A Real Bummer

About thirty years ago I fell and smashed my right knee while I was ice skating with my nieces and nephews at Christmastime. I decided not to see a doctor then because it would be expensive, and I was still able to walk and resume my active lifestyle. I reasoned that there isn’t much that can be done with an injured knee anyway.

Now fast-forward to several months ago when I went for a three-mile walk on a balmy spring evening. A few days later my knee was swollen and painful, and I was unable to do many of the work and recreational activities that are a big part of my life. I nursed my bum knee on my own, thinking that it would settle down if I took good care of it. That had worked before, but this time the pain wouldn’t let up much. After a couple of months I finally made the decision to go to the clinic and have it checked out. An MRI indicated that my symptoms were due to arthritis and the doctor recommended a cortisone shot. I waited for it to take effect so I could resume my normal activities.

A week after the shot my symptoms suddenly became worse. Sometimes the pain was so terrible that I had to use a cane, but then a few days later I could get around fine. I sometimes left the cane at home or in the car, mostly because of pride and unwillingness to accept that I’m getting older. I was too self-conscious to allow myself to be seen using it. After another visit to the clinic the doctor recommended arthroscopy to clean up the knee joint and hopefully give me some relief. I decided that as long as I was having surgery I may as well have a chronic trigger finger problem on my right hand taken care of at the same time.

The first two days after surgery went better than I expected. I faithfully began exercises to help reduce the stiffness and soreness in the joints. Three days after surgery I was getting around pretty well and looking forward to getting some small tasks done around the house. When I got up off the couch that had been my little nest during recovery, my back went out. Big time. I was in more pain than the day after my surgery. I didn’t know if I should  sit, lie down, or keep moving. Nothing seemed to help, not even the pills that were prescribed to help ease the post-surgical pain. This just seemed like insult added to injury. I couldn’t kneel because of the knee, but bending over was impossible. If stayed sitting or standing I was fine, but moving from sitting to standing was excruciating.

Callie and Flash

My husband, Jim, thought that it would be good for me to move around, have a change of scenery, and get some fresh air, so he suggested that we go outside and see how the cats are doing. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I need to be clear that my husband doesn’t like cats. He much prefers dogs because he understands them. So it was a bit surprising to me last fall when he started to talk about how a couple of cats would help with rodent control in his shop.

Friends of ours had been feeding two strays and were worried how they would survive the winter, so we took them in.  They are a mother and daughter pair and were completely wild when we adopted them. Our friends had dubbed the mother “Callie” because she’s a calico. We named her daughter “Flash” because all we saw was a flash of orange when we let her out of the carrier the first day she arrived.

We didn’t see hide nor hair of either one for several weeks after their traumatic move. Eventually they got used to Jim banging around in the shop, and came out to watch him when he was preoccupied working on his pickup engine, or whatever the current project was. If he paid any attention to them, though, they would take off and hide again. They had made a nice little nest for themselves in a couple of old upholstered car seats that are stored on a high shelf below the shop ceiling.

I talked to them in a reassuring tone when I fed them at night after I walked the dog, and was careful not to startle them by making sudden moves. They gradually became friendlier, especially after we started to give them treats when we visited. For someone who claims to “hate cats,” Jim has been very solicitous. He feeds them, cleans up after them, and has been taking the lead on taming them. They were a little leery of us after we took them to a vet and had them spayed, but seemed to forget that ordeal after a few days. On this visit Jim pulled up a chair for me and we gave Callie and Flash treats. Jim was actually able to pet Callie, and she took the treats right out of his hand. That’s a huge step for adult cats that were wild only six months ago. I was even able to stroke both of them before we left.

While I walked on the gravel driveway with Jim on the way back to the house, I remembered how he had done something similar a long time ago by encouraging me to go outside after we’d had our first baby. I was recovering from a C-section and had started to experience postpartum blues. I felt overwhelmed at times with the responsibility that I had taken on by becoming a parent. Jim’s mother had gone home after spending two weeks helping us get settled in, and I was frightened and intimidated by the  prospect of being on my own with a new baby when Jim went back to work. Jim came inside one day and said, “how about we go outside and take a tour of the kingdom?”

It was early May, so we put the baby in a carrier and walked around to look at the fruit trees that we had planted on our small acreage. Jim is quite handy at grafting, so some of the trees had hardy crab apple roots with different varieties of eating apples grafted onto them. We dubbed one of the apple tree varieties “Prairie Pearl” because it was from a tree that grew in Jim’s mother’s garden where she threw out her compost. We had no idea what its parent variety was, but the tree was hardy and the yellow apples it yielded had good flavor. We also had planted several pear trees, some of which were grafted onto hardy root stock and others that we had purchased from a nursery. The walk outdoors and fresh air were just the medicine I needed to help me feel better about the future and start to adjust to the major change in the family that the birth of a baby brings.

These days I’m also experiencing some major transitions in my life. My children are grown and have families of their own, and I’m learning how to build relationships with them as adults. I’m enjoying the wonderful perks of being a grandmother, which can’t be overstated! However, there are some downsides to growing older, as we’re all aware, and health issues are now requiring me to make some adjustments in my lifestyle. I love to be outdoors: walking, gardening, hiking, or simply enjoying the beautiful night sky. I hope to continue those activities, but I’ll have to remember that if I overdo I probably won’t recover as quickly as I used to. Instead of long walks, I plan to do more biking. Putting in the garden this spring was tough on my knees, so I bought a little nonmotorized garden tractor with a swivel seat that I should be able to use for planting, weeding, and harvesting. I think it’s going to be fun and useful. I can’t wait to give it a try!

Jim and I have been married for just over 37 years now, and have known each other four years longer than that. One thing that I have been able to rely on throughout our life together is a partner who has been steadfast through all of those changes. Since he retired he’s been cooking most of the meals and working on the myriad projects that went unfinished during his busy years in the Extension Service. He likes to tell people that his main job now is to figure out what to have for supper, prepare it, and meet me at the door with a glass of wine when I get home at the end of the day. That works for me! I am very blessed by his love and care. Happy Fathers’ Day Hon!

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Four Quarters to a Section

Each year the South Dakota State Poetry Society holds a Four Quarters 2015 w-border chapbook competition for South Dakota poets, and four winning collections are selected to be published in a chapbook anthology, Four Quarters to a Section. I’m honored that my chapbook, “Maybe the Moon is Falling,” was selected as one of the winning collections for the newest volume published this year. The other winning poets were Brandyn Johnson from Spearfish, Darla Biel from Brookings, and Glenda Walth from Sioux Falls.

The contest was judged by Heidi Czerwiec, a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who coordinates creative writing at the University of North Dakota. Christine Stewart-Nuñez is the editor of the new volume, and Betty Beer created the cover art.

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Reading at the Franklin Hotel in Deadwood, South Dakota

We were  asked to read from our chapbooks at the  Festival  of the Book held in Deadwood just this last weekend, so I joined Brandyn and Darla in a reading at the Franklin Hotel. Unfortunately, Glenda was unable to attend.

I must apologize for not getting the word out sooner about this event. Another reading will be held in Brookings on October 29th, so if you’re interested in attending, mark that date on your calendar. I’ll send out more information later this month.

If you’re interested in obtaining a copy of the book you may contact me by using the form below. The cost is $15 plus shipping.

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Are You a Creative Person?

I don’t consider myself as living in an urban environment, but when I was asked recently by South Dakota Magazine how my community affects my creativity, I was challenged to examine my environment and what motivates me to write. I live on a small acreage out in the country and work at a university, and much of my writing comes out of both of those experiences. Campus Sketches: Images of South Dakota State University in Word and Photograph is a collection of poems that was inspired by my work environment, and At the Rim of the Horizon is centered around home and the natural world I experience there. Both books are now available for purchase on Amazon as well as locally in the Brookings, South Dakota area.

I have to admit that I’m not very comfortable with being singled out as a “creative” person, mainly because I think that everyone is gifted with creativity, we each just express it in different ways. We may tend to think that scientists and artists are polar opposites on a creativity spectrum and that other occupations fall somewhere in between. However, they may have more in common than we think. In order to be successful in any occupation we need to be effective problem solvers, and that requires a lot of creativity. The work that artists do often requires them to understand science and math, and the work that scientists and mathematicians do often requires inspiration and creativity. A willingness to look at our world in new ways, to pay close attention, and sometimes to ignore conventional thought is important in any vocation.

So I guess what I’m really trying to say is, try not to put yourself into any categories, be creative, and have fun!

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If you’re interested in reading about how creative South Dakotans are influenced by their communities, you can read about “Urban Creativity” in the September/October issue of South Dakota Magazine. One of my poems from At the Rim of the Horizon was also published on page 98 of the same issue.

How Is Writing Like Burning Baskets?

I have always been able to separate and distinguish between different aspects of my life; keeping my work, hobbies, writing, church, and family life in neat little compartments, but more and more I’m finding them all blending together in new and surprising ways. At work I have been adding recently acquired materials for author Kathleen Norris’ papers to her processed papers in our archives collections, and what I learn when I process another writer’s papers helps me a lot in my creative writing work.

The new materials from Norris that I’m processing are draft manuscripts and research for her book,  Acedia & me. I started reading the book because I was curious about acedia and how it is different than depression. The first chapter begins with a story from The Institutes by John Cassian about Abba Paul, a desert monk who created baskets from palm fronds to pass the days. The transportation to get them to a market would have cost more than he would have made selling them, so he collected and burned the baskets every year. Reading the story made me think about my writing and how at times it seems so futile. I think that most of us want not to be forgotten. We want some remnant of ourselves to remain after we’re gone. We want to know that our lives have mattered, that we have changed the world for the better.

Without even really being aware of it, I’ve bought into the pervasive belief that the “baskets” or physical “product” that we create is the way we leave a lasting legacy. Yet all of our experience shows us that physical things don’t survive forever, and they don’t stay the same. New technology replaces old equipment. New books and new ideas eventually become yellowed and obsolete with age. I love gardening, and I know that a garden takes continual care. I’ve planted a flower bed, tucked all of the plants in place, surrounded them with landscape fabric and mulch, installed edging to keep grass from creeping in, and expected that the garden would stay as it was for years. It doesn’t work that way! The mulch gets washed away, weeds start to poke through here and there, in winter the rabbits sometimes chew the plants down to stubs, and grass eventually moves in from the edge. Nature continually works toward changing, assimilating, re-using, or re-forming everything into something else.

In the archives profession we’re especially aware of this. Our efforts go toward slowing down deterioration as much as possible, but we can’t completely stop it for any extended period of time. The story of Abba Paul helped me to see that the only thing that really endures is the interior work that we do, the stuff that we can’t see. How and what do we learn? How do we affect the lives of others around us? What I do, say, or write will impact someone else in a positive or negative way, and that will affect how they interact with others and the world, and that is how my work lives on. The exterior “basket” is really just a manifestation of that interior work. I have always been puzzled by the Buddhist tradition of making and then dismantling sand mandalas, but now it’s starting to become a little clearer to me.

Of course, I’m not about to gather up all of my writing and throw it on the bonfire that is DSC_0407burning right now in our driveway, cleaning up several years’ worth of branches and yard waste. I work in an archives after all, and my job is preserving, not destroying historical papers and artifacts. The ideas and knowledge contained in those materials provide the seeds for new creative work, and hopefully we will all be richer for it.

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Liebster Award

I’ve been so busy this summer that I haven’t had a chance to properly thank Linda Hasselstrom (https://windbreakhouse.wordpress.com/) for nominating me for the Liebster Award way back in May. I had never heard of it before, so I clicked on the link that she provided to read more about it. It is an award that is given to bloggers by other bloggers, and is a way to help others increase their readership. It’s another creative way that writers can help each other.

Liebster-Award-Discover-New-Blogs

I looked at the rules and figured that I could follow all of them except the one that requires me to nominate five to eleven blogs that I follow that have less than 1000 followers. Unfortunately I just don’t follow too many blogs, but I’ve decided that even though I can’t fulfill all of the rules, I can use this nomination as a writing exercise.

These are the questions that Linda posed to me and the other bloggers that she nominated, and my responses:

1. What event made you start writing? There wasn’t a single event that made me start writing. I’ve always enjoyed it since I was in grade school. I still have some of the papers that I wrote for my writing assignments in grade school and high school.
2. What do you enjoy reading? I read a lot of poetry, especially poets from the Great Plains, and I also like to read novels and nonfiction when I have the time. I used to not read as much poetry as I do now, until I went to a book festival and listened to a panel of writers talk about writing. One of the panelists, Ted Kooser, said that “a poet should read 30 poems for every one poem they write.” After I heard that, I decided to set aside time each morning to read some poetry. That quiet time in the morning has been one of the best things I did for myself and my writing.
3. What do you read for inspiration or encouragement? Poetry! 🙂
4. Why do you write? What a big question that is. I have no idea, I just have to.
5. How much time do you spend writing each day? Well, I count my poetry reading and journaling time as writing, and that is about 40 minutes every day. I also try to set aside a block of several hours each weekend to work on a writing project.
6. How might you realistically rearrange your schedule to have more writing time? I’ve come to realize that I simply can’t do everything that I would like to, so I try to concentrate on the most important things. If I can’t schedule a block of time during the weekend for writing, I try to make up the time by setting aside several hours on a week night.
7. What do you do for relaxation and enjoyment? Gardening, hiking, travel, reading, baking bread, making soup.
8. What incident have you never written about? There are so many that I wouldn’t know which one to pick.
9. What is the best thing you have written and why? I can’t choose just one. They’re like my children and have different qualities and reflect a unique time and experience.
10. What question do you wish I had asked? Who are your favorite writers? My favorite South Dakota poets are Linda Hasselstrom, Kathleen Norris, Jeanne Emmons, Lee Ann Roripaugh (South Dakota’s new Poet Laureate), Leo Dangel, David Allan Evans, Patrick Hicks, and Jim Reese. And then there are Nebraska poets Marjorie Saiser, Twyla Hansen, Bill Kloefkorn, and Ted Kooser; Minnesota poets Freya Manfred, Joyce Sutphen, Tom Hennen who also has connections to South Dakota, and many others in and outside of this region.

I haven’t found the time to seek out many blogs on my own, but I would encourage my followers to check out the other blog pages that Linda nominated. If you’re following my blog you may enjoy these writers as well:

Andrea Jones
http://betweenurbanandwild.com/ Andrea’s first book is Between Urban and Wild, in which she writes about country life at her home in the Colorado Rockies.

Darcy Lipp Acord
http://the-back-forty.blogspot.com/ Her published memoir is Circling Back Home: A Plainswoman’s Journey.

Mary Jo Doig
https://maryjod.wordpress.com/ Mary Jo is working on her memoir, Stitching a Patchwork Life.

Jane Wolfe
http://prairiespirits.blogspot.com/ Jane and I appear to have some similar interests: gardening and the ever-changing prairie.

Lisa Sharp
http://lisagsharp.com/ Lisa writes about her life on an Arizona ranch in her book, A Slow Trot Home.

Deb Carpenter-Nolting and Lyn Messersmith
https://cottonwoodcollective.wordpress.com/ This blog is authored by the Cottonwood Collective, a group of women writers from the west, the plains, and the prairies of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska.

I would like to close with a few questions for my readers:

1. What memorable family or community stories do you know (and have never written down) that other people may enjoy reading about?

2. What would you like future generations to know about you?

3. What stories do you remember your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or friends telling you when you were a child (or grownup)?

Even if you think that someone else has already told the stories you may want to tell, each person remembers events and people differently. You have a unique perspective that no one else has.

Thanks again, Linda, for always looking for new ways to encourage other writers!

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Plagenda, Blachinda, Plachinda??

I have a family recipe and don’t know how to spell the title. I searched in my German-Russian cookbooks, and practically every recipe for it that I find is spelled differently. So, of course, I turned to the internet. I first searched for the spelling that most closely resembled how it sounded to me, “plagenda.” That turned up numerous “placenta” sites which was definitely not what I was looking for. Then I searched for “pumpkin pastry” and found lots of recipes for empanadas, which looked really similar to what I remembered, but they aren’t German or German-Russian. Next I tried searching for some different spellings that I found in one of my cookbooks and finally found some recipes and pictures. I still couldn’t find a consistent spelling so I’m just going to use the one that I found most frequently,“plachinda.”

You’re probably thinking, what the heck is plachinda? It’s an apple or pumpkin turnover; dough wrapped around a fruit filling and baked. So your next question probably is — what is a German-Russian? That is a long story that began over two centuries ago. My ancestors migrated from Germany to Russia in the 18th century when Catherine the Great invited Germans to settle in Russia, encouraging them with attractive incentives such as exemption from military service, self governance, tax breaks, a stipend, and free land[1]. The Germans in Russia initially struggled, but eventually thrived in the Black Sea area, now the Ukraine. Apparently the Germans had good reputations as thrifty and productive farmers, and that was why Catherine the Great was keen on having them move in. That, and the fact that Catherine herself was German. The political situation for the Germans in Russia deteriorated in the late 19th century, some time after Catherine’s reign ended, and as a result many Germans migrated from Russia to the United States and settled in the Great Plains[2].

When they moved, they brought along their recipes, and my family and community cherished those traditional foods made from recipes that may be centuries old. I have no idea whether the plachinda recipe is from their time in Russia, or maybe even earlier when they lived in Germany. After my search for the correct spelling I began to wonder why there are so many spellings for plachinda. Is it because we’re slowly losing our language, or is it because it was never written down until contemporary times? Was our tradition mostly oral? I know that my grandmother didn’t follow recipes, she just knew how to make food from memory and lots of practice.

My mother was determined that all of her children do household chores every day after school and learn how to cook, bake, and clean. When I made a recipe, she had me write it down so I could create my own recipe collection. My mother often told me that she had to cook and bake when she was a girl because her mother worked out in the fields. Mom had to learn “on the job” because she didn’t have any recipes to follow. That must have made her all the more determined that her children would at least have a good collection of recipes when we left home and had to cook for ourselves and our families.

My son and his wife brought along some pumpkin that they grew in their garden when they visited for Christmas. Actually, the pumpkin volunteered in their garden — it sprouted everywhere that they buried compost that happened to contain pumpkin seeds. I decided to make plachinda instead of pumpkin pies since I haven’t made them for a long time, and I think that my two-year-old granddaughter and her parents may enjoy a little treat that would be fairly nutritious. While she’s taking her nap, I pull out the large yellow ceramic bowl that I inherited from my mother. I have fond memories of mixing up cookie dough and cake batter in it when I was a child. During the holidays, and especially when I’m making some of my family recipes, I think of my mother and those times doing chores after school. It’s a little like she’s looking over my shoulder while I work. We didn’t always get along very well when I was growing up, but now that I’m a mother and grandmother, I see her in a very different light. I feel that much of what I am today is due to her tenacity and foresight.

I haven’t made this recipe in a very long time, and I’m a little uncertain of myself as I mix up the dough, roll it out, and cut it into squares. DSC_1359How big should I make the squares? How much filling should I put in each one? I don’t like to have too much extra dough when I fold them over and pinch them closed, but if I put in too much filling it squishes out and leaks onto the baking sheet. No matter how good the directions are, they just don’t tell me everything that I need to know. I still have to learn by trial and error and make adjustments. It is much the same as being a mother or grandmother. Whatever the task, there are some things I just don’t know and sometimes it is best not to be too sure that I’m always absolutely right. Sometimes what seems like the right answer turns out to be wrong in retrospect.

As I slide the baking sheet into the oven, I think of a poem by John Brantingham called “Putting in a Window.” I often remember these lines when I’m working on a project:

“… The only good carpenter
is the one who knows that he’s not good.
He’s afraid that he’ll ruin the whole house,
and he works slowly. It’s the same as
cooking or driving. The good cook
knows humility, and his soufflé never falls
because he is terrified that it will fall
the whole time he’s cooking. The good driver
knows that he might plow into a mother
walking her three-year old, and so watches
for them carefully.”DSC_1364

The oven timer is beeping and it is time to take the plachinda out of the oven to cool. Served with a mug of mulled cider they’ll make a nice snack for our family when my granddaughter wakes from her nap.


If you’re interested in finding German-Russian cookbooks, two of my favorites are: German-Russian Pioneer Cook Book and Schmeck’s Gut!


[1] http://www.dw.de/catherine-the-great-and-the-russian-germans/a-16965100
[2] http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.ea.012

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Winter is Knocking

After a couple of weeks of beautiful, mild, autumn weather, a cold breath of air has moved in from the north and is sending the cottonwood and poplar leaves skittering across the deck and clattering against the window. Dsc_04122008-11-07Winter is knocking at our door, and many of us may dread the snow, cold, and bleak gray days that are coming.

I am reading Ted Kooser’s memoir, Local Wonders, during my morning reading and journaling time. The book is organized around the seasons of the year and I’m in the last section set in the wintertime. This morning I read about Kooser receiving a cancer diagnosis earlier in the year. He was unable to write for months afterward. He “began to heal” as he put it, near the beginning of winter when he started going for walks. Much to his surprise and delight he was able to write a poem after one of the walks. He continued writing a poem after each daily walk, scribbled them on a postcard, and sent them to a friend. He eventually put them together in a collection titled Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison.

I loved learning that Kooser regained his poetic voice and began to recover his health in the winter, a season that we often associate with death and endings. The trees look barren and dead, most of the birds have left for more temperate climates, and the lush plants that thrived in the summer gardens are twisted and shriveled. The ferocity of the winter weather also reminds me of how small I am compared to the power of nature. I feel much the same way when I gaze at the night sky and the mysterious, infinite spaces between the stars. I find it oddly comforting that I am not in control.

Winter is a time for slowing down, enjoying the silence and the crisp contrast between light and dark. There is very little color in the landscape, but that serves to help us appreciate the more subtle hues created by the winter light: the blue at the bottom of a footstep in the snow, the rainbows that the sunlight creates inside the crumbs of frost scattered on the tree branches. The abundant life that surrounds us in summer seems to have disappeared, but actually it has just gone to a deeper place, a safe place to rest and build up its stores of energy to burst to life again in the springtime.

Living things need both the light and the dark, summer and winter, moisture and drought, cold and warmth. The dead plants in the garden will be tilled under and nourish the garden next year. They will be reborn in a new way. Nothing is wasted. The same is true for us. If we feel tapped out, exhausted, lifeless, we can take that old dead material and mulch it to create something entirely different.

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