Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Insights from a pocket garden June 21, 2021

2nd Street Garden in downtown Faribault. MN Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

WHEN YOU CONSIDER THE WORD pocket, what flashes into view? A side or back pocket in your jeans? A place to tuck your cellphone or keys? A slip of fabric stitched to the front of a shirt? How about a garden? Yes, a garden.

Downtown Faribault features a pocket garden, a mini garden sandwiched in an open space between buildings. I love the concept, the artsy and practical use of a spot that might otherwise exist as unused and unsightly.

In 2018, two sisters and two artists created the 2nd Street Garden next to DuFour’s Cleaners thanks to funding from Faribault Main Street. That downtown-focused group secured a $15,000 grant from the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota and the Bush Foundation for six creative placemaking art projects, including the pocket garden.

With financial support, sisters Dee Bjork and Beth Westerhouse (who has since died) and husband-wife team Ann Meillier and Dave Correll (Brushwork Signs) designed and created the garden. It incorporates metal flowers, real flowers and plants, a bench and floral art.

A bench offers a place to rest and ponder. MN Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

The result is an inviting oasis that feels tranquil and welcoming. And unexpected.

Left behind by a recent visitor to inspire kindness. MN Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Recently, I revisited the garden and discovered a mini stuffed bear on the park’s bench. An attached tag invited visitors to take a photo and to use #LovePeopleBeKind. The bear, with red heart connected, fits the garden’s theme of Love One Another.

An important message tagged to the bear. MN Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

It’s such a simple concept: Love One Another. But it’s not always easy to do. We say and do things that hurt others. We fail to listen. We blame and criticize and jump to conclusions. And with technology, it’s easier than ever to fire off words in the heat of the moment. Without thinking. Without considering. Without putting our fingers and mouths on pause.

The positive message painted onto a fence panel in the garden. MN Prairie Roots copyrighted and edited photo, August 2019.

I’d like each of us to step into a pocket garden. To sit on a real or imaginary bench, surrounded by natural and artistic beauty, and to contemplate. To think beyond ourselves. To think of ways we can grow more loving and caring. To consider that what we say, write and do matters. In either a positive way or a negative way. We can hurt people. Or we can choose to love one another. We can choose to show, and grace others with, kindness, love, care, empathy and compassion.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Hope, joy & kindness at the clinic April 16, 2021

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Photographed along the bike trail in the Atwood neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

AS I WAITED POST VACCINATION in the clinic waiting room for the mandatory 15-minute observation, I observed. I am a people-watcher. A listener. A person who notices her environment.

After texting family, I set my cellphone aside to watch. Nearly every other person was on their phone, one guy even answering two calls. But, with magazines absent from tables and time to pass, few options remained. I’d left my library book, Funeral for a Friend by Brian Freeman, at home.

I wondered about all these people, if they felt as happy and thankful as me to receive the Pfizer vaccine protecting us against COVID-19. I expect they did.

Occasionally the nurse overseeing the small cluster of vaccinated individuals circulated among us. Checking times. And us. We each had labels stuck to our clothing, noting our dismissal time. I moved mine from just above the denim on my right knee to the right of my Army green jacket, making the label more visible.

Patients filtered in and out of the clinic as I sat there. Watching. A young mother entered, baby balanced on her hip. I was surprised to see her little one, perhaps six months old, wearing a face mask. I felt gratitude toward that mother who understands the value of face masks in protecting others and in keeping her child safe. The baby wore the mask with ease.

Photographed at LARK Toys in Kellogg, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Soon my eyes shifted to another mother and child waiting nearby, outside the vision clinic. I watched as the observation nurse walked over and asked if she needed help. Her kindness touched me. I expect this mother, a Muslim woman dressed in a black niqab with only her eyes showing through a rectangular slit, may struggle with English. But she understood enough to reply, although I didn’t hear her response. And then the nurse bent toward the child, perhaps nine months old, waving and talking and engaging her. The baby waved back, a broad smile spreading across her sweet face. In that moment I felt joy. Joy in seeing this very basic human interaction. Culture and dress and skin tone and religion mattering not. Just one human being interacting with another in the most loving way.

Photographed several years ago in the window of a downtown Faribault business. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Moments like this give me hope. Hope that we can accept one another. Connect. Express kindness to one another. Care about each other. And realize that, at the core, we are all simply human beings living on this earth. Individuals with wants and needs, no matter our skin tone, our beliefs, our culture, our language, our job status, our anything.

Love in three languages (Spanish, Somali and English), printed on a mirror along Faribault’s Virtue Trail. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2018.

Understanding and acceptance start with each of us. Like the interaction I witnessed between nurse and mother and child at the clinic. When the observation nurse cleared me to leave at 3:38 pm, I thanked her. Beneath my face mask, I smiled. And although she couldn’t see that smile, I hope she heard the joy and gratitude in my words.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Ask like you care & other thoughts January 20, 2021

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Sidewalk poetry in downtown Northfield, Minnesota, carries a powerful message. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

POSSIBILITIES. Hope. Healing. Peace.

Those words frame my thoughts this Wednesday morning. Words that need, and I fully expect, to be followed by positive actions.

Photographed at LARK Toys, Kellogg, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

We hold within our nation, and within ourselves, the ability to reclaim that which we’ve seemingly lost—decency, kindness, empathy…

A year ago, I stuck four word magnets onto my refrigerator door to create this phrase: ask like you care. The directive reminds me to listen, really listen. The directive reminds to to react with empathy when I ask others, “How are you?” The directive reminds me that, if I don’t really care about the answer, then I shouldn’t ask the question.

I’m big on listening, which differs vastly from hearing. The act of hearing is simply sound reaching our ears. Listening focuses on the message, the person. It’s an art, a skill, and not all that difficult to practice. Listening inspires conversation. Listening builds and strengthens relationships. It places the focus on others, not ourselves.

Encouraging words posted near a pocket garden in the heart of downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Today, on this Wednesday morning, I hold hope for the possibilities of healing, peace and so much more.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Shining light in to lives January 7, 2021

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In this photo, you can see the roofline of our garage. Randy strung three strands of light over the patio, which is between our garage and house. A wooded hillside borders our yard.

I CRAVE LIGHT, especially now, in the deep of winter, in the darkness of these difficult days.

When I awaken in the dark of a January morning here in southeastern Minnesota, I switch on lamps, flick on light switches, filling the house with artificial light. And then, as the sun emerges, I throw open window coverings to reveal grey skies or sometimes brilliant sunshine.

In the evening, when black once again descends, I reverse the routine—close the blinds and curtains, switch lamps and lights back on. I need light flooding the house. To cook. To read. As I’ve aged, my vision has worsened. Some evenings my tired eyes cross to double vision, making reading difficult or impossible. I underwent surgery at age four to correct that problem. But now it’s resurfacing along with cataracts.

Thanks, though, to the kindness of Ruth, a blogger friend from Pittsburgh, I’m finding evening reading easier. She gifted me with a flexible OttLite floor lamp that now floods my reading space with bright light. It’s helped. A lot. What a dear and thoughtful Christmas gift from a friend I’ve never even met.

Light, whether shone through kindness or shone from an actual physical source, is a gift.

Beauty in light against background winter trees.

A few days ago, Randy gave me the gift of light by stringing white Christmas lights across our patio. He pulled the lights from storage as we packed away holiday decorations. Now, when darkness overtakes daylight as I prepare supper, I can look out the kitchen window to those festive lights. They bring me joy—in their brightness and in the love that motivated Randy to string them there.

Kindness shines in loving acts like those of Randy and Ruth. And that of our eldest daughter, who each Christmas gifts us with a personalized calendar featuring photos of our dear, darling grandchildren. Seeing their sweet faces in those images brightens my days. It’s the perfect gift. Full of love and joy and light.

As darkness descends, the lights flood our patio with a festive glow.

Likewise, words also shine light. Kind words. Encouraging words. Uplifting words. Whether written in a comment on this blog, emailed or spoken, thoughtful and appreciative messages always bring me joy. I am grateful. Thank you for shining light into my life.

TELL ME: How has someone shone light into your life? I’d like to hear your stories. And I challenge you, today, to shine light into someone’s life and to continue that kindness in a world in dire need of light.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Nika & the giving tree December 28, 2020

A welcoming message banners the Division Street entrance to the Northfield Public Library.

RECENTLY, I NEEDED to replenish my stash of library books. That meant a trip to the Northfield Public Library 20 minutes away. The Faribault library remains closed to in-person visits due to COVID-19. I’m the type of reader who needs to browse shelves, hold a book and read its summary before deciding whether to check it out.

Plus, Northfield, COVID or not, always rates as a delightful community to visit.

“Rocky the Giving Tree” against the backdrop of the Northfield library.

As soon as Randy and I pulled up to the Northfield library, I noticed a small tree draped with winter scarves near the base of the library hill. But first things first. Books.

I found four, one of which I started and finished that very day. Yes, sometimes books are that good.

Inside the library, a portion of a poem by Northfield Poet Laureate Rob Hardy. This seems to fit well The Giving Tree.

Once I’d gathered those books and snapped two photos inside the library, I focused my attention on the tree. The Gratitude Tree, now renamed The Giving Tree. Previously I photographed gratitude notes here, among the branches.

The library tree is serving as a host site for The Giving Tree and similar projects.
Empty clothespins indicate scarves already taken from a tree once sporting many more items of winter wear.
A tag on each item explains the project.

But this time, hand-knit scarves hung among the branches, each with a note attached indicating these are part of the 100 Kind Deeds Day Project. Need a scarf or other winter wear (I spotted a single hat)? Take one.

Handknit with love…and draped in The Giving Tree.
In the background sits the historic Archer House, severely damaged in a recent fire and its future unknown.
The scarves are almost like an art story.

As I photographed the collection, I wondered about the backstory. After researching online, I discovered this is the endeavor of 10-year-old Nika Hirsch of Northfield, founder of This Life Rocks. Annually for the past four years, Nika has invited the Northfield community to accomplish 100 kind acts in 24 hours. This year she dropped toys off at a hospital, picked up trash in a park and gathered donations for The Giving Tree.

Just across the street from The Giving Tree/library are the lovely historic buildings of downtown Northfield.

But there’s more. Remember that name, This Life Rocks? Well, this all started a few years back after Nika was diagnosed with selective mutism, a disorder often linked to social anxiety resulting in difficulty speaking with most people. With therapy, hard work, the love and support of her family and others, and a project—painting encouraging messages on rocks to leave in public places—Nika has accomplished much. The rock painting allowed her to communicate in a non-verbal way.

The beautiful Northfield Public Library serves as host site and backdrop for The Giving Tree.

Watching videos of Nika, I am amazed at how much she’s overcome, how confident and strong in the face of challenges. Nika truly inspires. She makes this world a much better place with her hands-on care, with her positive attitude, with her motto to live life with enthusiasm. And with her kindness.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Creating kind words in chaotic times November 6, 2020

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My vintage Scrabble game. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

GIVEN MY LOVE OF WORDS, I’ve always enjoyed playing Scrabble. But it’s been years since I pulled out my 1970s vintage game to build words on a board. Randy doesn’t like the game. So it sits in the closet, collecting dust.

But let’s imagine for a second that I pulled out that Scrabble game, turned all the letters face down and randomly selected seven to start the game. What words would I form? Could I plan ahead and make the most of my letters to score the most points? I could try. Yet, another player’s actions often change the best thought-out plans.

Much is also left to chance. There’s only so much you can control while playing Scrabble, or most games for that matter. Kind of like life.

“Protect the herd” plays off Northfield, Minnesota’s “Cows, Colleges and Contentment” slogan. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Like right now we can do everything possible to protect ourselves from COVID-19 (such as wearing masks, social distancing, washing our hands, avoiding crowds, etc.). But we may still contract the virus. That doesn’t mean, though, that we should just give up and resign ourselves to getting COVID. We do have the power, and the responsibility, to try our best—by following health and safety guidelines, by making changes in our behavior and finding ways to improve our health—to possibly fend off the virus. And we need to recognize that our choices and actions affect others. Just like in Scrabble.

The past few days have been difficult ones, not only because of the presidential election, but also because more and more people I care about have either contracted COVID or have loved ones with the virus. COVID cases and deaths here in Minnesota are breaking records. I feel pretty stressed, as I’m certain many of you do.

Displayed at LARK Toys. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

What’s a person to do besides stay the course and seek ways to relieve the building anxiety and stress? Part of the answer rests on the Scrabble board I photographed several years ago at LARK Toys in Kellogg. Be kind.

I can be kind to myself, recognizing that my feelings are valid. And if I feel like I need a handful of dark chocolate chips to help me feel better, that’s OK.

I can also strive to work harder at kindness. I recognize I sometimes fail and miss opportunities to express kindness. I can choose to take my focus off scoring points to creating kind words. That’s my Scrabble analogy.

And just so you know, the one person who always beat me at Scrabble was my mother-in-law, Betty, gone 27 years now She proved a fierce competitor. And I loved her for that.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In praise of the art, gardens & messages in an Atwood Neighborhood September 24, 2020

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BE KIND.

Two simple words painted, along with three red hearts, onto a block of wood. And then set on the front steps of a home in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin.

 

A section of the Atwood Neighborhood I walked.

 

On a recent trip to Wisconsin’s state capital, I retraced a route I previously walked through this east side neighborhood near my son’s apartment. I found in that residential area many uplifting and positive messages that show those who live here care. Deeply. About others. About issues.

 

One of the many inspiring signs posted in the residential neighborhood where I walked a square block. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

And, in times like this with such chaos and turmoil and hatred in our country, I need to immerse myself in positive and hopeful words that uplift, rather than anger or sadden me.

 

An example of a front yard mixing plants and art.

 

Up close in a front yard I spotted this sprawling cactus which adds interest to the landscape.

 

Besides the messages, I appreciate the art placed in front yards overflowing with plants, including flowers. Not manicured lawns. I welcome that alternative to grass. It’s lovelier and better for the environment.

 

 

And in one yard, by a boulevard tree, I once again found a mini garden, a magical world of fairies and rabbits and gnomes. Making music. Dancing, Reading. Waiting.

 

 

I paused to photograph the scenes, inwardly praising the efforts of the homeowner who created this fantasy world for passersby to enjoy.

 

 

This offers, too, a momentary escape from reality. Something I need now, more than ever.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

More kindness, this time from Holland April 23, 2020

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WHEN I SPOTTED THE FED EX truck parked on the corner by my house and the driver leaping back inside, I decided to check my front steps, even though I wasn’t expecting a package. I rarely order online.

 

 

But there, on my steps, sat a cardboard box with an imprinted arrow pointing skyward next to the word UP. So I carried the box inside, washed my hands and slit the tape. Inside I found a pot of tulip bulbs erupting through a layer of moss. And this message:

Tulips from Holland!!! I told you I would do it! The Cedar Journal blog friend.

How sweet is that? Paula, a native of northern Minnesota who now lives in Holland with her husband, gifted me with these springing-to-life tulip bulbs after I commented on her post, “Spring Time in the Netherlands 2020,” and asked her to pretty please, send flowers to Minnesota. However, I missed her reply to send my address so she could send me tulips. She sleuthed my address on her own.

 

 

And now I have these Holland tulip bulbs that, in a few weeks, should bloom bright colors and remind me of Paula and her kindness. Isn’t that lovely? In these days when our worlds are turned upside down, this blogger friend, whom I’ve never met, reaches out to me with a simple act of kindness.

But it’s more than that. Paula gifted me with a spot of joy during these difficult days. She uplifted me and reaffirmed my faith in the goodness of people—just like Penny in sending face masks and Paul in sending a watercolor print last week. There are so many caring people in this world. Now, more than ever, we need to find ways to be kind.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo taken at LARK Toys, Kellogg, Minnesota.

 

I invite you to share today recent acts of kindness extended to you or which you have extended to others. You may just spark an idea that ripples more kind acts. Thank you, my friends. And Paula, especially, thank you for your gift of spring-in-a-box shipped from Holland to Minnesota. I am grateful.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Warming heads, hands & hearts in Faribault January 29, 2020

Photographed just days ago outside The Nook and Cranny, Faribault.

 

OUTSIDE THE FORMER St. Lawrence Church, where parishioners once ascended steps to front doors opening under a banner WELCOME sign, those in need find a warm welcome.

 

 

 

 

A handwritten sign invites them to take whatever they wish to stay warm. A hat. A scarf. Mittens. The winter neck, head and hand wear drapes benches and hangs clipped to clothesline rope.

 

A Little Free Library, left, also sits outside The Nook and Granny gift shop.

 

But this is much more than a give-away by The Nook and Cranny, the boutique/gift shop/craft center housed inside the former church. I view this as an act of kindness, care and compassion extended to my community.

Faribault is not a city of wealth. Rather, we are a primarily blue collar community, home to many immigrants, a place where people work hard and often struggle to make ends meet. But we are also a generous community—supportive of fundraisers, volunteering, giving to charities, helping our neighbors…

 

 

And here, in the deep of winter, one business located along one of Faribault’s busiest streets at 725 Second Avenue Northwest, reaches out, warming heads, hands and hearts. I can’t help but think that St. Lawrence, the patron saint of the poor, would be pleased.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. January 20, 2020

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A student watches a video about Martin Luther King Jr. at the “Selma to Montgomery Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail” exhibit at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, in April 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

AS I FINISHED MY BOWL of oatmeal and blueberries this morning, I watched a portion of Good Morning America. A young boy talked about a program he started, Books N Bros, aimed at “empowering boys, promoting literacy, and bringing awareness to African American literature.”

Sidney’s own challenges—specifically with stuttering and bullying—led him to seek refuge in reading. Now he’s using those negative experiences to make a difference by connecting boys to books. His efforts equal love in action, following the example of Martin Luther King Jr.

King rallied and worked for equality on a national stage. I admire his determination, his strength, his hopes, his dreams to make a positive change in this country. We’ve come a long ways. But much still needs to be achieved in racial and other equality.

 

Visitors could photograph themselves and express their thoughts, as shown here in this Polaroid image posted at the “Selma” exhibit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2015..

 

While we need leaders like King and young Sidney to publicly champion for change, we, too, must get involved. It takes all of us, from small towns to major metropolitan areas, to stand up, to speak up, to do something, not just sit there.

So how do we accomplish that? Assess your strengths—because we all have them—and then use them in a positive way. For me, writing and photography prove a powerful tool to connect, to uplift, to inform and more. Words matter. They can help or they can hurt, empower or diminish, support or break down. I recognize the responsibilities I carry as a writer. And as a photographer.

I’ve also been gifted with the ability to listen, a skill that seems more and more a rarity in a seemingly me-centered world. But our family, our friends, our neighbors, even strangers, need us to listen. Just listen. Not turn the conversation to ourselves and our experiences and challenges, but to stay focused on the person talking to us. Them. Not us.

I can’t write enough about the need for compassion. The challenges of life—and I’ve experienced plenty—have made me a stronger and more empathetic person. Some good emerges from every difficulty, although we can’t always see that when we are in the thick of whatever.

Like young book-loving Sidney, I was bullied as a child. Because of that, I advocate kindness. If we all were just a little kinder to one another, not talking at or over others, we would all better understand the perspectives and experiences we bring to conversations. In other words, listen. There’s that word again.

 

Photographed in August 2018 in a storefront window of a business in downtown Faribault, Minnesota. I’ve never forgotten this powerful message posted in my community. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

Today and every day, I hope you will take to heart the many inspiring words of Martin Luther King Jr. and live those words. Through your conversations and your actions.

TELL ME: I’d like to hear how King’s words have inspired you.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling