Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“The Seed Keeper,” an award-winning book every Minnesotan should read June 21, 2022

Cover design by Mary Austin Speaker. Cover beadwork art by Holly Young. (Credit: Publisher, Milkweed Editions)

VISUALIZE A PACKET OF SEEDS. Then open the envelope and spill a handful of seeds onto your open palm. What do you see? You likely envision seeds planted in rich black soil, covered, watered, sprouting, growing, yielding and, then, harvested. And while that visual is accurate, seeds hold more. Much more.

Photographed at Seed Savers Exchange near Decorah, Iowa. The farm specializes in saving heirloom/heritage seeds. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo October 2018, used here for illustration only)

I just finished reading The Seed Keeper, Diane Wilson’s debut novel and winner of the 2022 Minnesota Book Award in the Novel & Short Story category. I’ve never felt so profoundly and deeply moved by a book rooted in history. Wilson’s writing is like a seed planted, nurtured, then yielding a harvest of insight and understanding.

Part of a public art installation at the Northfield Earth Day Celebration in April. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2022)

Hers is the story of the Dakota people, specifically of several generations of women, The Seed Keepers. Hers is the story of a connection to the land, sky, water, seeds and of reclaiming that relationship. Hers is a story of wrongs done to indigenous people in Minnesota, of atrocities and challenges and struggles. Past and present. Hers is a story of wrongful family separation and of reuniting with family and community.

A full view of the art planted in Northfield for Earth Day. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2022)

At the core of Wilson’s novel are the seeds. The seeds, stored in a willow basket, and eventually passed through the generations. The seeds that not only provided food for their families’ survival, but held the stories of Dakota ancestors and a way of life.

Words on a marker in Reconciliation Park in Mankato where 38 Dakota were hung on December 26, 1862. Wilson references the park, and the theme of forgiveness, in her novel. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2012)

The subject of this book holds personal interest to me because of its setting in southwestern Minnesota, site of The US-Dakota War of 1862. Wilson covers that war, including the hanging of 38 Dakota warriors in Mankato. As a native of Redwood County, I studied that war, even researched and wrote a term paper on the topic some 50 years ago. But I expect if I read that paper now, I would find many inaccuracies. My writing was shaped by the White (settlers’) narrative without consideration of the Dakota. I long ago realized the failings of that narrow-minded, biased perspective.

Even though I wasn’t taught the whole story, at least I was aware of The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. It was centered in my home region and in neighboring Brown County, where my maternal ancestors fled their rural New Ulm farm for safety in St. Peter. Many Minnesotans, I’ve discovered, are unaware of this important part of our state’s history.

The Seed Keeper, though fictional, reveals just how devastating this war was to the Dakota people in removal from their native land, in their imprisonment and in efforts by Whites to control and shape them. I found this sentence penned by the author to be particularly powerful: What the white settlers called progress was a storm of fury thundering its way across the land, and none of us were strong enough to withstand it.

This 67-ton Kasota stone sculpture stands in Reconciliation Park in Mankato. It symbolizes the spiritual survival of the Dakota People and honors the area’s Dakota heritage. The park is the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2019)

Still, strength sprouts and grows in The Seed Keeper through a riveting storyline that stretches back to Marie Blackbird in 1862 and then follows main character Rosalie Iron Wing through the decades to 2002. Even her name, Iron Wing, evokes strength and freedom. Rosalie marries a White farmer, births a son and her two worlds collide.

A photo panel at the Traverse des Sioux Treaty Center in St. Peter shows Dakota leaders photographed in Washington D.C. in 1858. The photo is from the Minnesota Historical Society. The quote represents the many broken treaties between the Dakota and the U.S. government. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013)

I was especially drawn to this statement by a Dakota elder in Wilson’s book: People don’t understand how hard it is to be Indian. I’m not talking about all the sad history. I’m talking about a way of life that demands your best every single day. Being Dakhóta means every step you take is a prayer.

Wilson writes with authenticity as a Mdewakanton descendant, enrolled on the Rosebud Reservation. She’s walked the steps of the Dakhóta.

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TELL ME: Have you read The Seed Keeper and, if so, what are your thoughts? I’d encourage everyone, Minnesotan or not, to read this award-winning novel.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The poetry of Rob Hardy, Northfield poet laureate April 20, 2022

A portion of Rob Hardy’s poem displayed at the Northfield Public Library. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo)

ROB HARDY, poet laureate of Northfield, is the kind of laid back guy who appreciates a good craft beer. I know. Back in September 2017, I met him at Imminent Brewing, where we shared a table while enjoying a beer, listened to other beer lovers read poems about beer and then read our own beer poems. He organized that Beer Poetry Contest. Poetry at a brewery, how creative and fun is that?

In January 2019, I again found myself in the company of Hardy, and other gifted area poets, for a poetry reading at Content Bookstore in Northfield.

Promo courtesy of the Paradise Center for the Arts for a past event that included a poetry reading.

And then several months later, we gathered at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault for more public poetry reading.

Hardy is a champion of poetry. He tirelessly promotes poetry in Northfield, where poems, including his, imprint sidewalks. He organizes poetry events and publishes a poetry-focused newsletter and even has a poem permanently posted at the public library.

Rob Hardy, right, and his new poetry collection. (Photo source: Finishing Line Press)

And he just released a new collection of poetry, Shelter in Place, published by Finishing Line Press. The slim volume of 20 poems is a quick read with many of the poems therein inspired by his daily walks in the Carleton College Cowling Arboretum during the pandemic year of 2020.

The influence of the pandemic upon this poet’s life and writing is easy to see. In “Lyrical Dresses,” for example, he writes about looking at ordinary life through the wrong end of a telescope and sometimes crying for no reason. In “Today’s Headlines” the fourth line reads: Rice County has the highest rate of new cases in the country. That would be our county.

But these COVID-19 themed poems are not necessarily doom, gloom and darkness. They are an honest, reflective historical record of life during a global pandemic from the creative perspective of a wordsmith. Just as important as a news story in telling the story of this world health crisis. In “Grounded” he writes of pulling a shoe box from the closet to relive travel memories while unable to travel. While grounded.

He did, however, put his feet to the ground, immersing himself in nature through daily walks. He writes of birds and prairie and sky and river and wind…in poems inspired by his deepening connection to the natural world.

Shipwreckt Books Publishing published Northfield Poet Laureate Rob Hardy’s previous poetry collection.

I encourage you to read Hardy’s Shelter in Place and/or attend a reading at Content Bookstore featuring Hardy and Greta Hardy-Mittell, a Carleton College student and writer. That event begins at 7 pm on Thursday, April 21. Click here for details. Rob Hardy is also the author of two other poetry collections, Domestication: Collected Poems, 1996-2016 and The Collecting Jar.

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TELL ME: Have you attended any poetry events or read/written poems in April, National Poetry Month.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In celebration of National Poetry Month: One April day April 18, 2022

Entering my home county of Redwood along Minnesota State Highway 68 southeast of Morgan. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2018)

ON THE AFTERNOON of the April morning I scanned the #811 shelves at Buckham Memorial Library for poetry books, I raked a banana from the boulevard.

“Hey, I found a rotten banana,” I hollered to Randy, who had just switched off the lawnmower as he mulched leaves.

“You didn’t eat it, did you?” he asked.

“No,” I shouted back, rolling my eyes at his humor.

“I found a dead mouse or squirrel earlier,” he shared in an apparent effort to top my discovery of a dried black banana. (We never know what we’ll find while raking in the spring.) He walked across the lawn to the curb along busy Willow Street and kicked up the dried carcass I really did not want to see.

“Mouse,” I concluded, and looked away.

Mira Frank reads the works of Minnesota poets from “County Lines” at an event in St. Peter in 2016. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2016)

That takes me back to those poetry books I checked out, including County Lines: 87 Minnesota Counties, 130 Poets. Published in 2008 by Loonfeather Press of Bemidji, this volume features poems collected from Minnesota poets and representing all 87 Minnesota counties. It was published on the 150th anniversary of our statehood.

It’s a must-read book which accurately, and poetically, reflects Minnesota. Among the poems published therein, “April” by Connie Wanek. The first four lines of her five-verse poem from St. Louis County, are so relatable. She writes:

When the snow bank dissolved

I found a comb and a muddy quarter.

I found the corpse of that missing mitten

still clutching some snow.

As someone who’s lived in Minnesota her entire life, I “get” most of the poetry published in this collection. These poets write about land and weather, experiences and observations, small town cafes and polka dancing and trains roaring down tracks and closing the cabin and picking rock and…

The plentiful large rocks pictured here at Blue Mounds State Park are likely similar to those referenced in Leo Dangel’s poem. The park in rural Luverne is about 20 miles from Jasper, which Dangel names in “Stone Visions.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo August 2013)

I laughed aloud when I read Leo Dangel’s “Stone Visions” from Pipestone County in my native southwestern Minnesota. The topic—picking rock. For those of you who’ve never picked rocks, it’s exactly what it says. Walking through a field gathering and tossing rocks that seem to sprout every spring. Poet Dangel viewed oversized stones in a field near Jasper in a poetic way while his farmer uncle observed, “I’d hate like hell to start picking rock in those fields.”

Image source: Goodreads.

Uncovering rocks. Uncovering a dried mouse carcass. Uncovering a dried black banana. Uncovering poetry that resonates. Within the span of several hours, I found winter’s remains and a treasure of a poetry collection.

County Lines uncovers the stories of Minnesota in poetic voice from lesser-known to well-known Minnesota writers. Poets like David Bengston, Robert Bly, Philip S. Bryant, Susan Stevens Chambers, Charmaine Pappas Donovan, Angela Foster, Larry Gavin, Laura L. Hansen, Sharon Harris, Margaret Hasse, Bill Holm, John Calvin Rezmerski, Candace Simar, Joyce Sutphen and so many more.

From Willmar to Hibbing to Lac qui Parle and, oh, so many places in between, the layers of our state, our people, our stories, our history, our heritage are revealed. This April day I celebrate National Poetry Month in a Minnesota poetry book pulled from the #811 shelves at Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault.

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FYI: Former Minnesota Poet Laureate Joyce Sutphen will read from her newest poetry books, Carrying Water to the Field and The Long Winter, at 1 pm Saturday, April 23, at the Little Falls Carnegie Library. “Making Rural Connections Through Poetry with Joyce Sutphen” focuses on the loss of small farms in Minnesota. Sutphen grew up on a Stearns County farm. Three of her poems are featured in the “Stearns County” entries in County Lines.

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite book of poetry you’d like to recommend? Or, if you’ve written a book (s) of poetry, please feel free to share information here.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The poetry of “Where the Crawdads Sing” April 8, 2022

Image source: goodreads

IF I HADN’T CAUGHT the news flash in an entertainment segment on an early morning TV show recently, I doubt I would have read Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. But I did. And the book proved so riveting that I didn’t want to put it down. You know the type of book, when you stay up past your bedtime to read.

Published in 2018, this New York Times fiction bestseller, releases in July as a movie. So I suppose my timing in reading this is about right. Not that I will see the film. Big screen versions, after I’ve read a book, usually disappoint. Plus, I am not a movie-goer; the last time I went to a movie (three years ago), I walked out and asked for a refund (which I got).

All that aside, that I read Where the Crawdads Sing in April, National Poetry Month, is also fitting. More on that in a bit.

First a summary: Set along the coastal marshes of North Carolina, this book tells the story of young Kya, beginning in 1952. Her family abandons her and she grows up, isolated, alone, connecting with nature. Known to locals as “Marsh Girl,” she reads poetry to gulls, boats through the marshland, immerses herself in learning and studying and documenting the surrounding natural world.

In following her story, which is much more complicated than someone living alone in a remote location, I learned a lot about an area of the US I’ve never even come close to visiting. That includes the many birds which focus Kya’s attention. It’s good for me to stretch my reading wings to a region unfamiliar to me. To learn of landscape, sea life, culture, food, peoples and more in a focused time period, primarily 1960-1970.

The book broadens to include a mystery—the death of a well-known young man from the coastal town of Barkley Cove. Even the name of that community sounds foreign to my Minnesota ears. His life intertwines with Kya’s and that’s what left me wanting to stay up late reading.

Themes of abuse, abandonment, isolation, misconceptions, meanness, prejudice, privilege and small town narrow-mindedness thread through the pages of Where the Crawdads Sing. Love, too.

Author Delia Owens also weaves poetry into pages in poems quoted. Poems by Emily Dickinson. By Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Wright, who taught in Minnesota at the University of Minnesota and Maclester College. By Amanda Hamilton (there’s a surprise). A fisherman named Scupper proclaims his love of poetry, declaring that poems “make ya feel something.” He’s right.

I encourage you to read this book for the story, the strong sense of place and, yes, for the poetry.

TELL ME: Have you read Where the Crawdads Sing? If yes, what are your thoughts and will you see the movie?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When We Say Black Lives Matter February 8, 2022

A must-read book.

WHEN I STOPPED at Buckham Memorial Library on Saturday morning to pick up Valentine’s Day-themed books for a visit with the grandchildren, I left with a more important book. I discovered When We Say Black Lives Matter, written and illustrated by Maxine Beneba Clarke, among the new children’s picture books.

The award-winning Australian writer, poet and artist has crafted a story from the perspective of a Black child’s parents explaining why Black Lives Matter. It’s a powerful telling written in words kids can understand, yet with a depth that touches the adults who read this book. The illustrations in watercolor pencil and collage enhance/complement the text in ways that strengthen the message, as all book art should.

The love-filled words reflect on past and present injustices, on strength and song, on Black voices that matter. Just like Black Lives Matter.

I encourage you to read this picture book. The insights it offers are important. Especially now, as protests continue in Minnesota over yet another fatal shooting of a young Black man by police. Simultaneously, the federal trial of three former Minneapolis police officers charged with violating the rights of George Floyd during his May 2020 arrest (and subsequent death) continues. February also marks Black History Month.

Another must-read book.

I encourage you to read a second book, which I also found at my library. I’m about a third of the way into We Are Each Other’s Harvest—Celebrating African American Farmers, Land, and Legacy. It’s a collection of stories by Natalie Baszile, author of award-winning Queen Sugar (which I now must read). The book is exactly as its title states, about Black farmers, their past and present connection to the land and the challenges they face. I’m learning a lot. As someone who grew up in rural southwestern Minnesota surrounded only by other White people, I need to read books like these to broaden my understanding about the challenges of being Black in America. Past and present. Because I grew up with a strong connection to the land, these stories really resonate.

It’s refreshing to see signs like this in small town Minnesota. I photographed this in October 2020 in Kenyon, MN. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo)

Although I never got around to reading Clarke’s picture book to my grandchildren (we ran out of time), I will tell you that Isabelle and Isaac are growing up in a diverse neighborhood. Izzy’s kindergarten class also includes classmates of assorted skin tones and backgrounds. Not just White, Lutheran/Catholic, German/Scandinavian like her maternal grandparents. I appreciate that diversity in the lives of these little people whom I love beyond measure. When they see their classmates and/or playmates, they don’t see color. They see friends.

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TELL ME: Have you read either of these books? What similar books do you recommend I read? I’d love to hear.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When life comes unglued, a Minnesota family’s experience June 23, 2021

HE AROSE FROM HIS CHAIR, lost. I watched him stagger and collapse on Sarah’s chair, plunging his head into his big sister’s chest.

As that scene unfolds on page 297 of Unglued—A Bipolar Love Story by Minnesotan Jeffrey Zuckerman, I cried. I cried at the deep heartache adult siblings Joey and Sarah experience when learning of their mother Leah’s attempted suicide. I cried at the pain. I cried at the challenges Leah faces in living with bipolar disorder. I cried for those inside and outside my circle who have lost loved ones to suicide, who live with serious mental illnesses, who are brave beyond words.

Tears cleanse, releasing pain and emotions.

I feel grateful to freelance editor and writer Zuckerman for sharing his family’s story, which increases awareness, understanding, and, most importantly, offers hope.

HEART-WRENCHING HONESTY

Zuckerman writes about his wife’s “broken mind” with an honesty that is simultaneously heart-wrenching and beautiful. Although at times he literally runs away, his love for her endures and he never gives up. He never gives up through the manic episodes, the rage, the hurt, the personality changes, the exhaustion, the anhedonia (lack of feelings), the sleepless nights, the hospitalizations, the efforts to find the right medications that will help…

Through all of it, he learns. He begins to understand, to see bipolar disorder for what it is, a medical illness. He sees, too, the stigma, and he begins to open up. To neighbors. To friends. And also to those in a National Alliance on Mental Illness support group. He writes: It’s hard to explain just how listening to my story with grace and without judgment was exactly the help I needed.

THE 3 Cs

I listened to his story, taking notes as I read Unglued. Although I feel fairly informed about brain disorders like bipolar disorder, I find myself acquiring new knowledge every time I read personal stories like that of the Zuckerman family. This marks the first time I’ve read a book written from a spouse’s perspective. Even through the most difficult days, Jeff loves Leah and comes to realize that he didn’t cause her illness, nor can he control or cure it. He recognizes, too, that he must care for himself if he is to be of any help to his wife of 30-plus years.

SEPARATING THE INDIVIDUAL & THE ILLNESS

Theirs is a love story marked not only by loss and grief, but also by forgiveness, by strength and resilience. Zuckeman is able to see Leah, the individual, and not Leah the illness, first. From her, he learns to be more tolerant and less selfish.

Through his storytelling, this gifted Minneapolis writer personalizes bipolar in relatable and ordinary ways. Half-way through Unglued, he writes about stopping with Leah at Ben and Jerry’s for Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream before returning her to a psych ward. After 25 days of hospitalization, Leah is discharged and, writes Jeff, they begin gluing back together her life…and their long, fractured marriage. And that glue is love.

RESOURCES & HELP

FYI: If you or someone you love is considering suicide, get immediate professional help. Resources include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) also offers a helpline at 1-800-950-6264. Many resources are available through NAMI, including support groups for those dealing with mental health issues and their families.

Above all, care. Listen. Support. And continue to love.

AWARD-WINNING BOOK

Unglued was named a finalist for the 2020-2021 Minnesota Book Award, among other honors.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focus on mental health: A Minnesotan writes about her depression May 20, 2021

ARE YOU STRUGGLING with everyday tasks? Unable to get out of bed? Feeling hopeless? Overwhelmed?

You are not alone. I think all of us have struggled during this past pandemic year. Maybe not to the extent of the challenges listed, but in other ways. It’s been a lot. I’m thankful that, if anything good comes from this pandemic, it’s an increased awareness of mental health issues.

I am grateful for writers like K.J. (Kristine) Joseph for opening up about her clinical depression in her powerful memoir, Simply Because We Are Human. The Minnesota author reveals her life-long struggles with an incurable disease caused by a chemical imbalance in her brain. And that’s important to note—that depression like hers has a physical cause that can be treated, not cured. Clinical depression is much deeper than the typical I’m-feeling-kind-of-down today.

“If only my pain and illness were visible to the world…then people would understand,” Joseph writes. She’s right. Mental illness needs to be viewed through the same lens as any other illness. Except we know it all too often isn’t. The stigma remains. The lack of understanding remains. The misinformation remains. Too many still think you can will yourself, or snap yourself, out of depression or other mental illness. That doesn’t work.

That’s why books like this are so important in changing perceptions, in educating, and in building empathy and understanding.

For Joseph, her first memory of the darkness which would enter her life occurred at age eight. At age 13, feelings of emptiness, non-stop crying, sadness and, for the first time, suicidal thoughts developed. In her 20s, she would once again contemplate suicide as she stood in her kitchen, knife in hand.

It was the death of a 17-year-old friend in high school that propelled Joseph to open up about her depression. I especially appreciate Joseph’s assessment of Matt’s depression-caused suicide: “Matt took his own life because he was sick, and that was how I saw it.” By writing that, she helps ease blame and guilt which often follow a suicide.

In telling her story, Joseph also writes about ways in which she manages her clinical depression. And that is via medication, hard work and taking care of herself. She is a runner, a life-long interest/activity tracing back to childhood. In high school, she ran on the track team, even competed in the state meet. Running helps manage her depression, putting her in a calm, meditative state.

Therein lie the additional strengths of Joseph’s memoir. She offers hope. She reveals how she navigates her depression, what works for her, including taking medication. She acknowledges the reality of her mental illness. And she is open about her struggles. I applaud Joseph for writing about her clinical depression, for her raw honesty, for sharing her stories. For it is through personal stories that we most connect. And begin to understand.

TO PURCHASE Simply Because We Are Human, click here.

FYI: If you or someone you care about is struggling with mental health, please seek help. You are not alone. Here are some resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 800-273-8255 (free, confidential and available 24/7).

National Alliance on Mental Illness

May marks Mental Health Awareness Month. I pledge to continue my efforts to raise awareness and to reduce the stigma of mental illness. Please read previous reviews I’ve written on books about mental illnesses by clicking here, then here, next, here, and, finally, here.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focus on mental health: The family living along Hidden Valley Road May 10, 2021

…I THOUGHT I WAS such a good mother. I baked a cake and a pie every night. Or at least had Jell-O with whipped cream.

That quote from Mimi Galvin, mother of 12, struck me as particularly personal and profound in a 377-page book focusing on one family’s experiences with schizophrenia. Six of Mimi and Don Galvin’s children developed schizophrenia, labeled by author Robert Kolker as “humanity’s most perplexing disease.”

Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road—Inside the Mind of an American Family rates as a difficult read. But this 2020 Oprah’s Book Club pick is something every single person should read to understand the depths and intricacies of a biologically-based brain disorder like schizophrenia. And how it affected one Colorado family with children born between 1945-1965.

But back to that quote and the context thereof. Doctors and others blamed Mimi for her sons’ mental illnesses. Their criticism left her crushed, traumatized, paralyzed, ashamed. Feeling all alone and guilty, as if she wasn’t a “good mother.” Such was the accusatory thinking of medical professionals. Mothers, especially, were targeted and even labeled as “schizophrenogenic mothers.” Can you imagine? Movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (released in 1960) reinforced that theory with Norman Bates’ mother blamed for his delusional homicidal mania.

This was also the era of shock therapy and restraints and so much misunderstanding and horror. Even unafflicted Galvin siblings wondered why their brothers couldn’t simply snap out of it. That thought pattern seems almost laughable, even absurd, to me. Yet, too many people still think that. Why can’t someone simply shut out delusional thoughts and paranoia, stop talking gibberish, separate perception from reality, silence the voices in their head, go to sleep rather than stay awake all night…? And more, much more, detailed with heartbreaking truth in this story of the Galvin family.

This family experienced heartbreak almost beyond belief. Tragedy. Abuse. Violence. Disconnect. Feelings of abandonment. So. Much. Trauma.

If I ended this review now, you would likely feel incredibly disheartened, wondering why you would even want to read such a book. And you would be justified in thinking that. But this story of an American family in the thick of schizophrenia is also inspiring. Hopeful. The Galvins allowed researchers to study their DNA, to learn more about “humanity’s most perplexing disease.” A disease centered in the brain. A disease with genetic markers. Mutations. A spectrum illness. No more mother/parent blaming.

I won’t attempt to further explain those scientific findings. I’m not, as I term myself, a medical person. I had to read and reread the medical parts of this book. But I grasp the basics. That researchers, although too often hindered by lack of funding (including from pharmaceutical companies), continue to work on researching and understanding schizophrenia, on finding better medications to treat symptoms and, ultimately, to prevent the onset of this horrible disease.

I encourage you to read Hidden Valley Road. You may struggle to get through this story. But press on. And then, when you’ve finished, vow to love, support and encourage anyone dealing with mental health issues. And their families.

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FYI: May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you or someone you love is struggling with mental health, seek help. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, which originated in Minnesota, is a good place to start. I will continue to do what I can to advocate, educate and increase awareness.

I invite you to read three previous reviews I’ve written on books that focus on mental health:

Fix What You Can—Schizophrenia and a Lawmaker’s Fight for Her Son by Mindy Greiling

Behind the Wall—The True Story of Mental Illness as Told by Parents by Mary Widdifield and Elin Widdifield

The Crusade for Forgotten Souls—Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946-1954 by Susan Bartlett Foote

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The struggles behind the wall March 4, 2021

An edited snippet of the book cover for Behind the Wall, a powerful book about mental illness.

SOMETIMES IN LIFE, moments present that forever imprint upon one’s mind.

Like the Sunday morning I walked out of church after the pastor termed Vincent van Gogh “crazy” in his sermon. The artist wasn’t “crazy.” He suffered from mental illness. Delusions. Psychosis. Depression. The next morning, after I calmed, I phoned my pastor and we discussed his word choice and why I found that offensive.

On another occasion, while sampling craft beer in a small town southern Minnesota brewery, I noticed a customer with the name of a nearby brewery printed on the back of his jacket. Lost Sanity Brewing. As if that name wasn’t bad enough, the business logo—a straightjacket—proved even more insensitive.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

But then there was the day I spotted this message blazoned across the back of a shirt worn by a young woman attending a cultural event at the Northfield Public Library: THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. When I approached her, she shared how she lives with depression and how her family has loved and supported her through her struggles.

Encounters like that in Northfield give me hope. Hope that we’re making progress in erasing the stigma of mental illness. Hope that we’re raising awareness. Hope that people will become more understanding and compassionate. Hope that carelessly tossed words like “crazy” and images of straightjackets will vanish.

I highly recommend this book to every one of you. It’s a must-read insider view of individuals and their families struggling with mental illness.

I admire that strong young woman in Northfield who, through the message on her shirt, spoke truth. THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. Those struggles unfold in a particularly powerful book, Behind the Wall—The True Story of Mental Illness as Told by Parents. This book is a compilation of real-life experiences shared by parents of mentally ill adult children in their own words. Compiled by Mary Widdifield and Elin Widdifield, it’s an honest and often heart-wrenching look at the struggles these families face.

Behind the Wall is not an easy read. But it shouldn’t be. There’s nothing easy about depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or any mental illness/brain disorder. These stories are deserving of our time, focus and attention. When you read these stories, you will feel the pain, experience the challenges, grieve the losses, encounter the frustrations, hold the worry and, hopefully, come away with a deeper understanding of mental illnesses. You will see, perhaps for the first time, the struggles that are all too real for many individuals and their families.

And you will see, too, incredible strength, resilience, determination and hope.

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IF YOU OR A LOVED ONE are struggling with your mental health, seek professional help. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is also a great resource for information and support. Click here to learn more.

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Thanks to my friend, Beth Ann Chiles, who gifted me with Behind the Wall. You can read her review of the book by clicking here on her “It’s Just Life” blog.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Erica Staab’s latest book focuses on loss December 15, 2020

AS WE NEAR CHRISTMAS, perhaps you aren’t feeling all that merry. These past 10 months of dealing with COVID-19 proved challenging, resulting in feelings of depression, anxiety, isolation and uncertainty. Even anger.

In many ways, we’re all grieving. We’ve lost our sense of normalcy, of life as we once lived it. Some of us have lost jobs. We’re separated from family and friends. And, for too many, that separation came via death from COVID-19 and the inability to mourn in traditional ways.

The year 2020 redefined the meaning of the words “loss” and “grief” in the context of a global pandemic. Yet, the core meanings remain, as universal, yet as individual as each person experiencing them.

WRITING ROOTED IN PERSONAL LOSS

My friend Erica Staab, director of HOPE Center in Faribault, addresses loss in her latest book, The First Christmas—Finding Your Way After Loss. In this slim 32-page volume, Erica writes from the heart, as a sister who experienced the tragic death of her brother, Mitchell, in 2007. The 27-year-old died of injuries sustained in a fall after stopping to assist a motorist involved in a single-vehicle accident. Any death can be difficult, but especially when the loved one is so young, the death unexpected.

It comes as no surprise to me that Erica takes her personal loss and her life’s work of helping survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault (and their families) to craft this insightful and encouraging book. She is one of those individuals who gives selflessly and with a heart full of compassion. Her words ring with authenticity rooted in experience.

GRIEF: “A WILD MESS OF THINGS”

She calls grief “a wild mess of things that can’t be anticipated.” That seems such a spot-on assessment as we all grieve in different and unexpected ways. Erica advises us to be gentle with ourselves, to allow grief in, to listen to what our hearts need.

I found this statement particularly profound: When grief is invited in…it is then that it loses its power over you, it is then that grief offers itself to share its gifts. It is then that there is space made for joy.

I appreciate that Erica embraces and acknowledges grief in all its pain and darkness. Yet, she writes with the light of hope, of joy-filled moments returning, of strength gained. When I emailed Erica to tell her that her writing touched me and caused me to cry as I thought of losses in my life, she responded, “…that was my prayer…that people would feel heard, understood, and not alone in their grief journey or their choices.”

PERMISSION TO EXPERIENCE LOSS IN YOUR UNIQUE WAY

Her book applies to many losses, not just loss through death. Loss of a relationship. Loss of a job. Loss of financial security. Loss of health and/or safety. And therein lies its even broader appeal, especially in 2020, a year of much loss. Erica wants her readers to realize they are not alone, that no one should try to erase their pain, that they need to experience it fully and in their own way and time.

And if that means you don’t feel like putting up a Christmas tree this year or mailing holiday cards, then don’t. That was me last year. Writes Erica: You have permission to simply make it through.

Her book also offers specific ways to ease loss, culled from her experiences and those of others. That’s helpful, too.

If you’re dealing with any type of loss, I suggest you buy The First Christmas—Finding Your Way After Loss. Purchase copies, too, for family and friends. Every funeral home and church should have copies to give away. The $10 book may be purchased at The Upper East Side, 213 Central Avenue North, Faribault, or online by clicking here. You can also reach out to Erica directly. I am so appreciative of Erica, her writing, her encouragement and her unique way of addressing difficult topics.

© Copyright 2020 by Audrey Kletscher Helbling