My co-editor Phyllis Cole-Dai and I are thrilled to be hosting two sessions at the South Dakota Festival of Books (Sept. 21-24, 2017, Deadwood, SD). A big thank you to the South Dakota Humanities Council for promoting our upcoming book Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems in a sidebar of its official program. We can’t wait to talk about this unique collection with Festival-goers. Hope to see you there!
I relish my quiet time in the morning before the household wakes up when I can sit, read, and write without the distraction of television, radio, or other imported noises. I’ll open the door so I can hear sounds like the wind, rain, or wildlife outside. The birds in the yard seem to delight in the dawn hours as much as I do. Their cheerful songs drift through the open screen this morning and remind me of something that happened a couple of weeks ago.
One evening my husband and I were out in the yard surveying the trees and discussing the work that needed to be done to trim them and clear up the yard. All of a sudden we heard the birds making a loud ruckus. We turned around to see our dog with a baby bird in his mouth. He dropped it after we scolded him, and we kept a close eye on him until we put him in the kennel. I also locked up our cats in the garage before checking the baby bird’s condition. As I cautiously approached, I listened for alarm calls from the adult birds in the trees, but they remained quiet. The baby’s eyes were wide open and feathers were ruffled, but I couldn’t tell if it was injured. I was tempted to pick it up and place it on the branches of a tree where it would be less vulnerable, but decided against that. I have heard that sometimes the parents won’t help a baby bird that has been handled by a human. It seemed best not to interfere any more than necessary. I went inside for the night, hoping to check the next day to see if it had found its way back to safety.
I wasn’t able to check the next day, so I don’t know whether the little bird survived the ordeal. I’ve thought about the experience a number of times since then, because it seemed so remarkable to me that the birds didn’t seem to consider me a threat. Looking back, I also realized that the initial distress calls we heard must have been from more than just the baby bird’s parents in order to attract our attention. I imagine that the birds living in our yard reacted the same way as any community would when one of its young is threatened.
I couldn’t help but compare my own parenting experiences to the birds’ when their babies leave the nest. Krista Tippett once said that “the experience of becoming a parent is … one of excruciating vulnerability and loss of control.”[i] After my first baby was born, I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the responsibility and lifelong commitment that I had made by having a child. When my children were young I was much more able to prevent harm to them, but now that they are grown up with lives of their own, about all I can do is hope that I prepared them well enough to be able to find the strength and resources they need when they encounter life’s challenges. The adult birds couldn’t swoop down and rescue the young bird when it was in the jaws of the dog. The only thing that they could do was raise all of their voices in alarm, and that made a difference in the end. I’m grateful to my winged, two-legged neighbors for what they had to teach me on an ordinary summer evening.
[i] Interview with Dr. Sylvia Boorstein, On Being, March 29, 2012
A year ago this month, textile conservator Terri Schindel led a group of local volunteers in a “living exhibit,” the conservation of the 38-star flag that was the last to fly over Fort Sisseton in northern South Dakota. The flag was rediscovered during a conservation workshop that I attended at the fort in 2012, and I was surprised and delighted to be asked by Terri to help with the project. I told her that I wasn’t an expert with needle and thread, but would be happy to help in any way that I could.
It turned out that I would have needed a lot of practice to learn the required stitches to work on the flag, and the team had only 30 days to complete the project. Thankfully, many of the other volunteers were gifted needleworkers. I thought that I could help the most by doing the documentation, writing down the decisions made and steps taken to conserve the flag and taking pictures of the conservation in progress. I had never done anything like this before and there was no template to follow. I decided to document the process in much the same way as I journal every day. I had to learn a whole new vocabulary in order to describe the work being done. I learned about the parts of the flag such as the canton, the fly end, and the pole end. I also learned sewing and fabric terms like applique and back stitch, warp, and weft, and I learned conservation terms like humidification, and the difference between conservation and restoration. Of course, as a writer I love to learn new words so the task fit right in with my strengths and interests.
You may wonder what a “living exhibit” is. The work on the flag took place on site at Fort Sisseton, and people visiting the fort could watch the conservation in progress. Some of the volunteers were designated as “interpreters” to explain the conservation process and tell about the history of the flag to the people who stopped by to look at the flag. Many of the visitors were surprised at how large the flag is, about nine by sixteen feet. Three feet of the fly end were removed at some point in its history, probably because it had gotten tattered in the wind when it flew above the fort over 100 years ago.
The best part of the project for me was learning the story of the flag. The most common question we had from visitors was whether we were going to restore the flag. I think our human nature is to want to fix things that are damaged, to make them perfect again, like new. That is what we would do if we restored the flag. Conservation means that we clean and stabilize the flag to keep more damage from happening to it, but not “fix” or repair it. The first rule of conservation is to do no damage, and the second rule is to do nothing that can’t be undone.
I began to realize how much of the flag’s story was contained in the things that made it imperfect. The tattered fly end meant that the flag had been flown. The repairs to it and the types of stitches used told other stories about the life of the flag. A large piece of the canton had been patched and we tried to figure out why and how it had been replaced. Some of the questions we had will probably never be answered — they will remain mysteries.
Last week, two other volunteers and I were asked to speak at the flag dedication ceremony about our experiences conserving the flag. The event took place during this year’s annual Fort Sisseton Historical Festival. We tried to decide what to speak about as we prepared before the ceremony, and realized that the story of the flag is as big, or bigger than the flag itself. You can read more about its history here, in the South Dakota Conservation Digest January/February 2014 issue.
Happy Flag Day!
I really enjoy gardening, and the large bay window of my home is filled with plants year-round. For the most part, this is a good thing, except that I have a really hard time throwing out living plants that I’ve nurtured, even when they get spindly, tip over, or grow too large to be inside. I often plant them outside, and let the frost take them in the fall. The same is true for Christmas poinsettias that I’ve bought or received as gifts. I water them all winter, and then in the spring I move them outside. I had two poinsettias in the house for Christmas over a year ago, one red and one white. I kept them in the bay window after they finished blooming, watered them until spring, and then planted them outside in the flower bed.
Last fall, one of them was still doing really well so I thought, what the heck, I’ll put it in a pot, bring it inside, and see if I can get it to bloom for Christmas. I’ve done that before by putting the plant in the guest bedroom and making sure that it gets no more than 10 to 12 hours of sunlight a day for about ten weeks. Even light from indoor bulbs can affect the bud set, so I move it into a closet if guests need to use the room. This time, however, I didn’t start limiting the light exposure to the plant until early November, and that wasn’t enough time for it to set flower buds. The flowers didn’t appear by Christmas, so I moved it back into the window with my other plants after the holidays.
We’ve been really busy the last few weeks, and I neglected to water the poinsettia before we left on a weekend trip. When we came back, all of the leaves were brown and shriveled and I was sure that it was a goner. I decided to water it anyway, just in case there was a little life left in the stems. A few days later,small green leaves started to appear on the tips of the stems. This weekend while watering the plants in the window, I picked up the poinsettia and took it outside to brush off all of the dead leaves. When I looked at it closely, I saw that the new leaves appearing at the top were not leaves at all, they were actually the flowers opening, and I could see that this poinsettia was the white one.
I went through all kinds of theories about how this could have happened when I was making no attempt whatever to limit the light exposure to the plant. The spring equinox was about a month before the plant began to bloom, and during the time before the equinox, we would have had less than 12 hours of light every day. However the plant was in the living room the whole time, and the room lights would often have been on when it was dark outside. Besides that, I started some herb seeds in pots about a month ago, and have grow lights in a plant stand next to the window that are governed by a timer to be turned on for over twelve hours every day.
I’ve decided to just think of it as one of those little miracles that can happen when we keep watering, keep trying even when things may appear hopeless. Most of the deciduous trees outside are still bare, but the branches are beginning to look like the stems of this spunky little poinsettia. New green leaves are uncurling from the tips of the branches, and many of the trees and bushes have begun sprouting delicate, aromatic blossoms.
I attended a candlelight vigil organized by the South Dakota State University Nepalese Student Association late last week. The recent earthquake has been devastating for their home country, and this was an opportunity for the SDSU and Brookings communities to show their support for the Nepalese people during this very difficult time. You can read more about SDSU’s response to the earthquake here.
I attended the vigil Thursday night, and left the event that evening with some ideas for a poem. Usually I like to let new poems sit for a while and work on them later when I can be more objective, but it seemed to me that I should share this poem now while the event is so fresh in all of our minds. Please forgive me if it seems a little rough around the edges since I just wrote it today.
for the Nepalese earthquake victims
About one hundred
of us move ahead
to come closer
to join hands
and I hear
the grass whisper
as we shuffle forward.
Later, at home
I hear the soft
murmur of the rain
through the closed window
and open it
to listen, to hope.
The voices of South Dakota women resonate in this anthology of articles, poetry, short fiction, and original interviews. The book was an ambitious project edited by Meredith Redlin, Christine Stewart-Nuñez, and Julie M. Barst. The cover art was created by Betty L. Beer.
“The book uniquely captures the complicated experience of women in South Dakota,” according to Redlin. “It encompasses both the broad scope of women’s status in politics, education, activism, agriculture and health, and the intimate moments which compose women’s lives.”
I am honored to be a part of this collection of writings by scholars, activists, and artists, and had the privilege to read my poem, “Time Warp,” at the book launch held on March 17th in the Hilton M. Briggs Library on the campus of South Dakota State University.
The South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum has the book available for purchase in its gift store on the South Dakota State University campus in Brookings, S.D.
Two South Dakota cities just made the “Top-50 Coldest Cities” list according to Niche Company News, and numerous schools in the area have been calling off school or shortening their hours. I grew up in northern South Dakota so this cold weather is nothing new to me at all, and I’m a bit surprised that it’s making the news. I’m a little envious because I don’t remember school ever being called off because of low temperatures when I was a youngster. I walked a couple of blocks every morning and afternoon to and from school regardless of the weather, unless there was a raging blizzard in which case school was dismissed. I have great memories of one storm that lasted about five days (no school!) and also knocked out our electricity. I remember my dad making toast in the coal-fired furnace in the basement. The snow had drifted so high that after the storm we could walk right up onto the roof of the garage. My brother, sisters, and I dug down into the drift to make an awesome snow fort.
I must admit that I actually enjoy all of the seasons, even winter. I take the dog for a walk almost every day of the year including wintertime, and he whimpers impatiently at the door when I start putting on my insulated coveralls, boots, hooded insulated jacket, parka, mittens, and scarf. The only skin exposed to the cold may be a little bit around my eyes.
After one of these walks a few nights ago, I was approaching the driveway and I started to get an idea for a poem. I was afraid that if I went inside to write it down I may get distracted and lose the poem — that has happened to me before! I went inside briefly to get a small notebook and pencil (pens won’t work when it’s this cold), and went back outside. I was wearing gloves inside my mittens, so I took off the mitten on my right hand, held a flashlight with my knees and started to write, but the pencil point broke partway. I turned the pencil and was able to keep writing for a little while, but the flashlight had a bad switch and kept turning off. It would work for a little while when I shook it, but then turn off again. The tip of the pencil broke off completely when I was about half done so I took off my glove and began breaking away the wood at the point to get to the graphite. Finally I was able to get the words down on paper. That was one of the hardest-fought battles for a poem that I’ve ever had! Did I mention that the windchill was -22 that night?
Before going back inside, I decided to walk down the road a bit so I could get a better look at the night sky. The moon was waning and just a couple of days past its full phase. The strong north wind blew the snow across the road, creating a hazy snow cloud that started at the horizon and went up into the sky about ten degrees or so. I noticed a couple of small clouds to the right and left of the moon, and while I was studying them I realized that they weren’t clouds, they were a similar phenomenon to sun dogs. I could see a hint of the colors of the light spectrum reflected in the ice crystals. I had never seen them around the moon before. When I got back home I asked my husband if he’d ever seen “moon dogs” (not the correct name, but the best I could do at the time!) I was delighted to get a small reward for my trials and tribulations, even if they were self-inflicted!
On the way to work a couple of days later I snapped some pictures of the sunrise just before the sun popped up over the horizon. I watched two sun dogs develop, and the colors grow more intense as the sun neared the skyline. In the space between the sun dogs, the glow of the sun below the horizon was reflected in the ice crystals above and grew brighter until it looked like a flame burning on the edge of the frigid landscape.
When I got home that night I researched sun dogs, and learned that they are a type of ice crystal halo. The illustration of halos on this page reminded me of a poem by Hafiz that I recently read, called “Something About Circles.” Here is an excerpt:
The moon is most happy
When it is full
And the sun always looks
Like a perfectly minted gold coin
That was just polished
And placed in flight …