This I Believe: Kathleen Weflen (2008)

One October morning in 1938, at a small railway station on the plains of west-central Minnesota, a 12-year-old girl kissed her mother, dad, sisters, and brothers goodbye, then climbed aboard a train. By late afternoon she’d arrived in Faribault at the Minnesota School for the Deaf. During the next seven years, the train would take her back home only for Christmas and summer vacations. And the mail train would carry countless letters from her to her family and from them to her.

Unable to call home, Donna Kjeldahl became a prolific writer of letters. When she graduated in 1945, her class wrote a will, bequeathing the juniors various gifts, including Donna’s famous letter-writing abilities.

When I went to college 240 miles away in Bemidji, my mother, Donna, wrote to me almost every day during my first year. No doubt, she recalled her own loneliness as a girl far from home. They were ordinary letters of reliable love.

For the next decade, she wrote to me as I traveled to Mexico and moved around the country from Colorado, to Oregon, to Maine, and finally back to Minnesota. Three years after my husband and I moved to the Twin Cities, my mother died—at age 53. Sadly, I had not saved a single letter from her.

Now, if I could collect any history into a book, I would choose my mother’s volumes of girlhood letters home. But they are lost too.

Her legacy to me has been the act of writing itself—the love of storytelling, fascination with wordplay, passion to read, desire to communicate. I learned to write by writing letters like my mother. Even my handwriting reflects her artistic flourish.

Six times a year, I write a kind of letter to more than 150,000 subscribers, nearly a half million readers, of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine. My editor’s column, “This Issue,” frames the stories of the day, offering facts, ideas, and questions to ponder. Most often, it includes personal notes.

I believe in the power of personal communication—letters and conversation—to make connections, to clarify issues, to inspire action, and, most important, to express love.

And I believe in the importance of collecting our history for future reference. My great privilege and responsibility as editor of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer has been to collect and present stories of our Minnesota home—its prairies, woods, waters, and wildlife.

Curiously, this role in conservation has brought some of my family history back to me. I have received letters, phone calls, and visits from readers who have read my editor’s column, picked up on telling details, and made a connection to my parents. For example, I received a letter from my mother’s cousin Viola. From her I learned that my grandfather and other relatives were players in a style of music known as Brooten fiddling, which has been documented by the University of Minnesota. With that letter, my accordion-playing sister and fiddling daughter also gained a connection to their musical heritage.

I believe that our lives depend on conservation. Conservation of our natural heritage. And conservation of our cultural and spiritual inheritance—including its everyday manifestations—letters, songs, mixing bowls, measuring spoons, toolkits, candles, prayer books.

At its most personal level, conservation begins with caring for your self —mind, body, and soul. This, I believe, is the self-love that poet Ntozake Shange celebrated in her stage play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. When I saw this play at the Mixed Blood Theater way back in the 1970s, the words of the seven-woman chorus electrified me: “I found God in myself/ and I loved her/ I loved her fiercely.” Fiercely. These words have become a kind of mantra for me and, I imagine, for others. They fit. Heaven is within you. The spirit is with you.

I came to the Unitarian church because I imagined that here people of all faiths walk together—mindful of their own faith and attentive to others as well. “Come in, come into this place … where you can be who you are called to be.” There is no greater freedom than to be yourself.

My religious heritage is Lutheran. It’s my mother tongue, so to speak. When trying to fathom good and evil and other mysteries, I use this language. My mother taught me that God is love. Yes. “Love is the spirit of this church.”

Love is ordinary and extraordinary. A kiss on the cheek, a letter from Mom, a game of scrabble, a cup of coffee, a bowl of soup placed in front of you. One human being plunging into an ocean to save another.

Unitarian Universalist minister Kate Braestrup tells true stories of love and death in her book Here If You Need Me. She works with conservation officers (game wardens) on their search and rescue missions. Here’s an excerpt from one such mission in search of an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s disease:

In a true story, the end is never tidy. So I can only give you untidy searchers returning to the firehouse for their lunch. They are tired, cold, and very hungry. They are greeted with platters of lasagna, bowls of coleslaw, tottering piles of oatmeal cookies. … The odor of damp boots and wet dogs mingles with the scents of fish chowder and fresh biscuits. …

Jim [the woman’s adult son] comes back to the firehouse with a heavy heart. He has scratches on his cheek, twigs in his hair, pine needles down his pants, and his mother is still nowhere to be found. Yet he takes in the scene before him, mops the rain from his face, and smiles.

“Look at this,” he says. “Look at this! This is incredible.

The firehouse is filled with people. The old coots in flannel shirts, the middle-aged dog handlers, and the college students with piercings are sharing American chop suey with the state senator and his teenage daughter. The U.S. Marines are comparing blisters with the soccer players, the sheriff’s deputies are breaking bread with the convicts, game wardens share Jell-O with equestrians, the stain-glass artist offers the retired state trooper an oatmeal cookie.

In a little while, they will go back out and search some more. They will try to find a body, living or dead. For now, they are together, joined in community, bent on the purpose of love.

“Everyone in the world is here,” the lost woman’s son exclaims. “It’s a miracle!”