Julia McCanles, the wizened old woman in the photo, grew so old as to regenerate new teeth. We know this miracle of age through a quirky newspaper report. Perhaps she lost molars and made room for impacted wisdom teeth. Maybe she really did grow new ones, though unlikely. Her shawl is clustered with crocheted pompoms, which says she had the wisdom to not give a wit what she wore, but dressed as she pleased regardless of teeth.
When I am old and gray, I, too will wear crocheted pompoms. Not purple, though. Turquoise.
Like all of us on the journey of life, I hope to indeed grow wise, gray and toothful. I’m making good headway, turning half a century old on Sunday, May 21. It finally sounds like I’ve achieved a dignified age, one that makes others pause. 50 sounds serious.
A few years ago I lied a few years to sound older. I was interviewing a potential client who turned out to be young and brash, definitely not wise. He had hired inexperienced writers from to submit content to websites he was developing for Spokane businesses. Now he needed a professional to rewrite the content to grow his business. He wanted a “partner” to do the task. His ad was misleading, and I had only been interested in a local writing gig, not investing my own sweat equity in his business. When my line of questioning irritated him, he asked, “Why does everyone just want to write? I need a business partner.”
Well, that wasn’t compelling at all for me. I answered an ad for a writer and explained perhaps he should advertise for a partner instead. He then proceeded to tell me about his marketing prowess, which by this time I doubted. He then made a strange assumption. He said based on all my questions and obvious reluctance to be his partner that I must be young. As soon as he assured himself I was young he began bragging about how big his web business was going to be.
I interrupted him and said I was 50. He hung up the phone on me! That’s when I knew 50 carried power. Who wants to tangle with a wise woman?
Gallup has changed me. I feel as though I’ve emerged from the wardrobe after living a lifetime in Narnia. We left this morning with a revived transmission. By the time we made the left turn at Albuquerque, north on the old Santa Fe Trail, I felt transformed back to the modern world. We can all learn from Gallup. Living in the moment and acknowledging the human dignity in one another, honoring art and making space for beauty, showing strangers the same kindness you’d show friends, not worrying over material things for they are only things, and connecting to history to future are all part of the Gallup way.
Sunday is a threshold of sorts. A time to reflect. I remember a couple’s retreat Todd and I did before we had children, and how industrious I was back then. We both came out of the hard-working culture of the west. In a class, we were asked to make a list of five goals we had for next week, and another for five goals we’d have if we were told we would die in a year. The idea was that the lists should align. If not, were we wasting time we might not have? Later the instructor pulled me aside. He said life is a stage and we should dare to be on the one that is our own. He said I wasn’t even in the audience watching life, I was in the lobby scrubbing floors.
That had an impact on me. Was I working hard toward something, or was I merely working hard?
From that day forward, I made a pact with myself. No matter if I was scrubbing floors, waiting tables, covering council meetings, raising children or going to school, I would make sure my hard work applied toward something. It put me in a never-ending pattern of writing goals. That was my ultimate dream — to be a writer of historical fiction. Therefore, as a mom of young children, I took them to historical sites. As a waitress at nights, I listened to the stories of elders for insights to the past. As a college student, I pitched an independent project to draft an historical novel. When my advisor would not let me pursue the novel as my honors thesis, I made sure the project he approved would teach me how to be a better historical researcher.
After college graduation, I did not get the sexy jobs a writing major dreams of. Instead I wrote obituaries as assistant editor to a daily newspaper. But I reflected on the history of each person. When I couldn’t get hired as an editor or writer in publications, I took a job selling magazine ads, working my way up to writing advertorials and representing my publisher at national conferences. The terrible year I worked as an independent insurance agent, I used my salary to buy the family a membership to all the state’s historical sites. As the kids got older, we found more interesting research, including cemetery look-ups as volunteer genealogists. Once I landed a marketing communications job, I made sure to become the organization’s lead writer and historian. When I left that job and set my goal on writing my first novel, I made sure it involved history even if it was a modern setting.
Writing evolved, not scrubbing floors.
But I don’t want a stage for soliloquies. I want a vibrant live play with unexpected twists, drama, scares, laughs, insights and poignant moments. I don’t want to be the only actor, the lone writer. That’s why Carrot Ranch is all about building a literary community. I will always write. My blood will pulse to the tempo of understanding the present through the lens of history. I’ll always be interested in taking something good and making it better. All those things come to life at the ranch.
Yet it’s a place that can mean something different for each person who finds the trail here, or passes through. This is not a community for historical fiction writers. It’s better that we have diversity. Different genres, experiences and interests. Writers are welcome to come and go. Of course, as this community has taken shape, I’ve set goals for growth. I have a vision for using creative efforts to form collective projects. In 2014, I went to LA with my polished first novel (Miracle of Ducks) and a collection of shared flash fiction from Carrot Ranch.
That’s where I met with several agents and publishers. A few took my first 50 pages. They all advised me to seek regional publication for an anthology, but they were also intrigued by what we were doing at Carrot Ranch. From that conference I was able to understand key marketing differences between my prior experience in print publications and book publishing. I began crafting articles to explain what a writer’s platform is actually composed of and how to use one’s unique platform strengths to market. The biggest component that stumps us all is defining and reaching our target audiences. I have theories and a potential partnership with a clever business psychologist (who also happens to be my son).
With all these ideas and experiences converging, I started to build regional connections, including relationships with two publishing houses in the Pacific Northwest. That’s when we began working in earnest on our first anthology. I developed a library program called Wrangling Words, began teaching it monthly and also partnered with a spoken word event to read flash fiction. I kept in contact with the LA conference and hosted several regional events for rural writers. I hosted numerous writers from across the US at Elmira Pond and set in motion plans for workshops. In fact, one was held last fall. Without me. And the regional book conferences I was to do Wrangling Words events (and theoretically sell our anthology) went on without me.
Last June we had to leave our rental so it could go one the market. In a rural area with popular summer tourism, there was a rental shortage and we ended up camping on the Coeur D’Alene River until we embarked on this transient lifestyle that took us from the Pacific Northwest to Mars to alien abduction (or our transmission) in Gallup to (hopefully) Kansas, Wisconsin and Michigan. It’s not been pleasant and at other times it’s been amazing. It has challenged and grown me in ways I might have avoided. Sometimes I felt like giving up and becoming a hermit writer. But many circled the wagons at Carrot Ranch and we got through rocky times where I had to office in mining town libraries or rip out the back end of a leaking old trailer to build an office. One thing I learned was how to make the community platform work.
50 and homeless was not how I imagined life would be. I still sting over the loss of Elmira Pond and all the little injustices that plague those without an address. But I look for the beauty in the natural world, I never forget to see where history intersects modern understanding, and always I write. Maybe if I had been more of a floor scrubber I’d have my own floors. But I wouldn’t trade it for the dreams of a writer and the chance to lasso the moon. Wisdom? What would Great-Grandma Julia say? She left her home in North Carolina for the frontier. This land I’m about to see tomorrow, she saw. I anticipate its impact, the connection, the living for goals like I might die next year.
For my birthday, I want a book. Not just any book, but the first published anthology. We have the manuscript. If I can raise the funds, I will start an imprint for Carrot Ranch, expand our platform to benefit those who write in this community and seek new ways to inspire and inform other writers beyond the ranch hands. No matter what we have to start with, I will see it through. I’ve failed a few attempts already, but that just clears the way to find what will work. Writers have to persevere. A Patreon is under development and will launch after we get to Wisconsin and Michigan. It will benefit the writers here, as well.
Also, congratulations are in order: Carrot Ranch has been nominated for a Bloggers Bash Award as an inspiring blog. That’s a reflection on each and every one of your who make this a welcoming, fun and safe place to write, learn and explore. I want to thank you all, whether you are here regularly or not. Many of you don’t even write, but generously read and share our collection. Those who do write share diverse perspectives and talents. Thank you! You can vote at the link above, but know that it’s a greater honor to be nominated with you all than it is to win. Kerry E. B. Black gave us a great story last week about Blue Ribbons. Friendships matter more than competition.
What wisdom can you share with a forever-young, always-seeking, no-more-scrubbing-floors, newly-minted 50-year-old?
May 18, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a wise story. It can be about wisdom, expressing wisdom or advice for turning 50! It can be a wise-cracking story, too. Go where wisdom leads you.
Respond by May 23, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published May 24). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Seeking to Understand (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Does your creative outlet help you, Jen?” asked Danni.
“Does interviewing war widows help you?”
“Feels like I’m doing something,” Danni answered.
“Me, too. Same with the brothers. They want to feel useful. Do something good. Let me ask you, why did you stay?”
“You mean when Ike left for Iraq?”
“Yes. This was new to you. You must have felt deserted. Why did you stay?”
Danni paused, reflecting on all her earlier turmoil. She could have left the day she took Ike to the airport. Had she gained any wisdom? “I stayed to take care of his dogs.”