Remembering Samhain 2013: A Festival of Contradictions

This essay was originally posted on the Windbreak House website on October 31, 2013.

I wrote “Home Page Messages” for most of the eight Celtic seasons of the year from December, 2009 to December, 2014.

I am reprinting this on the 5th anniversary of the Cattleman’s Blizzard (also called Storm Atlas), which took place October 3-5, 2013.


Samhain: Festival of Contradictions
October 31, 2013

Linda with pumpkin harvest 2013--10-2The ancient holiday of Samhain (pronounced Sow-when) is, said one writer, “a festival of contradictions: silence and feasting, sacrifice and survival, fire and blood.”

By October 31, the day most folks celebrate as Halloween because Celtic and Christian traditions have become mixed through the centuries, harvests have been gathered and the fields lie fallow. Summer’s growth is finished.

And yet, as is always the case, this ending is a also beginning. As the gates of death and winter open, so too do the gates open to renewed life. People of many nations traditionally celebrate at this time, knowing that snow and cold will follow, and knowing too that the snow brought by plains blizzards (an onomatopoeic word that probably originated on the prairie) will melt eventually into the green of spring.

The month preceding Samhain is usually fairly benign in the Great Plains, with just enough snow to remind us that we need to be prepared for winter. The shorter days seem beautifully long as we pick the last tomatoes and set them on the windowsill to ripen. The sun feels good on our shoulders as we pull the tomato vines and till them into the raised beds; we pile the pumpkins in the pickup.

In late September, Jerry was working on a project that produced great bags of sawdust so I spent several afternoons dumping the sharply-scented fir shavings around the new berry bushes that grew so well in this wet summer. I enjoyed watering the golden heaps and stomping them so they’d hold solid against the autumn winds.

“Silence and Feasting”

Our senses sharpened, we took particular note of the bittersweet autumn life happening around us. A kestrel flew low over our heads when we were walking the dogs by the retreat house and we laughed, thinking it was eyeing the chubby Westies that outweighed it by twenty pounds.

A moment later my hat was blown off by the flailing wings of a low-flying grouse as it dived into a cedar tree nearby and we saw the little hawk veer off with a shriek of frustration.

Busy in my office, working on writing conversations by e-mail, preparing for fall retreats, I wondered several times where my Samhain home page message would take me this year. Though my writing is usually optimistic, Samhain demands that we face its contradictions; in the last bright warmth of autumn, we must acknowledge darkness. The beginning of winter is a time to reflect, to put all things in order for both contemplation and for physical life and comfort during the long cold. Mentally, I tick off the autumn jobs to be done. The Halloween or Samhain festival, though, was traditionally also a time of light-heartedness, when people played tricks, sang, enjoyed themselves before the cold sobriety and serious business of winter.

During the first week of October, weather forecasters predicted the usual mild October snowstorm: temperatures in the thirties with three or four inches of snow and little wind. Such storms usually leave a pretty frosting on the hills and melt within a few hours; they remind us to look at the colorful leaves before they fall and to check our winter supplies.

All around us, ranchers drove nervously out to look at cattle still in summer pastures, knowing that within a couple of weeks they’d wean and sell the calves, then move the cows into the shelters of winter pasture. Predictions of a storm this early in the season was worrisome, but the weather forecast was reassuring. Best not to disturb the cattle unnecessarily by moving them this close to weaning and sale time. The profits of a year’s hard work rested on those calves; once the sales were over, the ranch families would shop for necessities for their own winter survival.

On Thursday October 3, the high temperature was 41 degrees. Jerry tilled the garden and I made excuses to go outside, putting away pots, tidying up the greenhouse.

That evening, the storm arrived, blasting away all predictions.

All night, a freezing rain fell; our gauge held more than three inches of water the next morning. The wind screamed at 75 miles an hour, rattling the ice-covered window screens like hail on the roofs.

Lights shone late in ranch houses all over the region as ranchers worried about the cattle they could not reach. Thousands of head of livestock– cattle, horses, sheep– walked and walked and walked, trying to find shelter, to keep warm enough to resist the freezing temperatures. They walked on snowdrifts over the tops of fences; they stumbled into dams and drowned. They piled into low places, one on top of another on top of another until they suffocated or drowned.

CattleLine

“Sacrifice and Survival”

During the festival of Samhain, the dead walk.

I can see them, lines of cattle walking through the moonlight, lowing so softly their voices are only a whisper. Among them walk the other plains animals whose deaths will remain uncounted– coyotes, antelope, deer. Grouse, meadowlarks, blackbirds and robins flutter on their way to the dark lands, their whistles mingling with the wind’s rush. Did the grouse survive? The frustrated kestrel?

Samhain is the festival of the descent into darkness, a time to reflect, to talk about the dead. The people who have lost the most from this storm cannot yet talk about it. Few will ever talk about the prairie wildlife lost.

“Sacrifice”

After the storm, one observer reported that 10,000 dead cattle lay between Sturgis and Union Center, South Dakota, a distance of 43 miles. That’s 232 cows per mile, or a dead cow every twenty feet. But most of the dead lay hidden in isolated gullies and ravines, not along a highway.

“Survival”

Jerry melting snow on stove 2013--10-5On Friday, October 4, we didn’t even attempt to go to the highway mailbox as snow fell and drifts piled up. We collected jugs of water to drink and flush the toilet. We got out the long underwear, boots, wool socks. Our power went out about 2 in the afternoon. We found our battery-powered headlamps. Our furnace won’t work without electric ignition and blowers so we lit the tiny auxiliary propane heater in the basement. We ate leftovers, minimizing opening the refrigerator and freezer. With no electricity, shut down like the government, we had no idea what was happening elsewhere.

We couldn’t turn on a faucet since the pump in our well is electric so we kept busy digging snow to pile around our coolers full of food, and to bring inside to melt on our propane cookstove. I made bean soup rich with chunks of ham. We played Rummykub and Quiddler and Boggle.

Local EMT’s and first responders later reported answering calls for oxygen and heat, finding people near hypothermia in their homes even though the temperatures were only in the 50s inside, 30s outside. “If it had been 30 below zero, we’d have lost people.”

“Silence and Feasting”

As the sun came out on Saturday, we saw 35 antelope basking on top of the ridge south of the house, blown clear of snow as usual. They grazed comfortably.

Greenhouse after blizzard 2013--10-5

We made no attempt to shift the giant, ice-hard drifts blocking our vehicles and buildings. Windbreak trees and bushes were completely covered by drifts 10, 15 feet high. A neighbor rode by on horseback, checking on his cattle in my pasture nearby; I could hear him talking on his cell phone. We read, worried about the effects of the storm on those who were less prepared.

As we melted snow to flush the toilet, I probably mentioned that I’d wanted to repair the outhouse, keeping it functional in case of a power outage. Jerry probably mentioned the outhouse is a half-mile away, an impossible hike through the drifts. Looking to the future, we found a spare toilet seat that can be perched on a 5-gallon bucket next time this happens.

On Sunday, October 6, Jerry used the tractor to dig a trail, discovering that our power line was broken between the highway and our house. Electric company lines were jammed. My cell phone battery died while I was on hold.

On Monday, someone from the power company patched our power line, though it still hung low enough to nearly reach the barbed wire fence. We took showers and went to town for the mail and a sandwich. The convenience store café was full of grim and grimy people with tired faces who had been working to move snow, repair electric lines, find cattle. Among our neighbors we began to hear bits of talk that hinted at the disaster’s extent. Feasting on food someone else had cooked, we basked in the warmth and loud talk. No silence, but feasting.

“Fire and Blood”

Early estimates said as many as 75,000 cattle, sheep, horses and other livestock may have died in the storm; every day the figure rose. At least 38,000 homes were without power and some, even in town, remained off the grid for days. In Lead, S.D., 55 inches of snow fell, with similar amounts in other areas.

All over the northern plains, animals that survived the storm were dying of pneumonia, or were scattered miles from home. Ranchers woke to find their corrals destroyed, yards filled with cattle wearing a dozen different brands. Dams and creeks were full of carcasses that would pollute the water if not removed; many of the watercourses lead to creeks and rivers that supply water to metropolitan areas downstream– though the city folks who eventually use that water may never realize their danger.

During the festival of Samhain, the dead walk.

Lines of animals walk eternally through the moonlight, whispering of death.

“Sacrifice, Fire, Blood”

At Samhain, animals were ritually slaughtered in thanksgiving for the harvest and in prayer for a benign winter.

I will never forget the look on my father’s face, the set of his mouth as he mentioned “the time the government shot the cattle.” The pain was still sharp in his voice and face after 60 years.

I later learned that “during the early years of the Depression, livestock prices dropped disastrously. Officials with the New Deal believed prices were down because farmers were still producing too many commodities like hogs and cotton. The solution proposed in the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 was to reduce the supply. So, in the late spring of 1933, the federal government carried out ’emergency livestock reductions.’ In Nebraska, the government bought about 470,000 cattle and 438,000 pigs. Nationwide, six million hogs were purchased from desperate farmers . . . The hogs and cattle were simply killed. In Nebraska, thousands were shot and buried in deep pits . . . The federal buy-out saved many farmers from bankruptcy . . . the basic governmental approach of supporting farm prices by reducing supplies continues to this day.”
(from LivingHistoryFarm.org)

Meanwhile, now in South Dakota, state ag officials were pompously reminding producers of the state law requiring the burial or burning of dead animals within 36 hours of their demise. Fields and pastures were so wet only horses could move through them without being stuck and they rapidly became exhausted. Pickups, trucks, heavy equipment was paralyzed. Many ranchers still hadn’t reported their losses a week later because they couldn’t get out of their isolated ranches, let alone begin to find and dispose of dead animals.

Silence and Survival

This message for this Samhain began in light and descended into darkness. For days, I could not find the light. I dreamed of those dead animals, the silence of the snow.

Years ago, feeding in haste so we could get to a Christmas dinner, we lost cattle in a similar way. We usually fed the cattle, then cut holes in the ice-covered dam, then stayed until they had all drunk to be sure they didn’t crowd onto the ice and break through. My mother had been insistent: we must be home by a certain time. After we left, they broke through the ice and many drowned. When we drove up the next day, the bodies were dark shapes, moving gently as if the water was breathing. Taking turns, my father and I waded into the icy water, looped a lariat around a cow’s ankles, pulled each one out with the pickup. We were frozen, blue, hypothermic, but we said not a word to my mother. Our suffering was our punishment; we were responsible for their deaths.

The ranchers who lost cattle this month could not have foreseen this storm, but I know they feel that guilt. They are the caretakers of the animals and the land; they will feel these deaths as their responsibility.

Darkness is the symbol of this season. This is as it should be; the intent of the festival has, through the centuries, been for us to face the darkness, to understand that it will come, to accept it. We cannot pretend it doesn’t exist. Either we let the darkness overwhelm us, or we face it, try to understand how to survive in it.

Throughout history, pagan and Christian beliefs have intertwined around this autumn holiday in what one [web]site calls a “glorious gallimaufry.” We each face darkness in our own ways. Differences will always occur. We need not submit to either annual or unusual death. But how do we rise above it?

Sacrifice as Prayer

As power was restored, a ranch woman from North Dakota wrote to me, telling me of some of the losses in her area, lamenting the ignorance of comments on social media sites.

Linda after blizzard big drift 2013--10-6Why didn’t the ranchers put their cattle in barns, some asked? Why didn’t they prepare for the storm by getting the cattle into winter pastures? Oh it doesn’t matter, said others; ranchers are rich. The government will pay for their losses.

How can we combat this ignorance, she asked? Writing from my computer at 5 in the morning, two hours before sunrise, I encouraged her, offering suggestions.

Still, I felt that darkness of ignorance hovering around my shoulders– even though her writing to me indicated someone has heard my words. I have been writing about ranching all my life, trying to explain it, to show how essential well-managed ranches can be to the welfare of the great plains ecosystem, all of it: grasses, trees, deer, coyotes, cattle, mountain lions, lambs, thistles.

My nights are haunted by the pictures of dead cattle that began to appear after the storm. I spent years getting to know my own cows, walking among them, talking, listening to their stomachs rumble and watching the frost melt from their eyelashes. When my father died, I had to sell my cattle to pay his debts– but I can picture those ranchers as they look at those dead cows. They were not just walking cash; they were friends, co-workers, colleagues.

Samhain: The Gates Between Life and Death Open

Two weeks after the storm, I follow a neighbor’s pickup into a local gas station; he’s towing a flatbed hauling a big backhoe.

“Been busy?” I say.

He shakes his head. “Buried two hundred of the neighbor’s cows yesterday,” he says.

He doesn’t tell me if he lost any; he was just helping out, like neighbors do. We talk about the lack of national news coverage. “It’s like Katrina for us,” he says, “only up here the neighbors are helping each other instead of looting. And there’s no news media.”

Another neighbor tells me that the man she’d paid to fix her driveway finally arrived, a couple of weeks later than he’d promised. They talk as they wait for a load of gravel. Normally, he’d have plowed snow for himself and neighbors but he was too busy trying to find his cattle and then burying 400 head, about 20% of his and those he ran with other ranchers. He couldn’t find his shovel, he said; somebody had borrowed it from his pickup because they were using it as an oar while they tried to get dead cattle out of a stock pond. Sad smile.

Cattle by outhouse 2017--11-24

Every Ending is a Beginning

I can’t change the weather, but I can mention that scientists say the signs of climate change– whether man-caused or not– involve violent weather. Without argument, we could all take steps to be more prepared to help ourselves and others. Jerry and I are pricing generators. We will continue to have warm clothing, a well-stocked pantry, adequate medications, plenty of reading material. We’ll keep checking on our neighbors.

Can we fix what causes these storms? Whether we are responsible for this climate change or not, we can reduce our demands for power. Millions of people are doing just that.

Three weeks after the storm, the local paper quotes people who disbelieve in the ranchers’ losses, or think they are deserved. The government begins to function again but even if a Farm Bill is passed, many of these ranchers will resist admitting their losses out of pain, embarrassment, horror. Many wouldn’t even consider a “government handout.” Can we repair ignorance? We must try.

Many of the cattle, horses, and sheep that survived are sick and ranchers are working night and day to save them. Thousands of miles of fences were pulled down by the storm; repairing them will require huge expenditures of time and money. Besides losing their income for an entire year, some ranchers have lost herds built up through generations of careful breeding.

Much of our society exists on credit. If a rancher followed the urging of the credit-based society, he may have borrowed money to fund his operation. Some ranchers, like the rest of the world, live from paycheck to paycheck, i.e., from that one yearly sale of their products to the next. They may have been borrowing money for living expenses against this year’s cattle sales. Cattle are not usually insured; premiums are too high.

During 2012, the Dakotas experienced a monumental drought so the price of feed was especially high last winter. Some ranchers borrowed money to feed their cattle; the other choices were to sell them or to let them starve. Now they have lost both the cattle and the money that might have paid those debts. With no paycheck for the entire year’s work, they may be in dire financial straits and facing another harsh winter.

Some may have lost all their assets; they may have to leave ranching. In such cases, the land may not sell to other ranchers who are part of the community but to absentee owners, part-timers who do not contribute to the economy. Towns that serve the ranchers will suffer, as will ranch-related businesses. In the Dakotas, many businesses are ranch-related: grocery stores, equipment manufacturers, restaurants, car dealers, sale rings, county and state fairs: the list can go on and on. Seasonal help will not be hired.

Losses will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Some rendering trucks were in the area right away; normally these businessmen pick up scraps of meat and bones from butchering facilities as well as dead cattle and animals killed on highways. This waste is ground for use as fertilizer or sometimes for pet foods. Unfortunately, the snow was so deep, the ground so muddy that trucks couldn’t get to the dead cattle. By the time they could reach the carcasses, they were too spoiled to use. The buried cattle will not even feed predators, which may also be starving from loss of the wildlife on which they normally feed.

For generations, ranchers will gesture to the pits where their cattle were buried, telling their sons and daughters about the storm. The effects of these deaths, economic and emotional, will remain part of our history. Generations will resent the fact that this immense loss has been almost invisible to the national news reporters and thus to millions of citizens. Perhaps the breach between rural and urban will grow.

Gifts of Thanksgiving

Is it ridiculous to ask if there is good news in this darkness?

The storm officially ended the worst drought South Dakota has faced in decades. Stock dams are full of water. Moisture has soaked into the ground, bringing the promise of water and grass to feed any cattle left alive by spring.

Ranch stock dam filled after storms 2015--6-19

And more: not only have ranchers been helping each other, but dozens of small communities and organizations have leapt to help in a variety of ways. Businessmen in one town sponsored a free dinner for ranchers. Others have established funds to provide ranchers with payments for their losses, and for needed food and supplies. Residents from other areas have written to or called rancher friends to ask about the losses, to commiserate, drawing their ties closer. The neighborliness occurred in towns as well: residents of adjoining households that may never have spoken to one another swapped shovels, pushed each other’s cars, shared fireplaces and food.

How can I make something positive of this loss? I will keep writing, though today it seems impossible to write of anything but this horror. I must believe my words help educate people. I often hear from people who say they didn’t know ranching could be good, as well as from ranchers who are pleased that I help tell their story.

Darkness is a familiar friend. Every day the sun slides beyond the blue hills and pulls the dark blanket over us.

And every morning, as the coyotes slip through the grass, light rises in the east. No matter how dark and ferocious the night has been, no matter who has died, these things happen. Our job is to find hope in the negative, to use the fury and anguish of the losses to create connections between one another, to create hope for a more intelligent world.

“Darkness,” said Martin Luther King, “cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”

Switch on the light. Drive out ignorance with education, blindness with vision. We can all contribute, for the good of all. Whatever you write during this Samhain season, whatever you do in your daily life, remember the dead. But look to the light.

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

© 2013, 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Author’s note: The opening quotation, calling Samhain “a festival of contradictions: silence and feasting, sacrifice and survival, fire and blood,” is from Rebecca Tope’s Death in the Cotswolds.

 

Read all of my Home Page Messages (2009 – 2014) here:

http://www.windbreakhouse.com/home_page_essay_archives_56956.htm

 

To learn more about the October, 2013 blizzard and its effect on ranchers:<

South Dakota Magazine published a story in their January/February 2014 issue
https://www.southdakotamagazine.com/cattlemans-blizzard

NorthernAg.net published a one-year follow-up and thank you from ranchers
http://www.northernag.net/AGNews/AgNewsStories/TabId/657/ArtMID/2927/ArticleID/3485/Out-of-the-Snowdrifts-Atlas-One-Year-Later.aspx

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Journal Entry, 7/4/2018

I woke up with the familiar words going through my head:

From the mountains
To the prairies
To the oceans
White with foam
God bless America
My home sweet home

When I let the dogs out, I went to the rain gauge to see the results of the wild thunderstorm that struck about nine-thirty last night. I had sat in bed reading with my back to an open window, watching the lightning blast the sky out windows on two other sides of the room. When one jagged streak of power smashed into the ground so close the flash blinded me, both dogs were happy to be covered with the quilt. I kept getting up, circling the house shutting whichever windows the rain was entering, opening others, as the storm moved from west to east over us. The thunder rolled and roared continually. Often, when such storms strike in June, we anxiously go from window to window watching for fires the lightning may start.

grass with flowers -small version for blog

Not last night. We’ve had almost five inches of rain in the past couple of weeks, so the grass is green and largely fire-resistant. Ah! The rain gauge holds another 9/10 inch of rain! Amazing.

After breakfast, Jerry and I decided to walk around our hillside this morning, to enjoy the effects of the rain on the grasses here. With the dogs tiptoeing behind, we walked toward our windbreak trees, startling a perfectly-camouflaged rabbit out from under a tuft of buffalo grass.

I smiled, knowing this is a rare event in the rabbit’s day, because Jerry and I usually walk down our graveled road. Today we wander the hillside, admiring the Echinacea in bloom, the salsify, the height of the grass we never mow or graze. And we listen for rattlesnakes, of course, because they are always possible here. Bluegrass, redgrass, a tall purple flower I can’t name. Delicate faces of blue flax that has escaped from my planted gardens, all blow gently in the breeze.

Hollyhocks by rr tie wall - small version for blogBeside the railroad tie wall that creates a boundary below our deck, deep red hollyhocks are blooming on stems six feet tall. Another cluster of hollyhocks is a bright fuchsia, and alfalfa that has moved into the grassland varies from pale lavender through purple into yellows. I can look south and east to pasture and fields packed with grasses where no one lives, keeping my back to the foothills where more huge houses seem to spring up every day.

“O beautiful for spacious skies,” sings my mind.

For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

Whenever we sang the song in my grade school, I sang “grass” instead of “grain,” since any grain requires plowing and I knew even then the native prairie grasses should not be plowed to plant fragile introduced species.

Now I stumble over a tuft of grass and catch myself, wincing at the pain in the knee that was injured decades ago. And I remember what Jane Kenyon said in her beautiful poem “Otherwise,”

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise.

The poem continues to detail the kinds of ordinary events that make up a day: the speaker ate cereal with a ripe peach, walked the dog, and spent all morning doing the work she loves with the one she loves. At night, she lay in bed and planned another day “just like this day.” But, she says,

one day, I know,
                    it will be otherwise.

This realization comes to most of us, I think as we age, though the precise point at which it descends on our shoulders no doubt varies with age, health and other circumstances. When we drive through the pastures I have leased to a neighbor, an excellent rancher, I am always comparing what I see to the map in my head. Sometimes I drive my Kubota confidently toward a gate, and only at the last moment remember that my lessee has moved it, or taken out the fence.

Jerry’s first act this morning was to set our big American flag in the flagpole he welded to the deck, so the stars and stripes have been waving in a cool breeze since 6 a.m.

America! America!
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,

I was careful this morning, when looking at the Internet, to avoid political news and commentary. The country in which I believe contains many divisions which frighten me. But I’ve been terrified before. I was in graduate school and then a teacher during the 1960s; I’ve seen divisions so deep it seemed they never would heal.

Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

I still believe in liberty, and in the rule of law, and in the fundamental values this country has always maintained.

Beside the pond below the hill, a redwing blackbird seems be singing from the top of every dry mullein stalk, swaying gently in the breeze. I turn toward the west fence, where there used to be a couple of holes. One was deep, and usually held rabbit tracks, a family mansion. The other was a shallow scrape, and we sometimes saw badger tracks there. We surmised that the wily beast used it as a resting place while waiting for the ducks on the pond below the hill to settle down after one of the badger’s killing raids. Late at night, we’d sometimes hear squawking and the next morning find duck feathers and blood as evidence of a successful hunt.

nighthawk-nest-2018-small-version-for-blog.jpg

Today the badger holes are overgrown, but as I turn back toward Jerry, he says, “Wait!” He has seen a nighthawk lift off from a rocky patch of ground directly in front of him. Stepping carefully, we both inch toward the spot and finally see a nighthawk nest.

The nighthawk isn’t far away, spiraling up the sky overhead, but we turn and trot away from the area, not wishing to disturb it. The nighthawk cruises past overhead as we top the hill and head toward our own house.

yellow evening primrose with gaillardia and blue flax - small version for blogWe’ve walked full circle on the hillside and arrived back at the gate of the small garden where our raised beds hold tomatoes, peppers, sage and some flowers. Marigolds explode in gold and red from pots along the concrete wall. The yellow silk blooms of evening primrose are still open because the day is cool.

America! America!
God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.

Greenhouse bottle tree and red Maltese Cross flowers - small version for blog

Our two old dogs turned back early from the walk and lie panting beside a bed of fire-engine-red Maltese cross. To our friends who have congratulated us on the recent rains that would allow us to light firecrackers without risking a prairie fire, we’ve gently explained that we don’t voluntarily frighten our canine companions these days.

Before lunch, Jerry will drive to the highway for the newspaper. Yes, we know we could get some news from the Internet, but I will continue to subscribe to as many local newspapers as I can for as long as they exist. I firmly believe, with Thomas Jefferson, that “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” I believe this even when I am reading some screed from someone ill-informed about the history and traditions of this country– though some days it’s harder than others.

At the greenhouse, topped with the hood ornament from a 1955 Chevrolet, blooms of yellow columbine shimmy in the breeze and the yellow prairie cone flowers lean. A robin scolds from the top of a nearby cedar tree, and the garden garter snake zips under the clematis as I walk by. Spiky gladiolus leaves are standing tall; I’m anxious to see the blooms. I harvested the thyme and basil a few days ago, and am drying it in the basement. I brush a little bird excrement off the bottle tree, and step over a hose.

 

“All shall be well,” wrote Julian of Norwich centuries ago.

All shall be well;
and all manner of things
shall be well.

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Independence Day, 2018
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Twenty-Five Meditations on Grief

Retreat

On May 29, the day after Memorial Day, I wrote in my journal, I need a retreat.

As I considered the statement, I realized I meant that I’m never free of cooking, checking this, cleaning that. Always my priority is something other than myself or my writing. Lately I’ve taken a few minutes once in a while to read in the middle of the day, but that’s not thinking or writing. Still, it’s a step– taking some time for myself

Here’s the irony: I have a spare house where writers, artists and others come to enjoy their own retreats from their busy-ness. Moreover, I write and give speeches about how to find time for writing in a busy life. I have known for years that taking– making– time in a busy schedule is essential to creativity. I don’t believe real creativity can occur under pressure. If one gets a creative idea in a busy office, I think the meditation that led to it has happened at an earlier time.

Yet recently I am filled with tension that surely hampers creativity.

 LMH office - small copy for blog

Imagine

LMH with toby in sweater 2009 - small copy for blogI recently read Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works and was struck by his statement that many insights happen in warm showers or when we’re dozing off because we’re relaxed. Our brains are being creative because they have nothing else to do. He also quoted studies that demonstrate that happy people perform better, and he thinks daydreaming should be part of the daily routine because that’s when insights happen.

Daydream

When did I last daydream?

Probably in grade school when the teacher rapped on my desk and said, “Stop daydreaming!”

Is this why I am always doing something? Does always doing something actually block the creative thought that is so important to who I am? I read in bed, write in my journal, rush downstairs to answer emails and run upstairs to cook lunch, then gallop downstairs to finish that paragraph. I’m rarely without a book in my hand when I sit down, but I also usually have a pad and pencil so that if my reading sparks an idea, I can capture it.

linda toby deck manzanita 

Busyness

I’m always taking notes, not only in my handwritten personal journal, but in other ways– in my grocery list, in my garden guide, in my purse calendar and desk calendar and computer calendar, not to mention my computer journal. Does this busyness actually hamper thinking?

I start each day with coffee and my journal, where I record the time, temperature, my appointments for the day, and what I’ll make for lunch and dinner. I seldom simply sit still, letting the day wash over me.

Can creativity blossom while we “interact” on Facebook or chat on the phone or Twitter, however that’s done?

I doubt it.

Journal in grass 1990s - small copy for blog 

Relaxation

Does creative relaxation need solitude?

I’m not sure. I can visualize a woman quilting with friends as they discuss an idea that blooms between them as they each contribute ideas. Each person’s creativity may be encouraged by that of the others to generate a new whole.

Yet instead of being constantly busy, suggests Lehrer in Imagine, we need to create time to deliberately relax in whatever mode works best for each of us. This creative relaxation may take many forms: sitting on the deck, lying in a hot bath, or listening to music through headphones while walking, but it is necessary. Perhaps quilting with friends qualifies.

 women quilting - smallcopy for blog

Destruction

Why do I try to record everything? Because I once burned all the journals I’d kept until I was in my mid-twenties?

That act of destruction still takes my breath away when I remember it. And especially when I realize that I didn’t understand at the time I was hurting myself because my worthless husband at the time, who had cheated on our vows multiple times, had read my journals– because he thought I was unfaithful.

 burning journals - small copy for blog

Encouragement

Certainly I don’t believe everything I write down is important.

Perhaps I am looking ahead, to believe that someday another writer will find encouragement in what I’ve done.

“She was cooking and cleaning and taking care of dogs and she still wrote poems and books, so I can do those things. She survived that and that, so I can thrive as well. ”

 Computer hands - small copy for blog

Robins

I sit under the deck with my journal watching the robins feeding the chirping babies; at least 3 heads show above the rim of the nest. Both male and female robins have red breasts, but the male’s is larger and redder, while the female’s looks washed out. I need to pay closer attention.

One or the other feeds the babies at 3:28, 3:37, 3:41, 3:47, 3:49, 3:55, 4:04, 4:05, and on and on.

The next morning when I peer down through the deck at the robin nest, it is empty. But when I walk toward the greenhouse, three baby robins suddenly squawk and flutter up over the concrete wall and into the grass.

The morning after that, two of them are sitting on the grass as an adult robin feeds them. A few days later, we still see adults feeding younger robins in various places around the house. They cheep incessantly while they wait to be fed: like teen-age humans.

At the tree swallow nest, two or maybe three indistinguishable swallows are zipping into the nest every few minutes, presumably also feeding chicks.

Meanwhile, two barn swallows perch on a deck support and chatter at one another. And blackbirds and sparrows zip back and forth across the yard, busy on their own errands. I’ve really noticed this lately: the birds are so busy hunting that they don’t bother to fly any higher than necessary. When we are in the yard, they zip past at waist or eye level, sometimes barely high enough to clear the ground. When I’m driving on the highway, I see they just clear the fences. They veer around obstacles with blinding speed, concentrating on getting where they are going.

Tonight, we watch several– it’s hard to tell how many– tree swallows flying high in the air, pirouetting, doing glissades, spinning, flying in formation– clearly just playing.

Robin baby wants to eat 2017--7-8 - small copy for blog 

Survival

I try to ignore the destruction being done to the environment and to every shred of decency in this country by greedy thugs who are dismantling laws that have protected the air, water, and resources belonging to all of us. We seem to be living under a dictatorship rather than a democracy. If I read too much of the news, I become depressed, so I try to concentrate on what I can accomplish. Fortunately, we have no television set, so I’m sure I’m spared considerable ballyhoo.

Like the birds, I keep busy feeding my interests, zipping around obstacles. Their job is survival, as is mine. We do what we can while we have life.

Like the robins and tree swallows, I’ll keep on with what I am doing because the work I can do is all I can claim to accomplish.

 Robin adult and fledging 2018--6-14 - small copy for blog

Lilacs

My dad planted lilacs every spring. He’d dig a few from where they thrived and take the shoots in front of the house to plant them where my mother could see them from the kitchen and living room. I can see him with a few branches in a bucket, carrying his shovel over his bony shoulder. He knew he wouldn’t live to see those lilacs bloom at their finest, but he planted them anyway.

Today, they grow in a massive row ten feet tall and four feet wide, and they are covered in bloom. Did he know that someday they would bloom like this, causing me to miss him so much?  I can picture him with my mother strolling down the avenues of lilac bloom, reveling in the rich scent and color.

In the cemetery, the lilacs he planted on his parents’ graves have overwhelmed the stones, nearly hiding them.  We have sometimes cut them back, but we can’t, or possibly we won’t, remove them. They mean too much, shedding their fragrance over the motley collection of memorials around them.

 Lilacs at HSH - small copy for blog

Cemetery

In the cemetery, bluebells are blooming in the buffalo grass and big bluestem. Sweet William is standing tall, almost ready to bloom. I see grape hyacinth three inches high on some graves, and budding roses on others.

Why do I take real flowers to the cemetery on Memorial Day every year? Every year I find peanut butter jars and olive oil jugs, weight them with rocks, and fill them with real flowers and the branches of flowering shrubs that grow around my parents’ house. I put these modest offerings on the graves of my husband, my father and mother, my grandmother and grandfather and the uncle I never knew, William Edward Callahan, my father’s half-brother, always called Eddie. His brother Archie, killed in a fall from a horse in our pastures, is buried beside his mother Ida and her second husband, Charles Hasselstrom.

All around us, graves are decorated lavishly with bright arrangements of artificial flowers. Some decorations consist of flowers in colors unknown to reality, but others are faithful reproductions of real, gorgeous blooms, backed by white Styrofoam crosses and wreaths. On some graves are small statues: the Virgin Mary, a horse, a tractor.

When I kneel over the grave of my father to place my offering, I can see his ironic smile when he made this trip every year. He’d walk to a particularly ostentatious stone of a once-powerful ranching family that had dwindled away into a few kids raised in town and say, “They used to BE somebody,” and walk away shaking his head.

Two days later I collect the wilted flowers and the containers and take them home to the garbage. The artificial flowers were still bright, though have already blown over in our ferocious winds. All summer, driving past the cemetery, I’ll glance up and see the flowers slowly disappearing as they disintegrate and are blown into the surrounding prairie.

 LMH PHOTO cemetery fake flowers - small copy for blog

Labor Day

Since burials began, people have probably left gifts at the graves of their loved ones. Sometimes the gifts were food, clothing, or weapons. Sometimes captured enemies were symbolically killed to mark a death, or a favorite dog or horse was slaughtered to join its master. Man doesn’t seem to want our loved ones to go into the darkness of death without comforts.

Since I am a member of the local Cemetery Board, I will drive to the cemetery the day after Labor Day, in early September. I will drive between the great stone gates, over the cattle guard and between the cannons.

Cannons. They guarded the grave of some Confederate prisoner in the Dry Tortugas, and through someone’s influence were brought proudly to this remote outpost in the West. Is there something ironic about these great weapons of war pointing at every visitor who comes to this cemetery?

With other members of the Cemetery Board, I will walk the cemetery collecting pieces of Styrofoam and torn flowers, putting all these symbolic gifts from the spring in black plastic bags to be piled into dumpsters and hauled away. People who care enough to decorate the graves for Memorial Day apparently find it inconvenient to take the offerings away before they become trash.

What do cannons in the cemetery mean?

Why do I take flowers to the cemetery every Memorial Day? Because my mother did.

 LMH PHOTO cemetery cannons - small copy for blog

Scraps

All I have left of my grandmother are a few photographs. She smiles love at me from above my computer every day.

All I have left that I can touch are a few fragile compositions in thread.

All I leave behind me will be scraps of paper threaded with words.

 Cora Belle picture in hand - small copy for blog

Graves

When we are finished with our lives, we sink into the ground, like the graves on the cemetery hill. Humans’ resting places are marked. The graves of the birds are anonymous. Yet they have just done their duty, done all they could.

 LMH PHOTO cemetery old stones and view - small copy for blog

Tombstones

LMH PHOTO Wm E Callahan grave - small copy for blog

I stop to read William Edward Callahan’s white marble tombstone, with his birth and death dates and the symbol of his military service cleanly carved into stone. 1895 to 1942. I’ve read his letters from Camp Funston where he was sent when he was improperly drafted at the age of 46. He wanted to come home to his horses.

My father always felt guilty that he wasn’t able to serve in the military; the rheumatic fever he had as a child left him with a withered arm. He wouldn’t have been good at taking orders.

Instead

When I think about a day when I haven’t gotten any writing done, I can list the things I’ve done that no one else will do, but that seem necessary for a well-ordered and pleasant home. I find it easier to do the jobs than to nag about getting them done. Take the hair out of the bathroom sink drain. Put the garbage in the can outside the basement door. Empty wastebaskets. Check the dogs’ water. Empty the humidifier. Clean the toilet and sinks. Spray the dogs with homemade tick repellent before they go outside. Close cupboard doors. Lock the doors at night. Put everything away.

 Garbage cans - small copy for blog

Crocheting

In the corner of my bedroom hang several crochet hoops and picture frames containing “piecework” my grandmother crocheted during her life. These fragile cloths are all I was able to salvage after various relatives claimed her dishes, her silver, her watch. But these are most precious to me. She sat before her television set, watching events unfold while she created beauty with her arthritic hands. Sometimes she mistook the TV dramas for real life, but she kept on crocheting.

My hands now look a great deal like hers and I can’t crochet despite her efforts to teach me. But her example is still teaching me. I can do nothing better than to watch events unfold while stitching together my writing, my meditations on events. Perhaps my writing serves no more purpose than my grandmother’s crocheting did. Perhaps I do them only because I can, or in an effort to create beauty. But like the robins and the tree swallows, I’ll keep on with my work because it is mine.

 Cora Hey crochet work - small copy for blog

Spirit

I’ve read somewhere, “land is not insensate; it is possessed of spirit.” Every inch of the earth is sacred, some believe. When I think of the land I sold to my neighbor, I feel fiercely protective. I want to get on a horse and ride over there to see that the antelope are still there, perhaps spot the cougar fleeing down that draw again, to see if anyone has disturbed the pile of rocks that I believe to be a grave.

I can’t do these things. I haven’t owned a horse in years, and dislike borrowing strange horses to ride. My neighbor would consider my visit to what is now his land an intrusion, though he wouldn’t say so, even if I met him in the pasture. He’d ask politely how I am doing, and how much rain we got, and we’d both observe how good the cows are looking.

Would he understand what I’m doing over there? Maybe. Probably.

 Horses Over East 1984 - small copy for blog

Light

10:25 p.m. with full moon, slightly lopsided. I’m collapsed in a cool breeze after a hot bath. Chorus frogs sing on the dam below the house. Straight up are stars. I avoid looking to the north to the glow of Hermosa’s streetlights. To the west, the neighbors’ glaring yard lights announce their presence. Someone recently broke into several garages and houses under those lights when the families were away. No one would have known about their houses without the lights to guide them. But I don’t want to think those negative thoughts now. I look east and south into blessed darkness where I own enough land to keep lights away. At least for now.

A bird chirps as though half asleep. Maybe the robins under the deck sense my presence and are nervous. Cars speed past on the highway like blind beetles. Do their drivers have any idea what is out here?

Moonrise 2017--10-3 - small copy for blog 

Sunrise

I go to the greenhouse to check the mouse traps, hoping to capture the rodents who have been eating the sage and thyme and basil that are just emerging from the pampered soil.

A baby rabbit is eating a cabbage leaf I threw off the deck yesterday. Since I closed down my compost bins because they were being raided by a skunk with no respect for our dogs, we haul some of our garbage to town. I throw from the deck anything the rabbits might eat. This contradicts the fact that I will hate it when baby rabbits start feasting on my radishes and tomatoes.

 Rabbit eating at HSH - small copy for blog

The Land

I’ve begun to loosen my hold on my father’s land, now mine.

I will soon be 75 years old, and have no siblings, no children. My cousins are all in other places and professions and my nieces and nephews uninterested in ranching. The land “over east” that I sold to my neighbor was about half of my ranch, so that I no longer have enough to make a living raising cattle. I sometimes dream about riding my horses there. But I won’t ride again, and certainly not over the prairie. There’s no horse I could trust, since there are no horses I raised myself. I know intimately the pastures over east—no doubt better than their current owners, who visit there in their mechanized vehicles. I’ve walked every step of the way to get there, tramped all over the pastures, ridden a horse or hiked into every niche in the prairie inside those fences. I’ve climbed most of the cliffs. I have sat in hidden alcoves that few people will ever see, sniffing the air of the prairie, watching the hawks soar above. So I tell myself that I am there, in every piece of ground where I’ve spent time.

I’m there, and I will always be there, in the pinnacle of rock where the previous inhabitants, the natives, watched for interlopers coming from the Badlands to the east. From that spire of rock, my spirit will float silently over the plains as long as air moves.

To me, the land is life. To anyone I can think of whom I might make my heir, it would be cash to be spent on a bigger house and newer car.

I remember my uncle Harold saying, “I didn’t work on this ranch my whole life for it to be somebody’s in-VEST-ment.” I had not imagined the non-metaphorical word “investment” could sound so much like the hiss of a dragon.

LMH rocks 2002 - small copy for blog 

Burial

This morning we went to Belle Fourche to bury the ashes of my cousin Charlie. A few family members from Charlie’s generation gathered among the headstones of quartz and marble and concrete. Most of us were cousins, sons of my father’s sisters and brothers. Some friends of Charlie’s sister came, and the pastor of her church with his Bible.  As our voices united in the Lord’s Prayer, we could hear the idling of an engine as the cemetery worker waited for us to leave so he could cover the hole. We left the urn under an oak tree and walked away. The next time we come here, we’ll see his name engraved on a flat stone beside that of his brother and his parents. At a nearby park, we ate a picnic lunch of fried chicken, potato salad, baked beans, and sweet desserts. I didn’t hear Charlie’s name mentioned.

burial food - small copy for blog

We stopped in town on the way home and bought tomato plants. I was happily digging holes for them before I took a breath and tasted ice.

Clouds

When I looked up, I could see the ragged white edges of a hail cloud and smell the jagged ice that was falling north of us. I hustled the rest of my plants inside, and put buckets over the two I’d already planted. Jerry called from town to say that he was parked under a bridge watching the hail. I could hardly hear him for the pounding storm.

I settled in a chair on the deck to watch the drama and wait for the hail to reach me. At first the clouds were deep gray with frothy white tops that looked like foam or ripe cotton bolls. As the wind aloft caught them, some began to shred like snow blown across the highway in a blizzard. Clouds that were flat and black on the bottom bubbled into gray or blue on top. Blowing east and south, they piled up, losing their definition as they formed a solid gray wall beyond the green shield of the south ridge. Mordor!

WBH storm clouds 2014--7-11 small copy for blog 

Nighthawks

Again and again the barn swallows flew above me, beating hard into the wind for a few seconds and then letting the wind take them, as if they were going down a slide. Then the nighthawks appeared, recognizable because they fly high and follow a pattern: flap-flap-flap-soar, flap-flap-flap-soar. While the barn swallows and tree swallows flirted with the wind, the nighthawks flew high, calling in their peculiar tone. The Lakota called them thunderbirds for their habit of flying in storms.

Nighthawk flying in clouds - small copy for blog

One nighthawk flew south, and began spiraling up and up and up until it disappeared behind a cloud.  I thought of Charlie as I had last seen him, lying in a hospital bed with a tube in his arm. His suntanned, bony face looked so much like that of my father I could hardly stand to kiss him goodbye.

Tube in arm -smallcopy for blog

The nighthawks are invisible in the darkness now, calling high above me. Time to go inside. I breathe deeply.

++–++–++–++

I have not had a retreat in the ordinary sense. Yet in the middle of a busy life, I have made the time to write a line or a paragraph that became twenty-five brief meditations this week. Writing time doesn’t have to be long to be effective.

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Those Thanksgiving Pie-Makers

A poem of thanksgiving, gratitude, and remembrance.

by Linda M. Hasselstrom

Linda pumpkin head

Those Thanksgiving Pie-Makers

All over America today, women search
for their grandmother’s pumpkin pie recipe.
Some rush to the store for condensed milk,
or whipping cream. Or stir up powdered milk
if they are poor, or on a diet,
or live too far from town.

In a Wisconsin farm house a red-haired woman
measures salt in a dented spoon.
In California, a thin girl stirs and puffs a cigarette,
puffs and stirs. In Wyoming,
I dust clove powder over my grandmother’s
green glass bowl and reach for the nutmeg grater.
In New Mexico, a brown-eyed woman
sprinkles cayenne. In Iowa, a man beats eggs,
recalling for his children how their mother looked.

Grandma always left me to measure
dry ingredients while she walked down
to her hen house. She came back holding four
warm brown eggs in her open hands
just as I licked brown sugar off my lips,
thinking she wouldn’t notice.

So today, twenty-five years after she died,
I lap brown sugar from a spoon just
so I’ll remember how she grinned at me.
While I stir, my oven beeps. Hers
was fired with wood she chopped. To test
the heat, she’d dip her fingers
in the water bucket she’d pumped full
that morning, flick spattering drops, and nod.

All over America, families are studying
gratitude. Some women slip
a pie into the oven, and hide
the cardboard box in the garbage.
Others light pumpkin-scented candles,
thankful anyway– though my grandmother
might not think they have good reason.

I crimp the rim of each pie crust
with three fingers, just the way
she taught me; make a salad
while the fragrance surges out
the open kitchen window. Next door,
perhaps the drug dealers open their eyes,
inhale, and almost remember.

Grandmother, may this pumpkin perfume
rise up to whatever heaven you inhabit,
sanctifying all my love and memories.
Listen: countless voices chant together
an infinity of thankful hymns.

# # #

© 2006, Linda M. Hasselstrom

— First published for Empty Bowls 2006, United Church of Christ, Brookings, S.D.

Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, with Twyla M. Hansen
published 2011, The Backwaters Press, Omaha, NE
50 poems by each author; find this poem on pages 98-99

This poem is copyrighted. Do not reprint without permission from the author.

Dirt Songs with autumn leaves

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/

#  #  #

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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