Archives of the Home Page Essays
Many of these essays have writing advice. All have photos, some have recipes, a few have poems.
Christmas and Xmas, Solstice and Pagans (originally posted --- December 21, 2014)
Linda ponders the different ways many cultures have celebrated the Winter Solstice through the centuries. Includes Linda's poem “Hymn for the Winter Solstice.”
The Samhain Trumpet: The Great Horned Owl Announces Summer’s End (originally posted --- October 31, 2014)
The owl’s hunting cry signals the end of life and its new beginning just as Samhain signals the last warm wisps of autumn as we head into winter. Linda relates some natural history of this large owl, and offers a few writing suggestions.
Old Business, New Business, Harvest Business (originally posted --- September 22, 2014)
Finishing the old business of summer is an essential part of preparing for winter.
Celebrate Autumn with Lughnasad (originally posted --- August 1, 2014)
Regret and farewell, harvest and preservation: these are the four key words of Autumn. Instead of making your autumn poem a lament, however, read Linda's suggestions for celebrating the richness and beauty of this End-of-Summer season.
Fire and Ice and Prairie Flamingoes (originally posted --- June 21, 2014)
Linda juxtaposes current news stories-- good and bad-- with descriptions of historical Summer Solstice celebrations and snippets of ranch life, creating a poetic essay of contrasts.
On May Eve, Practice Safe S-S-Scrivening! (originally posted --- April 30, 2014)
In honor of Beltane, Linda makes symbolic love to spring in a writing exercise using her five senses, writing down the results, and then creating a poem from the collection of material she observed and sensed. Includes a draft poem entitled "Cataracts" along with Linda's notes on the writing process.
Celebrate Writing At the Spring Equinox: By Not Writing (originally posted --- March 20, 2014)
A poem entitled "Untitled" teaches Linda to slow down, fill her senses, and look for poetry in an ordinary day.
Brigid's Day: Celebrating the Precarious Season Midway Between Winter and Spring (originally posted --- February 2, 2014)
Linda offers some deep winter suggestions to raise your spirits, improve your health, and keep your writing on track.
Winter Solstice: Did the Dark Win Today? (originally posted --- December 21, 2013)
Witnessing the aftermath of a highway accident, Linda reacts as a writer and ponders how the winter holiday "symbolizes an annual battle between the forces of darkness and the powers of light."
Samhain: Festival of Contradictions (originally posted --- October 31, 2013)
"As the gates of death and winter open, so too do the gates open to renewed life." Linda writes of the contradictions of the fall season, of the devastating blizzard of October 4th, and of the recovery that followed.
Coyotes and the Autumnal Equinox (originally posted --- September 21, 2013)
Linda writes of coyotes and preparing for winter. Includes her poem "Coyote Song."
What Rain Makes: Turning Regret into Harvest (originally posted --- August 1, 2013)
Linda recommends you turn rain into hay, and rejection into constructive criticism that will make your writing better.
Summer Solstice: Fragments of Glass and Shell (originally posted --- June 21, 2013)
Linda recounts some of her recent trip to Maine. Besides being rested and refreshed by getting away from her usual life, Linda may very well gain inspiration from her experiences, the "scribbled notes" in her travel journal, and the fragments she picked up along the way.
The Evening Show, Starring Crow and Rabbit (originally posted --- May 1, 2013)
Linda learns a lesson from some common Great Plains animals: dance for joy and astonish those who are watching.
Cora’s Pincushion Penguin: Writing Solitude (originally posted --- March 20, 2013)
Linda writes about the necessary solitude and calm that precedes and creates writing, and why good writing requires solitary thought.
Brigid: Time to Put the Pieces Together (originally posted --- February 1, 2013)
Writers: gather up the scraps from your journals, your dreams, your passing thoughts and create something new.
Includes one reader's response to this essay about a cutting board and life.
Wrap Yourself in Darkness and Banish Fear (originally posted --- December 21, 2012)
Linda writes of embracing both the literal and figurative darkness and letting the light into dark places.
Summer’s End: From Magpie Mind to Turtle Tranquility (originally posted --- October 31, 2012)
Linda writes of the contradictions contained in Samhain-- the celebration of the change from summer to winter-- and reveals why she has chosen the turtle as her personal symbol.
Gleaning as Writing, Writing as Gleaning (originally posted --- September 22, 2012)
Linda writes of specific instances of gleaning and how gleaning has become a philosophy of life and a benefit to her writing. This essay is the full and un-cut version of the essay that appears in the book Going Green: True Tales from Gleaners, Scavengers, and Dumpster Divers, edited by Laura Pritchett, University of Oklahoma Press, 2009.
Lammas: Celebrating the Season of Regret and Farewells, of Harvest and Preservation (originally posted --- August, 2012)
Linda explains how you can "celebrate" regrets and farewells. Learn how harvesting and preservation apply not only to your garden but also to your writing life.
Ruth Said This but Mary Said That: Writing Family History (originally posted --- June 21, 2012)
More from Linda about writing your family history. A companion piece to the December 2011 Home Page Message.
How Gardening Resembles the Well-Planned Writing Life (originally posted --- May Day Eve, 2012)
Linda links gardening to a plan for writing.
Persistence in Writing (originally posted --- March 20, 2012)
Linda writes of inspiration vs. persistence in writing. Includes the poem "1971: Establishing Perpetual Care at the Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery" and the story of why the poem took 38 years to complete.
Celebrating Winter with Brigid the Light-Bringer (originally posted --- February 2, 2012)
Linda writes of what Brigid symbolizes-- hearthcraft, change, and creativity-- and how she applies them to her life these gray winter days. Includes the draft poem "Holding My Breath" or "She Didn’t Sweep Up the Broken Glass."
Looking for Grandmother (originally posted --- December 21, 2011)
Linda describes how to research the past, particularly your own ancestors, for a writing project. Includes many photos and stories.
Thinking Is Writing (originally posted --- October 31, 2011)
Linda writes about the importance of uninterrupted thought in the writing process and gives some suggestions and examples on how to draw the reader into your story.
The Glitter Phase of Life (originally posted --- September 21, 2011)
Linda writes of friendships and friendship poems and reaching "the glitter phase of life."
Includes two poems on friendship and a reader's response, printed with permission.
Wild Pink Roses (originally posted --- August 1, 2011)
Linda writes about memories of roses and how one thing leads to another when researching and writing.
Are You a Writer? (originally posted --- June 21, 2011)
Linda discusses many aspects of the writing business-- writing, teaching, speaking, publishing-- and calling yourself a writer.
Quack or Buffalo? (originally posted --- May Day 2011)
Linda discusses the difference between native buffalo grass and invasive quack grass, and ponders the "destructiveness of bustle without thought."
Let the Vernal Equinox Inspire Your Gardening and Writing (originally posted --- March 2011)
How Linda plans for her spring gardening and spring writing projects. Read about harvesting and cooking with buffalo berries.
Includes lists-- and some photos-- of foods grown at Linda's ranch and nearby.
Celebrating Winter Solstice: How Epiphanies Happen-- or Don’t (originally posted --- December 2010)
How, when and where does Linda get her ideas? Includes a poem about cleaning the toilet.
Argiope the Writing Spider (originally posted --- October 2010)
What can a writer learn from a black and yellow garden spider?
Equinox: The Changing of the Seasons (originally posted --- September 2010)
Review spring and summer; plan for fall and winter. Includes Linda's Green Chili con Carne recipe.
Journaling the Fruits of the Season (originally posted --- August, 2010)
Savor the summer and reflect on your life with a journal.
Summer Solstice Recipe: Truth in Writing (originally posted --- June, 2010)
The story of one book club's reaction to Linda's book Going Over East and Linda's "recipe" for Autobiographical Writing.
May Eve and Vinegar: Bringing Order to Your Writing Life (originally posted --- April 30, 2010)
Linda's suggestions for organizing your writing office and files, as well as suggested uses of vinegar and essential oils.
Granola: On Cooking and Writing (originally posted --- March, 2010)
A spring message from Linda with her favorite granola recipe.
The Sacrament of Bread (originally posted --- December, 2009)
A winter message from Linda with a recipe and photo of her hand-kneaded, whole-wheat bread.
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Christmas and Xmas, Solstice and Pagans
A Message from Linda for the Winter Solstice --- December 21, 2014
A chill in the air. Early dark. Christmas carols on the radio. Voices screaming at us to buy BUY BUY!
That's how we know it's time for the annual battle cry: "They’re taking Christ out of Christmas!"
War cries may be appropriate since some past cultures believed the Winter Solstice was a war between dark and light.
That annual battle, according to traditions handed down orally even before written records, ended with the birth of the sun-child from a virgin mother.
Does that sound familiar?
Christ only became part of this humanity's winter celebrations about A.D. 273, when Christians in Rome began celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25, because the date was already a Roman holiday, Saturnalia. On that day, said the Romans, the sun god was born of a virgin.
Part of being a writer is curiosity, so I've done considerable research into the origins of the Protestant beliefs in which I was reared. I emerged with considerable respect for the canny intelligence of those early Christian leaders. Religious authorities disagree wildly about precisely when and where certain symbols and rituals first appeared, but there is no doubt that Christianity borrowed freely from earlier beliefs.
Before written records, long before passports, bards of many nations traveled widely, composing poems and songs that incorporated news, legends and anecdotes from their wanderings. Arriving at isolated farmsteads or castles, they traded their talents for lodging and sustenance, repeating the most memorable stories over and over until they became part of our history.
I deplore the commercialization of this time of year, but the sales pitches remind me that those who made the virgin birth of a god the centerpiece of a new religion were smart salesmen. (And yes, they were all men, determined to wipe out the older religious centered around gods and goddesses.) They built on established beliefs to encourage people to adopt their radical new view of the world. To make their message important and memorable, they chose symbols that had already been in circulation for years, perhaps centuries, to add power to their beliefs.
Surely this adds to the power of the Christian story; the idea of a god born of a virgin mother is so inspiring it has been part of our heritage for more generations than we can count. The lessons we derive from the whole exciting story of Christmas are abundant, stirring us and moving us toward worship and gratitude-- and even more important if they are older than I was taught.
In fact, solstice-related events are becoming more common among Christian churches, says the Rev. Barbara Lund, director of the Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality in St. Paul, MN, which is holding its solstice celebration on Thursday December 18. (Jeff Strickler wrote in the December 15th Minneapolis Star-Tribune about solstice celebrations in that area.)
"People who are faith-based," says Lund, "are finding a connection to a larger sense of earth-based spirituality." Jaime Meyer, who leads solstice celebrations in Minneapolis, says, "Recent surveys have shown that the largest denomination in this country is made of people described as spiritual but not religious. They want a spiritual and sacred event." Rev. Ron Moor, whose Spirit United Church in southeast Minneapolis is holding its annual winter solstice celebration Saturday says, "We have a wonderful Christmas Eve service, and we have a wonderful winter solstice service. We celebrate the son-- s-o-n -- and the sun-- s-u-n." The service centers on drumming by the audience as a dance troupe performs in a candlelit circle. "We want to honor ancient tradition," says Lund.
Jaime Meyer's service, he says, includes "mysterious music that Lutherans are not allowed to learn," but he laughs to show that's a joke. Churches aren't the only places marking the occasion. The American Swedish Institute hosts a winter solstice celebration on Sunday, as does the Center for Performing Arts in south Minneapolis. First Universalist Church will hold its 34th such service on Friday; Pamela Vincent, the church's service coordinator says, "We get 300 to 400 people," at the joyous celebration. During the first half of the celebration, the lights grow progressively dimmer, while in the second half the lights gain intensity. The middle of the service is 12 minutes of darkness and silence.
"I've heard people weep," says Vincent. "In our society, just being quiet for 12 minutes is a radical act." Meyer, who has a seminary degree, explains that his focus is "less on the astronomical solstice and more on the solstice of the heart . . . the yearning in each of us to be renewed and reborn. . . . Our culture is hungry for a new beautiful, meaningful expression of our relationship with the unseen," he adds.
Many symbols and rituals that are part of modern Christmas also come to us from long ago. The practice of abbreviating "Christmas" as "Xmas" is easy to trace. "X" stands for the Greek letter Chi, the first letter of the Greek word for Christ. Some say early Christians thought it disrespectful to write the name of Christ, so the abbreviation was considered more piously correct than saying "Christ."
Some traditions originated even longer ago. Our Christmas evergreen tree was regarded as a symbol of the essence of life as well as a phallic symbol by our Norse ancestors. On evergreen trees around their homes, the Norse hung apples, nuts and other foods, as well as ornaments symbolizing the sun and stars. Prehistoric Germanic tribes "wassailed," going from home to home bearing gifts, and were welcomed inside to feast and drink to everyone's health. They also gave gifts of food and clothing to the poor. During the Roman Saturnalia, tree boughs and fruits were exchanged to symbolize a hope for good harvests.
The oldest reference I've found to fruitcake dates to Roman times, when the recipe included pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and raisins mixed into a mash containing barley. During the Middle Ages, honey, spices and preserved fruits became part of the recipe, and crusaders and hunters carried similar cakes to sustain themselves on long marches. When the British began importing dried fruits from the Mediterranean in the 1400s, they adopted fruitcake as well.
Wreaths, circlets made of various plant materials, symbolized honor and moral virtue to the Etruscans and Romans. Building on these beliefs, Christians adopted wreaths to decorate the funerals of important people, especially saints and martyrs, because the circle symbolizes everlasting life.
Druids began our tradition of hanging mistletoe in the house to bring good luck as well as to ward off evil spirits, fire and lightning. To the Norse, mistletoe symbolized love and friendship; sprigs hung at one winter solstice often remained in the house until replaced the next winter solstice. So-- even leaving the Christmas decorations up all year is not a new idea!
And those stockings hung by the chimney with care? In pagan times, Scandinavian children left their shoes by the hearth, filled with carrots or straw for the god Odin's horse Sleipnir; if the horse ate the food, Odin left small gifts and tasty treats in the shoes.
Santa Claus is a folk figure with astonishingly varied multicultural roots; apparently a number of cultures needed a kindly god-figure, perhaps to offset some of the angrier deities. Claus embodies characteristics from Saturn, the Roman agricultural god; Cronos, the Greek god; the Holly King, Celtic god of the dying year; Father Ice, a Russian winter god; Thor, the Norse sky god; Odin, the Teutonic All-Father who rides the sky on an eight-legged horse; Frey, the Norse fertility god, and the Tomte, a Norse land spirit who gave gifts to children. Supposedly, the name came from the Dutch pronunciation, "Sinterklaas," of Saint Nicholas.
Church authorities also adopted the attributes of various pagan goddesses, combining them into the Christian Mary. Crosses, incense, bells: all were part of pagan rituals before they became associated with Christianity.
In fact, most of the customs, lore, symbols and rituals associated with what we call "Christmas" can be traced back to the winter solstice celebrations of ancient cultures we call "pagan." In Latin, where the word originated, "pagan" means "country-dweller," with the implication that these folks lived too far from town to go to church. Modern usage has twisted this original meaning to suggest non-Christian or even anti-Christian beliefs.
Many cultures, both ancient and modern, arrived at a similar idea: that from the dark womb of the night, the light is born. At the heart of all these celebrations was the idea of lovingly gathering family and friends together to hold the dark cold of winter at bay with feasting before winter’s famine. Understanding that life was precarious and precious, they brought tribe and family together as a whole before winter made everyone focus on their own needs. In fact, the word 'holy' may have been derived from the Old English halig, which means 'wholeness', or the Old High German hulis, meaning 'holly', considered a sacred plant to our pagan ancestors.
Researching the history of our beliefs, I discovered that the word “yule” is derived from the Norse “Jul,” meaning “wheel.” I've always liked the Norse idea that the sun is a great wheel of fire that rolls away from earth in the winter, then wheels back in spring, a progression easy to visualize as the sun rolls along my eastern horizon, rising farther south each day. To lure the sun to return, the Norse built big bonfires outside and burned great logs-- Yule logs-- on the hearth. Neolithic monuments such as Stonehenge in England were associated with various yearly rituals, including the winter solstice.
Since my ancestry is apparently Celtic and northern European, I've concentrated on searching for the origins of customs among those traditions. But what of the rest of the world? Again, research indicates that many people celebrate the same ideas at nearly the same time, with many similar elements.
Archaeological evidence that Native Americans celebrated the winter solstice has been found at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site near Collinsville, IL, and at the Great Serpent Mound in rural Peebles, OH. Various mound structures in other parts of the country are believed to have been associated with similar rituals conducted by various tribes. Stone medicine wheels in Wyoming and other rock structures in the West have also been linked to solstice rites.
Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, is celebrated at the start of winter in India, Nepal, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname and Fiji.
Jews commemorate Channukka, the Festival of Lights, beginning on the 25th day of Kislev; this year the holiday falls on December 17. The eight-day fete acclaims the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration and of spirituality over materiality
Eid al-Adha, or “Festival of God,” is the Muslim feast commemorating Ibrahim's willingness to obey God by sacrificing his son, Ishmael, the ancestor of all Arabs. Beginning on the 10th day of the 12th month of the Islamic calendar, revels begin after the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
Kwanzaa means “first fruits,” and marks the African-American gala beginning December 26 and ending January 1. Homes are decorated with vegetables and fruits recalling the holiday’s basis in an ancient African harvest festival, and candles are lit.
All through this season, people everywhere will pause to celebrate the solstice, and to search for light in the darkness. They will invite friends and relatives to feast, celebrating together their common ideals. They will live with joy and express gratitude for all the good things in their lives.
How does the worldwide acknowledgement of this winter solstice season connect with your writing?
I believe writers must keep searching, working to learn the rest of the story. As a writer, I often hunt for the origin of the words I’m using, even if their meaning will not appear in the finished poem or essay. Writers of family history keep investigating old records, knowing that they may uncover something that doesn't fit the family legends. To tell and understand the whole story, you must take the risk of learning more than you want to, of uncovering information that doesn't fit your preconceived ideas.
So if I stand in a Christian church adorned with a decorated evergreen tree at this season, I'm glad to know something of the origins of that tree's symbolism. Does that knowledge add to, or detract from, my appreciation? Each of us might respond differently.
No story belongs only to one writer, or one tradition, or one culture. To focus only on one person's ideas or on the culture into which we were born, is to narrow our attention. If a writer's work is too narrow, its importance diminishes. Introspection is not enough. We need to probe more deeply to discover how our individual stories are linked to those of our neighbors, our friends, and even our enemies.
I can picture Christ, Buddha, Muhammed and Confucius sitting down with female religious figures such as Mother Teresa, Sr. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Julian of Norwich and Ruth to share a dark fruit cake as they discuss how their beliefs have been warped by their followers. Celebrate in whatever way you choose!
When I choose how to celebrate or write about each winter solstice, I wear like a warm cloak the knowledge of hundreds of years of people like me being joyful. As long as humans have walked the earth, we have looked into the darkness of winter nights and prayed for the return of warmth, of green grass, of soft spring air. Some of the voices rising in prayer or song in the cold darkness sing a language I cannot understand and follow unknown traditions. I find this knowledge comforting, not alarming.
We all live in a world of rapidly expanding knowledge and methods of connecting. Via the internet, and television, and dozens of communications devices, we can see how other people view the notions that we have accepted as unchangeable. We have an opportunity to adopt ideas because they fit the way our minds work, not simply because our fathers or their priests chose a particular way to think.
We don’t need to write for a unique and small circle of the like-minded, or for people who look like us; we might exchange ideas with people everywhere on this planet. We might learn from viewpoints different than ours.
When I look up at the dark sky, I feel ancestors standing beside me, and see our forerunners smiling down from the churning darkness behind the Milky Way.
Likewise, I feel as if I am holding the warm hands of every other human on earth, acknowledging the fact that we are more alike than different. In acknowledging our resemblance, we will find hope for the survival of the species-- and writers are an important part of that work, as are artists and thinkers of all kinds.
Here’s my “Hymn for the Winter Solstice”
in our throats.
Blood is water.
Drink to your life.
Power is black earth
under our fingernails,
grit between our teeth.
Plant your seeds.
of the south wind
streams into our lungs.
a single spark.
Light your oven.
spills into rain.
Laugh at lightning.
in the coyote’s yelp
the wolf wrawl,
the badger’s whistle.
Howl at the night.
The hymns are in our blood.
Our sinews sing the rites.
in our fingertips.
under our bootsoles.
The harvest of greed
is always ash,
the harvest of hate
is ever blood and shattered bone.
Darkness always dies, always
surges toward the light.
When you hear the thrumming,
inhale the honest wind
that lifts your wings;
feel your blood boil.
Put your faith in bedrock.
Trust treetops shaped by true blue air.
Believe in unconditional fire.
Remember water cannot lie.
Swear by your sweat,
Swear by your blood,
Swear by the power of the grass:
we won’t forget.
Celebrate in December in whatever way you choose-- and allow others to do the same. Let us gather around the fire of love and hope for a better world which unites us all. No one's choice of observance can diminish my appreciation of the many meanings this season carries to us from out of time we can only imagine.
May Winter be kind to you, and may you appreciate its richness.
May Spring be always in your heart.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
For the Winter Solstice, December 21, 2014
Hermosa, South Dakota
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The Samhain Trumpet: The Great Horned Owl Announces Summer’s End
A Message from Linda for Samhain --- October 31, 2014
Autumn flirts with winter for weeks this year, peeking over her shoulder, flipping her green and gold skirts of cottonwood leaves, and tossing tall grass on the shoulders of her hillsides.
On September 11, we got an inch of snow, the earliest since 1888. The downy green brome grass began to glitter with red and yellow stripes. Lilac leaves rustle, maroon and brown on top, yellow underneath. The oak tree glowed rust for one day and lost its leaves in a night wind. At dawn the pond feels empty without the great blue heron but the ducks still sail in the sunlight. We look up into the tops of cottonwoods to see the golden waterfall of leaves. Birds settle onto the very tips of bare branches, the sun striking through their flared wings.
Meadowlarks flock, fly, and flute.
At night, showered in moonlight, we stand on the deck listening to the great horned owls in the cedar trees at Homestead House.
The owls’ hunting calls are nature’s trumpet signaling Samhain, meaning “summer’s end.”
The great horned owl is one of America’s most familiar birds, the one most people picture as “owl,” because it lives nearly everywhere-- from east to west coast, and from just south of the tundra in Alaska to the grasslands of South America. These owls inhabit deciduous and coniferous forests up to nearly 11,000 feet, as well as swamps, deserts and river valleys. Wherever grassland meets forest-- in eastern Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas and southern Saskatchewan-- they thrive.
Ferocious hunters, the owls can weigh two to five pounds, stand almost two feet tall and spread their wings nearly five feet. Silently they float, then drop into the killing strike. Clenching their sharp talons in the neck of their prey, they may sever its spine. Researchers have been required to use a force equivalent to 28 pounds to open a great horned owl’s closed talons.
A great horned owl is Death dropped from darkness, Winter on the wing.
Owls may eat scorpions and frogs, but mostly dine on mammals including rabbits, mice, rats, squirrels, opossums, woodchucks, bats, weasels, skunks and occasionally a domestic cat. They don’t hesitate to eat birds, including grouse, herons, ducks, Canada Geese, and even hawks and other owls.
A guest at my retreat house once spotted a wounded screech owl in a tree near the cedar where the great horned owls habitually roost. The next morning the screech owl was gone. She told herself it had flown away. Unlikely. Most other raptors, including red-tailed hawks, leave the neighborhood when these owls arrive. Not long ago, we saw a great horned owl chasing a screaming red-tailed hawk away from the cottonwoods east of the retreat house.
The owls gulp their food whole or in chunks, and later regurgitate indigestible bones, feathers, and fur, leaving smooth oval pellets beneath roosting trees. Schools buy sterilized pellets for students to dissect to learn about owl diets.
Feathers contribute greatly to the owls’ hunting ability: so thick and soft they make flight utterly silent while insulating against cold. Their wide wings enable them to maneuver in close quarters, as among trees. The tufts of feathers that stick upright on their heads look like horns, hence the name, but they are neither ears nor horns, and lie flat when the bird flies.
My first memorable encounter with a great horned owl occurred when I was eleven years old. I was gathering cattle and had ridden under one of only seven cottonwoods in a prairie pasture.
An owl dropped straight out of sunlight and shadow into open air, great wings snapping open a few inches above my face, wing span greater than my outflung arms could reach. The owl glided down the draw and floated into the next cottonwood. . . . By nearly flying down my throat, the great horned owl became one of the first wild creatures I learned to identify.
--- “The Owl on the Fence” from the book Between Grass and Sky
Her flight was so silent that if I hadn't looked up, and the horse hadn't shied at her shadow, I might never have known she’d flown a foot over my head. Naturally, since I was already a writer, I looked for more information.
“I felt I had discovered a secret, as if I’d learned the Lone Ranger was my big brother, and I wanted to share my excitement.”
Once I had connected with that owl, I realized that a pair of them lived in the cottonwoods beside my parents’ house every fall, perching in the trees above the ranch yard, which became their pantry. All winter they devoured rabbits, skunks, mice and cats. They’d arrive just in time to make spooky noises for Halloween, as we call Samhain in modern times.
(While drifting through the Internet ether recently, I found a site that advertises “Download owl sounds right in time for Halloween.”)
Because the owls are nocturnal, even people who live and work on the prairie may not see them often. Listening carefully, even in the city, you may hear them; they’ve learned that cities can provide reliable provender. In their duets, you may be able to distinguish male from female. A male’s call is a repeated pattern of four to five hoots: whoo, whoo-hoo, whooo, whooo. Because his voice box is bigger, his calls are deeper. A female’s call is lower-pitched, and consists of six to eight hoots: whoo, whoo-hoo, whoo-oo, whoo-oo.
(The website AllAboutBirds.org, maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, has wonderful recordings. When I played them, my Westies-- small mammals who could easily become owl prey-- leaped up, seriously alarmed.)
If you can spot the calling owl, you can identify the male: he holds his body nearly horizontally, drooping his wings and inflating his white throat patch. The female is larger. Great horned owls vary in color, depending on their region and habitat. Generally they are dark brown on the upper parts, with mottled stripes in black and white. Underneath, they are brown to buff-colored, with thick feathers on legs and feet.
Hunting for prey, the owls perch near dusk on fence posts or tree limbs. They have great hearing, aided by facial disc feathers that direct sound waves to their asymmetrical ears, hidden under the dark edges of the facial disk, split by the beak and forehead. Owls can hear noises ten times fainter than human hearing permits; so, for example, they can hear a mouse scurrying through a snow tunnel or scuffling leaves under a bush.
Their large eyes feature pupils that open wide for excellent night vision; if our eyes were in proportion to theirs, they’d be the size of grapefruit. But their eyes don’t move in their sockets. The owl must turn its head to look around. And here’s another reason they are used as scary symbols of Halloween: they can swivel their heads three-quarters of a complete turn, about 270 degrees, to look over their own backs. The superstitious of earlier ages believed the owls could spin their heads completely around, and thus identified them with demons and other symbols of devilish doings.
Our ancestors lived in settlements lit by candle and lantern light. Picture a tired worker heading home through the forest, carrying his flickering lantern, shielding it from the wind. The trees creak overhead; leaves rustle. Suddenly something cries eerily and he glances up to see a pair of yellow eyes, unblinking as they swivel to watch him. No wonder owls became symbols to fear. Perhaps such ancestral memories are why modern humans seem compelled to surround their houses with glaring porch and street lights!
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, citizens began to fear their ancestors’ pagan practices, and revise the celebrations to fit new ideas. Samhain (pronounced Sow-when) became All Saints’ Day, commemorating the souls of those who had died during the year. The night before became known as Halloween, or All Hallows Eve. November 2 was christened All Souls day, when prayers are offered for those waiting in Purgatory until they could be prayed into heaven. For centuries, pagan and Christian beliefs existed together, intertwining in a grand tapestry of revels from October 31 through November 5. Gradually, governance by pagan matriarchy became governance by Christian patriarchy. Today, some say, the wheel is turning back.
Those pagan ancestral feasts were solidly based on the connection of each people to their own particular land and seasons. Samhain became important in the Celtic year, celebrated with thanksgiving for the harvest before the cold closed roads, drove people into their homes, and enforced solitude in darkness and often hunger.
All during autumn, the people collected hay to feed their beasts throughout the winter. They selected those animals to be slaughtered for winter sustenance. Everyone pitched in to gather the harvest-- barley, oats, wheat, turnips, apples and other crops. Peat and wood for winter fires were stacked by the hearth and under shelter outside. Families, households and settlements united to bake, salt meat, and make preserves for winter.
At Samhain, the people celebrated as they said goodbye to the open skies of summer, knowing they would spend much of the winter in dim and smoky homes. As at all the turning points of the Celtic year, the gods were believed to draw near the earth at Samhain, so the people made sacrifices of their precious harvest. These gifts, along with prayers and faith, they believed, would convince the gods to help them to survive the winter, to live until spring brought new life to the earth.
So each autumn as they have for many owl generations, a pair of great horned owls settles in the cottonwoods on the north side of Homestead House. They honor Samhain with their courting duets, fearless in the face of the coming winter as they create their future.
In January or February, the female will lay two eggs, or more when food is abundant, in an old hawk nest in the trees along a watercourse east of the house. Nest furnishings are only a few of those soft feathers; the owls themselves are well insulated. Sometimes snow covers the nest and the incubating owl, or the eggs freeze and a new clutch must be laid. After a month, the chicks hatch. At about six weeks, they may toddle out on a nearby branch, but they can’t fly for six more weeks, and remain dependent on their parents for food until fall. Their harsh cries of hunger can be heard from the vicinity of the nest throughout the summer. This is why I know “our” owls move away from the buildings to nest: we've never heard those fledglings cry. Under the courting tree we find pellets-- regurgitated bundles of bones, feathers and fur-- but we have never heard or seen owlets.
In the silence of night, a silence so profound it seems to echo, the owl’s hunting cry signals the end of life and its new beginning.
Just so, Samhain signals the last warm wisps of autumn as we head into winter. Rather than lamenting the loss of warmth, we need to recall the heat we have already enjoyed as we look ahead. The coming of darkness need not be a depressing time of cold and waiting. Turn on the bright lights in your writing space and be grateful you don’t have to work by candlelight. Collect the harvest of work you finished this summer; savor it. Congratulate yourself. Relax from summer’s busyness.
Then gather the notes you scribbled in odd moments during the season past. Perch like an owl above your pantry of writing possibilities. Widen your eyes to catch the faint light of a hidden concept. Listen in the night for the voices: of owls and of stories. Hear the skritch of the tiny feet of a new story as it hides beneath the leaves: then pounce and feed your writing self.
Blessed be, this Samhain and throughout the winter.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
For Samhain, October 31, 2014
Hermosa, South Dakota
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For more information:
To learn more about Icarus, the owl pictured above, see the Black Hills Raptor Center website at www.blackhillsraptorcenter.org
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Old Business, New Business, Harvest Business
For the Autumnal Equinox, September 22, 2014
Signs of Autumn begin to accumulate in late August and early September. By its colors-- red, orange, russet, maroon, gold-- we would know the Autumn Equinox approaches even without a calendar.
The three leaves of poison ivy glow red against the dark earth. At the tops of cottonwoods, leaves gleam like candles. Tomatoes turn from orange to red and marigolds and gaillardia echo the colors.
Nature tells us in dozens of ways the summer is ending: black and white dragonflies arrive to eat the mosquitoes; pollen turns the air yellow and makes the breeze an enemy.
Our senses warn us about the end of the hot season; we hear wasps zig, zag and zizzz around the screen door and they occasionally slip inside to bump against the ceiling. Ignore them and they will surely land on your shirt collar. Coyote pups try out their reedy voices in chorus just before dawn. Birds lift in dark flocks from one field to alight in another, gobbling seeds. At a nearby garden center, we smell roasting Hatch hot green chilies, and buy a bushel to peel and freeze.
Meadowlarks stomp through the drying grass, tilting their heads as they peck here and there. Two red-tailed hawks glide over the pond as the ducks tip their tail feathers in the air, gleaning something edible in the muck.
As a canny gardener, I nip the new shoots and blossoms that don’t have time to become tomatoes, encouraging the plants to put their energy into ripening larger tomatoes. Time “to pluck up that which is planted,” says Ecclesiastes.
The Autumn Equinox, arriving late on the evening of September 22 this year (9:29 p.m. CDT), has also been called Harvest Home, the Second Harvest Festival and Wine Harvest: all titles that indicate the importance of the date as the second of three great festivals as summer slides down into winter. Like the ancients, our thoughts turn in autumn to our stomachs.
Finishing the old business of summer is an essential part of preparing for winter, when we will hunker down into rest and relaxation from the hot season’s demands.
In the garden, Jerry helps me pull the markers and water pipes from the rows where we grew radishes, turnips and squash; we’ll store them in the shed for next summer. In my garden journal, I make notes about what went well and not so well during the past months. As a child, I was taught to grow everything we possibly could in the garden; this year I’m trying to wean myself away from that idea. To be honest, I have to admit that I've been growing more tomatoes than we need, so I’ll reduce the number of plants. Turnips: we don’t especially like the type that grows best in the garden; we’ll buy what we need. I’ll plant zucchini, so we can make calabacitas con queso, and because it’s easy to give the excess to friends. Pumpkins: no. Jerry’s diet rules out pie and even the pumpkin bread I love to make. I’ll definitely grow as many as possible of the herbs we use a lot: basil, oregano, parsley. And I may experiment with more herbs since, with fewer tomato plants, I’ll have more room in my raised beds.
As we close down the garden, we also stock up, harvesting its produce. In fact, this contradiction seems an essential part of Autumn: pare down, stock up. Hot days, cool nights; bask, shiver. I enjoy the feel of the sun on my back for the first time since spring, but relax in a cool breeze on the deck now that the mosquitoes have vanished.
Harvest Home: time to reduce, but also to accumulate. “A time to keep, and a time to cast away.”
I've read that older cultures celebrated the season by offering the gods cider, wine, herbs and-- fertilizer. The last gift seems particularly symbolic, since it combined practicality with religious observance. Scoop the fertilizer out of the corrals and barns to make them ready for the accumulation of winter. Spread it over the fields where it will work its way down into the earth to be ready for spring planting.
We are nervous as we pitch hay off the potatoes; two years ago, we harvested enough to feed us until May. But two months of cold, wet spring weather after we tucked them under hay mulch gave them a slow start this year. Soon, golden globes of various sizes are THUNKing into the bucket. Then we discover that we've provided a Harvest Home for a pudgy and active group of prairie voles. Mouse-sized or larger, they wear thick silver fur and a flick short, thick tails. My favorite reference (The National Audubon Society Nature Guide Grasslands by Lauren Brown) says they like “green shoots and tubers.”
Tubers. Like potatoes. They've gnawed gouges into much of our harvest and reduced others to mush. We discard the worst ones in the garden or compost, and collect the rest in baskets in the retreat house basement. Already spread in open-weave trays are enough of the red, yellow, and white onions we grew to last us through the winter.
Paring down. We unhook the hoses from the hydrants, drain them and lay them out straight to dry. I begin pulling tomato cages from the tomatoes that have finished production, piling the thick stems around my young bushes to catch snow as they slowly return to earth. Some of the tomato cages were bent or broken by huge tomato plants this year, so they will go to the metal recycle pile.
Following ancient tradition when folks celebrated with feasts of nuts, apples, potatoes, carrots and onions, we sample everything we’ve grown.
Accumulate. I begin taking notes on the pantry and freezer. We’ll stock up on flour for winter baking, nuts and dried fruit for granola as well as basic canned goods like beans and the vegetables we don’t grow. Vinegar for cleaning. I’ll make sure we don’t run out of toilet paper in a blizzard! We have a good supply of honey for granola and biscuits, thanks to generous bee-keeping friends. Two weeks ago, our beef for this year, a four-year-old cow, was killed with one clean shot in her home corral and is now hanging to age before she’s cut and packaged. Once the beef is in the freezer, I’ll add more packages of frozen vegetables. In a second freezer are stacked containers of beef and chicken stock for winter soup (made from the leftovers of summer meals), along with butter, vitamins and treats for the dogs, more frozen vegetables and fruits. I like to keep on hand ingredients for a couple of weeks of meals, recalling several times in recent years when we couldn't even get to the highway for days.
My winter planning echoes what my ancestors have done for hundreds of generations, but I am grateful to have such abundance to harvest, instead of being dependent on what I might raise on a few rocky or dry acres. And I am fortunate to have such great storage possibilities: freezers, two sizable sets of pantry shelves, and a food dryer. I wonder how the future, predicted to be dire, will change our harvest habits.
Also, it’s nearly time to take the summer’s collection of books to the secondhand store where I’ll trade them for credit and a new batch of reading material. The thought almost makes me wish to be snuggled into my reading chair with a quilt and hot cocoa, looking at snow piled on the deck. Almost.
The 60-watt bulbs under the homemade dryer glow all night under screens full of herbs. I put two pots of oregano into the unheated greenhouse with the peppers, still turning red. Outside, basil, oregano and parsley will last until the first hard freeze.
An unusually early, but light frost on September 11 brings several inches of snow. I cover the herbs but not the tomatoes. The cool, wet summer has hampered their development anyway, so there are more green and yellow ones than the nearly-ripe orange. We already have several quarts of my rich homemade tomato sauce in the freezer. I've never cared for any of the things people gleefully make with green tomatoes. Several times I have laboriously wrapped green tomatoes in newspaper and put them in the basement to ripen, but the results were unsatisfactory: rotten tomatoes, or pink ones with a flavor just like those insipid cardboard replicas in the grocery store and on restaurant bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches. We've eaten sliced tomatoes and BLTs until our mouths are tender from the acid, so we bid them farewell until next August.
Over several days, I collect tomatoes left on the vine and give them to my neighbor Tamara for her chickens, though I’m careful to drop a few carelessly into the raised beds outside my office window so I can watch the phoebes, sparrows and robins gobble them as they get ready to fly south.
One week, shopping, meetings and errands require us to go to town every day. Another week company arrives, sometimes two batches in a day so we babble as we try to remember what conversations we've already had. I conduct a week-long intensive retreat with two dedicated and prolific writers. Soon we’re tired of talking. When Jerry and I are alone we play Rummykub without our usual threats and counter-threats. Yet we know that, hectic as this time is, we will wish during the coming winter for an excuse to speak to someone else; we’ll go to town, have lunch, and visit friends. Now that we can-- or are required to-- pump our own gas and check ourselves out of the grocery store and library, conversations with real people become increasingly rare. We will find it difficult to get together with friends when the snow is deep, so we keep our social calendar full now.
This autumn, I am working hard to break free of another behavior I learned from my parents: to keep everything because “it might come in handy someday.” For them, it was a legitimate philosophy: they lived through the dire years of the Thirties, recycling before the word was invented. I've spent years discarding, recycling, giving away, and in some instances burning or burying the things they kept that were too small, too worn, too broken, or otherwise impossible to reuse. Yes, some things did “come in handy,” but a huge number of them were just a burden.
Since I didn't have the foresight to produce children on whom to dump piles of possessions, I’m trying to cut down on the quantity before someone else has to do it. Autumn seems a particularly appropriate time for these tasks. As the days grow short, instincts as old as time prompt us to make the cave-- the home-- more comfortable, to prepare it for winter. We center ourselves, preparing to protect ourselves and our loved ones against the elements as the days grow short and the nights grow cold.
So as I put away summer clothes, I discard those that no longer fit and look over my winter clothes. Today I put in the pile for the second hand store four lovely wool jackets that have been too large for me since the day I bought them, so I rarely wore them. I keep my oldest wool jacket, because it actually fits, and will go with some of the clothes I also kept. I add two pairs of shoes and several pairs of pants that were too large since I've been losing weight.
Of course it’s difficult to know what might be useful in the years ahead, but I've been trying to work out a system for making such decisions. First, I consider whether I've worn or used the item lately, or how it might benefit me. If I see little or no benefit to myself, I consider who else my hoarded goods might benefit.
For example, I kept my mother’s wheel chair for several years, telling myself that I, or someone in my family, would need it. The aunt to whom I’d promised it died a couple of years ago. Eventually, I tried sitting down in the wheelchair. Sized for my mother, it was far too small for me.
So I took it to a nursing home in Custer, where the delighted director said she knew just the tiny woman who couldn't afford one. Driving away, I pictured a wrinkled face wreathed in smiles. And I admitted that my altruism wasn't entirely unselfish; if I need one, better ones may be available.
Most important, though, is that we do not let our STUFF become a burden to ourselves. If it weighs on my mind as a RESPONSIBILITY, perhaps I should consider passing it on. “A time to get and a time to lose,” says the Bible.
The Autumn Equinox is my favorite time to be grateful for prosperity and security. I’m grateful to Nature for providing me with an excuse to slow down, to establish harmony and balance in my worlds-- before winter tests us. The Wheel of the Year is turning, rolling snow our way.
Celebrating Autumn, I will congratulate myself on all I have accomplished this summer, rather than considering the things still undone. I will look with anticipation at the book manuscript on the corner of my desk, ready now to revise it.
I will enjoy the last of fall’s heat, knowing the cold comes. I will recall that our ancestors believed that sharing won us the favor of the Goddesses and Gods during the winter to come. Whatever my reasons, I resolve to be glad to share my harvest with friends, with neighbors, and with wildlife-- including voles and birds.
I know many friends will celebrate by taking advantage of hunting seasons, stalking animals to add to their food supplies. This ancient chant is both celebration of the season and prayer for the spirits of those who die to feed us, sending their spirits free to the otherworld as their meat was harvested to see the hunters and their families through winter.
Hoof and horn, hoof and horn:
All who die shall be reborn.
Corn and grain, corn and grain:
All that falls will rise again.
The Wheel turns, bringing Life and death, harvest and rebirth, fall and a rising.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
For the Autumnal Equinox, September 22, 2014
Hermosa, South Dakota
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Celebrate Autumn with Lughnasad
An End-of-Summer Message from Linda --- August 1, 2014
Autumn is a poem about the end of summer. Autumn demands winter as insistently and surely as spring demands summer. Beware, though of making your autumn poem a lament. Instead, celebrate the richness and beauty of the season.
Our wise ancestors symbolized their understanding of this season in many ways. Some called it Lughnasad, the wake of the Sun-King, Lugh, whose light begins to dwindle after the summer solstice. The dying king reminds us of winter, of the end of things, of regret and farewell.
Other pagan festivals celebrated the Goddess in her aspect as the Harvest Mother, fruitful with crops to feed her worshippers, and generous with livestock fattening for winter. These traditions reminded the citizens of harvest and the preservation of abundance for the coming cold.
Modern Americans tend to ignore this holiday, having no particular day of celebration for the end of summer. Instead, we may rush around frantically trying to do all the things we planned to do during summer before sending our children back to school and beginning to wait for next summer’s vacation, thus ending the season in chaos and stress.
Lugnahsad or Lammas, celebrated on August 1, is today the least-known of the four great fire festivals of the Celtic year. I believe pausing to become aware of this day is vital to the way we will approach and survive the winter.
Regret and farewell, harvest and preservation: these are the four key words of Autumn. We must take care not to focus so much on our regrets that we neglect to celebrate our harvest.
Perhaps if we look at our regrets and farewells, we can see a brighter promise in them.
For example, I REGRET that my thumbnails will be black for the next month.
But my thumbnails will look filthy because of my herb HARVEST. I have been pinching single leaves from oregano and basil plants, feeling fall’s sun hot on my back, being careful not to uproot the plants. I clip each leaf free with a thumbnail or fingernail and drop it into the bowl. One leaf at a time, the bowl fills.
The wind blows the mosquitoes past me; soon I will say FAREWELL to them and I won’t be sorry. I inhale the sharp licorice scent of the basil, to PRESERVE it in my memory, as I take time to look closely at the multicolored hollyhock blossoms swaying above me, their colors filed in memory to recall when the snow drifts among their dried stalks.
To PRESERVE my basil and oregano, I’ll gently wash the leaves, then spread them in a single layer on a screen in my homemade dryer and turn on the light bulbs that furnish the heat. (My dryer was built from plans available from www.dryit.com) I’ll check the temperature, keeping it under 100 degrees, for a day or two until the leaves are dried crisp, then pack them in recycled jars. On an icy day in winter I will open the jar. As I scoop a tablespoon of leaves into the palm of my hand and crumble them, I will recall the meditative calm with which I plucked each individual leaf. I will smile as I sprinkle those leaves generously into soups and stews, enjoying my HARVEST.
Hearing a friend talk of her evening of dancing with her husband, I REGRET not dancing more, but I don’t regret my love for a man who doesn’t dance.
Instead, I consider all the things he does do and the joy I HARVEST with him. For example, I will always PRESERVE in my memory that when we are driving somewhere, we often sing together on Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, or Peter, Paul and Mary.
Besides, I have said FAREWELL to embarrassment about dancing alone in my office; whenever I hear Bob Seger or The Boss, I crank up the volume on the radio.
I am beginning to say FAREWELL to the lavender bachelor buttons as I pinch their seed, and to the Maltese Cross as I shake seed into a bag, PRESERVING it to plant for more blooms next summer.
Sitting on the deck in the evening, I look up from my book and watch the jerky flight of the nighthawk; no photo can do justice to the way it mounts the air, lunging higher with each stroke of the slender wings, so I must PRESERVE the memory in my mind.
Jerry is building a new deck, so I PRESERVE the details with my camera. My assistant has HARVESTED the old redwood deck boards to recycle into chicken shelters where her chickens will lay eggs that we will eat, completing a lovely cycle of interdependence.
Each morning, the dickcissel sits in the very top of the cedar tree, calling insistently, “dick, dick, dick, ciss, ciss, ciss.” This is the first year I have seen the little bird here, and because someone has PRESERVED the song in a recording, I will listen to it on bleak days this winter while the bird is vacationing elsewhere.
I've photographed the hollyhocks to PRESERVE their phenomenal growth this year. They have been the most spectacular of my modest flower display, since I usually grow only native perennials. But because our house sits on top of a prairie hill, I planted hollyhocks on all four sides of the house and this year many stand eight feet tall. They began to bloom from the top and slowly the blooms have opened all the way down the sturdy stems, disappearing into the huge green leaves at the base. Under those leaves, in the cool shade, baby rabbits hide until the dogs come out for their noon and evening walks.
The blooms are in an astonishing array of colors, from the palest pink to the deeper hue of strawberry ice cream to carmine and dark crimson and a maroon that is nearly black, with some pale lilac and others deep purple. The yellows are mostly pale as sunshine at noon, shading sometimes into lemon or a rich gold. Ivory and pure white with haloed golden centers stand beside peach blooms that blend into copper, apricot and salmon.
Watering hollyhocks late afternoon, almost 100 degrees, I stand among the stalks tall as I am and let the cold water run from the hose over my arms until the flesh of my hands feels icy, especially compared to the heat on the my back. My memory will PRESERVE that contrast, that heat and cold.
Inside, the smell of HARVEST tickles my nose with scents of drying mint, oregano and basil in the cool basement as the thermometer climbs to 105 degrees outside.
Dressing to go to town, I recall that I have said FAREWELL to ironing several times, and I repeat my resolution. I’m happy to remind myself to give up ironing; some farewells need repetition. If my clothes are a little wrinkled, well, so am I.
I’ll try again this season to say FAREWELL to hurry. Maybe one of these years I’ll succeed; I am doing better.
Because it’s important that REGRET not dominate the season, I look at my own list of Things I Planned To Do This Summer. It’s heartening to check off some items as accomplished: the tomato harvest should be good, barring hail. I do REGRET not finishing the manuscript I call The Grasslands Book, but I have a promise of publication of another book and plans for getting back to the grasslands, so I say FAREWELL to feeling I have failed.
Against those regrets, I balance all the good work I have done for other writers this year; several are publishing books resulting from our work together. My HARVEST: joy and satisfaction at having helped them achieve these goals.
And it’s not yet too late to accomplish some of my summer goals. I REGRET calls I should have made and letters I should have sent, but in several cases I decide it’s not too late. I’ll begin scheduling visits with relatives and friends, and pull out the letters I've meant to answer.
Several years ago, I discovered lammas.org.uk, about Lammas eco-village in Pembrokeshire, Wales. Concerned about the world’s increasing dependence on dwindling supplies of fossil fuels, a number of people created a low-impact, low emissions settlement, the first in Britain to receive planning permission. In 2012, Lammas was already producing three quarters of its inhabitants' food, water and energy needs from its own land. The village is a model for possible future ways of living as energy costs rocket and concerns about climate change grow, and similar villages exist in other parts of Wales and the U.K.; these small countries have been quick to realize the limits of their resources while America is still lolling around in ignorance, ignoring the warning signs and reveling in waste.
Lammas is completely "off grid" with no water, gas or electricity supplied by outside sources. One family created a six-acre place with a house, a big barn, and four land-based businesses; they grow half their own food, do their own water and sewage processing, have no electricity bill and the entire cost was 65,000 English pounds; the pound is worth about $1.70 in U.S. dollars.
The village was about to celebrate its second birthday since winning planning permission when the building inspectors showed up to protest some of the details: grass roofs, outside composting toilets, and ladders instead of staircases. Apparently, those issues were resolved and the community continues to thrive.
This village, it seems to me, symbolizes a larger meaning for us as we celebrate autumn and Lughnasad/Lammas. Creative people have devised wonderful systems for protecting people from their own ignorance as well as from natural and manmade disasters. But in order to prepare for the changes our society will need to make as we run out of the fuels that have sustained our rapid development, we will have to compromise, and to relearn old ways of natural building and to develop new ways of living sustainably.
We may REGRET that we must say FAREWELL to some of the luxuries we have enjoyed, but change might be necessary in order to learn to HARVEST the earth’s resources more wisely in order to PRESERVE our lives.
We might be wise to pay attention to these pioneers of the future, and turn REGRET for our previously wasteful ways into action to change them.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
For Lughnasad/Lammas, August 1, 2014
Hermosa, South Dakota
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Fire and Ice and Prairie Flamingoes
For the Summer Solstice, June 21, 2014
At Summer Solstice the sun is at its zenith, so that more daylight falls upon us than at any other time during the year and life is filled with possibility. This year the solstice falls on June 21 at 6:51 a.m. EDT or 4:51 a.m. in Mountain Time: a moment balanced between summer and winter, between light and heat and cold darkness.
"Mammoth Solar Farm in Mojave Desert Incinerating Thousands of Birds." Los Angeles Times, February 14, 2014.
Two baby killdeer run down the driveway, bouncing on impossibly thin stick legs, learning how to survive just as their parents did in this driveway last year.
The word “solstice” is derived from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still.) Counterpoise. Equilibrium.
"One in Four Americans Unaware that Earth Circles Sun." Associated Press, February 14, 2014.
The Say’s Phoebe feeds two fledglings in her nest under our deck, flying back and forth with insects from an hour before dawn to nearly full dark.
Those who honor the solstice often celebrate with fire, the strongest element on this day because it can cook, burn, consume, shed light or purify; we look to the hot South for inspiration.
"Extreme Cold Caused by 'Excess Heat.'" CBS News, February 14, 2014.
The prairie is vividly green in every direction and the fire danger is low because we have had several inches of rain in June. Grasses I haven’t seen in years arise from dormant seed.
Solstice symbols often include brightly colored flowers and ribbons, oak boughs, and fruit or vegetables, particularly those golden in color to imitate the flames of the south.
"Homeland Security Purchasing 700 Million Rounds of Ammo." CBS News, February 19, 2014.
Scarlet gaura, gaillardia, and scarlet globemallow bloom among the native grasses-- buffalograss, timothy, and western wheatgrass.
In Celtic tradition the Goddess cast her bouquet of summer flowers into a hilltop fire to add her power to the sun.
"Why Longer Winters May be on the Way." WTOP-FM (Washington), February 18, 2014.
The cattle that survived the October 2013 blizzard are getting fat and raising calves to repopulate the decimated ranches. "The cost of doing business," say many ranchers who would accept no government payments.
Stonehenge is oriented to mark the sunrise and moonrise at the Summer and Winter solstices, so the heelstone marks the midsummer sunrise as seen from the center of the stone circle.
"Kanye West and Kim Kardashian spent their honeymoon Photoshopping wedding pic." Wonderwall.MSN.com, June 17, 2014.
With abundant feed, the antelope, deer, meadowlark and other wildlife populations are recovering after devastating deaths in the October blizzard as well.
Most cultures mark this Midsummer with some kind of ritual dedicated to the sun and to fertility; crops are at full growth, reaching their maturity and coming closer to harvest. Most wild herbs are fully mature so Midsummer is referred to in some cultures as Gathering Day, because herbs used for magical purposes are collected at this time.
"Nebraska May Sue Colorado for Heavy Additional Drug Enforcement Costs." Omaha World-Herald, April 20, 2014.
I've harvested the first batch of French breakfast radishes, the first garden produce of the summer, sharp and vivid on my tongue.
Summer Solstice: celebrate by enjoying every sunlit moment of this day. Resolve to take time every day left in the summer to appreciate the warmth and fertility of the land.
"Cops: Bus driver lied about Bible stopping bullets." USA Today, June 19, 2014.
The male red-winged blackbirds defend their territories from other blackbirds and even hawks; if you see a hawk flying erratically with small birds darting at its back-- avoiding the deadly talons-- the attackers are likely red-winged blackbirds. They pause to sing crescendos into the steamy air from every fence post and chimney top. If you chirp back at their staccato call, they’ll answer. See closeups of the bird and hear the vibrant song by searching on Youtube.com. Then go outside the city and hear real ones-- they are found nearly everywhere in the U.S.!
Because he was alleged to have been born on June 24, the Christian Church has designated June 24, the nearest Christian holiday to Solstice, as the feast day of the martyr St. John the Baptist, another instance when a pagan festival has been adopted by Christians.
"1st US executions since botched lethal injection." Associated Press, June 17, 2014.
On hillsides along the highways, the grass looks golden because sweet clover is blooming everywhere. The Wild Prairie Flamingoes have been grazing near the greenhouse lately and we hope they will be raising some chicks to bring a little unusual color to the surrounding pastures.
In ancient times, the Summer solstice festival was marked by fires of every description in the belief that all flame strengthened the sun, drove out evil, and brought fertility to the land. Citizens lit balefires (bonfires) on the heights, rolled flaming barrels of fire or set light to wagon wheels bound with straw and rolled them down steep hillsides. It was said that because the Sun God and Goddess wanted the day to last forever, rolling the flaming wheels prolonged the light for their benefit.
"14 dead in bombing of World Cup view site in Nigeria." Associated Press, June 17, 2014.
"Drought impacted families get help with rent." KERO-TV 23, Bakersfield, CA, June 19, 2014.
The Norse, especially, loved to gather family, friends and even farm animals into torchlight processions from their homes to the festival site.
"Border out of control: national security runs roughshod over the Arizona Wild." High Country News, June 9, 2014.
Mullein leaves are spreading wide against the ground to catch the light. Soon the central candle will begin to reach for the sky. Though the plant was introduced to the prairies, it has adapted well. Indians lined moccasins with the leaves to keep out the cold and made herbal remedies of its leaves and flowers, taking advantage of its anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antifungal, antibacterial, expectorant and analgesic properties. Roman soldiers are said to have dipped the stalks in grease for torches, a use that could be adapted for solstice celebrations.
Blazing gorse or heather was carried around cattle and fields to prevent disease and misfortune while people danced around fires or leapt through the flames in a purifying rite. The Celts lit fires at sunset on Midsummer Eve and kept them blazing until the next day, inviting everyone to a feast.
"Winter storm warning for Montana, one to two feet of snow predicted." Weather Underground, June 17, 2014.
"Insurers take up fight against rising chemotherapy costs." PBS NewsHour, June 17, 2014.
Astronomically, the solstice represents the God at full power, at the time of summer's full growth. Even though the hottest days of summer still lie ahead, from this point onward the year wanes and the sun sets a little earlier every night.
"Tornadoes Touch Down in Midwest Again; South Dakota Town Mauled." ABC News, June 19, 2014.
As I drive through the pasture, two-month-old calves look at the car, eyes, wide, then bounce and kick and run, hair shiny with good health from good grazing.
If the day is cloudy or rainy, light a candle for the entire day to encourage and strengthen the sun and as a reminder of its importance. On a dark Solstice some light a white candle in front of a mirror, or surround the candle with gold jewelry or golden flowers to magnify the power.
"Texas officials announce border security surge to stem immigrant tide." Los Angeles Times, June 19, 2014.
"Hero Ex-Con Saves Baby From Crawling Onto Georgia Highway." Opinion -- Huffington Post, June 17, 2014.
Many celebrants formalize or renew their wedding vows at this time, when the power of the sun is strongest. Couples who have been together since Beltane may solemnize their relationships on this date.
"For young women, depression tied to risk of heart problems." Reuters, June 19, 2014.
On the small piece of prairie around my house, I walk among several members of the vetch family, blooming in lavender hues, with deep purple alfalfa standing taller. Bees buzz everywhere.
The focus of Midsummer magic is often on courage, fertility of all kinds, self-confidence, and career. Celebrants speak of harnessing the power to tackle seemingly insoluble problems, or bringing light into a difficult situation.
"Dad charged with murder after son dies in hot car." USA Today, June 19, 2014.
"14-year-old saves elderly man, dog from Fairfield fire." KCRA Sacramento, June 16, 2014.
Married women who wanted to get pregnant, especially if they were older than usual, would walk naked in the garden at midnight and pick the herb St. John’s Wort. Young girls who wanted to dream of their true love would fast during the day and put the herb under their pillow at night.
"Man Shoots Son 4 Times, Flees on Father’s Day." Orlando Sentinel, June 16, 2014.
"Dramatic Southwest Minnesota flood rescue saves mother stranded in car." Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 18, 2014.
Celebrants of the Summer Solstice often vow not to let the light and joy of the longest day fade from their lives as the days draw in and cold darkness moves closer. Whether you are a writer or not, consider how you can counteract the negative, accentuate the positive, and get the most from this magnificent summer.
Happy Solstice and may you be blessed by this summer.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
For the Summer Solstice, June 21, 2014
Hermosa, South Dakota
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On May Eve, Practice Safe S-S-Scrivening!
For Beltane, April 30, 2014
Spring praises fertility, filling all of our senses with rich celebration.
Our ancestors often reveled in the joy of the warm temperatures by leaping over the Beltane fire, and using its flames to rekindle the fire on all the hearths in the village. Celtic tradition celebrated the union between the Great Mother and her young horned God lover with dancing and love-making. Their coupling brought rebirth, fresh new life to earth.
Some modern pagan circles enact this rite symbolically, placing a knife (a phallic symbol) in a chalice (the female or yonic symbol). Another symbolic adaptation of this rite was, naturally, the May pole and May basket. The ancients lived their symbolism, often seizing the chance to make love in the woods with someone who was not their spouse. Any children conceived as a result of these indiscriminate dallyings were welcomed as children of the gods, since the Beltane sexual union was considered sympathetic magic dedicated to enhancing the fertility of the land.
While fire-jumping has not gotten any more hazardous than it ever was, making love in the woods has gotten so chancy that one internet site detailing modern Beltane rituals reminds us that in this age of AIDS we should practice “safe sex, monogamy, or even abstinence.”
What ritual might be the writing equivalent ritual to rejoicing in and encouraging fertility?
You might jump the creative fire and relight the flames of your own writing hearth by trying something new. If you’re a prose writer, try writing a poem. If you’re a poet, try a new form; try rhyme. If you write only in your journal, write a particularly rich letter to someone you know. Find an Internet writing site and post a paragraph. Research the life of a historical figure in your community.
And in the spirit of spring, get outside and make symbolic love to spring. Exercise your five senses, indulging in new sensory adventures. Write down the results and then try to make something-- a poem or essay or letter-- from the collection of material you have observed and sensed.
When I write, I usually begin with an idea, notes taken in my journal on a particular topic. I’ve never set out to find “something to write about,” so I decided to try that. I challenged myself to collect the impressions of my five senses in honor of Beltane, and then see what I could make of them.
First, as we walked the dogs, I used my sense of sight, since it’s the easiest.
Dusty green glows on the far hills, as green grass comes up through older grass; fluorescent green vibrates in honeysuckle leaves; brownish-green lies along the juniper branches. The first blossoms I’ve seen this year are the five-lobed flowers of Hood phlox, faintly pink against the bristly gray-tinged leaves and standing only a half-inch above the ground. Silverweed (Potentilla) catches my eye next with its serrated silvery leaves like a cushion for the tiny yellow blossoms. And then a dandelion, hugging the ground, an invader species that has adapted so well to the grasslands.
Then Jerry came roaring up the hill on my four-wheeler, having decided spring has sprung far enough to get it running in preparation for my many trips to the garden and retreat house. Since it started hard, I had to drive it around for a while to charge the battery. I rumbled down the driveway and along the fences, pulling out the crumpled plastic bags that had caught on barbs and been shredding against the wind all winter.
“Taste,” I thought. “I need to stop and taste something.” Then I realized my tongue was being flooded with the tang of gasoline from the exhaust I was putting into the air. If I were being consciously poetic, I wouldn’t have chosen this taste, but to discard it would be cheating; it’s part of my spring awakening.
Later, as we walk the hillside with the dogs, I hear the Wilson’s or common snipe, called the “winnowing snipe” for the eerie, breathy call it makes, described on www.allaboutbirds.org as a “huhuhuhuhuhuhuhu.” This shivery song sounds like maniacal laughter to me and makes my hair stand on end but no matter how quickly I turn toward it, I seldom see the bird.
Whenever I walk our neighborhood, I’m constantly sniffing the air, splitting a juniper berry to smell, or pinching off bits of sage. The Artemisia family has between 200 and 400 members, so there’s plenty of variety, depending on where in the West one is. Fringed sage, the short, feathery variety I’m told is preferred by Lakota women to bite in the sweat lodge, is less bitter than prairie sage, the variety with flat leaves shaped like lances. For cleansing the house when I returned to it after an absence, though, I always preferred the dried branches of prairie sage, twisted together and burning as a smudge.
I keep a number of reference books for identifying elements of the prairie ecosystem. In South Dakota Weeds, published in 1956 by the State Weed Board, both plants are listed in a huge section titled “Cost More to Keep Than to Kill.” The book includes in the “kill” list numerous plants that are annoying to farmers and other humans, like foxtail, thistles and cheat grass, but it also includes plants that were useful to our ancestors, like horsetail, wild onion, several varieties of mustard, bee plant and sunflower. And because the book was published so long ago, before big chemical companies seduced so many in agriculture, most of the methods it suggests for eradicating these evil plants involve digging or cultivation rather than poison. But I wonder how much the attitude that any plant interfering with cultivation must be killed has COST our economy and the health of our landscapes, people and animals over the years.
How would I describe the smell of sage to someone who had no experience of it? The scent makes my nostrils flare, seems to open a passage clear up to my brain, down to my lungs; perhaps it’s most like eucalyptus in its freshness.
Since I’ve been determined to use all five senses, I’ve found myself touching in order to have those other sensory experiences. So I knelt to feel the tiny silky blossoms of the Hood phlox and silverweed and nibbled the fringed sage. In the afternoon, I mixed up a batch of bread, kneading and turning the ball of dough as it grew elastic and springy under my fingers.
Emotions are often referred to as the sixth sense. In this case, I don’t have far to look for feeling. The day after writing these details, I learned that I have cataracts in both eyes. Of course, since I’ve worn glasses since I was nine years old, I’ve always valued my sight and realized that it was a precarious blessing. The prognosis is good; the cataracts may take five years to develop fully enough to require surgery, which is a 12-minute out-patient procedure. Suddenly, though, I am putting on sunglasses when I go outside (UV exposure is one of the possible causes of cataracts but I’ve rarely worn them because they were a hassle with spectacles) and looking twice at everything.
I can’t help looking up the word “cataract” in the dictionary, realizing that it also describes a waterfall. Yes. “1. A large or high waterfall. 2. A great downpour, a deluge. 3. Pathology. Opacity of the lens or capsule of the eye, causing impairment of vision or blindness.”
But how did a waterfall become blindness? The dictionary explains: “[Middle English cataracte, from Old French, from Latin cataracta, from Greek katarraktes, downrush, waterfall, portcullis, probably from katarassein, to dash down.” And “Sense 3, from a comparison to a portcullis or other falling impediment or covering.”
So what kind of poem can I create with the material I have collected? Here’s a rough draft.
Dusty green flows over pasture hills;
green gushes in honeysuckle,
yellow blooms drift with the buffalo grass.
As my four-wheeler rumbles along
the barbed fence, I collect winter’s shredded plastic,
crinkling its slick fake promises into my pocket.
Exhaust flavors my tongue. Snipe’s shivery laugh
Glides overhead, cascading on the wind
with the scents of sage and the bread
I bake this morning, kneading seed-filled dough
until it springs back under my finger
like a feather pillow. Waterfalls of bird song
flood past me, oceans of perfume pouring
over the grass. Still, a scrim like fog blurs
the outlines of all I see today. Behind my failing eyes,
seventy years of visions glide
across the hillside of my mind.
* * *
draft (c) 2014 by Linda M. Hasselstrom
Even though I made changes in word choice and order as I wrote the lines, this is really a first draft. Partway through, I began thinking of synonyms for “cataract” in its watery sense and may have overdone that aspect. But as a first draft, it shows promise. I’ve woven in the fear inspired by the diagnosis of my vision problems, and used all of the five senses as my rule required. After a week or so, I’ll re-read the poem again and perhaps consider using some of the other images. For now, I’m content to let the poem rest as part of my Beltane celebration. But it’s not finished and I will definitely revise it. I’m not sure the images suggest the idea of cataracts on the eyes clearly enough. And the ending seems to slide rather than leap.
I doubt any of the humans living here will be making celebratory love in the grass on Beltane; we’ve already seen ticks on the dogs and rain turning to snow is predicted. The animals, however, are celebrating fertility enthusiastically; we’ve watched three calves born in the past few days, and tree swallows are building a nest in the house we built for bluebirds. Meanwhile, no matter what I’m writing, I will be celebrating spring.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Beltane -- May Day Eve -- April 30, 2014
Hermosa, South Dakota
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Celebrate Writing At the Spring Equinox: By Not Writing
March 20, 2014
I. On Not Writing a Poem
Recently, my friend Cathy, who is also a visual artist, sent me Spirit of Less, a collection of her poems. Several of the poems struck chords in me, but the one that stayed longest in my mind was the final poem in the book. It was untitled, a practice I usually deplore. In this case, after considerable thought, I believe the poem’s title-- Untitled-- is a vital part of its message.
This is the poem:
Today I did not write a poem
I watched the rain
The rain was the poem
Over the next few days, the poem's words kept rising in my mind, seeming to echo the title of the book, the “spirit of less.” I was in the middle of a computer crisis, so I was unable to write for my usual two or three hours each morning; instead I took notes on scraps of paper.
I consider writing to be my job. The fact that my job is self-created and largely unpaid does not change the fact that I regard my writing occupation as seriously as any plumber or CEO. I am working by 9 a.m., often earlier; I aim to shut off my computer at 5 p.m. In between, I cook each day’s lunch and I may do other household tasks like laundry, but most of my day is devoted to some aspect of my work.
I love my job, but if I am not working, I feel guilty, an occupational hazard not shared by everyone. On days when I don't feel well, or am too tired to write, my rules require that I write anyway. Sometimes I write a letter or email, but I insist I do so as carefully as I write a poem or essay.
I’m my own boss, so I can make unreasonable rules. The constant writing, however, set against the guilt if I don’t write, can be exhausting.
The poem suggested to me that on some days I should not insist on writing but should simply watch the rain or the snow or the birds walking through the grass with their heads swiveling to see insects. Watch the way the light changes as the sun rises and moves across the sky. To see what the world is doing outside of writing is to refill the reservoir of writing and the well from which we draw our love of life, to remind ourselves why we live.
Most of us, habituated now to the nerve-wracking complexity we call "multitasking," may have a hard time sitting quietly for five minutes, let alone an entire day.
You must learn to be still in the midst of activity
and to be vibrantly alive in repose.
--- Indira Gandhi ---
I have had enough such days, some of them enforced by illness or other causes, so that I now believe that a day of relative inactivity, of choosing to Not Write, may do my writing good, may be better for my writing than continuing to pound away at mediocre words and phrases.
If you decide to have a day of Not Writing, turn off all electronic devices: Kindle, I-Pad, phone, television, even your watch if you have one. At first you may feel the silence is oppressive, but this state will not last long. Listen to the peace; sink into silence.
Most of us find it difficult to empty the mind completely; ask the Buddhists and others who meditate regularly. You might start by staring at a particular object: I like to use a crystal globe given me by a good friend years ago.
And Silence, like a poultice, comes
To heal the blows of sound.
--- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., (1808-1894) ---
Your mind will attempt to involve you in something besides silent meditation, juggling before you memories of petty tasks you should do, like dusting or editing the grocery list, or calling a friend or organizing your spice rack. Resist these impulses.
Sit. Lean back.
Let your eyes lose focus.
Stare at something without sharp edges: the sky, the moving ocean, grass blowing in the wind, blossoms in a cluster, snowdrifts.
Wait. Close out distractions by picturing yourself inside a shimmering bubble that lets in only what you want and need.
Celebrants of the Vernal Equinox often search for freedom in the four directions. Symbolically, we look to the east to free our minds; to the south to free our spirits; to the west to free our emotions, and to the north to free our bodies. I find it useful to sit alone outside, surrounded by the lively silence of the natural world. Once I have settled myself solidly on the grass or a rough hunk of limestone, I am “earthed and anchored.” I face each direction as I concentrate on relaxing each element of my being. I wait for a sense of calm to descend, like a dragonfly on my shoulder.
In a pond, koi can reach lengths of eighteen inches.
Amazingly, when placed in a lake, koi can grow to three feet long.
The metaphor is obvious.
You are limited by how you see the world.
--- Vince Poscente, Olympian ---
Perhaps movement will help you empty your mind; take a long walk, or bicycle ride, or swim or even a drive-- with the radio off.
Look at what you see. Think only of what your senses report, what your feet and arm muscles and legs are doing. Become aware of the energy running from the earth up inside your body, out the top of your head. Realize too that energy runs from the sky down through your body and into the earth.
Or take along a dog to help you see the world as a canine does: sniff carefully (though perhaps not as closely!); study each object you encounter as though it is the most important thing you have ever seen. Trot with exuberance, as though your tail were a great waving plume. Prick your ears to catch every sound.
The writer should never be ashamed of staring. The is nothing that does not require his attention.
--- Flannery O'Connor ---
Here's the key part of this activity: if you can empty your mind long enough, allow your senses to fill you, the thoughts that arise will be more worthwhile. I can't tell you what these thoughts will be-- except that they will not be about grocery lists or FaceBook or Twitter. Nor can I tell you how you will recognize them. The poem, whether written or unwritten, will be your own.
II. On Discovering the Poem Not Written
Days pass. Cathy's poem remains in my mind. On a sunny day I take sheets to the bedroom and discover a poem as I pull the sheets tight at the corners. Outside the windows, the pillows lie on the deck in the sun, soaking up spring's fresh air. The duvet and comforter hang on the railing, distributing dog hair into the wind and drawing the sun's heat.
Tonight, I will slide between these sheets smelling of prairie grass. I will relax into the comfort of darkness. The dogs snoring will tell me I am at home. I will have been privileged to have spent the day largely following my own choices, mingling household chores like laundry and bed-making with writing to friends, writing paragraphs for a book, and cooking tasty, healthy food. These actions are today's poem.
Making the day a poem when the day is pleasant is not too difficult. Is it possible to make a poem of a rotten day?
Anyone might relax and rejuvenate in a gorgeous place, especially if you are waited on. This is one reason so-called spiritual retreats in exotic locations are so popular, and so costly. Considerably harder is to maintain or enhance your equilibrium in chaos; few retreats are held near expressways.
Recently, as I drove to town on the seventh day of what was apparently a complete computer meltdown, I wondered if I could create a better mood as I would create a poem. If I were writing a poem to counter the week’s frustrations, would it be a hymn or only a ranting diatribe?
I had already accomplished a worthwhile task that morning, prompted by knowing that my computer will be like new when I get it back, i.e., naked and without any of my files. I went through my collection of outdated passwords and created a new booklet to hold this vital information: I created a password poem.
So: how could I create a hymn from chaos? Straightening my spine, I glanced into my rear-view mirrors, then out at the tan landscape of early spring. Nothing green. But no snow, either.
That morning, I’d heard a redwing blackbird, one of the first of our native birds to arrive each year. The male, distinguished by his red and gold epaulets, sat in the top of a stark white dead cottonwood and trilled and trilled and trilled until we couldn’t help but laugh at his exuberance.
In a few days, more males and females will arrive and they will gather in noisy flocks in the tops of the cottonwoods and elms. A male will claim the top of the chimney on our house and declare his suitability for mating. Another will argue from the top of the nearby electric pole that no, he is the sexiest and biggest and baddest blackbird stud in the neighborhood. The modest females, meanwhile, will be gobbling insects in the grass, biding their time, not looking at the male, and perhaps twittering to one another about their preferences. Eventually they will select mates and start nesting in the tops of thistles and mullein and willows in the gully.
The nature of the world is to be calm, and enhance and support life, and evil is an absence of the
inclination of matter to be at peace.
--- Gregory Maguire, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West ---
Yes; chaos is evil. Peace is the true nature of the world. Looking around as I drove, I saw baby calves bouncing in the sun, definitely a sonnet in motion.
Driving the speed limit, I poured my frustration into bawling with The Boss,
The highway's jammed with broken heroes
on a last chance power drive . . . .
Feeling more positive about my computer drive by the minute, in spite of the highway's disorderly drivers, I remembered my friend whose basement flooded last weekend and gave thanks that my basement is not flooded; surely a not-flooded basement is at least a limerick.
Earlier, as I tried to be cheerful about my computer problems, Jerry had said, “Neither of us has cancer.” Surely that reminder of good fortune deserves a ballad.
I opened the windows and took deep breaths of chilly air. On the interstate, I did not comment, even under my breath, when a speeding car ignored the "YIELD" sign and shot into the driving lane I was using. I put my energy into braking hard.
Thinking poetically, I contemplated the word “yield” as the speeding driver swerved around other cars. The dictionary definitions seem negative: “relent, bow, defer, submit, capitulate, and succumb.” No doubt the highway department’s officials considered alternatives.
The triangular YIELD sign was first used in 1938 (In Czechoslovakia) and appeared in the U.S. in 1952. Its current shape and red/white color was adopted in 1972-- sixty-two years ago! Perhaps language that was appropriate and clear fifty years ago no longer communicates with the current generation of drivers talking or texting on cell phones, so perhaps it’s time to find an alternate phrasing. In parts of the United Kingdom, the sign for how to merge into traffic is “Give Way.” Pure poetry but hardly likely to speak strongly enough to an American driver.
However, “yield” is a good word for discovering the poetry in an ordinary day; Yield to the blue of the sky. Surrender to the sun’s warmth, an ode to heat. Abandon your smart phone to study the pattern of raindrops on the windshield, more complex than any clerihew. Relax into the rhythmic rondel of a meadowlark’s song; obey the temptation to have chocolate with your morning coffee.
As proof that my attempt to improve my mood was working, I even found something good to say about a subdivision: it’s very close to town, near the dump instead of obliterating good grazing in my neighborhood. The residents will be able to get to work and back in the daylight and they are clustered together closely so they are not ruining much wildlife habitat. I consider this thought an absolute triumph of mental attitude!
Thus, when I arrived at the computer store for the seventh time, I was able to smile as I greeted the repair agent, who appeared apprehensive. He was eager to solve my computer problems. I narrated my week of frustration and told him I hoped I was the worst thing that happened to him that day. I drove home smiling and singing with Paul Simon those fine lines,
“I said breakdowns come
And breakdowns go
So what are you going to do about it
That’s what I want to know . . . .”
I really belted out,
“Believing I had supernatural powers
I slammed into a brick wall. . . .”
Some days we write the poem. Some days we watch it. Some days we eat it. (Cathy also gave me her puttanesca recipe, definitely a poem, possibly a villanelle.) Some days we observe it.
Every day is a poem if we allow it to be. And the day’s poem can be untitled; it needs no label to be true.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Eostar, The Vernal Equinox -- March 20, 2014
Hermosa, South Dakota
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Brigid's Day: Celebrating the Precarious Season Midway Between Winter and Spring
February 2, 2014
Outside the window, the prairie stretches golden-brown to the horizon, dotted with black cows. A few leafless trees stand along dry watercourses. Monochrome. Beige, sandy, fawn, buff, oatmeal, biscuit, camel, ecru, grayish brown, yellowish brown, grayish yellow.
Our senses are dulled by frost and plugged sinuses; our ears are clogged by whatever illness is making the rounds. Cold at night, chilly in the daytime. Wind pokes icy fingers into our ears and lungs. Bleah!
In this season, it’s more important than ever to remind ourselves that spring is well on her way. The ancient Celts, understanding that this midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox could be deadly, exercised their creativity to cheer themselves. They dedicated February 2nd to Brigid, the young maiden of spring, who grew in power as the sun returned to the earth, known to other cultures as the Goddess Brighet, Brigantia, Bride, Brighet, Brigandu, Bridey and Briggidda.
In her aspect as the Bringer of Light, Brigid may have been adopted by the Catholic Church as St. Brigid, becoming part of the festival of Candlemas. “The Lives of the Saints” in the Book of Lismore predicted, “She shall arise like a shining sun.”
I’m intrigued to note that Brigid’s cross, also known as the sun cross or the circle cross, combines Christian symbolism-- the cross-- with older images that recognized the importance of light and heat to spring’s rebirth: the sun. Such crosses are sold today on websites offering, “Huge selection of Catholic gifts,” though many people make their own cross; directions are easy to find.
In contrast to the jubilation and pageantry of older festivals, the American public celebrates this precarious season with Ground Hog Day. If the groundhog sees his shadow on this morning, it means there will be six more weeks of winter. Like so many American traditions, the custom comes directly from Europe, and Scotland in particular, where an old couplet goes:
If Candlemas Day is bright and clear,
there'll be two winters in the year.
Instead of the pudgy rodent, who probably prefers to hibernate, I dedicate the day to Brigid in her various aspects. She gives us hope, reminds us that spring will bring the rebirth in our lives of light, color, laughter. One ancient song about her ran:
Most Holy Brighid, Excellent Woman, Bright Arrow, Sudden Flame;
May your bright fiery Sun take us swiftly to your lasting kingdom.
In Christian Britain, February 2, Brigid’s day, became Candlemas, celebrated with a festival of lights: “Candle Mass.” In the dark and gloomy days of February, the shadowy recesses of medieval churches twinkled brightly as each member of the congregation carried a lighted candle in procession around the church, to be blessed by the priest. Afterwards, the candles were brought home and believed to keep away storms, demons and other evils.
In Ireland, similar joyous rituals were enacted to welcome back the light on Lá Fhéile Bríde, St. Brigit’s Day. An 18th century account tells how every farmer’s wife made a special cake, brought out ale, and invited the neighbors for a festive evening. Freshly churned butter always formed part of the meal. The more wealthy farmers gave gifts of butter to poorer neighbors, along with some roast meat, to celebrate the return of the bringer of bounty.
I love this aspect of the tradition because I can see our ancestors’ practicality at work, combining the festive with the sensible, learned from experience. How many people do you know who have had colds or the flu during the past couple of months? During the dark cold of this season, people may grow ill as well as depressed. Most of us stay shut up in our houses, trading germs. In ancient times, people would be suffering, too, from the lack of greens in their diet, perhaps even hunger as they tried to make stored supplies last until spring.
By the beginning of February, they could estimate how much winter they might yet have to endure and calculate how much food they needed to survive until warm weather brought green grass and grazing for their animals. To raise their spirits, and heal their illnesses, they could carefully raid the larder to prepare rich food such as cakes, buttered bread and milk. Joyfully, they might eat their fill, turning a season that might have overwhelmed them with illness and depression into a celebration of the certainty that spring would come.
On her day, Brigid herself was believed to travel about the countryside, blessing the people and their livestock, and so an offering of cake or bread and butter was left outside on the window sill for her. Sometimes they left a sheaf of corn too, as sustenance for the white cow who traveled with her (source of all that milk and butter). Or a bundle of straw or fresh rushes were laid on the threshold for her to kneel upon to bless the house, or possibly so she – or the cow! – could wipe their feet before entering.
So how can we modern folk invoke Brigid and renew our faith in Spring?
I vary my celebration every year. And since these Home Page messages, as well as my life, center around writing, I make writing a key part of my celebration.
By this time, if my plans work out, I’ve been working steadily since autumn on a writing project and it’s easy to become discouraged, easy to think that publication is a foolish dream. (I submitted a book manuscript in October and am still waiting for a response.) So I pause in my daily writing to re-evaluate where I’m going. I may re-read some of my own work to remind myself that I have written well; rejection may mean I need to rewrite, or rethink where I send submissions.
Because Brigid is also the Goddess of Poetry, I will try, for perhaps the millionth time, to write a satisfying sonnet, or clerihew, or tercet. (Yes, poets, look up those forms if you aren’t familiar with them and try one!)
I will challenge my partner to another game of Quiddler, Big Boggle or Bananagrams. Or Woker.
I will challenge myself in any way that occurs to me. Since one kind of creativity may inspire another, I sometimes try a new and difficult recipe with ingredients I have to find at the store rather than pulling from my pantry. Though we no longer live on stored food for the entire winter, it’s easy to fall into habits of eating. My brain seems to work more creatively while I’m sautéing, chopping or braising than when I stare at the computer screen. (Today I’m making fresh turnip fries: raw turnip sliced into thin sticks, tossed with olive oil and parmesan cheese and baked in a hot oven.)
Usually as I slice or braise or stir, I am thinking about my latest draft, mentally revising. I burn things when I drop the spoon and rush downstairs to revise a line-- and forget I’m cooking.
Because I know that it’s possible as well as healthy and wise to trick oneself into good cheer, I dust and polish the glassware and stained glass I keep in south-facing windows where it catches and reflects every splinter of winter’s light. I light candles for warm light and scent. I soak in a hot bath scented with a mixture of eucalyptus, wintergreen, juniper and peppermint that kills germs and soothes muscles. (www.olbas.com) I sit outside facing the sun to soak up Vitamin D from its healing rays.
Some folks imitate spring by decorating their houses with bouquets of flowers; I hesitate to spend money on such short-lived décor. Besides I remember a friend who said of bouquets, “Killed some flowers, eh?” Instead, I prune my indoor plants, repotting if necessary, appreciating the way they clean the air of my rooms. I make sure I’ve burned the Christmas greenery or consigned it to mulch. Honoring Brigid’s hearthcraft aspect, which I interpret as house-keeping, I dust everywhere, vacuum, scrub the shower and the kitchen floor. The beauty of these tasks is that they require little thought, so my mind is often revising lines of poetry or nonfiction while I work. Brigid would be pleased.
Because everyone around me is snorting, sneezing, coughing and wheezing, I honor Brigid as the goddess of healing by drinking tomato juice with lemon, and echinecea tea with honey. Lately I’ve been having fresh cocoa at midmorning because I read recently it can be a memory aid; of course I don’t remember where I read that.
Poetry, healing, hearthcraft: Brigid's blessing flames into the cold sky, speaking to the stars above us.
Imagine a circle of healers around a cauldron of transformation. Think of those who keep the flame of hope alive around the world, through wars and storms of disbelief and hatred.
Light a red candle to symbolize the eternal fire of creativity. Bless your tools: your computer, your pens and pencils, your herbs and your fragile self, especially that creative brain. Then get back to your writing.
And Blessed Be.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Brigid's Day -- February 2, 2014
Hermosa, South Dakota
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Winter Solstice: Did the Dark Win Today?
December 21, 2013
As the winter solstice approaches, days grow short; sometimes the sun never appears and the prairie is cloaked in sweatshirt gray with silver highlights of frost.
At winter solstice, the longest night of the year, our ancestors believed darkness triumphed over the earth. In the cold darkness, they tried to persuade themselves that the light and warmth of spring would come.
People of many cultural traditions believed that this winter holiday symbolizes an annual battle between the forces of darkness and the powers of light. When violent weather shakes the house and makes the deck and roof moan during December, it’s easy to believe in an eternal battle raging overhead.
On this gray December day I woke as usual in the darkness. Let the dogs out, turned on the coffee, hopped back in bed with the chilled dogs, wrote in my journal and read until the coffee perked. Quietly, Jerry and I sipped coffee and read. Over my right shoulder, after a couple of hours, I glimpsed a faint line of gray light: the only sunrise available.
The Norse believed the sun was a great wheel of fire that rolled away from the earth in the winter, then back again in spring. When the sun was far away, they built great bonfires outdoors and burned huge logs-- Yule logs-- on the hearth to lure the sun to return.
Even without sun’s encouragement, we did the familiar things: ate breakfast, played a game of Rummykub, walked the dogs, remarking on how slippery even our gravel road was as fog oozed around us. Snowplows and trucks rumbled past on the highway with early commuters heading from the subdivisions into town to work. Some drove more slowly than usual, others zipped along, perhaps unaware that the morning was not as clear and dry as the past few weeks have been.
Jerry went to his shop; I went to my office. Outside my window, frost shone on the cedars in the windbreak and I wondered if we ought to get a Christmas tree this year. Bringing an evergreen tree inside is another Nordic tradition, as is decorating it with ornaments symbolizing the sun and stars. Germanic tribes went wassailing, marching from home to home to sing and “enjoy hospitality,” as the historians say. If the hospitality was liquid, as I assume it was, the singing probably got more discordant as the night went on.
We have friends who wassail us every year, but in daylight, sober, bringing tasty treats. Their fruit cake is waiting in my freezer.
Midmorning, when I went to the kitchen to start lunch, I saw flashing red lights on the highway a half mile away. Two fire trucks, a highway patrol car, and one or two other big square vehicles clustered in the right lane. Minor fender-bender, I thought.
I grabbed the binoculars. Several fire fighters were out of the trucks, standing beside the shiny red trucks, marked by bright yellow and neon green in the gloom.
Then I spotted the other vehicle, far to the right, and focused my glasses on its black undercarriage and tires: upside down. The front of the car was toward me; the headlights made two round spots of gold, like miniature sunrises in the tall grass. A dark trail broken showed where the vehicle had left the road and rolled down the ditch until it struck the embankment of a turnoff at the pasture gate and rolled.
I know how a rollover feels and I've seen, or been early to arrive at, far too many automobile accidents. On the day I rolled my Bronco some years ago, totally destroying it, I rented a car and continued with my trip. A few hours later, creeping along on the icy roads, I was passed by a big SUV roaring at top speed. It flipped off an overpass just ahead of me and landed upside down, killing its driver. When I passed by a few minutes later, all the emergency responders were standing in a circle near their vehicles, shaking their heads.
Again on this day, while I watched, none of the people by the fire trucks went near the upside-down vehicle. I was afraid the driver was dead.
But I did not see the usual tarp-covered shapes in the grass near the vehicle. Perhaps the driver escaped and was among the group standing in the cold; perhaps he or she was explaining to the professionals how the mishap occurred. Speed, probably, and a moment of inattentiveness.
Reluctant to leave the window, I got lunch simmering, then baked coffee date bread with almonds. Fruits and nuts are part of ancient holiday traditions. Symbolizing the harvest stored for winter use, they were used to make tasty, nourishing gifts for one’s family and visitors, but also given to the neighborhood poor. Northern and Germanic tribes also hung fruit and candles on evergreen trees at this season. The Druids’ seasonal colors were red, green and white-- now considered Christmas colors. And the ancient Norse gave gifts of food and clothing to the poor as part of their celebrations.
Like the people who become today’s police officers and firefighters, and who do services for the community, the ancients were generous in times of trouble.
While the men stood near the fire trucks, dozens of vehicles passed in both directions. All slowed down, and crept past, being reminded that driving in winter is dangerous. No doubt every driver gave thanks for not being in that overturned vehicle.
I was thankful to be in my kitchen, doing mundane chores: baking, washing dishes, wiping the counters.
One by one, the vehicles left. The highway patrol officer remained, parked on the highway's shoulder. The fog grew denser as ice built up on the porch railings, the power lines, and the highway. A small hatchback with an insignia I couldn't see at this distance arrived. The driver talked with the highway patrol officer for a few minutes. I didn't see the new figure approach the overturned car. Then that vehicle, too, was gone.
The highway patrol officer remained, lights flashing weakly against the gray sky. Waiting for the ambulance, or the hearse?
The black shape, wheels up, seemed to settle deeper in the snow-silvered grass, its headlights growing dim.
The officer's lights warned hundreds of other drivers about the dangers of the highway. I thought of the officer sitting in the warm car, perhaps hearing radio chatter, while someone’s body-- or bodies-- grew cooler only a few feet away. Did he, or she, pray for the dead or injured? Or try not to think about them? I felt compelled to wait and watch, to witness. Every few minutes I ran downstairs, writing about the dark turn the day had taken.
Then a tow truck appeared, pulled into the pasture through the gap torn in the fence by the overturned vehicle, flipped it over-- it was a pickup-- and loaded it on the trailer.
The highway patrol officer came down our driveway. Someone had told him I own the pasture and part of his job is to notify the owner who will have to fix the fence. I gave him the required contact information for my neighbor.
The two women in the pickup? He said they are injured severely but expected to live. The ambulance must have picked them up before I got to the kitchen. Even here, twenty-five miles from town during bad weather, someone was able to get help for them. Emergency responders risked their own lives, as usual, to help. We should all give thanks for them at all seasons, but especially during this season of darkness.
I hope the injured folks understand their good fortune and feel deep gratitude for the ordinary and familiar rites of living on this gray day, and appreciation for the folks who helped them to survive. They have been given the gift of light, the chance to see spring come again, bringing light and warmth.
A part of me felt voyeuristic for writing about their ordeal. But I am a writer, responding in a familiar fashion to what happens around me. That’s how writers get through the darkness; that’s how we turn on the lights.
If you are a writer, start taking notes on what you see and do this Yuletide season. Even if you aren't a writer, taking notes isn't a bad idea. But any way you do it, gather your memories, the beautiful gleams of this season. Record them in your memory. Turn on your own lights.
* * *
For me, in this Yuletide battle, the light has won. As always I have so much to be grateful for. October’s awful blizzard killed thousands of head of livestock and wildlife in South Dakota; there is no light side to that. But it brought out the best in humanity as people both close and far away proved their neighborliness with sympathy and aid to the ranchers who lost the most. The faith of many folks in human nature has been immeasurably increased.
Personally, I’m especially glad for Tamara, my friend and assistant, who makes me laugh, proofreads my work, keeps Homestead House running, and has even established a Facebook page for Windbreak House. Join me at www.Facebook.com/WindbreakHouse.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Winter Solstice -- December 21, 2013
Hermosa, South Dakota
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Samhain: Festival of Contradictions
October 31, 2013
The ancient holiday of Samhain (pronounced Sow-when) is, said one writer, “a festival of contradictions: silence and feasting, sacrifice and survival, fire and blood.”
By October 31, the day most folks celebrate as Halloween because Celtic and Christian traditions have become mixed through the centuries, harvests have been gathered and the fields lie fallow. Summer’s growth is finished.
And yet, as is always the case, this ending is a also beginning. As the gates of death and winter open, so too do the gates open to renewed life. People of many nations traditionally celebrate at this time, knowing that snow and cold will follow, and knowing too that the snow brought by plains blizzards (an onomatopoeic word that probably originated on the prairie) will melt eventually into the green of spring.
The month preceding Samhain is usually fairly benign in the Great Plains, with just enough snow to remind us that we need to be prepared for winter. The shorter days seem beautifully long as we pick the last tomatoes and set them on the windowsill to ripen. The sun feels good on our shoulders as we pull the tomato vines and till them into the raised beds; we pile the pumpkins in the pickup.
In late September, Jerry was working on a project that produced great bags of sawdust so I spent several afternoons dumping the sharply-scented fir shavings around the new berry bushes that grew so well in this wet summer. I enjoyed watering the golden heaps and stomping them so they’d hold solid against the autumn winds.
"Silence and Feasting"
Our senses sharpened, we took particular note of the bittersweet autumn life happening around us. A kestrel flew low over our heads when we were walking the dogs by the retreat house and we laughed, thinking it was eyeing the chubby Westies that outweighed it by twenty pounds.
A moment later my hat was blown off by the flailing wings of a low-flying grouse as it dived into a cedar tree nearby and we saw the little hawk veer off with a shriek of frustration.
Busy in my office, working on writing conversations by e-mail, preparing for fall retreats, I wondered several times where my Samhain home page message would take me this year. Though my writing is usually optimistic, Samhain demands that we face its contradictions; in the last bright warmth of autumn, we must acknowledge darkness. The beginning of winter is a time to reflect, to put all things in order for both contemplation and for physical life and comfort during the long cold. Mentally, I tick off the autumn jobs to be done. The Halloween or Samhain festival, though, was traditionally also a time of light-heartedness, when people played tricks, sang, enjoyed themselves before the cold sobriety and serious business of winter.
During the first week of October, weather forecasters predicted the usual mild October snowstorm: temperatures in the thirties with three or four inches of snow and little wind. Such storms usually leave a pretty frosting on the hills and melt within a few hours; they remind us to look at the colorful leaves before they fall and to check our winter supplies.
All around us, ranchers drove nervously out to look at cattle still in summer pastures, knowing that within a couple of weeks they’d wean and sell the calves, then move the cows into the shelters of winter pasture. Predictions of a storm this early in the season was worrisome, but the weather forecast was reassuring. Best not to disturb the cattle unnecessarily by moving them this close to weaning and sale time. The profits of a year’s hard work rested on those calves; once the sales were over, the ranch families would shop for necessities for their own winter survival.
On Thursday October 3, the high temperature was 41 degrees. Jerry tilled the garden and I made excuses to go outside, putting away pots, tidying up the greenhouse.
That evening, the storm arrived, blasting away all predictions.
All night, a freezing rain fell; our gauge held more than three inches of water the next morning. The wind screamed at 75 miles an hour, rattling the ice-covered window screens like hail on the roofs.
Lights shone late in ranch houses all over the region as ranchers worried about the cattle they could not reach. Thousands of head of livestock-- cattle, horses, sheep--walked and walked and walked, trying to find shelter, to keep warm enough to resist the freezing temperatures. They walked on snowdrifts over the tops of fences; they stumbled into dams and drowned. They piled into low places, one on top of another on top of another until they suffocated or drowned.
"Sacrifice and Survival"
During the festival of Samhain, the dead walk.
I can see them, lines of cattle walking through the moonlight, lowing so softly their voices are only a whisper. Among them walk the other plains animals whose deaths will remain uncounted–coyotes, antelope, deer. Grouse, meadowlarks, blackbirds and robins flutter on their way to the dark lands, their whistles mingling with the wind’s rush. Did the grouse survive? The frustrated kestrel?
Samhain is the festival of the descent into darkness, a time to reflect, to talk about the dead. The people who have lost the most from this storm cannot yet talk about it. Few will ever talk about the prairie wildlife lost.
After the storm, one observer reported that 10,000 dead cattle lay between Sturgis and Union Center, South Dakota, a distance of 43 miles. That’s 232 cows per mile, or a dead cow every twenty feet. But most of the dead lay hidden in isolated gullies and ravines, not along a highway.
On Friday, October 4, we didn't even attempt to go to the highway mailbox as snow fell and drifts piled up. We collected jugs of water to drink and flush the toilet. We got out the long underwear, boots, wool socks. Our power went out about 2 in the afternoon. We found our battery-powered headlamps. Our furnace won’t work without electric ignition and blowers so we lit the tiny auxiliary propane heater in the basement. We ate leftovers, minimizing opening the refrigerator and freezer. With no electricity, shut down like the government, we had no idea what was happening elsewhere.
We couldn't turn on a faucet since the pump in our well is electric so we kept busy digging snow to pile around our coolers full of food, and to bring inside to melt on our propane cookstove. I made bean soup rich with chunks of ham. We played Rummykub and Quiddler and Boggle.
Local EMT’s and first responders later reported answering calls for oxygen and heat, finding people near hypothermia in their homes even though the temperatures were only in the 50s inside, 30s outside. “If it had been 30 below zero, we’d have lost people.”
"Silence and Feasting"
As the sun came out on Saturday, we saw 35 antelope basking on top of the ridge south of the house, blown clear of snow as usual. They grazed comfortably.
We made no attempt to shift the giant, ice-hard drifts blocking our vehicles and buildings. Windbreak trees and bushes were completely covered by drifts 10, 15 feet high. A neighbor rode by on horseback, checking on cattle in my pasture nearby; I could hear him talking on his cell phone. We read, worried about the effects of the storm on those who were less prepared.
As we melted snow to flush the toilet, I probably mentioned that I’d wanted to repair the outhouse, keeping it functional in case of a power outage. Jerry probably mentioned the outhouse is a half-mile away, an impossible hike through the drifts. Looking to the future, we found a spare toilet seat that can be perched on a 5-gallon bucket next time this happens.
On Sunday, October 6, Jerry used the tractor to dig a trail, discovering that our power line was broken between the highway and our house. Electric company lines were jammed. My cell phone battery died while I was on hold.
On Monday, someone from the power company patched our power line, though it still hangs low enough to nearly reach the barbed wire fence. We took showers and went to town for the mail and a sandwich. The convenience store café was full of grim and grimy people with tired faces who had been working to move snow, repair electric lines, find cattle. Among our neighbors we began to hear bits of talk that hinted at the disaster’s extent. Feasting on food someone else had cooked, we basked in the warmth and loud talk. No silence, but feasting.
"Fire and Blood"
Early estimates said as many as 75,000 cattle, sheep, horses and other livestock may have died in the storm; every day the figure rose. At least 38,000 homes were without power and some, even in town, remained off the grid for days. In Lead, S.D., 55 inches of snow fell, with similar amounts in other areas.
All over the northern plains, animals that survived the storm were dying of pneumonia, or were scattered miles from home. Ranchers woke to find their corrals destroyed, yards filled with cattle wearing a dozen different brands. Dams and creeks were full of carcasses that would pollute the water if not removed; many of the watercourses lead to creeks and rivers that supply water to metropolitan areas downstream-- though the city folks who eventually use that water may never realize their danger.
During the festival of Samhain, the dead walk.
Lines of animals walk eternally through the moonlight, whispering of death.
"Sacrifice, Fire, Blood"
At Samhain, animals were ritually slaughtered in thanksgiving for the harvest and in prayer for a benign winter.
I will never forget the look on my father’s face, the set of his mouth as he mentioned “the time the government shot the cattle.” The pain was still sharp in his voice and face after 60 years.
I later learned that "during the early years of the Depression, livestock prices dropped disastrously. Officials with the New Deal believed prices were down because farmers were still producing too many commodities like hogs and cotton. The solution proposed in the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 was to reduce the supply. So, in the late spring of 1933, the federal government carried out 'emergency livestock reductions.' In Nebraska, the government bought about 470,000 cattle and 438,000 pigs. Nationwide, six million hogs were purchased from desperate farmers . . . The hogs and cattle were simply killed. In Nebraska, thousands were shot and buried in deep pits . . . The federal buy-out saved many farmers from bankruptcy . . . the basic governmental approach of supporting farm prices by reducing supplies continues to this day."
Meanwhile, in South Dakota, state ag officials were pompously reminding producers of the state law requiring the burial or burning of dead animals within 36 hours of their demise. Fields and pastures were so wet only horses could move through them without being stuck and they rapidly became exhausted. Pickups, trucks, heavy equipment was paralyzed. Many ranchers still hadn't reported their losses a week later because they couldn't get out of their isolated ranches, let alone begin to find and dispose of dead animals.
Silence and Survival
This message for this Samhain began in light and descended into darkness. For days, I could not find the light. I dreamed of those dead animals, the silence of the snow.
Years ago, feeding in haste so we could get to a Christmas dinner, we lost cattle in a similar way. We usually fed the cattle, then cut holes in the ice-covered dam, then stayed until they had all drunk to be sure they didn't crowd onto the ice and break through. My mother had been insistent: we must be home by a certain time. After we left, they broke through the ice and many drowned. When we drove up the next day, the bodies were dark shapes, moving gently as if the water was breathing. Taking turns, my father and I waded into the icy water, looped a lariat around a cow’s ankles, pulled each one out with the pickup. We were frozen, blue, hypothermic, but we said not a word to my mother. Our suffering was our punishment; we were responsible for their deaths.
The ranchers who lost cattle this month could not have foreseen this storm, but I know they feel that guilt. They are the caretakers of the animals and the land; they will feel these deaths as their responsibility.
Darkness is the symbol of this season. This is as it should be; the intent of the festival has, through the centuries, been for us to face the darkness, to understand that it will come, to accept it. We cannot pretend it doesn't exist. Either we let the darkness overwhelm us, or we face it, try to understand how to survive in it.
Throughout history, pagan and Christian beliefs have intertwined around this autumn holiday in what one site calls a “glorious gallimaufry.” We each face darkness in our own ways. Differences will always occur. We need not submit to either annual or unusual death. But how do we rise above it?
Sacrifice as Prayer
As power was restored, a ranch woman from North Dakota wrote to me, telling me of some of the losses in her area, lamenting the ignorance of comments on social media sites.
Why didn't the ranchers put their cattle in barns, some asked? Why didn't they prepare for the storm by getting the cattle into winter pastures? Oh it doesn't matter, said others; ranchers are rich. The government will pay for their losses.
How can we combat this ignorance, she asked? Writing from my computer at 5 in the morning, two hours before sunrise, I encouraged her, offering suggestions.
Still, I felt that darkness of ignorance hovering around my shoulders-- even though her writing to me indicated someone has heard my words. I have been writing about ranching all my life, trying to explain it, to show how essential well-managed ranches can be to the welfare of the great plains ecosystem, all of it: grasses, trees, deer, coyotes, cattle, mountain lions, lambs, thistles.
My nights are haunted by the pictures of dead cattle that began to appear after the storm. I spent years getting to know my own cows, walking among them, talking, listening to their stomachs rumble and watching the frost melt from their eyelashes. When my father died, I had to sell my cattle to pay his debts-- but I can picture those ranchers as they look at those dead cows. They were not just walking cash; they were friends, co-workers, colleagues.
Samhain: The Gates Between Life and Death Open
Two weeks after the storm, I follow a neighbor's pickup into a local gas station; he's towing a flatbed hauling a big backhoe.
“Been busy?” I say.
He shakes his head. “Buried two hundred of the neighbor's cows yesterday,” he says.
He doesn't tell me if he lost any; he was just helping out, like neighbors do. We talk about the lack of national news coverage. “It's like Katrina for us,” he says, “only up here the neighbors are helping each other instead of looting. And there's no news media.”
Another neighbor tells me that the man she'd paid to fix her driveway finally arrived, a couple of weeks later than he'd promised. They talk as they wait for a load of gravel. Normally, he'd have plowed snow for himself and neighbors but he was too busy trying to find his cattle and then burying 400 head, about 20% of his and those he ran with other ranchers. He couldn't find his shovel, he said; somebody had borrowed it from his pickup because they were using it as an oar while they tried to get dead cattle out of a stock pond. Sad smile.
Every Ending is a Beginning
I can't change the weather, but I can mention that scientists say the signs of climate change-- whether man-caused or not-- involve violent weather. Without argument, we could all take steps to be more prepared to help ourselves and others. Jerry and I are pricing generators. We will continue to have warm clothing, a well-stocked pantry, adequate medications, plenty of reading material. We'll keep checking on our neighbors.
Can we fix what causes these storms? Whether we are responsible for this climate change or not, we can reduce our demands for power. Millions of people are doing just that.
Three weeks after the storm, the local paper quotes people who disbelieve in the ranchers' losses, or think they are deserved. The government begins to function again but even if a Farm Bill is passed, many of these ranchers will resist admitting their losses out of pain, embarrassment, horror. Many wouldn't even consider a "government handout." Can we repair ignorance? We must try.
Many of the cattle, horses, and sheep that survived are sick and ranchers are working night and day to save them. Thousands of miles of fences were pulled down by the storm; repairing them will require huge expenditures of time and money. Besides losing their income for an entire year, some ranchers have lost herds built up through generations of careful breeding.
Much of our society exists on credit. If a rancher followed the urging of the credit-based society, he may have borrowed money to fund his operation. Some ranchers, like the rest of the world, live from paycheck to paycheck, i.e., from that one yearly sale of their products to the next. They may have been borrowing money for living expenses against this year's cattle sales. Cattle are not usually insured; premiums are too high.
During 2012, the Dakotas experienced a monumental drought so the price of feed was especially high last winter. Some ranchers borrowed money to feed their cattle; the other choices was to sell them or to let them starve. Now they have lost both the cattle and the money that might have paid those debts. With no paycheck for the entire year's work, they may be in dire financial straits and facing another harsh winter.
Some may have lost all their assets; they may have to leave ranching. In such cases, the land may not sell to other ranchers who are part of the community but to absentee owners, part-timers who do not contribute to the economy. Towns that serve the ranchers will suffer, as will ranch-related businesses. In the Dakotas, many businesses are ranch-related: grocery stores, equipment manufacturers, restaurants, car dealers, sale rings, county and state fairs: the list can go on and on. Seasonal help will not be hired.
Losses will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Some rendering trucks were in the area right away; normally these businessmen pick up scraps of meat and bones from butchering facilities as well as dead cattle and animals killed on highways. This waste is ground for use as fertilizer or sometimes for pet foods. Unfortunately, the snow was so deep, the ground so muddy that trucks couldn't get to the dead cattle. By the time they could reach the carcasses, they were too spoiled to use. The buried cattle will not even feed predators, which may also be starving from loss of the wildlife on which they normally feed.
For generations, ranchers will gesture to the pits where their cattle were buried, telling their sons and daughters about the storm. The effects of these deaths, economic and emotional, will remain part of our history. Generations will resent the fact that this immense loss has been almost invisible to the national news reporters and thus to millions of citizens. Perhaps the breach between rural and urban will grow.
Gifts of Thanksgiving
Is it ridiculous to ask if there is good news in this darkness?
The storm officially ended the worst drought South Dakota has faced in decades. Stock dams are full of water. Moisture has soaked into the ground, bringing the promise of water and grass to feed any cattle left alive by spring.
And more: not only have ranchers been helping each other, but dozens of small communities and organizations have leapt to help in a variety of ways. Businessmen in one town sponsored a free dinner for ranchers. Others have established funds to provide ranchers with payments for their losses, and for needed food and supplies. Residents from other areas have written to or called rancher friends to ask about the losses, to commiserate, drawing their ties closer. The neighborliness occurred in towns as well: residents of adjoining households that may never have spoken to one another swapped shovels, pushed each other’s cars, shared fireplaces and food.
How can I make something positive of this loss? I will keep writing, though today it seems impossible to write of anything but this horror. I must believe my words help educate people. I often hear from people who say they didn’t know ranching could be good, as well as from ranchers who are pleased that I help tell their story.
Darkness is a familiar friend. Every day the sun slides beyond the blue hills and pulls the dark blanket over us.
And every morning, as the coyotes slip through the grass, light rises in the east. No matter how dark and ferocious the night has been, no matter who has died, these things happen. Our job is to find hope in the negative, to use the fury and anguish of the losses to create connections between one another, to create hope for a more intelligent world.
“Darkness,” said Martin Luther King, “cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
Switch on the light. Drive out ignorance with education, blindness with vision. We can all contribute, for the good of all. Whatever you write during this Samhain season, whatever you do in your daily life, remember the dead. But look to the light.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Samhain -- October 31, 2013
Hermosa, South Dakota
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Author’s note: The opening quotation, calling Samhain “a festival of contradictions: silence and feasting, sacrifice and survival, fire and blood,” is from Rebecca Tope’s Death in the Cotswolds.
Consider making a donation to the Rancher Relief Fund established by the Black Hills Area Community Foundation (at www.GiveBlackHills.org) in cooperation with the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association and the South Dakota Sheep Growers Association for the direct benefit of the livestock producers impacted by this devastating blizzard.
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Coyotes and the Autumnal Equinox
September 21, 2013
After a summer of unusual rains, we've been blessed by dry but beautiful autumn weather. Our nightly lows have hung in the 60s, the highs have risen to the 80s, and gentle breezes blow over grasses still mostly green with tawny highlights. Meadowlarks and redwing blackbirds sing night and morning and the coyotes howl like lightning: distant and faint.
One recent morning, though, when I let the dogs outside in the pre-dawn darkness, Cosmo raced for the corner of the pen by the greenhouse barking in unusual agitation. I checked the temperature-- 40 degrees! Back inside, just as I shut the door, I thought I heard a shriek. I yanked the door open again just as the sound repeated: a coyote howl, a single purely silver note so loud that the coyote had to be extremely close. I stepped outside as the ululation came again: yes, the animal was definitely between the house and pond, perhaps even inside the cattle fence, only a few steps from the dog pen.
Toby, who is supposed to be the alpha male, sat under Jerry’s grill and looked at me. Cosmo, the soldier Westie, galloped back and forth along the perimeter fence, ears pricked, barking with unusual depth and ferocity.
The coyote howled again, a single piercing note.
By that time I could hear Jerry's footsteps upstairs as he raced to the bedroom window to try to see the coyote.
I expected to see that familiar lean shape leap into the pen and grapple with Cosmo. I remembered my friend Jeff Jacobson's story about a coyote that leapt into the hillside yard of his home in Topanga Canyon, just above the blazing lights of Los Angeles, and snatched up his son's cat.
I called the dogs in. We all watched at the windows for several minutes but never saw the howler.
One of the ranch rules as long as I've been here-- sixty-one years-- has been that no one shoots coyotes. My father started this, and I've kept his policy.
The policy has at times been strained. Once during calving season, we found a newborn calf half-eaten. We all, my father, George and I, agreed that the coyote had probably not killed the calf but began eating after it was dead. Still, when the coyote came back that night, George was nearby. He shot and hit the coyote in a front leg but the animal vanished so fast he couldn't shoot again. He fretted and spent hours the next few days hunting for the wounded animal but never found it.
A couple of months later we began seeing a three-legged coyote hunting mice in the field below our house. No doubt the wounded coyote had gnawed off the wounded leg to survive. We were all relieved.
And once a neighbor drove into our yard with the carcasses of two big coyotes hanging head down from his pickup box and said he'd shot them in our pasture-- because they were coming into his yard at night and killing his chickens.
"Then shut your chickens up at night," my father snapped. "But don't shoot any more coyotes on my place."
The rule still holds. My father enjoyed telling people about the calf that got its head stuck in a tree and was helpless and alive for a couple of days before we found him. No coyote approached. Coyotes have never harmed us as ranchers in any way; we consider them our allies in keeping control of the populations of mice, rabbits, skunks and other prairie animals who might cause us more difficulty.
* * *
We'd known about the den where our neighbor slaughtered coyotes that had learned not to fear our pickups or horses; we always rode or walked around it when moving cattle. We knew of another den on the south side of the big ridge south of our place that we call Badger Ridge. Riding there, George once saw three or four coyote pups tumbling and playing in sunshine at the mouth of a den.
Females dig the dens, creating an entrance a couple of feet wide and as much as fifteen feet long, ending in a large nesting chamber. Coyotes usually have several dens and move fairly often, deterring predators as well as keeping things tidy, moving away from the fleas and other parasites, and minimizing the accumulation of urine, droppings and food refuse.
Instead of being regarded as vermin, coyote should be considered the Merry Maids of the prairie: they clean up the carrion, keeping themselves healthy and neat at the same time.
* * *
Misinformation about coyotes goes back to early pioneers. One of my cousins tells of being trained as a coyote hunter by his father, who was state trapper for Colorado. When his dad located a den, and after he'd either shot the coyote bitch or believed her to be absent, he'd send my cousin crawling down inside to drag the pups out to be killed too.
And yes, a couple of times the coyote bitch was home and he had to crawl out a lot faster than he crawled in. After he got too big, his baby sister was the designated crawler, "until she was about eleven or so when she couldn't fit in there anymore."
Folks who hate and shoot coyotes do considerable damage to their own habitat since the little dogs are so useful to the prairie. They are opportunistic feeders, which means they eat anything they can catch, but mostly mice, rats, gophers, beavers, rabbits, squirrels snakes, lizards, frogs, fish, birds, insects and carrion. In summer and fall they eat grass, fruits and berries.
Our ranch yards offer great hunting opportunities. Windbreak junipers and cedars shelter grouse and other birds as well as rabbits. Chokecherry, buffalo berry and plum bushes grow among the taller trees, offering concealment as well as dessert. During summer and fall we often find droppings on the trail leading to our house, in the garden, and around the retreat house and the corrals. Invariably the scat contains chokecherry pits and other seeds. Coyote tracks often follow fence lines or wander down the dirt roads. After a snow, we might find tracks anywhere within ten feet of the house where the coyotes have hunted, and caught, some of the resident critters, leaving only fur.
Every day we walk our Westies down the gravel road to the ranch buildings. They mark the whole route as their territory, of course, but they are often greeted by coyote scat filled with seeds and mouse fur and by urine stations where they sniff and sniff and pee with great energy. Cosmo often rolls in the urine, perhaps hoping the coyote will recognize him as a brother.
Coyotes sometimes kill domestic dogs and foxes because they consider other canines intruders into their territory. Coyotes have also eaten pet food, garbage, garden crops, livestock, poultry and pets, mostly cats. I once saw a coyote following my mower in the hayfield, probably gobbling birds or mice whose nests I'd mowed over.
Generally, though, we're happy to share this habitat with the coyotes. We seldom see them except trotting through the field a half mile or more away. We've created the pen to keep the dogs from wandering too widely, considering it our responsibility to keep them out of the coyotes' jaws. We don't feed the dogs outside or leave food outside that would attract coyotes as well as visitors who might create even more problems-- skunks, raccoons, bobcats, mountain lions. Since we live in their territory, we consider keeping our domestic animals safe to be our responsibility.
* * *
Coyotes breed in late winter, gestate for sixty-three days, and bear an average of four pups anytime from early April until late May. Litter size is affected by available food and by population density. Ironically, where coyotes are hunted and trapped, females produce more pups per litter than in areas where they are protected. So the hunters and trappers just create more coyotes.
Pups emerge from the den at two or three weeks old and begin to eat regurgitated food-- so in May and June, coyote females are particularly aggressive hunters. Juvenile coyotes disperse alone or in groups at six or eight months old, seeking new territory as much as fifty miles away.
So this must be a bittersweet season for the coyotes, especially this year. After a spring filled with deep snow, we've had a summer of abundance with plenty for them to hunt. The equinox signals the change; the nights are chill with the scent of winter on the wind.
We are harvesting the gardens, laying in supplies, storing up food for winter. I've made tomato sauce, stored potatoes and onions in the cellar, dried basil, oregano, parsley. We're butchering a beef this weekend that will be tucked into our freezer. In a few days we'll start rolling the pumpkins into the pickup.
Ancients celebrated this season as a harvest festival, giving thanks for the fruits of the Earth while acknowledging the need to secure blessings from the gods by sharing with others during the hard winter to come. Light and dark are balanced at this time, as humans enjoy a full harvest and yet fear a hungry, harsh winter.
Coyotes can't store food to prepare for whatever winter might bring. All night during the winter, they will prowl the pastures, hunting for food. They will dig moles and mice out of underground burrows, gobble frogs at the edges of the pond on warm days, paw open spider nests and eat the spiderlings.
Some of the coyote pups testing their voices on Badger Ridge during these soft autumn evenings will starve to death or be killed by other coyotes, by human hunters. In captivity, coyotes have been known to live eighteen years. In the wild, few coyotes live more than four years. The majority of pups die during their first year.
* * *
Thinking about the lives of the coyotes has led me, inevitably, back to writing. During the summer, my writing habits have broken down. I've been busy with gardening, with conducting retreats, with cooking and eating good homegrown food, with visiting friends and enjoying the prairie.
Autumn's equinox is the signal that winter is coming. Like the coyote, I am roaming my mental and physical acreage, attuned to all that is happening. Winter is usually my best writing season so I am preparing for it, contrarily, by getting outside, away from my computer, as much as I can. One evening we drove along Iron Mountain road in the Black Hills, smelling the scents of pine and bee balm. Each early morning we watch the sunrise, amble with the dogs, scratch bellies and behind ears, trying to enjoy every moment. I spent two days with a friend, doing whatever she wanted to do: visiting the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, exploring secondhand stores, eating Italian food.
At the same time, though, I'm taking notes, anticipating winter's writing. I'm stacking up books to read during cold winter nights. Doing research on publishers to which I intend to submit a manuscript that has been rejected. Stockpiling paper for the printer. Making sure I have pens and comfortable journals. I can't move to a new den but I'm cleaning this one. So far I've managed to avoid mopping the kitchen floor but my shoes are beginning to stick. I've sorted through my closets, discarding both winter and summer clothes to cut down the clutter. Sent boxes of books to used bookstores. Recycled cardboard, magazines, plastic and glass. Pulled weeds in the garden and piled more sawdust and mulch around the new bushes, freshly watered.
And all the while I'm breathing fresh, clean air and chanting a mantra against the forces who would introduce pollutants into our air, water and soil in the name of quick and dirty cash.
* * *
Looking twice and once again
at shaking grass beside the road,
I see a coyote find her shape
in tawny bronze and black and buff.
She looks both ways before she dares
to run across the highway, dive
beneath the fence and look behind
to see what might be creeping close.
Head up, she turns once more,
sees me sitting on my horse.
She stares so long
I see the dictates of her life
behind her amber eyes.
Then she ducks and leaps --
and vanishes. I’m left to brood.
This coyote learned humility
at birth inside a darkened den.
Now she croons the same
old song each day, repeats the rule
she learned at birth: to live in fear
of us. We call her coward
for her way of staying low.
She shows her skittish pups the tricks
so they'll be safe from human kind.
A coyote will eat anything
that doesn't eat her first: birds
and eggs, fruit and fish, roadkill,
roots and bugs and scraps of trash.
She scorns nothing that will nourish.
The ragged pack may yip together
once the game is down, but each
one slinks away alone at dawn.
In moonlight coyotes sing, distrusting
every bush and stone.
So why do coyotes thrive?
We humans trust in heroes,
tell our kids to stand up tall,
to fight for our beliefs.
The coyote slinks and prowls,
escapes if danger shows its face,
then eats and sleeps and runs
with fear beside her. Breathes
in terror every day. And still
she manages to live. Perhaps
she knows a truth we have not guessed.
Perhaps it's only those
who pay attention
© 2001, Linda M. Hasselstrom
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Autumnal Equinox -- September 21, 2013
Hermosa, South Dakota
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"Coyote Song" was first published in Cowgirl Poetry: One Hundred Years of Ridin' and Rhymin', ed. Virginia Bennett, Gibbs Smith, 2001, pp. 112-4.
These Home Page Essays Are Archived --- Linda posts a new message on her Home Page a number of times each year. We've archived the essays (click here) so you can read the ones you missed and re-read the ones you enjoyed. Some of them include recipes or poems or writing suggestions. All of them have photos.
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. . .
What Rain Makes: Turning Regret into Harvest
For Lammas (Lughnasad) --- August 1, 2013
This has been an unusual summer, with rains occurring almost weekly, delivering sometimes only a trace of moisture, and sometimes nearly an inch. Of course, as ranchers tried to harvest hay, many were frustrated. Often, as soon as they mowed a field, the hay was rained on, requiring them to "turn it over," or rake it more than once to allow the air to dry it. I saw several fields rained on twice, three or four times before the hay finally dried enough to be stacked for winter use. By then, the rain has leached some of the nourishing qualities from the grass. But old ranchers said such hay was still worth stacking. "Just wait until it’s forty below," I recall my dad saying. "They’ll gobble that right up."
Of course my dad rarely had to watch an entire field rained on. His tractors and mowers were old and slow compared to today’s scything monsters. We usually cut just what he knew the two of us could rake and stack in a day or two. Besides that, he had a good eye for weather; I always thought he could smell rain a day or two before it arrived.
Modern ranchers would scoff at our slow pace. With swathers and balers that produce bales of 900 pounds or more, they can put up a lot more hay a lot faster than we ever could.
That means they sometimes get overconfident and they can lay down a lot more than we could too: so there’s more to be rained on.
. . .
Still, rain on down hay happened often enough that my Uncle Harold had developed a philosophy about it.
"Rain," he said, "makes more hay than it ruins."
. . .
I was visiting with a neighbor one July day when he recalled that statement. Storm clouds gathered above us and he’d just raked a field for the second time to try to dry out the hay enough to bale. Looking up, we both knew a deluge was about to hit us. And it did. But we both knew that the millions of gallons of water falling on the pastures around that small hayfield were producing acres, tons of grass, far more nourishment for the cattle than the rain would dampen.
. . .
I kept mulling over that statement, so appropriate to harvest. Knowing Lammas, the harvest festival, was approaching, I wondered if I could make of Harold’s prairie wisdom a motto for writers as well.
This week, I pulled out my fat rejection file, stuffed with letters from dozens of editors telling me why they couldn’t use a particular piece I submitted. After all, writers like me who talk about writing for other writers are always encouraging them to regard rejection not as failure but as commentary, a chance to improve and change the writing.
In my rejection file I found the proof.
An editor in Missouri wrote that my essay "Rock Lover" had many fine points, "some excellent descriptions, strong voice, interesting detail." But, she said, "what’s missing is a strong enough sense of how the essayist’s experience applies to and in the world."
Of course! I’d wrapped myself in the essay until it applied only to me. My response was to expand the ending of the essay to encompass other temporary lives, working to show that all of us need to choose our battles. The essay appeared in my book Land Circle, and I believe this editor’s rejection strengthened it.
. . .
I found numerous letters from the editor of an eastern magazine devoted to country living. We eventually corresponded often as I kept submitting work to him; his responses were always encouraging, more like a conversation between friends than an editor’s rejection. Here’s a sample from 1990.
I am indebted to you for sending us "The Cow vs. The Animal Rights Activist." It was one of the most passionate and thought-provoking pieces of prose I've read in some time. Unfortunately (and I mean that) we can't buy it as a feature. The piece is simply too broad, dogmatic, and strident to foster the sort of constructive rumination we try to offer. And, it's lengthy.
Without digging through my files of drafts of older essays, I’m not sure how much I changed this particular essay in response to the editor's comments. But I thought long and often about that "broad, dogmatic and strident" comment. When I moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, a few years later and experienced my water revelation, I fully realized what the editor meant. And my writing style changed as a result.
My water revelation? Here’s what happened.
Like most conscious Westerners, I am aware that water is always scarce here, no matter how often rains fall. Statistics released this year by 24/7 Wall Street name South Dakota as one of the seven states hardest hit by drought and rapidly running out of water. (The others are Oklahoma, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas and Nebraska.) We can never afford to waste any water at all. I wrote often about this problem, strident and dogmatic as the editor had said.
Then one day as I stood in my yard in Cheyenne, holding a hose from which water flowed in a rich, clear stream, I was struck by a thought: why would anyone who had always had access to such a hose, to faucets with clear water gushing forth, even think to ask if the water could run that way forever? Most of the U.S. population now lives in cities and very few cities even hint in anything they do that water might be a scarce commodity. Cities sponsor lush golf courses watered daily for the entertainment of a minuscule portion of the community’s elite. Cities often charge less for water as more is used.
The way to educate the average person about water scarcity then was not to shout but to educate, to inform, to explain. I’ve tried, ever since, to modify my stridency with thoughtful questions. I realize now, 13 years later, that the editor’s comments helped improve my writing as well as my attitude.
So this is a rather lengthy way of saying don’t throw away those rejections. Stuff them in a file and then reread them as you revise.
Learn from rejection. Let that rain on your parade turn into nourishing hay!
. . .
August 1 marks an ancient Celtic and Saxon festival of the end of summer, a fitting time for us to look at rejection and learn from it.
The Celts called this day “Lughnasad” after the God Lugh, the Sun King, whose light begins to dwindle after the summer harvest. At the Saxon holiday Lammas celebrating the harvesting of the grain, the first sheaf of wheat is ceremonially reaped, threshed, milled and baked into a loaf: the grain dying so the people might live. The people ate this bread, the bread of the Gods, to give them life. The Christian Mystery of Communion echoes and was born from the pagan Mystery of the Grain God.
This is a time to look upon our regrets. What did you mean to do this summer that is undone? Can you still do it? If not, perhaps you can write about it, or put it on the calendar for next summer. Or dismiss them, throw them in the bonfire and let them go. Say goodbye to whatever is passing from your life.
Some celebrants choose to symbolize their regrets and farewells in bulbs, burying them in the ground to burst into blooms in spring.
Look at what you have harvested: what have you accomplished? Take pride in your achievements, relish them.
And just as fall is a time for literally preserving harvest in dried fruit, jellies, canned vegetables, so you can symbolically consider how you might preserve the other kinds of fruit you have gathered this year. How can you store them in memory? Photos? Letters? Blogs?
Take a deep breath; inhale that fresh autumn air and take time to consider the summer that is passing. Let your regrets and your feeling of discouragement over rejection flow away down the wind, fly away with the migrating birds, shrivel with the lettuce leaves.
Look forward to the autumn that is blowing toward us on those thunderclouds, the winter that will surely follow. And use those disappointments to improve your life, those rejections to make your writing better.
Rain makes more hay than it ruins.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Lammas -- August 1, 2013
Hermosa, South Dakota
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. . .
Summer Solstice: Fragments of Glass and Shell
A Message from Linda --- June 21, 2013
A week ago, I was sitting in a recliner in our vacation house, Headland Cottage in Eastport, Maine, watching the lobster boat Miss Behavior chugging away after its operator treated us to an extended swearing oration after apparently finding his lobster pot empty. We now know the pot was probably robbed by the seal we hadn't yet seen cavorting off our rocky beach.
Normally, I would have written my Solstice message a week ago, but we've only been home a few days and the schedule has been so hectic I didn't begin to write until this morning. That’s the down side. The positive side is that I've been able to spend most of the Solstice writing, my favorite activity. (I’m also doing retreat house laundry, but I am mostly writing.)
. . .
Ring the bells that still can ring, wrote Leonard Cohen in “Anthem”
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
This offering of writing to the Solstice will not be perfect.
. . .
A week ago, we were beginning to pack for our trip home. Our beach finds were scattered on the coffee table, being edited. Chunks of pottery, the handle of a cup, pieces of glass in all colors, both old and new, mingled with shells from sea urchins, clams and other sea life. We padded them into containers and tucked them into our suitcases.
In Eastport and other coastal towns, the shops are filled with artistic, and not-so-artistic, creations made of these found objects, discarded trash the tides hone against the rocky beaches until they catch the eye of a beach walker.
Someone’s discards. Perhaps some of the sight-seers in the pleasure boats toss their beer or soda bottles overboard. Or the sea invades the site of a historic site like the customs house that once reached into the bay from the next street over. Whatever the cause, what was once garbage becomes a glint among the black rocks, becomes a bright shard tucked into a pocket, turned over, chosen, taken home, perhaps to be transformed. We saw jewelry, Christmas tree ornaments, lamps, all manner of objects created of beach glass.
. . .
Trash into treasure. The scribbled notes a writer records during a restless night or while riding a plane may coalesce into a poem, an essay, a thought worth taking time to sculpt into something more.
Light reflecting off the water of Friar Roads in front of the house flashed across the ceiling.
. . .
The beach we walked daily is not the sunshine-washed, white-sandy kind pictured in advertising for resorts in warm places. Like most Maine beaches, it is tough granite, impenetrable basalt, lava, stones deposited by glaciers, the rocks sharp and angled against each other. Seaweed covers some of the rocks permanently, making them too slick for safe footing. Each tide brings rolls of sea wrack, weeds mixed with broken shells of creatures eaten by seagulls or sea prowlers. I learned the hard way that walking fast, like trying to write too quickly, led to painful falls.
So the twice-daily beach walk became a meditation, a time to step slowly, looking before each footfall. To breathe deep and see what there was to see. Bricks: dozens of red bricks were worn into smooth, palm-pleasing shapes. I passed most of them by, kept one: a red heart.
A half-mile away, Jerry walked a different part of the beach, filling his pockets with sea glass.
. . .
What has someone else discarded that you can pick up, see in a new way, use as inspiration?
"That’s how the light gets in."
. . .
My trip journal contains tidal times I copied from a local newspaper, a safety measure for locals and visitors. In some areas, signs warn of swift-moving tides that can trap beach-walkers on exposed rocks for eight hours-- at best.
On June 11, for example, high tides were at 2:11 a.m. and 2:37 p.m., low tides at 8:29 a.m. and 8:43 p.m. High tide at 2 in the afternoon meant we might find something new on the beach when we walked it just before dark at 8 p.m. Much of life on Moose Island, where Eastport is located, is arranged around those tides, on the times that change daily by as much as a half hour. Surely life on sea coasts must differ radically from the lives of prairie dwellers because of those tides.
Wait. Does anything on the plains correspond to the tides? Of course: sunrise and sunset, though they change only a few seconds or minutes a day, unlike the tides. And, like the tides, those great swings of the earth can be ignored by people who manage their lives by clocks.
But if you get close to the ocean or the grass, if you wake at sunrise, if you take time to breathe deeply, you can set your pulse to coincide with the great rhythms. Slow your breathing and heartbeat until you can hear the sun’s light, feel the water coming. Sit down to watch either the tide or the sun’s rise or fall and you cannot look away, you are pulled as surely as gravity keeps us tethered to earth.
And even while you sleep, the tides and the sun rise and fall, anchoring your day whether you know it or not.
. . .
In my trip journal, made by Deb Carpenter Nolting when I visited Bushnell, NE in April (see my blog from May on "Making Your Own Journals"), I wrote of my amazement that my legs weren't sore after the strenuous hikes we took. Our first long hike-- a little more than three miles-- was in Cobscook State Park, inside Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, to Burnt Cove and an overlook to the bay.
The nature trail we took that day wound through thick spruce and fir forest dripping with moisture from the heavy rains, edging precariously alongside a stream rushing to the ocean. In this area, only a thin and slippery layer of earth lies over Maine’s granite foundations, so the trees’ roots twine across the paths, creating a spider web of possibilities for twisted ankles. A ranger assured us the trees are not harmed by humans stumbling among their anchors.
One day during our vacation, we were cabin-bound as the heaviest rain I’ve ever seen, accompanied by gale force winds, lashed the headland cabin. When the drumming of motors woke us at 5 a.m., sounding like thunder, we couldn’t even see Campbello Island across the narrow width of Friar Roads. Hypnotized, we sat at the big windows watching the rain pour down the windows, the waves rolling by, white-capped.
We played Rummykub and read the books we’d brought along or found in the cabin. Mystery author Sarah Graves (www.Sarahgraves.net) lives in Eastport so after reading Dead Level in her Home Repair is Homicide series, I left a fan letter for her with our landlady and then drove down the street where she lives, hoping for a glimpse of the author walking her golden retriever.
Didn't see her but did see the house described in the book as the protagonist’s home-- and it’s for sale. I suspect the author of playing a little joke on readers by describing a house near her own. I hope someone buys the house and fixes it as it deserves and as Graves’s Jake would do.
. . .
In the afternoon, with the tide high and the sky beginning to clear, we drove along the shore of Passamaquoddy Bay until we found the famed Old Sow whirlpool, largest in the Western hemisphere (www.oldsowwhirlpool.com) From shore, it looked pretty tame but would surely have been more exciting from a ferry-- but the ferries weren't running.
While I’m on that subject, we were about a week early for most of the tourist activities in Eastport: we saw several schooners in the harbor, but none were ready to take visitors for the usual summer excursions. The whale watch season hadn't started yet. Many shops were closed, the summer apartments above them still unoccupied. “He’ll be here next week,” we were told often. We went looking for the whale watch captain so often that the proprietor of the ice cream shop next door felt sorry for us, I think. When I ordered a single scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream, she handed me a cone with three towering scoops!
Our visits with locals in Eastport led us to another observation. For several years we've vacationed in rental houses in Manzanita, Oregon, a town similar in size to Eastport. Manzanita, though, is filled with luxurious second homes, while Eastport is filled with weathered houses of workers and other folks on the cusp of poverty. Eastport was, hands down, the friendlier of the two. Everyone we talked to was curious about us: from South Dakota! Did we have relatives here? Why had we come? They all were sorry about the attractions that weren't available, but they told us other places to go. Many had been in the house where we were staying. As soon as they knew we wanted to cook our own seafood, they gave us directions to the best local seafood to be found.
. . .
Several times we drove to Lubec, visible only three miles across the bay from us but a forty-mile trip one way. As was the case in Eastport, many of the shops were not yet open so we walked the streets, stopping to visit in those that were. In this way we learned directions to Betty's Crabs, "not quite as far as Duke's" (which is not advertised as Duke's but under another name entirely). We picked up maps and flyers and recipes as well as considerable informal history about the region. These conversations were a lot like the ones we might conduct in the cafes and post offices of the various small towns where we've lived.
Passports at hand, we drove across the bridge at Lubec to Campbello Island and reached the home of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt in time for "Tea with Eleanor." Roosevelt Campbello International Park is jointly operated by the U.S. and Canada. One guide conducting the tea I attended was a ninth generation resident of Campbello Island and a passionate fan of Eleanor Roosevelt, as am I. She had me in tears several times as she quoted Eleanor ("No one can make you feel inferior without your consent") and told of her work on behalf of African Americans, women and other minorities. She was the longest-serving First Lady of the U.S., from 1933 to 1945, through FDR's four terms in office. She was the first presidential spouse to hold press conferences, to write a syndicated newspaper column and to speak at a national convention-- and set many other precedents. With the tea, they served cookies made from her recipes.
Recalling Eleanor’s advice to do the things you think you cannot do, that evening at low tide I walked right up to the headland cave that extended under our house. The opening was jagged with black rock, dripping with water both from the outgoing tide and from the rain of the previous days. Strange sounds-- gulping, sighing, gurgling, and slurping-- came from the dark. I stood and breathed deep, looked as far as I could into the darkness.
As I turned away, I saw a bright cobalt bottle neck nestled in the broken rocks: one of my favorite colors of glass and the only thing of its color I found on the beach. Since going to the cave had taken me higher on the beach than I had ever been, I was soon walking on drier, more stable rock-- and finding more twisted, lovely shells.
. . .
"Now that you’re international travelers," said the Customs agent after searching our car trunk when we returned to the U.S., "you ought to sign your passports."
. . .
I've been too busy living to write, I scribbled in my journal a few days ago.
Still, "not writing," for me, means I wrote constantly in my journal, both on the trip and since I've been home. Company, grocery shopping, a doctor’s visit, email, stacks of mail, all kept me from coherent thought about the trip.
Watering the herb garden the first night, I noticed that my grandmother's peony bush had bloomed, great pink globes blowing in the dry prairie air. I took a slip from her bush when I first left home as a married woman and planted it in Sioux City, Iowa; in Columbia, Missouri; in Spearfish, South Dakota; in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Finally it arrived back at the ranch, beside the front step.
Living is, for me, writing. Fragments, shards, observations, ideas. I try never to judge them as unworthy of note. An idea may hibernate in my journal for awhile, then transform itself into a draft. Eventually the smallest, most insignificant thought may gather enough associations to become real writing.
To create peace in my Solstice Eve, I put two buds from my grandmother's peony bush into a vase and set it beside my bed so that I'd smell them as the dawn's breezes rose, see them as soon as I switched on the light.
My sinuses were not cooperating, but the intent counts. And sunrise didn't come on the Solstice: instead the sky was overcast and then grew dark as storm clouds rumbled overhead. Finally: rain: an inch and a half just as we had begun to worry about fire.
Rain on the chokecherry, buffaloberry, raspberry, plum and honeysuckle bushes we've planted the past few days.
Rain on the weeds that got completely out of hand while we vacationed. Rain that made the level of the dam below the house rise, sent the nighthawks cheeping into the trees.
Rain on the Summer Solstice: promise of plenty. "That’s how the light gets in."
Linda M. Hasselstrom
For the Summer Solstice, June 21, 2013
Hermosa, South Dakota
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. . .
The Evening Show, Starring Crow and Rabbit
For Beltane, May 1, 2013
On that warm May evening, Jerry and I leaned against the chain link fence around our house in Cheyenne, visiting with our neighbor Jan. Our two Westies sat by the fence, quivering with unrequited interest in Jan's elderly tomcat Howard. Occasionally the cat strolled toward the dogs and flicked his tail, sending Duggan into a frenzy of barking.
Then we noticed that Mac, the older dog, was staring across the street at the parking lot of the school administration building.
He'd spotted a rabbit sitting under a parking barricade of corrugated tin attached to short posts. We often walked the dogs in that parking lot; when the dogs chased them, the bunnies would dive into a drain pipe.
Just as we noticed the rabbit, a crow flew from the top of a spruce to the parking barricade, just above the rabbit's head. The crow flapped his wings once or twice and swooped to the ground beside the rabbit. The rabbit hopped away; we figured he was headed for his refuge in the drain pipe. The crow flapped into the air, following. The rabbit dashed back under the barricade and backed against a support post.
The crow landed on top of the post. The rabbit dashed into the middle of the parking lot. When the crow leapt into the air and circled him, the bunny dashed back to the barricade.
By then we thought we understood what was happening: the rabbit feared the crow and was trying to escape to its drain pipe den. We watched for several minutes, speculating about crow behavior. Do they attack rabbits in the same way an eagle or a hawk might? None of us had ever heard of such a thing, but we all admitted that despite the omnipresence of crows in the city, we didn't know enough about them to be sure. We focused again on our conversation.
Then the rabbit dashed out of its shelter and into the middle of the parking lot and the crow landed behind it. The rabbit turned, flipped its ears and hopped toward the crow. The crow spread its wings, rose into the air a foot or two and flapped back to the top of the barricade. The rabbit followed-- hopping a little higher than usual, we thought-- and sat under the barricade for a moment, twitching its nose. Then it hopped out of the shadow of the barricade and headed for the drainage pipe. The crow was scratching its side with its beak tucked under its wing.
Good, we thought. The rabbit is going to escape the predatory crow. We almost held our breath, as the rabbit hopped toward its hole.
Then the crow looked up and took to the air. Throughout the episode, it had not uttered a single raucous cry and it remained silent now.
"Uh-oh," said someone. "Run!" someone else whispered. The rabbit, only a couple of feet from its hiding place, stopped and turned. Instead of attacking, the crow landed between the rabbit and the drain pipe.
We were all moving, our bodies encouraging the rabbit to dodge around the crow. But the bunny hopped straight in the air, so high and with such power its back feet stretched out straight, and bounded back toward the crow.
Instead of flying, the crow ran awkwardly back toward the barricade, leaping to the top of it just as the rabbit stopped underneath.
Back and forth they went for the next twenty minutes, while we watched in openmouthed silence and the dogs whined. The crow rarely spread its wings, but ran clumsily or hopped. First the rabbit was the pursuer, then the crow. At least fifteen times, the rabbit sprinted out into the center of the parking lot and then zipped back to the barricade. Several times, when the rabbit might have dived into the drain pipe, it did not.
Both animals began adding flourishes: the rabbit would skip in a straight line across the asphalt, closely pursued by the bouncing crow and then spin, leap, and gallop away. The crow would spring in place a couple of times and then lurch in the rabbit's wake.
Once the crow dropped to the ground under the big fir tree and started pecking. The rabbit hopped lazily toward the drain pipe and we thought the game was over. Suddenly the rabbit streaked back across the asphalt and romped past the crow, kicking its heels. The crow flapped its wings and ran after rabbit again, silent.
As darkness gathered, the crow pecked more often at the ground under the tree, and the rabbit stopped once or twice to nibble grass beside the sidewalk. Gradually the two became absorbed in eating and drifted apart. The crow flew away into the darkness and we couldn't see the rabbit any more.
Crows and rabbits are so common in the city we once hardly noticed them. The night these two danced together in a mystery we could not solve reminded us how much of the life of these Great Plains-- and of even the most common of its animals-- is still mysterious to us.
May Eve, Beltane, is when we celebrate the dance of spring as nature renews herself again, inspiring new life everywhere. "Desire," says one source, "meets delight." To celebrate May Eve, let's emulate the crow and rabbit: stop thinking in stereotypes and dance for joy, play with what we have in our lives, astonish those who are watching us.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
For Beltane, May 1, 2013
Hermosa, South Dakota
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Cora’s Pincushion Penguin: Writing Solitude
For the Spring Equinox, March 20, 2013
In my Singer Featherlight Sewing Machine case I keep a tattered and faded creature made of cloth and cardboard:
The silhouette of a penguin.
I found the Pincushion Penguin in my grandmother Cora’s sewing basket after her death, along with her sewing scissors and several souvenirs of the Order of the Eastern Star, to which she belonged. Several tiny thimbles tumbled in the basket bottom, one stamped ENGLAND. Some spools of thread were so ancient and worn they nearly crumbled when I picked them up. Is it still possible to buy wooden spools of thread or are they all plastic? I carefully emptied the basket of bits of thread, dust, pins, needles and old buttons, tucking some items into my own sewing basket.
These trifles were debris from the life she spent sewing, mending, crocheting and in other ways stitching our lives together.
No doubt I learned to sew in 4-H. My parents bought me a full-size Sears machine housed in a wooden case made to look like an occasional table. With it, I sewed my way through grade school, the county fair and high school, making some of my own clothes and renovating the second-hand ones my mother delighted in buying for me in colors, sizes and shapes I didn’t like. (When I came home with my second husband, I found the closet of my old room half-full of clothes I’d outgrown or loathed in high school; mother thought I might “get busy and make them over so you could wear them.”)
Sewing also led me to participate in contests like the Make It Yourself With Wool competition. Not only did we have to make the outfit but model it, walking up the aisle of the church, watched mostly by the critical and whispering mothers of other sewing models.
When I went to college, I left the Sears machine behind. Mother didn’t enjoy sewing so it was kept in the spare bedroom, covered with an embroidered cloth. Suddenly I remember that she kept her mother’s huge antique treadle Singer in her bedroom, in the corner under the south and east windows and piled with mending she intended to do. With it, she shortened the left sleeve of my father’s shirts.
When did I get my Featherweight portable Singer? Probably during my first marriage when I discovered the joy and necessity of secondhand stores for furnishing homes. It was probably made in the 1930s; I see similar models for sale online for several hundred dollars but I won’t be selling mine as long as I can thread the needle. Recently, when the bulb burned out, I despaired for months until I thought of looking online. Presto! I was able to buy a new bulb from a dealer in the same state.
I’ve hauled the sewing machine in its battered black case from my first job at the Sioux City Journal and from there to graduate school in Columbia, Missouri. I made flannel pajamas and elaborate nightgowns complete with nightcaps for my first husband’s son and daughters. We were too poor to buy gifts and I wanted them to have something I had made with love. I made fancy vests for that husband when he sang in bars, made suits, coats, ran up curtains and tablecloths to decorate our rented dwellings.
I mended my way through grad school and into real life. The Singer couldn’t mend the first marriage or the death of my second husband but I’ve always kept it close and used it often.
Everywhere the sewing machine went after she died, my grandmother’s odd pin penguin went along, tucked in the top. Did she make it? It’s so worn I can’t tell if it’s a hundred years old or two hundred. Perhaps it was made by her mother or grandmother. Crudely constructed, it’s faded now, the fabric so thin I use it only for a few needles, keeping my biggest and most often-used ones in a more modern pincushion.
So far as I know, none of my ancestresses ever lived where penguins were common so perhaps the simple shape was traced from a magazine or coloring book. Some ancient piece of scrap cardboard stiffens it slightly. The outside fabric is blue with pink roses, while the inside is a simple blue stripe on white. The edges were folded neatly around the cardboard and whipped together with tiny stitches in white thread. Someone made a crude black eye on the outside and there’s a white button eye inside.
* * *
So what is the Pin Penguin’s worth? Inestimable.
First, it’s memory. I can see my grandmother’s old hands, looking remarkably as age-spotted as mine are now, holding it as she replaced the needles I threaded for her. We’d sit in easy chairs in her little living room in the evenings, sewing by lamplight. I’d crochet, following the instructions she’d given me. And she’d probably be mending, by hand. Mother always said that I should take my oldest clothes to Grandmother’s, because I’d be playing outside. Conveniently, they all needed mending.
The cloth bird was created to be decorative as well as useful and it still is, after a century or more. Besides holding ancient needles, it is another page in my grandmother’s unwritten journal, like so many of the diaries of the women of her era.
Now she, and the penguin, are part of mine.
And there’s more. Today I used my old sewing machine to make a rifle case for Jerry’s flintlock rifle. Because the rifle is so long that no modern gun case will cover it, we’ve kept it wrapped in a sheet for years. I cut up two old pairs of jeans and used three entire legs to make the case. The little Singer sewed right through several layers of hardened denim without a hiccup.
Stitching on the faithful old Singer, I slipped pins gently in and out of the penguin. With the hum of the machine came the calm of accomplishing something good, a practical gift for a man who is so good to me.
I could see my grandmother smiling in satisfaction as she finished making doll dresses for me or mending her husband’s jeans or shortening her daughter’s dance dress. Relaxing into the immediate job, I ignored the email flashing with impatience from my computer in the next room. None of it mattered as much as the work I was doing, both on the rifle case and in my head.
And I realized something more: that this is my favorite way to have writing “happen.” I was creating something physically in the necessary solitude and calm that precedes and creates writing.
This is the reason writers must not be constantly busy, must not fill every day with schedules and activities. I think it’s especially important not to be constantly talking or listening to others talk, whether it’s on an electronic device, in person, or via email. We need to leave room for the unexpected, the thought that begins in some simple task and blossoms into something more.
I’ll cherish my grandmother’s pin penguin even more, for this new gift.
* * *
Later, I realized the penguin had still more to teach. Daily I receive email or mail notes from fellow writers, telling me how many classes they are teaching, where they are doing public readings, how they are helping some worthy charity as well as promoting, i.e. selling, their work.
In part, these activities and jobs are necessary for survival. Most of us are not supported by the sale of our books, even if our names are well-known because of talk-show appearances or movie adaptations of our novels. A writer usually has to teach, go on the lecture circuit, or get another outside job to make enough money to eat.
Moreover, most of us have been made to feel, as I was, that writing is not “a job,” as if we lie around all day seeking inspiration. “Making any money at your writing?” is a common question. The implication is clear: if you aren’t making money, then you are not successful and your writing is not worthwhile, and you ought, as my mother always told me, to get a real job.
Of course users of the so-called “social media” scribble zillions of words in the atmosphere daily; I’m told this is really “writing.” I’ve also read opinions suggesting that this easy harvest of meaningless words is diluting the worth of real writing so that it is rapidly losing value, or at least respect, among the twittering hordes.
But writers write. And unless they are spending a lot of their time alone, in a place where writing may occur, they are probably not writing as well as they could be. This has always been true for me. Much of what I read, on the internet and elsewhere, suggests it may be a universal truth.
I’ve known this for a long time, of course. But Cora and her penguin have done good work, reminding me again that good writing requires solitary thought.
On this vernal equinox, then, this festival of Eostar, I will remind myself that this is a time of balance, of equal parts light and dark--but that spring has arrived bringing warmth. Deep within the cold earth, seeds are beginning to sprout. Soon, we hope, snow or rain will dampen the earth, encouraging growth. Cattle and other creatures are giving birth; young coyotes yip greetings to the night. Take a deep breath, push the darkness behind and step into the spring of a new writing year.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
For the Spring Equinox, March 20, 2013
Hermosa, South Dakota
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Brigid: Time to Put the Pieces Together
February 1, 2013
A few days ago, Jerry brought me a new and wonderful cutting board. He started building this board when we lived in Cheyenne, patiently gluing together scraps of ash as well as red and white oak from various woodworking projects.
But then he got busy doing all those jobs you suddenly begin doing when you need to sell a house: finishing the glorious built-in hutch in the dining room, painting all the upstairs rooms, building a new porch. The cutting board gathered dust.
We moved back to the ranch in 2008 and the cutting board disappeared into his crowded wood shop. More projects intervened: he built a table from a tree someone knocked down in a parking lot. He set up a forge heated by a wood stove and began feeding many of his wood scraps to that. And he did blacksmithing: making coat hangers resembling tree branches, a twisted leafy holder for his grandmother’s rolling pin, a table made of slate with forged tree roots holding it. Last summer, with his dad’s help, he finally built his dream wood shop and he’s been moving into it ever since: positioning shelves, tools, organizing an office.
At last he’d collected more scraps and returned to the cutting board, gluing in the last few of three hundred pieces, cutting it into a round, sanding. Now that it’s in our kitchen, we’ll both apply mineral oil every now and then until it’s richly seasoned by oil and by use.
And here it comes: the metaphor you’ve been waiting for. No doubt you’ve seen it already.
Jerry took junk pieces of wood, bits another carpenter might have burned either for heat or as waste. He saved these seemingly insignificant morsels, none more than an inch wide. He trimmed and tucked them into the cutting board, turning them so the grain runs in wild and lively patterns. He sanded off the rough edges, polished the pieces, enriched their color with oil.
Just so we writers gather up the scraps from our journals, our dreams, our passing thoughts. Nothing is wasted. We fit and trim and saw and polish until we’ve created something new.
We might suppose winter to be a time of thoughtful repose but most of us start speeding up at Thanksgiving and keep skating faster and faster. Sometime in mid-January we’re startled by the new year, the jobs undone, the piles of notes beside the typewriter or in the real or electronic notebook.
Brigid’s day is perfect for taking a deep breath and assembling something from those random thoughts that may have nearly passed you by. We know that light and warmth are coming; we feel spring stirring deep in the earth and in ourselves. While the cold holds us at this midpoint between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, we can honor Brigid by respecting the creative spark within ourselves. Collect thoughts that may have eluded us in the flurry of the Christmas madness. Build new gifts from castoff remnants. Call upon the goddess of healing, smithcraft and poetry: Brigid, Brighet, Brigantia, Bride, Brighet, Brigandu, Bridey and Briggidda.
Call her your Self.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
For Brigid's Day, February 1, 2013
Hermosa, South Dakota
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A Reader's Response to "Time to Put the Pieces Together."
Your blog of February 1, 2013, well demonstrates how the material (but not entirely mundane) world, and the writer’s sentient (though emotionally charged) world, are similar in ways that are both instructive and profound.
The writer’s most important resource is memory--whether these memories be harbored in our culture, in the privacy of our own minds, in journals we keep, or on scraps of paper where we scribbled thoughts when we were in the midst of other tasks. The writer gathers all these memories, compresses them together during the creative process, then applies imagination and a great deal of finishing and polishing. At the terminus of this process, success ensues when these memories have been shaped and transformed into a work of aesthetic art.
In your February message, we discover that Windbreak House harbors not only an artist, but also a first-rate artisan. That cutting board made by your Jerry Ellerman is nothing less than impressive. Moreover, it gives a lesson in how the craft of both the artist and the artisan are very much alike. In his work, Jerry saved all those scraps of wood, cut and shaped them carefully, then compressed them together, bonded them with glue, sanded and smoothed and oiled. Thus he transformed all that wood--vestigial memories of trees--into a work of art. I know an old luthier who makes classical guitars, and I have often heard him say, “A piece of wood always remains a living thing.” This is easy to believe when you hear one of his guitars. It also is easily believed when I look at the photos of that big, round cutting board which, though obviously fashioned for a practical purpose, is nevertheless a work of aesthetic art.
After that cutting board gets used for a few hundred years, it deserves permanent residence in a major museum--a museum adjacent to a major library where all of Linda Hasselstrom’s books have permanent residence.
With respect to
words and wood,
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To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
I believe that Wendell Berry’s poem "To Know the Dark," which I did not discover until middle age, perfectly describes how I rid myself of my fear of darkness. And it symbolizes a way to tackle other fears.
My mother, knowing I was terrified of the monsters under the bed, always left a night light in my room. One night soon after I moved to the ranch when I was nine years old, my parents left me alone at home to go to a dance. I decided to cure myself before these tough sons and daughters of ranchers found out I was a “chicken.” So I went out into the darkness, alone, without a flashlight. I wandered into the barn loft; I climbed fences; as my eyes adjusted, I ventured out into the hayfield.
Part of the time I was terrified, but a couple of hours wandering around the ranch buildings and nearby pastures cured me and coincidentally made me love owls. (For the whole story, see Feels Like Far, p. 20.)
Once I’d confronted the fear-- though perhaps not entirely rid myself of it-- I found darkness to be important in keeping hold of my mental health. For example, by the time I wrote Windbreak, I’d discovered that checking the pregnant heifers anytime between midnight and two a.m. allowed me to really taste the darkness. (Windbreak, pp. 117-118; Land Circle, “Spring Weather,” pp. 9-11.) Once, I’m fairly sure a mountain lion shared the dark with me; the yearling steers got so spooked they knocked down a plank fence. And once I lay in a sleeping bag with my dog and watched the Perseid Meteor Shower and felt as if I were riding a clear glass ship through the stars. The memory can still make me dizzy when I look up at night.
And once, I had the potent experience of riding my horse home after dark, trusting in her to find our way. (Going Over East, p. 99. Also “Everything I Need to Know I Learned from My Horse,” which is posted on the Horse and Cow Stories Page of this website with a photograph of the horse.)
My ultimate experience of darkness, the event that transformed my attitude about it from acceptance to exultant love, involved a herd of buffalo. I urge you most strongly not to try it; I was desperate and lucky. (Feels Like Far, “Buffalo Winter,” pp. 72-85).
When I moved to town, I felt entirely disoriented in the light-filled city but as I wandered the stairs and rooms of the old house where I lived, I sensed its former inhabitants as friendly presences and found my senses expanding. (Feels Like Far, pp. 87-88.)
Since that first experience, I’ve tried to confront anything that scares me. I’ve managed to get over my fear of flying, for example, though I’m still not fond of heights.
Darkness, I believe, embodies humanity’s greatest fears. We appear to be growing more afraid of it every day because we are spending money we can’t afford to drive it away, to the detriment of every facet of our lives.
This literal darkness seems to be an enemy to Americans, though several states, including Connecticut, Arizona, Maine, New Mexico and Texas, many municipalities and several other nations have adopted legislation designed to limit light pollution from streetlights and other fixtures. Among the rationales for such measures have been energy conservation, the reduction of glare and its resulting traffic hazards, and a desire to allow people a better view of the night sky. Several states have state organizations devoted to reducing light pollution, though South Dakota does not. Several websites provide information about "dark skies" initiatives, including www.darksky.org.
Subdivision dwellers surround their houses with lights that come on when anything moves in the area, guaranteed to drive away the wildlife. Towns pay extravagantly for lamps that blast light in all directions, not just down to the ground where it might be useful. We sleep in rooms with lighted clocks so we can tell the time at any moment of the night; sometimes we even project the time in garish orange letters on the ceiling. All night the little lights of our computers, telephones and other electronic devices wink steadily. Numerous studies suggest that constant light can damage our productivity and increase stress levels, injuring both mental and physical health.
So I propose that the best way to celebrate the solstice is to embrace the dark, both literal and figurative.
First, tackle the literal darkness. Even if you have never feared the dark, you likely have not spent much time in it lately. So celebrate the solstice by finding a place as dark as possible. I prefer to go outside, to sit quietly on a rock on my hillside or even on a chair on my deck. Take a flashlight if you wish but leave it off. Don’t take a watch. Breathe deeply until you lose track of the number of times you have done so. Close your eyes. Listen for the dark feet, the dark wings. Inhale the darkness until you can sense how it is a part of you: inside your heart, your skull.
If you can’t find darkness or don’t feel safe outside, create it inside. Take a blanket into a closet, or under the stairs; or banish electronics and draw the shades. Create as much dark as you can and make yourself a comfortable nest within it. Then simply breathe. Listen: first to the sounds outside yourself and then to the sound of your own heartbeat, your own blood in your veins. If you sleep, that’s fine. But give yourself time to absorb whatever may happen.
Another good practice you might initiate at this solstice season has practical aspects as well. Carrying an unlit flashlight in case of accident, learn to negotiate your house, any outbuildings, and your yard in darkness. The ability to move quickly without artificial light might save you in a fire or home invasion. You might even turn this into a challenging and useful game for the whole family. How quickly and quietly can you escape from your house?
There are two ways of spreading light;
to be the candle
or the mirror that reflects it.
Edith Wharton, Vesalias in Zane
I’ve always collected quotations; it’s easier to find them about light than about darkness. Everyone from parents to teachers to priests to gurus both real and faux urge us to embrace the light. If we can’t light our own candle, some of these folks encourage us to take a happy pill. Very few mention that darkness can be a benefit.
I don’t want to suggest that such therapies are useless; sometimes they save lives. But in the glare of constant light we may temporarily forget things that will ambush us when our defenses are down, our eyes are closed, the pills wear off.
Deliberately confronting the figurative darkness, the shadowy places in our own hearts and minds, may seem more difficult than flipping on light switches, but I believe solstice is a good time to do it. Now the universe forces us to realize that darkness is inevitable as the earth turns away from the sun. Embrace the dark now, so that it doesn’t sneak up and wallop you on the head some cold February night. Remember that sleep brings its own darkness, always beneficial; we might consider winter a refreshing nap.
Here’s my example. For the book I’m writing now, I have spent considerable time the past four years reading journals and letters left me by family members: my father, mother, mother’s mother and others. Deciphering their handwriting, turning wrinkled pages, I’ve spent months watching them disintegrate, seeing truths in their writing that I did not see when they were alive. Busy with my own life, I knew they were failing, but I was enmeshed in the hard labor and bickering of that time, watching my husband slowly sicken and die. Reading those documents has helped me understand actions that seemed incomprehensible then.
Reading my own journals has been even harder. Like most people, I did things in my 20s and 30s I wouldn’t have done if I’d known then what I know now.
Worse yet, I took notes, so I can go back and read about my confusion. Sometimes I’m surprised that the facts I wrote down at the time don’t match the golden light of memory I’ve reflected over particular incidents. My writing and record-keeping habits will not allow me to simply burn these journals and rewrite history. Instead I’ve pursued myself in my own history throughout the past couple of years and spent considerable time reflecting on the past. Yes, it was painful, but the enlightenment and release I’ve experienced has been worth it. I’m going to acknowledge all of this confrontation when I celebrate the winter solstice this year.
I can’t promise you that your confrontation will drive away the pain of loss and foolishness, but I believe anguish will decrease, and understanding will fill the gaps.
After crawling into my own dark places, I spent some time berating myself for failing to see then what I see more clearly now. Upon reflection, though, I’ve concluded that I didn’t do too badly with my knowledge at the time. I was loyal to those I loved–though sometimes I was mistaken or lied to. Where it’s possible, I’ve atoned for the mistakes I made; in some cases I make amends daily.
In the cold darkness of this solstice season, look at your mistakes. Study them until you see where you went wrong or until you understand as much as possible about how they were made. Then lock them into a heavy chest; drag it to the center of the stone cellar under the house of your soul. Lock the door; set the dragons on watch. Leave the past mistakes behind. Go upstairs into the light and repair any error you can. Apologize. Pay the fines. Then do better next time.
Leonard Cohen found the perfect metaphor in his song “Anthem:”
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.
The winter solstice --occurring at 6:12 a.m. eastern standard time on December 21-- is the longest night of the year, when darkness covers the land. That moment also marks the beginning of the return of the light.
Dive into darkness knowing that the light will come. Ring your own bells; offer your cracked self to the universe and wait in the warm darkness for the light.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
For the Winter Solstice, December 21st, 2012
Hermosa, South Dakota
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Summer’s End: From Magpie Mind to Turtle Tranquility
For Samhain, October 31, 2012
As summer and fall slip over the dusty hills, the birds vanish and the cranes cry overhead. And my mind becomes a magpie. Here and there it darts, like its corvid cousins, perching on every conceivable topic before flashing its colorful wings and zipping out of sight. When I try to concentrate, or sleep, my magpie mind screeches and demands attention. How can it be this dry? I need to write that essay. Can the grass survive?
From fragmentary idea to something important, my brain hops like a crow on a picnic table. That half-finished poem has possibilities. Must hem those pants before that appointment. What can I fix for lunch? Is that meeting tomorrow night? I get up at two a.m., read a while, try to doze in my chair.
When my Magpie Mind takes over, I know it’s time to turn to Turtle.
While frozen green tomatoes let go of the blackened stems and thunk to the ground, while groups of pronghorn does swoop back and forth below my windows, chased by bucks trying to collect their harems, I gather myself for my winter job. As winter arrives, my focus shifts away from gardening in the earth. I think happily of those retreat writers whom I've helped to cultivate their writing during the spring and summer. I organize myself to conduct writing conversations by email and make sure Homestead House is tidy and ready for anyone hardy enough to prefer a winter retreat.
But my primary job in winter becomes my own writing.
I mark the change with the festival of summer’s end. The Celts called it Samhain (pronounced Sow-when). Rebecca Tope in her mystery Death in the Cotswolds, calls this is “a festival of contradictions: silence and feasting, sacrifice and survival, fire and blood.” A perfect description: contradictions. This is the time to shift from Magpie Mind to the Turtle of Tranquility.
The Celtic world divided the year into only two seasons, so October 31 was one of the two great festivals of the year. Just as Beltane on May 1 was a celebration of light, so Samhain on November 1 rejoiced in the coming darkness.
Yet the celebrants remained aware that during winter’s silence, they might hear the whisperings of spring as seed stirred below the ground. While joyous Beltane revels begin at dawn, the most magically potent time for Samhain is November Eve, the night of October 31. Most of us know it as Halloween.
With the rise of Christianity, Samhain was changed to Hallowmas, or All Saints' Day, to commemorate the souls of the blessed dead who had been canonized that year. The night before became popularly known as Halloween or All Hallows Eve and November 2 became All Souls Day, when prayers were to be offered for the souls of those who waited in Purgatory for entry into Heaven.
Throughout the centuries, pagan and Christian beliefs have been woven together in a tapestry of festivals lasting from October 31 through November 5. All of them contain the same basic contradiction: They celebrate the ascendancy of the dark and revel in its mysteries with festivities that include light, abundant food and drink and community spirit.
I can picture our ancestors, those country folks in the British Isles. Samhain meant families must bring their herds from summer hillside pastures to sheltered stables and store hay to feed them during the winter. The animals that would feed the family were ritually slaughtered; fields and gardens were harvested. Each family stacked peat and wood for winter fires. Community members worked together to preserve everything they would need for the winter and to be sure everyone had enough to survive.
After the busy-ness of preparation comes the time to reflect, to talk about the past and the dead, to put all things in order for the endurance of the long cold. Often, a community viewed Samhain as a time to play games and pranks, sing, to enjoy the last light-hearted enjoyment before the cold sobriety and seriousness of living through winter.
From Magpie Mind to Turtle Tranquility
All during spring and summer, I am delighted to immerse my mind in the work of other writers so as to help them understand and pursue their best writing. Working hard to help make their hard work more worthwhile, I feel energized and alive. I’m often up at 4:30 a.m. to make notes on my own work, ideas suggested by our conversations. But now, I must change my mental state, leave the Magpie Mind and find a calmer symbol.
For years, my personal symbol, the creature I have chosen to remind me what is needed to make my life more harmonious, is the turtle.
Many of us think of a turtle only as standing for slow movement in the race with the speedy rabbit. Early Christians reportedly didn't like turtles, seeing them as symbols of evil forces-- and perhaps that view carried over into the modern day. In Greece, turtles were once believed to be citizens of hell.
Yet virtually every other culture endows the turtle with respect. Some Far Eastern natives believed the turtle’s top shell resembles the round ceiling of heaven hanging over the square, flat bottom shell, symbolizing earth. Thus the animal united heaven and earth, making them a natural conduit for rituals linking the two.
Moreover, turtles came to symbolize longevity since they do not appear to age. In the Hindu religion, turtles are symbols of immortality, considered temporary dwelling places for souls making their way through a series of lives on the path to Nirvana. According to some Native American tales, the Earth Diver turtle swam to the bottom of the water that covered everything, surfacing with mud which the creator used to make the earth.
Some turtles’ upper shells are divided into thirteen segments. In the lunar calendar, thirteen full moons alternate with thirteen new moons each year. Many believe this is where the association with the female energies originated, causing the turtle to be associated with the primal mother and Mother Earth.
I began collecting turtle images with the shallowest of motives: to remind myself to slow down and “win the race” like the tortoise rather than galloping through life like the heedless hare. But reading about other cultures’ beliefs has expanded my appreciation for the turtle’s power.
Turtles remind us, say the scholars, that the way to heaven is through the earth. Our Mother the Earth is capable of supplying our needs, protecting and nurturing us– as long as we do the same for her. In order to succeed, we must slow down, pay attention, see the connections between all beings, all occupants of the planet.
Just as turtle cannot separate itself from its shell, neither can we separate ourselves from what we do to the earth.
A hot summer and the driest I remember from almost 70 years in this neighborhood, is gone. Many of the ranchers with whom I’ve spoken this summer shake their heads as they say how much we need moisture, “even if it’s snow.” The only moisture many have had came in the form of destructive hail. Fire and ice, the story of the summer. Pessimists say below-zero weather won’t kill the eggs the grasshopper hordes deposited to wait for next summer and our gardens; some even say the buffalo grass crackling under out feet is dead and this dust will go on forever. Optimists smile and remember that the Dirty Thirties drove away the poor farmers who were misled into plowing this land, but the ranchers and the pronghorn and the grass and cows stayed.
Everywhere I go, I find turtle figures and rarely pay more than a few dollars for them, indicating how many people make them part of their lives. Variations are everywhere-- in my study, every room in my house, my pocket, my car, my briefcase and on my person. Rarely am I unable to touch a turtle symbol-- because I need the reminders often. Turtle Mother tells me to take life easy, to slow down, to remember and appreciate the earth and sky and all who dwell within them. Mitakuye oyasin; we are all related.
Turtles tell me to enjoy every moment of my remaining time on earth. And in late October, Mother Turtle tells me it’s time to draw into my shell, breathe deeply, relax and let the magpie fly away. It’s time to change my attitude, to collect my thoughts and notes and begin to write what has been growing in my heart and soul and mind all summer.
In an oak box in my bedroom rests a Lakota beaded bag in the shape of a turtle, a gift from a friend. Lakota women make these bags to store their children’s umbilical cords, so that missing fragment can be buried when the person dies. The gift came at a time when I needed the strength of long tradition; I have adapted it to my own needs. What my turtle bag contains will remain my secret, but the bag symbolizes my umbilical link with this land where I grew up and it will be buried with me.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
For Samhain, October 31, 2012
Hermosa, South Dakota
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. . .
Gleaning as Writing, Writing as Gleaning
For the Fall Equinox, September 22, 2012
In Cheyenne, I spotted the tall glass showcase in the alley a block from home during my noon dog walk, hustled for the car and brought home my fragile find in the passenger seat.
The case was lovely, four glass panels fitted into slender, polished oak struts, but neither my partner Jerry nor I could think of a use for it.
Then, for his birthday, Jerry’s sister gave him one of the oxygen bottles she used while climbing Mount Everest. We draped the battered orange canister with Tibetan prayer flags and propped it up in the trophy case as a symbol of their achievement. When guests look at the presentation, I usually manage to mention where I found the case.
* * *
The dog I walk down the alley is recycled too.
Mac was a West Highland White Terrier who may have been five years old when his owner’s new wife banned him from her white leather couches. They put him outside to “live free,” competing with two Rottweilers and a Malemute for food dumped in the garage. His hair was so matted it couldn’t be combed. When we shaved him, we found burrs buried in infected wounds in his flesh. Once he was clean, he slept on our bed the rest of his life.
Walking the dogs was my excuse, but I gleaned the alleys around my city home for seventeen years, coming home with useful objects–and dozens of writing ideas. My neighbors would have been shocked at how much I knew about their lives from what they discarded and how many of their castoffs moved into our home. Meanwhile, I saved money and our common resources by keeping useful objects out of the landfill–and then there were those writing ideas.
Because the best part of alley gleaning is also the hardest to explain. I’m not just there to collect usable objects. Walking a dog in the alleys, watching him discover nuances of meaning I cannot share, improved every single day. No matter what disaster had befallen me, I laughed when pink Westie ears stood up and he bounced like a merry-go-round horse to greet canine neighbors. Delicately, he’d apply his nose to the fence slats or the holes in chain link or that tall bush. For him, each day was filled with possibility, with confidence that something wonderful would surely happen.
I’ve tried to adopt the canine attitude, though we humans are limited in our ability to enjoy life because we insist on worrying about things we can’t change.
Counseled by dogs-- sometimes I had two Westies to walk-- I saw squirrels tinker with bird feeders; inspected alcoves where teenagers hid to smoke cigarettes; heard the first blue jay of spring shatter the morning. While the dogs inhaled, collecting information for sheer delight, with no consideration for how they might use it, I also breathed deep, pondering the essay or poems I’d worked on that morning, often finding an insight that might have eluded me if I hadn’t taken time for the walk.
* * *
Stacking the dishes by the sink after breakfast I hear Mac snuffling and snarfing at the rug by the stove, licking up drops of grease and bits of French toast scattered by my spouse’s flamboyant cooking. Practical gleaning, canine style!
* * *
Every day, after Jerry and I eat lunch, I tidy the kitchen, leash the dogs, and walk a couple of blocks through the alleys. On the ranch where I grew up (and to which I have returned), I learned and still practice responsibility for every aspect of my life, from the garbage I create to the garden we grow; from cooking to replacing the toilet seal and cleaning out the septic tank. No one hauled our trash out of sight and mind; we buried it in our own pastures, so as I child I was taught that avoiding waste was worth considerable effort. Living in the city, I followed old habits: compost, recycle, mulch, boil food scraps into dog food or soup stock.
So when I first walked in the alleys, I was horrified at what people throw away. The first thing I dragged home might have been the wicker chair with the wide, curved top. In such chairs, romantic novelists are photographed preening coyly in flouncy dresses, with ribbons in hair artfully arranged. Arranged in the chair under the apple tree, I looked like a sunburned rancher who’d wandered into someone else’s photo album.
At first, I’d sometimes walk by a likely-looking object, arguing with myself; I’d wait until the next day, to be sure it was really discarded. I pretended not to want the rectangular antique sink for almost a week.
What else? hundreds of flowerpots, some of them containing plants that still thrive on plant stands, tables, and stools similarly gleaned. Shovels; rakes; tomato cages and walls of water; watering cans; fence wire; cake pans; canisters with tight-fitting lids; rugs I use for mulch around trees and tomato plants.
Gleaning with dogs, I acquired new skills; I can carry a five-pound Christmas cactus while crossing a street with both dogs-- without tangling the leashes. Though my partner and I brought to our relationship full sets of cooking utensils, there’s no such thing as too much cast iron, so I re-seasoned two rusty frying pans and added them to our camping supplies. The thrift store welcomed the children’s playthings and clothing, and the dog toys are still in the yard. Every Thanksgiving, I put flowers or utensils in the turkey-shaped decorative basket. The pictures I found weren’t my taste, but I use the foam board and frames. The inch-high silver caribou is on a shelf and I added the windmill pin to my Western hat, interpreting it as a symbolic message of hope to a displaced rancher and writer.
Though we haven’t found a use for the piano innards, we’re fascinated by the intricate mechanism of the sound board, the shape of the muffler felt on the slender hammers, the way the damper lifts from each wire string so it can sing. The simple black and white keyboard hides the maze that produces the sounds, the way a poem’s flourishes may conceal its structure. Aha-- a writing metaphor!
This collecting is almost clandestine; I’m nearly always alone with my dogs in the alleys, except for dogs penned in their yards and the occasional service truck. Each night, however, we walk in a public park, where we nod to another gleaner. The man carries a plastic bag and a long stick with a curved and pointed end, briskly circling the park collecting aluminum cans. The stick allows him to snag cans from deep inside dumpsters, and from the ground with hardly a break in stride. Following his example, I started lifting lids, usually closing them quickly on smelly trash and household garbage.
One day, I saw zipped plastic bags containing sheets, blankets, and comforters. As I stacked those on the sidewalk, Jerry went for the car. Next came folded clothing: sweat suits in bright colors, t-shirts from exotic places; several hats covered with fiber flowers; a pile of sweaters with sequin designs. Finally, I hung into the depths to retrieve a box of souvenir salt and pepper shakers and a gallon sun tea jar.
After sorting out five sets of sheets and blankets that fit my beds, I put my old sun tea jar in the recycle bin and hauled everything else to the thrift store. That night I dreamed of an elderly lady who beamed and patted my shoulder just as my grandmother might have.
Not long after, I opened the same trash can lid to find jumbled boxes containing an entire executive home office, including expensive pen and pencil sets and engraved plaques for sports and sales achievements. Then came the packages of unopened supplies: envelopes; pens, staples, paper clips; highlighters; compasses; rulers; reams of paper. Office equipment: staplers, rulers, tape dispensers, hammers, whiteout, paper punches and a cutter, can openers, leather-bound calendars, spiral bound notebooks, stamp dispensers-- empty, naturally-- a postal scale and desk lamps. Still lower were whiskey glasses and bottles of whiskey and liqueurs, racks of well-smoked pipes, and boxes of tobacco.
When Jerry came back with the car, I was hefting shiny metal tool boxes with complete sets of costly wrenches, boxes of car polish and waxes. Since we seldom even wash our elderly vehicles, the automotive care items went to the thrift store, but we vastly supplemented our collections of tools and I didn’t buy office supplies for weeks.
Jerry kept shaking his head and muttering, “To throw away tools.” Writing the story behind the collection in my mind and in later notes, I created stories about a broken relationship and a woman’s rage. I left the engraved trophies; in one version of the story, she felt enough for him to tell him where she’d dumped his stuff.
* * *
The most spectacular item we’ve gleaned is an exercise machine dumped in a parking lot. We prefer physical labor to mechanical exercise, so we walked past it for two days. Then I tucked it at the end of the couch in the sun porch and exercised before my shower, watching the staff arrive at the school across the street every morning. It became a perfect symbol of the intricate and sometimes puzzling benefits of gleaning. Physically, it’s useful, but it also contributes to philosophical thinking and meditations on the way we conduct ourselves in this world. Every one of my gleanings, every walk in the alley, results in notes which may lead to poems and stories.
Settled in my armchair, legs and arms tingling after exercising, I drank my second cup of coffee, ate homemade granola and considered how we use our resources. My writing is mostly devoted to ways to convince people to be responsible, to curb our appetites, make better choices. But I sometimes feel I am shouting across an immense abyss at people my words will never reach. Perhaps I am part of some narrow-minded elite whose ideas about responsibility are alien to the majority of people.
* * *
The word “gleaning” always calls up the same image, a painting I’ve seen only in cheap, faded prints in Sunday school classrooms in church basements. Jean Francois Millet’s 1857 painting “The Gleaners” depicts three women bending as they work in a grain field. The women are laboriously picking up, stem by stem and kernel by kernel, grain that a hired harvest crew has dropped. A deceptively golden sunset makes beauty of the painstaking reaping, but it may have been a practical necessity to prevent starvation.
In sixteenth century France, Millet’s painting of this scene was a powerful, even risky social comment because the poor were considered less than human, an ugly, dangerous tribe created only to work for the rich. Yet their right to scavenge fields was recognized and universally accepted. The concept has such power that several modern food banks incorporate “gleaning” into their names.
In modern times, of course, we might pity those poor, unsophisticated, uneducated peasants and donate money to good causes to help them. Or build taller, tighter fences around our fields to keep them out. Yet it’s likely that they lived more mindful, efficient lives than we do, because gleaning-- recycling-- was a habit, a necessity, not something they had to train themselves to practice. They didn’t learn their ways from public education campaigns about recycling. These were the folks, after all, who created “pot au feu” as the ultimate collection of leftovers. Now found among the most gourmet of recipes, the stew originated with a pot left simmering for days on the back of a stove. Peasants who worked for the rich often brought home leftover scraps of meat to create a richer broth, but the stew might contain anything edible the family could find. The stock simmering on the back of my stove is a direct descendant of this peasant dish.
* * *
Gleaning has always been part of my life, though I was a long time in understanding that it’s a philosophy rather than a method and that it applies to many aspects of my life but particularly to my central purpose in life-- writing. Perhaps because I first saw Millet’s painting in church, I have always thought of gleaning as being something more than scavenging, or saving money. In some way it’s linked in my mind with an ethical duty-- though that sounds suddenly too pompous for what I mean. An example might clarify: I never have much spare cash but by gleaning I contribute thousands of dollars’ worth of usable goods to charities.
Gleaning is so much a part of my life now that it’s a discipline, a doctrine. I must pay attention all the time, knowing today’s discoveries may be physical objects or the way a burst of light shines on a leaf.
Consider the complexity surrounding that oxygen bottle in our living room. Jerry’s sister Susan lived a fast-paced corporate life before she started on the path that led her to climb mountains, but once she decided on her goals, she persisted against all challenges, trained herself with incredible fortitude. On her first trip up Everest, she was forced to turn back a few hundred yards short of the summit.
But she did it again: repeated the months of training and discipline. Furthermore, she might have abandoned the scarred orange bottle that helped her breathe on that journey to be refilled and re-used. Instead, she gave it to her brother who encouraged her and laughs with her; it has become a symbol, reminding us every day of her determination.
And there’s more to this gleaning story. Climbing Everest has become popular as technology improved, but getting up and down alive is so grueling that everything extra is abandoned by climbers descending. Even retrieving the bodies of dead climbers is too dangerous. So the sacred mountain became littered with garbage, particularly oxygen bottles, until sherpas were paid for every oxygen bottle brought down the mountain. By 2002, the mountain was clean of bottles as high as Camp IV at 26,000 feet. Nowadays, bottles from Everest climbs may be auctioned on eBay. So, as is the case with many success stories, money plays a part.
* * *
As ranchers, my family didn’t raise much of the grain I associate with the literal gleaning of the painting. Instead, our cattle grazed on native grass provided by nature, sustaining themselves just as the wild animals did for millennia. My father didn’t teach me about ranching, but demonstrated how to do it by the way he worked and lived, expecting me to learn by paying attention. Our job, as I came to understand it, was to help the cattle survive while disturbing the landscape, including the native wildlife, as little as possible. His attitude made clear to me that we pursued our profession by fitting ranching into the structure nature had created around us-- not by bulldozing the countryside into a shape that fit our needs and whims.
When I was learning to harvest hay from the alfalfa fields, he told me to leave a wide strip unmown next to the fences. The tall grass provided both concealment for predators like coyotes, and food for rabbits, deer and other wildlife that might be their prey. “If we’re so hard up we have to cut every blade of grass,” he said, “it wouldn’t save us anyway.” Patiently, he repeatedly practiced tending to our tools and machines, and equally to the country where we lived.
Our lives revolved around mindful use of what we had; by today’s standards we lived a frugal life. We raised beef and chickens, kept a garden, ground grain bought from the neighbors to make our own bread. I hated wearing the second-hand clothes my mother bought me, especially in high school.
If I’d been asked to explain then what was most important in my parents’ lives, I might have quoted my father’s dictum, “Never spend any money.”
Though I was an adult when I first became aware of the word “recycling,” we always practiced it. Old tractor parts rusted on the hill and in dented oil cans in the sheds. Pitchfork and shovel heads hung on nails in the barn, waiting for handles. Mother turned letters with writing on one side of the paper into grocery lists. Headed for the pasture, my father wrote a note on the inside of an envelope with a pencil an inch long. Mother filled the storm cellar with jars and bottles to reuse for canning garden stuff.
Even when I was most frustrated with the nit-picking required to live with my parents’ lectures, I knew that “waste not, want not” meant more than not squandering money or material goods. I sensed a subliminal clause with a broader meaning, requiring something more comprehensive from me.
* * *
I seldom “go shopping,” never for clothes and seldom for household goods. I work steadily every day on writing, composing in the morning, tending to other business-- accounts, my web site, my writing retreats and teaching jobs-- in the afternoons. On Friday afternoons in the city, I did errands: going to the library, the grocery store, perhaps the post office. Then I headed for one of the four or five thrift shops I regularly visited.
Often my brain was tangled in the net of some essay or poem I’m working on, so I wasn’t really looking for anything. I cruised the aisles, glanced into booths, listened to the other shoppers, let my brain determine the afternoon’s importance. I carried in my purse a notebook with useful measurements: bed sizes; the length of dining room table; the dimensions of the window with no curtain or blinds. And photographs: the broken antique faucet handle on the bathtub, the drawer pulls we’re trying to match.
Sometimes I found what I’d been looking for. Other times, I overheard conversations or was inundated by memories evoked by an object from my childhood. Often I discovered the solution to a writing problem that I hadn’t been able to solve while sitting in my office. Or I remembered I haven’t written a friend lately and took notes for a letter that would entertain her. Sometimes I found something that puzzled me, something I didn’t have an immediate “use” for, but collected anyway, in memory, in notes, or by purchase, trusting that the I would discover its meaning later. Gleaning, all gleaning.
* * *
In winter, the sun was gone by the time we walked the dogs in a Cheyenne park after Jerry got off work, so we took flashlights so we could locate the dogs’ waste. Once, a few days before Christmas, we were walking in falling snow, listening to the ice on the lake boom and discussing our respective work days. I was carefully watching the youngest dog, Duggan, who was still alert and lively despite pancreatic cancer.
The voice from overhead startled us: “Oo-ah OOOO-OOOO-OOOO.” Mac was scrubbing his face in a snowbank and didn’t look up, but Duggan ran to the base of the tree, tilted his head, and looked straight up. Again the call sounded; I explained to Jerry that it was a female great horned owl, probably mating, according to my research. From behind us came an answering hoot from the depths of a spruce tree.
Ten feet overhead, the owl’s rectangular body was a dark shadow against the stars. As she blinked, her yellow eyes flickered, reflected the streetlight.
The little white dog tilted his head, his brown eyes shining in the dark, his pink ears pointed. Five days later, he was dead.
But I remember his delight in the experience, the eagerness with which he stood with his paws against the tree trunk. Memories from the dark may be woven into stories or poems, like shawls that might keep a woman warm on nights when the air is so cold life seems impossible and unwelcome. Gleaning.
* * *
The pink tongue of sunrise slurps across the thin black treetops as I lift my cup. Duggan’s tags jingle softly as he thumps downstairs to get in my lap. Then I spill coffee as I remind myself I’m imagining the sound; he’s been dead nearly a month. The light brightens beyond the tree branches, as I call the roll of others I’ve loved who have gone into the sunrise. I like to picture them together, the three Westies, the Scottie, my husband and parents. With my journal on my knee, I make a note about Duggan’s grin.
I go for more coffee mostly to stop patting the spot where Duggan always lay against my thigh. The cobalt blue glass bowl I bought for a dollar last week reflects the clouds outside the window and through the double reflection I can see that the philodendron cutting has rooted.
* * *
Living means gleaning, means paying attention to whatever is around me at this moment. Duggan ran with his whole body the day before he died, just as he did the first day I saw him, ten years ago. Gleaned everything he could from his life, reminding me not to waste mine.
I don’t diet, but I never eat as much as I could; I don’t eat the last piece of pie or buy everything I can afford. I recycle, reuse, compost, scrounge for the sake of saving my money for more important purposes and to save the planet’s resources. Sometimes recycling and its associated activities are tedious, repetitious, resembling the real work of hard labor.
But if you have read this far, I’m lecturing people who already understand, in a thousand ways, the importance of conserving the resources with which we’ve been blessed. If you’ve read this far, perhaps you realize the double benefits of gleaning: for the benefit of your writing as well as your life.
So how do we reach the others? How do we convince the people who don’t understand why we spend our time this way? Perhaps money will instruct them, as their jobs move overseas. Perhaps watching cheap, shoddy goods wear out quickly will teach them or being taxed for more and more disposal. Perhaps we will all eventually mine the waste dumps we are creating.
We can, of course, keep preaching. When someone says, “Where did you get that lovely coat?” I am delighted to name the cleanest thrift store in town.
But since people don’t ask often enough, I slip the topic of resource conservation into essays, speeches, poems, into readings and discussions and question and answer sessions. When a crowd has just applauded something I’ve written, I love to add, “By the way, I just want to tell you that everything I’m wearing is second hand. And guess what I found in the alley last week?”
But that’s not enough.
* * *
Tending a recycled house plant, I watch the water flow over a butterfly-shaped shell I picked up near Manzanita, OR, on September 12, 2001. We’d arrived for a scheduled visit to a house on the beach that morning and though we knew what had happened to the Twin Towers, we had no television. We walked the beach and enjoyed the simple loveliness of the blue sky with no planes scrawling messages across it. We talked about a world suddenly simplified.
Another plant contains some ancient marbles. My father collected most of them shooting marbles with his friends in grade school eighty-some years ago. After he taught me how, I collected a few of my own on the same playground. Covered by asphalt and a new school, that ground probably still holds a few aged glassies.
After reading that people in desert countries often mulch outdoor plants, even field crops, with rock, I’ve surrounded these indoor plants with the rocky souvenirs of my life; they prevent erosion from my watering and hold the moisture in the soil.
Standing against the back wall of this pot is a pink crystal a friend gave me after my husband died. I watch how the sun shines through it, remembering the friend who gave it. Picking up a round stone, I recall carrying it in my pocket for months.
This gleaning habit of mine continues throughout the seasons but seems especially appropriate for the Fall Equinox, the time of joy in harvest, of balance between darkness and light. Symbols of the season, used in celebrations by various cultures, include apples, which ripen in fall. Avalon, one of the many Celtic names for the Land of the Dead, literally means the "land of apples." Among other symbols are wine (requiring time to mature); the cornucopia (reminiscent of harvest); and burial cairns, reminders of the dark side of the equation, the death that succeeds, and precedes, life. Celebrants usually express thankfulness for the life-giving harvest and resolve to share it with others during the coming winter. Another element of the rituals is the wish of the living to be reunited with their beloved dead.
So in keeping with the season, I celebrate and recall the Westies Mac and Duggan even while following Toby and Cosmo as they gallop after rabbits.
The house and surrounding land pulses with my memories of my travels and my joy at coming home, with souvenirs of this life I have lived. Even watering the plants has become a task humming with joy, with the energy of gleaning.
And my writing, too, blooms with the echoes of ideas gleaned from every step I take.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
For the Fall Equinox, September 22, 2012
Hermosa, South Dakota
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This essay was chosen by Laura Pritchett for Going Green: True Tales from Gleaners, Scavengers, and Dumpster Divers, University of Oklahoma Press, 2009, where it appears considerably revised and shortened.
You may also enjoy reading Linda's Blogs in this website about gleaning and the Equality State Book Festival she attended in September, 2012.
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Lammas: Celebrating the Season
of Regret and Farewells, of Harvest and Preservation
An August, 2012 Message from Linda
Today’s the day, I promised myself this morning, just as I did yesterday and the day before. Yes, today’s the day I write the Home Page message for Lammas.
Yesterday while not coming up with any ideas for the home page message I checked on the garden, investigated a water stain and did some filing in the retreat house, moved my refrigerator out of its niche and cleaned under it, vacuumed its coils and washed the outside. Then I vacuumed and dusted the house and aired some rugs. After lunch I finished up the plans for a workshop I’m giving tomorrow, including making a decision about what to wear. I found my pocket watch to time myself. I took some photos both for personal use and for the website. None of those activities produced an idea for the home page message.
By 9 a.m. today, I’d read 50 pages of a mystery novel with my morning coffee after writing a few thoughts-- not about Lammas-- in my journal. After breakfast I tidied up the kitchen, walked the dogs, distributed some wildflower seeds, bathed the dogs while deciding what to fix for lunch and got out the makings. Cleaned the washer, dryer and utility sink inside and out, dusted and scrubbed the basement bathroom.
Most of my housework gets done this way-- while I’m avoiding writing.
I love writing; it has provided some of my greatest joys: that moment when I’ve finally shuffled the words enough to find the perfect phrase. But it’s also provided hours of staring into space, unable to think what words need to come next. So my subconscious and sneaky brain can find all kinds of really good logical ways to avoid it.
I sat right down at the computer . . . and immediately decided I needed to change the location of the water on the garden.
I rode the 4-wheeler down and sat on it with my garden plan, comparing that glorious vision I created while planting seeds this spring to the few plants that the voracious grasshoppers did not eat. I used a biological control, Spinosad, mixing it fresh daily and spraying everything. It may have worked; I may have killed millions of hoppers-- but zillions and billions kept arriving.
We’ve had more grasshoppers right in the ranch yard this year than I’ve ever seen. Neighbors who drive through have been shocked-- and possibly rolled up their windows and left hastily to avoid collecting any. By June the insects had eaten several successive plantings of radishes, lettuce, mesclun and carrots; they’d eaten the leaves from the rhubarb and were chomping down the stems. The kale and turnip leaves were lacy with holes and the hoppers were burrowing into the ground, eating the yellow onions. I replanted beans and peas three times and each time the hoppers ate them off as the seedlings emerged from the ground. They ate the potatoes down to the hay mulch and burrowed into it, still gnawing. By the millions they sliced the leaves from tomato plants, decimated the peonies and herbs-- even the sage-- and even ate the perennial flowers I’d planted around the retreat house.
A month ago, I moved herb plants like basil, feverfew, rosemary, lavender, oregano and rue into the greenhouse. Despite tight screens, the grasshoppers invaded and dined until I moved the surviving plants into the house. Inside the cold frames, the hoppers stripped the peppers of all their leaves in one night.
In the prairie closest to my house, it’s interesting to study which of the Natives and the Nasties have survived the hopper onslaught. Natives like buffalo grass, sideoats grama, mullein, gumweeds haven’t been nibbled at all. The Nasties-- introduced plants like brome, alfalfa and clover-- have been stripped of their leaves and then their stems, though of course not killed. Unfortunately, non-natives that I cultivate, like columbine, peony, chamomile, arugula, marjoram, thyme and dill were decimated as well, though the bergamot and spearmint survived. Apparently even grasshoppers don’t eat creeping jenny, definitely one of the Nasties.
While I looked over the garden, I kept thinking of Lammas. How could I write about harvest with no produce? And my summer has been seriously unpoetic, with a variety of activities and responsibilities disrupting my writing.
Today, walking among the plants, I noticed that only a few hoppers leapt away from me, instead of the moving blanket of three weeks ago. Pulling bristly foxtail from the leek row and stuffing it into the composter, I saw that the tomatoes are strong and blooming. The pumpkin vines sprawl and blossom, leaves shivering as entire rabbit families lounge in their shade. The kale and turnips are getting taller.
Back home, I examined the raised beds of my kitchen garden where the leafless tomato plants are bringing forth yellow Taxi tomatoes and tasty Early Girls. A couple of pots of basil and parsley so big I couldn’t move them are putting out new leaves. The garden is working hard to recover from the failures of the summer. Maybe I can give thanks for some growth; maybe I’ll have a subject for the harvest message.
Inside, sitting with my fingers on the keyboard, I saw an unusual bird, a male orchard oriole, land in the raised tomato bed. He clung to the tomato cage, tilting his head this way and that and then hopped. Hopped. Hopped again and snatched a grasshopper. Gobbled it and hopped some more-- following hoppers as they tried to evade him. Yes! In writing, too, we sometimes have to chase ideas, be persistent, leap and snap and gobble.
Later, I stepped outside and into a maelstrom of clucking and fluttering: two grown grouse and eleven teenagers were all scrambling around the dogs’ small pen, eating grasshoppers and chattering to one another. I went back to the computer.
My friends are kind; they say I accomplish a lot. Much of what I do, however, is pure avoidance of the job I both love and find most frustrating: writing. I have had two big writing projects simmering all summer, getting to them only in short bursts.
Naturally, yesterday and today I have spent considerable time answering email both urgent and frivolous, fixing and cleaning up after meals, cleaning bathrooms-- the usual housewifely stuff. Yesterday I hand-wrote several letters. None of this was the writing I urgently need to do.
The need to post a new home page message related to writing hovered behind my thoughts like the afternoon thunderstorms: black and threatening. Each storm rattles the windows, throws any loose furniture around and sneezes a few drops of rain: none of these actions very useful either to a gardener or a writer.
While washing the second dog, though, I was considering what Lammas meant to the ancient Celts and what it can mean for writers. As Autumn comes, people may reflect on the plans they made for summer and regret not accomplishing everything. Frantically, they rush to cram a little more summer into the days. A tingle of chill in the air, like this morning’s 57 degrees, reminds us that winter is coming, so instead of whining about the heat, we revel in it before we say farewell. Gardeners rush to harvest and preserve the fruits of their labors.
Regrets and farewells, harvest and preserve. Writers can observe the season in the same way as gardeners.
In keeping with the season, Lammas is often celebrated with rituals emphasizing endings, the collection and preservation of food. The Celts made it a fire festival, in recognition both of summer’s warmth and in preparation for the coming winter when they might need to conserve fuel as they huddled around manmade fires to keep warm.
Modern celebrants of Lammas sometimes list the things they regret not doing all summer on a piece of paper or a corn husk or imagine them contained in a natural and flammable object like a pine cone-- and then burn those objects. If you’re doing this ritual anywhere in the Great Plains, though, please do it inside with a fire extinguisher handy! The nationwide drought is so severe here that the devastating Myrtle fire was started by a bulldozer blade striking a rock and creating a spark.
So I faced my failures: I have not yet finished the draft of what I’m calling the Wheel book. On August 1 I will write that failure, among others, on a piece of paper and burn it carefully in a candle flame in my study.
Once I have become fully aware of my regrets, I will let them go. If I spend time brooding on what I failed to accomplish this summer, if I attempt to figure out why I did not do all that I wanted to do, I will be wasting time during which I could be writing.
Consider what is passing from your life. Say goodbye to the things that are over. As with regrets, you can find visual symbols and throw them into a flame, or into moving water, or bury them in the ground. Symbolically, many people say farewell by burying flower bulbs in the ground, bulbs that will return in the form of new life in the spring.
I’m saying farewell to all the plants and seeds I consigned to the ground that did not grow and bloom-- by pulling seed heads and trampling them into the ground around the house and yard, thus planting them with hope for next year.
I’ve dug the potato crop, photographed it on my new garden journal and will eat every bit of it one day soon, trying not to think about last year’s crop, which supplied us with potatoes from September through May. This winter, we’ll have to peel the potatoes we eat since their skins harbor pesticides used by commercial farmers.
For the Celts, August was a time of story-telling, of giving thanks to the grain gods and goddesses in gratitude for a good harvest. What have you harvested this year? What thanks can you give? Some folks find a visual way to represent their triumphs, perhaps creating a decoration like a corn dolly or wheat weaving like those made by ancient grain farmers, or creating an altar to represent the harvest.
I look at the end of my calendar, where I list the things I have accomplished. In applying to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, NV, I spent a lot of time writing a proposal for a workshop as well as preparing a CD with recitations of new poems. I’m disappointed that my application was rejected for the first time, but I’ve revised the workshop to use in another context.
I’ve written four home page messages, one each for February’s Brigid, the Vernal Equinox of March, April’s Beltane and the June Summer Solstice, a total of almost 9,000 words. I wrote the introduction to a book (by a writer who has attended retreats at Windbreak House) to be published later this year by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press. I wrote a cover comment and review of another book. Observations about meat, grouse, natural predators, rabbits, organ meats, snakes and other prairie critters all furnished subjects for blogs. A college class reading my book No Place Like Home sent questions about the book and I responded at length. I wrote two essays published in Orion magazine. Later, National Public Radio’s “Living on Earth” asked me to read them for on-air publication. A request for free writing advice turned into a lengthy blog on why I won’t provide it. I reflected on the fact that I am called a “nature writer” on paper and later submitted the essay to the International League of Conservation Writers, which published it online. And I kept up lively correspondence with several friends.
Compiling this list amazes me and proves that I’m giving you good advice in suggesting you review your year’s accomplishments to date. Though I was determined not to regret what I have not written or done, I hadn’t fully realized how very much I have accomplished so far this year. Truly, my writing harvest has been generous.
Both literal and symbolic preserves are appropriate for the Lammas festival. You may turn the summer’s fruit into jams, jellies, chutneys for winter while you consider the other kinds of fruits-- memories-- you have gathered this year.
How can you preserve the memories of the summer that is passing sweetly even as time passes and winter approaches? Don’t just put your photographs online; print them so you can look at them even when the computer is off. Turn them into postcards by sticking big mailing labels on the back and send them off as quick greetings to friends. Make an album for someone who will enjoy looking at those memories again and again. While she lived in the nursing home, my mother enjoyed telling people about the photographs of her at different phases of her life that I had framed for her room. When friends who knew my late husband George visit, I often get out the albums I made during our rendezvous days and we share good reminiscences.
Write letters, postcards and short notes to friends instead of sending emails or exercising your thumb on tweets. Write in your journal, even if you have neglected to do so all year; what do you recall of the months gone by? Capture the highlights: best memory of the summer. Best meal, best experience, best sunrise-- you make the list. Print and read what you have written. I keep each year’s writing manuscripts in a separate folder so that I can review at any time what I have done this year.
“Youth is like spring,” wrote Samuel Butler in The Way of All Flesh, “an over- praised season more remarkable for biting winds than genial breezes. Autumn is the mellower season, and what we lose in flowers we more than gain in fruits. "
Whatever you do-- gardening, writing, something else-- face your regrets and failures and then bid them goodbye. Consider how the earth recovers and take heart. It’s looking considerably less likely it is going to recover from the current climate change but if hope exists, it rests on individuals like us to make it strong. Take time to tally up your harvest, to revel in it, appreciate all your work. Then preserve it in your heart for the winter to come.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
For Lammas, August 1, 2012
Hermosa, South Dakota
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Ruth Said This but Mary Said That: Writing Family History
A Summer Solstice Message from Linda
You say you’re not a writer? And anyway you wouldn’t know where to start?
Write a family history. Many of the writers who come to Windbreak House are here, at least the first time, to work on a family history. Later, hooked on writing and on the possibilities of stories that bubble in all our brains, they may come back to work on other projects.
Family histories are essential to the creation of any other kind of history. History-as-studied-in-School involves facts about famous people and dates when they did things. Family histories can contribute the depth that gives that public history real meaning in any region.
Writing just for the family may be more challenging in some ways than writing for a general audience, since family members may have differing memories or may harbor resentments that a reader unknown to the author won’t have. Stay tuned; I can offer a solution for that problem.
Publication of a family history is usually considerably easier than writing for a general audience: no editor will sit in a busy office and demand that the author adhere to the company’s policy on writing style and documentation.
Besides that, the writer can invite interested persons to contribute their own memories and stories before publication. Readers will be the family-- and therein might lie the greatest danger, of disagreements over the facts.
Then the resulting book might be printed on the home computer and stapled. Or printed at a quick-print shop and bound or fastened with coils. Or printed commercially, complete with a square binding and pictures-- the possibilities, even with equipment you can get at home, are many.
When you publish a family history, you won’t have to wait until the Marketing Department debates the merits of various covers or decides that the book must be sold at greater than 40% discount to big name stores, thus robbing the author of royalties. (Yes, these things happen to most authors who publish with commercial publishers.)
The down side of this marketing story is, of course, that the author must not only do the work of researching and writing the book, he or she must also market it, whether it’s sold or given away to family.
But that’s true of the commercial publishing world as well. A tiny portion of books published each year have expensive advertising budgets-- but what really “sells” a book is the work and personality of its author.
On the other hand, a family’s story is worth much more than anything you might buy in a store. Family tales that might otherwise be lost can be passed down to generations that haven’t even considered asking the right questions by the time it’s too late to ask the pioneers in the family.
One of my favorite family histories was written by a relative of mine I’ll call Ray; he may be my cousin or maybe second cousin. Our family tree is somewhat confusing and I may not be interpreting the branches correctly. I’ve just learned that Ray died in January after several years of ill health. Though we didn’t see each other often, I have vivid memories of most of the conversations we’ve had because of his organized mind, acerbic wit and trenchant observations on the world. The history he wrote is fascinating in part because of the way he created it; I’d read it even if my ancestors weren’t in it.
Ray’s intelligence was far above normal; he graduated from high school at age 16. He traveled widely and studied anything that interested him, eventually earning a Ph.D. in Zoology. Professionally, he studied breeding Adelie penguins in the Antarctic for several years and published the results of his research. So while he had not studied writing for entertainment, he knew how to study a topic for understanding and how to write the results for a demanding audience of professionals.
But he wasn’t one-dimensional; he worked on his car; he enjoyed backpacking, fishing, hiking and camping with his wife. And they both did family research.
Ray’s history of the family, printed for us in 1997, covers the years 1900 to 1935. His introduction makes his method of working clear. First he describes how he became interested in family history through the stories told by his father about the family’s trip in wagons from Missouri to Wyoming in 1905.
Then he sets his parameters clearly: “I use the term stories to include both stories and reminiscences but I do not mean that the stories are fiction. Of course,” he adds, “there could have been some exaggeration, but that is part of the flavor of this kind of family history.”
What an intelligent way to solve that problem that always arises in writing anything fact-based! If you can’t be absolutely certain that 92-year-old Great-Aunt Millicent’s memory isn’t just a teensy bit shaky as she tells about how the train robbers took her gold watch, don’t worry about it. Relate the story in her own words; you aren’t writing a Ph.D. thesis to be defended in front of a panel of scholars. You are recording words from a real person that will bring history alive to your children’s children’s children. Don’t let the stories they “know” be only the ones delivered through electronic media. And if you have a real stickler for fact in the family, let that person chase down the facts of Aunt Millicent’s life and prove, or disprove, her tale.
As any historian should, Ray also lists his sources. For family history, your sources need not be massive tomes identified in footnotes and with bibliographies, though if you use such published, documented sources, do list them. Proper form is easy to find or to figure out: for any source you quote, list the author or editors, title of the book, location and business name of the publisher and the date it was published. Include page numbers for any specific quotations.
Ray relied on more personal sources, clearly identified by time and place. In 1976 and 1977, for example, he asked his father to retell the stories Ray had been hearing all his life and this time he or his wife wrote them down.
Then he made occasions to visit with his father’s sisters, asking what they remembered of the old days and taking careful notes. Rather than attempting to weave these stories into a single narrative, he recorded them with the name of the storyteller. Paragraphs beginning with the names of family members are the stories as he recorded them, sometimes paraphrasing the teller’s words and occasionally combining several short related stories in one paragraph. He enclosed his own comments in [square brackets] so they are clearly identifiable as not being part of the storyteller’s words. And he told his own stories, identified with his name.
Here’s a paragraph that shows how he did it. (Throughout this essay, I’ve changed the names of family members in every reference to protect their privacy.)
“Lola, Marjorie and Bob all remembered that their father was the postmaster in Sweet, Missouri. Lola and Marjorie said that he had a store. [I think this meant that he worked in a store.]”
In his search for information, Ray also organized a trip to the little town in Missouri where the family trek to the west began, taking along his father, mother, a couple of aunts and a cousin to collect and record more stories. “When cousins tell stories about events that happened before their time I assume that they remembered it from something their parents told about,” he said.
To provide additional information, he included transcriptions of the few old letters and newspaper obituaries he found, leaving the spelling, punctuation and grammar as in the original.
He notes that “the actual dates of the occurrence of most of the events of these stories is not known because there are very few written records such as letters, diaries, deeds, or receipts. I have assumed that the most accurate dates are birth and death dates.” To confirm these, he used vital records, school records, land transaction records and obituaries where such were available. When he didn’t have records, he guessed and said so.
He also mentions a second source, the typewritten memoirs of several aunts and cousins, explaining how he got them. Letters from relatives were a third source. Another was stories related in the 1980s and 1990s by cousins who had heard them from their elders. He also consulted typed reports from the family reunions which were held regularly throughout several decades.
To identify the sources of the stories, he uses familiar names. “Paragraphs which begin with these names are the stories as I recorded them,” he says, adding, “The recorded stories are not always in the teller’s own words, but I have included some direct quotes, marked by quotation marks, to accent the flavor of the story and the story teller. My comments on these stories are enclosed in [brackets].”
Thus Ray makes clear precisely what he is providing and separates his own conclusions in an identifiable way, unlike some modern historians who may make judgments without providing information about how they reached their conclusions.
Ray sorted the material he collected into chapters including the prehistory so far as he knew it, the family’s life in Missouri, the trip to Wyoming, life in the area of the small town where many of them still live today, the family’s involvement in saw milling and information on their education. Within these categories, he used every scrap of information he collected, no matter how seemingly insignificant. “Edna said her mother always had biscuits for breakfast. No ‘light bread’ [yeast raised bread). “Dad didn’t want any of that light bread for breakfast.” For breakfast they also had cooked (boiled) rice with gravy and jowels (jowls) (hog jaw meat).”
He then summarized family history chronologically from 1916 to 1924 and from 1925 to 1935. “In each period,” he says, I begin with stories about the parents and their children still living with them followed by stories about each of their other children in birth order.”
This makes the history easy to follow and offers opportunities for families to use it to spark their own memories. Instead of choosing one version of a story as the “correct” one, Ray included every story he obtained. The circumstances of my own grandfather’s death, for example, are told in a letter from my mother based on her mother’s account, as well as in several newspaper accounts and obituaries, so that if I wanted to do additional research, I could find several points from which to explore more fully. (I could and I did; with the information Ray provided, I found the death certificate which provided gruesome details no one else had mentioned.)
When he could, Ray also noted discrepancies. His father had told him the family brought a piano or organ along on the trip from Missouri to Wyoming and at night his sisters stood around the piano and sang; other travelers gathered to listen. “When I asked my Aunts Lola and Fanny about this,” he adds, “they said they didn’t think this was so.”
But in 1995 he got a copy of the fourth annual (1958) reunion report. In this report was this account: “The girls, Lola and Fanny reminisced about the old organ that had been carried in one of the wagons. Many evenings on the way out their father’s sweet tenor voice joined theirs singing the songs they all loved.”
As diplomatically as possible, Ray was pointing out that our memories fail, that an informer who is reliable one year may not be as reliable a few years later.
Certainly this should remind us to record family history early and often!
This story, like any other, comes alive in details. One woman recalled her mother telling her that, one Thanksgiving, they had nothing to make a festive dinner. In the garden, however, she unearthed a huge beet. So Thanksgiving Day centered around that huge beet.
Ray’s father didn’t remember Christmas gifts (“probably mittens or socks”) but did remember making decorative chains of paper, pine needles, cranberries and popcorn for the tree.
A sister remembered playing at being cattle thieves with her brothers, using many-colored dried beans to represent cows and horses. They built toy buildings from corn cobs and played checkers on an orange crate with a checker board drawn on one end.
Those are the details that make a story vivid to readers even a century later; I can see the faces of those children as they kneel on the floor, intently moving their herds of beans around the corn cob barns. And I wish I’d thought of it; I used sticks and stones for my corrals and cows.
My favorite part of Ray’s history is how he handled the differing memories provided by family members. “Depending on who remembered it, or when, their father was either a sheriff or a deputy sheriff. . . . Roy said that the year before he was born his father drove a stage but Marjorie said this was a mail hack.” In this way, he respected all his informants and didn’t have to select one version to be “truth” without knowing all the facts. In the chapter “Endings,” for example, he omits my grandmother’s death date because he didn’t know it then; I can fill that blank now.
So don’t put off writing until you have more information, a better camera, a degree in history or a file cabinet. Start recording family history now. And distribute it widely. The process of making copies is relatively cheap, so please send copies of any family history, no matter how brief or sketchy, to any local or regional historical group you can find. Send copies to local genealogical societies, any city, county or state history archives. Ask local historians to help you find appropriate depositories. Any such reminiscence may contribute precisely the information some historian of the future needs to round out a picture of our particular places and times.
I’ll be dipping into this particular family’s history for years and not just because they are related to me. I may never know which version is precisely “true” but I am proud to know that I spring from people who logged and cooked and drove teams from Missouri to Wyoming and could make Christmas dinner out of a single beet and toys out of corn cobs. Who grew melons and ate hog jowls and argued and sang and played tricks on each other and laughed. My mother probably taught me how to decorate a Christmas tree with cranberry and popcorn strings because her great-grandmother did the same. And this pride and knowledge is mine because Ray gave his time to write it all down. Thanks, Ray.
If you have been meaning to write your family’s history, use the Summer Solstice as your symbolic time of beginning. June 20, called Litha by the ancients, is the longest day of the year, the day that light triumphs over darkness as summer begins. At the same instant, the vivid light of summer begins the decline into the deep darkness of winter. The contradiction is symbolic of the writing life: we cannot finish if we don’t begin. To grow and thrive, we must accept that the sun’s heat will diminish into cold, that the warmth of a family’s love will not prevent death. Our only logical response is to write on, through the daylight and into the dark.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
For the Summer Solstice, June 2012
Hermosa, South Dakota
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How Gardening Resembles the Well-Planned Writing Life
A Beltane Message from Linda
Ancient lore as well as practical reality in South Dakota makes this the time of fertility and new beginnings after a long winter. This spring has been unusual: we had little moisture in January and February and none at all in March, while the temperatures were above average. Though our last average frost date is May 25, many gardeners have been unable to resist planting something, even as we mumble to ourselves that our deepest snowfalls and coldest temperatures can come in April.
Outside my window, my two sometimes-white Westies sprawl in the raised bed, sniffing the clods of dirt, nibbling on eggshells that didn’t quite turn into compost. I can hardly blame them; I have three pots of herbs and three rows of lettuce and radishes growing in my unheated greenhouse.
In Celtic tradition, Beltane is one of the great festivals of the year, appropriately calling our attention to the death of the past year in the rebirth of the new. Celebrants wish for a year of strong crops and good health and many rites a symbolic of union between the Great Mother and the Horned God. Dancing around that phallic maypole was intended to make the fields, the domestic animals and the women fertile. Participants gather flowers and herbs and chant verses dedicated to love, wash their faces in dew at sunrise, make daisy chains and wish on particular trees.
How does knowing about these ancient customs apply to your writing life? (You know it does, because so far I’ve managed to tie each one of these home page messages to my favorite topic.)
Preparation, of course. Naturally, you want to plow right into that new essay or poem, as much as you want to rush outside and plant seeds for the garden. But rushing wildly into either gardening or writing can create chaos. Prepare.
1. Order seeds.
This may be the best part of gardening: paging through the catalog looking at all those luscious pictures of dewy strawberries and crunchy corn, deciding what to order.
Do the same with your journal: page through and imagine what you might create from the random thoughts you’ve noted down. Be extravagant; note anything that might possibly turn into that perfect poem or that transcendent short story. Maybe you’ll open a new folder for each one, either on paper or on the computer.
Then study and prioritize. Without considerable research, you probably cannot write the story of the Russian revolution from the point of view of a peasant. Instead, you might put together a manuscript of poems from the drafts you already have. Or you could set up a card table to organize and identify those family photos, maybe just before you invite the clan to gather for the Fourth of July celebration.
2. Till the ground.
In gardening, sharpen the shovel or check the oil and gas in the tiller.
In writing, consider your schedule for the coming months. What time might you spend writing? Diagram a week and note the number of hours you could write. Then consider your other obligations realistically and list the hours you really believe you will write. Post that schedule in your journal, on your bathroom mirror, on your refrigerator, and everywhere else it will help you remind yourself.
(Look for my blog on "Monitoring Your Time" [posted April 30, 2012]; try the time-monitoring exercise to see if it helps you understand where your time goes.)
3. Fertilize the garden.
Make time to think about your priorities and to make plans based on the reality of your life. Lay in a supply of chocolate or any other tidbit that helps you think. Read writers who inspire you.
4. Mark straight rows and plant.
What do you need to accomplish your writing goals?
Of course you can recycle all kinds of waste paper by printing on the second side and reuse old file folders, but if you really believe a new file cabinet will help you keep track of your work, get it. (Writing expenses are generally deductible, within reason, if you submit work to be published.) Rearrange your work space to make it as efficient and as private as possible.
If your project requires research, decide how you might do that most efficiently. If you take your folder of poems to work, will you make revisions while you eat lunch at your desk? Do you need to get up an hour earlier to write with fewer interruptions?
5. Water, preferably by using drip irrigation hoses to make the best use of your resources.
Allot time to think about your writing– perhaps during that long commute to work. Think about the work, how it is progressing, what you have accomplished, how close to your goal you are getting. Plan to type, revise and read what you have written during times when you may not be as alert as you are during your best writing time.
Sharpen the hoe and go after those thistles.
Sharpen your pencil and chop out weedy sentences, prickly adverbs, proliferating adjectives.
7. Sit in the shade and watch the garden; you may discover what is nibbling the lettuce or tunneling under the kale.
Consider part of your writing job to be researching possible publishing venues. Do you need to find a commercial publisher or is this a project you might produce yourself, either online or by self-publishing? Be realistic; is the book going to sell or would it serve your writing goals best to self-publish it and give it to editors, audiences and others as an example of the quality and type of your work.
8. Harvest and enjoy!
Print out a fine copy of the finished product. Provide yourself with something you enjoy sipping. Sit in your favorite chair. Read the piece as though someone else had written it; enjoy the fine phrases, the gorgeous words, the sturdy paragraphs.
And of course because this is your favorite reading chair, you will find an ample supply of pens and pencils and notepads and sticky arrows close by, just in case you find a flaw or two in the finished product: a weed that leaps up overnight.
Today I planted a double row of peas, listening to the woodpecker in the dead tree near the garden, the screek and yawk and trill and plink! and treeeeeee of the redwing blackbirds and robins celebrating spring. And I remembered my grandmother and the poem I wrote about her in another spring. (“Planting Peas,” Dakota Bones. Page 56)
I see my grandmother’s hand,
doing just this, dropping peas
into gray gumbo that clings like clay. . . .
her smile, her blue eyes, her biscuits and gravy
but mostly her hands.
I push a pea into the earth,
feel her hands pushing me back. She’ll come in May,
she says, in long straight rows,
dancing in light green dresses.
* * *
May your garden and your writing be blessed.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Beltane-- May Day Eve-- April 30, 2012
Hermosa, South Dakota
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For more information:
Go look at my blog about the Time Monitor, posted April 30, 2012.
Just as a checkbook, properly used, can tell you what your financial priorities are by revealing where you spend your money, the time monitor will tell you-- bluntly-- exactly where your time goes.
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Persistence in Writing
A Vernal Equinox Message from Linda.
"When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stone-cutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it would split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before together."
--- Jacob A. Riis, journalist and social reformer (1849-1914)
If you have written one poem or a dozen letters, you already know that writing well is hard work. Yet no matter how completely we understand that fact, we sometimes hide it from ourselves and others by the way we speak about writing.
Most folks have felt that glow of an idea that is often referred to as “inspiration.” Even the hardest-working, most serious writer has probably experienced the electrical jolt of thinking of the metaphor that makes the paragraph or essay or poem sing. “Magic,” we may say. But only the least experienced writers mention it out loud and in public. Serious writers usually speak of schedules, perhaps of particular writing tools or places. We may pontificate on the books we keep beside our desks, the reading we do to understand and support the genre in which we write.
What we are really saying is that the glowing idea and the electric metaphor may not happen at all without the steady grind of writing. And without the slow slog of making sure the words are spelled right, the grammar is correct, the modifiers don’t dangle, the “inspiration” and fancy touches aren’t worth much.
I’m not unaware that zillions of commentators and bloggers on the internet are trying to disprove this statement every hour but I stand by it. Today on the internet as yesterday on the printed page, writing that has only the spark of an idea or just the clever metaphor is not memorable enough to become part of our cultural history.
Think of the poems or speeches or expressions that stick in your mind because they have meaning for you. This exercise may require some concentration as you try to ignore the mindless advertising jingles or musical lyrics that haunt you because you hear them repeated often.
As a writer, you want to create lines and scenes as memorable as those you remember long after reading them. Ask fifty poets how to do it and you’ll get fifty answers. But among the requirements for poetic perfection is: persistence.
Or, to put it in a writerly way, to endure, prevail, persevere, hang in, hang on, hold on. Or, as Winston Churchill once said, “Never give up. Never, never give up. Never never never give up.”
Molly Ivins, another writer who can turn a fine phrase, mentions the consequences of giving up:
“Whatever you do, don’t give up. Because all you can do once you’ve given up is bitch. I’ve known some great bitchers in my time. With some it’s a passion, with others an art.”
And here’s an example of how extremely I define “never.”
In 1971, I lived in Columbia, Missouri. I was in graduate school at the University of Missouri/Columbia, having finished my MA in American Literature and begun a Ph.D. program. I served as a grader for an English professor (meaning I taught some of his classes and graded all his papers) as well as being a graduate instructor, teaching several sections of freshman English for the usual pittance. My students were marching against the Vietnam war, escalating every day. Some of my students, the ones wearing cowboy hats, were rabidly pro-war and sicced their dogs on the antiwar protesters. The campus was crawling with FBI informers and agents trying to identify the antiwar faction, especially after it bombed the ROTC fieldhouse.
I was a volunteer editor for the underground antiwar newspaper, The Issue and editor for one semester of the University of Missouri/Columbia’s student literary magazine, Midlands. As part of my Ph.D. studies, I attended French classes at 7 a.m., where I immediately forgot the French and reverted to the Spanish I’d learned in Texas before I was five years old. When the Spanish-speaking professor asked me a question in French, I’d answer in Spanish. “Oui,” she’d say sleepily and then, “Non! Non! Non!” Sometime during that year I made her a deal: I’d quit the class if she wouldn’t give me an F, in case I ever wanted to resume my Ph.D. work. She gratefully accepted.
Having left my husband because he was having another affair, I was living in an apartment carved out of the second floor of an elderly woman’s home on the wrong side of town across the street from a packing plant. I had no credit because, as we did in those days, I’d put all the utilities for our rented house in his name. My Persian cat, coming home from his nightly wanderings covered with lice and fleas, crawled into bed with me so that we both woke up scratching madly. The medical personnel to whom I applied for advice in ridding my yowling cat and me of the critters could not contain their mirth. My apartment had mice, a new experience for me, so I had put out poison. One night as I sat at the kitchen table sipping soup, a mouse staggered out of the cupboards, perched on the sink and stood on his hind legs, clutching his stomach. He staggered a few steps each direction, whining, then dropped to the countertop and writhed in pain, moaning and whimpering, before he finally stiffened and died.
Those incidents aren’t everything that happened that year, just a representative sample. I could go on. One Christmas, of the dozen couples at a department Christmas party, nine of us had announced our intention to divorce before the party ended. My sense of humor was not quite as well developed then as it is now so none of this was funny.
But I was writing furiously in various journals and publishing poetry under a pen name since I did not want to identify my writing with my married name. I was convinced, though, that my poetry was no good because it was not like the poetry of Richard Wilbur and Robert Lowell, whose work I was studying as a graduate student. The professor who taught my graduate seminar in the work of Henry James had told me that I should quit school and go home and have babies because I wasn’t smart enough to understand Henry James.
One day in that year, 1971, Walter Mathis came to the door of the house where I was living; as soon as he was gone, I wrote about his visit. I knew that what I wrote was only a draft because I was sure that poems that did not resemble those of the classical American literature I was studying could not be any good. (I’ve told, elsewhere, the story of coming home to the ranch and writing the poem “Mulch” which convinced me that not everything I’d learned about writing in graduate school served me well.)
In 1997, because I never throw away a draft, I reviewed what I had written in 1971, commenting in the margins, “there’s a whole series of poems that could be centered on this apartment–establish scene once? Call it Columbia Suite?”
I fiddled with the poem, unsatisfied with the ending, which read:
He waved his cane and I felt myself becoming a child.
“Well, you tell her I was here and to make the check out
Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery Association. Good day, Ma’am.”
Every year or so, when I reorganized my poem drafts, I looked at the poem, maybe shifted a few lines or altered a comma. I eventually moved it from a bent file folder to my current system, a binder divided into drafts and finished poems. I copied any poem I thought had possibilities into my computer files. I keep the binder on my desk so that I can snatch it up and make changes to a poem whenever I am “inspired” to do so.
The next time I looked at the poem was after Twyla Hansen had suggested that we publish a collection of poems together, probably in 2009. By that time the draft was thirty-eight years old.
During that thirty-eight years, my first husband and I had moved back to the ranch in 1972 to “repair our marriage.” I divorced him a year later after meeting a local abortion provider who was shocked to discover one of his customers was married to me and blurted out information better kept confidential. I spent years crawling through the jungle of consequences from that marriage. But I’d married again and my beloved second husband had been dead twenty-one years. My parents, my grandmother and several close friends had died. And I’d finally realized that one does not need to enjoy the work of Henry James in order to be an intelligent being and good writer; in fact, I think precisely the opposite. My idea of what constitutes good poetry had expanded from the tightly constructed couplets studied in graduate school.
I read and re-read the poem a few times, astonished at how the face of Walter Matthis rose before me, how I could hear his voice in my ear. I deleted some lines, moved phrases, worked on punctuation.
But mostly, I thought about what Walter had been saying to me that day. And at last, because I was finally old enough and had lost enough, I found the poem’s true ending; the finished poem was published in Dirt Songs. (I had to explain Walter’s language usage to the proofreader, who wanted to eliminate slang and spell “poke salat” differently than they do in Missouri.)
1971: Establishing Perpetual Care
at the Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery
A knock at the front door
echoes in the landlady’s empty hall
tinkles past the crystal in the cabinet,
drums across her kitchen floor to mine.
She’s not home. Whoever it is will come
to my door next. I stretch,
drop the pen and fill the kettle.
Light the stove with a wooden match.
A stooped man in a black suit
rounds the corner, dust rising
behind his cane with every step.
Ancient sweat stains streak
the band of his straw hat
like layers in old sandstone.
He shuts the gate behind him.
Thumps the door four times
with a rugged fist.
Straightens his shoulders.
I snap the bolt open,
but stay behind the locked screen door.
“Good afternoon,” I say.
He pinches his hat with
two gnarled fingers, lifts, and says,
“Good day, Ma'am. I'm Walter Mathis
from up at Locust Grove.”
He hangs the cane on one arm,
mops his forehead with a red kerchief,
tucks it in a shirt pocket. “Does Mrs.
Notye Murray still live here?”
He’s afraid she’s dead.
“Yes,” I say. Adding the “Sir”
is automatic, involuntary even.
“That’s her door you knocked on.”
“She's not home, then,” he says,
nodding. Just what he thought.
He squints, leaning toward the screen.
“You her granddaughter?”
“No sir, just a tenant– I rent
this back apartment,” I say.
Because it’s cheap, I think; because
I’ve left my husband
and have no money and no credit.
“When she goes out in the afternoon,
she's always back by dark,” I say.
“Unless it’s her whist night. But that’s Thursday.”
He leans back on his heels,
rapping the cane against the concrete step.
Eyes the packing plant fence
like he's tempted to get the hammer
and a fistful of nails out of the tool box
I know is behind the pickup seat,
fix the blasted thing so it’ll stand up straight.
“Well,” he mutters. “Let me think.”
He yanks the hat brim down.
I unlock the screen door, step outside
to say, “She might be home earlier.
I’m not real sure where she was going
but if she went for poke salat
and lambs quarters,
she might be home pretty soon.”
“Cooks ‘em up with bacon, I bet,”
he says, grinning. “Bet you never had
vittles like that, beings you are a northern lady.”
He nods. Another thing he knew
without even thinking.
I nod right back at him. The cane
pounds once more on the step.
His mind’s made up. “Well.
I gotta be gettin back to Locust Grove
so you tell Notye–you tell Miz Murray for me.
We gotta get goin on this perpetual care
for the cemetery up there. Us old-timers,
we figure maybe the next generation
won't be as interested in the folks there.
But her and me, we got close folks--
she's got her ma and pa and husband up there
and all my folks are together in that one spot.”
I nod again. Now I remember who I am,
even if I don’t know where.
I can see the cemetery in my home town,
where once I could imagine
my husband’s tombstone with mine beside it,
infinitely announcing our devotion.
He shoves the hat to wipe
his forehead on his sleeve,
yanks the brim back down. Nods again.
“Well, I live right by the cemetery, don’t ya know.
Me an’ Howard Breedlove and Walt Kinsolving--
that's my son-in-law-- we all got together
cause folks been wanting to give me money
so there'd be some kind of continual care.
And I figgered if I just took money
even if I put it in a bank,
pretty soon some bank examiners'd
want to know what I'm doin,
and pretty soon after that
the income tax people
would come a'sniffin around.
So we formed an association. I'm president.
Yep. Howard Breedlove's treasurer.
I come down here today to get papers
drawed up and signed. And I wanted to tell her
if she wants to send a check
to make it out right, to make it out to
The Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery Association.
I always mow the lawn, mowed it
seven times last year, charged forty dollars
an they paid me OK, but the year before
I mowed it ten times an there wasn't
enough money in the treasury to pay me
so I just give 'em the last one.
I lived there all my life and all my folks
are buried there. I usually got
some grandchildren to help me.
About your size."
Walter Mathis waves his cane,
redeems me as his grandchild.
I’m ready to follow him home
to Locust Grove, learn to cook
poke salat just the way he likes it.
“Here now, you tell Miz. Murray
I come by and to make the check out
Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery Association.”
He tips his hat again. “Good day to you, ma’am.”
The kettle’s boiling. While Walter’s 1953 Ford pickup
lumbers down the street, I pour my tea,
take the cup upstairs and lean to look
out the bedroom window, to watch
until Walter Mathis turns left
on the gravel road out of town,
headed back to Locust Grove.
I sip my tea and know it’s time
I headed home
where people recognize me,
where the cemetery dust
is folks I knew.
* * *
Before the book was published, I considered changing the names of the people mentioned in the poem, but decided against it, reasoning that they are doubtless dead by now. And I hoped that any descendants who might, by some far-fetched chance, read the poem, would see that my depiction of them was not only respectful but downright loving.
Today, writing this message, I was able to use technology that wasn’t available in 1971 to search for the names Walter R. Matthis and Notye Murray. They died in 1984 and 1982, respectively. Walter is buried in Locust Grove but Mrs. Murray apparently is not. May they rest in peace.
And I realized something important: When he came to my door on that day in 1971, Walter R. Matthis was seventy years old. I was able to finish the poem because I’m finally old enough to understand Walter’s concern for that burial ground. I am sixty-eight and a volunteer member of the board that governs the Highland Park Cemetery in my home town of Hermosa. Walter would chuckle to know that.
Graham Greene realized early in his writing career that if he wrote just 500 words a day, he would have written several million words in just a few decades. So he developed a routine of writing for exactly two hours every day, and he was so strict about stopping after exactly two hours that he often stopped writing in the middle of a sentence. And at that pace, he managed to publish 26 novels, as well as numerous short stories, plays, screenplays, memoirs, and travel books.
So my message for this Vernal Equinox is this: in your writing, be as persistent as the coming of spring. Return to your drafts as the birds return to their preferred habitat in spring, as grass revives and sends its shoots deeper. Put a few words down on paper every day, as you scatter seeds in the fertile earth. Appreciate the darkness that covers our world half the time at this season– but rejoice in balance of light and dark and savor the renewal of the light that will bring summer. Blessed be.
Linda M. Haselstrom
For the Vernal Equinox, March 20, 2012
Hermosa, South Dakota
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. . .
Celebrating Winter with Brigid the Light-Bringer
An Imbolc Message from Linda.
Ahh! Hear that?
In January and early February, we can find peace after the frenzied sales pitches that have come to characterize Christmas and New Year’s Day. Before merchants start flinging pink hearts to induce us to spend money for Valentine’s Day, we might wrap ourselves in a warm blanket, read, gather our thoughts and even write.
The first of February in the Celtic year was called Imbolc, marking the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. According to pagan tradition, spring’s goddess is Brigid, also known as Brighid, Brigid and Bride. She appears under other names in many cultures, often associated with the sun or with fire.
In Scotland, the Old Woman of winter, the Cailleach, is reborn as Bride, the Young Maiden of Spring, delicate but growing in power as the sun rekindles its fire. In her aspect as the Light-Bringer, Brigid may have been adopted by the Catholic Church as St. Brigid, to become part of the February 2 festival of Candlemas, dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Brigid’s cross is known as the sun cross or the circle cross: a combination of Christian symbolism with the older images of light and heat. In this country, we anticipate the coming of light and warmth with the ritual of Ground Hog Day.
When considering how I might improve my life in the coming year, I’m more inclined to look to Brigid than the ground hog. The rodent known to some as a whistle pig can be a garden pest, eating tree bark, grasses, lettuce, carrots, apples, corn and other vegetables with an occasional bug appetizer, I find Brigid’s rich symbolism more likely to suggest ways I might enhance my life.
Brigid the Light-Bringer, the Maiden, the Bride
“She shall arise like a shining sun,” says the Lives of the Saints, The Book of Lismore. The pagan Brigid was known as the goddess of hearthcraft (which I call good housekeeping), of healing and of poetry. Instead of being condemned by clerics, she was probably among the figures and ideas borrowed as Christian priests attempted to shift public support from paganism to Christianity. (For more background on how paganism and Christianity interacted, see Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman; The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler and dozens of related works.)
For me, then, Brigid has become a symbol of change, of shifting possibilities, of adaptation and learning to move smoothly between the demands of life.
Celebrations of Brigid’s ancient feast day also offer guidance for creating practical observances of the season. It’s traditional, for example, to burn Christmas greenery on February 2. What better signal of your belief that the season of cold will end in warmth? (I know one woman who has made use of this month’s warm temperatures to mulch trees and to do garden cleanup she was too busy to do in autumn; Brigid would appreciate the gesture, though in this climate we can’t count on the weather to allow it every year.)
Hearthcraft: just another name for Housekeeping?
Considerable differences exists as to what constitutes hearthcraft or smithcraft. I like this definition from walkingthehedge.net:
Hearthcraft is grounded in commonsense and practicality; it is using what is available to you. A healing spell is a bowl of chicken soup; a purification ritual is sweeping the floor; a ritual to honor the gods is cleaning the fireplace.
Hearthcraft is finding the sacred, the spiritual and the magickal in everyday things. It is bringing that “special something” into a house that makes it a home.
Picture a Brigid of Celtic times sweeping her earthen floor while chicken soup simmers in a black iron pot over an open fire. During this season my practical rituals of celebration often involve cooking, cleaning and sorting. I winnow the freezer, setting aside frost-burned vegetables for Tam’s chickens, collecting bits of stock and meat that will make tasty soups to scent the house as they simmer on a snowy day. And because the Brigid festival calls for purification, I make sure my house-cleaning involves dusting picture frames, for example, and doing other cleaning chores I’ve ignored since before Christmas. Since the weather confines us inside much of the time anyway, I find it easier to cleanse and declutter the house now, before warm air lures me outside to the garden.
Dressing in front of the closet, I pile shirts or skirts I haven’t worn in a long time into a box for the second hand store. Any cluttered drawer or shelf is in danger of reorganization. After boxing Christmas decorations, I look at cards one more time and write notes in response to fresh news. Then I cut up the cards to use as postcards or gift cards next year.
From my Jobs file, I match the work I did to the payment I got, sometimes finding discrepancies when someone failed to pay me. Accounting is another February job: collecting 1099s, bank statements, receipts and other financial data, printing out information on where my money went this year so I can consider changes.
Healing: Adjusting to change?
Brigid made the difficult transition from Celtic goddess to Catholic saint because her congregation, the people who revered her, needed her in their lives. I like to think of her as a reminder of my own need to accept change more gracefully. I have not been patient or understanding as grasslands are divided into ranchettes, for example. When I see a strange car driving through what was my uncle’s pasture, I am still startled; for years, unfamiliar vehicles in our pastures required immediate investigation. And it’s impossible to enjoy walking the hillside at midnight to listen to the great-horned owl when I can see lights in all directions.
However, the owls still court here in January, and those houses disrupting the skyline I’ve loved for sixty years are the homes of people who may live here after my body and ideas are dust. They may come to love this land as fiercely as I do and protect it as strongly. And the developed parcels aren’t going to go away. Rather than rage against them, I need to help educate the new residents about how to live here wisely and comfortably, and persuade them to appreciate local culture rather than trying to change it to fit their standards.
Accepting the changes brought by death is not easy for me either. This year I found two deaths particularly painful. My friend Trudy Z., who wrote humorously and lived with zest during most of her difficult life chose to leave it. I keep her memory alive with the Z scholarship, so my memories of her remind me of its positive effects. During the past year, one woman was the recipient of that scholarship: hours of my time commenting on her manuscript without charge.
And we poets of the nation’s heartland also lost our father figure, Bill Kloefkorn, one of my early inspirations to writing poetry who became a steadfast friend. He set a good example by delivering a fine rant when he was angry, often turning those rants into poetry instead of mere hot air. I honor him by reminding myself to write, dammit, and quit getting sidetracked.
Trudy and Bill aren’t coming back but their memories and writings inspire me. Sometimes change should be resisted, but when it is inevitable, it still requires adjustment. As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in his “Serenity Prayer,”
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
February, with its dark chill and bright cold is good time to consider that difference. When I’m no longer distracted by the conflicting demands of the “holidays,” and not yet lured outside by warm weather, I can focus on what needs to be done to make the year memorable and worthwhile.
Healing: What does not change?
Since we moved back to the ranch in 2008, I’ve walked the few acres of this hillside around our house nearly every day, usually twice, while the dogs hunt rabbits under the juniper bushes. Let’s say, conservatively, that I walked here once daily for three years, for a total of 1095 little jaunts. During the ten years I lived here with George, we walked the hillside at least once a day as well: add another 3650 walks. (In the interests of truth, i.e., nonfiction, please note that I am adjusting for the days I have missed while traveling.)
So I’ve strolled around this hillside almost five thousand times. If I look up and away, I see changes that make me grit my teeth and grumble: a four-lane highway that traffic studies showed was not needed; jumbles of outbuildings and abandoned vehicles; so-called “security” lights that glare all night.
Instead I try to enhance my benefit from the walk by studying the ground that has changed little in my lifetime or in a dozen lifetimes.
When the first Westy, Cuchulain, was killed, we buried him on the spot where he waited for us if we left him home. To mark the spot, we began piling white quartz rocks over him; the white quartz caught our eye just as his sturdy body did. When I began having retreats here, the writers noticed how I placed white quartz stones on his grave and did the same, collecting pieces ranging from the size of a Westie to the size of my little fingernail. Frodo and Duggan died in Cheyenne; we had them cremated and brought their ashes back to this spot, tucking their collars under the whitened skulls of a couple of elderly horses and a cow or two. When Mac died, his ashes joined theirs.
Some days, walking with the current Westies Toby and Cosmo, I see no quartz but on others I might pick up five pieces, tucking them into crevices in the pile of white stones. In spring and summer, when the grasses are tall, finding the stones becomes more difficult, but winter winds flatten the grass and exposes a fresh new supply. The stones crop up most often where the soil is only an inch thick over a limestone underlayer. We’ve rarely dug out a piece, just chosen those on the surface.
Dozens of us have combed this ten-acre spot for years. Surely we’ve found every nugget of white quartz.
Yet almost every day, I find more. Perhaps I’m out a little later, so the setting sun is lower and glints from a facet I’ve never noticed before. Or I realize that the patch of moss beside that hunk of limestone is covering a tiny gem.
You know this lesson; it is not brilliantly new, but like most useful precepts it deserves repetition. Finding the treasure in the familiar may be a matter of looking at it a little differently, a little more closely. Finding the prize in the ordinary requires patience, time, solitude, quiet. Look, breathe deeply, look again. And again. And again.
Brigid: Goddess of Poetry
Looking, solitude and patience lead inevitably and directly to creativity, another of Brigid’s domains. Most people don’t hesitate to drive in any winter weather, trusting in their automotive behemoths (Ram! Explorer! Escape! Volt!) to go anywhere, anytime.
Traffic accident reports proclaim that no matter how fancy your ride, fickle February weather may throw you into the ditch.
So stay home! Listen to the weather report. Seize any excuse to stay in the home you have made comfortable and inviting. Instead of getting angry or frustrated, wrap up in a warm shawl and read or write.
Rather than disappointing people who hire me, I sometimes simply decline invitations to speak during winter, when weather is likely to make travel miserable and dangerous.
And holing up to write helps me to partake in all Brigid’s aspects. Starting with her housekeeping persona, I inspect the poetry binder, where I collect everything I’ve been working on for the past year. I search through the drafts, finding some that have been published but that I failed to remove from the drafts section. I may find others so nearly done that I can give myself considerable positive reinforcement by putting them on my desk and finishing them within a few days. I never throw away drafts but in shuffling them around-- from “draft” to “finished but unpublished”-- I sometimes see a new element to explore. I take time to make myself a cup of tea. I read a poem draft and think about it for a half hour, looking out the window. If I had a TV on these days, I’d turn it off.
For the Healing aspect of my personal Brigid celebration, I tackle the toughest poems I’ve worked on during the year: the dark poems about divorce, fear, betrayal, anger.
Here’s an example, still a draft with two possible titles; I rarely title a poem until it’s finished.
Poem/Drafts/Holding My Breath
She Didn’t Sweep Up the Broken Glass
She found more whiskey. That’s
how it started every time.
When he came home
she screamed and
he yelled. I was three. I sat
under the table
holding my breath
counting in my head
as she smashed bottles
in the kitchen sink.
I could see his trousers,
shoes set wide apart facing
her hose and high heels.
Smash. One. Scream. Two.
The sour whiskey smell
sloshed to the floor. Glass
shards clattered. Three.
Crash. Four. Shriek. I held
my breath. I counted.
His drinking, her spending.
He left me alone while he went
to bed with the woman upstairs
and now she’s having a baby. If I
held my breath they’d stop.
He slammed the door. She packed
and carried me up the loud metal steps
of a train chugging in the dark.
I held my breath and counted
lighted cars uncoiling
behind us in the dark. I lived
with my grandmother while
mother divorced father. When she slapped
me, I held my breath and counted. She
married a good man. When the drunk
died forty years ago, a coroner called
to tell me about the whiskey bottle
and the pills. Her good man died;
she moved to the nursing home,
dwindled away. For sixty-five years
I’ve held my breath.
Counted screams, glass pieces
falling. It’s working. I can
hardly hear them anymore.
* * *
Setting a relaxed pace in late January and February helps me calmly consider this personal writing without letting it dominate my mind or depress me too much. In the silence of gray February afternoons I can study the changes I need to create poetry-- or not-- from old memories.
Whatever form your creativity takes, consider getting acquainted with Brigid, drawing her healing fire into your life as you settle into the solitary thoughtfulness that can lead so sweetly to creation. Blessed be.
Linda M. Haselstrom
February 2, 2012
Hermosa, South Dakota
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. . .
Looking for Grandmother
Recently I’ve been trying to learn more about the lives of some of my ancestors as part of a new book project. I’ve been frustrated because my writing has been sporadic and not very focused. I’m still searching for the threads that I will follow to create the book.
But writing isn’t all writing, as I’ve said before (see "Thinking Is Writing," my archived Home Page message from October, 2011). An important part of writing is thinking and preparing to write, so I’m able to rationalize my fumbling through the archives of my family’s life, these remnants that constitute my research materials, as part of that process.
Research for writers is different than research for historians who are strictly obligated to facts. A writer may speculate on what those facts mean.
Whether you are writing about your own family or others, if you make a statement that sounds factual about something you don’t know, you are writing fiction. Each writer must decide what that difference means. I am determined to write nonfiction insofar as I am able. But I know that everything I write will be colored by what has happened in my life so far, my opinions, my beliefs. I cannot be objective, so I must try to be as honest as possible about my limitations.
My search for ancestor information has involved
* official documents
* artifacts and
I’ll provide examples about how the results of each kind of search has enlightened me.
The most obvious beginning of a search, and possibly the easiest today, is for official documentation of a life. Many paper files are being put on computers and online, so if you have access to a computer and the internet, searching for public documents has never been easier. Even if you don’t have a computer, start by obtaining official records for births, marriages, and deaths from the appropriate sources. These official records provide you with a framework on which to build and furnish the house of your writing, whether it’s an official history, a more imaginative memoir or fiction based on fact.
Double check everything. My grandmother Cora had told me that my grandfather Elmer was killed in “a logging accident.” She told of taking my mother, aged about 5, to see him laid out in his coffin in a huge empty room, kissing him goodbye. When I started collecting documents, I realized I had no death certificate for him, only a newspaper account of his burial.
So I contacted authorities in Hood River, Oregon, where he was killed in 1914 and quickly received a copy of his death certificate: he’d been beheaded when he fell under a logging train.
Did my grandmother forget that horrid detail? Hold it back to spare his children? Or did some kind person manage to hide the fact from her? I may never know, but that vague “logging accident” is now shockingly real.
Frustratingly, many of us find, often after the oldest members are dead, that family photos are not labeled with the information we need. Who are these people? Where did we live then? How old were you? (If you guiltily admit this is the case in your family, start labeling those pictures now! Help your own descendants.)
Look at photos actively: think about what you are seeing. How old are the cars in the picture? Can you see a license plate? Does the background-- the house, vegetation, skyline-- provide any clues? What can clothing and hairstyles tell you?
Consider facial expressions.
My father hated being photographed and any observant person can tell that from the grim set of his lips.
My grandmother Cora always looked straight at the camera; her eyes and mouth are surrounded by smile lines. I’ve never seen a picture of her with makeup. Her clothes are usually comfortable, baggy.
Her sister Pearl was never photographed in casual clothes or without full and elaborate makeup and hair styling; she always smiled coquettishly for the camera.
My mother Mildred used her makeup skillfully and smiles as if she is trying not to smear her lipstick. She looks into the distance, chin lifted, mouth pouty or pursed, like a model. In what is probably the first photo of me, Mildred sits on a concrete step in profile to the camera with her baby balanced on her knees, barely held in place with the tips of her fingers. She looks over her shoulder at the photographer, chin tucked in, smiling in a way I’d call coy. Behind her, the figure of a nurse is barely visible, hovering behind the screen door. Once I saw that photograph, I began to realize something she admitted years later: it was my biological father who wanted a child, not my mother.
You must be prepared to admit that no matter how objective you may try to be when looking at pictures of people you know, your perceptions will be colored by what you know of them. My relationship with my mother was always difficult, so I am trying to become more sympathetic to her by learning more about her, by studying how she became the person I knew.
How can you supplement information in photographs?
When I first saw a picture of my mother wearing belted overalls beside a woman wearing knickers and a gentleman’s flat cap, I couldn’t believe the older woman was her mother Cora. But it is. Mother looks at the camera from under a rakishly-tilted felt hat, her right hand on a large purse at her hip. Grandmother looks away from the camera but she’s smiling. I never saw her wear trousers. In another photo, Mother and her friend Stella are both wearing knickers and flat caps.
Then I pulled out my mother’s journal for May 29 to Aug. 5, 1925, when she was fifteen, and found this note on July 3: “Today Stella and I put on our Middies and knickers and caps and we went downtown about a dozen times before we got started for Belle Fourche.”
Aha! It’s likely the picture was taken that summer and perhaps Grandmother was persuaded to wear the knickers just for the photograph. On the next album page, mother and daughter are picnicking with rest of the family, and I recall mother’s mention that they had driven out to Red Canyon. If I keep reading the journals, I may find a mention of the knickers photo.
Deeper in the album, I see many pictures of mother with girlfriends, posing in various costumes: overalls; baggy dresses and bonnets; flapper dresses. She prances like a model, vamping with a hat tipped over her eyes. She pets a dog and looks soulful. There she stands sideways to the camera, hands on hips, head thrown back, lips pushed out, eyes half-closed: her sultry look. She poses with girl friends, with boys, with Cora.
Several album pages are filled with pictures labeled “George,” “Francis,” “Lawrence,” “Russell,” of boys wearing suits, ties, vests, in front of cars, behind the wheel, leaning against trees, all with one leg slightly advanced, as if they were modeling menswear. The journal mentions Stella’s camera: perhaps this was the first camera available to these teenagers and they were acting out their fantasies.
Ask questions if you can. But consider the responses carefully, whether they are oral or written.
I once asked my mother about a photo in which she was holding a cigarette and a martini glass. She said, “Oh, someone must have put those in my hand as a joke. I didn’t smoke or drink!” A dozen other photos I found later make clear she was quite comfortable with cigarettes and martinis at the time she was married to my biological father. Later, she divorced him and warned me often about his alcoholism.
Even if you can’t question people, question the photographs. Look for recognizable family characteristics: ears, noses, eyes.
Recently I studied a formal, undated portrait of my mother, wearing a high-necked black blouse and flawless makeup. Though the photo is sepia, I could tell her lipstick was richly colored; her eyebrows were plucked to a high arch, her eyelashes curled and blackened (I still have her eyelash curler). Looking closely, I suddenly realized how large my mother’s nose was and compared it to my grandmother’s nose: also sizable. Both women referred to mine as a “snub” nose. Hmm. More pictures; my biological father’s nose was prominent. Then I looked at a photo of the grandfather beheaded by that train, Harry Elmer Baker: his nose is just like mine.
Suddenly this grandfather I never met becomes an ancestor, blood of my blood.
I’m fortunate to be part of a family of journal-keepers: Besides my own journals (except for those I foolishly burned after a cheating husband read them trying to prove I behaved as he did; don’t ever burn your journals!) I have my father’s and mother’s journals. Simply reading the journals, though, doesn’t provide the answers to the questions I have about my history.
Mother’s childhood diary entries often mentioned going somewhere: the movies, for a ride in someone’s car, to the drugstore, to a neighbor’s. In 1924, age 15, she wrote that Cora gave her fifty cents, her week’s allowance, and “I got my new Jacquette this morning and went down town this afternoon and had a coco cola in Bacon’s all by myself and of course I was waited on by the most efficient of soda squirts.” Suddenly I realized: she lived in town!
Because my grandmother ended her days on the Red Canyon ranch, I’d pictured my mother growing up there. But when Cora met Walt Hey, her second husband, they both lived in Edgemont, SD, where he was apparently a jack of all trades; he had completely rewired the high school, for example, and was an auto mechanic. Newly widowed, she was running a small café with her sister Pearl. The ranch may have been acquired later in payment of a debt. I remember a story about her walking from Edgemont to the ranch, at least ten miles, so she may have lived in town with her two older children-- my mother and mother’s brother-- for awhile after they were married and Walt took over the ranch. Walt and Cora later had two sons, George and Harry, who did grow up on the ranch.
Recently my Uncle George said he moved an old log cabin across the canyon and added it to the existing log house as a kitchen in 1932-- the year after my mother married her first husband. All the older generation, my grandmother, mother and uncle, probably simply assumed we all knew. And I couldn’t have asked “Did you grow up on the ranch?” because I didn’t know the answer.
As I read my mother’s journals, I am made aware of the differences between us. At 15, my mother wrote that her mother Cora asked her if she’d ever been kissed.
I said no and lied like everything but I don’t care. She’d never understand that it is a modern custom, this goodnight Kiss stuff. She preached about B. might lose his control. Lord, whoever thought of it. B’s the very soul of honor and Oh Hell she thinks she’s smart about that losing control. They just do that in stories and probably in married life or something. . . . this serious real life stuff makes me sick. All I want is romance. Kisses are romantic but Oh God help me to leave it there. I want Romance.
I know I occasionally lied to my parents, but I believe that at age 15 I was more interested in horses than Romance-- but I don’t have my own journals to compare with hers so if I write about this aspect I will have to rely on memory. (Did I mention you should never destroy your journals?)
My mother’s later journals are frustrating because she squeezed two tiny lines of script into every ruled line of a journal page. Even with a magnifying glass, I can read only briefly before my eyes cross. Maybe, having lived through the times of scarcity in the Thirties, she was simply conserving paper. I gave her many journals with wide spacing but her handwriting got tinier as she aged. I can trace her mental deterioration, too, by its increasing illegibility and her reminders to herself of things she once knew. Snippets of information she pasted into the journals provide insight: pithy sayings; dozens of obituaries (most are frustratingly undated); photographs of her favorite public men, like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. These later journals are too painful for me to read.
Some days I’m not sure if learning more about my grandmother is part of the book I’m planning or a distraction from it, so I try not to fret about that. Often when I’m sifting through these mementoes, I see no particular purpose in them for the book in my mind. But I almost can’t help organizing, and I think doing a routine task like sorting letters into chronological order can be a good mental aid to later writing. When I’m stuck on a writing project, unsure how to proceed, I often do some kind of filing or organizing. While my body is busy at the job, I believe my mind might be looking for answers to the questions my writing is asking.
In this case, Cora helped me in this obsessive job because she nearly always dated her letters fully: month, day and year. Sometimes a letter remained in its original envelope. Still, I wasn’t sure what purpose was served by putting them in order. When I mentioned her letters to an uncle, he said, “She never said anything anyway. Oh, maybe what she was doing, but nothing about what was going on in the world.” I disagree; letters provide a personal history unavailable anywhere else. An online search makes it easy to correlate private with world events.
Often it’s not what’s going on in the world that’s important about letters. For example, on December 23, 1945, about a year and a half after her second husband Walt’s death, my grandmother wrote to my mother that she’d dreamed that he drove into the yard. In the dream, he was dressed up; he’d been to town. He came inside and was delighted with her little Christmas tree, erected because his two boys were coming home on leave from military service. Cora had broken her glasses and he immediately started fixing them; she’d written after his death about the pain of seeing several things he’d meant to fix, forever unfinished.
Suddenly I identified with my grandmother in a way I never had before-- as a widow. For years after George died, I’d dream of him coming home, or meeting him somewhere, telling him that we’d thought he was dead. In the dream, of course, his death was just our misunderstanding. Perhaps all widows, and widowers, have such dreams.
Two months after Walt’s death, Cora writes to my mother, “My life seams [sic; Grandmother didn’t have much schooling] so empty and the future looks so dark,” but then “something seams [sic] to brace me up and give me courage to go on just awhile longer.”
Again, I can identify with her; she doesn’t specify what braces her up-- she seldom got to town for church-- but she goes on.
Though grandmother may not have mentioned news events, some are easy to discern from the other things I know about the history of the period. Letters written during the war are on cheap, fragile paper. When she mentions near the end of one that she has to stop writing because she can hardly see, I’m reminded she was writing by lamp or candle light. She refers only obliquely to her sons “over there,” because American censors wanted to keep troop numbers and locations secret.
Again, I’m fortunate. Many of the family letters I have are fully dated: month, day and year. Still, knowledge available to the writer and first reader may be hidden from the later reader. Someone writes: “Cooper died today; I am devastated.” Child? Neighbor? Dog? You’ll need to do more research to find the answer.
Sometimes clues are tantalizing rather than informative. In one letter, my grandmother is apparently responding to my mother’s news that she has broken up with a boyfriend. “I thought you’d get tired of just going with anybody,” says Grandmother tartly.
Had my mother’s quest for “Romance” led her astray? She believed, at least, in the importance of letters. I possess, but have not read, letters written 1925-1930 by the man she married in 1931. In 1938 she married my biological father and in 1952 she married John Hasselstrom. She kept those letters for 76 years, through two more marriage and a dozen moves, until her death in 2001. A story exists there, though I may never write it.
If she and the man had emailed, though, she could not have kept his letters and I wouldn’t know that “romantic” detail.
Technically, letters belong to the writer, so use discretion in quoting from them even if the letter-writer is dead. If you are worried about what is going to be revealed, consult an attorney who specializes in copyright law.
For a writer, the ordinary possessions from a life often becomes detritus, the stuff we throw away without thought. But consider how these things may be valuable aids to memory or even to factual research.
My grandmother wore out most of her possessions. In my poem “Looking for Grandmother,” I wrote that I greet her in my kitchen every day as I use her things but was unable to find her grave plot in the cemetery. When I peel potatoes, for example, I can see her hands deftly slicing peelings into the dishpan (I suddenly remember as I am writing this!) she used to take scraps to the chickens.
(There’s another reason to study and write about these memories: each one may lead you to more. I had forgotten until I found my fingers typing “into the dishpan” that Grandmother’s kitchen was a Hoosier cabinet beside her stove. When I first stayed with her there, she had no running water.)
I use the towels she folded on the shelf above the sink,
gifts from folks who cared for her but didn’t know
what she would need or want. I’m wearing out the frayed
ones first, as she would do. Eighteen years after she died,
I still haven’t had to buy a kitchen towel. Last week
I finished up her last jar of Noxema, finally
old enough to be someone’s grandma; old enough
not to care how I smell in bed. When all her towels
and bars of soap and lotion are gone, I’ll still
be using her bread bowl, her potato peeler worn so thin
it’s nearly wire.
From “Looking for Grandmother,” Dirt Songs, The Backwater Press, 2011, page 69.
What else do I have? A few crocheted doilies, a wooden crochet hook that reminds me how she tried to teach me the art; an embroidered afghan-- she made one for each of her grandchildren but didn’t live long enough to make them for the great-grands.
Every blank page of her recipe book has been covered with recipes handwritten or clipped from newspapers, clues to the household’s prosperity and interests. Liver Sausage; canning beef by the cold method; chow chow and mince meat from green tomatoes. (Our short growing season probably meant they ate more tomatoes green than ripe.) Many kinds of cucumber pickles, beefsteak and oysters, venison mincemeat for pies, suet pudding, Bavarian cream, dandy ice cream, Jelly Roll, mustard and catsup, taffy, cracker jack, peanut brittle and cream puffs.
Household hints include products unused today: “blueing is good for cleaning windows,” and “Always have your lard hard,” and “A teaspoon turpentine added to a pail warm water is good for cleaning purposes.” Ads include one for Carney Coal, which “warms its friends and cools its enemies.” Buckmaster’s Bakery “is not a fakery;” its bread is the best, its rolls meet the test, its donuts are crumptious and its pastries bumptious. Hoosier Kitchen Cabinet promises a systematic kitchen, a pleasant day, “a happy home, a contented wife.”
Here’s a surprise. In the back is a recipe for “malt tonic.” The ingredients are hops, sugar, water and yeast; hmm. Prohibition lasted from 1918 to 1933 and many folks made their own beer, but I’d never have suspected my grandmother was one of them!
And books may hold more than their pages. Tucked between two pages I find a note I wrote to Grandmother on Mother’s Day, 1957.
In my mother’s cookbook I find a list headed "Linda":
Apr 8 1949 . . . 45 1/2 in
Oct. 9 1949 . . . 48 lbs.
Nov. 17, 1954 . . . 82 lbs.
Nov. 11, 1955 . . . 96 lbs. 5 ft 2 in
Febr. 11, 1956 . . . 100 lbs.
Aug 11, 1956 . . . 105 lbs.
(I remember how I was horrified to realize I could never be a professional jockey, since most of them weigh under 100 pounds.)
Oct. 3, 1956 . . . 110 lbs. (Mother 107)
On the day she first realized I outweighed her, she began to lecture me about overeating-- but I was already five inches taller than she. Her obsession with being thin later shortened her life.
Paper documents vary; I could create a day-by-day timeline of the building of my house by reading my returned checks for that summer, seeing when I paid for the floor joists, the shingles, the septic work. Now that few banks return these documents, future historians will have harder work tracing a person’s location, her financial situation, her interests.
Any writer must acknowledge that memory may be faulty. Write what you recall anyway, in as much detail as possible, because this is personal, intimate evidence. Most of my memories of grandmother were tiny vignettes complete with sight, sound and sometimes taste and smell, true though they lack documentation. What year did that happen? Why was she there? But the taste of a gingersnap cookies dipped in the tea she let me drink (with milk) against my mother’s wishes (“it’ll stunt her growth!”) is part of what she was to me. That’s what’s important.
If I want to know more facts about grandmother, I have to do more research. Most of us fail to ask the right questions when our ancestors are alive; by the time we are old enough to formulate questions, they may have forgotten, died, or, like my mother, decided to deny certain aspects of her history.
Among my significant memories are figures of speech. Grandmother said “My stars!” in situations where my mother swore vehemently. My grandmother called tidying the house “redding up,” a southern or perhaps Scottish expression (see my comments on this topic posted on my Blog Page for November 13, 2011.) My mother once told me a pair of jeans was so worn I might as well “jack up the zipper and run a new pair of pants under it.” I have no idea where that expression may have originated but it’s pithy and memorable.
I don’t yet know how these tidbits might become part of what I write.
* * *
As the Yule approaches, gathering darkness into the longest night of the year, I am grateful to be surrounded by my family, diminished though it is, and our history. The journals, letters and photographs I shuffle from desk to shelf are the evidence of lives lived earnestly, if not always wisely or well. Through the darkness and cold of December and the rest of winter, I will ponder and think and write, knowing that eventually the light will return to the earth. And I know that light will shine on my writing-- and yours as well-- if we steadily apply ourselves.
May your Solstice be warm with family, whether related by blood or chosen. And may you not lose confidence in the coming of the light.
I do believe I’ll try my grandmother’s Dandy Ice Cream recipe for a Solstice treat.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
For the Winter Solstice, December 21, 2011
Hermosa, South Dakota
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The "Dandy Ice Cream" recipe may be found in Linda's blog posted on January 3, 2012. Click here to go to the blog page, then search by date or by topic (Ice Cream or Recipe).
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. . .
Thinking is Writing: A Samhain Message from Linda
“To get these new ideas down on paper, I needed solitude so I slunk off to the cabin . . . and spent a week writing. It was a glorious week. I arose at six-thirty and thought until eight, by which time my thinking had made me hungry. . . .I was able to write then until about two. . . . about 1,500 words a day.”
-- Jon Hassler, My Staggerford Journal (New York: Ballantine, 1999), p. 33
I found this book in the sale section of the Rapid City Public Library, and picked it up because I once met Jon Hassler in Minnesota and thought any journal of his would be worthwhile. Flipping pages, I read the paragraph above and was struck by one sentence:
“I arose at six-thirty and thought until eight.” He did that BEFORE having coffee, before eating! He didn’t read, he doesn’t mention making notes; he thought for an hour and a half.
The book is vastly encouraging to writers in other ways, but that sentence is, I think, the best possible guidance for a writer.
When I have an idea, it’s easy to write furiously: I take notes in my journal, I mumble to myself and take more notes while walking the dogs, I sit at the computer and type wildly. I also leap up to get lunch started, answer an email or two, sit down after lunch with a mystery. At night, in order to stop thinking about my writing and other aspects of my life, I read a mystery until I fall asleep.
But what really helps with writing, or with any other problem, is to simply sit down, stare into space and think. (Thinking can be accomplished while walking dogs if no one is talking, but it’s easy to be distracted by the dogs’ antics, the rabbits, interesting rocks and plants.)
Writing helps capture ideas only if they are there. And they come more easily if I quiet myself and pursue them. Anything that interrupts thought hinders that process. I believe that anyone who is constantly using a phone, watching TV, blogging, facebooking, texting, emailing– is not thinking. Cannot possibly think.
When a retreat is about to begin at Homestead House, I first read the writer’s work, writing comments on the draft. I try to finish that process at least two days before the writer arrives.
Then I think about what I have read. Here’s an example: I read and commented on a novel recently: wrote furiously throughout the 140 page manuscript, commenting on grammatical and technical problems, asking questions about what the writer had not revealed about the main character and the setting.
That evening I took a hot bath and considered the novel. (I do some of my best thinking in the bathtub while trying to clear my sinuses because it’s so much harder to read then; the library does not appreciate damp books.) Lying back in the tub with my eyes closed, I tried to picture the main character in the novel, a ten-year-old pioneer girl. When her parents move from a bustling town to a new village, she is reluctant to go, misses her friends and the city life they leave behind. Gradually she adapts to her surroundings and finally realizes that she is proud to be part of the founding of a new village.
I should have found it easy to identify with this girl. I moved to this ranch at nine years of age and learned how things were done just as she did, by instruction from my parents in how to do the chores that helped the family survive and prosper. The child in the novel was learning in 1880 and I was learning in 1952 from parents who were still doing things in the way their parents did in the early part of the century. My parents would have been ten years old around 1920, so their methods of instruction and the way we lived, except for modern appliances, were not greatly different from pioneering times– especially if compared to the way a ten-year-old girl might live today.
But I could not feel the child’s emotions as she grew into her new role. And yet I had been that child: learning how to gather eggs, fearful of the hens who stayed on the nest pecking my hand, missing my friends in town and how blithely we skated after school with no chores to do. If the writer couldn’t make that character work for me, already positively inclined toward believing in the book as mentor, fellow writer, and former child, how could she make it work for a modern ten-year-old? What was missing?
Sensory detail is one of the best ways to draw the reader into a scene: make the reader see, smell, taste, hear, touch or feel what the character is feeling. Action is not enough; the writer needs to lure the reader.
So if I write “Grandmother Hey grabbed Linda’s hand and pulled her up the steps to the school,” I’ve accomplished the action needed by the scene. I can’t control every aspect of how the reader pictures the two characters, but if a reader pictures the woman and her granddaughter in ways that detract from the story I’m trying to tell, I’m working against my own purposes. I need to direct the reader’s attention in a way that advances my story.
So I might add sight, more visual description.
Grandmother Hey took Linda’s soft little hand in her big leathery one. She smiled down at Linda. Her white hair rippled in smooth white waves back from her tan, wrinkled face; her blue eyes shone with happiness. Linda looked down at their clasped hands; grandmother’s thin gold wedding ring shone and slid up against the misshapen knuckle of the finger.
Next I add sound.
Grandmother Hey took Linda’s soft little hand in her big leathery one;. She smiled down at Linda. Her white hair rippled in smooth white waves back from her tan, wrinkled face; her blue eyes shone with happiness. Linda looked down at their clasped hands; grandmother’s thin gold wedding ring shone and slid up against the misshapen knuckle of the finger.
“Come on,” Grandmother said in her deep voice. “You’ll be fine. You’ll learn to read and to spell better than I can.” She stomped her right foot in its high-top black shoe on the first step and waited until the little girl tapped her white patent-leather shoe on the same step.
Grandmother Hey took Linda’s soft little hand in her big leathery one. She smiled down at Linda. Her white hair rippled in smooth white waves back from her tan, wrinkled face; her blue eyes shone with happiness.
Linda looked down at their clasped hands; grandmother’s thin gold wedding ring shone and slid up against the misshapen knuckle of the finger. The child leaned against Grandmother’s arm, inhaling the sharp, clean scent of Noxema. She smiled down at Linda, wrinkles crinkling her tan skin, her faded blue eyes shining. “Come on,” she said in her deep voice. “You’ll be fine. You’ll learn to read and to spell better than I can.”
She stomped her right foot in its high-top black shoe on the first step and waited until the little girl tapped her white patent-leather shoe on the same step.
“Take a deep breath, now,” said Grandmother, and Linda did. The air smelled mostly of car exhaust and dust, but she could also smell Grandmother’s face powder, peachy and warm.
Add more touch.
Grandmother Hey took Linda’s soft little hand in her big leathery one; her thin gold wedding ring shone and slid up against the misshapen knuckle of the finger. She smiled down at Linda. Her white hair rippled in smooth white waves back from her tan, wrinkled face; her blue eyes shone with happiness.
Linda looked down at their clasped hands and touched grandmother’s thin gold wedding ring, sliding it up until it stopped. She rubbed her finger over the swollen knuckle of her grandmother’s hand, feeling how the skin slid over the bulging bone beneath. Then she leaned against Grandmother’s arm, inhaling the sharp, clean scent of Noxema.
Grandmother smiled down at Linda, wrinkles crinkling her tan skin, her faded blue eyes shining. “Come on,” she said in her deep voice. “You’ll be fine. You’ll learn to read and to spell better than I can.”
She stomped her right foot in its high-top black shoe on the first step and waited until the little girl tapped her white patent-leather shoe on the same step. “Take a deep breath, now,” said Grandmother, and Linda did. The air smelled mostly of car exhaust and dust, but she could also smell Grandmother’s face powder, peachy and warm.
Add feelings, emotions.
Grandmother Hey took Linda’s soft little hand in her big leathery one;. Linda looked down at their clasped hands and touched grandmother’s thin gold wedding ring, sliding it up until it stopped. She rubbed her finger over the swollen knuckle of her grandmother’s hand, feeling how the skin slid over the bulging bone beneath. Then she leaned against Grandmother’s arm, inhaling the sharp, clean scent of Noxema.
“I’m scared,” she said softly. “The other kids probably have daddies.”
Grandmother smiled down at Linda, wrinkles crinkling her tan skin, her faded blue eyes shining. “Come on,” she said in her deep voice. “You’ll be fine. Your mother is worth two daddies, and you have me. And you’ll learn to read and to spell better than I can.” She stomped her right foot in its high-top black shoe on the first step and waited until the little girl tapped her white patent-leather shoe on the same step. “Take a deep breath, now,” said Grandmother, and Linda did. The air smelled mostly of car exhaust and dust, but she could also smell Grandmother’s face powder, peachy and warm.
And so on. Not all the senses need to be in each scene; I wouldn’t add taste to this one, for example, but experiment to see what works. Each addition expands the scene, but may also give you more material. I could come back to the mention of Linda rubbing her finger over Grandmother’s swollen knuckle to have the child reflect on age and its effects. The smell of car exhaust can be recalled later as a contrast to the sharp air of the canyon where Grandmother lives.
Keep thinking. In the case of the novelist, I suggested she renew her acquaintance with ten-year-old girls through memory or interviewing a few. What do they think about? Their view certainly is broader than that of, say, a six-year-old child, so consider how aware they are. Do they know how their parents make a living? What do they understand about the functioning of the world? Who are the people who make their world: teachers, parents, siblings, relatives. What does a ten-year-old want out of life? Does she have crushes? Plans for a career? To be admired?
I suggested that the writer note answers to these questions as best she can. And then simply allow time for her subconscious to work. When you did this in school, it might have been called "day-dreaming," but experts say it is essential to all creativity.
Laurie R. King, in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, (p. 298), some of my “light” reading, furnishes this observation: “However, the mind has an amazing ability to continue worrying away at a problem all on its own, so that when the ‘Eureka!’ comes it is as mysterious as if it were God speaking. The words given voice inside the mind are not always clear, however; they can be gentle and elliptical, what the prophets called the bat qol, the daughter of the voice of God, she who speaks in whispers and half-seen images.” A perfect description of the subconscious at work.
Your mind must be otherwise temporarily unoccupied in order for it to receive ideas from your subconscious, which works harder at writing than you do. You must be silent, so you can hear ideas. Walk. Turn off the radio or VCR or computer. Get away from softball players and speedboats and cell phones and people who talk constantly and all other outside stimuli; listen for what will happen in your brain.
I always take a notebook to record the ideas I capture on walks. I’ve found, though, that if I’m too hasty in writing down the first thing occurs to me, my thinking may stop there. Without the notebook, I’m forced to keep thinking, keep recalling what that first thought was, allowing my brain to build on it, extend the thought, complete the edifice.
Thinking, I believe, may be the most underrated, unmentioned, unsung part of the writing process. Considering the many books I’ve read or skimmed that promised to teach the writer “how to write and make big money,” I don’t recall anyone suggesting long bouts of thinking. Thought is, I believe, considerably more likely to lead to good writing than the latest computer, a magnificent library, intricate research or a beautiful study with a good view of the mountains and the nicest paper and pens money can buy.
At this season, when the year is winding into winter, contemplating the importance of thinking seems particularly appropriate. Rebecca Tope, in Death in the Cotswolds, calls Halloween “a festival of contradictions: silence and feasting, sacrifice and survival, fire and blood.” Surely writing is filled with contradictions: furious bouts of pounding at the keyboard followed by thinking, or despair. Glorious feelings of triumph when you write the perfect paragraph are followed by plunges into depression when you can’t seem to write a coherent sentence.
For the Celts, Samhain marks one of the two great doorways of the Celtic year, divided by them into only two seasons: the light and the dark. May 1, Beltane, celebrates the return of the light; Samhain (pronounced Sow-wen, from a Gaelic word meaning “summer’s end”) observes the return of darkness November 1. Since the Celtic day began at night, Samhain may have been the more important festival.
In dark silence, the Celts believed, one may hear the whispering of new beginnings, the stirring of the seed below the ground.
Sounds like a description of the subconscious at work. May this Samhain bring you the daughter of the voice of God, whispering wonderful paragraphs into your listening ears.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Samhain, October 31, 2011
Hermosa, South Dakota
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A Mabon (Fall Equinox) Message from Linda
"The Glitter Phase of Life"
Signs of fall accumulated slowly through August. One evening I hear the boom of a nighthawk and see the two sitting on the bare branch of the pine beside the retreat house, as they have done all summer. The next day they are gone.
The heron stands in the still water of the dam, gazing. Ducks mass around the edges of the water, still floating in flocks, but the ducklings are nearly indistinguishable from the adults. Cows stand knee-deep in their own reflections, drinking. The calves butt heads, graze, wander off in clumps like teenagers. Sunflowers sway, sprinkling the ground around their stems with yellow pollen. Their leaves click as they curl and dry. Red-brown grass shivers on the hillside. Tiny green insects with transparent wings gather on the window screens. House spiders’ webs fill each corner, concentric strands shining in the sun, shimmering as flies and gnats struggle. Fat spiders rush out to tie up each victim. One has yellow and brown hieroglyphics on its back; another has red and black legs that glow fiercely in the sun.
Instead of rushing to close windows against the heat each day, I begin to leave some open, sniffing the drying grass on the breeze as I chop tomatoes for sauce simmering on the stove. I’m thinking about friendship, the visit of a woman I’ve known for fifty years. I wrote a poem for her years ago, “Dear Suzan,” published in Dakota Bones in 1993, when we’d been friends about thirty years.
. . .
Since coffee talk and promises to write,
the hay has grown, been mowed and stacked.
Hawks are moving south, fighting crows;
the last tomatoes ripen on the window sill.
Your children must be in school.
It’s not that I don’t remember;
days are short. Often when I plan to write
cold and dark eddy around me
tangling at my throat,
rising from the twisted roots
of dead tomato vines;
frost tonight promises winter soon.
Crisp orange petals tumble at my feet
as ripe black marigold seeds tumble into a jar.
When the earth is frozen outside the window
I’ll touch the warmth of summer in stored seed.
* * *
This year, as we reach the age of sixty-eight, I’ve been working on writing another poem for her to commemorate fifty years of friendship.
We’re in the long, slow autumn of our lives, and her birthday is at the end of September, so thinking of her at this season seems appropriate. Naturally, I want the poem to be good. But are poems written primarily for friendship’s sake ever really good? And if not, does it matter?
A quick review of friendship poems is disturbing. One online site calls the friendship poem the “neglected cousin of the love poem,” and many of the ones I find feature either bad rhyme and hopeless sentimentality, or are curdled with outmoded language like “wouldst,” “midst,” and “thou ask’st.” Robert Burns’s “Auld Lang Syne” has become famous, but most are more obscure: Rudyard Kipling’s “Gunga Din,” which probably is so politically incorrect it would be banned from schools but has a fine rhythm, and his more famous “If.” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “Tact,” referring to something needed in all long relationships. William Butler Yeats emotes so shamelessly I can’t stand to quote him and Matthew Arnold disappoints me. Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell dedicated “The Armadillo” and “Skunk Hour,” respectively, to each other, but neither is what I would call a friendly, accessible poem.
So another question arises. Does a friendship poem need to be a real poem, a good poem?
Of course not. If your aim is to honor your friend, to record your friendship or your love, then the act of doing it, and giving it to the friend so honored, is the important part. Don’t wait until the person is dead or out of reach and then wish you’d told him or her of your affection; do it now! Write as well as you can and don’t compare your efforts with those of the great masters.
During this Fall Equinox, I will be thankful for the joy of harvesting red tomatoes that seem to glow with sunlight, for solid round cabbages (though the grasshoppers got most of them). I’m bidding goodbye to birds every day, basking in the remaining sunlight and heat while welcoming crisp fall breezes and soaring hawks. We rejoice in what we have and in the balance of day and night, knowing we face the coming of the shadows and barren season of winter. Traditional symbols of this harvest festival include Apples and Wine, Cornucopia and Burial Cairns: contradiction and contrast. Some cultures worship deities of harvest and aging.
Filled with the awareness of the time of year, I realized that the season of my years with my friend is the same: we are at the fall equinox, facing the shadows. We speak of friends who have died, destroyed their lives; we are thankful for the joys we have and when we are together we celebrate with good food and drink, just as the harvest-time demands. We are apprehensive about some elements of the future, but fear won’t rule us; we’ve seen too much.
I think I felt the “click” as this poem for Suzan slipped from being merely affectionate and nostalgic into being a real poem. I started by considering a phrase she used in a telephone conversation, that she’s in “the glitter phase” of her life. She buys wooden chairs and masks, paints them in vibrant and beautiful colors and makes each one glitter with paint and shiny objects, including mirrors. “The glitter phase of life.”
The phrase fascinated me. I started by looking at phrases that used the word “glitter” and found only the one with which most of us are familiar. A cliche: and I advise writers to avoid cliches. But if you question a cliche, you may sometimes find a truth: what is the difference between glitter and gold? And what do we have in our lives that is truly golden?
At that point, I believe the poem tipped into being better than it might have been. I’m not sure the poem is finished, but here’s how it stands.
. . .
We learned early all that glitters
is not gold, but now she says
she’s in her glitter phase of life.
I know that doesn’t mean she wears
those sweaters with pink sequined poodles,
or spangles on her lashes. We remember fifty years:
she tried to teach me makeup; I saved her contacts
one drunk night. But there’s so much more.
We’ve often talked but most of all we listened.
Glitter isn’t gold, but her marriage is– gold, not glitter,
as is the love I’ve found after two losses. We still
find fragile sparkles in a sunrise, and know that it
will vanish when the sun comes up. Spot a glimmer
on a silken cheek, and nod as it wrinkles into age.
Glitter flies into the sun, makes us catch our breath,
then drifts down tarnished with the first snowfall.
So we know now to seize it when we can,
decorate our masks with every shimmer possible,
notice every shiny flake--
because we know what’s gold,
and what is fake.
* * *
On this fall equinox, give thanks for what you have harvested from your garden and your writing; be kind to yourself. Store up what you will need to get through the cold darkness of winter: in writing ideas, in good food, in friendships.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
on the Fall Equinox, September, 2011
Hermosa, South Dakota
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A Reader's Response to "The Glitter Phase of Life."
Francis Baumli was a student of mine at the University of Missouri. We began corresponding a year or two ago and I have always found his letters enlightening. I had intended to excerpt this one as a response to my Fall Equinox 2011 Home Page Message but the elements of the letter are woven together like a fine tapestry so I prefer to present the entire letter (with his permission, of course). This is further proof that email, like letters, has the potential to allow lively, engaging and stimulating conversation between people who are not able to meet face to face. A pity, then, that so much email communication is merely twittering (pun intended).
Your blog for Autumn 2011 is most intriguing, and I very much appreciated the photo of yourself sitting on that walking plow. At this moment you are reading the prose of a 63-year-old man who may be one of the last people in Missouri who spent many an hour walking behind such a plow. This is one of the reasons I grew up with such a strong body. It also is one of the causes of this increasingly difficult arthritis in my knees. (Quoth my dad: "When I plow a field with a walking plow, I follow that furrow so straight you could sight a rifle down it." One would be hard pressed to say he was exaggerating. And I would never claim that I was as good.)
Your blog deals with poetry about friendship, and laments the difficulty of finding good poems about friendship. I had never really thought about this before, except from a different angle, which I shall get to presently. But I think you are correct, and after reflecting upon the matter, feel as frustrated as you do. (And also feel frustrated in that I haven't the talent, as a poet, to make amends on this matter!)
You realize that I am trained as a philosopher, with the Ph.D., and I like to make the claim (with some small bit of deserved vanity) that I earned my Ph.D. back when that degree counted for something. The point is: I tend to approach most topics from a rather abstract perspective, and the result is that my point of view often presents itself somewhat askew (perverse, or fertile?) from the way someone else presented it. And such is the case with this topic.
Indeed there is a dearth of poetry about friendship. But this may be because of a sad carelessness in thinking about what friendship is. You came across the comment that a friendship poem is the "neglected cousin of the love poem." Well; this is a very misleading way of describing the situation, because friendship is a form of love, therefore a friendship poem is a type of love poem, and therefore a friendship poem can not be the neglected cousin of the love poem. Rather, the distinction should be between a friendship poem and a romantic love poem.
The romantic love poem proliferates precisely because romantic love proliferates--one would not be exaggerating to note that both romantic love and romantic poetry inhere in all cultures and seem to have been with us since the dawn of the written word. Romantic love is common--too common, perhaps, because it is very easy. Easy because it is given impetus by the powerful force of sexual passion. And so there are many romantic love poems, and they also are common--too common, because they come very easily. What is not easy, however, is to sustain romantic love. And what also is not easy is to write a beautiful romantic love poem that does not seem too precious, too exalted, too artificial, too maudlin, too juvenile.
The love of friendship is very different from romantic love. It forms slowly, it is difficult, it is easily exalted in its early stages and easily undone when difficulties present. As it matures it requires much nurturing, and eventually it achieves a sort of momentum which gives it an abiding force--a persistence--which is warming, beautiful, and even startling. I note "startling" because it never ceases to amaze how good friends can be separated by great distance, and not see one another for years, and yet when they do finally get together the friendship resumes immediately, easily, and is often as fun as it is fervent. Given the slow process of maturation in friendship's love, given its initial fragility and tentativeness, given its slow exploration of boundaries and the importance of allowing it to grow in breadth and stature with the sheer accumulation of time, it only makes sense that writing poetry about friendship would be difficult. A good friendship is difficult to achieve, it is rare, and it is precious. So writing a poem about friendship's love is difficult, is done rarely, and there also is the fact that often we choose to remain private about what we hold precious. (Which suggests that there is something too public, careless, brazen, and even assaultive--to the beloved--in much romantic love that is made public.)
So you see--this is what emerges when I look at this problem philosophically rather than poetically. I consider it quite understandable that poetry about friendship is rare, precisely because I first look at friendship itself, consider its nature as a form of love, contrast it to romantic love, and realize that friendship as a love that is difficult, rare, and cherished can scarcely give birth to poetry that is easy, plentiful, and carelessly brandished. (And here I hasten to add that your poem about Suzan has none of these faults. I detect that it came slowly and carefully, I realize it is not of a genre you are prolific with, and rather than brandishing your friendship mawkishly you set it forth with a superb admixture of humility, gratitude, and grace.)
Earlier I wrote that I have never thought about this--the rarity of poems about friendship--except from a different angle. I did, I assure you, consider the matter mightily, but in a more specific way: namely, the rarity of love poems between people who are old. I find such poetry to be extremely rare, and I first started thinking about this when a friend in California sent me a lovely little poem he wrote to his wife when they were in (I believe) their late 60s. I realized, in reading that poem, that I was witnessing how romantic love is sustained between two people precisely because it fuses with the love of friendship. And I realized how truly rare, and beautiful, this admixture of love is. (And how rare is poetry which reflects this kind of love.) I realized that I have written many such poems (bad poems, I readily admit, but sincere nonetheless) for Abbe who is my wife and my best friend and for whom I continue to feel a great deal of romantic love. I also began looking for examples of such poetry, and have found a few. One such example comes from Yeats, whom you almost (sic) malign, in his poem "Ephemera." This poem, admittedly, reflects the waning of love between two lovers who have become old; but even so, it poignantly reflects the nature of such love in a realistic way one would never encounter in poetry launched at the beginning, or sudden terminus, of a romantic love that has not been seasoned by the years.
I admit I considered the possibility of attempting to edit an anthology of such poetry--love between people who are old. But I wisely resisted the temptation. I have too much writing of my own, yet to accomplish, before I succumb to mortality's tug.
Please know that my offering these thoughts is in no way to register a disagreement with what you have written. Rather, I consider my words the continuation of a thought process you have begun, and which will continue in me and which I suspect will still be resonating in many of your readers decades from now.
So thank you for being the primogenitor of a new way of looking at poetry. This could lead to the creation of a new genre of poetry--a genre which readers deserve.
And thank you for the lovely poem about Suzan. I am sure that she is grateful for what you wrote, and that her gratitude is more personal than poetic. But my gratitude is for a poem--one more beautiful poem, which Linda Hasselstrom is in the habit of giving us.
Still your student,
# # #
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A Lammas Message from Linda: Wild Pink Roses
Driving a gravel road in the Black Hills, I saw them again: wild pink roses. Instantly I was reminded of Sunday trips to my Grandmother Cora’s house when I was a child. My dad would back the 1952 Chevy out of the garage and be waiting, sometimes in the car with the motor running, by the time my mother had herself and me “dolled up” to her satisfaction. I sat in the back seat, of course, and sometimes managed to smuggle a book along. But mostly I looked out the car window, rolled down so the dust and fresh air could pour in. Usually, no matter how hot it was, my mother kept her window rolled up– though sometimes we could persuade her to open the wing window to let in a little air.
And writing this, it occurs to me how much has changed. In modern cars, windows rarely “roll” down and anyone under 50 may not know what a “wing window” is. I miss them still; they allowed regulation of the air in the way that a single pane window and vents on the dashboard do not.
But I digress, therefore I am. As we drove along, I’d see the low pink roses ruffling as we swept past. The breeze of our passage lifted the dust off their petals and then set it down again, but they bloomed on. My vision was pinkrosespinkrosespinkrosespinkrosespinkroses until I could picture my grandmother’s smiling face.
We never saw the roses along prairie roads, only in the foothills and deeper valleys of the Black Hills. Because I only saw them from the passing car, I never smelled them, and we never stopped to pick them. I assumed they were fragile but they survived growing along the gravel roads and all that buffeting from traffic.
On a recent trip into the hills, I recalled them and took pictures, and began remembering those trips to my Grandmother’s house. She grew roses on a trellis on the south end of her tiny house, vivid pink against the brown shingle siding. She carried water to them in her tea kettle, dumped her dishwater over them, and I think her shower drained below them.
That shower: my uncle George, now 93, had added her bathroom to her house: building a small space, maybe 10 feet by 6 feet, where he installed a toilet and sink with a drain in the floor. On the west end were shelves reaching to the ceiling where she kept extra blankets and winter clothes. On the east end were high shelves over the toilet for paper and other bathroom supples. And hanging from the ceiling was a 5-gallon bucket “repurposed” (which we didn’t say in those days) from holding the deadly mixture we poured over the backs of cattle to kill lice. My uncle had washed it thoroughly, punched a hole in the bottom and attached a hose with a shower head and a clip to stop the water.
When we wanted a shower, Grandmother got the bucket down, heated the teakettle full of water on the stove several times and emptied it into the bucket, and then cooled it to the correct temperature with water from the faucet. Then she’d hang the bucket, strip down and step into the bathroom. She’d let the showerhead down and soak herself, then hang it back on the bucket while she soaped herself. Then she’d rinse and dry herself– and call me. I did the same with whatever water was left in the bucket. At the time I had never seen my mother naked and my first impression of my grandmother’s body left me shocked. I realize, though, that the shower experience helped me accept the changes I’m seeing in my own carcass when I shower.
But again, I digress. And that’s precisely the point. It’s August; I’m busy with volunteer projects, retreats, gardening, harvesting, and general busy-ness. Yesterday, I wailed to anyone within earshot that I hadn’t written anything for days. I’ve been scribbling a bit in my journal every day but I hadn’t felt the pressure or the interest in writing anything more complex.
My usual cure for this condition is to call up a memory and write something about it. Go back to basics: put the news out of your mind; shove any thoughts about deadlines into the closet and shut the door. What do you remember? Start writing and write as fully and with as much detail as you can. Digress in any direction you choose; who knows where you might arrive?
In order to facilitate this process, I’ve been keeping the scrapbook I started when I was twelve years old on a table in my office. When I’m lacking in inspiration, I open the scrapbook. So far this summer, in the doldrums of heat and lack of stimulation, I’ve written about the janitor in the Hermosa school and the watch he kept in his vest; about our neighbors when I was five years old and living in Rapid City, Mrs. Bradley and Mrs. Melaven; about how an old man taught me the proper appreciation of strawberries when I was three years old; about outhouses and the courthouse in Rapid City; about my musical career and how my father pronounced “pizza” (with a short vowel and lots of emphasis on the z’s. My computer will not allow me to type a lower case I –it keeps insisting on capitalizing it, which is another difference from the days when the machines did what we wanted them to and didn’t try to second guess us. But once more– I rant.)
I have no idea what, if anything, all that writing will become. I don’t worry about it because I am writing. I feel better already than I did yesterday; I am writing.
But what about those roses? As soon as I got home after seeing and photographing the wild pink roses, I looked them up. And they are not wild pink roses.
In my plant books, I discovered that they are the only North American native rose, Rosa blanda, a pink-fading-to-white-flowered shrub usually called "Prairie Rose". The Latin name of the rose is Rosa suffulta and it’s native from Ontario down into Texas and west to the Rockies according to Grasslands, The National Audubon Society nature guide.
Prairie Rose! My research veered into a new dimension. Prairie Rose Henderson is my favorite among the old-time cowgirls, for her wide smile both before and after she lost her front teeth in a rodeo accident. (I’m not going to digress anymore this time to tell her story. She’s been adopted as an icon for all kinds of promotions so you can easily find dozens of tales about her, some of which might come close to the truth.)
Moreover “Prairie Rose” is the state flower of North Dakota, though theirs is called Rosa blanda or Rosa pratincula and thus may be a different species. The name has also been adopted by dozens of enterprises from parks to real estate salespersons.
So: my writing about prairie roses has led me to memories of my grandmother, to a rodeo queen and to North Dakota. I don’t know where else it might lead: I can envision writing essays on several different topics from that material. But writing that essay is not my job today.
The writing has served its purpose: I have stopped feeling frustrated by not writing. I have written something that’s intriguing enough to lead on to other writing. That’s what writers do.
On this August 1st, the traditional Celtic fire festival of Lammas (Lughnasad), when the year is beginning to wane and we pause to consider regrets and losses, we may need to remind ourselves that the ending of summer is only the changing of seasons. Use this harvest time to gather inspiration, to make notes, to write pieces like my prairie rose fragment that you can return to in winter.
Here’s an old prayer often used in this season:
Let our lives be a blessing
to the Earth that sustains us,
And to all creatures that,
Like us, Call this planet home.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
August 1, 2011
Hermosa, South Dakota
# # #
For more information:
See my updated bio on this website (coming soon!) for more about my Grandmother, and the stories about my Rapid City neighbors and the strawberry-eating lesson mentioned above.
The Lughnasad prayer above may be found at the One Spirit Ministries website.
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A Summer Solstice Message from Linda
Are You a Writer?
Do you write in the spare time left from your job and rest of your life?
Do you have a writing schedule, regular hours and a regular place, where you dedicate yourself to writing?
Many workshops, books, blogs and tweets assure you that if you scribble one draft of one poem a year, or if you published a poem while you were in high school, or if you confide your fantasies to your journal every few days, you are a writer.
Some folks seem to believe that “writing a poem” means writing down what you are thinking right this minute about a particular topic and giving it a title.
My partner and life companion, who spent his career as an engineer with the Wyoming Department of Transportation took a course intended to teach these government employees how to eliminate passive voice, the bane of official documents. The instructor told the students that they could consider themselves “professional writers,” because they were professional engineers, and they wrote. Every now and then, sometimes when I’m signing books, he reminds me with a wink and a nudge that he, too, is a professional writer.
Millions of people who wouldn’t have thought of writing a few years ago are pouring their thoughts out daily to strangers all over the globe, becoming “published writers,” or perhaps I could say “tweeting twitterers.” For these folks to call themselves writers is positive reinforcement, and it serves good purposes. It encourages people to lose their fear of the blank page, and perhaps helps to eliminate fear of being honest in expression. Writing or tweeting helps to break the isolation of people who work in cubicles with computers by letting them communicate with others. All these are good results.
When I don't write, I quit looking, I quit seeing. When I look and see, then I have to write.
--Monk in North Dakota, to Kathleen Norris
I am a Writer. When I was 9, I moved to a ranch with my parents. Since I had no brothers and sisters, I walked or rode a horse all over the prairie. My mother made notepaper for grocery lists and by tearing up letters and advertisements we received, so I filled my shirt pocket with little squares of paper and took a short pencil with me on my rides or walks. I wrote down sights I found puzzling: why was that antelope stomping? I sketched flowers whose names I did not know, so I could ask someone later. I had begun writing. I have been writing steadily ever since. I earned at MA in American Literature so I could teach, but I have always considered writing my primary interest and job.
When you decide to be a nurse or an engineer, you go to college to study your specific field. When you know everything (!) about your field, someone hands you a document testifying to your knowledge and you are officially recognized by other professionals and the public as a professional.
No one ever hands a writer a certificate of official recognition, a Writer’s Diploma. We are judged by other standards, and those standards vary. One writer may win a Pulitzer prize; another may have 37 books in print. One may write a popular newspaper column for 15 years or interview famous people and write about them. The woman who writes the church newsletter or man who maintains a web site devoted to writing about scams may consider themselves writers, and in fact may actually write more than the Pulitzer prize winner.
Many people and all writers will give beginning writers advice, usually free --and usually worth just what you pay for it-- but no one can guarantee you're going to be a Writer. No matter how brilliant your grasp of grammar, no matter how great your desire, and no matter what countless collegiate creative writing classes tell you, there is no course of study that will make you a writer.
Furthermore, unlike most other professions, once you decide to be a writer, no one steps forward to hire you at a specific salary.
In fact, relatives, friends, and eventually, perhaps, spouses and children often say, "Why don't you get a real job." No matter how good you are at writing; no matter how many books you have published. My mother was still advising me to get a real job when she was 92 and I was 58.
I've read a lot of advice from writers and offered plenty myself, and have concluded that the way to become a writer is to read as much as you can, and write constantly. Then you can start calling yourself a writer, and make your own certificate to hang on the wall.
I do not believe that my status is a writer is diminished if everyone who writes one poem a year calls herself a writer. But I believe he or she should know the difference in our definitions.
I am a Writer. My poetry, fiction and nonfiction writing has been published in more than a hundred magazines, sometimes even with payment. My essays and poems have been included in more than fifty anthologies and collections. In addition, I've been the subject of features in several magazines and books.
The Writing Business
If writers were good businessmen, they'd have too much sense to be writers.
--Irwin S. Cobb, author and journalist (1876-1944)
The profession of book-writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.
If you write very well, and on topics of interest to the public, and are very persistent in submitting work, some day you may sell your books to publishing companies. You may make a lot of money. You may make even more money if you write a book about making money as a writer, or go on tour as a speaker talking about your book, or your success as a writer.
And you may not. My 1994 income tax return contains a page headed "profit or loss from business." On that page, my tax preparer added my receipts from all my jobs related to writing, including lecturing, giving readings, royalties, and payment from magazines. The gross receipts totaled $11,251.00. My total expenses for 1994 were $8,470.00. By the time I added income and expenses from other elements of my life-- ranching, a rental house-- my net loss for 1994 was $228.00.
My 1990 income from writing was MINUS $1,900; in 1989, $9,000; in 1988, $7,400; in 1987, MINUS $218; in 1986, $770; in 1985, MINUS $1,391. It's impossible even to create a sensible budget with such wild fluctuations. [I’m using statistics from years past because I really don’t want to look at more current figures to see if I’m earning more money-- or less.]
As a writer, I have no health insurance, no paid vacations, no guaranteed retirement income.
Surveys by The Authors Guild show that the full-time writer’s average hourly wage works out to "far less than the $16.00 median hourly wage for full-time college-educated workers."
I am a Writer. When I was a Publisher/Writer, between 1971 and 1985, I operated an independent press. I published a quarterly arts magazine and 23 books by Great Plains writers as Lame Johnny Press. (The press name is another story.) I published in order to help other writers, but when the publishing house cost more money and time away from writing than I was willing to afford, I closed the press.
I am a Writer. When I was a hired writer, I earned part of my living editing books, or writing text to accompany photos: The Journal of a Mountain Man: James Clyman for Mountain Press; Bison: Monarch of the Plains for Alaska Northwest/Graphic Arts, The Roadside History of South Dakota for Mountain Press.
I have been in business as a writer-- that is, writing with the hope of being published and being paid-- around fifty years, frequently submitting my prose and poetry to various publications and keeping track of the results. My income tax return says I am a writer, and I have to prove it every year to the IRS with receipts. My files contain hundreds of rejections; when I get one, I file it and go back to writing.
I belong to The Authors Guild, a professional organization, because I know being a successful writer requires a businesslike approach to my job. I'm need to keep up with current news about book contracts, agents, salaries, and other matters relevant to my profession. I buy books from independent bookstores if possible, because they carry a greater variety of books, and not simply those plugged by conglomerates. I buy books published by small and independent presses which publish new writers and those who don’t write blockbusters. I support independent bookstores and publishers in part so they will be in business to support me when I have a book in print. And they do.
I can answer letters or I can write books, never both.
Calling Yourself a Writer.
As a writer, my primary aim every day is to write. My normal daily schedule requires I get up at 6:30 or 7 A.M., and be seated in my office by 8 A.M., fingers glued to my keyboard. I write until noon. After lunch, I go back to my office to take care of some of the "business" of writing. I answer some --never all-- of my mail, beginning with letters from people who want to pay me to do something concerned with writing. (Unless I put letters out of reach, I could spend most days answering letters I should answer.)
If you call yourself a writer, you might consider the writerly use of adjectives.
For example, I'd say that a full-time professional writer supports herself with her writing work.
I do not qualify. I am a full-time writer, though, because when I'm not writing, I'm thinking about writing. And I'm professional, in that I follow guidelines for submission procedures, belong to writers' support organizations, and otherwise behave as if my writing is a business, not a hobby.
Writing and Teaching Writing
One of the ways I support my writing habit is by teaching about writing in various ways: hired to do so by organizations, colleges, book groups, or by conducting writing retreats here at Windbreak House.
Some full-time teachers call themselves writers. You don't need to be a writer to be a skillful teacher of writing, nor do you need to teach to be a writer. The two professions often complement each other, but I find that many teachers consider themselves writers if they do a writing exercise with their students once a year, but have never submitted work for publication, and rarely buy a book.
Teaching a writing course for teachers, I once carried to the podium a visual aid: dozen boxes containing the various drafts of my most recent book at that time-- Feels Like Far. Since I recycle paper, printing on both sides, those dozen boxes represent only perhaps one third of the paper I used in rewriting the nonfiction manuscript. I estimated that if I were to stack them all, the drafts of that book would reach an eight-foot ceiling-- twice.
I wrote the first draft of the book in 1991. During the next four years, while I made a living teaching workshops and giving speeches-- my only income-- my primary work as a writer was to revise and improve the same manuscript. I revised it seven times on the specific recommendations of editors at five large publishing houses in New York. None of them accepted it. Of course I was not compensated in any way for the work of revising they had asked me to do.
But I am a Writer. Without assistance from an agent, I’ve written and published thirteen books with commercial publishers. That is, the publishers expect to profit from the sale of my books, and I have not self-published my work, though I consider self-publication to be an honorable action. Sometimes it’s the only way to move from being a Writer to being a Published Writer.
I am a Writer. I started my day with a couple of cups of coffee sitting up in bed while I made notes in my journal on how the day had begun, and what I expected to accomplish during it.
So far today I have said goodbye to a writing retreat guest; collected, washed, dried, and folded the retreat house laundry; checked the garden for hail damage; responded to a writer who wants to meet to get my advice; written three notes to elderly friends; collected the mail from the Post Office in Hermosa (because we consider our mailbox on the highway insecure); took and copied photos for the web site; decided what to submit to a magazine that asked about my writing; made a batch of dog food (we make our own veterinarian-approved mixture); ordered office supplies.
Twice I proofread and revised this Home Page message.
I am a Writer, but every day I need to renew my pledge, and act on it, no matter what other jobs I need to do.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
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A May Day Message from Linda: Quack or Buffalo?
According to the Gardening Law of Averages in my part of South Dakota, this is too early to do much gardening; the average date for our last frost is May 25th.
The greenhouse is already bulging with plants, though it has no artificial heat. The shingles are dark brown to soak up sun, and one side is earth bermed against railroad ties, holding heat well. The soil inside was too heavy with clay last summer, so I’ve amended it with compost, potting soil, and a lot of coffee grounds.
If you’re thinking like a cook, I was adding flavoring; if you’re thinking like a writer, I was adding detail and inspiration.
Jerry shoveled some of our last big snow into the greenhouse for moisture before I planted radishes on March 12th. By March 18th, the plants had two leaves, so I planted more. In mid-April my early lettuce was as big as my thumb.
Trays hold dozens of cardboard pots planted with hot and sweet peppers, tomatoes, and a few wild flowers and herb plants. I’ve covered larger plants with vinegar and milk cartons, and with clear plastic containers (left in the retreat trash by writers) that once held olive oil, gin, and lettuce.
Even outside, I’m getting ready. Jerry has tilled the garden and I removed the heavy pots I’d used to cover the rhubarb, though I didn’t pull the mulch away. Early Perfection and Alaska peas are planted with a soaker hose between the rows.
When we first arrived here, about a sixth of my garden had been enclosed in a heavy wire fence by tenants, and been heavily mulched with debris from the August, 2007 flood. We planted a few things inside the wire and tilled around the outside for two years, but I was increasingly frustrated by the thick clumps of quackgrass woven into the fence and knotted into the earth. So last fall we tore out the fence, found another use for the wire and posts, and tilled everything but the asparagus and rhubarb beds.
In Cheyenne, I’d planted a sizable asparagus patch, so I repeated the process here: trenched, fertilized, and planted asparagus crowns in 2009. In 2010, I planted again in gaps where plants had died-- a total of 24 crowns.
Last fall I marked the plants that showed sturdy growth. This spring, I planned to dig out the quackgrass around these plants and mulch heavily, planting more asparagus where previous plantings had died. I’d collected two totes filled with magazines, catalogs, flattened cardboard (cereal, Kleenex and beer boxes) to use as mulch. On a sunny April day with rain predicted, I loaded my four-wheeler with gardening necessities, put on my gloves, and roared down to the garden, ready to begin.
I plunged my shovel in and started digging quackgrass, but the work was brutal; the stuff spreads by rhizomes, crawling over and a bit below the earth’s surface, snarling stems and roots in a mass that is nearly impenetrable. Sometimes I’ve dug quack grass out of a well-watered spot in the garden and found dry soil underneath, the tangle so thick it repels water.
After a couple of hours of digging, sweating, mumbling to myself and throwing the grass and roots well away from the edges of the garden, I was worn out. I sat down to drink water and think, as I should have done in the first place.
In an 80-foot-tall cottonwood with a stark white trunk, a few zillion redwing blackbirds clustered, singing madly. When I turned to look, they burst into a black-red-yellow cloud and vanished. Two mourning doves slipped quietly into a lilac bush, and one the great-horned owls floated out of the nest in the juniper and north up the draw. As a child, I spent hours in this garden plot, hating hoeing the corn. Sometimes when my mother wasn’t looking, I sneaked into the willow bushes and ran away down the long draw that led out into the hayfield. Moving quietly, I might startle a doe and fawn bedded in the cool shade, or see a redwing blackbird nest and hear the male clacking his beak as he whizzed over my head, warning me away. I’d find a stump and sit on it, thinking.
In the asparagus bed, five little orange flags fluttered, representing five asparagus plants. Sometimes thinking is more useful than acting.
I stashed my mulching materials in the garden shed, and dug up the asparagus crowns, tucking them into a box with my seed potatoes. When the weather warms a bit, I’ll prepare a new trench beside the rhubarb, where soaker hoses and heavy mulch are already in place. I’ll start new asparagus from seed and transplant the plants later in the spring. Jerry tilled the former asparagus bed so that it’s ready for later planting.
By rushing into the task I’d planned last fall without re-evaluating it, I caused myself a couple of hours of hard, fruitless work. By taking time to think, I saved myself more painful work.
Eventually, I'd like my garden to be no-till, completely mulched. But clean mulch is hard to find. Since we don't get straw from the ranch, I mulch with hay, thus adding more weed seeds. And since I stopped gardening here when I moved to Cheyenne in 1991, the area has been repeatedly flooded and thus sown with every pesky, inedible and annoying plant that can grow in this climate, and they are hard to eradicate. Quackgrass, for example, is considered one of South Dakota’s most noxious weeds because it can reestablish itself from one-half inch of rhizome. In the past two years, I’ve pulled bristly foxtail, Creeping Jenny (bindweed), Creeping Charlie, burdock, cheat grass, cleavers, cockleburs ragweed, purslane, dodder (its common name is indicative of its reputation: strangleweed), curly dock, needle-and-thread grass, stickseed, fireweed, green foxtail, rough pigweed, henbane (insane-root), nettle, knapweed, mullein, and toadflax.
Besides saving myself unnecessary work by taking time to think, I was inspired to thoughts that went deeper than quackgrass roots. First came a metaphor.
Buffalo grass, Buchloe dactyloides, is a perennial shortgrass native to this area, furnishing some of the most nutritious grazing available to livestock, to deer, pronghorn, jackrabbits and prairie dogs. It was the main source of forage for buffalo herds, and mountain plovers build their nests in it. Reproducing by above-ground stems called stolons, it sends its roots five feet deep or more into prairie soil, forming a strong sod, making it a good ground cover that protects soil from erosion. Symbiotically, the grass cooperates with other native plants to form communities that resist disturbance and drought.
Quack grass, on the other hand, is an invasive intruder from Europe, now widely distributed throughout the country. With shallow but tenacious roots, it spreads rapidly, strangling native growth, crowding out cultivated plants, and preventing the soil from absorbing water and nutrients.
Buffalo grass is, like bison, native to the plains and well suited here. Quackgrass is, like subdivisions, Starbucks and WalMart, an opportunist, profiting at the expense of inhabitants with more investment in the country, and more to offer its other residents.
Besides the metaphor, my thoughtful pause reminded me of the destructiveness of bustle without thought. I tangled myself up in zipping off to do a prearranged task rather than taking time to consider what I really needed to do. I behaved more like quackgrass instead of buffalograss.
Thinking, I believe, is as underrated in writing as it may be in gardening. We gardeners and writers want to be ACCOMPLISHING SOMETHING. We want action: sling that ink! Slam those seeds into the soil!
I’ve long maintained that thinking is one of the neglected, and most useful, practices for a writer. When I did it in school, teachers called it “day-dreaming.” Now experts realize that creativity lies in what may appear to others to be aimless sitting. In order to hear ideas from your subconscious, you must be silent. Walk. Listen to birds, Turn off the iPod, the TV, the cell phone, the conscious mind. Let your brain wander, and it may come back to you with fresh inspiration.
Be buffalograss, not quackgrass.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
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Let the Vernal Equinox Inspire Your Gardening and Writing
Snow is falling so heavily this morning that I can barely see the highway a half-mile away, sky and ground so white I must close the shades against the glare. The junipers are a dark wall around the retreat house; grouse waddle underneath, shuffling through a fresh three inches of snow on top of the crusted foot or so beneath.
But the Vernal Equinox is March 20th (or 21st, 22nd or 23rd, depending on your calendar) and the gardening catalogs are congregating like box elder bugs by my reading chair-- sure signs of spring. The ancient celebration at this season was known as “Eostar;” we call it Easter.
Now, when the world is balanced between light and dark, between freezing and warming, is the time to plan a garden and plan your writing summer.
This morning I opened a brown paper bag of tomatoes I dried last summer. As I crumbled them, the smell was so vivid my mouth watered. I’m soaking them in a quarter cup of water to reconstitute them, and doing the same with a handful of jalapenos. I’ll add both to rice to make a flavorful pilaf for lunch.
I’ve already written about drying food, in my Sept. 29, 2010 blog, and provided a link to the Living Foods Dehydrator I use, built from plans in the book Dry It, You’ll Like It (dryit.com). Durable and cheap to build-- electric wire, plywood, plastic screen, four light bulbs and four switches-- a dehydrator is a great tool to help us efficiently use the bounty of our gardens.
But the subject of this blog is not drying food; it’s using the equinox as an inspiration to plan ahead both in the garden and in your writing.
Nor am I attempting to persuade you to eat locally; other writers are working hard at that job. Experts like Gary Nabhan, for example (garynabhan.com) say that these days a bite of food may change hands six times and travel 1,400 miles before it is eaten, 50 times farther than it did 20 years ago. And Barbara Kingsolver has brilliantly written (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life; if you haven’t read it, and you eat, you are neglecting your food education) about abandoning the industrial-food rat race to live a rural life and provide much of their own food.
I’ve read and recommend what both authors have to say, and learned from both, despite the differences in their environments. Gary lives on a desert farm near Patagonia, Arizona, and Ms. Kingsolver on a farm in the southern Appalachians. Neither can entirely feed their families from their gardens, but both are working to promote eating locally wherever possible.
However, neither author lives in South Dakota, where our last and first frosts are usually May 26 and September 14.
Tamara, my friend and assistant, also gardens. So we experiment, exchange information, and study our surroundings to learn how we can feed ourselves most efficiently in our respective climates and soils. Though Tam lives only about five miles from me, her place is nestled next to the Black Hills, so we have differing weather, soils and moisture conditions. Not long ago, we each made a list of the food we ate from our own land.
Here’s Tam’s list of homegrown or harvested food-- and as she points out, I ate some of it (she supplies me with eggs and chicken; I supply her with beef).
Tam's List for 2010:
* chicken meat, feet (used in stock, and in Asian recipes), giblets
* rattlesnake meat (Tam doesn’t like waste, so when a rattlesnake coiled and rattled beside her back step . . .)
* apples (varieties: Harrelson, Duchess of Oldenberg, Wolf River)
* chokecherries (wild)
* grapes: Valiant (developed in SD for cold climates)
The following plants did not produce in 2010, because of grasshoppers, bad weather, or because the plant was too new: cabbage; cherries (Carmine Jewel); currants; elderberries (Adams and York); plums (Japanese hybrid on wild rootstock); plums (wild).
She harvested food from these annual plants:
* onions (red)
* peppers (sweet; she still had plenty of dried hot peppers from the previous year)
* tomatoes (4th of July, Sweet 100 cherry, Beefsteak)
And she made pesto and tea from wild lambs quarters, chenopodium, often regarded as a “weed.”
Growing With Linda
And here’s what I ate from my land:
* apple: discovered on neglected trees at The Creek Place
* asparagus (Mary Washington)
* beans, green (Kentucky Wonder pole)
* cucumber (lemon)
* corn (Quickie, Silver Princess, Earlivee, Sugar and Gold, Jackpot, Golden Bantam)
* echinecea: tincture made from roots of wild plant, used to build immunity
* herbs (arugula, basil, chicory, chives, garlic chives, dill, lavendar, mesclun, mustard, nasturtium, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage (wild and home grown), spearmint, thyme, veronica)
* juniper berries (wild, for seasoning meats)
* lettuce (Heatwave blend: Black Seeded Simpson, Little Caesar, Matchless, Salad Bowl, Royal Oak leaf; fall and winter mix; buttercrunch)
* peppers (Giant Ancho, The Godfather, both large and hot; Early Jalapeno, Hot Portugal)
* potatoes (Yukon gold-- ate the last of them January 2, 2011; we’ll plant more this year)
* radishes (French Breakfast, white icicle, scarlet globe)
* tomatoes (Early Girl-- my favorite from years ago here, Tomosa, 4th of July, Sun Gold, Balcony, Kellogg’s Breakfast, Mountain Gold, Better Bush, Tennessee Heirloom; Siberian, Bush Early Girl, Glacier, Golden Jubilee, Golden Rave Hybrid, Oregon Spring, Manitoba, Taxi. The plants I didn’t grow from seed were purchased from a Hermosa greenhouse.)
Food I purchased from local producers or at farmers’ market:
honey, pumpkin, bread, jellies, jams, salsa,
plants: flowers, herbs, tomatoes
Fruiting bushes planted but not yet producing:
* Buffalo berry
* American plum
* sand cherries, Nanking cherries
* golden currant
* Russian mulberry
Celebrating: In the Garden and in the Study
To celebrate the vernal equinox, I will look at my notes from my 2010 garden year, look at my garden space, and consider what I’ll plant, and what I won’t plant, this spring. This year I have a greenhouse-- since it’s unheated, perhaps it should be called a starting house-- so I’ll be starting many plants in March. I’ve already planted radishes, covering them with parts of plastic containers left by retreat guests in Homestead House.
I tried six varieties of corn last year, mulched and watered it faithfully, but an early spring storm stunted it all. This year I won’t plant any corn; I’ll rely on other local growers.
My basil didn’t do well in the garden last year, so I’m going to put it in pots on the deck, and possibly in a new raised bed near the house. I’ll mulch the asparagus and rhubarb heavily now that we’ve torn out the old fence that crowded them. I’ll grow peppers in my cold frames, where they did well last year, hosting several black and yellow writing spiders. I’ll plant more potatoes by placing them on top of the ground, surrounding them with drip hose, and mulching them heavily.
I’ll also review my study, considering how I might organize it more efficiently. I’ll dust and examine the crowded shelves, looking for objects I might store elsewhere or discard.
Since I’ve spent considerable time working on poems this winter, I’ll go through my poetry draft binder again. First I’ll check the “nearly done” poems; some may need only a little tweaking to be finished. Then I’ll page through the rough drafts, some of them yellow with age, until I come to one that makes me want to start scribbling on the page, revising furiously. I’ll also sort through the file box that holds notes and drafts for future essays, pulling out any that make me want to sit down at the computer and start plinking away. A fresh season means a fresh start.
If you have planted or can locate wild buffalo berries, I hope you’ll enjoy this recipe.
Buffalo Berry Jelly
Rinse berries in sink full of water, scooping off most of the stems, leaves, bugs and other debris. Put berries into a large kettle, and crush slightly; a potato masher works well.
Add 1 cup of water for every 2 quarts of fruit. Bring to a boil and simmer gently for 10 minutes, stirring often.
Drain off juice. For each cup of juice add 1/2 to 1 cup sugar OR LESS. I prefer less, to preserve the tart flavor of the berries; too much sugar ruins this unique taste. Bring to a boil, and boil gently until the jelly thickens. Dip a large spoon in the jelly and when it slides off the spoon in a broad sheet, it is nearly jelled. Pour into sterilized jars. Process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.
The fruit usually has enough pectin to jell by itself, but if necessary, add Surejell or other pectin.
Some authorities say the Indians spread blankets under the bushes after a frost and hit the branches with sticks to knock the berries off. I tried this a few times: the berries stuck tight to the branches, but it was easy to damage a bush. Now I wear gloves and a couple of shirts with long sleeves to pick berries.
Some folks (who I suspect have never picked buffalo berries) say the berries are easier to remove after a frost. Whenever I waited until after a frost, I found the bushes empty, the ground under them thick with grouse tracks. From deep in the tangle of thorns, I believe I heard little grouse belches.
According to Robert Laurence of allaboutstuff.com, the berries got their name because Indians ate them with buffalo; the tart flavor complements the meat. Settlers liked them with venison and learned to make jelly. I’ve found sharptail grouse are delicious stuffed with dressing to which buffalo berries have been added, and buffalo berry jelly makes a tasty side dish with roast grouse. I once used the buffalo berries I found in the crops of grouse to flavor their meat, a nice feat of recycling.
Celebrate this vernal equinox with whatever ritual suits you. Breathe deep, rejoice in the coming of the light and the unfreezing of the ground. In the same way, let your mind thaw, and dive into fresh writing projects.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
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Celebrating Winter Solstice: How Epiphanies Happen-- or Don’t
The word “solstice” means “the time when the sun stands still.” Scientifically, the explanation is simple: because of the earth’s tilt, our hemisphere is leaning far away from the sun. Therefore the sun’s arc in the sky is short, making daylight brief.
No doubt early humans feared the lengthening nights, and most civilizations we know created rituals to drive away darkness and bring back light and warmth. At the same time, though, they were evaluating food supplies, hoping the harvest would last until spring. Everyone stayed close to the hearth, drawing inward, spending more time together. As nights grow longer and days are short and gray, my partner and I read more, play more board games, talk more than we did during the busy warm months. And I find that my journal can provide inspiration, and rejuvenation.
When I begin to explore an idea as a writer, I often begin with its definitions, including its origin if I can discover it. While this information may not appear in what I eventually write, knowing it gives depth to my thinking as I work.
The word “epiphany” appears to derive from a Greek word meaning “manifestation,” or “to appear,” and carries multiple meanings.
In religion, Epiphany is “a Christian feast celebrating the manifestation of the divine nature of Jesus to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi,” and is observed on January 6th. The Oxford English Dictionary indicates this meaning first appeared about 1310. (I was living in poverty on beans and rice when I bought my compact edition of the OED; owning it made me, I believed, a real writer. Hauling out one of the ponderous tomes and applying the accompanying magnifying glass to its tiny print still gives me a huge satisfaction that can never be matched in joy or speed by searching for a word on the internet.)
A second meaning is of epiphany is “a revelatory manifestation of a divine being.” Finally, the third meaning in my American Heritage is twofold: “a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something,” and “a comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization.”
This meaning touches writers, and other creative artists, most closely, since it defines the moment when something we are working on catches fire in our minds, begins to burn with a light that can lead us through the darkness of multiple revisions. Very few occasions in life can match that ebullience, that explosion of delight.
Finishing a poem or essay is a long hard grind for me, but after a true epiphany, I can wade through the required hours of moving commas, looking up words, re-reading aloud to check the rhythm, as I work to convey to readers what I realized in that epiphany. Some perceptive writer labeled this divine feeling an “epiphany” with full awareness of its religious connotations. Certainly sometimes finding the puzzle piece that makes a poem work feels like a spiritual experience.
Here’s the important question for creators: Can epiphanies happen in front of a TV? With a cell phone in your hand? While texting?
For me, the answer is no. I have experienced epiphanies in a variety of situations where I was away from such outside stimuli. One of my favorite times to think is while driving; without interruptions, I’ve sorted out all kinds of problems on long trips.
The long title poem of my book Bitter Creek Junction began with the incident described in the book: nearly out of gas, I stopped at an isolated station. I felt threatened by the men inside, and believed that the Indian woman working there was abused. As I drove on, I began to work the poem out in my mind, trying to dissipate my own fear and anger by writing about it.
As I drove west, I realized that I was safe; the men I thought threatened me didn’t follow. But the woman I think was abused, and her child, were trapped in that place, and a white woman writing a poem about the situation probably wasn’t going to help her escape. So I began to fantasize about how she might really get away: the epiphany of that poem was working out a fairly logical method whereby she might get revenge for her abuse, and freedom for herself and her child. Only the sense of danger I felt, and the solitary drive into darkness on that extremely isolated desert highway allowed me to even consider the solution I presented as logical for her: a murderous epiphany. Sitting in my light, warm study, or a motel room, or a room with a TV, I could never have come to that conclusion.
I believe that epiphanies require solitude and reflective time. Driving, I’m often alone with my cell phone off. I may play a musical tape, but not the radio with its advertising racket. I agree with a writer friend who says, “I’ve solved quite a few writing quandaries in the shower.”
Reading can contribute as well. Almost any kind of reading can allow the mind to wander down different pathways and lead to new ideas-- which you can capture in your journal if it is always beside you.
I can also attribute some revelations to sessions of doing dishes, and to cooking. Since I set my own work hours, I’ve found homemaking chores can contribute greatly to my creativity; sometimes I burn the rice when I run downstairs to the computer to record the revelation I’ve just had about that poem I started at 5 a.m., but that’s a small price to pay for the poetic satisfaction! Vacuuming floors and even cleaning toilets have led directly to poems. The mind cannot abide a vacuum, and if you deprive it of advertising jingles and chatter, it may produce something original.
Writing in the journal, too, can enlighten as well as discipline a writer. I pick up my journal as soon as I wake up, and may have no conscious idea of what to write beyond “12/2/10 4:35 a.m. 25 degrees.” Once I have recorded those traditional details, though, I may write about a dream, or thoughts from wakeful moments in the night.
I’d been trying to write this message for weeks, and produced drafts of several ideas along with several blogs but was unsatisfied each time. I needed an epiphany. Sitting at the computer on December 2nd, I looked out my study window at my new greenhouse. With its curved, pointed roof, it reminded me of the tiny retreats used for meditation by Eastern monks. Half-laughing at myself, I dashed into the greenhouse and sat on my blue stool.
I stared at the shells and peculiarly-marked rocks tucked into niches in a piece of driftwood, at wind chimes, and a mobile of beads and driftwood made by a friend. I took deep breaths. “I need an epiphany,” I announced, rubbing my thumb over one of the turtle figurines I collect to remind me to slow down, straightened my spine, breathed deeply, and repeated my favorite calming prayer. Black cattle grazed across the tawny field below the hill; snow lay white over the ice on the pond. A rabbit nibbled grass under a juniper tree.
And in the silence, my epiphany arrived: I could write about epiphanies!
Here’s an example. I have often remarked that one could write a poem about anything, even cleaning a toilet. Since I’d never found one, I decided to write it, and began with a straightforward description: putting on my rubber gloves, rubbing the stone on the rusty spots left by our iron-rich water. I noted that the directions on the box were in English and Spanish. I concluded I’d rather write a poem about it than actually clean the toilet–- but that touch of humor wasn’t enough to carry the poem.
Upon reflection, I wondered at the origin of pumice, so I looked up and copied several definitions and descriptions. I considered the irony that something from the fiery depths of a volcano should be used for this universal task; none of us discusses toilet-cleaning, but the necessity of toilet facilities of some kind are common to all levels of society.
And that thought became the epiphany: the mundane and the celestial came together: I was doing a common job with material from something so rare few of us will ever see it.
. . .
Pumice is igneous rock blown
out of the throat of a volcano. Open
the new package of rubber gloves,
slip my hands inside. Super-heated,
highly pressurized, pumice explodes
upward, bubbling, hissing. Kneel
on the rug. Open the cardboard box
over the toilet so the pumice dust
falls inside. Pumice is the only stone
that floats on water. Watch it bob gently.
Rub it against the toilet rim. Rust
flakes away. Pumice fibers or threads
may lie in parallel rows, with intervening
threads to form a delicate structure. Scrub
around the top edge of the toilet, grinding
away rust, curving the pumice to fit
the smooth porcelain bowl. Pumice is
produced by the expansion of the internal
gasses of lava when they reach the surface
of the earth. Take your time, as lava takes
time to form. Remember the women who
have done this job forever, without gloves.
Flush. Close the intake valve before the bowl fills.
Change hands. The word pumice is derived from
the Latin word pumex, meaning foam.
Around and around the curve of the bowl
rub the pumice, rocking it over the undulations.
Pumice is lava froth, glass foamy with air,
cut and packaged for sale with instructions
in English and Spanish. Shift from one knee
to the other. Scrub. English and Spanish.
Open intake. Flush. Close intake. Breathe.
Scrub, reaching deep. Outside the bathroom window,
a meadowlark calls in sunshine. Fine
ground pumice is used in toothpastes
and hand cleaners. My knees ache. I flush
grains of lava from the earth’s blazing heart
* * *
And here’s my favorite Buddhist prayer; I’ve found it so effective at spreading calm that, even though I have it memorized, I copy it on the opening pages of every journal as a reminder.
I am arriving;
I am home.
I am here;
this is now.
I am rooted;
I am free.
in the ultimate.
-–Buddhist gatha, prayer
That’s my solstice message: may the love you give all the warm year sustain you through winter’s cold, and remind you that spring will be reborn in you.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
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Argiope the Writing Spider
I grew up terrified of spiders, thanks to a mother who shrieked at even the suggestion of one. My enlightenment came gradually. I was educated in part by a friend who keeps spider images on her bookshelves, and once enjoyed a birthday cake decorated with a massive Argiope (are-GUY-oh-pee) spider image.
Now I visit Argiope every morning, first thing, in her home in the pepper plant in the cold frame south of the garage. This cool morning, 45 degrees and breezy, she didn’t move until I jostled her web picking a red jalapeno pepper. Then she extended a couple of legs, checking the tension on the strands of the web. She reminded me of the way I wake in the morning-- sniffing the air for rain or a hint of the weather, looking for a line of pink marking sunrise, making a note on the temperature in my journal.
Later, when the outside temperature was almost 80, I visited her again as a grasshopper landed at the outer edge of her web. His legs flexed and I thought he would escape-- but she raced down and wrapped him up in less than a minute, whipping the strands of silk swiftly around him. Then she went to his head for a moment, and then started to move back up her web. I could see a fine line from her posterior to the hopper; she was pulling the insect higher into the web to anchor it more firmly. The hopper kicked a couple of times and I could see juice at its mouth, but it wasn’t able to struggle much.
Like a writer seizing an idea as it passes-- wrapping it firmly by jotting it down in the journal, making sure it won’t escape. Fastening it into the web of the brain.
Her formal name is Argiope aurantia, but she’s also known as the Black and Yellow Garden Spider or the Banana Spider, the Corn Spider, or-- the Writing Spider. These garden spiders build webs two to eight feet off the ground, near the eaves of houses or outbuildings, or in tall vegetation near fields, often spots where then can be concealed and protected from the wind. The one I’ve watched most this summer built her web under the slanting window of a cold frame, over the outer leaves of a jalapeno pepper plant, but I’ve usually found them in tomato plants.
One argiope stretched her web between the compost bin and the south side of the house, and fastened her egg sac loosely to the siding. Another appeared one day on the north side of the garage, but when a high wind came up, she vanished.
Like writers, these spiders are opportunists, setting up their traps where the wind will bring them prey. The spider may spend hours sitting in the web, apparently immobile. Just as writers carry their journals, ready to scribble down an idea as soon as it floats into view, she is ready to capture her next meal as soon as it touches her web.
The circular part of a web may be as much as two feet in diameter, with a dense zigzag of silk in the center. No one is sure what the zigzag, known as the stabilmentum, is really for, but it may account for her nickname as the Writing Spider, since it looks like several WWWWs.
Every night the spider eats the circular interior part of the web, and then rebuilds it every morning with new silk.
Like a writer, she is creating a fresh draft.
Sitting in her web, she may shake it vigorously while she stays anchored in the middle; experts speculate that this scares away wasps, or entangles insects before they can escape, though I’ve seen the spider shivering the web when no insect was caught in it.
Maybe she’s exercising between bouts of intense brainstorming. Just as a writer needs to leap up from the computer once in awhile and race out to look at something-- a spider!-- in the garden.
In mid-October, I noticed that the spider was not repairing her web. A grasshopper landed in it and she didn’t respond. On October 13th, the temperature dropped to 38 degrees. The next morning, she was gone.
I wrote: “One more spider-related metaphor: write down those thoughts when you have them, or they may escape. No one else can write your poem or story.”
I closed the cold frame she lived in. And then the weather warmed up and she reappeared, with a smaller sister. Both spiders are thriving in their own little hot house, showing vividly yellow, black and white against the green.
And here’s one more writing metaphor: keep looking; you never know what you might discover when you think you’ve finished writing about something. The spiders are still there, and they are dressed for Samhain.
Samhain (pronounced “sow-wen”) is one of the two great doorways of the Celtic year, since the Celts divided their year into only two seasons: light and dark. Samhain, occurs on the eve of November 1st. The Celts began their day at night, and began their year during this time of darkness, when the harvest has been gathered, the fields lie fallow, yet beneath the ground, seeds stir with life, whispering of beginnings. The dead were believed to walk on this night, revealing their mystery to the living. Every ending, though, is a beginning, as the gates of life and death open together. In modern times, the ceremonies have been trivialized, and we call the day Halloween.
Samhain (Scots Gaelic: Samhuinn) literally means "summer's end." With the rise of Christianity, Samhain was changed to Hallowmas, or All Saints' Day, to commemorate the souls of the blessed dead who had been canonized that year, so the night before became popularly known as Halloween, All Hallows Eve, or Hollantide. November 2nd became All Souls Day, when prayers were to be offered to the souls of all who had departed and those who were waiting in Purgatory for entry into Heaven. Throughout the centuries, pagan and Christian beliefs intertwined in celebrations from Oct 31st through November 5th, all of which appear both to challenge the ascendancy of the dark and to revel in its mystery.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
October 31st, 2010
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Equinox: The Changing of the Seasons
At the autumnal equinox, the light of day is equal to the dark of night: the planet experiences a moment of complete balance. In the northern hemisphere, the equinox occurs between September 22nd and September 24th, varying slightly each year according to the 400-year cycle of leap years in the Gregorian Calendar. At the equinox, the sun rises directly in the east and sets directly in the west. Afterwards, it rises and sets more and more to the south. (www.crystalinks.com)
Symbols of this season are generally products of harvest in the natural world: apples, wine, and gourds; colors are brown, orange, russet and maroon. In some ceremonies, marigold, myrrh, sage, and thistles may be burned. Decorations include acorns, asters, ferns, honeysuckle, milkweed, mums, oak leaves, pine, and roses. In other words, all of the elements of these celebrations involve what is most
available and most familiar at this time of harvest.
I may never be sure of the precise day of equinoctial balance, but I feel it in my body when I reach for sweat pants in the morning instead of a skirt, for a turtleneck instead of a t-shirt. I haul in baskets of tomatoes to dry for storage. (Almost thirty years ago, my second husband, George, built my food dryer from plans available at www.dryit.com) I am particularly grateful for the harvest, for sunlight and bright skies because I know the season of icy barrenness is coming.
Around this time of year I take a good look at my house plants on the tables under the deck where they have spent the summer fighting off grasshoppers and outgrowing their pots. I trim, repot if necessary, and bring them inside. I’ve hung the rosemary from the ceiling in my study where I can nip off a few leaves for garlic-rosemary potatoes. The Swedish Ivy and spider plant have already begun reaching for the stained glass butterfly in the basement window, and the oxalis is blooming again. I’ve placed big pots of basil and thyme on the low red shelves in front of the basement windows, hoping they will get enough sun. The lavender is beside my computer, where I touch it to release its calming scent when I can’t find the right word.
Each autumn I review the summer of retreats, thinking about how to provide more help for writers. I do practical tasks like create new handouts for questions writers ask, and mark useful passages in books. I inventory the house supplies to see what needs to be replaced.
More enjoyably, I recall all the writers with whom I worked; this fall that process will take more time because this has been the busiest retreat season ever. So far, 24 people have come to retreat, with several more scheduled for fall and winter. I also worked with several writers on Writing Conversations by EMail, and I’m still employed by the University of Minnesota/Split Rock, as an online mentor. In that role, I also comment on manuscripts, working with writers I have never met. The program ends in December, however, so I am accepting no new clients.
In all, I estimate that I wrote word-by-word and line-by-line comments on at least 2600 pages of manuscript this summer, including poetry, nonfiction and fiction. Each manuscript was different, and each one was an intriguing challenge.
In addition, on Labor Day weekend I hosted 14 MFA students and an English professor from Iowa State University in Ames, where I am a visiting professor. They scattered their tents around Homestead House, climbed Harney Peak, studied spider webs, and generally enjoyed the grasslands. Hiking through the pastures, we talked about writing and the environment. Eventually, some of them will choose me as their major professor, and I will begin working with them on their MFA theses.
As usual in fall, I’m thinking of ways to make my basement study cosier, brighter, greener, knowing I’ll be spending more time there this winter. Windbreak House Retreats are now open year round, since I am living next door. And to encourage winter retreats, we even have a Snowbound policy: if you get snowed in and can’t leave, you don’t pay for the days you can’t leave. Several writers have been delighted to remain snugly ensconced in Homestead House, considering a blizzard the perfect excuse to read some of the hundreds of books available as well as work on their own writing.
Still, fewer people schedule their retreats in late fall and winter, so I consider this equinox the time when my primary attention shifts away from working with writers and toward my own writing. I’ve barely begun a new book, but I’ve suddenly become more aware of it waiting on the table behind me.
As my mind turns toward writing, the sharp fall air stimulates my hunger, so I’m often torn between cooking and writing. A pot of tomato sauce simmers on the back of the stove beside a kettle of stock I’m making with leftover bits of meat and bone collected in the freezer over the past month. My final retreat guest of September brought me a bushel of Washington apples, so an apple crisp bakes in the oven.
And today, I picked what may be the last bouquet of black-eyed susans and am watching the drizzle, glad for the moisture that will reduce the fire danger. I think about the new book while I make green chile flavored with jalapenos harvested from my garden as well as some extra hot roasted chiles purchased at a farmers market last week. When I moved to Cheyenne, I’d never heard of green chile. As the child of South Dakotans, I’d never tasted anything very hot. My mother sometimes made chile con carne with a gentle sprinkle of chili powder, but I had no idea what subtleties of flavor and heights of heat were possible. Jerry bought green chile from Hispanic women friends, and because we both liked it so well, I gradually developed my own recipe.
Linda’s Green Chili con Carne
1 lb lean pork (or other lean meat), cut into ½ inch cubes
1 lb hamburger
3 T olive oil
1 chopped onion
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 C chopped green chile, or 2-3 chiles (if you aren’t used to HOT chile, add these a little at a time, tasting after a few minutes)
1/4 tsp oregano
2 C water or chicken stock
Red pepper flakes and salt to taste
Cook pork or lean meat a little at a time, browning slightly; remove from pan.
Cook hamburger, slightly brown; remove from pan.
Cook onion and garlic until limp; remove. (Put the meats, onion and garlic into the same bowl to wait for the next step.)
With 2 T butter substitute or butter and 1-2 T flour, make a roux, melting the fat and stirring the flour into it, cooking for a minute or two until it’s thick.
Add chicken (or beef) stock and make a smooth gravy.
Add the pork, hamburger, onion and garlic.
Simmer 2 hours covered, then remove cover and simmer until sauce thickens to the desired consistency.
Serve in bowls with warm flour tortillas to scoop up bites. I wrap the flour tortillas in a clean dish towel and microwave them for a minute or two.
To stretch this recipe, you can add two cups cooked pinto (or other) beans. And this makes a great sauce over Huevos Rancheros.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
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Journaling the Fruits of the Season
The ancient Celtic festival held on August 1 celebrates late summer and the work of harvesting and preserving the fruits of summer. At that time, the citizens celebrated the summer’s wealth of food and warmth while acknowledging that summer is ending and winter will return. One of the names of this festival, “Lammas” began as “loaf mass,” referring to the bread made from the first wheat to be harvested, brought to church as an offering.
Halfway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox, Lammas is often celebrated by women only, with rituals allowing us to recognize our hopes as well as our fears, to understand our regrets and accept the farewells we must make.
Modern folks, however, are often busy at this time of year: frantically cramming in as many of summer’s pleasures as possible before the long winter. Since it’s easy to lose track of what’s important, this is a good time for journaling. Don’t worry about writing finished prose or poetry; use the busy-ness as an excuse to take quick and detailed notes.
What are the joys of this season for you? The feel of the prickly echinacea blossoms? The scent of rain on drying grasses? Eating tomatoes from the garden? Freezing strawberries bought on sale?
Consider the season’s symbolisms: what seeds did you plant in the eagerness of spring-- either literally or figuratively? What has been the result? What have you gleaned from the past three months?
What plans did you make for the summer? Don’t beat yourself up if you didn’t accomplish everything; use the journal time to consider the benefits you did realize, and to plan for next summer.
What is passing from your life? How can you say goodbye to it without sentimentality? Instead of regretting, memorialize the past in stories. Perhaps you will make jelly or jam from the fruits of the season, but if not, consider how you can keep images from this summer sweet in your memory.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
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In October, 2010 Linda taught a journaling workshop for the South Dakota Women in Agriculture conference at Spearfish Canyon Lodge.
The workshop was titled Eighty Percent of Success is Showing Up: How your journal can organize your life. Linda discussed using several types of journals so that needed information is right at hand.
She suggested a week-long time-tracking exercise to chart how you actually spend your time so that you can rethink how you want to spend your hours each day, concentrating on what you want in your life rather than becoming stressed by reacting to outside events.
Linda also showed examples of her own journals for specific purposes, including her personal journal, her Handbook to Everything, her New Poems journal, her Toyota journal, her photograph album journal, her Death File, and others.
Linda has kept journals for more than 50 years. "My journals," she says, "help me organize my writing life, but they also have allowed me to keep track of my finances and do efficient estate planning. My journal is the best writing tool I own."
For more information:
SD Women in Ag Facebook page
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Summer Solstice Recipe: Truth in Writing
The Summer Solstice (June 20-23) was Litha to the ancient Celts, marking the longest day of the year, the triumph of light even as the year began to decline into darkness. To grow, we must accept even the passing of the sun; we must understand that love cannot triumph over death. We must realize that the light of truth shines more brightly against the darkness of lies. No matter how hard we try to tell the truth, unbelievers will always exist, people who refuse to accept the best possible evidence.
Recently, a former student of mine persuaded his book club to read my Going Over East: Reflections of a Woman Rancher, my second published nonfiction book, which originally appeared in 1987. Fulcrum, Inc., reprinted the original edition in 2001, with an epilogue in which I brought the story up to that date.
My former student took American Literature from me when I was in my mid-twenties, studying for my MA 40 years ago; he still lives in Missouri. I have not seen him since he left that class, and we have corresponded only briefly. We’ve learned we have much in common from our rural backgrounds-- though he claims to understand Sartre and I certainly do not, despite typing my first husband’s turgid, tepid, and tedious Ph.D. thesis on Sartre’s ethics.
Going Over East was published when I was 44. By then, with my second husband, I was well settled into a ranching life I loved. Within a few years after the book was published, my husband and my father died, and my responsibilities changed.
The book’s subject is ranch life. I drew from my extensive journals to write about how we managed our ranch, as well as recording my opinions about preservation of the environment in which we worked and raised cattle. I wanted to show the joys and beauties of ranch life, but I also wanted readers to know how hard we work to raise the healthy beef that sizzles on thousands of stoves in America every day. Much of our food is now produced in other countries; some of the citizens of those countries don’t like us, and some don’t adhere to our standards of health and cleanliness. Some meats regularly consumed by Americans-- chickens, pigs, turkey, beef-- are produced in factory farms that pollute the air, water, and landscape and make the animals, and their flesh, unhealthy.
I wanted readers to appreciate the ranching families who love their work and provide their fellow citizens with healthy, cheap beef, so I described our daily work, the stages of a cow’s life on a ranch, and the hazards to their lives. Also, I wanted to show Americans why we should preserve the grasslands that produce our beef, and protect them from being covered by waste shipped from other regions, by asphalt, or by subdivisions. For the same reason, I also described the wild inhabitants of the grasslands, the badgers, rattlesnakes, buzzards, pronghorn, deer, burrowing owls, as well as some of the plants-- broom rape, goatsbeard, biscuit root, buffalo grass, buffaloberries, gooseberries.
My former student likes the book, calling my passage on chopping ice (so that cattle may drink) “sheer genius,” and says it caused him to remember the feel of the axe in his hands, the skittering bounce when it glanced off the ice.
But this story is about his reading group.
“They hated it . . .” said my former student. “They disliked, and were even hostile to, your book. They were reticent about telling me at first because, after all, I was the one who nominated it. But finally they did. THEY DIDN’T BELIEVE IT IS TRUE. They believe life couldn’t be that hard and still be endured. They thought you made most of it up, just to make it appear you had a hard time as a child, and those things couldn’t really have happened because a person wouldn’t ever choose to actually go back to something like that.”
He adds, “So be aware, Linda, you are a lone voice crying in the wilderness of South Dakota . . . People don’t want biography in the form of gritty autobiography. They want literary pornography instead; something they can’t smell.”
At first I was stunned and angry-- but thoughtless anger is precisely what’s wrong with a lot of the discussions occurring in America today. I prefer that people who disagree do so with civility, with reason.
When I wrote that book, in the 1980s, I had no thought that it might be unbelievable to any thinking person. Most of my neighbors did the same jobs the same way, and many of them suffered considerably more. My grandmother, to name just one of the pioneering women I’ve known, regularly killed rattlesnakes and skunks with her garden hoe, but some of the great-grandmothers in this neighborhood would have considered my life a vacation. These tough people usually had neither the time nor the inclination to write about their lives, so mine is a pale imitation of what they endured.
By 2002, things had changed in ranching, and also in the world of writing. In my introduction to Between Grass and Sky, I reported that, “Even Annie Dillard, one of my own role models since Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, admits she never had a cat; she borrowed someone else’s experience to create an effective passage. I found her tale less moving if the cat didn’t leave bloody pawprints on her chest.” I love her writing, but have never trusted her reporting since then-- but that was only the beginning.
“I’ve always thought the distinction between truth and lies was clear,” I wrote in Between Grass and Sky, “but during the past few years, I’ve collected examples of differing views on the issue of how much truth a reader can expect in a book labeled ‘nonfiction.’ While writers’ renditions of truth vary widely, most readers feel betrayed to discover that an event did not happen as written.”
I explained at some length that I had changed a couple of names in the book, since the real people had not given me permission to write about them, and combined two men into one character.
Literary hoaxes have always been with us, of course. Wikipedia’s entry on “literary hoaxes” consumes 91 pages. But recent history has brought us some spectacular examples. This is in part because publishers do not-- cannot-- investigate a writer to determine if he or she is telling the truth. Contracts protect the publisher from fraud charges, but not from people willing to lie in signing such a contract.
One of the best-known recent scams is the “Navahoax” perpetrated by Timothy Patrick Barrus, a writer of sadomasochistic erotica who wrote three fake memoirs pretending to be Nasdiij, a Navajo. Indians are popular hoax material, in part because readers know so little about the reality of Indian life, and because publishers fail to ask advice from real Indians; remember Grey Owl and Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree.
Some folks even say lying and calling it nonfiction is acceptable; there’s a category of writing labeled the “fiction memoir.” And for a truly bizarre story, read about JT LeRoy. After an hour looking to Google for information on literary hoaxes, I’m horrified, and wonder if truth itself is out of date.
As George Orwell said, “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”
Of course, when I write about events in my life, I risk being deceived by a faulty memory, but it is always my intention to tell the truth. If I distrust my memory, I signal that fact to the reader by saying “I think . . .” or “I imagine . . .” or “I seem to remember . . .” and other warnings that I understand the faulty and self-serving nature of memory.
My primary self-appointed job is writing for the purpose of helping people to appreciate the treasure this nation has in the grasslands of the Great Plains, and the ranchers who have preserved it for us, full of clean air, uncorrupted soil, pure water.
If I lie about anything, a reader might not believe what I say about the grasslands is true.
When a writer makes up dialogue or changes events, that’s fiction, or lying. And every time one of those liars hits the best-seller list, readers ask me, “So, did this really happen or did you make it up?” I resent that.
If I make anything up, I’ll call it fiction. If I am trying to tell the truth, I call it nonfiction.
I sympathize with and greatly pity the readers of the book group. Maybe they’ve watched a lot of “reality” TV. I have no TV connection, but my newspaper informs me about lying politicians, business leaders who won’t take responsibility for what their companies do, and ministers who deplore homosexuality but hire male prostitutes. No wonder belief has been eroded. The members of the book group are so used to a daily diet of lies they may no longer recognize truth. No wonder our society is in turmoil.
I have no idea why they disbelieved a narrative that tells about the experiences I lived through on the ranch. I doubt that many of them have lived a rural life, or have experience with the work a ranch requires. Most of the events in the book aren’t even particularly dramatic; details of ranch work in this area that could be easily verified.
I can’t convince the book club. Instead, I’ve decided to refuse to believe in them.
I’d rather believe in readers who may disagree with me, but would try to discover if I am a liar before announcing that I am. I had encouraged their reading; they might have responded to me with questions. In recent years, ranching has been the subject of many written and televised features, so research on the reality of what I wrote wouldn’t have been difficult.
Meanwhile, my former student writes that he won’t quit the book club. I’m glad. How can one change an organization, or encourage it to broaden its viewpoints, if one quits at every disagreement? In an email, he says he trusts that I can write about this incident without embarrassing him: the equivalent of a handshake agreement between us.
Here in South Dakota, million-dollar deals can still be sealed by a handshake. I don’t suppose the book club will believe that either, but I’m glad my former student is the kind of man who does.
And so we celebrate the Summer Solstice. Without lies, truth would not shine so brightly. Yet no matter how hard we try to tell the truth, we may make mistakes. All we can do is try to be honest.
Here (below) is my recipe for achieving truth in your writing, the handout I provide for writers of autobiographical material. Every one of these suggestions evolved from my examination of my own writing, and the truth I am trying to achieve in my work.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
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Linda M. Hasselstrom
My definition of autobiographical writing:
A STORY about certain CHARACTERS in a certain TIME and PLACE
(just like a novel or short story)
BUT: a novel or story is FICTION and a memoir should be NONFICTION.
It should not be necessary to say this.
Therefore the usual suggestions for writing apply:
-- Write what you know, which includes what you do for a living, as well as the other things you know how to do: hobbies, some folks call them, but include household tasks, things you have learned about dealing with children or cantankerous elders.
-- Write from who you are, which can include your body, mind, hobbies; anything can be material.
Finally, a serious and astute reader has pointed out to me that the best autobiography, or memoir, happens when the self is not so much the subject as the point of departure. The writer is more interested in drawing attention to what his mind has seen and explored, rather than to simply telling about the wonderful uniqueness of the self. And one test of a good memoir is that the author sees the humor in the self-- is able to be self-deprecating, to invite others to laugh at the author’s foibles, and to give others credit where it is due.
In deciding HOW MUCH TRUTH should be in my writing, I ask myself these questions:
1. Is it true? Memory can be faulty & anyone’s mind may unconsciously edit to enhance your role
2. Am I writing self-consciously, self-importantly-- that is, only for the purpose of demonstrating my brilliance or another of my fine qualities? If you think as you write, "The entire free world is going to read this and the people I’m writing about might be angry,” you may leave out important points. Everything you write should have some purpose, some aim, though it may not be immediately apparent.
3. Is the story I’m telling too intimate, too private to tell in public? Ask yourself, "Who are my readers and what do we have in common?” Is it relevant to reveal your political beliefs, your religious beliefs or sexual preferences?
4. Will what I write help anyone? Can you choose to violate your own privacy for a good purpose? Can omission of details give a false impression?
5. Is this story mine to tell? Will what I write hurt anyone? Will that person hurt me? Have I written about illegal activities? If you tell someone else’s story, will the truth hurt them or their descendants?
6. Have I told this story ONLY out of nostalgia? Only for its sentimental value, a dramatic effect on the reader? Have I made a human friend into a dead saint? Am I looking for sympathy?
7. Am I giving advice? Do I slap the reader in the face with the “moral” of the story? Readers prefer to find the story’s purpose themselves, not to be told what to do or think. Show the reader, don’t tell her; present evidence, not judgment.
8. Does everything I have written advance the story, the purpose, the theme? Have I included anything, as Annie Dillard says, “just for the lousy reason that it actually happened”? Have I included any incident just for its dramatic value when I know it does not advance the story?
How do you avoid the inherent dangers of autobiographical writing?
-- Keep reading autobiographical writing with a critical eye, analyzing other writers’ methods. When they write something you like, study how they do it.
-- Keep writing steadily, building experience in good taste and judgment about what should be revealed.
-- Ask honest readers to tell you, preferably before publication, if they believe you have told too much.
-- After publication, pay attention to reader response and apply what you learn to future autobiographical writing. Writing well starts with collecting material and testing it, which is hard because the real test is the response. The more you read your writing to audiences, or publish work, the more responses you get, and the better you can judge.
Deciding what to include/leave out:
Remember the Elements of Fiction: character, conflict, plot, theme; you are telling stories that happen to involve you.
When writing about yourself, watch out for:
-- self importance, self-consciousness
-- nostalgia, sentimentality
-- giving advice, presenting JUDGMENT rather than EVIDENCE
Memoir: n. 1. An account of the personal experiences of an author. 2. An autobiography. 3. A biography or biographical sketch.
American Heritage Dictionary. 4th edition.
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May Eve and Vinegar: Bringing Order to Your Writing Life
When I was five years old, soon after we moved to Rapid City from Texas, my mother helped me weave May baskets of paper strips, and fill them with candy and flowers-- possibly dandelions; we were quite poor. Holding my hand, she walked me to the homes of several friends where we hung the baskets on the doorknob, rang the bell, and jogged away.
I didn’t know then that I was following an ancient custom; I suspect even fewer people know today. Several websites show how to create May baskets, but few mention the Celtic and pagan origins of this custom.
April 30, May Eve, called Beltane by the ancient Celts, was one of the two most important festivals of the year. Citizens began celebrating at dawn, observing the opening of spring’s doorway into light and summer. Nature renews itself at this season, flowering into the dance of life. Beltane (under various spellings) was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, while similar festivals were held in Wales, England, Brittany and Cornwall. In ancient Ireland, the main Beltane fire was kindled on the central hill of Uisneach, 'the navel of Ireland', one of the ritual centers of the country, located in what is now County Westmeath. The ritual called for lighting this community fire, and from it rekindling each hearth fire in every household in the village. What a wonderful, unifying custom.
Until the early 20th century, Irish people also observed the Beltane custom of hanging May boughs on the doors and windows of houses, a practice brought to America as May baskets.
The sense of this ritual, I think, is with us as we observe another ancient custom: spring cleaning. To celebrate, I usually organize my writing files, and renew my recipes for making cleaners for my house that don’t use damaging and nasty-smelling chemicals.
To write efficiently, I have two desks. The computer desk holds my laptop and associated gadgetry including backup flash drives, a stand that holds my detailed daily calendar and documents I’m writing. On a shelf below, a wire basket holds expense and income information. The basket is shallow, so I can’t let the accounts go more than a month before recording and filing them.
To the right of the stand holding my printer and copier are bookshelves with the references I most often use. (Writers who have been to my retreats have seen my handout on this topic.) Next stands a file cabinet of business items: property tax records and medical files. My Jobs file holds details of paid work I’ve agreed to do, arranged chronologically, with a section for JOBS FINISHED. Behind that is a file for each retreat participant I expect to host, and each client for my Writing Conversations By E-mail.
And on top of the file cabinet-- and scattered on a long table to the right-- stands my file box of current projects. That’s what I’m organizing today.
When I get an idea for an essay, I start a file folder to collect information on that topic. I’m recycling hundreds of file folders collected from organizations that were throwing them away. The first folder holds guidelines and submission requirements for various magazines. The trick may be remembering what you called a particular file, but I usually have a computer file on the same topic, which helps keep it in mind. I sort articles, notes, and other information for that essay, then put it alphabetically in the project box. I keep poem drafts in a binder, easy to grab and take along for airline or motel reading when I travel.
Certain topics are perpetual: Community, Grasslands, Ranching, Development, Water, Women. These are subjects on which I frequently write, so I often add items to the files and periodically review them for new ideas. At the very back is an envelope labeled DRAFTS I’M SICK OF LOOKING AT. But I don’t throw them away!
As I file, I replace books and dust shelves with a rag dampened with a bit of olive oil, scented with lavender. I clean the metal surfaces with a rag on which I’ve lightly sprayed a mixture of vinegar and water, 1:3, sometimes with a scented essential oil added.
At my left is a larger desk, with a standing file for unanswered mail, the daily calendar where I record what I’ve accomplished that day as well as the amount of rain or snowfall, temperatures, appointments. On a single sheet I keep a running list of my daily writing jobs, including articles to write, and manuscripts for which I’ve contracted to write commentaries. I try to keep the middle of the desk open for the daily projects. Right now, that spot holds a book, Nontoxic Cleaning, (one of several dandy green guides published by Chelsea Green, P.O. Box 428, White River Junction, VT; ; 802-295-6300 www.chelseagreen.com.)
The booklet furnishes information on a basic cleaning “toolbox” containing the only three cleaners you really need: baking soda, white vinegar (the 5 percent acidity kind from the supermarket), and soap or detergent (preferably phosphate-free, biodegradable) for use if you have hard water or if you hate soap scum. These three cleaners will solve most of your cleaning problems without poisoning your life. Vinegar is economical, non-toxic, environmentally friendly, entirely natural, and kills most household bacteria, molds, and microbes; rarely does the average home require a stronger sanitizer.
-- add essential oils, such as peppermint, lavender, or eucalyptus for a scent much better than the harsh commercial cleaners; the oils, too, kill germs.
-- borax for nonabrasive cleaning of stubborn stains.
-- lemon juice as an alternative to vinegar; it works as a mild bleach: pour it on stains and hang the cloth in the sun.
Exploring the cleaning power of common household substances is a great way to ease yourself into spring cleaning, and begin to wean yourself away from chemicals that benefit no one but the companies that make them.
Look for the website that mentions 254 uses for vinegar and counting, www.wisebread.com, which leads you to the site with 1001 uses for vinegar, www.vinegartips.com. Google “uses for baking soda” with similar results, including www.lifehackery.com. Also www.essential-oil-recipes.com offers concoctions for bath and body skin care and aromatherapy, as well as advice on using the oils. You might also like www.frugalliving.com.
As with any source of information, study the claims for products you buy either online or in your local store. These days companies are “greenwashing”-- making extravagant environmental claims for products that are not good for us or the planet.
I’ve spent years developing recipes that allow me to skip the toxic cleaning aisle of grocery stores. For example, I keep vinegar handy at all times, using it to tenderize meat, soothe bee stings, relieve sunburn, condition hair, kill grass and weeds, sanitize the toilet, cut grease in dish-washing water, clean the coffee pot, and more. To unclog a drain, pour a handful of baking soda down a drain, add a cup of vinegar, and rinse with hot water. Seek and you shall find more suggestions like this.
Put 1/4 cup each vinegar or borax and baking soda in the toilet bowl to clean and loosen stains; brush as usual.
After all this cleaning and organizing, reflect on what you’ve accomplished while relaxing in a soothing bath, sprinkling 1/2 cup baking soda, and 1/2 cup kosher salt under the running faucet. AFTER you shut off the water, (to prevent the oils from dissipating) add 8-15 drops of the essential oil of your choice: lavender, jasmine, marjoram, rosemary for calming and relaxing muscles; eucalyptus, pine or thyme to clear sinuses and soothe aching muscles; bergamot, chamomile, lavender, patchouli or rose for anti-inflammatory effects; or rosemary, oregano, coriander to energize and revitalize.
Here are three recipes for antibacterial room spray:
First, fill a 4-ounce glass spray bottle with distilled water. (Essential oils damage some plastics.) Then add essential oils in the following proportions (keep track and change the mixture next time if you don’t like it)
-- 14 drops of lavender oil and 8 drops of thyme oil.
-- 14 drops lavender oil and 4 drops rosemary oil.
-- 4 drops each: lavender, eucalyptus, bergamot oil.
Here’s an antibacterial spray for surfaces like floors, countertops and sinks in the kitchen and bathroom:
-- add 12 drops lavender, 12 drops eucalyptus, 12 drops orange, and 5 drops thyme to 4 ounces of distilled water into a spray bottle.
I’ve also used this in the shower and toilet, especially when I have a cold. A pleasant way to kill dangerous critters.
My favorite kitchen cleaner:
In a 32-ounce spray bottle, mix in the order given:
-- 1 tablespoon castile soap or dish soap
-- 8 to 10 drops of an essential oil
-- 3 cups water
-- 1 cup vinegar
-- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
For hand lotions, I buy cheap unscented lotions, and add essential oils for the mood I want: lavender for the bedroom, rosemary for after a shower, eucalyptus for after a hot bath with eucalyptus oil if my sinuses are acting up.
I’ve tried my recipes, but test these cautiously for yourself; essential oils are widely available these days, in varying strengths, and can cause allergic reactions in some people. Learn all you can about each oil and the folks you are buying from; many oils should be used only in dilution.
May your May Eve lead you smiling into spring, ready for some new writing experiences.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
April 30, 2010
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On Cooking and Writing
Spring officially arrived at the spring equinox, March 20-21, but we’d already heard redwing blackbirds the preceding week. This is a time of balance between spring and summer, light and dark. The ancients called it Eostar or Ostara-- does that sound familiar? At the equinox, the wheel turns and we acknowledge that light is returning, that spring has arrived bringing hope and warmth. Seeds sprout, animals prepare to give birth. And writers emerge from winter when we curled up in a chair with a shawl around our shoulders and read someone else’s work.
Tamara, who helps make virtually every aspect of my life flow more smoothly than it would without her, has cautioned me not to turn this web site into “Linda’s cooking show.” Yet since I moved back to the ranch, as I have worked to re-learn the rhythm of the grasslands and my place here, cooking has become a means of relaxation from the work I do at the computer. Paying attention to the way we nourish our bodies helps me nourish my mind and my writing as well.
According to my trusty American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition, an essay can be “a short literary composition on a single subject, usually presenting the personal view of the author.” Later definitions say it can be “a testing, or trial,” or “an initial attempt.” I work mostly in the essay form these days. An essay usually begins with fiddling around with ideas. I may begin with an image: something I’ve seen, heard, or thought, and see where exploring the idea will take me.
I usually begin writing something new in the morning, then break to figure out what to fix for lunch. While I’m cooking, I can think over what I’ve written. I may recite lines from a poem, smoothing the rough spots, while kneading bread or stirring a stew. The two kinds of pleasurable labor seem to me intimately connected. Spring inspires new writing, and makes me think of granola, so this is an essay at making a case for the way creating granola may help polish phrases.
In spring we often realize how much weight we’ve gained, and resolve to eat more healthy food. Granola is a good beginning. Moreover, granola, filled with seeds and fruit and often eaten with milk and honey, seems the perfect food to celebrate the rebirth of spring and writing energy.
Then, too, I received more reader response to my bread recipe than from anything else we’ve put on this web site. The recipe brought more positive comments than I’ve gotten from many of my books!
[To see the bread recipe and essay, click here.]
7 Cups quick oatmeal (I often include a cup or two of regular oatmeal)
1 Cup bran
1 Cup wheat germ
1/2 Cup powdered milk
1/2 to 1 Cup sunflower seeds
1/2 to 1 Cup sesame seeds (toasted)
1 Cup chopped walnuts (or substitute double the almonds)
1 Cup chopped almonds
1 Cup flake coconut
1 Cup honey (try substituting some molasses for the honey)
1 Cup vegetable (not olive!) oil
See below for more ingredients added after baking.
Mix all dry ingredients well. Pour oil into 2-cup measure. Warm honey until it flows and stir it into the oil (they mix well when warm, and the honey doesn’t stick to the cup). Pour honey and oil over dry mixture. Stir well.
Spread on two large cookie sheets. Bake 300 degrees, watching and stirring several times so it gets golden but doesn't burn on the bottom. I use a spatula to pull the mix in from the edges, then turn it in the center so it doesn’t spill over the edges.
Baking takes 30-40 minutes at my altitude of 3500 feet, with my propane oven, but watch and time your own baking; it’s easy to burn this mixture. Midway through the baking, I usually switch the cookie sheet on the bottom rack to the top, stirring at the same time. I’ve burned a lot of granola by thinking I would rely on a timer to tell me when it was done; you need to keep looking.
Add after baking (so the fruit doesn’t get too hard):
3/4 to 1 Cup raisins, cranberries, chopped prunes, or a mixture of dried fruit.
You may wish add 1/2 to 1 Cup flax seed; cooking destroys some of its beneficial qualities, so add after baking.
Cool and store the granola in airtight container. I freeze half of this recipe, and it feeds me breakfast for at least a month.
I usually eat it in a bowl with yogurt in the morning, but I’ve also kept containers by my desk to nibble as a healthy snack all day long.
Bring 1/2 Cup white corn syrup (or honey) to a boil.
Mix in 2/3 Cup peanut butter. (Or carob? Or other flavoring?)
Stir in 3 Cups of the baked granola mixture.
Spread in 9x9 greased pan and let sit 1 hour before cutting. Store in airtight container.
For years, I’ve made variations of this granola for breakfast, eating it with yogurt and fresh fruit. Experiment with flavors you like; you might use molasses instead of honey, for example, or omit the honey from the mixing and add sweetener when you are ready to eat. Or add cinnamon, nutmeg, or other spices.
More Thoughts about Cooking and Writing
Cooking demands planning: do I have everything I need to make this recipe? If not, do I have something that might be substituted successfully? How will what I want to add taste with the other ingredients?
Similarly, as you prepare to write an essay, you must ask yourself questions about your plan. Decide if you can logically defend the personal opinion you want to express. Do you need to quote the opinions of others? Do you need to provide facts to support an argument? As you revise, try to consider what it would be like to read the essay if you disagreed with its premise; what would convince you?
Even better: submit a draft of the essay to someone who really disagrees with you, and listen to what that person has to say-- just as you might offer a taste of a new recipe, asking for comments on how the ingredients blend together.
An essay is often an argument for a particular point of view. Therefore, it often stands or falls on its ability to draw the reader into the discussion. A flat statement that the writer’s view is correct isn’t usually convincing. Often, an anecdote from the writer’s own experience can provide a little entertainment while making a serious point; a personal note may draw a reader into the essay in a way that a simple recitation of facts cannot.
For example, I’ve tried to recall, as I worked on this note, how long I’ve been making this granola recipe, and where I first saw it. I have a recipe for pumpkin bread that was handed to a friend on a street corner in St. Louis during the Sixties, by a smiling woman who said the only requirement of the recipe was that it always be “given away with love.” I’ve given away dozens of the loaves since those days, always with a copy of the recipe, and love.
I suspect I first copied the granola recipe from a healthy cookbook during the Sixties, both for its health benefits and its practicality. Nowadays, the stores are full of fancy commercial granolas that weren’t available then-- but none of them are as good, or as free of preservatives and sugars, as this one. And, just as I’ve done with some of the yellowed drafts I keep in battered file folders, I’ve been tinkering with it, revising it here and there, since those days. Go ahead: create your own version.
Just as it’s possible to fall in love with the cleverness of a particular line, or an image, so it’s possible to overdo some ingredients. How much honey is too much? How many adjectives are just right?
Both cooking and writing provide much of their joy from having done them: eating the meal, seeing the poem in print. But in both cases, if we get in too much of a hurry to enjoy that final step, we may fail at one of the steps in the process that must precede it. Take your time making the granola; take your time working through the essay.
One more aspect of cooking that makes it appropriate for discussion related to writing is the closeness brought by “breaking bread together.” Just as sitting down to a meal was often a symbolic part of signing peace treaties between warring nations or individuals, so eating together can allow conversation to reach different levels between people. Many of the best discussions of writing at Windbreak House Retreats have occurred during meals. For good reason the retreat kitchen has several aprons (made by a long-time correspondent of mine); many of our writers have made relaxed cooking and eating an essential part of their retreats. I’ll never truly forget the closeness and the memorable discussion that lasted several days when two of us, snowed in during a retreat, created and consumed a 40-Garlic-Clove Chicken. But that’s another story.
And blessed may you be this spring.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
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The Sacrament of Bread
Every year, usually about December 20, I wish I’d written a Christmas poem as some organized writers do. This year, having failed again, I decided that sending greetings through my website would be compatible with my constant theme of sustainable, responsible behavior, saving both energy and cash.
Furthermore, after a couple of hours tapping at the keyboard, I realized that I may already have said most of what I want to say since I’ve been repeating my concern for the prairie in my writing for 30 years. That’s fine: some things need to be repeated often before they are accepted.
So I’m not going to waste energy debating causes and culprits of climate change. I’ll keep working to reduce my impact on the world from which I draw both physical and spiritual nourishment. And I’ll try to do unto others as I would be done to.
I’ve been re-reading some of the books that taught me a good deal, including Wendell Berry.
To live we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully and reverently it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily and destructively it is a desecration.
-- Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land
Among other sacraments I’ve rediscovered during this year-and-a-half on the ranch is that of baking bread, kneading it a long, slow ten minutes for that perfect texture and crunch. Here’s my current favorite recipe:
Rosemary (or Dill) Bread
1 package active dry yeast
1 cup warm water (about 110 degrees F.)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary or dried rosemary, crumbled
or 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill or 1 tablespoon crumbled dried dill weed
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon regular salt
1 cup whole wheat flour
About 2 cups all-purpose flour (I use unbleached)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1. Sprinkle yeast over warm water in a large bowl; let stand until foamy (about 5 minutes). Add rosemary, sugar, regular salt, whole wheat flour, and about 3/4 cup of the all-purpose flour. Beat with a heavy spoon or an electric mixer until dough pulls away from sides of bowl in stretchy strands.
2. Beat in about 3/4 cup more all-purpose flour
To knead by hand: turn dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead until smooth and springy–about 10 minutes, adding more all-purpose flour if needed to prevent sticking. Place in a greased bowl; turn over to grease top.
To knead with a dough hook, beat on medium speed until dough is springy and pulls cleanly from sides of bowl (5 to 7 minutes), adding more all-purpose flour 1 tablespoon at a time as needed if dough is sticky.
3. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp dish towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled (about 1 hour).
4. Punch dough down and knead briefly on a lightly floured board to release air. Shape into a ball, gently pulling top surface under until the top is smooth.
5. Place on a greased baking sheet; brush lightly with oil. Cover lightly and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 45 minutes.
6. Brush loaf with egg. With a razor blade or very sharp knife, make a small X-shaped cut on top of loaf. Sprinkle with coarse salt. Bake in a 375-degree oven until loaf is browned and sounds hollow when tapped on bottom (about 45 minutes). Transfer to a rack and let cool.
One of the things I love about bread is that it’s forgiving (shall I point out the metaphor?) If you find, when you cut open a loaf, that it isn’t done in the center, return it to the pan or put it on an oven rack and bake 10-15 minutes longer.
Bread is ideal for writers because it also takes well to revision. Find a recipe you like and experiment with it; I haven’t tried other herbs in this yet, but in summer, I surely will. Moisture introduced during baking–a pan of water on the lower rack of the oven–produces a crisp crust. Or spray the loaves several times during baking, using a plant mister. An egg white mixed with 1 tablespoon water or milk and painted on the loaf makes the crust shiny and does not brown as much as a crust glazed with a whole egg or egg yolk. Milk or evaporated milk give a brown color to the crust, the latter a little darker. Sprinkle the unbaked loaf with poppy, sesame or sunflower seeds after glazing, so the seeds will stick. Making two or three 1/2-inch-deep slashes across the top of a loaf allows moisture to escape.
Update: Kathleen Norris suggested in a note to me just after Christmas that this bread would be good with dried tomatoes. I chopped several from a jar of sun dried in olive oil and added those to the recipe; delicious! The tomato enhances the rosemary.
So for this winter holiday season, I wish you this:
May you discover the joys of making bread with your own hands,
may your bread always forgive you, and
may you be nourished by its body and its spirit.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
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