Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

My poem included in collection vying for Minnesota writing award September 23, 2020

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

WE ARE SIXTEEN STRONG, 16 area poets whose collected poetry, Legacies: Poetic Living Wills, is now a finalist in the 2020 Minnesota Authors Project: Communities Create contest.

I learned of this honor only recently via Northfield Poet Laureate Rob Hardy. A gifted poet and tireless promoter of poets and poetry, he submitted the collection to the debut contest sponsored by the Minnesota Library Foundation, Minnesota libraries and Bibliolabs.

According to the MN Reads MN Writes website, the new contest is designed “to recognize community-created writing and to highlight the central role that libraries play in providing support for local authors and the communities they serve.”

I crafted my poem, “Life at Forty Degrees,” in response to Hardy’s 2018 call for submissions to an anthology of “poetic living wills.”

The content of the poetry collections is summarized as “poems (that) deal with death and dying, with the things that make life meaningful in the face of death, and with the legacies that the poets hope to leave behind or have received from others before them.” My poem, about hanging laundry on the clothesline, focuses on the legacy passed on to me by my grandmothers.

You can read the collection by clicking here.

The winner of the first-ever Minnesota Authors Project: Communities Create contest will be announced later this month at the annual Minnesota Library Association’s annual conference. No matter the outcome, I feel honored to stand in the “finalist” category with 15 other gifted poets from Northfield and nearby (like me from Faribault).

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My writing publishes in The Talking Stick, Volume 29 September 11, 2020

Two stories and a poem I wrote just published in the latest The Talking Stick literary anthology.

 

AS A WRITER, getting one’s work published always validates personal creativity.

I’m honored to once again have my writing selected for publication in The Talking Stick literary journal, an annual project of the Park Rapids area based Jackpine Writers’ Bloc.

This year my short story, “Josephine Holding Deloris,” earned honorable mention in creative nonfiction. The story connects a 1 ½-inch square vintage family photo to my life experiences.

 

The beginning of my award-winning story.

 

Nonfiction judge Jill Johnson, author of several books, including Little Minnesota: 100 Towns Around 100, praises my work. “Thank you for sharing your touching story about your grandmother and aunt. You connected the tiny size of the photo to the small moments of life. You allowed the reader a vivid description of mother and daughter and brought the connection full circle. Keep writing!”

My poem, “Final Harvest,” and second piece of creative nonfiction, “A Quick Guide to Practicing Minnesota Nice,” were also chosen for publication in Insights, The Talking Stick, Volume 29.

This year’s book features 139 poems and stories (selected from 300 submissions) by 92 Minnesota-connected writers. My writing has published many times in The Talking Stick and earned multiple honors.

Copies of the latest book and past volumes are available for purchase at jackpinewriters.com. On the back cover of Insights, the editors note, “In the midst of social distancing, in the midst of mask wearing and Plexiglas shields, we are all grieving the changes in our world. But let’s keep one thing the same—you can still curl up with a good book and read. You can open the pages of Talking Stick 29 and see what your fellow Minnesota writers have written, and some how, perhaps, we can all feel a little bit closer.”

I’d encourage you to order a copy of this collection featuring so many talented writers. That includes Bernadette Hondl Thomasy, a native of Owatonna and a reader of this blog. Her “Mother’s Mojo” also earned honorable mention in creative nonfiction. She co-authored the book, Under Minnesota Skies, with her sister Colleen Hondl Gengler. Minnesota, in my opinion, has produced many gifted writers in all genres. And you’ll find a fine sampling of those creatives in Insights, The Talking Stick, Volume 29.

Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Take a (story) walk along Central in Faribault September 2, 2020

 

A page from Eric Carle’s book, From Head to Toe, photographed inside a StoryWalk display case.

 

“I can do it!” What an empowering statement, especially for young children. Those four words refrain in an installment of pages from the children’s picture book, From Head to Toe, now posted on street corners in the heart of historic downtown Faribault.

 

Posted next to Burkhartzmeyer Shoes and looking down a side street off Central.

 

I love this latest addition to my community as part of a StoryWalk® CENTRAL project coordinated locally by Buckham Memorial Library. The idea is rooted in Vermont and seems to be a trend right now in the library world. River Bend Nature Center in Faribault and the public library in neighboring Northfield are hosting similar story walks.

 

Looking north on Central Avenue, you can see one of the StoryWalk pages posted next to an historic-themed bench.

 

Last week one evening, Randy and I walked Central Avenue with our four-year-old granddaughter, viewing the colorful story crafted by noted author and illustrator Eric Carle. He is perhaps best-known for his children’s picture book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I’ve long been a fan of Carle’s creativity. He understands how to connect with the littlest of people through colorful illustrations and simple, repetitive and engaging language.

 

Historic Central Avenue provides the backdrop for StoryWalk CENTRAL.

 

Bold colors and strong shapes define Carle’s art.

 

The book engages.

 

It took Isabelle a bit to get into From Head to Toe. But when she observed Grandma and Grandpa wriggling their hips like crocodiles, bending their necks like giraffes and stomping their feet like elephants, she joined in. Carle’s book calls for the reader and listener to actively participate in the book by doing the actions associated with each animal. It’s a great way to get kids up and moving. Adults, too.

 

The thoughts behind StoryWalk.

 

And that, according to information posted on one of the 12 signs, is part of the motivation behind the interactive StoryWalk® concept. The book “combines early literacy learning, family engagement and physical activity.” And promotes brain growth and physical health through exercise.

 

The animals lead the action.

 

The book also highlights diversity in the different ethnicities of the children and in the different animals Carle has created in his story. I especially appreciate that in our diverse community of Faribault. Buckham Memorial Library Director Delane James echoes my thoughts, praising From Head to Toe as a book that “resonates with everybody in the community…anyone can enjoy it no matter who they are.” And that means even those who can’t read or whose native language is one other than English. Like me, she calls Carle’s book “empowering.”

There are plans for more, and longer, book installations, all funded by a federal grant and coordinated with multiple city departments, James says. She noted the joint efforts of library, economic development, engineering and public works staff in getting the first StoryWalk® CENTRAL in place. From Head to Toe will remain posted for several months. This will be an ongoing and evolving public art and literacy project with five years worth of books included in the funding. The library buys multiple copies of the featured books, then removes and laminates the pages for posting in the weather-proof display cases.

 

The 12th, and final, story board is located outside the entry to Buckham Memorial Library. This is looking north toward Central Avenue. The final board is designed to get kids and others inside the library, although the library is currently open by appointment only.

 

I appreciate, in this time of a global pandemic, a safe activity I can do with my granddaughter when she’s visiting. Only after we arrived home did Izzy share, “That’s Isaac’s favorite book.” That means we’ll be back on Central with her 20-month-old brother, wriggling our hips, bending our necks, stomping our feet and repeating, “I can do it!”

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Anything but a typical walk at River Bend Nature Center August 31, 2020

This path cuts through the edge of the prairie at River Bend Nature Center, Faribault.

 

AS RANDY AND I HIKE the paved trails through the woods and the grassy path edging the prairie at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault, we often see the same sights, have the same conversations.

 

Prairie wildflowers

 

These prairie grasses remind me of my youth, when I played in such grass on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

 

My favorite prairie wildflower, the black-eyed susan.

 

I talk about my love for the prairie and for the wildflowers and for grasses swaying in a poetic rhythm in the wind.

 

Eradicating invasive buckthorn from the woods remains an ongoing battle.

 

We discuss the buckthorn that grows rampant in the woods despite efforts to control it via goats and hands-on removal.

 

Leaves are beginning to change color.

 

I observe details that hint at the changing of seasons.

 

Photographed in the rain garden by the interpretative center.

 

Not even a bumblebee escapes my notice or my camera’s lens.

 

The art of bark.

 

Dead trees, bark, moss and fungi draw me to pause and look. Nature is, after all, in the details.

 

The doe and her baby, barely visible behind her.

 

But on this Sunday afternoon visit, mosquitoes and other pesky bugs push us at a much faster pace along wooded paths. So fast that I miss the doe and her growing fawn just off the trail leading to the Turtle Pond. Randy spots the pair and softly calls my name, enough to cause me to stop. Then he points to the woods where the deer stand. Still. Watching. I fire off three frames before the pair turn and clip through the trees. Disappearing to camouflage themselves within the green and brown hues of the treescape.

 

The hawk blends easily into the woods.

 

A few twists and turns later, I am still speed walking, driven to hurry by those biting insects. But then a bird catches my eye and I stop, speak Randy’s name. He doesn’t hear, fails to the see the bird so blended is it into the trees. I snap one photo before the bird rises, wings spanned wide. It appears to be a juvenile hawk. I am pleased with the hawk and deer sightings because we seldom see wildlife here, other than squirrels.

 

The oddest sighting ever at River Bend, doll well above my head in a tree.

 

But earlier I spotted the most unusual sighting ever at River Bend—a baby doll suspended in a tree. I expect a child lost her beloved doll and someone found it and decided it would be funny to place the toy in a tree. I found it a bit creepy. Like I was walking into Halloween or a Stephen King novel.

 

The first sign in a series of bug signs bordering trails.

 

No-see-ums get their own page in the bug book.

 

The grasshopper, too, merits its place in the bug alphabet book.

 

Along the same pathway, River Bend staffers posted photocopies of pages from The Icky Bug Alphabet Book by Jerry Palloth. More creepiness if you are not a fan of bugs. I don’t dislike bugs unless they pester (flies) or bite me (mosquitoes and no-see-ums) or destroy my flowers/plants (Japanese beetles) or are centipedes. I detest those fast-moving, too-many-legged insects.

 

Info about the bumblebee from Pallotta’s book.

 

I found the bug book informative, which I expect was the intention, along with giving families something of interest to study while in the woods. The Northfield Public Library is doing a similar activity, posting picture book pages on posts in five public parks during August, calling these “Story Strolls.” In downtown Faribault, along Central Avenue, Buckham Memorial Library has also posted a Story Walk, featuring pages from Eric Carle’s Head to Toe. (I’ll post about that soon.)

 

I had not previously noticed this small sign near a tree by the interpretive center.

 

I appreciate nature centers like River Bend, now more than ever during this global pandemic. Living as we do today with so many limitations in our lives—and justifiably so—I’ve grown to understand that I shouldn’t take anything for granted. I am thankful I live in a region where I can find endless natural settings to simply immerse myself in the beauty, solitude and peace of the outdoors. Baby dolls in trees aside.

 

Note: I took these photos several weeks ago, so the landscape has likely changed and the baby doll may be missing.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Finally, well into COVID-19, I go to the library August 11, 2020

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

 

I’VE PREVIOUSLY POSTED about my deep love of libraries tracing back to my childhood. As a child, I had limited access to books. My small rural Minnesota community had no library. Nor did my elementary school, which sourced books from the county library 20 miles away in Redwood Falls. On occasion, I would be among students selected to board a school bus to travel to that library and return with books temporarily borrowed for our school. I loved those opportunities to browse and choose.

 

The LFL installed outside the community owned Vesta Cafe in July 2012. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

Today my hometown of Vesta still does not have a public library. County bookmobile service ended long ago with budget cuts. But, thanks to my efforts and those of locals and the generosity of Little Free Library co-founder Todd Bol, a LFL sits outside the Vesta Cafe with additional materials inside. Bol gifted the mini library to my hometown in July 2012.

 

A LFL in downtown Decorah, Iowa. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Fast forward eight years and these mini libraries are seemingly everywhere. And during a global pandemic, especially when public libraries closed for a period (some still with restricted hours), the LFLs proved invaluable to book lovers like me. I found a few good books to read, but still longed to step inside a public library with an abundance of reading materials. That happened three weeks ago.

 

This photograph was taken last September (pre pandemic) outside the Northfield Public Library during a cultural event there.

 

Randy and I headed up to neighboring Northfield on a recent Saturday afternoon to look for and check out items at the library. Unlike Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault, the Northfield Public Library reopened months ago (May 26) for regular hours that include evenings and weekends. That makes it accessible to everyone. Masking, social distancing and other protocols are in place and required to protect patrons and staff.

 

The books and magazines I checked out from the Northfield library.

 

I arrived at the NPL with a list of books I wanted. I wasn’t sure computers would be available to access the card catalog. Because I am unfamiliar with the lay-out of the library, I needed help to find some titles and staff generously assisted. I left with a bag full of seven books and two magazines.

 

 

Since then, I’ve been happily reading my stash of Minnesota-authored books. Only one—Love Thy Neighbor, A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home in Rural America by Ayaz Virji with Alan Eisenstock—was not on my list. I spotted the book on a shelf of library staff picks, this one recommended by Sue. I read the book in a single day. One day. That’s how good this book is and how necessary to read. Especially today when headlines daily reveal instances of hatred, racism and so much more dividing our country. Insensitive, inflammatory, just plain horrible words and actions, including in southern Minnesota.

In summary, Love Thy Neighbor is the story of a medical doctor who relocates his family from a busy eastern urban setting to rural southwestern Minnesota to practice medicine as he desires, with a deeper personal connection to patients. Initially, all goes well and Dr. Virji and his family find themselves settling in, accepted, enjoying their new life in rural Minnesota. But then the November 2016 election happens and things begin to change. And that is the focus of this book—the shift in attitudes toward Muslims, how that negativity affected this small town family doctor and his family, and what he did about it.

I’d encourage you to read this enlightening book that recaps Virji’s struggles and the community talks he gave to help those in his small Minnesota community (and elsewhere) to understand his faith and the challenges he faces in a more toxic national environment.

 

 

Once I finished that book, I moved onto another environment—into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota in A Year in the Wilderness, Bearing Witness in the Boundary Waters by Amy and Dave Freeman. It’s been an enjoyable escape into the remote wild, to a place I’ve only ever visited through others. The Freemans, like Dr. Virji, wrote their book with a purpose. To educate, to enlighten and to protect the BWCAW from sulfide-ore copper mining. Incredible photos enhance this detailed documentation of living for a year in the wild. I’d highly recommend this title also.

 

I especially enjoy reading books by Minnesotans and appreciate the Northfield library tagging these books with Minnesota-shaped art.

 

The remaining books in my library book stash are mysteries/mystery thrillers, my preferred genre. I quickly read Desolation Mountain by one of my favorite Minnesota authors, William Kent Krueger. Interestingly enough, that fictional story in the Cork O’Connor series also references potential mining near the BWCAW.

New-to-me author Chris Norbury’s books, Castle Danger and Straight River, also connect to the northeastern Minnesota wilderness. And southern Minnesota, where the main character returns to the family farm in Straight River. I always enjoy reading books that include familiar places. Norbury lives in Owatonna and references area communities. And those of you who grew up in this region recognize that the book titles are actually an unincorporated community in northeastern Minnesota and a river here in southern Minnesota.

I’m determined to stretch my reading beyond the seed mystery love planted decades ago through Nancy Drew books. To that end, I appreciate when library staff pull and showcase books they recommend. Like Dr. Virji’s book.

And I appreciate libraries. I look forward to the day when Faribault’s library opens again for regular hours. Currently, it’s open by appointment only, for 30-minute Browse-and-Go Visits between 10 am – 5 pm weekdays or for No-Contact Curbside Pickup. Because Randy is gone to work between those hours, he has no opportunity to get books locally. And so we will continue our trips to Northfield.

Now, you may wonder why these two communities within 20 minutes of each other and in the same county differ in library reopening. I expect it has much to do with numbers, usage and demographics as it relates to COVID-19. My county of Rice, according to information posted by Rice County Public Health on August 7, has had 1,020 lab confirmed cases* of COVID since March. That breaks down to 830 cases in Faribault. Northfield has had far fewer at 141. The balance of 49 cases are spread throughout other communities in Rice County.

I can only speculate that numbers factor into local library decisions about operations. But who knows? I am a word person, not a numbers person.

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FYI: My friend Sue Ready, a book lover and writer who lives in the Minnesota northwoods, is a good source of info about Minnesota-authored books. She reviews books on her Ever Ready blog, Click here. Sue also heads up the Northwoods Art & Book Festival in Hackensack, MN., which brings together Minnesota artists and authors. This year’s event was canceled due to COVID-19.

* The number of COVID-19 cases in Rice County as of Monday, August 10, were 1,038.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

What to read, or not, during a global pandemic March 17, 2020

The sun rises east of Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

WITH A RECENT OVERLOAD of reading and listening to media reports on coronavirus, I need mental diversions. I continue to start each day by praying and reading devotionals. That’s mostly unchanged from pre-COVID, although the number and types of prayers are fluid. Beginning my morning this way calms and centers me. As a woman of faith, I need this reassuring, peaceful mindset that God is in control and will see us through this pandemic.

In the evenings, I settle into my recliner with a book or a magazine and hope that my tired eyes won’t cross (a vision problem fixed as a child, but not fixable again), rendering the pages unreadable. Sometimes I struggle to stay awake.

 

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

 

I love to read. For that reason I’m especially thankful I got to the library on Saturday and stocked up on reading materials. No empty shelves there. The City of Faribault closed Buckham Memorial Library on Monday to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. We’ve no confirmed cases in my county. Yet. The library closing continues until the end of the month. Maybe longer. I appreciate that city leaders are being proactive in declaring a local state of emergency rather than reactive.

 

In Audrey’s reading pile.

 

At the time I visited the library, I had no idea the facility would close two days later. I’m glad I chose as many magazines and books as I did. I checked out six magazines ranging from architectural to lifestyle to food. And I have a stash of five books covering topics from farming to murders in Minnesota to mental health and more.

 

In Randy’s reading selections.

 

Now compare that to what my husband chose. Randy, not nearly as much of a reader as me, selected books about Putin, fish in Minnesota and, get this, plagues. Or more specifically, Diseases in History—Plague by Kevin Cunningham. As if we don’t have enough to think about with the current coronavirus global pandemic. Let’s toss in learning about the bubonic plague, the Black Death, the flu…

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Appreciating William Kent Krueger’s latest bestseller, This Tender Land January 24, 2020

I’VE LONG BEEN A FAN of Minnesota writer William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor mystery series and stand-alone book, Ordinary Grace. But now I can add another title to that list. This Tender Land.

Ten days after I picked up the book from Buckham Memorial Library, where I’d been on a waiting list for months to get the 2019 release, I’d finished the novel. And I didn’t start reading it immediately as I had to first finish The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal.

In a nutshell, This Tender Land tells the story of orphaned brothers, Odie and Albert, who are sent to the Lincoln Indian Training School, although they are not Native Americans. Yes, such schools really existed long ago. The school is not so much a school as a prison with cruelty and abuse defining life there.

This fictional book, set primarily in southern Minnesota along the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, weaves actual history into the storyline. Much of that history focuses on the mistreatment of native peoples during and following the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862 and how that carried through to subsequent generations. I’m familiar with that history having grown up in Redwood County, at the epicenter (along with Brown County) of that war. Krueger clearly did his research and then took that information and made it personal through characters, scenes and setting.

But this is much more than a historically-based book of fiction. This is a story about family and friends, about searching and discovery, about hope and despair, about love and loss, about cruelty and kindness, about redefining rich and poor, about anger and spirituality and forgiveness and finding one’s self. This book really makes you think as the story twists and turns and all those themes emerge.

At one point, after reading a line on page 288, I cried. When was the last time you cried while reading a book? I cried at 12-year-old Odie’s observation of women who’ve suffered and yet never given up hope, who’ve forgiven… It was a powerful sentence for me personally.

When a book can move me like that, I feel a deep respect for the author, for his talent, for his writing. There’s a reason William Kent Krueger’s books are bestsellers and in demand at libraries. He writes with depth and authenticity in ways that resonate.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Cheers to J. Ryan Stradal, now among my favorite Minnesota-raised writers January 14, 2020

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Pulling The Lager Queen of Minnesota from the Lucky Day bookshelves at Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault proved my lucky day. I’m always up for discovering a new-to-me Minnesota author like J. Ryan Stradal.

Yes, I admit a partiality for Minnesota writers and/or books with a strong Minnesota bend. The Lager Queen is both, although native-born and raised Stradal now lives in Los Angeles. I’ll forgive him for moving to the West Coast because I love his bestselling book that much.

You know a book is good when you don’t want to put it down, when all you want to do is keep reading, despite life’s obligations. I finished the book in days, not a single day, only because, well, I can’t realistically devote an entire day to reading.

As the cover art and title suggest, this is a book about beer. But not just beer. The Lager Queen is also a book about strong women, generations of women in one family who overcome challenges and tragedy. Stradal creates strong characters who grow and evolve and stretch themselves.

This is a story, too, about how generations interconnect, about relationships broken and built, about decisions that ripple their impact.

This is a story, too, of place, of Minnesota. There’s a familiarity in setting, both of real places and fictionalized locations.

As a fan of craft beer, I appreciated learning more about the business through Stradal’s writing. And, yes, he tapped into the knowledge of real craft brewers in Minnesota and beyond. I almost felt like I should be drinking a Minnesota-made craft beer while reading The Lager Queen of Minnesota.

Cheers to a Minnesota-rooted author whom I hope will continue to write similar books. Because I’m a fan. Even if I prefer IPAs to lagers.

FYI: Stradal is also the author of the New York Times bestseller, Kitchens of the Great Midwest.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Book review: A closer look at mental health care reform in Minnesota from 1946-1954 September 19, 2019

AS A WRITER, hearing other writers share insights into their work always interests me. That includes listening to Susan Bartlett Foote talk about her book, The Crusade for Forgotten Souls—Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946-1954, at the Owatonna Public Library on Tuesday evening. Foote’s book won the 2019 Minnesota Book Award in nonfiction. It’s a well-deserved honor for a book which shares the powerful, and previously untold, story of reform in Minnesota’s mental health care system some 70 years ago.

Despite the four years Foote invested in researching and writing, she is quick to credit another woman for this story. Engla Schey. Foote dedicated her Minnesota Book Award to this activist and aspiring writer whom she calls the first mental health advocate in Minnesota. Schey worked initially as an attendant in several state mental health hospitals, or “insane asylums” as they were called back in the day. She witnessed first-hand the neglect, abuse, inhumane treatment, poor living and working conditions…all documented in her diaries. Foote read those diaries, in the possession of Schey’s great great niece.

The result is a deeply personal story about one ordinary woman’s efforts to change “a cynical and secretive system.” Schey’s insider perspective, Foote notes, allowed her to upend the whole structure. At the time, some 15,000 people lived in the state’s seven mental health hospitals with 80 percent of them committed and 35 percent senile/elderly. Half suffered from mental illnesses with stays of sometimes 20 years. The statistics are startling. But it is the stories Foote shares that make the most impact. Read this book and you will find yourself in tears.

As Foote related in her Tuesday evening talk, Schey quickly recognized that she needed help—of liberal churches, unions and writers—if she was to effect change within the system. She cared deeply. And personally. Her father voluntarily committed himself to the state hospital in Fergus Falls.

Eventually, the Minnesota Unitarian Church got involved, taking the approach of responsible study and analysis rather than jumping in and demanding immediate reform. The Rev. Arthur Foote (Susan Foote’s former father-in-law) led those efforts along with activist Genevieve Steefel and others.

Soon those initial reformers recognized the need to engage the press and political leadership and to build popular support, Foote said. Investigative news stories published. And some politicians, like then Minnesota Governor Luther Youngdahl, set aside partisan politics to make mental health care reform a top issue. Foote praised Youngdahl, referencing his stand that all mentally ill Minnesotans were entitled to fundamental human guarantees (dignity) and his goal to build a patient-centered mental health care system. A photo of Youngdahl burning a pile of straightjackets (and published in the book) signaled that change was going to happen, Foote said. And it did. Conditions improved both for patients and staff.

Like anything, though, change did not come easily nor is it always permanent. I experienced a deep sense of disappointment and frustration as I read in detail about all the politicking, untruths and denials. I can only imagine how those deeply involved in reform efforts felt. Youngdahls’s biggest disappointment, Foote shared with us in Owatonna on Tuesday, was that Minnesota churches (other than the Unitarians) wanted nothing to do with the issue of mental health. Has that changed much?

Youngdahl, in the ever-evolving political environment, suffered another disappointment in his failure to open a state hospital in Brainerd. One eventually opened there and my brother-in-law Brian became a resident after suffering incapacitating permanent brain damage. I knew him only briefly before his passing in 1984 at the age of 23.

At Tuesday’s talk in Owatonna, an audience member shared afterwards that a family member died of tuberculosis while hospitalized in a state hospital. Another attendee told me privately of staff intentionally breaking the legs of a man who lived at a state hospital in Faribault. For every story spoken, I expect many more remain unspoken. The hurt runs deep even all these decades later.

Although politicians and the public moved on and times changed and cuts began in the state hospital system by the early 1950s with Minnesota falling back to “average” in mental health care, Foote said, “I maintain this story is an inspiration, not a failure.”

She closed with a quote from Governor Luther Youngdahl: “Protection of the patient depends on our eternal vigilance.”

I agree. And I contend that we can all be Engla Scheys. We have within us—within our families, our circles of friends, our churches, our schools, our communities—the ability to make a difference in the lives of those dealing with mental illnesses and those who love them. Through our compassion, care, understanding, love and support. On multiple levels.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The struggle September 16, 2019

 

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL

Those words emblazoned across the back of her red-white-and-blue plaid shirt grabbed my attention. But what did they mean? I assumed the phrase likely referenced immigration issues given the cultural event where I spotted the statement.

But not 100 percent certain, I approached the young woman and asked. The struggle is real refers to struggles with mental health, she said. She battles depression, but is doing well right now, crediting her family for their support. We didn’t talk much. I hugged her, offered words of encouragement and thought how bold of her to publicly voice those words: THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. I wonder if anyone else asked her about the message she wore.

Those words seem so fitting for those who live with mental illness. Think about it for a minute or ten. Say you or a family member are struggling with depression, anxiety, bipolar, post traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia or any other mental illness. Do you struggle? Do you struggle to get up in the morning, to find a job or go to work, to engage with others? Do you struggle with stigma, with the all too common belief that you can simply snap yourself out of whatever? Do you struggle to find a mental healthcare provider? (There’s a severe shortage here in Minnesota.) Do you struggle to get the meds you need when insurance companies deny coverage? Do you struggle?

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. Those words fit.

Thankfully, that struggle is becoming more visible as attitudes change and voices rise. Support groups, such as those offered through the National Alliance on Mental Illness, bring hope and help. But we can do better. We can, as friends and family and communities and churches, show more care for those affected by mental health issues. I mean, how often have you seen a fundraiser to help individuals and families dealing with financial hardships resulting from mental illnesses? Do we send get well cards to individuals who are suffering from a mental illness? Do we bring them or their supporting families hotdishes (otherwise known as casseroles in other parts of the country)? Do we surround and love and support just as we would someone with cancer, for example?

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. Those words fit.

 

 

That leads me to the book, The Crusade for Forgotten Souls—Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946-1954 by Susan Bartlett Foote. A professor emerita in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, she will speak at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, September 17, at the Owatonna Public Library. I only learned of her book a week ago and sped-read through this detailed historic look at efforts to reform mental health hospitals in Minnesota decades ago.

 

A building on the campus of the former Minnesota Asylum for the Insane, Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2013.

This is not an easy read. It’s emotionally difficult to read of patients who were abused—confined to straightjackets, subjected to lobotomies, tied to toilets, fed gruel, denied very basic human rights… But to read of the Unitarian Church activists, the politicians (notably then-Governor Luther Youngdahl), journalists, healthcare professionals and others who cared and fought for “the forgotten people” also brings hope. They effected change. Yet, some of their work was undone when new politicians took office and societal attitudes shifted. The politics referenced in Foote’s book made me realize how little things change.

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL.

Foote’s book will be of special interest to people in my community of Faribault, once home to a state-run facility known as The Minnesota School for the Feeble-Minded. In late 1946, a grand jury convened in my county of Rice to investigate alleged abuses at the Faribault school. Jurors found the misuse allegations to be unwarranted, contradicting findings of other outside investigations. Foote’s research is extensive, her book packed with details about the multi-layered challenges of reforming mental health care in Minnesota.

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. As much today as yesterday.

 

FYI:

Check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness website, an invaluable resource.

Visit the blog, Penny Wilson Writes, for an honest look at “the struggle,” including a resource list.

Read this book: Troubled Minds—Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission by Amy Simpson

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling