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Collected beach rocks spray across the dining room table. The most promising specimens I submerge in a bowl of water to illuminate agate banding or pink pools of prehnite. My rock-hounding days are numbered because Lady Lake Superior grows cold. Instead of an evening of exercise beneath a lingering summer sunset, I take a mad dash mid-day to the beach when I can. My last trip I hitched a ride and combed the beach rocks until my daughter and her husband fetched me.
I don’t really have time to hunt agates; I’m far too busy.
Busy is an affliction. I’d say it’s modern, yet I suspect it’s as old as any form of distraction. When we think of a busy person we think of the executive or young parent. We could say both have important duties. One chases after meetings and deals; the other after toddlers and laundry. We could also say one is a workaholic. Perhaps both. What is the difference? When business becomes a form of mindlessness, it’s a distraction.
“Look busy,” is a phrase I’ve heard often from childhood on up. It’s hard for a day-dreamer to engage in mind wandering when you’re supposed to look busy. I struggle with tasks I call busy-work. When I didn’t look busy at home as a child, often I was given a broom and told if I had nothing better to do I could go sweep. I learned to daydream while doing chores. To this day, if I have a problem to solve in my mind, I clean. When I was in college, I discovered if I rewrote my notes after class and then dusted, mopped or did dishes, I wouldn’t have to cram for tests.
I had the cleanest house ever when I graduated college.
Some people believe the image, though; they believe they are supposed to “look busy.” They don’t problem solve or engage in mind-work at all. Instead they become human flurries of activity. These people, I’ve noticed, are praised for “keeping busy.” It’s an ingrained message and I’m not saying I missed it –it’s just that I developed a way to think while busy. My busy tends to come from the mind rather than activity.
The other day my SIL caught me staring out the porch window. He smiled, catching me un-busy, staring beyond the glass pane. He even glanced to see what I was looking at and upon seeing nothing of interest to warrant such staring he found my behavior amusing. I spared him a moment’s glance and explained, “I’m writing.” He laughed and walked off. Seriously, I was writing. I’ve had a huge breakthrough in my WIP, Miracle of Ducks, and the story was flowing so fast I had to watch it unfold, like an observer.
Stephen King is another writer who stares out windows. In an essay, he writes:
“Sitting down at the typewriter or picking up a pencil is a physical act; the spiritual analogue is looking out of an almost forgotten window, a window which offers a common view from an entirely different angle . . . an angle which renders the common extraordinary. The writer’s job is to gaze through that window and report on what he sees.”
Writers gaze out different windows. Sometimes the view is a different perspective as Stephen writes, and sometimes it’s to see with the inner eye. Of course, being the master of fantasy and thriller, Stephen’s mind wanders to the curious idea of the window breaking. In other words, he posed the question, “…what happens to the wide-eyed observer when the window between reality and unreality breaks and the glass begins to fly?” If you want to know his answer, read his novella, Four Past Midnight.
Stephen understands the busy writer — reality might be typing, staring or scrubbing dinner plates, but unreality is a rich inner world of exploration and discovery. It’s endless with archives of stories, some greater gems than others. When a writer gets busy that mental space thunders like Superior waves, scraping story over story until the writer spots the agates tumbled in the mind. Is it a danger or a joy to become so busy?
I think that’s a valid question for any of us. Does the busyness serve a purpose? Does it provide joy or distraction?
Traveling to VA appointments recently, we stopped at Keweenaw Bay, a small roadside resort on Lake Superior. No matter where we travel in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, we are surrounded by this grand shoreline. Keweenaw Bay is on the northeast side of the Great Lake, and directly south of Copper Harbor. The VA hospital in Iron Mountain is considered one of the most rural VAs in the nation and yet we live two more hours north in even more remote terrain. If wilderness seems a pattern in my life, I won’t deny it.
So here we are near the ends of our nation and a cartoon at the roadside cafe shows a waitress refusing to take a table’s order until they all turn off their cell phones. The line drawing shows no one looking at the menu and everyone instead staring at their screens. It occurred to me that cell phones fulfill a need to be distracted by busyness. How does that differ from escaping into a good book? It seems a book engages the mind, creates meaningful busyness, whereas screen time does not require the mind to actively think.
A hallmark of anxiety is that too many choices make us unhappy. Thus most people will choose to be mindlessly busy because it doesn’t require making choices, or thinking about choices. It makes me wonder if writers are some bizarre creatures who thrive on possibility. Or maybe some writers simply like making the choices for their characters’ lives. I can say my mind winds up and whirs before it settles into the resolution. For me, I think I see what can be and get excited when I find a path that appears to go there. That’s true for me in life and fiction. It’s the a-ha moment.
When I say I’m busy, I don’t mean I have lots of tasks, though actually I do. The busyness right now is the solar flare of my brain excited for the scenes I’m writing, the launch of our first Flash Fiction Rodeo at Carrot Ranch, the open call for new Rough Writers and the upcoming release of the current Rough Writer’s first anthology. Without the worry of homelessness thanks to our daughter and her husband, and with the Hub in a better VA system I’ve let go of much worry and stress.
So pardon my distraction, but I have rocks scattered across my brain and I’m sifting through them all. I feel more than relieved; I feel released. I’ll corner this energy and direct it better, but it feels good to have it back. It feels good to be making breakthroughs and seeing that paths are aligning. It’s a good busy.
If you missed last week’s announcement, I have an open call for The Congress of Rough Writers. This is a literary community for all writers. Everyone is welcome to come and go, to get what they want or need from participation. That participation includes writing, reading and joining discussions. If you want to go a step further and take part in events or anthologies, that’s the work of Rough Writers. It doesn’t mean you get roped in. Even as a Rough Writer, how you participate is up to you. It’s about willingness. If you are willing, shoot me an email: email@example.com.
And stay tuned for upcoming announcements about the Flash Fiction Rodeo. It’s more than a contest — it’s eight different contests! The weekly flash fiction challenges will go on break during October. Between Oct. 5-31, a new contest launches every Tuesday and Thursday. Each one has a $25 purse and there are no entry fees. Winners will be announced consecutively during the pre-sale and launch of The Congress of Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology Vol. 1 every Tuesday in November and December. That gives our event leaders and their co-judges time to decide and collect the Best in Show for each category. And it invites the greater community to participate.
September 7, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a busy character. It could be a busy beaver, gnawing birch trees endlessly or an executive on the go. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by September 12, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published September 13). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Monastery Jam by Charli Mills
Thimbleberries scattered across the floor. “Brother Mark! How careless..!”
Mark shuffled to fetch … a broom? Dust bin or bowl? A rag? He stood like the garden statue of St. Francis. His mind calculated each solution rapidly.
“…just standing there. Look at this mess. And leaves me to clean it. Never busy, that Brother Mark. Idle hands, you know…”
Mark blushed to hear the complaints. Father Jorge’s large brown hand rested on Mark’s shoulder. “Let’s walk the beach.”
Waves calmed Mark’s thinking. “I didn’t know if it was salvageable.”
“Brother Mark, your mind needn’t make jam of every situation.”
Tapping out the word “g-r-a-m-m-a-r” I recall a teacher’s joke from the past: your Grammer would be appalled at your grammar. The mnemonic humor clung to the idea that one’s grandmother, or “grammer,” would disapprove of misspelling the word grammar. Problem is, with my colloquial western accent, drawled by many California buckaroos, my grandmother was my gramma, thus the joke backfired. It didn’t aid my memory; it confused it.
Every time I see the word grammar, I think the final “a” is incorrect because I think Gramma would be appalled… I personally don’t know anyone who calls their grandmother Grammer. There must be an easier way to recall the spelling of misspellable words.
Poking around an old mining house in Mohawk during an estate sale, I found a 1917 The Merrill Speller. Worn and and claimed by a flowing signature, this education book once belonged to Lawrence Barsky of 211 Gratiot Avenue in Copper City, Michigan. For a silver half dollar, how could I resist? Copper City is a town of 200 people on the Keweenaw Peninsula, near Calumet.
Would I be able to find the student who once doodled a medieval looking B in his speller?
After finding several alternatives of Barske, Barskey and Barke, I almost gave up. Then I found a forum listing a genealogy for a Brisky family from Copper City! Like a misspelled word, I misread the last name (seriously, Lawrence, you should have dotted your “i”).
According to the 1920 Federal Census, Lawrence Brisky was born 6 Aug 1912 in Copper City, Michigan as the youngest of eight children. His parents, John and Veronica, were Croatian immigrants. His mother was 39 years old when she had Lawrence. His father was a trammer in a copper mine. A trammer used brute strength to push the ore carts to the shaft. The mines viewed Eastern Europeans as human beasts of burden. Consider that for a moment.
And then think of young Lawrence, doodling the B in his speller.
Ten years later he was no longer in school. It was the copper mine fate for him. Hid father was dead and his brothers worked the mines. At age 27, Lawrence was far down state from the copper mines. On February 27, 1940 he married Eva Rodosevic. According to the 1940 Federal Census record. Lawrence only complete 7th-grade. He had a machining skill and worked a trade in Detroit, Michigan. He died in 1995 in Tennessee.
Besides the the clear instruction on spelling words like statue (not to confuse with stature or statute), I found the life of a young copper mining boy in a primer at an estate sale. I wonder how the book stayed in Michigan but the man escaped? I wonder how his father died in 1922 while Lawrence was yet in school?
Margaret Meade once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Did copper miners change the world? Most definitely. I’m not sure that’s the change Meade meant. I think she was referring to small groups of like-minded people working together for a common good.
Carrot Ranch is a literary community. It’s my writers platform, but one I created into a sandbox, an imaginary ranch where literary artists can play. It’s open to any writers. The challenges are meant to be fun and safe space to jam with words. It’s intended to be a brief challenge weekly, although writers are welcome to linger. At the heart of this community are The Congress of Rough Writers.
For the next month, there’s an open call for new Rough Writers. What does that mean? If you participate at the Ranch through the writing challenges, your material qualifies for consideration in the literary community’s anthologies. It’s more than a round up of responses; it includes new and varied creative writing. The Rough Writers share their books, blogs and writing through the platform at Carrot Ranch. It’s a way to co-create greater visibility for community writers and for community readers to discover new authors.
Want to be an official Rough Writer? Send me, the Lead Buckaroo, your interest through email: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll answer questions and let you know what comes next. I’ll be updating the Rough Writer page and others throughout September. The only requirement is that you have been writing here as that’s the material we use to build our anthologies.
In November (date yet to be determined) Carrot Ranch will publish the Rough Writer’s first anthology, Vol. 1. In anticipation of the book launch, Carrot Ranch will host a Flash Fiction Rodeo during the month of October with eight different writing contests. I’m looking for eight leaders to create a fun and unique contest prompt and create small teams of three (leader included) to judge each contest. Got an idea? Send me an email: email@example.com. I’ll give you more details on what to expect as far as commitment.
On October 3, the complete Rodeo line-up will publish. We’ll post our last flash fiction compilation on October 4. The challenges and essays will take a break in October, replaced by a contest each Thursday and Tuesday, starting October 5 and ending October 31. Winners and compilations for each of the eight contests will be revealed every Tuesday, beginning November 7 through January 2 when the All Around Flash Fiction Champion is announced.
Winners and a selection of runner ups will be included in the Rough Writer Anthology Vol. 2. The community will begin developing the second anthology in January. The idea is to continue to host a Rodeo each October and launch a book in November.
Flash fiction challenges will continue to be the anchor event at Carrot Ranch. It gives writers a fun outlet, serves as a safe space to explore and share writing, create visibility for community literature and generate material for collaborative projects. If you want to engage in the community but you don’t want to commit to being a Rough Writer or you are one of our lovely readers, you can still contribute. Have a prompt idea? Challenge the buckaroo! Send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org with your weekly flash fiction challenge prompt. Any time I use a prompt from the community, the contributor will earn a prize — it might be a book; it might be a rock; it will be fun!
Now is the time to get your grammar sorted out and saddle up to ride at the Ranch!
August 31, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a speller. It can be one who spells or a primer like Lawrence once had. You can deviate from the primary meaning if magic catches your imagination. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by September 5, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published September 6). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Note Pinned to a Copper Mine by Charli Mills
“…tract. The word is contract, Father.”
John followed the word with his finger, stating, “Contract.”
“Good! Not to be confused with contact. That means to get in touch with.”
John tousled his son’s dark hair. “When did you get so smart?”
Lawrence beamed a smile, one of his front primary teeth missing. “Since you bought me this Speller!” He held up the brown cloth covered book.
John nodded. “ I need you to help me read more.”
Lawrence nodded and continued, “…contract required for trammers or we strike.”
John folded the note. “Don’t tell Mother. Keep learning, son.”
Toward the pink I go. Sand and pine needles muffle my steps between trees spaced apart by an unseen arborist’s hand. What mythologies lie beyond where the sound of surf tumbles copper stones? Does Narnia await? Will the Lady of the Lake deliver up Excalibur? Where is the veil of time and can I get a ticket out of here?
With numerous bags slung over my shoulder, I descend to the shoreline with items of escape. One bag is empty; maybe I’ll fill it with found magic: Thompsonite, prehnite, unakite, jasper and rare copper agates. Under the spell of thundering waves, I can disappear for hours, days, millennia. Who knows where I go when rocks tumble and pelt my bare calves. Stone enchantments hold strong.
To sustain a journey of epic distinction, another bag holds elixir, ambrosia and Elven lembas: strawberry-rhubarb beer, cheese curds and pumpkin seed crackers. As the pink spreads through thinning clouds, a feat the sky will host for several hours before sinking the sun for the night, I spread the food across a wave worn log. It’s an enchanted feast.
The final item of escape I withdraw from a bag is a worn leather-covered Kindle. The setting is complete, and I morph into an escape artist.
Books are a vehicle of escape. Stories crafted like spells transport us to other places to become other people. For the avid reader, Narnia remains within reach. Some books play important roles — they introduce us to cultures we can’t travel to on our own. Some teach us empathy and allow us to experience the journey of a thousand others. Some make us think, provoking uncomfortable thoughts, leaving us changed at the close of the final page. Yet the books that offer pure escapism are no less valued for their transformative role.
Most days I feel in and out of life. There comes the moments where I need to focus and set up interviews to write profiles for a client. And then the professionalism breaks down when one call involves interviewing my former boss who is now retiring. I’ve been tasked, no bestowed, the honor of writing her 37 years as a leader. A fifteen minute interview stretches past an hour and I’m taken back in time to when I’d sit in her office and discuss matters of marketing with the highest expectations of authenticity and transparency. How much I learned from this woman of servant leadership, of life-long learning, of taking calculated risks to pursue one’s passion.
My passion, writing; hers, leading a cooperative movement “…to make a difference in the lives of those we are serving.” She taught me that we serve others with our gifts. She taught me that to be a writer I must serve readers. She taught me that if I created a community of writers and readers, it would only work if it is authentic. Just as her co-op worked. As she retires, a co-op that once sold $5 coupons to open its doors twice a week to sell bulk foods — local cheese, honey, oats and wheat germ — is now 12,000 members strong with 130 employees and over 1,000 customers a day. And it was grown from a small group of passionate people who still retain ownership after 40 years.
A moment of reflection whisked me away and a million opportunities presented themselves like a million different plot twists. What if I had stayed? What if we had not left north Idaho? What if Todd went into the Coast Guard and never volunteered to be a paratrooper? Our lives twist with the what-ifs, but it is the writer who works in them. Especially if plots are ones to create space for escape. I can’t escape the decisions I’ve made in life nor my circumstances, but I can escape into a pinking twilight where gems are possible and C. S. Lewis’s lion, Aslan roars among the copper included waves.
Last week, writers approached a hard challenge — Stories to Heal America. What impressed me most was how each writer tackled the prompt with authenticity. Even when ideas or perspectives varied, writers showed the grace of accepting something different from their own view. I’m always delighted at the level of creativity and how writers push the edges of the constraint of 99 words, but last week showed a greater depth of skill and communication, as well as creativity. It’s not easy to write about hard truths, to find an inroad to reach a reader with surprise or agitation.
This week, writers get to be escape artists. Run away to Cirque du Soleil, stow away on a ship, become a master magician in a time-traveling show. Think of where you might want to escape. How you can use escape in a story. Think about your favorite books to escape into. Perhaps take a mental mini vacation and write it in 99 words. Have fun this week; remember the joy of escaping into a story.
August 17, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write about an escape artist. It can even be you, the writer, escaping into a different realm or space in imagination. It can be any genre, including BOTS (based on a true story) or fantasy. You can focus on the escape, the twist or the person who is the escape artist.
Respond by August 29, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published August 30). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Fowl Play (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
“He pulled a hen egg from Roe’s ear, Da!” Cling imitated the move he saw. Lizzie squealed, and Julius practiced his own flourish. Mary stood on the porch, silent.
Cobb saddled his horse, tightening the cinch. “Well, boys, he pulled more tricks than that one.”
“How’d he do it, Da?” Monroe asked.
“The egg was probably up his sleeve. Just a charlatan’s trick.”
Cobb scowled. “I’m sure he had an accomplice. He distracted you and your Ma.”
“Stop messin’ around,” Monroe told his siblings. “Da’s gotta find where our chickens disappeared to with that escape artist.”
Time Travel Interrupted (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Danni disappeared into the 19th century. Darkness clung to corners and only the light of her head lamp glowed. It reflected off pieces of dull white china – service glass like you’d find in a restaurant or boarding house. She picked up barbed-wire scoured free of its earlier rust. With luck the design of the barbs would reveal the maker. Just one more clue, she thought as she reached deep into the past.
Overhead lights illuminated the school auditorium. “Hey, Dr. Gordon?”
Danni growled inwardly at the disruption to her time travel.
“Want some pizza? Archeologists have to eat, too!”
Level 6 by Charli Mills
Slick hung his brass key on Level 6. It remained; a tarnished token to a missing miner. Some thought he entered a low tunnel to follow a vein of copper. He might have fallen. Jeb reported hearing the widow-maker chipping until lunch. Maybe he collapsed. They all recalled the pasties that day. Slick’s was gone, so at least he vanished satisfied. His mother grieved. His father grumbled the boy never paid attention. Not many paid attention to Slick, the quiet sixth son of eight. Who’d suspect he’d escape the Keweenaw mines with enough native to buy a life elsewhere?
Mona slinks across the dining room table, wraps her body around the edge of my laptop and brushes long whiskers across my hand. It’s become a ritual of sorts. The cat begs permission to perch upon my chest every afternoon. I grumble. I’m on multiple deadlines and focused, not wanting the interruption of a pestering feline. She’s not even my cat. Mona insists; I resist. Push the cat away, push the cat away, push the…oh, all right already!
I’ve learned it’s easiest to coax her into the curve of my left arm, as if inviting Mona into a sling. She presses against my chest, settles squarely on the bosom she believes to be her personal cat shelf, tucks her splayed toes into the crook of my arm and purrs. Her warmth radiates and I rest my chin on her tiny head. I stop. I don’t write on deadline; worry about the interviews not yet arranged; fret about my lateness to my own ranch; I don’t think about anything but the purring, the warmth, the love I suddenly and inexplicably feel in this paused moment.
I want America to sit with a cat purring against its breast.
Mother of Exiles: Give me your tired, your poor… (Emma Lazarus)
…ask not what your country can do for you… (Robert F. Kennedy)
…we are united in common values… (President Barrack OBama)
If you get, give. If you learn, teach. (Maya Angelou)
If the great American people will only keep their temper… (President Abraham Lincoln)
I am the American Dream…It said you can come from anywhere and be anything you want… (Whoopie Goldberg)
Only Americans can hurt America. (Dwight D. Eisenhower)
“A constitution, as important as it is, will mean nothing unless the people are yearning for liberty and freedom.” (Ruth Bader Ginsburg)
One of the amazing features of Carrot Ranch is that it’s a literary community without borders. It invites diversity — different ages, gender identifications, experiences, genres. We marvel at the different ways each writer approaches a challenge and how each responds. Some write by the seat of pants; some polish and revise. Some base flash fiction on a true story; some grasp at neon threads of imagination. We find common ground in writing, pursuing what it is we do creatively with words. This is literary arts open to all writers.
It’s important to acknowledge our diversity and common ground because this is an American ranch. And our nation is struggling with its history and healing. While the world is being battered by terrorism, America is becoming its own worst terrorist. Two cars-as-deadly-weapons within a week — one in Barcelona, Spain and another in Charlottesville, Virginia. I cringe to even compare the two but it is necessary to understand the difference. In Spain an extremist group has claimed responsibility and world leaders denounce the violence. In America an extremist group had gathered to express white supremacy and those opposed to fascism staged a counter protest. A reported neo-Nazi plowed his car into the protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. The POTUS blamed both sides.
Stay with me. This is not meant to be a political rant of runaway horses. Hug a cat. Feel the heartbeat, the warmth, the love, and let’s move on to statues.
As a historian of the American West, I’m sensitive to the complex influences and impact of the Civil War upon westward expansion. It’s not as simple as pro- and anti-slavery divisions. Kansas Territory with the nickname “Bleeding Kansas” became embattled before the war between those who wanted to make it a slave state and those wanting to abolish slavery. Yet, even abolitionists were racists. Some of Wild Bill Hickok’s early letters home from Kansas espoused prejudice views and language. He was the son of an abolitionist and as a boy partook in getting slaves to freedom in Canada.
The south often refers to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression. From this perspective, the issue emerges as one of states rights versus perceived federal tyranny. The idea is that America fought for its freedom, therefore states held that they shouldn’t be controlled by the interests of other regions. Of course, no one can miss the ultimate irony of a nation proclaiming its freedom on the backs of slaves, indentured servants, and cheap industrial labor. Free for whom? Which leads us to the greater underlying cause of the Civil War beyond its issues, institutions and ideals — power and control.
There are those who want power, and there are those who don’t want to be controlled. This human dynamic is probably as old as sex. Slavery: power over another population; control of land and property wealth. Abolition: power over the moral attitudes of others; control of social behavior. Industry: power to take at will; control over workers and wealth. These power struggles play out in politics, place and among people at odds. One solution might cause a ripple elsewhere. But the bottom line of ending the ugliness of power and control is captured in the vision for “equal rights.” This is where Americans divide. Whose rights infringe upon whom?
Don’t kill babies. That’s clear as a cliched bell to everyone. Who’d kill a baby? Well, now we tussle over the definition of when life begins and who controls that life in a woman’s uterus. No, we aren’t discussing that here. The point I want to make is, hug a cat. Not a real cat this time, but think of what it means to hold a cat, feel the purring, the warmth, the love. Now give someone else that cat. What would it look like? To me, I see men and women of faith who love life from its earliest conception, loving the women who approach an abortion clinic. I see them offering blankets, hot cocoa with marshmallows and inviting them to talk, asking them what’s going on, how can they be of service, of help. Listening.
Did you hear that word? Listening. Listen to the story of another. We all have our narratives. We are all vulnerable and feel scrutinized. Actively listen. What if we thought up ways to offer an outreach of cat hugs and listening?
Statues. I didn’t forget. We need to listen to the stories behind these Confederate statues. I don’t want to see civil war over the Civil War. Twice now death has come to Virginia behind secessionist symbols. First it was the Confederate Flag, waved by convicted killer, Dylan Roof who tried to start a “race war” by barging into a black church in Charleston, shooting nine members of its congregation. That’s when the Confederate Flag as an American symbol came under fire, and rightly so. Once a symbol of states rebellion, the General Lee has evolved into one of white supremacy and hate. That’s when calls went out to dismantle or add to Confederate statues in the US, most located in the South.
Statue toppling is something associated in countries of extreme unrest or violent rebellion. It also gives me pause as a historian — are we rewriting history as some claim?
In my research of Rock Creek, I recall a story about a statue placed in Tennessee or Kentucky 20 years after the end of the Civil War. It wasn’t one of the big-name military leaders, but a man who was a Confederate, captured by southern neighbors and repaid for the earlier killings of eastern Tennessee’s Unionists (those opposed to secession, like Cobb McCanles and his family). By rights of capture, the man should have been imprisoned, but instead he was quickly hung. I can’t recall the controversy exactly, but I remember the intent of the statue — to heal the rift between neighbors living with the aftermath of the Civil War.
However, the majority of the Confederate statues in question were raised during Jim Crow laws when black men and boys hung from southern trees like Strange Fruit. Or during the 1950s as the Civil Rights movement gained momentum. Most of the decisions to fly the Confederate flags in southern states also came after states were mandated to eliminate segregation. Symbols of power and control. Symbols to intimidate. The statues do hold history, however, but the memory of historical events. Decision to erect them and take them down are commentary on the history, not about erasing it.
Out West one lone Confederate statue is on the map of those proposed to come down — Helena, Montana where I went to school and researched the state’s colorful mining history with deep struggles of power and control rooted in divisions that came west with Civil War soldiers. Ultimately, the statue will come down. It was erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy, and although I’m not an expert on the subject, I understand they are connected to or support the Klu Klux Klan (have you ever heard of a stupider name? Oh, yes — Nazis). Let me take a deep breath and hug the cat…Better.
If you are not American and do not know about the KKK, they are a domestic terrorist group started after the Civil War with the single purpose of harassing and eradicating the freed slaves and their descendants. They march alongside the neo-Nazis. They used to where white robes and elaborate pointy hoods and masks. They seriously look like sheets or bags with eyeholes. But they kept their identities hidden and often intimidated other townspeople to participate. I heard many KKK stories in Kansas from only a few generations back when I was researching. Power and control. That’s why these statues are coming down. We aren’t calling to rewrite history, but to amend our understanding of it.
It’s scary for many Americans who have not had to confront the violence behind these symbols. I know that Confederate statue in Pioneer Park in Helena. I’ve seen it so many times at gathering and events. It’s a large urn with a dedication plaque. POTUS tweet-stormed about how “sad” it is that these “beautiful” statues are coming down. I look at old photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. and listen to old reels of his eloquent speeches and feel sad this beautiful man was cut down. I’m okay removing stones. We can build something different in our public squares and parks.
It’s like writing. We don’t throw away the first draft because we revise. We come back to important elements, eliminate what’s unnecessary and build up what is stronger. Today I tweeted, too. I wrote, “America needs a revision. When we draft we make mistakes. We go back and revise and revise until we improve what we started.” When I was looking for American quotes that inspired me, I found this one by Winston Churchill, who noted that we tend to write bad drafts but do well to revise:
“You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”
Another quote, and one that led to this week’s prompt in addition to Mona, comes from a woman I admire greatly, Michelle Obama:
“The fact is, with every friendship you make, and every bond of trust you establish, you are shaping the image of America projected to the rest of the world. That is so important. So when you study abroad, you’re actually helping to make America stronger.”
Michelle encourages us Americans to make our nation stronger through friendships and bonds of trust abroad. That’s what the Ranch is here for — to create a place where we can come from anywhere, create bonds of trust and friendships, and create art with words. Literary art has a place in this mixed-up world. It can be for escape, exploring, learning, teaching, delighting and agitating. Now grab a cat and a pen…
August 17, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that heals America. Difficult and idealistic, I know. Think about building bonds of trust or stories of friendship. It could be a positive story about America. Bonus points for hugging a cat.
Respond by August 22, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published August 23). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Community Mutterings by Charli Mills
“Move your car!” Stan yells from his porch. Viola ignores him, dropping off kale for her friend.
“It’s a fire lane!”
Viola mutters, “There’s no fire, old codger.”
The young mechanic next door nearly swipes Viola’s Honda, racing his Dodge truck again. “Idiot!”
Finished with her garden deliveries, Viola drives to the vigil. She’s expecting the liberal-minded to light candles for Charlottesville. Solidarity. As the wife of an Iranian grad-student in a small American college town, she misses urban diversity.
Viola’s eyes sting when she sees Stan hobble from his neighbor’s Dodge, both lighting candles. “Glad you both came.”
Pipers are calling to blueberries plumping on the bush. Anytime Superior fog rolls in and the air turns cool and smells like rain on bedrock, locals nod and say, “Berry growing weather.” At times the gray coolness confounds my sense of season, and I scoff that berries are growing on the Keweenaw when elsewhere I know temperatures are blasting heat across most of North America, and in Kansas the tomatoes grow visibly in the time it takes to drink a cold bottle of hard cider.
Evidently blueberries grow in the coolness of Copper Country. Maybe the plants root over lost veins of native copper and beef up on mineral supplements organically occurring in the skim of dirt abandoned by miners. Pans of blueberries cover the kitchen counters, tempting me to pluck “just a few” and go back to writing at my improvised dining room office. They are as real as the tomatoes down south I imagine sliced and sprinkled with lemon pepper. It must be summer nonetheless in the western hemisphere.
My plaid shirt is appropriate — it hides any blueberry stains upon its dark blue and gray weave and makes the piping feel like the song of my soul. I’m not imagining that one — the pipers are truly calling. Every Thursday they practice bagpipes at the fire station a few blocks down the hill. On a rainy day full of the dreary work of a writer — line editing, communicating with designers and setting up phone interviews for client work — I’m whisked away to the magical realm within by the sharp simplicity of berries and music.
There’s a key scene in Rock Creek: Nancy Jane is burying her baby, digging the prairie dirt alone. Her Pa has gone off to borrow a suit. Never mind the suit’s owner wasn’t around; Joseph Holmes is not one to feel obliged to have permission. Whiskey is often the only lens he has on navigating life. Unfortunately he crosses paths with a small group of men on horseback headed to a road station. One is a fiddler from Appalachia, a descendant of ousted Scots-highlanders and a former sheriff. The other is his cousin and the third man is the owner of the suit. Thus Nancy Jane meets Cobb McCanles the day he drags her father across the prairie sod to test the man’s questionable story that he borrowed the suit for his grandson’s funeral.
In the hero’s journey, the structure I use to frame novels, or even in the three-act classic structure, certain scenes act as keystones to the story’s architecture. Some of you might recognize this scene because I’ve played with it in flash fiction previously. As the story takes shape, I revisit this scene and dig deeper. It has an emotion so buried, I must go beneath the prairie roots to untangle it, and bring it to the surface. Why do the women of Rock Creek matter? Because, for so long, their buried (and burying) stories have gone unheard.
Why do we hear pipers calling in our hearts and minds as much as in our ears? It penetrates us deeply; an emotion difficult to articulate; an experience we have and label it life. Life is a simple four-letter word. No embellishments. No tongue-twister. It’s neither harsh nor sweet to hear. It’s easy to say. Difficult to define. The pipers play life notes and berries taste like a moment suspended from life. This is the taste, the feel of the life experience I’m chasing down on the page from the women who came from Scotland in the 1700s to the lone prairie a hundred years later:
If you recognize the song, you’ll understand it is a musical score to represent on of the great American classics in literature: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. He wrote romantic (not Harlequin, classical) histories about American frontiers. I think of my path as parallel, only I’m rewriting the frontiers to include women and their myriad of motives beyond, “I’ll go do the dishes now.” Which brings me to another song that reminds me of women and the West:
I’m looking for Nancy Jane’s prairie song, for Mary’s, for Sarah’s. Where is the John Wayne for women?
Pipes and berries know no gender. Say what you want about traditions but anyone can listen to the pipes and pick berries. We’ve conditioned ourselves to receive male stories of epic adventure and diminish female stories as domestic. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a frontiers woman. Just because she wore braids didn’t mean she only did dishes and poked a needle in some fabric. Heck no, Laura was out running the banks of Plum Creek, chasing her dog Jack and riding her horse at breakneck speeds along the shores of prairie lakes. It’s not surprising that I went from her series of books to Ian Fleming’s. Laura prepared me for adventure and it never occurred to me that only men could be James Bond.
However, it crept into my early writing, focusing on male leads because I wanted to write epic westerns and exciting histories. Now I seek to polish up experiences like Laura’s and present frontier women unfiltered. To me, what remains key is finding those moments that feel like pipers calling to summer berries. Motives. Passion. Regret and revenge. Dreams. Death. Life. Passing on one’s tightly held blueberry of a moment to another. Pipes. End scene.
August 10, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) include music and berries. It can be fantastical, such as the music of berries or a story that unfolds about a concert in a berry patch. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by August 15, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published August 16). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Forbidden Fruit (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
“Save the seeds,” Nancy Jane said, berry juice running down her chin and cleavage.
“Nah. To make Otoe dice. Fun game.”
A canopy of trees dappled the sun where bluffs and a thicket of buffalo berries barricade this hidden spring. Nancy Jane bathed here. Naked. No wonder she laughed when Sarah protested hiking her skirts to ride horseback astride.
Sarah sank her teeth into the small black fruit with a golden center, wanting to laugh. If she did, Cobb might hear. Perhaps a trick of the mind, but she swore she heard strains of his fiddle nearby.
Science. It’s what brought my eldest and her spouse to the Keweenaw, where Michigan Tech has been a public research university since 1885. She’s now Director of Research News, writing and directing science stories for several academic publications, including the university’s research blog, Unscripted.
While I’ve had rocks on the brain since arriving — a common Keweenaw affliction — I’ve been pondering the relationship between arts and science. As a literary artist, science fuels my imagination. Yet science relies as much on creativity as it does data. As a geoscientist and dancer, my daughter understands this dynamic and writes about the intention of Unscripted:
“…This is a place where metaphor and methodology meet. Where curiosity inspires conversation, art, and science. We write the research you can’t find on news wires, capture science in action, and speak frankly about the work we do. Often succinct, we’re not afraid of an in-depth exploration either. Yeah, Unscripted is a university research blog—and then some.”
Metaphor and methodology. It’s like finding a mineral in its matrix with a spectacular inclusion at the juncture. As writers, we work to balance what drives our rawest ideas with the structure of craft. And like scientists we don’t go at this alone. We share research, theories and ideas. We encourage that curiosity to drive both art and science.
Tonight, I’m in a weather warp. Rain pummels my umbrella and I’m chilled in a sweater. Half-way up the hill I realize the “path” we chose is actually a broad rain gutter. At the top of the hill we’re greeted at the door with amusement and the comment, “Not from here, hey?”
(Note: “hey?” is an inflection not a question, a Keweenaw colloquialism.)
“Hey! No, we just relocated.”
“You’ll like it here, hey?”
We already do. The stress of the past year fades each new day, even though we face medical mountains and home hurdles. We have a safe pad at the home of Michigan Tech’s News Director and her Park Ranger/Bubbler/Baker/Solar Man. We’re exploring options to use the RV to get homed, setting up VA appointments and growing the Ranch. You might have noticed the banners for Carrot Ranch changed here, on Facebook and Twitter. That’s part of the growth that has been delayed by a year of wandering on wheels.
Branding is both art and science. The art appeal is subjective — it always is, so don’t take it personally if someone likes or dislikes your art, it’s not a true measurement. However, I like the art and what it conveys: we are a literary community. Ann Rauvola, my long-time friend, colleague and CR designer uses her skills, her scientific knowledge of color and collage to create the art. I’ll let you in on a design secret — the banner is a fusion of three photos. But the shot of the bird and horse? Hey! That one lucky shot from an afternoon of photographing the interplay between blackbirds and Elmira Pond ponies.
A science part of branding is consistency. The change was meant to be subtle, and yet I didn’t do it until I could upgrade all three banners. This is in preparation for a launch of Patreon in preparation for a launch of an annual rodeo in preparation for a launch of the first CR anthology in preparation for work on the next. Whew! Timing is everything and a misstep, or a house loss, can really throw a monkey wrench in the workings. It’s why I’m grateful to have this Keweenaw stability to actualize the literary community vision.
Why, you might ask? That’s a legitimate question.
My process is both art and science. The latter coming in the form of research — historical or natural. The art flows from the writing. Like the Unscripted researchers, I want that conversation and connectivity. Art and science is best shared, and we do learn from and inspire one another. As a platform for my writing I can be the lone cowpoke or a lead buckaroo. A community of writers is dynamic, and together we make a bigger footprint in the writing world. My long projects are, well, long so collaborative short projects keep me going. I hope you find something here, too that gives you purpose in being here.
At the heart of the community is taking time each week to interact, play and think. You all make me think. And I like thinking.
Which is why I walked up a rain gutter to listen to a scientist speak on the world-class mineral collection at Michigan Tech for a program called Science on Tap — a pub crawl with scientists. Four more blocks in the rain and we arrive to hear a second presentation on the shipwrecks of Lake Superior and here’s where science bent my brain. First, an oceanographer stands before us declaring the Great Lakes “inland seas.” He explains ocean currents and government funding; how he has to explain science to a current administration not keen on it.
Then, he tell us we can see with our ears.
I’m all ears. Show me…And he does. Through a series of slides he shows us photos taken at sunset, elongating shadows. He points out optical illusions, and how to see beyond. Then he shows us slides of Lake Superior where it’s so deep it’s always dark in her ice water mansion where thousands of ships have wrecked. You can’t see those depths with a camera, but with sonar you can create a picture of light and shadow. Sound makes an acoustic image of many historic wrecks on the lake (cue Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of Edmunds Fitzgerald).
“Superior, they say, never gives up her dead…” And it’s estimated that more than 30,000 lives have been lost in this lake. This is why the scientists do not sound map more recent wrecks like the Edmunds Fitzgerald — not only is it an iron ore ship busted in half on the deep floor of Lake Superior, it’s also the grave of 29 men with family who yet live. In our collective psyche, we all think of Lightfoot’s song in this region, the scientist even admits to owning the musician’s collection of albums. Where science doesn’t go out of respect for the recent dead, our imaginations do. Art and science help each other to see.
Scientists have sent down dive teams on other wrecks they’ve discovered through the sight of sonar. In 1895, divers identified one of the wrecks as a coal ship struck and sunk by a steamer in thick fog. Four crew died in that wreck and the legs of one can still be seen poking out from spilled coal of the shattered hull. During WWI, the French worked on secret mine-sweepers in Thunder Bay (Lake Superior on the Canadian side). Two ships were lost in a November blizzard on Lake Superior without any clue of where. Two captains and 76 men disappeared. The search with sonar continues.
As writers we create images with words to tell these stories, to show these stories. Sound is often a sense overlooked in the craft of creating that image. It’s intriguing to think of how sound can map an action, character, tone or scene. Can we use sonar, sound navigation, to make a flash fiction? It might be difficult, but the art and science is there to push us to try.
August 3, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) use sound to create a story. Just as you might “see” a scene unfold, think about how it might sound. Even one sound to set the tone is okay. Go where you hear the prompt lead. Feel free to experiment.
Respond by August 8, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published August 9). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
A Grating Sound (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Gears ground when the all-terrain vehicle powered up the slope. Danni heard Evelyn shout, “Giddy-up, Mule! Haw! Haw!” The revving engine faded, and a drone of voices washed over Danni like white noise. She studied the sonar graphs, puzzling over the dark features buried four feet below the Kansas clay. Trowels scraped, volunteers called to one another and the porta-potty door slammed intermittently. Danni focused. The active noises blurred.
“I’m a gardener!” A high-pitched voice like nails on a chalkboard.
Danni grit her teeth hard enough to hear enamel chip. A child. Who brought a child to her dig?
Crystalline waves slap behind my knees. A copper sun sinks slowly toward the horizon, extending sunset from about 8 to 10 p.m. The best time to catch the waves at Calumet Water Works, a public park and beach on Lake Superior, is around 7. If the waves roll just right, they act as a lens to the tumbled rock beneath the surface of clear water that has not a trace of sediment, algae or vegetation. Pure water, fresh water from ancient and icy depths.
Agates bring me here like a junkie looking for a hit. Just one more rock.
Beachcombers walk the long evening in either direction: dogs stroll and children in rubber boots and neon swimsuits dart along the shore like tropical fish. Serious rock-hounds lug buckets and agate scoopers, quickly scanning the wave-saturated edges for glints of agates among the red and black basalt, broken and tumbled smooth into goose eggs. The agates and other stones of interest are marble-sized or smaller, each year decreasing in population. Agates have no mating cycle in geology.
How to find an agate: go to where they are found and look. Rock-hounds can’t tell you how to develop an eye for them, but you can learn tips: look for luster, look for quartz. What does that mean exactly? If you were in your yoga pants and rock shoes, and me in mine, we’d go to the edge together and I’d pick up several rocks of white to show you — this is dull, like a teacher’s stub of chalk. It’s limestone. But it could be chert if it’s glassier, like this one. See? That’s luster. Chert is silica, but fine grained and opaque.
See that one, glinting white as a wave recedes? That’s nice. No, not gneiss… I mean, it’s nice and all, pretty, but it’s not that secondary metamorphic rock. Let me see. Hmm, yes, it’s a granite, has quartz but that’s not the quartz we’re looking for. The shiny you see is mica. It’s a mineral that forms in flakes. The black spots are hornblend. Sometimes you can see pink crystal faces and that’s feldspar. This is granite. Not gneiss, not schist. Don’t take schist for granite.
Ah, here’s a possibility, a white robin’s egg just rolled up with that wave. Catch it before it rolls back down! Let’s look at it. Nope. Toss it back it’s calcite. Lots of calcite and zeolites on this beach. They are silica, too. Quartz is silica. Different heat and pressure results in different grains (crystals) or lack of them, smooth like glass. Calcite is softer and has less luster than quartz. Here’s one: see how translucent it is? If we were lucky and this were an agate you would see distinct rings or bands. I found one white agate with a delicate banded eye of apricot. Exquisite but the size of my thumbnail.
My daughter — she picked up this massive caramel agate of banded chert the size of a fat fig. She’s got an eye. She and her hubby also have matching geology degrees. He has his masters. Seems like the more a geologist masters the more he says, maybe. As in, maybe that’s Thompsonite. I find lots of pretty maybes that glow when wet but dull when dry. Kind of like writing — when it’s fresh with wet ink it’s an agate of a scene. Dry it becomes a maybe page.
We’ve only learned about luster, quartz and white rocks to look for tonight. I forgot to mention that you should look for odd shapes, the not-quite-marbles. If dull they could be fossilized limestone of honeycomb coral. I have a terrific eye for fossils, maybe because I rock-hounded on Mars and in Nevada and Montana where inland seas left fossilized coral beds. I once found a coral fossil the size of a economy car. A gold mining company had left it behind in an abandoned pit because fossils aren’t currency.
The Industrial Age drove the copper miners to seek the webs of shiny copper formed in and on quartz of the Keweenaw. They dug deep and long, mining since the Cliff Mine founded in 1836. No one can say for certain why the copper formed here. Perhaps alien spiders spewing webs of copper or God’s game of where-did-the-Almighty-hide-that-mineral? Junkies have come to this beach before me, looking to get a rush from the naturally sluiced rocks found here, chasing down their origins.
Rock-hounds say the motherlode of agate is off the shore and if you’re serious you should buy scuba gear. I’m tempted. Maybe I can snorkel. Oh, look — this one is covered in fiery copper strands as thin as silk, the color of the last spill of molten metal from the sun on water. The copper is subtle. It’s hard to say what to look for; hard to say what to write. But the more you show up to the beach and the page, the better your chances of finding a crystalline wonder. Develop your eye for it. And don’t mind the slap of cold waves or the constant grind of rocks. It’s natural.
July 27, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story using the word crystalline. It can be used in typical forms or in creative ways (like the name of a town). What meaning does it hold for the story or character(s)? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by August 1, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published August 2). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Clearly a Party Site (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Danni crouched and considered the crystalline structure of the rock in her hand. The lab had scoured Kansas clay from its coarse features. Pink. Granite. Not the Woodland sandstone hearth she had expected to find at this depth. What did it mean? She glanced at the identified bones – beaver, deer, elk.
“Dr. Gordon?” One of the Lawrence students approached, sweaty after a humid day of trowel-work. “Wanted to invite you to a pig roast this weekend.”
“Yeah, my uncle’s a pit-master”
“A pit…It’s a pit not a hearth! Ha! We’ve discovered a thousand year old BBQ site!”