Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Let’s talk writing & photography at a Local Authors Fair November 3, 2017

A promo posted at Buckham Memorial Library for the November 9 Local Authors Fair.

 

TERM ME A WRITER, author, poet, blogger, storyteller, wordsmith, photographer, artist. All fit me and my passions—writing and photography.

 

Buckham Memorial Library, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Next week I’ll share those passions at a Local Authors Fair from 6 – 7 p.m. Thursday, November 9, in the Great Hall of Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault. You’re invited to come and visit with me and 13 area writers.

 

My poem initially published in In Retrospect, The Talking Stick, Volume 22, an anthology published by The Jackpine Writers’ Bloc based in northern Minnesota. This past spring Rochester Minnesota composer David Kassler transformed the poem into a song performed by a Chamber Choir at two concerts in Rochester. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

 

This informal drop-in fair presents a wonderful opportunity to network and to show folks my work—I’m bringing lots of samples. I’m ready, too, to talk about the craft of writing. Writing truly is a craft honed through decades of experience. From pounding out hard news stories under deadline to penning poetry to blogging and more, I’ve covered most aspects of writing. As a wordsmith, I remain passionately passionate about my love of language and of storytelling.

 

A serene country scene in Redwood County, Minnesota, where I grew up. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Through the years, my voice has evolved. I write with a strong sense of place rooted in my native southwestern Minnesota. That stark land created in me an awareness of details—of heat shimmering waves above cornfields, of a whipping prairie wind driving snow across gravel roads, of rough cow tongues slurping water from drinking cups…

 

In 2012, my poem, “Her Treasure,” was selected for inclusion in a poet-artist collaboration at Crossings at Carnegie in Zumbrota. Connie Ludwig, right, created a watercolor, “Pantry Jewels,” inspired by my poem. See the art behind me. This is an example of my rural-rooted poetry. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

I write in a way that’s earthy and accessible. Rural. Homey. Comfortable. When you read my work, you understand me. I am genuine and unpretentious.

 

Me shooting lake scenes while on a boat ride on a lake south of Park Rapids in mid-September. Photo courtesy of Jackie Hemmer at Who Will Make Me Laugh.

 

And I’m ready to answer questions about writing and photography at the Authors Fair. I’ve even prepared hand-outs with basic writing and photography tips, including a poetry tutorial dissecting my published poem “This Barn Remembers.”

 

 

In addition, you can purchase a recently-published anthology, Fine Lines, The Talking Stick, Volume 26, which includes five of my works: my award-winning short story, “Art Obsession,” another short story, two pieces of creative nonfiction and a poem. The collection features writing by 99 other Minnesota authors. I will have limited copies available for $10.

And then just to sweeten the pot, I’m giving away chocolate. Grab a mini candy bar and let’s talk about the craft of writing and the art of photography.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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In the dark of the night along a rural Minnesota roadway… November 2, 2017

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A semi awaits the harvest. Photo used for illustration purposes only and not at the same location where this story takes place. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2014.

 

AHEAD OF US along the side of a county road between Faribault and Medford, hazard lights from a tractor trailer pulsated amber into the blackness of a late autumn evening.

A few miles away, combines spotlighted cornfields as farmers worked the night shift in an already late harvest season.

In the rural blackness, our 2003 Chevy Impala beamed headlights through the deep dark, our eyes scanning ditches for deer evicted from fields.

The setting was prime for drama, for threatening possibilities, for imaginations to race rampant.

And then it happened. As we edged even with the parked semi near the county line and our turn-off intersection, the driver stepped from the cab, hailing us. Randy stopped the car. I rolled down the window and the stranger approached. I never considered in that moment the possibility of danger. It was only afterward when friends questioned our decision that I evaluated our choice. But in this moment, this man needed assistance.

Randy pulled the car ahead to a safer spot. Then the stranger leaned toward me, handed me a slip of paper, cigarette breath hanging in the air. I pulled down the visor, flipped up the mirror cover to unleash light. He spoke in jerks of thickly-accented words. “No English. Ukraine, Poland…”

He pointed to the paper again. And we understood that this Ukrainian needed to find his delivery destination. Here, in this countryside where the wind whipped across fields in bone-chilling cold. Here, where dark prevailed. We pulled our smartphones out and Randy punched in the address. We were there, at the driver’s destination. But in the blackness, we perceived nothing except the faint outlines of grouped buildings.

I tried to explain that we would turn around, check out the location and return. But the driver didn’t understand and started walking, swallowed by the darkness. Randy followed. Except I didn’t know that he planned, too, to disappear into that roadway ribbon of blackness. As the minutes ticked by and I waited, my angst rose. Where was my husband? Had this stranger robbed him, assaulted him, pushed him into the road ditch…?

I picked up my phone, punched the green icon connecting to Randy’s phone. He answered. My fear lessened. “Where are you?” I asked.

“Walking back,” he assured. “There in a minute.” And he was, along with the truck driver.

Still, we hadn’t solved the problem. Randy thought the destination business had a second access. There was none, only a single gated road in and no room for a tractor trailer to park until the next morning. Our efforts to communicate in English with the driver failed. So I resorted to mimicking sleep, the rising sun and turn around and go back to town with my arms. Finally he understood and thanked us profusely.

We left the trucker there on the side of the county road, in the blackness of night. Hours later we retraced our route home to find the semi gone, presumably parked miles away at a truck stop for the night. And we wondered about the Ukrainian, how he had come to be a commercial truck driver lost on a rural southeastern Minnesota roadway in the season of harvest.

 

TELL ME: Would you have stopped if this trucker flagged you down along a remote rural roadway in the dark of night?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

As health insurance costs rise, so does my personal financial concern November 1, 2017

 

EVERY YEAR ABOUT THIS TIME, my blood pressure temporarily spikes in response to my anger. Anger about ever-rising health insurance premiums depleting our family pocketbook faster than a pick pocket.

I’ve vented and raged and spewed my discontent here. My jaw drops. My mind thinks a few unprintable words. My stress rises. How can we continue to pay these astronomical premiums and still have money for basic needs like food, gas, utilities, clothes, etc?  I am thankful Randy and I paid off our mortgage decades ago, that our three kids are out of college and independent, that we’re OK driving aging (2003 and 2005) vehicles… We’ve always been, out of necessity, fiscally conservative, just as we were raised within poor rural families.

Let’s break it down. Health insurance premiums for my husband and me (I’m on his work plan) will go up $190 from $873/month to $1,000/month in 2018. That’s for each of us. Randy’s employer pays half his premium, $500. So we will shell out $1,500/month, or $18,000/annually. But before insurance kicks in, we must pay $3,600 each in deductibles. Alright then.

Let’s recrunch those numbers. In reality, our premiums are $1,300/month each if we need medical care and reach our deductibles. Times two, that’s $2,600/month or $31,200/year. Subtract the $6,000 Randy’s employer pays for his insurance and we’re down to $25,200. Still.

This year I met my $3,700 deductible. But I paid out $14,176 in premiums and deductible for around $4,000 (maybe a bit more; some bills haven’t processed yet) in medical expenses. I’m no math whiz. But even I can see that makes zero financial sense.

Holy, cow.

Somehow we’ve managed on a modest income, Randy’s as an automotive machinist and mine as a self-employed photographer and writer. But these latest insurance premium hikes are pushing us to a financial breaking point. I need to figure out an alternative to the $1,500 to be deducted from Randy’s paychecks each month for health insurance in 2018. Our incomes are not increasing to meet this through-the-roof expense.

My kneejerk brainstorming produced the following options and reactions:

  • Go without health insurance. Not a good idea given our ages and the financial risk.
  • Find jobs with better benefits. At age 61, that’s unlikely.
  • Take on second part-time jobs.
  • Use a Christian-based health cost sharing plan. A strong possibility that requires additional investigation.

Our eldest daughter suggested we move to Canada with its publicly-financed healthcare. I know little about that system. But in a recent conversation with a Canadian visiting her brother here in Minnesota, I heard all about the shortage of doctors and the months of waiting to see one. Even if you’re seriously ill. No, thank you. Besides, I won’t move that far from my granddaughter.

There you go. Now, on to the research, the discussions, the continuing frustration and anger and stress and number crunching that each autumn overtake me.

I’ve joked with Randy that soon he’ll pay his employer to work because nothing will remain of his paychecks. I wish that statement didn’t feel uncomfortably close to reality.

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AS BAD AS THE RATE HIKES would be for us, I know it could be worse. I’ve seen rates from a major carrier for individual off-exchange health insurance in my county of Rice and seven other southern Minnesota counties. If I chose the bronze plan (least expensive) with a $6,650 deductible, my monthly premium would be $1,361. Take that premium and deductible times two (there would be no subsidy from Randy’s employer) and our health coverage would cost $45,964 before medical bills would be covered. Holy cow. Who can afford that? Not us.

I realize many of you, especially self-employed small business owners or employees of small businesses, are dealing with the same absurd health insurance premiums. I don’t have an answer. I just know that the escalating cost of health insurance is creating a personal financial crisis for many of us. Additionally, because of those costs and matching high deductibles, we can’t afford medical care. Now does that make sense?

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TELL ME: Are you dealing with/facing similar skyrocketing health insurance premiums? I’d like to hear about your situation and what you are doing. Are you going without insurance? Selected another option? Found a job with better benefits? Whatever you have done, or haven’t, I’m listening.

Please note that I moderate all comments. So please keep the discussion on topic and civil.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts from Minnesota after the Halloween Day terrorist attack in NYC October 31, 2017

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Assorted squash in Hayfield, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, October 2016

 

AT THE KITCHEN COUNTER, I position the knife across the squash, pushing hard to slice through the tough skin. When that effort fails, I thwack the squash against the cutting board, splitting the garden fresh produce in half.

 

 

As I work, the television blares a news conference from the living room. I sprinkle sea salt and grind fresh pepper onto the squash, add pinches of brown sugar and dabs of butter. In between I strain to hear the words of public officials talking about the latest terrorist attack, this time in my country, in Lower Manhattan in New York City.

Far removed from Minnesota, this attack still hits home. A bike path. A school bus. The selected weapon of terror—a rental truck from The Home Depot. Ordinary. Everyday. Unexpected. People just going about their daily routines. On Halloween afternoon.

As details unfold, I hear of eight dead and a dozen or more injured, bikers and pedestrians plowed down on that bike path. And then that school bus, with two adults and two children inside also struck by the rental truck.

Now he’s in custody, a 29-year-old suspect labeled as a terrorist. Shot. Hospitalized. Under investigation.

Back in my Minnesota kitchen, I slide the pan of squash into the oven. Soon the scent of autumn permeates my home. The TV still blares. And I think of family on the East Coast, although not in NYC. I grab my cell phone and text I love you! Happy Halloween! to my son in Boston. At times like this, I want nothing more than to hold close those dearest to me.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Gotcha: A pre-Halloween scare

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Three almost ghost-like faces, with undefined, haunting eyes, created by Pam Bidelman, and featured in a 2012 exhibit at the Arts Center of Saint Peter. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

WHEN THE DOORBELL BINGED twice in rapid succession Saturday evening, my body pumped adrenalin. The ringing happened at the precise moment of intense drama in a psychological thriller unfolding on our DVD player.

I’ve heard this type of hurry-up-and-answer-your-door ring before, years ago when a young man appeared on our stoop seeking protection from a group of men pursuing him. In that panic of phoning 911, of split second decisions, of waiting for the cops, I felt exposed to real, definitive danger.

 

 

This time I expected a law enforcement officer at my door given the darkened hour. Instead, when I switched on the exterior light and peered through the narrow glass in the deadbolted front door, I saw nothing. No shadowy figure. Nothing.

 

 

Until I looked to the bottom step. And then my mind clicked into relief mode, to understanding that an unknown person left a Halloween treat for us. After Randy retrieved the treats—by that time he’d already sprung from his comfortable spot—we discovered that we’d been BOOed. That seems a fitting word given the pre-Halloween scare.

 

 

Once we recovered, we fingered through an oversized seasonal mug holding mini candy bars, a Little Debbie snack, two packets of hot chocolate, a mini scarecrow and my favorite, a blinking jack-o-lantern ring. You can bet I’ll sport that this evening when doorbell-ringing ghosts and goblins arrive, perhaps even the mysterious ghost who BOOed us. I have my suspicions about that spirit’s identity…

 

FYI: We’ve been recipients of such kindness in the past, although not on Halloween. But a cousin and an aunt have continued to haunt me each Halloween with the story of Annie Mary Twente. We’ve carried out such stealthy under-the-cover-of-darkness missions on unsuspecting friends on other occasions like Valentine’s Day.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Biancabella, books & bliss at Becky’s bookshop October 30, 2017

 

PRINCESS BIANCABELLA first drew me to the business along Milaca’s main drag. Stretched out atop carpet next to stacks of books in the front window display area, the calico cat appeared blissfully content. Not even my photographic efforts disturbed her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The scene delighted me—this bookstore cat in one window, a vintage typewriter in another and a creative OPEN sign crafted from a book and propped outside Bexter Book & Copy.

 

 

It’s not often anymore that you find an independent bookstore, especially in a town the size of Milaca with not quite 3,000 residents. This shop, which opened about a year ago, anchors a corner of the downtown business district in an historic building. And it appears the owner, Rebecca Rittenour, is working hard to make her business a success. She not only sells new and used books, but also offers hometown copy services and engages her patrons via a Mystery Book Club, creative in-store displays and more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I especially like her artistic vignettes that encourage folks to shop local. I didn’t speak much with Becky other than to greet her, ask for permission to photograph and praise her store. But I got the sense, both from wandering the bookshop and from reading the Bexter website and Facebook page, that she truly holds a passion for books and for sharing her love and knowledge with others. That’s always the benefit of shopping local—excellent customer service from a passionate shopkeeper.

 

 

 

 

Milaca is fortunate to have an independent bookstore with books tucked into open drawers, filed onto shelves and showcased in artful ways.

 

 

On my quick stop in town, this bookshop charmed me with its vivid chartreuse walls, homey character and resident princess cat.

 

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite independent bookstore? If yes, what delights you and draws you to this bookshop?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part III from Hackensack: A close call along Highway 371 October 27, 2017

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TOOLING ALONG MINNESOTA State Highway 371 just south of Hackensack on the second to last day of our Up North vacation, Randy and I chatted and watched the northwoods landscape pass by. We’d had a good past five days exploring this part of the state, attending a book release party and visiting with friends.

Except for the cool and rainy mid-September weather and me forgetting my swimsuit, our much-needed get-away to the Brainerd Lakes and Park Rapids areas and to Hackensack had gone well. But that almost changed. Almost.

Ahead of us on the shoulder of the opposite traffic lane, we spotted a large bird huddled and feasting on roadkill. We expected a crow.

But as the van drew nearer, we identified the bird as a bald eagle. With my Canon DSLR camera in my lap, I was excited about the prospect of photographing the eagle.

 

An eagle sculpture at Veterans Memorial Park in Morristown. Imagine if this was a live eagle flying over your vehicle. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012 used here for illustration purposes only.

 

That did not happen because…moments before our vehicle drew even with the eagle, the bird lifted off from the roadside. That would have been OK except for one problem. The eagle flew directly toward our traffic lane and our van.

In that moment, thoughts flashed of the eagle slamming into, and through, our windshield. Instinctively I ducked. Massive talons and an impressive wing span filled my view as the eagle flew over our windshield. This bird of prey is much larger than you think when observed from an underside open wing span perspective.

Randy estimates the eagle missed our van by four feet. He later told me he swerved slightly toward the fog line hoping to soften the blow of impact. I had no sense of him doing that.

Looking back on this incident, I am thankful the eagle cleared our windshield. But I’m kicking myself for missing what would have been a heckuva photo.

 

FYI: This concludes my series from Hackensack. Click here to read my first post and then my second.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling