norwood. I love working from home. I love being fully present in this place I find myself. That’s such a gift, and I love the sense of integrity that it brings to my life.

How did the loneliness of moving shift your perspective on life?

It was good to be reminded of what it feels like to be somebody on the outside. It was a very small way to feel like an outsider. But that sense of not belonging gave me a passion for creating spaces and places for people to belong.

There’s been a lot of focus on the Midwest since the 2016 election. The usual criticism is that coastal media gets the Midwest wrong. Do you agree?

We’re afraid to be vulnerable with our stories because they get made fun of, they get caricatured. The people of the Midwest can easily be dismissed as a bunch of hillbillies, farmers, rednecks that care about God, country, and guns. But it’s a lot more nuanced than that when you hear the stories of the people, when you see their vision for the common good, and there’s lots of opportunities to engage those stories and find common ground. But if those stories are reduced to cliché, then we’re not going to move forward. There’s just going to be more polarization of topics, political issues.

How would you describe the Midwest?

The dominance of the four seasons means that people, even if it’s not conscious, are connected to the land in some way. People have a sense of spring, meaning that farmers are planting; summer is growing; fall – harvest; winter – quiet. That rootedness to the land creates a practicality and a thankfulness, taking nothing for granted because we know that the livelihood of so much of this region rests on forces outside our control.

There is a sense of hospitality and warmth, a sense that people are kind, polite. Sometimes it’s very surface-y, but there’s something to be said for that sense of civility, that extending of kindness to others. Then, people are practical. What you see is what you get. There’s not a lot of pretense. That’s really powerful.

Over the last year, how has “Our Midwestern Life” changed and grown?

I had very lofty goals, not knowing how much work it would be. My goal was to interview an expert every week on a topic, ordered around seasons. But that’s a lot of work, talking to that many people and editing it to make it sound like I want. So, I looked at my stats and I reassessed. The episodes that were most popular were the ones where I talked with people I personally knew about a topic where we were trying to wrap our minds around: What do we think? What questions do we have? How do we live into the questions with our fierce convictions?

So, I shifted the podcast to having the show mostly be around a series of regular contributors and then bring in other voices as topics or opportunities arise. Each contributor has a beat. My uncle is one of the contributors, Steve Dalton; we talk about civil discourse around religion and politics. My brother and I talk about home life. Another friend talks about habits and rituals, and then my friend, Jill, the one who inspired this podcast, we talk about relationships, what it means to cultivate meaningful relationships, whether that’s with families, neighbors, through social media, etc.

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And then around those topics, you bring other folks in?

Yes, exactly. So I’ve had a body dignity activist to talk about things. I had a friend who’s going through a season of grief come in and we talked about what it means to grieve well through the holidays.

What do you want the podcast to look like in the next year?

I want to make sure we’re getting to the heart of the topics, that we’re asking hard questions of our lives, asking hard questions of the world around us, and always making sure that we’re asking, “What does it look like to live in light of these questions?” I’d love to keep bringing in new voices on topics I’m not an expert in. I really want to talk about technology, for instance, exploring this issue of how technology is changing our habits … and expanding a bit more, like, how is this affecting how we pursue justice?

This is our favorite perennial question: Who is an influential woman in your life?

She was my academic adviser at Purdue, Dr. Abigail Borron. She’s a professor at the University of Georgia now, at the ag communications program there. I did student research at Purdue, and I worked really closely with her on her doctoral research and data mining. She inspired me for several reasons. First, through her work – she was researching food insecurity and the effectiveness of Purdue’s education programs to people who were food insecure. She went to a large urban area where the program – teaching how to eat well on a budget – was being implemented, and she talked to participants, learning their stories. I got to go along with her and do a series of interviews with her … that gave me a huge love for our Midwestern life. She taught me the importance of asking the right question.

I also loved her work because she was talking to the people who actually were in the program. It wasn’t making assumptions about people. It was really bringing the voices of the people impacted by the program to the center.

She is an incredible woman professionally, but I also saw how she brought that integrity to her relationship with me. The kindness she showed me, bringing me into her family life... she reached out to me, she was a really good friend to me. I loved having that example of a woman who was incredible at her job, brilliant, and also was kind, had a good family life, good relationships. It showed me that was possible, because sometimes, it seems like those two things are isolated.

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