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August 17: Flash Fiction Challenge

Mona slinks across the dining room table, wraps her body around the edge of my laptop and brushes long whiskers across my hand. It’s become a ritual of sorts. The cat begs permission to perch upon my chest every afternoon. I grumble. I’m on multiple deadlines and focused, not wanting the interruption of a pestering feline. She’s not even my cat. Mona insists; I resist. Push the cat away, push the cat away, push the…oh, all right already!

I’ve learned it’s easiest to coax her into the curve of my left arm, as if inviting Mona into a sling. She presses against my chest, settles squarely on the bosom she believes to be her personal cat shelf, tucks her splayed toes into the crook of my arm and purrs. Her warmth radiates and I rest my chin on her tiny head. I stop. I don’t write on deadline; worry about the interviews not yet arranged; fret about my lateness to my own ranch; I don’t think about anything but the purring, the warmth, the love I suddenly and inexplicably feel in this paused moment.

I want America to sit with a cat purring against its breast.

Mother of Exiles: Give me your tired, your poor… (Emma Lazarus)

…ask not what your country can do for you… (Robert F. Kennedy)

…we are united in common values… (President Barrack OBama)

If you get, give. If you learn, teach. (Maya Angelou)

If the great American people will only keep their temper… (President Abraham Lincoln)

I am the American Dream…It said you can come from anywhere and be anything you want… (Whoopie Goldberg)

Only Americans can hurt America. (Dwight D. Eisenhower)

“A constitution, as important as it is, will mean nothing unless the people are yearning for liberty and freedom.” (Ruth Bader Ginsburg)

One of the amazing features of Carrot Ranch is that it’s a literary community without borders. It invites diversity — different ages, gender identifications, experiences, genres. We marvel at the different ways each writer approaches a challenge and how each responds. Some write by the seat of pants; some polish and revise. Some base flash fiction on a true story; some grasp at neon threads of imagination. We find common ground in writing, pursuing what it is we do creatively with words. This is literary arts open to all writers.

It’s important to acknowledge our diversity and common ground because this is an American ranch. And our nation is struggling with its history and healing. While the world is being battered by terrorism, America is becoming its own worst terrorist. Two cars-as-deadly-weapons within a week — one in Barcelona, Spain and another in Charlottesville, Virginia. I cringe to even compare the two but it is necessary to understand the difference. In Spain an extremist group has claimed responsibility and world leaders denounce the violence. In America an extremist group had gathered to express white supremacy and those opposed to fascism staged a counter protest. A reported neo-Nazi plowed his car into the protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. The POTUS blamed both sides.

Stay with me. This is not meant to be a political rant of runaway horses. Hug a cat. Feel the heartbeat, the warmth, the love, and let’s move on to statues.

As a historian of the American West, I’m sensitive to the complex influences and impact of the Civil War upon westward expansion. It’s not as simple as pro- and anti-slavery divisions. Kansas Territory with the nickname “Bleeding Kansas” became embattled before the war between those who wanted to make it a slave state and those wanting to abolish slavery. Yet, even abolitionists were racists. Some of Wild Bill Hickok’s early letters home from Kansas espoused prejudice views and language. He was the son of an abolitionist and as a boy partook in getting slaves to freedom in Canada.

The south often refers to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression. From this perspective, the issue emerges as one of states rights versus perceived federal tyranny. The idea is that America fought for its freedom, therefore states held that they shouldn’t be controlled by the interests of other regions. Of course, no one can miss the ultimate irony of a nation proclaiming its freedom on the backs of slaves, indentured servants, and cheap industrial labor. Free for whom? Which leads us to the greater underlying cause of the Civil War beyond its issues, institutions and ideals — power and control.

There are those who want power, and there are those who don’t want to be controlled. This human dynamic is probably as old as sex. Slavery: power over another population; control of land and property wealth. Abolition: power over the moral attitudes of others; control of social behavior. Industry: power to take at will; control over workers and wealth. These power struggles play out in politics, place and among people at odds. One solution might cause a ripple elsewhere. But the bottom line of ending the ugliness of power and control is captured in the vision for “equal rights.” This is where Americans divide. Whose rights infringe upon whom?

Don’t kill babies. That’s clear as a cliched bell to everyone. Who’d kill a baby? Well, now we tussle over the definition of when life begins and who controls that life in a woman’s uterus. No, we aren’t discussing that here. The point I want to make is, hug a cat. Not a real cat this time, but think of what it means to hold a cat, feel the purring, the warmth, the love. Now give someone else that cat. What would it look like? To me, I see men and women of faith who love life from its earliest conception, loving the women who approach an abortion clinic. I see them offering blankets, hot cocoa with marshmallows and inviting them to talk, asking them what’s going on, how can they be of service, of help. Listening.

Did you hear that word? Listening. Listen to the story of another. We all have our narratives. We are all vulnerable and feel scrutinized. Actively listen. What if we thought up ways to offer an outreach of cat hugs and listening?

Statues. I didn’t forget. We need to listen to the stories behind these Confederate statues. I don’t want to see civil war over the Civil War. Twice now death has come to Virginia behind secessionist symbols. First it was the Confederate Flag, waved by convicted killer, Dylan Roof who tried to start a “race war” by barging into a black church in Charleston, shooting nine members of its congregation. That’s when the Confederate Flag as an American symbol came under fire, and rightly so. Once a symbol of states rebellion, the General Lee has evolved into one of white supremacy and hate. That’s when calls went out to dismantle or add to Confederate statues in the US, most located in the South.

Statue toppling is something associated in countries of extreme unrest or violent rebellion. It also gives me pause as a historian — are we rewriting history as some claim?

In my research of Rock Creek, I recall a story about a statue placed in Tennessee or Kentucky 20 years after the end of the Civil War. It wasn’t one of the big-name military leaders, but a man who was a Confederate, captured by southern neighbors and repaid for the earlier killings of eastern Tennessee’s Unionists (those opposed to secession, like Cobb McCanles and his family). By rights of capture, the man should have been imprisoned, but instead he was quickly hung. I can’t recall the controversy exactly, but I remember the intent of the statue — to heal the rift between neighbors living with the aftermath of the Civil War.

However, the majority of the Confederate statues in question were raised during Jim Crow laws when black men and boys hung from southern trees like Strange Fruit. Or during the 1950s as the Civil Rights movement gained momentum. Most of the decisions to fly the Confederate flags in southern states also came after states were mandated to eliminate segregation. Symbols of power and control. Symbols to intimidate. The statues do hold history, however, but the memory of historical events. Decision to erect them and take them down are commentary on the history, not about erasing it.

Out West one lone Confederate statue is on the map of those proposed to come down — Helena, Montana where I went to school and researched the state’s colorful mining history with deep struggles of power and control rooted in divisions that came west with Civil War soldiers. Ultimately, the statue will come down. It was erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy, and although I’m not an expert on the subject, I understand they are connected to or support the Klu Klux Klan (have you ever heard of a stupider name? Oh, yes — Nazis). Let me take a deep breath and hug the cat…Better.

If you are not American and do not know about the KKK, they are a domestic terrorist group started after the Civil War with the single purpose of harassing and eradicating the freed slaves and their descendants. They march alongside the neo-Nazis. They used to where white robes and elaborate pointy hoods and masks. They seriously look like sheets or bags with eyeholes. But they kept their identities hidden and often intimidated other townspeople to participate. I heard many KKK stories in Kansas from only a few generations back when I was researching. Power and control. That’s why these statues are coming down. We aren’t calling to rewrite history, but to amend our understanding of it.

It’s scary for many Americans who have not had to confront the violence behind these symbols. I know that Confederate statue in Pioneer Park in Helena. I’ve seen it so many times at gathering and events. It’s a large urn with a dedication plaque. POTUS tweet-stormed about how “sad” it is that these “beautiful” statues are coming down. I look at old photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. and listen to old reels of his eloquent speeches and feel sad this beautiful man was cut down. I’m okay removing stones. We can build something different in our public squares and parks.

It’s like writing. We don’t throw away the first draft because we revise. We come back to important elements, eliminate what’s unnecessary and build up what is stronger. Today I tweeted, too. I wrote, “America needs a revision. When we draft we make mistakes. We go back and revise and revise until we improve what we started.” When I was looking for American quotes that inspired me, I found this one by Winston Churchill, who noted that we tend to write bad drafts but do well to revise:

“You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”

Another quote, and one that led to this week’s prompt in addition to Mona, comes from a woman I admire greatly, Michelle Obama:

“The fact is, with every friendship you make, and every bond of trust you establish, you are shaping the image of America projected to the rest of the world. That is so important. So when you study abroad, you’re actually helping to make America stronger.”

Michelle encourages us Americans to make our nation stronger through friendships and bonds of trust abroad. That’s what the Ranch is here for — to create a place where we can come from anywhere, create bonds of trust and friendships, and create art with words. Literary art has a place in this mixed-up world. It can be for escape, exploring, learning, teaching, delighting and agitating. Now grab a cat and a pen…

August 17, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that heals America. Difficult and idealistic, I know. Think about building bonds of trust or stories of friendship. It could be a positive story about America. Bonus points for hugging a cat.

Respond by August 22, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published August 23). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!

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Community Mutterings by Charli Mills

“Move your car!” Stan yells from his porch. Viola ignores him, dropping off kale for her friend.

“It’s a fire lane!”

Viola mutters, “There’s no fire, old codger.”

The young mechanic next door nearly swipes Viola’s Honda, racing his Dodge truck again. “Idiot!”

Finished with her garden deliveries, Viola drives to the vigil. She’s expecting the liberal-minded to light candles for Charlottesville. Solidarity. As the wife of an Iranian grad-student in a small American college town, she misses urban diversity.

Viola’s eyes sting when she sees Stan hobble from his neighbor’s Dodge, both lighting candles. “Glad you both came.”

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