A Simple Act

No matter what time of day or night the phone rings, the voice that summons me sounds tired and desperate.

But that’s not the only reason I go. I’m known there, so I seldom wait long before someone comes for me, leads me into the little room, closes the door, asks to see my ID card.

This time it’s a young black woman who taps a few keys, looks at the computer screen and says, “You’ve done this before.”

“A few times,” I reply. She props my card on the desktop, enters some codes, glances at my bare arms, strikes a key or two.

Then she straightens the papers on the desk and picks up her pen to begin the questioning.

If I am nervous, she may become suspicious and uneasy, so I fold my hands loosely in my lap, place my feet flat.

She clears her throat, begins reading the first question.

My scars prove I’ve done this dozens of times, but my mouth is dry and my voice squeaky.

She glances at the computer monitor, perhaps checking to see if my answer matches the one I gave the last time I was in this claustrophobic little office.

The screen is tilted away from me, so I can’t tell what additional information she may have. My only chance is to tell the truth as I remember it and hope that the answers I gave last time were recorded correctly.

She reads each question quickly, not looking at me. I remind myself that I chose to answer that telephoned summons to come here.

Her questions grow more complicated every time she opens her mouth. I choose to reveal these intimate details of my past. I can leave anytime; the door is not locked. She has no power to hold me here.

She asks another question. Have I ever  .  .  . ?

I tell myself this facility promises confidentiality, and in twenty-five years I have had no reason to doubt it.

No, I tell her. I haven’t.

The truth is important here. In our world, some people are casual about the distinction between truth and falsehood; others get rich from telling lies.

But in this room, the difference between truth and a lie may be, in the old cliche, a matter of life and death. Not mine, but someone who will never know me if I am not truthful.

Do I know anyone, she asks, who has . . .

No, I say. Faces of my friends flash before my eyes. I resist the urge to cross my fingers. I’ve known people who might not have been able to answer that question honestly and remain in this room. But years have passed; I’ve lost track of them.

Have I been, she asks, in any of the following countries since 1977: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo: the list goes on, countries of which I know nothing. Her voice has no particular inflection; she’s probably never been any of those places either.

She takes a deep breath. Have I traded sex for money or drugs since 1977?

I tuck a hank of gray hair behind my ear and think about 1977. She probably wasn’t born yet.

I was 34 and had just read an authoritative article insisting that I was more likely to be raped and murdered than to marry again. I was poor, but I did have a job, an old car, an apartment. Even then, I wasn’t tempted to trade sex for money or drugs.

In fact, most of my experiences with drugs had occurred a decade earlier, in the 1960s, when I was often in the presence of sex and drugs in some combination. Money usually wasn’t involved, since none of us had any.

I decide that attempting to joke about these memories with this serious young woman would not be prudent.

I answer quietly, honestly. Soon she drops her pen, clicks a few keys on the computer, and leads me to a couch under a glass ceiling.

I show the technician my arms, and she swabs the left one with iodine, chatting about the weather and suggesting I look away. But I watch as she slips the needle deftly into a fat blue vein. The spot feels briefly as though a match had touched it, and then a richly red stream begins to flow through the tube and into the bag rocking beside me.

UBS logoLying back, I watch birds fly across the windows and think of healing for whoever receives this transfusion.

I love cows, eat meat, carry a pistol, and have strong and specific political viewpoints. My blood may pour into the veins of someone who opposes everything I believe in.

That’s exactly the reason to do this. Blood donors can’t impose their will on the people whose lives they may save.

When I’m depressed about anything in my world– and these days that feeling sweeps over me fairly often– I find relief with United Blood Services.

Here the only thing that matters is giving freely that another shall receive.

 

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

© 2006, Linda M. Hasselstrom

 

Afterword:

This blog is posted in honor of National Heart Month (February) and National Blood Donor Month (January).  If you are able, consider becoming a blood donor in your community.

This essay was originally published by Writers on the Range, October 2, 2006.

Writers on the Range is a weekly syndication of op-ed pieces offered by High Country News.  The writing selected comes from a diverse group of writers, all of whom are deeply concerned about the West.

For more information: http://www.hcn.org/

#  #  #

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Cleaning the Stove

On that March day, I was in the kitchen of our old house in Cheyenne, Wyoming, starting lunch for myself and Jerry. He’d need to eat promptly when he got home so he could get back to work. I’d chopped and sautéed pieces of chicken and vegetables and added them to the soup pot. Every time I stepped to the stove to stir the soup, I tripped over Mac, our Westie, who liked to be at the center of the action.

I was having a second cup of coffee while I planned my day, and listening to the radio to find out the morning’s news. Once I got the soup mixed, I’d go back to my office and begin my day’s writing, letting it simmer and scent the house until noon.

Pouring coffee, I hear the news:
another shooting at another high school.

The Columbine shootings had already changed the way we see the world.

Isn’t it tragic, and significant, that the simple words “Columbine shootings” arouse in most readers some memory of that incident?

You might not recall details, but on April 20, 1999, two senior students entered Columbine High School in Colorado with bombs, explosive devices and weapons. They murdered 12 students and a teacher, and injured 21 others before committing suicide. Cheyenne is only two hours away from Columbine, Colorado, so many of our acquaintances with friends or relatives there were frantic for hours, worried for their safety.

Listening to the radio as I added carrots to the soup, I was too agitated to go to my work, or to sit down to listen.

Instead of sitting down to listen.
I fill a bowl with water that’s too hot.
At the stove, I wet the rag,
force myself not to flinch,
begin to wipe up grease.

The excited voices of the newscasters reminded me of being invited to a local high school to work with students on their writing not long after the Columbine shootings. Walking up the sidewalk toward the school’s main entrance. I noticed a tall, skinny boy slouching toward me. His head was bowed, his hands invisible inside the pockets of an ankle-length duster.

Half the high school boys in the town, which is home to Cheyenne Frontier Days, stalked along the streets looking like old-time gunfighters even on hot fall days. Still, as the youth turned toward the steps, one flap of the duster fell back, and I thought the edge of the coat looked extremely straight, as though a long rifle might be concealed inside it.

More than once in this Old West town
I’ve seen high school boys in dusters.
I’ve imagined how the coat swings
as he turns and fires, heard the screams,
could almost see the blood.

I gasped and hesitated, then hurried to follow him through the double doors. He walked past a gray-haired security guard who didn’t glance his way. But the man stepped forward, using his bulk to block my path, asked me my business and told me I had to check in at the office.

“Er—ah—did that kid look at all suspicious to you?” I asked.

The man glanced down the hall where the kid was just opening the door of a classroom.

“Oh, he’s OK. He’s always late. Attitude problem.”

I didn’t mention that perhaps the Columbine shooters had an attitude problem, too.

 

Stirring the soup, I inhaled its fresh homey scent as I listened to the radio blurt out the story of the Red Lake shootings. Outside the window, the dog was bouncing through the piles of snow in the back yard.

That morning’s shooting came to be known as the Red Lake massacre after the Indian Reservation in Minnesota on which it occurred. No doubt snow lay on the ground in Red Lake as well.

In Red Lake, a 16-year-old boy killed his grandfather, a tribal police officer, and the man’s girlfriend at the home they all shared. Then he took his grandfather’s police weapons and vest and drove the police vehicle to the senior high school where he had once been a student. There he shot and killed seven people including an unarmed security guard, a teacher and five students, and wounded five others. He was wounded when he exchanged gunfire with the police. He then committed suicide in an empty classroom.

Wiping the stove top beside
simmering chicken soup, I hear
more details: he’s killed ten people,
including his own grandfather,
a tribal cop.

I thought it likely that the boy’s parents had already abdicated their responsibilities in some way, and his grandfather was raising him. The facts about the shooting emerged slowly during the hour or so that I listened to the radio, imagining the scene, making mental notes.

His father killed himself
years ago.

Perhaps his grandfather was strict, and unhappy because the boy had dropped out of school.

Some commentator
mentions Prozac, already explaining
how this boy’s story
was seared with trouble,
burning into darkness.

Jerry and I no doubt discussed the news over lunch. After he went back to work, I turned the radio on again, thinking of the Indian people I’d known, the way families often expand to take in the troubled young. In some families, a whole generation was lost to alcohol, so grandparents are raising their children’s children. Often the grandparents seem younger, and the children more mature, than is typical. I pictured the grandfather as a patient man, but stern, hoping that his grandson’s life would be better than the life of the son who had killed himself. I’ve known several children of troubled families to go into social work, or police work, hoping to help others like themselves.

                                    Until today,
it might have gone another way.
Faced one day with some angry,
frightened kid, he might
have paused, remembering.
.                                    Until today.

But for this boy there would be no future. As the commentators chattered about the boy, interviewed survivors, and tried to explain the shootings, they cited alcoholism, drugs, poverty, gun laws; they talked about responsibility and blame and fear.

I had known that boy in a dozen different incarnations in schools where I’d worked. Thousands of sincere people work with students in a concerted effort to guide them into adulthood. Millions, possibly trillions, of dollars have been dumped into various schemes to prevent this kind of bloodshed. The best minds of the nation have talked, thought, written and pontificated about preventing school shootings.

In the immortal words of Chief Dan George in the movie Little Big Man, “Well, sometimes the magic works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”

Grease floats in the sink. I run
more hot water, squirt more soap.
A thousand miles away, I hold my hand
in water hotter than I can bear,
and clean
this stove.

I’m unlikely to be able to stop a particular slaughter. I hoped as I wrote the poem that it might inspire someone to keep trying to help those who are difficult to help.

Now, nearly eleven years after the Red Lake shootings, almost seventeen years after Columbine, about 70 percent of schools across the U.S. conduct drills designed to help students respond to shootings, a number that has risen from 53 percent in 2008. According to The Week, September 18, 2015, these training sessions are now almost as common as those conducted in most schools for natural disasters, which are practiced at 83 percent of schools. These distractions from a school’s normal function are part of the grim legacy of the boys I will not name, refusing them some small part of the fame they wanted.

We always hear the reports of such shootings, reported breathlessly and with on-the-spot enthusiasm from people who believe they are news. But we are unlikely to know how many people think of committing such actions and been stopped by the kindness or understanding of a teacher, a social worker, a police officer, a friend, a minister. We must not give up.

 

Cleaning the Stove

Pouring coffee, I hear the news:
another shooting at another high school.
Instead of sitting down to listen.
I fill a bowl with water that’s too hot.
At the stove, I wet the rag,
force myself not to flinch,
begin to wipe up grease.

More than once in this Old West town
I’ve seen high school boys in dusters.
I’ve imagined how the coat swings
as he turns and fires, heard the screams,
could almost see the blood.
Wiping the stove top beside
simmering chicken soup, I hear
more details: he’s killed ten people,
including his own grandfather,
a tribal cop. His father killed himself
years ago. Some commentator
mentions Prozac, already explaining
how this boy’s story
was seared with trouble,
burning into darkness.

                                    Until today,
it might have gone another way.
Faced one day with some angry,
frightened kid, he might
have paused, remembering.
.                                    Until today.

Grease floats in the sink. I run
more hot water, squirt more soap.
A thousand miles away, I hold my hand
in water hotter than I can bear,
and clean
this stove.

Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, with Twyla M. Hansen, The Backwaters Press, 2011.

 

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

 

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

 

Scenes from Surgery: Seeing When I Can’t See

Fortunately, I have had little experience with surgery, and most of that came from accompanying a friend to her surgery a week ago, just before my first cataract operation.

I am as ready as I can be. My eye surgeon has furnished me with a formidable collection of informational pamphlets and a written list of instructions. More than a dozen friends and acquaintances who have already benefited from the surgery have offered advice and reassurance. I’ve done research and read statistics: according to the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery (ASCRS), 3 million Americans undergo cataract surgery each year, with an overall success rate of 98 percent or higher.

Still, I have probably feared loss of sight since I was fitted for my first pair of glasses at nine years of age, so I don’t sleep well in the days before surgery.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

My appointment for cataract surgery is for 7 a.m., and by 7:30, I am lying on a cot in a room with a dozen similar cots, separated by curtains. Nurses move back and forth among the patients, asking if we know what we’re there for, confirming names and birth dates. Someone asks if I’ve signed health care directives (Yes; and I recommend everyone do so). Is there a person who can speak for me in the waiting room in case something goes terribly wrong? My surgeon explains the procedure. Barry, the anesthesiologist spends several minutes reading through my medical history, asking questions, commenting on the fact that I am in good health and take no pills but vitamins. He advises me to let him know immediately if I feel pain. He says I’ll be awake throughout the procedure, and cautions me not to sneeze, talk or move.

“And if your nose itches, tell us; we’ll scratch it for you.” He says, “I’m mixing your first martini now,” as he administers what he calls the “I don’t care” drug.

A nurse places a sticky mask on my face to hold my left eye open. I feel the nudge of what I assume is a scalpel when the surgeon slices into my eye, and see a vivid square of pink as he works. After a few moments, the pink square becomes more clear, and I realize the surgeon is gone, the operation over. I am wheeled into the recovery room, though I remember little of what happens there.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

By 9:30 a.m., we’re home and I spend the rest of the day lying around, continuing not to care much about anything. I pick up a mystery, but can’t concentrate enough to read. My eye doesn’t hurt but I am happier when it is closed; the eyelid seems to be made of sandpaper, a sensation the literature predicted.

Cataracts fall grass pronghornFrom the living room, with binoculars and my new left eye closed, I can see twenty antelope and a flock of geese all lying companionably on the west side of the dam below the house. With my own spectacles, I can see well out of my right eye, but trying to coordinate my eyes leaves me disoriented. When I walk across the room, I feel as if I might fall, and I hold the handrail firmly while going downstairs; I have no depth perception. In the kitchen, I lurch into cabinets when trying to put clean dishes away or cook.

I’m dizzy, probably from the anesthetic and the disorientation of the change in my vision, but have no headache. I’m not nauseated, but my stomach feels a little fluttery. I cooked ahead, so we have interesting leftovers. My after-lunch nap lasts an hour and a half instead of twenty minutes. All afternoon I doze, think, and occasionally flip pages in magazines. I’m amazed that I can sit without reading or leaping up to do another job as I would normally do, but realize that I’m still under the influence of the “martini” drug.

Email lures me to the basement until I realize I am hunched over, squinting to peer at the screen. Later, we watch DVDs, though it’s hard for me to concentrate. I keep taking my glasses off and putting them back on. By nine p.m., without my glasses, I can see well out of my new left eye, or my right eye, but not both at once.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I rarely dream, but this night my brain puts me in a number of strange scenes. In one, I am standing on top of a white van that is driving itself around a green lawn, then eventually rising into the air and floating over the landscape.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I wake at five with a knot of pain in my shoulder and a cramp in my neck, unable to turn my head to the left or right. I attribute this misery to stress, and to using the computer when I should have been resting.

At my follow-up appointment, I tell my surgeon that every now and then, the view through my left eye seems to leap, as if the film in an old movie had jumped. He explains that since the new lens is slightly smaller than my original, the eye needs to shrink around it, and that natural process produces the jumping sensation. My operation is a success.

Every element of Day Two after surgery is filtered through extreme pain. I can’t read, write, sit or stand comfortably because of the agony in my shoulder and neck. Ice on my shoulder enables me to nap a little. I make an appointment with a massage therapist for the next day.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Day Three after surgery is a blur that begins in pain, soothed by a strong and aromatic early-morning massage. My muscles are so knotted in my neck and shoulder that an hour isn’t enough. “Mouse shoulder,” the massage therapist calls my ailment. I realize that two days before surgery I moved both my keyboards without making compensatory moves in my computers and mice. After my first massage, I eat lightly and lie on a heating pad until my second massage in the afternoon, thinking about how good I’ll feel when my eyesight is improved and my shoulder is back to normal.

When I’m not on a massage table or resting, I experiment with the position of my computer chair and keyboards, and discover exactly what I was doing to cause the aching misery in my shoulder. I raise the arms of my chair, fiddle with its height, shift the computer screens–and dust everything in sight. I’m usually too busy writing to pay attention to the tidiness of my office, so I do some filing and organizing as well.

I follow the recommendation of several people to remove the lens from the glasses on the side that’s been operated on. With both eyes open, I stagger as if I’ve been drinking those “martinis” the anesthesiologist mixed, because my vision is so different in each eye.

One friend pastes a sticky note over her glasses on that side, and isn’t afraid to drive. “The Interstates in Wyoming and Montana were fine,” she says, “but I was a little nervous on the two-lanes.” Hmm.  My father had a cataract operation, and came home wearing an eye patch. He died two decades ago; where is it now?

Cataracts eye patchI shut my eyes and visualize the eye patch. Black, with black elastic. I wore it once as part of a Halloween costume. After a few moments, I stand up, go to my dresser in the bedroom, open the top drawer, and reach inside: the eye patch is there, between the shotgun shells and a jewelry box of my mother’s. There is no logical reason I have kept it at my fingertips all these years. With a new strip of elastic, it fits nicely across my left eye. Immediately my balance seems to stabilize. I can walk a straight line! I can go downstairs!

Glancing up at the stern photo of my father above my desk, I thank him for teaching me to keep things I don’t know if I’ll need, and apologize for cussing his packrat ways at other times.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Exchanging messages with friends who have had cataract surgery, I’m convinced that everything I’m experiencing is normal, but I’m severely near-sighted, which accounts for the extra problems I’m having adjusting to one “good” eye and one still shadowed by a cataract.

Testing myself, I drive down our private road to the highway and across it to get the mail. I’m careful pulling across the four lanes of traffic, but the black eye patch does block a considerable portion of my peripheral vision, so I ask Jerry to drive me to other appointments for the week before my second surgery.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Even by leaning close to the computer screen, I can hardly read. Leaning forward awakens the pains in my neck and shoulder. I shut down the computer and resolve to stay away from it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

What did I do, I wonder, before I began to spend my days reading and writing? I can’t remember. I thumb through my recipe file, finding new tastes to try, and tossing out old recipes I’ve never used.

Cataracts basket leaves chive seedpodTo change my focus from what I can’t do, I begin to concentrate on what I can do: pay more attention to texture, color and scent. In a few minutes’ walk outside, I appreciate the vivid red of a leaf from a tiny plum bush, the neon yellow and deep red of a gaillardia in my greenhouse plot, and a furry leaf of mullein. I’ve read that mullein leaves were used for diapers by Native Americans. Modern riders moving cattle have found them to be useful as toilet paper; that’s a personal observation.

Next to the gaillardia stands a culinary sage, its pointed leaves soft, but less dense than those of the mullein. The scent, too, is softer than that of the native sage. Lilac leaves manage to be red on the front and green on the back. The unripe seed head of a chive plant is knobby with pods that may not ripen now that we have had frost. I pinch a head of anise and inhale its purple scent.

Observing and touching these plants while I’m walking the dogs is not enough. Suddenly I want to study them more closely, so I pick them and take them inside. Searching for the perfect way to display them to myself, I find a tiny basket from a friend and notice again its colors and tight weave. Mentally, I thank her again for this thoughtful gift: another thing I didn’t know I needed until I required it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Another question I ponder: when did I begin my habit of always doing something: of never sitting still and doing nothing? This is a good time to start following my own advice.

I regularly advise writers to simply sit and absorb their surroundings, to do nothing at all as their minds wander and create. Thinking, I assert, is the most important part of writing.

And yet here I am, fidgeting because I am unable to follow my usual schedule. I realize that I sometimes read or write as much as sixteen hours a day. I read and write in my journal while drinking my morning coffee; I read during meals. I think in the shower, but I read in a hot bath. I need to practice doing other activities. Perhaps even doing nothing.

Usually when I’m writing, I step outside once or twice in the morning to play with the dogs or to check the tomatoes or pull weeds. Today I walk outside with no particular aim. I stand in the sunshine and look over the hillside, noticing how colorful the grass is, blending every shade of red from maroon to pink, segueing into golds and greens. Somewhere on that hillside may be twenty antelope, their tawny sides and white bellies blending perfectly into their surroundings.

Cataracts viola empty seedpodsThen I drop to my knees to look at the plants in the raised bed. I spot a three-pronged seed pod, each lobe packed with tiny black seeds, and realize that it has arisen from the violas a friend gave me years ago. As I reach to pick the pod so I can plant the seeds elsewhere, I jostle it, and the seeds are fired in several directions at once, instantly invisible.

I’ve had these violas perhaps as long as twenty years, since a friend in Vermillion gave them to me, but I’ve never noticed the seed pods before. Now I’ll try to capture seeds so I can put more of the charming plants wherever I want them.

Because I write and advise writers, I probably pay more attention to my senses than many people do. But today’s concentration on what I cannot see well has been a revelation.

Cataracts cup beads crystalInside, thinking about the day, I look at the shelf above my sink and take down an antique cup I bought for its color and balance. I’ve never drunk from it, but filled it with glittering memories, displaying it, but not really seeing it. I picked up every shell on a favorite Pacific beach in the northwest; the beads were gifts from Jerry when he made my kaleidoscope for my fiftieth birthday. The shard of crystal came at a bad time as a gift from a good friend. Now I see a cupful of shining memories.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Each day after the surgery, I am able to move more confidently around the house. I wear the eye patch for reading, but take it off when I’m walking the dogs or playing Scrabble, struck each time by how bright and colorful the world is without it. I begin to cook without dropping utensils so often.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On Day Six after surgery, I forget the eye patch when we go to the grocery store, so my left eye, with its improved distance vision, is uncovered. The visual stimulation is so disorienting I can hardly function. Faces seem to leap at me; colors swirl and shift as I turn my head; loud music seems to magnify every sensation. I can’t read the type on shelf displays very clearly with either eye; letters blur and swirl. I keep reaching up to cover one eye or the other, and can’t seem to stabilize myself. I lurch and stagger and catch expressions of pity on several faces: “poor old thing.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Back at home, I shade my eyes and look toward the west as the sun begins to drop toward sunset. From every branch flies a silver filament, the life lines of migrating spiders, moving in the fall air toward winter.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I have spent less time than usual at the computer, but too much; my shoulder and neck are still painful. My posture is terrible when I sit at my desk, and concentrate on straightening my spine and breathing more deeply. I move around more, running up the stairs to check on lunch, or throwing a ball for the dogs. These are changes in habit I hope I can carry with me through the next round of surgery, but also longer, into my daily life.

Once again a happening that was complicated and not always pleasant has reminded me of ways to improve the way I live. Surely this occurrence is a cliché, but such truisms become familiar because they prove to be right so often.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

By the seventh day after surgery, which is also the day before the surgery on my right eye, I realize that I am exhausted even though I have not been working at my usual rate. Why? I can think of two possible reasons. First, I’ve been working at the computer, and since my vision is so unclear, I lean forward, and twist myself into unnatural positions trying to see. Second, my confused vision makes me subconsciously fear that I’m about to fall every single time I take a step, so all my muscles are clenched in anticipation when I’m not sitting still.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

We’ve had frost three nights in a row and the tomatoes and squash plants are drooping. I’ve put most of the remaining fruit in a bucket to feed to my assistant’s chickens, harvested the last jalapeno peppers, and collected handfuls of marigold seed. Winter is coming, though several hollyhocks still stand next to the house, their silken blooms showing vivid yellow and pink against the gray sky.

The world outside is entering a different season. So is my vision.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The second surgery takes less time than the first since fewer explanations are necessary. My martini-mixer this time is Gary, but Barry is in the next cubicle and I realize that the team of anesthesiologists have developed their patter of humorous comments– “like a bad marriage” Gary quips– to calm the fears of patients by making us laugh. Again, I can see the tools of surgery and feel them in my eye, but I don’t care and nothing itches.

I’m dizzy enough to hold Jerry’s arm as I walk out of the clinic wearing the huge sunglasses that were part of my eye kit, and adorn half the people walking in or out. Even through black lenses, I can see every detail of faces, of parked cars, and of the men pouring concrete, with both eyes. I haven’t seen this well without glasses since about 1950.

But I can’t read the paper; my improved vision is for greater distances than my arms reach.

During the 24 hours following surgery, I feel better than I did last week because the aftereffects of the anesthetic are less severe, as Gary promised. By the time I try to describe what I saw during surgery, the memory has become too fuzzy to capture in words.

My eyelids feel enlarged, like flaps of cardboard and my eye feels a bit scratchy, as predicted. I’m occasionally dizzy and inclined to nap, so I do. At home, I can walk up and down stairs without flinching.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On the second day after this surgery, I buy a three-pack of drugstore reading glasses, complaining because I can’t imagine why I need three. “I’ll be able to match all my outfits!” I mock.

Navigating around the house is easy without glasses, but when I need to read a recipe, play a Scrabble game, read a book or type, I need help. Soon I have one pair of glasses by my reading chair, one pair at the computer, and one pair in the dining room where I can take it to the bedroom for reading in bed. Having three pair has saved me dozens of steps by the second day; I mentally apologize to the folks who package them in threes.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

In the mirror, I hardly recognize myself without glasses.

With reading glasses, I can see a glow lighting the chin hairs I haven’t been able to see well enough to pull for a week, and the large bags under my eyes.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Happy to be able to see the keyboard and screen, I start transcribing my rough and nearly unreadable notes about the surgery from my journal into a file. My biggest problem is remembering to snatch the glasses off when I need to leave the computer or book and do something else.

Cataracts reading glasses chainWithin three days, I have purchased a gadget that I have always considered the ultimate Badge of Old Ladyhood: a chain to wear around my neck, keeping one pair of glasses on my person at all times.

As I work, I yawn and stretch and wonder why this week was so physically painful and nerve-wracking.

I’m overwhelmed with amazement and gratitude at how relatively easy these two operations have been, particularly when I think what people endured in the past. One friend tells me her grandmother had to go to Omaha for the operation and was hospitalized for a long time with sandbags on each side of her head. I recall watching another woman in our community struggle to live a normal life as her glasses grew thicker and thicker, and her eyes became opaque, covered with a gray film.

Perhaps I also feel guilty at being a person privileged to live in a country where such operations are possible, when millions of people worldwide have no such hope.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

My debilitation during the past week hasn’t been just fear of surgery, I decide, but that greater fear that haunts us all: the time we have to enjoy the world is always growing shorter. How, we wonder, will our aging bodies fail? Dementia? Disease? We don’t know but the end is sure. We can only enjoy every day we have.

Above my computer, flies bumble at the windows in the weak October sunlight. A persistent zizzzing shows me where one fly is caught in a web. A slender brown spider starts wrapping the fly in strands of web to end its struggle.

Taking a break just to go outside and enjoy looking, I hear them: Sandhill cranes, trilling, hooting and gurgling as they fly south. Authorities say they’ve been living on these prairies, migrating south each fall and north each spring, calling and purring over the land, for two and a half million years.

Through my oversized sunglasses, I can see a long and wavery V, each one a smaller V-shape as their wings flap. Each crane in the line provides some shelter to the one behind. Together, they fly over the prairie toward the warm grasslands of Texas and their winter of survival. If I am lucky enough to be here when they come back, I may be able to see them even more clearly.

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

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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The Truth About The Bogus Jim Burl Failure

Recently, Jerry and I drove into a bright fall day on a mission; only after our trip began did I realize he had a covert aim as well.

Jerry’s primary task was to gather interesting pieces of pine that he could use in furniture and other wood-working. He lured me into accompanying him in a clever move to take my mind off my frustration.

The day before, I’d been disappointed to receive the finished product for a project I’d been working on for a couple of years, and found it did not meet my specifications or my expectations. Angry and hurt, I’d talked– no doubt too much– about the betrayal of my confidence and my contract, berating myself for being so trusting.

Jerry’s paid permit allowed him to search particular piles of trees and brush chopped and stacked for burning by the U.S. Forest Service. The map of our permit area led us north and west into the Black Hills, into steep valleys echoing with running streams. High above us, grassy slopes tilted toward cliffs layered in broken rock. The sun shone, but the fall air was like cool silk on our skin. Birds flashed in the underbrush, busily gobbling seeds to fatten themselves for winter.

Names on the map always hint at stories we may never know: Wild Irishman Gulch, Loveland Canyon, Hat Mountain, Steamboat Rock, and Paradise Valley. According to South Dakota Geographic Names, Bogus Jim Creek, which rises just south of Buck Mountain in northern Pennington County, lets the explorer choose which history to believe. The rivulet may have been named for a prospector, Francis Calabogus, known as Bogus Jim, who located a claim on its banks. Alternatively, it may have been named by gold seekers who thought they had reached Jim Creek, farther northwest; discovering they were trying to mine gold on a dry creek, perhaps they named it Bogus Jim.

Bogus Jim LMH knothead 2015--9-6

Not a burl, just a knot-head.


The story of our day found us parking beside a huge slash pile with hundreds of dead pine trees waiting for winter’s torch; they’ll be burned by the Forest Service if enough deep snow accumulates around them.  If winter is dry, they’ll dehydrate and rot for another year or two, available to firewood seekers and artists. Jerry took a hand saw and went along the front of the pile, while I went around the back.

First I inhaled the tart smell of sun-warmed pine which always reminds me of my grandmother and her house in a southern Black Hills canyon. My second breath included a more pungent stink; at my feet was a low-growing plant that spreads into branches with yellow blooms: fetid marigold. Plant books describe its odor as “foul” and the genus name, Dyssodia papposa means “evil-scented.” I’d call it bitter but invigorating, somewhat like eucalyptus. Authorities say the Lakota used the powdered leaves to relieve difficult breathing and European settlers brewed tea from the leaves to settle the stomach, stop vomiting and to treat diarrhea. I wouldn’t make a bouquet of it, but I find the odor invites me to breathe deeply.

Sunlight lit up a few brownish-gold leaves on the oaks, reminding me summer is over. Lush green plants were growing up through the furrows and tracks left by the heavy machinery used to cut and pile the trees. White yarrow bloomed, and kochia thrived in the gouges. Purple asters shivered on slender stems, and patches of bee balm were going to seed. Along the edges of one slash pile raspberry bushes stood knee-deep.

Noting how many chunks of wood had been scattered down the hill by the machinery bringing gulps of trees to the pile, I kept angling upward. As I climbed the hill, reaching to pull myself up by protruding rocks and branches, the sun warmed my back. My leg muscles knotted and flexed and my feet felt as if they were digging into the soil for purchase. I’d find one or two nicely torqued branches and carry them back down the hill, stepping carefully so as not to fall. Then I’d start uphill again in a slightly different place, looking carefully at each piece of wood, tugging at buried limbs, pushing some aside to get at the deeper ones. As I worked my body, I began to feel the tension in my shoulders ease.  My vision narrowed; I focused on the purple flowers and the light slipping between the tree trunks, and how the pines stood against the sky.

At home, I would have been seated at my computer, with notes on scraps of paper covering every inch of two desks, working on several jobs as I kept an eye on the clock so I’d remember to get lunch on the table at noon. I’d be re-running email arguments in my head and muttering to myself about perfidy and ignorance.

Now I reminded myself that all I had to do was peer into the tangled dead tree branches and brown needles, searching for twisty pieces of pine. That’s all. Tomorrow I might consider the best remedy for my dissatisfaction, but today I had no responsibilities to anyone or anything but the wish of this good man for wood that would inspire his creativity.

I leaned close to the slash pile and began to really see the way the branches wound among each other. When I carried a couple of twisted branches back to the pickup, Jerry happily pointed out a burl he’d found, a rounded knotty growth of wood. Handcrafters love these wood variations, polish them, and work them ingeniously into furniture, picture frames and other useful and beautiful objects. This one was no more than three inches across, but would make a fine addition to anything he built. A table beside his rocking chair in our bedroom features several burls among the braces for its legs.

At once I was galvanized! A quest! I’d find a burl! I dashed back around the slash pile.

Bogus Jim moss 2015--9-6

The twisted, mossy old root.


Again I was distracted: a gleam of gold was a cluster of the type of sunflower that thrives in sunny spots in the hills. Poison ivy grew abundantly around several stumps. For myself, I collected a beautifully twisted old root fragment with green moss growing on its top edge, and slender white stems in a little hollow. I put the piece on a stump so I could find it easily.

As if the old root had led me to treasure, I immediately started finding beautifully twisted, sturdy pine branches scattered down the hill, all in lengths I could carry. I piled them by my stump until it was surrounded. As I started downhill carrying an armload of pine branches that writhed over and under one another, my rear ankle caught between two branches. I could picture myself falling, twisting my damaged knee or breaking an ankle or arm. I lunged hard, jerked free and staggered until I regained my balance. Jerry helped me load my finds, generously praising the collection. Sweating and happy, we drove back to the gravel road to locate another couple of slash piles.

Even this fairly remote area was busy with four-wheelers, pickups hauling trailer loads of four-wheelers, pickups hauling campers, and the occasional jogger or bicyclist headed somewhere. Around us stood Crystal Mountain (with many crystal formations), the Lucky Strike Mine, Pilot Knob, and more. Dust hung in the air, sparkling in the sunlight. Marks on the map drew people along the trails and through the trees: Benchmark, Silver City, Thrall Mountain.

Bogus Jim pine collection 2015--9-6

The twisty pine branches we collected.


Some of the piles we searched were so tangled that even if we spotted a promising branch, I couldn’t dislodge it, though Jerry might be able to cut it loose with the hand saw. Sometimes he was in sight, and sometimes I seemed to be alone in the woods. We’d work our way around a hoard and then wander down the road to the next. Picking at the edges of the mounds, we muttered about the beautiful pieces of pine we just knew were hidden deep inside. As the sun grew warmer, we collected dozens of pine branches in fascinating shapes, tangled, entwined, twisted, tortured: all material for beautiful furniture or picture frames or something amazing Jerry will make during the winter to come, or in some future winter.

Though I stared among the branches until my eyeballs ached, I found no burl. But the burl hunt failure was a triumph in the most important way for me: I didn’t once think of incoherent emails, whining phone calls or broken promises.

Instead, searching for wood, I began to see the writing metaphor: a slash pile is a draft, logs, branches and discarded soft drink cans all piled in an untidy mess on the edge of the forest. A careful writer must tiptoe around it, peering close and reaching into the web for the ideas that will polish up nicely. Somewhere in that jumble is a burl, a beautiful knot of meaning but only patience will tease it out.

Bogus Jim LMH maze tunnel 2015--9-6

Rock Maze passage.


At nearly noon, Jerry declared we’d collected enough, and tied down our load. We drove to the Rock Maze, a geological marvel near Steamboat Rock. All morning, we had noticed giant slabs and boulders marching along the cliff edges high above the roads we traveled. At the Rock Maze, these great stones swoop low enough to lie near the road, accessible with an easy stroll. Most of the stones are at least ten feet high, cracked and tumbled so they offer places to squeeze between. Trails lead deeper into the maze, or out to the top of the rocks, or into a corner so small you cannot go on. We could look down into massive cracks and wave to people staring up at us, or leap small crevices leading to pockets of bushes growing from a fissure where we heard voices. The fractured rock led us around corners, into dead ends, up walls and into gaps we had to bend to slip through. Jumbled among the stones were massive charred stumps and lengths of pines that had fallen across gaps and dived into fissures. The sarsen stones reminded me of Stonehenge in their immensity and the way they lured people to walk among them. Several young men stood on the edge of one precipice, holding their cameras out on poles to take pictures of themselves in that precarious position.  We saw a man with a heavy back pack, watchfully leading a girl and boy no more than six years old. All three carried hiking sticks and the children chattered happily to each other. One couple disagreed gently over whether to leap over a gap between rocks; he did, and she went to a spot where the rocks were closer together.

My search for a burl was a failure in the sense of finding a gloriously snarled piece of wood for Jerry to turn into art.  Still, in going into the woods to avoid my anger, I worked my way through the tangled heaps of trash and the maze of choices to find not only relaxation but a writing idea. I failed to find a burl, but I found a tranquil day with a bonus writing inspiration. In so doing, I let go of my fury and turned my attention to how I might cope with the fact that my creation was not as good as I had planned.  My wise father used to ask me: “Will it matter in a year? In ten years?”

By the end of the day, I had realized that, while the work done by others didn’t satisfy me, I could still feel proud of my own accomplishment. Anger at something I can’t change is like the burl that might have become a branch. A burl could vanish into the burn pile, or become part of something beautiful. And the burl is not the tree’s whole story.

Bogus Jim peeled branch

A peeled branch.


A day or two later, Jerry had peeled one of the most convoluted branches, displaying the white inner core and the brown middle layer. Seeing what he had made of the discarded branch made me see more clearly the substance of the wood as well as my own situation.

I was the casualty of a born victim: an individual who is never responsible for his or her own actions. Unsatisfactory results are always the fault of someone else. Misunderstanding follows these folks everywhere.

But they are not evil. The only sensible response to these folks is pity for their perpetual confusion. If I refused to be drawn into an exchange of incivilities, I could go on to more important work.

I failed to find a burl, but I found something more valuable. I learned from my own errors in judgment. I have devised ways to handle the next creation differently so as to avoid the problems this one encountered. This is the precise process that should be followed by a writer in revising each succeeding draft.

Oh yes– Wild Irishman Gulch may have been named either for a single genial, boisterous Irishman who once lived there, or several Irish prospectors. Sadly, Loveland Canyon was not named for romance, but for a couple of ranchers who arrived in the late 1870s, Ed and Charles Loveland.

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

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(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015

The Day After

Yesterday we were remembering.

Wage-Peace-buttonToday, after re-reading Judyth Hill’s poem “Wage Peace,” written on 9/11/2001 (www.judythhill.com), I am following her example, replacing thoughts of mayhem by finding grace everywhere.

Last night I participated in a community celebration of Patriot Day with other members of the Hermosa Arts and History Association (www.hermosahistory.org), and witnessed community in action. The American Legion Hall in Hermosa filled with folks from the surrounding area, both old-time residents and those who have arrived more recently. Many elements of the widely-spread out Custer County community support us with their free will donations. We also welcomed many couples from the SD State Square Dance Festival (www.blackhillsdosido.org) taking place this weekend in the Hermosa School gym. Soon everyone was visiting back and forth across the patriotically-decorated tables as HAHA volunteers served hamburgers from local grassfed beef with appropriate accompaniments. Amazing how we all moved into the chain of service, switching jobs smoothly as one person went to replenish the lemonade and another stepped in to serve burgers.

And I overheard another exchange that spoke to me of the way community should function: “Do you know anyone who would like a used washer/dryer?” asked one member.

“Why yes,” said another, “My assistant told me this morning that her daughter’s washer/dryer had broken down and her husband is in Afghanistan.”

“Tell her I’ll be happy to deliver it.”

That mutually beneficial transaction took thirty seconds.

A half hour before sunrise, while the light was still silvery over the dam, three Great Blue Herons lifted like smoke off the water and flew low to the narrower part before settling down to watch for frogs.

In the windbreak trees, fifty yards from our house, we found the largest coyote scat we’ve ever seen, which makes us nervous for our Westies. But the scat was filled with vole fur, a good sign.

Plants below the water on the dam are reasserting themselves as thousands of gallons of water evaporates each day: Western sloughgrass and Baltic rush and Dudley, fox sedge and fescue sedge, all reaching up and bursting through into the sunlight.

Thai pepper harvest 2015A day or two ago Jerry harvested what will probably be his entire crop of Thai peppers from the plant in the greenhouse. They are arranged on the lower screen of my homemade food dryer (www.dryit.com) to be prepared for winter storage. We collected some potatoes and onions from the basement of the retreat house.

I opened windows wide there to let in the fall air and sunshine, knowing that a retreat guest was waking up in a campground somewhere south of here, packing up while thinking about her retreat starting today. And now that I’ve prepared myself for a serious writing retreat by writing something, it’s time for me to turn again to making comments on her writing to make her trip worthwhile.

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

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(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015