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Lightning flashes as quickly as minnows in the shallows. It’s fall, cool, and a storm rumbles over the Keweenaw in the black of night. A few seconds after sharp silver pulses, thunder rattles the window panes. The radiators that sat silent throughout summer now diffuse a cozy heat that keeps the cold outside with the rain. Hot tea sits on my desk, and I ponder, what is the greatest gift?
Life. Liberty. Family. Art. Love. Home. A laundry list of answers comes to mind. It’s not my question but the suggestion of a prompt from my husband’s cousin. She and her mom sit on our couch in Hancock, the one they bought for us when we started to rebuild our household. It’s midnight, stormy, and conversation rolls around the room. The Hub is happy, sharing stories of the past. I wonder what my cousin means about the greatest gift when she says her story is dark.
I call J my cousin because she and the Hub’s sister, Silly the Kid (his nickname for her), were part of the greatest gift I got when I married him. Early on, I knew J was going to be one of my greatest friends. I loved her humor and intelligence and free-spirit. As a young couple, the Hub and I went weekly to her house to play board games with her and her husband, who was serving in the Navy. I marveled at their young three-year-old boy whose bedtime story was The Hobbit.
At the time, so long ago, J had a baby girl, a precious baby that made me anticipate the one I was expecting. Then a sheriff’s deputy showed up to our house one day with their son. We were the trusted people to watch over him the day tragedy struck. A few days later, we were burying that sweet baby girl over her great-grandfather’s grave. J’s husband was restationed out week, and J left.
I sit here now, 32 years later, thinking how heavy such an incident remains. J’s greatest gift, I suspect, was the second daughter she had years later. But as all mothers learn, daughters and sons are not our gifts to keep. They are their own people. We might give them life, but they make of it what they will. But it’s a pleasure to see J and Aunt M, her mom, travel the world together, staying in New Zealand January through March, visiting family across the US, visiting places like Poland or Alaska and taking world cruises.
Aunt M and Uncle R are my patron saints. Many, many years ago, Uncle R read something I wrote, and he told Aunt M that I was going to make something of my writing. She explained to me that he had vision and believed in my ability and dreams. He was subtle about it. He never complimented me directly but always showed interest, asked questions, and read my published work. When he lay dying, Aunt M read him my very first, and very raw draft of Miracle of Ducks. Whatever the book will be one day, it will be dedicated to them.
Perhaps the greatest gift one can give another is the support and encouragement to achieve potential. It’s a gift Aunt M, and Uncle R gave to me. I miss him. As any of us do when loved ones pass.
We are calling this trip, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. J and Aunt M flew from Phoenix to Chicago, boarded a train to the Wisconsin Dells, and hopped in my car last night. We stayed over in a motel after dark, so we weren’t on the road late. It was a five and a half-hour trip. The greatest gift can be the conversations on a road trip — the connections and deep sharing, the confessions and insights. Deep communication.
We arrived in time to meet up with the Hub, our daughter, her husband, and his dad and step-mom. We shared a meal at a new restaurant in Houghton called The Den. Family meals create some of the best moments, especially when the food and fellowship rank high. The gave me a bite of his scallop, and it was as near perfect as seeing my daughter so happy. I wish I could see all my three children framed in such happiness and enjoyed the moment, memorized its texture like the edges of a comforting quilt.
Tomorrow night is another dance performance where I get to perform four new flash fiction pieces. Having family in town for the show is a treat. Sharing art is another gift and a great one. The greatest gift this year came in Vermont, sharing scams and words, kayak trips and waterfalls, loons and laughs. Art is best shared. Art must be shared. For all the critics have to say or teach about art and define what it is, those who create it and experience understand art at such a deep level as to escape definition.
This week, both of my courses are focusing on the writing community and what it means to be a literary citizen. Well, my oh, my. I might have something to say on those topics! The greatest gift to my writing life is the ranchers of Carrot Ranch, their literary art, aspirations, and community. We might need solitude to write, the courage to go to lonely corners, and the solitary act of dragging words from the brain to the page to shape stories, but we also need companionship. If you are interested, one of the articles I’m reading is Do Writers Need to Be Alone to Thrive?
I want to take time to explain participation at Carrot Ranch. Ranchers can come and go as they please. The idea is that we play, remembering why we love the ride. You bring your own goals to the Ranch where it is safe for you to share, grow, and discover. The literary critics do not reside here. Personally, I feel that literary art involves three actions — reading, writing, and discourse. We discuss what strengths we see in writing and how a story moves us or leads us to recall or realize. I believe in the 99-word art form as one that can open up creativity and be useful as a tool. I believe writers who regularly practice the constraint experience magic or breakthroughs in creativity.
But what does this means to the mechanics of participation in our literary community?
You can write to the prompt and share in different ways. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, submit your response in the form. One, it streamlines collecting. Two, it signals permission to publish your writing in the collection. You don’t have to do anything more if your goal is to publish at Carrot Ranch. If you submitted a response, but do not see it in the collection, shoot me an email at words for people(at)gmail(dot)com. Some weeks I get a storm of spam, WP can be glitchy, and I’m at risk for human error.
If you want to build up your blog traffic, you can share a link or your story (or both) in the comments. However, passive sharing might not garner more traffic. Community requires interaction. Think of it this way — if you went to a social event to network, you would introduce yourself, hand out business cards, and respond to the cards you collect, as well. In the comments, be social at the level you hope to cultivate. If you want blog traffic, visit the blogs of others, and make supportive and meaningful comments.
If you want kinship among writers, get to know people through the comments, stories, and blogs you encounter. You’ll find that many writers who come here are also on other social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Many host or participate in other prompts. Some also have blog opportunities such as indie book reviews or posting thematic blog archives. Get to know what is happening in the greater writing community.
As a rule of thumb, comment “high and low.” In other words, read the story before yours, and the story after. You are not obligated to read them all in the comments, although I highly recommend taking time to read each 10-minute part in the weekly collection. If you were moved by a particular 99-words, let that author know.
Next month, we will have a Rodeo of Flash Fiction Contests. I’ve been remiss all year in following up with my terrific leaders from the past two years. But the show will go on — instead of challenges, Carrot Ranch will host four weekly contests next month instead of challenges. Each contest will be juried and a top prize of $25 awarded. Each contest is meant to test the skills of a writer, and your best work is anticipated.
September 12, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes the greatest gift. Answer it as if it were a question, or show what it could be. Go where the prompt leads you!
Respond by September 17, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
SUBMISSIONS FOR PUBLICATION CLOSED
A Better Way to Serve (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Freya returned from Iraq, friendless. Mark Bastia didn’t survive the IED blast. His dog tags hung with hers. Despite combat, she was never counted as their brother. She pulled a long drag from her last cigarette, eyed the perfect branch from which to hang herself, and decided the greatest gift to the world would be to remove herself from its spinning. She touched the branch and recoiled. 22 a day, and she would not become another nameless statistic. Instead, she enrolled in college to battle veteran suicide and opened the first satellite Vet Center in North Idaho. She survived.
Grab your notebook and walking stick, a light coat, and maybe a hat. It’s cold enough to turn a few maple leaves into fire paintings. We’re going for a walk.
Feel the brisk air? Inhale deeply and watch your breath frost on the exhale. I wasn’t kidding about the cold. I know, it’s dark so let your eyes adjust a moment. See my tomato plants in the shadows of night? It won’t frost yet. They’ll be okay. If you can strain your eyes, that’s a potted eggplant. No flower, no fruit. Ah, well. It was worth a try. See over there to the right of the tomatoes? Yes, I know it’s dark, but see how the light-colored leaves illuminate? Those are all Brussel sprouts. Six of them and they will continue to grow until frost. After that, they will sweeten on the stalk.
Carefully take the stairs, and we’ll gather beneath the street lamp. Look back at my home (MY HOME!) and see how the light in the back windows glows. It makes me sigh in satisfaction. A heavy sigh frosts my breath again! Notice the color of the lamplight is pinker than the warm yellow tones emanating from inside my house. Just an observation. Smell that? Crisp fall air smells sharp and clean. It clears the sinuses the way champagne cleanses the palate. Did you catch the whiff of smoke? Someone has lit a fire against the chill.
This narrow street we are standing in is named Jensen. It’s a one-way alley. See Mrs. H’s house over my shoulder? She’s on the corner of Roberts and Ethel. Next door on the corner of Ethel and Jensen is her granddaughter’s house. Their back yard is a run-on sentence to ours. We really don’t know the property lines. That bank of lilacs might be mine, or they might belong to Mrs. H. Their snow gets shoved into our yard each winter. But I’m jumping ahead.
If you count those two houses and the ones across the alleyway down to where Jensen curves back up to intersect Roberts, we total six houses. There’s only one other house on the other side of my next-door neighbor. That makes eight, ours makes nine. Let’s walk to the corner. The alleyway slopes downhill slightly then rises again to meet Roberts Street. That open space fills with snow removal in winter.
If you go past the last house, there’s a hillside where we all dump our maple leaves after they drop. That house on the corner is for sale. Bet the new owners will be surprised to see the neighborhood crossing their yard with a parade of leaves this fall. Okay. We are at the corner. If we turn left, we’d have to cross the snowmobile trail. It’s great for walking the dogs in summer. If you walk up the long hill, you’ll pass the county fairgrounds where the city of Hancock stores all its removed snow. It’s like glacial melt in the spring.
Further, are the Maasto Hiihto Trails. I know, it looks like a misspelling, but double vowels are typical in the Finnish language, and you’ll find that our area is imbued with Finn culture. The Laurn Grove Park is only a block up the snowmobile trail. It has an ice hockey rink and play area for kids. If I had young children, they’d play there, making sport of cutting paths through the small copse of woods on the other side of the trail.
The park is named for two boys who grew up in the scattering of neighborhoods like ours on this hillside. Both died in WWII on different ships in the Pacific. Past the park is the house where the Koski boys grew up a generation later. They both served in Vietnam, and their wives are good friends of mine.
The opposite way down the snowmobile trail is the Finlandia football field. I heard them practicing well after dark tonight. The Hancock high school squad practices there, too, and I know the parents of one of the boys. His dad served in Iraq, and his mom works fulltime at Michigan Tech. She takes care of him. He has back injuries, TBI and PTSD almost to the point of agoraphobia. But he watches his son play.
War has left its mark on my small neighborhood. My husband is a veteran of Grenada and deployments to Central America. My next-door neighbor was in the Army. Not sure if he’s a combat veteran, but he can seem intimidating. I talk garden matters with him, and that softens him.
Let’s walk back to the house from Roberts Street and add to our count the neighbors on the opposite side. Fourteen. That’s our block. A good baker’s dozen of us. A friendly bunch. Dog walkers and bird watchers. A few general landscapers, just two of us gardening, but everyone mows their lawns or hires Mrs. H’s great-grandson.
Come on inside. I don’t know about you, but my hands are cold! The tip of my nose, too. It was quiet tonight. Last week, when the fair was in town, traffic got loud up and down Ethel. Sometimes we can hear noisy bikes or trucks blasting down Quincy Hill. Otherwise, it’s a quiet place for town-living. I’m going to link a map for you, and you can zoom in to see 1112 Roberts Street or zoom out to where I live in proximity to Lake Superior.
What a glorious tool, Google Maps! You can also click on places like Maasto Hiihto Trail or Franklin Mine or McLain State Park and look at streets and satellite views and click on photos. You can measure distances and see the terrain. Maps used to show space on a grid. Now they can be more interactive. The purpose of our walk tonight was to introduce you to something I just learned and feel excited about — deep mapping.
Consider the difference between space and place. Space spreads out on a map and can be measured in longitude, latitude, and altitude. Place is what we make of space, the meaning we attribute to it. To deep map a place, we start with observation. We took a walk. According to Linda Lappin, author of a book I’m reading for my MFA called The Soul of a Place, “A deep map, then, is a sample swatch of the multiple manifestations of the genius loci [the spirit of a place].” The term comes from PrairyErth: A Deep Map by William Least Heat-Moon and shows the stratification of a geographical spot.
Walking the spot is the first step to deep mapping. This is exploration. Next is a gathering of details — how does the light of day, the cold of winter change the place. Lappin advises authors to learn the names of plants and birds and streets. This act transforms a writer into a camera, a recorder, a scientist before artist. As artist, deep mapping then calls the writer to respond to all discoveries, to learn and observe. Push deeper and research the place names and local history. Think about how your personal story intersects with all this information about a single place. Finally, a deep mapper must organize all this material into blocks, miles, and themes.
Lappin writes that she gathers superstitions, plant lore and recipes to add local color. All this true-to-life background informs the details upon which she traces out the plot of the story. She shows that deep mapping crosses all genres and can include interiors as well as exteriors. I find it fascinating because I’ve intuitively deep mapped places I write about not realizing there’s an entire process to this kind of work. Film-makers, visual, and performing artists also use the tool.
And as a writer of 99-word stories, I often use that literary artform to catch my mapping impressions, which makes me even more excited about the process. If you give deep mapping a try or find, like me, you already do some of it, let me know your thoughts in the comments.
While reading The Soul of Place, Lappin shared a list of street names she collected in Italy. One translated to Girl Thief Road. This jogged my memory of a Mean Mary song:
The banker’s boy, the boss’s son
They’re hoarding all the treasures their daddy’s won
And they think the vault is safe but she’s smarter than they thought her
They always underestimate the safebreaker’s daughter
You can listen to the full song here: The Safebreaker’s Daughter. One of the techniques for deep mapping can be music. I like songs that hint at a story, ones I can apply to a place. Mean Mary never reveals “the story” in her song, and that’s why it always niggles at me. How did they underestimate the safebreaker’s daughter? And, who was the safebreaker? Did he have a legitimate job, or was he a thief? What if I plopped these characters from a song onto my street? Deep mapping can be fun, and there are endless ways you can use it to spark your own writing.
August 29, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about the safebreaker’s daughter. Who is she, what did she do, and where? Go where the prompt leads you!
Respond by September 3, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Thelma on Roberts Street by Charli Mills
The light overlooking Roberts Street flickered and faded. Thelma smiled and accepted the omen – all that glows holds no permanence. Probably the gales blew out a transformer nearby. Wind gusted through the maple trees, scattering small flocks of leaves to the ground. Summer was over. The tourists went home; the college students returned. The latest batch of football players for Finlandia made a good excuse for her to walk this path. Just another smitten female sauntering home late. Who would think she was casing the football coach’s house? She had ten minutes to prove she was the safebreaker’s daughter.
Pasty Fest holds all the old world charm: Finnish dancers in traditional dress, street-side vendors in the shadow of copper-mining era buildings, and — of course — pasties. Hearty dough enfolds savory meats and vegetables, and old-world debates rage across the Keweenaw to declare who first brought pasties to the region.
Pronounced pass-tee (like from the past, not pastey glue), the etymology is British. Tradition holds that Cornish miners from England introduced expertise, technology, and pasties to the Keweenaw when copper mining began during the 1840s. However, a contender for origination comes from Finland. During ethnic events like Pasty Fest, the Finns of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan declare the food a Finnish specialty.
The dispute doesn’t end with who brought pasties from the old world to the new.
Another debate contends which filling is best — sliced or diced. Those in the veggies-must-be-diced corner claim the “grandma says” rule of filling pasties. Families heatedly argue the issue, though, when one grandmother dices and the other slices. Knife skills aside, modern observation notes that pasties made with sliced ingredients stay hotter for a longer period. Amy J’s Pasties in Hancock (world headquarters to Carrot Ranch) slices. Roy’s Bakery across the Keweenaw waterway, dices. I have taken both to the beach to hunt rocks on Lake Superior, and I can tell you that Amy J’s pasties stay hotter much longer.
What does this tell us? The Cornish miners probably understood that slicing created thermal layers.
The next argument has led to Copper Country divorces and involves veg. To carrot or not to carrot? Well, you can guess my opinion on that subject. Fortunately, the Hub agrees (no divorce lawyers needed). We like carrots in our pasties. The other questionable veg is parsnip. It’s a root vegetable similar to carrots, and likely has old-world connections to Finland. Amy J’s adds both carrots and parsnips to their pasties, and Roy’s omits parsnips. Some add gravy to the filling, other ketchup. I like my veg naked and in harmony with the meat.
Shape creates more consternation. The final shape of a pasty that is. Suomi’s, a local diner that serves pannukakku and remains a place where you can still hear the Finnish accent, mounds their pasties into softballs. Amy J’s conforms to a more traditional (Cornish) half-moon pie. Roy’s fills a pastie that is in between the two shapes. And some, frankly, have no shape at all. If pasty-makers were to be on the Great British Bakeoff, the judges would question the efficiency and aesthetic of their shapes. Does the dough hold the liquid of the filling? Is it appealing?
A more current debate has less to do with pasties and more with land, as in, who claims the Keweenaw. Yes, Canada, sometimes we wish it was you. I’m fond of describing my home as “that thumb of land that juts into the belly of Lake Superior.” It’s part of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, an unwanted mass of land that came with the old world land deals. No one wanted the remote region, but after the Toledo War of 1835, Michigan and Ohio fought over “downstate land” because of erroneous geographical maps from 1787. In the end, Michigan was given the Upper Peninsula. Better historians than me can understand the land dispute, but I get that the Keweenaw was a consolation prize that paid dividends to Michigan when geologists discovered copper.
But Wisconsin is the state to cry sour grapes. Even today, the UP is referred to as “that land Michigan stole” from the neighboring cheese state. It would make more sense for the UP to be Upper Wisconsin (or Lower Canada). Water does not divide us like it does from downstate Michigan. To go to our state capital (and all major cities), we have to cross the Mighty Mac. Recently, a Mountain Dew marketing campaign mislabeled the UP of MI as the UP of WI. The cheese-heads laughed, and Mountain Dew had to apologize. Everyone in the UP got free sodas.
Despite our old world squabbles, we get along well in the UP. We gather for Pasty Fest in Calumet to celebrate tradition as we each best experience it. The city that once boasted a population over 30,000 is now a National Historic Park with 727 remaining residents. The streets feel wide, and the buildings loom tall because it was once a booming epicenter of copper mining full of migrant workers and millionaires. The oldest cobblestone street in Michigan is open to vehicles, though it’s advisable to avoid the jarring drive, especially if you are eating a pasty.
The first Pasty Fest I attended was in 2017. The Hub and I finally limped to our destination the night before. Although we had arrived, I felt defeated. My daughter and her troupe were dancing at the community celebration, and on our way to the performance, I saw the Vet Center Mobile. It’s a mobile unit dispatched to meet veterans in need where they are at. I bum-rushed the staff, pleading our case — my husband needed help, we were homeless, and I was desperate. No pasty could soothe me that day. I didn’t even eat one.
Two years later and I attended Pasty Fest as a guest author in the local author’s booth. I hawked 99-word stories, handed out Carrot Ranch bookmarks, and sold anthologies. I earned enough to eat pasties and drink a thimbleberry margarita. What a difference two years, a ton of advocacy for the Hub, and hard work make. I feel as much a part of this community as I have ever felt anywhere. It’s welcoming, vibrant, and full of history. The Keweenaw has old world charm, and I’m smitten no matter who invented pasties, sliced or diced.
This week, my coursework includes discussion of genre — what it is and how it informs our writing. Even the experts struggle to define genre beyond the obvious ones of romance and cozy mystery. Marketers stretch genre to use them as labels to sell books to audiences defined by reading preferences. Ursula K. Le Guin protested the value judgment critics past on genre writers as if such writing was of lesser quality than literary fiction. Authors often have no idea what genre they are writing. If you want to add your thoughts, give this article a read (keep in mind that it was written in 2011, but it remains relevant).
August 22, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about old world charm. It can be nostalgic or irreverent. You can invent an “old world,” return to migrant roots or recall ancient times. Go where the prompt leads you!
Respond by August 27, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Suomi Dancing by Charli Mills
A blonde quartet of girls dressed in blue dances. They twirl, holding hands. Singing, they remake the lyrics of Finland’s midsummer. No longer homeland, home is here, Finlandia, USA. With old world charm, they brighten the backyard of a house owned by the Calumet Mining Company. New life for Finns.
Aunt Jo kneads the dough until it stretches smooth. She slices parsnips and carrots thin the way her neighbor instructed. “Thin layers keep ‘em hot longer in the mines,” she told Jo.
Jo smiles at the children Suomi dancing under maples trees. “Supper,” she calls. “Time for pasties, hey!”
Raspberries, plump, and red hang from canes my daughter planted. It’s my patch now, and I savor the connection. Reminders fill my home, memories of my daughter’s love for this grand old copper-mining house on Roberts Street. The walls she painted yellow, russet, and teal. The worn patches on the maple hardwood floor mark where her two huskies slept. The kitchen holds warmth where we shared meals.
Paint cans wait for me to dip a brush in Easter Grass yellow-green and Inspire purple-blue. I’m not covering up the memories but adding layers of my own. I’m plucking the fruit my daughter planted, and I’m making sweet jam. The peace of home fills my every fiber. When you have not had a home of your own, you appreciate how luxurious space can be. I’m in no hurry to claim and decorate and fill. I’m enjoying the space to just be.
A new desk also waits for me. It’s a Flexsteel, marbled-wood beauty with matching bookcase and filing cabinet. Already, I’m setting up my files in both desk and bookcase drawers. I ordered dark purple hanging folders and beautiful files with realist paintings of botany on parchment. It matters what surrounds me. I’m slow to bring in new belongings, quick to say no to household purgings of friends, and satisfied to make do with much less. What I take in must have function, joy, and meaning.
Much that we have in storage in North Idaho will not see the Keweenaw. My purge list is longer than my keepers. We fixed the truck, including the death wobble, but then the Hub decided he didn’t have enough funds for the trip. Thankfully, we got him to listen, to look at the paper with costs. He did make a few calls to get quotes on delivery, and it could be within our range to do if we save up by next spring. I feel no urgency, though there are boxes and items I’d want as soon as possible.
Having a home has mattered more than belongings, so I feel content with a sparsely filled house. It feels like potential.
Right now, I’m all about potential. I’m a grad student. This week, I started my online MFA at SNHU, and every course I take adds to the ascension of my novel. I’ve written four manuscripts, hoping that I’d learn from one to the other. And I have! But I felt stuck, not knowing where to turn my attention to improve my craft skills. I can distinguish misinformation from quality sources, but even good information gets buried. Where to start?
And I want quality feedback to grow my skills and discipline as an author. One way or the other, you have to pay for that standard — hire a top-notch editor in the publishing industry of your choice; pay to attend national writing conferences; sign up for online or in-person workshops; hire a writing coach with credentials; go back to school.
When I worked for wages, I took time every year to attend writing workshops. It furthered my motivation, and I always learned something new to apply to my craft skills. When I left my career to write full-time self-employed, I paid for an expensive ($2,000) multi-day workshop. Like many writers, I’m a self-learner capable of finding the information I need.
Eventually, I won a scholarship to a writing conference and laid out the groundwork for building a literary community. And I wrote four complete manuscripts. What I mean by complete is that they started and ended with lots of wordcount and self-editing in between. I even hired an editor from NYC for several revisions of one manuscript.
Then I scrapped it when life got hairier than Sasquatch’s feet. I rewrote it, mid-crisis. Shopped out the new beginning to trusted alpha-readers, received encouragement, and honest assessment.
One reader reminded me that our first novel isn’t always the book that makes it to print.
Remember, I used alpha-readers. These are readers I trust. These are people who are more than friends; they are also qualified to give feedback I trust. Beta-readers differ in that they are people you often don’t know but who read the genre you write and offer feedback on how well your manuscript would be received in that genre.
Trusted opinions don’t mean they are my thoughts, too, but I agree that our first novel isn’t always going to be the one that makes it.
We live (and publish) in interesting times. Independent publishing gives second life to first novels. Some might argue that a green manuscript should stay in the desk drawer. Others believe you have to start somewhere. I actually enjoy reading the progress of an author. And I’ve gone back to the first novels of some of my favorite authors and recognized even the masters were once green.
The point is — don’t stop, but publish according to your goals.
My goal is lofty, I know. I want to traditionally publish. I’ve waxed and waned on that idea and even came to the conclusion that hybrid authors are successful (those who publish both traditionally and independently). My dilemma was, though, how do I get better? I knew it was investment time.
You can invest sweat equity, but without paid feedback, the return will be hit and miss. I had sweated enough. It was time to write novels smarter. When the opportunity came up to pursue an MFA, I snapped like a hungry trout. But I thought carefully about it, too. Were there online programs I could invest in, and would I have the motivation to go at my own pace without instructor feedback? If I’m going to get an MFA, do I go back to college, do a low-residency, or go online?
Just for giggles, I wrote to Brigham Young University because I know that Brandon Sanderson teaches creative writing there. I also checked out grad schools with MFA programs across the country. And I looked online. I like the SNHU online MFA best, but I kept looking. In the end, I simply liked the program and the support they offer to students.
I didn’t want to go back to college on campus and disrupt my life after finally coming home. I don’t need the in-person connection of a low-residency because I get that through my own workshops and literary community. So online it was.
Let me tell you, four days into my journey, and I’m walking on clouds of whipped cream sweetened with apricot jam. This structured learning is precisely what I needed, and it tastes like mana! I didn’t even realize how much I was struggling to articulate some of my needs as a writer until I began interacting with my instructor, peers, and course material.
I’m in awe of how much technology has improved the overall experience of online schooling. And both my professors this term rock — experienced, eager to be part of the learning environment, and committed to the hard work and thrill of being a professional writer.
This week, we are studying genre and how it predicts craft skills. We are comparing craft to writing skills, and reading the opinions of greats, such as Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m reading Wallace Stegner’s thoughts in his book, On Teaching and Writing Fiction. I have two video discussions to write and record tonight, and three books to read in addition to weekly assignments. All coursework informs how I will advance my novel (my thesis).
Learning is looking a lot like rebuilding a home — what I take in must have function, joy, and meaning.
August 15, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a sweet jam. It can take you to the kitchen or the smokey room of a back-alley bar. What makes it sweet? Go where the prompt leads you!
Respond by August 20, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Not a Typical Sweet Jam (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Boiling quinces filled Danni’s kitchen with a lively scent, something between citrus and pears. Something remembered. In the canner, she prepped a hot bath to disinfect her jars and lids. She opened the sack of white sugar, ready to make sweet jam. Michael raised an eyebrow, continuing to look as skeptical as he did when he helped her pick the lumpy fruit.
“How’d you hear about these quince things?”
“The joy of being a historical archeologist. I read old books and journals.”
“Huh. Nothing from my Anishinaabe roots.”
Later, spread thickly across slabs of sourdough, Michael updated his history.
The merlins chatter in the rain, impatient to hunt. As far as I can tell, they only have one beak to feed, and it attached to noisy vocals. Further down Quincy Hill at the lift bridge, the peregrine falcons fledged four hungry beaks. Birds of prey must be this year’s winged rock stars.
How easily rhythms of home return to me. It’s the first of the month, and I’m cheerfully paying bills. Electricity, natural gas, sewer, water, and garbage indicate that I have a fully functioning human nest. I’ve washed my dishes, swept the floors, and watered my veg. Last night I cut my own red-leaf lettuce with my own kitchen scissors.
But it gets even better.
The past two days, I’ve reviewed my upcoming creative writing courses with my academic advisor. I have an attentive academic advisor, not some loon too busy for a chick. Twenty years ago, I waited by the closed door of another academic advisor who never showed up the first two days of college, leaving me in a lurch. As an “older than average” freshman, I needed her signature for a class change.
Another student also waited, one who would have been old enough to babysit me as a kid, but age differences didn’t matter. We became fast friends. She advised me on what course to take, questioned my logic to pursue teaching English, and convinced me I’d be happier with a creative writing degree. By the time our absentee advisor showed up, my future was set.
It also led to an embarrassing moment. My advisor signed off on the course my friend recommended and just in time — the class was already in session, and I had missed the first day due to my advisor’s absence. I nervously walked into the class, interrupting the lecture. All heads turned to me, and I flushed. Stammering, I didn’t know how to address the instructor.
You see, I got my undergrad degree at a Catholic liberal arts college. I knew enough back then about Catholicism to address men like Father, and women as Mother — or, wait — was that men as Brother, and women as Sister, or Father and Sister, Brother and Mother. Lord, help me. I was confused! Professor would be a proper term, too, but I felt the flames of hell burnishing my cheeks, and I blurted out, “Father Downs, forgive me, I’m late.”
The class erupted into laughter. John Downs, as I would come to know him on first-name basis as one of my honors thesis advisors, laughed the hardest. He said, “I am indeed a father to my children.”
We feel vulnerable when we do something new and far beyond our comfort zone. We don’t want to become the butt of a joke or held up as an example of what not to do. It’s hard to breathe sometimes when you don’t know which foot to step forward first and everyone else seems to know the hokey-pokey. But we step out anyways.
I’m grateful to have the support of my current academic advisor. She has walked me through the entire online process of my first three courses. One doesn’t count, or as she said, “You can’t screw it up.” It’s an introduction to the technology for taking graduate-level courses online. Amazing, really. I get to study without leaving the Keweenaw, and in winter, I’ll sip hot tea while Tech and Finlandia students bundle up for an Arctic walk to class.
My first two classes at Southern New Hampshire University are 505: Introduction to the Online MFA and 507: Advanced Studies in Literature. The first one explores the culture and approach to writing fiction at SNHU. We each have to pick a book to discover the habits and behaviors of the creative process and begin to forge ties with our peer and faculty community. My book is On Teaching and Writing Fiction by Wallace Stegner. The course is all about the importance of the writing community for literary citizenship.
Be still my fluttering heart! I’m like a rock star on stage, acknowledging that this is where I want to be!
And the second course immerses me in the contemporary fiction genre by reading and comparing two books. The pairs are interesting — one classic (like Willa Cather), and one modern (like Sue Monk Kidd). The purpose of this advanced study of literature is to analyze storytelling craft elements in the genre we will be writing (my manuscript will be contemporary fiction). From our analysis, we are to develop a writer’s toolkit to advance our own careers as creative writers.
It’s school, but it is the Big Times for me. I’ve longed for an MFA even after I had decided I would not pursue one. I recognize the sparking joy as excitement fills me for this two-year journey. And how tidy everything has cleaned up in my life — the Hub has good care, we now have a groovy nest, I’m blessed with a strong and inspiring writing community at Carrot Ranch, and all the pursuits that failed have merely cleared the way for this. And I am ready.
Birds yet fly in the Keweenaw. No snow, yet. We will, therefore, attempt a run to Idaho to get what we can salvage of belongings. It’s a daunting task, but we have a plan. First, we fix our truck (the death wobble and bumper), then we head west for three days. Our budget is small, but we’ve priced all the expenses, found the best routes and stops, and we will rent a Uhaul trailer. It’s not much room, but I will rescue research and family photos, maybe some books. The only furniture we will bring back is my oak glider, a small desk, and our bed frame.
I’m far more anxious about this last leg of our journey, but I know it will be okay. It will be the final closure, the last chapter. This — merlins chirping outside, walls ready to paint, new desk for new writing, sourdough starter, a new king-sized mattress, rooms ready to fill, veggies growing on the vine, raspberries ripe for jam — this is home. My nest, my stage. Cue the guitars.
August 1, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a rock star. You can feature a central character or write about the feeling like a rock star. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by August 6, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Rock Star in a Barn (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Jukebox Hero” blasted from Danni’s speakers. She structured her barn to be her lab – a place to clean, catalog, and store artifacts. It was no University sanctum. Even the small budget she once had as a grad student in Pullman, Washington dwarfed her western set-up. But she used the space efficiently. She trained Ike’s family to save meat trays for her, and she scoured yard sales and free piles for anything useful. Like the bathroom cupboards some homeowner was throwing away. It formed a washing station. The freedom her own space produced made Danni feel like a rock star.
For one day, I held space for a loon chick. Not at a distance, but so close that I could gently blow her downy feathers like making a wish to black dandelion seeds. Her tiny body could fit in my cupped hands while her father’s penguin-like body could race across water with wings firm as a bodybuilder’s biceps. For one day, I stepped through a rent in nature and swam with a baby loon.
My second home in Vermont, my newly adopted state of steep rolling hills and backroads that wind through valleys and across clear rocky creeks, welcomes loons. History hides in abandoned stone fences and old cemeteries. Soldiers once fought in New World wars and later marched south for the Grand Army of the Republic. Vermonters think their own minds, though. At least one marched south to fight on the side of the Confederacy.
The place had me at loon lakes and Green Mountains, dirt roads and backwater bars, Cabot cheese, and Citizen Cider, but the sweetest slice of life served in Vermont comes with a side of words. Vermonters read. Literary art still matters, and I did not meet people who said, “I’m busy.” I met folks who swam in the lake after work and went home to read books. At every general store, locals swapped books. This came as a delightful surprise.
Some Day is now Next Time.
Next Time Carrot Ranch has a Nature Writing Refuge on Greenwood Lake in Vermont, I’ll include literary events. The libraries promoted Wrangling Words and offered a table at the farmers market. D. Avery packed the Galaxy Bookstore for a reading, and we joined local musicians at open mic night at the Whammy Bar. We also had several private readings, impromptu readings, and even sold a book or two on the fly.
Last night, D. and I rolled into Hancock, Michigan, World Headquarters of Carrot Ranch. We left Vermont two days earlier and crossed Quebec and Ontario in her truck. Once in Michigan on the Upper Peninsula, we drove and drove. D. began to doubt there was civilization. But we arrived, and today she got hooked on picking rocks and got to see the Continental Fire Company. Tomorrow we read from the History Meets Literary Art collection at Fort Wilkins where Fannie Hooe once went missing.
Sitting by the campfire over Greenwood lake, reading stories with Sue Sleggs, Ann Edall-Robson and JulesPaige remains a shining star of the whole trip. Sharing kayak time and waterfalls with them will shape all our writing to come as such experiences do. That is the long-burning fuel of a nature writing retreat.
What stays with me most is the One Day. For one day, I swam with a baby loon.
A nesting pair of loons live and breed on Greenwood Lake. Throughout the Nature Writing Refuge, we heard the calls and hoots of loons and frequently saw the big waterbirds on the lake. We even got to kayak up to the boundary of the nesting loons in Turtle Cove where author Sean Prentiss lives with his family. Yet, D. noticed odd loon behavior.
Every day, a trio of loons landed on the lake and circled like synchronized swimmers. The male of the nesting pair often joined in, and the routine looked cooperative, not aggressive. We thought Big Daddy might be swinging on the side. When the Loon Day Survey arrived, D. was going to observe the nest with its overdue egg, and I was going to report on any loon hook-ups. In kayaks, we split up and listened for the calls. When the trio arrived, Big Daddy showed up. And oddly enough, so did Mama.
Meanwhile, D. and another kayaker approached the abandoned nest, finding what was likely an infertile egg. To their surprise, a bobbing black puff appeared on the water — a newly hatched loon chick! But no adults in sight. While we were merely citizen scientists for the survey, we knew it highly strange for loon parents to leave a chick. I’ve found an article that might explain the behavior at The Loon Project. Chicks need more than hiding. They need warmth, food, and nurturing through constant vocalizations. This baby was shivering and stabbing her tiny beak at D.’s kayak straps.
Soon, the Prentiss family joined us on the water as we all tried to decide the best course of action, mystified by the absent parents. We got the baby back on the nest, but it wouldn’t stay, insisting on floating next to Mama D. We discussed calling the Vermont Loon Biologist, knowing it was Loon Day and he was likely out of cell service. We looked up the number for loon wildlife rescue, and it was the same number. We called, left a message, and waited.
During six hours — that’s how long the parents swam with the intruders — we caught a minnow, fed a baby chick, and D. gave her belly-time when she insisted on seeking a warm spot on her new human to rest. Finally, we decided the chick was abandoned, and we would keep her safe until we could hand her over for rescue. That’s when I got to swim and be eye-to-eye with a baby loon. Eventually, the parents returned, and we reunited the chick with them.
However, the territorial take-over turned violent while the baby slept at the edge of the nest. The loons in this video are not the ones we observed, but we did witness this level of violence. Who knew loons could punch? We watched one loon hold another under the water.
Citizen Science Checklist
July 20, 2019 and a kayak slips into the water carrying gear poised to document activity for the Vermont Loon Survey. 8:11 a.m. The lake spreads flat beneath a sun rising to Vermont hot. Composition notebook, turquoise pen and a homemade cider donut ride in a Ziplock bag. Coffee in a travel mug slops dark brew. Binoculars and Nikon D80 with telephoto lens hang at the ready from straps. A life-vest within reach concludes the checklist required to count loons on Greenwood Lake for an hour. Ready and backed into the shadows of the eastside three loons glide by.
Below camp, three loons circle. Water ripples like lines of an inked Celtic knot. The loons, black and white like the written word extend long black beaks forward poised to write on water. Circling slender dragon-head quills. If one periscopes red loon eyes to scan beneath the surface, the other two follow. What do they see? Fish for dinner or foe to challenge? They all submerge in unison. Thirty seconds later they bob to the surface and write their saga in circles. Territorial posturing distracts the nesting pair and the Celtic knot erases the idea of mating for life.
How It Happened
Nothing more than a puffball of black down, the newly hatched loon enters the water without parents. Hearing the swish of a kayaker who is examining the abandoned nest during loon survey, the hatchling follows. The volunteer nudges her back to the nest and departs to find the parents. When the volunteers converge without loon parents, the hatchling boldly swims among the kayaks oblivious to the lurking dangers below and above ready to make a meal of her. She tires, hungrily pecking her beak at kayak straps. That’s how it happened – a baby loon spent a day among humans.
While calls go out to the state loon biologist, I stay objective, photographing the puff of black feathers that is the loon chick. We understand she’s doomed without the care of her adults, and in those long stretches of waiting for direction, I feel my own human instinct to nurture intensify. I watch as the tired chick is placed in the safety of a kayak-well. I watch as she struggles to clamber out, seeking the warmth of the kayaker. I watch the inadvertent bonding. I stay objective until it is my turn to feed, swim and warm the chick.
I once swam with a loon chick. Five hours old and already diving. She hears me laugh and paddles tiny webbed feet to me, searching for a wing. It’s Vermont hot, and I sizzle under the sun. I create a makeshift wing from my bandana to protect her. She snuggles to my chest, peeping softly as she sleeps. My heart swells for this tiny wonder, thumping in awe to witness her existence, this ephemeral dandelion wish. From volunteer citizen scientist to impromptu parent in half a day, I know nature’s course wins in the end. My sunburn outlives her.
July 25, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes the phrase “for one day.” The words single out a special occurrence. What is the emotion and vibe, where does it take place and why? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by July 30, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Fire and False Hope (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
For one day, the crew held back the advancing fire. Danni dropped onto her sleeping bag, boots still on her feet, proud that she had shoveled in a way archeologists seldom do. They worked hard and deterred the fire with their break. Sometime during the night, the wind kicked up, and a chill woke Danni. Stretching, she groggily left the tent to refill her water bottle. The skyline glowed with orange flames, trees exploded, shooting embers the wind carried across the break. For one day, they saved their community from burning in hell. Now it was time to evacuate.
This morning I prepared and consumed the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. I had left-over white bread to feed hungry house-painters and satisfy a seven-year-old boy. I chose right — the first sandwich I made for my grand-nephew K, I asked which bread he’d like, offering him the choice of whole wheat, sourdough, or white. “Normal bread,” he said. Yep. White bread.
I remember being seven-years-old and new to downhill skiing. We had recently moved to the Sierra Nevada mountains from the California coastal mountains surrounding old land-grant ranchos, buckaroos, and vineyards. We didn’t ski in San Benito County, but having been born into a horse culture, I found my balance readily (and later in life, lost it). You can learn more about why my school had us kids on skis at Norah Colvin’s new series, School Days, where she interviews writers to reminisce about formative educational experiences. When I discovered skiing, I also discovered American cheese.
American cheese, mayonnaise, and Wonderbread (a step below white bread in nutrition, in fact, it might not be bread but a 1970s cheap filler food). At home, we typically had sourdough bread or sandwich rolls, salami, tomatoes, onions, and jalapeno pickles. If we had cheese, it was most likely Monterey Jack. Sometimes, we’d have Tillamook Cheddar from Oregon. When we went skiing, we had those American cheese sandwiches, and to this day, they taste like The Best Day.
Problem is, once grown I realized American cheese sandwiches slathered with mayo on the bread with the least food nutrition value are not the healthiest choices. Lots of food I remember from the ’70s are best forgotten — eating powered Jell-o from the box, Tab soda, Suzy Qs, new potatoes in a can, Velveeta macaroni, and cheese, chipped beef from a jar, Vienna sausages, and pop rocks. But once in a blue moon, I’d fix my kids a grilled cheese sandwich, using my American cheese sandwich ingredients and frying it all in butter.
Let the holiday be my excuse. It’s Independence Day in America, and I splurged on American cheese. Tonight, I’ll go sit on the shores of Lake Superior in Eagle River, listen to local bands, drink Shorts Beer, and wait for the long dusk to darken enough for fireworks. The Hub doesn’t mind fireworks at all, in fact, he prefers to be the one lighting them off. But combat PTSD doesn’t always look like what the media tells us. Fireworks can and do trigger many veterans and pets. Others get excited. It’s good to be aware of those in your own circle of contact. Isolation can be a greater danger. Check on your veteran neighbors, make sure they are not alone.
Tonight, I’ll watch for ships on Lake Superior, using the marine traffic map and my binoculars. Every year, I wonder what it must be like to be on a Great Lake freighter, seeing fireworks blast from towns and celebrations along the shoreline. And that is the direction I’m steering this week’s prompt. This collection will be included in a live literary event at Fort Wilkins on July 25 when D. Avery joins me in reading 99-word stories. We’ll focus on Copper Country history, drawing from past collections and creating some new material this week.
It’s a different kind of prompt but still, flash storytelling. I hope you will stretch your creativity and lend a voice to this upcoming event.
On the home-front, we are nearing completion. The bankers and their blasted extended holiday mean no closing tomorrow. The title company is going out of their way to meet with the Hub and me on Saturday so I can sign papers because I’m flying to Vermont during our closing on Monday. If the bank fails to get the paperwork over to the title company during off hours, I’ll have to sign a power of attorney for the Hub to sign on my behalf. Other than the final messy frays, it’s looking good. Better than our patchwork paint job, but it passed the inspection, and that’s what matters. Almost home!
This week, history meets literary art. Keweenaw National Historic Park is all about the history of a place — the Keweenaw Peninsula. The National Park Service has a collection of microhistories, the stories of individuals, on their website. Our 99-word stories will use these microhistories as the prompt and will be included in a public reading at Fort Wilkins on July 25 by D. Avery and me. Join us in the fun!
July 4, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story using your choice of microhistory from Keweenaw National Historic Park. Be historical, funny, or flagrantly fictional. Choose a character, time, place, or event. Be as creative as you want in telling the story (for those doing serials, how can you meld this into your own storyline?). Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by July 9, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
The Old Ramona (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Big Annie wrapped the American flag around her shoulders like a shawl to march with striking copper miners,” Danni explained.
Ramona frowned at the old photo. It was part of Danni’s Keweenaw collection where she had earned her master’s in industrial archeology. Before she met Ike in Idaho. Ramona used to relish stories about Big Annie who rallied the miners and spent time in jail in 1913. Now, Ike’s grandmother glared.
“Shouldn’t disgrace the flag that way,” she said.
Ramona left the room and Danni sagged. She missed Ike in Iraq more than ever. She missed the old Ramona.
Everything is happening too quickly and not fast enough.
It’s the energy of the tail end of a comet after a near miss with planet earth. It’s the spin of a car that comes to rest without striking the tree. It’s ducking the claws of an owl. It’s that moment when disaster passes. Back up to the heartbeat before when catastrophy or near-misses are both yet possible. That’s what my life feels like right now.
I don’t know the outcome. In my bones, I feel hopeful. I’m the seal hunter on the ice shelf, ready to provide but not fully understanding the impact of melting ice. I raise my spear to strike. The shelf can collapse, or I can return to my village with the first food since the long winter. I’m so close to having a home, I can see it rising from the blowhole.
But the ice — the unknowns — don’t always favor the bold. If you really want to be happy, don’t have expectations. Don’t be the hunter whose happiness depends upon getting the seal. In fact, go back and order a shipment of food from Amazon drones and settle. Settle for what is, quit fighting for what could be better. No, that’s not right. Hunt. Go after your purpose, your dreams, your desire. Have wild expectations. Encounter both joy and sorrow.
The baby birds died. The home loan got delayed. And Sgt Mills says no way are we building a starling nest box. It’s times like these I’m reminded that it’s messiest before the end. Every fresh start needs an ending. Every hunter needs something to go after and bring back. Failure is imminent. Death happens. But life begs to be lived in a big way.
Did I think last week was hard? I hadn’t encountered this week, yet. Is the universe giving me some crazy unexpected mid-term exam? Do I really want a home? Pouring over 2017 taxes so I can complete FASFA to start my MFA, I don’t know how we made it. The breakdowns. The miles. We traveled over 7,000 miles to get to the Keweenaw. Our expenses almost tripled what my income was. I hadn’t baked in three years.
Sunday I made a zucchini cake. Chocolate zucchini cake with dark chocolate chips. Why not? Go big or go home. Home is my aim, my focus, my consumption at the moment. The world hinges on home. I baked because seven local writers were coming over to Roberts Street for a writing workshop. I changed the venue, so I could live the dream — to have a workshop in my own home. I had the dishes, the couch, the desk, and a pan for baking. Three years, and I felt inept making batter.
But it turned out. The cake, the workshop, having writers in my home! Almost home.
And then Monday came with the VA’s review of the appraiser’s report. We thought we were ready. We were not. No peeling paint. None. And we also needed to repair a damaged storm window and install a safety rail in the garage above the ramp into the basement. I looked up the codes cited in the VA Lender’s Handbook, a 622-page reference. It even covered economic hardship — that painting would not be waived if it created an impossibility.
And it did. On Monday, my daughter picked me up to help plant flowers at her place. She explained that she and her husband were not able to make the extra repairs due to time and finances, that we would have to pay for them ourselves or wait until after her husband’s summer jobs and her trip to France. Last week was waiting, and I was beyond waiting. I had already taken bids earlier that day, and the work would cost several thousand dollars.
Feeling disappointed beyond words, I helped her plant, blood, and tears spilling down my face.
“Mom, you have soil on your forehead.” It wasn’t; it was blood from a black fly, the tyrants of the north that only live three weeks but can cause terrible bites. She told me this wasn’t like before.
I re-read the letters from before. The letter from the landlord in Sandpoint, Idaho thanking us for being good tenants but that we had 30 days to vacate the premise. The letter I wrote back, crafting it carefully as if it were hostage negotiations. The delayed response — “the owners think they can sell the house better empty.” Two weeks and my world crumbled in ways I never thought possible. No safety nets this time. No savings. No spare change. Help from friends, a hasty trailer purchase that only made our circumstances worse. Nowhere to go so we lived in the wilderness.
I’m not going to rehash the failings of the VA. Not only are they once again putting up hurdles for us to get into a home, but spectacularly, they sent us a letter, received this day, stating that the Hub had no authorization to get his knee replaced and they officially denied his medical claim. My mind rushesd between past and present. My daughter says this is not like before and though I can already imagine the impact crater, she is right.
Even if we don’t own the home, we can live here. We have a strong and connected community in the Keweenaw and at Carrot Ranch. The Hub has advocates besides me — his doctor, counselors, and the surgical team at Aspirus. The meteor is not going to hit us. But it will stir up the dust.
The Hub got testy with the person whose phone number was listed on his big fat denial claim. A thick packet that arrived in the mail this morning. She told him it was his fault for not securing authorization and when he proclaimed he had, she said there was nothing in his record. She said, “Don’t kill the messenger.”
“I will if it sends a message,” he said.
I groaned. This is why veterans are difficult. Everything is a battle tactic. Even in his agitation, even with PTSD, moral injury and brain injury, he’s more controlled than any civilian. I still trust him wholly in a zombie apocalypse. I just can’t trust him to remember to paint all the gaps or find his own socks. The call went south after that. He was calm. We quickly made for CBOC (community-based outpatient clinic) in Hancock. He also called Aspirus hospital and asked to speak to Dawn. She checks up on him. Both places had his back — they had his “six.”
We then drove up to Larium to Aspirus. While he tracked down the copies he needed from Dawn, I visited an ailing Warrior Sister. From her bed, she made suggestions. We talked about her diet (clear liquids for the moment) and beating cancer. I told her gluten-free, and dairy-free food could taste good and be simple. I’d help. She wanted to help me with the house. Sisters in the storm, adjusting our sails.
By this time, I needed coffee. A cafe meil to be exact. When near Calumet, one must go to Cafe Rosetta. On the drive home, the VA called back. I guess they were getting hammered by the Hub’s doctors. We all had clear copies of the authorizations from the VA. They conceded it was a mistake. However the denial is official, so now we have to find out how to overturn it otherwise we have to go and appeal it, like court. VA court. Kangaroo court.
We got home, lunched and the Hub went to bed. That’s the thing — his brain can only take so much. If he has to focus, he talks rapidly and won’t let others speak, or he loses his train of thought. It’s not conversational, but we haven’t had good conversations for a while. I’ve learned to let him ramble and take find joy and humor in it. I miss the deep conversations we used to have. He doesn’t realize they are missing and that’s okay. Better only one of us feels bad about it. A morning that requires all that interaction makes him sleepy. He reset.
Me, I painted.
And I’ll keep painting until our next inspection. Monday. We now hope to close July 5. Down to the wire. I hope to leave for Vermont properly homed. If not, like my daughter tried to point out, it’s not like before. I’m almost home, and I’ll paint my way into it one brush stroke at a time.
June 27, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that involves paint. It can be fresh, peeling or in need of a coat. What is being painted and why? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by July 3, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Something Different (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Want some paint for that brush?” Danni smiled, remembering. Her brushing a mammoth tusk, Ike standing at the edge of the mud with his fishing pole. The first time they met.
A wet nose nudged her hand while she cleaned shards and the paint brush flew from her grip. It dropped to the concrete of the barn floor. “Det, you are a pesky hound.” She patted the dog and picked up the brush. Maybe she should paint.
If Ike wanted to do something different, then she would too. Danni left for the hardware store to pick out cheerful yellows.
Wait, I tell the starling.
Last year, Whirligig — a showy, loud and aggressive starling — showed up to the neighborhood, driving out the woodpeckers and entertaining my neighbor and me with his antics. This year, he spotted a hole in my SIL’s roofing job. A small triangular peak over the porch was missing a small chunk of fascia beneath old cedar shakes. Not a priority, my SIL was waiting to finish the job when the siding plates arrived.
Whirligig waits on no one. In an afternoon he nested into the space behind the facia, a small area of trim beneath the porch roofline. My SIL wasted no time in patching the hole. Whirligig found and expanded another. Nesting began in earnest with all of us dodging straw and string debris as we entered and exited the porch.
I’d go outside and Whirligig would fly from the porch eave to squawk from the lightpost across Roberts Street. “Stop nesting in my house,” I’d tell him. Some days, I’d be weeding or lugging my watering can and he’s be making Star Wars robotic chirps and songs. Despite his annoyance, I couldn’t help but laugh. Flowers bloomed and Whirligig courted.
We weren’t too concerned with his nest, waiting to boot him out after mating season. Starlings often build several nests. We didn’t think a female had joined him, only seeing Whirligig. Our conversations continued.
And then the VA home loan appraiser showed up. We didn’t think he’d be overly impressed with our flighty neighbor in the eaves, but given that the gap was in decorative trim and not structural, the SIL focused on finishing the siding plates popped off during last year’s roofing replacement. The Hub mowed the lawn, scrubbed the basement (hopeful man-cave) floor, and I cleaned the house, including places the appraiser never looked.
Instead, he looked in places like the defunct attic stairs. One of the first home-improvements the SIL completed in 2016 was to seal the attic with insulation. The stairs now go to nowhere. But the VA has a rulebook and rule 497 or whatever states that safe stairs have handrails. After the inspection, we learned the VA would not approve a loan on a house missing the ever-so-vital handrail to nowhere. They also don’t like peeling paint, or nesting starlings.
In a panic, we put out a call to our community. Did anyone have a handrail from a remodel (lots of people remodel these old mining homes)? Could someone help us paint where the Hub couldn’t reach with a ladder? And who was willing to evict Whirligig? Copper Country Strong responded. Within hours, one of the veteran wives drove to town, met us at the building store, and declared her housewarming gift to be a handrail and hardware. Worried about the price, we said we didn’t expect her to pay if it was over a certain threshold. We laughed to find out it was only $14!
The Hub scraped and painted as sloppily as I imagine Tom Sawyer white-washing a fence, but at least it was no longer “peeling.” The SIL, who was supposed to leave for an alternative energy fair, finished work late and came over that night to finish the porch trim. My daughter and I scrapes and caulked the garage windows. I snapped three 100-year-old window panes, ripped my hot pink rubber gloves to shreds (I have no idea how) and got paint chips in my bra, deciding I’d rather write about home-improvement jobs than experience them.
The SNL nailed shut the gap Whirligig used and I couldn’t help but feel low. I know what it feels like to be shut out of a home for no good reason. Why was my home more important than his? It felt unfair and somehow too American — the arrogance of claiming home while denying it to others permeates our history. I did not enjoy being the evictor.
Over a late evening BBQ, the SIL assured me that the nest was an empty one. He couldn’t reach it, but nothing had hatched if there had been eggs. Later, after everyone had left, I stood on the front steps and watched Whirligig, silent on the lightpost. All I could offer was, “I see you. I hear you. I am sorry.”
He flew away.
It sucks to be disenfranchised in America. The process of trying to get recognized as a resident after being homeless is near impossible. Those who are chronically homeless or living rough on the streets or uncounted as they sleep in cars and drive across state borders when they get gas money are doomed to never rise from that lifestyle. The state of Utah recognized the plight of the chronically homeless in Salt Lake City. They realized that it was more cost effective to turn abandoned buildings into independent residences with no costs, no paperwork, and no strings attached. In Kansas City, a group of veterans invested in tiny houses for homeless veterans outside the VA system.
Just trying to get our driver’s licenses has been an ordeal. In Michigan, you have to prove citizenship with a birth certificate. Never mind that the Hub served his nation in combat. He has to prove he was born in the US. I brought our important documents with us, but with all the transient stops we made at VAs across the western US, the Hub lost his birth certificate. He likely gave it to someone to photocopy to get service at a VA hospital and never got it back. But we prevailed and both have Michigan enhanced driver’s licenses.
Next are 2016 and 2017 taxes. When you cross five different states across two taxe years and have no permanent address, things get complicated. I wrote for clients and he worked for six different companies in five different states and sought medical care from eight different VAs. The IRS has a homeless veteran program but good luck talking to a live person. I filed 2018 taxes claiming Michigan residency, using my daughter’s address. As of January, the Hub is 100 percent disabled. Which gave me the education benefits to go get my MFA in creative writing.
Except — and there’s always an exception with the VA benefits — they don’t pay tuition. I was so devastated to find this out, but then I said screw it, I’ll go deeper into education debt. Ah, yes, but FASFA wants my 2017 taxes. I feel like I’m constantly grinding in circles. I didn’t know what to do next, but this place has good people and someone knew someone who had a CPA who could help. I felt skeptica, having inquired with other CPAs, but this guy, he was willing to take on all my complications. He jokingly told me he needed a good challenge after tax season.
Getting him all my documents, though, made me relive the events of 2016 and 2017. That awful day in March when I froze in panic after the landlords so casually told us we were “free to go” because the owners wanted to sell the place still feels cold in my blood. When the appraiser told us we’d have to fix a few things on the house my daughter told me not to worry. She said the same thing when the landlord sent us a 30-day eviction notice before we had another home to go to. I still don’t trust that I will have a home. The waiting right now is awful, and I think of that silent starling as a personification of my pain.
It is what it is.
This morning I woke up, stepped outside and heard chirping. I looked around for Whirligig but he was gone. With horror, I realized the chirping was coming from inside the porch eave. I sat on the steps and cried. The Hub came home from PT and he asked what was wrong. “Just starlings,” he said. But he saw my pain. And as gruff as he tries to be, he wishes no harm on anything. Without further words, he got a ladder and some tools.
Our daughter came over on her lunch break and found her parents ripping up the front porch. The Hub decided to remove the fascia because that was down where the SIL couldn’t reach. Our daughter chastized him for climbing a ladder, but held it sterady for him. I grabbed a moss-lined flower basket, emptied it but the lining and the Hub pulled the nest with its string and straw anf feathers into it, including two newly hatched birds and one pale blue egg. The birds heard our voices and gaping maws opened hungrily.
But Whirligig was gone. I dug up a grub (looking for worms), mashed it, and filled a dropper with water. I fed two babies and wondered if it were the right thing to do. After the Hub replaced the fascia, I hung the flower basket below the porch eaves. The babies chirped loudly and I hoped Whirligig and his Lady could hear. The robins and sparrows flitted about, and the bird community seemed distressed. Or maybe that was just me. I told them to find Whirligig. The Hub said the starlings had already abandoned the nest and wouldn’t be back. My daughter gently reminded me that nature would take its course.
After a late afternoon appointment, I came home and listened for the babies. I could probably hear them a mile away, they chirp so loudly. And to my relief and delight, I watched Whirligig land in the basket with a squiggling insect of some sort. I decided right then and there that if this becomes our home, we are building Whirligig a nesting box.
Meanwhile, we wait.
June 20, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about having to wait. Who is waiting and what for? Think about how the wait impacts the character or the story. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by June 25, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
The Beginning of a Long Wait (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Waiting for the phone to ring, Danni started a batch of cookies. She stalked over to the phone. “Ring, damn it!” She picked it up to check the dial tone and returned to the kitchen. She started a pot of macaroni and cheese. The phone range and she jumped, answering.
“Hello. This is the National Coalition for—”
Danni slammed down the receiver. She needed tea. Instead of boiling macaroni, she poured the water over a Lipton tea bag, watching the stain spread. Danni waited to hear if Ike lived after the attack on his convoy in Baghdad.
Many hands make light work. Women converged on Lady B’s yard, a twisting wreckage slammed by flood and debris last year. Someone — maybe a county worker — laid down straw last summer which snow matted like unruly hair. Depressed and unable to muck out her yard, Lady B expressed sadness. That’s when we formed an informal rake brigade. With six women and six rakes, we piled leaves and straw, collected debris and shattered ceramic pots. Lady B, 86-years-old, fussed over all of us with graciously served cups of sweet tea.
On Saturday, I’m looking forward to returning with annual plants to splash color in remaining pots, and give my friend something to water and care for each day. My daughter will join her hands with mine to plant, and other women plan long-term garden solutions. Approaching a year after the Father’s Day Floods, my community remains Copper Country Strong.
Across town, all hands are on deck to celebrate the Vet Center’s 40th Anniversary. A BBQ fires up, women set up tables laden with food — sloppy joes, taco salad, fruit salad, cheesy potatoes — and the color guard stands at attention. Vietnam Vets and their spouses stand to receive recognition pins.
But let’s back up past WWII, WWI and the American Civil War to better understand what the Vet Center is all about. President Abe Lincoln made a promise to the surviving soldiers and families of the Civil War. The following opens Miracle of Ducks, my novel-in-progress:
In his second inaugural speech, President Lincoln delivered a remedy of justice to those who have served a nation in times of war, understanding that the price paid by soldiers and their families comes at a cost to the nation:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
To this day, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs operates under a solemn commitment made to those injured in service and vows to take care of the families whose soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice. Less than one percent of US citizens ever serve, giving the entire group of veterans an obscure and minority voice. Veterans rarely speak up for their own justice, making it difficult to receive their benefits for what they endured. It is important that we speak up for them. That we welcome them home, understanding they won’t fit in with the civilians they protected. That we do the one and only thing they ever ask for — “Please take care of my family when I pick up arms for you.”
Those who marry these veterans are loyal. A service to nation that often goes unrecognized.
Miracle of Ducks gives voice to veteran spouses through the story of Danni Gordon. This character has evolved with my own understanding of the service spouses give to the nation. Mary Gauthier, a songwriter who works with veteran families to capture their experiences in song, sings about the War After the War. Here are the lyrics that resonate with the “invisible” spouses:
Who’s gonna care for the ones who care for the ones who went to war
Land mines in the living room eggshells on the floor
I lost myself in the shadow of your honor and your pain
You stare out the window as our dreams go down the drain
Invisible, the war after the warI’m a soldier too, just like you
Serving something bigger than myself
I serve unseen, caught in between
My pain and the pain of someone elseI’m stronger than you think I am, I’m right here by your side
I am not your enemy I don’t want to 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 war
Yet, the price soldiers and their families pay comes at a cost to the nation. In subsequent wars, US citizens paid taxes to fund war efforts, which is why great thought was given before entering into such a commitment. Those who stayed home planted victory gardens, learned to cook and eat rice so that grains could go overseas to soldiers, went without nylons and other items to ration resources. When soldiers came home, citizens rejoiced with ticker-tape parades. And then came Vietnam, an unpopular war during a time of civil unrest. Soldiers became objects of derision.
The Hub remembers when Georgia hated the Army Rangers. They were barred from businesses and snubbed by society. Grenada changed that attitude and made the Hub wary of fickle views of citizens. He enjoyed getting a parade and allowed in establishments previously off-limits, but he still feels annoyed when someone says, “Thanks for your service.” I’ve tried to understand because I recognize that most people are sincere when they give thanks.
But consider this: Post 9/11 “War on Terrorism” has been the longest US war in history, and yet the smallest percentage of population serves. The toll on physical and mental health is high because of repeat tours. Giving thanks is not what Abraham Lincoln intended. The nation — its citizens — must bear the burden of the cost of war. What does this ideal look like in practice?
Soldiers get medical and mental healthcare without stigma, shame, or pressure to soldier up and take the pain and suffering in silence. That’s the VA’s job. On the homefront, soldiers get readjustment counseling to improve quality of life. That’s the Vet Center’s job. So what do citizens do? They can hire veterans, prevent homelessness, and break down barriers that cause veteran isolation. Isolation kills. Even though veteran suicides have dropped from 22 a day to 20, the VA reports that 14 of those suicides never sought VA services.
And I can tell you why — the VA is difficult to access and penetrate, staff often minimize or ignore concerns, funding goes into marketing a suicide prevention hotline instead of programs that encourage veteran inclusion and fitness, homelessness prevention is nonexistent and does not actually help veterans, and moral injury continues after service. Today, at the open house, I expressed my views based on three years of homelessness and 35 years of VA medical neglect to the regions suicide prevention coordinator. I gave her the view from the other side. And as a spouse, I don’t soldier up, I advocate.
My hands are not alone. As Josh Groban sings in The War at Home, “they are a million strong.” I stand beside my Warrior Sisters. Today, I wept as those of the Vietnam era were honored alongside their husbands with pins that represent their courage and indicate a grateful nation. My husband sat beside me and wept to see his Vietnam era Brothers honored and welcomed home. The Vet Centers exist because the Vietnam vets insisted on helping one another if their country wasn’t going to. The Vet Center exists to keep the promise Abe Lincoln made. It is the legacy of the Vietnam Vets.
Many hands make light work. Won’t you join me in bearing the burdens found in our own hometowns? A better world is not just about veterans. I know we are a global community, but each of us can see and meet the needs of others around us — helping a new mom, visiting the elderly and writing down stories, breaking barriers that isolate vulnerable populations, seeing the humanity in a homeless person, fostering community beautification, giving voice to the voiceless, taking on stories bigger than ourselves. We can all be of service.
June 13, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about the work of many hands. Is it a cooperative effort or something else? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by June 18, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Difficult Decision (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Hands reached out to Danni as she slumped in her chair. “I can’t do it alone,” she said. The women in her group, surrounded her.
Roxie patted Danni’s shoulder. “What do we need to do? I’ll bring my vacuum cleaner.”
Everyone offered to help Danni tackle Ramona’s empty house. She wanted to be angry with Ike for his absence, leaving her to make the decision no one in his family wanted to make. Ramona’s dementia progressed beyond Danni’s ability to keep Ike’s grandmother safe.
“Will she hate me?” Danni asked.
“Nah, she won’t remember you,” said Roxie. “We’ll help.”