A black raven lands on my neighbor’s sloped roof to dig in the snow. Always one for a good bird show, I pause in rinsing dishes to watch. With a long thick beak, the raven scoops snow like those of us below with steel shovels and scoops. Finally, he retrieves something frozen the size of a cracker and lifts his wings, chomping his hoard. The raven must have stashed food on the roof, and I witnessed his mid-day snack.
It’s the days of messy middles. With winter half over in the northern hemisphere, we impatiently endure more snow and wait for the sun to return. Half a world away, Australia suffers a hot mess, waiting for the sun to subside, the heat to relent, the fires to burn out. Writer and educator, Norah Colvin, is safe where she lives in Australia but witnesses the daily impact of her nation burning. Last week, she left a link in the comments to an article that lists genuine organizations to help.
Several years ago, Norah created a S.M.A.G. Badge to spread goodness in the world across our literary, writing, educator, and blogging networks. She called the recognition the Society of Mutual Admiration and Gratitude. It calls to mind what 99-year-old Sirkka said about the anecdote to hate in the world. In her documentary, she calls for us to come together for humanity. S.M.A.G. is such a call. If you look to the right-hand column, you’ll see a graphic and a link to Bushfire Recovery Relief.
Please consider copying the graphic and posting it on your own site, blog, or social media. After all, we are communicators with reader traffic, and together, we can share links to legitimate organizations that have boots on the ground in the areas devastated. Norah also shared an op-ed by Jackie French, who writes, “Focus on what you can do. Don’t cry for what you can’t.” It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the face of tragedy, in life’s unexpected twists, in the persistence required to write novels. So, we focus on what we can do.
Sirkka’s mother protested. It was dangerous to stand up for injustice or call out for rights denied. History is filled with tales of violence against those who protest. When Sirkka’s mother protested, she took her daughter with her. The miners were demanding safer work conditions and fair wages. Their wives and daughters took to the picket lines to deliver these messages and make the world aware of the situations. In return, thugs were hired to beat the women and told to aim for the kidneys. Sirkka recalls standing up to a thug ready to strike her mother but shamed by looking into the eyes of a determined little girl.
On Christmas Eve, 107 years ago in Calumet just north of Carrot Ranch World Headquarters 19 miles, a large group of women and children were celebrating the festivities at the Italian Hall. For six long months, copper miners struck, led by a woman, some call the Joan of Arc of the Copper Country. (You can read about her and others in the new novel, Women of the Copper Country.) It was a time of great tension, and the holiday should have provided a respite. Instead, the greatest mining-related disaster on record in this region occurred that night, and 73 women and children died.
Witnesses claimed that someone yelled, “Fire!” from below. The reception hall was upstairs, and some argue that anti-union thugs held the doors. It remains, to this day, a wound upon the Copper Country community. No one yet agrees to the specific events or intentions, and no one was ever charged for a crime. But when families tried to flee, many slipped down the steep stairs, and inexplicably, the doors failed to open, suffocating those on the stairs.
When Sirkka faced down the thug ready to beat her mother, it was 1925, twelve years after the Italian Hall tragedy. I think about how Sirkka stood up all her life for the “foreign-born” like her parents. Cultures came together to speak up for the reason they came to America in the first place — a better life. From my posts, you know that Finns populate the Keweenaw. So do the Italians. My neighbor’s house that holds the raven stash is Italian-American. In fact, my Roberts Street neighborhood is said to have been an Italian one with many markets. Today, the Keweenaw Co-op remains as our corner grocery store.
Maybe I had all these jumbled ideas in mind — influenced by Sirkka’s documentary and resonating words, by recent research to discover the roots of my Italian neighbor, by concern for climate change and how it is burning and flooding communities. It’s no wonder we feel called to protest, to take up from the long line of others who have confronted injustice. But I’m also a writer, and I let these ideas stew and simmer into something I can serve up in a story. The night after the raven’s visit, I was downtown and looked out the window across the street and saw three women in mourning attire. When I focused, I realized it was an optical illusion of night shows and reflected lights.
But I was curious about what my mind had momentarily witnessed.
If you have ever stared at cloud shapes or optical illusions and seen what is not there, that is the power of imagination. Often we feel the need to correct what we thought we saw. Or sometimes we innocently play like a child and describe great ships or rearing lions that float by in the sky on a summer’s day. I often like to indulge the illusion. If it is real, what do I see? If I look closely at the reflection in a closed business across the street, I see a yarn shop with round skeins for sale, tags bobbing. I can’t explain it. No such thing exists across the street, and I don’t know why my brain thought yarn. Fuzzy, right?
But I go with it. Go ahead, brain, play. I pretend what I’m seeing is real. Across the street is a yarn shop. What else? And there they are — three dark-haired women in long black dresses with corseted waists standing together in a tight huddle. Mourners come to mind. Sisters.
When the Hub comes over and asks if I want another beer (full disclosure: I only had half, and it had nothing to do with the optical illusion). I point out the window, asking if he sees anything in the window across the street. He explains what I’m seeing is a reflection of a reflection of KBC, the local brew-pub. Except he sees it differently. Different perspective. I explain what I see, and he grunts and says he’ll leave me alone to write. Not everyone appreciates imagination. So I write my illusion in a sentence:
Three sisters in black opened a yarn shop in Houghton, Michigan, 19 miles away from where their children died in a stairwell.
I’m surprised by what I write because I was not thinking about the Italian Hall tragedy, but it slipped in there – soft yarn, three dark-haired women in black, dead children. Such is my mind. Normally, this is where I would get excited about discovery and let loose. This time, I’m inviting a playmate over for imagination. As an MFA student, I’m studying the writing process. Imagination and discovery is part of that. How we shape it into a story is another part.
I’m figuring out – learning – what I don’t know about writing fiction. I know I’m a pantser who has easy access to imagination and a keen interest in people, history, and stories. But I’m also learning that my pantsing can lead to half-baked stories. Great ideas, emotive, sharply imagined characters, sometimes I even have a point. Sometimes I lack form, the structure of plotters. Intellectually, I know story arcs and plot points. But imagination doesn’t remember to play with intellect. Writing 99-words helps to bridge left-brain, right-brain. But I’m also learning to incorporate other tools. So, Story Spine gets invited to play.
It looks like this (by Kenn Adams, author and Artistic Director of Synergy Theater):
- Once upon a time…
- Every day…
- But one day…
- Because of that…
- Because of that…
- Because of that…
- Until finally…
- And, ever since then…
Like 99-words, Story Spine becomes a problem-solving tool. So, I used my intriguing first sentence to describe the optical illusion as “once upon a time.” Then I followed the rest of the script.
STORY SPINE DRAFT
Three sisters in black opened a yarn shop in Houghton, Michigan, 14 miles away from where their children died in a stairwell. They stood stiff as marble in the back corner like three dark muses, the waists of their dresses pinched as tight as the grief in their eyes. Heads held high to defy pity from the wives of wealthy mine captains, they sold colorful yarn soft as baby’s hair. Pity or fear, they induced a brisk business.
One day, another Italian family from Calumet crossed the Portage canal and planned a confectionary business. They would armor their building with steel ceilings to curb caramel fires that could start in the expansive kitchen filled with heat and sugar.
Because of the false fire at the Italian Hall on that fateful Christmas Eve, 57 children died in the greatest minie-related disaster of the Copper Country.
Because families lost children, safety and survival melded like chocolate and wove a community with skeins of cashmere.
Because grief poured into business, the next generations of Italian Americans prospered greater than the mine captains, owners and enforcers whose fortunes fizzled with the depth of copper and shallowness of the economy.
Therefore the Copper Country was built on the entrepreneurial spirit of widows, mourning mothers, and a desire for comfort and safety.
I’ll plan to use this draft to put it in place as my 99-word response. It’s interesting to follow the script because I didn’t feel as hemmed in creatively as I had expected. It’s also a good exercise to recognize the Story Spine of books or fairy tales you’ve read. This helps you develop as a writer with another tool to aid your curiosity and imagination.
This weekend, I have a choice — to retreat or protest. The Women’s March happens this Saturday with a protest scheduled for the Houghton Lift Bridge. That same day, my friend Cynthia is hosting a retreat for vision work. I’m thinking back to Jackie French’s words about doing what you can. And Sirkka’s about doing things together. Therefore, my form of protest will be to go on retreat and focus on what Carrot Ranch can do together with writers and poets and bloggers and teachers and readers and storytellers of the world.
Together, let’s make literary art our stand.
Submissions closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.
January 16, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a protest story. It can be about a protest, or you can investigate the word and expand the idea. Who is protesting, where, and why? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by January 21, 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.
Legacy Survived by Charli Mills
Three sisters opened a yarn shop in Houghton 19 miles from where their children died in a stairwell. They stood stiff as marble in the back corner, the waists of their dresses pinched as tight as the grief in their eyes. Round skeins of yarn soft as a baby’s head inspired sales to knitters whose wealth they had once protested. Next door, another displaced Italian family opened a confectionary with fireproof ceiling tiles. In business, they dispensed softness and sweets, set codes for stairs, and prospered. Their surviving children’s grandchildren expanded family enterprises long after the copper mines closed.