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There’s a juniper tree on the slope of scree between my view outside the library window and the cliffs of Zion Canyon. The juniper is the size of a person, and each time I glance out I think someone is there, watching me. I’m torn between my inside world of words and my outside world of nature. A person on the periphery of both is startling. As if this Juniper Tree Watcher can see through to me.
I’m not paranoid. I use aluminum foil for BBQing, not blocking nefarious satellite spying. Honestly, I don’t feel watched in that sense. I don’t feel the need to wear hats in public to hide my face from Big Brother cameras or apply duct tape to the video cam on my lap top. Seriously, if anyone is watching me as I write, they have weird clips of me contorting my expression in frustrated pain when internet feeds are slow, deep breathing, arm/shoulders/neck exercising, or drooling when in a daze to flow thoughts from the head to tapping fingers.
The worst Big Brother can nail me for is one-handed keyboarding and scratching my nose (it was just a scratch).
I’ve long known the NSA is watching my email and blogs and bank accounts. The NSA alerts come from Idaho neighbors who’d come over for coffee and the latest conspiracies. I don’t doubt the government is watching, but doing something with that data is beyond their abilities. Try getting VA care. They have tons of data. They lack resources.
Once, when I was 12, a Native American elder warned me about water babies and watchers. He described a place where the Washo knew the watchers to be. It was a spot I avoided because my horse snorted every time I rode past this low bit of land along a creek. My friend said my horse recognized the watchers. I began to think about other places I felt watched, yet another correlation emerged: history.
Feeling watched became a clue for me to look for historic or even pre-historic evidence of habitation. I got so good at it that I recorded 11 archeological sites around the town where I grew up, including the spot I had been warned about. Of course I learned to identify features and clues, but that sense I feel, like a hunch, also feels like being watched.
The top of Dalton Wash felt like a hunch the first time we crested the mesa. It didn’t take long before I found chippings and tools, indicative of an encampment. Subsequent times I’ve been back, I’ve brought loose tobacco to share, a gift to the ancients my Native friends taught me. The first time I brought tobacco, I had the hair on the back of my neck stand up at a certain point. I felt I should not go past and I left my gift there on the wind.
I’ve been asking around, to fill in the gap between knowing this place was once inhabited and wanting discover their story. Some of the rock shops had said the Shoshone and Paiute lived and hunted here. It didn’t feel like my watcher, though. Then I discovered a small warning to hikers on the Zion side of the mesa above Dalton Wash — leave rocks, petrified wood and artifacts behind for others to enjoy; do not climb or disturb the rock dwellings.
Rock dwellings would mean Pueblo or even the mysterious Anasazi. I began asking outfitters and all were reluctant to say anything more than the park doesn’t want people to know in order to protect the ruins. In a round about way they confirmed the existence of ancient ruins in the vicinity where I felt watched and compelled to leave tobacco.
Whatever the feeling is, it taps into my imagination. Of course, a logical explanation would be my mind attempting to fill in the gaps it doesn’t know. I could agree with that. When I was younger I thought an archaeological career would be the greatest ever. I had always wanted to write historical novels and I saw the possibility of being an archaeologist/historical fiction novelist. It was beyond what I could do at the time, and college was not part of my family dynamic. By the time I got to college, I was a mother of three. Practicality dictated a teaching profession, but history and creative writing called my name. Creative writing called the loudest.
When I started writing Miracle of Ducks, Danni came to me as Dr. Danni Gordon, an historical archaeologist. She disdains dogs until her husband Ike abruptly decides to serve a private military company in Iraq. She has to overcome her dislike of dogs and Ike’s best friend to hold her life together in Ike’s absence. She ends up finding a friendship and a pup, and eventually she even finds her community after believing she never needed to be part of one.
The friend, Michael Robineaux, is the perfect foil for Danni’s career — he’s Ojibewe. He frequently challenges both her profession and disbelief in the supernatural. While the plot doesn’t get too “far out there” there is a thread of supernatural regarding the pup, Bubbie. Most of it is easily explained away like my sense of feeling watched by those who’ve gone before, but there’s several incidents that are left to the reader to decide.
The community element was something I originally set up to contrast Ike’s commitment to duty and Danni’s need for solitude. Community is a dynamic force, and complex. Miracle of Ducks drills down through the layers until Danni can finally see her own placement and come to understand why Ike would feel the need to put himself in harm’s way.
Last week I had a huge breakthrough in revising. I’ve mentioned before that I’m changing the setting from northern Wisconsin to north Idaho. One chunk of story that I wasn’t sure how to transfer involves Bubbie getting lost on Madeline Island. There is no such place in north Idaho, although several peninsulas on Lake Pend Oreille might work. Last week, I responded to the prompt and was thinking about Danni’s angst over her missing pup. In my original scene, Danni and Michael spend days searching for Bubbie, following up on sightings including a farmer who finds the pup in his hen-house.
Without thinking, I wrote Bubbie was lost on the Pack River and a group of rednecks shot at him for sport. Suddenly, the transfer was complete in my imagination. I could see Bubbie getting lost on the Pack (many dogs do each year) and the dangers became real and unfolded. I’m biting at the bit to get this scene rewritten now, thanks to the insight from that flash. Sometimes, my own responses to the prompt are like a flash light showing the path in the darkness!
I hope to find that ruin above Dalton Wash before we leave Mars. We don’t know where we are going next, or how we are going to move our RV, but I hope we get a flash of insight before the snowbird season ends, early April. Like a good story, I know something is up on Dalton Wash. It interesting to note, it’s not the only Anasazi ruin in the area.
The other is beyond the slope where the Juniper Tree Watcher stands.
February 16, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a watcher. It can be a sentinel like the Watchman formation that overlooks Zion Canyon, or a Big Brother conspiracy theory. How can you use a watcher to set a tone or present a twist?
Respond by February 21, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published February 22). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Falling Shadows (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
The Beehive was where granite met duff and towering larch. Hikers said they saw a dog like Bubbie run up the trail. She swore she saw dog-prints by the spring. Nothing. No Bubbie. Just a warm breeze through the pines.
Looking up, high on the granite mound considered sacred to the Salish, and called the Beehive for its shape, Danni could see the shadow of a dog. How did Bubbie get up there? She’d need a rope to ascend.
Her breath left her as the shadow fell. Before impact, it spread wings and an eagle flew away.
Mud is murky. It gets a bad wrap as dirty — it’s the stuff that clings to soles, tracking across clean surfaces. Dogs are notorious for muddy paws and children are often chided for playing in it. Politicians perfect the art of slinging it. Yet, there’s an allure to mud. It’s become the stuff to haunt me, fearing it’s slickness to slide a full-sized truck geared down into 4-low slowly over the rim of a snaking canyon road. So focused has my mind been on mud, I began to see it had lessons for me.
First, I have to admit I ventured up the mesas too soon. The sun came out after overcast and rainy days, after snow on the mesas and flash floods in the canyons. The sky spread out like a blue tablecloth inviting me to picnic beneath the warm sun. We waited a week. The Hub says, “It’ll be okay.” The dirt road that winds up Dalton Wash certainly looked dry when we turned up it.
“See, it’s dry,” says the Hub.
I watched the brush, the boulders, the small crevice of a creek. “Look! Deer.” Two mulie does with yearlings trot along side the truck like an escort welcoming us back to the mesas.
“See, it’s dry,” says the Hub.
Spindly apple trees stand like dead sticks in fields of mud on the first mesa level. It appears dry…on the surface. “I don’t know,” I say.
The road turns sharply right before climbing several thousand feet through a boulder-strewn canyon — the deeper crevice of Dalton Wash, cutting through layers of time. “It’s fine,” says the Hub.
I suck air hard and grab the steel frame between my lowered window and open wing.The canyon shrouded in shadow, the road cut deep with ruts begins to twist and rise. “Four-wheel drive!” I shout this like making the sign of the cross in reaction to danger. Salvation of trucks, entering unknown terrain. Holy 4WD.
“We don’t need it,” says the Hub. The truck lugs and if it stops we’ll spin tires; if we spin tires we might get stuck of slide off the road. Off the road to the left is gnarly debris, the scree of mesas. Off the road to the right is a rocky shelf, a wall of layered clay.
We need it. The Hub stops when the road flattens before a churning river of mud. Each current carved by a truck before us. That’s hopeful; Other Trucks have made it. He steps out into the road/mud-river and turns the hubs of each front wheel.
NOTE: Hubs engage or disengage the front wheel axles, thus engaging the hubs is to put both axles to work for climbing mountains or navigating spring mud. I have one Hub as in Husband and two manual locking hubs on my truck which requires the Hub to get out and turn. Although I live in Utah, I do not practice polygamy. One Hub is enough.
Hubs engage and Hub settles behind the wheel, we lurch forward and take on the incline the same time a truck above descends. There’s not enough room to pass and the descending truck can’t stop. Can’t. Stop. We call dibs on the wall and the other driver slides between us and the drop off to the canyon bottom below.
“Are we stuck?” I ask when my breath returns. The other truck slides to a stop behind us.
“We’re fine,” says the Hub and indeed we begin to churn mud like brown butter beneath the wheels and bit by bit we edge forward. Until the rock. It stops us and we slide back to where we went off the road.
“You folks stuck?” asks the driver of the other truck. He greets the Hub with a handshake and shovel.
“Just a rock,” says the Hub who proceeds to pick up a rock big enough to stop a truck. Like a shot put he heaves it over the edge. The other driver shovels a patch and we gun it so hard we fish tail out of the rut and up the road. We cant’s stop and the driver understands we aren’t being rude to stop and says thanks. We are entering the steepest grade and the mud actually lessens, but another truck is facing down at us. The driver is slow to understand he needs to hit reverse and hit it fast. We can’t stop or else we’ll slide backwards and off the road, into Dalton Wash.
The nose of our truck is inches from the nose of his and we drive this way the last stretch and then we pass waving, and telling them “Good Luck!” For a while, I’m happy to be in the sun walking through the litter of petrified wood, cherry-picking chunks of jasper. A wet winter has revealed previously buried treasure. By foot I make it to the edge of the Zion Wilderness and I pass through the gate. There’s something I want to find…
…Not today. The Hub catches up with me, the dog dodging between us on shaky legs, howling after rabbits like a banshee. We have to leave before the sun sets.
The sun glows like a distant apocalypse on the far horizon of another mesa. We don’t want to go down in the dark, yet we can’t see with the last rays of sun burning away our sight. We sit at the top of the mesa until the bright orb dips and we go down in dusk.
Sliding in mud.
There’s no stopping the truck. The Hub turns into each skid as the back end of the truck whips around. The back end slides right, he turns left. The back end slides left, he turns right. All I can do is focus on my breath. I think “breathe in” as I breathe out. Halfway down the mesa I realize I’ve focused the wrong words to each inhale and exhale. I calm the rising panic with the thought, it doesn’t matter; just breathe.
We get to the bottom and the Hub says, “See, it was fine.”
What I have learned…
Mud is still. It’s motion that causes the friction. Steady and slow is best
Mud is murky. It teaches me I don’t have to see to get through. It’s okay not to know all the details.
Mud is sticky. Persistence is the lesson here — stick-to-it-ness. Stick like mud to what needs doing.
Mud is mild. As scared as it might make me to drive on it, mud is not a torrent.
Mud has benefits. It has minerals, water and reflections of sky above. It calls me to look for what’s good.
My take away as a writer, is that writing is often messy and murky. It can be like mud. Sometimes, I think I’m flinging mud at the blank page, looking for what sticks. And revising feels like sliding down a mesa, and I feel uncertain how to control the weight of my words upon the flow. No one teaches you how to navigate mud and when it comes to the process no one can teach you to write your stories in your voice. Certainly we can learn to drive, and we can learn the craft of writing, but mud is the original material.
If you haven’t yet read, Carrot Ranch has launched a new guest series that gets muddy, exploring the idea Raw Literature. It’s meant to be an ongoing conversation from different perspectives, and a look at the lives of writers behind the screen. These are the essays so far, and I hope you take time to read, ponder and even submit an essay of your own:
- Memoir & What Lies Beneath by Sherri Matthews
- Rough Writer for Congress profile of Sarah Unsicker
- Natural or Explicit by Geoff Le Pard
- From Raw to Ready by Anne Goodwin
- Jewels on the Page by Jules Paige
With all that seems to be unfolding in the world, it can feel muddy. The challenge is to find something worthwhile — a piece of land worth preserving; a civic duty worth taking on; a cause you can contribute to; a way to bring art to the artless. Certainly we can create from the clay we are given.
February 9, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a rainbow in a puddle. Is it a silver lining of sorts or a false reflection? Think about what it might mean or convey. Simple science? Hope? Or the doom of humankind? Create action or character reflection. Go where the prompt leads you.
Respond by February 14, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published February 15). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Faith (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“A rainbow in a puddle. We’ll have good luck in our search today,” Michael said.
All Danni could see was a biohazard in mud. She climbed into Michael’s truck and they left to follow leads on Bubbie, missing along the Pack River for a week.
“Did you see it?”
Michael was as bad as Ike, Danni thought. Signs, wonders, miracles. “Yes I saw the oil slick.”
“Ever the scientist. Today, have faith.”
Their first encounter with campers reminded Danni why she had none. The rednecks with AR-15s claimed they peppered a dog fitting Bubbie’s description. For fun, they said.
Hills old as dirt. Rocks ancient as time. Mesas drawn from memories of dinosaurs. It’s old around here. Solid as a rock.
Hillsides mess with our sense of time and solidity. Geologically speaking, the wrinkled hills of debris at the foot of mesas and canyons in Zion National Park are newborns. Water carves rivulets into canyons so deep and serpentine that many of these winding features miles long went unnoticed by surveyors for years. If you believe the canyons rock-solid, I have some alternative facts for you. But before we get to fiction, let examine a few facts from science:
- Zion’s geological features are indeed old: 250 million years old.
- The sandstone features with cliffs over 3/4 of a mile high were once sand dunes. Sand dunes!
- Water shapes the area’s stunning geology, including hidden canyons and the winding Virgin River.
- Water is also trapped in sandstone, forming a weeping feature that takes water 1,000 years to emerge.
- The park’s 229 square miles includes wide mesas, narrow sandstone canyons, seeps, springs and waterfalls.
The Zion features are not alive with music; instead they pulse with mud-pushed rocks, reshaping debris heaps. The process accelerates any time water joins the mix. Mud becomes a powerful sludge, and sometimes entire hillsides calve like a glacier. Other times a trickle of rocks tumble across trails and roads.
And some times there’s a rock big and brown in the middle of the road.
Geology reminds me that life is not static. We never have the same day. We never truly have an ideal image of ourselves in the mirror. We never fix the meatloaf exactly the same way as last year. Even the institutions we believe unshakeable are not the same from year to year. Everything shifts and sheds like Zion rubble.
Mostly the process equates to the movement of sand. It’s over the years we notice the ravages of grain — the days’ activities are noticeably different; the face in the mirror has aged; meatloaf had a makeover; governments erode. Sometimes, though, the rock crashes down in an instant and we are shaken by the change. We prefer the illusion displaced sand gives us. Sand seems easier to sweep away. And we do. But that rock — that rock in the road cannot be ignored. It calls us to change or be changed.
Rocks always take us by surprise. We know they exist in the sludge of life, but we always believe we can dodge the big ones. We do what we can to avoid the dangerous slopes where we know rocks lurk. One might acknowledge vulnerability. How often I’ve heard many people say, “I know, I know, we’re all just one paycheck away from being homeless.” But that’s just a fear many use to stay in an unsatisfactory job, town or relationship. We settle and take our chances with the sand, avoiding rocks.
When it does happen to someone — that rock of homelessness — we shore up our own crumbling edges with notions that the person struck by the rock of unexpected change must have done something. “That’s right, they asked for it. They were digging where they shouldn’t have dug.” People say those things to justify walking past a panhandler on the street. They justify not giving money because it would be spent on drugs or drink, without thinking to buy a meal or a blanket. They justify dehumanizing the homeless.
Let me introduce you to a few faces besides mine. There’s the divorced woman whose husband hid the assets and at 62 she has no employability. There’s the man and his wife and their two sons who can’t come up with first, last and deposit on a rental so they camp while raising the money that never seems to be enough. There’s the woman kicked out of a motel room after the landlord beat her. He. Beat. Her. She lost her room and now sleeps in a tent a church gave her. There’s the veterans in their trucks, belongings piled in the passenger seat and a bed in the back beneath a camper shell.
And the boy with the big grin blowing out seven candles on two cupcakes for his birthday. He’s in his third shelter, or transitional motel room. The rock that hit his parents was an unrenewed lease. The apartment complex preferred adults to seven-year-old boys with no where else to go. Once you have no where else to go, the complex web of family homelessness awaits like Shelob’s lair. More rocks dislodge — most shelters separate men from women and children; shelters have rigid rules that interfere with jobs; some shelters have a lottery system. There’s long-term motels with their own set of dangers and frustrations.
This boy’s mama dreamed of a kitchen. She dreamed of cooking. I know, Sweet One, I know. I miss my kitchen most. I miss everything that a woman creates in a kitchen — meals and memories. Sweet One is a daughter to me. I’ve known her for nine years, ever since she was a teen working where I worked. I respect her privacy, but I want you to know this is a good woman, a good mama. She and her family got hit hard by one rock after another and they do not have the normal familial safety net. Adult orphans.
That can be hardest, which is why I asked her if the Hub and I could be Nana and Papa to her boy, Our Boy.
After six months, Our Boy, his Dad and Sweet One got an apartment. Our Boy has been doing well in school, although he had some scary days when he was taking public transportation to school, arrived late and got locked out. A seven-year-old alone in the city! Sweet One nearly lost her mind over that one and the school worked with her to make Our Boy safer in his transitions. Think about the dedication of these working parents to get their son to school every day. Together we believe in him going to college.
Carrot Ranch is hosting a Welcome Home J-Family house-warming for Sweet One and her family. Between now and February 28, there will be a Wish List on Amazon for the family. When families become homeless, they often lose most their possessions. I’ve heard people say, “It’s good to purge.” But unless you’ve had to get rid of your personal and household belongings, you couldn’t know the sorrow. Or the frustration when you want to cook after getting re-homed and are missing what’s needed.
At first Sweet One was modest and asked for three items: microwave, muffin pan and a crock-pot. After some nudging she got into the spirit of dreaming! She and Our Boy dreamed of waffles, zucchini zoodles and omelettes shaped like hearts. Then she thought out how to set up her kitchen, and I added cookbooks. Could I ask you to share this house-warming far and wide? If you can, and are moved to help one who got hit by the homelessness rock, consider buying her an item on her list. Her son is seven if you want to send him books, too. Let’s give them a landslide of a house-warming!
It was hard for me to think about my character’s homeless event this past summer even though I knew I wanted to hit Danni with that rock. I had already written a scene where she is unable to access Ike’s account right after he leaves for Iraq. Often these banking issues arise and when the spouse is deployed, they can be tricky to sort out. Using my own experiences and understanding of how easy it was for banks to foreclose on military families, that becomes Danni’s event.
Seeing what is happening in our government seems like a catastrophic event in the US, but some of us had earlier hits to know the whole thing had become unstable for those not billionaires many years before the orange rock hit DC. Although why those hardest hit would elect a demolition man to office seems counter-productive. Maybe they just wanted to see a rock-slide hit everybody else, too.
February 2, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a rock in the road. It can be physical, adding to a plot twist, or it can be metaphorical for a barrier or hardship. Go where you find the rock.
Respond by February 7, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published February 8). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Midnight Rock (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Michael knelt at the bumper, shining his flashlight. “Hell of rock you hit, Danni.”
“It was an easy target, squatting there in the middle of the road like a legless grizzly.”
Michael shined the powerful light up the canyon wall. “Can’t see anything else unstable.”
“A rock just for me.” She slumped her head on the hood. “Ike loved this truck.”
“He still does.”
“Yeah, Ike’s in some hell-hole, pining for his truck!”
“He’s enduring because of what he has back home, Danni. You, the truck, the dogs.”
“Too bad he won’t have a home to come home to.”
Not knowing anyone, I step out of the car into three inches of wet snow. I smell patchouli, hear drums steady as a heartbeat and see colorful protest signs lining the sheltered wall of city hall. Friendly people smile, greeting one another, greeting me. I’ve never been to Kanab, Utah before, but I once followed a pink sandy road that crossed over into Arizona and when I feared we were lost, we intersected a highway. We were 6 miles from Kanab, but turned toward Virgin instead.
The Hub pops open the trunk, and I retrieve my giant laminated poster on a yard stick that reads, “Hear our Voices.” I thought it appropriate for a writer at a protest. It’s floppy like a fledged eagle and I’m not sure how to carry it. My yard stick is taped to the back, making a shield of the art. Is that what art is? A shield? I hold it aloft. Hear my voice. The Hub says he taking Bobo for a walk, his signal to me that the perimeter is safe and he’s nearby if I need him. Shield in gloveless hands, I walk in tennis shoes with thin ankle socks toward the collection of signs, feeling unprepared but here nonetheless. I stand where I’m most comfortable; by the words.
Snow drifts down in fat flakes that look like feathers from a kill. But there’s no blood. No violent vibes exist as if patchouli casts a spell of peace. The drummers beat Indigenous American drums — skins taut over wooden bowls. A gong accompanies the music. More smiling faces greet me. More snow falls and accumulates. It feels…celebratory. Yet signs proclaim women’s empowerment:
“Love, Not Hate Makes America Great”
“Ladies Unite for Equality; No Lies, Please”
“Women Want to Go to Mars, Not War”
“Girls Just Wanna Have FUN-damental Rights”
“Build Bridges, Not Walls”
“We the People”
“We the Resilient”
“I Will NOT Go Quietly Back to the 1950s”
“Peace Not Tweets”
“You Can’t Grab Our Rights”
“Can’t Comb Over Hate”
I’m definitely at the Women’s March on Washington, via Kanab. For several months, organizers across the United States had been planning the big march in Washington, DC the day after the Presidential Inauguration. Sister Marches organized in most city centers from New York to Seattle. I had planned to go to Las Vegas, Nevada about 150 miles away, and then saw the march in Kanab which is only 38 miles from Virgin where our RV is parked for winter. The snow is like a big joke. In DC it’s foggy. It shouldn’t be snowing in southern Utah. Only when women march on Mars, right?
A clear-eyed crone walks up to me and I instantly like her. I feel the wisdom and love and I notice her hand-sewn peace patches stitched to her jacket. Her sign is detailed with artistic swirls, bordering, “Women Create.” She chats with me like an old friend and I realize that many of the women here have marched before when I was still a child. I feel on the cusp of my own crone-ness and want to observe and absorb. A peaceful assembly was promised and delivered. After an enthusiastic circling of the ranks, we call out numbers, cheer and know the resistance begins here.
And what are we resisting? We are women (and men and dogs) concerned for the human rights of all. We are resisting incivility, the usurping of our governance by the people, injustice and media silence. It was not so much a protest as it was the celebration of love and humanity, a stand of solidarity for those marginalized. It was a citizens’ promise to hold its elected officials accountable. It was history in the making and I was there.
We walk and the snow begins to lift. Heavy clouds part and reveal a splotch of blue. Someone behind me says, “It looks like the old folks home on parade.” I laugh. My bones aren’t that old, yet I struggle with the increasingly flooded intersections as snow begins to melt. My jeans are wet halfway to my knees. Cars honk and we cheer and wave. Later, I see a sign from another march posted on social media and it describes many who gathered: “It’s so bad the introverts are here.”
Many of us have what are known as “pussyhats” — knitted pink hats crowned with cat ears. Mine is actually mango in color. Women who didn’t march or support the marchers began to ridicule the “vajayjay” hats. No, I think, pussyhats is the correct term. You can’t call them by any other name. He said it first in derogatory tones, in easy talk of sexual assault, bragging. The word has taken on new power. I wear a pussyhat in solidarity with every women who has been raped, sexually abused or molested. We own it. It’s not yours to grab. And that’s the kind of empowerment we walk in, not knowing a thing of each others’ histories. We are united between knitted caps across the world.
When I think of Rock Creek and the three women who reveal its story, Nancy Jane would be the unwitting feminist. She wouldn’t be seeking equality, she just failed to realize her gender was not equal. Of all the historic figures involved in Rock Creek, we know the least about Nancy Jane Holmes. History regards her as Jane Wellman, common law wife of the Pony Express Station at Rock Creek, Nebraska. She’s not legally married so she would be Jane Holmes. History also claims her as the daughter of Joseph Holmes. That’s the thing about women — they are rarely regarded on their own, attached to a father or husband.
That’s what makes Nancy Jane and Sarah Shull interesting. They were not attached in acceptable ways.
Joseph Holmes was one who lived on the fringe of society. He was a carpenter by trade and a documented drunk and thief. He had no surviving wife, no mentioned sons, just his daughter. In the 1860 US Census for Nebraska Territory, Joseph is living near Rock Creek with a daughter, Nancy J Holmes and her infant son. That child is not mentioned again so it’s assumed he died in infancy. All sorts of imaginative ideas come to mind — who was the father of the child; why was Nancy Jane not married; how did she come to be Horace Wellman’s common-law wife a year later; what was her relationship to Sarah Shull; why did she hate Cobb McCanles so much?
As I’ve imagined her, Nancy Jane grew up on the prairie losing a mother and siblings to the cholera epidemic that hit the region during her childhood. Her father was once a talented craftsman, but succumbs to drink after heavy emotional losses. He raises his daughter without borders or societal rules. Nancy Jane meets many people along the emigrant trail where she lives, and was easily seduced by a charming Russian (I swear I wrote that scene before the Russians hacked us). Her father doesn’t react punitively to her pregnancy, nor does he force her out of his house. By the time Cobb has reached the area, Nancy Jane is burying her baby. It’s her first encounter with the man. And it’s not a good one.
Here’s how I see Nancy Jane becoming the feminist. She then meets Sarah Shull. They have much in common: no husbands, babies out of wedlock that died early, independence and loneliness. I imagine Nancy Jane being in awe of Sarah’s accounting skills. To her, Sarah is “like a man.” Eventually, as their friendship grows and Cobb moves his family to a ranch three miles away, Sarah begins to believe in Nancy Jane’s ideas of her equality and begins to plan a move to Denver on her own. Cobb loses his sway over Sarah. He wants his wife, but he’s also enjoyed the control he’s had over his former mistress.
Unlike the Women’s Marches, tension comes to a violent resolution at Rock Creek and the women are in the thick of it.
The marches are over but the movement has only just begun. As I searched out other marchers later, I saw the repeated themes of love, solidarity and enthusiasm. Women do create. Not to leave out the men (and I love you all who support your mothers, wives and daughters for a feminist knows no gender), but I want stories this week to capture the essence of women. It’s homage not only to the marches which will go down in history, but homage to all women, even those who thought it ridiculous to march.
January 26, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story using the theme, “women create.” It can be art, sewing, ideas, babies. What is at the heart of women as creators? Go where the prompt takes you.
Respond by January 31, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published February 1). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Stirring False Creation (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Joseph mumbled, “Sorry, Nancy Jane. I wanted to borrow a suit from Irish Hughes.”
“He borrowed my whiskey, too.” Hughes shot Joseph a dark scowl. Cobb unbundled a fiddle, leveling the bow at Hughes. “He’ll return it.”
“Put that away. This is a burial, if you men please,” she said.
“I’ll play for your child. I’m no preacher, no devil either.” A soft, mournful strain rose from the strings.
Nancy Jane had never heard the like in her life. It stirred creation in her womb, as if the notes could resurrect her son. But men have no such power.
From my Rock Creek Playlist, this is the song I hear Cobb playing the day he met Nancy Jane at her son’s burial on the prairie near Rock Creek Station.
At noon today, January 20, 2017, a new administration takes over leadership in the US. Inauguration, balls, protests and marches will magnify every moment in Washington, DC this weekend. The first 100 days of the new administration will reveal just how much change is going to unfold and judge its benefits or detriments. To say the entire world is watching is not hyperbole. And writers cannot escape this gaze.
The US Press Corps has issued its stand in an open letter to Trump: “We believe there is an objective truth, and we will hold you to that.” Media has derailed in its quest for objective truth the moment advertising dollars oozed past the boundaries of editorial in an act of survival when print faded in the light of the rising digital sun. Media has long toyed with sensationalism to grab attention, often obscuring the truth to get readers. But now we live in an age of reality-TV masquerading as real and fake news making fools of all. We are now struggling with a post-truth era.
Let objective truth become your safe phrase.
We cannot hide from the events unfolding. To be an informed writer — even a novelist or poet or memoirist or creator of educational materials or creator of flash fiction — we must be informed readers. When it does not feel safe to read or listen to the news, often it is because of biases and worry over propaganda or fake news. Focus on objective truth. Read critically. Read deep. It might be tempting to scan the sound bites or let well-intentioned friends inform you in a Facebook post about those “six things you need to know about _______,” but seek the deeper reporting. Here’s my list of news sources:
- The New York Times (I pay for a monthly subscription)
- Associated Press
- PBS NewsHour
- Audible (I pay for a monthly subscription and follow Channels like Scientific America and Masters of Fiction)
- Pocast Republic
Be a critical reader. Even the best of journalists can express bias. At times, I’ve caught a tone of exasperation missed by an editor or perhaps added by one. Recognize tone and intent. Be on guard for bias. Occasionally read a source you know to be bias (liberal or alt-right) to compare the reporting on the same story. Know the difference between opinion and fact. Look for sources. Look up sources. Do some sleuthing on your own, don’t become reliant upon outlets like Snopes because then you are letting someone else think for you. Don’t “like” biased news, call out fake news or lies when correction is needed, and don’t copy and paste incomplete information from your BFF. Seek objective truth.
One of the challenges writers have when filling the mind-well is wanting to write about it, of course. Be aware that this is not a safe environment for writers. Journalists have called for solidarity. Many groups, such as #LinkYourLife offer private safe space on Facebook with member rules to protect the space and moderators to encourage participation. Carrot Ranch is an open literary community. Most writers participate in multiple social media platforms and write blog posts, articles or literary submissions. We express our thoughts and our thoughts are informed by what we experience and read or observe.
Yet, doing so makes writers vulnerable. What was intimate in our hearts and minds becomes words on a page. When we share those words publicly, we can’t control the reaction of others. Something as simple as an encouraging quote or an expressed opinion can receive negative feedback. Recently I posted a quote from Langston Hughes and endured a vitriolic debate from someone on Facebook who inappropriately associated the quote to an offensive art exhibit. And yet, I defended artists having the freedom of expression. It felt ironic because I didn’t feel so free in expressing myself. Another writer posted a political meme and was trolled on her Facebook page. Another writer wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that created a media storm complete with public shaming from Bill O’Reilly and death threats.
So how do writers stay safe yet continue to write?
Know your boundaries. Find safe groups where you feel welcome and comfortable. Have a crisis plan. If you are new to blogging and are journaling personal thoughts and feelings, you can keep your blog private until you feel ready to share. Use your comfort to share as your cue. Sometimes, in order to grow, we have to expand beyond our safety zones, and being scared does not mean you are helpless. Set your boundaries on your social media and craft rules of what you will tolerate (you can block and report). I tolerated the vitriol on my FB because I want my posts to be public (part of my writer’s platform) and I knew the offender (my Hub’s opinionated cousin). The writer who was trolled on Facebook thought she could learn from opposing opinions, but it became clear it was an organized attack (by people she didn’t know) and she blocked them. The Washington Post writer rode out the storm with the help of her publicist.
Before negative remarks send you into a crisis, have a plan: don’t engage with anyone who makes you feel unsafe; know how to block and report offenders; reach out to moderators; adjust your level of sharing.
As someone who leads a literary community, safe space means a place where our writing is not critiqued in the normal academic way of tearing down. Trolls would never be an issue here and that is why I have tight security on my comment feed. It can be annoying when comments or pingbacks delay or even get lost but it’s worth keeping the space here safe from undue criticism. We also have some basic rules at Carrot Ranch which are always linked. In the three years we’ve been flashing as a community, only once did I have to send an email to an inappropriate commentor, and the writers never saw the comment. Of course, we are not the Washington Post or The New Yorker, but it’s important for writers to know that having a safe zone to practice creative writing — raw literature — is a priority at Carrot Ranch.
Each week we focus on writing flash fiction as play, the way musicians get together and jam. Writers often comment and the focus is on what is engaging in the flash, or craft techniques that worked well. A safe place for literary art practices appreciative inquiry to build upon a writer’s strengths. A safe place expresses adult ideas in content, and we keep them to the level of: would you share this with your boss. If not, give a content warning, post it on your own blog and link to it in the comments. It’s never been a problem to date, but worth explaining that there is a process for sharing extreme content.
Ultimately Carrot Ranch is a safe place for writers from diverse backgrounds to share across genres, topics and national origin. Literary art is the common ground for diversity.
Even fiction explores objective truth. In fact, fiction is most powerful when it clearly expresses truth. Just because we live in uncertain times does not mean we have to be uncertain about what we write. Perhaps we are called to be more mindful of what we write, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Safety is a reasonable concern. It’s my greatest hope you come here to write because you feel safe in expressing yourself in raw literature among this literary community. We learn from different perspectives and we grow when we dare to be brave.
It’s a new era, today. Hone your voice and write on.
A Note about the artwork: Hear Our Voice is by artist, Liz Donovan and is a free download from the Women’s March on Washington. The purpose is to amplify the messages women bring to the march. I’ll be marching on Saturday in a Sister March, holding a sign made from this artwork. My body guard and faithful dog march with me.
I’m a member and co-moderator of the Link Your Life group on Facebook which is a safe place to share writing links. The LYL Mod Squad has joined forces today to reflect upn what safe space does and doesn’t mean. Here’s the complete list:
Heavy Lifting: Accountability, ego and a safe team environment, By Shawna Ayoub Ainslie
What Is a Safe Space? by Drew Sheldon
What an Online safe space is and isn’t by Stacia Fleegal
Why this one life hack will change your life forever, by Raymond Baxter
The importance of safe spaces and how to understand them better – Link Your Life, by Charlotte Farhan
Harmony, by Rachel A. Hanson
How bringing others in improves healing and progress, by Thomas Ives
Mars is a mess. Brandy-wine clay smudges the paved roads, making paint brushes of tires. Red sand so fine a geologist might call it silt pours from rock crevices to keep time. When time’s up, entire blocks of sandstone cliffs slough like rocky debris to block paved roads. Constant patter of rain on my RV drives me to drive. Driving therapy we called it back in north Idaho. When life is a jangled mess, when cabin fever settles, when you can’t afford to do anything else, drive.
And drive we do in the white farm truck with the pinkish underbelly, stained by sticky wet red clay of an unusually wet southern Utah winter.
We can’t go up. Kolob Terrace is closed, choked with snow at its elevations. The mesa roads are unstable. The clay roads are impassable. Zion Scenic Drive is closed. We can’t go far. The truck guzzles gas and we are back to living on a writer’s budget. That miracle of a job wasn’t such a miracle. The anxiety of living homeless, moving 1,000 miles in a leaking tin can, losing our big brown dog, and finally getting diagnosed with combat-related anxiety after 33 years left the Hub ill-equipped to deal with office politics.
Tourists flesh the bones of this place, visiting Zion in the thousands daily. Tourist season is March through November, and the three months of winter are quiet enough to enjoy the park when not beneath tumbling debris. Park rangers are more evident. Locals in the Virgin-Rockville-Springdale area are friendly. We feel out of place though, like Earthlings on Mars. We can’t go north yet because it’s buried in the tundra of winter.
Along the flat and recently graded dirt road we encounter an unwelcoming sub-culture — tweakers making, buying or simply driving the back-country of Mars to use crystal meth. We had one move into the RV for the month of December, as we waited, a full month, to hear the decision of the Hub’s employer. We watched muddy vehicles come and go. One day an unmarked police vehicle showed up and the next day the tweaker was gone. I hadn’t realized how tense it had made us until they were gone.
We’re in limbo, executing Plan B. It involves the VA and the VA moves like a sloth unaware that it needs to hurry up across the paved road. Phone calls, phone calls, phone calls and we push through. The Ranger drivers on, no quit in him.
So we drive. Clay crackles where rain had saturated it three days prior. Our drive is the one sunny afternoon in between storm systems. The road crosses the red and swollen Virgin River and I think there’s a metaphor between the condition and its name. But inspiration fails to make the connection. We drive. Carefully we wind up a serpentine rise, avoiding grand puddles and washed out gullies. A small SUV is stopped pointed the direction we are coming from, and the Hub rolls down his window to talk to the woman getting out the driver’s side door.
“How’s the road ahead?”
“The road. Is the road clear?”
“Uh, um, yeah, uh, yeah.” She pulls out a walkie-talkie and ignores us.
The Hub rolls up the window and we both realize she’s high on something. Two pre-teens look bored in the back seat. They don’t make eye-contact with us. Silently I hope they both grow up knowing a different life. Yet, I’m not so sure I believe in clean breaks. Even in this desert known as Mars, we’re all dragging around cumbersome crates. Moody with my thoughts, I’m curious to see mounds of tailings, often an indicator of a mine. Not a mine. We drive around the wide curve in the road and see a quarry.
Flat rocks neatly stacked reminds me of the pressure I feel when I think of life’s pain.
As a writer on a drive is wont to do, I begin to think of my characters. I’ve switched to Rock Creek as my writing focus this week, among blog posts, social media and client work. On the red road I can think of my characters without the rocks of deadlines and news articles. My imagination finally bubbles up and rolls muddy like the Virgin River. Mary. Mary Greene. Mary Greene McCanles. She’s neat like the quarry rocks. Orderly. Sarah Shull was neat, too, but dreamy. Mary was pragmatic. Sarah could account. Mary could make any household item her family needed, sweep a dirt floor and balance all the babies. Sarah was progressive, Mary traditional.
Like politics, my two lovers of Cobb McCanles were polarized. Yet where is the tension in my story? Mary is the wife he cheated on, Sarah the mistress he brings to Rock Creek. Yet Sarah is a business partner, the sullied and pitied woman. I get Sarah’s complexities, I can define each stone in her stack. But Mary? She cooked and cleaned, cleaned and cooked. This is exactly why I write about women in the west because I know we are more than that. We cook, clean and meet up with drug dealers before driving the kids to Scouts meetings. What is Mary’s drug? What is her boredom? Her fear? Her pain? More so, what does Mary do with it?
We drive and I imagine Mary vindictive. She wouldn’t look at Sarah Shull without some bile rising. Corn liquor was for her man. Mary planned, poking her adversaries weaknesses. What if Cobb was not the one who made the women get together for dinner exchanges like historians claim from eye-witness accounts? I’ve entertained the idea before that Mary initiates the dinner exchanges to shame Sarah who never learned to cook. What else would she have planned to make Sarah look bad and elevate her own status? I realize I’ve been reluctant to sort out Mary’s stack of rocks, accepting she was the stoic pioneer woman, respecting she was my kin. I feel soft toward her.
And we drive and I get hard of heart. If there is anything worth sifting, I’m going to have to get hard with Mary, see her as a real woman, strong, but fallible, too. Mars is a proving ground. As a writer, I have to pick at the quarry and create characters like stacks of many rock, each one applying more pressure.
January 19, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a about a quarry. It can be a place or include the the by-product. The quarry can be operational, abandoned, it can be in real-tie or mentioned from another time. Where will the quarry take you? Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by January 24, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published January 25). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
At First Sight (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Mary swayed like corn in a cradle, the wagon rocking, creaking. Her back ached and hands cramped as she drove the team. Ahead Leroy sagged with fatigue in the saddle. A full moon guided their final push to Rock Creek. To keep alert, Mary forced the first memory when she became interested in Cobb.
The mountain girls gathered at the creek, wading and gossiping. Sarah Shull hung back. Her cornflower blue eyes watched the trail from the granite quarry. He rode shirtless and reckless. Mary smirked. She recognized the twit’s crush. That’s when she decided to woo Colbert McCanles.
The mail arrived with two cases of Give a Crap. It’s environmentally-friendly recycled toilet paper from Australia (with a US division in California). The boxes boldly ask, “Who Gives a Crap” and considering global dissension, I’m proud to answer, “Me! I give a crap!” Trouble is, at the root of dissension, others don’t necessarily give a crap about what I do, and it’s questionable if I give a crap about their complaints in return. Often our concerns are what polarizes us.
Many of my Minnesota friends give a crap about the environment. My two daughters graduated from the School of Environmental Studies in Minnesota, and I served on the school’s foundation board for several years. Educating youth about the environment is important because it is their future. Will Steger, Minnesota native and arctic explorer, gave a crap about Global Warming long before we decided Climate Change was the appropriate phrase to use. He’s one of my living heroes for traversing Baffin Island in 2008 to bring awareness to the plight of the Inuit who live in places others rarely see. My eldest was a student on the expedition and you can see her at frame 2:20 (girl in the gray sweatshirt on the couch with Will Steger).
If you notice the photos and natural references in my writing, you know I give a crap about nature. But many others do not. Many of my Idaho friends give a crap about living in Idaho, and in order to live in such a beautiful and remote area often they have to work jobs at odds with environmental concerns. Many work in the Bakken Oil Fields; many more were laid off when oil prices dropped; and many voted for the only presidential candidate to speak of jobs in America. Often those who give a crap for the environment forget to give a crap about the hardworking Americans who dig ditches, tip trees and mine resources. Here’s where things get messier than toilet paper can handle.
For every concern, I can cite a counter concern. Environment versus labor. Solar energy versus existing infrastructures. Police brutality versus racial disparity in inner cities. Firearm rights versus gun control for safer communities. Food safety versus access to healthier food. Farm industry versus community food deserts. Privatized healthcare versus social medicine. It goes on and on, around and around the tables of coffee klatches and yoga classes. Who is right? Who is wrong? Fight, fight, fight.
Standing up in the toilet bowl of what dissension in the US has become, is the most underqualified, unprepared, unfit person for the position of US leadership. Now the fight is really on — his right to grab women’s genitalia versus a women’s right to not be grabbed; white privilege versus black lives matters; populism versus humanity. Add to this all the other swipes of wanting jobs, wanting healthcare that’s not socialism but affordable, wanting personal rights; and it’s no wonder I feel like I just want to flush it all away. I give a crap, but I have whiplash trying to contemplate all sides.
We are forgetting something important. Fighting is about winning; about sides. That means we want a loser. Not only do we want a loser, but we feel like we want someone to be punished. That’s the rage behind, “Jail Hillary!” Sometimes, I can see the person shouting this battle cry, see the contorted face, and I imagine the job loss this person might have endured, or the pile of unpaid medical bills on the kitchen counter. I care about another’s loss, but why the fight, why the sides? When did we start thinking that only our crap matters and stop giving a crap about others? In the fight, we forgot about middle ground, about the idea that conflict management is win-win.
Holy crap, folks, I’m just a writer living in an RV down by the river, and I don’t know how many weeks I can take like this one. It started with an emotional farewell to President Obama. I did not agree with all his policies and I was disappointed enough by his first term that I did not vote for his second. Yet, I have greatly admired his family dynamics, his poise as an orator, his many outreaches to bridge gaps in America to bring equality of rights to every citizen, his wife’s initiatives as First Lady (including outreach to homeless veterans), and his classiness as a principled man. It was hard to say goodbye, knowing his replacement couldn’t be more different.
This week the PEOTUS (president-elect of the US) held a “press conference” that gives many of us in the writing industry chills, calling out a CNN journalist as Fake News. Seriously? This from the very person who says the most outrageous lies. His attacks on the press and his continuing lies which confuse and conflict many threatens freedom of speech and destabilizes truth. His gaslighting triggers my PTSD and I’ve had to employ many coping skills. I’m unable to overlook the man’s behavior. His billionaire cabinet in the making gives me less confidence. His resistance to divest himself of his businesses, his continuing obsession with telling us “He won!” and his lack of concern for Russian interference unnerves me.
Yet, I’m not wanting to fight my fellow citizens. I give a crap about conflict resolution.
Conflict resolution is finding a peaceful solution to a disagreement. It’s drawing back my hand from the urge to smack. It’s letting go of a need to punish. It’s hearing both sides of the concerns and working toward a way to save our environment and jobs. It means acknowledging the rights or privileges of all. It means agreeing to disagree with compassion for the other. It means uplifting the lowest in our midst instead of only seeking to better our own. It also means checking our words and behavior. It doesn’t mean giving a pass to the PEOTUS because of his office; rather it means we all hold him accountable to the respectability and credibility of his office.
As a literary artist I have a civic duty to explore the experiences of others, unlike me.
I honor the diversity at Carrot Ranch. That’s why it is a literary community and not a historical writers club, or a fiction writers group, or a writing outlet for Libertarians-Only, women-only, Gen-Xers-only, college degree holders only, published writers only or any other only of exclusivity. Look at how diverse the perspectives are each week in constrained responses to a single prompt! Raw Literature, as we are exploring in a new series at Carrot Ranch, is a truth-seeking exercise. The closer to a universal truth, the more fiction resonates with readers. I give a crap about literature and its role in society. You might think you are “just a writer” but you are a truth-seeker. Do not be afraid to seek your own truth. It’s a lifetime pursuit.
What do you give a crap about? Write about it, write into it, write about its enemies as friends, write about its friends as enemies. As a literary artist, how can you be a truth-seeker? How can you be an agitator for good? How can you be brave? How can you be part of conflict resolution?
January 12, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that expresses a strong concern, something to give a crap about. Something that brings out the feeling to stand up. How can you use it to show tension or reveal attitudes?
Respond by January 17, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published January 18). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Serving All (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Officer Roubineaux, explain why you were in Naples that day,” said the judge.
“Yes. I made a promise to a friend who is serving in Iraq to look out for his wife.”
“Which branch of service,” the judge asked.
“He’s a contractor for private security,” answered Michael.
“That’s not service. That’s a cover for meaningless acts of mercenary.” The judge made the comment as casually as if stating a fish has scales.
Danni resisted the urge to throw her shoe at the judge. He had no idea how much Ike gave a crap about serving his country, even jerks.