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Notes from a Western Life
Ranging Far and Wide on the High Plains and Beyond
Linda M. Hasselstrom's Blog

Clicking "Like"

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The abandoned dogs stare out of the screen with huge innocent eyes.

A bald eagle peers down at me from his perch just over my head.

I seem to hear the cries of abused babies echoing in my office until I click on a photograph of a castle on a misty isle.

A politician stands tall as he utters inanities. A group of young men in kilts play drums on stage.

Within ten minutes of beginning to look at Facebook, my head is spinning as my brain switches moods from anger to pain to pleasure to outrage to pleasure and back down the same trail again. I’m exhausted by the emotional turmoil.

Writing requires sustained attention. I believe most worthwhile activities require sustained attention. The whirlpool of emotion offered by Facebook is so distracting that on the days when I’m writing, I have to stay away from the site until evening.

Of course I empathize with the poor dogs and children and all the other ills being perpetrated in the world. I also appreciate the folks who call to my attention cheerful news focused on the world’s joys instead of its sorrows.

But after a few minutes of the muddle I turn away in frustration.

If I see a lost dog as I drive down the street, pick it up and take it to shelter, I’ve helped that dog’s life improve, at least temporarily. If I give money to charity, ditto. When I send a hand-written note to a friend who’s having a tough time, I’m doing a positive good.

Clicking “like” doesn’t fix anything.

I find it contradictory to click “like” under a story of a politician speaking proudly of how he’s misrepresented me today. I don’t like what he’s done at all, though I’m glad to know about it.

More importantly, however, a thousand people could click “like” beneath that story and the politician might never know how much we disapprove of his actions. Unless he has a staff member who keeps in touch with social media, collecting the comments folks who agree with one another make under these news stories, the politician will remain clueless.

To express my opinion in a way that counts, I need to write, call, email or fax my message directly to the congress person’s office.
In addition, I have to be wary of posts that appeal too much to my prejudices. I have to ask is this story true? Rather than ignoring my suspicions, I must go to a reliable site and check for its authenticity before I pass it on. Otherwise, I may simply become one more strand in a web of untruth that’s hard to untangle.

Here’s another problem.

I remember the activism of the 1960s, when a lot of folks were protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War. Many of these people believed that marching down the street on a sunny day constituted political action. A few got additional exercise by waving flags or extending middle fingers to those who lined the sidewalks. If the thousands of people marched, and the cameras rolled and the news media showed the waving flags and shouting multitudes on TV screens all across the country that night, perhaps the action had an effect on our leaders. But for many protestors, writing to a Congressperson was just too darn much work.

Similarly, I’m afraid that clicking “like” may become a substitute for taking action. After a half hour on Facebook, righteously hitting that “like” button and writing a few comments under news stories, I might feel as if I’ve paid my dues for my citizenship in this country.

Look at what I’ve accomplished already and it’s only ten o’clock in the morning! I’ve let a lot of people know how much I disapprove of the actions of my state’s representative in Congress. I’ve shown that I empathize with abused dogs and those who rescue them. I’ve demonstrated my love of cuddly animals, birds of prey and a few artists, and I’ve approved of some humorous grammar corrections. Whew! What a workout!

But what have I accomplished?

I haven’t compared the statistics on the percentage of people who use social media to those who vote, because I’m afraid the figures would be depressing. It’s a lot easier to click “like” than it is to study all the issues, drive to the polling place, show ID and register your opinion in a lasting way.

I don’t mean to suggest that Facebook and other social media are without value. Each is a tool, and like any tool can be useful—and may be misused. But on days when I’m deep into a writing project, I intend to limit my time with these diversions for my own mental health.

And when I want my legislators to know how I feel about their actions, I’ll write to them, investing my reasoning, my time, and a stamp to be sure they get the message.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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For more information:

How to write, call, or email the White House
www.whitehouse.gov/contact/

How to call or email a member of the US Congress (House or Senate)
www.usa.gov/Contact/US-Congress.shtml


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Thinking Is Writing: The Bathtub

Reading a book in the old cast iron tub.
The tub is surrounded by curtains hung on a framework of copper pipes suspended from the ceiling by chains.
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One of my favorite methods of dealing with pain, with lack of inspiration or with almost any other problem is a hot bath.

The main ingredient for a truly inspiring bath is a cast iron claw-foot bathtub, which holds heat as no modern plastic tub can do. The one in my basement, though, is somewhat shorter than I am, so a relaxing soak requires some bending. As I sink into the hot water, I often dream of the six foot long tub I discovered in Scotland. Even as short as it is, though, the tub fulfills its promise as a Writing Aid.

Turning the hot water on full, I pour in an herbal mixture that includes eucalyptus, peppermint, wintergreen, clove and juniper oils to soothe muscle aches. Then I’m ready for the ritual.

First one foot-- if the water is too hot, I may have to modify it, and I've scalded my poor right foot several times. If the water is perfect, I step in, sit, cross my legs to fit in the tub, and lie back with a sigh. Sometimes I just close my eyes and visualize how the hot water is soothing muscles and sinuses. Secure in the knowledge that no one will disturb me, I can let my mind free of everything that has concerned me for days or weeks. I may immerse myself completely in the steaming, echoing water, hearing the cast iron ping and bong as it absorbs heat.

I may try to remember the words to the Janis Joplin song “Mercedes Benz,” or think of a poem I memorized in high school. When I sit up, spluttering suds, I feel renewed.

When I’m conducting a writing retreat, my first task in the hot bath is to think of the writer I've been working with during the day. What have I failed to mention? Have I been encouraging enough? Are there other resources to suggest, or other handouts I could provide?

Almost always, I capture a thought that I missed while I was intently reading the writer’s work, or talking about it, so I've made a hot bath part of every retreat so I don’t miss that vital notion. I apply the same logic to my own work when revising: a hot bath often reveals an answer that eluded me during days of walking, thinking, and staring at the computer screen.

Sometimes I take a book to read, placing it on the table behind my head as I scrub or while I meditate. I love to read until the water cools enough to remind me it’s time to get out. But I have to exercise care not to drop the book-- especially if it’s from the library.

But most often, after a period of reflection or reading, I write.

On a shelf at the head of the tub is a stack of small squares of recycled paper and a pencil. It’s easy to grab one of the little squares, scribble a thought, and toss it on the rug beside the tub.

Thinking is writing, I've often said, and lying back in a tub at the perfect temperature is conducive to thinking.

One idea often sparks another, so that at the end of a truly great bath, the rug is littered with a half-dozen little squares of paper.

After I’m dry, I gather them, stacking them by topic, and carry them to my computer desk, where I’ll find them the next day-- and get a great start on the day’s writing.



Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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Valentine's Day

My permanent Valentine:
a black, heart-shaped stone.
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We’re really celebrating Valentine’s Day this year, going all out. I think our celebration will be entirely unique, even for us.

No, we’re not reserving a suite at a fine hotel, with lobster and filet mignon. No champagne in my slipper. I don’t expect diamonds or a dozen roses. I'm expecting much, much more.

Like many U.S. holidays, Valentine’s Day probably began as a liturgical celebration for one-- or maybe more-- early Christian saints named Valentinus. Several martyrdom stories were invented for the various Valentines, and all are associated with February 14.

One account says, for example, that Saint Valentine of Rome was imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry, and for ministering to Christians, who were persecuted under the Roman Empire. As if that weren't enough, according to legend during his imprisonment he healed the daughter of his jailer. No evidence whatsoever exists for this lovely myth or other religious associations for Valentine, but these fragile foundations support immensely profitable enterprises.

The day was first associated with romantic love in the circle of Geoffrey Chaucer in the High Middle Ages when the tradition of "courtly love" flourished. Unlike many examples of real love, "courtly love" emphasized nobility and chivalry. In other words, the lovers might not consummate their love but enjoy all the fun of a flirtation, complete with sighs, illicit meetings, and secret messages and gifts.

In 18th Century England, lovers began to express their love on Valentine’s Day by offering flowers, sweets, and homemade greetings which became known as “valentines.” At this time, some of today’s symbols evolved, including heart-shaped outlines, doves, and the figure of the winged Cupid.

In 1797, a British publisher issued The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, which contained sentimental verses for the young lover unable to compose his own. Too bad some of today’s love-song-writers don’t have a copy!

Printers had already begun producing cards with verses and sketches, so when postal rates dropped during the next century, sending valentines became more popular. During the early 19th Century, paper valentines were assembled in factories, with real lace and ribbons used to create the fancier ones. In the U.S., the first mass-produced valentines of embossed paper lace were made around 1847 by a Massachusetts woman whose father ran a large book and stationery store.

Later, handwritten valentines were mostly replaced by mass-produced greeting cards. Encouraged by manufacturers alert to the power of the dollar, many lovers sent gifts such as chocolates in red, heart-shaped boxes, flowers, and jewelry. The diamond industry began to promote Valentine’s Day with vigor in the 1980s.

Today, the U.S. Greeting Card Association estimates that about 190 million valentines are sent each year. On Valentine’s Day 2013, according to the experts, the average American spent $131 sending greetings-- mostly to family members and teachers.

The rise of the Internet is creating new traditions as millions of people send digital greetings-- e-cards, love coupons, or printable greeting cards. An estimated 15 million e-valentines were sent in 2010.

None of this hoopla will make the slightest difference to me or to Jerry. We’ll celebrate Valentine’s Day in our own ways, and our expenditures will be considerably less than $131. Possibly nil.

Since the holiday falls on Saturday, I hope to entice Jerry to make crepes, which I’ll fill with strawberries and sour cream with a touch of powdered sugar. I plan to spend the rest of the morning doing what I love: writing, and being as grateful as I am every day for my freedom to choose my work. I’ll have lunch with two women friends, and spend the afternoon helping them clean the Hermosa Arts and History Museum. Because I want to.

Meanwhile, Jerry will be attending a special blacksmithing event called a “Hammer-in.” He’ll spend the day firing up a forge, heating chunks of iron until it glows like the fires of hell or the glowing eyes in those tacky werewolf movies. The hammers will clang and ring as he discusses with like-minded friends-- not all of them male-- the fine points of blacksmithing.

At the end of the day, we’ll get together, share a meal and tell each other how much fun we had. For dessert, I’ll serve some old-fashioned heart-shaped candies with loving slogans on them; I paid thirty-three cents for the box. We’ll probably play Scrabble.

We’ll do this because we know what sustains real love isn't chocolate-- luscious as it is-- or greeting cards or diamonds. Love means allowing the loved one the freedom to choose, even on special days.

A month or so ago, as we walked the dogs up the driveway, I picked up a black stone that resembled a heart. Jerry promptly claimed it. A day later, he gave it back to me slightly reshaped, and polished. I often carry it in my pocket. That’s my permanent Valentine card.

I hope that you and your special loved one will enjoy the same loving freedom, on Valentine’s Day and for the rest of the year.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Cowboy Poetry Gathering Autograph Session.
While I was signing books with John Dofflemyer of Dry Crik Review, a writer who had attended a retreat at Windbreak House waaay back in 1997 stopped by with her daughter and grandson. Meeting old friends is one of the great things about gatherings.
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A week ago, on February 2, I arrived home from the 31st National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, NV, sponsored by the Western Folklife Center.

A trek to the Gathering from South Dakota requires a serious investment of time; Elko is about 800 miles from Hermosa. I left home Monday, January 26, to drive to Glendo, WY, to meet Nancy Curtis, who had agreed to drive from her home, and Yvonne Hollenbeck, who, like me, was an invited performer.

I consider the financial compensation for this gig to be perfectly adequate, especially considering how poetry is valued in this country, but I suspect nobody goes to The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering just for the money.

So why do we go, I’m asked every time. I always think of an old cowboy song I hear on every visit, “The Night Rider’s Lament.” Part of Michael Burton’s chorus to this song is:

He asked me why do you ride for your money
Why do you rope for short pay
You ain’t getting’ nowhere
And you’re losin’ your share
Boy, you must have gone crazy out there.


Perfectly defines the attitude of a lot of folks about writing cowboy poetry! If I’m crazy I’m in good company. One night I sat under the spotlights on the stage of the G3Bar in the Western Folklife Center in the company of Wallace McRae, Paul Zarzyski and John Dofflemyer. I was marveling at the fact that 300 people had paid $30 or $35 each to hear us read and recite our poetry. No musicians, no other attractions shared the stage-- just poets.

But the audience doesn't necessarily have to pay to hear the greatest cowboy poets and musicians in the nation. During every day of the Gathering, many sessions are free in the convention center. If you’d wandered into the Turquoise room last week, you could have spent an hour with me, John Dofflemyer, and Elizabeth Ebert, from Thunder Hawk, South Dakota, who was a closet poet until 1989. In 2005 when she was 80 years old, then-Governor Mike Rounds proclaimed February 24 as Elizabeth Ebert Day. (Learn more about her at www.cowboypoetry.com). Her work is hilarious, honest, and bone-deep true.

I admire the hard work the staff does to name the various sessions, especially since they know the writers will interpret the titles any way they darn please. This year we had titles like:

Love of the Well-Crafted Line
Living the Deep West (a prose session with me and Wally McRae, hosted by Texas poet Joel Nelson)
And We Shall Ride
Stories in Verse
Best Laid Plans
Southwest Song and Sonnet, and
Dames Don’t Dally, among many others.

Or you could wander up to the high school building behind the convention center where volunteers kept the music going all day long-- some of it open mic and some from respected and well-known musicians. One of the highlights of this gathering was listening to the music of Baja California Sur played by residents of that lonely place, who also set up an exhibit showing how they live.

Besides all the poetry, there are sessions on a variety of other subjects. The early part of the week is usually devoted to workshops on writing, rawhide braiding, silversmithing, ranch tours, talks and discussions about conflicts between ranchers and others. Students from Owyhee Public School and other filmmakers worked on videos about the Deep West.

One of my favorite musical events at this year’s gathering was watching Glenn Ohrlin, 88, play and sing with Brigid Reedy, 14. The two shared a real joy of music, and it was a joy to watch them tease each other. Watching Glenn was painful, because he was so thin he looked like a walking skeleton, but his voice and mind were clear and strong, and he played beautifully. We heard that he drove to the Gathering with a passenger who was not happy with his driving. Ohrlin always preferred to travel by pickup truck. His rule was that if there was more than one way to get somewhere, he always took the road he’d never traveled, even if the distance was longer and the road narrower. Glenn lived in Mountain Home, Arkansas, where he operated a cattle ranch and lived in a stone house he’d built himself. As I finished writing today, I got word that Glenn has died.

Keynote speaker Gary Paul Nabhan is an internationally-known nature writer, food and farming activist and proponent of conserving the links between biodiversity and cultural diversity. He has been honored as a pioneer in the local food and seed-saving communities by a half-dozen magazines, and written numerous books. (I was once fortunate enough to dine with him at one of the local Basque cafes and immediately became a fan, though he’s been writing books faster than I've been reading them.)

Gary spoke about the work on conservative conservation being done by a group of ranchers and environmentalists loosely organized as the “radical center.” Groups like the Quivira Coalition (quiviracoalition.org), founded by two environmentalists and a rancher, aim to “build resilience by fostering ecological, economic and social health on western landscapes through education, innovation, collaboration and progressive public and private land stewardship.”

Nabhan quoted Aldo Leopold on a fact much of our society has forgotten, “People starve when land and water are degraded and forage declines.” But he had good news too: the market for grassfed beef is growing faster than that for any other commodity, as 60% of the farmers and ranchers in the U.S. have made changes in their methods that lead to better conservation of resources that belong to all of us. The Cowboy Poetry Gathering always features keynote speakers who challenge and enlighten.

Another pleasure of going to Elko is eating Basque food available several places that originated with the Basque sheepherders of the region. My favorite meal this trip was a pork chop at the Toki Ona Basque Diner, accompanied by salad with a zingy dressing, soup, spaghetti, and Potatoes Ana. Our waitress, Kelly, happily described how to make Potatoes Ana, and I've made them twice since I got home. If I make them any more before July, I won’t be able to fit into my jeans.

Another important part of the travel to the Gathering, at least the way I've done it fairly often since my first invitation in 1993, is the companionship of the trip. Driving can be a challenge, but it allows for long and deep conversations. Some of my best friendships have deepened and matured as we rolled along I-80, through Rawlins, Rock Springs, Evanston and the Three Sisters-- the three long hills truckers hate. We slide through Salt Lake City and pass the great lake and wheel along the broad flats where travelers stop to arrange rocks in messages and symbols. In Wendover, Nevada, the casinos are always lit and very few people notice the shabby trailers and shacks housing the folks who keep those games spinning and those motel rooms clean. And then Elko, which I am told is surrounded by beautiful mountains and desert; I've rarely gotten outside the streets and sites of the various programs.

And in Elko, we are hip by haunch with folks who come to hear cowboy poetry. In some cases, the clothes they are wearing would buy the ranches of the folks who are reciting on stage.

I always admire the togs, but I’m there for the company of people who were writing about rural western life long before cowboy poetry began to attract crowds. As Badger Clark remarked, we just love “slingin’ ink and English” among other folks who understand the job that we've taken on: telling the truth about our rural western lives.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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For more information:

See the Western Folklife Center's website at www.westernfolklife.org

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Sunrise

Sunrise February 5th at Windbreak House.
Photo by Jerry Ellerman.
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Sunrise this morning began while I was sitting in bed writing in my journal-- just a long stripe of light blue beneath a shield of heavy black, like a crack opening into another universe.

I’d let the dogs out and logged into email to find a tangle of conflicting, angry messages from members of a group of which I am a member. Glancing through them sent my stomach roiling, so I shut down and climbed back into bed with today’s book.

The book, while it means well, concerns recovery from stroke, so while its message is upbeat, the general topic did not especially cheer me.

So I put it aside and pulled my journal out from under my pillow-- I like to keep it handy for late-night inspiration-- determined to write something positive to offset the email clamor I’d have to face later.

As the light grew with the earth’s slow rotation, I realized that this was going to be one of our especially gorgeous sunrise experiences. What looked like a flat, heavy layer of black clouds began to ripple as the light strengthened, the clouds heaving and shifting in shades of gold and peach. Swells of light like the ocean’s waves rolled across the prairie’s beach.

Below the clouds, the air was still at twenty degrees or so, the grass still dusted with snow. But the light promised that the day would improve.

As Jerry took the photograph, I realized that the very best sunrises are those with clouds in them. When the sky is clear, the sun’s light simply flows like honey over a table, golden and lovely-- but flat.

Clouds ripple and heave and turn from black to blue. Clouds churn and lunge and wrap around each other. Their darkness should encourage us to appreciate sun’s light and warmth.

The metaphor was so obvious I laughed out loud, startling the dogs out of their post-awakening, pre-breakfast nap.

When everything in our lives is streaming along as smoothly as a river in spring, we may not appreciate just how lucky we are. Clouds-- murky, roiling , threatening-- make us pay attention, and remind us that things could be considerably worse.

That barbed-wire tangle of emails waiting to snag my attention made me appreciate the complications of sunrise. How fortunate I was to have this quiet time to read and write before the day’s concerns began to rise over the edge of the horizon.

The troubles I encounter every day should remind me how fortunate I am for days when there are no complications, when my writing flows like honey.

Today’s clouds encouraged me to appreciate the light around their edges. When I return to the computer, I’ll answer those emails as quickly as possible so as to get back to the day’s bright promise.

Or perhaps I’ll put the emails off until sunset.


Linda M. Hasselstom
Windbreak House, Hermosa, South Dakota

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Seeing: the Key to Writing

The Westie rock in a jar of other little items. A red outline of a sitting West Highland White Terrier on a yellow limestone rock.
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“Look what I found for you!” my friend said, handing me a chunk of sandstone. “A rock like your dogs!”

I looked at her smiling, eager face, and then at the rock, trying to sputter a response. The chunk of tan sandstone filled my hand, but it looked nondescript to me, a big chunk of driveway gravel. Originally oval, it had flat faces where it had been broken. A reddish stripe ran up one side, and there was an odd blotchy red line on the side.

She pointed at the mark.

“See?” she said. “I thought of your dogs as soon as I saw it: he’s sitting back and howling.”

I could picture one of our white Westies sitting on his haunches, nose pointed to the air, his white carrot tail lying flat on the ground behind him.

And there he was on the rock. In the side view, I could see one closed eye and the ear lying flat against his head, even the line of his mouth. Was he howling? Or gazing up in expectation of a tasty treat?

“Oh!” Finally I could say something. “I do see it!” I’m sure I still sounded doubtful.

“I was taking a walk on the hillside,” she said, “and glanced down and there it was. It’s yours,” she said, and I tucked it into my bag to take home and we went on with our talk and preparations for the dinner she was serving.

When I got the rock home, I put it into a glass jar on a bathroom counter, beside a green jade disc she’d found on a California beach and given me on another occasion. This is a woman who appreciates rocks, and knows I do too. I treasure her insights and the growing friendship between us.

But I’m not sure she realized, any more than I did at that moment, what this particular rock signified.

Each morning, I look at the red outline of the dog, his head thrown back, and I smile. Somehow that little figure embodies the Westies’ stalwart natures, and their cheery steadfast solidity.

I kept picturing the hillside where my friend and her husband have made their home. Typical of the Black Hills foothills, it’s rocky, grassy, studded with pine trees. Naturally, their construction carved new shapes as they created a basement, driveway, and space for adjacent buildings. I suspect this stone was always resident on the hill.

As I walked with her to an outbuilding later that day, I noticed many similar stones scattered through the grass, observed them the way you do when you don’t want to trip, only as obstructions. We walked and talked, enjoying the air, but more intent on our conversation than on our surroundings.

As a writer, I pay attention to my surroundings. I pride myself, apparently too much, on my ability to recall and describe what I see. Yet I can describe that walk and those stones only in very general terms. I might have stepped over a dozen stones with figures outlined on them that day, and not known it.

At home, I measured the figure of the dog on the stone: it’s three-quarters of an inch high.

She was walking on her hillside, perhaps getting out of her home office for a few minutes to relax. Her profession requires her to listen sympathetically every day to people talking about their problems, so she may have been considering a specific issue. I imagine her striding along, breathing deeply of the fresh air, straightening her back, clearing her head-- just as I walk on my hillside. Thinking.

Somehow, she looked down and in an instant saw that figure and thought of my dogs.

How do our brains make connections? All I know is that odd conjunctions happen. A scent can trigger an ocean of images; a sight can remind the viewer of anything that may reside in her tangled brain. Thinking of what has triggered poems, I could name a dozen unlikely sparks. From these inexplicable linkages come art, poetry, music, and a dozen other disciplines that engage our brains.

But in order to catch the poetry, the art, the beauty, we have to see. If we stumble blindly up the hill concentrating on not tripping, or trapped inside our minds with anger at what the day has done to us, we may miss the clue.

One of my axioms in writing has been Norman Maclean’s statement from A River Runs Through It:
“All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren't noticing which makes you see something that isn't visible.”

Seeing. That’s the key to writing, and I believe it is also the key to living consciously, to getting as much from your life as you can: seeing every day, as much as you can, in as much detail as you can.

The more you see, the more likely you are to see something you weren't noticing, which makes you see something that isn't visible-- but that invisible image may hold the key for which you have been searching.

So every day, when I look at that little red dog on that piece of sandstone, I remind myself to see. And I thank her for seeing.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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Unable to Forward

I've just had the sad experience of reading a cheery Christmas card I sent last year to a good friend with whom I've been corresponding for about 15 years. Though our meeting was brief, at a conference where we were both speakers, we bonded instantly and immediately began exchanging holiday letters. We wrote only once a year, but our letters were individual, personal and long-- about our writing, about our gardens and the things we were cooking. We exchanged recipes and recommendations for books to read.

Last year at this time, I was looking forward to receiving her holiday letter. She was a role model for me. In her 80s, she remained vigorous and curious, working on a long book that depended on her Greek translations. She’d given up a summer place to move full-time into her primary home, but she showed no signs of mental decline. Her most recent book had been about death and dying, based on her experience with her mother. It remains on my shelf, still unread.

In my Christmas card, I asked her how her new book was coming along, and conveyed to her the compliments of a friend who was enjoying a previous book she’d written. I asked about an older book of hers I wanted to locate.

Why am I reading this letter again?

Because her card came back to me marked “UTF”: Unable to Forward.”

My heart told me what that meant, but I spent considerable time online finding her address, mapping the location of her house and looking at a photograph of it, overgrown and neglected.

And then I found her obituary-- she had died “after a long illness.” But she had written to me the previous Christmas, filled with good cheer and encouragement. I cried for an hour.

I know this woman had a daughter, though another daughter had died some time before. I know she maintained a hearty correspondence with many people and was beloved by many more who had read her books.

I deeply sympathize with whatever hardships might have accompanied her illness and death. But I can’t help wishing her remaining daughter had turned to my friend's no doubt meticulously maintained address book and to let her friends know she was ill, or that she had died.

And here's the purpose of writing about this: If a loved one in your family has died this year, please make that final effort: write to their friends. Even a postcard would do. Think of the people who, like me, were enjoying this season and anticipating that annual letter. Let them know; if you can’t bear to provide all the details of the death, at least give them the fact that it has occurred. Let that be your final gift to your dead loved one.

When my mother died, I found her address book to be fairly confusing, with scribbled-over addresses going back years. But with help from her companion, I went through it and notified everyone whose address I could decipher. In return, I received letters about friendships that extended through fifty, sixty, seventy years, from people saddened by her loss, but grateful to hear from us, glad to know that, as one woman put it, “the song has ended.”

Please, for the sake of those you loved, tell those that they cared about that they are gone. They’d thank you for it if they could.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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Perks of the Authors Guild

The Authors Guild "Model Trade Book Contract and Commentary" booklet
The cover is rather plain, so I present it here in my greenhouse with one of the Flamingo Family. In late October, when the photo was taken, I still had some pepper plants fruiting. Ahhh.
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Once you begin to think of sending your work out for publication, you might consider joining an authors group. Benefits of membership often include vital information that can save you time, energy and money.

The Authors Guild, founded in 1912, is the oldest and largest association of published authors in the U.S., but it has specific requirements for membership. Check on those at www.authorsguild.org.

I've been a member of the AG since 1991. One of my favorite parts of membership is the consultation on publication contracts. For example, a member can send a contract to the AG and get a lawyer's comments on its provision. This has saved me from several bad mistakes.

This fall I received the latest publication, MODEL TRADE BOOK CONTRACT AND COMMENTARY, updated to include recent changes in the treatment of digital rights.

The pamphlet-- 80 pages-- provides a clause-by-clause commentary on an entire sample book contract, from the grant of rights through warranties and indemnities, proofreading, advances, royalties, first serial rights, accounting, revision, bankruptcy, and agency clauses. Besides providing a much-needed update on subsidiary rights that are non-print-related, electronic rights and audio downloads, the booklet lists "unacceptable provisions." Wary and careful as I am, I found a clause that exists in one of my contracts listed under this heading.

This booklet complements one of the sessions I went to at the Women Writing the West conference in October, 2014. Susan Brushaber, an intellectual rights attorney, discussed how the Internet and other kinds of publication have altered what we need to look for, and be wary of, in contracts.

I highly recommend that, if you qualify, you join the Authors Guild.

# # #

For more information:

See the Authors Guild website at www.authorsguild.org


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Altitude Adjustment: how to change your life and write about it

. . .
I’m always reading about private lives. Since I conduct writing retreats, much of what I read when working with prospective writers is about their struggles to live satisfyingly and with meaning. I've never become cynical about these writings because every one of us is doing the same thing: trying to figure out how to get the most from our time on earth. We can learn from one another.

Mary Beth Baptiste’s Altitude Adjustment has joined my shelf of books I will recommend to writers who are trying to figure out just how to write about that divorce, that disastrous love affair, or that terrible loss. With courage, and a discerning eye, she has looked at her own past, at the way she left a bad marriage in suburban Massachusetts to become a woodswoman in the Rocky Mountains.

Have you got a difficult story to tell? Read this book for clues on how to do it.

How do you handle the reactions of relatives to your decisions? Mary Beth’s parents weren't happy about her divorce or her plan to move west. Sounding a lot like my mother, hers said, “No man would ever want you again.”

How do you handle swatches of your life that you don’t want to write about, because they were unsatisfactory or boring or nobody’s business? She tells us enough about the marriage she left to be convincing, but doesn't hammer at the subject, understanding readers don’t need every detail in order for us to understand. In a sentence or paragraph, she summarizes several events that aren't part of the quest of the subtitle.

What about love and sex? Mary Beth handles scenes of intimacy with relish but with restraint; your mother won’t be embarrassed to be caught reading this book.

Readers always ask writers of nonfiction, “Is this true? Did this really happen?” We've all become a little cynical after learning that writers we trusted made the whole thing up. Mary Beth has written an author’s note that clarifies the way she has handled the truth so well that I must quote the whole thing:

“I sincerely hope that those who recognize themselves in these pages will understand that I wrote this story from a place of love and gratitude for all of you who crossed paths with me during this magical time of my life. The events in the narrative did occur. Whether others will recall them as I have is debatable. To protect privacy, I changed some names, genders, physical identifiers, draft numbers and birthdates, radio call numbers, and other finger-pointing characteristics, and I created a character to take the heat. Some local place names have been changed.

A chronology of events does not a memoir make. To create narrative flow, I reconstructed dialogue, scrambled chronology, and compressed time. To keep the book to a manageable length, some people and events had to be left out.”


Besides all this, she writes with skill about her new home and the people in it; her prose is lyrical and strong. “Snow sheets over the ground and feathers up the mountainsides, lending a paradoxical softness to the landscape.”

Writing about your life? Mary Beth shows how to do it honestly and with grace. Mary Beth writes, ”The mountains called, and I came. I found my way home. . . . I finally feel the power of my life, and it matters. . . . I don’t pretend to understand it all, but this I know: Dreams won’t die, no matter how hard we try to slay them.”

She's not only provided a lesson in writing about your life, but the book will give you goose bumps too.

# # #

For more information:

Altitude Adjustment: A Quest for Love, Home, and Meaning in the Tetons,
by Mary Beth Baptiste
Helena, MT: TwoDot, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press.
ISBN 978-0-9134-7. Paperback. 272 pp.

Visit the author’s website at: marybethbaptiste.com

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Fuligo septica: Dog Vomit Slime Mold

Dog vomit slime mold.
photo from all-free-download.com
. . .
I discovered this critter at the base of one of my potted tomato plants on a warm September day. A few days before, I’d dumped a full pot of spider plants in beside the tomato, as I repotted and rearranged house plants for winter. Now a foamy blob of bright yellow rose beside the tomato. I neglected to take a picture of it, but poked it with a finger. Despite the yellow color, I was sure it wasn't dog vomit, since mine are short dogs, and would have had to stand on their hind legs to vomit into the tall pot. Before I had a chance to look for information, the mold had collapsed into a dry brown mess.

The best source of information I've found is margaretsgarden.wordpress.com (see link below), which shows photos of a slime mold that’s not nearly as vivid as the one I saw, but clearly the same thing. As the writer says, the correct name is Fuligo septica but the common name is considerably more metaphorical and accurate.

Slime molds-- there are more than 700 species-- give no warning. They simply appear, usually in spring or summer in warm, wet locations on decaying plant matter, as a creeping mass called a plasmodium, a huge cell that moves slowly like an amoeba to feed itself on bacteria and fungi. The mold may range in size from 6 inches to two feet in diameter. Once it stops moving, it enters the spore-bearing stage. During one or two days, it hardens and dries to a dull orange. Disturbed, it emits dust: zillions of spares being released to grow in other locations.

While there is apparently no way to keep Dog Vomit Slime Mold out of your garden, it is completely harmless to plants, pets, and humans. Considered edible, it’s cooked and eaten in Mexico-- just like the scrambled eggs it resembles-- in a dish called Caca de Luna. (According to my memory of Spanish, that translates as “excrement of the moon,” which seems less than appetizing.) If you aren't planning to eat it, you can carry it away, or blast it with a hose-- though the latter method just spreads the spores. If you wait a few days, it will vanish by itself.

Leaving its spores behind. (Cue the creepy music.)

# # #


For more information:

Dog vomit slime mold blog at Margaret's Garden website.

Slime mold photos and botanical information at Wayne's Word, an online "Textbook of Natural History" by Professor W. P. Armstrong, Palomar College.


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