STILLWATER — It took some 28 years of experience teaching and counseling children before Colleen Baldrica would be ready to finish her philosophical book “Tree Spirited Woman” published by Beaver’s Pond Press in 2006.
It also took encouragement from a Lakota medicine man, along with a very lifelike dream that made her believe writing the 91-page fictional story was an important part of her life’s role.
Even though Baldrica, 58, has yet to do any real marketing of the book, it has since sold more than 4,000 copies, mostly at gift shops throughout the state. She said women, especially, seem to respond to the messages exchanged between the two main characters in the book, an older woman and a younger woman.
“It's (about) wisdom being passed down, simple life experiences and simple little wisdom used for every day,” she explained, noting that some of the ideas come from her late grandmother. “She had this philosophy about her, just her presence. She was my mentor and guide, and other people have (also) been put into my life at certain times to be a guide.”
Baldrica, now a married mother of two, stepmother of two and grandmother of five, grew up in St. Croix Beach about 12 mile south of Stillwater. She married after graduating from Stillwater High School in 1969 then became a single mother of two at age 25. By 1979 she had decided to go to college, starting with a liberal arts degree from Lakewood College (now Century College) then earning an education degree from University of Wisconsin-River Falls that led to her first job teaching with St. Paul Public Schools. She went on to earn a master’s in guidance and counseling from River Falls that led to an occupational switch to elementary school guidance counselor for nine years. A licensure for school superintendent and principal work would follow, as would a PhD in the philosophy of education from the University of California-Santa Barbara.
“It was a lot, (especially) for somebody who thought they weren’t very smart and would never be able to do it,” she said. “People knew I was willing to work hard … and I felt getting degrees was something that would open a new door if I chose to go through.”
While Baldrica’s ancestry is part Chippewa or Ojibwe (her grandmother belonged to the Pembina Band that lived on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota) she had never fully observed that culture because it wasn’t regarded in her family “as a positive thing.” But a fellow student at Lakewood, a self-described Lakota medicine man named Charlie, encouraged her when he gave her the name “Tree Spirited Woman” after a spiritual experience she had.
“I was going to school and raising children and kind-of struggling, and one day I went into the woods and was praying,” she said of the experience. “God and I had a nice talk and the trees were talking to me in so many ways. He (Charlie) said that was powerful and gave me the name …. I even have a piece of the tree.”
About a year later, Baldrica had a realistic dream that she would write a book about an older woman exchanging wisdom with a young woman during interludes in the woods. She envisioned the book as a cross between the books “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse and “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran, and the finished product has “a very Native American spiritual feel,” she said.
“It wasn’t even so much a dream, but something I had to do,” she said. “I always believe God is guiding us, we just don’t know where we’re going. Probably 10 or 12 years later, I started writing little parts at a time. I might write for a month, two months or three months … then life would happen and get so busy and hectic and everything seemed to be put on hold again. A lot was from within, and a lot was from my training as a school counselor.”
That counseling work often involved heartbreaking situations, she confirmed, but she tried to give hope to all children with whom she worked.
“My philosophy is that I’m put there and I might be one of the only people these kids have to come and talk to,” she said. “I can’t fix it, but I can give them hope and a safety plan. I still get calls from former students.”
She noted that she attends a traditional church — Trinity Lutheran in Stillwater — but basically believes “there’s one God and we all just worship Him a bit differently.”
Since retiring two years ago, she said she’s been stepping up the book signings and personal appearances, which have taken place as far away as Kona, Hawaii and Sedona, Ariz.
The most rewarding part of writing the book has been hearing from readers, she said.
“With everything I’ve done, wonderful people have come into my life,” she said. “I would say on average I get six emails a month from people telling me something or thanking me about the book and what it meant to them. People share some of their stories with me … there are sad things too, but they are their stories.”
The most challenging part of her entire career? “Probably getting the confidence and believing (in myself) … every step I’ve had to go through, I’ve kind-of had to grow into it.”
In her spare time, Baldrica spends time with her husband of 29 years, Jim, grown children and stepchildren and five grandchildren. She also enjoys kayaking and canoeing on Lake McKusick, golfing, reading, walking, traveling and spending time with friends. In her five-year plan: “taking some classes on things I don’t have to write a paper on.”
Her life philosophy: “Every day is a gift: live it to the fullest, embrace new opportunities, experiences, and relationships and share a positive attitude with everyone you encounter.”