Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

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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.

 

Spring photos, spring thoughts May 20, 2019

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THE LEAFING OF SPRING.

 

 

That string of four words defines May in Minnesota. In the past several weeks, I’ve watched buds form on trees, then unfurl into a canopy of mostly green. But also other hues.

 

 

Until you’ve lived through a cold and snowy winter like we did, I doubt you can fully appreciate the magnificence of this season, of viewing these days like a child at play.

 

 

The green of spring appears brilliant. Intense. An incomparable green that locks my eyes onto a lush landscape.

 

 

I almost can’t stop looking, taking it all in. This spring. This denotes the season of hope and new life, of following roads that lead to the promise of better days ahead.

 

TELL ME:  What in nature signals spring for you?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts on listening, understanding & more, plus a poem April 25, 2019

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I’LL BE THE FIRST to admit that I am not bold. I am not a risk taker. I dislike change.

But to read this poem I crafted with magnetic word tiles and posted on my fridge, you might think I am a bold risk taker. Not all of us are. Not all of us can be. And that’s alright. We each hold value in who we are. This poem simply expresses my creativity.

I don’t pretend to be someone I am not. Call me authentic. I like that word.

I am not loud, but I will speak up when necessary. Sometimes the quietest voices are louder than the loudest.

I value listening more than talking. Too many people like the sound of their own voices. We should all strive to listen better. It seems a mostly lost art.

When we listen, compassion and understanding happen. When we place ourselves in the shoes of someone struggling with challenges, we begin to understand. Begin to understand how words and actions can hurt. Or heal.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of judging, of thinking we have all the answers, that everything in life is black-and-white. It isn’t.

Life is a mix of colors. Some days vibrant. Other days muddied. But it is a life we are in together. If only we recognize that and try harder to care for one another. With ongoing understanding, love and compassion.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On being a mom & a grandma April 23, 2019

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WHEN I WATCH my granddaughter, I glimpse her mama. In a profile. In a smile. In the way her hair curls.

 

 

When I watch my grandson, I see my son. In chunky body. In his sweet face. And I flash back 25 years.

In those moments I yearn for the days of children at home. To hug. To greet every morning and kiss every night. To know they are safe and happy and within the reach of my arms.

 

 

But years pass and life changes and kids fly away from home. Some literally, some not. They grow their independence, move on, start their own lives. Even though distance separates, a mother’s love knows no geographical boundaries. And the missing them never goes away.

Then grandchildren arrive. Not replacing anyone or any memories. Rather, they add a new kind of love to life. Beautiful and wonderful and lovely and reminders of the children I raised. The daughters and the son, whom I love beyond measure. No matter the space that separates us.

 

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling