A Funeral, a Birthday, and a Drop-Dead Party

What do a funeral, a birthday, and a drop-dead party have in common? Everything and nothing. We all have a birthday. We’ll all drop dead. Some of use will get a funeral.

Last night I went to a former neighbor’s funeral who died too young. 53. Today is my birthday. 58th. And tomorrow I’ll have a drop-dead party (explained below). All three “events” are happening on consecutive days during a palindrome week (dates are the same front- and backwards: 71317, 71417, and 71517).

I could dive down a numerology rabbit hole to chase the seven (a number I’ve adored since childhood) or the palindromes, but today is not about numbers. I’m still sorting out what it’s about. The sevens? The palindromes? The shocking news about a man who had been a neighborhood hero during four (yes 4!) hurricanes? The birthday plus drop-dead party?

I’m choked up because until a few days ago (another palindrome date) I thought my former neighbor was fine, living his life with his wife in his new house about 20 miles away. I was wrong. This last eleven months, he endured a flood, cancer, surgeries, chemo, and so much pain. He wasn’t “just fine.”

Don’t assume anyone’s fine.

drop-deadMy throat has been dry for several weeks (months even). I haven’t been able to write, not so much due to writer’s block (I don’t feel blocked), but rather some sort of paralysis: a complicated mix of politics, work, and family. Attending the visitation unchoked my voice just a bit. This week’s string of events floated at least one of my nostrils above the mire that’s kept me under, and I want to share something important.

You’re going to drop dead.

Well, perhaps you won’t drop but on some date (maybe not a palindrome date), you’ll be dead.

Some of us will see it coming, like so many friends of mine, and my recently deceased neighbor.

Some of us won’t.

But it’s coming. Winter (the end of the cycle) is coming.

Be kind about dropping dead.

We’re having a drop-dead party to organize our check out papers.

My friend’s mom gets the credit for this inspiration. One of the sweetest things she did before she checked out was keep a notebook filled with drop-dead information. She inspired me to start my own folder. I have started organizing information about my things, my accounts, and what to do with my body when I drop dead.

The point of the drop-dead party is to talk about checking out, share ideas about what to include in our notebooks/folders, how to make the transition for those who survive us easier, and exercise a little control over a situation in which we’ll have none.

My dad has asked, “Don’t you find that macabre?” My response was no. It’s more morbid to hole up in a corner somewhere and try to figure out what you should do to be kind to your survivors when you check out. Or worse, make no plans at all leaving your survivors to figure it out on their own. Talking about it with friends, writing information and messages, and making plans feels less macabre. It feels like adding a little kindness to an unhappy occasion and taking a bit of control over what we can’t.

I would emphasize that control isn’t the point. The point is making it easier for our survivors: information about our accounts, our ideas for a memorial, memories that are important to us, and what to do with that bag of bones!

Throw a drop-dead party with your dearest friends. It’s not macabre. It’s kind.

© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

from product to DIY skin and hair care

Three and a half years ago I started dabbling in DIY solutions. My gateway DIYs were household cleaners: dish-washing liquid, dishwasher detergent, laundry detergent, furniture polish, oven cleaners, and even cultured enzymes for cleaners. While I still make household cleaners, it was the oils and butters for DIY skin and hair care potions that hooked me. I clean, treat, and moisturize everything —from the hair on my head to the soles of my feet, from the rough elbow and heel callouses to the delicate eyelid folds— with things I make.

That’s the DIY thrill. “I made it!”

With what?

Vinegar, sugar, salt, honey, beeswax, baking soda, butters, and oils.

But why?

When I tell people about my journey the responses are mixed.DIY skin and hair care

  • Wow!
  • You’re an overachiever.
  • I’ve been thinking about trying that!
  • How do you find the time?
  • Interesting!
  • Why on earth would you do that?

My answers are equally mixed and often vague. Although I’ve tackled some specific needs, I didn’t start down this DIY road because of specific needs. My DIY journey is more of a meandering response to my “How can I . . . ?” curiosity. How can I . . .

  • . . . live a little greener and remove toxins from our home? I’ll turn orange peels and pulp into cleaners!
  • . . . save money? I’ll make my own eye cream!
  • . . . go hard core with my three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle)? I’ll wash those jars and fill them with DIY foot cream!

DIY is doable

Contrary to what you might think, going DIY for skin and hair care doesn’t take that much time. Once you’re in the groove, it takes less time to make your own than it does to go to the store. And in case you suspect otherwise, I’m not an overachiever. In fact, I’m lazy. In just about every endeavor, including work, my efforts are to find the most expedient way to get from A to Z. Honestly, I’m wont to question why I can’t just stop at M or N. What is the merit of going all the way to Z?

So if you’re poised to dismiss dabbling into DIY because it would take too much time and effort, you’re a little bit right but mostly wrong. The learning curve of the first dabblings might feel daunting, but two batches in, you’ll whip up a batch of face wash and eye cream with one hand, while you toss vegetables in a wok with the other. That’s an exaggeration, but I insist: DIY is doable.

The struggles of the learning curve aren’t all bad. My missteps and flops were rarely absolute failures. Often, I found my way to the perfect potion after a misstep or a flop. I credit one flop with shielding me from two to six weeks of transition misery when I went poo-less.

Poo-Less, my real Do-It-Your-Own-Way adventure

I first heard about discontinuing shampoo when one of my daughters went poo-less. She experienced the oily and itchy scalp as it made the adjustment from being stripped of its natural oils and overproducing sebum, to being left to its own devices.

DIY skin and hair care

I had this taken on the day my hair was 12 months shampoo-free, and a full week without being rinsed.

I dove head-first into the poo-less movement last year, bracing myself for the crown misery. Tight for time and effort, I didn’t do much research. I tried one of the first methods I came across and oiled my hair with a mostly carrier and essential oil solution, rinsed well (very well), then went to church.

I’m a wash-n-go girl, so, on my way to church, I drove with the windows down to help dry my hair, shook my head as I left the car, and entered. After the service, I noticed our minister staring dumbfounded at my head. My reflection when I returned to my car revealed why. My hair felt soft and dry but looked oiled and heavy! Oops!

For the next couple of weeks, I continued to oil my head, but I followed up with generous amounts of baking soda and vinegar. This, I think, is what saved me from the misery of the transition. After a couple of weeks, I had time to do more research and settle into a routine that suited me.

The takeaway from this experience: when you substitute over-the-counter products with DIY methods, allow yourself space and time to experiment (and fail!) so that you find what works for you.

DIY changed me

The changes range from the condition of my skin and hair, to how I stock my pantry, to my shopping list, and to my mindset when it comes to skin and hair care.

I take my skin texture for granted now and forget that, even in my supple 20s, I had bouts of chaffing and chronically dry, flaky skin. That’s the old me. The new DIY me no longer has:

  • Dry skin
  • Rough elbows
  • Cracked heels
  • Foot fungus

And my head? I no longer suffer from:

  • Itchy scalp
  • Oily hair

I haven’t shampooed my hair in over 14 months, and it has never felt better. My scalp never itches, and my hair never gets oily. In fact (and don’t judge, I was experimenting!), I have gone more than two weeks without even rinsing my hair. Still not itchy, not oily.

The changes in the texture, comfort, and health of my skin and hair are so pronounced that today, if I’m stuck somewhere without my DIYs, I will shun over-the-counter skin and hair products and make my way to the kitchen instead.

The most significant change is possibly my shopping list. I no longer buy:

diy dry skin cream

My first DIY potion: easy eye cream

  • Eye cream
  • Face wash
  • Body lotion
  • Foot cream
  • Face cream
  • Makeup remover
  • Shampoo
  • Hand cream
  • Body scrubs
  • Medicated creams for bites, rashes, and other skin irritations

These things have been usurped by essential and carrier oils, Shea butter, beeswax, and vegetable glycerin. Some of the oils are pricey, but even if I use only the most expensive essential oils, I still spend less money on skin care than if I were buying over-the-counter eye and face cream and body lotions. Add to that, the ones I make work as well and often better. So why would I buy over-the-counter?

Getting Started with DIY Skin and Hair Care

DIY skin and hair care

I use my mixer for whipping body creams more than for whipping up cakes.

Skin care

Figuring out how and from where to dive into DIY can be intimidating. Last year, I posted three pieces on getting started with skin care.

  • The first piece (DIY Skin Care Part 1: Oily Pantry) explains how to stock your pantry so that you always have what you need at hand.
  • The second (DIY Skin Care Part 2: Oily Starters) provides some basic recipes for you to get started. I prefer calling these processes because if you understand the basic process, you can experiment with it, tweaking the ingredients and the ratios to make it just right for you.
  • The third (DIY Skin Care Part 3: Oily Personals) is a list of essential and carrier oils, organized by skin and hair conditions, problems, and so on. This will help you personalize the creams, lotions, and unguents you concoct.

Hair care

Many blogs and websites offer DIY advice for hair care.

If you’re considering going poo-less, you can begin exploring ideas online.

But more importantly you’ll need to allow yourself opportunities to experiment and find the right method for your hair. Of the various poo-less approaches, the one that works for me is condition and rinse once or twice a week, and about once a month, rinse with a baking soda solution followed by vinegar before conditioning. For a while, I was using no conditioner, just soda and vinegar, but my hair needs a little moisture and conditioning. I’m experimenting with DIY conditioners but haven’t nailed it yet. When I do, I’ll share the process.


One of the unexpected emotions I experienced on this DIY journey is the joy of freedom.

  • I’m free of the toxins that enter homes and bodies through over-the-counter cleaning and beauty products.
  • I’m free to design my products with the scents and textures I want, targeting the conditions and problems I have.
  • I’m free from the advertising mind games. Even the best packaging and slogans can’t lure me to purchase that age-defying unguent.

Knowing how to make things for myself is one of the most liberating feelings I’ve experienced, and one of the best reasons to at least dabble in DIY, even if you’re not willing to dive in deep yet.

Wishing you fun and fulfilling DIY skin and hair care adventures, whether they’re little dabblings or a lifetime journey!

© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2017

Gratitude in the Garden of Plenty

Like many middle-aged humans, I have a tendency to assess what’s left to do, accomplish, or reach. This is not necessarily unnecessary, but unbalanced amounts make us focus on what we lack, think less of of what we have, separating us from gratitude for what is already growing and within reach.

  • My thumb isn’t as green as mom’s.
  • What’s taking my cucumbers so long?
  • I wish I had more flowers and color in my yard.

I was having these thoughts as I watered my flowers but I decided to take a few photos. When I opened the images on my computer, I realized how disparate the lack I feel is to the garden I have.

These images brought me joy.

Maybe this is my lesson: If I zoom out and focus on what’s not there yet, I miss all of this joy. If I zoom in, I swoon through the colors, shapes, light, and insects. My gratitude and celebration for this wonder is good for me (especially for those around me) and I’m sure they will hasten the wonders to come in my life. Sometimes this (taking a photo and stepping away) is what it takes for me to return and be truly present. Enjoy.

© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2017

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Knee deep in weeds with friends

Have you ever gone into the woods or walked through the weeds with friends?

weeds and friendsI arranged for a weekend at my home in the hollow with three of my friends. My “country house” sits next to a water hollow, down the hill and through a meadow from my parents’ home. The weather apps told us to expect a combination of thunderstorms and sunshine. The weekend didn’t go off without a hitch or two, but it was lovely. Lovelier even than meadows, water hollows, thunderstorms, and sunshine.

weeds and wings

Walking through weeds with friends

I arranged for this weekend not only because we were overdue for some fun girlfriend time but also because I thought these friends really needed it. They’ve had losses, health scares, work upheavals, and challenges I hope I never have to navigate. Meadows, water hollows, thunderstorms, and sunshine. I thought the weekend was for them, but as I packed to leave and return home, I realized, I was the one who needed it.

My friends

weeds and berry promiesesWe’re knee deep with each other in thorny weeds, simple treasures, corny (sometime crass) jokes, coloring books, tears, Spanish ham, salads, cheese, wine, and whiskey. But the fun isn’t the important thing. The important thing is the net we create for each other. That friendly net is possibly one of the greatest gifts of middle-aged friendships. As parental walls crumble and safety nets of family collapse, that net of friendship is there to catch us when we fall, embrace us when we feel loss, and lift us when we sink down.

I didn’t take photos of the best moments of this past weekend. The photos I took don’t hold a candle to that phone call to the friend who wasn’t there yet, the meals with my parents, playing with colors, spinning wool, belly laughing. Most of the weekend was rainy, but we managed one nice walk, through the meadow, up the hill, in the weeds. These photos are from that friendly walk.wends and fences

Friendship nets form when we let ourselves get knee deep in the weeds with each other. We’ll rarely catch the best of those moments on any kind of camera, because the magic of making the net is better.






© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2017

On finding my público

In spring of 1985, I was wrapping up my masters’ thesis on Federico García Lorca’s not-quite-finished play El público. Two moments between me and my thesis director struck me and have stuck with me to this day.

You’re the expert.

The first moment was when I asked him a question about my topic. I don’t remember the question. But I remember the answer: I don’t know, Pennie. You’re the expert on this now.


How did that happen? How did I suddenly go from student struggling to know enough —anything!— to support a thesis, to expert?

He was —alarmingly— correct. I had joined the ranks of a very few who had obsessed over this tiny little unfinished play. Hence: expert. I experienced a similar alarm after having my first child. Weeks after giving birth, questions and comments suggested that I had taken a mysterious leap from floundering finder-outer to expert. But I was nowhere near having faith in myself.

You can’t write.

The second thesis moment between me and my director stuck in my craw for years. It’s still jammed in there a bit, but I’m slowly pulling it out. I shared with him my dream of writing my own plays, even my own novels and poems. I imagined beautiful, engaging words. What he told me felt like one of those Oh, honey (bless your little heart) moments. Paraphrasing roughly from his Spanish: There are those who do, and those who teach. In other words, Pennie, you won’t write. You’ll teach about writers.

This was heartbreaking and maddening to hear.

Every writer lives with that doubter that nags: You can’t write. You’re not that. My director’s comment gave my writer-doubter a juicy dose of vitamin B and adrenaline, and I have spent half of my life (literally), smothering that you-can’t-do-that voice and building up enough faith in myself to complete my own sentences.

My público

This weekend I took time to touch up a screenplay I wrote last January and re-read the first thirty pages of a novel I started last November. I had enough distance from both to read them like they weren’t mine, and damn! I want to read more. I don’t care if I’m my one and only público. I’m glad I wrote these things.

As often happens with students and teachers, my director and I became friends. We’ve managed to stay in touch, so I plan to send him a copy of my screenplay. And maybe that snippet of the novel-in-the making. There’s a bit of a snarky hrrmph! in the gesture, but I suspect he’ll be happy to read it, and happy to be part of my writer journey.

So here’s to my fellow writers who contend with resident doubters: trust yourself. You can eat your cake and have it too (that’s the correct way to say that, by the way). You can be a teacher (or editor!) and writer too. Keep writing. Keep reaching for your público.

© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2017.

Body donation

The mail we receive is rarely “real.” Mostly phishing, junk, and flyers. Today I had a dose of adult mail: a note from the insurance company, state tax department forms, a jury summons, and confirmation of my body donation (“after death,” they do specify on the form!) to the Department of Health and Hospitals Bureau of Anatomical Services.

Yeah, that last one.

My Body Donation

My first inspiration to take this route was a piece on NPR that featured med students and the appreciation they expressed for this gift. The more I looked into it, the more I understood the academic, scientific, and investigative importance of cadaver donations to the medical profession. 

Barring something truly horrific, I’m going to become a cadaver anyway. Why not donate it? I was already signed up as an organ donor, but the more I thought about donating my body, the more I felt this was more appropriate as my body’s last hurrah.

I dawdled for years before I found the correct contact information. I confess I wasn’t searching diligently. Who does for these things? I dallied another one or two years to fill out and send in the form. And, just like that, after years of dillies and dallies, I have my yellow body donation card. I know it will feel just like that when it’s time to turn it in. And just like another that, my surviving family will receive my ashes once the med students have finished their lessons.

I share these slightly macabre reflections in case you don’t already have special plans for your body when you’re done with it. This article on Parting (a funeral home site), which I didn’t read before I filled out the form, explains some of the advantages and disadvantages of cadaver donation. Even knowing the disadvantages, I feel good about putting this card in my purple folder.

© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

The sounds of fabric

The sounds of fabric

I hang somewhere between my parents and my children,
Snapping in the winds, palms burning as I cling to a weathered line.


The generation before me unravels just a bit with each gust.
The generation after me whooshes,
Crisp taffeta, precariously tacked.

I never took time for the backstitch.
How was I to stitch the seams of their character?
I hang by a thread.

Yet off they spring, releasing the line.
The rustling fibers of their beauty stroke my soul,
Wash me with innominate emotion as they bravely billow up and away.

I still hang somewhere between.
Clinging. Damp. Sagging sadly before those who formed me.
I question my strength to ease their decline.
Will the determination of my whip and slip stitches be enough?

I loosen my grip, and allow the draughts to slide me up and down the line.
Rippling through memories and hopes.
Flapping flatly past regrets and dreads.

A gust and I snap back.
The upside down arms of cotton distend
upwards to embrace the energy of those rising,
forward to hold the strength of those unraveling.

I swell somewhere between.
The ethereal threads that bind us.
The lightness of love that lifts us.

9 February 2017

© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2017

One Nation, Many Voices: I quietly raise my voice

Navigating the current political climate is exhausting, but, sometimes, I quietly raise my voice.

A couple of months ago, a family member’s FB post tipped my ink bottle. The post has been lodged in my writer’s craw for over two months, because the topics, emotions, and truths are complex.

Social media is a weak forum for insightful conversation about any complex topic, especially meaningful political, religious, or social justice discussion. When you’re not preaching to the choir, the quick scroll or the «hide» button silence you. Or worse, your post becomes a free-for-all mud slinging tangle. I crave coherent conversations about difficult topics. Unfortunately, even in person, the rhetoric of both sides seems to take over any such effort. Yet I make the effort.

I quietly raise my voice.

Many have taken to expressing their political views via memes. Memes range from outrageously funny to excruciatingly offensive. A meme that provokes hilarity in one inspires rage in another. This happens to people from all sides. As far as I can tell, rebuttals most often descend into a cat fights, which is largely why I refrain from responding publicly when people I love post memes or say things on social media that disturb me. From time to time, I’ll respond quietly through a private message, a practice that has wildly varied results. Sometimes the message leads to conversations that bring us closer. Sometimes I get clocked. But I quietly raise my voice.

The generalizations that are hurled between both sides, often in the form of exercising “conservative” and “liberal” as accusations, are not only hurtful and inaccurate, they impede the integrity of the conversation we need to have. But we need to have that conversation. A conversation that traverses the divide. It’s hard work. I find it especially hard as a liberal in a primarily conservative family, but in fairness, a conservative in a primarily liberal family might feel just as much discomfort as I do.

The political divide

So that’s out. I’m a liberal and most of my family is not. The liberal/conservative divide, however, is not so simple. I would say I’m religiously, socially, and economically liberal. My family includes my opposite: religiously, socially, and economically conservative. Some in my family, however, are socially and religiously liberal but economically conservative. Others are socially liberal, economically conservative, but religiously mute. As I branch out to describe aunts, uncles, cousins, and their spouses and children, the spectrum becomes increasingly complex.

Not that it’s a thing, but I find it fairly straightforward to label the politics of members of my family. Sadly, talking politics with family members is not. Conversations are difficult, sometimes forbidden. The “no politics” policy in my parents’ home has been good and bad, but part of me is screaming: “No fair!! Are you making peace or avoiding questions about your choices?”

Clowns to the left of you, Jokers to the right

Let’s start with the right. I have so many questions. Many are downright How can you . . . ? accusatory questions, like How can you when he mocked a disabled man? belittled a Gold Star family? repeatedly demeaned women in televised interviews and recorded conversations? refused to make public his tax returns? The list goes on. During the campaign, I was drowning in the hate speech and his invitations to violence against others.

I remember a drowning feeling when Obama took office, but it was different. After Obama’s election, we were drowning in fabrications: Obama’s birth certificate, religious affiliation, citizenship, Kenya. For years, whenever I traveled to my parents’ home, I would pass an Interstate billboard declaring that our president was the anti-Christ. I was drowning in what others said about Obama. For the last few months, the drowning waters have been Trump’s own words, not words fabricated about him.

Lest the left feel haughty, my dismay is not solely about those who support a bully billionaire. I’m also weary of the finger-pointing on the left. Fingers that accuse others of violence through silence. Fingers that accuse those who didn’t march, as well as those who did if they didn’t do it “right.” Fingers that point should an ally trip over the nuances of language in racial and social issues. Fingers that accuse and forget the value of the diversity of our voices. Fingers that jerk like knees and point before the ears have a chance to listen. Sometimes I have a hissy fit in my head: not all voices are raised in public venues, not all messages are delivered in marches on a sign, not everybody does it like that!

Stuck in the middle with me

I have to draw the line. Not between the left and the right. Not between myself and others, but rather for myself, to create that space where I quietly raise my voice.

My power is within me. I don’t gain control nor enter conversation by calling you to the mat for how you voted or how you pointed your finger. I can, however, control what I say and do. I can control how I act and interact. That’s when I quietly raise my voice. That’s how I have that difficult conversation with a family member. When conversation is impossible, that’s why I love you anyway and harder.2016 election ballou quote

I don’t draw the line to separate us. We’re all in this together, left and right, black and white, gay and straight. I draw the line to remind myself to focus on what I can do rather than on trying to control what others do and think. I draw the line to define and express what I’m for, not to rant about what I’m against. I draw the line to find strength in my blessings rather than wallow in my disappointments. I do these things not because they’re better than what others do, but because that’s how I come into the conversation. That’s how I hear the voices of others. That’s where I quietly raise my voice.

© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved 2017