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April 4: Flash Fiction Challenge

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.

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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?