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Keeping hopes up
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EAU CLAIRE — For B.J. Hollars, hope is when you ask for written reflections on the COVID-19 pandemic and receive scores of inspiring responses.

Hollars, an author, UW-Eau Claire associate professor of English and executive director of the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild, recalled what led to “Hope is the Thing: Wisconsinites on Perseverance in a Pandemic” (Wisconsin Historical Society Press). The collection of 100 essays and poems, which Hollars conceived and edited, grew out of a sense he felt as the outbreak picked up ominous speed.

“In March of 2020 we all asked ourselves, what is going on in this world of ours and what can we try to do to help and how can we find purpose as we’re kind of entering a whole new world of lockdowns and masks and quarantines and COVID tests?” Hollars said in a phone interview. “And so I was taking a walk early one morning and I saw just the silence of the world, and I began to realize how much I missed interactions already, and this was just a few weeks into it.”

Hollars noted the frightening atmosphere in those early pandemic days.

“I mean, there was really widespread fear,” he said. “No one — we were all wiping down our groceries — quite knew the extent of it all. So I told myself one thing I could do is try to rally people’s experiences.”

Having been inspired by Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the Thing With Feathers,” Hollars decided to use the poem as a prompt for fellow writers, and asked them to limit their work to 500 words.

“I was overwhelmed with the response,” he said. “We got close to 100 submissions from March into early June. Every morning I would wake up, and my inbox would be filled with submissions, and suddenly I had some new renewed purpose. It felt like I was trying to speak to the issues of the day not only through my own words but more importantly through the experiences of others.” (Many of those submissions can be found at cvwritersguild.org/hope-project.)

Hollars then decided to extend the invitation.

“This will be a historical moment; it already is,” Hollars said, describing his thinking at the time. “How can we try to capture the voices representing our entire state? And so that was basically the pitch I put to the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.”

Some of the state’s most celebrated writers contributed pieces, including Jerry Apps, Kimberly Blaeser, Nickolas Butler, Dasha Kelly Hamilton, Max Garland and Larry Watson. Others made their publication debut in “Hope is the Thing.”

“There are so many unique stories, all of which deserve time and attention and space on the page, and so it was really about trying to catch a cross section of Wisconsin in terms of geography, in terms of experiences, in terms of religion and culture, and all different kinds of makeups and diversity,” Hollars said, adding that his outreach included Native American tribes and, in seeking out promising young writers, middle school teachers.

“It just kind of magically came together,” he said. “The submissions rolled in, and the stories that rolled in were not just repetition of the same kind of hope.”

Baking bread

Two of the submissions came from one Eau Claire family: Lopamudra Basu, a professor of English at UW-Stout, wrote “Hope is the Perfect Round Roti,” about making the Indian flatbread also known as chapati; and her son, Aviroop Basu, a middle school student, called upon his skill as a violinist for his poem “Hope is Somewhere in the Treble Clef.”

Lopamudra Basu had noticed many of her Facebook friends were making sourdough bread, part of a widespread trend that left bread aisles empty in grocery stores. With extra time because of the lockdown, she tried her hand at the craft.

“I did make some other breads, I think the Irish soda bread. But I’m one for shortcuts. I don’t have the patience for the sourdough,” she said with a laugh, “so I went the flatbread route with this.”

Roti prompted memories from her past, and Basu also wrote about her husband and son’s enjoyment of her baking, as well as her thoughts about how the pandemic was playing out in India.

“The bread, or the dough, becomes a metaphor in the essay for all of the other things that we are striving for: having some sense of normalcy, valuing things that we take for granted like family,” she said.

Some time after she submitted her essay, the pandemic impacted Basu’s family tragically. Her parents and her parents-in-law, who live in Calcutta, India, all contracted COVID-19 as the delta variant struck the country. Her father and mother-in-law died from the disease in May.

“I thought I was protected and it was a matter of just hunkering down and getting through it and then I would be able to reunite as a family,” Basu said. “I did not realize things would change so drastically. Nobody would be spared of this disease, and our families would be completely altered.”

Basu has not been able to go back to India because case numbers are still high but, with family members in the U.S., U.K. and India, they held two memorial meetings on Zoom to give a sense of closure.

“Now if I had to write something about the pandemic and hope, it might be the sense of community that we develop over these sorts of very new and technologically different methods,” she said.

Hollars expressed appreciation for essays that “went small, but it kind of rippled out in a big way.” The piece by Katherine Schneider was among those taking that approach.

A retired clinical psychologist and blind from birth, Schneider wrote “Hope is a Cold Nose,” which is about bringing home Calvin, her 10th Seeing Eye dog.

“Animals are such a big part of my life, and I’ve had the privilege of walking beside a guide dog for almost 49 years now, so I know the intelligence in addition to the guide work, just the relationship that you can form with an animal,” Schneider said in a phone conversation. “And to me that’s such an ever-changing ... just exciting part of life, and with the pandemic and more people realizing, ‘Oh yeah, an animal is more than just something to clean up after when your relationships are more limited.’ I thought, ‘You know, this can resonate with other animal people, and it needs to be there.’ And of course, Calvin is the most adorable creature there is. Just ask him, he’ll tell you.”

As part of the story, the sometimes mischievous Calvin would take things he shouldn’t and presented her with the challenge of negotiations: giving up something, in this case an egg carton sticking out of his mouth — which she had put in his reach briefly — for a treat he deemed acceptable.

“You couldn’t make that stuff up,” Scheider said, adding, “You might as well smile. I think they teach us a lot.”

As for the piece’s broader meaning, Schneider said, “I think that’s kind of why I write and how I write: that I want people to see my world, which is different because of the disability and the different parts of that, but that it does ripple out and overlap with their world.”

Schneider is the author of several books on aging and living with disabilities, most recently “Hope of the Crow: Tales of Occupying Aging.” She contributed two pieces to the new essay collection “Project Bloom: Diverse Reflections on Surviving the Pandemic,” edited by Lisa Alexander and Joshua Potter-Efron, and consulted on that project.

Added challenges

“Hope is the Thing” also reflects another 2020 cataclysmic happening besides the pandemic: the killing of George Floyd and resulting calls for racial justice.

“Hope can come in many forms, but I think the biggest takeaway that I learned throughout this process is that hope alone is not enough,” Hollars said. “There were a lot of people, especially midway through the summer, especially in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd where people of color were saying, it’s hard to feel hopeful right now. And I understood that, and I was having a hard time feeling hopeful myself. Right after this interview I have to get another child a COVID test. The irony is, we’re still doing this.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the pieces didn’t express much hope at all. Those authors included Hamilton, poet laureate for Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin, who wrote about her daughter being hit by a rubber bullet at a protest. Butler and Jay Gilbertson also took a dim view of hope.

“Those people kind of skirted the assignment in a wonderful way,” Hollars said.

But there’s a reason he called this collection “Hope is the Thing.”

“I don’t want to be Mr. Silver Lining, Mr. Optimism, when there’s still so much suffering taking place every day,” he said. “But at the same time, if I can do something to try to confront some of those realities while also buoying the spirits and keeping people uplifted so we might continue to fight this COVID battle, that’s important too. We want morale to be high, we want to find a way to work together, to persevere, and I think those are some of the takeaways of this book.”

Introducing ‘Hope’

Hollars, whose credits include the Truman Capote Prize for Literary Nonfiction and the Council of Wisconsin Writers’ Blei-Derleth Award, has written his share of introductions. But he said the one for “Hope is the Thing” proved extremely challenging.

“I think I was sort of nervous because of the historical nature of what I was trying to say,” he said. “And having already read 100-plus wonderful explorations on hope, what else could be said. So I really just had to turn inward and ask myself, what is it for me?”

The inspiration appeared during another of those early morning walks, while pushing his then-7-month-old daughter in a stroller, in which he started to notice the COVID-caused isolation. At first, the two of them wouldn’t see many people, although they would come upon deer and other wildlife he’d point out to his child.

Eventually, they would meet individuals, many of them masked. As Hollars writes of the latter group: “I can’t see their smiles, but I can feel them.”

He goes on to describe the interactions with others approaching him and his daughter, each cordially trying to give wide berth.

“Like synchronized swimming of sorts, we would all just take our perfect paths away from each other,” Hollars said. “There was never a concern of how did you vote or how do you feel politically, or judgment of who’s wearing a mask or not. It was just like everyone just did the simplest thing they could to try to make life just a little less burdensome for the person next to them in their neighborhood.

“And that for me gets at the heart of everything,” he continued. “We’re so busy watching cable news and getting upset about big picture, but there’s a way to double down on our own community I think that is so important and rich that to me transcends a lot of those issues.”

With such an expansive spectrum of reflections, Hollars suggested, readers might benefit from reading the collection at a more deliberate pace.

“My greatest hope for this book is that people almost read it like a daily devotional,” he said. “You don’t have to love every piece; you don’t even have to necessarily find hope in every piece,” he said. “But take five minutes out of each day for 100 days, and just reflect on one writer’s take on this, and then kind of let that be a part of you throughout your day.”

That approach gives a whole new meaning to “one day at a time,” a phrase that stands for enduring through challenging times.


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Home sales down another month
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EAU CLAIRE — Wisconsin’s home sales for this summer fell short of record numbers put up during the heat of 2020.

There were 5.6% fewer home sale closings during June, July and August than the same time a year ago, which the Wisconsin Realtors Association attributed to low inventory.

“Given the supply problem, it’s not surprising that sales this summer have not quite kept up with the record pace established last summer,” Mary Duff, chairwoman of the association’s board of directors said Monday in a news release. “Even though Realtors have been moving homes quickly, they can only sell what’s on the market, so we’ll continue to struggle to increase our sales on a year-over-year basis until the inventory situation improves.”

The summer season started out with June sales figures that kept up with the year before, but July and August failed to keep up with those months from 2020.

During last month, there were 8,958 homes sold statewide, down from 9,562 a year prior. That 6.3% sales drop for August was smaller than the 14.2% decrease seen in July.

Locally, Chippewa and Dunn counties continue to fall farther behind their 2020 sales figures while Eau Claire County has managed to stay ahead.

Last month, the 177 homes sold in Eau Claire County was 22 more than a year before. That helped the county stay 7.2% ahead of the sales pace set during the first eight months of 2020.

Chippewa County’s August sales figures were slightly down. The 91 homes sold there last month was just five behind the August 2020 sales tally. The county is about 12% behind last year’s sales pace.

The decline was much more significant in Dunn County. The 63 homes sold there last month was 28 fewer than its numbers from a year before. Dunn County is trailing its 2020’s year-to-date sales numbers by 20%.

Low inventory, high demand and the rapid speed that homes on the market are selling have kept prices higher.

The typical Wisconsin home sold for $250,000 last month, up from a median home price of $235,000 a year before.

However, Michael Theo, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Realtors Association, said the strong price appreciation may be waning.

“There are some preliminary signs that the double-digit price home price increases may be moderating slightly. The annual rate of appreciation was over 14% in May and June, and it fell to just over 10% in July and to 6.4% in August,” Theo said in a news release. “That is welcome news since unsustainable price increases can reduce demand, keeping creditworthy buyers out of purchasing homes.”


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