Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

 

“Back home” in rural southwestern Minnesota November 22, 2019

Along U.S. Highway 14 west of Mankato. I grew up some 80 miles west of here.

 

ALTHOUGH I’VE LIVED IN TOWN longer than in the country, I still feel most at home in the familiar surroundings of endless land and vast sky. Southwestern Minnesota. It is the place of my roots, the place of my heart, the place where I feel overwhelmingly comfortable.

 

Farms edge U.S. Highway 14 in this region of Minnesota.

 

I expect most people connect to a geographic location. Do you?

 

Another farm along Highway 14 west of Mankato.

 

Every time I’m back home, because, yes, I still call this rural region back home, I sweep my eyes across the landscape, noticing always how small I feel in this setting. The sky and land overtake every aspect of this place, dwarfing farm sites and farm machinery and people. Only grain elevators seem to hold any sort of visual power.

 

An old-style machine shed in southwestern Minnesota.

 

As I travel through this farming region, I study building sites, pleased by sturdy, maintained barns, dismayed by those with roofs caving. Too many barns are vacant of animals, an almost certain start of their demise.

 

Grain bins define a farm site near Delhi, Minnesota, in my native Redwood County.

 

Like the farmer’s daughter I am, I notice the status of crops from spring planting to harvest. It’s in my DNA, this natural instinct to focus on corn and soybean fields, to assess the growing season, to care about the weather.

 

A farm site west of New Ulm, Minnesota.

 

Although I’ve left this land of my youth, I remain grateful for the earth, the sky, the wind, the communities, the schools, the churches and peoples of southwestern Minnesota. All influenced and shaped me. And still do.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A must-see NYC photo blog November 21, 2019

A Minnesota version of the Statue of Liberty at the Holiday Haven motel in Detroit Lakes. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2019.

 

FOR A FEW YEARS NOW, I’ve followed the work of award-winning New York City photographer Keith Goldstein. His credentials are extensive and impressive.

But beyond that lengthy list of accomplishments is my genuine appreciation of his work. He specializes in street portraits and in architectural photography. Goldstein captures some pretty incredible pictures of people going about everyday life in the big city and I often wonder how he does it. But he’s that good, unobtrusively photographing individuals in an urban environment that is also part of each photo story. I often find myself studying a frame, surprised by what I see.

New York City is about so much more than the nearby Statue of Liberty and Wall Street and 9/11. This noted photographer reveals that in his images.

Recently, Goldstein’s photo blog has focused on NYC buildings, truly foreign to my rural flatlander background. I’ve only been to this East Coast city once, decades ago while in college. I remember standing on a street corner then, craning my neck toward the skyscrapers. And nearly being run over by someone pushing a garment rack down the sidewalk. I don’t ever intend to return to NYC. I really don’t much care for big cities.

 

Photographed in June 2014 at a shop in Farmington, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

 

But, through Goldstein’s photography, I am shown this world so different from mine in rural Minnesota. I see the humanity of NYC, raw and exposed. Sometimes I just want to reach into those portraits and wrap my arms around the people who are hurting. Give hugs. I want to stop and listen and offer a smile and encouragement. In the sea of humanity that defines this place, Goldstein manages to find the individuals, to tell their stories through the lens of his camera.

 

Another Statue of Liberty, this one at Hot Sam’s Foto Park near Lakeville. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2012.

 

I consider his photography a gift. Real. Unfiltered. It’s important that I see the peoples and architecture of New York City because these images broaden my world. Goldstein’s photos stretch my compassion and my understanding of these United States of America. We are, no matter where we live, still just people with emotions and needs and hopes and dreams. And we all hold within us the capacity to connect and to care. Goldstein, in his art—because his work truly is art—offers that. And for that I am grateful.

TO VIEW Keith Goldstein’s blog, Far Earth Below, click here.

© 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

 

Reflecting on 9/11, then & now September 12, 2019

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In remembrance of 9/11, photographed last September 11 in Hastings, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

YESTERDAY BROUGHT TIME for reflection. Reflection upon the events of September 11, 2001, a day which forever changed us as Americans.

 

I reconstructed a tower using the same blocks my then young son and his friend used on September 11, 2001, to duplicate what they saw on television. These are also the same toy airplanes they flew into the tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

The terrorist attacks on our country made us feel vulnerable, unsafe and realizing, perhaps for the first time that, just because we live in America, we don’t live in a bubble of protection from those who would harm us.

 

Photographed along Interstate 90 east of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2011.

 

Yet, in the midst of that tragedy, that sorrow, that new reality, there emerged a solidarity. We felt united as a country, a people.

 

On the campus of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, a plaque honors an alumnus who died in the World Trade Center attack. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2019.

 

Eighteen years later I no longer see that unity. I see rather a fractured country. That saddens me. The discord. The political upheaval. Even the overt hatred toward certain peoples.

 

Faribault, Minnesota, firefighters pay special tribute to the fallen New York firefighters on this memorial sign. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

Yet, when I look closely, I see the care and compassion extended by many Americans toward those who need our care and compassion. We have always been a giving nation. I hear the voices of those who speak for those whose voices have been mostly silenced by rhetoric and oppression and policies. We are still individuals with voices that matter.

 

My then 8-year-old son drew this picture of a plane aimed for the twin towers a year after 9/11 for a school religion assignment. He was a third grader in a Christian school at the time and needed to think of a time when it was hard to trust God. To this day, this drawing by my boy illustrates to me how deeply 9/11 impacted even the youngest among us. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

That ability to express ourselves—whether through the written or spoken word, in music, in art, in acts of kindness—remains. Strong. We have the power individually to make a difference in our communities, to start small, to rise above that which threatens to erode.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The joys of being a grandma September 5, 2019

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Grandkids, when they are preschoolers, are in constant motion. Here my granddaughter, Isabelle, runs toward her mama.

 

PREPARING APPLE CRISP would have been quicker, easier, had I completed the task solo. But I didn’t. I pulled a chair up to the kitchen counter so my 3 ½-year-old granddaughter could help. A sink away, Izzy’s mama, my eldest, peeled and sliced the apples.

 

Izzy playing on the North Alexander Park playground in Faribault.

 

As Izzy and I scooped, measured, dumped and stirred together ingredients, I considered the joy of being a grandma. There’s nothing like it—a love so overpowering and intense and strong that I still marvel at the delight of it all.

 

Isaac’s mama pushes him in a swing and big sister helps while attending a family reunion in Sauk Rapids.

 

In Isabelle I often see Amber at the same age. Perhaps in a certain look or expression. Memories resurface. Yet, these are new memories I am building through the time spent with Izzy and her 8-month-old brother, Isaac. I treasure every single moment with them. They live an hour away, close, yet not always close enough.

 

Izzy and Grandpa fly a kite together.

 

This past weekend they stayed overnight with us. Their mama, too, while our son-in-law was out of town. We played at the park, went to the library (where Izzy and I picked green beans from the community garden and both kids played in the kids’ indoor play area), read books, rocked, attended church services together, flew kites.

 

There’s something about a baby’s hand (Isaac’s here) that I love to hold and to photograph.

 

I wiped sticky hands and faces, made faces at Isaac until he giggled, poured milk, made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and did all those things grandmas do without thinking, slipping back into mom mode. Minus the 24/7 responsibility.

 

 

 

 

Grandpa untangles Izzy’s foot from the kite string.

 

I observed, too, my husband interacting with Izzy and Isaac. I love watching them. Grandpa chalking Charlie Brown onto the driveway along with an over-sized hopscotch game. Grandpa and Izzy holding onto the handle of a kite. Izzy leaning into her grandpa as she gazes skyward. Grandpa untangling Izzy’s foot from the kite string for the second, maybe third, time.

 

Isaac is always on the move.

 

And Isaac, not to be left out, lounging in his stroller, gripping the kite handle. Grandma hanging on, too. He’s a happy boy, always on the go, crawling already for a month. Keeping up with Isaac and Izzy requires lots of energy.

By day’s end, I felt my age. Weary. But in a good way. There’s a reason we raise children at a much younger age. Come bedtime, Isaac quickly fell asleep upstairs in his mama’s old bedroom. Izzy, though, required lots of cajoling to stay in my office, her temporary bedroom. Tiredness finally kept her there until a 3:20 a.m. bathroom break. I didn’t hear her call for her mama at 5-something. Grandpa did. It was his turn anyway to get up with her.

We would do anything for our grandchildren. They are precious beyond words. So sweet. So loved.

 

To all you grandparents out there, Happy National Grandparents Day on Sunday, September 8.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A powerful Northfield sculpture focuses on mental health July 30, 2019

 

PAUSE ON THE CORNER of Division Street by the Northfield Public Library in the heart of this historic southern Minnesota river town, and you will find yourself next to a massive rusting sculpture.

 

 

 

The public piece calls for more than a cursory glance at an abstract person reaching skyward. The art calls for passersby to stop, read the inscription at the base of the sculpture and then contemplate the deeper meaning of “Waist Deep.”

This temporary downtown art installation, created by 15 Northfield High School students and three professional artists through the Young Sculptors Project and funded with a $10,000 grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council, creates a community-wide public focus on mental health issues. After two years, the sculpture will be permanently placed in the high school courtyard sculpture garden.

 

 

Like any art, “Waist Deep” is open to personal interpretation. The signage notes, though, that the sculpture is meant to support those struggling with mental health in the community, of needing and receiving help from caring others.

 

 

As I looked at the layered and fractured pieces comprising the sculpted person, I saw beyond the arm reaching for help and the lowered arm with curved hand clawing the earth. Both represent, in my eyes, darkness and light, hopelessness and hope. Mental illness leaves a person feeling incomplete and broken. Fractured. Trying to hang on. Reaching.

 

 

I photographed the sculpture on a recent weekend morning under rainy, then partially cloudy and sunny skies, not unlike the ever-changing skies of mental illness. Sometimes pouring. Sometimes parting. Sometimes shining with hope.

As the sculpture name “Waist Deep” and art itself suggest, those dealing with mental health issues can feel waist deep in the water of the disease—flailing, perhaps unable to swim, battling the overpowering waves.

We have a responsibility to throw a life-line. How? First, start seeing mental illness like any other illness. Call it what it is—a brain disease. End the stigma. Someone suffering from depression, for example, can no more wish away or snap out of depression than a diabetic can cure his/her disease by thinking positive thoughts. Educate yourself.

 

 

Support those who are waist deep. Show compassion. They need care, love, encouragement, support just as much, for example, as cancer patients.

Be there, too, for the caregivers, who feel alone, who work behind the scenes to secure often elusive professional care for their loved ones. In Minnesota the shortage of mental health care professionals and treatment centers, especially outside the Twin Cities metro area, is documented in media report after media report. It’s a crisis situation. Telling someone in a mental health crisis they need to wait six weeks plus for an appointment with a psychiatrist or a psychologist is absurd and unacceptable. We wouldn’t say that to someone experiencing a heart attack. They would die without immediate care. Those waist deep do sometimes. Every day. And it shouldn’t be that way.

I applaud the 15 NHS students and the three artists who created the public art piece in Northfield. Projects like “Waist Deep” shine the spotlight on a disease which has too long been hidden, shoved in the dark corner of silence.

THOUGHTS?

FYI: I’d encourage you to read the book Regular & Decaf by Minnesotan Andrew D. Gadtke and published by Risen Man Publishing, LLC. It features conversations between Gadtke and his friend, both of whom have brain diseases. It’s a powerful, insightful and unforgettable read.