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The sun dips late, casting its copper hue over Lake Superior. The lower it sinks, the redder it grows and forms a brilliant pink path from horizon to shore. The sky takes forever to darken in the Northern Hemisphere even after summer solstice. Sparkling planets and stars pop like diamond studs across a jeweler’s midnight blue velvet.
This is the season of the Perseid meteor showers. Time to wish upon shooting stars.
JulesPaige reminded me about the connection of comets to my WIP, Rock Creek. In 1858, before Cobb McCanles left Watauga County, North Carolina with his one-time mistress, Sarah Shull, a comet had featured in the October sky and slowly faded by the time the two left in February 1859.
Cobb’s Father James McCanless, known as The Poet, marked the occasion of Comet Donati:
THE COMET OF 1858
Hail! beautious stranger to our sky,
How bright thy robes appear,
Noiseless thou treds thy paths on high,
And converse with all our stars.
In radiant flame of glowing light
Thy silent orb rolls on,
Through vast eternities of night,
To mortal man unknown.
Thy magnitude thy fiery glow,
Thy towering wake of flames,
But mock our wisest skill to know,
We’ve barely learned thy name.
Through boundless depths of space unknown,
Beyond the realms of days,
In blazing language of thy own,
Thou speaks thy Maker’s praise.
This week, I’m sharing a different kind of post, a longer scene that features the Comet Donati. I shared this in 2014 when I wrote the first draft of Rock Creek. Although my novel has evolved from this early writing, including my later decision to give Cobb two bs to his name, this scene holds an essential piece of the later tragedy that unfolds for the McCanles family who had hoped to escape the coming war.
Perhaps the comet was not the glorious sign James thought it to be. It turned out to be a natural phenomenon occurring before an unnaturally violent war between families and neighbors. Unfortunately, human contempt is not as uncommon as a visible comet.
Excerpt From Rock Creek:
“Truthfully, it grows fainter as it passes us by. Comet Donati,” said James.
“That’s a pretty name.” The cider was sweet and warm as Sarah drank.
“It’s named after the Italian astronomer who first sighted it last summer.”
“Is it an omen?”
James leaned against the oak tree and looked skyward. “Omens are for old ladies.”
“What do the old ladies say? It’s not as if any speak to me.”
“They say that such terrible lights burn for killed kings and slain heroes. They say a bloodbath is coming.”
Sarah shuddered. “And what do you say?”
James raised his upturned hand to the comet. “Thou speaks thy Maker’s praise.”
A clomping of hooves sounded from the snow-covered road. Cob was walking Captain and leading another horse.
“Evening, Da, Sarah. Are you ready, lass?” Cob swung down from Captain and stood eye-to-eye with his father.
“Might I dissuade you son?”
“You may not. What it done, is done and now I must flee. Leroy will follow with his family and mine in the spring.” He grabbed Sarah’s bundle and began to tie it to the saddle of the second horse. Sarah wondered if she would have to walk.
“I cannot imagine a more beautiful place than Watauga, this lovely vale. I brought my children here to make a home. And now my children leave. My grandchildren, too.”
“Da, come out with Leroy. Get out of here before the war.”
“Bah! These traitors who talk of succession are just blustering. A new President. We have a Constitutional Unionist on the ticket…”
“Enough of politics.The west is were we can prosper.”
“Yes, and I hear that Mormons can have many wives.” James looked pointedly at Sarah.
“Leave her be, Da. Mary knows I’m getting her out of this place so she can have a fresh start, too.”
“Do not be leading your family to a cruel fate, David Colbert.”
The two men grasped arms until James pulled Cob to him. “May angles guard over your journey. Your mother and I shall weep in our old age, not seeing the single smokestack of any of our offspring.”
“Come with Leroy, Da. At least go to Tennessee. It’s safer at Duggers Ferry and you’ll have two daughters to spoil you in old dotage.”
“Ach, I’m not leaving my native land. How could I stray from the Watauga River? Who would fish her silver ribbons the way I do?”
“Then mind yourself angling and take care of mother. Fare thee well, Da.”
To Sarah’s surprise, Cob reached for her and slung her up into the saddle as easily as he had tossed her bundle. He swung up behind her and seated her sideways on his lap. He nudged Captain and the horse responded with a spirited trot.
Sarah heard James call, “Farewell.” His voice sounded choked with tears, yet she couldn’t deny her joy at leaving this place. She would be a free woman.
It was hard not to fidget and the night grew even colder. Sarah watched the comet as they rode up the mountains, cresting the ridge and breaking through drifts of snow. Occasionally they would pass a cabin or farm, a coon dog barking in the distance, but no other signs of life.
“Where are we going, exactly,” asked Sarah. West seemed like a grand place, but she had no idea where west or how long it would take.
“We’ll catch the train at Johnson’s Tank.” His voice rumbled in the cold silence of the mountains.
Johnson’s Tank was a start. Sarah had never seen a train and now she would get to ride on one. Somehow she failed to summon the earlier excitement and she glanced at the comet, hoping it meant nothing at all. Yet, it had to mean something. It was no coincidence that it appeared in her darkest hour of despair or that it was still present the night she escaped the damnation of her family’s punishment. It had to be a sign for good. Her lucky star.
Sarah must have dozed off because she awoke, startled to see the light of dawn shining from behind them. They had ridden out of the the mountains and the land before them was rolling with woods and fields.
“Good. I have to stop.” Cob reined in Captain. “Slide down,” he told her.
Sarah did and hopped to the ground that was wet with dew and free of snow. Cob dismounted and handed her the reins. He stepped a few paces and with his back to her, she heard him urinating. Her face grew flush and she realized she needed to do the same, but how could she?
“Do you have to go?”
“No.” She stood uncomfortably aware that she had to go even more now that she had denied it.
“Just go.” He took the reins from her.
“Pick a clump of grass and sprinkle it with dew. How about that clump there?” Cob pointed to a small bent row of grass in front of Captain.
Sarah looked each direction and finally walked around to the other side of the horses. Lifting her skirts and spreading her knickers she squatted with her back to the horses feeling somewhat shielded. Her stream sounded like a roaring river in her ears. Rearranging her underclothes and skirts, she turned around to see Cob leaning against Captain staring at her with a big boyish grin. “I knew you had to go.”
“Do not watch me!” Sarah turned away, feeling the flush rise from her neck to her scalp.
“It’s natural.” He chuckled.
“For men, perhaps.” She turned back around and glared.
“Oh? And women politely pass on pissing? What happens when you have to…”
“Time to mount up, my damsel in distress.” Cob bowed as if he were a gallant.
Thank you for indulging my historical fiction as a post this week. For those of you who’ve kindly expressed interest in my veteran saga, we are still in a holding pattern, waiting for news on whether or not the Hub will “get a bed” in Minneapolis. His therapist is now pushing to help that cause, as well.
On the Keweenaw homefront, we have the urgent sense of savoring every last ray of summer sunshine. Winter is coming. And for our writing prompt this week, so are comets.
August 16, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a comet. You can consider how it features into a story, influences a character, or creates a mood. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by August 21, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments.
Origins of Comets (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Sarah spread a quilt on the knoll above Rock Creek to watch the night sky.
“The year before I was born, stars landed.” Yellow Feather pulled a pitted gray stone from his medicine pouch. He passed it to Nancy Jane.
“Feels kinda like lumpy metal.”.
“It’s heavy, too. This is a star?” asked Sarah.
Yellow Feather said, “My grandfather found it where many small stars burned the prairie grass.”
“Look – there’s one,” said Nany Jane.
“I saw it! Did you see Comet Donati last year?”
Yellow Feather laughed. “Comet Donati? That was just First Shaman urinating across the sky.”
Ed peers at me from behind the ferns. He’s caught between the darkness of the deep woods and the sunlight pouring through the opening in the trees. I’d like to think Ed is “Ed McMahon” with a Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstake check the size of a refrigerator door and enough zeros to last a lifetime of book-buying. Or Ed, as in the name of a yet-unknown publisher who knocks to say, “Golly-gosh, we love your writing – here’s a contract.”
No, Ed is a deer. A soft-eared doe with big dark, curious eyes peers at me from a glen in Minnesota that I’ve never seen. The photo is a gift, one of several that Keto Man gave me after an interview.
First, Keto Man is the very last member-owner of a co-op I will ever interview. He marks the conclusion of an era for me, the final one after seventeen years of interviews. During that time, I caught the stories of hundreds of co-op members, organic farmers, artisan cheese producers, and entrepreneurs.
Peering back at that time in my life, I see all who I interviewed as part of a colorful tapestry of a vibrant community food system. Food cooperatives in the US rose out of the need for people to have whole food. The movement countered processed meals, added sugar, and expense. In Berkley and Minneapolis, co-ops adopted the symbol of a fisted carrot: Food for people, not for profit!
Sound familiar? Carrot Ranch…Words for people! Sure, I lopped off the “not for profit part” because I emphatically believe literary artists, like all artists, should be valued and paid for their work. The name Carrot Ranch acknowledges community activism centered on fairness, and as a literary arts community, I believe in the power of writers to rise and say something powerful in the world tussle between chaos and order.
Literary art belongs to the people, not the ivory towers or pocketbooks of profit-first publishing. People first. Nothing against publishing dynasties or ivory towers. I love New York and vow to go back as a published author one day. But the industry strangles voices with a profit-driven model. And I’m not against higher education — I’m headed back to the ivory towers of liberal arts next month.
Of course, my position at Finlandia University suits my inner maverick. As an adjunct, I’ll be teaching a CTE Marketing course to high school juniors and seniors who get to enroll in college. Already I get to circumvent some of the pomp of being a full-fledged prof. I’m invited to the week-long orientation for new professors, but I can pick and chose which events to attend. I like that.
But I did have to get fingerprinted and entered into the FBI database. That’s a requirement of the Copper Country School District. I understand and made the most of my jail visit to the Houghton County Sheriff’s Department. I even got to sit in the sheriff’s office and talk to him about teaching (he used to be an adjunct at Finlandia, too). He agreed to talk to my class about how professionalism is part of his department’s brand.
In fact, I’ve been reaching out to many local business owners, companies and entrepreneurs to speak as guests. I hope to have one a week. I want to expose my students to many varied ideas about what they could do with a marketing career. And I want to drive home the only rule my classroom will have: always be professional. If any disciplinary issues arise, as administrators fear given that this is the first time they’ve opened their campus to high school students, I can begin with, “What would a professional do?” One required reading for the course will be “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield.
Keto Man didn’t think our interview would last 20 minutes. My former client wanted one more member-owner profile after I completed my last project for them. As is the case with such last-minute stories, they turned over a willing candidate to interview. Keto Man didn’t think he was interesting. He wasn’t. He was fascinating and inspiring.
For starters, he led me to a dark place, as dark as the woods behind a deer. Like me, he has no cable television thus eliminating the 24-hour news media nonsense. While I support journalism and believe in a nation’s free-press, the US saw the information age give way to the misinformation age. Keto Man directed me to Jordan Peterson and The Intellectual Dark Web. I’ve only watched a few clips and not anything I’m compelled to share yet, but I fully understand the allure of intellectualism, of long conversations, of discourse.
As a literary writer, I support what Jordan Peterson says: When you are in college and have those years carved out for you, read every book you can in the library. Yes! Read deep and read broadly. It reminds me of how I often struggled as a writer in my twenties because I felt I didn’t have anything to say. And I was right. The twenties are for reading, for digesting. Sure, writing is a huge part of processing what you think about what you read, but you must input information and experiences, first.
Also, I’d add – go live! Go be a parent and understand that dirty diapers are daily, and you’ll get over yourself in a hurry. Go to college and cram all night, write every day and read every book until your eyes cross. Go work a job, any job, especially a job that doesn’t fulfill you, so you can understand what does bring you satisfaction. Go to the mountains, to the sea, to the desert, to the city, to someplace new. Go travel and talk to people who are different until you understand they are just like you.
And never stop. Never stop learning, experiencing, and using your voice to say something. Observe. Create. Express. Write. Repeat.
I connected with Keto Man. I understood his interest in long conversations and civil debates. I like the idea of the Dark Web for taking hot social topics and debating them on a long forum and following up with audience questions. Yes, I long for more intelligent discourse. However, I also long for more compassion. As with everything, balance.
Further in the interview, Keto Man explained a health crisis he experienced to which he responded by eliminating all sugar and grains. I felt inspired by his action. He’s on a ketogenic diet which has eliminated the culprit of inflammation. He is able to process his health so differently from many veterans like the Hub. Next time a VA doctor says the Hub is normal for his age, I have a comparison.
My adjustment with the Hub correlates to a phrase Anne Godwin gifted me with last week: my veteran’s a reluctant patient with a hard-to-diagnose condition. He’s not normal for his age. Even the 86-year old man who conversed with me at the beach/office today could hold focus better than the Hub.
I’m writing, and occasionally peering at others, as I’m officing from a picnic table at Hancock City Beach. A man with two teeth approaches and tells me a joke in such rapid Finnish-English I laugh, not because I understand but because I don’t. Then I tell him a joke. Evidently, this is a Finnish custom for opening a conversation. He lingers and asks why I’m at a picnic table with a computer on such a beautiful day. Exactly! It’s such a beautiful day, I wanted to go down to Portage Canal and write.
Tomorrow we have the first of several evaluations for the Hub. They will be peering into his service records, his medical records and at his old bones. I’d rather be peering at rocks or at a deer that might be named Ed. That will come later.
August 9, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes an act of “peering from the woods.” Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by August 14, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments.
Ed in the Woods by Charli Mills
Ed was peering at me again. I could feel his gaze crawl across my shoulders. Let me finish the chapter, Ed. The Legendary Leaphorn is in the arroyo. The tickle continues. I persevere, finish the chapter and set down Tony Hillerman’s latest southwest detective book.
Snagging a sip from my gin, tonic, and blueberries, I grab a fresh-husked corn.
Ed still peers at me from the edge of the woods. His ears twist like radar. Slowly I raise my offering. He hesitates, leans in and nibbles from my hand. The deer dashes off, leaving me to read in peace.
Monty sits on what remains of Cynthia’s deck in Ripley. Much of the rubble from the landslide remains, and yet life boldly rises. The apple tree uprooted and hanging over the fury of water that flooded Ripley Creek after the mountain slid, grows like a tree from a fantasy novel out of the gray and green rocks. Apples hang heavy in its branches.
A clump of roses takes root in a barren patch of dirt and kale spreads like weeds. Milkweed, nectar to butterflies, protrudes in clusters, tall green and promising to flower. A daylily nods its orange head by the deck. Purselane spreads across the rocky ground like nature’s band-aid.
I watch the Hub pet Monty, Cynthia’s charming rescue dog, a Daschund. He’s sitting down, which is good. Typically, the Hub would be gnashing his teeth at the pain in his knee, but he tells me the gel shot he got on Mondy is working. He’s tired, and no shot will take away the instability of both his knees.
The Hub gave us a big scare on Tuesday, ending up in an emergency room. His VA doctor offered to drive him after determining his blood pressure was through the roof. The day before, when he got the shot, the nurse raised the alarm over his dangerously high blood pressure, but he told her she measured it wrong. He can be surly to deal with in such circumstances.
On Tuesday we went to the local clinic for a weekly visit. Afterward, he wanted to see the Marine nurse he likes. I like her, too. She fights for him to get the care I’m fighting for him to get. She and his primary care doctor are the best. But often the referrals they make get denied by the VA. Slogging through the system is never easy.
I returned home to conduct a phone interview for a profile I’m writing, so the Hub drove back. He asked the Marine nurse to take his blood pressure because she does it right. She said it was THAT high. The doc came in, and both told him he needed to go to the emergency room immediately.
When his calls came through to me, I was on another call — the DVIBC had called me back, and it wasn’t a call I could miss, so I ignored his. He only told me he wanted to “talk” to the Marine nurse. I didn’t know he was checking up on his blood pressure. Or that he was in crisis.
I was managing the ongoing crisis — the Hub’s head. We’ve been down a scary path of weakening executive function over the past eight years. When it got bad, I pestered him to get seen for PTSD. I didn’t know what else it could be. His family and friends always talked about how changed he was after service, and I knew his quirks and moments when I’d call him out as “Sgt. Mills” because of his intensity.
But these past few years have been crisis hell. I couldn’t understand why, when we lost our rental two months before we could get into our next one, that he’d insist on going into the wilderness. I’m still traumatized by the experience. That’s when I started fighting hard as I ever have to get him into the VA. Before it was his knees. This time it was his shifts in thinking and behavior.
The VA had no trouble diagnosing him with combat anxiety even 33 years after the event. But he wouldn’t stay put. Next, we were off like a rocket to Mars (southern Utah) because it was a chance for him to get back into his aviation career which he loved. But he couldn’t do it. He was fired for PTSD symptoms.
That’s when I got scared. My husband was not acting like my husband and yet he couldn’t see it. I grieved terribly. I felt like I lost him, and in many ways, I have. A few widows have put it in perspective for me though — I still have him. It’s a bitter pill. But I charged on, getting him up to Michigan with him resisting the entire way.
Even now, it’s a weekly battle for two therapists and one ready-to-give-up wife to keep him here. I love my new community. I love being close to my eldest and youngest. I love Lake Superior and her tempestuous moods and generous rocks. I love new friends like Cynthia and Cranky. I love what the Red Cross discovered when they came to the Keweenaw — we are an intact community.
The Hub wants to leave. He hates mosquitos. He hates snow. He hates feeling bored, and he hates not being able to connect thoughts. He hates that his knees hurt so bad after years of needing a replacement.
You might notice a difference in attitude, and that’s part of the rub. But still, I fight to get him care. His therapists were the ones to catch on that something more was going on with him. That led to suspicion of traumatic brain injury (TBI). It would take sleuthing the pieces to puzzle out what happened.
We all knew about his hard landing into to combat.
The Hub’s mom got a phone call early in the morning of October 25, 1983, that her son was on his way to Grenada. A determined US president confirmed on television that he deployed US special forces – Navy Seals and Army Rangers – to rescue US medical students on an island that Cubans had fortified to build a runway for Soviet planes. So much for a dairy farmer’s wife to comprehend.
How could she know her son was jumping with a concussion? He didn’t even know.
Less than a week earlier, a fellow Ranger spearheaded the Hub in the face during a soccer game and knocked him out cold. He was ticked off to get pulled from the game. Knocked out cold and that’s all that happened. That’s the culture of “Ranger Tough.” Within days, he was flying in a C-130 to combat.
The Hub jumped with a T-10 parachute which Airborne uses for mass combat jumps. His rate of descent increased with his heavy load — a mortar round and all the communications gear for his unit. He hit so hard he bounced. He hit right knee, hip and head…bounced…hit his head again. He wore an M1 helmet which the Army acknowledges was not designed for impact. He essentially wore no head protection for 174 career jumps.
It would take almost five years for the Hub to realize that the pain in his knee after that jump was from bone fragments and a complete internal derangement of his knee. He had continued to jump, play soccer and rugby, all on a broken knee. That’s the culture of “Ranger Tough.” As much as I’d like to smash that tough attitude, I also recognize that it conforms to his identity.
When we go to the VA, I fight him as much as I fight them. I must be “Ranger Wife Tough.” He’ll ignore pain or report it’s low, then go home and rail about the pain. I won’t go into what it’s like to be married to a veteran, really only other veteran spouses get it, and many of them are exes. It’s not a glorious role.
But I know the Hub is a good man. He’s been a good dad, and I always felt safe with him (up until wilderness homelessness and Mars wanderings). Just as I did when I was raising three children, I ask, “Why this behavior?” Each new puzzle piece comes with a “why.” I keep arranging, searching the scientific studies, reading articles from the National Football League, reaching out to experts, asking for more tests.
We now understand that the Hub’s symptoms at the end of his military service and after he came home were likely due to TBI. PTSD certainly factored in — simply surviving Ranger Battalion required the maximum effort and PTSD is proof that one is a survivor. Another piece of the puzzle was linking his combat dive specialty after Grenada, after a TBI. It compounded the lack of healing.
But the brain can and does heal. The problem is what they call second impact syndrome. After a concussion, the brain releases tau, a protein which destroys more of the brain’s neurons. It leaves the brain vulnerable until it heals. If the brain suffers another impact (even a jolt), more tau is released. This is why repetitive concussions are dangerous. They lead to degenerative brain disease.
Chronic Traumatic Encephaly (CTE) can only be diagnosed after death through autopsy. Researchers are studying the brains of retired and living NFL players to look for clues. One marker is the presence of white matter brain lesions which also manifest in dementia. The Hub’s brain MRI reveals white matter brain lesions.
Symptoms include loss of executive functioning which explains why at age 55 the Hub was diagnosed by a VA psychiatrist with ADD. He never had ADD as a child or teen, or even hinted at it with learning or behavioral problems. But loss of executive functioning in adults is often confused as ADD. So it makes sense.
It’s why, when a doctor tells the Hub he needs to take the pills to lower his blood pressure, the Hub argues with him that he doesn’t have high blood pressure.
But today was a victory. In therapy with his Vet Center PTSD counselor, he recognized himself in a younger veteran he recently met. The signature wound of Iraq and Afghanistan is TBI. And most soldiers with TBI have PTSD. The VA, once it began to understand the immensity of the problem through recent TBI research, began screening all post-9/11 veterans.
The Hub is pre-9/11. When he came home, his parents wanted help, but no resources existed.
The fact that the Hub could see his own symptoms in another person was a huge moment of clarity. He understood why we were focusing on the two in-patient treatment options we have. He’s agreed to either one that comes through for him. I’m beyond relieved. He’ll have a team of medical and mental health professionals to work with all his issues.
Like Cynthia, though, we wait. We wait to find out if and when. She will rebuild a new home. We will rebuild a different life.
As I watch the Hub pet Monty while talking roofs and walls and how to live in a house with no running water or floors, I feel we are all going to be okay. I feel like it’s a yellow tent moment. We’ve pitched our tents and wait for the stars to come out. My tent is yellow. The color of sunshine and hope.
August 2, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a yellow tent. Where is it and who does it belong to? Think of how the color adds to the story. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by August 7, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments.
Wanting to Hide (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli MIlls
Danni unzipped her tent. Vapors rose from the creek where it meandered smooth and flat across a meadow dotted with daisies. The sun cast colors across the eastern horizon of sharp mountains. She checked each boot, a habit from growing up in Nevada where scorpions liked to take refuge in a cozy shoe. The feel of laced boots gave her confidence to face the day. The volunteers would soon be arriving to camp. Ike had always teased her about how bright yellow her tent was – “Astronauts in space can spot it.” Today, she wished she had his camo tent.
White-washed buildings gleam beneath a blue sky streaked with high clouds. They’re the kind of clouds that don’t do much more than add brush strokes to a painting. No humidity. No heatwave. No black flies. Sunshine rests comfortably on my head as I carry a box of books and my computer to the western garrison.
I’m at Fort Wilkins to give a presentation on how to use flash fiction to explore history.
1844: Fort Wilkins stands to protect the copper. A young nation encroaching further west, the Michigan wilderness known to the fur traders and voyageurs, marks a lucrative spot on territorial maps. From the decks of sea-faring, Great Lakes mariners can trace veins of copper rich ore to the shoreline of the Keweenaw Peninsula. At its tip where land juts into lake like a bent finger, the Pittsburgh & Boston Mining Company stakes its claim. The garrison of soldiers with memories of the War of 1812 forge a fort. Peaceful as a Sunday picnic. No one badgers the copper miners.
Mowed summer grass surrounds the fort grounds as it faces a lake — not Lake Superior, but Lake Fannie Hooe. A small gurgling stream flows from the lake, past the fort and mingles with the greater one in a half-moon cove with pinchers of craggy rock at each point. The John Jacob Astor floundered in 1845 after missing the safety of the harbor.
Champagne doused her prow on the shores of Sault Sainte Marie – the first tall ship built on Lake Superior. The pride of the American Fur Company, she bore the name of its progenitor. Cutting across heaving waves, she carried cargo and passengers. Eight could squeeze around her dinner table. Fully loaded with winter supplies for Fort Wilkins, she sailed for the harbor. Crashed upon the rocks, every man in the garrison soaked by surf and slashing rain fought to release her. No one died, but with supplies lost to the Great Lake, together they faced a winter of rations.
After I set up in the lecture hall, I eagerly head to the harbor. An artist’s rendering superimposes a modern photo of the harbor with the wreck of the John Jacob Astor. It’s part of an interpretive display to explain the shipwreck. The cove seems pleasant, not one that could take down ships, but I’ve seen Superior on high energy days.
It’s neither too cool nor too hot. It’s a perfect spring day, a gift in mid-summer. The greater gift is the death of black flies. Those winged beasts fed upon my blood just a week before when I came to Copper Harbor to hike in the old growth cedar grove. This evening, I’m alone, savoring my time on the rocky beach.
I settle into a seat of warm pebbles to eat bison jerky made with cranberries and seeds. Almonds and dried apple rings finish the light meal. My energy rises before a presentation, and I eat little. Afterward, I’ll be ravenous! Likely the fish and chips will be closed by then, and I’ll make do with organic fig newtons.
For now, I relish the moment of perfection. Life rarely offers such a perfect mingling of nature, anticipation, tasty fare, sunny skies, warm pebbles and lapping water. I watch the Isle Royale Queen approach the harbor and promise myself that one day I will have a writer’s retreat on the island.
It’s a bucket list kind of place — so remote in Lake Superior, it takes six hours to reach.
Wolves sheltered on the dock in crates. Daddy’s expression never changed but I could feel his tension. He didn’t want wolves on his island. This was our third summer on Isle Royale since Daddy became National Park Superintendent. Mother said some zoo in Cleveland wanted to purge its wolves, but they were too used to people to set loose on the lower 48. So, they shipped them to Daddy by boat in crates. That summer, shadows followed me and my sister, but never materialized where we walked or played. If wolves knew of people, they knew to stay away.
Recently I collected the oral histories of two sisters who lived in Ripley but summered on Isle Royale where their father had served as the National Park’s second superintendent. It was happenstance that I met the women. In flood-torn Ripley, of all places. They described their childhood to me, living next door to Cynthia’s house and attending school at what is now an apartment complex next to the fire hall.
99-words is catching on in the Keweenaw. I love its artistry, the form’s ability to distill a story in surprising ways. I love how it births creative moments, solving problems with a constraint. I love how it can be a tool. To the entrepreneur, 99 words are 45 seconds. One 99-word story can express a vision. Eight can launch a compelling pitch. To the historian, 99 words can digest historical facts, fictionalize the gaps and imagine times past.
Fiction lets us question history, to dig deeper than the facts and records. Writing historical fiction is all about asking what if…and why…and how…and who would… We might know when, but we want to know so much more. In my own historical research, I find that these questions drive me to examine the records more closely.
I learn about the mystery of Lake Fannie Hooe. A friend from my veteran spouses group grew up not far from Copper Harbor, spending her summers exploring old mines and logging camps the way I did in my hometown. She told me that legend has it, Fannie was a little girl, perhaps the daughter of an officer, who went missing. As they circled the lake they called, “Fannie…! Fannie, hooe!
They say, they never found her body.
As a story-catcher, I have an affinity for “they say” stories. Usually, they are not accurate historically, but they contain a nugget of humanity. “They say” stories express our fears or need to be entertained. I find “they say” stories fun to research. When I lived in Idaho, I wrote a column for a magazine that explored local history beginning with they say. From there, I tried to match the story to historical records.
Questions help discovery. The night of my presentation, I had planned for attendees to write their own Fort Wilkins flash fiction. I forgot that writing can be intimidating to non-writers. I tried to convince a wide-eyed crowd that they could pencil their own historical fiction. Realizing their trepidation, I led the questioning and did the writing from their responses.
The one prompt they all wanted to explore was, “Who was Fannie Hooe and why did she go missing?” Two historians from the fort sat in on the presentation and knew a great deal about the real Fannie. She was from Virginia and came as a single woman to Fort Wilkins to help her pregnant sister. She was not a girl, but a young lady. They say she went missing, mauled by a bear or murdered by a spurned lover.
Truth is, she returned to Virginia, married and lived a long life.
Flash fiction remains my favorite tool to explore history. It allows me to write quickly from multiple perspectives and test different points of view for my characters. If I don’t like a POV or discover a different path for a character, I’ve only committed a batch of flash fiction to the discovery instead of having to overhaul chapters or revise an entire draft.
Flash fiction lets me push into the space between the gaps. It lets me crawl under the skin of those the record shows were there. It tolerates my line of questioning with 99-word answers.
July 19, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about Fannie Hooe. Although she is a legend in the Kewenaw, feel free to go where the prompt leads.
Respond by July 24, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments.
Grandma Fannie by Charli Mills
Grandma Sarah rocked with restraint as we drank mint water over chipped ice, a luxury in 1870s Virginia, especially after the War. Grandpa Hooe was a Union officer, commissioned in the wilds of Michigan. Grandma told stories about how they met at Fort Wilkins the year she stayed with her sister. She told me how her nickname was the same as mine – Fannie.
“My bonnet blew off, and your grandfather swore he was bedazzled by the sun on my blond hair.”
All the men from the garrison courted her, but she left the wilds with Grandpa as Fannie Hooe.
Truth is considered fundamental in writing memoir. The work of Smith and Watson show that memory is not an exact memory of the past event but the past combined with the present, differences in history and ideologies of the time so rather than memory being existential it is a construct and will vary at different times and places. Recent innovations in brain imaging have shown that autobiographical memory shares the same part of the brain as visual activity. It is possible that this explains why, when you visualise a scene vividly, even if it is not true, that this false memory will be added to autobiographical memory. As our remembering creates our identity, then, is our self a fiction?
For me, this is the most interesting part of memoir for I believe that memoir gives us our identity. Memoir, when used as a book genre, refers to a part of a life story that is well told truthfully from memory using techniques commonly used in fiction. I would argue, however, that we are all storytellers of our life story only most people don’t write them down. Instead, we tell anecdotes (a truthful story about a real incident or person). These, to my mind, are the equivalent of a memoir in aural form. They are stories, usually well told from memory about a portion of our life. These, I believe, give us our identity.
There are two facets to identity. There is our identity that can be researched by anybody. Our birthdate, our parents’ names and occupations, later our own occupations, marriages, divorces and even addresses can often be found if one has the desire to dig deeply enough. But does that give you your identity? For the authorities maybe but not for those that come in contact with us. It gives the what of your identity. The second facet is not researchable but rather it is our personality and character and these are found through our actions but predominantly through the stories we tell of ourselves and these give us the who of our identity.
Our parents give us our first pieces of identity. They give us not only our name but our first simple stories. “My daddy is a minister.” That little story had me labelled a goody two shoes, someone to be mindful of language around and friendships slow to make. My Dad also told funny stories which I know I would have repeated as in those very young days, I had no stories of my own to tell, and I most likely wanted to be like my daddy who I adored. I didn’t tell my mother’s stories as I wanted to be more like my father than my mother. I don’t know what the first story I told about myself was but if I assumed it was one I still tell — about being quarantined from school and filling in the time playing the leper from the bible, jumping out on unsuspecting passerbys and telling them they were going to catch the dreadful disease my mother had because I was a leper, I’m sure that for some my identity would have taken on one of a non-caring individual for some I regaled it to and for others I would have been labelled creative.
We are selective as to what stories we tell and those we keep close to our chest. Some we know that if we were to tell we would be seen in a bad light, and the who we are of our identity would take a battering. This part of our identity changes over time. As in reading a memoir the author’s journey is followed until it reaches a point where it is irrevocably changed because of something that happens. It is, as Charli discussed in her prompt preamble, the hero’s journey only we are the hero of the story, our own story. If our identity weren’t to change as a result of life events I think it would be a poor, shallow life we’ve led when we can’t learn and grow and change.
Do you still tell the same stories now that you told when you were 15? I know I have a period in my life that will forever be closed to public scrutiny. It was at the time and it is now. I didn’t tell it then and I don’t visit it now. We edit what we tell but even so the stories we do tell reek of our essence.
When writing memoir this can create a huge problem for the author when writing a second memoir. The readership of the first memoir may simply not like the identity which the author has become in the second book and a totally different market may be needed.
If you are not convinced that your stories gives you your identity that is fine. Consider however those people who have lost their stories. Those with brain injuries and those suffering dementia. Those without their stories become empty shells. They retain their name, their race and nationality but their identity fades until they are no longer the person that we once knew. When they no longer have their stories they no longer a made up person – a fictional self.
I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on memoir and identity and hoping you will join in Times Past where this month we are looking at bicycles.
He shuffles across the rubble that bridges the 2nd Street drainage system of Ripley Creek. Wisps of white locks curl from beneath a baseball cap, and his t-shirt glows as white as if he reserves a brand new one for rare occasions. Spotting this reclusive Vietnam veteran hovering in what used to be the front yard of one of his neighbors feels like a sighting an elusive Sasquatch.
He hesitates and reminds me of a moth that bobs back and forth on my back porch, seeking entrance through the glass and darting away just as quickly. Like the lapping waves of Lake Superior on a hot calm day. Shy, uncertain but reaching out. Cynthia rises from the silt-covered floor of her gutted house, speaking his name in reverent tones.
As much as I want to dash out the front door and greet this rare neighbor, I hold back, letting Cynthia guide him up the front steps. I’ve heard much about the man. Cynthia has a big heart for the elderly. He lives alone in his mother’s old house down the street. When she first moved to Ripley, a girl in the neighborhood told her that the man’s house was haunted. The lights came on after midnight.
Like many who live in seclusion, this neighbor keeps odd hours. He is the only specter in his domain. Cynthia befriended him not in person but on social media. Although only one house separates them, they chat late at night on Facebook. She’s told me how brilliant he is, knowing much about music and art. Vietnam secluded him, fenced him off from community.
It’s a kind gesture on his part that’s he’s ventured well beyond his comfort zone to see if Cynthia is okay. With last night’s rain, Ripley Creek overflowed, washing away the sandbags along Cynthia’s house. We’re filling out applications for funding and trying to find immediate resources so Cynthia can get temporarily housed. It worries me when my friend is unsure of where she is sleeping each night.
It’s also troubling to wait on the dictates of others — no one has a permanent solution for the Ripley drainage and the elephant hunkered on the hill above our community is the unstable sand escarpment that can trigger more landslides. Powers that be monitor the temporary silt mitigation, but no one knows how to work together or even if Federal funding is coming.
Another neighbor, HockyPuck because he has the personality of one, strode by earlier, bragging about how the flood got him started on his home improvement projects early. He can afford to put his family up in a hotel and start repairs without care to grants, funding or donations. I heard he was brave the night of the landslide, rescuing his wife and children. But he refuses to give me an interview because he’s too busy.
I want to say I’m not interested in his story anyway. It’s the broken fences I find more interesting. Who cares about a fence that never breaks because it has all the resources and support it needs. Capitalism forgets that while some earn a comfortable life surrounded by ornate fences, most struggle. My friend and this gentle neighbor buckle beneath worry and real-life fears.
But everyone’s story matters. When collecting the stories of an event — or even here at the Ranch, the way we collect multiple stories on a single theme — different perspectives contribute to the greater story of us all. No one is to be excluded. No perspective matters more than others. It’s not about the best but the invitation to have your story heard.
My friend is not without her support network. In fact, the fence of human hands that surround her is amazing. All these hands, reaching out, pulling up. Even the Hub showed up with his truck to build weirs and fill sandbags. A few friends did the best they could do. I returned home to finish some paperwork for Cynthia, and that’s when I opened a portal to a long-held dream.
It came via email like Elvis popping up in a chat box.
You see, the dream is old — I wanted to be Indiana Jones. Not just an archeologist, but one who traveled and adventured. Who learned in the field and archives. Who taught college and wrote books. Oh, that was the original Big Dream! I even left my hometown to study archeology for a semester. It didn’t work out.
In 1998, I graduated from college ten years after my first failed attempt. Back then, to be a career author, one had to get an MFA. I could have been a contender! Instead, I chose to be a wife and mother, and I veered from the dream and used my creative writing degree in a marketing career.
I never lost touch with my literary roots and as I gained life experience, I better understood what the Big Dream meant to me. To be Indiana Jones, I had to be open to adventure, travel, and discovery. I’m not an archeologist, but I certainly excavate stories from the layers of the past. I’m now writing, and I’ve taught workshops for years. Not exactly college, but satisfying enough.
Until now. Until the pinch-me-Elvis-sighting moment.
I’ve written here before about my presentation to 1 Million Cups. Carrot Ranch Literary Community made the evening news, and many in the room warmed to the idea of storytelling and flash fiction as a tool. Already, I’m finishing up a small but mighty gig I landed from that presentation, coaching six entrepreneurs to craft their 10-minute pitches in a series of 99-word stories. Tomorrow they test-run their speeches.
Another organization met with me after the 1MC presentation to talk about workshops — Finlandia University. I toured their facility on campus where I can use conference rooms and the large hall for public workshops. It’s great space from intimate settings to large presentations. I shared my Curricula Vitae and received an unexpected response — had I ever considered teaching adjunct?
Short answer, yes! And quickly followed by the fact that I never went on to get my MFA, let alone my Ph.D. to complete the Big Dream. However, it was suggested that my CV was robust enough to waive the masters. I felt light like a butterfly flitting among honeyed flowers. So, I looked at their need for adjuncts, of course. One stood out as perfect — a marketing course intended for high school students through a partnership with the university. I thought, why not try!
Today, I received my appointment at Finlandia University for nine months to teach the CTE Marketing course. That’s about as close as I’ll ever get to sighting Elvis! Never did I think that part of the Big Dream would happen without a different journey. It’s only 10 hours a week, all hands-on (so no homework), includes 60 hours of prep time (I get to design the course!), a budget for materials, a van for field trips, and my very own college classroom.
I’ve become Indiana Jones, after all. Carrot Ranch is my beloved field work of discovery and treasure; I have a college appointment to teach; and I continue to write novels through the stories I catch 99 words at a time.
Broken fences can be mended. Everyone’s story matters.
July 12, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a broken fence. You can mend it, leave it, or explain its place in a story. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by July 17, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments.
Horses Have Greater Value (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
“Blast it you duck-billed buffalo!” Cobb lunged at the stock handler.
Despite his injuries, Hickok dodged the charging man better than the bear that tore him up. “It weren’t me,” he said, confronting his angry boss.
“That busted fence didn’t happen on its own accord,” Cobb growled, pointing to the corral empty of horses.
“No Sir, pert sure it didn’t. Found it that way before you showed up. Recon’ Dock rode out after ‘em.”
“Then quit idling and get after that herd!”
Hickok sighed and set out on foot, his left arm hanging as useless at the fence post.
My hand races across the page and I sketch the scene unfolding — Suomi dancers in blue aprons and kerchiefs over white-blond hair circle around, stepping in time to violins. To my left I’m vaguely aware of the large brick structure that once served as a high school and now classrooms to Finlandia University. Its bricks offer a backdrop of ghostly students, sons, and daughters of copper miners.
A shadow crosses my sketch, and a person asks, “Are you an artist?”
“Yes,” I answer glancing from dancers to page. I scribble a bit more, shade less, and turn the page to capture another scene.
“Can I see?”
I pause. The spell has broken, I’m now firmly aware of the rush of sights and sounds beyond the dancers. I’m at the Hancock Tori. The local farmers and craft market. A jewelry maker hawks carved stone beside me and a Calumet couple cut fresh microgreens for $3 a bag. My neighbor Cranky displays her collection of antique hand-crank sewing machines. Across the green from us, painters set up tents with scenes of Lady Lake Superior.
“Sure,” I say, handing over my sketchbook.
The man holds my raw art committed hastily to blank pages recycled from a dump on the East Coast. His eyebrows scrunch, and he shakes his head. “It’s just words,” he says.
I’m a literary artist. A writer. A novel-drafter. A publisher of weekly collections and annual anthologies. I flash, and I write for the long-haul of longer trains of words. I’m a story-teller, a story-catcher, a story-forger. I am an artist, and I sketch with words.
Years ago, in high school, I had a mentor who told me to carry sketchbooks. I had no trouble catching the wingspan of a hawk or the gurgle of a spring. Deer didn’t give me odd looks if I stared too long at their rumps or horns, figuring out how either end could feature in a tale.
But when I was among people, I felt self-conscious of observation. I didn’t enjoy thinking about the length of someone’s hair in relation to the tone of their voice. I became more adept at capturing emotions and motives than looks. I was too shy to sketch in front of other.
Now, I roll my eyes at the man’s comment and offer to read my scribblings. I really do look at people and write without looking at the page so it can be a mess of ink, jumping outside of lines, slanting and scratching out words, interjecting new ones. I clear my throat and read:
A blonde quartet draw bows across time and strings of old-world violins. They remake the songs of midsummer in Finland. No longer homeland, home is here, Finlandia, USA. Voices rise, the blue cross on white flag rises, the Juhannus pole rise. It’s summer solstice and young girls in blue dresses with matching kerchiefs circle around the adults from out of town and suomi-dance with joy. Around and around they skip and step. Holding hands, they dance inward and back out again. Just like celebrations back home, a thread of culture unbroken dances lively beneath a copper country sun. Hey!
He smiles. Nods. “Cool,” he says.
We’ve discussed names and what we call ourselves as writers many times before at the Ranch. Artist is the latest evolution for me because it captures the spirit of all I write and arrange, as well as my vision for Carrot Ranch as a literary art community. Artist might feel weird for some writers, but we are — words are the medium we use, it’s what we paint and sketch.
A few days ago, collecting updates from Cynthia at ground zero at Ripley village, she realized with delight that her three friends were all writers. She said earlier that day her artist-artists were with her. The poet among us frowned and said, “Wait, artist-artists? Like, we aren’t real artists?” We all laughed, knowing we weren’t being excluded.
I’m happiest sketching freely. I carry a waterproof sketchbook for trips to hunt agates. I carry several in my purse, one in my car and have a stash in my desk next to the chocolate. Sometimes I meditate, give three cleansing breaths, then sit in my own stillness and catch what is around me. I listen for stories. I stare awkwardly at people’s clothes and gestures, but if I remain quiet and calm people don’t notice the way a nuthatch ignores a birdwatcher.
Sometimes, I know someone has a good story, and after coaxing them into telling me, I boldly whip out my sketchbook and say, “I’m writing this down, and make a few notes.” I captured the story of one of the Ripley firemen that way:
From Kitten to Fish
Bill wades into the muck to grab the flopping silver steelhead. Disaster all around and he can’t bear to see this fish die, gasping in the muck. The flash flood has wiped out the spawn. Had Bill been fishing in his boat, he’d have a great catch. Today he’s in waders and his volunteer fire department t-shirt. He thinks about keeping the fish for dinner later but sees the state patrol and thinks he better wade out to the flooded creek instead. A flash of a camera and the newspaper headline cheers the firemen for rescuing kittens and fish.
He really did save a steelhead trout, and the story is sad, although I chose to give it a lighthearted tone. In reality, Bill (whose name is not Bill, but I told him he’d recognize his tale by that name) saved a large steelhead stuck in the Ripley mud. All these floods in our local creeks washed out the spawning salmon, and the smelt are done for, which may take years to recover.
Not to mention most of our beaches are closed due to sewage and e-coli. I’ve vowed to stop licking rocks when I hunt! Already I’ve developed a different way of wetting Lake Superior rocks to see their best colors and definition. I take a small bowl to the Tori with me and keep a pool of water for dipping.
Visitors to the Tori enjoy the #CarrotRanchRocks stories, and I have a set of educational rocks to teach people a bit of geology. Then I read some 99-word literary art. Two of my tent-mates are rockhounds. One is going to take me out in his Jeep, the other gifted me with his art so I could assign stories about his etchings. This community doesn’t grip me — it holds me up.
In addition to sketching, teaching rocks, reading stories and selling books at the Tori, I’ve set up several activities in literary art. Once we get dates settled, I’ll be renewing Wrangling Words at the Portage Lake District Library. I offered this literary program at other libraries, and I thoroughly enjoy working with libraries. Susan Sleggs, one of our Rough Writers, is also giving a Wrangling Words presentation to her writer’s group.
My writers retreat at the Ripley Home of Healing is on hold. My nature writing workshops might be, too because McLain is cut off. But my presentation at Fort Wilkins in Copper Harbor is still a go July 16:
Copper Country History in 99 Words, No More, No LessJoin local author Charli Mills in a presentation of her flash fiction with a focus on local history. Participants will also learn the literary art of flash fiction and get to craft one of their own, using prompts from Fort Wilkins.
A Vision of Success (99)
Writers high-fived across the string of comments, appreciating craft and creativity in their sandbox, 99 words at a time. Carrot Ranch, an imaginary place made of real people from around the globe. A tribe. Buckaroo Nation. Authors and entrepreneurs arrived too, looking to forge brands and learn how to tell stories around investor campfires. Readers found literary art in small bites palpable to a modern diet of busyness. A buckaroo wrangled the words and published collections, hosted rodeos for writers, and flashed her way to write novels about veterans, history and earth science. The vision for the future rocked.
Carrot Ranch and A Lead Buckaroo’s North Star (59)
Carrot Ranch understands that writers and entrepreneurs need safe space to explore the craft of literary art and harness the power of storytelling. Lead buckaroo, Charli Mills, gave up riding horses to write brand stories. Now she wrangles 99-word flash about history, veterans, and rocks. Flash by flash, she crafts award-winning novels, leads authors on retreat and coaches entrepreneurs.
Tagline: Making literary art accessible 99 words at a time. (9)
June 28, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that is a sketch or about a sketch. It can be “A Sketch of a Romance” or “The Sketch of Aunt Tillie.” Go where the prompt leads you to scribble.
Respond by July 3, 2018. 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 your story published in the weekly collection, please use this form. If you want to interact with other writers, do so in the comments (yes, that means sharing your story TWICE — once for interaction and once for publication). Rules are here.
A Sketch of Rock Creek by Charli MIlls
From the barn, you can see across the draw that is Rock Creek. Wagon ruts remain visible on both sides. David Colbert “Cobb” McCanless built a toll bridge across the deep cut. He arrived at this road station along the Oregon Trail in March of 1859. Family denies that a woman, not his wife came with him, but records show her signature as his bookkeeper. His wife and children arrived from North Carolina in September 1859. The women know what happened when two years later a young Wild Bill Hickok shot Cobb. But no one thought to ask them.
It’s winter, and we’re hiking across snow to the falls. Boots tramp over a trail hardpacked by daily visits. Bare limbs reveal the hillside, bereft of the cover leaves afford the trail in summer. There’s something about the barrenness of winter that strips our souls. In a way, it’s a time to use this vulnerability to heal. We are open.
I shuffle my snowboots in single file with a group of chatting and giggling women. I smile because we were supposed to walk mindfully. But that does not mean silently, right? We’re here to heal at the Ripley Falls. In this glorious mindful moment, my world is white, the snow muffling my steps and sharpening my sense of connection.
Clear waters gurgle over billion-year old bedrock. At the falls I let go. Down, down, down, I drop, falling over backward, this moment captured in a snowglobe somebody has bought and shelved on a mantle in a universe far away — look, you shake up the globe, and the women at the falls fall over.
We fuss over falling. We don’t even want to trip. It smudges our knees, tarnishes our shoes. Falling means we failed. Falling means we didn’t do it right. Falling carries such societal shame that many people spend a lifetime making certain they don’t ever fall. Lose weight, take a pill, regrow lost hair, make more money, and whatever you do don’t fall from grace.
Falling is not as hard as we think it will be.
I let go, fall backward and the snow catches me. I’ve fallen, so what do I do? I laugh, feel the cold against the back of my wool coat, ignoring the sting of snow that creeps into my mittens, and I fling both arms wide. I make a snow angel. And all around me, I hear the water churn gently over rocks and the sound of other women falling.
No, falling isn’t as hard as they tell us it will be. It’s the getting back up that’s a bear. The struggling, slipping, falling again. A hand followed by another reach down and with help, I regain my feet. Alone, I might have floundered. Falling, if it has a core lesson, teaches us that it’s easy to do, and hard to recover from unless we have help.
That winter hike to Ripley Falls will etch itself in my memory box. It was the conclusion of a retreat at the Ripley House of Healing owned by my friend Cynthia May Drake. She helps veterans, their families, women in transition, and anyone coping with grief and loss. The women who gathered that day I now also count as friends. We’ve seen each other many time since and I always recognize their hands.
I’ve attended several workshops and many Magnificent Mondays with Cynthia. She honors my literary art and welcomes me to share it during these gatherings. That day, after the winter retreat, I asked if I could use her beautiful home to host a writing workshop. She agreed, and we’ve been dancing around a date. Last Tuesday, I met with her on her porch, surrounded by all her rocks and books and peace, we shared coffee and dreams.
As I always do when I leave the Ripley House of Healing, I make a vow to go tent camping. Cynthia sleeps in her tent outside in her backyard near her sauna. Most people up here in Copper Country follow the Finnish tradition and have a sauna. Ours is downstairs in the basement. But Cynthia is the only person I know who sleeps with heated corn sacks to stay warm in her tent. Because she and her dog Monty even sleep outside in the snow.
But, hey, it’s summer (or that moment-savoring time of winter’s coming).
On Saturday, June 16, I comforted Jasper, our thunder-stressed dog because the city of Houghton celebrated Bridge Fest with full artillery. As the final fireworks blasted, I promised Jasper it was over. He might not understand why a community celebrates a bridge, but to us it’s connection.
The Houghton Bridge is the only one that connects the Keweenaw Peninsula to the Upper Peninsula. It crosses Portage Canal which is a waterway that bisects land, connecting one side of Lake Superior to the other. People have mined copper on the Keweenaw for over 10,000 years. Industrial mining came to the area in the late 1830s. Later, the mines created chutes from the top of the mountain to the Portage Canal below to stamp and deliver copper by way of boats.
Ghost towns and abandoned mines scattered across the Copper Country. Cynthia’s Ripley Falls was once an engineered chute, part of the mining. Her house was built 112 years ago, and since that time, Ripley Falls has followed the course laid out for it. A ski resort now spans across Mont Ripley, to the west of her place. Humans have tinkered with the environment heavily in this region, but nature quickly reclaims what was let go.
Nature also follows her own course.
After Jasper calmed down on Saturday night, I heard thunder off in the distance. I groaned as I walked up the stairs, knowing it would be a long night for the dog. I had no idea it would be a night of terror for my community. Several times thunder woke me up, and several times I fell back asleep. Morning dawned, and nothing seemed amiss. Until I saw the social media posts from Cynthia.
All that rubble you see was part of the ski slope above the falls. In a few hours, the thunderstorm stalled over the lower Keweenaw and dumped 7 inches of rain. Cynthia, who usually sleeps where a mountain slammed into her house, slept inside that night. She and her daughter woke up when her refrigerator tumbled over. Water filled her stairwell to the bedrooms on the second floor and pushed against their doors in a torrent, preventing escape.
“Drive to be alive: I am alive because I was saved by my 15 year old from certain death in my beloved tent on a night that produced 7” of rain in two hours and a mudslide from an unstable ski hill which slammed against my home burying my yard in 5-6 feet of rubble and muck.
I am alive because a first responder and my dear neighbors called for help to rescue my Samantha, my wee pup and I from a home where the flood waters were coming up the stairs from the first floor and keeping the doors shut from the inside.
I am alive because a community of neighbors, friends and strangers have poured by the 100’s to my homeplace, to dig through rubble and muck, to lift out treasured photos and sweet memories, to hose down, to kneel and pull out wet insulation from walls, to rip up 112 year old mint condition but wet hard wood floors, to hand pick and haul out sharp rocks from a ski hill burying cars and saunas and garages.
I am alive because blessed members if our Ojibwe people came to honor the waters who flow and give us life when we respect the earth and her ways and death and destruction when we forget and are greedy.
I am alive with the love of all whom I have witnessed the past days of endless work and give themselves selflesssly to it. And I mean all of you, with thoughts, prayers, financial help, phone calls, ideas, hard labor, food, well wishes. All if this is what we live for. Our purpose in life is to serve one another and create a community of bonds so tight that nothing can divide us because we are bonded in love.
One scene I will remember forever was last night on the cusp of Solstice as our days here have daylight until well past 10, I was standing by my beloved and broken sauna, waiting for my girlfriend SD to find the correct drill bit for a bit of sweet salvage, I looked over the scene around me. This is what I saw: beloved neighbors talking with selfless helpers and eating something finally as they gazed over tge work of some long days, people still digging and puzzling in the waterway, laughter ringing, dogs barking, a moon rising… and I was so pleased, so happy, so fulfilled. This is life, this is who we are capable of being. This is who we are. It was such a beautiful scene. It is our new reality. Blessed be.”
Not all is lost when we fall.
Those hands reach down to shovel muck with us, to pull us into a hug, push us to rip out our own walls because it’s necessary for survival. Hands join our hands, and together we move all the rubble bucket by bucket from our fallen environment. Hands do their part — some pack, some organize, some bless, and some write. Not all is lost when a community joins hands to lift the fallen.
I’ve witnessed amazing acts of perseverance in this community. The Red Cross and government officials lagged behind our local efforts to help friends and neighbors. Our efforts are slowing down because we’ve ripped out all the water-logged walls, salvaged 112-year-old trim, firehosed a basement after cleaning it out by hand, and treated interior framework with sprays to prevent mold.
If you are moved to help Cynthia, we do not yet know if her house can be saved, but we’ve set up a fund for her: GoFundMe.
We. Because falling takes others to rise. Just as we are a community of writers, we are the ones to extend the hands up.
June 21, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about “not all is lost.” It can include recovery from disaster, an unexpected insight after a fall, or however the phrase moves you. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by June 26, 2018. 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 your story published in the weekly collection, please use this form. If you want to interact with other writers, do so in the comments (yes, that means sharing your story TWICE — once for interaction and once for publication). Rules are here.
Not All is Lost by Charli Mills
Annabel retreated from the mourners. Thirty miners, four boys, and her beloved mine captain dead. Fire erupted at level 27 and none evacuated. Men continued to drill, eager to chase the new copper load, believing the updraft would smoother the flames. Greed overcomes common sense, Annabel thought. Ripley was ambitious, a hard-worker and a smart man. He cared about the land and community, but even good men succumb to copper fever. They dug their own deaths. She left the mass funeral and wandered to the falls. Ripley was gone, but his babe grew in the swell of her belly.
White hedgerow roses bloom on the corner of Ethel and Roberts Streets. With each pass, I wonder at their fragrance and details — are they white or tinged with a subtle color the way prehnite covers a gray rock of basalt with a sea-green glow when wet?
I’m breathing deep of the crisp air and watering my daughter’s garden which rises and blooms with purpose. She’s planted alternating heights, textures, and colors, timing the blooms, so there are buds to watch when spent petals fade and drop. It rarely gets hot in the Keweenaw, but if it doesn’t often rain the sandy soil quickly dries.
My 85-year-old neighbor, Mrs. H, watches me water the flagging yellow lilies and explosion of purple allium. I’m curious about a thicker and bigger bulb that’s not yet ready to reveal it’s color. It continues to grow, and its bud reminds me of a green coxcomb. I smile and wave to Mrs. H. She returns the smile and walks over to me.
“Winter’s coming, hey,” she says.
At first, I think she’s alluding to the nip in the near-summer air or the smear of gray rainless clouds overhead. But she means something more — when you live in a remote region with Lake Superior’s micro-climate that dumps an average of 300 inches of snow a year, you have winter and preparing for winter.
Winter’s coming, hey. It’s more profound than planning for next round of snow. It has to do with seizing the moment, savoring the bounce of bumble-bees, and seeking agates under every rock on McLain Beach. The time is now. Stop and smell the roses for winter is coming and you need to populate your senses with a full bouquet.
Watering, I know each bloom will pass so I’m mindful of each moment — gauging its height, noting changes in shapes, and admiring deepening shades of hues. I’m more attentive to the differences. I let Mrs. H know I’ve noticed her hedgerow flowers blooming. Her light blue eyes widen.
“They must have just bloomed,” she says.
Daily, Mrs. H circles her property. She pauses at the forget-me-knots and points to the Columbine. No matter where she walks, tiny white English daisies carpet all our lawns on the block. At night, the flowers tighten and reveal a hot-pink undercoat. I remark that I’ve never lived in a place like this where flowers bloom from snowmelt to snowfall.
Mrs. H nods and says people never had lawns. Everyone had flowers! What I see all around me when I walk the neighborhood or woods where farms and houses once stood during the mining heydays reflects abandoned yards of flowers. Historically, this amazes me the same way old stone foundations do — someone once lived here.
I turn the spray to the phlox to water this brilliant scrub of bubblegum-pink flowers. Mrs. H tells me phlox are her favorite. Her grandmother’s yard was full of phlox. I try to imagine the lawns gone and replaced with clumps of phlox and daisies. I can even see Mrs. H as a little girl trailing behind her grandmother.
These flashes of images come to me like a bouquet of emotion. I pick out each flower, each feeling to capture the scene. Often a story begins in sensory distortion until I can define what it is about. I’ll file away such scenes in my mind’s cabinet box and when I’m writing fiction, access it to use its color, scent, and feel. This is part of filling the well, catching stories for later use, like collecting herbals for dyes and healing teas.
Mrs. H leaves me to water, and I mull over the paperwork for the Hub and think of how healing this garden will be for my daughter when she returns home from surgery at the Mayo. A part of my whirring mind urges me to quit dallying around — so much to do, so behind, so much worry, so many unknowns. That’s like anticipating snow shoveling instead of experiencing how big the begonia buds are today.
Winter’s coming, hey. I’ll fill my mind with petunias and possibilities before returning to the tasks and trade. I’ll focus on what I love about literary art and branding and community and serendipity. I’ll chase down flowers in the woods and rocks on the beach. I’ll catch all the stories I can and finish the ones I can tame.
Before I go inside, Mrs. H returns with white hedgerow roses and blue forget-me-nots clasped in her thin and papery hand. She shares with me the day’s bounty. We meet in this moment, and time spins around us — she is at once a girl and a wise woman to me. She’s ageless as she passes the gift. One her grandmother once bestowed upon her.
June 14, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a bouquet. You can explore the meaning of the word or gather a bunch of flowers. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by June 19, 2018. 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 your story published in the weekly collection, please use this form. If you want to interact with other writers, do so in the comments (yes, that means sharing your story TWICE — once for interaction and once for publication). Rules are here.
NOTE: If you have trouble with the form, email me at email@example.com.
A Mother’s Bouquet (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
“Mama, flowers!” Lizzie stumbled through the cabin door, dropping her bouquet of Black-eyed Susans.
Sarah cringed as Lizzie wailed, wanting to escape the chores Mary gave her. Lizzie’s brothers rushed in to help gather their sister’s spilled flowers.
Monroe calmed Lizzie while Jules and Cling gathered her bouquet, handing it back. Lizzie sniffled. Mary knelt with Baby Charles on her hip, and Lizzie thrust the flowers to her mother. “They are beautiful, Lizzie.”
Sarah’s heart ached for a little girl to gather a bouquet for her. But she left her daughter in the grave in back in North Carolina.
It’s black as a mineshaft outside and somthing thuds and scratches at the window. I suspect a bat is feeding on insects drawn to the light I’m still burning. Try as I might to see the nocturnal creatures, I can only discern the sound.
In a way, there’s comfort in knowing I’m not up alone while the rest of the house slumbers. One dog kicks in his sleep, another snores and the cat nose-whistles. The third dog is silent like a youthful sleeper.
None wait up to catch a glimpse of bats with me.
I wonder if the mythology of security, the tale we believe that we can conquer change — look younger! erase wrinkles! defy gravity and time! — is why changes unnerve people. Are we all unnerved or do we each have our own tender spots?
When I was still in my 20s, but mum to three active toddlers, I grew excited to show them the monkey bars on the playground. We had recently moved from a logging town in central Montana to a small town halfway between Helena and Butte. Out west, it seems, we always lived in the shadow of mining country.
This new town had a small school with a playground, and our new place was a walk away. The monkey bars were just like the ones I used to do cherry drops from as a fifth-grader. From a seated position, I’d drop between the bars and swing upside down.
I had no intention of teaching my five, four and two-year-old such a thing, but I wanted to show off my prowess in skipping bars. I swung out from the first bar, skipped the second and while reaching for the third, I crashed to the ground.
My one arm protested that I was no longer a school girl and I sat dazed wondering how I could be so changed at such a young age yet. My children swarmed me like puppies do when you sit among a litter and soon I was giggling and telling them not to skip bars like mumsie.
Life is a series of accidents, happy or not. We do our best to steer the course, stay on track, but changes happen, and we have to set new courses or change our ways to accommodate a loss of strength, memory, or status. Change can be frightening.
And yet — some embrace changes as if that is the answer. Why wait for wrinkles when you can bask in the sun and paddle a board to get them early? Why wear what your father did when you can adopt something more like what your mother wore? Change also offers new experiences.
Last Friday, as I stood in the shadows, watching a pack of warrior women dance their myths out, stomp them into the ground and claim their power through movement and music, I noticed some of the men, too. It all began with glitter that evening.
As part of the show, reading my set of flash fiction to introduce each dance, I went to the studio with the dancers and read over my stories while they donned stage make-up. For the uninitiated, stage makeup looks daunting. It’s dark, heavy and not attractive close-up. But on stage, it catches the right contours and colors.
The ritual includes glitter. Lots of it — purple glitter, green glitter, silver glitter and gold glitter. My daughter smeared white glitter across my eyes, and I felt dancified. It was electrifying to wear the glitter. A man walked in — my SIL and the show’s MC and all heads turned. Glitter?
Solar Man is not one to fear change. He’s not threatened by a pack of dancers slinking toward him with wands of glitter poised. They all eyed his beard. He rubbed it, stroked his red tie, touched each cufflink and declared he’d only wear gold glitter in his beard. The moment passed — of all the colors, no one had gold with them.
We traveled to the performance venue and secured the dressing room. And lo and behold, a warrior found gold glitter. Soon the cameraman expressed interest and he be-glittered his blond beard. What happened next made me chuckle all evening. Other men took offense! The crowd accepted warrior women, but man glisten? No way!
Like twittering stereotypical old wives, the men chastized the glitter beards, stating it would cause regret, that the glitter would never disappear. At that comment, the scientists in the group acknowledged that glitter does not ever break down fully and pollutes the Great Lakes with other micro-plastics.
However, it did not discourage the newborn pride of glitter beards.
Bats hunt bugs, and likely always will. But men will evolve and accept the softer side of themselves.
June 7, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about man glisten. It was a fun term coined by two men with glitter in their beards. What more could it embrace? Look to the unexpected and embrace a playful approach. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by June 12, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments.
Masks of Man Glisten by Charli Mills
Deep in the shafts of Mohawk Mine, men pounded steel to separate native copper from white quartz. Candlelight from helmets of miners caught flickers of dust. Mohawkite glittered in dim beams. At the end of shift, the men piled onto trams, hoisted back to daylight of long summer evenings and clean women waiting with baskets of fried chicken and Chassell Farm strawberries. Daughters and sons skipped to their dads, uncertain which belonged to them. Tired, blinking in the bright sun, masks of man glisten mined below the level of hell made them look alike.
Sparkle, sparkle hard rock miners.