Lightning flashes as quickly as minnows in the shallows. It’s fall, cool, and a storm rumbles over the Keweenaw in the black of night. A few seconds after sharp silver pulses, thunder rattles the window panes. The radiators that sat silent throughout summer now diffuse a cozy heat that keeps the cold outside with the rain. Hot tea sits on my desk, and I ponder, what is the greatest gift?
Life. Liberty. Family. Art. Love. Home. A laundry list of answers comes to mind. It’s not my question but the suggestion of a prompt from my husband’s cousin. She and her mom sit on our couch in Hancock, the one they bought for us when we started to rebuild our household. It’s midnight, stormy, and conversation rolls around the room. The Hub is happy, sharing stories of the past. I wonder what my cousin means about the greatest gift when she says her story is dark.
I call J my cousin because she and the Hub’s sister, Silly the Kid (his nickname for her), were part of the greatest gift I got when I married him. Early on, I knew J was going to be one of my greatest friends. I loved her humor and intelligence and free-spirit. As a young couple, the Hub and I went weekly to her house to play board games with her and her husband, who was serving in the Navy. I marveled at their young three-year-old boy whose bedtime story was The Hobbit.
At the time, so long ago, J had a baby girl, a precious baby that made me anticipate the one I was expecting. Then a sheriff’s deputy showed up to our house one day with their son. We were the trusted people to watch over him the day tragedy struck. A few days later, we were burying that sweet baby girl over her great-grandfather’s grave. J’s husband was restationed out week, and J left.
I sit here now, 32 years later, thinking how heavy such an incident remains. J’s greatest gift, I suspect, was the second daughter she had years later. But as all mothers learn, daughters and sons are not our gifts to keep. They are their own people. We might give them life, but they make of it what they will. But it’s a pleasure to see J and Aunt M, her mom, travel the world together, staying in New Zealand January through March, visiting family across the US, visiting places like Poland or Alaska and taking world cruises.
Aunt M and Uncle R are my patron saints. Many, many years ago, Uncle R read something I wrote, and he told Aunt M that I was going to make something of my writing. She explained to me that he had vision and believed in my ability and dreams. He was subtle about it. He never complimented me directly but always showed interest, asked questions, and read my published work. When he lay dying, Aunt M read him my very first, and very raw draft of Miracle of Ducks. Whatever the book will be one day, it will be dedicated to them.
Perhaps the greatest gift one can give another is the support and encouragement to achieve potential. It’s a gift Aunt M, and Uncle R gave to me. I miss him. As any of us do when loved ones pass.
We are calling this trip, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. J and Aunt M flew from Phoenix to Chicago, boarded a train to the Wisconsin Dells, and hopped in my car last night. We stayed over in a motel after dark, so we weren’t on the road late. It was a five and a half-hour trip. The greatest gift can be the conversations on a road trip — the connections and deep sharing, the confessions and insights. Deep communication.
We arrived in time to meet up with the Hub, our daughter, her husband, and his dad and step-mom. We shared a meal at a new restaurant in Houghton called The Den. Family meals create some of the best moments, especially when the food and fellowship rank high. The gave me a bite of his scallop, and it was as near perfect as seeing my daughter so happy. I wish I could see all my three children framed in such happiness and enjoyed the moment, memorized its texture like the edges of a comforting quilt.
Tomorrow night is another dance performance where I get to perform four new flash fiction pieces. Having family in town for the show is a treat. Sharing art is another gift and a great one. The greatest gift this year came in Vermont, sharing scams and words, kayak trips and waterfalls, loons and laughs. Art is best shared. Art must be shared. For all the critics have to say or teach about art and define what it is, those who create it and experience understand art at such a deep level as to escape definition.
This week, both of my courses are focusing on the writing community and what it means to be a literary citizen. Well, my oh, my. I might have something to say on those topics! The greatest gift to my writing life is the ranchers of Carrot Ranch, their literary art, aspirations, and community. We might need solitude to write, the courage to go to lonely corners, and the solitary act of dragging words from the brain to the page to shape stories, but we also need companionship. If you are interested, one of the articles I’m reading is Do Writers Need to Be Alone to Thrive?
I want to take time to explain participation at Carrot Ranch. Ranchers can come and go as they please. The idea is that we play, remembering why we love the ride. You bring your own goals to the Ranch where it is safe for you to share, grow, and discover. The literary critics do not reside here. Personally, I feel that literary art involves three actions — reading, writing, and discourse. We discuss what strengths we see in writing and how a story moves us or leads us to recall or realize. I believe in the 99-word art form as one that can open up creativity and be useful as a tool. I believe writers who regularly practice the constraint experience magic or breakthroughs in creativity.
But what does this means to the mechanics of participation in our literary community?
You can write to the prompt and share in different ways. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, submit your response in the form. One, it streamlines collecting. Two, it signals permission to publish your writing in the collection. You don’t have to do anything more if your goal is to publish at Carrot Ranch. If you submitted a response, but do not see it in the collection, shoot me an email at words for people(at)gmail(dot)com. Some weeks I get a storm of spam, WP can be glitchy, and I’m at risk for human error.
If you want to build up your blog traffic, you can share a link or your story (or both) in the comments. However, passive sharing might not garner more traffic. Community requires interaction. Think of it this way — if you went to a social event to network, you would introduce yourself, hand out business cards, and respond to the cards you collect, as well. In the comments, be social at the level you hope to cultivate. If you want blog traffic, visit the blogs of others, and make supportive and meaningful comments.
If you want kinship among writers, get to know people through the comments, stories, and blogs you encounter. You’ll find that many writers who come here are also on other social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Many host or participate in other prompts. Some also have blog opportunities such as indie book reviews or posting thematic blog archives. Get to know what is happening in the greater writing community.
As a rule of thumb, comment “high and low.” In other words, read the story before yours, and the story after. You are not obligated to read them all in the comments, although I highly recommend taking time to read each 10-minute part in the weekly collection. If you were moved by a particular 99-words, let that author know.
Next month, we will have a Rodeo of Flash Fiction Contests. I’ve been remiss all year in following up with my terrific leaders from the past two years. But the show will go on — instead of challenges, Carrot Ranch will host four weekly contests next month instead of challenges. Each contest will be juried and a top prize of $25 awarded. Each contest is meant to test the skills of a writer, and your best work is anticipated.
September 12, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes the greatest gift. Answer it as if it were a question, or show what it could be. Go where the prompt leads you!
Respond by September 17, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
SUBMISSIONS FOR PUBLICATION CLOSED
A Better Way to Serve (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Freya returned from Iraq, friendless. Mark Bastia didn’t survive the IED blast. His dog tags hung with hers. Despite combat, she was never counted as their brother. She pulled a long drag from her last cigarette, eyed the perfect branch from which to hang herself, and decided the greatest gift to the world would be to remove herself from its spinning. She touched the branch and recoiled. 22 a day, and she would not become another nameless statistic. Instead, she enrolled in college to battle veteran suicide and opened the first satellite Vet Center in North Idaho. She survived.