Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thoughts & choices & frustrations during this pandemic November 17, 2021

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I took this photo in downtown Faribault on May 15, 2020. It remains my personal most powerful early local documentation of the pandemic. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2020)

I DISLIKE CONFLICT. I prefer decency, kindness and respect. I’d rather we all just got along. Listened. Stopped all the political jockeying and spread of misinformation. Cared about one another. Really cared. That would be ideal.

But this is not Utopia, especially not now during a pandemic. I am beyond frustrated. We’ve risen to new levels of disagreement and disconnect that threaten our health and our relationships, even our democracy. I find myself faced with sometimes heartwrenching choices as I try to protect my health and that of those I love most.

WHOOPING COUGH WAS BAD ENOUGH

A severe viral infection, which my husband caught at work and then passed along to me in mid-August, showed just how vulnerable I am to respiratory infections. While this week-long-plus infection had all the marks of COVID-19, it was not. We both tested negative. (Yes, we were fully vaccinated and recently got our boosters.) Yet, this reminded me of my need to be careful. Sixteen years ago I developed a severe case of whooping cough that lasted for three months and required an inhaler and steroids to help me breathe. (Yes, I was vaccinated for pertussis, but that protection wears off, unbeknownst at the time to me. Staying current on vaccines is essential.)

When I asked my doctor back in 2005 where I could have contracted whooping cough, he replied, “You could have gotten it waiting in line at the grocery store.” I was his first adult diagnosed case in 30-plus years of practicing medicine. I never want to be that ill again.

PROTECTING MYSELF & OTHERS

I have made, and will continue to make, choices that best protect me and my closest family circle from COVID-19. With young grandchildren and also a mother in a long-term care center, I am not willing to take chances with their health or mine. Because of high COVID rates in Minnesota, I haven’t seen my mom since July.

In the past nearly two years, I’ve opted out of grad parties, family reunions and gatherings with friends that included unvaccinated and unmasked individuals. I also stopped attending in-person worship services earlier this summer for the second time during this pandemic. I don’t feel comfortable being in enclosed spaces (beyond brief passing) with people who may or may not be vaccinated and who are unmasked.

I’ve missed funerals, attending only one since this whole pandemic began. And that was my father-in-law’s in February, pre-vaccination. It was a horrible experience, trying to keep my distance from the half-maskers and unmasked, too often repeating that I wasn’t hugging or shaking hands because, um, we’re in a pandemic.

STRAINED RELATIONSHIPS

Already, family relationships feel strained as I struggle to understand why some extended family refuse to get vaccinated. And then feel it’s OK to attend family get-togethers. I expect to make some difficult choices soon about whether to attend upcoming holiday gatherings. If unvaccinated adults are in attendance, I likely won’t be. Not because I don’t trust the vaccine, but because there’s always some risk and it’s a matter of principle. I don’t want to, by choice, be around individuals I know to be unvaccinated.

CARE, COMMON SENSE & OUR CHILDREN

And then there are those daily life occurrences which trigger concern. Like the unmasked teenage grocery store cashier who ran her fingers around her mouth. Then checked out my groceries.

Early on in the pandemic, playgrounds were off-limits to kids, including this one at North Alexander Park in Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2020)

Months ago at the playground, I watched my granddaughter run up and down a tunnel slide with another little girl. The whole time I wondered, should I allow her to do this? In the end, I did, mostly because they were outdoors and in constant motion. I find myself feeling especially protective of my two grandchildren. The day my 5-year-old granddaughter got her first vaccine dose, I felt incredible joy. I cannot wait for the nearly 3-year-old to become eligible for his COVID vaccine.

Week Day, 6, a first grader at Park Side Elementary School in Marshall, MN., died of COVID on April 25, 2021. Photo source: Hamilton Funeral Home.

It’s true that, generally, if kids get COVID, they experience milder cases. But some have also ended up severely ill in the hospital and others have died. I will take every preventative measure I can to keep my dear grandchildren healthy and safe.

I recognize we each have different comfort levels. I tend to believes the experts, to be a rule follower, to want to do my part to keep others safe via vaccination and mitigation. I trust health and science. If public health officials are recommending we wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, I will do exactly that. Not that I need them advising this. Common sense and knowledge of the highly-contagious Delta variant are enough for me to mask up, keep my distance and more. I would never think of going into surgery (and I’ve had many surgeries in my life) with an unmasked healthcare team, pandemic or not.

OVERWHELMED IN MINNESOTA, A COVID HOTSPOT

I photographed this from the passenger seat of our van as we drove through Rochester in November 2020. I’d like to see a message now stating, GET VACCINATED & save ICU beds for anyone who needs one. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2020)

Minnesota, for the past week up until Tuesday, had the distinction of experiencing the highest COVID infection rate in the country. Michigan now ranks first. Minnesota hospital beds are filling or are full with few ICU beds available. People continue to die at at an alarming rate from COVID. And it’s not just individuals in their 70s and older any more. COVID is killing those in their 60s, even 30s and 40s and younger. Sometimes even teens. Long-haul COVID is also afflicting many, too many.

Minnesota’s overwhelmed healthcare system concerns me as it affects anyone who needs care. Not just those with COVID. Despite all of this, too many Minnesotans are still refusing to get vaccinated.

I want this pandemic to end. But right now I don’t foresee that happening any time soon…unless we start acting like we care about one another. How? Get vaccinated (and that includes boosters). Wear a face mask. Social distance. Stay home when sick. Practice other proven COVID mitigation measures. We have the power to stop COVID-19. This isn’t 1918. But sometimes it sure seems like 103 years ago, despite advances in science and knowledge and an understanding of how this virus spreads.

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NOTE: I will not publish anti-vaccine or anti-masking comments on this, my personal blog. Likewise, I will not publish misinformation, etc. as it relates to COVID and vaccines.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

At the library, online & in bookstores: “This Was 2020” October 29, 2021

Duluth artist Carolyn Olson’s art graces the cover of This Was 2020. (Minnesota Prairie Roots photo)

This Was 2020 Now Available” reads the header on a recent news release posted on the Ramsey County Library Reads website.

That’s exciting news for those of us published in this award-winning collection of prose and poetry. This Was 2020: Minnesotans Write About Pandemics and Social Justice in a Historic Year recently won the Minnesota Author Project Award in the Communities Create category. That honor recognizes the work of indie publications in the state. Ramsey County Library (led by librarian Paul Lai) coordinated the book project, calling for submissions and then, eventually, publishing the collection.

The beginning of my poem. (Minnesota Prairie Roots photo)

My poem, “Funeral During a Pandemic,” was selected for inclusion in the anthology. I write about attending my father-in-law’s funeral at a Catholic church in a small central Minnesota town during the pandemic.

Now my local public library, Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault, has copies of This Was 2020 available for check-out. While I always encourage purchase of books to support writers and booksellers (especially independent bookstores), I recognize the importance of accessibility to all through libraries. The Red Wing Public Library, in our Southeastern Libraries Cooperating regional library system, also has this anthology on the shelf.

The back cover lists the names of the Minnesotans included in This Was 2020. (Minnesota Prairie Roots photo)

I encourage you to borrow or buy a print copy or read the e-version of this important book. It represents the hearts and souls of 51 Minnesotans, most of them published writers. They share their thoughts and experiences on two topics—social justice (connected to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020) and the COVID-19 pandemic.

I encourage you to read my previous review of This Was 2020 (by clicking here) to get a sense of the stories shared in prose and poetry.

My encouragement to read this collection is not motivated by self-promotion. Rather, I want you to read this anthology for the content, the insights, the documentation of history. The writing therein is personal. Deeply personal. These Minnesotans write with honesty, emotion and a rawness that almost hurts. The pain is real, the writing revealing. These poems and prose take readers well beyond the sound bites and headlines and video clips with powerful written words that are sometimes difficult to read.

In an historic time such as this, it’s especially important to gather and share stories in prose and poetry. Through stories we learn, connect, begin to understand, perhaps grow and change…for the better. I hope This Was 2020 prompts respectful discussions and introspection that creates healing. For now, more than ever, we need understanding, compassion and healing.

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NOTE: To all of you who have supported my writing and This Was 2020, thank you. I am grateful.

If you opt to buy This Was 2020, here’s the ISBN#: 978-1-0879-6762-2

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Mental health during COVID-19, some updates October 26, 2021

The message on this shirt references struggles with mental illness. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

IF ANYTHING POSITIVE has resulted from this still raging global pandemic of nearly two years, it’s a heightened awareness of mental health. Finally. Such awareness was long overdue, pandemic or not.

Now, in the context of the stress, anxiety, fear, isolation, depression and other health issues exasperated by living in a COVID-19 challenged world, we are thinking more about our mental health. From educators to healthcare professionals to parents to law enforcement to media. And if you say COVID hasn’t affected your mental health, I will question your truthfulness.

Yet, millions have struggled with mental health issues long before this virus turned life upside down. It’s just that all too often, we’ve closed our eyes and covered our ears to that reality. We’ve used unsavory words like “crazy” and other derogatory terms to label those battling mental illnesses. We’ve whispered and turned our backs and created stigmas. We’ve advised those struggling with depression or anxiety, for example, to simply get over it. As if that type of uncaring advice fixes anything.

Not that many years ago, treatment for mental illness was an add-on to health insurance policies. Unbelievable that individuals dealing with mental illnesses should be treated (or in this case not treated) differently than those dealing with heart attacks, cancer, broken bones… Thankfully that has changed, at least in policy. Still, the lack of mental healthcare options remains problematic, particularly in rural regions. Waits are long. Professionals few in number.

EXCITING NEWS FROM MINNESOTA

That’s why I get particularly excited when I read about plans like those of Children’s Minnesota to open an inpatient mental health center for children at its St. Paul hospital in late 2022. The center expects to treat upwards of 1,000 children annually. This past summer, Children’s opened a mental health day-program for teens in Lakeville.

All of this gives me hope. Hope that the youngest among us will get the early professional intervention and help they need. So many of our kids are struggling now, dealing with mental health issues brought on, or increased, by the pandemic.

VALIDATION FROM THE CDC

Another new development also gives me hope. The Centers for Disease Control recently added mental health conditions to the list of underlying medical conditions associated with a higher risk for severe COVID-19. Now in and of itself, that is not good news. No one wants to hear that they are at increased risk for severe disease.

But the addition of mood disorders, including depression and schizophrenia spectrum disorders, to the medical conditions list now bumps those individuals into the high priority category for COVID vaccines. A study in New York found schizophrenia to be the second highest risk factor for COVID-related death, after older age. The possible explanation—immune system issues connected to the genetics of the disorder.

Beyond that, this move by the CDC now places mental health conditions (specifically certain mood disorders) on the same plane as other high risk conditions like diabetes, obesity, chronic lung disease, etc. For those struggling with mood disorders and those who love them, this is validating. This also moves us closer to erasing the stigma inked next to the words MENTAL ILLNESS.

I’m hopeful that, as we eventually work our way out of this pandemic, we remember the importance of mental health. I hope this is more than just today’s buzzword topic. I hope that we can, as individuals, offer compassion, support, encouragement and help. I hope we recognize mental health for what it is—health. Not something that should be hidden and ignored and stigmatized.

Photographed along a recreational trail in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

FYI: The National Alliance on Mental Illness is an excellent resource for information, support, advocacy and more. Click here as a starting point for mental health information. If you or someone you care about is dealing with mental health struggles, please seek professional help. You are not alone. You are valued and loved.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Minnesotans write about pandemics & social justice in “This Was 2020” September 8, 2021

A collection of essays and poems by Minnesotans, including me. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

RAW. HONEST. EMOTIONAL. POWERFUL.

Those words describe This Was 2020: Minnesotans Write About Pandemics and Social Justice in a Historic Year. This collection of 54 poems and essays by 51 writers is a finalist for the Minnesota Author Project: Communities Create Award. Two other books are vying for this MNWrites MNReads honor supported by the Minnesota Library Foundation. The winner will be announced at the Minnesota Library Association’s annual conference in October.

The collection includes my poem, “Funeral During a Pandemic.” Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

I am humbled and honored to have “Funeral During a Pandemic” selected for publication in this award-nominated book. In my poem, I share my thoughts and experiences from my father-in-law’s funeral in a small rural Minnesota town. During a pandemic.

The book features short bios on each writer. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

As the title of this collection conveys, the 170 pages of writing focus on pandemics and social justice. Those who penned these pieces, solicited by the Ramsey County Library via a competition, are a diverse group. In age. In writing backgrounds, although many are seasoned writers with extensive writing credentials. In skin color and ethnicity. In perspective and experience. That said, most writers live in the metro with a few of us from other places in Minnesota, including several from my county of Rice.

Those from outside the metro include a 12-year-old from New Market. Evelyn Pierson, in “My Experience at the George Floyd Memorial,” writes of her emotional reaction to visiting the site where Floyd died at the hands of police on May 25, 2020. It’s heart-wrenching—to feel her torrent of emotions, to read her insights and thoughts, to envision her tears. But it’s important, even necessary, to hear the voice of this eighth grader.

Just like it’s necessary to read Brainerd resident Susan Smith-Grier’s essay, “Black in White.” I find her observations and experiences of a black woman living in a primarily white community to be particularly powerful. She moved with her parents/family to north central Minnesota in the early 70s to escape the violence in Chicago. One of very few black families in her new northern home. The death of George Floyd triggered childhood memories of tear gas and rubber bullets, fires and looting…and then, today, a bit of hope that things will change.

Hope weaves into many of the pieces. As does overcoming the fear, the loss, the grief and more that too often defined 2020.

In his poem, “The streets emptied out, but their lungs,” Moyosore Orimoloye reminds us that, despite lungs filling with fluid from COVID, lungs also filled with song on the balconies of Turin.

The incredible cover art features the work of Carolyn Olson, “Grocery Store Cashier and Bagger (Essential Workers Portrait Series #1). 2020, Duluth, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

So many writers detailed how the pandemic affected them—from worries about going grocery shopping to separation from loved ones to ways in which they learned to cope. I found Dave Ryan’s “Living and Dying in Memory Care” profoundly relatable given my mom lives in a long-term care center. I’ve experienced some of the same scenarios—trying to visit through a window, for example. Before he could no longer visit his mom due to COVID restrictions, Ryan installed a video camera in her room. That connected him to her. But then the unthinkable happened. As I read the conclusion of his essay, my heart broke right along with his.

On the back cover, a summary of the book and a list of the writers whose work was selected for inclusion in this collection. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo.

These are stories you need to read. Real. Life. Authentic. Eye-opening (especially Chee Vang’s “To Kuv Niam,” about how her mother was treated upon contracting COVID). I learned so much, particularly from those writers who have experienced social injustice. From those writers, too, who live in the Twin Cities, who are widely-traveled and who have seen and experienced much more than a farmer’s daughter from southwestern Minnesota.

But I share one commonality with poet and educator Katie Vagnino of south Minneapolis. I am, like her, a Rapunzel with overgrown hair.

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FYI: I encourage each one of you to purchase This Was 2020 by clicking here or buying it elsewhere (in print or as an e-book). Besides the 54 pieces, the book includes writing prompts, a discussion guide and a short list of grief, mental health, and anti-racism resources. This truly rates as an outstanding collection of writing that documents historical events which have forever changed us.

Publication of this book was made possible by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Thank you, Minnesota voters, for supporting the arts. And thank you, Paul Lai of the Ramsey County Library for your hard work on, and dedication to, this book project. I appreciate you and every single writer who contributed to this exceptional must-read book.

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© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling