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

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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

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Journal Entry, 7/4/2018

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

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

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

grass with flowers -small version for blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

one day, I know,
                    it will be otherwise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Twenty-Five Meditations on Grief

Retreat

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

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

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

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

 LMH office - small copy for blog

Imagine

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

Daydream

When did I last daydream?

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

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

linda toby deck manzanita 

Busyness

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

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

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

I doubt it.

Journal in grass 1990s - small copy for blog 

Relaxation

Does creative relaxation need solitude?

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

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

 women quilting - smallcopy for blog

Destruction

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

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

 burning journals - small copy for blog

Encouragement

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

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

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

 Computer hands - small copy for blog

Robins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Survival

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

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

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

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

Lilacs

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

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

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

 Lilacs at HSH - small copy for blog

Cemetery

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

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

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

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

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

 LMH PHOTO cemetery fake flowers - small copy for blog

Labor Day

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

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

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

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

What do cannons in the cemetery mean?

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

 LMH PHOTO cemetery cannons - small copy for blog

Scraps

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

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

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

 Cora Belle picture in hand - small copy for blog

Graves

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

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

Tombstones

LMH PHOTO Wm E Callahan grave - small copy for blog

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

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

Instead

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

 Garbage cans - small copy for blog

Crocheting

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

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

 Cora Hey crochet work - small copy for blog

Spirit

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

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

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

 Horses Over East 1984 - small copy for blog

Light

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

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

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

Sunrise

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

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

 Rabbit eating at HSH - small copy for blog

The Land

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

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

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

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

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

LMH rocks 2002 - small copy for blog 

Burial

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

burial food - small copy for blog

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

Clouds

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

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

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

Nighthawks

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

Nighthawk flying in clouds - small copy for blog

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

Tube in arm -smallcopy for blog

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

++–++–++–++

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

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Flesh-eating Bacteria and Snortable Chocolate: Summer Reflections

Hay bales 2017

I step outside the basement door into 97 degrees, but the evening is cooling down though it’s nearly two hours until sunset. Carefully, I climb into my canvas “sky chair,” hung from the deck by a single rope. I’m sweltering but invigorated after a hot bath infused with peppermint oil, eucalyptus, wintergreen, juniper, palm and clove oils.

In one hand I hold a gin and tonic, moisture beaded on the sides of the glass. The other hand clutches a pen and the slightly damp yellow pad covered with the ideas I scrawled while marinating in hot water and herbal oils. Not long ago, we bought an antique claw foot bathtub nearly as long as I am. Jerry installed it in a beautifully paneled alcove, which I curtained and furnished with a table for bath oils, wash cloths, and writing materials.

Linda testing the new clawfoot tub 2017This is my idea of pure bliss: to work hard all day, slip into a bath and have a writing idea that compels me to write while I soak. A good day’s work and hot bath would have been enough to make the day excellent. The writing is an unexpected dividend, the fruit of the day’s quiet reflection.

Jerry spent his day mowing the yard and tilling the garden; he leans back in a padded chair beside mine. Bubbles rise from his beer. The two Westies, Cosmo and Toby, lie panting on a rug beside my feet. I dampen them with a handful or two of water from their bowl and they relax, eyes closed. We tell ourselves we feel a breeze.

Summer. In years past, I would have been driving haying equipment, piling up the hay crop for winter cattle feed. After I sold my cattle, the man who rented the land took over responsibility for the harvest. He’s hired a neighbor’s swather, which rumbled around the field, cutting hay and sweeping it into lines that followed the field’s contours, then lumbered away. Dozens of round bales shining with green plastic wrap are lined up in even rows all over the field. The sinking sun makes some part of the baler twinkle.

Robin baby says Feed Me 2017A robin rushes past carrying something wiggly in its beak, then perches on the fence, looking around. We’ve watched the nest under the deck as three blue eggs hatched into the three chicks that cheep for supper. Sitting under the deck, we make the robin nervous, but it darts to the nest and then away.

 

In the deep grass of the field south of the house, meadowlarks are whistling. Red-winged blackbirds trill from the cattails along the pond. Tree swallows tweet as they zip past. The robin lands in the grass, leaps ahead to snatch up an insect, then looks toward the nest. Everything in our sight is preparing for winter. Two of the biggest stories on the Internet today were about flesh-eating bacteria and the new practice of snorting chocolate powder to get a thrill. The nature I’m watching is too busy to notice what humans fear or how they entertain themselves.

Tomatoes ripening 2017The tomato plants push against the wire of their cages. Compelled to grow, they divide and branch as they reach for water and sunshine. Every inch of branch that extends from the main stem makes nutrients travel farther before reaching a flower that will become a fruit. Green tomatoes the size of a hen’s egg are nearly hidden by leaves, and yellow blossoms reach for the sun.

I want tomatoes, not branches, so my thumb and nail are stained green from pruning secondary stems. Rabbits have been eating the bean and pepper leaves, so I’ve slipped a horizontal slice of a soft drink bottle over each plant to protect the stem and lower leaves until the plant is strong enough to resist the depredation. On a metal table Jerry made, too high for the rabbits to reach, herbs thrive in pots. Calendula blooms are vivid yellow-orange beside feathery parsley and the pale purple blooms of lavender. Inside, in our homemade dryer, parsley, basil and chives are withering, getting ready for me to store them in labeled jars for winter stews. I’ll stitch little bags of lavender to slip inside my pillows for easing into sleep.

Herbs in pots 2017Leaves shiver in a breeze as the black storm that rumbled past us heading east swings around to the south. White clouds boil over the ridge, shading to gray and black underneath. The storm may come back. We planted our little garden in raised beds and pots just south of the house and deck for maximum protection, but if this storm carries hail, it could devastate our plants. I’ve moved several potted tomatoes on rolling platforms under the deck, but even that might not save them.

Red Maltese Cross on blue sky 2017The limber stems of flax bend and wave, turning blue flowers back and forth like the faces of a crowd. Regal Maltese cross plants sway gently, blossoms startling red against the clouds. A pair of jets roar overhead, charging out of the clouds, aimed toward the nearby Air Force base after maneuvers that may have taken them anywhere in the world. Their business is being prepared to protect all of us below their roaring progress.

Nighthawks fly, their narrow wings slicing the sky, calling peent with long pauses between as the birds wheel and dart after insects, an aerial ballet both beautiful and deadly. Down by the water, the killdeer, likewise hunting, rise up from the marsh plants, calling killdee, killdee! I hear a flutter overhead, and a twig falls: the robin has darted to its nest again. A tree swallow zings west to east, then loops and loops and loops as another pirouettes beside it. Every living creature I can see is busy eating and harvesting, growing and thriving, too busy to snort chocolate or anything else for entertainment.

I sat down here to write, but now, with Jerry, I’m watching what there is to see, sweating gently and enjoying a light breeze.

The clouds behind the ridge have blackened, so the grass glows vividly green and gold in the sunset. We look for antelope on the skyline; they’ve been missing from our neighborhood for weeks. On our hillside, the grass crunches when I walk. Our fire danger is high in this year of drought, but relatives who visit from northern South Dakota say our landscape is greener than theirs.

Robin feeds baby 2017As the breeze rises, a tree swallow hangs almost stationary against it, flapping vigorously toward the bird house, but getting no nearer. The robin sits on the post with a worm in its mouth, turning its head to watch us, then leaps into the air and lands on the nest overhead. “Cluck.” The cheeping overhead pauses. In the distance a long-billed curlew wolf-whistles. We haven’t seen any of the big birds for months, but it’s good to know they are still living in the tall grass of our pastures. They don’t thrive in agricultural areas, so rangeland that is not overgrazed is perfect habitat for them.

We observed Litha, the Summer Solstice and the longest day of the year, more than a month ago. On that day the earth was balanced between light and dark, between summer and winter. Every day since has been a little shorter and brought us a little closer to winter.

Traditionally, this is the time of the first harvest, forecasting the business of late summer days as the pace of gathering increases. Everything we see is preparing, in its own way, for the days to come. The animals are better at this preparation than the humans; while we fret over national and international affairs, they quietly pursue their own business. They have endured countless generations of human agitation, yet they survive.

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

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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The Top of the Refrigerator: A Writing Metaphor

How long has it been since you cleaned the top of your refrigerator?

Refrigerators are the least standard of modern appliances, but most are at least 70 inches tall— taller than most of us who are likely to be cleaning the tops of them.

Naturally, then, the tops of refrigerators make a great place to toss things— either decorative items, or things you know you’ll need but not right now.

Top of Fridge 2016The first thing to catch the eye on top of mine is a butter churn. Let me explain. My kitchen cabinets hold an assortment of antique and decorative items: cobalt blue canisters, wooden and pottery bowls, antique cups and a coffee pot. But the churn I used to make butter when my father bought a cow so I could learn to milk and make butter when I first moved to the ranch at nine years old is too tall for the cupboards. It’s on the refrigerator along with a basket into which my partner and I toss our receipts until one of us adds them up so we can divide our household bills evenly. Neither of us are tall enough to see the top of the refrigerator in the normal course of our daily activities. The cupboard over the refrigerator holds serving dishes I seldom use, but want to keep.

Out of sight, out of mind, runs an old saying.

However, recently I stepped up on a chair to reach a wooden bowl that was just right for serving some homemade rolls. Somehow I managed not to look too closely at the top of the refrigerator as I opened the cupboard, but I put a hand on the refrigerator top to steady myself.

Eeeuw! My hand slid in a greasy black film.

I was raised by a mother who believed a clean house superseded all other needs. I fought against her narrow views, but they affected me; once I’ve seen the top of the refrigerator, I’m doomed to clean it. I grabbed my spray bottle of the handy-dandy homemade cleaner for greasy sinks (recipe follows) and sprayed it liberally over the gunk.

As I scrubbed, it occurred to me that I had been having a hard time starting anything new the past few weeks. I’m immersed in the third or fourth or tenth draft of a book manuscript that requires daily attention as I work through its twists and turns. I need to pay attention to it, but I also need a daily lift of a new idea to inspire me.

So: how is the top of a refrigerator likely to inspire writing?

That refrigerator is in the center of our daily activities. We open it for juice and cream in the morning, for sandwich fixings at noon and to find onions for soup and limes for gin and tonics in the evening. And yet we seldom look at the top. In fact, knowing what we know, housewives may deliberately avoid looking.

Similarly, we may be searching the distance for writing ideas when we need to be focusing more closely.

The next morning, I followed my usual routine: got up, let the dogs out and back in, and settled in bed with coffee, my journal, and a book. When I opened the journal I realized that it had been days since I actually wrote anything besides the date, the weather, and what I needed to do that day, along with plans for lunch.

So on this morning I looked out the west window and noticed that the Black Hills were beginning to turn pink as the first light that would become sunrise shot up and over the house and fell on their tops. I described the almost imperceptible way the hills begin to change from black to peach-colored, a glow that seems to come from within, like a blush. As the light greCoyote 4 2015--11-26w I wrote about knowing that coyotes were working at their dawn hunts, slipping down the draws, sniffing at the rabbit holes and vole trails, and heading for their dens. I couldn’t see the coyotes, but knowing they are there reminds me that this grassland is healthy and its animals busy pursuing normal lives because I raise cattle here, rather than building Walmarts or trailer parks. And those coyotes are part of the work force that keeps the grasslands uncluttered and the air pure for the folks who are zipping up and down that highway visible out my window. Most of those folks live in one of the subdivisions popping up on former ranch land around me. They want to live in the country, but they don’t understand how dependent they are on ranchers, cows, coyotes, rattlesnakes and other prairie dwellers for the amenities that drew them out here.

Cora Corner 2016

My eyes fell on my “Grandmother Corner,” where I have framed five of my Grandma Cora Hey’s doilies, examples of her art, along with a bookmark made of needle-tatted lace from a friend and a tiny piece of Hmong embroidery that would have fascinated my grandmother. On the adjoining wall is a collage I created and framed, including photographs of Grandmother at her wedding, clowning with my mother, feeding her chickens, and reading in her favorite chair. Arranged around these photos are a handkerchief she prized, her biggest crochet hook, a buttonhook, a curling iron and a ring she treasured. Looking closely at these items, and listing them, reminded me of my grandmother’s smile, her wisdom, her hug.

LMH Coras items framed 2014--11-18 smallFifteen minutes of observation had provided me with a couple of paragraphs of writing that led me to a variety of thoughts about the world outside my bedroom, as well as reminding me of a woman I haven’t written nearly enough about.

I put down the journal and began to pet one dog while massaging the other one’s back with my feet. Before long I’d found and removed a couple of stickers, earning myself a growl, a reminder I need to check the dogs daily for stickers, parasites and good health. Though they sleep with me, it’s easy to ignore minor problems, distracted by their playfulness.

“Out of sight, out of mind.”

What is so close to you that you haven’t seen it lately?

And perhaps what have you carefully avoided looking at?

Try this tomorrow: sit down with your journal and look. Describe what you see. Tell your journal what it means to you. See where these thoughts may lead. My reflections here total slightly more than a thousand words, from fifteen minutes of paying attention.

And clean the top of your refrigerator. Here’s my homemade sink disinfectant, made from a recipe I found online; it cuts grease and kills most germs. I use it on my sink, stove, and counters too.

2 Tablespoons dish soap
1 Cup vinegar
2 Tablespoon lemon juice

Put this in an 18-ounce spray bottle and fill with water. Spray happily!

 

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

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© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Scenes from Surgery: Seeing When I Can’t See

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

In the mirror, I hardly recognize myself without glasses.

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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