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I've set up a new WordPress blog (with the help of my web-wrangler) because it gives me more options than the blog on this website, including the ability to post more photos, the ability to link with social media across the web, and a subscription service
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Notes from a Western Life at WindbreakHouse.WordPress.com
You can continue to read the blogs here, however a few of the very long blogs under the category of "Writing: Where I've Been" will only appear on the WordPress blog.
An Index of Blog Topics
may be found lower down in this left-hand column so, for example, you can search for all blogs with "Writing Suggestions."
A dated archive of blogs is also available below the index.
Click here to jump to the index
, or scroll down to see a selection of photos related to the blog posts.
Blacksmith or Wordsmith
Iron legs from yesteryear.
Smaller iron items inside.
The scrap-iron table.
Dust, Grass, and Writing
Like the native grasses, the roots of writing go deep and reach out in many directions.
Tough prairie grass roots splitting open a rock.
Green life may be found under dry debris.
Fringed Jacket Foofaraw
Turtle carved from bone.
Turtle made of silver.
Warrior Woman pin.
George's grizzly bear claw earring.
Powwow jingle cones made of tin.
A tiny dream catcher.
Harley Owners' Group pin in honor of Jerry.
Wally McRae's cufflink and tooth.
South Dakota Poet Laureate? Not Right Now, Thanks.
"An older writer, conscious of his or her limited life span, may have specific projects in mind to complete. Thus, requiring that the Poet Laureate travel and teach extensively may exclude older writers regardless of their worthiness to hold the position."
Don't just click "like" about some political story you read.
Pick up the phone or write a letter and make a difference.
Ah! The Bathtub.
A brass hook on a nearby wall to hold my robe or a towel.
A removable wire basket stretches across the tub to hold my soap and sponges.
Now on Facebook.
If you Like me on this Facebook page you'll get notifications of my newly-posted blogs as well as announcements about my books, writing retreats, and other events to do with Windbreak House.
No kitten videos, but I post Tuesday Writing Tips, Wednesday Word Posts, and various other writing-related stories, announcements, book reviews, photos and the occasional joke.
More Stories and Essays by Linda
may be found on this website.
* Home Page Message archives
Many of these essays have writing advice. All have photos, some have recipes, a few have poems.
* Poetry Page essays
Read suggestions for writing and performing poetry and the stories behind some of Linda's poems.
* Critter Stories
Brief stories and photos of birds and wildlife seen on Linda's ranch may be found on this page.
* Gallimaufry Page
Stories and photos that don't fit anywhere else.
Linda on YouTube
Nancy Curtis, publisher and owner of High Plains Press, recorded a couple of videos of Linda reading her poetry and posted them on YouTube.
To see Linda read "Where the Stories Come From"
To see Linda read her poem "Make a Hand"
Or go to www.YouTube.com
and search for Linda Hasselstrom.
You may also want to visit the High Plains Press facebook page
where you will find these two poetry videos and much more about the many great western books-- poetry and non-fiction-- published by High Plains Press.
# # #
click here to send an e-mail message to Linda.
If this link does not work-- some web-browsers are incompatible or perhaps your computer is blocking pop-ups-- copy and paste this email address into your email system:
or send Linda a letter:
Linda M. Hasselstrom
PO Box 169
Hermosa SD 57744
October 11, 2013
Linda reading with her headlamp
With the electricity off, Linda made do with candles and a battery-powered headlamp. Note the ice-covered windows from the blizzard. Thanks for the hand-warmers, Maura!
. . .
All night Thursday, October 3, rain fell, with thunder and lightning crashing around overhead. The lights flickered. Mari Sandoz wrote about the blizzard of 1949 in her book, Winter Thunder
, so, forewarned, we made preparations: hauled jugs of drinking water from the retreat house, filled jugs here for flushing. Got out our long underwear, leg warmers, gloves, hats, boots, more comforters for the beds-- even dog coats.
Friday the wind was ripping at 75 miles an hour and more freezing rain fell; our total for the storm was about 3 inches. Every step outside was hazardous, with every surface slick from freezing rain. Our windows completely iced over so the light inside was dim and blue. Our vehicles, parked outside, were encased in ice. The deck, our walkways, everything was covered.
We knew that cattle out in the storm would be walking southeast, trying to escape the cold, walking to keep warm. But we had no idea what a horror for ranchers the weather was creating.
Our power went off Friday morning for a few minutes at a time and then went off finally at 2 p.m., meaning that our furnace would not work, nor our lights. More seriously our pump in the well would not work and therefore we had no water. Our refrigerator and freezer were off. I put a thermometer in both so we could keep track of temperatures. We could light our propane cookstove with matches and ate dinner by candlelight.
Jerry had come back up to the house at 9:30, unable to work in his shop because of the intermittent electricity. All day we worked together figuring out what actions to take.
When I lived in Cheyenne, I’d installed a small auxiliary propane heater in Windbreak House to keep the pipes from freezing while it was unoccupied, so we turned that up and heat rose naturally through the stairwell to help warm the upstairs. This meant, though, that the basement, with the freezer, would be warmer than we’d have preferred.
In late afternoon we got out our battery-powered headlamps and began reading with those, shuffling through the dark house in our slippers, scaring the dickens out of the dogs. I wore gloves and hand-warmers a friend had made. We seemed to have only two or three inches of snow, but the wind was still blowing ferociously so it was hard to tell how much. We hoped the state was advising no travel and closing roads so emergency personnel weren't out trying to rescue idiots.
Neither of us slept well because of the howling wind, but Jerry suffered most because his oxygen machine was also off. The screens, ice-covered, rattled all night as if someone was galloping around on the roof.
The dogs wanted out at 4 a.m. Saturday, but the door was frozen nearly shut, temperature 31 degrees. I had to kick and shovel to get it open. The house temperature was 58 degrees. No sign of letup in the storm and we couldn't tell if it was still snowing or just blowing. I sat up and wrote in my journal using my headlamp, and both the dogs dived under my covers.
Usually the bedroom and dining room have little golden lights from all the electronic gadgets-- computers, clocks, cell phone chargers-- but the rooms were muffled in black. I used the solar flashlight I keep by the bed to get around. Usually, even at 4 a.m., I hear truck traffic on the highway; this morning it was quiet except for the wind: clacking the window screens, thrumming around the metal roof, making the deck vibrate.
From the top pantry shelf, I took the old coffee pot I’ve kept for years and we made good boiled coffee to start our day. Jerry lit two candles and sat in the rocking chair by the bed, reading by headlamp.
Jerry tried to start his gasoline generator; no luck. It had sat idle for 5 years.
We spent Saturday melting snow to flush the toilets. We packed food into coolers full of snow to preserve it. We tried to eat leftovers. We put a few items in a big snowbank on the deck for quick access: a few leftovers, gin and beer, and the dogs' food. We played Rummykub, Boggle, Quiddler. We read books and threw balls for the dogs inside. We peered outside, watching the trees at the retreat house bend, wondering how long the storm would last. I got a ham bone and scraps out of the freezer and made cassoulet, which simmered all day.
We began to hear news by cell phone; there were near record accumulations of snowfall in the Black Hills; the blizzard warning would end that morning; roads were closed. Jerry walked to the highway mailbox but no paper was delivered. We learned later that none was printed because the electricity was off in parts of Rapid City; in fact, the Rapid City Journal
did not print for three days.
When we got up, I wore: long underwear, compression socks, wool socks, tall boots, a cotton turtleneck, a wool sweater, hand-warmers, gloves and a hat inside.
About 8 a.m., Jerry started shoveling, walked the dogs a little. We had six foot drifts in our yard and around Homestead House. We started using paper plates to save doing dishes. Jerry brought up a bigger pot so we could melt more snow at a time. I got out big metal bowls I usually use for collecting vegetables from the garden.
The temperature outside rose to 45 degrees and we raised some shades to get some heat from the sun. We saw 13 grouse flying around our windbreak trees and a couple of dozen antelope on top of the high ridge south of our house.
Jerry used his tractor to dig a trail from the house to the lower ranch buildings, then broke trail to the highway. Again, no paper.
On Sunday the temperature around 4 a.m. was 38 degrees, so it hadn't frozen, which helped keep the house warm. The sun came out. As Jerry drove to the highway to help break the trail, he discovered that an electric line was broken along our private road. We continued to try to notify the electric cooperative since the line was now a hazard to any people or cattle in the area.
On Monday, October 7, we finally got to speak to a cooperative worker and a crew spliced the line temporarily; it's hanging below the barbed wire fence, still dangerous and vulnerable to wind. We walked the dogs, looked around: a total of maybe a foot of snow but huge drifts everywhere, trees and bushes entirely covered. The wind’s angle was from the northwest so the drifts were in slightly different spots than we’re used to. Snow began to melt; by Thursday, the dam below our house was more full than it’s been for three years.
We took showers and drove to Hermosa for the mail and to eat hamburgers at the local gas station. A lot of other people were doing the same and we began to hear stories about how severe the storm had been in this area: thousands of cattle missing, possibly dead; fences broken by snowdrifts, power out all over the Black Hills. Deadwood and places to the north got as much as four feet of snow.
We were amazed to learn how MUCH snow is required to be melted to make two gallons needed to flush the toilet. We had a snowcave on the north side of the house where we scooped bucket and bowl after bowl to bring inside to thaw. I think all teenagers should have to melt snow to flush for at least a day in their lives.
I realized that my family has been paying utility bills to this company for 60 years or so, but they bring power back to the subdivisions first. Naturally the cooperative must serve the greatest number first, but ironically it means that people who have been here the shortest time have the least understanding of how difficult life can be without electricity.
Friends who live in subdivisions couldn't understand why we talked of melting snow-- but they have communal water supplies and probably generators, so they never ran out of water.
Another discovery: a hardpacked snowball makes excellent ice for a gin and tonic.
We had a disoriented squirrel in our yard for a day but he seems to have disappeared; if he’s not used to the local coyotes he may have been a meal, though we had some nice cottonwoods with holes in them where he could hide. But where did he come from? We've never seen one here. And how did he get here? On the wind? A mystery.
Hawks have been very aggressive the past three days: one swooped within a foot of my study window-- outside, Toby lay under that window in the sun. Another was chasing a grouse and the grouse’s wings knocked my hat off my head.
As the week went on, we began to learn that thousands of cattle have been killed in northern South Dakota. One report says 10,000 cattle lie dead between Sturgis and Union Center, roughly 232 per mile or a dead cow every 20 feet. Many ranchers have lost 50%, 90% or all of their cattle. They are finding entire ravines full of dead cattle. State law requires they be burned or buried but the ground is so wet that normal ranch equipment is quickly bogged down. The governor has refused to call out the National Guard to help. Disposal sites have been established but we have no idea how some ranchers will reach them.
This is the kind of thing for which the word “disaster” exists-- but it has become overused. How can we describe what has happened?
One rancher went hunting for his cattle on horseback and had turn back after three hours because the horses were too worn out from slogging through the snow and mud. Another, using horses and 4-wheelers, found one of the 4-wheelers stuck. He hitched his horse to it and pulled it out.
Friday, October 11, and the storms go on: 60 mph winds today, a couple of inches of rain. Creeks are flooding in the Black Hills already, and much of the snow has not melted. Snowmelt is carrying the corpses of dead cattle into tributaries that will lead to the rivers.
* * *
Last Wednesday we went to town to run errands. One of them was to visit a company that sells generators that come on automatically with a power outage. As we visit with friends and relatives, we've discovered that many of them already have such a critter. Jerry and I had discussed it, of course, especially after last April’s blizzards when we were isolated for 9 days-- though we were never without electric power then. Now may be the time.
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November 28, 2011
1962 Chevy Pickup.
Linda's own piece of "vehicular history" before it was sold to the local antique auto dealer.
. . .
I used to jot notes on a clipboard with numbered pages on the seat beside me so I could write without looking and then yank each one off when it was finished and put them in order later. Now, with all the publicity about the dangers of texting and driving, I wait until I've pulled over for some reason and write. And I made some of these notes while Jerry was driving.
* * *
In many rural areas, you can trace each family’s vehicular history from the cars scattered around the farmstead: the 1930s autos, the 1940s, 50s and so on. In some cases you can see the original homestead of log, followed by a stick-built house and then the first, second, and third generation of trailer homes-- and all appear to be occupied. Idaho residents don’t seem to be much interested in zoning. Stunted or miniature ponies and goats graze among the old cars in the back yards. Behind one house is a steep bluff leading down to a creek, covered in orange. Peering closely, I realize the orange covering is thousands of miles of tangled baling twine.
Yet in the front yards of many rural homes-- many of which are trailers-- are bushes that have been trimmed into fantastic shapes: animals, geometric forms. Some trees have been obviously clipped into perfect tree form: the perfect A shape, for example.
This area reminds me of our drive up the Mississippi to Baton Rouge on the back roads: it’s a working landscape, and would not be considered beautiful by the arbiters of “scenic,” and yet it produces food, which should be beautiful to us.
And it makes economic sense to have feedlots-- “confinement facilities”-- for pigs, chickens, and cattle here because they are eating the byproducts of the sugar beet production. But it ain’t pretty. “Andersonville for cows,” says Jerry. And of course it’s no more the nature of cows to stand in filth than it was for the Union prisoners; they are drugged by their misery.
Lots of American flags. Almost all the business buildings used to be something else.
Huge piles of sugar beets outside towns, and trucks go by hauling them. We see quite a few along the road. Finally we picked one up and took a picture.
Jerry’s expertise for the Wyoming highway department was bridge construction; his travelogue contains remarks like, “That bridge is just exactly like the one that failed over Lake Ponchartrain.”
Why does “scenic” mean “no buildings indicating labor takes place on this land are in sight”? We definitely do not associate human habitation with scenic-- which may be one reason working people don’t identify very well with environmental concerns.
Lots of just junk lying along the highway-- bedsprings, pieces of cars, the usual trash-- as if people have been tossing it out their car windows for 60 years. Are these people too busy to clean up these messes? Or do they simply not care how ugly their surroundings are? Or not see it?
Along the highway are the standard signs declaring this stretch of highway cleaned up by several religious groups: a Mennonite youth group, and young men and women of a particular Latter Day Saints Ward. Trying to set a good example?
The tidiest places are the huge farms, with several houses, each bigger and higher up the hill than the last, many barns and long metal sheds big enough for 18-wheelers. Lots of irrigation pipe along roads and in fields. I think people who are working hard keep things tidy because it’s easier to get your work done if you know where your tools and equipment are.
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June 26, 2011
Linda with large, round hay bales of the size that burned in the night.
. . .
The usual June afternoon thunderstorm struck around 7pm on June 25, more violently than many storms, whipping rain at us from the southwest, pounding my raised bed tomatoes down, even driving rain through the siding to drip down the basement door. Lightning was frequent and close, slamming the hillsides and splitting the air in all directions. A few small shards of hail fell, but nothing like the baseball-sized hail we heard had pounded Rapid City the night before. When we surveyed the rain gauges around 9pm after most of the storm had passed, we found .60 of rain.
Just before we went to sleep, we thought we smelled smoke. As usual after such a storm, I turned out the lights and went to the deck, where I looked in all directions for any sign of flame. I looked mostly at the buildings I could see-- Homestead House and its barn and other buildings, at a shed in the pasture, and in the direction of the various hay yards where piles of round bales wait for winter use. I particularly looked toward the field that had been hayed that afternoon, thinking that lightning might have struck one of the round bales of hay lying in the field.
But we weren’t really worried. "Too wet to burn," we said, because the pastures are full of green grass.
We’d both spent busy days. Jerry mowed around our buildings in the morning while I worked with other Hermosa Arts and History Association volunteers sweeping and rearranging furniture and display cases on both floors of a massive old building in Hermosa. (Another story: for ten years, members of the association have been renovating the building, which will serve as a museum and gathering place for the community.)
In the afternoon, we went to the Great Plains Native Plant Society open house at the Claude A. Barr botanic garden in my front pasture. With the help of a botanist, we walked through the grass, looking at the native plants marked earlier by Cindy Reed, GPNPS leader. And we found one plant new to most of us, Fame flower, a succulent so tiny that you’re only likely to see it if you’re on hands and knees with a magnifying glass handy.
But Jerry and I were both awake about 3am with aching sinuses from the change of weather, when the dogs suddenly started barking and ran to the basement. I went to the living room and could see a light by the basement door. Just then a voice spoke from the deck outside the living room, a neighbor saying, "Linda, there’s a fire." The time was 3:15.
Let me be clear about what my neighbor, Bill, had done with that simple statement. He had awakened about 2:30 and smelled smoke. He got up, looked around his house, and determined that the smoke was coming from the east, the direction of my house. He got dressed, got his wife up and dressed, got in his pickup and drove down his ranch road toward the highway. When he topped a hill, he could see the fire and knew it was on my property, a mile or so east of my house. He guessed it was a shed or hay bales, so that with the wet ground and grass, it was no threat to anyone’s home-- but property was burning. Unable to reach us by telephone (our cell phones were off), he drove the muddy road to my house to be sure that I would know about the fire. Neighborliness is not simply living next door to someone.
I yelled for Jerry, yanked the door open, and could see flames flickering east of us, but couldn’t tell if they were in a hay yard or in the cattle shed that stands on the other side of the railroad tracks.
I called my lessee, Rick, and we decided against calling the fire department. We figured the fire was in a haystack and no amount of water can put out such a fire. Jerry and I grabbed shovels and tools, and headed east, while Rick got on his tractor and headed toward the fire from his house to the north.
Before we got far, a fire unit from the Hermosa volunteer fire department joined us, and we wallowed through the muddy field and pasture roads until we could see that the fire was burning bales near the end of a long collection of them on the east side of the railroad tracks and on the other side of a long gully fully of water. In the dark, unfamiliar with the terrain, neither of us could figure out how to get across the gully without getting stuck. When Rick arrived with his tractor, Jerry and I followed him to a crossing. The fire truck left. With Jerry’s help, Rick laid down the barbed wire of the fence.
Rick's tractor is fitted with a grapple fork, like a large hand. He drove this into the yard and started moving hay bales that hadn’t yet started burning. Each bale weighs about 900 pounds and on some trips he moved two at a time, stacking them away from the fire. Eventually he’d isolated about 10 burning bales in the center of the hay yard.
By that time, a fire unit from Fairburn had arrived, not knowing the Hermosa truck was gone. Rick began driving the tractor to the burning bales, grabbing one at a time, and backing out onto open ground, where he’d scatter the burning bale as quickly as possible. Then he’d go back for another.
With the neighbor who had arrived with the fire truck, we started using our shovels to break up the burning bales so they’d burn faster. Each time Rick dragged a bale away from the burning pile, he’d turn and drive through the bales he’d brought out earlier, breaking them up as the smoke swirled around the tractor. He had to keep moving fast so the hoses on the tractor’s hydraulic system wouldn’t burn. We knew he couldn’t see much through the rolling yellow smoke, so we stayed well out of his way.
The tractor roared back and forth, bouncing flaming bales in all directions. Each time he drove through a burning pile of hay, the speed of his passage sucked the smoke after him so it looked as if the back of the tractor was on fire. Whenever he stopped, he dug dry hay out of spots where it had been trapped on the tractor so it wouldn’t start burning.
Gradually we got the bales broken down. Each time a fire died down, one of us would break up the unburned parts of the bale with a shovel to let air into it, and it would explode into flame again.
I became aware that the smoke smelled just like drying hay: sweet, not smoky at all. During breaks, we leaned on our tools and exchanged neighborhood news and gossip, and reminisced about previous fires we’ve fought.
All our area fire departments are now dispatched by a call to 911, but most are still volunteer forces, so neighbors are always helping neighbors. In addition, anyone who finds out about a fire in the area jumps in a truck and comes to help.
While we were working on this fire, one of the men got a call from a neighbor who had been called by another neighbor who was on his way to work in Rapid City, saw the fire, assumed (correctly) that it had been reported to fire officials by someone, but called to let them know the fire existed. The neighbor, knowing whose place the fire was likely to be on, called one of the men working the fire to see if they had it under control or needed more help.
Meanwhile, a pin started to slip out of Rick’s grapple, which would have crippled the tractor for further use. All three men dug in their tool boxes and finally got that fixed. Rick also called his son to bring pitchforks, to make it easier to break up the hay.
Finally the Fairburn truck left, and we beat down a few more pieces of hay and headed for home at 8am.
Rick collected a harrow and dragged it over the remaining burning hay, breaking it up so it would burn completely, and also worked the burned hay into the wet green grass. His son fixed the hay yard fence so the cattle couldn’t get into the good hay, and Rick used the grapple bucket to dump a few loads of water from the nearby gully.
By 10am the fire was out, but the wind has come up, so we’ll be watching during the day to be sure it doesn’t flare up in a new spot.
No doubt lightning struck the bales during the storm early in the evening, and the fire smoldered through the storm, including the half-inch of rain, until it got enough strength to burst into open flame. We still don’t know who called the fire department-– perhaps someone from one of the subdivisions high on the hills to the west, or perhaps a passerby on the highway. But we’re grateful.
I was just thinking yesterday that it’s time to write my usual summer checks to the volunteer fire departments in the area. Once again neighbors, both on the fire trucks and off, have saved each other.
# # #
For more information:
The Great Plains Garden Page on this website
Great Plains Native Plant Society website
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May 8, 2011
Linda's grandmother, Cora Belle Hey and mother, Mildred Hasselstrom, in Hermosa, 1978.
. . .
I’ve spent this Mother’s Day very pleasantly. I did some laundry, made a huge pot of green chile, read a bit, and wrote a bit. And I planted nasturtium seeds among the radishes and lettuce in the herb garden. I also moved a few plants into my rock garden, decorating it with shells and rocks and other objects I’ve picked up here and there on my walks for years. A dozen bright aqua insulators from the old telephone poles wind like a stream through the sandstone, agate, quartz and other stones.
Seeing the sand dollars and other shells I picked up on beaches in Manzanita, in Maine and in Scotland, a spoon George carved from bone in a bowl Jerry carved from a pine burl, all brought back good memories that flowed through the warm spring air like the songs of the blackbirds and meadowlarks.
Wherever I was during the past few days, I have wished a “Happy Mother’s Day” to every women older than I am that I encountered. Several of them sounded surprised as they said “Thank you!”
Many women, on this day, have been presented with corsages and cards, taken to dinner, saluted with roses or carnations in church or in restaurants, and in various ways remembered and thanked for giving birth. I, too, have been remembering my mother, who died in 2001, my grandmother (the only one I ever met) Cora Belle Hey, and various women who treated me as well and taught me as much as any mother could have. Then, too, I’ve been remembering my four step-children, and the joys of sharing their lives.
And I’ve been thinking about all we women who, for one reason or another, are not mothers. The reasons vary. Some of us chose not to have children for a variety of reasons: because there are too many people on the planet; because we believed we might have important work to do; because we believed we would not be good mothers. Some of us tried and failed. Some of us have lost children at various stages of their lives, from conception to adulthood.
I’m not suggesting that we declare a Step-Mother’s Day, or Bereaved Mother’s Day. Just don’t forget that we’re here too, and we have made contributions to the world in other ways.
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March 30, 2011
Linda's flower beds in Cheyenne.
The tulips are in there somewhere.
. . .
One spring day I was behind the first house Jerry and I had in Cheyenne, looking in despair at the yard, which was pure gumbo. Right against the foundation, he’d thrown some boards-- and I suddenly realized that tulip leaves were coming up between them. I took the boards off, and the yellowed leaves stood up straight and produced several old-fashioned, small tulips in several colors. When we moved, I transplanted them to the front of the new house, and they are growing there yet.
Which reminds me of a story my friend Margaret told me. Every year, her husband planted a field that they knew had been a homestead. They’d picked up a few souvenirs in the first years they worked it, but it had been plowed and planted many times, so no trace of the house and outbuildings was left.
One spring when her husband Bill was in the field, he noticed tulip leaves sticking up through the soil. He dug down carefully, and brought up the bulbs, and took them home to Margaret, who planted them immediately. And they are probably still flourishing right where she planted them.
Most of us do a little writing in grade school, and more in high school or college-- even if it’s only mushy poems and love notes. Usually, we’re in classes that require some writing: essays for English, perhaps, or essay answers to history questions. And many of us begin to write a little on our own, with no grades involved. Maybe we start a short story, or a diary.
Then we get busy, get a job, get married, and the impulse vanishes. Once in awhile we may think, “I ought to write that down.”
Do. Your ability to write is just like those tulip bulbs; a little warm sun will encourage them. You might need to get a shovel and lift the bulbs out from under the trash or weeds, but with a little gentleness, those tulips and that writing can bloom. Start now: what have you seen today? Don’t be poetic or metaphorical, just write down what you’ve seen.
There. You’ve begun.
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July 18, 2010
. . .
I was not feeling well on my actual birthday. (1)
But Jerry and I went for a lovely drive: up to Roughlock Falls, where we enjoyed a picnic, and then walked the fenced sidewalks to look, with hordes of other tourists, down at the falls. As is my habit when visiting the Falls, I explained to Jerry (quietly, so no one else could hear) how George had showed me how to walk behind the falls the first and every time we visited there. (2)
We sat on the benches at the top of the falls, feeling the spray on our faces, while Jerry smoked a cigar. I watched people arrive, peer over the edge for 30 seconds, and leave. Some took pictures. The longest anyone spent looking at the falls was less than a minute.
Back in the car, we drove for several more hours on well-maintained gravel roads, looking at the cows grazing on the national forest, mostly alone with our thoughts and the scenery. Sometime during the drive, I began to explain to Jerry my concept of the Birthday Week.
I believe this to be a unique idea (3), based on the fact that age encourages us to a deliberation in our actions. We are not merely slow because we can’t move faster; no, we are often contemplating the feeling of every move, what it will mean to our bodies. Perhaps we are remembering past experiences. Hmm. That leap hurt. I wonder if it will hurt that much if I do it again. I used to be able to jump that far a hundred times a day.
In order to properly celebrate an important milestone such as a birthday, particularly after more than six decades of birthdays. one cannot be limited to a mere 24 hours, or the much shorter span of twelve hours during which most of us are awake. Even the twelve hours is frequently interrupted by a nap or two, so our time to celebrate our natal day becomes even more brief.
In addition, of course, few of us in our sixties are willing to celebrate quite as vigorously as we did at younger ages. I like to do something special, see friends, call more friends, dine well, open gifts-- far too much excitement and activity for a single day.
For that reason, then, I’ve begun to introduce the concept of a Birthday Week. You will notice that the week of my birthday was tentatively blocked on the list of "Available Retreat Dates," so we would schedule no retreats during that time. We’d planned a more extensive trip, but when that didn’t work out, I chose to celebrate in smaller increments.
The drive on my actual birthday was terrific, a restful day of enjoying the Black Hills at its most beautiful and serene, since it was a week day. I wasn’t feeling well enough for much dinner, but managed to scrape up the energy to open a lovely collection of presents. (Among other things, Tamara gave me potting soil, walls of water, and mystery books; Jerry gave me tomato cages and 8 pounds of salt water taffy. Jerry’s folks gave me a gift certificate to a gardening catalog: do you see a theme?) I spent the day after my birthday quietly but the sense of relaxation allowed me to search some storage and finally find the letters Badger Clark wrote to me in 1957; more on that in a later blog.
Then on the third day of birthday week, I called a friend my age and we chatted for an hour about our lives, including recalling our friend Winston. Her father raised Winston, a beautiful Hereford bull, on his ranch near Newcastle, WY, and his children rode the bull the whole time he was growing up. By the time my father bought Winston, he was a massive breeding machine, with the white curly face and immense circle of horns that mark a true Hereford. I loved taking my friends to the corral to see him, and then casually climbing on and riding him around. Naturally, like the self-centered little monster I was, I allowed my playmates to think I was responsible for the bull’s kindness, but his innate Hereford gentleness kept him calm.
That afternoon, Jerry and I continued our policy of getting acquainted with the near neighborhood and I took him to see the Norbeck Information Center in Custer State Park, an incredible building created by the Civilian Conservation Corps out of native rock and ponderosa pine. We dropped into Coolidge Inn, and I signed copies of my books for sale there, though the clerk was not at all sure I should. Then we dined at the Game Lodge. Sadly, the kitchen couldn’t manage to cook my buffalo steak the way I wanted it, so Jerry ate most of it.
On my fourth day of birthday week, I went to 4 garage sales and an auction/estate sale, spent $1.36 and acquired enough pots and peat pots to fill my greenhouse needs, possibly forever. Then I had lunch with good friends and lots of laughter, and sat in on a private showing of the recent paintings of my good friend Tom Thorson.
As the sun was casting long shadows, a UPS truck roared up the driveway bringing the complimentary copies of the newly-issued paperback edition of No Place Like Home
. The cover has been made darker and more dramatic, the spine is a prairie-sky blue that makes the title stand out, and the back cover features my photograph plus the usual collection of great things said about the book. In this case the quotations are from Judy Blunt (whose book Breaking Clean
is great writing about ranching) and Booklist
To top off the day, we got a cooling trace of rain. Now, on the fifth day of my birthday week, I’m going to till the garden; celebrating my birth also means proving I can still do some of the work I love. I plan to call another old friend today for a long chat, and have lunch with a high school classmate next week, just before my birthday week officially ends.
I might note that one’s endurance also builds as one ages, so a week of celebrating a birthday becomes possible. One does not, however, celebrate with the excessive consumption we might have achieved in our younger days.
Calm, quiet delight in living is the theme. May you all experience the same, aging happily.
Footnotes to Birthday Week:
(1) I have reluctantly concluded that the reason for the illness might be because I ate a large quantity of raw red onion in a tuna salad sandwich the day before. The discovery that eating something in particular causes heartburn and a sleepless night is one of those things about aging that nobody ever mentions when we are young. I now know why some of my relatives wore those twisted smiles when I chomped onto a hamburger with raw onions when I was about nine.
(2) I won’t detail the technique of going behind the falls here, lest I encourage some reading daredevil to do it and draw down some official wrath on their heads. A few people walking under the falls didn’t seem to hurt the falls much, but if one person were seen to do it, others would surely follow and someone might get hurt. George and I were doing this before Political Correctness started trying to make it illegal to do dangerous things. And it wasn’t really very dangerous. Standing under the falls, out of sight of all but the most alert observers above, was incredible. Leaning back against the damp walls, I could feel the thunder of the water pouring over the edge above us, feel the chill of centuries in the wet sand under my feet. I know I started a poem about it, but don’t believe I’ve ever finished it. I'm glad to have had the experience and perhaps enjoy the fact that few others will.
(3) I thought I’d invented the birthday week until I received my annual birthday call from my friend Suzan, who has been my friend for about 50 years. "Humph!" she said. "I’ve been doing that for years. Birthday Eve, Birthday Week. Lately I’m plugging for a Birthday Month!"
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