Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A fitting quote as we heal from the baseball field shootings June 15, 2017

This plaque marks a baseball player sculpture at Memorial Park in Dundas, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

 

THREE YEARS AGO I photographed a plaque at Memorial Park Baseball Field in Dundas. It marks a woodcarving of a Dundas Dukes baseball player.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

Today, the day after the shooting of House Republican leader Steve Scalise, four others and a gunman on a baseball field near our nation’s capitol, these words by John Thorn seem especially fitting. Thorn is the official historian for major league baseball.

 

My great niece Kiera painted this stone, which sits on my office desk as a constant reminder to hold onto hope. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Now, more than ever, as attacks and tragedies like this continue in the U.S. and throughout the world, we need our spirits replenished, our hope restored, our losses repaired, our journeys blessed.

 

Batter up for the Faribault Lakers. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

We must continue to play ball. Violence can change us. But it cannot steal away the freedom we hold dear.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

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From Faribault: Any “domestic” is one too many June 2, 2017

 

SEVEN DOMESTIC CALLS in four days…and one call for violation of a restraining order.

The stats, published on the May 31 Matters of Record page in the Faribault Daily News, shocked me. That’s a lot of domestic-related calls handled by the Faribault Police Department from May 26-29 in a community of some 23,000.

I’ve been especially cognizant of local domestic situations since the late December 2016 high profile murder of Barb Larson by Richard Larson. The former Faribault police officer committed suicide after killing his ex-wife at her workplace, the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism office. She had a restraining order against him, granted within days of her murder.

Just weeks prior to the Larson murder-suicide, Ryan Perizzo murdered 8-year-old Lynnaya Stoddard-Espinoza before killing himself in their Faribault home.

Those crimes shook my community. And they should have.

But the reports I am reading of nearly daily domestic calls within Faribault should shake all of us, too. Four in one day. To all different parts of my community. Domestic abuse and violence can happen to anyone in any neighborhood. And it does. I’ve witnessed such abuse and called police.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

I recall my Uncle Bob, a retired Minneapolis police officer, telling me domestic calls are the most dangerous. Why? Emotions and passions are running high. Perpetrators of abuse often fail to accept responsibility for their actions and blame others. They desire power and control. All of those factors put victims, and law enforcement, at great risk.

What can we, the public, do? We can educate ourselves (and our kids) so that we understand domestic abuse and violence. We can refuse to remain silent. We can listen to and support victims and connect them with resources to help them escape abusive situations. We can encourage the judicial and probation systems to hold offenders accountable. Too often these abusers walk away with little or no punishment, only to reoffend.

Frankly, I am tired of it.

Consider, too, for a moment how many cases of domestic abuse go unreported. Compare it to the motorist who drives drunk many many times before he is finally stopped for driving while under the influence. Or maybe he’s never caught.

Be aware that domestic abuse is not just physical. It’s emotional, too. That abuse can also be psychological, mental, spiritual, financial and technological. Abusers are often narcissistic. They manipulate and twist and exert their power. They are the center of the world, in their eyes, and you better not challenge that.

I wish I could wave a magical wand and end domestic abuse and violence. But because I can’t, I can at least spread awareness. And there is power in using my voice.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

NOTE: My insights into domestic abuse and violence are not specific to the cases cited within this post. Also note that if you are in an abusive relationship or know someone who is, leaving an abuser is the most dangerous time for a victim. Seek professional help to make a safe exit. Know, too, that a restraining order is just that, an order, with no guarantee of protection. 

 

Beyond violence, two artists show that hope rises March 7, 2017

A portrait of Barb Larson by Faribault artist Dana Hanson.

A portrait of Barb Larson by Faribault artist Dana Hanson.

TUCKED INTO TWO CORNERS in two galleries are two tributes by two artists.

Both honor Barb Larson, murdered on December 23, 2016, in an act of domestic violence. She was a long-time friend to artist Judy Saye-Willis and an acquaintance to artist Dana Hanson. Both chose to remember Barb in their exhibits currently showing at the Paradise Center for the Arts in historic downtown Faribault.

Dana painted an oil on canvas portrait of Barb, the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism employee who stopped occasionally to place orders at the bakery where Dana works. “I just wanted to do something positive to remember…she was genuine and very nice,” Dana said. The result is her “In Memory of Barb Larson” painting, based on a photo.

This series of fiber art pieces by Northfield artist Judy Saye-Willis also honors Barb Larson. The pieces, from left to right, are titled "Darkness of Death 1", "Darkness of Death 2", "Destruction", "Hope", "Hope Rising" and "The Light of Hope".

This series of fiber art pieces by Northfield artist Judy Saye-Willis focuses on death and hope. The pieces, from left to right, are titled “Darkness of Death 1,” “Darkness of Death 2,” “Destruction,” “Hope,” “Hope Rising” and “The Light of Hope.”

Judy’s artwork themed on death and hope spans half a wall and includes six pieces. Three framed works were already completed prior to Barb’s murder. They are an expression of “what’s happening in our culture today,” she said, specifically citing ISIS and the violence in Aleppo, Syria, as inspiring the art. But, once the events of December 23 unfolded locally, Judy created three more related fiber art pieces using natural dye materials. The result is a compelling series of framed art and panels focusing on death and hope.

I angled my camera up to photograph "Darkness of Death 2."

I angled my camera up to photograph “Darkness of Death 2.” When Judy created this scene with blood dripping and an executioner’s mask, she was thinking of ISIS and the violence/situation in Aleppo.

“…I was feeling raw, emotional with nowhere to go with it,” Judy said. “It (Barb’s murder) was senseless. I went to my studio and started the first piece. I tried three times to dye the piece black, unsuccessfully. I called it “The Darkness of Death 1.”

Simply titled: "Hope."

Madonna and child, simply titled: “Hope.”

Once she finished the black panel, Judy transitioned into the theme of hope. That was prompted by a Catholic church official she heard talking about faith and hope on the morning of December 23 (the day of Barb’s murder) on CBS This Morning. The result is two more hope-inspired fiber art panels.

As I viewed both artists’ tributes to Barb Larson, I could see the emotion within the artwork. Dana succeeds, through the strokes of her brush and the paint colors she chose, to portray the woman described as vivacious and friendly by those who knew her. Genuine warmth glows in Dana’s painting of Barb. I can see Barb’s personality in that portrait.

Judy’s art differs significantly, leaving more open to interpretation, more room for the viewer to insert his/her experiences, emotions and reactions. In the first three darker pieces, beginning with the length of black-dyed cloth, there is no ignoring the darkness of a violent death. That Judy chose to confront and share that in her work makes a powerful visual public statement whether considering the violence in Aleppo or the violence in Faribault.

"Hope Rising," says Judy Saye-Willis, "is about moving forward from tragedy."

“Hope Rising,” says Judy Saye-Willis, “is about moving forward from tragedy.”

Equally as important are the three hope-inspired pieces that follow. Those, too, make a powerful visual public statement.

A close-up of "The Light of Hope," which Judy calls her strongest piece.

A close-up of “The Light of Hope,” which Judy calls the strongest piece in this series.

Through their art, Judy and Dana have opened the conversation about domestic and other violence in a deeply personal, emotional and introspective way.

Dana’s exhibit includes a trio of horse paintings titled MESSENGERS OF HOPE. They are, left to right, subtitled “Light,” “Passion Fire” and “Grace”

And any time we begin to think and talk about these difficult issues, hope rises.

FYI: At noon today, HOPE Center and the Faribault Chamber are rallying at the Chamber office (where Barb Larson was murdered) as part of a statewide effort, “It Happens Here: A Statewide Day to End Domestic Violence.”

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Artwork photographed with permission of the artists.

 

An “end of innocence” & my thoughts after a deadly shooting in Wisconsin May 4, 2015

UPDATE THREE, May 6: A Facebook page, Hands Over the Fox, has been set up to unite the people of the Fox Valley in the aftermath of the tragic shootings. A National Day of Prayer Trestle Trail event is set for 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the site of the tragedy. Click here to learn more about this community gathering to remember, demonstrate compassion and show strength. Attendees will gather on the Trestle Trail Bridge for 15 minutes of prayer. A potluck meal will follow at Fritse Park.

UPDATE TWO, May 5: A Go Fund Me website has now been established for the family of shooting victim Adam Bentdahl to help them deal with the financial burdens related to his death. Click here to support this family. I just learned of Minnesota connections. Adam was born on August 21, 1983, in Mankato, Minnesota, which is 40 miles from my community of Faribault. He has family (a grandmother in Hanska and a brother in White Bear Lake) in Minnesota.  Click here to read Adam’s obituary.

UPDATE, May 5: Calvary Bible Church in Neenah, Wisconsin, has set up a Stoffel Family Love Offering. Click here to see how you can support and donate to this family as they deal with the tragic deaths of Jon and Olivia. 

An edited image of a Wisconsin lake, used here for illustration purposes only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

An edited image of a Wisconsin lake, used here for illustration purposes only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

I AWOKE TO A NIGHTMARE so vivid this morning that I can still feel the icy waters of the black lake suffocating, pulling my second daughter and me into her deep, dark depths. We are dropping farther and farther from the surface, sinking to our deaths while I cry for my daughter to let go because it is the only way I can save her. Even though I cannot swim, I am determined to reach the surface.

But she won’t release me, no matter how I plead and scream. I gasp for air. My wool pea coat weighs and tightens around me like a straightjacket. My girl still clings to me. There is nothing I can do. And then I awaken, feeling the need to suck in air. I am so shaken by this dream that I don’t even tell my husband about my nightmare.

Hours later my phone bings with a text from my daughter: “There was a shooting in Menasha last night.” She lives in nearby Appleton, works in the medical field in the Fox Valley region of eastern Wisconsin with her office based in Menasha. I text and ask if I can call. She calls me.

Four are dead including gunman Sergio Daniel Valencia del Toro, a 27-year-old Air Force veteran and college student, who reportedly randomly opened fire Sunday evening on people crossing the Fox Cities Trestle Trail bridge. A 33-year-old father, Jonathan Stoffel of Neenah, and his 11-year-old daughter, Olivia, are dead. Their wife/mother was shot multiple times and remains hospitalized in critical condition. Two other children in the family were unharmed.  Adam Bentdahl, 31, from Appleton was also killed. The shooter shot himself. There were 75-100 people in the park/trail area at the time of the shooting.

This is the type of tragedy that stuns you, that hits especially hard when your daughter tells you she has used this very trail, when you’ve dreamed only hours earlier of drowning with that dear daughter in a cold, dark lake. There is no logical connection, of course, between my nightmare and the tragic shooting in Menasha. Still, the coincidence raises goosebumps.

Today I feel a profound sense of sadness that a young family and a young man simply out for a Sunday evening walk should suffer such loss at the hands of a man who’d reportedly just argued with his ex-fiancee. I don’t understand this type of unprovoked violence. Why?

At a news conference on Monday, Dr. Ray Georgen, director of trauma services at Neenah Theda Clark Medical Center and on duty Sunday evening, spoke of young mother Erin Stoffel’s arrival with three gunshot wounds, life-threatening injuries that required immediate emergency surgery. But I was struck most by Dr. Georgen’s statement that the random shootings mark “the end of innocence” for the Fox Valley region. Menasha Police Chief Tim Styka later concurred, saying that “Times have kind of caught up to us in the Fox Valley.” Violence like this can happen anywhere, he explained. Now it’s happened in his community in eastern Wisconsin.

The two also emphasized the heroism of Erin Stoffel. Despite three gunshot wounds, she got herself and her two surviving children, ages five and seven, off the bridge. That act, Dr. Georgen says, shows the power of the human spirit, of a mother determined to protect and save her children. What strength. What courage. What love.

FYI: A Go Fund Me fundraising site has been set up for the Stoffel family as Erin, Ezra and Selah deal with the deaths of their loved ones.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

What is this world coming to? July 20, 2012

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THE QUESTION LINGERS on the edge of my brain, nearly tumbling in words onto my tongue, over my lips and out my mouth.

What is this world coming to?

Do you ever ponder that very same question, asking today why a 24-year-old would open fire in a Colorado movie theater killing a dozen and injuring some 60 more? Why? What drives a person to such violence, to take the lives of other human beings who are simply out for an evening of entertainment?

Why, on July 10, did a father in River Falls, Wisconsin, kill his three young daughters? To get back at/punish/hurt his ex-wife?

Why do two young girls vanish, poof, just like that, while riding their bikes in a small Iowa town?

What is this world coming to?

About two blocks away from this anniversary party in south Minneapolis, a crime scene was unfolding late last Sunday morning.

Why, last Sunday, when my family drove to south Minneapolis for a 50th wedding anniversary party, did we turn off Lyndale Avenue and a block away encounter a multitude of police cars and yellow crime scene tape and a TV news crew arriving? We continued on our way wondering what was unfolding as we greeted family, sipped lemonade and slipped into folding chairs in the festive, fenced in backyard just down the street and around the corner.

When my middle brother arrived a bit later, he noted that officers were posed with weapons drawn. Were any of us in danger as we drove past the scene?

What is this world coming to?

Why are children, the most innocent of victims, being shot and killed in Minneapolis on such a regular basis that this horrible crime no longer surprises us?

Have we become immune to violence and the essence of evil which drives it?

What is this world coming to?

When will the killing stop?

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From a small Minnesota town: “My dad got shot” August 10, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 12:13 PM
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WEEKS LATER, I STILL can’t shake her haunting words. “My dad got shot,” the darling pixie of a 6-year-old with brown eyes and long, spaghetti-straight auburn hair tells me.

I don’t want to believe her and even question the truthfulness of her statement.

But she is too quick to respond, to say that her dad, Bill, is dead, “buried in the ground.” The father who stole a car and went to jail was shot by someone who came to the house when she was only one, she says. I don’t know if she has her story spot-on correct, but I figure she’s heard it too many times to mess up the truth.

Recently, the police stopped by her house—the one across from the park with the boxspring leaning outside the front door and the stockade of a fence enclosing the back yard. “I don’t know why they came,” she says. I can see the hint of fear in her eyes.

I don’t pry. But I want to swoop her up, hug her, take her away from the bad memories and the stories of the violent death of her father, away from a life that seems not all that stable even now.

Yet, I’ve only met her as my husband and I are in a southern Minnesota small-town city park on a Sunday afternoon. I want to advise her and the boy, who isn’t her brother but lives with her because her mom and his dad “are in love,” that they shouldn’t talk to strangers in the park.

But she has already told me the dead father story and rolled her eyes at the living arrangement between parents. I can’t just tell her and the little boy to go home. Be safe. Don’t talk to strangers or accept food from them. She’s already caused my heart to ache.

So instead, we offer them food. She refuses any. But the boy, about four, gobbles up the potato chips and grapes we give him. It is 1:00 and they have not eaten lunch, although the six-year-old says they ate a late breakfast.

I’m not so sure. Maybe she’s heeding advice she once heard about not accepting food from strangers. Yet, she’s the one who approached Randy when we first arrived, when I was using the porta potty, and told him he looked like her friend Emma’s grandpa.

They seem hungry, not only for food, but for someone who cares.

“I have a dad,” the boy shares between mouthfuls of chips. And that’s when the mite of a girl tells us about her dead father.

Soon the boy’s older sister, by a few years, arrives at the park, apparently sent over to check on the other two.

“Do you want some potato chips?” I ask. She accepts a handful.

“She stole a peach,” the redhead accuses.

“From the grocery store?” I ask, thinking I may now need to teach them right from wrong.

No. The peach was stolen at home.

“I stole pop tarts,” the talkative six-year-old confesses. “She told me to.” She looks directly at the other girl, the one who may someday become her sister if the two in-love parents marry.

I don’t understand her word choice—“stole.”

“We’re supposed to ask (for food),” she explains or “get in trouble.”

Now I am worried. “You don’t get hit for taking food, do you?”

They say “no” and I inwardly breathe a sigh of relief.

Then, after we give cheese slices to the little boy and his sister, with the pixie girl still refusing food, she obeys a summons to come home. The boy is still standing near the picnic table, his sister a short distance away. He struggles to unwrap the single cheese slice.

“Here, let me help you,” I say. He hands me the cheese and I unwrap it. He shoves the slice into his mouth and runs home. His sister declines my offer to remove the cheese wrapping, determined to do it on her own. She does.

I leave the small-town park unsettled and worried about the future of these three children. Already they’ve experienced so much in their young lives: Violent death. Police knocking on the door. Food they feel they must steal.

My heart aches for these children. Will they grow up tough, hardened by the life they’ve already lived? Will they overcome the pain they’ve already experienced? Will they continue to approach strangers in the park…to talk about the dad who was shot, the food they must “steal?”

I wonder. I worry.  Should I have done something more?

THE NAMES IN THIS STORY have been changed to protect these children who thought nothing of walking up to strangers in a park. That also is the reason I am not revealing the Minnesota town where I met them. The rest of the story, sadly, is true.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Balancing security, freedom and accessibility at the Capitol January 12, 2011

 

I photographed the Minnesota State Capitol during a fall 2009 tour.

TWICE IN MY LIFE, I’ve toured the Minnesota State Capitol.

The first time was back in the 1960s, when my sixth grade classmates and I traveled some 130 miles from Vesta Elementary School on a field trip to St. Paul.

Then, more than four decades later in the fall of 2009, my husband, teenage son and I toured the Capitol while on a day-trip.

 

Italian marble columns embrace the Capitol's grand stairway.

While the grandeur of the building with its marble columns and staircases, opulent furnishings, ornate carvings and impressionable art certainly awed me, I was most struck by an assertion from our tour guide.

“This is the people’s place. You own this building,” he told us repeatedly. And, yes, that’s a direct quote. I was taking notes because I later wrote a magazine feature story about my Capitol visit.

 

The lavish Governor's Reception Room at the Capitol.

I remember thinking then, and writing later, how I would love to welcome guests into the lavish Governor’s Reception Room with dark wood, leather chairs, extensive carvings, heavy drapes, a fireplace and historic paintings.

I also remember feeling surprised that our tour group could just walk into the reception room. At the time, I also wondered which door would lead me to the governor.

Now, today, in the aftermath of the wounding of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 13 others and the shooting deaths of six in last Saturday’s attack, I am rethinking our fall 2009 visit to the Minnesota State Capitol.

Because the legislature was not in session when we were there, the building felt almost abandoned to me. I don’t recall seeing hardly anyone, let alone a security presence, anywhere. And security cameras? If they were there, I didn’t notice them, not that I was looking.

Honestly, I was a bit of a lagger during our fast-paced tour. I dawdled and lollygagged to snap photos. I expect our guide noticed my lingering with only five tourists in our group. But he never said anything and I probably could have slipped inside somewhere I shouldn’t have been if I really wanted to do so.

I felt then like I could have wandered anywhere and that surprised me.

Today, in the wake of the Arizona shootings, security issues are once again, as you know, the focus of concern at places like the Capitol complex. But the dilemma lies, as you also know, in balancing security needs with public accessibility.

Here’s a paragraph lifted from that magazine feature I wrote about my Capitol visit:

“Remember, it’s we the people,” our guide impresses upon us as we sit in the House chamber gallery. After a half hour of listening to him, I am beginning to feel like I own this place, like my voice could make a difference. He speaks of approachable lawmakers, who are open to constituents and who mentor pages. As we stand in a back stairwell, he tells of lobbyists and lawmakers who mingle here during the legislative session.

 

A view of the Minnesota House of Representatives chamber from the gallery.

Looking from the gallery onto the Senate floor.

I wonder now if those legislators and lobbyists will mingle so easily in that back stairway.

Will those of us who tour the Capitol still feel as comfortable as we did before the Arizona shooting?

Will the Capitol guides still tell visitors: “This is the people’s place. You own this building.”

If you read these words inscribed in the Capitol, will you take them to heart?

“The true grandeur of nations is in those qualities which constitute the true greatness of the individual. Labor to keep alive in your heart that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

Will you wonder about the weight of these words written above the doorway and viewable from the Minnesota Supreme Court bench?

“Where law ends tyranny begins.”

Conscience and tyranny and law.

The Arizona shootings do not qualify as tyranny, but the violence fits the definition of tyrannical—harsh, severe, unjust, cruel.

How do we weigh it all? Security, freedom and accessibility.

I have no answers.

 

Words from The Declaration of Independence inspire on the House ceiling.

The Star of the North centers the floor of the Capitol rotunda in the "people's place."

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling