Home » Posts tagged 'challenge'
Tag Archives: challenge
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.”
A chipmunk huddles in a hollow at the base of a stump. She hunkers down beneath dry maple leaves, quivering at my proximity. I ignore her. Go about my planting, aware she is inches from my left Keen. A massive black cauldron, likely a relic left over from copper mining, engulfs the circumference of stump. My daughter says it was a planter long before she bought this house in 2015. It’s hip-height and full of soil. Mullein and the bones of last year’s annuals remain. I’ve come to leave my mark with seedlings.
Beneath the flowering moon of May, I planted a bleeding heart at the corner of the house that was my daughter’s and might yet be mine. It’s an act of faith, gardening. Seeds may or may not germinate, but when they do, life breaks a crust of soil and becomes something. Every day, I water my Brussels sprouts still in eggshells, waiting for a garden. I’ve turned the dirt and wait for the Hub to help me with a few details before I can plant. The kids move this weekend, so I’m waiting. I ask the Hub if he’s excited about the Brussel sprouts, and he says he will be when we harvest. Not until they are on his plate.
That’s too long to wait. I’d lose hope if I didn’t enjoy planting and nourishing. I’d harden if I didn’t love something until it fulfilled its purpose. Yes, that means I’m often disappointed more than most. It’s painful. But the contrast feels real, feels like living. It’s risky business hoping for a home after the crashes we’ve had. I understand his protective stance, but I’m the planter as well as the hunter, going after the potential every day until it arrives.
As a planter, I’m an all-out plantser. Like a writer who crafts by the seat of their pants, I plant wild beneath the full moon and sow where I see potential. My daughter is a planner. She plots her gardens on grid papers and calculates the amount of sun and shade. Her spring garden blooms by design and she thins veg seedlings with measured exactness. I smile at the spreading raspberries, and she tells me, “Mom, you’ll need to weed those suckers mercilessly.” Kind of like the advice to writers — kill your darlings.
But like writing, I must first dream far and wide and get my hands dirty. I believe in writing to explore, to dig deep, to mulch and compost and feed and weed and plant and water and cultivate the story with bare fingers. My wide plantsing knows means errors. I’ll mistake the plant and the sun it needs. I’ll not like how something in the cauldron grows, or maybe it won’t like it. I’ll go soft-hearted and leave in too many seedlings, again. I’ll ignore the creeping raspberry runners, I’ll plow the margins and plant in clumps.
For the two summers I’ve helped with my daughter’s gardens, I’ve abided by her plans. Tentatively, I’ve bought a few plants, grown the seeds I like. I’ve held onto hope that I might plant and plants. I’ve respected her boundaries, delighting in how different from me she is as a gardener. When I show her my blue cohosh, she asks, “Did you research it?” No, I bought the cutting.
So we are at the cauldron, pressing a myriad of seedlings into the pot along with my cohosh, a wise woman herb. We leave the mullein, and I transplant fleabane from the lawn. She raises an eyebrow. “It’s white,” I say.
The cauldron was her moon garden — all white flowers. We’ll wait and see what grows.
I’m not the only one in this garden who dreams big. I pat the soil gently, and the chipmunk decides she’s waited long enough. She darts over my shoe and dashes down the hole she’s burrowed in the strawberry patch. I know I’ll have to share because I’m not going to evict her. She’s not in the middle of the plants, and even if she burrowed elsewhere, she could still sneak in and steal bites of strawberries. I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to let the raspberries ramble.
The chipmunk dreamed of a place with abundance and shelter. But the unexpected arises, too. My old lady dog still remembers chasing gophers in Idaho, and when I walk her past the strawberries, she catches a whiff and old ears perk like a puppy’s in excitement. Bobo doesn’t get around well, so I think the chipmunk will be safe. Maybe we have to be on the lookout for the bad that can happen but not to the exclusion of the flowers and possibilities. With hope, I add to my daughter’s spring garden — something that rambles — catmint. She’s a bit surprised and reminds me that it spreads.
Yes, I’m in a spreading mood. Feather by feather, I plan to unfurl my wings and fly home soon.
My friend Cynthia is holding a Homecoming Event to help the Hub, and I plant a new household. We have two lists on Amazon, one for household and one for the future Roberts Street Writerly. Part of the dream I’m planting here is two guest rooms that will be space for visiting writers. Just as we did in Elmira, we offer the rooms without charge and invite the writers to read in the community, privately or at public events. If you want to help us get home, you can find our Household list here and the Roberts Street Writerly list here.
Our new address is:
1112 Roberts Street
Hancock, MI 49930
We still have to close, so keep June 20th in your prayers and positive thoughts. We have contingency plans if the worst happens. I’m familiar with that, but I keep in mind that I have a community and choices. We landed in the right place and will continue to get care for the Hub and even get to NYC for brain scans. Those won’t alter any treatment or definitely diagnose, but it will help track what is going on with his brain and how it could help the next generation of soldiers. I’ll be writing more about CTE, subcussive impacts, and impacts of aging on the veteran’s altered brain over at Medium.
I’ve planned to use my literary art to build awareness for the veteran spouse experience and veteran isolation, which are themes in my WIP. Next, I’ll be workshopping Miracle of Ducks in an MFA program that begins August 12. On Wednesday, I received official notice that SNHU accepted my military benefits. As part of a VA system, that’s a huge hurdle to get over, and I’m so relieved! I have to pay enrollment on Monday, and hopefully, the VA will catch up with me on those payments.
Like a darting chipmunk, I’m going for it all. Strawberries and mint, the fruit and rambles are in sight. And it’s looking beautiful from here. Deep breath! Skitter, skitter, skitter…
May 30, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes strawberries and mint. The combination evokes color contrast, scents, and taste. Where will the combination take you? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by June 4, 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.
A Peek (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
A hardbound journal lay open on Ramona’s bed. Danni reached for it, and paused, examining the pencil strokes. On one top corner, strawberry plants clustered with leaves, flowers and berries drawn in great detail. On the opposite bottom corner, mint vined in sweeping strokes. Danni smiled. Ramona liked to say, plant your mint across the garden from your strawberries. On the page, the two plants formed a continuous frame around two little girls with identical braids and short gingham dresses, holding hands. All she could see was their backs and the pond they faced. Were these the elusive twins?
Work, work, and more work. If you want to know why my daughter is living on the Svalbard Archipelago, she’s there to work. Her partner is head chef at a top restaurant that caters to eco-tourists, and given that he’s fed scientists in Antartica and elite lodgers in Alaska, he’s no stranger to cooking on ice. She went with him for a few months, which turned into a year and a half.
Rock Climber lives on an arctic chain of islands in Norway, working in all the restaurants. Off-shift for one, another calls her in to wait tables or tend bar. She has the effervescent personality of a wandering bard, and I can understand why hospitality on one of the world’s most remote arctic places holds her in high demand. To get to work, she often has to travel by boat or plane. Stories bubble up all around her.
If you’re wondering why I have Rock Climber on the brain, it’s because she’s back on land, among trees, and in Montana for a friend’s wedding. This means cell-phone service! On ice, I rarely get to communicate with my daughter, just crossed messages. When she calls, my heart soars, and I soak up her stories and laughter and love. She might be the Sgt.’s daughter, the wild child of a US Army Ranger, but she’s 100 percent buckaroo storyteller.
I call my daughter Rock Climber because she embraces the thrill of the climb. A kinesthetic learner, she masters hand-holds and knows where her body is mid-tumble. For years, she competed in gymnastics. Now, she is the Polar Bear Whisperer. I’m not sure I like that designation because it implies that the bears seek her out.
One night, at a place where she works, a bear broke into the wine cellar and feasted on the fine vintage and chocolate. She says it was a bear after her own heart! As long as the bear only eats her chocolate and not her internal organs. When they go out of town past the guards, they carry rifles and flare guns, not to shoot the bears but to scare them off.
She tells me about commuting to work on a Zodiac, which are the same boats the Hub managed as the lead combat diver for his Ranger unit back in the early ’80s. The arctic sea spray leaves crusts of ice in her ears, and she has to wear a survival suit with a beacon. On one trip, the sea rolled and dipped as the boat cut through the waves. Rock Climber and her partner stayed at the bow, and when it tipped downward, two walruses emerged. These behemoths pack tusks, and she says she fears them more than polar bears.
Yet, like polar bears, they are dying.
The reality of climate change impacted the polar regions of our world first. Think of the Arctic as our canary in the coal mine. If you aren’t familiar with that phrase, let me explain. Coal mines emit deadly gases that will kill a caged bird before building up to levels lethal enough to kill miners. It can’t be detected until it’s too late. To say the Arctic is the canary means that our planet is changing so rapidly that species are dying. The bi-peds who can actually understand this and do something about it choose to agitate their fellows into arguing semantics and causes in a stupendous show of disregard for our environment. It’s like the American politicians spin the death of the canary into myth and convince constituents that rising sea levels are nothing more than falling rocks.
Walruses are falling into the ocean. From cliffs high above the northern waters where they feed, they plummet to their deaths, front flappers wobbling like hopeless wings. Their carcasses litter miles and miles of Svalbard. My daughter fears a walrus tusk ripping apart her commuter boat on frigid seas, but she cares about their well-being. They are not well, the flightless walruses. Once, they rose above waters to dry out in the sun on the shelves of ice. Now, icemelt forces them up dangerous cliffs to sunbathe. Without ice, they endanger their own lives.
Without ice, we endanger our lives, too.
Rock Climber tells me human bodies don’t decompose in the permafrost. If you think this is a gruesome statement, hold on, you haven’t heard the story, yet. In 1998 a crew of gravediggers from London punched their way through the ice to solve a global puzzle — what killed an estimated 20 to 50 million people worldwide during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic? Because permafrost preserves bodies, and what remains in them, scientists hired professional gravediggers to hack into a mass grave of seven coal miners who arrived near Longyearbyen already sick with the flu in 1918.
Today, without ice, these graves pose a biological disaster waiting to be released by the unprecedented mudslides in the region. Before Rock Climber arrived, an avalanche wiped out the rental her partner arranged. For the first year, the two of them couch-surfed between the various islands. Svalbard is no stranger to the oddities of humanity arriving at the land of the midnight sun and retreating ice. Climate change, epidemics, mining, and tourism all in one place.
But not cats. Cats — and dying — are forbidden on Svalbard. Because of the isolated ecosystem, cats are banned to protect migrating birds. Also, a rabies outbreak started last year in 2018. Polar foxes contract the disease, as well as reindeer. Rock Climber has witnessed rabid reindeer, which makes me imagine Santa Claus horror stories.
For now, my daughter is happy to be stateside where polar bears don’t eat her chocolate, and people speak her native language. She loves trees and this planet. She lives at ground zero of a planet changing. Life is full of contradictions.
Denial wraps us up in a comforting blanket while we whisper the boogeyman away from under our beds. But to ponder walruses that can’t fly, polar bears that starve, and biology ripe for a zombie-apocalypse plotline seem horrific alternatives. The Beauty Way of the Navajo teaches that for all things out of context with life, we bring them back to the natural order. In a way, that’s what writers do.
We can write into the Shadowlands, shape what a world of great loss looks like, offer warnings more tangible than a flat-lined canary. We can write satire, use humor to call out political leaders making up science, or erasing it. We can write into the wave where the walrus yet live, put readers in the bow of a Zodiac prepared to journey to the center of their minds. We are writers. We can imagine the possibilities.
I can hear it in my daughter’s voice no matter the story — sad, funny, surprising — I can hear life.
In the end, it’s not about work. It’s not about what we did to save or end the planet. It’s all in how we live today. They say we only live once. But writers get many lives. Catch all the stories you can. Write them down. Find beauty among the rock outcroppings.
May 23, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story without ice. It can be a world without ice or a summer camp that runs out of cubes for lemonade. What does the lack mean to the story? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by May 28, 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.
Whiskey Ditch (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Honky-tonk music crackled over speakers, the kind her dad listened to – Merle Haggard. Danni’s boots crunched peanut shells on a floor that hadn’t been swept in years. Not recognizing anyone in particular, she noted the regulars easily – the hovering barflies and closed-eye drunks reliving better days. It’s the kind of place her dad would have entered, leaving her to sit in the cab of his truck, reading a book. For a moment, she felt small again. And it hit her. Ike had really left. Iraq had beckoned him becoming the other woman. Danni ordered a whiskey ditch without ice.
Two days after my middlest child turned 29 years old, I’m seeking trees. My daughter, Rock Climber, lives on a craggy glacier island in the Arctic, surrounded by massive mountains, polar bear prints, and eternal snow beneath skies as wide as any final frontier. She travels by Zodiac in seas so tumultuous she has to wear a full life-suit with a beacon. When she flies between islands, she lands on airstrips made of permafrost. For fun, she rides snowmobiles in the midnight sun and sends me goofy snapshots. When her dad was in the hospital, she taught her Norwegian friends to sing a raunchy rugby song she learned when watching him play in a Montana league.
This is my Bug Child. My wild girl crafted in her Ranger/Rugby father’s image.
She tells me she misses trees.
Have you ever lived someplace where there were no trees? Even in the North American deserts, juniper, pinion, and Joshua trees grow. I was born beneath a canopy of California oaks and raised in the Sierras where the Jeffry pines and cedars grow. Eyes wide open, I can still smell their scent — Jeffrey pines smell like vanilla when the sunshine warms their broom-like clusters of needles. I’m not a tree-hugger as much as I’m a tree-cuddler.
I used to ride my horse Captain Omega (don’t judge, I named him when I was 12, reading Greek Mythology) to the cedar groves. There, I’d sit with my back to a cedar with its auburn bark that I could peel like fiber. I used to compare the color of my long braids to the tree and pretend we were distantly related. I’d read, devouring books and traveling in my mind to places as remote as where Rock Climber now lives.
Trees are in my DNA. Bumpa, my nonagenarian great-grandfather who used to tell me stories when my mother dropped me off to visit him in the nursing home beneath the oaks. I only knew him in his nineties. He died when I was ten, and he was 99. But those stories live on within me, roots of his life touching mine. His parents were farmers from Denmark, immigrating to America. They came west to California and planted apricot orchards. He grew up, tending those trees. My grandmother continued to harvest their fruit even after her father sold the orchards. My mother and her sisters would eat green apricots until their bellies ached. I grew up eating dried apricots every Christmas. When my Bug Child was two, my mother taught her to filch fruit from low-hanging branches, declaring these were the one’s Bumpa’s father planted.
I once wrote a story about the sweetness of stolen sunshine, keeping in mind the female tradition of San Benito apricots. Those trees produced fruit I thought must taste like the ambrosia of the sun. Throughout life, I continued to nibble from trees. First apricots, and then the nuts from Sierra pines. Jeffry pinenuts are flat and acrid but carry that luscious scent. Pinion pinenuts are fat, greasy, and sweet. Yet they don’t produce every year. When pinenuts come into season, the Washo and Ute would flock to high desert groves and harvest from pitchy stunted trees. I can taste American history with each nibble, I can experience Johnny Appleseed with the plucking of wild apples. I dream of Rock Creek and Little House on the Prairie when I slurp the tart fruit of a wild Nebraska plum.
Family legend holds that my other great-grandfather could create trees. He knew how to splice and get a crab apple to grow on a Macintosh. What scientist do in labs with genes, my ancestors did with trees. They brought their own hybrids with them from the Basque lands, the Azores, and beyond. Not from Ireland though. I once had a family member tell me that the English cut down all the trees in Ireland, and perhaps my Irish blood still misses those trees. I’ve watched shows on how the modern English take care of ancient oaks, and Monty Don is welcome to teach me anything about trees. My British roots are all mixed up in the different eras of history, place, and culture but undoubtedly go back to the Celtic worshippers of trees.
Deciduous trees of the Keweenaw have root systems that communicate throughout the woods. When I’m alone on a trail, I can hear them talking. White pines once grew in abundance on this peninsula, but like most other places, trees of today displaced the trees of yesterday. Climate change is displacing us all. Weather patterns and extreme weather events change what trees grow where.
At times I feel like a wind-whipped pine holding onto the cliffside. Then the sun comes out, or a gentle rain washes away the dust. Maybe I’ll find a home in a tree, a nest to call my own.
So I ask again, have you ever lived someplace without trees? Can you imagine having to hunt for them, to grow up not knowing what it is to smell bark or rake leaves or taste fruit?
My daughter misses trees. So I am seeking trees to give her stories to remind her.
May 16, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that goes in search of trees. It can be one particular tree, a grove, woods, or forest. What makes the tree worth seeking? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by May 21, 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.
Laid to Rest (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Danni asked Ike to fall the tree, an ancient Ponderosa with thick plates of bark assembled like puzzle pieces. She estimated it had stood over the abandoned cemetery at least three centuries before burials. Mostly sawyers and log-camp followers found final rest beneath its branches. A hundred years ago, this Ponderosa would have netted the logging company enough money to cover wages. Yet they had spared the tree. Danni didn’t guess why, but she asked her husband to fall it because he understood the code of the forest. He’d remove the diseased old-timer with respect to those it guarded.
Soon, I’ll be another year older. I don’t really think of birthdays in terms of age; I’m more excited about cake and the possibility of a champagne sunset on Calumet Waterworks Beach. The 1.2 billion-year-old rocks interest me more than contemplating my meager years. I’m a mayfly in comparison to a Lake Superior agate. Why waste life worrying about growing older?
On Wednesday, I attended One Million Cups and listened to an eighty-something gerontologist talk about her experiences of growing older. Before she reached a high number of decades, she studied the aging process. According to definition, gerontology is the study of the social, cultural, psychological, cognitive, and biological aspects of aging. This woman educates readers on what to expect during the natural aging process. And I’ll give you a hint — aging is not a sickness.
Writer, Jolayne Farrell, answers questions at her popular blog, On Growing Older just as she did for decades in her newspaper column. When she told her story, I picked out many instances of her willingness to take risks. She talked about discomfort and uncertainty, but she also lit up at the idea of pursuing passions. In fact, she passed out her business card attached to a colorful blank card with a red circle she called a life-saver. She invited us to write down our dreams and keep that card with us at all times.
We might not be spared growing older, but our life-saver will keep us alive.
This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Gabriel García Márquez:
“It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.”
Jolayne shared with us her travels, work as a hospice nurse, and pursuit of what drives her own passions. She mentioned visiting other octogenarians in their mining homes (on the Keweenaw) surrounded by their memories. This made me realize how static we often try to make life. Do we think we can slow down the slippage of sand through the hourglass? I’m certain I don’t want my end-goal to be safe-guarding memorabilia.
My first year on the Keweenaw, I had a transformative experience at an estate sale. After the final owner of a home dies, a company comes in, working with the family, to clean out and sell the household items. I overheard a conversation at a sale — an elderly woman pined over a vintage set of glassware, commenting that they were “just like hers.” The woman’s daughter responded that they had downsized her belongings and she certainly was not going to get more “stuff.”
My heart ached. In part, I understood the daughter’s frustration. Likely, mom was living in assisted living or with family. She didn’t have the comfort of her old home surrounded by her memories. I felt the pining in contrast to the burden stuff can also bring.
When my best friend’s father died, and her mother went into a memory care facility, I helped my friend pack up her parents’ house. It was a painful experience, although we had plenty to laugh about (like all the teeth and hoard of toiletries we found in the bathroom). Sadly my friend died untimely of cancer. Is death ever timely?
Her children then had to sort through their mom’s and grandparents’ stuff. They were grieved and overwhelmed.
Yet, I felt for the elderly woman longing for her glassware. Sense of home stems from stuff surrounding us. I collect stories — books, rocks, and even broken glass. Other people gather family mementos or tools. One generation passes down glassware to the next. But not everyone wants great-grandma’s china. I have my great-grandmother’s recipes which I fashion into stories and serve along with the sopas or enchiladas. Yet both find connection to the past.
My imagination surges out west where the pining pictures pioneers unloading treasured household stuff to abandon glassware, dishes, and hutches along the Forty Mile Desert Trail across northern Nevada. The woman I briefly encountered at the state sale becomes one I imagine standing beside the wagon, gripping her apron as her husband deposits everything of hers deemed unessential on the blowing sand. The oxen stagger, needing water and hay. The children must walk in the sun, and they continue on, hoping the beasts don’t die to add their bleached bones to others. Once this woman makes it to Ragtown, did she dream of going back? In California, was she never satisfied, longing for her desert glassware?
Often, pioneers only had what they could take to remember home. Many would not see family again, and losing stuff adds to the sense of isolation. If you only had room for a few things, would you save a glass? Could you deposit your belongings in the desert if it meant your safe passage? Would you miss it years later?
I once saw a t-shirt that read, “Growing older is not for sissies.” It takes courage to balance what to take and what to leave behind; what to remember and what yet to experience. All the while we lose or sprout hair, find our posture slacking or our feet tapping out of sync. Did you know that a woman can experience hot flashes in her teeth? Yeah, no one told me that one, either. Digestions change and senses diminish. It’s the kind of transformation that signals the reality of change. Children grow up, waists expand, stuff matters more or less.
But Jolayne’s message was about embracing life. Not life at 20 or life at 50. But life. Life as it presents itself at the moment. Each day we ask, how will I live my best today?
The creative life is every day. It’s not when it’s now. On May 14, my middlest child turns 29, and a week later I’ll turn 52. It’s a middle of the spectrum age — it sounds young to some and old to others. It’s a number I can’t feel. I’m me, no matter what shifts. I have a robust imagination that sees beyond the day-to-day. Waly Disney said, “Laughter is timeless, imagination has no age, and dreams are forever.”
May 9, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about growing older. It can be humorous, dark or poignant. It can be true or total fiction. It can be fine wine or an old fossil. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by May 14, 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.
Old Bones (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“That bone is heavy as iron,” Ramona said, picking up a fossil from Danni’s workbench. Ramona no longer recognized the bone or knew its story. Nothing seemed familiar these days.
Ike put his arm around Ramona, grinning. “It’s old as you, Gran’ma.”
Danni was brushing glass shards, musing over what they might tell her about 19th century occupancy near her garden. She paused. “Ike, you know that’s a dinosaur bone.”
Ramona winked. “Well, if bones get heavier with age then that explains the numbers on the bathroom scale.”
Danni laughed. At least Ramona hadn’t forgotten her sense of humor.
Spring demands a pickaxe.
My neighbors chop their remaining snow piles dirty with stamp sand the road commission uses to grit streets throughout a Keweenaw winter. Remnants line the gutters. Other neighbors sweep away the byproduct of 150 years of copper mining. I scour the driveway and sidewalk to the back of the house on Roberts Street with my daughter’s corn-broom, swinging at grit as if I were fighting a battalion of field mice. Maple leaves move along at a groggy pace, damp and matted.
At the edge of the concrete, I discover brick pavers long buried beneath turf, dirt, and moss. In a frenzy of cleaning fueled by spring vibes and the need to move, I focus on excavation. The saturated earth easily tears away in clumps of grass, rooted maple saplings, and webs of weeds. An extended old sidewalk emerges as my reward, ending beneath one of three grand maples where one day I will set up a tea table. I sweep away more leaves to expose a flower bed, bare grape vines, and more visions of a place to call home.
Beneath the maple, glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae) rises like spring’s pickaxe from beneath the carpet of winter’s leavings. Grass-like stems spear so fiercely, they impale mats of maple leaves. Glory-of-the-snow unfold into purple and white star-flowers in the shadows of dwindling snow banks. The cosmos have momentarily dipped to earth. Miners who once drilled beneath the Keweenaw had wives who planted these resilient spring flowers, a baton of strength from the past.
The Finns have a word — sisu. It means something like determination and inner strength. It’s not courage, but rather something elemental in a person’s core. Finnish decendents of the Keweenaw turn to sisu to survive the long winters. It’s not a one-time deal, but a consistent ability to overcome adversity. I’m not a Finn, but I know sisu.
Maybe that’s why I enjoy watching neighbors pickaxe the remaining snow. I feel their determination with each stroke. I swipe away grit and watch flowers emerge, marveling that snow, stamp sand, and floral glory can exist simultaneously. A Keweenaw friend once described local nissu bread to me — “it’s gritty, but sweet; kinda like the Finns who eat it.” Nissu bread is not for sissies, but it takes to thimbleberry jam without complaint.
What is my thimbleberry jam, I wonder? I know my grit, my ability to rise like dough from the pounding. I also know beauty, the sweet spread of life lived in the moment. While worrying about a burgeoning infection surrounding the Hub’s new titanium, we both couldn’t help but gasp in joy as a merlin blew past the front window like a sky-racer down Roberts Street. That’s thimbleberry jam.
The worry passes. Merlins soar eternally. Someone once stood on this hill overlooking the waterway 3,000 years ago, poking around for the metal to make spear points to feed children half-starved from a harsh winter and a merlin blew past. Hope lifts up. Sisu gains root. And the hunter knows winters will come again. So will the merlins. So will the trout lillies and fiddlehead ferns. Sisu makes sure we don’t hang our heads and miss the flying.
As for the Hub’s knee, Doc says it’s “lookin’good.” The increased pain and redness is frostbite. Let’s say, I might have sisu. I’m a terrific advocate, a great encourager, but I suck at being a carer. In my heightened sense of duty, I overachieved on the icing and frosted the Hub’s new knee. Doc chuckled and said, “They didn’t educate you, did they?”
I have no idea who “they” are other than they say lots of stuff about history and politics, too. No, “they” never taught me how to use an ice bucket. I observed that it was used around the clock in the hospital, and when the nurse gave me Doc’s orders, I took them to the word — “ice.” So I iced. Good news is that x-rays confirmed no infection, the skin will heal, and halejuliah, I no longer have to haul ice up the stairs every four hours. I also advocated for a med change and it has made a huge difference, too. Brownie point for speaking up.
And then I threw away the Hub’s wallet. Cleanliness — to prevent infection — and lack of sleep led to a missing wallet. He panicked. I didn’t. After all, it’s not like he’s been gadding about any further than the bathroom. We pulled back the mattress, flashed the light in corners, moved dressers, search every weird place we could think of and no wallet. The Hub said it had fallen into the bedside trash once and he pulled it out. With everything condensed within his reach, it likely got knocked again and I didn’t think to look in the trash before depositing it outside in the can. The can that got hauled away before we realized what happened.
He’s sad. But I remember that the merlins are back. And the snow that hit us this week quickly melted. And that my Brussel sprouts are growing in the eggshells where I planted their seeds. And I have hopes for black gladiolas at the back of the Roberts Street house. We make the necessary calls. I believe sisu can exist because beauty exists.
In July, I’ll be offering my first Carrot Ranch Writing Refuge in Vermont. We will entwine ourselves in nature and writing. One of the lessons I’ve prepared is based on the Navajo “beauty way” as expressed in novels by Tony Hillerman. Another examines the writing of Craig Childs to explore a sense of place and beauty despite natural disaster. And we’ll learn to observe like Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, and Terry Tempest Williams. Beauty balances sisu in writing.
No matter what grit you might have to brush away from your own writing, and no matter how many times you must rise again against doubt, rise. Look for a merlin of your own, or catch the once a year smattering of flowers named for glories.
And tune into #NaNoProMo over on Twitter and at BadRedhead Media. It’s a month-long gathering of marketing expertise for authors. If you comment on the official post each day, you are registered to win prizes from each of the book marketing experts who offer a giveaway with each post. I’ll be talking about credibilty as part of author branding and offering a free Author Action Plan to the day’s winner. It’s a tool I developed for my book cultivation workshops and I’m pleased with it because it helps me meet each author where they are at to illuminate a path to where they want to be.
During NaNoProMo, I will offer a special consultation for an Author Action Plan (scroll to the bottom of the page).
We are each individual. There is no one plan that fits all.
But what writers do have in common is that determination to get it done on our own terms. Despite the obstacles. Despite circumstances. Despite age and regret, or youth and inexperience. We write with sisu.
May 2, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about sisu. It’s a Finnish concept of enduring strength, the ability to consistently overcome. Think long-term. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by May 7, 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 Evil in the Night (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Successive gun shots startled Danni from sleep. 2:04 a.m. She reached for Ike’s AR-15 resting between the dresser and wall. Years of Ike drilling her lent a strange familiarity to her husband’s weapon. But he was halfway around the world in Iraq. She dialed 9-1-1. The nearest deputy was 25 minutes away. Stepping outside, rifle cradled in the crook of her arm, Danni watched a silent pack of wolves run like liquid silver across the frozen pond in moonlight. Danni understood: Wolves run with sisu in their blood, outpacing the malevolence that follows – men with no regard for life.
My spirit has slumped for the moment. I’m exhausted. This month has resolved years of spinning in circles. The Hub officially has a new knee. We spent Easter weekend with our son and future DIL in Wisconsin, meeting the priest who will marry them next year. We are close to getting approved to buy the Roberts Street House where I’ll have two rooms to offer visiting writers. And the weather has warmed the earth to generate the first batch of crocus. All good, but I’m wiped.
The Hub’s knee replacement has been 35 years in the making. After talking to the surgeon and one of his physical therapist, I’m delighted that we pushed through to get it replaced earlier than the VA wanted him to. Although it also infuriates me that they didn’t do it sooner. Moving forward, I’ll embrace the delight and hard work of giving the Hub a better leg to stand on.
It’s been nutty since we last talked gender. Weird, too. Over the weekend, after we drove down to Prairie Du Sac, I received a message to advise me that a shirt-show was brewing on Twitter. I’m part of the line-up for next month’s author marketing event NaNoProMo hosted by Rachel Thompson (author, creator of #MondayBlogs, and marketing guru to indie authors). In one of her promotions of my previous marketing articles at her website, my shirt from my author headshot was noticed.
Bob Mayer, a NYT best-selling author, and former Green Beret, questioned why a woman was wearing what he recognized as authentic Ranger and unit tabs. It was a testosterone filled inquiry, implying that women are not yet assigned to Ranger units (two did make it through all three phases of Ranger school). Had he taken time to read my author bio he would have at least understood that I’m the wife of a former US Army Ranger who writes about the veteran spouse experience. But he didn’t.
By the time I caught up over on Twitter, not only was I the wrong sex to be a Ranger, but others commented I was also the wrong age and size. Bob is a former Green Beret. He likely experiences what my husband does — knowing that there were 437 Navy Seals in Vietnam but having met all 10,000 of them. People make false claims of elite military units all the time. And it rankles the few who actually served in those units. But the other commenters fell into the phenomenon of sensing a public shaming.
Yes, I was shirt-shamed on Twitter.
Having caught it soon enough, I was able to respond:
“That’s my husband’s shirt. We’ve been married 32 years, homeless the last three because of his symptoms of CTE from head hits during his service. I’ve fought to get him help. He let me wear his shirt for my author headshots because I write about the veteran spouse experience.”
I could have left it at “That’s my husband’s shirt.” But I was feeling vulnerable, sitting in the dark of my son’s apartment after everyone had gone to bed, thinking I’d read stories at the Ranch and instead felt thunked over the head. I’m tired of not having a home. I’m tired of not knowing how to fully explain my husband’s odd behavior. I’m tired of having to cope with early onset dementia. And it’s early! What next? So I wanted to reply in a way that made Bob look like a jackass for his original comment. It succeeded in shutting down any further comments.
Except one. A woman called out the man. And on gender week at Carrot Ranch. She called him “a sexist piece of shit.” Thought I chuckled, it only made me feel more isolated. I didn’t want to be some poster child for sexism. I had a surgery to prepare for — not mine, his.
And it went well, it really did. It was hard at night because I’d leave the hospital, and he’d tell the nurses something like, “I don’t want any opiods,” and they’d struggle to figure out what to do with the docs and pharmacists all gone, knowing he’d be in worse pain trying to fight it with only Tylenol. Then he’d text or call me because he was in excruciating pain and I’d be howling at the nurses to give him his assigned meds. Now that he’s home under my care, I can better regulate his pain med schedule, keep him iced, and apply ointments. I get no sleep until he does.
It’s frustrating, the little ways his brain doesn’t work the way it should. Like not understanding the importance of the pain meds for a total knee replacement. Sometimes he says things like advising the nurse not to use his third finger to draw blood from because it gives strange results. I usually get odd looks. By the end of his stay, they would not tell him anything important without me there. But they remained respectful, and I admired the way nurses listened to him and made him feel valued even if his understanding of circumstances is skewed.
The doc tells me my Ranger is going to be a new Cowboy. I’ll take that.
And, with great hope, we may qualify for a program to take out a VA loan without anything down. Unless the bank would take my boxes of books or our RV, we have nothing to put down. We’ll do okay on his disability until I can finish up my MFA. I don’t know when or if we’ll get our belongings out of storage in Idaho, but I plan to furnish two rooms to host visiting writers. Like I did in Idaho, the rooms will be free, and I’ll set up reading opportunities. Maybe I’ll do a fundraiser to set up those rooms, but first, we have to get the house.
Before that, I need a full night of sleep.
Give me some time to catch up on my ranch chores. The weekly compilations are a labor of love, and I will get over to read everybody’s submissions when I can hold open my eyes. Thank you for understanding. And for taking on a hot topic like gender with such openness and curiosity. Hallmarks of literary art.
April 25, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes exhaustion. Who is exhausted and why? Can you make art of exhaustion? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by April 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.
Tired No More (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Trench work became harder with an archeology field school of newbies. The questions exhausted Danni more than digging on her knees.
“What’s this,” was the most common question.
By late afternoon the scrape of her trowel sang a different tune. Instead of soft forest duff, the trowel made the higher pitched scrape against something hard. “Do you hear that,” Danni shouted to any close enough to hear. They all came running.
As she revealed the flat of something large and human-made, they all lost their sense of exhaustion. Curiosity woke them up and eased the aches of hard digging.
Today, I’m dressed for success. My hair is cut to shoulder-length with a buzzed undercut that I will keep until I die. At least that’s what I told my new hair-dresser, NC (she’s from North Carolina). How freeing to have that mass of heavy hair lifted from the back of my head. I rub the fuzzy stubble that feels like velvet. Head velvet. The rest of my hair covers it, so unless I clip my hair up, you’d not know I shave part of my head. It pairs with my favorite worm flannel shirt of blue and gray buffalo plaid. No strappy undergarments hem me in today, and I’m wearing a cheap flowy and floral yoga pants I found on Amazon for nine dollars.
A board room executive might feel confident in a tailored suit and expensive shoes, but I’m writing away, barefoot and comfortable. This is my definition of success — pursuing a creative life without dressing and primping to codes that don’t fit me.
NC shaves the left side of her head. She has pretty blond curls and a shaved patch which was impulsive — her hair was hanging in her face one day, and she buzzed it off. She laughed, admitting she picked up the razor impulsively but justified that as a hair-dresser, she knew the look would be in fashion. My daughter asked her dad to shave her head into a high-and-tight and women are exploring razor cuts. NC said, “It’s freeing.”
And yes it is. Freeing physically — it feels great — and from social expectations of how women are supposed to wear their hair. I like the undercut because I can have both buzzed and longer locks.
I know women who had to wear dresses growing up. I loathed dresses. I felt most like me in Wrangler jeans, flannel shirts, and boots. Certain activities, however, dictated I had to have a dress or two in my closet. At age 15, I had three jobs and money to hire a local seamstress who made me two dresses according to patterns I pieced together. Both were checked gingham and looked pioneer-meets-80s-pop. The fad never caught on with anyone else, but if I were going to be forced to wear dresses to compete in forensics, it would be on my terms and in my white, gold-tipped cowboy boots.
When I had three children — two girls and one boy, I let their own tastes dictate their choices. Mostly they wore hand-me-downs or clothes we bartered for at yard sales, but they got to pick what to wear. My son’s favorite color to this day is hot pink. My girls both disdain pink because it’s girly (yet they don’t think of their brother as girly). Colors are colors. Why do we assign gender association?
Recently, I saw a post on Twitter. The photo had two cards side by side. The card with a pink envelop read, “I’d buy you flowers.” The card with the blue envelop read, “I’d make you a sandwich.” The person posting made a comment about capitalism and cooking, or something like that. I didn’t really pay too much attention because I got lost on the tangent that the line of cards targeted kids. I was like, wait, kids are buying each other greeting cards? I thought kids still made cards for others.
But the image stayed with me because I later became confused. Yes, the messages were gender tropes, or were they? Nothing on the cards said which gender had to buy which card and for whom. I thought of my son and his favorite color. Why would my son buy such a card, and I imagined him as an eight-year-old boy. He studied ballet, loved receiving flowers at recitals, and the color pink. If he were to buy a card for his best buddy, he would have selected the pink one about flowers.
Where is the pressure to be binary come from? Obviously family of origin, secondary would be the culture we grew up in and participate in. My family called me Charli from the time I came home from the hospital. I rode horses, pushed cattle, worked on logging sites, and cleaned houses after school. I wore dresses when necessary, and find joy in wearing a broad range of colors. Some days I’m a lumberjack, and other days I’m a colorful diva. I like feeling a mixture of appropriate and rebellious.
Sometimes I’ve had to be strong. Resilient. Other days I’ve cried over the beauty of a sunset.
What does this say about my gender? Honestly, I don’t know. The more I think about it, the more confused I become. I can fall back on social norms and say that I’m a married mom of three. Duh. Female. But one of my daughters, married and choosing not to be a mother, says she is gender fluid. Her husband, a self-proclaimed feminist, accepts this. They are less confused about the fluidity of gender. They don’t experience the rigidity of binarism.
Gender binary by definition is “the classification of gender into two distinct, opposite, and disconnected forms of masculine and feminine, whether by social system or cultural belief.”
And I feel free to not choose sides. I accept that others freak out at the thought of not having the boxes. If they want the boxes, they can have the boxes. But why can’t we also accept boxlessness?
Today, an extraordinary thing took place — I officially became a resident of Michigan. I have a new enhanced driver’s license (meaning I can cross borders into Canada and Mexico, which I will need when D. Avery and I go road tripping between the Kingdom and the Keweenaw after the Writing Refuge where JulesPaige, Susan Sleggs, and Ann Edall Robson will be meeting up). I’m also registered to vote. But all the applications and paperwork made me choose: (box) male or (box) female. I was fine ticking F, but I worried for those who are not.
<And here is where I insert, you really need to read Anne Goodwin’s Sugar and Snails.>
I’ve been toying with gender as a prompt but didn’t know how to prompt it without complication. Literary art expresses our deepest authentic selves if we are brave enough to dive below the surface. Last Saturday, I met with local writers for Wrangling Words at the library. They are a terrific bunch of authors and poets. I told them I was experimenting and wanted to know is “gender” could elicit a response as a prompt. The variety ranged from a confused ivy-like intergalactic being misunderstanding human genders to my own exploration of a boy buying a friend a card. So I’m going to go with it!
<And here is where I insert, if you have any recent books you wish to promote, I’ll be updating ads next week. They are free for all our Ranchers who play here with 99-words and more.>
April 18, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about gender. It can be fixed or fluid. Explore the topic on your own terms and open your mind to possibilities and understanding. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by April 23, 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.
Why Choose? by Charli Mills
The conference held at the UCLA campus thought of everything to address gender identity. The bathrooms were resigned, and attendees could declare their preferred pronouns.
“I’m not a pronoun. I am me.”
“Yes, but do you identify he or she.”
“I am he or she.”
A line piled at the registration table. The woman seated, and we’ll call her a woman because a petunia pink ribbon beneath her conference Volunteer badge declared such, tapped her finger. “Look, organizers are sensitive to your identity. But you gotta tell me – do you want a blue ribbon or pink.”
Simon’s Pink Card by Charli Mills
Simon’s best friend Frank had crashed his bike, breaking his ankle. Simon’s mom suggested he make his friend a card. But Simon couldn’t draw the lines right and this made him sad.
“Let’s go buy Frank a card, okay?”
Simon brightened. Standing before rows of cards, he finally found the perfect one. The words described what he tried so hard to draw and couldn’t afford to purchase.
“But it’s pink.”
Simon smiled. “I like the words.”
That day, Frank grinned from ear to ear when his best buddy delivered a card that read, “I’d buy you all the flowers.”
It’s one of those days that my calendar has an extended period of time and so I choose to fill it with writing. Every morning, I rise, answer the Hub’s question — “Watchya doin’ Tarli?” — go downstairs, take my probiotics, set the timer for 30minutes, and write. It doesn’t matterwhat I write. I give myself permission to write junk. Words help me to process, to think and express my emotions. I can brainstorm any project, work out resolutions, let my characters talk, or describe a scene I’ve having difficulty extracting from my head. I complain, celebrate, but never censor. I write.
With entended time and ticked boxes on my list, I enjoy a good run. This morning, I wrote past and started to hunger for lunch. But I chose to keep writing. The UPS man delivered a box and that broke my thoughts. My tummy rumbled. I hadn’t yet had black tea. Soon it would be time to go help at the yoga studio my SIL is opening May 1. I almost felt finished. I wrote on.
Satisfied, I thought maybe I could use what I wrote as a post. When I copied it over to edit and revise, I realised it was over 5,000 words. Ugh. Easier to write a 1,000 than edit five times as much. While writing, an interesting phrase popped up that caused me to wonder — beggars can’t be choosers.
By definition, it’s a proverb, meaning that those with no other options must be content with what is offered.
But is it true that we have no other options? Who tells us we must be content? Those who took away the options? The phrases felt jarring and I recognized it as old programing from the environment in which I was raised. I see it’s essence in the lack of compassion people have today for the hardships of others. I better understand how cleverly crafted the phrase is to let injustice stand because the victims have no other choice than to accept what is. I can imagine greedy capitalists hiding behind the proverb as if their meager handouts bring satisfaction, making them righteous and right. Take what’s left from the raping of the land — be content with your lot — beggars can’t be chosers.
While I’m not going to share my 5k mind explorations, I can say why it came up.
We are preparing for the Hub’s knee replacement surgery on April 22. He destroyed his knee on a bad jump into Grenada in 1983. It pained him and locked up after that but he soldiered on and the military took no interest in his gait, altered mood, and trouble with cognition. The jump that bashed his knee also smacked his head, twice. This less than a week after he was knocked out cold in a base game of soccer. I was processing all we’ve been through since a doctor proclaimed in 1987 that he needed a total knee replacement. Only, no insurance would cover it and the VA denied it. What they denied then, we got them to finally service connect in 2016 after we filed in 2014. I also wanted them to check his head. Something was wrong.
Almost 36 years after the injury, one that has caused a multitude of problems, the Hub is getting his knee replacement. Beggars can’t be choosers. In other words, he’s had to be content with “no other options.” And I’m not going to write another 5,000 words on what I think about that.
Because I come back to the same conclusion and three empowering words:
We have choices.
Always. We always have choices. Suspect those who say you don’t. What are they trying to rob you of? In 1862 when the Dakota tribe of Minnesota was starving, three teens chose to go looking for food. A Norwegien family who did not speak English feared the natives when they rode up to their farm, asking for eggs. Begging. But asking nonetheless. The teens didn’t set out to start a war that day. They chose to ask their nbeighbors for food. But beggars can’t be choosers, so the frightened farmer grabbed a rifle and shot over their heads to run them off. Historians can debate who robbed whom first — some will say the treaties for land favored the Dakota; others will bring up the shady dealings of the traders who intercepted the treaty money with claims that the tribe owed them money for goods. The boys that day never robbed the farmer. They asked. But in the heat of the moment, the rising anger, the sense of being born to land their ancestors once owned but now failed to feed their hungry bellies — the beggers rebelled, retatiated and killed the farmer and his family.
We always have choice. It doesn’t mean we choose well or smart. It doesn’t mean the world must be just first. It doesn’t mean we will act with justice. Accountability is acknowledging our capacity of choice and taking responsibility for our actions. Accountability can also mean deciding to make better choices next time.
Little Crow, as leader of the Dakota, had a choice to make. He deliberated over whether or not to hand over the teens to US authority. He had made multiple trips to Washington DC on behalf of his people, explaining their predicament, asking that the treaties be honored. He was told money would come “soon.” It never did. Aid never came, either. But more immigrants from Europe crowded the land where his people tried to adapt to farming, but cut worms killed their 1861 crops. They even adapted to the language and religion. Little Crow was Christian but politicians in power regarded them as savages. He was leader of his starving tribe and the center of unacknowledged injustice. His ribs were emaciated. Beggars can’t be choosers.
When the anuities for the tribe never came, and the stores refused to let Little Crow take food on credit, he reportedly said, “Starving men will help themselves.” Sometimes choices are forced, which is why the proverb tries to teach those at their lowest to be content. But it is human to rise after getting knocked down. Little Crow did not turn over the teens to authorities. Neither did he agree that war was the answer. He deliberated and chose to go to war with the US instead of hunting buffalo. During the Civil War, the Dakota attacked Minnesota and won several of their battles. They also killed many settlers, graves I have visited, battefields, I’ve seen, wondering about the fool choices of an expanding nation that pressured a tribe to draw first blood.
Little Crow survived the battles. The Dakota were rounded up — every woman, child, elder and warrior — and imprisoned. President Lincoln commuted the death sentence for hundreds of warriors but on Christmas Eve (remember, this was a cultural group who had adopted Christianity so they understood the holiday) 36 men were hung in front of their families and tribe. Years later, while picking raspberries with his grandson, Little Crow was aprehended by men from a nearby town, hung, shot and drug behind a wagon with firecrackers in his nostrils for the cheers of the town who felt he was a monster for not knowing his place as a beggar.
And how did I come upon these cheerful thoughts? It was the dilema of a bed that got me thinking of the phrase. You see, the Hub will have surgery and require weeks of home care during recovery. We are guests inour daughter’s home, and not to belittle all they have provided for us, but we don’t even have our own bed. The one we use is an antique and so tall that I have to use a box to get on top. It will be impossible for the Hub post-surgery. When we received the list of alterations we needed make, I felt like we had no choice and that phrase popped into mind.
I corrected my thinking. I have choices. I don’t have to go without or settle for what is offered or be content with what won’t work. I looked through the local classified and did not find what we needed or wanted. I turned to Amazon and found a beautiful bedframe with sturdy steel slats and a low (but not too low) height. It was in our price range, too. It meant we would have to choose not to do something else, but that’s for later. Choices are empowering.
Our task might be less so, but I think this topic is worthy to explore.
April 11, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story using the phrase “beggars can’t be choosers.” You can play with the words, alter them or interpret them without using the phrase. Give it any slant you want — show what it means or add to its meaning. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by April 16, 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.
Smart Beggars (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Danni overheard the receptionist say. She had stopped by the division office to resupply the fire-camp. Her grimy skin felt foul as her temper. Danni would set that uppity woman straight.
When Mavis hung up, Danni asked, “Who’s that?”
“Oh, hi, Danni. You look a fright.”
“I’m taking back the new supplies.”
“The ones that didn’t arrive?”
Danni slumped. “What will we do,” she mumbled.
Mavis answered brightly, “Beggars can’t be choosers, but Daddy raised no fool. I just sweet-talked old Jeb at DNR to find a roundabout way for us. Beggars can be smart.”
On March 29, Northern Lights flamed orange and gold over the Keweenaw. The sky colors raged like solar flares. These were no gentle green and blue sheets of shimmering arctic lights, but full expressions of Copper Country fusion. It came as no coincidence that 47 North raised the roof of the Continental Fire Company earlier that night.
Awakening began at 8 p.m. to a full house. The dance performances have grown in popularity, and the management had to open the upstairs bar and create a theater in the round perspective from above. My son-in-law opens every show as a theatric MC, grabbing attention with his voice and humor. The dancers opened with a remix of Wicked Game, a slow smoldering beat-heavy song that begins, “The world is on fire, and no one can save me but you.”
Each beat, the dancers popped in unison.
Pops are an under-appreciated element of belly dance. When most people hear the style, they think Mediterranean restaurants and women in sheer costumes swiveling hips and smiling for men. Not this troupe. 47 North Belly Dance is raq sharqi, Egyptian-style cabaret, ballet, hip-hop, and modern. They are fusion. And pops come from the ability to isolate muscles and control movement. They include the shape-shifting choreography of modern dance where dancers meld in and out of shapes with contrast and flow. Balletic grace infuses fiery strength. 47 North is a warrior tribe of strong female dancers.
After Wicked Game, I stepped onto the stage and read:
Welcome to the dark side: The black loamy soil from which crocus bulbs must break the surface. Before there can be spring, there must be winter. Life germinates in the dark, undulating to a restless energy, the manifestation of what comes next, a stirring felt by birds and bees and rising maple sap. On the stage dancers cast long shadows in the bright lights. They embrace the ancient rhythms, become the crocus spears beneath the surface. This too is part of life. The dance with darkness, the dance within shadows, the pre-emergence, incubation, propagation of winter absorbed by spring.
Two stories of bar chatter, clanking glasses and shaking ice creates a buzz I project over the top of like some Beat Generation poet, hustling literary art on the crowd. It’s not a typical reading venue, nor is it friendly. People don’t listen politely. It’s Friday night, and the party is underway. But I love this fusion of art, this opportunity to attend dance rehearsals, discuss meanings with choreographers and share a bit of their stage to read 99-word stories. I retreat to the shadows in the wings and two succubi, one short, one tall, dominates the stage, filling the space between their differences with an energy of seductive strength. This is not come-hither-boys seduction; it’s the dance of women owning their own sexuality.
The crowd roars and the fires are lit.
Throughout the evening the troupe dances from dark, sultry pieces that include bats to the in between stage we know so well on the Keweenaw — before there is the daffodil spring we must endure the long melt of grit and snow-husks. We must crack the thinning ice. In Between, I read:
They chiseled their way into deep shafts, miners drilling through the basalt of a peninsula rich in copper. Men searching for copper. Women carve deep into the pits of their own souls to discover treasure within – the power to create, the power to renew. Spring awakens the miners. Tommy Knockers never stop searching in between dark and light. Fortune glistens in the returning light of spring to illuminate hidden veins held in the dark. Smell the musty earth and search for copper in your own blood. Plant a seed, pluck a stone. Spring has returned to Copper Country.
As MC, Solar Man entertains the crowd. He makes jokes: “Why did the belly dancer cross the road? She heard there were costumes on the other side.” We all laugh, but I’m not sure the crowd fully understands the troupe’s obsession with costumes which, like their dance style, is an eclectic mix to create vibrant visuals on stage. Hip belts are often the product of ripped leather coats resewn with cheap baubles and dime-store rhinestones. Tops are enhanced bras studded with costume jewelry, satin, and lace. Skirts are often scarves. Dancers use fans, veils, swords and golden canes to accent their costumes.
The light dawns. The dances and costumes become more golden and glittery, the dances more joyous. This performance has been a full awakening. Before the finale, I have a point to make. One I want every artist to understand. We can strive to do our best, but no one is ever “the best” at art. You can tell the dancers, like my daughter in her high-and-tight buzz cut, that have trained for years in ballet. Grace imbues the way they hold their arms and necks. You can spot the dancers that flow with the music. You can compare ages, heights, and other numbers that hold no real meaning but are easy descriptors.
But you ‘d be hard pressed to agree on who is best.
I bring this up because writers often compare themselves to perceptions of best. Discipline doesn’t shape art, but play does. You can’t draft from the editor’s chair. You have to write first. After you write you can certainly improve. The trick is, you have to keep writing. When you’ve amassed, then you can take a scalpel and practice precision. But keep writing. It becomes a dance. Pay too much attention to the other birds, and you can lose your will to chirp. Sing alongside the birds and add your unique voice, practicing the best you can do, not concerned about being the best bird.
Before the dancers took to the stage where they would flow and merge as small groups into one big group with each dancer creating different movements, I read:
The Greatest Show on Earth returns in spring with birdsong. It has been said by ornithologists wiser than me that if only the best birds sang, the woods would be silent. How can we possibly define the best bird song anyhow? How can we say that the golden-wing warblers out-sing the piping plovers? How can we deny the soul-stirring refrains of our favorite songs on the radio though yours and mine will differ? How can we not leave a live performance unchanged? The light has returned, and the birds have brought you out of the dark. Own your transformation.
47 North took to the stage and owned the transformation. The first time I saw them rehearse The Greatest Show, I cried. This troupe expressed how each dancer was different, but together they were stronger in their expression of art. They danced the way I feel when I arrange the collection of 99-word stories each week. I say this over an over, but it is true — art requires interaction. I might feel awesome writing my best, but it’s nothing if I don’t connect with others who read or hear it. Connecting when I’ve not written my best still feels more awesome than unacknowledged work. Unread, that’s what it is — my work. Shared, it becomes art.
The Continental Fire Company likes flash fiction. It’s because of my small readings they sponsored our Rodeo. The club manager always comes over to my chair in the shadows and explains how he likes the dances better with my stories, he feels drawn in to better understand what the performance means. Several people listen. Most talk. I don’t mind because the few who plug in, connect like a spark to fuel the flames.
But that night — March 29, 2019, those dancers took to the stage knowing one of their members was retiring to take a job out of town, and they all danced for her, with her, and for the mutual love of their shared art. The fire roared! The crowd caught it, ignited, and they roared back, feet pounding, hands clapping, hoots and hollers, whistles and trills. When the audience gave back the energy to the dancers, it was like a vortex opened up. It was a rock-star moment, and the performance ended with a thundering standing ovation.
I don’t want to be “the best” writer. I just want to write the way those women danced!
Sunday followed the performance, and I had my first To Cultivate a Book retreat at the Ripley Falls Home of Hygge (or Healing). It’s a safe space to explore the creative life. I’m not here to tell someone the magic way to get published, the traditional way, the indie way. I’m here to listen. I meet writers where they are at, and I help them see what the terrain looks like. I help them plant and grow the book they envision. That’s the retreat part. Interspersed, I offered practical knowledge. Each attendee is working on an Author Action Plan that is cultivated to fit their book on their terms, knowing their options in the greater industry.
This is something I’ve felt called to do for a long time. Like all writers who face doubt, I wondered if it would be of value. Sunday I had my answer. Six women came together. Three had previously unshared works. Three felt called but had not figured out what their books were. I listened. I let my story-catcher out, and I caught nuggets to reveal as gems to each person. Seeing the fire light up in their eyes made my day!
Three of the women have serious books that each blew me away. I couldn’t believe they had not shared them, but then I understood. Our seedlings are fragile, and we must share with care lest someone stomp out the flames too soon. I felt like a book farmer, helping people grow the books they want, not necessarily the books they “should” write (unless of course, what they want is a book dictated by markets and readership).
Literary art is meant to be accessible, not put on a top shelf for “the best.” Literary art has the power to move people just as dance can.
Keep your flame burning.
April 4, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about fire. It can be a flame that burns or a light that inspires. Follow the flames and go where the prompt leads!
Respond by April 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.
Hard to Take a Break (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Fire spun a halo in the night sky. Danni’s stomach churned. Nothing more she could do tonight. She leaned against her Forest Service truck, away from the camp chatter. Some recruits buzzed from the adrenaline, fighting wildland fires for the first time. Nearby, the Canadian Bombardier pilot regaled his earlier flight to the crew of Australians newly arrived. Danni scanned the distant flames, feeling impatient. In 1910 they didn’t luxuriate in rest and strategy in shifts. Is this what Ike felt before he left –restless while others fought a war he had to watch burn from the sidelines?