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December 7: Flash Fiction Challenge

December 7 Flash Fiction Challenge at Carrot Ranch @Charli_MillsWe crowd into the lobby, snow nipping at our backs each time a new couple or family enters the oak doors. I wiggle my fingers to diminish the giddiness of a night out to the Calumet Theater. I listen to chatter as people explain who they know in the upcoming performance of Alice in Winterland. One mother laughs when she explains how much green paint her daughter wears as the Grinch. Another confesses how nervous her son is the play Charlie Brown.

It’s a winterland mash-up of familiar American Christmas stories all set to the music and narrative arc of Taichoski’s Nutcracker Ballet. It’s a bit like this take on multiple Christmas songs in one minute:

And all of this creativity in bites to produce one performance also reminds me of the weekly compilation of responses to our flash fiction challenges. It struck me, as I took my seat in the historic gilded and velveted Calumet Theater how much of a ballet mom still resides in my heart, rounding up the stories backstage each week. I want to bring roses to all the writers after a performance.

It’s been too long since I connected with my inner stage-mom. For 15 years I lived in awe of The Nutcracker. Five of those years I eagerly watched from backstage as my eldest daughter and youngest son both performed in a professional ballet troupe from Minneapolis.

Every child in dance dreams of shoes and sugar plum ferries. In ballet, it’s point shoes. After spending $100 on a pair of pink satin slippers with ribbons so fair, my darling daughter would pound the toe-boxes, burn the satin off the point and whip-stitch the ribbons. If it sounds horrific, consider what we writers do to a flash fiction.

We pound stories into sentences, slice words to a perfect 99, and strangle characters with twists so fine.

Between the audience seats and the dancers behind the curtain exists a stage upon which we both suspend belief and let art convey the story. I love dance as much as literary art, but I have no skill for it. I can take classes, just as I learned the craft. But writing is the performance I prefer. I’m content to sit in the audience and watch the dancers.

For years, I helped backstage, learning how to double-pin strands of wayward hair and zip sparking costumes during quick changes. A quick change occurs when a dancer must change costumes for back-to-back dance numbers. My son, one of few boys who even studied classical ballet, was guaranteed to be cast as one of Clara’s brothers and rarely had quick changes in the first half. My daughter danced in the corp, meaning she had numerous changes.

And lucky me, one year I was responsible for the Prince.

The Calumet Theater with its opulence and history reminds me of the Red Wing Theater where The Nutcracker performed on tour. I went with the troupe and taxied my kids to classes, performances, and costume fittings. Each December dreams of sugar plums danced on stage. And then the lights went out.

Children grow up, move on and stage-moms are left with no one to buy roses for or help whip-stitch new ribbons. What a comfort it is to be in a theater again, listening to family chatter, watching former students return for the holidays and sneak backstage to say hello. I sink into my seat, wait for the house lights to dim, knowing that these children performing on stage have received classical ballet instruction from my daughter.

A literary community knows such connectedness, too. I’m stage-mom in the back-wings, watching each of you work at your craft, find joy in the steps and brave the spotlight when it’s your turn to perform. And yet we are a whole, each voice lending to a more powerful dynamic than one alone.

Hold on to that feeling a moment. Two points I want you to own: no matter your solo, no matter your dream and your pain to accomplish it, no matter how many hours you write alone — you are not alone here. Second, we are a part of something bigger, something we call art. And we are champions for literary art, giving voice to unheard stories, even giving voice to the invisible.

If you know some of my journey, you are aware of how I feel about the homeless experience and veteran struggles being invisible among society. They are the unsung songs, the canceled performances, the flash fiction in a journal no one reads. Recently I learned of an organization using another art form to give voice to veterans and their families:

Songwriting With Soldiers operates from a simple principle — pair veterans and active-duty service members with professional songwriters to craft songs about their military experiences.

To me, this is a powerful way to use art to heal, to create empathy for another’s experience, to give voice to those who struggle to articulate that experience. Songwriter, Mary Gauthier, wrote The War After the War (below) with the input from six combat veteran spouses, which is the number of women I share my own experiences with each week. It’s empowering when the invisible are seen and heard.

While I don’t have roses to share with all you who perform on the writing stage at Carrot Ranch, I have a digital gift for the holiday season. If you’ll go to my Canva profile, you can pin or download the Carrot Ranch Seasonal Desktop Wallpaper to add a touch of holiday cheer to your computer. I tried to think of different manifestations like the diversity we have here at the ranch (the squirrels are for the nuts among us who don’t like holiday cheer).

Surrounded by velvet the lights finally go low at the theater. The performance has begun. And I’ll let you get to your own.

December 7, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write that features a performance. You can interpret what is a performance any way the prompt leads you.

Respond by December 12, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published December 13). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!

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Performance Anxiety (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Standing in the darkened wings, Danni stretched her hips. She arched her back, clasping her hands overhead. On the stage, Evelyn prepped the audience.

This was her moment. She couldn’t see faces, just the heavy beam of overhead stage lights. Her professor taught her tricks to overcome performance anxiety when she realized that as an archeologist she’d occasionally have to give public presentations.

The Sandpoint Theater was packed, and Evelyn was already giving introductions. “Without further ado, Dr. Danni Gordon…”

Walking out into the lights, Danni conjured the friendliest face, as if she were performing just for him – Ike.

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July 13: Flash Fiction Challenge

Sails gain minimal height over rolling waves, riders like astronauts flip their bodies to the universe until gravity beats wind. They land, carving a crest of water. Not to be defeated, these wind-&-wave riders reach again and again for stars we can’t see in an overcast sky. Wake boards point to unseen constellations, but fall light years short of any terminus. Like writers, these Argonauts shoot for the moon. We never truly arrive, pointing our sails or words into the wind and leap perpetually.

We live for unexpected landings. Adventure or insights gained from a brutal crash, success and failure meld into multiple attempts that don’t end until we end the ride, pull the sails, clear the screen. Who wants to end when there’s so much wind yet to catch? So many words yet to write? The stars are near. The stories within reach. Type so fast your fingers lay a rooster-tail across the keyboard.

Blonde girls sell red strawberries along the foggy highway.

It’s a riddle to me. The wind-&-wave riders commune with my own seeking, but these girls make me question my location. My time. My space. Where am I? The fog tricks my senses, cloaking the season until my wandering mind marvels at strawberries in winter. No, it’s summer in the western hemisphere. Fog, berries and blondes. If I left Mars, I think I made an unexpected landing on Neptune.

In the southwest, where sand is its own artisan, attempting to blow its own glass with temperatures reaching furnace levels, red Mars is easy to see. Mesas and sandstone, heat and dry arroyos are the closest I’ve come to writing from another planet. Yet, now I find myself in this cool, watery and shrouded world. The blondes tell me its fine berry growing weather. And quarts of luscious sweet summer bites are only $4.95 while they last. Evidently Neptune must grow its own taste of summer because I see nothing else here that acknowledges the heat of Mars or the jungles of Kansas.

After a year and 27 days of wandering in search of home, I’ve found chickens. Look, chickens!

Like ladies in petticoats they run with wings as if to hike up their feathered skirts of buff, brown and red. The cock among them runs like a lady, too and they are charging me as if to respond to my distracted delight with a distraction of their own: Look, people! I cringe upon seeing the spurs, knowing the feel of such talons. I have little memory of the actual rooster attack except for falling to my young knees and covering my head with hands, screaming until my aunt beat the rooster to death with a broom. I don’t remember that it died, but feel bad, as if I caused his early entry to the stew pot, or so the ancient family story goes.

This fella is cheerful, the ladies excitable, and I throw back my head to laugh.

It’s foggy, but through the fine mist I can see twin spires of a Catholic Church bricked in Jacobsville Sandstone. I pause to wonder which group of miners dedicated this towering feature. All around me are chickens and miner’s houses in varying forms of decay. An Elvis poster hangs in a window across the street. Next door the house is neat as a pin, old, but standing tall. The next house is only a remnant of a cobbled rock foundation. Across from the rubble is a house about to go on sale at county auction. It will cost the buyer about $5,000, but no one gets to see inside until after the sale. It can be guts of joists and junk, or a gem in the rough. The house next to it has a malamute fixating on the chickens.

Here’s a look at the green and gray, the twin spires and the miner’s houses. Cue the choir:

The Hub and I fully intended to come to Michigan. It was the half-baked plan after reeling from the loss of home, of Elmira Pond and writing space. But the trailer we had leaked and didn’t pull well. The Hub went into a tactical response and we’ve been our own band of Argonauts ever since, picking cherries in Wallace, Idaho, discovering RV parks and migrant fruit-pickers in central Washington, landing on Mars for winter, taking detours through Pueblo nations, digging into the history of Kansas and Nebraska, passing the Midwest metropolises to arrive at one of the weirdest borders in America.

The Keweenaw was never for the feint of heart. Hard-rock miners from Cornwall and Slovenia, Sweden and Spain, Italy and Ireland, jack-hammered over 9,000 feet below after blue veins of copper for  an industrializing nation. The Quincy Mine had 92 levels of darkness, as if to prove Dante wrong. Cemeteries are full of tributes to miners who died in the mines. The land itself is a peninsula poking its finger into the belly of Lake Superior, a fresh water lake capable of snapping an ocean-going steel freighter in two. It’s not connected to the state of Michigan, but is considered its upper peninsula (the U.P., thus naming its residents “yoopers”).

Mostly the Finns remain. Sisu, and all. It’s a Finnish construct for grit. To live on the Keweenaw takes grit. The summers are cool and the winters accumulate over 300 inches of snowfall called Lake Effect. That explains the fog, too. Lake Superior creates its own climate. The locals will tell ya, hey, that it’s da freshest air in the world. If fresh means cool, I’d agree. It does feel fresh as spearmint gum in my mouth. I wonder what the chickens make of winter? The townsfolk of Calumet, the village housing said chickens, has no ordinances and welcomes eccentricities.

This video shows a sunnier side of the village and the coffee shop where you’ll find me writing on occasion:

The chickens and I have an announcement: we are going to be neighbors for a year. The Hub and I are renting a home after homeless wandering, to experience the Sisu it takes to live on the Keweenaw through winter, to meet up with the artist community, and to continue the fine services we’ve encountered in the U.P. for the Hub. Yes, we are going to be yoopers. We don’t know if we’ll stay longer, go back out west or venture to yet another planet. For now, we’re going to take this unexpected landing and yet, keep aiming for the stars like the wind-&-wave riders.

Tonight my future landlord welcomed me to the town that once boasted of 30,000 citizens.  I will join the 700 who remain. A new home, a new adventure, new stories to catch.

July 13, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about an unexpected landing. It can be acrobatic, an unplanned move or created into a metaphor. Go where the prompt, or chickens, lead.

Respond by July 18, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published July 19). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!

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The Coming Storm (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills

Wind gusted and cottonwoods along the creek groaned. A nightfall storm closed in. Sarah hadn’t meant to stay so late in the company of Nancy Jane, but venison stew and friendship offered made Sarah linger. How long since she’d had a friend?

A branch cracked and Sarah screamed, escaping the limb’s descent. A man hollered at her to get out of the trees. Topping the gully, Sarah recognized the young stock-tender who rarely spoke. Hickok led the way as trees began to snap.

Hickok’s dugout provided an unexpected landing from the raging storm. And an unanticipated reaction from Cobb.

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