Poetry Is Everywhere: Homesteading in Dakota

The honor of being named South Dakota’s first living Poet of Merit, by the South Dakota State Poetry Society, astonishes me because this state is full of poets, as well as of people who have not yet begun to write. Part of this job, I believe, is to encourage people to write their ideas, thoughts, observations, no matter what form they choose.

Poetry is everywhere in the world; make it your pleasure to read it and record it.

Homesteading in Dakota log cabin

Homesteading in Dakota

A few years ago, I received an email from a lecturer in the Humanities in Arizona who was teaching an American West literature and film class. The first poem of mine she encountered was “Homesteading in Dakota,” which her class was reading among other authors detailing women’s experiences in the West. She had read that my poetry in Dakota Bones was inspired by local history, and wanted to know if the story in the poem was true.

Here’s part of my response:

Homesteading in Dakota stories told by John Hasselstrom 1968“That’s one of many stories inspired by local history, with the names changed to protect the — guilty. And yes, “Homesteading in Dakota” is taken straight from one of the stories my father told me, with tight lips and in terse sentences, once when we were moving cattle near where the homestead stood. I believe he immediately regretted telling me, but once a writer has a story in her head, it may lodge and grow there. 

I even used some of his phrases in the poem, though they’re not in quotes: “walked for a month like he had cactus in his feet,” “the kids grew up wild as coyotes,” and “not his fault the dark spoiled his aim the first time.”
 
I was perhaps thirteen years old when I heard the story, and thus learned a lesson about the concept of justice in our community, and also something about how women were regarded. And, because I’d visited a homestead site very near where this story happened, and lived only about three miles away, I could even picture how the woman would have worked to grow a garden, how isolated she must have felt.

Homesteading in Dakota view from old home site

And those little hand-dug wells are everywhere around here: we have to watch carefully and fill them when we find them. We filled one last fall in my parents’ ranch yard, and there’s another slowly caving not a mile away: rock walls built by hand probably a hundred years ago.

The professor responded, “I so enjoy the details you shared, and can certainly see how your poetry truly brings these people, events and experiences to life.  My students discussed your work today, and loved the finality of the moment when you write

He shot once out the window, missed;
shot her and didn’t.

First there were quizzical looks, and then the reality was clear, and poignant.”

Homesteading in Dakota three Wind anthologies for contemporary stories

I also noted that the professor might find more experiences from contemporary Western women in the three anthologies I helped Nancy Curtis and Gaydell Collier edit: Leaning into the Wind, Woven on the Wind, and Crazy Women Creek.

The West has always been a place of rough, sometimes harsh, justice, and I didn’t want the students to think those judgments were all in the past.


 
Homesteading in Dakota

It was a typical prairie homestead:
a hundred sixty dusty acres
with not one tree.
Mr. Fisher put up a soddy for his wife, five kids,
and dug a well by hand the first month.
The kids and the woman worked the winch
after the well got below ten feet.
                                                                He cut logs
in the hills ten miles away for a solid barn,
log-roofed. Once they were settled he went
to the mines in Deadwood, seventy miles away,
for winter cash.
                                She stayed in the soddy,
milked the cow, dug out a little garden,
struggling with the sod laced together by buffalo grass
roots. Now and then she’d stop for breath, shade
her eyes, look at the horizon line
drawn smooth against the sun.

Mr. Fisher—she called him that—
came home when he could,
once or twice a month all summer. Neighbors
helped her catch the cow, fight fire, sit up
when the youngest child died.
                                                                Once
he got a late start, rode in at midnight.
Fumbling at the low door, he heard struggle inside.
The kids were all awake, pale blank faces
hanging in the dark.
                                                When he pushed aside
the curtain to the double bunk
he saw the window open,
a white-legged form running in the moonlight,
his wife’s screaming face.
He shot once out the window, missed;
shot her and didn’t.

The neighbors said Black Douglas, on the next claim,
walked for a month like he had cactus in his feet.
The kids grew up wild as coyotes.
                                                            He never went to trial.
He’d done the best he could;
not his fault the dark
spoiled his aim the first time.

Linda M. Hasselstrom © 2017

 

Many early homesteaders did as this man did: established their first home in a sod house on the prairie east of the Black Hills. When they had the time, the equipment and the energy, they would go to the nearest spot in the hills where they could cut logs, and haul them home for sturdy farm buildings. Sometimes they built the house first, but often the soddy was considered good enough for the family until the farm or ranch buildings were complete, because the welfare of the stock was paramount.

And a great many of the homesteaders in our neighborhood also went to Deadwood to mine gold for a cash income. My uncle often spoke of his own father’s mining days, and particularly of the horse he rode, and how quickly the horse could make the seventy-mile trip. “That was a horse!” he’d say.

Naturally, anyone in the neighborhood soon visited any new home to get acquainted, and in most cases, those who had been there first were generous and helpful with newcomers.

So it is logical that:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Neighbors
helped her catch the cow, fight fire, sit up
when the youngest child died.

I could never have verified the next part of the story, of course, but it, too, has a certain sad logic. And in the code of the west, the neighbors might talk about a man who walked as if his feet were sore, but since none of them had seen the incident, they could hardly be expected to testify. And legal authority was either nonexistent or distant. I can almost see the gossips shaking their heads over the rough justice.

 

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Homesteading in Dakota poetry books

“Homesteading in Dakota” publishing history:

A Journal of Contemporary Literature, Vol. 5 #1; 1964.

Black Hills Monthly, Nov. 1981.

Caught By One Wing, published by Julie D. Holcomb, San Francisco, CA; 1984.

Caught by One Wing, Spoon River Poetry Press, 1990.

Dakota Bones: Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom, Spoon River Poetry Press, 1993.

The Western Women’s Reader, ed. Lillian Schlissel & Catherine Lavender (NY: HarperCollins, 2000; HarperPerennial edition), p. 173-4.

Literature of the American West, Ed. Greg Lyons. Longman, 2003; pp. 348-9.

Reflections of the West: Cowboy Painters and Poets, Published by CJ Hadley, 2015.

Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky: Collected and New Poems, Spoon River Poetry Press, 2017.

 

 

August 1: Lammas — Celebrate Your Harvest

Lammas basil harvest 2014--8-25

To celebrate Lammas, and the depths of summer, I’m deeply involved in gardening. Every day I say I’m going to work on poems, but it’s so very easy to be distracted by gardening chores that are pleasurable because they occur outside. I’ve been weeding more than usual. And when I have a pause in my work, I often peer at the tomato plants to see if I can spot any hornworms.

So this seemed an especially good time to think about all the things that keep even dedicated writers from writing. Here’s a chapter about this gorgeous and distracting time of year from my book The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook. 

*~*~*~*~*

August 1: Lammas

How to Write While Avoiding Writing

Wheel with flower and beeToday’s the day, I promised myself this morning, just as I did yesterday and the day before.

Yes, today’s the day I write an essay about Lammas for my business website Home Page. Lammas is often marked by rituals emphasizing endings, as well as with the collection and preservation of food. How could I connect this season with writing?

Yesterday while not coming up with any ideas for the Lammas message I ambled through the garden mumbling curses on the grasshoppers and admiring the orange blush on a few green pumpkins. I investigated a water stain in the house where I conduct retreats, and filed some papers there. Then, in a truly desperate avoidance maneuver, I moved my refrigerator out of its niche and cleaned under it before vacuuming its coils and washing spots of the door.

I was still trying to think of what to write for Lammas while I scrubbed the kitchen floor, vacuumed and dusted the house, and hung rugs and bedding on the deck railing to air. After lunch I finished up the plans for a workshop I’m giving tomorrow, including making a decision about what to wear. None of those activities produced an idea for my Lammas home page essay.

By 9 a.m. today, I’d read 50 pages of a mystery novel with my morning coffee after writing a few thoughts– not about Lammas– in my journal. After breakfast I tidied up the kitchen, played a game of Quiddler with my partner. We walked the dogs and then I planted some wildflower seeds, bathed the dogs while deciding what to fix for lunch and chopping vegetables to get started. I cleaned the washer, dryer and utility sink inside and out before I dusted and scrubbed the basement bathroom. I haven’t done either of those things for months.

Most of my housework gets done while I’m avoiding writing.

I love writing; it has provided some of my greatest joys– in that moment when I’ve finally shuffled the words enough to find the perfect phrase.

But it’s also provided hours of house-cleaning and staring into space, activities suited to trying to think what words need to come next. So my subconscious and sneaky brain can find all kinds of really good logical ways to avoid it.

Lammas LMH using 4-wheeler as a desk 2012Finally I sat down at the computer– and immediately decided I needed to change the location of the water on the garden. I rode the 4-wheeler down and sat on it with my garden plan, comparing that glorious vision I created while planting seeds this spring to the few plants that the voracious grasshoppers have not eaten. I had used a biological control to try to control their numbers, mixing it fresh daily and spraying everything. Perhaps it worked; I may have killed millions of hoppers– but billions and zillions more arrived.

We’ve had more grasshoppers here this year than I’ve ever seen. Neighbors who drive through have been shocked; I swear some rolled up their windows and sped out of the yard to avoid collecting any. By June the insects had eaten several successive plantings of radishes, lettuce, mesclun and carrots. They’d eaten the leaves from the rhubarb and were chomping down the stems. The kale and turnip leaves were lacy with holes and the hoppers were burrowing into the ground, eating the yellow onions. I replanted beans and peas three times and each time the hoppers ate them off as the seedlings emerged from the ground. They ate the potatoes down to the hay mulch and burrowed into it, still gnawing. By the millions they sliced the leaves from tomato plants, decimated the peonies and herbs– even the culinary sage. They even ate the perennial flowers I’d planted around the retreat house.

Lammas Grasshoppers on tomato cage 2012

A month ago, I moved herb plants like basil, feverfew, rosemary, lavender, oregano and rue into the greenhouse. Despite tight screens, the grasshoppers invaded and dined until I moved the surviving plants into the house. Inside the cold frames, the hoppers stripped the peppers of all their leaves in one night.

In the prairie closest to my house, I’ve studied which of the native plants and the invasive nasty ones have survived the hopper onslaught. Natives like buffalo grass, sideoats grama, mullein, and gumweeds haven’t been nibbled at all. The Non-Native Nasties– introduced plants like brome, alfalfa and clover–have been stripped of their leaves and then their stems, though of course not killed. Unfortunately, non-natives that I cultivate, like columbine, peony, chamomile, arugula, marjoram, thyme and dill were decimated as well, though the bergamot and spearmint survived. Apparently even grasshoppers don’t eat creeping jenny, definitely one of the Nasties.

While I looked over the garden, I kept thinking of Lammas. How could I write about harvest with no produce? My summer had already been seriously unpoetic, with a variety of activities and responsibilities disrupting my writing.

Today, walking among the plants, I noticed that only a few hoppers leapt away from me, instead of the moving blanket of three weeks ago. Pulling bristly foxtail from the leek row and stuffing it into the burn barrel, I saw that the tomatoes are strong and blooming.  The pumpkin vines sprawl and blossom, leaves shivering as entire rabbit families lounge in their shade. The kale and turnips are getting taller.

Lammas leafless tomatoesBack home, I examined the raised beds of my kitchen garden where the leafless tomato plants are bringing forth yellow Taxi tomatoes and tasty Early Girls. A couple of pots of basil and parsley so big I couldn’t move them inside are putting out new leaves.

Rather than focusing on its losses, the garden is working hard to recover from the failures of the summer. Maybe I can give thanks for some growth; maybe I’ll have a subject for the harvest essay.

Sitting with my fingers on the keyboard, I glanced through the window in front of my desk and saw a bird I’d never seen before. I grabbed one of my bird books and tracked him down: a male orchard oriole. He landed in the raised tomato bed and then hopped to a tomato cage, tilting his head this way and that. He hopped. Hopped. Hopped again and snatched a grasshopper. Gobbled it and hopped some more– following and gulping hoppers as they tried to evade him.

Orchard OrioleSuddenly I understood. I’d been waiting for ideas for my Lammas essay to find me. But I know that writers sometimes have to chase ideas. We must be persistent; we must leap and snap and gobble– and sometimes fail to catch a tasty morsel.  The oriole, by appearing outside my window, reminded me just how active a writer may have to be in chasing her ideas.

Later, I stepped outside and into a maelstrom of clucking and fluttering: two grown grouse and eleven teenagers were all scrambling around the dogs’ small pen, eating grasshoppers and chattering to one another. I went back to the computer.

Lammas grouse flock

My friends kindly say that I accomplish a lot, but they don’t see how much of what I do is part of avoiding this writing job I both love and find frustrating. Two big writing projects have been simmering in my brain all summer, but I’ve been able to work on them only in short bursts.

Naturally, yesterday and today I have spent considerable time answering email both urgent and frivolous, fixing and cleaning up after meals, cleaning bathrooms– the usual housewifely stuff. Yesterday I hand-wrote several letters. None of this was the writing I urgently need to do.

The need to post a new website essay related to writing hovered behind my thoughts like the afternoon thunderstorms: black and threatening. Each storm rattles the windows, throws any loose furniture around on the deck, and sneezes a few drops of rain: none of these actions very useful either to a gardener or a writer.

Lammas garden dirtBecause the air felt nippy when I woke at sunrise, I decided to enjoy some of the last of summer’s heat by tilling the garden. As I turned over the rich brown earth, I reflected on the meaning of Lammas. Also called Lughnasad by the ancients, it was traditionally commemorated only by women as a time of regrets and farewell as well as harvest and preservation.

Reflect, said the ancients, on regret and farewell, but also celebrate what you have worked hard to harvest and what you have preserved for your continuing life.

As Autumn comes, many people enact the ancient rituals of Lammas, but may be unaware that these celebrations reflect a long ancestral history. We may remember plans we made for summer, regretting that we have not accomplished everything. Frantically, we rush to cram a little more summer into the days. A tingle of chill in the air, like this morning’s 57 degrees, reminds us that winter is coming, so instead of whining about the heat, we revel in it as we harvest and preserve the fruits of our labors.

During Lammas, our ancestors paused to take note of their regrets for the things undone in summer. They said farewell to the summer’s activities while welcoming their harvests. Writers can observe the season in the same way as gardeners.

The Celts made this a fire festival, in recognition both of summer’s warmth and in preparation for the coming winter when they might need to conserve fuel as they huddled together around small fires, sharing warmth. If you wish to celebrate like the ancients, consider writing your regrets on paper or corn husks and tossing them into a bonfire so they vanish from your life. To celebrate harvest, share your garden’s fruits, perhaps baking rhubarb crisp or stirring up rhubarb sauce, or baking freshly-dug potatoes in that bonfire.

In the spirit of Lammas, then, I faced my failures: I have not yet finished the draft of what I’m calling the Wheel book. I have written that failure, among others, on a piece of paper. With the grasshoppers has come drought so the prairie here is tinder dry. Rather than risk building a bonfire outside, on August 1, I will light a candle in my study and carefully burn the record of this and other failures.

Writing down my failures has allowed me to become fully aware of my regrets for this season, so I can more easily let them go, both in my mind and through the fire’s symbolism. Furthermore, I realize that if I spend time brooding on what I failed to accomplish, or if I attempt to figure out why I did not do all that I wanted to do, I will be wasting time during which I could be writing.

Lammas asks us to consider farewells to whatever is passing from our lives. As a writer and human being, I welcome this prompting to say a firm goodbye to the things that are really over. Perhaps you can find visual symbols of what you regret– photos of that boyfriend who betrayed you?– and throw them into a flame, or into moving water, or bury them in the ground.

Lammas planting bulbs

Some folks bid loss farewell by whispering the hurt into flower bulbs, which they then plant. Symbolically, the pain returns in the spring transformed, in the form of a new and blooming life. Most of my plants are natives without bulbs. Most require freezing to be viable, so on my walks I collect seeds, and mumble my regrets as I scuff them into the dry ground.

I’ve dug the potato crop, and we will eat all of it with our Lammas meal: five small potatoes. We will try not to think about last year’s crop, which supplied us with potatoes from September through May. This winter, we’ll have to peel the potatoes we eat since their skins harbor pesticides used by commercial farmers. But on Lammas, we will rejoice in what we have and give thanks that we are not wholly dependent on our potato crop for nourishment this winter.

Lammas corn dollyFor the Celts, the August harvest was a time of story-telling, as well as giving thanks to the grain gods and goddesses in gratitude for a good harvest.  Some folks find a visual way to represent their triumphs, perhaps creating a decoration like a corn dolly or wheat weaving like those made by ancient grain farmers, or creating an altar to represent the harvest. We reminisce about the garden’s toils and triumphs, and talk about what we might plant next year.

Inspired by the harvest aspect of Lammas, I list the things I have accomplished. In applying to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, NV, I spent a lot of time writing a proposal for a workshop as well as preparing a CD with recitations of new poems. I’m disappointed that my application was rejected but I’ve revised the workshop to use in another context. So while the application was a failure, I was able to recycle some of its materials, turning the whole experience into a positive one.

This year so far I’ve written four home page messages, one each for February’s Brigid, the Vernal Equinox of March, April’s Beltane and the June Summer Solstice, a total of almost 9,000 words.

I wrote the introduction to a book (by a writer who has worked at my Windbreak House retreat) to be published by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press. I wrote a cover comment and review of another book. Observations about meat, grouse, natural predators, rabbits, organ meats, snakes and other prairie critters all furnished subjects for blogs on my business website. A college class reading my book No Place Like Home sent questions about the book to which I responded at length.

Furthermore, I wrote two essays published in Orion magazine. Later, National Public Radio’s “Living on Earth” asked me to read them for on-air publication. A request for free writing advice turned into a lengthy blog on why I cannot and will not provide free advice to everyone who asks. On paper, I reflected on the fact that I am called a “nature writer”; I later submitted the essay to the International League of Conservation Writers, which published it online. Besides all this professional writing, I kept up lively correspondence with several friends, much of it in hand-written letters.

Compiling this list amazes me. Though I was determined not to regret what I have not written or done, I hadn’t fully realized how very much I have accomplished so far this year. Truly, my writing harvest has been generous. And I spent a lot of time in the garden, even though that harvest was less rich.

Besides writing, of course, I’ve prepared a couple of meals most days. Jerry cooks breakfast on weekends and we make our own breakfasts during the week, and when we go to town, we usually eat lunch there. Let’s see: 365 days in a year multiplied by 3 meals a day is 1,095 meals. Deducting for the meals we fix ourselves or eat out, I’ve prepared at least 400 meals, perhaps as many as 700. I’ve washed the sheets thirty times, vacuumed the house at least 45 times, and cleaned the toilets at least 300 times. On Lammas, I will pat myself on the back for all this work.

Because Lammas is an occasion to consider preservation, both literal and symbolic preserves are appropriate for the Lammas festival. You celebrate when you turn summer’s fruit into jams, jellies, and chutneys for winter. Consider, too, other kinds of fruits– memories and scraps of writing–you have gathered this year. How can you preserve the memories of the summer that is passing sweetly even as winter approaches?

Lammas photo album

Don’t just put your photographs online; print them so you can look at them even when the computer is off– or when the file has been lost or hijacked. I’ve been told that creating physical photo albums is outmoded, but while my mother was in the nursing home she found great pleasure in returning again and again to the albums, rediscovering memories each time. She would never have seen those photographs online. I framed a large collage of photographs of her at different phases of her life and we both enjoyed telling visitors about the times when the pictures were taken.

Lammas observances might include writing letters and postcards to friends instead of emails. I turn failed photos into postcards for short notes. Write memories in your journal. Capture the highlights: best meal of the summer, best sunrise, best day, best companion– you make the list.

Whatever you do– gardening, writing, or playing bridge– face your regrets and failures and then bid them goodbye. Consider how the earth recovers from winter into spring, taking heart for your own spring to come. Our planet is suffering in the current climate change crisis, but if hope exists, it rests on individuals like us. Take time to tally up your harvest, to revel in it, to appreciate your work. Then preserve it in your heart for the winter to come.

“Youth is like spring,” wrote Samuel Butler in The Way of All Flesh, “an over-praised season more remarkable for biting winds than genial breezes. Autumn is the mellower season, and what we lose in flowers we more than gain in fruits.” This is the message of Lammas.

 

Writing suggestions:

What do you regret about the summer just past? Can you discard those regrets by burning them symbolically or literally? Can you memorialize these regrets by writing about them, and diffusing their power over you?

What do you bid farewell to at summer’s end?

What have you harvested this year, either literally from the earth or from your work and your relationships?

What form of thanks seems appropriate for what you have received?

What ways can you find to preserve memories of your year’s harvest, and of memorable events from your year?

What was your best day during the summer? Your favorite event? Who is your favorite of the new people you met and why? This might be a good time to tell people how much you appreciate something they’ve done for you.

What have you accomplished in writing so far this year? What are your plans for writing during the rest of the year?

Collect the snippets you have written this year that have not progressed to a longer draft or a finished work. Read through them; take notes. What inspiration do you find?

.  .  .

Here’s a specific exercise for not writing: The Ball of Light

Stand outside where you will not be disturbed. Plant your feet a comfortable distance apart so you stand without swaying. Let your hands hang at your sides; shake them to loosen the muscles in your shoulders.

Close your eyes. Breathe deeply several times. Imagine yourself drawing air in from the entire universe, pulling it down into your lungs, fingertips, toes, into every molecule of your body.

Imagine a ball of light centered in your chest. Gather your senses into the ball of light. Imagine your hands inside your chest holding the light, firming it into a smooth round shape. When you have the ball of light pictured clearly in your mind, let it rise slowly up your neck into your head. Let it stand there, spinning, for a moment. Slowly move it up through the top of your skull and above your head. Take time to look down at your body standing relaxed, to breathe deeply again. Then concentrate your attention in your light again and let it rise up over the grass and the buildings. Pause every now and then to look around so you always know where you are.

Allow your light to rise over your immediate surroundings, up over the country, above the path of jet planes, out where the universe is blackness lit only by stars and where you might see other glowing balls of light. Become aware of what you see and sense there. Slowly bring the ball of light back down through all the layers of atmosphere to your chest and belly again. Breathe deeply.

Once you have done this a few times, you can do it anywhere, anytime, in less time than the initial experience will take. Use this as a relaxation and centering exercise anytime. You may find that you are more ready to write afterward.

.  .  .

Remember this: Graham Greene realized early in his writing career that if he wrote just 500 words a day, he would have written several million words in a few decades. So he developed a habit of writing only 500 words a day and stopping even if he was in the middle of a sentence. Writing two hours a day, he published 26 novels, as well as short stories, plays, screenplays, memoirs and travel books.

Kathleen Norris writes in Dakota that “the forced observation of little things can also lead to simple pleasures,” and illustrates this with the example of a young monk who was given an old, worn habit when he joined his order. He soon discovered that the worn wool was excellent for sliding down banisters.

Adapt this idea for sliding down the banisters in your life. Carefully observe and note down the little things you do every day: picking up the children’s socks, folding your husband’s clothes, petting the dog, and wiping up the drops of water around the sink after brushing your teeth. Then consider and write about the reason you do these things. If the reason is not because you care for the individuals and care for the home in which your love for them occurs, then perhaps you can stop doing them. Write about this choice.

*~*~*~*~*

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

WHEEL flamingo Summer Sale

From Lammas through the Autumnal Equinox (August 1 through September 22) you can get an autographed copy of The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook, for $20 (shipping and sales tax included) from PO Box 169, Hermosa, SD 57744.

Make out your check payable to me. And I thank you.

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Spring in the Time of Coronavirus

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


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

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

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

Computer hands - small copy for blog

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

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

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

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

Spring in the Time of Coronavirus

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring in the Time of Coronavirus
4/13/2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Keeping Winter Solstice: How Epiphanies Happen

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

Yule - Wheel of the Year with snow sage rocks_edited

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

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

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

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

Yule - writing

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

The word “solstice” means “the time when the sun stands still,” because the ancients may have believed that the sun would cease moving and vanish if not cajoled to return its warmth to the earth. The scientific explanation for the sun’s apparent immobility is simple: because of the earth’s tilt, our hemisphere is leaning far away from the sun. Therefore the sun’s arc in the sky is short, making daylight brief, night long. No matter how we hustle, we may accomplish only the most basic requirements of our days before darkness signals our bodies that it’s time to rest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yule - tree with red ornaments

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

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

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

Lugging one of the ponderous tomes to my desk and placing the accompanying magnifying glass to its tiny print still gives me a huge satisfaction that can never be matched in joy or speed by searching for a word on the Internet—even if the Internet provided accurate information, which it frequently does not.

Yule - Compact Oxford English Dictionary

The word “epiphany” appears to derive from a Greek word meaning “manifestation,” or “to appear,” and carries multiple meanings. In religion, Epiphany is “a Christian feast” observed on January 6 or “a revelatory manifestation of a divine being.”

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

Those final meanings touch writers and other creative artists most closely, since they explain that moment when an idea catches fire in our minds, begins to burn with a light that can lead us through the darkness of multiple revisions. Few occasions in life can match that ebullience, that explosion of delight.

Finishing a poem or essay is a long hard grind for me, but after a blinding instant of understanding, I usually wade through the required hours of moving commas, looking up words and re-reading aloud with a smile as I work to convey to anonymous readers what I realized in that moment of dazzling light. This definition is not inherently religious, but suggestive; whoever labeled this divine feeling an “epiphany” must have been aware of the word’s religious connotations. Finding the puzzle piece that makes a poem work is a spiritual experience.

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

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

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

Some revelations arise from the peacefulness inherent in washing dishes and cooking. Since I set my own work hours, I’ve found homemaking chores can contribute greatly to my creativity. Sometimes I burn the rice when I run downstairs to the computer to record the revelation I’ve just had about that poem I started at 5 a.m., but the poetic satisfaction erases my annoyance at myself. (And vinegar and soda erase the burn marks from the pan.) Vacuuming floors and even cleaning toilets have led directly to poems. The mind cannot abide a vacuum. Deprived of advertising jingles, chatter, e-mail, and twittering, it may produce something original.

Yule - Writing with DogsWriting in the journal, too, can enlighten as well as discipline a writer. When the dogs wake me between four and five in the morning, I let them out, record the temperature, and let them back in. Then I sit against pillows in bed, the dogs beside me, and pick up my journal. At that moment, I may have no conscious idea of what to write beyond “12/2/10 4:35 a.m. 25 degrees.” Once I have recorded those traditional details, though, I have limbered my mind and pen and may write about a dream, or thoughts from wakeful moments in the night or the sunrise and the heron looking for frogs in the pond outside the window.

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

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

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

Yule - Greenhouse with blue stool

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

I straightened my spine and breathed even more deeply.

Black cattle grazed across the tawny field below the hill; snow lay white over the ice on the pond. A rabbit nibbled grass under a juniper tree. A grouse stood on a top branch of another tree, craning its neck to watch for danger.

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

How do you find an epiphany?

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

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

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

Let your epiphany change your writing.

*~*~*~*

Writing suggestions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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

Winter Sale — $20 each copy while supplies last

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

Send check or money order to

Linda M. Hasselstrom
PO Box 169
Hermosa   SD   57744

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

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

Tiny Bouquets

April is National Poetry Month
This blog was originally published September 27, 2011 on my website.

*~*~*~*~*

Tiny Boquet 1This has been a busy week; I read and commented on a 140-page manuscript, planned three retreats, made 6 pots of tomato sauce, worked on a home page message, and read six mystery books as well as the usual three meals a day, watering the garden, writing a few letters and no doubt a few chores I’ve forgotten. Sometimes it seems as though the world keeps spinning faster and faster.

When I feel that happening, I often stop and walk out to one of the gardens or on the hillside with the dogs, deliberately looking for the materials for a tiny bouquet. I select a few small blooms, thinking of nothing but their color, texture, size. I put these in one of several small vases that I place directly above the kitchen sink where I will see it often during the day.

Small boquet of peonies 2017In creating the bouquet, I create a little island of calm in the middle of hurry. And every time I look at it, I recall choosing it, and I also take a moment to enjoy its uniqueness. Each one lasts only a few days, but each provides considerable balm. Once the flowers have finished blooming, I often make a little bouquet from dried weeds and leaves, with the same effect.

In the same way, when I’m too busy to write– which seems to happen much more often than it should– I sometimes take time to deliberately create a paragraph or so of writing. Most often I do this when I wake in the morning, many times around 4 a.m. I switch on my reading light and pick up my journal from the bedside table. If I can keep the dogs from leaping up and running downstairs for their first morning outing, I have a little island of calm in which to write. Sometimes the highway Small sunflower boquetnoises are quiet; I can hear nothing but the wind through the grass, perhaps the light tinkle of a wind chime from the deck.

What I write may become part of a longer piece or it may be just a little morning reflection that remains in my journal. Either way, it helps me begin the day in peace.

Here’s a reflection I first wrote on an April morning in 2005, when I was living in Cheyenne, Wyoming and four a.m. was the quietest time on our busy street. Though I’ve worked on it a couple of times since, it has never satisfied me as an entire poem. But it makes me recall a quiet spot that gave me comfort.

Fog
makes the street
fantastical.
Red tulips lift
bowls of mist.
Gold daffodils offer
sacred liqueur to finches.

Someone says,
“The fog will burn off
by noon.”
No. The sun
sips the fog
like absinthe.

(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2011

Even tiny pieces– one image, one line– can refresh your writing spirit the way a little bouquet refreshes your eye and your kitchen.

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

© 2011 / 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Flying into Oblivion: How to Keep Your Writing Spirits Up

Proulx books

Annie Proulx (that’s pronounced PROO according to my conversation with her some years ago) has been named winner of the 2018 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.  The honor recognizes a knowledgeable writer whose body of work has told the readers “something new about the American experience.”

Proulx is a wise woman who said, in a May 2, 2018 article in the Washington Post, “I feel sorrow and urgency about the state of the natural world. So many extinctions loom, so much plastic chokes the waters, so many stars are blotted out by light pollution, so many birds have flown into oblivion.”

She asked friends who are passionate about the natural world how they manage to stave off grief at the “visible decline of the world we took for granted only a few decades ago.” Their response? “The consensus is to keep working in personal ways to protect what we still have, through citizen science or private behavior.”

I absolutely agree. I don’t own a television, so it’s easier for me to avoid the news of devastation and idiocy that blares from its shiny and deceptive face. I can’t imagine how folks who stare at it all day long save their sanity or equilibrium. Still, some people do despair, and believe that all hope is lost. I suggest that people who are saddened by the state of the world turn off the noisy box and get out into their community. Look at the parks littered with trash, the pet shelters. Does the local library have enough volunteers to help children find books? Does the Meals on Wheels group need more volunteers to deliver food to the elderly or homebound? Can your elderly neighbor shovel her walk after a snowstorm?  Somewhere you will find a way to help.

At age 83, Proulx has won numerous awards, but she’s especially delighted by the library award, which was formally presented September 1st at the National Book Festival in Washington. She says that the American experience that has “charged most of what I write has been place—the geography of North America and how different locales affected the way the inhabitants made a living, how they spoke, dressed, ate, thought.”

Proulx book brokeback-mountainThe West is my place, and Proulx is only one—but surely the most famous—of the writers who have focused on it.  Always curious about regional differences, Proulx began writing about rural places in her late 50s, focusing on the way people worked. She’s bounced from topic to topic, writing about forestry, shipping, and finally about cowboys—notoriously the short story “Brokeback Mountain” which drove western readers into frenzies of hatred or admiration. Her view of the West has become one of the best-known while many fine writers with a deeper understanding of the West continue to be ignored.

In 2017 she received and richly deserved the National Book Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, said at the time, “Proulx has given us monumental sagas and keen-eyed, skillfully-wrought stories” that capture the “wild, woolly heart of America from its screwball wit to its every last detail.” Hayden’s nomination was based on recommendations from previous winners, literary critics, and other writers.

I admire Proulx’s determination to begin a new life in late middle age, and her honest attempt to write what she sees, and she has seen a great deal. Because one of her topics resulted in the making of a successful movie, her view of the West has been widely accepted as the only view. This is not her fault, but it’s unfortunate.

Like all writers of an advanced age, Proulx is looking toward the end of her life, at flying into oblivion. We live in an era that seems to demand that everyone who accomplishes something deserving of attention immediately go “on the road”—or on talk shows—to engage in promotion. An inventor may have created a pill that saves lives, but unless she has discussed it with some late-night television personality whose primary claim to fame is white teeth, that achievement may be forgotten tomorrow.

Writers are particularly susceptible to the pitfalls of quick fame. Even many college professors these days pride themselves on teaching work from the hottest writing sensation rather than work that has been read for generations because it’s good. Perhaps, though, these awards will help Proulx achieve a more lasting recognition.

Most writers already know that the way to achieve instant stardom is to be chosen by a moviemaker. Few of us can make that happen, and the authors I have known whose work has been brought to the silver screen were universally horrified at the results.

We writers don’t get to choose what the public decides, but the alternatives are available to all of us: do you want fame? Or do you want to write what you believe as well as you can?

If you want to be famous, you need to pay attention to trends, be constantly alert to what interests the public—not necessarily the reading community—and make your work splashy enough to attract that fleeting and fickle attention.

I’ve had some amazing and startling experience with people who are Lakota, or gay, for example. Since I’m neither gay nor Lakota, I believe writing about them would be exploitive, or would smack of trying to create sensation. I stick to subjects I know more thoroughly, and encourage others to create their truths, whatever they are.

Computer hands - small copy for blog

I believe that if you want to write well, you must just keep writing. You may never achieve fame, but if you create the best writing of which you are capable, you are a success. As Proulx advises about the environment, “keep working in personal ways.”

Keep writing your own truth. Don’t look at extinctions; look for births. When writing seems especially difficult, don’t read about awards. Don’t subscribe to all the writing magazines. Instead, read your own old drafts and commend yourself for your improvement.

Or, in that journal you carry everywhere because you are a serious writer, try one of these suggestions:

The Daily Story
Try starting a story in a different style every day; set a mood of mystery, of horror, of humor; try to begin a romance novel like those in the supermarkets, whether that’s what you want to write or not. Test your limits and abilities as a writer; can you sound like Hemingway? Faulkner? All of this will be useful practice for writing, and any of those stories might turn into something you want to pursue further.

Field Notes on Your Culture
What cultures do you belong to? White? Hispanic? Single mother? Adults wearing braces? Women obsessed with their hair? Women who don’t give a darn about their hair? Middle-aged brides? People with 20-year-old cars? Sticklers for commas? List at least 20 cultures that you belong to. Get wild. Choose one from the list and begin writing, “I belong to the culture of . . .”

Sensory Impressions
Write as many sensory impressions as you can of one day, one year, one place; a room, a river; a neighborhood. Be sure to use all the senses: taste, smell, hearing, sight, touch.

Inventory
Inventory your check book stubs and credit card receipts; list what seem to be your priorities, based on this evidence. If these are not the priorities you believed you had, write about how they differ from what you are actually doing.

The primary point is this: if you want to be an 83-year-old writer someday, famous or not, looking back on your years of writing with a smile as you fly into oblivion or whatever follows this life, then keep writing.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Walking into Writing

Morning Walk Jerry and Linda on road

Jerry and I step lively when we begin our after-breakfast walk to the mailbox on the highway, smiling as we march along, even when our feet slide on the roughly graveled road. Whenever our road through the pasture gets too muddy, we haul pickup loads of gravel from one of the small quarries in the neighborhood, so the gravel varies in size and shape. Several times during the summer, Jerry mows the tallest grass at the edge of this two-track trail, so we are in less danger from lurking rattlesnakes, but we always wear heavy shoes and long pants as protection against snakes, wasps, and other critters that might bite or sting.

Morning Walk writing while walkingI tuck a small notebook in my pocket with a pen, but it doesn’t stay there long. I soon discover that I can take notes while walking. No one else could read them, but if I take the notebook back to the computer as soon as our walk is over, I have an abundance of writing material as I start the day.

Jerry, probably wisely, just walks and enjoys our conversation and the things we see as we stroll. Sometimes we talk political news, because we’ve both looked at our computers before breakfast. Or we might exchange comments on our plans for the day. We notice the traffic, and marvel at how many people are probably headed to jobs in Rapid City at 7:30 in the morning.

Our first challenge is an autogate, also called a cattle guard: a gate with round metal pipes across a 4-foot deep hole. Cattle don’t like the void they can see between the bars, so we can keep them out without having a gate we have to get out of a vehicle to open and shut. But the gates can be tricky to navigate, especially if the pipes are slick with water or snow.

Morning Walk autogate with bypass bridge

As we tiptoe across the first set of pipes, a killdeer runs ahead of us shrieking what sounds like KILLDEER! KILLDEER! The bird runs along on its thin legs for a few feet and then begins to stagger, dragging one wing in the gravel and crying piteously. This is a well-known broken-wing act created by nature to fool predators into chasing the supposedly injured bird. The parent bird stays just out of reach, feigning injury, until some distance from the nest.

Morning Walk KilldeerThen with a strident cry– mocking? triumphant?– she flies off, having successfully lured the pursuers away from her eggs or babies.  Every morning she does the same thing, never believing we will not harm her.

And all the while, we hear a nighthawk or two calling overhead. We lean back, looking up, and Jerry has to listen to me recite what I’ve learned about these wonderful birds. Two of them make great looping circles overhead, alternating flapping with long glides and dives. When they plummet, they make a roaring sound authorities liken to “a truck rushing past.” Some say the sound is produced by their wings; others aren’t sure, and the dive that produces the sound is difficult or impossible to study in a laboratory.

This Common Nighthawk is strangely misnamed, since it is not a hawk, and it usually hunts at dawn and dusk, but never at night. Its method of hunting accounts for the second part of the name: catching flying insects on the wing is called “hawking.” Though it has a tiny beak, its mouth is huge, perhaps one of the reasons it was nicknamed “goatsucker.” (The mouth is definitely not large enough to milk goats, though the superstition persists in some areas.) The bird eats by flying into clouds of insects, opening its mouth, and swallowing flying ants, wasps, crickets, flies, grasshoppers, mosquitoes or anything else that lands inside.

Researchers say that the parent birds feed their chicks regurgitated insects until the babies are able to hunt for themselves. The nighthawk seems poorly designed for survival: its feet are small and weak, and the sides of its mouth are flexible. The bird can only swallow prey whole in flight, so if a bird is confined to the ground by injury, it is unable to feed itself, because it has an ineffectual beak and claws.

Yet when it flies at dawn and dusk, it seems to be master of the skies.

Just ahead, another killdeer begins to limp along the edge of the road, crying and dragging a wing. Even when we have this sure sign that we are close to a nest, we don’t look for it. Killdeer nests, like those of the nighthawk, are barely respectable, usually a little divot in the gravel, with the eggs laid among similar-looking stones, and devilishly hard to see. We have spent hours tiptoeing around on the hillside watching killdeer or nighthawks fly up, going directly to the spot– and still not being able to see the eggs.

Morning Walk Russian thistle photo from govt websiteBeside the trail we begin to notice something that looks like broad snowflakes, sparkling as they melt. Looking closer, we see they are puffs of cottonwood down, damp with dew. Taller weeds are thick this year: not only alfalfa that has escaped from the hayfield, but poverty weed, brome grass, kochia and Russian thistle. I abruptly remember that my uncle Harold always called it “Rooshan thistle,” laughing at his own pronunciation, and reminded me to mow it before it could go to seed. For years we never saw it here, but suddenly it’s back, and it’s everywhere.

The second cattle guard is choked with thistles that grow from the bottom through the bars. Since the gate is set solidly on railroad ties and is extremely heavy, we can’t move it to mow the weeds, but we always hope that the cars zipping over it will destroy the seed heads before they can spread their menace.

 

Morning Walk thistles in autogate

A bird I’ve been trying to identify for days trills from deep in the grass: chirpchirpchirpchirpchirp CHEEP CHEEP CHEEP! I keep the bird identification book on the dining room table, and have also searched for the bird call online, but the closest I can some to identifying this winsome singer is “some kind of sparrow.” The song pattern seems to follow those of sparrows that are likely to be here, though I haven’t found the exact song.  I haven’t been able to get a good look at it through the binoculars since it stays low in the grass. (Please—if anyone knows what it is, tell me!)

Morning Walk three colors of alfalfaA redwing blackbird alights on a dried mullein and trills like a tiny waterfall. A mourning dove coos and darts away. A robin chirps raucously and meadowlarks gargle melodiously from fence posts. Minuscule yellow butterflies drift among the brome grass heads and sweet clover blooms in the borrow ditch. The trumpet-shaped pink and white blooms of creeping jenny wind around alfalfa stalks carrying yellow, purple and lilac blossoms.

On our left as we top the last rise before the highway is the headquarters of the Great Plains Native Plant Society’s Botanic Garden, a nonprofit organization that has established a collection of native plants on property I’ve loaned to the group. The garden will soon be open to the public, so that we can educate visitors on the excellent qualities of native plants and grasses. Members put out pink flags to mark particular plants for a recent tour; they still flutter in the pale green prairie grass. A huge prickly pear cactus holds four lush yellow blooms big as a dinner plate. Dew sparkles in the hairy leaves of a mullein. Headed downhill, we walk a little faster, a quarter finished with our walk.

Morning Walk Great Plains Botanic Garden HQ

Then a nighthawk sweeps low over us and then up, where it meets another and the two spiral around and around until we are dizzy. Playing follow the leader? Disagreeing over territory? Sources say the bird can fly at least 500 feet high; I don’t doubt the figure because a few nights ago I watched one fly higher and higher until it went into a storm cloud.

Nighthawk nests are even cruder than those of the killdeer, with two eggs about an inch long laid directly on gravel, sand, rock or occasionally vegetation like the rosette of a dandelion. I’ve seen eggs that were ivory or pale gray, and speckled with gray, brown or black. Nighthawks nest not only in prairie but on buildings in urban areas; they love flat roofs covered with tarpaper held in place by rocks.

morning-walk-nighthawk-nest-at-ranch-2018.jpg

The chicks are similarly nearly invisible in their chosen habitat, with darker gray feathers that seem to mimic their background. Their partly open eyes are just tiny slits. I’ve found nests once or twice, and the chicks are nearly invisible when you are staring directly at them, completely still except for a breeze fluttering their downy feathers. Like the parents, the defenseless chick relies mostly on its coloration for protection from predators.

Morning Walk nighthawk photo from govt website

The Cornell Lab All About Birds website says nighthawks have declined more than sixty percent since the 1960s. Further, recent studies show dramatic declines in many insects, especially in Europe and the U.S.

No bugs means no birds.

But that’s not all the disappearance of bugs means. The Guardian newspaper reported that many entomologists say “an insect Armageddon” is underway, the result of multiple environmental causes: pollution, habitat changes, overuse of pesticides, and global warming. These changes will no doubt have crucial consequences. The distinguished Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson once observed that “If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”

I’m willing to put up with a lot of mosquitoes and flies to keep nighthawks. We never spray to kill bugs, but rely on repellent, with long sleeves and net masks if the critters are really bad. My hand is still my favorite weapon against flying insects.

Morning Walk Dangerous Hwy Crossing

We hike up the steep slope to the highway and take a long look to our left, uphill. If a car has started down, we don’t try to cross until it passes. The speed limit is 70 miles per hour, which means most cars are traveling at least 75. Often two cars are traveling abreast; none slow down at the sight of two people standing at the roadside.

We cross the first two lanes, and then pause in the median, looking north, to the right, where the approaching cars travel only a half mile before reaching us. They’ve just come up a hill, but that hasn’t slowed them down, and they, too, go screaming past at 75 miles an hour. We cross the two lanes safely, and Jerry tucks the newspaper under his arm before we turn to cross all four lanes back to the safety of our gravel road. I wonder how many of those folks have seen what can happen when something goes wrong with the car– a blowout, say– at that speed.

Morning Walk gravelAs we cross the first gully on our road back, we see something we missed the first time: the tracks of deer or antelope in the damp gravel. We saw three deer on our hillside while drinking our first cups of coffee this morning, so these are undoubtedly their tracks, all headed toward the big ridge south of our house.

A few steps farther, though, we see the tracks of a deer or antelope going north; perhaps one of them turned back at the fence. On other occasions we’ve seen them cross these fences; deer tend to jump over them, dangerous if they catch a leg or don’t jump high enough. Antelope look for a place where the bottom wire is a little higher than usual and duck under. My theory is that they use their horns to raise the wire a little while their bodies scurry under it, all at warp speed.

Morning Walk poison ivy at rocksAs we top the second hill on our walk back, we notice that the outcropping of limestone in the pasture beside the fence is nearly buried in this year’s lush grasses. Generations of rabbits have lived under these tumbled rocks, which are covered with lime green lichen and surrounded by poison ivy. Apparently the rabbits are immune to the poison that keeps me from exploring the cavities in the limestone more thoroughly. I pick a leaf of silver sage, growing among the greener plants along the road, to inhale its sharp scent.

Morning Walk Jerry and LindaI’ve filled several pages in my tiny notebook, so I stick it in my back pocket and settle into the rhythm of our return walk, inhaling the scents of the prairie, listening to birdsong, and thinking about what I’ll fix for lunch. Fifteen minutes of paying attention and taking notes has given me inspiration for writing, and motivated me to do further research. Jerry’s ready for his day, too, so he often turns off the trail and heads for his shop, anxious to get back to whatever he is building.

Inspiration, writing, research, more writing: that’s how it’s done. Every day.

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Some of the information here was provided by: birdwatchingdaily.com, The Cornell Lab www.allaboutbirds.org and www.birds.cornell.edu.

 

In the U.S., Common Nighthawk populations declined by almost 2% per year between 1966 and 2014, amounting to a cumulative decline of 61%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Canadian populations experienced declines of over 4% and recent data suggest the species’ numbers may have dropped more than half in Canada since the mid-1960s.

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Nighthawk/lifehistory

 

“An insect Armageddon is under way, say many entomologists, the result of a multiple whammy of environmental impacts: pollution, habitat changes, overuse of pesticides, and global warming. And it is a decline that could have crucial consequences. . . .

“The best illustration of the ecological importance of insects is provided by our birdlife. Without insects, hundreds of species face starvation and some ornithologists believe this lack of food is already causing serious declines in bird numbers . . .”

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jun/17/where-have-insects-gone-climate-change-population-decline

Persistence is Perpetual

The phrase “Nevertheless, she persisted,” has become a rallying cry for women worldwide who are, as always, trying to be taken seriously.

Senator Warren nevertheless she persisted rallying cryThe expression originated with the U.S. Senate’s vote to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren’s objections to confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General.

Mitch McConnell, majority leader in the Senate, tried to stop Warren’s speech as she battled against Sessions’ confirmation. Sessions testified under oath that he had not had contact with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign, but news reports this month made clear that such meetings did occur.

McConnell’s attempt to silence Warren backfired when the phrase was adopted by the feminist movement to refer to the persistence and courage women need to cultivate whenever attempts are made to ignore or silence them.

Precisely the same kind of obstinate, quiet and continuing persistence is required to be a writer, and probably especially a female writer.

As the Vernal Equinox approaches (March 21-23), I turned to the relevant chapter in my book The Wheel of the Year, “Writing Eternal as Spring: Persistence.”

Womens History Month Write PersistIn this essay, I consider the fact that good writing is mostly the result of steady work: persistence in the business of writing that involves correct grammar and spelling, as well as putting words on paper every single day.

I provide an example of my own persistence in a poem that I began in 1971 and finished in 2011. I invite you to see inspiration for your own perseverance in The Wheel of the Year, discovering what will make your writing as persistent as spring– as enduring as the work of women who have made history, and whom we honor this month and all year by our writing.

Here is the chapter from my book The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook (in a slightly different version than what was published). Each chapter in the book ends with writing suggestions and prompts, though I haven’t included them in this lengthy blog.

++–++–++–++

March 21-23: Vernal Equinox
Writing Eternal as Spring: Persistence

When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stone-cutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it would split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before together.
— Jacob A. Riis, journalist and social reformer (1849-1914)

If you have written even one poem, letter, blog or tweet, you may realize that writing well is hard work. Yet no matter how completely we understand that fact, even the most experienced writers sometimes hide it from ourselves and others by the way we speak about writing.

Most serious writers have probably experienced the electrical jolt of an idea popularly known as “inspiration,” when we find the image or metaphor that makes the paragraph or essay or poem sing and dance instead of mumbling and stumbling.

keyboardAn inexperienced writer may call it “magic” and may even believe that it will happen every time she sits down to write. Serious writers may not speak of inspiration at all. Instead we speak solemnly of schedules, particular writing tools or special places. We may pontificate about the books we keep beside our desks and the reading we do to understand and support our writing.

What we should explain is that the glowing idea, the electric metaphor, the magic, is the result of the steady grind, the boring part of writing. Without the slow slog of checking spelling, correcting grammar and being sure the modifiers don’t dangle, “inspiration” and fancy metaphors won’t create memorable writing.

Despite zillions of people writing comments and blogs on the internet every hour, all of them convinced their words are memorable, I stand by my belief. Today on the internet as well as on the printed page, writing that has only the spark of an idea or just the clever metaphor is not memorable enough to become part of our cultural history.

Think of the poems or speeches or expressions that stick in your mind because they have meaning for you. This exercise may require some concentration. Try not to think first of the mindless advertising jingles or musical lyrics that haunt you because you hear them repeated often.

“Four score and seven years ago . . .” my mind recites and the words reverberate as if spoken in Lincoln’s marble tomb.

“Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name” echoes among the pillars of an ancient cathedral.

Old poetry books

Like most people, I can recite scraps of several rhyming poems from memory because meter and rhyme make them stick in our minds. “My fathers sleep on the sunrise plains,” I think, recalling how many poems I memorized by Badger Clark, the poet laureate of South Dakota.

Each writer wants to create memorable lines and scenes. Ask fifty poets how to do it and you’ll get fifty answers. But most of us will eventually mention an important requirement: persistence.

The writer who seeks perfection must, to use synonyms, endure, prevail, persevere, hang in, hang on, and hold on.

Or, as Winston Churchill once said, “Never give up. Never, never give up. Never never never give up.”

Here’s an example of how extremely I define “never give up” when referring to writing.

In 1971, I was in graduate school at the University of Missouri/Columbia, having finished my MA in American Literature and begun a Ph.D. program. I worked for an English professor, teaching some of his classes and grading all his papers, as well as teaching several sections of freshman English.

ColumbiaSome of my students were marching against the Vietnam War, escalating every day, and some were vehemently for it. I was a volunteer editor for the underground antiwar newspaper, The Issue as well as editor of the U’s student literary magazine, Midlands.

Having left my husband because he was having another affair, I lived in a second-floor apartment of an elderly woman’s home across the street from a packing plant. I was living so poorly because, although I had been paying the bills of our marriage for several years I had no financial credit. As we did in those days, I’d put all the utilities for our rented house in his name, so when I left him, he had plenty of credit and I had none. He was a graduate student studying for a Ph.D., but he also sang in various bars around town, which provided him with extra money and plenty of prey for his extramarital quests.

My Persian cat, coming home from his nightly wanderings covered with lice and fleas, crawled into bed with me so that we both woke up scratching madly. The medical personnel to whom I applied for advice in ridding my yowling cat and me of the critters could not contain their mirth. My apartment had mice, a new experience for me, so I had put out poison. One night as I sat at the kitchen table sipping soup, a mouse staggered out of the cupboards, perched on the sink and stood on his hind legs, clutching his stomach. He staggered a few steps each direction, whining, then dropped to the countertop and writhed in pain, moaning and whimpering, before he finally stiffened and died. One Christmas, of the dozen couples at a department Christmas party, nine of us announced to our spouses our intention to divorce before the party ended.

Those incidents aren’t everything that happened that year, just a representative sample provided to demonstrate that, though I was writing, my mind was not entirely on sculpting the perfect poem.

Still, I was writing furiously and publishing poetry in various journals under a pen name since I did not want to identify my writing with my husband’s name. I was convinced that my poetry was no good because it was not like the poetry of Richard Wilbur and Robert Lowell, whose work I was studying as a graduate student. The professor who taught my graduate seminar in the work of Henry James had told me that I should quit school and go home and have babies because I wasn’t smart enough to understand Henry James.

One day in that year, 1971, Walter Mathis came to the door of the house where I was living; as soon as he was gone, I wrote about his visit. I knew that what I wrote was only a draft because I was sure that poems that did not resemble those of the classical American literature I was studying could not be any good.

In 1997, because I never throw away a draft, I reviewed what I had written in 1971, and made notes in the margin. Every few years I fiddled with the poem, unsatisfied with the ending.

Binder of PoemsEach time I looked at the poem, I shifted a few lines or altered a comma. Eventually I moved it from a bent file folder and copied it, along with others I thought had possibilities, into the Poems file on my computer. Later I printed it and placed it in a binder divided into drafts and finished poems. I keep the binder on my desk so I can make changes to a poem whenever I am “inspired” to do so. I’ve made significant progress in revision while waiting for a file to load or the computer to respond to some command.

The next time I looked at the poem was probably 2009, after Twyla Hansen had suggested that we publish a collection of poems together. By that time the draft was thirty-eight years old.

During that thirty-eight years, my first husband and I had moved back to the ranch in 1972 to “repair our marriage,” then divorced. I’d spent years crawling through the jungle of consequences from that marriage. I’d also married again and my beloved second husband had been dead twenty-one years. My parents, my grandmother and several close friends had died.

And I’d finally realized that one does not need to enjoy the work of Henry James in order to be an intelligent being and good writer. In fact, I now suspect enjoying the work of Henry James may actually hinder a poet’s development.

My idea of what constitutes good poetry had expanded from the tightly constructed couplets studied in graduate school. Several times I read and re-read the poem draft, astonished at how the face of Walter Matthis rose before me, listening to his voice in my ear. I deleted some lines, moved phrases, worked on punctuation.

Mostly, though, I thought about what Walter had been saying to me that day. At last, because I was finally old enough and had suffered enough painful losses in my life, I found the poem’s true ending. The finished poem was published in 2011 by The Backwaters Press in Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet with Twyla Hansen, Nebraska State Poet.

Because so much had changed in time and place since I began the poem, I had to explain Walter’s language usage to the proofreader, who wanted to eliminate slang and spell “poke salat” differently than they do in Missouri.

1971: Establishing Perpetual Care at the Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery

A knock at the front door
echoes in the landlady’s empty hall
tinkles past the crystal in the cabinet,
drums across her kitchen floor to mine.
She’s not home. Whoever it is will come
to my door next. I stretch,
drop the pen and fill the kettle.
Light the stove with a wooden match.

A stooped man in a black suit
rounds the corner, dust rising
behind his cane with every step.
Ancient sweat stains streak
the band of his straw hat
like layers in old sandstone.
He shuts the gate behind him.
Thumps the door four times
with a rugged fist.
Straightens his shoulders.

I snap the bolt open,
but stay behind the locked screen door.
“Good afternoon,” I say.

He pinches his hat with
two gnarled fingers, lifts, and says,
“Good day, Ma’am. I’m Walter Mathis
from up at Locust Grove.”
He hangs the cane on one arm,
mops his forehead with a red kerchief,
tucks it in a shirt pocket.  “Does Mrs.
Notye Murray still live here?”

He’s afraid she’s dead.
“Yes,” I say. Adding the “Sir”
is automatic, involuntary even.
“That’s her door you knocked on.”

“She’s not home, then,” he says,
nodding. Just what he thought.
He squints, leaning toward the screen.
“You her granddaughter?”

“No sir, just a tenant– I rent
this back apartment,” I say.
Because it’s cheap, I think; because
I’ve left my husband
and have no money and no credit.
“When she goes out in the afternoon,
she’s always back by dark,” I say.
“Unless it’s her whist night. But that’s Thursday.”

He leans back on his heels,
rapping the cane against the concrete step.
Eyes the packing plant fence
like he’s tempted to get the hammer
and a fistful of nails out of the tool box
I know is behind the pickup seat,
fix the blasted thing so it’ll stand up straight.
“Well,” he mutters. “Let me think.”
He yanks the hat brim down.

I unlock the screen door, step outside
to say, “She might be home earlier.
I’m not real sure where she was going
but if she went for poke salat
and lamb’s quarters,
she might be home pretty soon.”

“Cooks ‘em up with bacon, I bet,”
he says, grinning. “Bet you never had
vittles like that, beings you are a northern lady.”
He nods. Another thing he knew
without even thinking.
I nod right back at him. The cane
pounds once more on the step.
His mind’s made up. “Well.
I gotta be gettin back to Locust Grove
so you tell Notye– you tell Miz Murray for me.
We gotta get goin on this perpetual care
for the cemetery up there. Us old-timers,
we figure maybe the next generation
won’t be as interested in the folks there.
But her and me, we got close folks–
she’s got her ma and pa and husband up there
and all my folks are together in that one spot.”

I nod again. Now I remember who I am,
even if I don’t know where.
I can see the cemetery in my home town,
where once I could imagine
my husband’s tombstone with mine beside it,
infinitely announcing our devotion.

He shoves the hat to wipe
his forehead on his sleeve,
yanks the brim back down. Nods again.
“Well, I live right by the cemetery, don’t ya know.
Me an’ Howard Breedlove and Walt Kinsolving–
that’s my son-in-law– we all got together
cause folks been wanting to give me money
so there’d be some kind of continual care.
And I figgered if I just took money
even if I put it in a bank,
pretty soon some bank examiners’d
want to know what I’m doin,
and pretty soon after that
the income tax people
would come a’sniffin around.

So we formed an association. I’m president.
Yep. Howard Breedlove’s treasurer.
I come down here today to get papers
drawed up and signed. And I wanted to tell her
if she wants to send a check
to make it out right, to make it out to
The Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery Association.
I always mow the lawn, mowed it
seven times last year, charged forty dollars
an they paid me OK, but the year before
I mowed it ten times an there wasn’t
enough money in the treasury to pay me
so I just give ’em the last one.
I lived there all my life and all my folks
are buried there. I usually got
some grandchildren to help me.
About your size.”

Walter Mathis waves his cane,
redeems me as his grandchild.
I’m ready to follow him home
to Locust Grove, learn to cook
poke salat just the way he likes it.

“Here now, you tell Miz. Murray
I come by and to make the check out
Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery Association.”
He tips his hat again. “Good day to you, ma’am.”

The kettle’s boiling.
While Walter’s 1953 Ford pickup
lumbers down the street, I pour my tea,
take the cup upstairs and lean to look
out the bedroom window, to watch
until Walter Mathis turns left
on the gravel road out of town,
headed back to Locust Grove.
I sip my tea and know it’s time
I headed home
where people recognize me,
where the cemetery dust
is folks I knew.

Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery photo found online

Before the book was published, I considered changing the names of the people mentioned in the poem, but decided against it, reasoning that they are doubtless dead by now. And I hoped that any descendants who might, by some far-fetched chance, read the poem, would see that my depiction of them was not only respectful but downright loving.

Walter Mathis grave found onlineToday, writing this message, I was able use technology that wasn’t available in 1971 to search for the names Walter R. Mathis and Notye Murray. They died in 1984 and 1982, respectively. Walter is buried in Locust Grove but Mrs. Murray apparently is not. May they rest in peace.

And I realized something important: When he came to my door on that day in 1971, Walter R. Mathis was seventy years old. I was able to finish the poem because I’m finally old enough to understand Walter’s concern for that burial ground. I am sixty-eight and a volunteer member of the board that governs the Highland Park Cemetery in my home town of Hermosa. Walter would chuckle to know that.

Finally, though I have written a considerable amount about this poem’s origin, I do not wish to suggest that the reader needs to know such background information to understand a poem, nor should such knowledge influence a reader’s appreciation of the poem. The poem must stand or fall on its own merits.

So my message for this Vernal Equinox is this: in your writing, be as persistent as the coming of spring. Return to your drafts as the birds return to their preferred habitat in spring, as grass revives and sends its shoots deeper.

Put a few words down on paper every day, just as if you were scattering seeds in the fertile earth. Appreciate the darkness that covers our world half the time at this season– but rejoice in balance of light and dark and savor the renewal of the light that will bring summer. Blessed be.

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

The chapter “March 21-23: Vernal Equinox; Writing Eternal as Spring: Persistence” appears (in a slightly different form) on pages 169-181 in the book–

Wheel of the Year - A Writers WorkbookThe Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook
Nonfiction, published 2015, Red Dashboard Press
Distributed by Windbreak House
300 pages, size: 6 X 9
$22.95 – paperback
ISBN 978-0-9966450-0-3

 

The poem “1971: Establishing Perpetual Care at the Locust Grove Baptist Cemetery” appears on pages 104-107 in the book–

Dirt Songs a poetry collaboration with Twyla M. Hansen

Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet
by Twyla M. Hansen and Linda M. Hasselstrom
(50 poems by each poet)
Poetry, published 2011, The Backwaters Press
147 pages; size: 6 X 9
$16.00 – paperback
ISBN 978-1-935218-24-1

Peterman Inspires More Than Sales

The narrative impulse is always with us; we couldn’t imagine ourselves through a day without it.
— Robert Coover

Why do I snatch up the J. Peterman catalog whenever it comes?

Not because I can’t wait to order another outfit. Most of my clothes come second-hand– and probably look it.

J Peterman catalog

I’m more interested in reading the descriptions. The clothes are fairly ordinary, but what intrigues me is the mystique the writers have chosen to make customers pay shocking amounts of money to acquire them.

Here’s a man’s shirt with no visible distinction, buttoned in front with a round collar. Faded cotton in a muddy green, blue, or red. Sixty bucks.

The description begins:

“It’s Friday night at the Hog & Fool, a 200-year-old pub off O’Connell Street in Dublin. . . . Lean-faced men. Ruddy-faced women. . . . The bursts of laughter aren’t polite, but real, approaching the edge of uncontrollability.”

J Peterman Irish Pub shirt

Can’t you hear it? Three more paragraphs touch on Irish style and writers before the reader gets to the shirt: “well-suited for both the intoxication of talk and the difficult art of listening.”

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.
— Muriel Rukeyser

A page or two later, in a description of a jacket, comes this line: “For those occasions when you want to marshal all your resources, not just the bright shiny ones.”

And then there’s: “Thomas Jefferson disliked stuffy people, stuffy houses, stuffy societies. So he changed a few things. Law. Gardening. Government. Architecture.” Eventually the persistent reader discovers there’s a shirt for sale.

Salesmanship for women’s pants calls on other senses: “Days of gossip and sunbathing, green figs and Pernod. Smells of orange and lemon trees.”

Stories are medicine. . . . They do not require that we do, be, act anything . . .”
— Clarissa Pinkola Estes

I’ve evaluated zillions of essays by amateurs and professions, read thousands of well-reviewed books, but the catalog is still exciting reading. These write-ups help the company sell millions of dollars’ worth of products not much different than you can find anywhere.

What’s the secret?

This dress description opens with questions:

“Too much simplicity in your life? Yearning for a good hassle?” Follow the allure to a 1960s shirtdress.

A man’s jacket:

“The lord of the manor hated leaving the confines of his estate, perfectly happy surrounded by the birch and oak, the fainting goats. . . .” Fainting goats sell a jacket? You betcha.

Stories. Every clothing description hints at tales to be told, secrets to be revealed: the very backbone of most fiction and nonfiction writing, as well as of much excellent poetry.

Even the melancholy beginnings can draw a reader into a purchase:

“Dust storms. Drought. Poverty. Unemployment. Things were bleak in the ‘dirty 30s.’ But as in most times of struggle . . .”

J Peterman 1930s jacket and gardening equipmentGently the narrator begins to lead the story from despair into the impulse to buy a faded denim work jacket for a hundred fifty bucks.

The latest catalog even features high-class gardening tools destined for a shed or casual display on the deck, using Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw as part of the sales pitch. Pure genius.

Writers look for inspiration everywhere. I believe serious writers can find inspiration in the most barren landscape or situation. Finding it in a clothing catalog is something else again.

“All readers come to fiction as willing accomplices to your lies,” wrote Steve Almond. The writers for J. Peterman are part of the same conspiracy that governs readers everywhere. The writer may be lying to the reader, but if the reader is enjoying it, he or she is happy to be deceived, whether purchasing clothes or reading a romance. Let this catalog be just another lesson to you!

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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