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Props whomp-whomp-whomp a steady rhythm like the heartbeat of the plane. Cold air seeps through my window, and I can’t help but stare beyond the plane’s beating blades. It’s the only hint of sun I’ve seen over Svalbard since arriving in January. Sherbert hues of lemon and raspberry will be the single spoonful of sunlight for one hour and 54 minutes. And then it sets.
You might be wondering if my snow enclave with Lady Lake Superior has morphed with the Norwegian Arctic, but I assure you I’m still trapped by her snowy tendrils and merely dreaming of staring out the window at the only bit of sun my middlest daughter sees these days.
Mine is a voyage of the imagination. My daughter is the one who experiences the moment in person.
Rock Climber (or perhaps her arctic name should be Ice Cave Empress) lives in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway. She recently posted this photo on her way to a remote job (as if Longyearbyen isn’t remote enough) in Svea. I’m along for an imaginary ride, hearing the endless whomp of the blades, feeling it connecting me to my daughter whose ice caverns are far away from my icy lakeshores.
As inhospitable as ice might be, my daughter writes that the movie, Frozen, has nothing on the ice caverns above Sveagruva (which means Swedish Mine, Svea to the locals). Sculpted frozen flows open like crystal orchids. My daughter explored inside with the small mining town lit up in the valley of snow below. She watched the Northern Lights pool and spray over a glacier, not bothering to take pictures because she said a camera could never catch the dance.
For now, her greatest danger comes from avalanches. A third of housing in Longyearbyen is under avalanche watch, so Rock Climber and her partner, Chef, are working in Svea where they can find rooms. Workers are only allowed 10 days rotation. They don’t seem to mind the dislocation, flying over partial sunrises and endless glaciers. They relish their life on ice.
I’ve come to welcome mine, too.
Last week, Winter Carnival unfolded across Michigan Tech University. Engineering students from nations around the world pulled the traditional over-nighter to finish building ice castles and sculptures. This year, Camelot rose just a few blocks from where I write. Frozen in ice, King Arthur kneels at the sword. Ah, I knew Superior was the Lady of the Lake! Here are the winning sculptures:
Ice ages. I don’t refer to “the” ice ages — I mean, ice grows old. It gets heavy and lined, pocked and dirty. It melts and turns crystalline until grabbing on to more layers of snow. It reminds me of aged cheese. But don’t worry, I’m not going to spread it on a cracker and eat it. I know what the critters do on ice!
Outside my front window, I watch five squirrels run the same tree branch trail around and around. As they bounce from bough to bough, snow plops to the aged ice below. I watch as my daughter flies over glaciers. If the snow extends from here through Canada, across to Greenland and over to Svalbard, are we standing on the same continent of ice?
Where does a mother go when the birds have fledged? I’ve watched male mergansers inflate their heads during their mating season, then shrivel up and fly away. The female mergansers remain, hiding nests from sky-prowlers like eagles and owls. Tufts of feathers emerge as baby mergansers. They grow bold and take to deeper waters and diving. I’ve seen the pond full of mergansers on the verge of flight and within days find only the emptiness.
A few mothers linger about. Neatening up the nest? Taking up grass knitting or reading the stars at night like books, no longer worried about death raining down as eagle claws? The babes made it. The mothers are on their own.
Rock Climber lands in Svea and already morning has turned to dark of night. The whomping blades shudder to stop, and she walks away from the window to new sights and adventures. I tidy up my ice and think of her laugh. My daughter is only an ice flow away. The polar bears slumber and the sun is making a return. She’s the Ice Cavern Empress, and I’m a writing merganser dreaming of sherbert on ice.
February 15, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story on ice. It can be an event on ice, a game on ice or a drink on ice. Go where the prompt leads you.
Respond by February 20, 2018, to be included in the compilation (published February 21). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Pups on Ice (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Garan blew past Danni, kicking up clumps of powder from the recent snowstorm. When he hit the ice, all four paws skittered, and he crashed to his chest, sliding across the smooth expanse.
Danni let out a hoot, and the herd of German Short-haired puppies slowed their bumbling approach to the ice. They pestered their mother, Det and yipped at their father who scrambled to gain traction on the pond. The runt took a bold step, then slipped on the glazed surface.
One bumped another, and then the chase-slipping began. Danni laughed, the only audience to Pups on Ice.
My winter habit is not flattering. The drab-green wool coat is oversized to fit layers of bulky clothes over a bulky body. Dry air makes static of my hair which I braid and stuff into a fur-lined mad-bomber found at the thrift store. My face beams pale as a winter full moon. Dressed against Lady Lake’s constant onslaught, I feel captive to my winter clothes.
I’m going to a dance class once a week and I disrobe before entering — unwrap the scarf, unbutton the coat, kick off each boot and pull my thick socks back up. Next, I remove the hat and my hair has enough electricity to form a halo I haven’t earned yet.
Every fiber cries out to flee but my body disobeys instinct and lumbers into the room with the black floor. My daughter teaches here. She’s spent a year coping with deep injuries and adjusting to an autoimmune disorder. And yet still she dances. The class she has convinced me to try is Feldenkrais. I know it has helped her through her injuries and pain, but I’m no dancer.
In fact, I tend to be a walking head. Body awareness is something I gave up incrementally as pain drove me from the body into the greater and less painful expanse of the mind. I used to ride horses, leaping over irrigation ditches and riding the heights of the Pacific Crest Trail. I’ve skied Black Diamond trails in the Tahoe Basin; I’ve rodeoed and ranched; hauled hay and worked road construction. I didn’t dance but my body was strong.
Now I write strong. I live in my head and ride the currents of Lake Superior and race my characters over trails on horses from the Pony Express. I era-hop and gender-morph. There’s nothing I can’t write and I choose the stories I want to bring to light. I’m in control.
Of my legs, I’m not in control. There I was lying reluctantly on the floor scuffed by jazz shoes. Yes, yes, I was supposed to be on the provided yoga mat but I couldn’t even control that matter. During the last class I agonized over the tight band of rocks that had solidified my hips, and yet by the end of class, I felt soft, shaky and strangely not pained. This class I’m crushing my rib cage, flopping like a trout when the command was “gently flex your ankle…back…and…forth.”
When we switched to the right leg after a series of neck contortions and a “rest” on our backs as my left leg twitched, I prepared for more flopping. But my left side obeyed. I could connect to the movement. Okay, I thought, I’ll use my imagination and pretend to do it on my right because that’s what the instructor had advised us. Everyone else was using their bodies and while we worked both legs, I flopped and seized and pretended like nobody’s business.
After surviving dance class — and mind you, I will insist it’s a dance class. The dancers all think it’s a rest for their bodies, although my daughter has attributed much of her healing to Feldenkrais and is close to achieving her goal of dancing ballet again. My goal is to survive class, pretend my way through it and get to a point where I don’t look like the dying trout on the floor.
After class, I remain shy and don’t speak up about my experience. But I tell my daughter. The instructor politely turns her head to hear and I realize she needs the feedback. So I explain how my leg muscles on one side refused to obey. The first day of physical therapy after a back surgery went wrong, I was dismayed to learn my muscles were not “firing.” They still were not firing seven years later.
However, I could feel it so strongly on my right side that I pretend I felt it on my left. I acknowledged that I didn’t look like I was doing it but in my mind, I was a dancer working her legs. I felt foolish. To my surprise, the instructor smiled and said, “You have good Feldenkrais instinct; that’s exactly what you are to do.” Feldenkrais uses the mind to heal the neuropathy in the body.
Walking up the hill to Milly’s to write while my daughter subs for a jazz class, I feel as if someone just told me I can ride a horse again.
Do nuns feel this way?
Maybe that’s an odd thought but I’ve had nuns on the mind since they came up with a story that Norah Colvin wrote for wet ink. She expressed a story familiar to those with a Catholic education during an era when even public schools used corporal punishment. Her story sparked a discussion about nuns, and I’ve had them on my mind ever since.
The first nun I can recall has no name. It was kindergarten and my mother dropped me off at a baby-sitter’s house before school. She had a town job off the family ranch. I walked five blocks to Sacred Heart Parish School. My family was Catholic; I was not. That’s what happens when teenagers procreate. To say I was an outsider despite my plaid skirt and red sweater was an understatement. Yet, I recall no cruelty from nuns; only family members.
My teacher was not the knuckle-wrapper my father told me he had in school. Instead, she was concerned. I think they were all concerned — unbaptized, rebellious and imaginative. My mind got me busted at age 5. The pet frog was the first to go. My grandfather took care of that one, sharing the imagined moment, asking to hold my frog which I gave him. He then threw it on the ground, squashed it with the heel of his cowboy boot and declared that pet gone.
I tried to explain that the girl I drew on the tree branch was not another imaginary friend, but it caused an emergency parent-teacher conference. I still recall the nun explaining the lesson to my parents — I was to circle the greater amount of birds either below or above the tree branch. Duh. I knew it was the flock of birds above. That’s why I drew the girl flying with them. She wasn’t imaginary. She was me. And I flew with the greater birds.
If my early experiences with nuns disappointed my imagination, my later experiences fed it. After a wonderful, restorative and mind-opening experience at a liberal arts Catholic college in Montana where I learned of the contributions of nuns and anchoresses throughout history (Hildegarde of Bingham, Heloise, Julian of Norwich) I met two former nuns in Minneapolis. That’s where I learned an intriguing concept — nuns who drive.
My friends openly spoke of their convent days and why they joined and why they left. One had been the only nun in her convent with the ability to drive. It was not often a skill a nun needed. She spoke philosophically about nuns who drive in that they are often the ones more apt to try new skills or ideas. They often led. And they often left. Nuns who drive drove away.
I’ve thought of this throughout my creative writing and even wrote a short story about a nun from the 1850s who knew how to drive a wagon. She flees a convent in Hawaii and becomes a mule-skinner in the California gold fields. Her imagined story intrigues me and maybe one day. I’ll rework it and dig deeper into that tale. I’m also inspired by this nun who drives:
After my walk up the snowy streets of Hancock, I wondered if nuns also lived on the Keweenaw. Turns out a parish only 17 miles away in Lake Linden had a large Canadian-French population, cutting timbers for the copper mines. Nuns from Quebec were dispatched to teach parish school in 1886 and continued until the school closed in 1971.
With the tunic-lifting winds and biting snow, I wondered what nuns wore beneath. According to anecdotes and an interesting book about what nuns wear, they would have worn pantaloons or even long-underwear. And thick socks.
I also questioned whether or not nuns would be an appropriate prompt.
My hesitation is that nuns are people, too. I know what it is to be pointed out as “other” and that’s not my intent. On the first day of Black History Month in the US, I think we all need to be mindful of how history has developed in this country. The blunt way to say it is that America was founded on the backs of slaves and indentured female servants, taking lands from indigenous tribes. It’s a history of dehumanization that will nip at our heels until we find a way to reconcile our shared humanity.
And a part of that harsh history is the religious persecution of “other” faiths. Catholics were often despised and persecuted in American history. My ancestors were Catholic Scots deposed from their homeland in the mid-1700s because of their faith. They relocated to the colonies, fought in the Revolutionary War, settled in Missouri and pushed a herd of cattle to California during the gold rush. They built the parish church where I was born and kept their faith throughout all those generations.
I have no nuns — that I know of — in my family, but I do have a priest for a great-great-grandfather. Nothing in life is simple, but our stories are rich, complex and varied. I’m going to expand the prompt to include anything that is black and white from a nun’s habit to a B-stripe juggling ball and chickadee to rigid black and white thinking. To get you creatively motivated, here’s a wonderful video from the KC Bonkers tribe in Hancock. And yes — for those of you with astute eyes who know about my wandering days, that’s my RV stored at the Bonkers family homestead.
I believe art (and the imagination to expres it) is similar to Feldenkrais. We might feel a bit like a flopping trout trying to create it, but if we keep pretending we will build a bridge from what we imagine to the page we write upon.
February 1, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that features something black and white. It could be a nun in a zebra monster truck, a rigid way of thinking, a bird in a tuxedo — be imaginative and go where the prompt leads.
Respond by February 6 , 2018, to be included in the compilation (published February 7). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
New in Angels Camp by Charli Mills
Sister Maria D’Abreau soaked the hide, tamping it down with a wooden pole. Her black dress felt softer than her habit packed away.
Henry watched, leaning against the corral. “You got laundry skills, I’ll say that much.”
Maria kept silent. What Mother Superior failed to teach her, living rough in mining camps had. She wouldn’t provoke a prickly miner down on his gold dust.
She stopped to test the hide, smiling when the hair slicked beneath her fingers. It would make the chore easier.
Father Kincaid approached. “The lass knows rawhide as well as mules.”
Henry spat. “We’ll see.”
Earth has an edge and I’m standing on its fault line. Snow sweeps out in front of me, wind-sculpted and hiding the brown bones of autumn battles. I’m alone on the beach, on the edge of the earth, tempted to walk on water, but knowing better than to give into the urge. Some curiosities the cat never returns from and I want to return if only to tell the tale.
Before my solo journey, I interrupted a party of parka-clad tourists. Like Sir Ernest Shackleton, I’m the hero on pause, answering questions before I can continue. The tourists, notably excited by rare winter wonders, have a single burning question: “Do you live here?”
“Yes.” Not here as in on the frozen beach of Lake Superior, but here as on the Keweenaw.
They understand, whistle through their breath, and shake their heads. Here is impressive to visit, worth the drive from downstate or out of state. Then the next question: “But why…?”
How do I tell them I’m captive to the Snow Queen, Lady Lake, that I’m a snared wanderer and a minstrel of sand and snow? Do they even understand the battlefield they stomp over in high tech snow boots unaware that Superior undulates unforgivingly below them?
That’s not a snow drift but her hip bone and she’s going to knock you to her watery depths if you don’t take care. Look, her ribs fly exposed overhead, she’s circling, circling. Do you belong to her? Don’t wait to find out. Flee! The battles renew, surge when you least expect.
But I give the less complex answer: “Rocks. I like rocks.”
“Oh.” They sound disappointed and inwardly I chuckle. No, these won’t draw her attention. She like admirers. One lingers, though.
“What kind of rocks?”
I look at this man before me and his eyes show a snap of curiosity. I can tell he feels Lady Lake’s presence but doesn’t know what it is. Asking about rocks is like asking for a sip of whiskey when you really don’t understand what the pub is all about.
Looking down, I see my cruel mistress has erupted stones for me as if she knew I’d take this chance to glimpse her. Okay, so I’ll give the nice man a taste of firewater. “Oh, agates,” I say.
“Ah, agates.” He turns and walks away.
So I say something more intriguing, wondering if Lady Lake has me doing her bidding now. “Prehnite is my favorite though, especially copper inclusions.”
“Copper inclusions?” This man has too much curiosity to be on this beach safely.
“Um, yes. Prehnite is milky white, sometimes yellow like old peas, but sometimes it has copper and radiates hot pink and kale green bursts of inner crystallization.”
“Oh! Are you a geologist?”
I want to tell him the truth — I belong to Lake Superior, I’m her siren’s call. But I say, “No but I raised one.” My smile is meant to look innocent, motherly.
“Let’s go!” His friends are already safely up top the hill over this battlefield. I can hear movement trickling beneath. I say no more and turn to walk away. Wisely, he retreats to his friends but stumbles across another eruption.
“Hey! Hey–I found something. A rock! It’s green!”
Overhead I see Lady Lake floating as clearly as the Lady of Shallot in her watery grave. I turn back and the man approaches, holding out a rock in his now ungloved hand. It’s the size of a tomato, steely gray, pocked with vesicles, filled with glittering pistachio green crystals. Oh, Lady Lake, you are toying with him. “Ah, that’s basalt filled in with a secondary mineralization of epidote. Anything the color of pistachios is epidote.”
“Cool!” He has no idea what epidote is or how common. But it is spectacular, especially when the crystals aren’t beach-pummeled smooth. He grins and pockets his find. “I see why you like living here.”
She’s snared another. He’ll always want to come back to this beach. At work, likely an office job, maybe even as a CEO, he’ll be in the middle of a meeting, taking notes or giving direction, and he’ll think of that rock and how many others might be waiting on that beach. When the wind teases his hair, he’ll look the direction of Lake Superior and not know why.
Father Baraga, black robe to the Ottawa and Ojibwe, ministered to the tribes of the Upper Peninsula, becoming a grammarian of their languages. For thirty years he crossed these peninsulas, often on snowshoes, and dared to take on the Lady Lake. No one knows why he dedicated his service on her shores, and no stories speak of his interest in rocks. But he did tend to the immigrant copper miners, too.
It’s true that he never left the Lake once he arrived. From 1830 until his death in 1868 he lived here. One dark and stormy night he set out in his little canoe after hearing about an epidemic outbreak in the village of Grand Portage. Whether he intended to cross Lake Superior, only the Lady knows. She blew up into fierce seas, tossing about the priest and his guide in the birch-bark canoe. Whatever happened that day between Lady Lake and Father Baraga, he never forgot the feeling of salvation when she dumped him safely on a sandy shore at the mouth of Cross River. The cross, the father erected and it stands in stone.
She likes stone.
It may seem a minor miracle for a canoe to survive her battle-fraught waves but consider the Edmonds Fitzgerald. Fully loaded with iron ore, she kept that booty for herself.
Now alone and having walked as far as I can down the beach, I look back and take stock like human recorder. She uses many of us, I’m certain. Today, she called me to the Lake to see what she had wrought. I’ve enjoyed her home-visits, her playful flurries of snow, her blinding, whirling blizzards. I’ve missed her on the days when she recedes, but can always glimpse her denseness hanging gray over the distant shore.
Today, she is atmospheric. Layer upon layer of gray lifts into the blue sky edged with white feather tips — her rib cage hovers over me. Lady Lake gently blows, wind reverberates through the birch above on the hill. Somehow, I felt her call. It was a blue sky day, so why not?
Like Father Baraga must have felt at some point in his journey, I drove out of Calumet and caught my first winter glimpse of Lake Superior. Where blue horizon meets blue water, I only saw white, and white and gray. Terror frizzed across my nerves and I heard the words of the black-robe echo across time, What the hell was I thinking?
It was too late to turn back. Literally, there was no place to turn around. I nearly missed the cut-off to Calumet Waterworks beach. I turned sharply and my car slid. Missing the snowbank, I slowed down, heart pounding like the ghost of stamp mills. I reasoned that I was only going to look. After all, with 132 inches of snow in less than three months, I was not getting near the beach. The parking lot was plowed so I pulled in. Just to see.
Lady Lake had Superior locked in a violent freeze.
Birch trees on the hill remained buried to their lowest saddle. Picnic tables emerged like slates in the snow. Park slides and swings froze in time and snowbanks. The snow, compact, formed a bridge to the stairs that now drifted snow like shutes to the beach below. And yet the clever wench had blown a small trail, exposing enough steps for daring feet. And by now you know I can’t resist seeing what the rocks might be like below.
That is how I came to stand on the edge of the world, staring down the remains of a battlefield. Trees like soldiers dropped from their banks in October and November. Violently the waves spewed their denuded trunks against the cuts into the hillside. Like brown broken bones, they protrude through the snow and litter the beach. Another line of driftwood. A smaller and less forcibly tangled line of littered driftwood forms a secondary barrier. Between the two Lady Lake has sculpted ice and snow like finger painting in Elmer’s Glue.
I stand on the edge. It’s so quiet I hear the constant trickle of the Lake as if the water has been pruned back like roses and it can only ooze between grains of buried sand. In a display of force, piles of sand and beach rocks erupt like mini volcanoes through the crust of snow. Lady Lake has sculpted these along the edge into frozen pedestals. Memory recalls this is where the waves lapped to shore. No lapping now.
More fearsome yet is the battle yet raging between water. Like brothers at war, ice versus liquid rips the lake bed. What might look like dunes or drifts of snow made by a runaway bulldozer I know to be waves, sand, and rock transcending space. The lake ice scatters with foot-thick sheets upended and perpendicular to the shoreline. Lady Lake circles overhead, a war rages in slow motion below — behold the power of Lake Superior in winter.
Welcome to the edge. Dare you pick up a rock and never forget her call?
January 25, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that goes to the edge. Consider what the edge might be and how it informs the story. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by January 30, 2018, to be included in the compilation (published January 31). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Grounding (From Miracle of Ducks) by Charli MIlls
Too late for planting tomatoes, Danni seeded more radishes. Ike complained they bit back, but if he left for Iraq what did it matter? She’d eat spicy radishes alone.
She kneeled along the row, tamping each seed. The earth felt solid beneath her hands. With no more seeds to cover, Danni dug into the ground that remained unplanted. Sifting loamy earth through her fingers she found a marble. She rolled the green glass in her palm.
If it was Ike’s decision and she was to stay home, why did she feel pitched over the edge into an unknown future?
Just call me Wrong-Way Charli.
I might have boots but they don’t always go the beaten path. You might find me calculating the drop on a rock face or attempting to access a naturally secluded beach. The faintest hint of a trail through forest duff speaks louder to me than the exposed dirt of the worn path.
Adventurous? Mostly by accident. More like curious. As in curiosity-killed-the-cat. I’m Shirley temple chasing the bluebird of happiness. I’m Hayduke weeping at the beautiful places of solitude. I want to know what’s over the rise, if the loons will give chase, and take time to look for just one more agate. I want to be there when the hawk flies past unscheduled.
Snow condenses in layers now. The merengue grows stale. Lady Lake keeps a fresh coat of white paint over it all but cut into the layers and it’s turning grey. The county recently bladed our street and I can see snow in geological layers. Have we been buried for eons? It feels like it.
I press each foot into my boots and tighten the laces. My red cap and scarf keep me warm and I look like a plump elf in my dark green wool coat that flares like a dress. I grab a tote bag, my wallet, and my headphones. These snow boots are made for walking and I head out the door to shop the co-op on the hill.
Passing by the fresh cut of snowbank I can no longer read the Fire Lane street sign. It’s buried. The snow slides like grease with each step and I struggle to stomp my way up the hill. Beneath is a compact layer of ice more solid than concrete. Snow sits in the saddles of trees, taking up permanent residence. Ever-present flakes kiss my cheeks. Lady Lake is loving today.
The heater in our car stopped blowing. Without the fan, the windows ice over making it impossible to drive. Thus I’m experimenting with being car-less. I’m walking to buy my dried mango slices and Wisconsin cheese. I overfill my tote with vegetables to make bone-broth soup. The flu is raging through Hancock and across the canal in Houghton. Fresh snow, fresh veggies — my plan to stay well.
Magnificent Mondays rolled around and car-less, I put out a call for a ride. It’s a twice-monthly gathering of local creatives at the Ripley House of Healing where I will debut my TUFF workshop. Through a few missteps in communication, I got a ride (next time I’ll know to go outside and wait). It was lovely riding in a warm vehicle that I didn’t have to brush off the snow to ride in.
Liking this car-lessness, I let my cake baker know that I wasn’t able to meet up with her downtown, could she swing by the house? This time I put on my boots and elven winter-gear and waited outside. She’s a homesteader and makes gorgeous cakes from whole ingredients. She even bakes vegan. But this first cake will be German chocolate with the sides and middle frosted with traditional pecan and coconut.
Later that evening, I had a meeting for local entrepreneuers. I asked for another ride and was delighted when a local poet and book designer answered the call. We laughed all the way down Quincy Hill and over the canal bridge to the meeting. She lets her inner child run wild with the sharp wit of an adult. I find her fun and fascinating.
We laughed at her car, which was leaking gas. She had recently replaced her rear windshield after it shattered in the cold. This poet lives 16 miles up the Keweenaw Peninsula, so she had to drive to Houghton without a rear windshield in the snow. She said now she can claim she’s a Yooper. After fixing the glass, the mechanic told her about the leak. She asked, “Will my car explode?” After he replied no, she was relieved because things seem to be exploding in her car. It made my heater problem sound better.
About the time I thought I would fully embrace car-lessness, the Hub looked at YouTube videos and figured out how to fix it. He does have his moments. That’s how I came to be Wrong-Way Charli. I got my car back.
Today has been a flurry of preparation and blowing off nervous energy for my presentation and book signing tomorrow. I have felt the rainbow of emotions from over the moon excited to down in the dumps depressed. I feel moody as a teenager, not a time I wish to recreate in my life. I breathe. Following the breath in…following the breath out…and carry on.
When I found out the Vet Center has no projector, I researched buying one. Surprisingly they aren’t too expensive but it wasn’t in my budget, like cake and local advertising. The Vet Center and my lovely group of veteran spouses helped me track down a rental at Finlandia University which is on the Hancock side of the canal. I talked with the librarian who explained to me how to find the campus library.
First, let me explain Quincy Hill. It’s so steep that the Quincy Copper Mine on top of the hill built a special tram to deliver ore to the smelters and docks below. It’s so steep it’s now a ski resort. Mind you, it’s a hill, not a mountain, but its verticle climb is impressive. In snowstorms, some streets are blocked.
And that’s what I drove up today, a blocked-for-one’s-own-safety Quincy Hill Steet. It was one of those mistakes a person makes and realizes it’s the wrong way, but stopping would be worse. So upward I drove, willing those snow tires to work. The car slipped and careened, the dashboard flashing the light to tell me I had lost traction. I know, I know! Two young boys with shovels watch me, probably hoping to see a backward Yooper left turn.
At the crest of the hill were three choices: another hill to the right, a sharp dip downhill to the left or straight into a cavernous parking lot. I say cavernous because the snow banks were so tall and tight at the entrance it looked like driving into a snow cave. I opted for the cave, after all, I am presenting on the hero’s journey tomorrow.
My elixir turned out to be that I found the Maki Library. The door looked rather industrial and I thought maybe it had to do with being a university library. No other cars were parked in my cavern, so I approached the door and walked down the hall. Five people turned around and stared at me. That’s when I read the sign that said staff only. I had entered the wrong way and could see the front lobby beyond. There was no escaping my error.
A man with a ponytail and glasses halfway down his nose asked, “Can I help you?”
Awkward situations bring out my inner comedian and I pointed to the staff sign and said, “I’m looking for a job.”
He smiled, so I told him I was the person picking up the projector. He then escorted me out of the staff area into the lobby. Without further complication, I became a public member of the Finlandia University Maki Library, and I successfully rented a projector, cords, and speakers for free. Then I had to ask how I was supposed to get to my car. “Best go the way you came, Wrong-Way Charli.”
And that’s how I got my Yooper name.
January 18, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes boots. Whose boots are they, where do they go and what is their significance? Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by January 23, 2018, to be included in the compilation (published January 24). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Easing Frustrations (From Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Between public affairs and citizen scientists on her archeology dig, Danni wasn’t surprised to see Ike show up with his dogs.
Now she had someone familiar to lash out at. She stomped her boots down the gravelly trail toward Ike and the pointers at his side. Danni trudged past the silent volunteers. She marched right up to Ike and he swung her up into his arms, planting a lingering kiss on her angry lips.
Danni sagged against him. He growled in her ear, “I missed you, Babe.”
“Damn it, Ike. I missed you, too.” She refrained from kicking him.
By C. Jai Ferry
On December 30, the high temperature in my neck of the global woods was a whopping -21 degrees Fahrenheit (-29 Celsius). That didn’t take into account the wind chill, which even today, with our balmy 2 degrees (-16 Celsius), makes my toes curl up in icy protest just thinking about. Needless to say, I am not a fan of winter. Oh sure, a scene of giant, feathery snowflakes drifting down to blanket a cottage with a fire in the hearth and steamed up windows looks all nice and cozy from the outside, but anyone who has had to take a dog out to do his business in sub-zero temperatures knows that blanket of snow brings with it a chill that settles into your bones.
But, if we’re being honest, I must admit that I do like one aspect of snow-filled days: They give me the perfect opportunity to hunker down and write without any distractions. When the roads are covered with white fluff, no one expects me to run errands or meet them for lunch. During this time, I spend hours and hours trapped in my own little worlds without having to come up with an excuse about why I so rarely leave the house. Living an excuse-free life—even if only for a season—translates into my writing process, as the words flow on to the page, taking on a life of their own.
So why am I talking about beautiful but bitterly cold snow when this is our first Twitterflash post of 2018? Because social media is a lot like snow: It can be a cold, unforgiving environment despite all the crowds oohing and ahhing over how a handful of people have used social media to create a cozy and warm home in their neck of the woods. Many people who have much lower socialization needs cringe at the thought of using social media, especially when all the people “in the know” are telling them they must do this or that—activities so far beyond their wheelhouse that they immediately set up all sorts of roadblocks that prevent them from ever using social media.
Let’s get one roadblock out of the immediately. There is no right or wrong way to use social media. Just because one writer got a book deal or sold a million books or was crowned The Greatest Writer Ever by tweeting or posting on Facebook doesn’t mean that you will have the same results if you follow his “9-step foolproof plan to mastering social media.”
A writer friend likes to remind me that the Universe rewards those who speak to it, responding with exactly what you are asking for. I tend to think of social media, and especially Twitter, as a megaphone to the Universe. If you share stories and insights on potentially flaming content, you will likely attract flamers in epic proportion (flame is slang for sharing angry, critical, or disparaging comments online). If your tweets focus on bursts of microfiction related to today’s social injustices, you will probably still attract a flamer or two (they’re ubiquitous, unfortunately), but you will also attract followers interested in those injustices, who will read your tweets and, over time, build a relationship with you. You may never realize the power of your tweets for others, but powerful they will be—whether you’re writing about a fictionalized account of a refugee separated from her family, a story about surprising your child with a puppy, or a scene about herding cattle during a snowstorm.
The idea behind Twitterflash at the Carrot Ranch is to help writers find their voice on Twitter. I’m not going to tell you what to say or how to say it. Rather, I am going to help you explore Twitter’s tools, take them for a test run, then ask you to come back here at the end of the month and share your discoveries. How you use the monthly challenges is completely up to you, but if you want to take some risks, I will be there to support you as best I can.
Now, before we jump into this month’s challenge, I have to offer a few words of wisdom from my own less-than-successful experiences on Twitter. I’m trying not to overwhelm you, so just offering a few tidbits for now. If you have specific questions about anything, drop them in the comments on this post and I will do my best to find an answer for you.
- Unlike other social media platforms, Twitter’s power is in its public nature. People do not need your approval to follow you on Twitter (unless you set your account to private, which defeats the whole purpose and power). If you want to control who sees what you share, don’t use social media. Seriously. On any social media platform, even you put in place every security gatekeeper that exists, you still cannot stop your friends and followers from showing your content to others. Privacy does not exist in social media. Assume that everyone in the world will read what you post.
- Because anybody can (and will) follow you on Twitter, make sure you visit their Twitter page before you automatically follow them back. Many users think it’s an unwritten rule to follow those who follow you. Not so, although you do want to follow a variety of people. Some followers you will immediately recognize as not worth following (e.g., accounts that offer to “sell” you new followers). Others might not be as obvious. When you get a new follower, click on their profile and go explore. Read some of their tweets and look at what they retweet. Some accounts you will need to block (which is done from their profile page) right from the get-go. Trust me. You’ll know what I mean when you see them. Others, you might not see anything negative, but also nothing that makes you want to follow that person. But what if the person’s tweets are ho-hum, but they’re someone you think maybe you should follow (e.g., an acquisitions manager). That’s where lists come into play.
- Start using lists as soon as possible. Lists are Twitter’s way of organizing your followers so that you don’t go insane. They don’t explain it that way, but really, that’s what lists are for. According to Twitter: “A list is a curated group of Twitter accounts. You can create your own lists or subscribe to lists created by others. Viewing a list timeline will show you a stream of Tweets from only the accounts on that list.” (Twitter’s information on setting up lists.) Note: List titles are public. So don’t do what I did and create a list entitled “Book scammers & spammers” because the people added to that list will not be happy. But you can create lists for writers, publishing industry, and new friends (which could mean new people you meet online or your secret code for “they seem nice, but let’s keep them at arm’s length for a while…just in case”).
Okay, feeling like you might have just been crushed by an avalanche? Before we wade any deeper into the Twitterverse, let’s grab our security blankets and cozy up to the fire in the hearth. It’s time for this month’s Twitterflash challenge.
Content rules on Twitter.
You can have all the sparkly emojis and flashing GIFs you want attached to your tweet, but if the content doesn’t live up to the hype, people will just scroll on by. So for this first challenge, focus on creating content.
Twitter users have a lightning-fast attention span. If the first few words in a post don’t grab users, they scroll to the next tweet in their feeds. Twitter users are also merciless when it comes to keeping their attention. You can have the most amazing first five words in a tweet, but if words six and seven are meh, time to scroll. When you are writing your Twitterflashes this month, try to create as many powerful word/phrase/sentence/idea combinations in your stories as possible. Subtlety can be powerful too, but if you choose this route, create your subtleties in layers rather than textual combinations (e.g., the kind of story that, the more the reader thinks about it, the more meaning they find in it).
The good news is that Twitter users are fairly forgiving when it comes to following grammar rules. Abbreviations are the norm, especially when you’re pushing that character limit. As long as the reader can understand the abbreviation, it’s all good. So don’t shy away from abbreviations and shortcuts; they will not impede your storytelling on Twitter. (Check out this resource for a comprehensive list of shortcuts used on Twitter.)
Don’t change your writing voice. Rather, push your limits.
Think of Twitterflash as an espresso version of your writing. You’ve got a month to practice and tinker. You can try a couple of different approaches with the same story or write several different stories. Engage your Twitter followers in the process. Ask them to recommend a title for your story or to choose between two options in the plot (remember the Choose Your Own Adventure stories?). And if your followers don’t want to engage, that’s okay too. Remember: Even if they don’t engage, someone is always reading your tweets.
Ok, ready to dive in?
January #Twitterflash: In a single tweet (which is 280 characters, or in the ballpark of 50 words), write a story about seeing coldness in a new light. It can be physical cold, psychological cold, emotional cold…wherever you want to go with it. Tweet your story (or stories), including the hashtag #Twitterflash. Tweet them all month long. Tweet the same story more than once. Tweet at different times during the day (or night). Notice anything different in your approach or the reception? If so, make a note of it and share with the group.
On the last Friday in January, we’ll ask you to come back to the ranch to share your favorite Twitterflashes. I’ll also ask you to share one Twitter account that you think other Rough Writers would enjoy and/or benefit from.
Drop your questions/comments/concerns in the comments below, but save your Twitterflashes until January 26, when we’ll gather around the hearth to share here at Carrot Ranch. C. Jai Ferry is a flash fiction freak, human trafficking warrior, and Master Ninja at novellaninjas.com, an online space promoting published short stories and novellas to readers. Her titles include Unraveled, a collection of microfiction and flash fiction stories, and “Skeleton Dance,” 2014 winner of the Vermillion Literary Project Short Story Contest, which was turned into a film and included in the 2016 Nebraska Noir collection. She tweets from @CJaiFerry
Carrot Ranch’s Twitterflash 2018 is a monthly challenge focused on expanding writers’ use of Twitter as a tool for writing. Throughout the year, writers will experiment with storytelling via tweets using the following areas of focus (in no particular order):
- Visual Aids
- Multiple tweets
Have an area you’d like included in this year’s Twitterflash project? Drop me a line.
Ice crystals lace silver threads of intricate patterns across glass so thin I feel surrounded by frozen cellophane. Any minute I expect ice-spiders to skitter across the glass, adding more crystalline webbing. All I hear is the distant hum of a neighbor’s snowblower, chewing mounds of white drifts, recreating front lawns into winter parking lots.
Then snow crunches and squeaks, alerting me to the return of the Huskies to the top of the deck. The door handle is so cold I fumble several attempts to open it. Two dogs with enviable fur puff through the door, their breath froze in the moment, driftless and white. Everything is white, and this porch is officially below zero (Fahrenheit).
We all rush into the welcoming warmth of the kitchen, quickly closing the seeping snow and leaving the unseen ice-spiders to spin their webs until it warms or the earth shatters.
Lady Lake Superior holds us captive like a Winter Queen in a Fairy Tale. On her blustery days, she forces the lake upon us and I imagine drowning in snow. On Christmas Eve we drove out to a friends and family party, a local Finnish family’s tradition for so long that it’s become generational. Our gracious hostess, an artist of local renown, served us food as if she had painted a canvas or raku-fired pottery.
Many people came and went that night as we lingered close to the table with magic abilities to refill platters of meatballs, spinach puff pastries and bowls of salmon spread. My own offering of smoky twice-baked potatoes dwindled and our hostess proclaimed them delicious. It boosted my spirits to receive a nod from one artist to another.
My art, words upon a page, lately feel frozen, ink stuck in the nib. Tis only a season and this too shall pass. Yet like the hunter, I can’t stop. Maybe the rabbit hunt results in a small mouse, but that sustains me until I snag the rabbit. It’s possible I might cross paths with an elk, and as a hunter, I know that will only happen if I go out on the trail frozen and snow-blown as it is.
That evening I met a delightful artist in her 80s. She lives at the end of the Keweenaw at Copper Harbor. We spoke about mentors and how every artist needs one. She told me about her aunt who was trained back east and highly regarded. She was plucky. At age 15 she rode a bus to apply for a copy-writer job in downtown Chicago, lying about her age. She told me many stories that night, still feeling the tug of writing after decades of painting, and concluded, “Artists are weird.”
I laughed. I think the drive to create also drives us to take risks and experiment. Recently the New York Times published an article, “Why Trying New Things is So Hard to Do.” If artists are weird, then it’s because we go against the genetic code and try new things. As you can see, week after week, literary artists at Carrot Ranch can try to write one thing in a new way.
Flash fiction is an exploratory tool. Maybe it makes us weird, but it’s a response to the passion to create and tell stories.
After a jolly Christmas Eve, we left while Lady Lake Superior thrust her might upon the land. Have you ever been in a torrential downpour? Snowflakes pummeled existing drifts like pouring rain. To stand in pouring snow was awe-inspiring; to drive in it was terrifying. It fell so fast it covered all hints of the road and made looking out the windshield like staring into strobe lights. All I could see out of the corner of the windshield was the faintest hint of deeper piles to indicate the edge of the road.
Once back at the house in Hancock, I asked my kids how they navigate in such conditions. They both responded that you learn not to look forward but to the side to find the road’s edge. I had it right but found it frightening to drive snow-blind. Perhaps that is what it’s like to write — we navigate the page blind to all but one edge we follow.
If the stars ever return to the sky, when Lady Lake decides to pull back from dominating the terrain, I know I have one up there — my wishing star. Even covered, I know it guides me. And I think of this star on the cusp of one year to the next because I believe in activating my wish. You might call it a dream, but it’s not a goal — goals are what you set to attain your dream.
Pretend ice-spiders exist for a moment. Pretend Lady Lake is real and in a giving mood. She parts the veil of gray clouds to let the electric particles dance in sheets of apple-green and orchid-purple. The sky displays a light show and stars burn like diamonds on black velvet. She momentarily resets the night sky until one star, your star, shines brightest. She grants you a wish:
“Star light, star bright,
The first star I see tonight;
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.”
Don’t think, don’t blink, write it down now!
This wish holds meaning for you. Perhaps it’s obvious. Maybe you have to ponder its symbology. It’s a wish made when you thought anything possible. Now I want you to think about your calling as a writer, a literary artist, an educator, a philosopher, a traveler, a missionary. Pick or add what resonates with you. If you could call yourself anything, what would that be?
You now hold two hints to your vision.
Did you know that visioning is a process? It’s a business process and entails more than wishing upon stars. It sets a northern star in the sky over an organization to lead the way. Goals are like arrows aimed at this star. At times when you are not sure what is next for you, realign to your star, your vision. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, I trained with Ari Weinzweig and his team from Zing Train. From him, I learned how to train trainers, give great service and include visioning as part of planning.
“Begin with the end in mind,” Ari advises (you can read more in his book, A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building Great Business).
If you set goals, to what end? How will you know what success looks like? You probably already do this, but like your wish, it feels private and fanciful. But Ari calls visioning “positive futuring.” It’s a way to innovate and inspire the action you take. Zing Train is a division of Zingerman’s Deli (yes, a small college town deli cultivates business leaders). In 2007, NYT called them “The corner deli that dared to break out of the neighborhood.” And I’ve reworked the training I received and used in my own workplace to encourage writers to do something with that wish: vision.
Three years ago in the December 24, 2014 prompt I shared the following peek at my own vision:
Recalculations help redefine goals. Why set goals? Because if you have dreams, goals become a way to navigate to them. Your vision is like the north star, guiding you along the way. My vision is big and includes much more than successfully publishing novels. It includes creating literary spaces both physically and digitally–places to learn grow, create and recalculate. Collaboration is part of the vision.
Carrot Ranch fosters a literary space to practice craft, communicate ideas and read stimulating writing. Rough Writers are regulars or founding contributors, and Friends are our readers and commenters. We have many friends who pop in once in a while when inspired and others who faithfully read. Together we create a community that honors what literature is about–progressing the imagination to describe, define or experience life. Literature thrives in an open environment.
Join the dream. An open invitation to the Congress of Rough Writers & Friends:
- Help develop a Carrot Ranch Anthology (expanded shorts based on flash fiction, for example). It can be a fun way to explore collaboration and indie avenues from crowd-sourcing to publishing.
- Help develop a Christmas project for next year (what trouble can we write Rudolph into with his visits around the globe).
- Research a possible text or workshop based on how flash fiction can build skills and that college classes or writing groups can use.
Three years ago, I had no idea that my husband’s behavior was sign of cognitive demise, that my best friend had incurable cancer or that we’d ever leave Elmira Pond. I was expressing to the early writers at the Ranch my wish to do more than write my books. I wanted a literary community, writer collaboration, the opportunity to explore independent publishing, a fun event at the Ranch, and a way to teach flash fiction as a skill-building tool.
Here’s where I get goosebumps. Despite unexpected circumstances, my vision stayed constant. Carrot Ranch thrives, my books have progressed, we have our first anthology of flash fiction in Kindle, I know tons more about independent publishing and it’s altered my goals, Rudolph morphed into a Rodeo, and I now teach Wrangling Words as a community outreach course and will debut TUFF workshop in February. Retreats on Elmira Pond took me to bigger waters where I dream of one on Isle Royale and another on a cruise to New Zealand.
I’m dreaming big! Are you? Let it all out — in a journal, in an email to someone or no one, in a story, in a conversation. Dream out loud. Wish. And craft a vision for your northern star.
Like flash fiction, visioning has magical results; but also like flash fiction there’s science behind focusing an intention and writing down goals. Dr. Gail Matthews, a psychology professor at the Dominican University in California found that you become 42 percent more likely to achieve your goals and dreams, simply by writing them down on a regular basis (“The Power of Writing Down Dreams and Goals” by Mary Morrissey).
As the year turns, set your goals pointing to a bright and shiny vision. Wishing you all a Happy New Year!
December 28, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a wishing star. It can be central to the story or used in a different way. You can have a character interact or not. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by January 2, 2018 to be included in the compilation (published January 3). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Shoveling Midnight Snow (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Wolves padded across the snowy field, mere shadows dappled by moonlight. Danni gripped the shovel and paused. As loudly as her own boots crunched the tight snow, the wolves passed in silence. Had she not turned to shovel the path to the barn she would have missed the pack. Before the last one merged with the cover of night, he stopped and cocked his head. A shooting star rolled across the sky like a snowball down a hill. Before Danni could make a wish both star and wolf vanished. Would her wish still count? Come home to me, Ike.
We crowd into the lobby, snow nipping at our backs each time a new couple or family enters the oak doors. I wiggle my fingers to diminish the giddiness of a night out to the Calumet Theater. I listen to chatter as people explain who they know in the upcoming performance of Alice in Winterland. One mother laughs when she explains how much green paint her daughter wears as the Grinch. Another confesses how nervous her son is the play Charlie Brown.
It’s a winterland mash-up of familiar American Christmas stories all set to the music and narrative arc of Taichoski’s Nutcracker Ballet. It’s a bit like this take on multiple Christmas songs in one minute:
And all of this creativity in bites to produce one performance also reminds me of the weekly compilation of responses to our flash fiction challenges. It struck me, as I took my seat in the historic gilded and velveted Calumet Theater how much of a ballet mom still resides in my heart, rounding up the stories backstage each week. I want to bring roses to all the writers after a performance.
It’s been too long since I connected with my inner stage-mom. For 15 years I lived in awe of The Nutcracker. Five of those years I eagerly watched from backstage as my eldest daughter and youngest son both performed in a professional ballet troupe from Minneapolis.
Every child in dance dreams of shoes and sugar plum ferries. In ballet, it’s point shoes. After spending $100 on a pair of pink satin slippers with ribbons so fair, my darling daughter would pound the toe-boxes, burn the satin off the point and whip-stitch the ribbons. If it sounds horrific, consider what we writers do to a flash fiction.
We pound stories into sentences, slice words to a perfect 99, and strangle characters with twists so fine.
Between the audience seats and the dancers behind the curtain exists a stage upon which we both suspend belief and let art convey the story. I love dance as much as literary art, but I have no skill for it. I can take classes, just as I learned the craft. But writing is the performance I prefer. I’m content to sit in the audience and watch the dancers.
For years, I helped backstage, learning how to double-pin strands of wayward hair and zip sparking costumes during quick changes. A quick change occurs when a dancer must change costumes for back-to-back dance numbers. My son, one of few boys who even studied classical ballet, was guaranteed to be cast as one of Clara’s brothers and rarely had quick changes in the first half. My daughter danced in the corp, meaning she had numerous changes.
And lucky me, one year I was responsible for the Prince.
The Calumet Theater with its opulence and history reminds me of the Red Wing Theater where The Nutcracker performed on tour. I went with the troupe and taxied my kids to classes, performances, and costume fittings. Each December dreams of sugar plums danced on stage. And then the lights went out.
Children grow up, move on and stage-moms are left with no one to buy roses for or help whip-stitch new ribbons. What a comfort it is to be in a theater again, listening to family chatter, watching former students return for the holidays and sneak backstage to say hello. I sink into my seat, wait for the house lights to dim, knowing that these children performing on stage have received classical ballet instruction from my daughter.
A literary community knows such connectedness, too. I’m stage-mom in the back-wings, watching each of you work at your craft, find joy in the steps and brave the spotlight when it’s your turn to perform. And yet we are a whole, each voice lending to a more powerful dynamic than one alone.
Hold on to that feeling a moment. Two points I want you to own: no matter your solo, no matter your dream and your pain to accomplish it, no matter how many hours you write alone — you are not alone here. Second, we are a part of something bigger, something we call art. And we are champions for literary art, giving voice to unheard stories, even giving voice to the invisible.
If you know some of my journey, you are aware of how I feel about the homeless experience and veteran struggles being invisible among society. They are the unsung songs, the canceled performances, the flash fiction in a journal no one reads. Recently I learned of an organization using another art form to give voice to veterans and their families:
Songwriting With Soldiers operates from a simple principle — pair veterans and active-duty service members with professional songwriters to craft songs about their military experiences.
To me, this is a powerful way to use art to heal, to create empathy for another’s experience, to give voice to those who struggle to articulate that experience. Songwriter, Mary Gauthier, wrote The War After the War (below) with the input from six combat veteran spouses, which is the number of women I share my own experiences with each week. It’s empowering when the invisible are seen and heard.
While I don’t have roses to share with all you who perform on the writing stage at Carrot Ranch, I have a digital gift for the holiday season. If you’ll go to my Canva profile, you can pin or download the Carrot Ranch Seasonal Desktop Wallpaper to add a touch of holiday cheer to your computer. I tried to think of different manifestations like the diversity we have here at the ranch (the squirrels are for the nuts among us who don’t like holiday cheer).
Surrounded by velvet the lights finally go low at the theater. The performance has begun. And I’ll let you get to your own.
December 7, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write that features a performance. You can interpret what is a performance any way the prompt leads you.
Respond by December 12, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published December 13). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Performance Anxiety (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Standing in the darkened wings, Danni stretched her hips. She arched her back, clasping her hands overhead. On the stage, Evelyn prepped the audience.
This was her moment. She couldn’t see faces, just the heavy beam of overhead stage lights. Her professor taught her tricks to overcome performance anxiety when she realized that as an archeologist she’d occasionally have to give public presentations.
The Sandpoint Theater was packed, and Evelyn was already giving introductions. “Without further ado, Dr. Danni Gordon…”
Walking out into the lights, Danni conjured the friendliest face, as if she were performing just for him – Ike.