The waves at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula are crashing to shore seventeen feet high. A freighter has taken safe harbor in Keweenaw Bay. It’s Veteran’s Day in the US and I’m listening to Mary Gauthier’s “Rifle & Rosary Beads” album as I drive to campus to teach. In the parking lot outside Nikkander Hall, I text my “Sixers” to thank them for their service. One is my SIL, one is D., and the other is a local counselor who serves veteran families.
Sixers are those who have your back. In military lingo, what you can see is reported as if a soldier is facing noon on a clock. Font and left would be ten o’clock. Front and right two. Directly behind a soldier is a blind spot. Brothers (sisters, too) watch each other’s six.
I couldn’t do what I do every day, which is to get up and face the damn day, without knowing I have support. Sixers are top-tier support. I also have the support of my Veteran community, my Copper Country community, my Carrot Ranch community, my Water Walker community, my three kids, and a handful of family, including my veteran cousins. Then there’s the support of my wellness toolbox contained in the Unicorn Room — writing, meditation, ancestors, spirit guides, and rock medicine — and in the hope of kayaking sloughs.
I have an arsenal of support. I need an arsenal. As Mary Gauthier asks in her song, War After the War, “Who’s gonna care for the ones who care for the ones who go to war?”
In return, I give support. My friends and family. My communities. My students. My Warrior Sisters. And my veteran spouse who is at the center of my life’s craziness. It wasn’t always this way. But it’s extremely complicated. PTSD meets cognitive demise elevates my daily living to what the Warrior Sisters and I call “battlecare.” Caregiver doesn’t quite cover what we do as veteran spouses. We are a strange misunderstood invisible overwhelmed clan. Venting to one another, we feel heard and witnessed. We also “get” each other’s situations.
Thanksgiving, for example, has been looming like a black cloud. It used to be my favorite holiday — the menu-crafting, marathon cooking, feasting, playing board games, and eating leftovers for a week. It comes at the dark of the year and fills the home with savory aromas, family, and light. But not this year. The middlest is in the Arctic. The youngest is newly married and keeps a safe distance. The eldest is nearby but refuses to be near her father. His condition scares her. It scares me, too. I have a safety plan, go bag, and daily drive-bys from the Hancock Police. My Sixers and local community can request a welfare check at any time. They have. The Chief of Police is friendly with my husband. He’s military and has a friend who was in the Rangers, too.
Did I mention it’s complicated? Lately, I prefer calling it crazy. When my husband hears me saying it’s crazy in our house, he agrees. “Mause,” he says. It’s not the pup. There are moments he flashes who I used to know. Often, the next moment reminds me we are in an evolving normal. Sometimes he makes me laugh. Sometimes I laugh because it’s all too crazy, like turning on the snowblower because the neighbor woke him up with a leaf blower. Then taking the pup for a three-mile hike with me desperate to figure out how to kill the snowblower belching fumes into the house.
Watching my life fall apart at the seams that no longer hems my marriage is sad. Like deeply sad. Like waves cresting at seventeen feet sad. Sad enough that I want to cry, listening to Mary croon the pain of my veteran community. But then, I turn my thoughts to gratitude. Grateful for strong friends, for the collective wisdom of my Warrior Sisters, and for time with my children, when I get it. I don’t take love for granted. Love is the best thing we can give and receive. It makes me a more loving community member, a more loving teacher, and weirdly enough despite the fear of conditions and circumstances, a more loving spouse.
Letting go has been a major theme for me this year. Finding moments of respite, another. I’ve been working doggedly since starting my MFA that I hardly feel like I finished it, yet here I am teaching, ghost-writing, and even building websites. I’m writing and revising, researching and exploring. If I take a break I have to work up to it and catch up after. That’s not ideal, but I’m aiming to wrap up big client projects, overcome the learning curve as an adjunct, and complete the development of my writing and coaching career. Letting go without giving up is what it means to carry on.
Carrying on is a lot of work but it is not going to be hard forever. Or maybe it gets harder. Who knows? I don’t.
If my life story were a novel, I’d call this the “mushy middle.” It’s when the protagonist has left one shore but not fully arrived at the other and now the waves and wind have kicked up. If you are the author, you might know where your novel starts and ends, but after writing scenes and chapters you have lost control of the story’s form. A mushy middle is not a writing problem, it’s a storytelling issue.
I’m in a mushy middle because I don’t know what my story is at the moment. Is it too late for me to have a college teaching profession? Will I ever publish any of my manuscripts? Will anyone sign up for coaching? Will I get to offer workshops again? Will I stay married? Stay tuned.
What if you are in the throes of a first draft (hint: NaNoWriMo) and the middle is oozing all around you and you feel like you’ve lost the point? Go back to basics. What is your story? Do cause and effect drive the action? This is your plot. Does a character transform? How and why? This is your character arc.
One reason a novel gets mushy in the middle is because of the backstory. In the first draft, we discover. It matters to us, as the authors, what happened to our protagonist at the age of nine years old. We need to find out her favorite food, his greatest dislike, and their deepest secrets. But pages and pages probably don’t fit into The Story our book will become. Don’t fret. You need as much material as possible to begin the revision process.
Remember that planning I talked about several weeks ago? Pantsers, you don’t get to escape it. And planners, you might be wondering why the best-laid plot has gone awry. Pull out of the story mush and flash-plan. Have fun with 99-word possibilities. What if your character… What if your story… You don’t have to commit pages to play with possible scenarios. Just 99-words. You can also summarize your book in 99-words. Practicing your pitch or book jacket blurb (back of the book) is a good way to gain a different viewpoint on your story.
Here are some Mushy Middle resources that got me through my MFA:
After class, after thanking my Sixers and Warrior Sisters for their service, after all, they carry the burdens of those who went to war, I held class. Listening to my students in peer critique groups warmed my heart. They make me want to workshop for the rest of my life with writers. Students helping students, writers helping writers, what a wonderful world. The gale winds blasted Nikkander Hall. I got caught squatting in a classroom not assigned to me. I assured the other instructor that we’d be out by the time her class arrived. She left and we chuckled. I said, “Someone finally noticed.” I’m used to invisibility and leveraging it to my advantage. Why not? I’m only trying to do good. My class deserves the space required to workshop. I like the feeling I get went I’m looking out for others in a way that will improve their lives.
That’s the thing about service. About veterans. Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, it’s painful. Yes, it can be dangerous, unfair, and even unjust. But it’s not about the individual. It’s about serving something bigger than ourselves. That feeling brothers (sisters) in arms get when facing battle. That feeling that sparks a veteran spouse when advocating for the quality of life for her wounded warrior. That feeling when we shelter another in the storm. The importance of doing what it takes to carry on.
It wasn’t always crazy. I came across a story Todd wrote in 2011. Before we knew anything was wrong. I want to honor him, this Veteran’s Day by sharing his story in his own words:
ENTRY INTO BATTALION
To get to the Battalion you had to pass RIP (for enlisted E-5 and below) ROP (E-6 and above) Not sure on that one but it doesn’t matter because I was an E-1 which put me cleary taking the RIP route. Anyhow, we get there and get issued our camoflage fatigues and wait for the rest of the Battalion to come back off block leave for Christmas. Then we PT’d twice daily. We did hand to hand in the pit. Ran/crawled through the ‘worm pit’/obstacle course. Which was sawdust dumped into a dugout pit, with barbed wire staked over the top of it. Except for times when it was really cold, it was flooded when we ran it. RIP instructors would piss in it before we made our run, just to mess with our heads. We learned our knots and all the other Ranger necessities before we we were shipped off to our companies. Of course we met Battalion standards for the Run and road-march. Run five miles in under 40 minutes and roadmarch 12 miles with full combat load in under three hours. Upon arriving at B Co. we immediately deployed to Texas for a month.Todd Mills, Ranger Airborne 1st BN 75th INF B Company 1981-1985
In letting go of how things used to be, I’m embracing new adaptability. For Thanksgiving, I’m making all of Todd’s favorites. We might have some students over. We will watch football and A Christmas Story. We will call the kids. Call our parents. Take Mause on a long walk along the Masto Hitto Trail where she can run and flush grouse. On Friday, I will go spend the day and night with my eldest and her husband at their farm. They will wait to celebrate Thanksgiving until then. My daughter says it will give her a day after work to clean and relax. Maybe some of their friends will join us. Definitely, we will play board games and play with their two new farm puppies, Uther and Oberon (Utie and Obie). In December, after classes end, I will go spend time with my youngest and his wife. I’ll check in on Todd. He’ll sleep, walk the dog, maybe go to the range. Maybe I’ll join him, and maybe it will make him happy. Who knows? But I will try. I will let go of expectations. I will adapt and carry on.
To all who serve — including the invaluable support of those who serve the veteran community — to all the advocates, warriors, and poets, to the storytellers and teachers, to those who serve their communities and families, you are seen. You are witnessed. Thank you.
For my Warrior Sisters:
Who’s gonna care for the ones who care for the ones who went to war?
There’s landmines in the living room and eggshells on the floor
I lost myself in the shadow of your honor and your pain
You stare out of the window as our dreams go down the drain
Invisible, the war after the war
I get no basic training, I get no purple heart
I’m supposed to carry on, I can’t fall apart
People look at you and thank you for the sacrifice you made
They look at me and smile and say I’m lucky you’re okay
Invisible, the war after the war
But I’m a soldier too, just like you
Serving something bigger than myself
And I serve unseen, caught in between
My pain and the pain of someone else
But I’m stronger than you think I am
I’m right here by your side
I am not your enemy, I don’t wanna fight
There’s no going back in time, I know you’re not the same
But you are not the only one for whom the world has changed
Invisible, the war after the warMary Gauthier, War After the War
November 11, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story using the phrase “carry on.” It can be an expression of perseverance or behaving in a particular way. It can even be luggage you take when traveling. Go where the prompt leads!
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Sharing the Load by Charli Mills
Max rested her sea bag against her good leg, the one that survived Iraq. Delta Airlines employees huddled like amateur football players, pretending they had a game plan. Without flinching, Max waited for them to okay her carry-on. She resisted the urge to twitch her nose or wiggle her fingers. A grunt could stand at ease in the worst conditions. A woman with white hair approached Max and loudly asked, “Are you a veteran?” Max smiled and nodded. All it took was for one person to notice and the burden shifted. She got to board with her sea bag.