The Internet: Connecting to the World from Rural South Dakota

Linda with the unreliable satellite dish 2017--6-4When we moved back to South Dakota years ago, we contacted a satellite dish company in Rapid City called Wirefree USA, now known as Rapid Choice, and entered into a contract to provide satellite access to our house with Wildblue as the internet provider.

With this system we experienced recurring problems with internet connectivity and slow speeds. After a couple of years, we switched to Hughes Net and after experiencing similar problems ultimately ended up with Exede for our internet provider, based each time on the recommendation of Wirefree USA. At first Exede seemed to work fine, but before long we began experiencing problems with over-running our allotted gigabytes of usage. For an additional monthly cost, we upgraded from our 10 gigabyte plan to 15 gigabytes. Again this seemed to address the problem for only a short period of time. We are now on a 25 gigabyte program with a total monthly cost of over $150.

We do not stream movies; we barely even know what NetFlix does. We live more than a mile from the nearest neighbors, so piracy is unlikely. We turn off our internet connections each time we leave our computers. Still, we’re told, the usage keeps going up. As do the costs.

Even at the inflated cost mentioned above, our service is dismal. Several times in the past few years we have been without internet connectivity for up to a week or more. Wirefree USA cannot send out a repair person without receiving a work order from the internet provider. This then requires us to contact the provider and try to work through a fix over the phone. Sometimes this is successful and other times not.

Wirefree USA satellite dish 2017--6-4The last time we contacted Exede with a connectivity issue, we went through the usual routine of unplugging the modem and plugging it back in, as well as rebooting the entire computer system. When these efforts proved unsuccessful, we were told that there was some kind of disturbance in our area and they had people currently working on the problem. We were told to wait a couple of hours and internet service would probably be re-established. We did this and after a couple of hours still had no internet service. We called the provider again and again they had us go through the routine described above. This, of course, was no more successful than before. When I explained that we had been told that our problems were the result of a disturbance in the area, the representative checked and determined that there was no disturbance shown in our area. Clearly this was an effort by the first representative to simply blow off our problem with a false story. The entire effort took most of a working day.

At this point, the Exede representative set up a work order allowing Wirefree USA to send a maintenance person to fix our problem. The next day we contacted Wirefree USA and were told it would take more time to schedule the work order visit. Shortly after this call, we were contacted by Wirefree USA to upgrade to a new, faster system with a two year contract term. Given the poor performance of upgrades from the various iterations in the past, we declined the offer. The next day, a maintenance visit was scheduled for the following Tuesday– more than a week after we lost internet connectivity.

The issue detailed above is just one of many problems we have experienced with our current system and although the problems always get resolved, it requires a great deal of effort on our part and the results are only temporary.

Now that the system is “fixed,” for example, we have lost internet connectivity for periods lasting from a few minutes to several hours. This happens 4 to 8 times each day at unpredictable hours.

The excessive cost and poor performance of our current system, as well as the less than adequate customer service provided by both Wirefree USA and Exede, have resulted in our exploring other options for obtaining internet service.

What can you learn from these experiences? Ask your neighbors and friends who provide their internet service, and explore every option available to you. And good luck.

Linda at her computer desk 2017--6-4

UPDATE: Before I could post this blog our internet service went out again. The local representative said he could come to do a repair in ONLY (!) 4 days.

So we followed our own advice and consulted a few more neighbors and friends. On the recommendation of a friend on a Wyoming ranch, we visited Verizon, our cell phone company, and in 30 minutes left with a Verizon Jet Pack. We turned it on when we got home and immediately got internet access that will cost us considerably less than what we have been paying.

Another advantage is that when we want to travel, we can simply take the Jet Pack along, so we will have internet wherever we go. Down side: we can’t stream movies– but we don’t do that anyway. After 24 hours, we have explored all the things we normally do on the internet and the Verizon system does them perfectly.

Happy, we called Excede and WireFree USA and told them to come get their equipment, and then spent several minutes convincing them that we didn’t need or want their terrible services any more. Well guess what? They trotted right out here to install our service, but they don’t come back to get their equipment. They will send us a box with instructions on what to return and how to return it, and we must do that within a specified length of time– or they will charge us $300.

Just what we might have expected. Someday soon, with great delight, we will package up their equipment and return it to them. And we’ll be smiling– and emailing our friends through Verizon to tell them all about the experience.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Resting in Peace. Or Not.

cemetery rabbit pays respects 2017--5-28

Several times this week I’ve walked on a high, windy hill a few miles north of my ranch, smiling and talking to people no one else could have seen, if anyone else had been there.

I was alone with our community’s dead.

Hello, Mary. I remember you so well. You would walk into the schoolyard, a tiny woman with a long black skirt, ankle-high black boots and wearing a black shawl wrapped around your head and shoulders. When the teachers shooed you away from us, you’d flutter a tiny hand in front of your lips and mumble.

Carrying a couple of trash bags, I went to Highland Park Cemetery near Hermosa to tidy the grounds for Memorial Day.cemetery Highland Park sign 2017--5-28

You died in 1976; I hadn’t remembered that, but I wasn’t living here at the time. And here’s your family. I remember my father telling me that they died of the disease that deafened and deformed you. What was it? Measles? Diphtheria, maybe.

No one else appeared as I walked each quarter of the grounds, but I know that on Memorial Day the narrow gravel roads will be crowded with cars. Neighbors who haven’t been here for years will stroll the aisles, decorating the graves of their own dead. And they’ll notice, and comment, on graves that have not been spruced up.

A man’s name reminds me how his wife used to roll his wheeled bed between the displays in one of the buildings at the county fairgrounds. I never knew what put him into that bed, but I shuddered every time I saw his pale face propped on the pillows.

I stuffed into my bags battered Christmas wreaths, shredded plastic and cloth flowers, broken crosses and flags smeared with mud.

A little square tombstone has fallen backward. Oh yes, they were neighbors on the east side of our ranch; we met them occasionally when we were all fixing fence. My dad would lean on a post talking while I wandered down the fence line reattaching staples. I try to set the stone upright, but it’s too heavy.

cemetery gumbo on shoe 2017--5-28Blades of brome grass are woven through some fallen bouquets, indicating that whoever placed them on these graves hasn’t been back since last year. Recent rains have turned the yellow gumbo into glue that clings to my shoes, sucking me downward.

I once wrote in a poem that nothing but buffalo grass and graves thrive on this hill, “pulling some thin life from the thick clay soil.”

My folks always called it “Decoration Day.” Originally, relatives adorned the graves of armed services members with flags, wreaths and flowers. First widely observed on May 30, 1868, Decoration Day was created to honor both Union and Confederate Dead. As the custom of visiting the cemetery on the last Monday in May developed, so did the practice of decorating all the graves. In 1971, an Act of Congress declared Memorial Day to be a national holiday.

When my folks were alive, we visited the cemetery before Memorial Day every year. We didn’t clean up the whole cemetery, just worked on the graves of the folks related to us. My father always insisted on turning over the sod on each grave, and working the weeds out of the tangle. I thought it was gruesome to make each grave look fresh. Once I had to dig out six alfalfa plants from the grave of the grandfather I never knew. He worked so hard to grow hay for his cattle that I felt terrible destroying those plants. My poem continued:

                               I’ll leave the spade
against Martha’s rock, try the hoe, hack
at the stubborn roots worked deep in clay.
The shock moves up my arm, down the hoe,
drumming to bones I’ll never see, deep
in the earth, deep inside my flesh.

Though I never knew my father’s parents, nor am I their blood relation, I feel connected to them through our ties to the land.

Untangling a plastic vase holding blue fabric flowers from the mesh of grasses, I looked them over. These looked fairly fresh, and lay between two graves, so I propped them against a headstone belonging to someone who died long ago and who probably has no living relatives in the area.

“That’s Eddie; he was my half-brother, from my mother’s first marriage,” my dad would explain. “And over here is his brother Archie.”cemetery Archie 2017--5-28

Archie’s stone, beside his mother’s, holds no message but the years of his birth and death. A cedar tree with a trunk thick as my thigh grows out of the grave’s heart. His brother Eddie, a few paces uphill, is identified as William Edward Callahan, a Sergeant in the 335th Field Artillery, 87th Division. Their photographs in the local history tome show them as brawny young men who marched off to World War I and survived.

Not long ago I found a box of letters Eddie wrote to his mother when he was in boot camp preparing for his overseas service in 1917 and 1918.

“I’m sure glad you had a good year because you need it want to get an Auto this fall so I can have a few joy rides when I come home next year I’ve been gone nearly a year now, haven’t I seems like a long time. . . . I’m still drilling rookies we’ve sure got a tough bunch. . . . part of them are in the guard house and the other half are ready to hit you with a knife every time you look around.”

Eddie later wrote that he didn’t believe he could ever settle down in one place after being in the service, but would travel the world. Instead, he married a local girl and settled down on the ranch with his parents. On March 29, 1942, his horse fell with him in one of our pastures. No one has ever shown me where he died. I picture his handsome, square-jawed face as I tuck a stray bouquet against his small white headstone.

Sorry I never knew you, Eddie; my dad never stopped talking about you and Archie. He grew up skinny and tall, a shriveled arm from the scarlet fever; he must have wanted so much to be sturdy and as handsome as you two.

cemetery tall marble 2017--5-28I pick up a wad of crumpled newspaper, a plastic bag holding the remains of a French fry container, and a beer bottle from the grass beside a tall, elaborately carved headstone, and pause to read the name and dates. The stone has begun to sink into the gumbo on one side.

My father would gesture to this grave and say, “They used to be big wheels in this county. They used to BE somebody. Now the whole family is here. There’s no one left.”

I’m tucking a bouquet beside a square red stone when I realize it says “Bender.” Of course! My dad always called one of our pastures “the Bender place,” keeping these folks I never met alive in my mind and memory. Now I know that’s probably where some of the family originally homesteaded.

My bag is nearly full but I follow the trail of trash to the far west side of the cemetery. Here, overlooked by the dark slope of the distant Black Hills, are the joined graves of a young couple who had planned to marry before they were killed by a drunken driver. Marriage brings uncertainties, trials, but these two will truly be together forever.

Dragging my bag to my car, I pass the graves of several Civil War veterans, identified by standard military headstones. A.G. Fout served in Company F of the 40th Ohio Infantry, and a local historian has learned that Anderson G. Fout fought in Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee, as well as surviving the carnage at Shiloh. Harrison Adams, Company F of the 23rd Ohio Infantry, participated in the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain at Lynchburg, TN, and in Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, among others. He and then his widow received Civil War pensions. Official lists indicate at least 16 Civil War veterans are buried here, men who probably came west for the land promised by the Homestead Act. The simple white headstones bear only their names, with no indication of wives or children. Since only Union soldiers were considered veterans, we may never know if Confederate soldiers are entombed here.

AnnaLindsayBeside John and Anna Lindsay’s plot, I pause to recall their faces and the stories they told of struggling to make a living in blizzards, prairie fires, grasshoppers, beetles, dry weather, dust storms, hail storms and low prices. Anna said they went without sugar, gas and tires for years. Their only daughter was born during the famous Blizzard of 1949. During lean years, including two world wars and the Depression, both of them took turns working in town. Anna worked for the local telephone company for 25 years.

“Now remember,” my father cautioned as he handed me the telephone receiver. I was in high school, just beginning to get calls from boys. “Remember,” he repeated strongly, “Don’t say anything on the telephone that you don’t want the whole neighborhood to know.”

I nodded, knowing what he meant.

Lindsays sold their place to the Hasselstroms about the time my father married my mother and we moved to the ranch. Whenever we sorted cattle in their corrals, I usually seized the chance to explore their empty house or the cellar where they’d left a few discarded canning jars. When we tore down the old house, we moved the kitchen to our place to serve as a bunkhouse; later it became my office and now it’s my garden shed. The last linoleum Anna bought is still on the floor, and their round wood stove is ready to provide heat. Anna also read widely and enjoyed reciting these often-published lines:

I wish I were on yonder hill,
A’basking in the sun
With all the things I have to do
DONE.

She got her wish. The sun shines brightly on their plot, and their stones feel warm to the touch.

cemetery small black stone 2017--5-28A little lower on the hill, a headstone made of slate a half-inch thick is so difficult to read that I kneel in the grass and trace the delicately-carved letters. The baby who is buried here was nine months old, and died in 1892, not long after this cemetery was established. Surely the slate was collected in the nearby Hills. Several other markers, many of them dated to the harsh years of the 1930s, were probably made at home by relatives, of concrete set with quartz and other decorative stones.

At one time, the people buried in a nearby plot were important enough to be memorialized with an elaborately carved marble cross taller than I am. Now the weeping angel draped over the cross presides over nothing but weeds.

I am admiring an immaculate grave covered in red lava rock with a white quartz cross in the center when I realize it is the resting place of Homer and Lillian Hansen. Some days when the school bus stopped at their store, I was able to spend a hoarded dime for a candy bar. I introduce myself to the woman working there, their granddaughter, Joann.

“I’m visiting my future,” my father said each Memorial Day as he walked among the graves.

In a double plot lies William, born in 1927, dead in 1998, and still waiting for Ruth, whose birth date is engraved on the stone beside him. Tulips that may have been planted on a grave dug in 1975 are still blooming in cheery tones of red and yellow beside the frilly white blossoms of native death camas in the buffalo grass. A few sturdy thistles are budding between graves.

A piece of sandstone no larger than a piece of typing paper is nearly buried in the grass. I can’t see or feel any engraved letters. A broken cross, weathered gray, leans against it.

Not far away is the gravestone of the folks for whom a county road south of my place is named. I remember only the last one alive, an elderly spinster who died while I was in high school.

cemetery carved stone 2017--5-28

“Hanson” announces a great gray stone, and I can hear my father talking about these neighbors, Swedes who had come west with his father.

“The last one, Christine, got so she’d hide in the cellar when people came to visit. If they drove up from the east, they’d see her running across the yard toward the entrance.”

On our way to our east pasture, we passed their disintegrating corrals and house, and the collapsed cellar. Once I’m home, I turn to Our Yesterdays, a magnificent 920 pages of local history, hoping to find out more information. Sadly, I find that the Hansons, like many of the people my father knew when he was a child, were apparently all gone from the community before Anna Lindsay and her crew started collecting information for the book.

Nearly buried in lilacs is a stone labeled “Pelter,” and I hear my father’s voice again.

“Finn Pelter and his wife were headed to town with their new baby when the team bolted. Finn didn’t hesitate for a second.” My father shakes his head, laughing. “He grabbed the baby from his wife, handed her the reins of the horses, and jumped off the wagon.”

I am likely to be the only living person who remembers that story and can see the logic of it. Finn knew that the horses would eventually stop. He must have believed he could protect the baby better by jumping off rather than risk injury if the wagon tipped over. Finn’s mother, LuVisa, after whom his daughter was named, is buried beside the couple. Her tombstone reads, “She hath done what she could.” Finn just did what he could to save his child.

The name Upham catches my eye, another family that figured in my father’s stories. I see by the tombstone that he was only 10 or 11 years old when the last one died. Was he reciting stories he’d heard his parents tell? I find the same contradiction when I look at several other stones: they died when my father was a child. But he was always a good listener, and he had a phenomenal memory, so he recalled details that he may have heard from his father. I doubt anyone else remembers those tales, and why didn’t I write them down? I was scribbling notes from the time I was nine years old.

cemetery double hearts 2017--5-28

Here’s the grave of the girl who was killed in a collision just below cemetery hill, at the crossroads I can see when I straighten up. The stone on her grave has three parts; her parents’ birth dates are engraved beside the dates of her short life.

Chiseled on the back of the three joined stones is a statement signed with her name: “Love is caring enough not to hold on tightly. 1981.”

Eventually, I come to the small plot that holds my husband, George. I’ve clipped away the grass so the iris plants will show, along with the memorial plaque identifying him as an Air Force veteran. Today I see a small plastic box tucked against the headstone. Inside is a note from someone whose name I don’t recognize: “I tied these flies for you, George.”  This little gift has given me back a vivid memory, in almost-living color, and I nestle it against the headstone again.

I can see you hooking these flies into your hatband, George, smiling that half smile that shows your gold tooth, stripping line and stepping into rippling water that gleams with sunshine.

cemetery iris grass 2017--5-28Beside George lie my parents’ low stones. I’ve clipped the invasive grass short enough so the iris I planted here might get enough sunshine to bloom in time for Memorial Day. Beside my mother’s stone I’ve nurtured a lush collection of flax with deep blue blooms, just the color of her eyes when she was young.

In the newer part of the cemetery, where George is buried, many of the names are unfamiliar to me. Strangers. People for whom my mind supplies no memories. Yet this is their place too, and the people who were my neighbors are strangers to them.

Still, I continue to pick up litter and prop used bouquets close to the headstones. Behind me, I hear the roar of the riding mower operated by a man hired by the Cemetery Board to trim between the graves. He maneuvers his big machine carefully, bending over the side to be sure he doesn’t nick a stone.

Several rows of graves below me, a woman is wielding long clippers, lopping off branches from some of the huge lilac bushes that have grown over and around many graves. From a distance, these bushes look beautiful, bursts of green and purple on the pale prairie grass of the hillside. But on graves, they are a menace. Nothing hampers their growth; they cover entire graves and even topple large stones.

cemetery lilacs encroaching 2017--5-28

Taking a break, I walk down to where Terri is working and we lean against her pickup looking at the masses of lilac bushes left to cut back.

“I’m going to spend the summer doing this,” she says. “It has to be done, and no one else is doing it. Some of these people don’t have any living relatives.” Her grandson and niece drag lilac branches to her truck as we talk.

Guiltily, I look at the lilacs dominating the graves of my grandparents, Charley and Ida Hasselstrom. I know them only through my father’s memories and photographs. The first picture that comes to my mind is always the first one I saw of them, both seated on the weathered steps of the old house. I wrote about them in my poem, “Rancher: 1864-1928:”

A broad-shouldered man with a mustache and serious eyes,
he poses beside his wife seated on the porch.

Their first pregnancy bulges
despite the bulky dress and the hot day.

Her first three children are seated
steplike at his left,

with a collection of nieces and nephews behind him,
as if the entire pyramid of flesh

rested
upon his shoulders.

Charley Hasselstrom married the widow Ida Sanders Callahan and indeed took responsibility for the whole tribe of her relatives. Now I’m responsible for the graves of those who stayed in this area and died here. Time to go get the big clippers from the garage and start hacking those bushes.

Terri’s grandson crawls out from under a lilac bush shouting, “I found a dead guy in there!”

Bending down, I see the tunnel carved into a tangle of lilacs, and at the end, a crude concrete cross studded with fist-sized chunks of rose quartz. I’ve read that in ancient times pink quartz was believed to symbolize love. Did the survivors of this man know that symbolism, or only choose the most beautiful rocks they could find?

LMHcemetery09

Perched on the concrete border around the graves below the stone marked HASSELSTROM, I look south, to the hayfields where Charley Hasselstrom drove his teams of horses collecting hay for his cattle for the winter: “Fannie and Queen and Betts and Beauty.” He wrote their names in his journal. “Katy, Martha and Ester and Mary and May and Dolly.” He made his sons dig graves for the horses.

work horses feeding hay to cattle“I don’t want them to just lie there and rot and be eaten by coyotes, boys. They did a lot of work for us.”

I could find those graves in the hayfield. I’m the last one who knows.

To the southeast, past the town of Hermosa where subdivisions are beginning to crawl up the hills and ooze into those rich hayfields, I can see the high plateau where Charley and Ida homesteaded and raised their family.

I look north, where I own five burial plots surrounding George and my parents. I’ve provided room enough for me, for Jerry, and for anyone else we might invite to join us. There we’ll rest, and gradually those who knew us will cease to be.

Who will care for the family graves then? “Mitakuye oyasin” say the Lakota, “We are all related.” May some of our relatives take responsibility for all who lie in Highland Park.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Cemetery rabbit resident 2017--5-28Author’s note: Some of the names have been changed to protect individual privacy.

My intent was to post this blog in advance of Memorial Day. However, my Internet service, which has always been less than satisfactory, has failed again. I’m not sure what the company is calling itself this week; it seems to change business names frequently and one must wonder why. Most recently, our service has been Exede which used to be Hughesnet which became WireFree USA and which I’m told is now called Rapid Choice. I have been waiting a week for my Internet service to be resumed and I’m told I may not be able to connect for several more days.

*  *  *

I quoted from two of my poems in this essay—

The first poem, with the lines “pulling some thin life from the thick clay soil” as well as “drumming to bones I’ll never see” is “Memorial Day” from Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom (Spoon River Poetry Press, 1993)

The second poem, beginning “A broad-shouldered man,” is “Rancher: 1864-1928” from Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land (Fulcrum Publishing, 1991; new edition 2008)

*  *  *

All of the cemetery photos were taken at Highland Park Cemetery, Hermosa, South Dakota. The stones pictured– other than Archie Callahan’s, the Hasselstrom family marker, and the iris blooming on my mother’s grave– do not necessarily correspond with the stories in the essay.

The photo of Anna Lindsay at her telephone switchboard is from the local history book Our Yesterdays.

*  *  *

Through the magic of some internet searching I learned that the poem Anna Lindsay often quoted, which was once thought to be her own composition, is apparently the work of another.

“Ambition” by E.C. Richardson was published in The Saturday Evening Post on November 19, 1932.

Ambition

I would I were beneath a tree
A-sleeping in the shade,
With all the bills I’ve got to pay
PAID

I would I were on yonder hill
A-basking in the sun,
With all the work I’ve got to do
DONE.

I would I were beside the sea
Or sailing in a boat,
With all the things I’ve got to write
WROTE.

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Windbreak House Writing Retreats 20th Anniversary: Part 5 — The Writing

All that apprehension—for what? I ride in the palm of an unseen hand that gently deposits me in places like this—a waystation for my soul—a soft place to land at a turning point.

keyboardIf a writer asks me to decide whether to continue writing or give up, I always refuse; no one can judge how much help the act of writing might provide to an individual, even if no single word ever appears in print. I will help a writer improve her work, and suggest possibilities for publishing, but no one can guarantee publication or declare that it is impossible. I remind them that my opinion may not be correct, but I’ve been able to appreciate something in the work of every writer with whom I’ve worked.

To my delight, the expansion of “social media” during the past twenty years allows me to tell many of these writers they probably can find an audience online, if nowhere else.

And, especially, Linda gave me the courage to think these words and now to state them publicly and in writing, “I am a writer.” Whew!

More importantly, though, I want writers to understand that writing isn’t just about publishing. This is a difficult concept to teach, especially since I have been published; a writer may think I’m being dishonest. I tell them about many occasions when the writing itself satisfied my need to tell the story, particularly if there are compelling reasons why it should not be published: it would embarrass me with someone still living, or it is too personal to reveal. The writing is the important part.

I came here feeling stressed, angry and depressed, ready to quit writing. I leave here renewed, centered and excited about new writing projects. Thank you from my heart and spirit dear sister friend.

At some retreats elsewhere, a famous visiting writer is the lure for customers. The visitor may lecture on various aspects of the writing business, or conduct a workshop by providing a list of writing prompts. The writing students may come without any particular plan and write for a few minutes at someone else’s direction. While these practices may inspire serious writing, I find the structure too much like a flashback to English class. The visiting writer cannot, and usually is not asked to, comment extensively on the drafts produced, and will likely never encounter the writing students again. The writers may take the topic seriously and write as well as possible in an hour or two, but fail to find the incentive to continue working on the draft after the class is over.

The vastness, the openness of the landscape requires the same in me. I saw a limb on the west side of a juniper bent around the trunk to become a limb on the east side of the tree, and why not? If the prevailing winds beat the crap out of you, try another way. A cow farted during the meditation just to keep me down to earth.

On July 19-22, 1996 I referred to the first retreat in the house journal as a “workshop.” I soon dropped that term because it led writers to assume they would be given a series of writing assignments, as is the case at some retreats. Instead, I wanted writers to select what they wanted to learn, and work with me to learn it rather than me lecturing as if I am an expert.

I came to this place seeking a stronger sense of myself. I told myself that if I learned more about writing it would be a bonus. Knowing that I left home very tired, mentally scattered and unsure of what role I wanted to make foremost in my life, I wanted this to be special. It was.

LMH desk 2014--4-24My method is simple. I ask each writer to send to me in advance the writing that they want to work on during the retreat. Now that it’s possible, I prefer this writing be sent electronically, so that I can download it to a flash drive. Then I carefully read each submission several times, writing my comments right in the manuscript.

Thanks for offering me a chance I’ve never had: to be critiqued.

As I read, I think of various ways to reinforce my message. For example, if I read this line, “While wondering about this phenomenon, the sun sank from view. . . .”

I will write to the author that this is an example of a dangling modifier. The effect of the dangling phrase is to make the noun following it the subject of the opening phrase, so the author has really written that the sun is wondering about a phenomenon while it sinks from view. Correction means providing a subject: “While I was wondering . . . , the sun retreat-handoutssank from view.” Then I attach to the writer’s manuscript my handout on dangling modifiers, already prepared with examples of the error and how to correct it. By providing this additional information, I’m offering the writer an opportunity to learn enough about the error to avoid it in future writing: as if we’d had a full class on dangling modifiers.

While I was on vacation this summer, I read all of the handouts you gave me, and felt as though I’d returned to retreat for a little while.

I think Windbreak House is unique because I am here as a full-time resident writer. I ask writers to come with a plan for what they want to accomplish during the retreat, and my primary purpose is to help each writer reach her goals. We work one-on-one, though if other writers are in residence, they may decide to work together.

Gushing thanks for the most valuable, in-depth critique of my writing thus far in this life.

If I’m asked, I’ll provide suggestions for writing topics, but I prefer to let each writer choose her own direction. Often our work together means we remain in contact for months or years, as I continue to offer advice and encouragement.

From you, I learned that writing poetry is not simply coming up with inspirational words on the page. Almost immediately, you led me back to the practice of research which, ironically, is where I started my career years ago. I have discovered again the love of looking up facts, questing for the details that make writing enjoyable to read.

Journals 2016--1-22One of my most useful writing tools has been my journal, and I believe strongly in the power of journaling to aid self-discovery. Write fiercely in your journal, I say, write recklessly. Do not let your inner editor slow you down. Do not channel that English teacher in high school who always found an error. Don’t think about spelling or grammar or how this will look in print. Emote. Stomp through the words. Fling handfuls of syllables in the air and let them land on your paper. Often the heat of the anger or the pain of the loss or the joy of the new love will inspire the perfectly correct words that will never emerge if you think “someone is going to read this.” Journals must be private; no one should read your journal any more than a stranger can pry open your brain and look inside. Your journal is your freedom, your inspiration, your guide, and ultimately your resource.

So besides the work they show to me, I hope that writers will keep their own private journals and write in them daily. Each writer may write as often as she likes in the house journal.

You inspire me, teach me and give me the tools I need to be a better writer. I suppose if I looked back over this journal entry I could knock out at least 20 wordy words, correct my commas and do some rearranging.

Writers come here engrossed in their own stories, so my job is to ask the questions about what they are doing that will help them accomplish their goals. How did they arrive at their conclusions? My aim is to help them articulate ideas they may have accepted without debate, thus benefiting both of us and leading to absorbing discussions about all kinds of topics.

writing-on-badger-ridgeMy family would have me committed if they knew that I drove 6 hours from my mother’s to sit on a hill and write. . . . what they don’t understand is that I needed Linda and [another writer at the retreat] to reinforce and to encourage me. I needed to be away from the noise of my family. . . . On the hill, for the first time ever, I wrote about what used to be a taboo topic.

Lively writing discussions may begin in a one-on-one discussion as I comment on the writer’s work, continue to the kitchen as we fix lunch, progress through our meal and move to the living room, or to chairs scattered around the house. We often hike in the surrounding pastures, crawling under or through barbed wire fences, watching for rattlesnakes and wildlife as we discuss writing and I explain our ranching practices.

Thanks for showing us how to braid words.

Writers are often fearful of the consequences of writing about ugly events like abuse or divorce or drunkenness in their families. My advice is to write it down, every bit of it that they remember or believe, and then decide what to do with it. Perhaps writing it down will allow you to banish the worst memories from your mind. Some writers burn the resulting manuscript, symbolically destroying the memory. Others change the names of the people involved and work toward publishing in order to help others who confront the same problems. Those decisions can’t be made until you see what you have written, and how you feel once it’s on paper.

retreat-consultation

One bulletin board holds buttons: “Hatred is not a family value,” and “If you settle for what they’re giving you, you deserve what you get.”

Yesterday I wore the button, “What part of YES are you afraid of.” Wrote in my journal, “All of it!” Tomorrow I hope to leave with “Not all who wander are lost” imprinted on my soul.

Many writers, perhaps remembering those red ink remarks from English teachers, worry about writing everything correctly, with perfect grammar and spelling. Some fear appearing sentimental or not emotional enough, or being too stiff and objective. Some subjects and publishing opportunities do require detachment, but before you can begin editing for factual content, you need a draft to work with. To them I quote William Stafford who said, “Lower your standards and keep writing!”

Our final conversation re: emotion was equally as valuable. After stewing over my bent for objectivity and feeling the failure for not emoting on paper, I realize my reserve is not wrong, not “bad.” Too many today haven’t learned that restraint is a virtue—when used appropriately.

Most of the writers want to establish regular writing schedules but families and jobs and the business of life interfere with their writing. At the end of each retreat, we discuss what will happen when the writer gets home. How can she carve writing time from her normal agenda? I gently suggest that it may not be realistic to decide to get up at 5 a.m. every Saturday and write for two hours before making pancakes for the kiddies. We discuss how setting unrealistic goals can lead to failure.

I’ve never committed myself to such an intense time of writing because I’ve never considered myself a “real” writer—just a writing teacher. This experience made me feel like I am one, even if I may never be published.

Of course I, too, still have trouble setting priorities. What do I really need to do today, and what is a job I’m doing simply to avoid tough writing? I remind them that while it’s important to maintain a steady writing practice, it’s equally important not to waste time berating yourself when you fail. Just keep working at it. If you punish yourself for failing to write, you will begin to associate writing with the punishment.

Within the house I can also see, feel and learn from all of the other people who have visited here in the past.

To be continued . . .

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Author’s note: I wanted Windbreak House writers to speak for themselves in this review of twenty years. Unless they are otherwise identified, all comments in italics are from the Windbreak House journals, written by writers at the conclusion of their retreats.

Windbreak House Writing Retreats 20th Anniversary: Part 4 — The People

ikebana-creator-2012Writing is not the only art celebrated and practiced here. One woman played her guitar in the living room after supper, inviting a singalong. A writer who had studied the Japanese art of ikebana created an arrangement of stones, grandmother cedar, a weathered plank, juniper, native stone and grasses that symbolized her experience at the retreat, and brought peaceful symmetry to the house for months. Other guests, unfamiliar with the art, moved it from one room to another, wrote about it, photographed and studied it. One man wrote a postcard to the creator, expressing his astonishment and delight at finding the ikebana in his room. I mailed it for him since I felt it would be unethical to reveal her address.

I came out of this retreat feeling as if I have so much more direction in my writing life. I learned solid ways to analyze the flaws in my work.

++–++–++–++

Three women from Wyoming arrive for a retreat and make one, two, three trips inside, stuffing food into the refrigerator and piling it in the kitchen until the counters are covered.

“Er,” I say hesitantly, “How long did you say you’re staying? It looks as if you have enough food here for a month.”

“We’re cooking for you,” says L. “That way you’ll have more time to spend on our work. We have a lot to do, and there are three of us, so we want every minute of your time we can get.”

So much for the idea that I run this place.

“Are you a good cook?” I ask, trying to remember if I saw them put meat in the refrigerator.

“I’m great!”

She was, and they worked me hard.

guitar-player-at-the-retreatFor the record, vegetarians are welcome in this beef-raising haven, though I do not care for the smell of boiling carrageen moss. My acceptance of writers to work here is based solely on their writing, and whether I believe I can help them, not on their profession or anything else I might know about them.

Two days into her retreat, one woman confessed that she works for an oil company; she realized by then I wouldn’t hold it against her. I told her that I was pleased to know someone as intelligent and thoughtful works for the company.

++–++–++–++

camping-at-homestead-houseMost writers attend alone, or in clusters of two or three, but group retreats have included graduate students and teachers from various universities who brought tents so that the guests who couldn’t fit into the house could camp among the trees. During their stay they hiked in the Black Hills and I talked about writing and responsible cattle ranching on the shortgrass prairie.

I hear the snipe in the dusk, the winnowing sound mingling with the wind.

Sometimes groups come to the retreat house with friends for a break from routine that does not necessarily involve writing or working with me. The South Dakota Artists Network met here, displaying and discussing the art each member had created during the year; some of the art remains in the house.

I’ve hosted one-day gatherings with a local history group of which I am a member, book clubs, and a wide-ranging discussion on environmental issues with activists from Montana, South Dakota, and New Jersey. A group of women who have met yearly for thirty-five years spent a couple of days eating, walking, and talking.

college-students-hike-back-to-windbreak-house

Last June, more artists gathered in the pasture north of the house for a session of “plein air” (outdoor) painting while prairie grasses and wildflowers were in bloom. They were hosted by the Great Plains Native Plant Society (www.gpnps.org), which operates an educational botanic garden in my pastures. I began working with GPNPS officials some years ago because their mission so closely matches my interests.

  • To engage in scientific research regarding plants of the Great Plains of North America;
  • To carry on the scientific work begun by Claude Barr of Prairie Gem Ranch, Smithwick, South Dakota, which is to pursue greater knowledge, appreciation and understanding of the Great Plains of North America;
  • To disseminate this knowledge through the creation of one or more educational botanic gardens of plants of the Great Plains, featuring but not limited to Barr’s discoveries; and
  • To engage in any educational activities which may further public familiarity with plants of the Great Plains, their uses and enjoyment.

We hope to make the garden a permanent part of the ranch.

I’ll leave with a sheaf of writing in my pack, my heart full of thanks.

++–++–++–++

During one two-week retreat with two women, my mother died; both writers came with me to her funeral. One of them, from a deeply Irish family, mentioned with a twinkle in her eye that her Irish traditions called for her to wail at funerals.

“Um,” I mumbled, “I surely do not want to denigrate your customs in any way, but I hope you will not wail today.” We all chuckled ruefully, imagining the effect of an Irish banshee wail on my stoic ranching neighbors in the local church.

Back at the retreat house, I told her she could wail all she wanted, but instead we began talking about our respective mothers, sharing and receiving comfort. A great deal of cathartic writing emerged among all of us that week.

++–++–++–++

ruly-and-tam-in-prairie-chicken-trailerOnce, when a fire in the forested hills poured smoke and ashes down on Tamara’s house during a retreat, she took refuge in the travel trailer with her German shepherd. I was startled awake by a deep “WOOF!” at sunrise.

A dean I’d met while speaking at a Minnesota college gave herself a birthday present of a retreat during which she intended mostly to read; she surprised herself by writing.

When I walked with one woman out to her camper van to help her carry her things into the retreat house, she introduced me: its name is Javelina, meaning “wild pig.”

The dry brown plants with their intricate and tangled shapes spoke to me this morning as we walked through the pastures. And the wide sky reminds me how much room I have to grow.

Several writers have brought husbands, wives, significant others, friends or relatives. One brought her new husband to the retreat house for part of their honeymoon, because she wanted him to see the place so important to her; later she visited with her adult daughter.

I leave with a little bit of sorrow because the time seemed so short and I’ve only just begun. However the dragonflies will travel with me and just as they flew with such purpose, so will I.

linda-meets-timothyOnce a writer walked up the retreat house steps carrying mounted head of a buck deer. On her way to the retreat she’d been touring a second-hand store, she said, and he looked lonely, so she brought him along; she named him Timothy, and he supervised her writing week. She later said that when she was stopped for speeding on the way home, she thought the sight of Timothy in the passenger seat meant the difference between a ticket and the warning she got.

Sunrise is still mostly a theory, but I hear great horned owls waiting for it with me.

More than a dozen writers have published books that fill a couple of shelves at the retreat house. Several conduct classes and have Facebook pages or blogs sites where they write about writing.

???????????????????????????????

One has begun a mystery series that is gaining in popularity; a Hermosa book club to which I belong read one of her mysteries last summer.

courage-quiltOne retreat writer sent me a quilt made by her mother. We use it regularly in Eagle, and she assured us that it’s durable, so if we wear it out, she’d send another. Other quilters have given the retreat house decorative hangings inspired by their time here.

The quilt in Eagle room could be called the courage quilt. Swaddling myself in it made it safe to delve into writing about things that until now were too scary. (Turns out they weren’t so bad at all.)

A photographer who comes several times a year for solitary retreats on the way to visit her elderly parents sleeps in one room, practices her yoga in another, and edits her photographic books by spreading the pictures on the living room floor for several days. We step carefully back and forth, studying them, but I never let my dogs in the house when she’s there!

Good Retreat sorting papersAnother writer had bought a batch of quilt pieces in a second-hand store on her way to retreat, and enjoyed having space enough to lay them out on the floor to see their pattern, as preparation for writing about them.

Several poets have laid out the pages of their prospective books on the living room floor for editing.

I’m trying to get ready to re-enter my real life, sitting here with a couple of ridiculous (and probably ineffective) curlers in my hair. I’ve put my watch back on after three days. The meadowlark is asking me why.

One couple came for an icy New Year’s Eve retreat and rededication of their marriage.

husband-and-wife-retreat

Several writers have given themselves retreats as birthday presents and celebrated at the retreat.

I wrote every day, ten hours at least. Every time I come I learn more than I expect, and I expect a lot.

Retreat guests need not be writers, and don’t have to work with me. Occasionally a writer or artist simply wants quiet time to work and asks for a solitary retreat. I welcome each one, assure myself she is familiar with the house’s operation, give her my telephone number and wish her well. She may invite me to share a meal or a walk, but she works alone.

Inside there are books
Bones, stones, and kaleidoscopes
Pen, pencil, notebooks

offseasonWe also have a Blizzard Policy; if a blizzard is severe enough that the writer can’t drive to the highway, or the highways are closed, all the days during which you can’t leave are without charge. If the writer didn’t bring enough food, my freezers are always full. Several writers tell me they now watch weather reports, hoping to schedule retreats during a major winter storm.

Snowing like the dickens out there. Don’t know exactly when we’ll be getting out, or if. There are worse fates than being trapped at Windbreak House. . . .  I am ready to go home and create my own space for writing now.

To be continued . . .

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Author’s note: I wanted Windbreak House writers to speak for themselves in this review of twenty years, so, unless they are otherwise identified, all comments in italics are from the Windbreak House journals, written by writers after their retreats.

Photos are from the Writing Retreat albums.

 

Windbreak House Writing Retreats 20th Anniversary: Part 3 — Guidelines    

windbreak-house-with-flaxAt first, I envisioned the retreat as being so harmonious that I would not need to set rules. Each group of guests, I supposed, would decide the mood of the retreat among themselves. Civilized women shouldn’t need a handbook or a set of Dos and Don’ts. Surely, I thought, the women who came to a writing retreat would be experienced at publishing, needing only a quiet place and some gentle guidance to turn out page after page of brilliant writing.

That was before the arrival of the woman who drank four pots of coffee a day. When she was thinking, she paced back and forth through the hallways and across the deck in hard-soled shoes.

I had already decided not to allow smoking at the retreat; some guests might be allergic, and the smell sets itself solidly into furniture and bedding. Moreover, a carelessly-tossed cigarette could set the prairie afire.

Then a woman arrived reeking of cigarette smoke who assured me that she had quit smoking that very day. She kept slipping out to her car, digging through the ashtray, and puffing on butts.

“You know,” I said, “You’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself, writing and quitting smoking. There’s a grocery store six miles away; you could get cigarettes. Or,” I laughed, “flag down a trucker on the highway and bum some.”

“Flag down a trucker?” she said with a thoughtful expression.

Coming to Windbreak House is like coming home. I feel inspired and recharged and entirely supported. . . .

Surely, I thought, it would not be necessary to mention that I didn’t want illegal substances in my house; still, not everyone takes the possible consequences seriously. A school that used to send graduate students here every fall to learn about sustainable ranching and get support for their own writing is now banned from returning.

This place . . . . creates peace like a fragrance.

One writer submitted work and was accepted, but did no writing while she was at the retreat house. She practiced shamanic drumming on Badger Ridge, or smeared herself with oil and lay in a deck chair. Whenever I suggested she work on her writing she promised to do so, but did not. On the third day of retreat, I warned her that three-hour baths, leaving other guests without hot water, were not acceptable. Her journal entries recorded only her complete self-absorption, with no awareness that she had not really accomplished anything but a vacation.

“J” got her morning exercise persuading a calf to go back with the yearlings, very deftly. She shall now be known as “Dances with Cows.”

I established a minimum age requirement of 18, reasoning that anyone under that age should not be in residence with grownups who might like a drink with dinner, or who might speak of topics unsuitable for teenage ears. Then I accepted an application from a writer who turned out to be 17. She talked me into letting her father come as chaperone. He was more interested in how much the house had cost to build than in his daughter’s writing. He stayed one night, spending most of his time on his cell phone before deciding I wouldn’t compromise his daughter’s morals. Several times, mothers and daughters have come for retreats; on one occasion, the girl’s father and brother dropped her off with a friend at a mother-daughter retreat and then got a cabin in the Hills for their own retreat.

I wish all the people in the world could spend a few days in the quiet of Windbreak House or somewhere, anywhere where no phones ring, where words are appreciated, where lives are validated.

Turn Off CellThe house has no rule of silence, but I encourage respectful quiet, suggesting that residents turn off their phones. If they are worried about emergencies, I tell them how their loved ones can reach the local Sheriff if they need to contact us. Some just check their messages once a day and do not respond. Once in a while a writer uses a smart phone to go online, but the retreat house has no internet connection. Getting disconnected from these daily distractions can make a huge difference in a writer’s life, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for some; a few have been astonished that I’d even suggest it. Most are later grateful.

Writing helps capture ideas only if they are there. I find they come more easily if I quiet myself and pursue them. Anything that interrupts thought hinders that process. Using a phone, watching TV, blogging, looking at Facebook, texting, emailing– none of these are thinking.

++–++–++–++

One of my favorite quotations is this:

“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

I like to point out to writers that this writer doesn’t say he had coffee or read the paper— he thought from six-thirty until eight.

Without turning on the TV, or his iPad or his smart phone.

++–++–++–++

Silence in which to think may be the most valuable tool a writer can use, and it is becoming increasingly rare in our daily lives. Studies have indicated that exposure to as little as two hours of silence can help develop new brain cells associated with memory, emotion and learning. Silence, said the researchers, literally made the brain grow.

An earlier study showed that even when the brain is resting, it was perpetually active, internalizing and evaluating information. (I think this is why I sometimes wake up puzzled by my dreams; my brain has been busy working out some problem I hadn’t considered consciously.) When the brain rests, said one researcher, it is able to integrate internal and external information, that is, to continue working. When you are not distracted by noise or concentrating on particular tasks, your brain has the freedom to discover where it belongs in your internal and external world. As Herman Melville wrote, “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”

Noise can result in elevated levels of stress hormones, causing a detrimental physical effect on the brain. Noise makes a brain work less efficiently, and causes decreased motivation and an increase in errors. The cognitive functions most strongly affected by noise are reading attention, memory and problem solving, all important tasks for a writer.

The good news resulting from all these studies, however, is that the brain can restore its cognitive resources when it is in an environment with lower levels of sensory input. In silence, the brain can “let down its sensory guard” and restore some of the balance that has been lost through excess noise.

A retreat, then, can literally enable a writer’s brain to restore its equilibrium.

Still, the retreat house has a CD player, and sometimes silence is shattered. During a solo retreat, I’ve sometimes approached the house to find the windows rattling with music, perfectly acceptable as long as only one writer is residence. Usually when the writer finally hears me knocking, I learn she’s celebrating a writing breakthrough with a joyous explosion of sound.

++–++–++–++

LMHwriter06When 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, and I sit at the computer and type wildly. Once I’m immersed in a project, my subconscious mind keeps working while I get lunch started, answer an email or two. At night, in order to stop thinking about the writing, 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.)

I do believe that some of the most important thinking can happen while you are doing routine chores, or sleeping, or at other times when you may not realize you are not writing. Thinking can happen anytime and anywhere and you need to be prepared.

To be continued . . .

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Author’s note: I wanted Windbreak House writers to speak for themselves in this review of twenty years, so, unless they are otherwise identified, all comments in italics are from the Windbreak House journals, written by writers after their retreats.

Information on the benefits of silence came from “Science Says Silence Is Much More Important to Our Brains Than We Think,” by Rebecca Beris.
http://www.lifehack.org/377243/science-says-silence-much-more-important-our-brains-than-thought

Windbreak House Writing Retreats 20th Anniversary: Part 2 — Evolution

windbreak-house-mailboxAs soon as I’d made the decision to turn my ranch house into a writing retreat, I started coming back to the ranch more often to help my assistant, Tamara, get ready to make the plan a reality. She provided unlimited energy and creative ideas, as well as hard labor. She recalls “mowing the huge yard (and the wonderful varied odors as I cut the different plants that had been baking in the sun), painting the rooms, putting weatherproofing stain on the deck.”

During periods without retreats, we cleaned, rearranged and renovated. One year, for example, we bought 20 new windows; Tam stained and varnished every one. She writes, “I finished the last windows while listening to NPR’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina.” That summer was hot and dry, hard on the cattle, but the weather allowed her to leave the house open to the elements while the stain and varnish dried. Unfortunately, removing the windows to replace them scattered insulation over everything in the house, making our spring house-cleaning particularly difficult.

If we were working on changes while retreat writers were in residence, sometimes they insisted on pitching in to help.

I can tell I’m home because I want chores to do. . . . Itching to haul and rake and hammer. . . . What if Linda thinks I’m criticizing? Maybe she won’t realize I know homes are never perfect and it’s our loving them that makes them precious. . . . But I’m not a stranger here anymore. Somewhere back there Linda foolishly left a gate open and now I have limestone under my fingernails, buffalo grass in my hair, thunderstorms in my veins.

Years before, I’d acquired an ancient claw-foot tub, but couldn’t find anyone willing to install it, so I parked it on the hillside and used it to water my horse. I shared the upstairs shower with retreat guests until Jerry installed the tub in the lower level during the retreat’s second year.

I’ve never visited a writing retreat, though I’ve explored some online, being astonished and briefly envious of those that provide wine, hot tubs, massage therapists, yoga instructors or chefs. Some operate almost like hotels, with maid service for rooms. Others provide individual cabins for work and sleep, but serve meals in dining halls. The establishments advertising these pricey amenities, though, are often supported by a foundation and run by a paid maintenance staff, so they have to charge enough to finance luxuries. While these places clearly fill some desires, they are not my ideal retreat.

Perhaps if I had foundation backing or a private fortune, I might have chosen differently, but I remembered longing for silence, space, and time to write when I had no money to spend on these things so necessary to a writer. I’d established writing nooks in every apartment I occupied, in a closet, a hallway, and in a corner of my bedroom. I wanted Windbreak House to welcome writers at all financial levels, but especially at the birth of their careers; low costs encourage novice writers who can’t afford chefs and massages, and who want to focus on their work without interruptions from maid service.

If knowledge is power then I am a much stronger woman now than when I entered this place.

makeshift-bed-in-burrowing-owlAnalyzing my one-family house for its suitability as a retreat, we decided that visiting writers would occupy the main floor, sharing the kitchen, dining room, living room and bathroom. We named the master bedroom Eagle in honor of a Daniel Long Soldier painting. A smaller bedroom became Dragonfly after a colorful print. My study was already established in the walk-out basement, abutted by a half-bath with its walls lined with bookshelves. I created a single bed by putting a door across two antique trunks and adding a foam mattress. Tam dubbed the place Burrowing Owl after my favorite prairie owl, which lives in old prairie dog burrows.

We aimed for cozy comfort on a slim budget that forced us to make do. The house was still partly furnished after my tenants departed, but we bought new beds, pillows, and a couple of futons that doubled as couches. We piled extra pillows on the beds for reading, stocked up on plush towels, and draped woven shawls in chairs for more reading comfort. My mother had collected quilts, both antique and new, and stored them in trunks in the ranch outbuildings. Sadly, some of these works of art from our community had been damaged by mice and mildew, but the surviving ones soon graced the retreat beds. Quilters often worry about damage to the quilts, fold them, and carefully stash them in the closet during retreat; I explain how I’d saved them from oblivion, and my belief that they were made to be used.

To add extra space, we parked Jerry’s small travel trailer in the yard outside the walk-out basement, and named it Prairie Chicken. Nervous about guests who might not be familiar with using propane, we left the trailer’s tank empty so it was without heat or its stove. When we had three writers in residence, I could sleep and work in the trailer, and dash inside to use the bathroom.

prairie-chicken-trailer

I didn’t want to have to cater to differing eating habits, so each writer would bring her own food and cook for herself. Neither the kitchen stove nor the refrigerator were new. We filled the cupboards with enough plates and bowls, glassware, pots and pans, cutlery, and serving dishes for five or six people. I explained to writers who came alone that they might choose to let the dishes stack up and do them the final day. We got better acquainted while cooking and, as one writer put it, “bumping butts” in the tiny kitchen.

When I returned to my ranch-house-turned-retreat, I loved seeing the house come alive. The first day, everyone carried their notebooks and books to their rooms, until I reminded them that none of us would read another’s private writing, or move a book left open. The next day the tables, chairs and floor would be decorated with clusters of writing materials, slippers, anything else that might aid a writer to think. Writers sprawled on the couch and floor, reading to each other. After an especially vigorous discussion, we might all be unable to sleep, and gather in the kitchen at midnight to warm milk and continue our talk in the living room or on the deck.

To be continued . . .

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Author’s note: I wanted Windbreak House writers to speak for themselves in this review of twenty years, so unless they are otherwise identified, all comments in italics are from the Windbreak House journals, written by writers at the conclusion of their retreats.

Windbreak House: Looking Back at Twenty Years of Writing Retreats

Author’s note: I wanted Windbreak House writers to speak for themselves in this retrospective of twenty years. Unless they are otherwise identified, all comments in italics are from the Windbreak House journals, written by writers at the conclusion of their retreats.

++–++–++–++

Windbreak House Writing Retreats 20th Anniversary: Part 1 — Beginnings

barbara-on-lake-linda-1997“Land ho!” shouted Barbara, posing with one hand shading her eyes, scanning the horizon.

She was perched in the stern of a johnboat floating on a shallow prairie pond.

“Man the mainsail!” She bellowed. “Avast the scuppers!” Or words to that effect.

She paddled a little farther and I called, “Halt! Sounding!” as I dropped the plumb line overboard. “This is the deepest yet. Eight feet.”

Barbara added the number to our list of the soundings we’d made of water depth on the cattle dam we’d named Lake Linda, just south of Windbreak House, my ranch home.

Barbara came to Windbreak House Writing Retreats during my second year of operation, hoping to break a writing block that had developed as she worked with victims of abuse and neglect.

By the time she asked about the depth of the stock dam below the retreat house, we’d worked together for two and a half days on demanding topics but we’d also discovered we shared an unusual sense of humor. She’d brought the urn containing the ashes of her late husband to the retreat, explaining that she’d never spent a night apart from him. I confessed that I called the mud outcropping in the water St. George Island, after my late husband, because he was in Lake Linda as he was always in my heart.

To answer her question, I found thin rope and tied a lead weight on the bottom. We dragged a shallow-draft john boat to the water’s edge. Barbara paddled; I watched for shallow spots, and dropped the plumb line over the side.

chorus-frogAs we neared shore, Barbara alerted me to the sound of chorus frogs. I’d been hearing them all during that wet spring of 1997, but had never seen them.

“How can you call yourself a prairie expert if you haven’t seen chorus frogs?”

“This dam has never had enough water for them before!” I protested. My whining did no good; she insisted we sit still, not even twitching as mosquitoes ripped chunks of flesh from our faces, until I could finally focus on the tiny frogs perched on water plants around the boat. She made me watch how they inflated the throat sacs that enabled them to sing so melodiously.

At last we floundered into the mud and dragged the boat on shore. Slogging through the ooze, we planned our next move. Inside the house, we both dropped most of our clothes by the washing machine and raced upstairs, giggling somewhat hysterically. She was faster, so she got the first shower.

Shared experiences break down barriers that may exist between writer and student, but that was the only retreat during which I disrobed with a writer!

++–++–++–++

You welcomed me with nighthawk feather and fresh sage, and walked me the perimeter of the writing house yard, calling names of blue flax, sunflowers, buffalo grass, thistle, rattlesnake.

The decision to create a writing retreat, originally for women only, arose appropriately from a gathering of women. After my father died and my mother moved to a nursing home, I was living with my partner Jerry in Cheyenne, Wyoming, while tenants occupied both my own house and that of my parents. In June of 1995 the tenants of my house moved out. Two women I’d met in Cheyenne, who’d been reading my books, came home with me to see the ranch. As soon as I saw the mess the tenants had left, I threatened to burn the place down rather than rent it again, but my friends pitched in to help clean. I was glad I hadn’t let the renters paint the living room walls black, but the kitchen stove was so caked in grease that the burners wouldn’t light. We had to do serious housework before we could even sleep that first night.

The next morning, I discovered that the stone cairn George had built on the hillside had been dismantled, the heavy square stones scattered. I cussed the renters as we collected the stones, but eventually concluded the damage might have been done by a visiting badger, hunting for mice under the rocks. I gave the women a ranch tour, and instructions on opening gates, and we hiked through the pastures picking wildflowers. The last morning we sat on the deck after breakfast, talking over how the house might bring in enough income for taxes. One of the women said, “Why don’t you start a writing retreat for women?”

The idea was a blade of light, so completely perfect that I set my camera on the deck railing and took a picture of us to commemorate the moment. I decided to call the place Windbreak House. The name is literal for the tall trees that collect snow on the north side of the house. But it’s also a nod to the metaphor suggested by my prologue to my first book:

A windbreak is a precious thing. It is a promise in fall, a lifesaver and a place of warmth in winter, a sign of hope in spring, and a place of loveliness in the dry heat of summer. We all need a windbreak.

—- from Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains
(Barn Owl Books, 1987) page v

I had no idea what I was doing, but now that I do, I’d do it again.

In the retreat journal, one of the writers at the first retreat recalled details:

A few casualties (an armored wasp stung C, W fell through a barbed wire fence, Linda tangled with some iron thing, bruising her ankle to the bone) but none of heart. In fact, Frodo and George visited S.

George, my husband, had been dead for some years, but our West Highland White Terrier Frodo had died shortly before the retreat. During her first night in what had been our bedroom, Susan was awakened by what she believed was a small dog jumping on the bed. When she sat up, she saw a large man lifting the dog in his arms, apologizing so gently she wasn’t afraid.

One of those first writers wrote in the house journal before departing:

All blessings on Linda. All love. She recognizes who we are and calls us forth.
Sends us forth.

Inviting strangers into my home to work on their personal writing was a risky venture, but I reasoned that teaching had provided me with enough understanding to carry it off. I’d worked as a traveling Poet in Schools and encountered unusual dilemmas, like the sixth grader who asked if she could write about whether she should keep the baby, but had told neither her parents nor teacher she was pregnant.

A student in one of my college English classes had been drafted when he flunked every course he was taking, and he wrote from Viet Nam to accuse me of murder. “You failed me in English,” he declared, “and now people are shooting at me.” Conducting retreats in my home couldn’t, I reasoned, possibly be worse.

Hooray! I’m on track again. Now I remember—there’s fun in this!

To be continued . . .

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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