Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

 

Thoughts in the light of recent news headlines December 4, 2019

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Artwork created by Gracie for a student art show at the Paradise Center for the Arts, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots edited file photo March 2018.

 

LIFE CAN BE TOUGH sometimes, really tough.

Five dead in a Minneapolis high-rise fire last week.

Four dead, including two young brothers and their mother, in an act of domestic violence in south Minneapolis just days ago.

Nine killed in an airplane crash in South Dakota.

The headlines and media reports can overwhelm.

Yesterday, a 16-year-old boy was taken into custody in my community after reportedly sending threatening texts to two students that he was “thinking about shooting up the school.” Faribault High School. A similar, but worse, scenario played out in violence in two eastern Wisconsin schools in recent days.

I wish the world was free of meanness, violence, hatred and tragedies. But it isn’t and never will be. Yet we have the power within our homes, our neighborhoods, our communities, our circle of family and friends, yes, within our hearts to individually treat others with kindness, compassion, empathy and respect. And that is a start.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Dance, smile, toss confetti, spread joy… September 30, 2019

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THE BEST GIFTS cannot be bought. How often have you heard that cliché? It’s true.

We each hold the capacity to give gifts that hold value far beyond anything that can be purchased. For example, when I celebrated my birthday last week, I received several unexpected gifts that brought me profound joy. Joy as in crying and experiencing an overall feeling of being deeply loved.

 

 

 

The first arrived in my mailbox, by all appearances just a birthday card sealed inside an envelope. But when I opened the card, I discovered a clutch of colorful sticky notes. Upon those neon slips of paper, a friend and her family penned powerful words of encouragement and love. Exactly what I needed.

How could I not feel joyful when I’m told I’m loved and that God created me to do amazing things?

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

The simple word SMILE, written in an artsy font, prompted a smile.

Now I have that stack of uplifting notes to remind me that Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about dancing in the rain. I needed to read that perspective and my friend knew it.

Then several hours later my dear Aunt Dorothy called from New Jersey to wish me a happy birthday. She’s the aunt who lived in Minneapolis when I was a child and who gave me her old nail polish and lipstick and jewelry and made me feel so loved, especially with her endearing name for me, My Little Princess. All these decades later, Dorothy still calls me that sweet name. Not simply Little Princess. But My Little Princess. I feel so loved.

 

 

And then, just as Randy was preparing to cook dinner on my birthday (because I refuse to cook on my birthday), my niece Tara arrived with her sweet family. She held a box containing six fancy cupcakes from Cream of the Cakes in Lakeville. I never expected this. And that’s the sweetness of this act. This young mom took time out of her busy life to not only buy those delicious cupcakes but then to drive 20 some minutes to deliver them. And bonus, I got wonderful hugs from my great nephew who is, as he told me, three. Not two.

Add to that a bouquet of garden-fresh hydrangea from a friend earlier in the week and flowers from Randy and I feel pretty darned loved. Calls, emails and a video chat with the grandkids brought more birthday joy. The best gifts cannot be bought.

I challenge you this week to reach out to someone who needs the gift of joy—of uplifting words, of a simple act of love and kindness, of a surprise gift. As my friend printed on a sticky note: Be the reason someone smiles today!

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling