Library Secrets

Old library book stacks

The July/August issue of Poets & Writers, one of the best resources for writers I know, features an intriguing article, “Secrets Hidden in the Stacks” that is going to send me prowling through my local library.

The story concerns a University of Virginia professor who sent his class to the library to look at 19th century copies of work by a sentimental poet of the time, Felicia Hemans. What the students found was not just the books, but a wealth of information added to them by readers. Diary entries, quotes, pressed flowers and the readers’ attempts at poetry were scribbled in the margins or tucked inside the books.

Old library book poem
Written in a school geography book copyrighted 1898, 1907: “If this book goes astray, tie it up and feed it hay.” Hermosa Arts & History Association collection.

The professor, Andrew Stauffer, was so fascinated by the additional history furnished by these oddments that in 2014 he founded the Book Traces project (booktraces.org) to investigate what else might be hiding in the library. He invites anyone to submit photographs of the “traces” they find in library books published before 1923– meaning books that are in the public domain– in circulating collections.

With a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, he hired assistants to search thousands of books on the open shelves of UVA’s libraries and catalogue the information: “a collection within the collection.”

The project expanded, and today extends to schools from Arizona State University and Bryn Mawr College, and has documented more than 3000 such traces. One of his favorite finds was doll clothes pressed into an 1833 copy of a book by Sir Walter Scott. The photo furnishes the cover of the resulting book: Book Traces: Nineteenth Century Readers and the Future of the Library.

“We’re fighting against the idea that once you’ve digitized a single copy, then you don’t need others, says the professor.

Wally McRae 2016 from internetOn the day that I read this article, I received a call from poet Wally McRae, the reigning king of Cowboy Poetry. I’d sent him a copy of my collection Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky, published by Spoon River Poetry Press in 2017. I didn’t ask or expect a review from Wally. Still, I thought he might enjoy or be inspired by some of the poems, especially since Wally believes all poetry should rhyme, and most of mine do not.

And I thought that someday, when this virus is not the primary fact of daily life, we might have a conversation about poetry.

Wally called a couple of days ago, and I was delighted to learn that he has not only been reading Dakota, he’s been having a conversation with me in its pages: writing comments and questions as he reads!

“I am not a good judge of free verse,” he said. His favorite poem in the book is “Mulch”– a surprise to me. He liked the line “You will not find naked soil in the wilderness,” and he enjoyed knowing that when I mulched with magazines, “Robert Redford stared up/ between the rhubarb and the lettuce.”

His favorite poem in the bunch, though, was “Learning About Gates,” which led to him telling me about an alcoholic handyman who once worked for his father, and built gates that are still legendary throughout the county.

DBGS with grass and sky SMALLI could hear him turning pages as he spoke, and soon he mentioned more poems he liked: “Handbook to Ranching,” another poem dedicated to my father, beginning with one of his strongest rules: “Don’t spend any money.”

Another poem about fences, “Apologies to Frost’s Neighbor” likewise pleased him, and “Milliron Ranch” reminded him of a homesteading story from his own neighborhood.

Wally laughed at himself for admitting to me that he was scribbling in the book, but he wanted to remember things to say to me. He understood why “there are a lot of driving poems in the book,” since Westerners have to drive long distances to practically everywhere, and chuckled at “Speed Warning,” dedicated with gratitude to the Highway Patrolman who stopped me on one drive to the ranch from Cheyenne, and may have saved my life– or at least the life of an unwary antelope.

So that book of poetry has already fulfilled my highest hopes for it: As he read, Wally enjoyed, debated, questioned, and was stimulated by the words of another writer, recognizing the real voices of people he might have known in the words of the poet.

And on some future day, another reader may discover Wally’s notes and comments in the book and continue the conversation, and the inspiration, without ever having known either of us.

Look for secrets in book– in several ways.

(And please– write only in the books you OWN– some day they may make their way to a library; but please don’t write in library books.)

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Announcing . . .

I’m pleased to announce a new book, coming soon!

Write Now, Here’s How is a distillation of years of experience as a writer, writing teacher, and writing retreat guide. In 40 chapters, I’ll tell you a great deal about the process of writing.

WriteNow book held outside SMALL

In Write Now, Here’s How, a dedicated and experienced writer leads you through forty entertaining essays that define six decades of writing challenges. You’ll feel as if you are conversing with author Linda M. Hasselstrom about how her challenging life on a working cattle ranch in the shortgrass prairie of Western South Dakota became material for seventeen books. Reading this book is like joining Hasselstrom in the quiet privacy of the retreat house, where dozens of writers have found their voices.

As I’ve entered my seventh decade, I’ve looked back at journals I kept for decades, at my own writing, and at letters and journals from my relatives and others. Much has changed. But no matter how much my life changed, I was writing.

I’ve worked as a journalist and a college professor. I’ve been divorced and widowed. I’ve settled down in several places for several reasons. As my life changed, however, I was always writing, and I rarely discard a draft. I never know what insight or information an early attempt at a particular piece of writing might contain that will be of value to me in later writing.

What is the most efficient way to monitor your valuable writing time? You’ll find answers here. How can you most efficiently organize your writing space-no matter how small? How can you fit serious writing into a life filled with work, family, and entertainment? Hasselstrom presents a variety of possibilities to help you choose a schedule that best suits you.

The purpose of this book is to pass information from my writing life on to other writers. Rereading what I wrote in past years has been useful for me, not only in matters of insight, but in matters of writing style. I can see things I would write differently today, but I have also discovered writing I consider good that has had few or no other readers.

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, and pure water.

And Hasselstrom doesn’t just explain; she demonstrates with examples from her own work how writers can begin to see the invisible. She gently leads you into meditations that will help you create a writing retreat in any busy week. With this perceptive woman, you will explore methods of defining the memoir that will become an important part of your writing.

One 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.

With Hasselstrom’s guidance, your writing will grow like a tulip, and bloom like wild pink roses along a dusty gravel road. Winston Churchill will teach you about persistence. Walking will become a vital part of your writing practice.

As you read her discussion about how much truth belongs in your nonfiction, you’ll feel as though you were sharing coffee at the retreat house table, or strolling a trail filled with opportunity.

Write Now, Here’s How will be published August 1st, but is available to pre-order on Amazon right now.

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Write Now, Here’s How: Insights from Six Decades of Writing
by Linda M. Hasselstrom
Lame Johnny Press, August 1, 2020
Paperback, 312 pages, 6 x 9 inches
ISBN: 978-0917624018
$19.95

Book Remarks: Healing the Divide

Book Healing the Divide anthology of poemsMy comp copy of Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness & Connection arrived yesterday, and I’ve gotten behind on the news (thank goodness!) because I keep picking it up to read another fine poem.

As Ted Kooser says in his Preface, “Unabashed enthusiasm is the glue that holds good anthologies together,” and this book overflows with enthusiasm, kindness, tenderness and beauty.

Here are the words of well-known poets like W. S. Merwin, William Stafford,  Naomi Shihab Nye and Jane Kenyon, but the book is also well-stocked with words from poets I’ve never heard of, and might never have encountered without this collection.

Ellery Akers in “The Word That is a Prayer,” reminds us of the power of “Please.” Connie Wanek shows us a Grandpa asking the sky “What’s next?” with a laugh. Carrie Shipers shows us a mother talking back to the monster under the bed. Molly Fisk celebrates “Winter Sun.”

But you need to get the book yourself, and find your own treasures within it. The world around us seems to be filled with hatred, greed, and antagonisms, and we must fight this idea in every way at our disposal, for our own health and survival.  One way to do it is to read this book, again and again and again. And please– buy it from your local bookstore, and help them stay in business during these difficult economic times.

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness & Connection
Edited by James Crews
Green Writers Press, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-7327434-5-8
$19.95

My poem “Planting Peas” is included in this anthology. You can read more about this poem than you would think possible, on my website.

Spring in the Time of Coronavirus

Coronavirus Spring clouds and blue sky (2)
Cattle graze, moving slowly over grass
that’s bronze and gold, with green just beginning
to show below like the skin of the earth.
. . .
Higher, the sky is heartbreakingly blue
forever.  . . .

During the first weeks of the nation’s slow awakening to the fact that Coronavirus is going to dominate our lives for an unpredictable length of time, I was not writing. Like most people, I was too stunned at the abrupt changes being demanded by this pernicious disease. I spent too much time on the Internet, looking for explanations and hope.

Meanwhile, the leaders of not only my nation but my own state declared that they were “not responsible” and declared they could do little to protect their citizens.

But anger is no more useful in a situation like this than reading the Internet babble. My response to every other crisis in my life– divorce, the death of my husband, and other deaths– has been to write. Writing helps me discover what I feel as well as what I believe. Moreover, concentrating on making the writing coherent— so that another reader could understand it— helps me quiet my own fear and panic as I slide into the habits of a lifetime of improving my skill at making my ideas clear in a creative way.

Computer hands - small copy for blog

Besides, this is National Poetry Month; as someone who has declared herself a poet, it’s my job to write poetry.

I set up a pattern, because choosing a pattern before I begin helps me structure my thoughts. And I hope it will keep me from blurting undisciplined lines all over the page as so many writers do when they write what they fondly believe is “free verse.” Any pattern can be instantly changed when you discover a better pattern.

I’d write four lines of ten syllables each, I decided. I like the rhythm: da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum, and rhythm helps give structure to lines that are not intended to rhyme.

Coronavirus Spring writing in notebookTo improve the experience, I took my notebook outside to write each day’s verse. So when I wrote on Sunday about the sun feeling hot on my face, I was sitting in a green plastic chair against the wall of the garage, facing west as the sun dropped toward the Black Hills. Three red-winged blackbirds were singing from three cedar trees in the shelterbelt on my left, south of the house.

Spring in the Time of Coronavirus

Sunday:
Clouds coalesce under blue sky.        Sun lies
hot on my face. Three red-winged blackbirds sing
from three cedar trees, a liquid ripple:
a dozen tiny waterfalls chiming.

~~~

Every day for a week, I sat in the same chair late in the afternoon and wrote four lines with ten syllables per line. Knowing that, no matter how hectic my day was, I would take my pen and tablet and sit outside at 5:30 or 6 every afternoon helped me muddle through every day.

When I first sat down, I relished the fact that I had turned off my cell phone, and that my computer was inside the house, so no one demanding my attention could distract me. I faced the sinking sun and breathed deeply, enjoying the fresh air. First I’d notice that the highway traffic seemed diminished from its usual roar, since it didn’t feature carloads of people rushing from work home to the subdivision.

I might spend a few minutes digging dandelions out of my raised beds, and noticing that the sorrel I planted there last year was growing vigorously— except where a rabbit had trimmed it severely.

Sitting down, I’d begin to hear: the ducks splashing as they dived after insects or frogs on the dam, the robin on the gate flipping its wings in annoyance because I was sitting between it and its nest.

Each day I wrote a stanza. And some days, of course, I thought of ideas for the next day’s verse and jotted them down. On Friday, I recalled that morning’s walk on the hillside, and the discovery that a coyote had been hunting there the night before. When we let our dogs out in the dark, one or both of us goes with them, and they stay close to the house— but the knowledge that the wily hunter had dined twenty feet from the house made the hair rise on the back of my neck.

At some point in my week, I sent a few stanzas to several friends, who sent them to other friends. And this comment trickled back to me from a painter:

Oh, that takes my breath away. I do see Linda’s Facebook posts and love her photographs, of birds, grasses, flowers, a golden eagle breakfasting on a dead calf.  And then she goes and writes like this. And it’s everything. It has composition, color, touch, sound, soft rabbit fur and solid rock, up and down. “Clouds … bulging with rain.” Yes, they do bulge! And I can understand now that she was seeing words form as she framed those photos, seeing whatever strikes her being, like I see shapes in stark composition when I am really seeing. I am astounded that both birds I saw today on my walk in the woods appear to me again through her words. I can still hear the echo that remains after the red-winged blackbirds sing from cattails. So I find this poem to be a revelation into what one poet sees.  But more importantly, it moves me deeply.

And that is how writers can inspire one another, and work together, even when we are isolated.

You don’t have to be a writer to enjoy and benefit from this experience. Try it: write a few words about what you are thinking and feeling during this contradictory time, when spring is bursting with life, and the news is tolling with death.

Send your words out in some way— to friends on Facebook, on postcards, to strangers. And wait for what happens.

Here’s the complete poem that happened to me as I found inspiration in each day.

Spring in the Time of Coronavirus
4/13/2020

Sunday:
Clouds coalesce under blue sky.        Sun lies
hot on my face. Three red-winged blackbirds sing
from three cedar trees, a liquid ripple:
a dozen tiny waterfalls chiming.

Monday:
Sorrel sprouts inch upward in sunshine; trucks
roar past on the highway, transporting all
we need to survive. Killdeer call, contend
over nesting space beside the stock dam.

Tuesday:
Cattle graze, moving slowly over grass
that’s bronze and gold, with green just beginning
to show below like the skin of the earth.
Trees grow, birds pull worms from the ground, wind blows.

Wednesday:
Overhead gray clouds rise into white fluff.
Higher, the sky is heartbreakingly blue
forever. Northeast, clouds are purple, black
and folding, piling up, bulging with rain.

Thursday:
The sweet high crane call draws our eyes upward,
up to long white fingers of cloud, china
blue sky: there, circling, whirling, spinning north.
Yesterday they left the Platte heading home

Friday:
Beside the hillside cairn we built of stone—
granite, schist, rose quartz and white, gneiss, mica
feldspar— lie puffs of rabbit fur gray white
where coyote caught her prey and dined last night.

Saturday:
The cow that lost her calf last night lies still
beside him. She hasn’t been to water.
The coyotes will be back, but she can wait.
The red-winged blackbird flips his tail and trills.

Sunday:
The earth is living normally for spring.
Going about the business of full life.
Only humans are confused, floundering.
Nature may never miss us, if we go.

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #

Can’t Find Any Toilet Paper?

Toilet paper rolls

I’ve been amused by the reports that people are buying up all the toilet paper because of coronavirus fears. What?? Surely toilet paper cannot be at the top of the list of what anyone really NEEDS in a health crisis. The trend seems to indicate we’ve gotten sadly out of touch with reality.

What can you use for toilet paper if you– and the store– are out of toilet paper?

— Cut newspaper to handy sizes.

— What other relatively soft paper is available? Grocery store receipts? Other waste paper? Dispose of used papers in a sealed container and then burn.

— Clean rags. Some folks dampen them to clean, then throw away or launder. Use a different color for each family member, and for each purpose. Put dirty rags in a sealed container next to the toilet; add water with vinegar, baking soda, or a few drops of bleach to the container so they can soak before they are washed. [This is not much different from old fashioned cloth diapers.]

— Cotton balls. [Nowadays they are synthetic, not real cotton, so they cannot be flushed or composted.]

— Snow. Wipe and flush.

— Do you live on the prairie? In fact, if you live in North America, Africa, Asia, Europe or Australia, you are likely to be within walking distance of mullein. I can personally affirm that mullein leaves are soft, absorbent, and abundant. Look up the plant, find a local source, and try it yourself.

Toilet paper substitute mullein in winter
Mullein in winter.

— If you don’t live where mullein grows, take a walk and look for other suitable leaves, or for moss. Be sure you know how to avoid poison ivy, poison oak and others of their nature.

— Corn cobs. Our ancestors reportedly used them, but almost anything you can find will be more comfortable!

— Your hand. In many countries– India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Morocco– people eat only with their right hand. That’s because it’s standard practice to wipe with the left hand. Of course they wash the left hand when they can, but they observe the right-hand ritual in politeness.

— Some folks who want to save trees and thus never use toilet paper recommend this method: pour a small amount of water into your hand from a pitcher or cup kept handy. Or use a water bottle with a small opening to create a pressurized cleansing stream. Splash and repeat if necessary. Then dry with a towel kept for that purpose.

If none of these appeal to you, and you have time, look up “toilet paper alternatives” on the internet.

— Wet wipes work on babies, why not adults? After all, toilet paper doesn’t clean or sanitize, it only wipes.

— Coffee filters are better than paper towels, and less likely to clog the plumbing. Sanitary pads will work, but should not be flushed.

— Toilet paper tubes, but don’t flush them.

— Toilet paper spray. Users point out that it contains cleansers, that moisture can prevent chafing, that it does not clog pipes, damage sewers or machinery, or require disposition in a landfill. It’s more easily portable than toilet paper, and doubles as an air freshener.

Toilet paper substitute mullein in summer
Mullein in summer.

Use your imagination– you may find more substitutes. And be grateful for what you have. The Romans used a sponge on a stick, and sailors often used rope. Both were probably shared, and neither was very clean.

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #

Roadside Wildflowers at Full Speed

Field Guide to Roadside Wildflowers_editedI’ve spent my writing life extolling the virtues of the gorgeous grasslands of the Great Plains, which furnish a considerable amount of the air we breathe. They also furnish grazing for grassfed beef, and thus are important to all of us for a variety of reasons, most of which I’ve explained at length in nonfiction and poetry in 17 published books.

Now there’s a guide to the wildflowers of the region that is organized for the way most visitors to this neighborhood see the grasslands: at 70 miles an hour from a moving car.

A Field Guide to Roadside Wildflowers At Full Speed by Chris Helzer, the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, is offered as a free pdf download at his blog — link here.

Written as a parody to point out how silly it is for us to fail to appreciate the treasure we have in the grasslands, the book is proving immensely popular.

On his blog, The Prairie Ecologist, Helzer recently wrote:

I’m hoping maybe all this craziness will at least lead to a few more people thinking about prairies, if just for a moment or two. If I’d known what kind of reaction it was going to get, I might have spent more time trying to make the guide into a better ambassador for grasslands and their beauty. Silly me, I thought I was just going through a lot of work to make myself laugh.

Download the book, learn about wildflowers from your speeding car, and maybe you’ll be inspired to slow down and get to know our unique grassland ecosystem.

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #

Driving in Darkness

Darkness headlights on gravel road

“They could be driving through the sky.” Elly Griffiths is writing in her mystery The Outcast Dead about a drive on the Norfolk coast, but the line struck me as descriptive of what driving home from town used to be like for me, the little girl in the back seat.

For a minute I stopped to think about the meaning of the line, and it came to me: that’s what the drive USED to be like. I remember the comfort of dozing in the back seat of the old 1954 Chevy, no doubt wrapped in a blanket, as my father drove home, talking quietly to my mother in the passenger seat. The murmur of their voices was comforting in the darkness as we drove down old Highway 79 and turned into our driveway. I usually sat up then, watching as the two headlights stabbed down the gravel road. Occasionally we’d see a coyote lope along ahead of us and duck under the fence, or an antelope dive under the bottom wire. Rabbits always scurried around the limestone outcropping at the top of the hill. Closer to the house, we’d often see the glowing eyes of a cat or two, hunting in the borrow ditches.

Darkness coyote crossing Nov 2015

In the ranch yard, we might pause while my father got out and shut the chicken house door, first flashing a light around inside to be sure no skunks or raccoons were lurking under the perches. Then he’d pull into the driveway and go inside to turn on the porch light before my mother got out of the car. He’d walk ahead of her into the dining room, turning on the overhead lights and perhaps turning the heat up if we had been gone most of the day.

When I got out of the car, I could stand behind it and look east and south and west and north into utter blackness– as if our house were the only one on the planet. Perhaps an owl would hoot, to add to the lonely atmosphere, or a coyote howl. Inside the circle of light, I knew I was safe. But I had slipped out my bedroom window and wandered the dark often enough to feel comfortable without light as well.

Darkness ranch house with lights on

Today, it’s hard to find true darkness even 20 miles from town, where I still live. As the countryside empties of ranchers– a subject on which I’ve ranted elsewhere– it is filling with folks who want to live in the country, which should be a wonderful thing. More people in the country means we share the taxes with more taxpayers, meet more people in church, and the like.

But one of the sad side effects is that although these folks like the country in the daylight, they apparently don’t like it at night. If I look to the west, I see half a dozen glows from yard lights that will burn all night long. To the north I see lights in what was recently my uncle’s pasture, as well as the eerie glow of Rapid City on the horizon. Only to the east and a little southeast can I look at real darkness. And I can appreciate it because I can stand on my deck in complete darkness if I choose to.

The key word is CHOOSE.

On the outside of the garage, and just above my back door, I have installed motion lights which come on when they detect movement. When I drive up to the garage, the light comes on. When I walk to my car parked in front of the garage, the light comes on. When I step out of the garage and walk to my door, the light above the door illuminates the lock.

Of course, the garage light also comes on when a rabbit hops across the driveway, but nothing is perfect.

M2E1L0-12R350B300Besides all these potential lights, I have lights on tall poles outside my house and my retreat house. These lights operate with a switch from inside the house, or with a device I can carry. I have to turn them on. When someone drives up, I can light their way to the door.

This means that I can CHOOSE to light the place like a supermarket parking lot if necessary, but it’s not lit that way every single minute of every single blessed night. In the darkness, the population of hawks and rabbits, skunks, coyotes, mice, pigeons, grouse, bullsnakes, and all the other useful wild inhabitants of the neighborhood can go about their business.

When I walk outside at night, I prefer to go in the dark. In a famous poem, Wendell Berry wrote, “To know the dark, go dark.” If you walk into the dark with a light, you know only the light– only the relatively tiny circle of glowing light. Anything outside that circle will be invisible. But if I step outside with the flashlight in my hand turned off, my eyes rapidly adjust until I can see remarkably well in the darkness– much better than I can see into the dark if I light my steps. I can carry the flashlight in case I need to light my way, or confront something in the darkness. But I can also walk quietly, using my sight, hearing, and touch to find my way, and learn that the dark, too “blooms and sings,” as Berry says, and “is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”

Walking in darkness, I have heard the whisper of a great-horned owl flying out of a cedar tree beside me, seen its great shadow cross the moon.

Darkness owl on power pole Oct 2017

 

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #

The International Dark-Sky Association works to protect the night skies for present and future generations.

www.darksky.org

Keeping Winter Solstice: How Epiphanies Happen

The following is a chapter from my book The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook (2015, Red Dashboard). The book is structured with sixteen essays, one for each of the eight seasons of the year, covering two years. This essay is from Year One. Enjoy.

Yule - Wheel of the Year with snow sage rocks_edited

December 20-23: Winter Solstice (Yule)
Celebrating Yule: How Epiphanies Happen

Short gloomy days. Long cold nights. Living in the country, my retired partner and I find ourselves easily adapting to the season. As nights grow longer and days dwindle to brief stretches of gray, we read more, play more board games, and talk more than we did during the busy warm months when we often work outside at separate tasks.

Here on the prairie we welcome the Yule season surrounding the Winter Solstice as a bright break from winter chores, an opportunity to drive to town, enjoy the lights, and hear the special music. Though we deplore the season’s commercialization, we understand that modern practices of gifts, greetings and gaiety preserve ancient traditions designed to drive the gloom away and hasten the return of spring. We enter into the spirit of the season.

Yet in spite of the distractions, Yule is particularly appropriate as a time of meditation on writing. The ancients understood how completely both darkness and light are essential to life. Only from the night’s dark womb can light be reborn. Though we may be cold and exhausted from summer’s planting and harvest, winter’s slow periods of reflection, along with the indulgences of the yuletide season, can refill our reservoirs and produce a spring of writing.

Yule - writing

I have learned to serve my writing life by exploring the boundaries that separate it from the rest of my existence. Instead of allowing myself to be wrapped in the dark blanket of winter, I can build symbolic fires to lure the sun of my writing inspiration back.

The word “solstice” means “the time when the sun stands still,” because the ancients may have believed that the sun would cease moving and vanish if not cajoled to return its warmth to the earth. The scientific explanation for the sun’s apparent immobility 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, night long. No matter how we hustle, we may accomplish only the most basic requirements of our days before darkness signals our bodies that it’s time to rest.

Similarly, I might find it easy to let my writing congeal as my blood thickens unless I am firm with myself. How easy it would be to immerse myself in yuletide excesses! I could happily choose and wrap gifts, decorate the house, bake sweet treats and read thick books, allowing writing to sink to the bottom of a long list of chores.

home-retreat-cooking-2016-9-16So I try to outsmart myself, to insist on keeping writing central to my daylight schedule. Moving from household job to mundane task, I carry my journal. Jobs like peeling potatoes and wrapping gifts allow my mind to delve into ideas for next season’s writing, and my journal is right there on the kitchen counter where I can make notes. Yes, some pages are smeared with potato juice or tomato sauce; those decorations add specific memories when I return to the notes!

Looking around me in the early dark, I see my neighbors’ so-called “security lights” bathe the hillsides in lurid orange, reminding me how early humans must have feared the lengthening nights of winter. Apparently that fear is still with us. Most civilizations in the northern hemisphere appear to have created rituals intended to drive away winter’s dark cold and bring back light and warmth; in the southern hemisphere, of course, the year’s rituals are reversed and celebrations of summer’s heat are underway. Feasting and merrymaking at this time may also have offered an opportunity to evaluate the harvest and plan how to make it last until spring. After the festivities, families stayed close to the hearth, drawing inward, spending more time together.

If modern Americans could attend an ancient celebration of the Winter Solstice, we might be surprised by its familiar aspects: candles light the room around the hearth and twinkle on the branches of an evergreen tree; friends sing hymns; decorations are red, green and white. Despite differences in religion or ancestry, many customs and symbols that mean “Christmas” to us today originated with ancient pagan rituals in another part of the world.

In writing, I often focus on origins. When I was studying early Greek history as an undergraduate, I was stunned to learn that the hero or sage born from a virgin mother was a familiar legend in the Hellenistic world; Pythagorus, Plato, Alexander were all believed to be born of a woman touched by the power of a holy spirit. The union of a virgin with some supernatural force was intended to demonstrate that their offspring was special. Priests endeavoring to win converts to any new religion might have included the story in their dogma because its power was familiar.

Since then, when I am beginning new writing, I often research word histories, including origins and definitions. The information may not appear in what I eventually write but the knowledge deepens my thinking or extends my mind. For example, Joseph T. Shipley in his Dictionary of Word Origins suggests that the term “yule” may be related to “wheel,” as in the Wheel of the Year, and informs me that Queen Victoria’s husband Albert was the first to develop the practice of celebrating the season with a green tree instead of the burning yule log.

Yule - tree with red ornaments

One Yule season, I tried for weeks to write a winter solstice message for my correspondents and my website. I produced drafts of several ideas and wrote several blog messages but nothing suited.

What I needed, I told myself, was an epiphany; that is, a brilliant idea.

I turned first to my compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Handling the unwieldy books reminds me that I was living on beans and rice when I bought this compressed version of the famous dictionary in 1971. Besides working on my MA degree at the University of Missouri-Columbia, I was editor of the school’s literary magazine and was helping edit an alternative anti-war publication. My marriage was rapidly disintegrating. Owning the OED raised my spirits and made me, I believed, a real writer.

Lugging one of the ponderous tomes to my desk and placing 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—even if the Internet provided accurate information, which it frequently does not.

Yule - Compact Oxford English Dictionary

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” observed on January 6 or “a revelatory manifestation of a divine being.”

The meaning I’m seeking, though, is “a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something” and “a comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization.”  That’s it: “A sudden intuitive realization.” The goal of a considerable amount of writing is to arrive at that sudden realization, that understanding of the essence or meaning. Sometimes we can only do it by blundering around in vagueness and imprecision, stumbling through the word-jungle without a path or a flashlight.

Those final meanings touch writers and other creative artists most closely, since they explain that moment when an idea catches fire in our minds, begins to burn with a light that can lead us through the darkness of multiple revisions. 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 blinding instant of understanding, I usually wade through the required hours of moving commas, looking up words and re-reading aloud with a smile as I work to convey to anonymous readers what I realized in that moment of dazzling light. This definition is not inherently religious, but suggestive; whoever labeled this divine feeling an “epiphany” must have been aware of the word’s religious connotations. Finding the puzzle piece that makes a poem work is a spiritual experience.

Here’s the important question for writers and other creators: Can epiphanies happen in front of a TV? With a cell phone in hand? While texting?

For me, the answer is no.  I have experienced epiphanies in a variety of situations but never in the presence of such distractions. I’m not entirely ruling out mechanical devices as agents of epiphany because one of my favorite times to think is while driving. With no interruptions but the need to pump gas into my vehicle, I’ve sorted out all kinds of problems.

A real epiphany, I believe, requires solitude and time to think, above all other needs. Driving, I’m often alone. I may play music but rarely the radio because its advertising racket destroys solitude. Or I might entertain an epiphany while treating my sinuses by lying in a hot bath infused with eucalyptus, peppermint, wintergreen and juniper. A writer friend says, “I’ve solved quite a few writing quandaries in the shower.” Another swears by walking his dog at night. Almost any kind of reading can allow the mind to wander down different pathways and lead to new ideas.

Some revelations arise from the peacefulness inherent in washing dishes and 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 the poetic satisfaction erases my annoyance at myself. (And vinegar and soda erase the burn marks from the pan.) Vacuuming floors and even cleaning toilets have led directly to poems. The mind cannot abide a vacuum. Deprived of advertising jingles, chatter, e-mail, and twittering, it may produce something original.

Yule - Writing with DogsWriting in the journal, too, can enlighten as well as discipline a writer. When the dogs wake me between four and five in the morning, I let them out, record the temperature, and let them back in. Then I sit against pillows in bed, the dogs beside me, and pick up my journal. At that moment, I 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 have limbered my mind and pen and may write about a dream, or thoughts from wakeful moments in the night or the sunrise and the heron looking for frogs in the pond outside the window.

On that particular December 2, sitting at my computer, I wondered how I could create an epiphany that would lead me to a winter solstice message.

Yule - Greenhouse with curved but pointed roofOutside my study window stands my new greenhouse. With its curved, pointed roof, it reminds me of the tiny retreats used for meditation by Eastern monks. Half-laughing at myself, I dashed through falling snowflakes into the greenhouse and sat on an ancient stool my mother had painted blue so long ago the paint is cracked.

Taking deep breaths, I stared at the shells and peculiarly-marked rocks I’ve tucked into niches in a piece of driftwood, at wind chimes and a mobile of beads and driftwood made by a friend. I looked overhead at the tomato cages waiting in the rafters for spring; one had a few drying tendrils of creeping jenny vines still attached. Beside me stood a set of shelves filled with flower pots. Japanese fishing floats my partner’s family collected in the Pribilof Islands several decades ago hung from the ceiling. Despite the cold, the rich soil smelled as though something might be growing.

Yule - Greenhouse with blue stool

“I need an epiphany,” I announced, rubbing my thumb over one of the turtle figurines I collect to remind me to slow down. Mother turtle, in any form, whispers to me that I am part of the earth’s slow cycles.

I straightened my spine and breathed even more deeply.

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. A grouse stood on a top branch of another tree, craning its neck to watch for danger.

And in the silence, my epiphany arrived: I could write about epiphanies!

How do you find an epiphany?

Sit down, relax, close your eyes, and listen. Perhaps your revelation will come from your own mind, free at last to give you the thoughts it’s been incubating while you wrapped presents and baked cookies. Or perhaps an idea will manifest itself in touch, or in the breath of a concept. Footsteps may alert you to its approach. No matter its origin, your epiphany is your spark, the flame that will lead you to your springtime of writing.

Starhawk, a writer of many books on earth-based spirituality, has written a powerful chant to the goddess that could also describe an epiphany:

She changes everything she touches and
everything she touches changes
She changes everything she touches and
everything she touches changes

Let your epiphany change your writing.

*~*~*~*

Writing suggestions:

Seek an epiphany. Sit quietly, breathe deeply, and clear your mind of distractions as fully as you can. When you think five minutes have passed, look at a clock and note how long has really passed. If you are surprised to discover that you spent only a minute or two at this task, do it again and try for five minutes. Repeat this practice every day until you can comfortably sit for five minutes without looking at your watch.

When the time is up, write down any thoughts that came to you, no matter how trivial they may seem. Look at them: are those epiphanies?

Have you ever had what you would term an epiphany? Write about it.

Nebraska State Poet and teacher Bill Kloefkorn used this writing suggestion, “Finding the Bull’s Eye Inside the Epiphany,” to begin each of his poetry classes.

Write down a word or phrase that reminds you of a painful experience; possibilities for pain are not necessarily physical.

If you can’t do that, then guess at it.   If you can’t do that, lie.

“If lying bothers your conscience, you will never be a writer,” says Bill Kloefkorn.

Then ask questions about the word you’ve written down:

  • What country were you in?
  • What cosmos?
  • How old were you?
  • What town were you near?
  • How far were you from (insert name of some nearby town)?
  • How far were you from (insert name of some distant town)?
  • Were there any lower animals with you?
  • Any people?
  • What were you wearing?
  • Was it too big?
  • If it wasn’t too big, where was it tight?
  • Were you outside or inside?
  • If you were inside, what color was the wallpaper?
  • What were you walking on‑‑pavement, or another human being?
  • Did it smell?
  • Does it smell now?

After answering these questions, free write on what you’ve come up with for 45 minutes or so. That is, put pencil to paper or fingers to the keyboard and don’t stop writing for 45 minutes.

Wait! Don’t turn the page. You can do this. If your brain goes blank at any point, keep writing the same phrase or word over and over until your brain begins to supply something else. Your brain cannot abide a vacuum; it will not leave you gaping like a beached fish.

It is, however, best to time this writing practice, because if you think you can estimate the time, you will be surprised how long it can be, and it’s best not to stop writing to look.

From this writing comes material from which you can write almost indefinitely. Kloefkorn said his students sometimes spend the entire semester writing about the material generated in this first session, continuing to follow the clues they had given themselves, to discover “the bull’s eye inside the epiphany.”

One goal of this writing exercise is to write enough on one topic to begin to dig down into subjects that are hard to write about, and that therefore matter.

One result is that the more specific sensory detail you include, the more the reader will identify with what you have written. This is an odd fact, but true: even if the dress you wore to your first day of school was long and blue while mine was red and short; if your hair was long and black and mine was short and blonde; if your father drove you, and my mother drove me, and my teacher was fat and hugged me with her massive breasts while yours was skinny and stood tall and pointed you toward a seat– your specific memories will bring mine back to me, and I will then identify with what you have written.

I was delighted to see confirmation of this idea from popular singer Roseann Cash, who said, “That’s the discovery I made on this record: The more specific you are about places and characters, the more universal the song becomes.”

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #

Yule - WHEEL winter saleThe Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook (2015, Red Dashboard) is structured with sixteen essays, one for each of the eight seasons through two years, with an intermission essay, “Respect Writing By Not Writing,” which discusses taking time off. Extensive writing suggestions are included, as well as additional resources. The workbook is intended as a guide and teacher as a writer sets up her own schedule of writing and develops a relationship with the natural and mundane worlds in which we live. If the reader came to a retreat at my Windbreak House Writing Retreats, this might be a series of conversations we would have about writing.

Winter Sale — $20 each copy while supplies last

Media mail shipping and sales tax are included. If you would like the book shipped to you priority mail, please include an additional $5 ($25 total)

Send check or money order to

Linda M. Hasselstrom
PO Box 169
Hermosa   SD   57744

Include the address of where you would like me to ship the book.

I will sign your book, but please let me know if you would like a personalized inscription. (example “To Aunty Em, there’s no place like home”)

The Relatives Who Live in My Head

Thanksgiving dinner

The Relatives Who Live in My Head

show up just as I slide into memories

of grandmother’s smile as she basted the turkey.

They crowd into the kitchen

without invitation. They say

it’s just not Thanksgiving without

Milly’s broccoli and cheese casserole.

The truth is, none of them ate any of it.

Milly, my mother, elaborately ate one spoonful

that day, and we ate the rest for a week.

 

The relatives who live in my head say

it’s just not Thanksgiving without

Hazel’s oyster dressing. We all took that,

you bet, because Hazel would say,

“You missed the oyster dressing,”

and slap it on our plates herself.

 

The relatives who live in my head

are just like real relatives.

I don’t see them for months.

They don’t call, or write, or visit.

But come Thanksgiving, Christmas,

or Easter, here they are again.

 

The relatives who live in my head murmur,

“Only one kind of cranberry sauce?”

“Where are the green beans with slivered almonds?”

And what was that stuff on them–

cream of chicken soup?

“Sorry,” I say,

but I’m not. They’re muttering,

“No home-baked rolls? No sweet potatoes

with marshmallows and brown sugar?”

 

The relatives who live

in my head mumble, “That pie crust

doesn’t look home-made.” I hum as I

make a pasta salad. “What’s that stuff?”

say the relatives who live in my head.

“Where’s the Jell-O and marshmallows?”

 

“I love you all,” I tell them,

“But buzz off,” pouring

a wee dram of Scotch to sip

as I baste the turkey. My life mate

mashes the potatoes to creamy paste

swimming in butter. We seat ourselves,

brimming with thankfulness.

 

Poem © 2011, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Find this poem in my book Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, co-written with Twyla M. Hansen– 50 poems by each of us. (2011, The Backwaters Press, Omaha, NE)

 

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #

 

Want to talk to me?

Phone is an old simple flip phone

Write me a letter, with a real stamp on a real envelope. Or even an email.

Don’t call. I won’t answer.

I used to have a listed telephone number in my retreat house, where people paid for solitude and silence to work on their writing. The message on that phone said that the phone was never answered by a human being, and asked that the caller leave a message, or reach me through my website or Facebook pages.

Yet year after year, that phone rang while some writer was trying to work.  I silenced the ringer, and the calls continued. Every caller ignored my outgoing message. Salesmen droned on about their products, or elderly voices said, “Hello? Hello? Why doesn’t she answer?” I was living elsewhere at the time, and finally had the phone removed.

My policy of requesting that you write to me developed after years of thought, much of it waiting, waiting, waiting with a telephone receiver pressed to my ear. When I worked for newspapers, I often took notes while my callers provided information. The phones were equipped with a handy apparatus that sat on my shoulder and held the receiver against my ear so I could type madly while keeping my neck muscles tense so the thing didn’t fall off.

Phone call during book signingNow, when most people have phones with screens on them and multiple functions, I have an itty bitty cell phone that can’t be clamped to my ear unless my hand is holding it. I can’t type that way, so I can’t take notes. Therefore I use the cell phone to make calls at my most convenient time. I have a list of people who have this number so when they call I can, at a glance, decide if I must interrupt whatever I am doing to respond.

Most of the people on that list know and respect how I use my cell phone, and know that if they leave a message, I will return their call as soon as possible. The people who don’t know I have their number don’t need to know. I call them back too, when I’m not in the middle of something more important.

Remember, I am a writer. If you want to talk to me, you have to write.

Writing takes a lot of thinking time, preferably without interruption. I may spend this time walking the grasslands that are my primary inspiration (when chigger season is over), or sitting at my desk, or pacing my office.

I may not look busy, but my brain is chugging and whirring and spinning and creating.

The folks who have lived with me have learned that when my office door is closed, or I am wandering around mumbling to myself, I am busy no matter how it might look. If I lose that line, that inspiration, I may never get it back, which will destroy the power of that poem or that sentence in an essay.

Walking and thinking

Look at the positive effects of writing to me:

If you write to me, I can read your request at a time of my choosing.

If you write your request, I will cheerfully read it and respond when doing so is convenient for me. For that reason, I will be more likely to do whatever it is you want me to do.

If you write, I can form an opinion about your literacy, which may be particularly useful if you are asking to interview me or come to Windbreak House for a retreat.

If you write, I don’t have to leap up in the middle of eating a good meal to listen to what you have to say because you have the time or the impulse to talk to me right now. I won’t  grow more annoyed while my meal gets cold and the conversation dwindles away.

If you write, the insistent ringing may not drive from my brain that line that I’ve been thinking about for 20 minutes as I revise a poem.

If you write your request, I can think about it, instead of having to give you an answer immediately.

If you write your request, I don’t have to call you back, and listen to your message, and leave a message, and listen to your message when you call me at an inconvenient time, and call you back and leave a message, and so on ad infinitum.

If you write, you might keep your message concise, instead of rambling on about why you couldn’t call yesterday because your dog threw up.

Primitive TechnologyAnd please

please

P L E A S E:

— do not send me photographs;

— do not send me attachments;

— do not text me;

— do not send me anything that requires my phone to dance the hula or contact Mars to respond.

Smart phones might be able to do these things.

My phone is an elderly flip phone. When you send me anything but a voice mail, the phone tends to smoke, gurgle, whimper, and stop working, which irritates me so much I might never return any call you make henceforth.

My old flip phone serves my purposes: I can dial a number and talk to someone on it.

I do not want or need a phone that sends photographs, plays tunes, stores games, or sings Happy Birthday or yodels the national anthem.

Please: don’t call. Write.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #