Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

 

Thoughts & reflections on Juneteenth June 19, 2021

A chair placed before a Stephen Somerstein photo offers a spot to contemplate. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2015.

IT’S A MEMORABLE IMAGE of an empty chair placed before a photo in the exhibit, “Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail.” In 2015, I viewed the traveling exhibit that visually highlights the Civil Rights movement and the photography of Stephen Somerstein.

Now, six years later, the contemplative photo I framed and shot with my Canon EOS 20-D in the Flaten Art Museum at St. Olaf College connects to our new federal holiday, Juneteenth. June 19 commemorates the end of slavery—the date in 1865 when Union soldiers informed slaves in Galveston, Texas, that they were free. Two-plus years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all enslaved persons held in states that had seceded from the Union.

That strong visual of the empty chair before that Somerstein photo sparks within me the desire, the need, to look deep within myself, and then beyond myself. To learn. To begin to understand in some small way what it means to be Black in America. To read the history. To recognize how slavery affected generations of families. How the hurts and wrongs of yesterday remain.

The official declaration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday certainly prompts me to research, reflect and contemplate. But I hope this new national observance initiates community conversations that bring change in a nation reeling from racial issues and injustices. It truly takes each of us at a grassroots personal level to effect change.

Recently, I listened as an elderly white woman spouted angry words about George Floyd, murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. She claimed that Floyd was being portrayed as a “saint” when he was “nothing but a criminal.” I felt my blood pressure rising as she continued her rant about all the shootings in Minneapolis and how thankful she was that she didn’t live in the Cities. She missed the point of the protests—over police brutality, over racial injustices, over the needless death of a Black man (yes, one with a criminal record) while in police custody. I walked away. And maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe I should have stayed and tried to discuss this with her. But I knew my efforts would prove futile. She saw this all as a metro, not a rural, “problem.”

I disagree. We are all human. No matter where we live, we ought to care about how others are treated, whatever their skin tone. Perhaps today, Juneteenth, we can sit quietly for a bit, contemplate and reflect on life in America today. How can we improve this country, starting right in our own neighborhoods and communities? Within ourselves.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Able to breathe again April 21, 2021

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A message chalked in Bridge Square in Northfield carries a repeated phrase as young Black people continue to die at the hands of police. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

WHEN MY ELDEST DAUGHTER texted at 2:31 pm Tuesday that a verdict had been reached in the Derek Chauvin trial, I replied with one simple word. What?

That the jury could reach a verdict in such a short time—about 10 hours—following weeks of testimony likely meant that the former Minneapolis police officer would be found guilty of killing George Floyd on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis by pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.

I immediately switched on the TV to await reading of the verdict by Judge Peter Cahill. As I waited and watched news coverage, I felt a sense of hope. Hope that this would end in a conviction. Hope that, finally, there would be accountability in the death of a Black man at the hands of police.

I’d watched the Chauvin trial off-and-on. I heard the words of the bystanders who witnessed Floyd’s death, who pleaded with police officers to give him medical attention. Who asked Chauvin to remove his knee from Floyd’s neck. Who chose to pause and care and document and attempt to save another human being’s life. They felt hopeless, helpless, traumatized, according to their sworn testimony. I listened, too, to police officers testify against one of their own. And I heard Floyd’s loved ones and medical experts speak. Listening to testimony left me at times feeling exhausted and heart-broken.

So when the guilty of all three counts—second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter—came down yesterday, I felt relief. Finally.

I watched Chauvin as the verdict was read. His eyes darted from side-to-side. I wondered what he was thinking in that moment and the moments following—when his bail was revoked, he was handcuffed and led away to wait in a Minnesota prison for his sentencing in eight weeks.

Messages on a house in small town Dundas, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

But mostly, I wondered how the Floyd family felt. Later they would speak at a news conference led by Civil Rights activist Al Sharpton and Civil Rights attorney Ben Crump. Said Sharpton: “This gives us the energy to fight on.” And Crump: “America, let’s frame this moment as a moment where we are finally getting close to living up to our Declaration of Independence…that all men are created equally…with certain unalienable rights like life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

My mind focused on this single word: life. George Floyd needlessly lost his life on May 25 at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis, a place now known as George Floyd Square.

In the 11 months since, his family has focused on attaining justice in the death of their brother/cousin/uncle/father and on effecting change. They have done that with grace, poise, eloquence, prayer and passion. George’s brother, Philonise Floyd, has stepped up as the family spokesman. At Tuesday’s news conference, these words, especially, resonated with me: “Today we are able to breathe again.” That comment by Philonise linked directly to George Floyd’s plea to police officers as he lay face down on the pavement dying. “I can’t breathe.”

A photo and comment posted at the “Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail” exhibit at St. Olaf College in Northfield in 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

Much work remains to be done. Tuesday’s verdict marks an important step in accountability and a move toward justice and equality. It’s easy to type that. It’s harder to live it. To speak up. To take action. To care. And we need to care, whether we live along a rural gravel road, in a small town, in the heart of a big city or anywhere in between.

FYI: I’d encourage you to read posts by two Minnesota bloggers whom I respect and follow and who share their thoughts on the Derek Chauvin verdict. Click here to read Margit Johnson’s post, “Endings and Beginnings,” and Kathleen Cassen Mickelson’s “Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.”

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Bridge Square in Northfield: Black Lives Matter August 4, 2020

Messages related to the Black Lives Matter movement are chalked in Northfield’s Bridge Square.

 

BRIDGE SQUARE in Northfield. It’s a gathering spot for the community. A place to relax and enjoy music and conversation and even popcorn from the popcorn wagon. Water flows from a fountain. Benches beckon visitors to linger. Colorful flowers spill from large, lush planters. Nearby, the Cannon River roars over a dam. People fish and picnic and walk along and over the river. It’s a beautiful setting of trees and sky and water.

 

This is a common phrased used in the current Black Lives Matter movement. Chalked names fill the sidewalks at Bridge Square.

 

The downtown park also provides a place to express public opinion, most recently related to the Black Lives Matter movement. On a recent walk through Bridge Square and several blocks along the River Walk and Division Street, I read the concerns expressed about lives lost, about racial injustice…

 

A broader view of the names and messages leading to and surrounding the fountain.

 

Written in chalk were names of the dead. And messages. Powerful. Heartfelt. Even as rain and sun have faded the chalk writings, the meaning remains that Black Lives Matter.

 

Next to the fountain, this fading portrait of James Baldwin.

 

Next to Baldwin’s portrait, one of Paul O’Neal.

 

Chalk portraits of James Baldwin and Paul O’Neal give faces to names that we should all remember. Like Baldwin, an author and Civil Rights activist. Like O’Neal, shot in the back by Chicago police in 2016. And, more recently, the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, sparking nationwide protests, unrest, destruction, and calls for police reform and justice.

 

Barricades have been set up along this street next to Bridge Square to separate traffic and pedestrians/protesters on a bridge spanning the Cannon River.

 

The poem I found particularly meaningful in relation to Black Lives Matter and the death of George Floyd.

 

After crossing a partially barricaded street to follow the River Walk, I paused to read a poem imprinted in the sidewalk as part of Northfield’s Sidewalk Poetry Project. Reading the seven-line poem, the final line—Just breathe—struck me. George Floyd, when he lay dying on a Minneapolis street, said, “I can’t breathe.”

 

I followed the River Walk, eventually turning onto this footbridge across the Cannon River.

 

And so I walked, down steps, along the pedestrian river path hugging the banks of the Cannon River. I thought of that poetry and of those names and messages in Bridge Square.

 

One of many Black Lives Matter signs I spotted in downtown Northfield, this one in the upper story window of an historic Division Street building.

 

I considered how, no matter our skin color, our background, our education, our whatever in life, that we are all just people. We see beauty. We feel sunshine. And sometimes we share the silence that forms in our minds.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

8 minutes and 46 seconds June 5, 2020

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

TIME. For two hours Thursday afternoon, I watched the memorial service for George Floyd in Minneapolis broadcast on TV. Singing. Praying. Sharing of memories. Laughing. Crying. Calls for justice. And in the end, at the end, it was the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that mourners stood in silence which felt the most intensely and emotionally powerful. The length of time a former Minneapolis police officer, now charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, was shown in a video kneeling on Floyd’s neck. It seemed an interminably long time.

 

Garden art given to me by my mom many years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

TIME. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who spoke at the service, quoted Ecclesiastes 3, which references time. “Time is out for empty words and empty promises,” the reverend said, as he called for lasting change. For equality. For justice. The time is now.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

TIME. Hope is rising. Not as a wish, but as an action, as a movement toward lasting change.