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.

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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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Announcing . . .

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

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

WriteNow book held outside SMALL

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

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

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

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

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

My primary self-appointed job is writing for the purpose of helping people to appreciate the treasure this nation has in the grasslands of the Great Plains, and the ranchers who have preserved it for us, full of clean air, uncorrupted soil, and pure water.

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

One of my most useful writing tools has been my journal, and I believe strongly in the power of journaling to aid self-discovery. Write fiercely in your journal, I say, write recklessly. Do not let your inner editor slow you down. Do not channel that English teacher in high school who always found an error. Don’t think about spelling or grammar or how this will look in print. Emote. Stomp through the words. Fling handfuls of syllables in the air and let them land on your paper. Often the heat of the anger or the pain of the loss or the joy of the new love will inspire the perfectly correct words that will never emerge if you think “someone is going to read this.” Journals must be private; no one should read your journal any more than a stranger can pry open your brain and look inside. Your journal is your freedom, your inspiration, your guide, and ultimately your resource.

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

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

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

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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

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.

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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.

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PO Box 169
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What Shall I Wear?

Clothes mean nothing until someone lives in them.
— Marc Jacobs

The last time Jerry and I went to town, we did our usual town chores: got groceries, picked up some lumber for his building project, exchanged my library books.

When we got home, we both changed clothes before we went out to walk the dog. The clothes we wear to town are a bit nicer, more coordinated, and cleaner than those we don at home.

clothes - high heeled shoes

Later in the afternoon I visited a ranch woman from this community who lives with her daughter in another state, but comes back to her ranch once a month or so. Throughout my childhood, she was the style icon in our church, always perfectly dressed in suits and high heels, her long hair neatly wrapped and decorated, and wearing perfectly applied makeup. Even in church, I heard murmurs of envy and caught sidelong glances from other women.

On this day, I was interviewing her for a local history, collecting her memories of the county inhabitants. She had dressed for our interview in a stylish suit, nylons, high heels and earrings. I was, of course, wearing sweat pants and a loose t-shirt because I had changed when we got home from town. As I was putting on my coat to leave, another question occurred to me.

When she lived on the ranch, I asked, did she differentiate between “town clothes” and work clothes? And how does she dress now that her home is an assisted living unit in a town?

Oh yes! “I still won’t wear jeans to town,” she said. “Or shorts.”

She’s not ignoring the fact that she has left her ranch and lives in a metropolis, but her terminology remains the same: when she leaves home, she is going “to town”; she doesn’t consider jeans or shorts appropriate to her age and social status.

As we talked, it became clear that she had two additional categories of clothing: church duds, and tattered old rags for particularly messy ranch jobs.

Now in her nineties, she’s developed these habits through the years, and she’s unlikely to change. I’m twenty years younger, and raised by a woman of her generation, but I’ve made compromises. I often wear jeans or sweatpants to town, but I’d never wear shorts in public– at least not in this state. I’ve rarely worn shorts on vacations a long way away from home.

She wears her clothes, as if they were thrown on her with a pitchfork.
— Jonathan Swift, Polite Conversation, 1738?

My mother was raised in the country, so she trained me in this general concept when I was five years old and we still lived in town. She required me to get into “after-school clothes” before I was allowed to play cowboys and Indians in the alley with the neighbor boy. Lacy dresses and uncomfortable patent leather dress shoes were only for church. I wonder if my avoidance of church stems from that discomfort.

Clothes - after school cowboy 1950While she thought I was too young to make my own clothing choices, Mother saw me dressed and then sent me out to play while she got ready. My father would be wearing his suit, sitting in the car, waiting. I was– and am– utterly unable to go outside without pulling a weed, picking up a rock, kneeling to look at a bug or a plant. When I did so in my dress clothes, my mother’s fury was loud, colorful, and usually painful.

Clothes - patent leather shoes and fancy dress 1951As soon as I was old enough to get a horse, Mother discovered more clothing nuances. When I rode horseback, I must wear a broad-brimmed hat to protect the complexion she was sure would help me attract boys, since, she said, I wasn’t particularly beautiful.

She insisted I wear riding boots because ordinary shoes might get caught in a stirrup so I could be injured or killed if the horse bolted. I needed overshoes to cover either work or school shoes when it was muddy. I never wore sandals; rattlesnakes could be anywhere outside.

Like many country kids, I grew up, went to school, and learned a profession. As a college teacher, I dressed in suits, though I never wore high heels. Eventually, I moved back to the ranch, where I am now able to work in my own office, on my own time, and in clothing that I choose.

Naturally, with my partner Jerry, a retired highway department engineer, I have simplified my clothes stratification. Jerry was required to wear a jacket, dress pants, and a tie to work every day for thirty-five years. On “casual Fridays,” he could skip the tie. His only rebellion during his work years was to cut his hair only when one of his bosses insisted he do so. As a joke, he once directed his barber to leave a long, slender tail of hair hanging down his back, and got away with it for days before one of his superiors happened to notice his back view and laughed, but threatened to get the scissors. I cut the rattail off to the tune of considerable cussing.

So when he retired, Jerry got rid of most of his ties. He keeps his dress jacket in a bag in the basement and wears it only for funerals. When he’s in his wood or blacksmith shop, his work clothes are clearly identifiable by sawdust, grease stains, threadbare spots, and sometimes patches or rips. When he heads for town, he usually puts on a clean tee-shirt and jeans unless we are hauling the garbage in the pickup.

My work is mostly gardening or writing in my office, so the first requirement for my daily work clothes is comfort. For ordinary trips to town, I may wear pants or an ankle-length denim skirt. For an evening out or a speech, I wear a long skirt. I don’t wear short-sleeved shirts; I’m over 70.

Time and circumstance dictate my gardening wardrobe. I prefer loose-fitting denim coveralls with long-sleeved shirts (against thorns, mosquitoes and flies), tall boots (against rattlesnakes) and a broad-brimmed hat (skin cancer.)

Clothes - gardening hat and overalls 2013

Visitors who arrive in sandals or flip-flops give me nightmares. Not only are they ignoring or uninformed about rattlesnakes and stickers, they haven’t given much thought to strolling through pastures frequented by cows.

I don’t attend church regularly, but for funerals, I wear a skirt. Even with my loose dress code, I have been astonished to see women at funerals wearing pants, and even jeans or shorts. Men appear in everything from shorts to coveralls.

What about church, I asked my retired rancher friend; what does she wear to church?

“It’s a matter of respect,” she retorted. “I dress up when we go to church. That means I wear a dress. My son-in-law, on the other hand . . .”

Well, I’ll skip that part of our conversation. Let it suffice to say that apparently many people younger than I view these matters differently, and “respect” isn’t part of their criteria for choosing clothes.

I believe I’ll stick with Thoreau’s advice.

Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.
— Thoreau, Walden.

Considering Thoreau’s wisdom, I realize that there is a connection between writing and the clothes we choose to wear. Picture your at-home clothes as the rough draft of your writing. Like clothing, the rough draft needs to be roomy, loose-fitting enough to be comfortable. If you set out to Write A Poem, your language may be as stilted as high heels or a tight necktie. Naturally, if I am reading my poems to an audience, I dress in my best clothes that are still comfortable. But for writing, comfort comes first.

Just as your relaxing clothes need to be worn soft from use, so your language needs to be familiar, to slide easily to tongue or pen– not fancy words plucked from a thesaurus or rhyming dictionary. When you begin to write, tell the story as though you were speaking to a friend over lunch, not as though you are an English professor in front of a freshman class.

Similarly, the rhythm of your writing needs to begin, at least, with the familiar cadence of conversation rather than the footnoted formality of a Ph.D. thesis. Don’t begin by selecting a poetic form and trying to squeeze your words into it; let what you have to say dictate the form.

Virginia Woolf once said

Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have . . . more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.

Just so does your poetry have more to do than merely to fill white space on a page. Carefully selected words can change our view of the world– and the world’s view of us. Take time to break in your words in multiple drafts of whatever you write.

Because poems, like clothes, mean nothing until someone lives in them.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Language That Makes Me Grouchy

Westie Snarling because he hates misused phrases

Lately I’ve found myself snarling when I see language usages that are blatantly incorrect. And I see them everywhere, every day. As a responsible writer, I feel it’s my duty to call attention to these mistakes.

I most often explode when reading one of my local newspapers, The Rapid City Journal, for which I was once an intern as well as a regular staffer. I worked and learned during the reign of the late Jim Kuehn, who would never have put up with any of these insults to the language we were taught to revere.

And when I worked for the Sioux City Journal in college, Harvey, the gravel-voiced local editor, would have bellowed the name of the offending writer across the newsroom and explained the error at the top of his lungs so that no writer in the place missed the message. He referred to this method as “educating journalists.” I wish more journalists had studied in those tough schools.

Here are some usages I’ve read lately which are incorrect or just plain annoying.

We’ve been experiencing some issues that have interrupted service.

No, your organization has had problems, it has had outages, or it has had interruptions, but it has not had “issues.” My favorite dictionary, The American Heritage, lists 8 definitions with some sub-definitions for the word “issue” and none of them makes “experiencing some issues” correct.

She shared with me that you would like a ride to the auditorium.

People seem to share all kinds of things these days– diseases, meals, spouses– but what “she” did was tell you that I wanted a ride to the auditorium.

The registration lives in a folder in the glove box.

Yes, the registration is in the glove box, eating, defecating, taking showers and calling its friends at 3 a.m.  Get a pet. This is paper; it is not alive. You risk dismemberment if you tell me your bicycle lives in the garage.

I’m adulting.

No you’re not. You’re adulterating a perfectly respectable noun with a confusing addition. Adult is a noun. Adding “ing” does not make it a verb, and might lead to similar attempts to turn perfectly good words into some cutesy cliché. We already have “I’m penciling you in,” which is more than enough. Stop it right now! From now on, I’m going to assume everyone who uses the term ADULTING is ADULTERATING the language by committing ADULTERY.

To my horror, I see that the Rapid City Journal of March 28 printed an advertisement from Black Hills State University offering an “Adulting Seminar.” Worse yet, it’s the second such day-long event, in which students are taught “life skills necessary for success after college.” The program’s host says, “Many students enter the workforce without knowing the basics of buying a home, purchasing insurance or borrowing money.” Apparently those who will be teaching those very necessary skills have entered the workforce without having any respect for correct grammar. And in two years of advertising this program, no one has corrected the advertisement.

“here here”

What you mean to say is “Hear! Hear!” The phrase “hear him, hear him!” was used in Parliament from late in the 17th century, and was reduced to “hear!” or “hear, hear!” by the late 18th century. The verb hear had earlier been used in the King James Bible as a command for others to listen.

“for all intensive purposes”

You mean “for all intents and purposes,”

The phrase “to all intents, constructions, and purposes” dates from sixteenth-century English law. Later, the shortened “for (or to) all intents and purposes” became more popular than the original phrase. It means “in every practical sense” or “virtually.”

“Intensive” means “characterized by intensity.”

these impulses need to be reigned in

It is highly unlikely that a ruling monarch will be restraining your impulses; instead, like an unruly horse, they will be “reined in,” or controlled, possibly with a couple of leather straps.

The older children reigned in the toddlers

I threw the mystery in which this phrase appeared across the room for several reasons but this was the proverbial last straw. In this instance, apparently the older children brought the toddlers under control by “exercise of sovereign power,” rather than by “reining” them in, or restraining, checking or guiding them.

My head hurts as if it were in a vice

The word needed here is vise, which refers to a metal tool with movable jaws that are used to hold an object firmly in place while work is done in it. This clamping device is typically attached to a workbench.

“Vice” on the other hand is “immoral or wicked behavior.” And certainly the vice of drinking might cause your head to hurt, but that’s no excuse for this mistake.

A crashed drone attached with bags of marijuana and tobacco was found. . . .

No, the drone had bags of marijuana and tobacco attached to it.

All this will help to grow the economy

No: all this will help to improve the economy, or make it better, or increase its profit margin. The economy is not alive; it cannot grow.

campaign to grow their space

This one gets another usage note in my American Heritage, which says this transitive use “applied to business and nonliving things is quite new. It came into full bloom during the 1992 presidential election, when nearly all the candidates were concerned with ‘growing the economy.’ The Usage Panel is decidedly less fond of this development than business leaders and politicians are. Eighty percent of the panel rejects the phrase grow our business.”  Again, I am delighted to be in the majority.

The note continues that “The Panel has no affection for the odd but occasionally heard phrase grow down: 98 percent reject ‘If elected, I shall do my utmost to grow down the deficit.’” Shudder. I will never vote for a politician who uses these phrasings.

The boy dreams of being an iconic figure in baseball. Lady Gaga is known for her iconic outfits.

The first definition of “icon” is simply “an image,” but the second is “a representation or picture of a sacred or sanctified Christian personage.” So the reader of this overused word might surmise that the boy would like to become a Christian figure in baseball, and Lady Gaga is known for dressing like a Christian

A State Department spokesperson walked back his comments about the crisis in Korea

He didn’t walk anywhere, though assigning a good long walk might give him time to reconsider his hasty comments and his grammar. The man changed his mind, or misspoke, or lied, or maybe really wished he hadn’t said that, or was ordered to retract the statement, but he didn’t walk anywhere. He wants us to forget what he said the first time.

He was pouring over the document

If he was “pouring” something over the document, we need to know what liquid he was using. If he was “poring” over it, he was studying it closely

People tell me that they reached out to me when I’ve never met them.

They did not stretch out a body part to touch me, and they did not touch me– the top two dictionary definitions of “reach.” If they want to talk with me, they could email, or telephone (if they can find my unlisted number), or use Facebook. But if they tell me they are “reaching out” to me, I probably won’t answer.

was found inside the burnt home

No, it was found in the burned home, the past tense of burn. Burnt sugar and burnt toast are both more common in published text than burned sugar or burned toast, but both are incorrect. Burnt is also used in color names like burnt umber and burnt sienna, so this common mistake is easier to understand. I, however, do not forgive it.

breaks silence

This term might be appropriate if a monk or a nun who had taken vows not to speak and hadn’t uttered a sound for 65 years decided to address the nation, but for some rock star to use the term to explain the lyrics of his latest song, or a spurned lover to call a news conference to talk about the unreasonable demands made by the ex– no.

I wanted to connect with you

If “connection” is what you have in mind, I consider your suggestion obscene and insulting, though all you really have done so far is to write me a letter. I do not “connect” with folks to whom I do not have a close romantic relationship.

a haunting first novel

When “haunting” is used to describe a first novel, the reviewer is using the dictionary definition of “unforgettable,” but I’ve seen few first novels that weren’t easy to forget. Rather, the overuse of this word suggests to me that the book being reviewed was a ghost of what a novel should be: a pale shadow of good writing, as if the writer had heard of the rules of good English but like some government officials, doesn’t believe in them.

Or perhaps the novel most resembled someone dressed in a sheet and waving their arms, a ghost of a novel composed of poor spelling, terrible grammar, flimsy plots and unbelievable characters who never come to life.

My vacay this year

If you’re too exhausted to say the entire word– “vacation”– you’d better stay home or get to a doctor.

she will graduate high school

I was fascinated to discover an extensive note in The American Heritage Dictionary about this usage. The preferred definition is this: “Graduate: to be granted an academic degree or diploma.”

At the bottom of the page appears the following:  “Usage note: The verb graduate has denoted the action of conferring an academic degree or diploma since at least 1421. Accordingly, the action of receiving a degree should be expressed in the passive, as in She was graduated from Yale in 1998. . . . In general usage, however, it has largely yielded to the much more recent active pattern (first attested in 1807): She graduated from Yale in 1998. Eighty-nine percent of the panel accepts this use. . .The Usage Panel feels quite differently about the use of graduate to mean ‘to receive a degree from,’ as in ‘She graduated Yale in 1998.’ Seventy-seven percent object to this usage.”

You may count me among those conscientious objectors– a clear majority!

An historian from this region wrote that the locals in one of South Dakota’s wilder regions “distain the sight of a tire track.”

What he meant to indicate was that these ranchers viewed a tire track with “disdain: To regard or treat with haughty contempt; despise.” I had picked up this book at my local library; I quickly put it down again and advised the librarian of its error.

body wash

I’ve even seen ads for “anti-cellulite body wash;” does anyone really believe that taking a bath will remove cellulite? Here’s an ad for “foamous” body wash– what in the world does that do? How about “energizing” or “calming” cleanser? “Age defying renewing” body wash? “Nourishing” herbal body wash?

“Virgin coconut oil”: well, we wouldn’t want coconut oil that had been around the block a time or two, now would we? “Shower gel” promises to keep your skin “fresh,” but I suspect that if you sweat when you work out, it won’t be “fresh” long.

When I want to get clean, I’ll still reach for soap. I just wish there was a “mouth wash” to clean these words and phrases off the tongues of the speakers who use them.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Westies happy about well-written work

Neither the snarling Westie who hates misused phrases, at the beginning of this blog, nor these two Westies who are pleased with well-written prose, are my dogs. These photos were borrowed from the internet with my thanks.

Monitoring Your Time

Journal-Writing Workshop for Hermosa Arts and History Association 2019--3-16

I mentioned this exercise in a journal-writing workshop I just taught for the Hermosa Arts and History Association (HAHA) on Saturday, March 16th, 2019.

If you take one week to monitor where you spend your time you will discover what your current priorities are, even if they are unintentional. Once you realize where your time is going, you can choose your priorities and make changes in how you spend your time so that you can accomplish your goals– in this case, writing goals.

Here’s how:

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The Time Monitor

Create a graph of an entire week, breaking days into increments of 15 minutes. To be precise, you will need 48 lines to record what you do each 15-minute segment of a 12-hour day [96 lines for a 24-hour day]. You can shorten the graph by using larger blocks of time for activities that don’t vary, such as sleeping and going to work.

Along the side of each page, use a separate line to record each category of activity on which you spend time: sleeping, eating, work. Add other personal major categories: … cooking, other employment, television, walking. Leave some blank lines to add things you don’t think of at first. I suggest you devote a single page to each day, and staple the pages together to form a handy-sized booklet.

Yes, this is a lot of work. It’s worth your time.

Time Monitor* Schedule the things you must do first: work, appointments fixed in advance. Then add daily activities like sleeping and eating; be realistic.

* Include errand time. Little things can destroy any schedule if you let them crop up in the middle of other jobs. Once you set aside time to do laundry, get groceries, ONLY do those jobs at that time. DO NOT allow yourself to leap up in the middle of a poem to run to the store. Tell your family, “Sorry we don’t have whipped cream, but we were out (maybe someone used the last of it without writing it on the grocery list?) and I was working, so I couldn’t go get it.”

* Schedule enjoyment, and choose what it will be. Rather than sit blindly in front of the TV, decide you’ll take a walk during that time, refreshing mind and body. Remember, physical activity is necessary for health, and many writers say it helps break writer’s block.

* After you have included everything above, then set goals for your writing time; be realistic; don’t schedule yourself for 8 hours of writing beginning at 9 p.m. Friday.

Carry the chart with you for one week. The time spent filling it out will be worthwhile in helping you create a realistic plan for scheduling writing time along with your other responsibilities.

How to Benefit from the Time Monitor

At the end of the week, add up the time you spent doing each item. These figures will tell you how you really spent your time during that week. This means that, for that week, the categories that took the most time were your REAL priorities– no matter what you might have told yourself or others.

Time Monitor with notesIf you say writing is a priority, but at the end of a week have spent more time baking cookies, then you know you have to work hard to change your priorities by altering your mindset as well as your actions.

Analyze how you might switch your priorities. Keep in mind your own tendencies, and don’t try to change too much too soon. That is, don’t immediately say, “Well, NEXT week I’ll spend 5 hours a day writing.” Work up to it. Figure out a new schedule, changing what you can. Maybe this week you will deduct a half an hour from one activity and add that time to something that has a higher priority. Move step by step. Don’t try to change everything at once. Follow the new schedule for a week or two, until you feel you have made improvements or until you’ve discovered what changes you still need to make.

Then make out a new time monitor, and keep track again for a week, so you can see where you have succeeded, as well as where you have failed. Give yourself rewards for what you have done well. Don’t beat yourself up with guilt. Keep working on it, and maybe once a month or so, do the time monitor again so you can see where you are improving or not.

Suggestions to Consider While Changing Your Priorities

* Try doing the jobs that are most boring first while you’re fresh, so you can get them out of the way efficiently.

* Avoid marathons sessions doing anything. Don’t try to write eight hours a day at first. When you get organized and have worked up to it, you may be able to do that once in awhile. But if you try it and “fail,” you may have a harder time convincing yourself you can, and want to, do it.

* Figure out your best time of day and write then, so you can be more forgiving of interruptions later.

* Carry your journal so you can use time spent waiting for appointments, at traffic lights, for children after school. Some people think “Five minutes isn’t long enough to do anything,” but if you’ve been thinking about or working on a poem or story, it can be time enough to come up with the solution to a problem, to outline an article, to brainstorm new ideas. Write grocery lists while waiting so you don’t have to shop more than once a week. Use waiting time to think of little jobs you can accomplish during waiting time! Often if I’ve been struggling with a particular problem, I find the solution when I leave the computer to do something else that requires little thought–washing the dishes, say, or walking dogs.

* Write regularly in one place. Obviously, one advantage is that your working materials, such as reference books, paper, pens, are together. But also your body knows where you are. When you use the same place to work every day, your body and mind become trained, sensing that it’s time to work when you are in that place, allowing you to focus more quickly and more intensely. For that reason, don’t write where you sleep– where your body and mind are trained to slow down– or vice versa; don’t eat or watch TV in your writing place.

* A ritual may be useful: perhaps looking at a particular quotation, or sharpening your pencils, or prayer might help you focus, to tell you, “OK, it’s time to stop thinking about dinner and start thinking about writing.” Anything that works for you is acceptable.

* Don’t get too comfortable. Especially if writing is new to you and you haven’t created your own disciplines and habits, trying to write while leaning against pillows on the bed can make you associate writing with drowsiness, for example. Learning– as writing is– requires energy.

* Pay attention to your attention span. Breaks in concentration may be caused by internal interruptions, your own thoughts jumping in. These thoughts may be related to what you are doing– your subconscious may be trying to give you information. Stop and examine whatever seems to be causing the gaps in concentration. If it’s not relevant, make a note to deal with it later and go on.

* Avoid noise distractions. I can’t write with the radio on– the ads drive me crazy or distract my thinking. But I do have particular music on tape or CD that seems to help me shut out other noises– traffic, for example– and which I can play while working without interruption. In my case, I don’t play music with song lyrics, because my word-oriented mind follows the lyrics instead of what I’m trying to write.

* Notice how others misuse your time. Be aware of people who call you or enter your writing space even after you’ve asked them not to. If certain friends or relatives constantly interrupt, ask yourself what this means. Are they consciously sabotaging your work? Do they not understand your need for solitude? You may have to send a clear message. Sometimes they really don’t know what kind of concentration is required by thinking. Start with gentle reminders.

In order to relieve yourself of the responsibility for making a decision about every potential interruption, try putting a humorous sign on the door:

Great American Novel Disrupted - sign

A painter in the Rockies hangs this sign on the chain that closes off the road to her house when she is in a painting or thinking mode:

“I am working today and am not receiving visitors. I know you think this doesn’t mean you because you are my banker, agent, or best friend. But it does.”

Another sculptor hangs this sign on her gate:

“Do not disturb unless I’ve won the lottery
or Jesus has been sighted on the Old Taos Highway.”

— from Women Who Run with the Wolves
Clarissa Pinkola Estés (NY: Ballantine, 1992)

If these gentler messages don’t work, discuss the problem with that person. Rather than being negative– “You are rude, you are ruining my work”– try putting the message more positively: “I am having trouble with what I’m working on and I need your help in order to concentrate. Can you keep me from being interrupted for [insert number of your choice here] hours? ”

Asking for help allows people to show their innate generosity, and they are less liable to resent it than if you lecture. Can you find a way to compliment someone– your mother, for example– while asking her not to interrupt: “Mom, you were such a help to me when I was studying French. I need you to help me now that I’ve created this writing job for myself.” Pat yourself on the back with relatives and friends; they have no idea how hard what you do is, so remark on it to them, not as a boast, but because you know they will be happy to know you finished writing five feature stories and mailed them the same day.

* Remember, writing is a job. As you begin to get organized, keep adding up the hours you spend on it, and if your goal is to be a full-time writer, aim for a 40-hour week. (And DON’T estimate what your wages are until you have prepared yourself for the shock of how far below minimum wage most writing jobs are!)

Grafton rises at 5:58 a.m. to walk on the beach for three miles before repairing to her office at 9 o’clock to begin the day’s writing. “I don’t wear pantyhose and heels, but I treat this as a job and I wear makeup. I don’t work in my pajamas.”

interview with Sue Grafton, mystery writer
Publishers Weekly, 4/20/98, p. 40-41.

* Treat the telephone as just another tool. Remember that you are in control of this machine; you pay for it. It’s hard not to answer if you hear it ring, but try not to be a telephone victim. Consider various alternatives– turning the ringer off and using answering machine or voice messaging. Again, if you have made yourself available to everyone by answering at all hours, you will need to make changes slowly. Two mornings a week, for example, you might replace your regular message with one like this: “I’m working against a deadline, so please leave a message and I’ll return your call as soon as I can.” The deadline might be your own– “I’m going to finish this today”– but use of the word implies someone is paying you, guaranteeing callers will take it more seriously.

* Learn to say “No,” a simple word that is a time saver and skill for managing your life more effectively– not rude behavior. Tell the person making a request that you have other commitments right now, and that you don’t like to take on work you can’t be sure of finishing without jeopardizing other obligations.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Organizing Your Time

* What little task can I finish in five minutes?

Maybe you can brainstorm a bit on that poem idea you had while doing the dishes. Or record the day’s writing expenses in your accounts. Doing small jobs trims a little of your list of jobs, and gives you positive feedback: “I am making progress.”

* Am I beating myself up?

Are you being too hard on yourself? Lighten up– berating yourself only wastes time you could spend on the job. Take a few deep breaths and get on with it.

I copy this combination breathing exercise and prayer into the front of each of my journals and repeat it as needed. I highly recommend going through this once if you are about to get into an argument. Rarely do I get through a day without using it once!

(Breathing in)
I am arriving;
(breathing out)
I am home.
(Breathing in)
I am here;
(breathing out)
this is now.
(Breathing in)
I am rooted;
(breathing out)
I am free.
(Breathing in)
I dwell
(breathing out)
in the ultimate.

–Buddhist gatha, prayer

Little Buddha on the Prairie

* Is this a piano?

Carpenters who build rough framework for buildings have a saying they use when they bend a nail or dent a two-by-four: “Well, this ain’t no piano.” If what you’re doing does not require perfection, don’t ask too much of yourself. On the other hand, being organized encourages you to take enough time to do each job well– doing it poorly may only mean you have to do it over.

Accept lower standards where they are appropriate, reducing your tension, and saving your energy for the times it IS a piano. Your research notes, for example, don’t have to be written in full sentences or be grammatically correct.

* How did I waste time today?

As you build better work habits, ask yourself each evening how you sabotaged yourself during the day. Once you note things you do that kill time, you’re more likely to stop yourself in the act next time. “Well, I’d love to visit some more, but I spent so much time having coffee with you yesterday that I didn’t finish this project.”

* Do you spend large blocks of time doing a single task or leapfrog from job to job?

Each of us must find our own best work method, but if you bounce from one task to another, you may never quite finish anything, growing more frustrated and scattered as you survey the undone jobs sitting around you. Blocking out a specific period of time to accomplish a single task also allows you to notify people who interrupt– that deadline, you know– and at the end of the job to feel a sense of accomplishment.

* How many of the jobs on your time chart are things you really WANT to do? Can you cut any of them out?

Using what you have learned from the time chart and your analysis, set up a schedule reflecting how you WANT to spend your time. Remember, as soon as you get serious about writing, it becomes real work and you will try to weasel out of it.

* How many of the categories on your time chart are really unavoidable? Can anyone else help you? Are all of those jobs really your responsibility? Did you take over doing dishes because your ten-year-old or your husband didn’t do them QUITE to your satisfaction? Maybe you should lower your standards, or train someone else how to do the job well.

The investment of time will pay off– often our companions have no idea how much time we spend in household chores. Your family should support you by helping with work that benefits everyone. Women often do household tasks like cooking, washing dishes, washing, folding and ironing clothes, cleaning, taking out the garbage. Yet everyone in the household eats, creating dirty dishes, wears clothes, and creates dirt and garbage. Spreading these tasks among family members can be viewed as an educational program, helping each member of the family understand the responsibilities of living. This educational program is especially useful to children, who will grow up and have their own homes where they are responsible for all these jobs.

writing and cooking -- does multi-tasking work

* Spend five minutes brainstorming, scribbling ways in which you waste time. Limit yourself to five minutes. Think about the list. Put an X by the two time-wasting habits you use most often. Write down why you think they are so attractive to you– what rewards do they offer you? What is the cost of wasting time in those ways? Review the list. Which two or three time-wasting activities can you give up tomorrow? This week? Repeat this exercise as needed.

* Would I pay myself for what I’m doing right now? A good question during the work day, particularly if you’ve just taken your third popcorn break.

An Exercise That Refreshes and Recharges

The Roaring Lion

Lock the door if you are easily embarrassed. Sit on the floor, cross-legged– with each ankle on the opposite knee if you can manage it. Shoulders back, arms extended, hanging loosely over your knees. Take a deep breath, exhale hard through your mouth. As you exhale, open your eyes wide and stick out your tongue. Spread your fingers apart and stretch your arms down. Hold the pose without inhaling for a few seconds. Close your mouth. Inhale deeply through your nostrils. Breathe out slowly through your nostrils. Relax. Repeat three times.

The work of art which I do not make, none other will ever make it.
–Simone Weil
The Notebooks of Simone Weil, 1951

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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(This blog was originally published on my website’s blog page on April 18, 2012)

 

Build a Book with Journal Entries

Journal under pillow

If you begin the habit of writing in your journal every day, you can lead yourself into writing a book– not quite painlessly.

If you sit at the computer and think:

I am going to
write a book

you may terrify yourself with the monumental nature of the task.

Instead, resolve to write a journal entry every day. Let your book build itself.

In order to make this a habit, you should choose to write at the same time. And because our days so easily fill with tasks, you might be most successful if the time you write in your journal is when you first wake up.

This arrangement may depend in part on your sleeping arrangements, but all of us require privacy early in the morning. I keep my journal beside the bed. When I get up, I usually have to let the dog out, so I also turn on the coffee and turn up the heat. By the time I’ve had a few private moments in the bathroom, the dog is ready to come in and the coffee is finished. I put a cup on my bedside table, arrange the pillows behind me, take my journal out from under the pillow beside me where it spent the night, and begin the day with the date, time, temperature and thoughts.

I keep the journal under the pillow, with a pen slipped to a blank page, because I often have a thought in the middle of the night, and can write it down immediately. If I need more light, I have on the bedside table a tiny light that clips around a pen.

WindbreakIf sitting up in bed doesn’t afford you the privacy you need, then take advantage of the bathroom: take your journal with you and begin your day in peace and quiet, writing.

One more element exists to this method of building a book from journal entries: begin thinking about, and writing about, a particular topic. No matter what else you write in your journal to begin the day, devote a few minutes to writing about that topic.

Journal entry, from Windbreak, September 29, page 22:

When the folks came back from town this afternoon, the cats had a young bird down on his back. Mother rushed over to him, and realized it wasn’t anything she’d ever seen before. They rescued it, handling it with thick gloves because of its talons, and put it in a box in the garage. I believe it’s a falcon, because of the beak, one of those tiny fast ones. They called Game, Fish and Parks, and an officer came out and picked the bird up. He’ll be fed and checked for injury, and then released. I can’t imagine how the fat, lazy barn cats ever got their claws into him in the first place, but he’s not badly hurt.

At that point, I’d told the falcon’s story and believed I was finished with it– though I didn’t even know what kind of bird the cats had caught. I did, however, study the bird closely before it was released, and identified it as a kestrel, a small hawk common on the plains as hunters of mice, grasshoppers, and the like.

But I kept thinking about the story– the cats were following their own habits, doing their feline duty by catching the bird. We interrupted the food chain by rescuing it and turning it over to a government official for release. But the bird, too, has a job — kestrels may occasionally kill cats; certainly their larger cousins the owls do. The thoughts percolated in my mind until I wrote a poem, in partial reaction to heckling by vegetarians who Land Circlebelieve I ought to get rid of cows and raise gardens, an action which would be contrary to the nature of the landscape since it would require plowing up the thin soil, exposing it to erosion. Here’s the poem I wrote from this journal entry:

What the Falcon Said

Flat on his back, feathers bloody,
surrounded by drooling cats,
the young falcon hissed,
clacked his beak, clawed air.
His feathers were bloody;
one cat licked a bleeding ear.
Falcon’s yellow eyes didn’t blink
when I picked him up
like a handful of springs,
like a grenade with the pin pulled.
None of the blood was his.

I put him high in a cedar tree.
He clutched the branch and panted,
glared at me,
then shot straight up like a bullet.
Next day, on my horse, I saw
a redwing blackbird whistling on a post
explode in the middle of a fluid run of song.
The falcon shot away, clutching the corpse.
He screeched once but I heard what he said:

Don’t expect pretty lies from me.
I know my job.
You saved me from the cats
so I could live.
I kill to eat.
So do the cats.

So do you.

© 1991, Linda Hasselstrom, Land Circle, page 192

The metaphors are not country ones, but I tried many others while I remembered and considered the feeling of that small bird in my hand.

That single event also grew into a prose piece:

Falcon Dreaming

The mind heals itself in intricate and surprising ways, and even during such serious work, demonstrates its sense of humor. One winter night I dreamed I was walking up the entrance road after getting the mail, and came upon a pile of clothing. I immediately recognized it as George’s: his worn belt, the big shoes, the circle his Skoal can left in his shirt pocket. Everything he might have worn on a normal work day was there; I unfolded each item and looked at it closely, breathed his clean scent from the wrinkles. Tucked inside, I found a note; George explained that he was really an explorer of our world, sent from an advanced, star-traveling race to see if we were civilized yet. He said he was sorry to go, but he had other planets to visit; this was his third visit, and when he came back, I would be long dead, because his kind lives so much longer than ours.

I woke up smiling, and then laughing. George was always fascinated with space, and would have traded his rifle for a chance to ride a space shuttle. He loved to read science fiction, and speculate on the possibilities of advanced races. Part of my mind was still not willing to believe that he is dead; it was comforting to fantasize that a higher duty took him elsewhere. And I still resented the well-meaning person who had laundered all the dirty clothes we left behind when we went to the hospital; only his oldest work coats and his leather buckskinning clothes still held his scent, and I longed for it enough to put it in my dream.

Another night, later in the winter, I dreamed I was on a pack trip with three other people in terrain that resembled Jackson Hole. We were well-equipped, carrying our gear on pack mules and riding good horses. The day was sunny and cold, but we were comfortable in our wool and leather rendezvous clothing, or perhaps it was really 1840. I felt no fear, only a deep freedom and joy to be riding through such country before the white man’s greed destroyed it. George wasn’t with us, but I felt comfortable with the other riders, though I can’t name them. I sensed that George would meet us somewhere ahead. I felt vibrantly alive.

While we rested high above a broad valley a brilliant turquoise falcon with gold wings alighted on my wrist. The other riders simply nodded as if he was expected, and we rode on. I was following the snow-crusted rump of a buffalo, which didn’t seem incongruous. Glancing up, I noticed that a large eagle was circling above our group, and accepted it as a sign of George’s guidance. I knew the little falcon wouldn’t leave me, and put him on my shoulder.

Suddenly the lead rider galloped over a steep wall into a streambed, and the buffalo followed. I was worried about my horse falling, so I dismounted and ran ahead; I heard the horse thrashing behind me. The falcon lifted a little from my shoulder, balancing himself with spread wings. I fell, rolled over in a flurry of snow, and stood again, brushed myself off and was ready to mount and ride on. I felt no fear, only assurance.

Almost at once I woke, encouraged by the dream. I knew the eagle was symbolic of George’s protection, as the falcon was of my own strength. I’d been doing something I was capable of, with strong friends, in the freedom and magnificence of a mountain wilderness. The white buffalo, sacred to the Lakota, was with us; I had seen him stalk into George’s hospital room, heard the rumble of his hooves, which an airman mistook for a B-1 taking off. George and I had often daydreamed about being able to live the old mountain life full-time, and apparently the dream still lived inside me. I was going to survive George’s death.

A phrase from the Navajo Beauty Way chant is inscribed inside our wedding rings: “In beauty may I walk.” George’s ring rests in a parqueted wood box on the dresser; mine is still on my finger.

-– Land Circle, p. 165-168.

Much later, I learned that the little falcon I saw was a kestrel or a merlin–it’s hard to tell the difference even with a bird book. And now, many years after George’s death, a kestrel flies overhead nearly every time I drive our entrance road.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Kestrel on electric line along ranch lane January 2019

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Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains
$14.95 – paper
Nonfiction, with poetry. A diary of a year on a cattle ranch in western South Dakota, documenting the “work, worry and wonder” of this life. (Barn Owl Books, 1987)
Read about WINDBREAK on my website

Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land
$16.95 – paper
Essays and poetry on ranching, the environment, isolation, working, rendezvous, travel, teenagers, and the death of a spouse. (Fulcrum Publishing, 1991; new edition 2008)
Read about LAND CIRCLE on my website

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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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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