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April 15: Flash Fiction Challenge

Just when I was feeling despondent over how far my front potager garden has to grow to live up to its name, someone planted bunnies along its border. It’s spring-ish in the Keweenaw of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, give or take a few more spits of white rain. The snow smartens the landscape of leftover street grit, dead plant stalks, and mats of maple leaves that resemble road-flattened toads. As much as I want to have a garden that emerges from winter like the ones I see on Monty Don’s “Gardening World,” the truth is I don’t live in the UK.

The bunnies brought me cheer and a mystery.

Who planted the family of wooden bunnies, each painted gray or brown and detailed with artistic designs? Each bunny is a different size and mounted on a dowel to press it into the ground. I simply walked outside one day, and there they were. I posted the discovery on Facebook, certain the artist would claim their handiwork, but so far, no one has.

Some people sow seeds of generosity without an audience. I like the idea that it could be anyone on Roberts Street or beyond. Some artist is chuckling over their drive-by bunnying. It seems that would narrow the list of suspects but almost everyone I know on the Keweenaw Peninsula is artistic. As I clean up my potager, I look forward to creating bunnyscapes. As hard as it is to resist, I’m late with a rake in the spring. I want my bunnies in a pristine setting, but the garden wildlife need warmer weather to emerge from the leaves and winter stalks. Patience is my act of generosity.

Not that I have time to dig the dirt. Two and a half more weeks and I’m done with school. I’ve had classmates tell me that I’m in one of the most dreaded classes of the course. At least I know I’m not the only one struggling to understand it. The other course is a content and copy class and we are studying SEO. Shoot me in the foot. I get what Search Engine Optimization is. I don’t buy into its value or all they hype that it’s something worth mastering. Not to say it isn’t a worthwhile strategy for marketing content. I adhere to other strategies. SEO will never be WOM (Word of Mouth). The latter includes people, the human factor in marketing.

Regardless, one of my favorite professors leads the course. I wish it were a prof I didn’t like and I could feel more justified in my moaning and groaning. I also can tell a difference in my classmates. Many from the earlier part of the program have taken a break or left. It seems COVID has exacted a toll. People are tired, unhappy. More disconnected. One peer has been a shining light, though, and I’ve gravitated toward her generous feedback that has helped me get through these last two classes.

I’m learning to be generous with myself, too. I had wanted to forge ahead with plans after graduation. I tried my best to keep up with business development, coursework, and thesis writing. In the end, my focus narrowed to a laser beam on my novel. After all, it was the primary purpose of my MFA journey. I’ve received a generous amount of feedback from my advisor and began yet another round of revisions last week. To me, it’s exciting. I know to dig into the comments, read the resources she recommends, and roll up my sleeves and do the work. Like my garden emerging ugly, I’ve decided to find the beauty in the mud.

And to wait. I don’t have a deadline on what I plan to do. True, I have a tiny bit of savings, enough to see me through six months after graduation plus a small investment in my business. I want to shout it to the world because I am excited for my vision. But I’m practicing mindfulness and recognizing that my neighbors can’t possibly see the potager as it will be in years to come. All I have is shaping clay and I need to trust the process to make it into the artistic vision I see. I need to be generous and offer myself the gift of time.

According to a newsletter I subscribe to:

“One way to practice generosity is to give energy where it is needed, whether that is in the form of time, money or love.”

Daily Om, Planting the Seeds of Generosity

The gift of time spoke to me. Giving without thought of return is an act of generosity. Someone gave me bunnies, a work of their artistic hands, and my neighborhood is enriched. Every week, writers give me stories, and like a community table, I prepare a spread we can all taste and enjoy. How remarkable generosity is.

There is yet another way to consider generosity. Brené Brown counts it as part of the Braving Inventory from her book and process, Dare to Lead. I post a copy next to my desk, alongside my vision for my writer’s life. You can print off one of your own, scroll down this Workbook page to Downloads where you will find Generosity listed in the Braving Inventory.

“What is the hypothesis of generosity? What is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions or what this person said?”

Brené Brown

Do you feel what she is saying? That we can be generous in our thinking towards others. Instead of generalizing the worst about someone, we can extend them the best intentions. The grace we can give one another to co-exist with diversity of views, expressions, and lived experiences. The love and compassion we can all feel when the table is set generously for everyone, especially those who have experienced oppression and marginalization. The empathy we can extend recognizing individual traumas, healing, and scars. To sit and listen, to hold space for others, to witness — these are acts of generosity.

And they are as uplifting as shared art. In fact, the art you share, the stories you tell, they do make a difference in the world.

April 15, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that seeds generosity. Who is generous and why? Think of generosity as planting a future outcome. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by April 20, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Shared Between Neighbors by Charli Mills

Mara’s untamed yard tumbled toward Randal’s. He kept his edges squared, lawn clipped, and garden fenced. Dandelion seeds drifted and yellow globes emerged next door in spring. Mara offered to uproot the plants when Randal returned with herbicide. He scoffed. She persisted. He wavered. She mentioned cancer. Mara dug on hands and knees for three days, preserving roots and flowers. Order reigned over Randal’s lawn once again. She bottled the root tincture to control her menopause. In the fall, she gifted her neighbor a jug of sweet dandelion wine with a vintage label that read, From Seeds of Generosity.

🥕🥕🥕

April 8: Flash Fiction Challenge

Undaunted by 131 inches of snow — a light winter — some of the Roberts Street royal family has survived. One towering seven foot stalk of Lemon Queen sunflowers bob their dry crowns in the wind. All winter the nuthatches and chickadees have feed at their multiple heads. Winds and snow drifts snapped all but this remaining royal.

Mause joined me today as we worked on a new command, “Off the garden.” We examined the rise of tulips, hyacinth, iris and glories of the snow. Grit and matted maple leaves cover the ground now that most of the snow has gone. Crocus of purple, yellow, white and lavender began to bloom a week ago. They color a dun landscape. Nothing is yet green

Winter bleached the Lemon Queens the color of pale straw. Yet still they give.

A friendly male chickadee sang what birders call the fee-bee song and I responded, “Here, kitty.” Some say the call sounds like “Hey, sweetie.” I like my version because I find it humorous that a bird would call a cat. Mause stood at attention. After all, she is a bird dog. I was gathering dropped Lemon Queen stalks to check for remaining seed. The chickadee tried to land on my outstretched hand and I felt like a Disney Princess. Mause vibrated in excitement and the bird flew off to Mrs. Hitch’s tree.

What seemed a lovely overcast day on the peninsula was not so on Lake Superior. She fussed enough to froth waves that sent the recently returned lake freighters to seek safe harbor. Cedar Bay, one of my favorite swaths of pebble beach that I can access through friends who own lakefront property, churned sand, and broken ice. Someone filmed the action. You can view a nice spring day on the Keweenaw and imagine the Lemon Queens, chickadees, and a young pup ten miles away.

Further North and across the North Pole from me, my youngest daughter is welcoming spring on Svalbard. March and September are the only two months out of the year that the sun both sets and rises. Otherwise it does one or the other. They are now in the days of sunshine. It’s cold on the island, never rising much above freezing. It doesn’t snow much but the ice and permafrost are thick. Caves of blue ice form tunnels through glaciers. My daughter and a group of friends are snow machining and camping, avoiding avalanches and polar bears. It’s stunning country.

Caves remind me of the hero’s journey. An important stop along the way is the symbolic cave — call it a bad day or the point of no hope. It’s necessary for the hero to fall before the rise with an elixir in hand. As an epic moment, the cave represents a near-death experience. And it is a confrontation of death. Consider the class Star Wars story when Luke Skywalker’s training calls for him to enter the cave and confront the dark side of the force.

He enters the cave and battles his arch enemy, Darth Vader only to discover the his own face within the mask. This scene is not the actual cave moment in the story, though, but a premonition of what will follow. In order to confront his enemy he must confront the darkness within himself. Ultimately, this leads Luke to believe that if there is darkness within him, there must be goodness within Darth Vader. The actual full hero’s journey in the Star Wars sagas belong to Anakin Skywalker. His hero’s wound is that Anakin never had a father. He dies when he turns against the dark side to save Luke — to be the father he never had.

What makes Star Wars so crazy-good to study for the hero’s journey is the fact that as a writer, George Lucas befriended Joseph Campbell who defined the epic structure based on worldwide studies of mythology. Lucas and all the writers and filmmakers he has influenced since the 1970s have followed this pattern. Like the 99-word story format, the hero’s journey is a pattern. At the Star Wars epic level, heroes look like the Skywalker men. At its most simplistic form, the hero’s journey is about transformation and not gender specific.

Many people have dismissed the hero’s journey as a white male construct. While that might be so to a certain point, what excites me about the hero’s journey is how its pattern feels like the struggle to overcome and self-actualize. In fact, people relate to this pattern and flock to stories in the Star Wars universe because it stirs up emotion and inspiration. They want to experience the journey. Many fans have, becoming part of the technology, art, and storytelling of LucasFilms.

The latest is a Disney series called The Mandalorian. Many people involved in the project were kids, just like me, when Star Wars rocked our world in 1977. I was ten and started to write stories. My writer-self has evolved with Star Wars. I still get chills hearing the opening music of what has been renamed A New Hope. Now, I have a new theme that fires my synapses, perfectly pitched between light and darkness with a western influence. The Mandalorian is based on western tropes.

The Hub has watched The Mandalorian with me. It’s hard to find shows that hold his attention. Mostly he watches YouTube interviews of soldiers, which I find interesting to listen to as I write but don’t care to watch for entertainment. He began researching George Lucas and the development of Stars Wars and I followed him down every rabbit hole that had to do with storytelling. To bring it back full circle to my ultimate writing mentor, Wallace Stegner, he said:

“An emotional response in the reader, corresponding to an emotional charge in the writer –some passion or vision of belief–is essential, and it is very difficult to achieve. It is also the thing that, once achieved, unmistakably distinguishes the artist in words from the everyday user of words.”

Wallace Stegner. On Teaching and Writing Fiction. Penguin Books. 2002.

That’s why I love the hero’s journey. As a pattern, it provides a foundation to build upon such an achievement in writing.

Yet, many dismiss or dislike the hero’s journey. First, the word “hero” is problematic. Anne Goodwin and I have had numerous debates over the years which has helped evolve my thinking about the hero’s journey. We both decided we like the term protagonist’s journey better. Anne also brought up that not all protagonists complete the journey. I think it’s still a journey, but one that refused to answer the call, and then became an anti-hero’s journey, resisting the cave. Some dark stories enter the cave and never leave it. I see these as variations. You have to know the structure to build it differently.

Today, we have an opportunity to broaden who we define as a hero. Women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and different ages, sizes, neurodiversity and abilities can be the person on the journey. Anyone can be the hero. I believe in the pattern of the transformative journey, not who the face of the hero is. Yes! Magazine published an article that challenges us to reframe who the heroes are: “The Kind of Heroes We Need to Actually Save the Planet.” As writers we are heroes of another sort. Rena Priest, the author of the article, reminds us that:

“The word “author” is from the Latin word auctus, which translates literally to “one who causes to grow.” As storytellers, we plant beliefs that blossom into the structure of the world.”

Rena Priest, The Kind of Heroes We Need to Actually Save the Planet. Yes Magazine. 5 November, 2020.

April 8, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that “rethinks the hero.” Define the hero, comparing or contrasting to the classic definition. Break the mold. What happens to the hero in the cave? Is it epic or everyday? Is there resistance or acceptance? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by April 13, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

A Different Way to Serve by Charli Mills

Her bootlace caught the gunrack no soldier ever used. The force of the blast lifted her body as easily as a child’s balloon rises. Weightlessness defined the pause between rise and fall. When her body crashed, her bootlace held. It ripped every tendon, wringing her ankle. Two years later the VA removed the foot Hunter wanted gone. It flopped and failed, unlike the metal shank they pounded into her bone. Strong. Time to return. She wore no cape, no uniform, but stood to defend an Inuit village. She became the climatologist who sounded the alarm. The ice was melting.

🥕🥕🥕

March 18: Flash Fiction Challenge

A year later, and I have enough toilet paper. I remember my last night of normal, edgy about an encroaching virus and yet disbelieving a global pandemic would reach the outer rims of civilization. We have the opposite of population density. That didn’t prevent our stores from going dry with the dry goods, namely toilet paper. Who knew around the world we’d sail into the unknown, clinging to hoards of TP?

A year later and my social skills are rusty. The social refrain I don’t want to adult today has morphed into I don’t know how to people anymore. It unsettles me to think that I’ve not had anyone in my house besides my daughter and son-in-law. Except for the two weeks I broke protocol and took in two veterans who would have been homeless. Stranger yet is how quickly they disappeared from my life after they found a place to live.

In 2020, I made two trips both to Wisconsin. My son’s wedding and to pick up a puppy.

There’s something about a one-year mile-marker. You can’t help but stop, turn around, and consider the journey from then until now. A year ago I needed toilet paper. It was a legit item on my grocery list. I’m not one for stocking or buying goods in bulk and often I wait until the last roll until I feel compelled to buy more. We had two partial rolls of TP and laughed at the news reporting a shortage. Not in the UP. We don’t have population density. Yet, here we were in the rural sticks with shelves as empty as an urban center. Eventually, I bought a case of toilet paper from Who Gives a Crap.

That last night of Normal, we celebrated a friend’s birthday. We watched the waves crest over the ice heaves, assured spring would follow the melt. We drank beer in the kitchen past midnight. To be in the house of another! We ate dinner out in a full restaurant. Last night I dreamt I was in a city and I walked from restaurant to restaurant trying to define that sound. What was that sound? Glasses clinked. Forks tapped plates. Chairs scooted across floors. Heels of shoes clacked. Waitstaff asked for orders. Doors opened and shut. That sound murmured beneath it all from place to place.

The sound of voices in crowded places.

Did you ever think you wouldn’t hear that? I’m someone who appreciates the song of a bird, the buzz of a bee. I’m not a crowd-loving person but there it was in my dream — a longing for murmurs.

Spring murmurs differently. Starlings return to the neighborhood. Woodpeckers hit the trees. Snow turns to grit. Dead Lemon Queens crisp from winter hold seeds the nuthatches left. Mause discovers the stalks as the snow piles recede. She prances atop three feet of snow with a foot-long stalk and dried head. She doesn’t miss a stray stick on our evening walks and the snow banks shrink, more sticks emerge. I’m waiting for the crocus and glories of the snow. Some things have not changed.

Will we remember how to people in person? Maybe we will care less about the superficial and more about hugs and deep conversations. Will we get to smile or remained masked? I don’t know the new rules moving forward. I hope we get to keep curbside service. I also long for the time we can crowd a place and share a show or meal.

And so it passes. A year. We did not lose the things we feared. TP remains accessible. But I fear we have lost less tangible things. We have gained, too. We’ve connected more broadly, reached out in unexpected ways. Humanity and toilet paper have survived.

March 18, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that takes place a year later. It can be any year. Explore the past year or another significant passing of time to a character. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by March 23, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

A Year Later by Charli Mills

Hazelnut creamer, your favorite, expired months ago but I couldn’t throw it out. We bought groceries like it was end times. Panicked when the shelves remained bare of pasta and dried beans. Flour disappeared and pictures of “first time” bread-bakers emerged online. We bought sliced rye. At first, I enjoyed the solitude. You loathed it, seeking excuses to venture out. Creamer. Always short on hazelnut creamer, willing to search for it. That’s how you found the last ten-pound bag of Montana Flour. I wept. Not as hard as the day you died. Did Covid take the extroverts like you?

🥕🥕🥕

March 4: Flash Fiction Challenge

Sweet potatoes arrived in the mail this morning. Two packages of dehydrated fries for Mause, my three-month-old German Short-haired Pointer. It takes her ten minutes to eat one and she gets two a day. This buys me twenty minutes of time. Such is life with an energetic puppy.

The Hub fancies he’ll train her for quail hunting and who am I — an artist of stories who fancies she’ll publish novels — to say how unlikely that is. It’s not because we have no quail in Upper Michigan. He can travel to his family’s ranches in Nevada. He struggles to train her at all. His brain trauma has robbed him of patience and reasoning. Not that a former Airborne Ranger was ever the patient sort, but it’s become comical how I have to clicker train him to clicker train his dog. Of the three of us, the GSP remains the most competent.

We are all allowed our dreams. I’ll kick anyone in the shins who dampens the dreams of another, especially the dreams of the vulnerable. I’m not a violent person but I feel locked in a strange battle where I have to fight the VA system to get the healthcare my warrior needs and I have to fight my warrior to get the healthcare he needs and I have to fight myself to carry on because none of this is normal. But maybe the concept of normal is derived from the same fluff of dreams and cotton candy. Sweet on the tongue but ephemeral. Not real.

I write fiction. I craft stories that are not real. It’s called verisimilitude — the appearance of being real or true.

My life feels not real at times. Like when he badgers me to go outside in the snow at 11 pm because Mars is visible in the sky. He’s obsessed with Mars and can point out all the planetary alignments. That part feels authentic. But when I try to capture a real moment, try to connect, try to remember who he used to be, a car turns down Roberts Street and I remind him to step out of the road with the puppy and he rages at the car for driving fast and reckless. They are not. But I can’t say so.

He continues like nothing abnormal happened and points to Taurus’s eye — “That’s your sign,” he tells me. It is not. A knee-jerk reflex and I protest, forgetting my place of accepting what is not real. “I’m a Gemini,” I say. “No you’re not,” and he continues telling me about the night sky. Sometimes I laugh. But sometimes I cry. He’s my husband and does not know me.

I’ve become the villain in his mind, the person who has trapped him in this God-awful snowy prison. He slips on the ice, walking the dog and it’s as if I’ve deliberately swung a sledgehammer to bash both knees. It takes a week before his counselor can convince him to go see his primary care physician, and it’ll take me days to help him remember he agreed to do it. I’m not too concerned. He’s not limping. Just grumbling. He needs a bad story to chew on and anything that makes me the bad guy is his favorite fairytale.

Remember, it not real, it’s the verisimilitude of an altered mind.

So, here I am, writing fiction about a veteran spouse. She is not me. I couldn’t bear to give her my burden. Instead, I wanted to explore how long-haul veteran spouses come to carry the weight of wounded warriors. I wanted to give a definition of the invisibility of veteran spouses. We are real and so are our loyalty and our brokenness. We get crushed beneath the packs of what they bring home from combat training and war zones.

Forget eggshells. Some of us walk on broken glass.

I wanted to write a beautiful novel. An uplifting story. One that faces death, dismemberment, and dementia. One that shows the struggle to understand what PTSD is and how many soldiers overcome it.

My husband did. He used his combat dive training to manage night terrors. He remained, and remains, fearless. He knew something was wrong with his thinking years ago and back then, he trusted me to find out why. We were still a team. I have much admiration and respect for him in confronting the debilitation of multiple conditions. At what point do I say enough? He doesn’t get to. Why should I?

And so I stand before you a Taurus prison guard (aka a Gemini veteran spouse) and I think of sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes fries (not the dehydrated ones for puppies to gnaw). Twice-baked sweet potatoes. Roasted sweet potatoes. Sweet potato pie. From savory to sweet, these tubers can become many things. Sort of like veteran spouses.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

Myrtle’s Basket by Charli Mills

Myrtle dug the tubers. Her spade cut the loam, missing the sweet potatoes with garnet skins. She shook them free of California soil, cut their vines, and placed each in a basket her mother wove of old clothes. Myrtle fingered a faded blue cloth, remembering the dress her sister used to wear when she gardened. Before the Spanish Flu robbed them of Althea and Papa. Dirt was harder back then. The graves difficult to hack into the drought-toughen soil. That was the only year they didn’t grow sweet potatoes. Myrtle carried fresh tubers and old memories to her kitchen.

🥕🥕🥕

February 18: Flash Fiction Challenge

It’s Thursday again, time for the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge. Once again we will all fill in so that our friend Charli can focus on that thesis of hers. As I alluded to last week, Charli has set this community up to be successful and to manage even with her not directly at the helm. We know what to do to keep the Ranch running— read, write, comment. A foolproof formula!

All we need is a post and a prompt.

Who’s the fool now? I have nothing to say and a gazillion things I could say. Once upon a time… no. This time, maybe today’s date is a place to start.

Maybe today, February 18, isn’t a special day for you. But it could be. Today is the birth date of both my husband and my sister-in-law’s mother. Birthdays…

I never had children so have never hosted a children’s birthday party, never had to be the one either fulfilling wishes or causing disappointment. I remember many of my own birthdays as a child. One of the best was when I turned ten. First of all— ten! Double digits; a roll over number; a whole decade old; it was a big one. But I remember it for getting what I wanted as a gift from my parents— a hammer. Maybe after ten years I had simply worn my mother down, but my request was not ignored, it wasn’t replaced with a more “appropriate” gift, with what she felt I should really want or need. And it was a nice hammer, with a sleek red wooden shaft and a rubber grip. It was real and it was mine. More important, I had been heard and acknowledged. It was a good birthday, with even better days to follow as I dragged slabs into the woods and hammered together a fort.

As an adult I sometimes ignore my own birthday as best I can, other times I take the day into my own hands. When I was crazy busy during summers with my one-woman landscaping business I would give myself the day off to spend time making the cake I wanted, homemade carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. I’m not much of a baker, so this cake making took time and that time was my gift to myself, a time of meditation and reflection.

When I changed careers and had summers off I sometimes chose to spend my birthday making a nice meal for friends and family to enjoy together with me after their workday. Again, it was a meditative way to spend the day and was a way to show gratitude for those people who were going to acknowledge the day whether I wanted them to or not.

A memorable day that happens to have also been my birthday was the one when my sister-in-law took the day off from work just to hang out with me. With no planning we ended up kayaking four ponds, having to portage only small distances, needing no vehicle. We lunched on delicious sandwiches out on the water. We were joined by the local bald eagle for a bit as well as other wildlife. It was a fine adventure, our Four Pond Day.

I’ve had so many fine adventures and memorable days, some with friends and family, many spent all alone. I’m reminded of and just reread a picture book written by Byrd Baylor and illustrated by Peter Parnall, I’m In Charge of Celebrations.How could I be lonely?” the narrator asks. “I’m the one in charge of celebrations.” The setting is the American Southwest, but the narrator’s outdoor wanderings and recognition of amazing sights and events to celebrate resonate with me here in my wooded northeast. With lyrical language, set upon the page as poetry instead of paragraphs, we are told about some of the narrator’s findings and reactions.

And then all day

you think

how

lucky

you were

to be there.

Some of my best

celebrations

are sudden surprises

like that.

If you weren’t outside

at that

exact

moment,

you’d miss them.”

Her New Year celebration has to be “a day that is exactly right…. Usually it’s a Saturday around the end of April.) … I spend the day admiring things…

I celebrate

with horned toads

and ravens

and lizards

and quail…

And Friend,

it’s not

a bad

party. ”

Celebrating New Year’s at the return of spring makes sense to me. I had always thought of the first day of a new school year to be New Year’s Day but this past September was different, as I had left that career for who-knows-what adventures. This year the first day of school away from school was a birth day, a new beginning. While my former colleagues did all that first day stuff I hiked the mountain with no agenda. The barred owl was as surprised to see me as I it. It is quite something to see an owl slipping silently through the trees. How lucky I was to be there.

Today is the birthday of at least two people that I know of and I will let them both know that I appreciate their being in the world. But today could be your special day too, for any number of reasons.

In Byrd Baylor’s book dust devils, rainbows (and the rabbit that also saw the rainbow), a green parrot-shaped cloud, a coyote, falling stars, and the new year are celebrated. The narrator says that she is very choosy about what goes into her celebration notebook.

It has to be something

I plan to remember

the rest of my life.

You can tell

what’s worth

 a celebration

because

your heart will

POUND

and

you’ll feel

like you’re standing

on top of a mountain

and you’ll

catch your breath

like you were

breathing

some new kind of air.

Otherwise,

I count it just

an average day.

(I told you

I was

choosy.)

Life is the present. And you are the one in charge of celebrations.

~D. Avery

February 18, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story where a character is in the right place at the right time. It may be cause for celebration! Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by February 23, 2021, to be included in the compilation. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

A Fish Story by D. Avery

“Luckiest fishing day ever!”

“Hope! You and Cousin Bobby caught enough for a meal?”

He groaned when the children showed him their sleds loaded with pails of fresh perch along with the ice-fishing gear. “That’s a lot of perch to dress.”

“We found a hotspot, Daddy!”

Laughing, Hope’s mother headed back inside.

“Hey! Help skin.”

“After some phone calls.”

Throughout the afternoon people started dropping by, some chatting while peeling perch out of their scaly skins, some cooking fish over an outside fire. Fish stories old and new were told.

Hope beamed.

“This is the best perch dinner ever!”

🥕🥕🥕

February 4: Flash Fiction Challenge

Once upon a time…

No…. that’s not right for an essay… 

Sometimes when I am stuck for a response to a prompt I just put pen to paper with those words, once upon a time, and that gets something started. So you can tell that I am stuck. Some guest host! But I have learned from experience that those words might get me unstuck. I learned it through writing experiences here. I learned by doing.

Once upon a time I often gave attention to learning because once upon a time I was an educator, a teacher of children. I found that I was always studying teaching and learning, well after the formal training. The best opportunities to learn more about teaching and learning were those times when I was a student myself and reflected on the experience. Many of us have to (or choose to) take continuing course work for our careers, but we might also take courses for other interests. When you do, if you’re lucky, you’ll see that great teachers are everywhere.

The instructor for the motorcycle licensing course I took years ago was a natural born teacher. The course could have been used as an exemplar for primary school teachers. The men in the group seemed embarrassed at first to pretend to be applying brakes and clutch at our seats but I appreciated the development of muscle memory and safe supervised practice before hitting the track. On the track, skills were scaffolded, riders were coached, privately corrected, and openly encouraged and applauded by the instructor. People felt safe and successful. We all encouraged and applauded one another, even as we watched and learned from one another.

Once upon a time I sat right seat fairly often, beside my husband who pilots a Cessna Skyhawk. I didn’t presume that I could fly the plane but I learned enough about navigation and how the instruments worked that I became comfortable with flying, and helpful at times. I know enough to recognize good piloting. I recognized a good pilot and teacher when I had occasion to fly daily in a larger plane. I would always move to the front of the nine-passenger plane and sit in the co-pilot seat. The pilot recognized that I was familiar with flying. If there was no one else on board that morning I got to learn more about flying, by doing. The pilot met me where I was at, and my capability and confidence grew.

Both these teachers I mention had experience and expertise but not ego. They were calm and confident and loved what they did so much that they were eager to share and teach others.  They reveled in their students’ successes.

I don’t want to race motorcycles or do stunts. I don’t want to fly a plane, not as the pilot in command. And I certainly don’t want to do what Charli does here every week. But I’m sitting right seat this week with a hand on the controls so that our friend can focus on her thesis and other course work. Hang on. Let’s see if I can land this thing.

Once upon a time, before I became a teacher, I substituted in others’ classrooms. Some classrooms were a joy to be in. In those classrooms students followed known routines and were engaged in relevant, meaningful tasks. I was the nominal adult in charge but was learning more than anyone. I learned about the power of classroom community. I saw that the successful classes, the ones that gave energy rather than drained it, were communities of learners that respected and encouraged one another. Building a solid, safe classroom community is what I aspired to when I answered the call to teach, for it’s the foundation for learning. When I did become a teacher with my own classroom, I was rarely out. I didn’t want to miss anything! But there were times when I had to be away and have a guest teacher come in. And I was so proud of my students (and myself) when the guest teacher reported that they learned something, that they had fun, that the class seemed to run itself.

Once upon a time I found this place, Carrot Ranch, and as I tend to do, I watched and learned even while examining that process. I saw a community of writers that are at the same time a community of learners and teachers. I learned by doing, and I was bold enough to do, to write, because I was in a safe place. Besides, all the other kids were doing it! I was fortunate to have walked into one of those classrooms that hums with engagement and laughter; where the teacher models and encourages creativity; where she is also a learner, honing her craft as both writer and teacher.

This is what Charli is doing now. In addition to working on her novel for her MFA, she is also taking courses to become a teacher of writing. Mere certification! She is already a teacher. Charli has provided a safe space where a community of writers comes together to practice and to learn from one another. People of all levels leave their ego outside the gate but share their experience and experiments with writing. We know that learning requires risk and also that learning is fun and rewarding. In this classroom there is empathy and there is laughter. In this classroom all are welcome.

One level of learning is imitation, valid even when that imitation falls short of the example. This week at the Ranch things look the same but are not the same. But we know the routine and will follow the model as best we can. A prompt will be provided and I will even attempt to present the responses in collected form next Wednesday. This is a learning experience for me. I thank you in advance for your patience and indulgence and your participation.

Once upon a time” is a phrase that readies the reader/listener to be transported to a magical time and place. The phrase sparks anticipation and also soothes with its predictability. Carrot Ranch is a magical place. I look forward to Charli’s posts every week, like the child who finds refuge and resources for hope and growth within the classroom. Despite the happenings of the outside world, despite more immediate concerns in our lives, we can come here every week and be sustained and uplifted by this community, a community that we can count on and learn from.

And no, the photo has nothing to do with this post or prompt, but Ms. Mills is out for PD and that one from 2015 has the correct date so it’ll do.

~D. Avery

February 4, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that features a substitution. How might a character or situation be impacted by a stand-in? Bonus points for fairy tale elements. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by February 9, 2021, to be included in the compilation (published February 10). Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

American Boarding School by D. Avery

My black hair flutters to the hard plank floor, dead crows windrowed around the stiff boots that bind my feet.

They point at me, repeat a sound.

I tell them my name. Pointing at myself I repeat my name. They beat me.

They point at me, call me that sound, make me say it. The sound is sand in my mouth.

I point at myself. I speak my name. They beat me again.

I say that other name. They smile.

I learn to keep my real name close. I will run with it, will leave their chafing boots behind.

🥕🥕🥕

Special Collection Flash Fiction Challenge

When I was twenty, a group leader at a retreat asked me, what are your goals in five years? One year? Thirty days? Then he asked, what would you do if you had five years to live? One year? Thirty days? What I wrote down were two different lists. I never forgot the lesson that day. Now, if you asked me, I’d respond with one list. Death is not easy for any of us to contemplate, and yet we will all die. We must live as if we know that because this life, people, and love are so precious.

To me, Carrot Ranch is the ranch I always dreamed of having. Sure, I thought there would be more horses and cattle, but I’m happier with writers and readers. The greater writing community is a colorful bazaar full of wonders and books and writers swilling ink. The branches of smaller and intersecting communities provide shade on our path and a place to gather and be. This literary community fills my creative well and my heart.

So, when I heard the news that one of our familiar pens and watering holes was grappling with the age-old challenge of dying, I felt stilled and sad. But then, hope rose on the wings of what it means to live and connect with one another. I’m in awe of the compassion of this collective of writers, of the bravery to step up and declare what matters when many would shy away. I’m humbled by how quickly his community responded.

Our dear friend, mentor, and prolific writer, Sue Vincent is facing lung cancer. If you don’t already follow Sue, you can do so here and learn of her story first-hand. Unlike me thirty-some years ago, Sue doesn’t have to reconcile her lists. She does what she loves, and finds it an honor to prompt the stories of others. In her, I find a kindred spirit, a lifelong learner and lover of people. Sue Vincent is a force of good in this world and proof positive that stories matter.

And you are all a part of that force for good, too. Whether you write horror, humor, or hefty words, you do good to share your stories, to use your voice, and to connect with others different from you. Writers are the bridges of cultures, the harbingers of better days, and the ambassadors of truth through fiction (and BOTS). You also care deeply for one another.

On Monday, Carrot Ranch will launch an event to celebrate Sue Vincent and her writing. There will be a “99” writing contest from February 1-19 with a suggested donation that goes directly to Sue. We want to make it a big deal beyond our trees of the writing woods, therefore it carries a $100 grand prize. There will also be a parade of sorts, a chance to gather together with Sue to share and reblog her posts in February. Be sure to tune in Monday for the full announcement. I’m so proud of all who have arranged this event, and volunteered to help. I’m proud of all of you whom I know will push this out far and wide to celebrate one of our own beloved writers.

February is going to be different at Carrot Ranch. Don’t let it throw you. I’ll be cloistered away, working on my thesis submission. I’m grateful to the community for carrying on.

Here’s a schedule for you so you know what to expect:

  • January 28 Special Collection Challenge to Honor the work of Sue Vincent
  • February 1-19: Sue Vincent Classic Rodeo Contest and Parade of Reblogs (announced Monday, February 1 at CarrotRanch.com/blog)
  • February 3 No Collection
  • February 4 Special Host: D. Avery
  • February 10 Special Host Collection
  • February 11 Sue Vincent Reblog Parade (no challenge)
  • February 17 Special Sue V Collection posted
  • February 18 Special Host: D. Avery
  • February 19 Contest ends
  • February 23 Special Host Collection
  • February 24 Regular Challenges Resumes
  • March 22 Winner and Runners Up Announced

You might say, February will be special. Please join in because this is about all of us and our legacy as writers.

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

~ Rumi

This 99-word story prompt will be posted and presented to Sue Vincent on February 17. If you want to be included in this special collection, respond through the form.

January 28, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about life as a river of consciousness. Think about the possibilities of the prompt. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by February 11, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Life as a River of Consciousness

She stood on a rounded rock in the middle of the river, contemplating her next jump. Summer saw the flow subside from its earlier spring torrents. She noticed how the river had changed from last season, and the one before. Her life seemed perpetual as the water. She longed for stillness, awareness, so she didn’t hop to the next exposed rock. Instead, she stood in the river of consciousness, allowing life to flow through her until a dandelion seed tickled her nose and she sneezed. Her small droplets became part of the waterway, her one life one with all.

🥕🥕🥕

January 21: Flash Fiction Challenge

The old cliche goes like this — there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. My response is, I hope it’s not a train! We all get the concept, which is why cliches are well-used like a favorite pair of driving gloves in winter. Whenever we hop into the car to drive we put them on, overlooking their frayed edges. They do their job.

So, why are writers encouraged to purge cliches from their writing? The well-worn phrases become mindless substitutions and fail to create imagery in the mind of the reader.

Take the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. If I tell you that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, most will understand that I see an end to a period of darkness. But what does that really mean? What is my period of darkness, or more to the point, what is your character experiencing?

Sally the tightrope walker suffers an illness that left her temporarily blind. Her light at the end of the tunnel could be the return of the spotlight on her rope. Beyond her emerging vision she could see hemp.

Betty Jo the Boston Terrier wandered off from her family on a camping trip. She walked 200 miles to get home. When the little dog turned down her street and saw an end to her arduous journey, she could see the kitchen light illuminating her dog door.

Miss Jernegon taught school on the alkali flats between ranches, wishing her life were more sophisticated. When she received a letter from a boarding school out east, she could hear the train that would carry her away from dust storms and starved cattle.

It’s late, and my examples aren’t stellar, but you get the idea. Instead of saying each character had come to the point in their story where they could see the light at the end of the tunnel, I looked for a way to express the idea of hopeful endings to difficult circumstances. You can search your characters’ setting or personality traits to inform a cliche.

Don’t worry about cliches in your first draft. They show up because they come to mind easily. When you revise, look for metaphors, similes, and familiar phrases in your work, and then think of how you can rebuild the concept.

At the crack of dawn becomes:

  • when the solar inferno crests the horizon
  • at the border between night and day
  • when robins summon the sun

Back-stabber becomes:

  • fake friend
  • the boss’s informant
  • cut worm

Flat as a pancake becomes:

  • flat as new iPhone
  • flat as a fat tire on a wilderness bike trail
  • flat as a dead heartbeat

When it comes to cliches, you can think outside the box…I mean, you can let your mind wander the fence-less prairie beyond the ranch. For fun and practice, we are going to tackle cliches periodically. Grab the bull by the…wait…grab the carrot by the top and pull. You know, roll up our sleeves…I mean, put on our work jeans and calf-poop encrusted boots and get to work on rewriting the light at the end of the tunnel in a story.

Quick update — the puppy is growing (teeth) and learning to beg for naps. I’m an easy target, willing to snuggle for naps on the couch. My thesis is in jeopardy. Time is flying…I mean time is slipping through…time is a back-stabber, a pizza parlor robber, a fickle cat at the back door.

January 21, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that rephrases “light at the end of the tunnel.” Think of how the cliche replacement communicates a hopeful ending and aligns with your character or story. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by January 26, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

The Promised Light by Charli Mills

Copper reminded Jess of Christmas caramels, all smooshed and clinging to the bedrock. After Pa died, the mine captain told Ma, “Send a son or get out of the company’s house.” Jess was built stronger than her brother with weak lungs. When she chopped her hair and changed clothes, no one said a word. Not even Ma.

Mostly, Jess fetched for the men or hauled buckets of copper caramels to the ore carts. Not much longer. Ma was cooking a plan to remarry another miner. Climbing nineteen stories of ladders, Jess thought the sun was the Star of Bethlehem.

🥕🥕🥕

January 7 Flash Fiction Challenge

A week into the new year, and I’m ready to “do” again. For the past few weeks, I’ve been exploring what it means to be a human being. The reflection was inward, and the parameters were mine. I was “being” like no one was watching. You know, like the saying — “dance like no one is watching.” What fulfills each of us is a design as unique as our thumbprints. I spent time to be with my self-design.

What I did was deep vision work. I didn’t just bounce from cloud-dream to cloud-dream. I distilled those vapors and thought about what elements give me purpose.

Vision work never ends. When we talk about evolving as a person, we are acknowledging how our vision shapes our understanding of who we are in the world. The more insights we often gain, the greater change it brings. The more we understand our vision, the better we get at defining our purpose. Visions don’t change; we get better clarity.

Think of it like this. Your vision is the landscape of the dream that drives your life. We can feel it in our gut and heart. We can see it in our mind’s eye. At first, it looks fuzzy. We have to define outlines of wispy clouds and name what we feel. When we first start playing with our visions, we imagine what our life looks like in five, ten, twenty years if we grow into who we want to be and what we do.

Then, as we continue to accomplish vision work each year, we get better at definition. These are the insights that come to us. A picture emerges from the clouds of dreams. We begin to recognize vision feelings in our every day lives. So, we push into that clarity and begin to see our vision’s thumbprint.

For example, many writers have a clear vision of a moment that defines success — they can imagine what they wear and say and how they feel when they sit on Oprah’s couch to discuss their book. Some writers include that moment in their vision. And why not? Vision work dreams big. Martin Luther King had a vision that drove his purpose, which was so strong it continues to inspire others today.

When we reflect on our vision, we realize that Oprah and her couch are symbolic. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen. But a vision is about purpose, about who we are as human beings as much as it is about what we do or accomplish. Go back to Oprah’s couch. Why are you there? What are you discussing? How are others around you feeling? How do you feel?

This is deep vision work.

I’ve had a dream of winning an Oscar from the time I was nine years old. I really don’t know what spawned the dream other than two things happened that year, and maybe that was enough. First, I got to go to the MGM Grand Hotel in Reno, Nevada, where I had my photo taken with a lion in a building that spared no detail on Hollywood glamor. Second, I had a bit role in the school play and discovered I love being a different person than the scared, awkward, and bullied kid I was.

That year, I watched the Oscars and noticed how the show looked like it was filmed at the MGM Grand Hotel, and the slick actors from films seemed as awkward in person as I felt despite their glamor.

I never told anyone about my fantasy or what I pretended any time I got to revisit the hotel in Reno and walk down the red-carpeted stairs. I discovered writing several years later and realized I could also become characters on the page. However, it popped up during vision work. And do you know what I did with that dream cloud? I blew it away because I thought it had nothing to do with my writing vision.

I was wrong.

Three years ago, I decided to not ignore the Oscar dream. I wrote it down in my ten-year vision. If I encouraged others to dream big, why not do it myself? Then I began to reflect on what it means to me. How it feels. How I feel in everyday life when I get that “Oscar” feeling. How winning an Oscar has anything to do with what I write.

A picture began to emerge. I live a rich inner life, and it is the source of my creativity. It’s not that I want to hide (on the stage or page); actually, I want to use bigger than life personas to express who I am on the inside. Surprisingly, my desire for Oscar recognition has to do with being seen for who I authentically am. It aligns with my top personal value of authenticity, which drives me to live the life I feel best expresses my purpose. That’s me, that’s my Oscar.

Also, I recognized a more practical application. My writing vision has to do with the kind of fiction I want to put out in the world — stories that express love in all its manifestations, characters who overcome adversity, books that uplift readers. I find myself looking for these stories in film to get quick fixes.

My writing Oscar is to write a story that would make a binge-worthy Netflix series.

Do I plan to set a goal to win an Oscar? No. That’s not the point. A vision might use accomplishments to express a person’s driving dreams, but a vision is all about living the fullest life available to you. Goals, the things we do, should take us to our vision. Every year, I will take this time to dive deeper into being. My vision balances who I am with what I do.

It’s not the arrival that satisfies me but the journey. I am a writer with an Oscar in her heart. I don’t need to get a statue; I need to express who I am on the page. Who is that? I’m still learning, but loving the transformative ride.

It’s good to be back to the Ranch and among writers. Look for Kid and Pal’s exclusive next Monday on the new baby critters headed tho the fictional ranch and the real ranch headquarters. Welcome to 2021!

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

Periwinkles on the Pack River by Charli Mills

Stones pulsed with a periwinkle heartbeat. Danni walked along the Pack River where the snow melt had retreated to expose banks of smooth stones. Her steps disturbed clouds of tiny blue butterflies that flew ahead to land, folding up wings to expose the buff color of granite underneath. As quickly as they fluttered, they disappeared into the camouflage of their coloring. G-Dog and Detlor burst past her, running to the creek with happy, floppy freedom ears. Blue periwinkles and brown dogs. The day would be perfect if Ike were here. She tossed a stone in his favorite fishing hole.

🥕🥕🥕

December 17: Flash Fiction Challenge

As much as I love the landscape and people of the American West, I’m content with my decision to leave the cradle of my family for seven generations. They came from the Pyrenees, Azores, Brazil, Denmark, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Most came directly to California and the rest from North Carolina. A few yet reside in Colorado and eastern Washington. Still, California and Nevada hold my family’s experience of America.

And then I met a veteran from Nevada and lived in almost every western state, thereafter. Sometimes I think it’s odd that we ended up in the Upper Midwest, of all places. But after struggling with the economic hardships of the rural west, we educated up and headed out. My husband grew up milking jerseys, and I worked ranches and logging camps.

Our grown children hardly know the difference between a heifer and a gelding. None of them ride horses. Yet, they matured among diversity, spent teen years swing dancing, going out to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and prancing at the Gay 90s. Some of the stories, like a mishap with a bubble machine at a drag show, I’m only now learning. They’ve supported transgender friends through transformations, traveled to other countries where they had to learn the language and customs, and embrace a changing world with mindfulness.

I miss my kids. It’s a parent-thing. Maybe, it’s simply human nature to be nostalgic for what we create and give back to the world, not ours to keep. Every Message from Svalbard, phone call from Wisconsin, or text from nine miles up the Keweenaw, and I light up like Venus on a cloudless night. Every tear, worry, and pain, I feel. Any close relationship can relate. I’ve felt this close to a horse, and I know people who feel this close to their faith. We feel what we feel, and sometimes, deeply.

This time of year tends to expose tender nerves, whether emotions, unresolved situations, or memories. The veil between the past and present and future thins, and we expect to wake up like Scrooge to frosty ghosts and rattling chains. Sometimes we sit down at the kitchen table and wonder why we are here. We feel losses keenest when it seems like everyone else has what we do not. It’s an illusion, not true. We all suffer losses. Some deal with it differently.

No wonder bells, bows, gifts, and trees delight us. We want the lights, the sweets, the full celebration. Anything and everything to chase away the chill and dark thought. We make merry to make it through.

A good friend texted me tonight saying, “There’s so much pain at the hem of the world. So much.” She should know; she’s our region’s grief counselor who sits at that hem. She’s the person who witnesses the loss others feel despite her father having terminal cancer and her 22-year-old daughter recently diagnosed with a rare and aggressive lymphoma. She left her daughter’s side to attend the grief group she leads.

I have another friend, who is my personal witness. She gets me even when I’m not sure I understand myself. She lets me be silly and serious in varying degrees. She sits at my six (military-speak for “got your back”). We should all be so blessed to have such friends and to be one in return. Sometimes, I think she sits at my six, so I can sit at my grieving friend’s six, so she can sit at her group’s hem so the world can watch out for one another.

But I also understand that some feel no one in the world is watching their back. Isolation is deadly. I mean the mental kind where we don’t feel connected. Drop extended COVID protocols, disagreements, and polarizing politics into the world, and physical isolation turns mental. Bitterness is the inability to remember love. Love begins within. Take care to guard your hearts.

Be merry. Be bright. Someone needs you. Maybe you need you. Maybe your neighbor needs a light in your window to connect. Maybe a friend needs a goofy text. Maybe you need to forgive someone — not for their sake, but for your peace.

Write. Seriously, write. Scream into the page. Wet the ink with tears. Write a love story, a horror story. Play with words and remember what it was like to play as a child. Let that child breathe. Write like grammarians aren’t watching. Write nonsense. Write a manifesto for your creativity. Write an artist’s statement. Write a poem that doesn’t rhyme. Write a syllabic dialog. Talk to yourself. Talk to someone you miss. Talk to God, the Goddess, the Divine. Write the unexpected. Write what is typical of you.

Your authentic voice is needed; wanted; deserves breath. Tell stories. Any story. Your story.

You all gather here, weekly, intermittently, bashfully, or boldly stating opinions. What a grand space you make this! What a community! I know we can’t all possibly agree and yet for nearly six years, we’ve focused on how creativity flourishes among differences. You’ve forgiven me for rants when my injustice quota fills up and pours out onto the post. You’ve looked the other way, or rolled your eyes, when someone else writes — literally — the opposite perspective from yours. I feel like this literary anthropologist every week, weaving stories that are not alike.

We are not alike. And yet we are all so very human. So up and down. So vulnerable. So resilient. Contradictions and contrast, trying to connect.

Regardless of where you are from or where you are at, I’m happy you are here.

My daughter assured me that this video will bring a smile to any Grinch. She is a dancer and her troupe is delighting in this Christmas number, texting each other 🔔🎀🎁🎄. They are choreographing their own version on Zoom. I admire that the dancers with Todrick pull it off in stilettos, thus the prompt this week. I hope “Bells, Bows, Gifts, and Trees” brightens your day!

December 17, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that features stilettos. Who will wear them and why? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by December 22, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

Gender Glitter by Charli Mills

Jace carefully dressed to costume up with the other college drag queens. He, she…no, he…set out on cross-country skis to the campus theater, stilettos tied with cord and slung across her back. His back. No one paid much attention to the petite contender for Frostiest Northern Queen until none could deny her presence (at last!). In a silver beehive wig to match nine-inch glittering stilettos, she won crowd and crown. Jace had to keep the victory secret. She (born that way) headed for the girl’s dorm no longer getting to express the person of a man becoming a woman.

🥕🥕🥕