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Pasty Fest holds all the old world charm: Finnish dancers in traditional dress, street-side vendors in the shadow of copper-mining era buildings, and — of course — pasties. Hearty dough enfolds savory meats and vegetables, and old-world debates rage across the Keweenaw to declare who first brought pasties to the region.
Pronounced pass-tee (like from the past, not pastey glue), the etymology is British. Tradition holds that Cornish miners from England introduced expertise, technology, and pasties to the Keweenaw when copper mining began during the 1840s. However, a contender for origination comes from Finland. During ethnic events like Pasty Fest, the Finns of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan declare the food a Finnish specialty.
The dispute doesn’t end with who brought pasties from the old world to the new.
Another debate contends which filling is best — sliced or diced. Those in the veggies-must-be-diced corner claim the “grandma says” rule of filling pasties. Families heatedly argue the issue, though, when one grandmother dices and the other slices. Knife skills aside, modern observation notes that pasties made with sliced ingredients stay hotter for a longer period. Amy J’s Pasties in Hancock (world headquarters to Carrot Ranch) slices. Roy’s Bakery across the Keweenaw waterway, dices. I have taken both to the beach to hunt rocks on Lake Superior, and I can tell you that Amy J’s pasties stay hotter much longer.
What does this tell us? The Cornish miners probably understood that slicing created thermal layers.
The next argument has led to Copper Country divorces and involves veg. To carrot or not to carrot? Well, you can guess my opinion on that subject. Fortunately, the Hub agrees (no divorce lawyers needed). We like carrots in our pasties. The other questionable veg is parsnip. It’s a root vegetable similar to carrots, and likely has old-world connections to Finland. Amy J’s adds both carrots and parsnips to their pasties, and Roy’s omits parsnips. Some add gravy to the filling, other ketchup. I like my veg naked and in harmony with the meat.
Shape creates more consternation. The final shape of a pasty that is. Suomi’s, a local diner that serves pannukakku and remains a place where you can still hear the Finnish accent, mounds their pasties into softballs. Amy J’s conforms to a more traditional (Cornish) half-moon pie. Roy’s fills a pastie that is in between the two shapes. And some, frankly, have no shape at all. If pasty-makers were to be on the Great British Bakeoff, the judges would question the efficiency and aesthetic of their shapes. Does the dough hold the liquid of the filling? Is it appealing?
A more current debate has less to do with pasties and more with land, as in, who claims the Keweenaw. Yes, Canada, sometimes we wish it was you. I’m fond of describing my home as “that thumb of land that juts into the belly of Lake Superior.” It’s part of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, an unwanted mass of land that came with the old world land deals. No one wanted the remote region, but after the Toledo War of 1835, Michigan and Ohio fought over “downstate land” because of erroneous geographical maps from 1787. In the end, Michigan was given the Upper Peninsula. Better historians than me can understand the land dispute, but I get that the Keweenaw was a consolation prize that paid dividends to Michigan when geologists discovered copper.
But Wisconsin is the state to cry sour grapes. Even today, the UP is referred to as “that land Michigan stole” from the neighboring cheese state. It would make more sense for the UP to be Upper Wisconsin (or Lower Canada). Water does not divide us like it does from downstate Michigan. To go to our state capital (and all major cities), we have to cross the Mighty Mac. Recently, a Mountain Dew marketing campaign mislabeled the UP of MI as the UP of WI. The cheese-heads laughed, and Mountain Dew had to apologize. Everyone in the UP got free sodas.
Despite our old world squabbles, we get along well in the UP. We gather for Pasty Fest in Calumet to celebrate tradition as we each best experience it. The city that once boasted a population over 30,000 is now a National Historic Park with 727 remaining residents. The streets feel wide, and the buildings loom tall because it was once a booming epicenter of copper mining full of migrant workers and millionaires. The oldest cobblestone street in Michigan is open to vehicles, though it’s advisable to avoid the jarring drive, especially if you are eating a pasty.
The first Pasty Fest I attended was in 2017. The Hub and I finally limped to our destination the night before. Although we had arrived, I felt defeated. My daughter and her troupe were dancing at the community celebration, and on our way to the performance, I saw the Vet Center Mobile. It’s a mobile unit dispatched to meet veterans in need where they are at. I bum-rushed the staff, pleading our case — my husband needed help, we were homeless, and I was desperate. No pasty could soothe me that day. I didn’t even eat one.
Two years later and I attended Pasty Fest as a guest author in the local author’s booth. I hawked 99-word stories, handed out Carrot Ranch bookmarks, and sold anthologies. I earned enough to eat pasties and drink a thimbleberry margarita. What a difference two years, a ton of advocacy for the Hub, and hard work make. I feel as much a part of this community as I have ever felt anywhere. It’s welcoming, vibrant, and full of history. The Keweenaw has old world charm, and I’m smitten no matter who invented pasties, sliced or diced.
This week, my coursework includes discussion of genre — what it is and how it informs our writing. Even the experts struggle to define genre beyond the obvious ones of romance and cozy mystery. Marketers stretch genre to use them as labels to sell books to audiences defined by reading preferences. Ursula K. Le Guin protested the value judgment critics past on genre writers as if such writing was of lesser quality than literary fiction. Authors often have no idea what genre they are writing. If you want to add your thoughts, give this article a read (keep in mind that it was written in 2011, but it remains relevant).
August 22, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about old world charm. It can be nostalgic or irreverent. You can invent an “old world,” return to migrant roots or recall ancient times. Go where the prompt leads you!
Respond by August 27, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Suomi Dancing by Charli Mills
A blonde quartet of girls dressed in blue dances. They twirl, holding hands. Singing, they remake the lyrics of Finland’s midsummer. No longer homeland, home is here, Finlandia, USA. With old world charm, they brighten the backyard of a house owned by the Calumet Mining Company. New life for Finns.
Aunt Jo kneads the dough until it stretches smooth. She slices parsnips and carrots thin the way her neighbor instructed. “Thin layers keep ‘em hot longer in the mines,” she told Jo.
Jo smiles at the children Suomi dancing under maples trees. “Supper,” she calls. “Time for pasties, hey!”
Raspberries, plump, and red hang from canes my daughter planted. It’s my patch now, and I savor the connection. Reminders fill my home, memories of my daughter’s love for this grand old copper-mining house on Roberts Street. The walls she painted yellow, russet, and teal. The worn patches on the maple hardwood floor mark where her two huskies slept. The kitchen holds warmth where we shared meals.
Paint cans wait for me to dip a brush in Easter Grass yellow-green and Inspire purple-blue. I’m not covering up the memories but adding layers of my own. I’m plucking the fruit my daughter planted, and I’m making sweet jam. The peace of home fills my every fiber. When you have not had a home of your own, you appreciate how luxurious space can be. I’m in no hurry to claim and decorate and fill. I’m enjoying the space to just be.
A new desk also waits for me. It’s a Flexsteel, marbled-wood beauty with matching bookcase and filing cabinet. Already, I’m setting up my files in both desk and bookcase drawers. I ordered dark purple hanging folders and beautiful files with realist paintings of botany on parchment. It matters what surrounds me. I’m slow to bring in new belongings, quick to say no to household purgings of friends, and satisfied to make do with much less. What I take in must have function, joy, and meaning.
Much that we have in storage in North Idaho will not see the Keweenaw. My purge list is longer than my keepers. We fixed the truck, including the death wobble, but then the Hub decided he didn’t have enough funds for the trip. Thankfully, we got him to listen, to look at the paper with costs. He did make a few calls to get quotes on delivery, and it could be within our range to do if we save up by next spring. I feel no urgency, though there are boxes and items I’d want as soon as possible.
Having a home has mattered more than belongings, so I feel content with a sparsely filled house. It feels like potential.
Right now, I’m all about potential. I’m a grad student. This week, I started my online MFA at SNHU, and every course I take adds to the ascension of my novel. I’ve written four manuscripts, hoping that I’d learn from one to the other. And I have! But I felt stuck, not knowing where to turn my attention to improve my craft skills. I can distinguish misinformation from quality sources, but even good information gets buried. Where to start?
And I want quality feedback to grow my skills and discipline as an author. One way or the other, you have to pay for that standard — hire a top-notch editor in the publishing industry of your choice; pay to attend national writing conferences; sign up for online or in-person workshops; hire a writing coach with credentials; go back to school.
When I worked for wages, I took time every year to attend writing workshops. It furthered my motivation, and I always learned something new to apply to my craft skills. When I left my career to write full-time self-employed, I paid for an expensive ($2,000) multi-day workshop. Like many writers, I’m a self-learner capable of finding the information I need.
Eventually, I won a scholarship to a writing conference and laid out the groundwork for building a literary community. And I wrote four complete manuscripts. What I mean by complete is that they started and ended with lots of wordcount and self-editing in between. I even hired an editor from NYC for several revisions of one manuscript.
Then I scrapped it when life got hairier than Sasquatch’s feet. I rewrote it, mid-crisis. Shopped out the new beginning to trusted alpha-readers, received encouragement, and honest assessment.
One reader reminded me that our first novel isn’t always the book that makes it to print.
Remember, I used alpha-readers. These are readers I trust. These are people who are more than friends; they are also qualified to give feedback I trust. Beta-readers differ in that they are people you often don’t know but who read the genre you write and offer feedback on how well your manuscript would be received in that genre.
Trusted opinions don’t mean they are my thoughts, too, but I agree that our first novel isn’t always going to be the one that makes it.
We live (and publish) in interesting times. Independent publishing gives second life to first novels. Some might argue that a green manuscript should stay in the desk drawer. Others believe you have to start somewhere. I actually enjoy reading the progress of an author. And I’ve gone back to the first novels of some of my favorite authors and recognized even the masters were once green.
The point is — don’t stop, but publish according to your goals.
My goal is lofty, I know. I want to traditionally publish. I’ve waxed and waned on that idea and even came to the conclusion that hybrid authors are successful (those who publish both traditionally and independently). My dilemma was, though, how do I get better? I knew it was investment time.
You can invest sweat equity, but without paid feedback, the return will be hit and miss. I had sweated enough. It was time to write novels smarter. When the opportunity came up to pursue an MFA, I snapped like a hungry trout. But I thought carefully about it, too. Were there online programs I could invest in, and would I have the motivation to go at my own pace without instructor feedback? If I’m going to get an MFA, do I go back to college, do a low-residency, or go online?
Just for giggles, I wrote to Brigham Young University because I know that Brandon Sanderson teaches creative writing there. I also checked out grad schools with MFA programs across the country. And I looked online. I like the SNHU online MFA best, but I kept looking. In the end, I simply liked the program and the support they offer to students.
I didn’t want to go back to college on campus and disrupt my life after finally coming home. I don’t need the in-person connection of a low-residency because I get that through my own workshops and literary community. So online it was.
Let me tell you, four days into my journey, and I’m walking on clouds of whipped cream sweetened with apricot jam. This structured learning is precisely what I needed, and it tastes like mana! I didn’t even realize how much I was struggling to articulate some of my needs as a writer until I began interacting with my instructor, peers, and course material.
I’m in awe of how much technology has improved the overall experience of online schooling. And both my professors this term rock — experienced, eager to be part of the learning environment, and committed to the hard work and thrill of being a professional writer.
This week, we are studying genre and how it predicts craft skills. We are comparing craft to writing skills, and reading the opinions of greats, such as Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m reading Wallace Stegner’s thoughts in his book, On Teaching and Writing Fiction. I have two video discussions to write and record tonight, and three books to read in addition to weekly assignments. All coursework informs how I will advance my novel (my thesis).
Learning is looking a lot like rebuilding a home — what I take in must have function, joy, and meaning.
August 15, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a sweet jam. It can take you to the kitchen or the smokey room of a back-alley bar. What makes it sweet? Go where the prompt leads you!
Respond by August 20, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Not a Typical Sweet Jam (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Boiling quinces filled Danni’s kitchen with a lively scent, something between citrus and pears. Something remembered. In the canner, she prepped a hot bath to disinfect her jars and lids. She opened the sack of white sugar, ready to make sweet jam. Michael raised an eyebrow, continuing to look as skeptical as he did when he helped her pick the lumpy fruit.
“How’d you hear about these quince things?”
“The joy of being a historical archeologist. I read old books and journals.”
“Huh. Nothing from my Anishinaabe roots.”
Later, spread thickly across slabs of sourdough, Michael updated his history.
My heart is heavy, so I pick tomatoes. Not big slicers or heirlooms, but round dark globes black as cherries on a tree. Indeed, they are cherry tomatoes. Black cherry tomatoes. My fingers carry the lingering scent, a distinct aroma that can only be described as tomato, sharp like poison.
From the time I was a child, I called tomatoes poisonous. I can’t tell you why. I didn’t like them. Maybe I thought they muted the tang of a sandwich, or rendered a salad bland. Maybe someone tried to feed me watered down spaghetti, and I thought it tasted awful without proper spices.
As a kid, I favored spice — I appreciated garlic, herbs, black pepper, and spoonfuls of vinegar. Vinegar lessens the poison of tomatoes. It spruced up the blandness. Because of vinegar, I love tomatoes in ketchup, salsa, and Caprese. I grow cherry tomatoes for bite-sized snacks constructed of one cherry tomato, one fresh leaf of Thai basil, one small fresh Mozza-ball, and a good dousing of balsamic vinegar.
I eat two Capreses, sit in the canopy my maples, and contemplate the toxicity of the world.
We need less poison. Today’s headlines (and I’m referring to responsible journalistic sources) offer a range of trends from someone airing grievances to others demanding justice to a young person blasting and organization to families scrambling after a raid. And none of these stories relate to the loss of life from mass shooters over the weekend. It’s apparent people feel angry. Understandable. People also feel scared and unheard.
Voice is something I encourage writers to develop. You can think of voice as a person’s style of writing, an imprint on the page as unique as a thumbprint. The process of writing can also help people find their voice. It’s not a technique you can learn or imitate from another. You can’t take on someone else’s set of fingerprints. Voice is your core authenticity and something for you to explore and discover.
The late Toni Morrison — a mentor I read from afar but held close to my heart — has this to say about writing:
“Make up a story. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”
The origin of voice comes from our bank of experiences. Where we have invested our energies, passions, and actions gives back dividends unique to each of us. Consider that every week, a group of writers set out to craft 99 words about the same theme or topic. Individually, we submit stories as unique as our own lives and personalities. Even when we share similar backgrounds or hit upon the same idea, each story carries a unique voice.
And the more authentic you can be to your own voice, the more it will stand out. The better we are at articulating our deep places — the dark recesses and the breaks that let the light shine in — the stronger our voices will be. Toni would agree to go where the prompt leads you! She said,
“Writing is really a way of thinking, not just feeling but thinking about things that are disparate, unresolved, mysterious, problematic or just sweet.”
Today, I’m thinking about the toxicity of words, not just what we say but how we say it. Yes, writing can help us poke into those painful areas where injustice is unresolved and equality not yet achieved. Writing explores our scariest what-ifs and most cavernous mysteries of the human psyche. But when we write about our darkest hours, fears, and observations, it is a clear voice of authenticity that resonates the most. In other words, scathing rhetoric does not justify the problems delved.
The world is losing the humanity of its voice. Those who want to air their grievances are doing so by stepping on the heads of others. Language of politicians — spin and bias — permeate mainstream media and choke the social media networks with soundbites that lose meaning with regurgitation. Language has become a battlefield, and not everyone fully understands they are speaking with grenades in their mouths.
On Sunday, I read more articles than normal, trying — once again — to get a handle on where all this toxicity is coming from and why my nation is killing itself with an icon of its democratic freedom. I read everything from how mass shooters have domestic violence in common to the accessibility to weapons of war. Take away the guns seems a simple solution, but how do you remove the hate?
Consider these recent acts: a week ago, three Michigan men (mid-20s) were run down by a neighbor when they shouted for him to slow down on their shared access road. After killing one man, and maiming another for life, the neighbor drove back to the scene and continued to shout at them. Over the weekend, two local friends had a dispute, and one got in his SUV and ran over his friend twice. In Montana, a man cracked the skull of a 13-year-old-boy for not removing his hat during the national anthem at the start of a rodeo.
I mention these three acts because they are people within my known circles, not removed mass shooters. Yet, all senseless acts of violence are rooted in hatred, in the toxicity of I’m-right-you’re-wrong. And this poison begins with language. Light bulbs went off after I read this article in The Atlantic about Language in the Trump Era. It addresses the clarity of Trump’s simple language and what many hear as truth-speaking. But it also addresses how the more articulate opposition also creates a hierarchy and sense of superiority with its language.
The more individuals shout for their voices to be heard, the more shouting. The more shouting, the more emotion rises without thought. The more shouting, the more intellect rises without emotion. Toxic shouting erases our common ground of shared humanity. Yes, I’m tempted to shout, “Stop shouting — and listen!”
Toni Morrison also had this to say:
“I feel totally curious and alive and in control. And almost … magnificent, when I write.”
Why? Think about your answer for a moment. Make that your next private journal prompt or public post. Why do you feel curious, alive, in control, magnificent when you write? Because you are exploring and discovering what is most authentic to you — your voice. All that shouting comes from people either desperate for their voice to be heard or manipulated by that desperation. And because it is not authentic (yes, you supposed truth-speakers are not speaking from your truth; you are voicing opinions because you are afraid to discover your own true voice).
It’s easy to tune out the shouting, to post memes of peace, and disengage from seeking justice. But apathy is as dangerous as agitation. Can I make the world write in 99 words what is really at the heart of their fear? Can I get them to write 99 words about what they love most and set it in a collection to show the world we are more alike than our othering makes us? If I had a hammer…I’d hammer out 99 words of love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land.
I’d say love is the answer, but Toni Morrison wisely cautioned:
“Love is divine only and difficult always. If you think it is easy you are a fool. If you think it is natural you are blind.”
It’s daunting enough to send us all into hiding. Writer, Cheryl Oreglia, shared a post exploring her own experience with what it is to feel like hiding away from the toxic world events: Fill the Potholes.
Writing has a place in this world. You are called to not only tell stories but to use your voice in the telling. We can spend a lifetime — and I hope I do — exploring who we are and what our voices have to say. We can easily tear down. Toxicity does that — it destroys. But think about how we can build up with our words. What can we construct with our authenticity?
A final thought from Toni Morrison:
“I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge – even wisdom. Like art.”
August 8, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a poisoned apple. Let’s explore dark myth. Deconstruct the original or invent something new. Negotiate the shadows, shed light, but go where the prompt leads you!
Respond by August 13, 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.
Like a Poisoned Apple (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Danni wrinkled her nose at Ramona’s offering. A tomato, freshly plucked. A Kellogg, an heirloom bright as carnelian and hard to grow in North Idaho. But Ike’s grandmother had forgotten that Danni gagged at the taste of any tomato.
“Thank you, Grandma. I’ll take it home.”
Danni sighed. “How about we share it?” Maybe Ramona would forget by the time they hauled veggies into the house.
The old woman continued to scowl. “I’m not your grandmother.” Dementia worsened when Ramona tired. It was like a poisoned apple.
Maybe Ramona would remember her if Danni took a bite.
The merlins chatter in the rain, impatient to hunt. As far as I can tell, they only have one beak to feed, and it attached to noisy vocals. Further down Quincy Hill at the lift bridge, the peregrine falcons fledged four hungry beaks. Birds of prey must be this year’s winged rock stars.
How easily rhythms of home return to me. It’s the first of the month, and I’m cheerfully paying bills. Electricity, natural gas, sewer, water, and garbage indicate that I have a fully functioning human nest. I’ve washed my dishes, swept the floors, and watered my veg. Last night I cut my own red-leaf lettuce with my own kitchen scissors.
But it gets even better.
The past two days, I’ve reviewed my upcoming creative writing courses with my academic advisor. I have an attentive academic advisor, not some loon too busy for a chick. Twenty years ago, I waited by the closed door of another academic advisor who never showed up the first two days of college, leaving me in a lurch. As an “older than average” freshman, I needed her signature for a class change.
Another student also waited, one who would have been old enough to babysit me as a kid, but age differences didn’t matter. We became fast friends. She advised me on what course to take, questioned my logic to pursue teaching English, and convinced me I’d be happier with a creative writing degree. By the time our absentee advisor showed up, my future was set.
It also led to an embarrassing moment. My advisor signed off on the course my friend recommended and just in time — the class was already in session, and I had missed the first day due to my advisor’s absence. I nervously walked into the class, interrupting the lecture. All heads turned to me, and I flushed. Stammering, I didn’t know how to address the instructor.
You see, I got my undergrad degree at a Catholic liberal arts college. I knew enough back then about Catholicism to address men like Father, and women as Mother — or, wait — was that men as Brother, and women as Sister, or Father and Sister, Brother and Mother. Lord, help me. I was confused! Professor would be a proper term, too, but I felt the flames of hell burnishing my cheeks, and I blurted out, “Father Downs, forgive me, I’m late.”
The class erupted into laughter. John Downs, as I would come to know him on first-name basis as one of my honors thesis advisors, laughed the hardest. He said, “I am indeed a father to my children.”
We feel vulnerable when we do something new and far beyond our comfort zone. We don’t want to become the butt of a joke or held up as an example of what not to do. It’s hard to breathe sometimes when you don’t know which foot to step forward first and everyone else seems to know the hokey-pokey. But we step out anyways.
I’m grateful to have the support of my current academic advisor. She has walked me through the entire online process of my first three courses. One doesn’t count, or as she said, “You can’t screw it up.” It’s an introduction to the technology for taking graduate-level courses online. Amazing, really. I get to study without leaving the Keweenaw, and in winter, I’ll sip hot tea while Tech and Finlandia students bundle up for an Arctic walk to class.
My first two classes at Southern New Hampshire University are 505: Introduction to the Online MFA and 507: Advanced Studies in Literature. The first one explores the culture and approach to writing fiction at SNHU. We each have to pick a book to discover the habits and behaviors of the creative process and begin to forge ties with our peer and faculty community. My book is On Teaching and Writing Fiction by Wallace Stegner. The course is all about the importance of the writing community for literary citizenship.
Be still my fluttering heart! I’m like a rock star on stage, acknowledging that this is where I want to be!
And the second course immerses me in the contemporary fiction genre by reading and comparing two books. The pairs are interesting — one classic (like Willa Cather), and one modern (like Sue Monk Kidd). The purpose of this advanced study of literature is to analyze storytelling craft elements in the genre we will be writing (my manuscript will be contemporary fiction). From our analysis, we are to develop a writer’s toolkit to advance our own careers as creative writers.
It’s school, but it is the Big Times for me. I’ve longed for an MFA even after I had decided I would not pursue one. I recognize the sparking joy as excitement fills me for this two-year journey. And how tidy everything has cleaned up in my life — the Hub has good care, we now have a groovy nest, I’m blessed with a strong and inspiring writing community at Carrot Ranch, and all the pursuits that failed have merely cleared the way for this. And I am ready.
Birds yet fly in the Keweenaw. No snow, yet. We will, therefore, attempt a run to Idaho to get what we can salvage of belongings. It’s a daunting task, but we have a plan. First, we fix our truck (the death wobble and bumper), then we head west for three days. Our budget is small, but we’ve priced all the expenses, found the best routes and stops, and we will rent a Uhaul trailer. It’s not much room, but I will rescue research and family photos, maybe some books. The only furniture we will bring back is my oak glider, a small desk, and our bed frame.
I’m far more anxious about this last leg of our journey, but I know it will be okay. It will be the final closure, the last chapter. This — merlins chirping outside, walls ready to paint, new desk for new writing, sourdough starter, a new king-sized mattress, rooms ready to fill, veggies growing on the vine, raspberries ripe for jam — this is home. My nest, my stage. Cue the guitars.
August 1, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a rock star. You can feature a central character or write about the feeling like a rock star. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by August 6, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Rock Star in a Barn (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Jukebox Hero” blasted from Danni’s speakers. She structured her barn to be her lab – a place to clean, catalog, and store artifacts. It was no University sanctum. Even the small budget she once had as a grad student in Pullman, Washington dwarfed her western set-up. But she used the space efficiently. She trained Ike’s family to save meat trays for her, and she scoured yard sales and free piles for anything useful. Like the bathroom cupboards some homeowner was throwing away. It formed a washing station. The freedom her own space produced made Danni feel like a rock star.
The Ranch is open, but I’m on hiatus at the southern edge of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. The unpaved backroads, hilly terrain, links of lakes and ponds, woods, and the Green Mountains disorient me and yet feel familiar. Several times, going around a bend or glimpsing the humps of ancient wooded mountains, I have anticipated a memory, experienced the feeling of recall only to remember I’ve never been here before.
As if that’s not surreal enough, I’m driving around in D. Avery’s truck. I’ve met her mom at the Juedevine Library where we introduced Wrangling Words in 99 words to Vermonters. I had a beer with her brother at the local American Legion where he’s a big mucky-muck very important person. I fed her dad’s chickens and survived a jaunt through the woods when her friend, a local librarian at the Craftsbury Library, said the trail was how to get there. I’ve never hiked through the woods across a mountain ridge to get to a literary event but, hey, I’m game!
Right now, D. has Vermont beans in a crockpot and is visiting with JulesPaige across camp on Greenwood Lake. She baked sourdough buns, and I made a green salad with tarragon dressing, using honey Jules brought from Pennsylvania. We are waiting for Ann Edall-Robson to arrive from Canada and Susan Sleggs from New York.
Pinch me. I’m living the dream of Some Day.
Some Day I was going to lead a nature writing retreat, call it a refuge because it would be a place to rest the writer’s soul and fill up the creative mind. The Refuge, like the Ranch, would be a safe space to explore Writing Dreams, and further craft, platform, and publishing while learning from the Nature Writing Greats who have influenced me over the years. I wanted to be like Annie Dillard or Wallace Stegner and have a special place from where I could write and inspire others to do so, too.
Greenwood Lake is D.’s special place, and she’s sharing. We had a day of getting to know each other, a day to build trust. The next day we played out loud going to the center of a waterfall, witnessing loon choreography, chasing loons and herons in kayaks, chatting up lake neighbors, and discovering mysteries in old cemeteries. I can imagine a young D. accompanying an uncle as he researched their old family ties here, running off and finding a curious obelisk. I can picture her opening the metal cover on the side, surprised to find a mirror inside. The mirror is gone but not the memory.
Lots of things did not happen before I stepped onto the plane to come here — I’m still waiting on final word with home and MFA. But never mind. I’ve come to the Kingdom, and it’s time to focus on that Some Day and share this Refuge, get it going to become an annual event. We welcome Ranchers tonight, including as koala proxy standing in for Norah Colvin. She also sent us treats and sparkling notebooks. Perfect for the realm.
Collections are going to back up as I’m on hiatus, but I will return to “home” by the 24th when D. and I are reading from last week’s responses to the microhistories. Thank you for joining us in that activity! I’ll return after that with good news and catch up with each of you and publish the collections (last week and this one). Because of my time away, I’m setting up the July 11 prompt to have an extended two-week deadline. I hope you have fun with it!
July 11, 2019, prompt: “My kingdom for a koala!” In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a koala in a kingdom. You can create a character out of Norah’s koala and give it a Vermont adventure. Or you can make up a story however you want! Can you pull off a BOTS (based on a true story)? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by July 23, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Koala in the Kingdom by Charli Mills
Koala jangled plastic hips when the morning sun hit her solar panels. She danced with a big grin while three loons circled in a pattern like a watery Celtic knot. She guarded the birding binoculars from her book perch beneath wildflowers. Koala stood in a mound of chocolate covered macadamia nuts, watching the Lead Buckaroo sneak bites when she was supposed to be fixing dinner. Koala smiled when the card from her Australian writer connected the gathered Ranchers from the Kingdom to Down Under. In 99-words, no more, no less, Koala bore witness to literary art and writerly friendships.
This morning I prepared and consumed the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. I had left-over white bread to feed hungry house-painters and satisfy a seven-year-old boy. I chose right — the first sandwich I made for my grand-nephew K, I asked which bread he’d like, offering him the choice of whole wheat, sourdough, or white. “Normal bread,” he said. Yep. White bread.
I remember being seven-years-old and new to downhill skiing. We had recently moved to the Sierra Nevada mountains from the California coastal mountains surrounding old land-grant ranchos, buckaroos, and vineyards. We didn’t ski in San Benito County, but having been born into a horse culture, I found my balance readily (and later in life, lost it). You can learn more about why my school had us kids on skis at Norah Colvin’s new series, School Days, where she interviews writers to reminisce about formative educational experiences. When I discovered skiing, I also discovered American cheese.
American cheese, mayonnaise, and Wonderbread (a step below white bread in nutrition, in fact, it might not be bread but a 1970s cheap filler food). At home, we typically had sourdough bread or sandwich rolls, salami, tomatoes, onions, and jalapeno pickles. If we had cheese, it was most likely Monterey Jack. Sometimes, we’d have Tillamook Cheddar from Oregon. When we went skiing, we had those American cheese sandwiches, and to this day, they taste like The Best Day.
Problem is, once grown I realized American cheese sandwiches slathered with mayo on the bread with the least food nutrition value are not the healthiest choices. Lots of food I remember from the ’70s are best forgotten — eating powered Jell-o from the box, Tab soda, Suzy Qs, new potatoes in a can, Velveeta macaroni, and cheese, chipped beef from a jar, Vienna sausages, and pop rocks. But once in a blue moon, I’d fix my kids a grilled cheese sandwich, using my American cheese sandwich ingredients and frying it all in butter.
Let the holiday be my excuse. It’s Independence Day in America, and I splurged on American cheese. Tonight, I’ll go sit on the shores of Lake Superior in Eagle River, listen to local bands, drink Shorts Beer, and wait for the long dusk to darken enough for fireworks. The Hub doesn’t mind fireworks at all, in fact, he prefers to be the one lighting them off. But combat PTSD doesn’t always look like what the media tells us. Fireworks can and do trigger many veterans and pets. Others get excited. It’s good to be aware of those in your own circle of contact. Isolation can be a greater danger. Check on your veteran neighbors, make sure they are not alone.
Tonight, I’ll watch for ships on Lake Superior, using the marine traffic map and my binoculars. Every year, I wonder what it must be like to be on a Great Lake freighter, seeing fireworks blast from towns and celebrations along the shoreline. And that is the direction I’m steering this week’s prompt. This collection will be included in a live literary event at Fort Wilkins on July 25 when D. Avery joins me in reading 99-word stories. We’ll focus on Copper Country history, drawing from past collections and creating some new material this week.
It’s a different kind of prompt but still, flash storytelling. I hope you will stretch your creativity and lend a voice to this upcoming event.
On the home-front, we are nearing completion. The bankers and their blasted extended holiday mean no closing tomorrow. The title company is going out of their way to meet with the Hub and me on Saturday so I can sign papers because I’m flying to Vermont during our closing on Monday. If the bank fails to get the paperwork over to the title company during off hours, I’ll have to sign a power of attorney for the Hub to sign on my behalf. Other than the final messy frays, it’s looking good. Better than our patchwork paint job, but it passed the inspection, and that’s what matters. Almost home!
This week, history meets literary art. Keweenaw National Historic Park is all about the history of a place — the Keweenaw Peninsula. The National Park Service has a collection of microhistories, the stories of individuals, on their website. Our 99-word stories will use these microhistories as the prompt and will be included in a public reading at Fort Wilkins on July 25 by D. Avery and me. Join us in the fun!
July 4, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story using your choice of microhistory from Keweenaw National Historic Park. Be historical, funny, or flagrantly fictional. Choose a character, time, place, or event. Be as creative as you want in telling the story (for those doing serials, how can you meld this into your own storyline?). Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by July 9, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
The Old Ramona (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Big Annie wrapped the American flag around her shoulders like a shawl to march with striking copper miners,” Danni explained.
Ramona frowned at the old photo. It was part of Danni’s Keweenaw collection where she had earned her master’s in industrial archeology. Before she met Ike in Idaho. Ramona used to relish stories about Big Annie who rallied the miners and spent time in jail in 1913. Now, Ike’s grandmother glared.
“Shouldn’t disgrace the flag that way,” she said.
Ramona left the room and Danni sagged. She missed Ike in Iraq more than ever. She missed the old Ramona.
Everything is happening too quickly and not fast enough.
It’s the energy of the tail end of a comet after a near miss with planet earth. It’s the spin of a car that comes to rest without striking the tree. It’s ducking the claws of an owl. It’s that moment when disaster passes. Back up to the heartbeat before when catastrophy or near-misses are both yet possible. That’s what my life feels like right now.
I don’t know the outcome. In my bones, I feel hopeful. I’m the seal hunter on the ice shelf, ready to provide but not fully understanding the impact of melting ice. I raise my spear to strike. The shelf can collapse, or I can return to my village with the first food since the long winter. I’m so close to having a home, I can see it rising from the blowhole.
But the ice — the unknowns — don’t always favor the bold. If you really want to be happy, don’t have expectations. Don’t be the hunter whose happiness depends upon getting the seal. In fact, go back and order a shipment of food from Amazon drones and settle. Settle for what is, quit fighting for what could be better. No, that’s not right. Hunt. Go after your purpose, your dreams, your desire. Have wild expectations. Encounter both joy and sorrow.
The baby birds died. The home loan got delayed. And Sgt Mills says no way are we building a starling nest box. It’s times like these I’m reminded that it’s messiest before the end. Every fresh start needs an ending. Every hunter needs something to go after and bring back. Failure is imminent. Death happens. But life begs to be lived in a big way.
Did I think last week was hard? I hadn’t encountered this week, yet. Is the universe giving me some crazy unexpected mid-term exam? Do I really want a home? Pouring over 2017 taxes so I can complete FASFA to start my MFA, I don’t know how we made it. The breakdowns. The miles. We traveled over 7,000 miles to get to the Keweenaw. Our expenses almost tripled what my income was. I hadn’t baked in three years.
Sunday I made a zucchini cake. Chocolate zucchini cake with dark chocolate chips. Why not? Go big or go home. Home is my aim, my focus, my consumption at the moment. The world hinges on home. I baked because seven local writers were coming over to Roberts Street for a writing workshop. I changed the venue, so I could live the dream — to have a workshop in my own home. I had the dishes, the couch, the desk, and a pan for baking. Three years, and I felt inept making batter.
But it turned out. The cake, the workshop, having writers in my home! Almost home.
And then Monday came with the VA’s review of the appraiser’s report. We thought we were ready. We were not. No peeling paint. None. And we also needed to repair a damaged storm window and install a safety rail in the garage above the ramp into the basement. I looked up the codes cited in the VA Lender’s Handbook, a 622-page reference. It even covered economic hardship — that painting would not be waived if it created an impossibility.
And it did. On Monday, my daughter picked me up to help plant flowers at her place. She explained that she and her husband were not able to make the extra repairs due to time and finances, that we would have to pay for them ourselves or wait until after her husband’s summer jobs and her trip to France. Last week was waiting, and I was beyond waiting. I had already taken bids earlier that day, and the work would cost several thousand dollars.
Feeling disappointed beyond words, I helped her plant, blood, and tears spilling down my face.
“Mom, you have soil on your forehead.” It wasn’t; it was blood from a black fly, the tyrants of the north that only live three weeks but can cause terrible bites. She told me this wasn’t like before.
I re-read the letters from before. The letter from the landlord in Sandpoint, Idaho thanking us for being good tenants but that we had 30 days to vacate the premise. The letter I wrote back, crafting it carefully as if it were hostage negotiations. The delayed response — “the owners think they can sell the house better empty.” Two weeks and my world crumbled in ways I never thought possible. No safety nets this time. No savings. No spare change. Help from friends, a hasty trailer purchase that only made our circumstances worse. Nowhere to go so we lived in the wilderness.
I’m not going to rehash the failings of the VA. Not only are they once again putting up hurdles for us to get into a home, but spectacularly, they sent us a letter, received this day, stating that the Hub had no authorization to get his knee replaced and they officially denied his medical claim. My mind rushesd between past and present. My daughter says this is not like before and though I can already imagine the impact crater, she is right.
Even if we don’t own the home, we can live here. We have a strong and connected community in the Keweenaw and at Carrot Ranch. The Hub has advocates besides me — his doctor, counselors, and the surgical team at Aspirus. The meteor is not going to hit us. But it will stir up the dust.
The Hub got testy with the person whose phone number was listed on his big fat denial claim. A thick packet that arrived in the mail this morning. She told him it was his fault for not securing authorization and when he proclaimed he had, she said there was nothing in his record. She said, “Don’t kill the messenger.”
“I will if it sends a message,” he said.
I groaned. This is why veterans are difficult. Everything is a battle tactic. Even in his agitation, even with PTSD, moral injury and brain injury, he’s more controlled than any civilian. I still trust him wholly in a zombie apocalypse. I just can’t trust him to remember to paint all the gaps or find his own socks. The call went south after that. He was calm. We quickly made for CBOC (community-based outpatient clinic) in Hancock. He also called Aspirus hospital and asked to speak to Dawn. She checks up on him. Both places had his back — they had his “six.”
We then drove up to Larium to Aspirus. While he tracked down the copies he needed from Dawn, I visited an ailing Warrior Sister. From her bed, she made suggestions. We talked about her diet (clear liquids for the moment) and beating cancer. I told her gluten-free, and dairy-free food could taste good and be simple. I’d help. She wanted to help me with the house. Sisters in the storm, adjusting our sails.
By this time, I needed coffee. A cafe meil to be exact. When near Calumet, one must go to Cafe Rosetta. On the drive home, the VA called back. I guess they were getting hammered by the Hub’s doctors. We all had clear copies of the authorizations from the VA. They conceded it was a mistake. However the denial is official, so now we have to find out how to overturn it otherwise we have to go and appeal it, like court. VA court. Kangaroo court.
We got home, lunched and the Hub went to bed. That’s the thing — his brain can only take so much. If he has to focus, he talks rapidly and won’t let others speak, or he loses his train of thought. It’s not conversational, but we haven’t had good conversations for a while. I’ve learned to let him ramble and take find joy and humor in it. I miss the deep conversations we used to have. He doesn’t realize they are missing and that’s okay. Better only one of us feels bad about it. A morning that requires all that interaction makes him sleepy. He reset.
Me, I painted.
And I’ll keep painting until our next inspection. Monday. We now hope to close July 5. Down to the wire. I hope to leave for Vermont properly homed. If not, like my daughter tried to point out, it’s not like before. I’m almost home, and I’ll paint my way into it one brush stroke at a time.
June 27, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that involves paint. It can be fresh, peeling or in need of a coat. What is being painted and why? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by July 3, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Something Different (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Want some paint for that brush?” Danni smiled, remembering. Her brushing a mammoth tusk, Ike standing at the edge of the mud with his fishing pole. The first time they met.
A wet nose nudged her hand while she cleaned shards and the paint brush flew from her grip. It dropped to the concrete of the barn floor. “Det, you are a pesky hound.” She patted the dog and picked up the brush. Maybe she should paint.
If Ike wanted to do something different, then she would too. Danni left for the hardware store to pick out cheerful yellows.
Wait, I tell the starling.
Last year, Whirligig — a showy, loud and aggressive starling — showed up to the neighborhood, driving out the woodpeckers and entertaining my neighbor and me with his antics. This year, he spotted a hole in my SIL’s roofing job. A small triangular peak over the porch was missing a small chunk of fascia beneath old cedar shakes. Not a priority, my SIL was waiting to finish the job when the siding plates arrived.
Whirligig waits on no one. In an afternoon he nested into the space behind the facia, a small area of trim beneath the porch roofline. My SIL wasted no time in patching the hole. Whirligig found and expanded another. Nesting began in earnest with all of us dodging straw and string debris as we entered and exited the porch.
I’d go outside and Whirligig would fly from the porch eave to squawk from the lightpost across Roberts Street. “Stop nesting in my house,” I’d tell him. Some days, I’d be weeding or lugging my watering can and he’s be making Star Wars robotic chirps and songs. Despite his annoyance, I couldn’t help but laugh. Flowers bloomed and Whirligig courted.
We weren’t too concerned with his nest, waiting to boot him out after mating season. Starlings often build several nests. We didn’t think a female had joined him, only seeing Whirligig. Our conversations continued.
And then the VA home loan appraiser showed up. We didn’t think he’d be overly impressed with our flighty neighbor in the eaves, but given that the gap was in decorative trim and not structural, the SIL focused on finishing the siding plates popped off during last year’s roofing replacement. The Hub mowed the lawn, scrubbed the basement (hopeful man-cave) floor, and I cleaned the house, including places the appraiser never looked.
Instead, he looked in places like the defunct attic stairs. One of the first home-improvements the SIL completed in 2016 was to seal the attic with insulation. The stairs now go to nowhere. But the VA has a rulebook and rule 497 or whatever states that safe stairs have handrails. After the inspection, we learned the VA would not approve a loan on a house missing the ever-so-vital handrail to nowhere. They also don’t like peeling paint, or nesting starlings.
In a panic, we put out a call to our community. Did anyone have a handrail from a remodel (lots of people remodel these old mining homes)? Could someone help us paint where the Hub couldn’t reach with a ladder? And who was willing to evict Whirligig? Copper Country Strong responded. Within hours, one of the veteran wives drove to town, met us at the building store, and declared her housewarming gift to be a handrail and hardware. Worried about the price, we said we didn’t expect her to pay if it was over a certain threshold. We laughed to find out it was only $14!
The Hub scraped and painted as sloppily as I imagine Tom Sawyer white-washing a fence, but at least it was no longer “peeling.” The SIL, who was supposed to leave for an alternative energy fair, finished work late and came over that night to finish the porch trim. My daughter and I scrapes and caulked the garage windows. I snapped three 100-year-old window panes, ripped my hot pink rubber gloves to shreds (I have no idea how) and got paint chips in my bra, deciding I’d rather write about home-improvement jobs than experience them.
The SNL nailed shut the gap Whirligig used and I couldn’t help but feel low. I know what it feels like to be shut out of a home for no good reason. Why was my home more important than his? It felt unfair and somehow too American — the arrogance of claiming home while denying it to others permeates our history. I did not enjoy being the evictor.
Over a late evening BBQ, the SIL assured me that the nest was an empty one. He couldn’t reach it, but nothing had hatched if there had been eggs. Later, after everyone had left, I stood on the front steps and watched Whirligig, silent on the lightpost. All I could offer was, “I see you. I hear you. I am sorry.”
He flew away.
It sucks to be disenfranchised in America. The process of trying to get recognized as a resident after being homeless is near impossible. Those who are chronically homeless or living rough on the streets or uncounted as they sleep in cars and drive across state borders when they get gas money are doomed to never rise from that lifestyle. The state of Utah recognized the plight of the chronically homeless in Salt Lake City. They realized that it was more cost effective to turn abandoned buildings into independent residences with no costs, no paperwork, and no strings attached. In Kansas City, a group of veterans invested in tiny houses for homeless veterans outside the VA system.
Just trying to get our driver’s licenses has been an ordeal. In Michigan, you have to prove citizenship with a birth certificate. Never mind that the Hub served his nation in combat. He has to prove he was born in the US. I brought our important documents with us, but with all the transient stops we made at VAs across the western US, the Hub lost his birth certificate. He likely gave it to someone to photocopy to get service at a VA hospital and never got it back. But we prevailed and both have Michigan enhanced driver’s licenses.
Next are 2016 and 2017 taxes. When you cross five different states across two taxe years and have no permanent address, things get complicated. I wrote for clients and he worked for six different companies in five different states and sought medical care from eight different VAs. The IRS has a homeless veteran program but good luck talking to a live person. I filed 2018 taxes claiming Michigan residency, using my daughter’s address. As of January, the Hub is 100 percent disabled. Which gave me the education benefits to go get my MFA in creative writing.
Except — and there’s always an exception with the VA benefits — they don’t pay tuition. I was so devastated to find this out, but then I said screw it, I’ll go deeper into education debt. Ah, yes, but FASFA wants my 2017 taxes. I feel like I’m constantly grinding in circles. I didn’t know what to do next, but this place has good people and someone knew someone who had a CPA who could help. I felt skeptica, having inquired with other CPAs, but this guy, he was willing to take on all my complications. He jokingly told me he needed a good challenge after tax season.
Getting him all my documents, though, made me relive the events of 2016 and 2017. That awful day in March when I froze in panic after the landlords so casually told us we were “free to go” because the owners wanted to sell the place still feels cold in my blood. When the appraiser told us we’d have to fix a few things on the house my daughter told me not to worry. She said the same thing when the landlord sent us a 30-day eviction notice before we had another home to go to. I still don’t trust that I will have a home. The waiting right now is awful, and I think of that silent starling as a personification of my pain.
It is what it is.
This morning I woke up, stepped outside and heard chirping. I looked around for Whirligig but he was gone. With horror, I realized the chirping was coming from inside the porch eave. I sat on the steps and cried. The Hub came home from PT and he asked what was wrong. “Just starlings,” he said. But he saw my pain. And as gruff as he tries to be, he wishes no harm on anything. Without further words, he got a ladder and some tools.
Our daughter came over on her lunch break and found her parents ripping up the front porch. The Hub decided to remove the fascia because that was down where the SIL couldn’t reach. Our daughter chastized him for climbing a ladder, but held it sterady for him. I grabbed a moss-lined flower basket, emptied it but the lining and the Hub pulled the nest with its string and straw anf feathers into it, including two newly hatched birds and one pale blue egg. The birds heard our voices and gaping maws opened hungrily.
But Whirligig was gone. I dug up a grub (looking for worms), mashed it, and filled a dropper with water. I fed two babies and wondered if it were the right thing to do. After the Hub replaced the fascia, I hung the flower basket below the porch eaves. The babies chirped loudly and I hoped Whirligig and his Lady could hear. The robins and sparrows flitted about, and the bird community seemed distressed. Or maybe that was just me. I told them to find Whirligig. The Hub said the starlings had already abandoned the nest and wouldn’t be back. My daughter gently reminded me that nature would take its course.
After a late afternoon appointment, I came home and listened for the babies. I could probably hear them a mile away, they chirp so loudly. And to my relief and delight, I watched Whirligig land in the basket with a squiggling insect of some sort. I decided right then and there that if this becomes our home, we are building Whirligig a nesting box.
Meanwhile, we wait.
June 20, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about having to wait. Who is waiting and what for? Think about how the wait impacts the character or the story. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by June 25, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
The Beginning of a Long Wait (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Waiting for the phone to ring, Danni started a batch of cookies. She stalked over to the phone. “Ring, damn it!” She picked it up to check the dial tone and returned to the kitchen. She started a pot of macaroni and cheese. The phone range and she jumped, answering.
“Hello. This is the National Coalition for—”
Danni slammed down the receiver. She needed tea. Instead of boiling macaroni, she poured the water over a Lipton tea bag, watching the stain spread. Danni waited to hear if Ike lived after the attack on his convoy in Baghdad.
Many hands make light work. Women converged on Lady B’s yard, a twisting wreckage slammed by flood and debris last year. Someone — maybe a county worker — laid down straw last summer which snow matted like unruly hair. Depressed and unable to muck out her yard, Lady B expressed sadness. That’s when we formed an informal rake brigade. With six women and six rakes, we piled leaves and straw, collected debris and shattered ceramic pots. Lady B, 86-years-old, fussed over all of us with graciously served cups of sweet tea.
On Saturday, I’m looking forward to returning with annual plants to splash color in remaining pots, and give my friend something to water and care for each day. My daughter will join her hands with mine to plant, and other women plan long-term garden solutions. Approaching a year after the Father’s Day Floods, my community remains Copper Country Strong.
Across town, all hands are on deck to celebrate the Vet Center’s 40th Anniversary. A BBQ fires up, women set up tables laden with food — sloppy joes, taco salad, fruit salad, cheesy potatoes — and the color guard stands at attention. Vietnam Vets and their spouses stand to receive recognition pins.
But let’s back up past WWII, WWI and the American Civil War to better understand what the Vet Center is all about. President Abe Lincoln made a promise to the surviving soldiers and families of the Civil War. The following opens Miracle of Ducks, my novel-in-progress:
In his second inaugural speech, President Lincoln delivered a remedy of justice to those who have served a nation in times of war, understanding that the price paid by soldiers and their families comes at a cost to the nation:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
To this day, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs operates under a solemn commitment made to those injured in service and vows to take care of the families whose soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice. Less than one percent of US citizens ever serve, giving the entire group of veterans an obscure and minority voice. Veterans rarely speak up for their own justice, making it difficult to receive their benefits for what they endured. It is important that we speak up for them. That we welcome them home, understanding they won’t fit in with the civilians they protected. That we do the one and only thing they ever ask for — “Please take care of my family when I pick up arms for you.”
Those who marry these veterans are loyal. A service to nation that often goes unrecognized.
Miracle of Ducks gives voice to veteran spouses through the story of Danni Gordon. This character has evolved with my own understanding of the service spouses give to the nation. Mary Gauthier, a songwriter who works with veteran families to capture their experiences in song, sings about the War After the War. Here are the lyrics that resonate with the “invisible” spouses:
Who’s gonna care for the ones who care for the ones who went to war
Land mines in the living room eggshells on the floor
I lost myself in the shadow of your honor and your pain
You stare out the window as our dreams go down the drain
Invisible, the war after the warI’m a soldier too, just like you
Serving something bigger than myself
I serve unseen, caught in between
My pain and the pain of someone elseI’m stronger than you think I am, I’m right here by your side
I am not your enemy I don’t want to fight
There’s no going back in time I know you’re not the same
But you are not the only one for whom the world has changed
Invisible, the war after the war
Yet, the price soldiers and their families pay comes at a cost to the nation. In subsequent wars, US citizens paid taxes to fund war efforts, which is why great thought was given before entering into such a commitment. Those who stayed home planted victory gardens, learned to cook and eat rice so that grains could go overseas to soldiers, went without nylons and other items to ration resources. When soldiers came home, citizens rejoiced with ticker-tape parades. And then came Vietnam, an unpopular war during a time of civil unrest. Soldiers became objects of derision.
The Hub remembers when Georgia hated the Army Rangers. They were barred from businesses and snubbed by society. Grenada changed that attitude and made the Hub wary of fickle views of citizens. He enjoyed getting a parade and allowed in establishments previously off-limits, but he still feels annoyed when someone says, “Thanks for your service.” I’ve tried to understand because I recognize that most people are sincere when they give thanks.
But consider this: Post 9/11 “War on Terrorism” has been the longest US war in history, and yet the smallest percentage of population serves. The toll on physical and mental health is high because of repeat tours. Giving thanks is not what Abraham Lincoln intended. The nation — its citizens — must bear the burden of the cost of war. What does this ideal look like in practice?
Soldiers get medical and mental healthcare without stigma, shame, or pressure to soldier up and take the pain and suffering in silence. That’s the VA’s job. On the homefront, soldiers get readjustment counseling to improve quality of life. That’s the Vet Center’s job. So what do citizens do? They can hire veterans, prevent homelessness, and break down barriers that cause veteran isolation. Isolation kills. Even though veteran suicides have dropped from 22 a day to 20, the VA reports that 14 of those suicides never sought VA services.
And I can tell you why — the VA is difficult to access and penetrate, staff often minimize or ignore concerns, funding goes into marketing a suicide prevention hotline instead of programs that encourage veteran inclusion and fitness, homelessness prevention is nonexistent and does not actually help veterans, and moral injury continues after service. Today, at the open house, I expressed my views based on three years of homelessness and 35 years of VA medical neglect to the regions suicide prevention coordinator. I gave her the view from the other side. And as a spouse, I don’t soldier up, I advocate.
My hands are not alone. As Josh Groban sings in The War at Home, “they are a million strong.” I stand beside my Warrior Sisters. Today, I wept as those of the Vietnam era were honored alongside their husbands with pins that represent their courage and indicate a grateful nation. My husband sat beside me and wept to see his Vietnam era Brothers honored and welcomed home. The Vet Centers exist because the Vietnam vets insisted on helping one another if their country wasn’t going to. The Vet Center exists to keep the promise Abe Lincoln made. It is the legacy of the Vietnam Vets.
Many hands make light work. Won’t you join me in bearing the burdens found in our own hometowns? A better world is not just about veterans. I know we are a global community, but each of us can see and meet the needs of others around us — helping a new mom, visiting the elderly and writing down stories, breaking barriers that isolate vulnerable populations, seeing the humanity in a homeless person, fostering community beautification, giving voice to the voiceless, taking on stories bigger than ourselves. We can all be of service.
June 13, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about the work of many hands. Is it a cooperative effort or something else? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by June 18, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Difficult Decision (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Hands reached out to Danni as she slumped in her chair. “I can’t do it alone,” she said. The women in her group, surrounded her.
Roxie patted Danni’s shoulder. “What do we need to do? I’ll bring my vacuum cleaner.”
Everyone offered to help Danni tackle Ramona’s empty house. She wanted to be angry with Ike for his absence, leaving her to make the decision no one in his family wanted to make. Ramona’s dementia progressed beyond Danni’s ability to keep Ike’s grandmother safe.
“Will she hate me?” Danni asked.
“Nah, she won’t remember you,” said Roxie. “We’ll help.”
Most of the white beach-washed pebbles are limestone fossils, remnants of a former coral reef. Some are chert with a coating of lime. When I first began hunting rocks on the shores of Lake Superior, I couldn’t tell my limestone from my chert, but with one I learned to recognize glossiness and a microcrystalline structure, and with the other distinct patterns and often a macrocrystaline structure. If I could see crystals like rock sugar, it’s likely a limestone fossil. Yet sometimes — sneaky as metamorphosis can be — chert can replace the original fossil structure.
A big black tote bag holds all my rocks not yet displayed in window sills or gifted away. The window sills are so nearly mine, I’m taking the chance to clean them. Deep cleaning. Nesting. Rock sorting. I don’t have time to sort rocks, so lively as my days have been, but I find comfort in the process. If my rocks are organized, if I can name them, recognize their details and structures, then everything might yet be okay. I could also go to hell in a big black tote bag, and it will still be okay.
Point is, it’s okay. It’s more than okay. I don’t have to name all the rocks, but I can dream of what I’ll do next with them.
In the span of a week, I spent the night with a ghost, attended and presented at a writing conference out of town, met my next great author mentor, helped my kids move out of my not-yet house, picked out paint for the walls, got a bed (GOT A BED!), moved from the Rodeo Room to the Happy Trails (named rooms), deep-cleaned kitchen cupboards, swapped out the spice cupboard for the tea cupboard and contemplated how to fill the rest of the pantry, unburied my desk and planned how to live in more space than my previous four foot by two foot corner, spent late nights at the Lake with Cynthia to watch sunsets and listen to cold spring-peeper, talked to my neighbors, talked to my flowers (which confused a neighbor who thought I was telling him to “Grow, baby, grow”), planned curtains with the Hub’s cousin, and buried a grandmother.
Some of these things were more life-altering than others. My neighbors will adjust. Before Sunday, they were my daughter’s neighbors, now they are mine. Now they get to learn I talk to flowers and chipmunks and stare long and hard into the eyes of the stars late at night. It has to be late — I don’t get back from the Lake until dark, and that’s after 11 p.m. My new bed is glorious (do you hear angels singing?), and I’ve been slipping off to sleep earlier than normal. We are adjusting to space. We are preparing to own this space. The Hub leaves a trail of socks and discarded shirts from room to room like he’s marking territory.
Of all these things, the biggest splash came from the Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association Writing Conference in Marquette. That’s where I met the ghost and my newest writing heroine. I want to tell you about my teacher, but you’re probably curious about the ghost story and starting to wonder if my new neighbors are right to think I might be a bit off my rocker. So first, the eerie tale.
When I signed up for the writing conference back in November, I didn’t know it would coincide with the weekend my kids would move out, and I was designated Cook to the Movers. Sunday was the official move day, and my conference was all day Saturday, so I canceled my second night and drove home afterward to fix strata and macaroni salad. I drove to Marquette on Friday after Warrior Wives group to attend a dinner for presenters and UPPAA board directors.
A funny thing happens when I get to a hotel — my inner introvert wants to curl up and stay in. But I had a BOGO free card for drinks, a $20 meal credit from the hotel for having signed up for the room during their Spring Fling, and the expectation to show up. Marquette is home to Northern Michigan University, which has a competitive MFA in Creative Writing. This gives the town a strong literary base. From that base, grew UPPAA which welcomes authors of all genres and forms of publication. When they asked for someone to join the marketing panel, I raised my hand.
Let me pause a moment and encourage you to attend regional writing conferences. When I lived in Minneapolis, I attended Loft events, Rain Taxi, and workshops throughout the upper Midwest. When I lived in Idaho, I won a scholarship to attend BinderCon in LA and worked with Montana organizers to bring a satellite BinderCon event to Missoula. Sometimes you have to travel, but the biggest gains are networking and learning the current state of the industry and publication interests. It’s fun, too! Which I told my inner introvert who just wanted to hang out in the room with the purple and lavender wallpaper.
Before dinner, I sat down with ten strangers. After dinner, I parted from new friends. I sat next to a brilliant children’s book author and her seeing eye dog, Floyd. I met a historian who writes about Upper Michigan history, and he told me about his latest discovery — an abandoned quarry where the town was built into the rock like some 1800s Anasazi city. It’s off the grid with no discernable road. I met the incoming UPPA president, one of my co-presenters who publishes regional imprints. Then I met the outgoing president, author of Haunted Marquette. He asked me if I was staying at The Landmark Inn, and I said yes, up on the sixth floor.
“Not the Lilac Room?”
“Uh, yes, the Lilac Room.”
After a brief chat about the librarian and her lost-at-sea lover, I was warned to check for screws in the bed. Upon retiring to my (haunted) room, I was skeptical. The room was bright and clean and didn’t feel creepy at all. I pulled back the sheets — no screws. Settling into bed, I read and nodded off, waking up to bright lights. I opened my eyes, and it was dark. I flipped on the bedside lamp, feeling a bit uneasy. I chalked it up to the ghost story playing with my mind. But when I turned back off the light and closed my eyes, I could see bright lights. I wondered if I was getting an ocular migraine, a rare occurrence but I’ve had three in my lifetime, and I see bright lights in my periphery. Whatever the phenomenon, it was difficult for me to fall back asleep. So I read and finally drifted off.
In the morning, I thought about my “haunting” and laughed it off as being tired, impressionable, and maybe something weird but explicable with my eyes. On a whim, I tossed back the covers and no screws. No sheet, either. I know there was a top sheet because I folded back the cover and just used the sheet until I went to bed. I found the sheet at the far corner as if it had been neatly pulled taut all the way down. Not scrunched or kicked down. Pulled. I couldn’t explain it. I turned to coffee, but my Keurig would turn off seconds after I pressed the power button. I gave up, showered, packed, and gratefully left the Lilac Room.
What isn’t in the haunting stories is that the lovelorn librarian hung herself with the sheets in that room.
Okay! Moving on from haunted rooms (don’t let that deter you from going out of town to conferences). On my way out of the hotel, I recognized one of my author, idols. I was surprised because Karen Dionne had been at Finlandia University the week before and I was bummed to have missed her. I try not to idolize authors, but I have great admiration for her breakout novel. I called her by the first name and asked if she was headed to the Peter White Library — turns out she was our keynote speaker. I felt embarrassed that I missed that detail, but thrilled that not only would she be there, but I was walking with her. Karen is lovely and down to earth. And she had just sent off her next novel to her publisher. Like that morning. She rose at 4 a.m. and wrote until 9 a.m.
Good thing she didn’t get the Lilac Room.
I want to share with you, what Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic, says of teachers and why I look to my favorite authors as mentors, whether they know I exist or not:
“Do you want to study under the great teachers? Is that it? Well, you can find them anywhere. They live on the shelves of your library; they live on the walls of museums; they live in recordings made decades ago. Your teachers don’t even need to be alive to educate you masterfully. No living writer has ever taught me more about plotting and characterization than Charles Dickens has taught me—and needless to say, I never met with him during office hours to discuss it. All I had to do in order to learn from Dickens was to spend years privately studying his novels like they were holy scripture, and then to practice like the devil on my own.”~ Elizabeth Gilbert
Karen Dionne shared with us her story and lessons from her journey. To me, she made a big splash when she said, “Have the temperament to take risks.”
And here I sit, at the end of what’s been a long journey to home, surrounded by all the risks I took to keep writing no matter what. And I will keep going. Don’t quit. Adjust, as needed. Learn. Take a deep breath but don’t quit. Bat-crazy stuff will go down in your life. Sorrows will rise, distractions will tempt. But stay the course. Writing is a journey with disappointing and astonishing destinations along the way. It is the act of writing, of shaping yourself into a Writer. Go catch stories, haunted, real, or imaginary. Find mentors. Take risks. Take risks with your writing and write something that scares you — not ghosts, but pushing into that deep place, feeling uncertain about what is rising to the page. Let it rise. Go write.
It’s been a rough few weeks for me emotionally. And it will be a difficult wait until we close. The Hub is having trouble with the transition, and I have to occasionally escape to the Lake to ground so I can return and practice patience when I want to come unhinged, too. No matter what, I still write. And sort rocks.
June 6, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that makes a big splash. It can be fluid, or you can play with the idiom (to make a big splash is to do or say something that becomes unforgettable). Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by June 11, 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.
Lucinda Arrives (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
The rumble of a Harley echoed across the valley, crushing the crackle of a nighttime bonfire. Ramona leaned forward on her lawn-chair and asked Michael, “Is that her?”
“Yes, that’d be Lucinda.”
Danni hoped Michael’s tension was excitement. Ever since he visited his aunts last fall, he spoke about the Navajo biologist he met at powwow. Lucinda rode her bike from Red Cliff, Wisconsin to Elmira, Idaho.
Rumbling up Danni’s driveway, the woman dressed in fringed black leather stopped and dismounted. Ramona gaped when Lucinda shook thick black hair from her helmet. “Oh, Michael. She’ll make a big splash.”