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We’ve all heard the old cliché about how a character “speaks” to an author? It happened to me a few years ago. This young girl popped into my head with a story. She was good company, persistent, too. She went on for about a month until one day I sat down and began writing what would become her story.
Now, this girl, she happened to be a person of color. And if you check my bio, you’ll quickly see that I’m a run-of-the-mill white guy, closing in on middle age. We’re talking, wears-cut-off-shorts-and-black-socks-to-cut-the-lawn. SPF 50 on the nose, kind of guy. But none of that mattered when I set out to write this thing. I can honestly say it never once occurred to me that it might be odd, me writing from the first-person perspective of a twelve-year-old black girl.
Maybe it’s because I hate to plot. Outlines for me are like creativity killers. And speaking of killers, people write from the perspective of serial killers so why did it matter? Okay, where was I going with this? Oh yeah, it does matter.
So I wrote a story about this old curmudgeonly blues player and this young girl, Nita Simmons. Even in the roughest—or rawest—drafts, I was aware enough to avoid stereotypes. No Ebonics or broken English for Nita. In fact, being so tip-toe careful to avoid stereotypes, I went the other route, and Nita became this gifted, straight-A student. A case-cracking superhero.
Reading through those first drafts, it was clear. In not wanting Nita to be a stereotype, I’d done something just as bad, or worse: I’d made her perfect.
And where’s the fun in that?
I dove back in, peeling the layers to the real Nita. The Nita in my head was a normal girl with normal problems. She was self-conscious, stubborn, she doubted herself and fought with her mother. She was still a gifted writer but shaky at math. And being a budding teenager, she was a know-it-all at times, terrified by the world around her at others. And she was gullible. She fell for the stories the old man told her. And it was through the stories that a friendship formed. After all, friendship—not race, was the heart of my story.
And because I write in frantic sparks of inspiration, always in haste, like an idea might slip away if I don’t get it down, it took multiple drafts for the Nita on the page match the Nita in my head. I worked at this story for over a year. I combed over every word and submerged myself into this world I’d created. I bought a guitar and taught myself some old blues standards. I’m awful, but I can pluck some chords now.
I’m no Harper Lee, but Nita is my Scout. I root for her every step of the way. I listen to podcasts, study black history and devour middle-grade books. I’ve read my share of Life Magazines. I fell in love with my characters.
Here was the original query.
Putting yourself out there can be tricky. Whether you’re 12 or 72, headed to a new school for smart kids, or strumming up the courage to play the blues in front of a crowd. Such is the case for Nita Simmons and Earl Melvin, two friends too stubborn to quit on each other.
After a disastrous day at school, the last thing Nita wants to do is solve the puzzle that is her neighbor, Mr. Earl Melvin. People say he’s crazy, that he once tried to burn down the city library. But something in that sturdy voice of his grabs her, and after a second encounter her fear gives way to curiosity. From there the unlikeliest of friendships takes hold.
Mr. Melvin regales Nita with tales of protests and sit-ins. How he marched against segregated schools and lunch counters. His stories are magical and inspiring, his cooking unmatched, and his guitar playing is the truest thing she’s ever heard. Nita decides that old man did all those things, then she can deal with school. But when she stumbles upon a discovery—one that threatens to prove everyone right about Mr. Melvin all along—Nita’s left with a decision to make: leave the old man in the past or drag him into the future.
Not perfect, but it worked. I got some bites. I think I queried over fifty agents. I don’t recall the exact number, but I received somewhere in the neighborhood of ten full requests and five or six partials. Not bad, I’m told.
But in all my research, in all my writing and revising, I completely missed something else entirely. Something big. Something raw.
As the agents got back to me, some were short and sweet in their rejection, and others came with some editorial advice. A few I never got back. Then, I got all the feedback I needed.
Here is a sample of what she passed along (as she passed on the story).
First, the good:
Your story intrigues me and I think you do a good job with the middle grade voice here. I really like the interactions between the characters, Earnest and Nita specifically, as well as Mrs. Womack and Nita, and of course, Mr. Melvin and Nita. You develop these nicely.
To write such a story, an editor will prefer you belong to the ethnic race of the primary characters. This story speaks to so many significant moments and people of the African American experience so, ensuring this is accurate is essential. But even more important, because you utilize first person when writing this text, Nita specifically, an editor will question your validity to do so.
Two things. I’m not saying the writing was perfect. It wasn’t. And let me make it clear that I’m one hundred percent in favor and support the #ownvoices movement. It’s great, a crucial tool in getting diverse books in the hands of kids who need them. Publishers want books about people of color written by people of color. Because think about it. How authentic is it going to look to find this book, with a black cast of characters, only to see some blue sock wearing, lawn mowing white guy on the cover jacket? (I suppose I could ditch the socks).
Rejection sucks. It hurts. And yes, it is personal. After spending so much time with a story and its characters and every single time it gets requested you feel like you could just march up a staircase to the clouds. And each time it gets rejected it feels like being knocked back a few steps. But I always hit the ground running. Until that last one, that one stopped me cold.
It was like a funeral, knowing it was the end of the road. Sounds dramatic, sure, then again, I do write fiction. After that last rejection, there was a new voice in my head (my poor wife), a suggestion to change the characters. Simply make Nita white.
I guess that’s on the table. But to me, it’s absurd to whitewash my main character in the name of diversity. So I’ve retired the story. Because Nita is Nita. And I still have control over that.
I’ve written a few novels since this one. One has gotten some requests, while another is getting closer to querying. And I don’t regret writing Nita’s story. I can’t help who spoke to me (pause here to acknowledge blatant cliché usage), or what characters emerged in my head. They’re mine. And if I could do it over, yep, I’d write it again. After all, I write for me first. In fact, I have, but that’s for another post.
Rejection is tough just one time, it starts to wear on you after a while. But those hours I spent getting lost in Nita’s world? In Mr. Melvin’s world? In their relationship? I think it was worth it.
I started and finished a project. I submerged myself in race relations and its ugly background (even as I ignored its current climate) and came out a better writer and person for it. And hey, maybe most importantly, I can play the blues on guitar.
So it wasn’t all for nothing.
Lake Gitchi Gumee erodes the shore wave by endless wave. Ringed-bill lake gulls careen wide circles, wings spread. A loon trills from water so vast as to hide the fowl rolling in waves, but occasionally the sun slants just so, and a loon appears to be fast-paddling like a vessel full of rowers all in sync. The land giving way to water is part of the synchronization of the whole mass, a geological cycle that refuses to conform to state park boundaries or nostalgic memories of generational Kumbaya campfire singers.
Bit by bit I have frayed.
No one beach facing the endless waves maintains its original shoreline. Was it ever original? Maybe it’s just a memory of what was compared to now what is. When you visited the shore as a child, it’s not the same shoreline you visit as an adult. You are not the same, either. Yet mainstream media sells us on an ideal of “anti-aging.” It’s ridiculous. You only stop aging the day you die and even then you molder. Who I am now is not who I was a year ago.
When I packed for camping I thought at worst it would be until September. I grabbed two pairs of jeans, four t-shirts, a flannel and a sweatshirt. Wisely, I brought all my underclothes. Two pairs of Keens, my good turquoise pair and my ratty hiking ones, seemed enough shoes. I had to buy socks when it turned cold (even Mars slips away from the sun). A small wardrobe is like a sandy hill over the Great Lake, use after use, launder after launder, all fades and frays.
Internally I cracked before the storm ever began. Like a cowardly fisherman confronted with the weather report, I retreated. No way, give me some warm slippers, a comfy couch and popcorn; I’ll sit this one out. Like any hero’s journey, I refused the call. A year later when I should be due some elixir, I’m still stunned I made the journey. We intended to head to Michigan last year, to go to Rock Creek and Kansas along the way, to meet up with friends and family. But our vessel leaked and our path wandered.
We shipwrecked on Mars, broke-down in Gallup among the Great Indian Nations. How does one remain the same after endless waves?
And yet a beach is still a beach. A cliff recedes and still remains a cliff. I listen to the waves and the occasional tremolo of the loons, recognizing I am yet who I am, and I am becoming who I will be. Where does one’s energy go after the body fails? Ideas, emotions, intellect cannot simply dissipate. Sit still long enough and you can feel the impression of a place left by others. You can feel it in your own DNA. Did I ever have a grandmother dance wildly in Mali? Can I still see the highlands my Scots grandmothers left? Does Danish hygge offer me the comfort of grandmothers before me? Does my rebellious Basque grandmother still rise in me?
Lacking any Native American DNA, I also lack the blood of conquerors — I’m not Spanish, French or English, but I’m many cultures dominated by the three. My ancestors were chained to the galleons, endentured after lost battles, and endured hardships of famine and loss. It’s without a doubt my ancestors were always striving, reaching to pluck the promised fruit, the fabled gold pavers. Luckless? I don’t believe in it. Hard-working? Without a doubt. Stubborn? Just a wee bit.
I ponder these things as my frayed edges catch in the breeze. Soon it will be Independence Day and I no longer know what that means to me. Gallup was patriotic. The town served in military wars despite the injustices its communities suffered. They were proud to serve America, united. Here, in the wilderness of a copper country in the Michigan U.P., the least skilled of the immigrant copper miners remain — the White Finns. They are patriotic in skewed ways — believing the cities are breeding terrorists, and that Trump is their savior, many turn to fundamentalism and patriotism in ways I find strange. They are frayed and wanting a mender.
Here beats the heart of America who has failed to examine her social injustices and buries it beneath a false image of greatness-returning. And one of the top universities in the nation thrives here, a holdover from its origins in 1885 as a mining technology institution. Now it is an engineering beacon with a majority of its students international. Professors, students and those who’ve built engineering firms in the beauty they found while at school create a vibrant yin to the yang of what remains.
Not to dismiss what remains of the mining culture. They are no different from my own rural roots. Hardworking and stubborn folks who believe they’ll get ahead, but generation after generation they work to pull wealth from the ground for others. They turn a fierce faith to God and get a jump on the judgement they believe is coming. Apostolic Lutherans. Firstborn Laestadians. Not my kin or kindred spirits, but I recognize the determination to not fray.
Thus I give in to the fraying.
I don’t want this year to harden me. I don’t want to become poured cement to prevent change, or fear the erosion, the synchronicity of wearing down, energy against energy. I want to lift my wrists to the wind and let the frayed cuffs of my sweatshirt fly, release my frayed soul to life yet to be and accept a new weave, one the wind might direct or the waves carve. I note the heart at my cuff and know good things come out of unraveling. It’s our fear of change of going through hard processes that convince us the garment must be tossed and proper seams displayed. I have become the fray. And who knows what is coming next.
Carrot Ranch has finally come to a resting juncture. A few internet hiccups, rectified as of today. Know there are still places where hot spots and boosters do not work. Even Mars and Elmira Pond had better receptivity. I’m now connected, and Operation Stabilization has officially commenced today. We met with a true advocate at the U.P. Vet Center, an energetic female Captain (Airborne, too) who has no problem understanding or reaching Sgt. Mills (Airborne Ranger). Another counselor I met a few days ago also works with vets and understands their filters which gave me peace through validation.
I’ve not been here long, but already I have a community and the support of my grown kids (Rock Climber is now living in Svolbard, Norway and the other two and partners are up nort’ here, ay). I’m most grateful to the community who has traversed this year with me or has fearlessly joined up during the crazy trail ride.
This is a safe space to craft, draft and connect. Come as you are, write as you are and let your frayed edges fly. Let’s get the saddle show started this week — writers on your mark…get set…go…!
June 29, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about something frayed. It could be fabric, like a flag or garment. It could also be nerves or temper. What is it to be frayed?
Respond by July 4, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published July 5). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Let Freedom Ring (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
“I heard her husband led the Palmetto Guard.”
“He murdered free-staters on raids.”
Mary McCanles walked bare-headed through the crowd with her basket, ignoring the fine women in stiff bonnets deep enough to hide wrinkles and scowls.
She settled on the quilt her daughter Lizza spread. A gray-haired woman herself, Lizza smiled broadly and attended several Otoe-Missouri papooses. Though frayed, it was Mary’s treasured marriage quilt.
“I love babies, Mama!”
“You are good with them, Daughter.” Mary dared anyone say anything to Lizza. Born a blue baby, she was often ridiculed. Not today.
“Ain’t Independence Day grand, Mama?”
After the thunderstorms, humidity clings to vegetation and casts a pink glow across the horizon with the setting sun. It’s juicy in the midwest, and my skin is a sponge after our arid journey. Insects skitter and frogs croak long into the evening. June bugs bump my RV screen, seeking the artificial light. The day birds go silent and owls occasionally pick up the tune. When the morning sun returns, red cardinals flash between trees and songbirds trill.
We are content in Kansas for the moment. A Respite.
I’m digging these days. Mostly into the Kansas State Archives which reside where Sis works. She’s The Hubb’s sister, but I claim her as mine. She’s kind and caring, funny and lovable. I dig hanging out with her! Going to work with Sis has been one of many highlights, sharing coffee, breakfast, lunch and thumbing through the index cards in search of history for Rock Creek. On weekends the grands delight us. Little A helped me dig a diminutive pot garden, and we planted parsley, lime basil and chives. Her little hand in the dirt with mine was a bonding moment.
The biggest dig of all happens tomorrow when I carry a shovel out to 4JF420, a real archeology site, gridded and ready to be worked. Today I started archeology field school, a 50th birthday gift from Sis. Kansas has a program to involve the public and train volunteers. What makes archeology different from other studies of history is its methodology. The dig records every bit of evidence and catalogs the complete inventory of artifacts and features. The artifacts and records can be pulled and examined by other professionals, professors or students the same way I pull index cards and ask to see the original documents. Today, I got to see my character Dr. Danni Gordon’s profession up close and personal. Tomorrow I get to dig like Danni.
I had such a feeling of contentment when we breathed a sigh of relief upon arrival. Contentment to be among loving family. Contentment to be up to my eyeballs in historic records. Contentment to be gifted a chance to dig.
And yet, the shadowy beast of homelessness follows, lumbering and restless. It’s been a year, and normalcy is something for other people. Rootlessness is something you can’t understand without experiencing it. And it’s punishable by society. The silent judgement of you did something wrong, you deserve this. We got to the VA in Topeka and two visits have nearly wrecked me. The Hub was like an angry bear the first visit. And who can blame him? They shamed him for going to ER for a sore tooth when their beds were full. No one should have to compare his condition to another just to get help. When I informed them he pulled his own tooth and was concerned about infection, they got a doctor in right away, prescribing antibiotics.
You begin to lose humanity when homeless. Sis has been a wonderful anchor, making sure our needs are taken care of. We are eating regularly and healthy food. We take more showers and have access to regular laundry. Not everyone is so caring. Someone I know sent me a link they thought I’d “enjoy.” It was a video of a couple who toured the US in their RV and the lessons of minimizing they learned. They concluded we don’t need “stuff” and I agree. I’m content with the basics. It’s the rootlessness and the silent censure from others. It’s being homesick. This couple in the video returned home after a year. They never were without it. They were travelers, not homeless and their privilege was missed by the person who thought I’d enjoy the lessons of a diminished life.
Another visit to the VA, this one with Vocational Rehabilitation. This was the meeting I hoped for. This was the hope I had clung to — The Hub qualifies and is eligible for re-education. He has a great plan for a machining business, and I have a plan to connect to it through Carrot Ranch. I’m experienced and good at developing magazines, knowing how they operate from top to bottom. But as you all probably know, literary magazines are not big sellers. But a trade journal for The Hub’s business fills a niche market. It would be part of the literary platform as an arch from what I do to what he does. I have a business plan and he has worked out all the important details such as development and market. We have others up north who are helping us get this polished and presentable.
The VR&E at the Topeka VA was someone who could explain the components of seeking self-employment through The Hub’s benefits. We both began to spill out our ideas and she said the first thing we’d be asked would be our credit. I caught it, The Hub didn’t. He kept talking. I sat there as hot tears flowed down my face. Credit? You mean like walk into a bank with a permanent address? To explain why we have no credit? To explain our foreclosure? To explain why I went to a doctor I had no insurance for because the clinic thought I had cervical cancer but I couldn’t afford the tests and have an outstanding bill? To explain why we never filed our MN taxes (don’t ask, it incites a riot between me and The Hub and MN doesn’t care that we actually paid taxes very year; they didn’t like our non-filing)?
We’re back to we did something wrong to be homeless. How the blazes does a homeless vet who is unable to work in a traditional job and qualifies for a program to start his own business, but doesn’t qualify for the credit (in part because he’s homeless) ever supposed to get out of this pit?
So a friend suggested I shouldn’t write about contentment if the word was causing a lump in my throat. She’s right. I do feel like kicking the world right now. Also, how intimidating these circumstances are.
Maybe I should tell you how the sterile walls of the VA mental health center made me feel. First we had to walk through a door that is posted, “Door locks behind you.” There’s no trust in walking through that door. I don’t trust I’m going to get out. I don’t trust that if anyone agitated my grumpy bear of a spouse that they wouldn’t even try to understand the stress and anxiety he’s under. I didn’t walk through that door because I trusted it would be okay. I walked through it because I knew I had to take the risk; risk feeling bitterly disappointed; risk being told no, not you; risk being misunderstood; risk being an artist, a writer, a historian and as of today, an archeologist. I walked back out that door with The Hub and when relief hit me it was short lived — because I noticed the sterile walls and it reminded me to be normal, fit in, do good.
And I did what I do best. I gave the bloody walls the middle finger and rebelled. I’m not a conformist or a status quo champion. Maybe I’m not content in the ways of nose-to-the-grindstone for someone else’s corporate gain. I’m not content homeless but like many on the streets, I’m not going to give in to a system that doesn’t honor human dignity. I’m going to take my fingers and find the words and craft them until I am beyond contented with the final product. And it will not go quickly and I will not go quietly. I will do what I set out to accomplish and I’ll help others, too. I’ll help The Hub, and one day I’ll be in a position to say, this is what compassion looks like; this is what human dignity is between humans. This is a home, my home. I’m content with the dream that has me and the stories that fill me and spill out. Like my Sis says, there are six elegant solutions, and I believe her. If have to, I’ll do business like a man who has no credit — I’ll go the Russians.
But tomorrow, I dig in the dirt.
Thank you, Ranchers, for making this community like a home. It gives me an anchor, and gives me purpose. I can build a platform for one or many, and it would be the same amount of work. That is why this is a place for us, for you, for me. Let your literary freak flag fly and keep writing like I tell myself every day: no matter what. I love the write. Some say it is good to have written, but I think those gathered hear better understand it is good to be writing. And thank you to those of you who have so generously invested where the VA has no intention. Thank you for not asking for my credit or censuring me for challenged roots.
We have raised a third of the money needed to design, format, publish the first anthology and start an imprint. One of the reasons for an imprint is to publish other books in addition to the anthologies. The first one is needed to set the marketing in motion, too. This is a platform, a community one, but marketing is something you do with a platform when you have a product. There is an expansion in mind with intent to support the community. We also have a generous offer to start a no-fee contest for a prize. It can be a sprout for using contests to benefit charities the community supports. There are good things on the horizon. There are good people in the world.
And good writers who write here.
June 1, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about feeling content. Explore what is contentment and any direction will do. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by June 6, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published June 7). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Happily Digging (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Danni heard Ike’s truck rumble down the gravel road. She knelt barefoot by a window to the past – a square troweled to reveal debris from long before. Sifting had revealed ceramic sherd, a few square nails, and a cigar token to the old Congress Hotel in Sandpoint. A window gave an archeologist quick insight to a possible site.
Danni pondered possibilities when she heard Ike’s truck door close. The sun had warmed the soil all day, and Danni was content.
He approached the fence and freshly tilled soil. “I thought you were gardening today.”
“I am,” she replied, smiling.
Hot sun heats the metal beyond touching comfortably. The playground equipment squats at the mouth of a giant coulee, as if poised to be devoured. No children run across the taupe grit where soap suds lap at the water’s edge. Soap Lake gets its name from those minerailzed suds, and a few adults wade out into its tepid waters. What do they hope to be healed of?
The town of Soap Lake is as gritty as the sand. Houses built of black basalt are void of green lawns. Small businesses based on an alternative healing niche line a short main street. A few resorts boast of healing waters piped to rooms. Locals 30 miles away in Moses Lake warn me of biting red bugs in the water and tweakers in the desert.
It looks as inhospitable as a homeless shelter must feel to a child.
That we even have homeless shelters for children in a country where a free-market system reigns puts to question the value of profit over people. In America, you can own a Boeing Triple 7. Or you can watch your child sleep in a homeless shelter and despair of how to afford $20 a week to put him on a city bus so he can go to first grade. If you want to make yourself feel better, google “help for homeless families” and breath a sigh of relief as listing after listing scrolls to reveal lots of aid. It’s a facade. It’s as fake as a spray-on tan.
Two months ago I could not admit this — but I’m fortunate. Two months ago, I felt as if I won a lotto ticket to hell. I mourned the loss of home, office, writing stability. I panicked in tight spaces, felt no joy in the wilderness and wondered if I’d ever feel normal again. Ironic for someone who has never felt normal. However, I’ve witnessed first-hand the normalizing of homelessness in America. It’s the new normal for many, and I’m not talking street people or panhandlers on busy corners.
Many uncounted people exist among you. We are the invisible homeless, the fortunate ones. The ones with tents or camp trailers. The ones with kitchenettes or motel rooms. The ones who are independent and have access to work and means, if not to a permanent address. We have complications, including mail, schooling and voting. For a valid ID, bank account, debit card, car insurance, health insurance and VA benefits you need an address. What do we do? We lie. Most ask a relative or friend to help and use their address. Then that mail proxy forwards to a General Delivery address.
That’s really where I live — General Delivery, Moses Lake 98837. But to keepTodd going through the VA, we have to have an address. To vote in the presidential elections, we have to have an address. To maintain my health insurance, I have to have an address. So we have simply kept our old one. It’s not like anyone else is currently living there. We forward our mail to GD and pick up our mail with identification that says we live somewhere that used to be home.
My husband is better at normalizing our experience than I am. When asked where we live, he answers, “We’re in between homes.” We are surrounded by others who do the same. Here I thought we camped among retirees. Some are, but many are “in between homes” like we are. There’s the engineer in town, advising on Air Japan’s entry to a facility in Moses Lake. His work makes it better for him to travel in an RV. Our neighbor five spots down from us is a plumber and has no where to live but his trailer. The family across the way recently admitted to us that they’ve lived here in this RV park with two sons and two dogs since last November. They can’t find a house they can afford, but he works and she home-schools the kids.
Don’t donate to those charities. They are nothing more than what my husband calls trust fund repositories. They give money in the way of grants. Call them up and say, “Hey, I have a young mother in need” and they’ll tell you they don’t ACTUALLY help the homeless; they fund grants for those who do. Okay. Who would that be? Seriously, I know a young mother in need. Her son starts first grade August 28 but they are living in a shelter.
Shelters are a crap-shoot. They reduce the number they serve by being specific: battered women and children; single men; families; veterans. Oddly enough, there are few shelters for single women. One homeless woman we see on our way to VA appointments stands on a corner with a cardboard sign that reads, “SMILE.” We do. We smile and wave; she waves back. I’m no longer hesitant to sit with homeless people on the streets. I buy us McDonald’s Sausage McMuffins and coffee. If I have change I empty my wallet. I’m lucky. I have client work and friends who care. My husband works. Our expenses are reduced except when we have emergencies. Fortunate or not, all homeless dread emergencies. We can’t afford to have them.
That’s when it hits you — there is no help. The safety net broke long ago. The charities are full of bullshit and only work to get grants or government funding. We worked with one specifically for Homeless Veterans. They took our time, cost us money to drive to appointments and never did a damned thing. I began listening more carefully –“might be able to…” When I told them to remove our case, they fought hard to keep us. They made several more “might” promises. As long as we were counted as being serviced, they got paid. We didn’t. They did.
Some shelters, despite reducing their numbers by serving specific sectors of population, have a lottery system. This sickens me most. Imagine the uncertainty that comes from being homeless. Now add to it that you have to gather with others and wait to see if your lotto number is drawn. If yes, you get a bed for the night. If no, well, there’s the street. What angers me is that the visible homeless have risen in numbers. In NYC alone, the number of homeless single adults has risen 95 percent. Rough sleeping is on the rise in the UK. In January 2015, 564,708 people were homeless on a given night in the United States, and of that number, 206,286 were people in families. Children. Nine percent of US homeless are veterans.
Why? Actually, the answer is the same here as it is across the pond. Circumstances, mental health and addiction issues might vary, but the core cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. As a writer working from home, 75 percent of what I earned went to rent. My husband’s contracts were sporadic and his service-related disability was barely enough to cover groceries. We received no assistance and we simple went without to live in an rental. When that rental was no longer available to us, we had no where to go. The rental shortage hurt the already tight market. It hurt people like us. We are among the rural homeless which often displaces people from place, as it has us.
Children suffer because their parents are caught in circumstances they can’t help. A young boy sleeps in a shelter tonight because his parents lost their lease and couldn’t afford the rent elsewhere. His father has battled addiction but before getting clean, he was evicted from a place. That means he’s not eligible to rent. If he stays with his family, his family is not eligible to rent. Where is the incentive to stay together? To stay sober? Where is the hope for this child? How is his mother to find work without an address? Where can she leave her son to go to an interview? Most shelters separate families.
We are fortunate. We have a camper, each other and no young children. I have office space. I no longer have shame to yell at practitioners who refuse VA insurance for my husband and I can say the homeless word with a spark of rebellion in my tone. I dare you to change things in this world. If you don’t want to look, I’ll draw your attention anyway. If over 500,000 people aren’t sleeping in a bed tonight, I don’t want us sleeping easily on distance from the issue. I worry for the children. I dream that one day, this boy in the shelter will go to college.
One day at a time. Spend your kindness on others. Validate their humanity. Smile. See what needs noticing around you. I can’t solve 500,000 problems. You can’t either. But I can take 10 extra minutes and $5 extra bucks to have breakfast with Andy on the street corner. Yes. He has a name. He even has a truck. Find your own Andy. Or Mindy who just wants smiles. If it concerns you to give a panhandler cash, give a food or gas gift card. Better yet, share a meal. Give your time. Support charities that do actual work, not just intake and head-counting. Serve soup, serve on councils.
And we all need to work together to find real solutions to affordable housing.
This is where most people stick their heads in the sand. What can you really do? In the US most homeless, including the fortunate RVers like we’ve landed with, are temporary. It’s estimated that about 82,000 are chronic. But all face affordable housing issues. Another estimate is that there are only 29 affordable homes per every 100 people in need of one. And other barriers to chronic homelessness include mental health and addictions. This group can’t even navigate the paperwork required to get into linear programs that they most likely will get kicked out of once they have a mental episode or addictive relapse.
But Utah has a solution for the chronically homeless facing deeper issues. It was based on the idea of a NYU psychologist:
“Okay,” Tsemberis recalls thinking, “they’re schizophrenic, alcoholic, traumatized, brain damaged. What if we don’t make them pass any tests or fill out any forms? They aren’t any good at that stuff. Inability to pass tests and fill out forms was a large part of how they ended up homeless in the first place. Why not just give them a place to live and offer them free counseling and therapy, health care, and let them decide if they want to participate? Why not treat chronically homeless people as human beings and members of our community who have a basic right to housing and health care?”
And the rest of us? We help each other. I’ve asked the mother across the row if there’s anything I can do to help with her sons’ education. Mostly, she just wants another woman who understands to chat with; someone who won’t judge her or make her feel like crap for living in a camp trailer with two boys and two dogs. The homeless man we met at Soap Lake just wanted to talk about cameras. The veteran who now helps other vets with their dogs wants a woman who won’t be ashamed of his struggles with PTSD. His wife left him when he sought help because the stigma embarrassed her.
I know this is temporary and I feel as though the worst has passed and it was survivable. We have decided not to move back to Sandpoint and passed on the affordable rental we had found. Instead we have developed several plans of action around what care my husband needs from the VA and how much longer his knee will hold out working in aviation on the floor. He’s looking for office work in aviation and has applied for a VA education program he’s eligible for, but will take months to find out if he’s entitled. No surprise. This much needed veteran program is underfunded and understaffed.
For now I office in a caravan. I live in 161-square feet of space with two big dogs and a former soldier. I’m fortunate. I’ve seen what lies across that line of fortune. I hurt most for the children and their parents who lack support and means.
August 24, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about an empty playground. Is it abandoned or are the children in school? What is it about the emptiness that might hint of deeper social issues. It can be a modern story, apocalyptic or historical. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by August 31, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
First School at Rock Creek by Charli Mills (from Rock Creek)
A rope swing dangled beneath a cottonwood branch where Cobb stood, puffing a pipe. Mary walked across the short-lived school-yard to stand next to him.
“No teacher, no school,” he said.
“I know it was important to you. Lizzie was excited to come west and teach.” Mary glanced at the freshly turned earth.
“We need another teacher. What will Da say?”
“He’ll be sad. He saw to her education at Normal School.”
“Bad enough our teacher died, but she took half the students with her.”
Diphtheria. Mary counted five graves and then counted her blessings. None were her children.
Where a Schoolhouse Once Stood by Charli Mills (from Miracle of Ducks)
Danni rolled the clay marble in the palm of her hand. While Ike picked cherries, she scratched at the dirt. According to Forest Service Records, Spring Creek School stood across the narrow creek bed from Carter Station. Danni looked for evidence of foundations, but nothing remained. She studied the land and imagined where the school would have been. Though she didn’t know, she applied logic – proximity to water, flatness of the terrain, evidence of fruit trees. If her hunch was right, she’d be standing in the empty playground where children of homesteaders played. That’s where she found the marble.
In America, mangoes taste like cucumbers. And I’m an angry American with my full frowny-face exposed for all the world to see. Many tell me to cover up my anger. “Don’t be angry,” or “You can’t let it anger you.” From where I’m sitting, I can see things are not just in my nation. Skin color, uniforms, politics, bathrooms, mass shootings — I can’t keep up with the toilet paper and bullets; the NPR commentary and social media trends. I’m even following Brexit and then a truck in France kills Bastille Day revelers.
Has the world gone mad?
Or do we have an unchecked anger issue among humanity? When I can’t understand what is happening or what is another person’s experience, I look for commonality. What have I experienced that makes it something I can relate to? I can easily speak to my own anger and I think it holds a clue. Anger is often denied, misdirected and disconnected. We don’t embrace our anger.
We live in a time of extremes. At any given moment, around the world, we can access media. Even homeless in the Inland Pacific Northwest, I wander with a cell phone. Digital screens are everywhere and news is 24/7. One news program I listened to (because I also have a radio in my car) explained how the world was “out there” but now we live it. Yet in this time of open communication, we seem to do less communicating.
One extreme is that of disparity. We might all have cell phones (in the US there is even a government program to give struggling low income Americans free cell phones), but not homes. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that 3.5 million Americans are likely to experience homelessness in a given year. It’s further estimated that up to 600,000 veterans a night go homeless. Rural homelessness is defined by living in a car or camper. Welcome to my summer of homelessness; a temporary condition, according to the experts. And the source of my anger.
I’m angry because I had a home and home-office. My rent ratio was high in accordance to my income as a writer, but I never missed my rent payment. Nor did I damage the property or conduct illegal activity. Instead, I blogged about my home, weeded and gardened, took care of the resident cat, and welcomed several writers to stay. I’m angry that it currently sits vacant because the owners think it will sell better that way. I’m angry because the property managers have not paid back our security deposit. I’m angry because of the disparity between what is affordable in a rural community and what is available. I’m angry that despite the number or organizations that accept government funding, there is a lack of practical help. I’m angry over how dehumanizing the experience is and the assumptions people make, the ignorant blame.
What surprises me is the number of people who attempt to diffuse my anger. Yeah, I get it — I don’t like listening to my bellyaching either, and I’d rather be writing about magnificent blue herons and cotton-candy sunsets, about history and interesting characters. But my circumstances call for outrage. What has happened to me has happened to others. In fact, rural homelessness is called a silent epidemic. Yet, according to a 2009 National Coalition for the Homeless, the US government has invested 1.5 billion dollars to reduce homelessness. These programs are known to poorly serve rural communities and overlook front-end and support services needs.
And that’s been my experience. We are now officially counted among the veteran homeless and our camper was deemed uninhabitable. But no one from the service organizations or veterans groups helped us. None advocated for us to our landlord. Imagine the impact of a letter from an official; it might have made the owners rethink giving us the boot. There is no consequence to landlords contributing to rural homelessness. There is no incentive for property managers to offer rents that match rural wages. There is no re-education for veterans unless they fit some unlikely profile. I’m an angry homeless American writer married to an under-served disabled homeless vet.
So what the blazes does my anger have to do with my nation? First of all, I understand the frustration of extremes and disparity. I don’t crave to be wealthy; I just want what most people do — a comfortable, stable and happy home and satisfying work. I went to college to be a writer, I enjoy writing, yet I’m angry that writers are under paid and under valued. Many in my nation have experienced these same disparities — jobs in urban areas that are predominately black do not pay the same as jobs elsewhere. A good friend of mine who is a woman of color and highly educated explained to me how black business professionals are often sought from other regions to fill corporate equality quotas while ignoring the minorities in their area to keep them from rising beyond their circumstances.
And for black America, these are circumstances that have been long-suffering. Consider authority. First, Africans were enslaved and under the authority of slave trade. Then under the authority of slave owners. Then under the authority of Jim Crow laws. And under the authority of laws and those who apply them. I’m not a person of color, but if my homeless experience is anything like the battle for civil rights among black Americans, I understand the anger. Unlike those experiencing homelessness, the black communities across America are coming together in their anger to protest what they have experienced.
Yet, I have many police officers in my circle of family and friends. The men and women I know are good citizens and uphold the laws, often under stressful circumstances. The police see a different side of society. They see what is broken, abused and drugged. If soldiers experience PTSD, why not police officers? I know what undiagnosed PTSD can look like and what if we are ignoring an entire profession and denying them help because we don’t want to admit that being a police officer is stressful? I worry for my family and friends who serve their communities. But I don’t feel angry over their situation as a whole.
There is a disparity between between cops and blacks. As to answers, I don’t have any, but I can understand the anger on one side and the duty on the other. And in the midst of this mess, toss in the arguments for or against who uses which bathroom and the question of how are we incubating mass shooters. In between are a myriad of other injustices big and small. Teachers chastise parents to suck it up and buy their kids all those school supplies and parents belittle the profession of teachers. Breast-feeding mothers feud with bottle-feeding mothers. Skinny women dis fat women, and no one understands the different disorders that others have. We deny anger yet we seem to be angry about petty issues.
Anger is polarizing us.
It is healthy to describe and attribute one’s anger. It’s not healthy to stay there, but it does need validation to move on. When we deny our own anger or that of another, we tend to misdirect the emotion. It doesn’t just go away. Snark is often anger coming out sideways to mask the real issue. If you can’t claim your anger, you can’t find a solution. Taking an us-versus-them stance is another way to mask anger. The problem with all this denied and misdirected anger is that it’s also superficial. We don’t go deep; we stay shallow.
You might be wondering why I’m angry that mangoes in America taste like cucumbers. I’m not. It was something I heard on NPR, and the person who said it wasn’t angry either. My point is disconnection. Americans seem to claim anger not really their own. Instead of looking within for reflection and understanding, Americans seems to be looking outside and expressing disconnected anger. I can understand my friend, the woman I mentioned earlier, expressing anger over what is happening in her black community. I don’t understand another friend who is expressing anger in regards to something she hasn’t experienced and yet she scolds me not be angry over my current circumstances.
And who knows what deep-seated anger or other emotions drive the actions of mass shooters or assassins or truck drivers who could stomach running over humans.
Writers, we need you more than ever! We need you to connect emotion to intellect, to express the experiences of one group to be understood by another. And literature has a unique way of doing so without polarization or sermonizing. Fiction has a place in making the world see where it has gone mad. One reader at a time until we all start thinking critically; allowing emotions to be acknowledged and processed; feeling empathy for the other; humanizing our human experiences.
My heart breaks for those experiencing the pain of lost loved ones to violence. May our anger or denial of it never escalate to such human tragedy.
July 13, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story using the emotion of anger. You can express it without naming it, or write a story about it. Challenge yourself to think about how we accept or deny anger. Is there a warning? Is there a resolution? You can write humorously, seriously or ironically about anger.
Respond by July 19, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
I’ll post my flash in the comments. We are headed back to Spokane tomorrow for a VA appointment and an interview at a local college. My greatest appreciation for those who have helped me and Todd in our season of homelessness. If you want to help us with repairs to our trailer and the installation of a desk and office chair you can donate, but please don’t feel you need to. Carrot Ranch is for you, the writers. We are managing and have been helped to make it this far. I might be angry, but I’m also grateful to those of you who show up to write, read and discuss here.
Cerulean flashes between stands of winter birch, stark and leafless. As the car draws nearer to the water so deeply blue it makes the sky look like faded laundry, my heart rate picks up. Spring is delayed at its shore, the water so cold it can alter seasons. I wonder what the shore will be like beyond the hardwoods?
Before me sprawls the greatest of the Great Lakes, Superior by its cartography name, and I’ve walked its black moonscape on bare bedrock cliffs along Minnesota’s north shore where waves crash endlessly and shatter fishing boats like tossed toys. Gordon Lightfoot sings, “The lake, it s said, never gives up her dead/when the skies of November turn gloomy.” Yet, it is May and this is not Minnesota.
Nor is it Wisconsin where I once lived a full season along the brownstone cliffs and pink quartz beaches of Superior’s Chequamegon Bay. Miracle of Ducks is set in the quaint fishing and sailing village of Bayfield, a place that smells of blueberry blossoms in May and has shallow bays warm enough to swim, yet fierce enough to kayak surf. I drove through Wisconsin’s north woods on the way to this destination and felt a tingle of home. This lake never gives up her living, either.
I’m in Michigan, my first visit to my eldest and SIL’s new home in the Upper Peninsula. They live in Hancock, a small former mining town across the steep hardwood hills that line the canal. On the other side is Houghton where Michigan Tech plugs into the community like life support. It’s remote and underpopulated, the number of residents no longer fill the expanse of brick and mortar. First the indigenous mined here, then in the 1840s the Cornish came followed by Finns; hard-rock miners with strong constitutions.
If you look at a map of Lake Superior and follow the US edge, you’ll see that the lake folds over itself, bending into Minnesota. A stubborn strip of land juts up in to her middle. That’s copper-laden country. That’s Michigan, the UP, the Keewenaw Peninsula. Once the Superior canal cuts across that tip, the land becomes an island, surrounded by lake water and connected to the US by a single lift-bridge.
My first full day here and the kids take me to the lake, mere miles from their house which once belonged to a miner and his family. We follow the canal until we can see the full expanse of the Great Lake. Trees give way to a grassy knoll and the full sapphire of deep waters flash before me as I were touring nature’s favorite crown jewel.
It’s my first glimpse of Gitche Gumee, the name Henry Wadsworth Longfellow shares in his Song of Hiawatha:
“On the shores of Gitche Gumee,
Of the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood Nokomis, the old woman,
Pointing with her finger westward,
O’er the water pointing westward,
To the purple clouds of sunset.” ~ HW Longfellow
The water laps repeatedly at the sandy knoll, eroding its edge. I’m reminded of photos and a post from the UK that Geoff Le Pard shared in Life’s a Beach. I wonder if his #glorioussuffolk compares to my #gloriouskeewenaw? Erosion is a constant force. It’s obvious in sand and dirt; stunning to consider the Grand Canyon. Over time, over time, over time, it all washes away.
In Calumet, 10 miles out of Hancock, my SIL works for the National Parks Service. The town of 600 once catered to a region of 30,000 people. A cluster of tall churches pointing to God and stars stand empty. The Parks campus is built of Jacobson sandstone and bedrock that once yielded copper. The buildings are stout and dark with age. Downtown is eerie. Big as a city in buildings, but sparsely inhabited. A massive Opera House with intact carriage entry still provides shows. I hear the seats are red velvet inside.
On this day, however, we go to the only open restaurant and have lunch at one of seven tables. Seven tables is enough for a town that still has an Opera House. It boggles the mind. Here, the economy has eroded how people make a living. The Finns stick it out, some living on their family farms in summer, retreating to Calumet in winter to escape the harsh snows. The kids show me a building — a five-story brick structure — collapsed by snow last winter. Even the snow erodes around here.
When we leave the sandwich shop, I ask the man who has been writing in a stack of yellow ledgers, what’s his story? He looks up from his paper and scrawl, blinking eyes as brilliantly blue as the lake. His full head and beard of silver and tough worn skin give him the mark of a man with sisu — a Finn. He pauses so long, I fear he’s found my direct question a rude interruption. But once he starts talking about his novel (I knew it!) he becomes animated and reveals he’s a story-teller.
The man tells me that Keewenaw is Ojibwa for “portage” and that this peninsula has served as a crossroads for many cultures over centuries. His novel is modern and includes the college from where new cultures emerge in this area among the fading Finns, stories of Hiawatha and pasties of the Cornish. This idea of portaging cultures intrigues me, one washing up against another. I think of eroding cultures and how differences can rub.
Across the sea in the UK one finds a polite and full explanation as to the dangers of an eroding edge; in the US we simply state the obvious. Here’s one of my photos and Geoff’s to illustrate:
I rather like the polite explanation, yet I see the practicality in directness. Does one way erase another? Is this why we fear other cultures? Cumin might be replaced by curry; English might be replaced by Arabic; Christianity might be replaced by Buddhism; blue eyes might be replaced by brown. Do we really fear this?
I have an idea — what if we looked at another culture and asked a simple question, “What do you love?” I love my family, my friends, my dogs. I love both cumin and curry and lots of garlic. I love action-adventure movies and long epic novels. I love rocks and Lake Superior. I love north Idaho and Montana. I love people who live in many places and I want to see new land, waters and cultures. I love to cook and I love to eat out. I love to grow food, too. I love birds, ideas, stories, history and writing. I love God. I’m not threatened if you don’t love what I do because I bet I can connect with you on some level the more we rattle off our lists to one another. Maybe I’ll go deep with one person, maybe I won’t get beyond spices or children with another.
We can’t stop the repetitive action of water any more than we can stop the spread of people. Do you think these modern borders have always existed? Do you think our language stagnant? Life itself erodes all we try to not change. Embrace what you love, learn what others love and co-exist in this ever-eroding world.
I didn’t always think of the Civil War in the US as a culture clash, but it was certainly an erosion between different regions, people and their needs. When I read historical newspapers during Cobb’s time in North Carolina, I read inflammatory stories of the likes in modern media. The kind of stories to get people worked up against others. To play on those fears that others’ ideas or values or ways or beliefs or home-cooking might erode theirs. I believe Cobb came west to escape some of those ideals he no longer conformed to. Yet, in a curious posting, Sheriff Cobb McCanles advertised for a “Found Negro Man” and is holding him in the Watauga County jail until the owner “proves property.”
It’s a notice that makes my skin crawl. Reading history books — written by white men — Watauga County, North Carolina holds to a false innocence that it had few slaves in antebellum times. Bull shit. I found the slave records and every single man of means, including Mary’s Greene family and Sarah’s Shull family, owned slaves. Slaves were not even considered people but property. The line, “prove property” sickens me. I’ve wondered what to do with it. Actually, the posting remains a mystery — it’s published six months in advance of Cobb leaving. Despite their position and wealth, none of the McCanles family ever owned slaves. Cobb’s mother came from a wealthy plantation that did and she chose to marry an educated man who didn’t. In part, this is what leads the McCanles clan to be at odds with southern neighbors.
They are not abolitionists, but Cobb does a curious thing. He posts this ad for the required 6 months and when it’s time to set the prisoner free, Cobb leaves. If a slave is unclaimed, he’ll simply get claimed by someone else. Even free men of color were wrongfully enslaved after gaining their freedom, or would enslave their own wife and children to protect them from being owned by another. It would be dangerous in the volatile year leading up to the Civil War to have dark skin and no owner. Here’s an interesting thought: Rock Creek was a portage through which many cultures came — French traders, buffalo hunters, Mormons, immigrants, northern pioneers, southern pioneers, and yes, free black men.
History has a weird way of remaining silent, after all it is written by men with prejudice. Read any historical account of Rock Creek and you get the sense of “for” and “against.” Two states even battled in the arena of public opinion regarding who was the real villain, Cobb or Hickok. No one considered they were each men of their times and cultural influences, men with their own hearts and reason. No one considered Jane Wellman or what she was capable of doing. No one considered Mary as being isolated from her southern roots because she followed her Unionist husband west. No one considered Sarah as a business partner to Cobb. And no one considered who James Gordon was.
The shoot-out at Rock Creek left Cobb McCanles, his cousin James Woods and his ranch hand James Gordon dead. I can locate James Woods in historical records; I can’t find James Gordon. In frustration, I wondered if he was secretly female because he is the only person at Rock Creek who is as historically elusive as the three women. Then it struck me, that weirdness about history. History is silent of what it doesn’t approve of. What is so offensive about James Gordon that even today, no one ever bothered to re-inter his grave. Park officials claim his burial site is unknown, yet I found plenty of newspaper accounts of old locals who did know its location. Why did no one ever give an outcry for the wrongful death of James Gordon? Cobb was villainized, and his cousin an associate. Why is James Gordon not in the Census record though he lived in Rock Creek? He wasn’t female; maybe he was black.
That’s my imaginative theory, but it’s plausible and makes sense as for why Gordon was ignored by historians. It also explains what happened to the man in Cobb’s custody. He came west with Cobb and Sarah. He died violently, unfairly, but he did die a free man.
We can’t replace what gets eroded over time, but we can read the records to understand what is missing the way geologists read canyon walls to understand what it once was, what it now is, and how it will further change. Erosion is a process of life. No sense pining for fallen rocks or refusing to budge until the water eats the sand beneath our feet. We can change with the landscape and each day go to the edge with a sense of wonder, goodwill and love.
May 11, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story, using the power of erosion. It can be natural, cultural or something different. Is the force personified or does it add to the overall tone? You can use the word in its variations, or avoid the word and write its action.
Respond by May 17, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Free to Go by Charli Mills
Gordon stood with hat in hand. Cobb sat and ignored the fidgeting young man.
“Cobb,” Gordon said and at his name, he rose, smiling.
“Gordon, sit. Mary, get Gordon a cup. See, quit calling me ‘Sir’ like some knight or slave-owner and I’ll respond.”
Gordon expelled his breath. “Yes, S…Cobb. Am I really free?”
“Nebraska Territory’s not a slave state. I pay you same wage I pay any hand. You bunk with the other hands.”
“But can I leave?”
Cobb leaned forward, holding the man’s worried gaze. “Gordon, you’re free to go, but remember, gold is a hard master.”
Around 5 am, Hell Roaring Creek burst several culverts on its way to the Upper Pack River. It washed out roads, uprooted trees and made a messy morning for our neighbors. Elmira Pond absorbed all the rain of the past week and took last night’s downpour in stride. The ice thinned to a membrane and the shore expanded gracefully into grass. The Pack River, swollen with rain, snow-melt and all the watery hell the creeks could contribute, jumped its banks and flooded the entire plain three miles south of us.
Curiosity nudged me to grab my camera. The Hub drove me to see the flooded plain. Where locals park in the summer to fish and swim is under water. Gentle waves lap at a stand of birch and a fence-line disappears. I can look up at the Selkirk Mountains and see the snow-lined ski runs of Schweitzer Mountain. It’s surreal to see flooding in December. Hooked, I want to see more.
We drive up the Upper Pack road, catching glimpses of water through trees. We pass several official trucks — Bonner County, US Forest Service and US Geological Survey. Uncertain if the bridge is closed we find the water roaring beneath, not over it. I feel sheepish taking photos like some gawking greenhorn tourist. But the power of the water has mesmerized me.
Another truck pulls up and a woman my age gets out with her camera. We smile and greet one another and stand on the bridge clicking our cameras and tongues.
“Can you believe it?”
“So much water.”
“So warm today! It’s December!”
“Work sent my husband home.”
“Well, it’s a looky-loo day!”
I laugh at the word. I’ve heard it before, a gentle term for being nosy. I should be home, writing. But no, I’m going to looky-loo some more. My bridge friend even tells me of other spots not to miss. I hop back in the truck and tell the Hub, “She says we need to look at Hell Roaring Creek.”
Before we get to the washouts, a sign warns us of water on the road. The sign doesn’t say we can’t proceed, so we carefully wind around eroded road, standing water and debris. Someone’s driveway behind a fancy iron gate is a running creek. My dream home on the Pack remains only mere feet from the waters. Ranch pastures look like ponds. Then we reach the end of the road where a culvert is now fully exposed. No sign of road, just a swift moving creek.
We stop and I get out to shoot a photo. I see several neighbors gathered in a yard that’s simply gone and under a new creek ordinance. I ask my neighbor if he’s okay, if he needs anything from town. I don’t know him and I live on the opposite side of the ridge, but that’s what country-folk do. We gawk, but we also lend a hand freely. The man cheerfully waves and says he’s fine. He’s actually enjoying the adventure the morning has brought him.
The Hub walks up and cracks a joke in the way western men talk to one another: “Weather man said free rain for the lawn. He never said anything about rain to wash it away.” The men laugh. Another truck pulls up and it’s a Bonner County official taking official photos. Another vehicle and we are talking to a father who had to rescue his 20-year old daughter this morning when Hell Roaring Creek crested. Like us, they are now looking. A quad pulls up and I’m thinking this has become either an Idaho traffic jam or an impromptu party. No one has food or coffee to share, so it must be the former.
We chat with the man and his wife on the quad. They’re checking up on all their neighbors. By now, I’m thinking I might have a story to pitch my editor so I start asking for photo permission. The woman on the quad shakes her head no and starts to get off so I can photograph her husband, but he gently grabs her thigh and coaxes her to sit, the look he turns around and gives her is one of pure adoration. He loves her. He’s proud of her. He could care less if she’s wearing a hat and no make-up. She’s beautiful to him and I snap a shot.
This looky-loo has me thinking, and not about floods.
Lately, I’ve been dismayed over American politics and behavior. It horrifies me to think the world looks at an ass-clown like Trump and sees us in the reflection. It worries me that words like ass-clown slip so easily into my lexicon. I don’t use the photos of the Hub’s brass or write stories about our lengthy visits to J Bar S, the local gun shop. All my historians own gun shops, the ones who’ve coached me on identifying Rock Creek firearms and led me to consider my story’s premise.
A Muslim who hides her identity because of public opinion is a woman who is oppressed.
So what does that make me? I want to hide my heritage. I want to explain the rough talk of my neighbors as harmless. I have no desire to vote and I avoid discussing politics or religion though I walk in a strong faith. What has America come to that women claim equality and then shut up? We claim silence to not rock the boat, to not offend others, to offer compassion but not to our own.
I feel like I’m the road getting washed out. Silence seems as harmless as water until the road is gone.
Maybe this is why I dig into history. Maybe this is why I try to find truth beneath the myths. For all who have villainized Cobb McCanles, only one ever paused to ponder why he’d take his son to a gun fight. The easy answer is that he never expected a gun fight. But I went deeper and looked at Cobb’s family life. He raised a daughter who was special needs in a time when most parents let the baby “not thrive.” I can easily imagine Cobb adoring his wife like the man on the quad. Yet he was part of a culture not understood. Despite leaving the troubles of his home state, he was still a southerner.
The conclusion I’ve come to is that we do no good in hiding our culture. We need to find common ground.
As we drove down a washed out road today, I realized to be safe, we drive on what is left of common ground. And we need to stop eroding that common ground in an attempt to hide or excuse our cultures. Face it — we are human, complex and contradictory, but we are also human in sharing the same wants and needs in life. We need to shore up our common ground with courage to say, this is who I am, happy to meet who you are. Don’t understand? Ask, don’t judge. Learn, don’t isolate.
One thing that continues to amaze (and delight) me week after week is how a group of people from around the world from different backgrounds and writing interests can produce flash fiction full of multiple perspectives. Flash fiction has become common ground. It’s something that will be evident in our upcoming Anthology Vol. 1, too. Thank you for the diverse perspectives you all bring to this challenge. Thank you for sharing your voices.
December 9, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write about a looky-loo. It can be in the general term of “looking around” or it can be a nosy neighbor kind of tale. You can also go deeper into the prompt and have a looky-loo at another culture (or your own).
Respond by December 15, 2015 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
A Great Divide by Charli Mills
Sarah chuckled after Cobb rode away. She turned at the smell of pipe smoke.
“Sorry to interrupt. Just curious what’s so mighty funny.” Hickok smiled broadly.
“That Cobb. Got himself in a skull-and-knife fight in Palmetto. Had to bite a German blacksmith on the rump.” She looked down when Hickok glared at her.
He spat. “No good border ruffians down there. No fun in their sporting. Evil men.”
Sarah shrugged. How to explain that’s how southerners play? Even their fun was made out to be evil these days. The looming war would create a great divide even out west.
When facing a trial, unyielding institutions or difficult committees it helps to have an advocate. Sometimes that advocate is hired, and often not. A mother might have her child’s back or a grandchild might look out for the elderly.
The idea for “got your back” sprang from support for a veteran facing a difficult situation. The expression comes from being in a dangerous situation where you might need another to cover your back as you move forward. In the military, this is called “got your 6.” And there is an organization that seeks to empower today’s US veterans to be community leaders and for the community to have a more normal perspective of veterans beyond “heroic or broken.”
Check out the organization Got Your 6 and see the video clip at the end of this compilation.
The following stories are based on the August 12, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a character who is called to have the back of another.
Back Up by Sherri Matthews
The questions had started out basic but became more complex with every turn of the page.
Write in as much detail as possible the applicant’s difficulties with everyday tasks.
She sighed and ran her hands through her unwashed hair as she glanced up at her kitchen clock. Damn. Already noon and still she hadn’t showered.
Her phone vibrated, she jumped.
“Mrs Martin? This is Dee Caldwell, the Council Welfare Officer. I had a message to call you about helping fill out some forms for your daughter. When can I visit?”
Someone had her back. Someone cared just enough.
Back to the Future by Geoff Le Pard
‘Sore?’ Paul massaged Mary’s back.
‘Hmm. I need a better chair.’
‘What you reading?’
‘Rupert’s notes. He’s determined to find my twin.’
‘What’s he found?’
‘She was definitely Katherine not Sharon. That’s my imaginary friend. Katharine was adopted by a family called Potts.’
‘They moved to Ireland in 1984. He’s going to see what he can find. He wants me to go too.’
‘What about you?’
‘Would you mind? I’d take the baby but you’ll have Penny.’
‘You know I’ll do whatever you need.’
‘Course. Covering your back has always been my priority!’
Lost Loyalties by Christina Rose
She found the emails from his ex, the U-Haul rental receipt in her name, obvious signs of a quick exit. He he was gone by the time she got home.
I emailed him, unleashing my rage, my fury over their actions, the betrayal she was too brokenhearted to fight. He took the lowest of blows, personal attacks, things she said behind my back.
She denied saying those things of course, but I always wondered.
Years later, we don’t talk. Memories of me, bring back memories of him. Avoidance from the friend I once loved, no appreciation for the loyalty.
Providing Cover by A. R. Amore
The overnight detective was young, respectful and professional; he started almost every sentence with, “I’m sorry sir, but…” Chief Barret felt he actually meant that.
“Bring him,” he ordered and the detective nodded.
When they brought him all he could say was, “It looks bad but they have it wrong. It was a wild frat party…”
“The girl was 17,” Barret said. “You drugged her.”
“I didn’t,” his son mumbled. “No, I…”
This was his second college and third assault allegation.
“She was drugged; raped.” The Chief stood thinking: I won’t cover this one up. He needs to learn.
Growth: a Mindset by Norah Colvin
Marnie propped her head on one hand while the pencil in the other faintly scratched the paper. She hoped it wasn’t too obvious that she didn’t get it. But she didn’t get it. She didn’t get last year, or the year before. Why should she get it now? What was the point? Her brain just didn’t work that way. She was dumb. They had always said she was dumb. No point in trying.
Then the teacher was there, encouraging, supporting, accepting. “Let me help you,” she said. “You can do this. Let’s break it down into steps. First …”
Eating…by Bill Bennett
I had to have his back. I couldn’t count the times he had saved me from being bitten and turned. The Ruger 10/22 was a great weapon for killing the eaters, and I had never had a problem until now. The stupid gun kept jamming. Was it the amo or was it because the gun was dirty? Never the less I had to do something. I pushed my back against his and jabbed each eater in the eye socket with the gun and thrust harder into the skull, killing each monster and the threat of catching the hideous virus.
I Have Your Back, Grandma by Kate Spencer
“I have your back, Grandma”
“Yes, you have tact. Always have – ever since you were a little boy.”
“Grandma, listen, I’ll take care of you.”
“You? What can you do? Oh, goodness, no Jason. I’m fine and can manage quite nicely. Did I tell you I went strawberry picking last weekend?”
“Yes you did, but I wanted you to know that I’ll be there for you.”
Grandma walked over to the kitchen counter and Jason watched as she re-arranged some tomatoes in a bowl with one hand and quietly wiped her eye with the other.
“Love you Grandma.”
The Irony by Ruchira Khanna
Trisha lay still accompanied by silent sniffs.
“Don’t worry Trish. I am right here” she said in a pacified tone.
“Oh! I am scared Mommy,” she said while sniffing, “Will it hurt?”
“Not at all dear!”
Soon she felt the prick, the pressure on her arm build up, and within seconds, everything was back to normal.
She wailed, whimpered as the nurse dabbed cotton on the spot.
Mom took over with a gentle smile while making her sit up.
Aha! The paradox of life that in spite of a whining, weepy kid, the Mom was wearing a smile.
The Advocate by Sarah Unsicker
Mrs. Smith felt less alone when she walked into the room with her advocate behind her, but she still instinctively cowered when she saw the table with ten people around it. Ten people unwilling to expend resources on her child. Ten people who saw his naughty behavior as willful disobedience rather than inability to comply.
The teachers’ names flew past before she could take them in.
“I’m sorry, can we repeat those introductions, slower, so I can write down everybody’s names?” said the advocate.
Mrs. Smith’s shoulders relaxed. Finally, at this meeting, somebody had her back—and her son’s.
Two at Her Back by Paula Moyer
“You will have 10 minutes to empty your desk.” Jean knew she was good. What was up? She handed her key to the guard. Walked out like a robot.
Still numb, she drove home, walked up the drive, unlocked the door. Ellie was on the other side, whole body wagged by the tail. Jean dropped into the couch. Ellie’s manic wagging stopped. She plopped her head onto Jean’s knee.
Jean pulled out her phone, scrolled to Lynn. “Cousin, I just got fired.”
Lynn gasped. “How could they?”
“Well.” Lynn’s trademark.
“I’ll just take my business elsewhere.”
I’ve Got Your Back by Irene Waters
Close to the summit, Kathy’s hand hold faultered. The crevice was tiny and her anxiety was turning to panic.
“You can do it.” Richard gently encouraged her onwards in his calming, believable voice. “I’ve got your back so don’t worry. Your safe. One step at a time.” She trusted him and reached the top.
Now, back home, they danced. She loved being held against him but Richard was dancing clumsily, trying to look behind him to avoid collisions on the crowded dance floor.
“Look forward. Trust me, like I trusted you. I’ve got your back now. You have mine.”
Chips Are Unhealthy for More Reasons Than You Think by Dave Madden
The door jam is my Prime Meridian. In waiting for the right choice, I notice potato chips next to the garbage.
A wave of boys wishing “good mornings” heightened wonderment: How good would it have been had I crossed any time zones through the door’s threshold?
An innocent Kindergartner admitted, “A friend shared them.”
My tone validated, with no hint at hiding urgency, “We don’t share food at school, so go throw them away.”
He nods his head; I turn around.
Crunch, crunch, crunch!
Even when teachers try to have students’ backs, it doesn’t always go as planned.
Family Reunion by Sarah Brentyn
“That’s not how it happened,” Terri barked.
“Who cares,” Kim interrupted, “I want to hear more about Tracy’s new ‘boyfriend’.”
“No,” Mark gestured with his beer, “let’s hear more about this supposed thing I did to Tracy. I hurt her wittle feelings?”
Britney laughed. “It’s bullshit. Like her new job.”
“Tracy?” Her mother glared. “Don’t just stand there like an idiot.”
Tracy’s boyfriend squeezed her hand. “It was nice to meet all of you but we have a weekend meeting at work.” He turned to her. “Do you want to leave now or wait a bit?”
“Now is good.”
Undaunted by Ann Edall-Robson
Hearing the horses milling around in the corral, she slipped into her coat. Picking up her rifle, the undaunted woman headed for the barn.
She shivered. The hair on the back of her neck was standing. The screaming had been sporadic for weeks. Tonight it was close.
The tawny coloured cougar lay waiting. Ears back. Tail twitching. Ready to spring.
A blur rushed past her towards the cat.
One shot and it was over.
Squatting, she rested her hand on the dog that came to stand beside her.
She depended on her partner. He was always there for her.
Legal Maneuvering by Larry LaForge
Judge Stone called Ed to the podium and read the charge. “How do you plead?”
Ed stood nervously.
“Not guilty,” someone proclaimed from behind. All eyes turned toward Edna, whose loud voice surprised even her.
The Judge was startled, then amused. “Does she always have your back?”
Ed answered immediately. “Guilty as charged, Your Honor.”
Judge Stone didn’t know if Ed was admitting he ran the stop sign or proudly affirming he has a supportive spouse.
The Judge smiled, scratched his head and then announced “Charge dropped.”
Ed ignored Edna’s signal to remain silent. “The defense rests,” he said.
Special Recipe by Pete Fanning
They tortured that boy. Day after day, smacking his head and taunting him. He never said much. But that numb look on his face said it all. His clothes were a mess. His hair butchered. And that bruise under his collar? I’d been there.
I don’t know how they found out Butch was on assistance, but by then I’d had enough.
The hell with probation, the next morning I wrapped that hairnet for the last time. When Butch arrived I took that bowl of pudding from off his plate and winked.
“Might want to pass on the that today.”
Sarah’s Deliverer by Charli Mills
He’d hid the kittens Mr. Boots had in the barn. On those nights when coyotes yipped and she felt abandoned on the prairie, Hickok read to her his mother’s letters. Last night, after Cob raged that he’d clean out Rock Creek, Hickok calmed her fear. “I got your back, Sarah,” he said.
Now that Cob had thrown Wellman to the ground, Nancy Jane growled by the door and young Sally whimpered from under the kitchen table. Hickok strode tall and calm from the barn, walked right past Cob.
“Friends, aint’ we Hickok?”
No Cob, it’s my back he has.
The Good Parent by Jules Paige
Children who are different – some schools want to put them on drugs.
To make them docile and compliant and pliable. Ones who are curious,
disrupting the normal routines of a class. But Janice had her son Manning’s
back. As a parent you have be your child’s best advocate. Since they
just don’t always have the right words to express their needs.
If you didn’t know it, at least where Janice lived there was such a
document called “The Parent’s Bill of Rights.’ And she used it. Janice
had Manning’s back. And he knew it.
Veterans, we got your 6!
On my knees, churning soil like a human rototiller, I grab at weed roots and aerate the compacted earth around fledgling plants. Some plants have not fledged. I’m patient with dirt, and wait for it to reveal a hopeful germination. I know when to give up, thus I press more seed into the barren spots.
Writing is a lot like gardening. Words are dirt into which we plant stories, books and dreams.
Most days, I’m comforted by the dirt, believing it will yield, believing I have half a clue about what I’m doing. Other days, those barren spots worry me. Did I plant too deep? Too shallow? Was my seed too old? I begin to doubt my efforts matter.
Topics can be like barren doubt. I’ve mentally churned the idea of writing something in relation to what happened, again, on American soil — the meaningless massacre of a hate crime in Charleston, South Carolina. Do I have words that will grow something fruitful? Will I write too deep? Too shallow?
I don’t know what to write. I’m the dirt farmer devastated by hail, by grasshoppers, by drought. I don’t even look into my neighbor’s eye because I know he’s experienced the same thing. I glare at my other neighbor in the big house because she has no idea what it is to put hope into dirt. And this is dangerous ground. It touches upon shame and envy, it breeds a blight of hate.
The singer Jewel asks in a song, “And who will save your soul if you won’t save your own?”
Best to kneel back down in the dirt, take compassion on both neighbors — the one who struggles, and the one who doesn’t — and plant again. Hope again. Feel. Joys and sorrows. It doesn’t matter if your dirt patch is small or if others even notice what you are doing. Do it because it’s yours. Plant your stories.
Charleston? All I can do is to promise you that I will not sow hate. I can promise you that I will help each person I meet best that I can. I promise to do what is right, what is just even if sometimes I’m confused by the results or how to go about it. I will put my gaze on the good, the sprouts, the beauty that grows from tenaciously churning my dirt, pulling weeds and nourishing emerging plants. I will write words that may not matter to pop culture or mass media, but express beauty nonetheless. I’ll rise up toward the light like a plant newborn from the soil.
I’m too far away to touch you in Charleston. But I can give a stranger a ride to town. I can share potatoes with my neighbors, big and small. One interaction at a time, I can be an agent of love and compassion. May my world one day spread toward yours, and hers, and his, and may each single effort add up to a worthier place to live.
Dig in the dirt writers! Be gardeners of your own stories and tillers of your truth. Write deep. Write shallow. Know that you matter; your stories matter. Every life matters.
June 24, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about dirt. You can go with the idea of digging into the dirt as an analogy, or you can be realistic. Maybe a character has “the dirt” on someone or another has “dirty laundry” to hide. Dirt can be rich soil or barren. Get dirty, but not shockingly dirty!
And the photo? I dug in the garden today, weeding and mounding potato hills, thinning red onions, evidently for the benefit of my largest garden pest, Bobo, who slept soundly upon the warm dirt.
Respond by June 30, 2015 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
The Late Exchange by Charli Mills
Belle searched for signs of rising dirt that announced travelers across the barren basin. By now she could discern hand carts from wagons. She hoped to see indication of the overdue Pony Express rider. Sul would soon go searching, leaving Belle alone.
“I’ll give you the rifle. Point and pull the trigger.”
“Ah, Sweetheart, ain’t nobody getting’ in through these rock walls.”
Then, billowing dirt on the horizon.
When the rider arrived to exchange horses, he grinned. “Injuns!” He tossed Belle a calico sack full of pine nuts. “For you, Ma’am. Seems they like your chokecherry pie.”