Have you ever gone into the woods or walked through the weeds with friends?
I 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.
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.
We’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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
Many of us bemoan 2016. Tears, sadness, disappointment, despair. We wallow in the sad stories we tell about this year.
Before I stumble into 2017, I’m determined to change the story I tell.
I’m not trying to magically transform the sorrows of 2016. The losses will weigh on my heart for years to come.
I change the story I tell to celebrate the joys that I lived this year, to lift them to their proper place of honor, above the racket and confusion of 2016.
This is not forgetting. I’ll hold the the injustices, hate, and insanity of this year close even as I fill my narrative with joyful remembrances.
I change the story to draw more joy into my life and into my circle of family and friends.
This is not turning away from the problems. The dismay of 2016 will fuel my words and inform my choices as I face the infelicities, as well as that felicities, that 2017 will bring.
I change the story to define the life, the community, and the country I envision.
This is not complacency. I will be engaged, but this is my initial act of protest, that voice that insists: love and goodness must win.
I change the story I tell so that there is less room for bad.
I am not Pollyanna. But I have faith in love, acts of kindness, and goodwill. I believe the more good I do and tell about, the more good will come.
I started out with a personal goal of remembering at least one good thing from each month. Later I made this calendar that highlights one personal joy from each month of 2016. I decided to share because this is a good story about 2016. It’s important to give our joys at least as much voice as our troubles.
I spared you the details of each joy, but if you’re interested, ask! I will be happy to tell you the story!
What would your calendar look like? What are your 2016 joys ? Tell that story. If you felt disappointment and despair in 2016, be defiant and give voice to the joys you experienced.
© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2016
Tonight I sat behind a crazy woman.
I’ll call the woman in the pew in front of me Angie.
My first cue came when, from the corner of my eye, I saw Angie talking to the woman next to her. I looked up to see that Angie’s neighbor continued to read her program, never noticing that Angie was mouthing words, not making a sound, perhaps not even mouthing at her neighbor. I wasn’t sure who she was addressing.
Then I noticed the hair, tangled mats woven into a greasy almost-up do. I had seen this do before, sculpted by hours of a drunken head collapsed into a pillow.
My heart sank in the memory, but I knew this wasn’t my friend. She had drowned her heart in vodka, and, five years ago, her matted head had collapsed one final time, lifeless, in a bed of debris and neglect on her kitchen floor. I stared at Angie’s matted head and inhaled, pulling the air deep into my abdomen. I didn’t detect alcohol or neglected hygiene.
Angie lifted both arms, fists clutching the program, then slammed her hands into her lap. She was anxious. She turned around, looked past me to the doors then up to the mezzanine balcony. She mouthed unvoiced frustrations. As she lifted her gaze to the ceiling, surely some of those silent words were angry obscenities. Was she cursing God? She faced forward towards the empty choir risers then plopped deeper into the pew.
Who was she?
A grandparent? A parent? The latter seemed unlikely, yet possible
Angie must have looked at her watch. She looked closely at the program again, then emphatically pointed to the information on the front. A silent scream: “7:30 pm!!!” Probably followed with something like: “This is ridiculous! You’re late! You’re supposed to start at 7:30!” I looked at my phone. It was 7:30 on the nose. Angie stomped her feet like a toddler having a hissy fit, and slammed her back into the pew with a harrumph.
Maybe she was a member of the music department. A former choir director? She was anxious for this show to begin.
Angie’s clothes were crumpled and aged but didn’t have the stains and grime of the frayed pants and shirts my dead friend wore during her last days. Angie’s outfit was only slightly untidy, missing the belt, probably cloth, that should have been secured by the five wide loops along the waistline of her polyester jacket-shirt.
The watch again. This time Angie beat her fist in the air, and her neighbor seemed to notice her for the first time. She scooted away from Angie, closer to the man to her left (I’ll hazard to say her husband) and whispered something in his ear. He craned his neck in time to see Angie talking to the program, scolding it for the lies it told, right there on the front page.
Angie turned to look past me again then turned forward and, with an audible huff, crossed her arms. The concert should have started three whole minutes ago! Shaking her head, she wiggled against the hard pew as if to adjust cushions, then slammed her fists into her lap once more.
I made a mental note to pay attention after the program.
Did Angie have a child, grandchild, or friend in the Women’s Chorale? Perhaps a son or grandson who sang alongside my son in the Glee Club? I realized I wanted to know.
Angie stretched her neck high when the organist appeared. She gestured a well-it’s-about-time and sank back into the pew. Her neighbor scooted further away, wedging herself into the protection of her husband’s underarm.
The rows of heads gave a start when the organ pipes burst into chords of import and ceremony, a cantabile by César Franck. The deep lines around Angie’s mouth lifted, her shoulders settled; she sank into the warm waters of the music and muffled steps of the choristers as they filled the sanctuary.
An Interfaith Service of Thanksgiving
The service began with a welcoming that was followed by a hymn of Thanksgiving.
The opening prayer was from the Islamic tradition, read by a short young woman in a hijab. Angie read along in the program, mouthing the words. She looked up with a smile as the prayer ended.
A Hebrew folk song followed the Islamic prayer. We also enjoyed a Zulu folk song, a Shoshone love song, an Iroquois prayer, a Jewish litany, Christian hymns, silly and serious poems. Angie laughed out loud for the “A Turkey Speaks” poem. We gave thanks for the harvest, thanks for the bounty, thanks for the sun, moon, and stars. Thanks to God, thanks to the Earth. We lifted the thanks and praise of many faiths.
I know I’m a little crazy, but I cherish both difference and connection. I felt grateful for this gathering that honored the prayers of other faiths, lifting them in voice and song. I felt thankful for this assembly in a place that was safe to be the other, a space where we could celebrate differences and find connections without fear. I was thankful for Angie. She carried the intensity of her frustration and anxiety for the late start (4 minutes!) into her enthusiasm for the songs and prayers that were offered during the program. And I enjoyed them more for it.
The program concluded, we applauded and began to disperse. I watched Angie. She went up to one of the members of the Glee Club, she smiled, spoke to him, and patted him on the shoulder. They didn’t seem like family. Nothing was clear. Maybe he didn’t know her. Maybe he did. I had paid attention, but, as Angie padded through the crowd and out the doors in her yellow shoes —different, brave, unafraid— I realized that even after making mental notes and scribbles, I had no idea who she was.
I also realized I was being watched. My neighbor looked from my gaze that followed Angie to my hand that held the program covered in scribbled notes about Angie. I’m sure she went home and told someone: “I sat next to a crazy woman tonight.”
© Copyright Pennie Nichols, 2016. All Rights Reserved
I sent an email to my dad this morning.
It was my first post-2016 election twitch. It started like this:
I’m truly sad today, but not totally surprised.
I’m not surprised about the election results. We are a nation of speech and spin and bumper stickers. We’re not so great at listening or taking the time to dig deep into a story. But we are a we.
I went on to write:
You asked that I not talk politics with you because you want to protect our beautiful relationship. I will continue to respect that request except to make these requests.
I’m writing to request avoiding politics in conversation be something that works both ways and all around the room as we approach the family gatherings. I have been bullied at your table before over politics by family members, and I have to confess I feel a bit of dread about Thanksgiving.
After I sent the message, I felt a little bad about including the bully bit. It’s true, but it wasn’t his fault. Dad was only there for one, maybe two, instances, and in no way did he condone the behavior. The twitch probably had its way with me because . . . well, it’s been a tough year on just about every level that “tough” could hit a nerve and prompt a twitch.
The thing is, during the eight years when we finally had a president I voted for and loved, I didn’t gloat, I didn’t belittle, and I certainly didn’t bully the ones who didn’t vote for and love him. If I’m honest (as my son often says), that meant we mostly didn’t talk about politics in my extended family.
The email continues:
I have one additional request or maybe not a request, but a reminder: As you gather in like-minded groups to congratulate each other, please do it for the right reasons. If the conversation turns to belittling “those dems” and “those liberals,” remember that your daughter and three of your grandchildren are thoughtful, civic-minded dems and liberals. Over the years, I often reminded anyone belittling conservatives and right-wing politics that members of that group are not by default bigots or hateful, and that I know, love, and respect many conservative, right wing people.
Yeah. Not completely sure how well I thought this out. It sounded more accusatory than I intended. Which is one of the oceans of reasons we shouldn’t send emails or letters mid emotional direst or post-political twitch. Not only can the recipient hang on to them indefinitely, you might not feel the need to express that very same thought the next day.
As I confessed, the email to my dad was my first post-election twitch. I think perhaps I included this sentiment because I feel betrayed, not necessarily by dad but in general, since I make it a practice to avoid gratuitous bashing of the other side. I wasn’t done there, though.
My request/reminder continued with this final note:
I expect there will be mountains of hateful comments from both sides as we move forward. As a liberal, I expect to find myself in many conversations condemning the conservative Christians, who have lost a lot of credibility in the “values” arena because “their” candidate this election did not line up with their claimed family, social, or religious values. During those conversations, I will not thoughtlessly belittle your group, but rather I will do my best to lift the conversation to a higher, loving level. I will be the voice reminding others of the dangers of lumping half a nation in a group and condemning them. I will be the mind that explores reasons why we found ourselves in an election where most voters were voting against someone. I will do my best to listen with empathy to all sides. I hope you will do the same.
I have issues with mindlessly categorizing groups of people in general. But mostly I have issues with my email to my dad. This last paragraph was totally about control. What was I thinking? I don’t have control over what others say, think, or do. This last part hit low: I was guilting my dad (trying to at least) into a behavior I wanted. What’s more, I was explaining (bragging?) about how I behave. This is behavior that I should set as a goal and an example for myself, not as a shaming look-at-me or be-like-me message.
So this is my apology post to my dad.
I twitched and hit send. I’m sorry I didn’t twitch and delete for many reasons. First of all, you have always had my back. Second, I’m grown and can defend myself. Finally, I know you already treasure good people on the “other side.” You didn’t need me to remind you.
This year one of my favorite quotes has found voice at my church on several occasions. As we approach the season of family gatherings, I find this quote —now more than ever— pertinent, necessary, and comforting:
I hope you know that our disagreements have always been in love. You paraphrased me in your note to me, and I’ll quote myself back:
I love you big. Only big.
Love, not fear, will get us through.
© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2016
I haven’t made scientific calculations about how often zucchini and yellow squash are included in CSA boxes, but if you live in the southern US, probably in about 70–80%. This can be challenging even for zucchini/squash lovers. Tonight I made roasted zucchini and squash, with a little tomato and bell pepper from my CSA box. I had leftover French bread, which was perfect for a homemade crouton finish.
Roasted Zucchini and Squash
- 4-6 zucchini and squash, sliced in medallions, 1/4 inch thick
- 1 onion, sliced in thin rings
- 1/4 c. bell pepper, sliced in thin slivers
- 1/4 c. tomato, chopped
- 1/4 c. olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp dried herbs and spices (oregano and/or thyme with chili powder works well)
- 1-2 c. cubed bread
- 1/4 c. Asiago cheese, grated
- Preheat oven to 450º.
- Toss the vegetables in a Pyrex baking dish. Slice zucchini and squash in medallions.
- Blend the seasonings. I use my Cuisinart Smartstick chopper/grinder. Note: I don’t use salt in most of my recipes. If you want to use salt, the seasoning is a good place to add about 1 tsp.
- Drizzle about half of the seasoning on the vegetables and toss.
- Place in oven, uncovered, and bake 15 minutes.
- Place the cubed bread in a bowl.
- Drizzle the 2nd half of the seasonings on the bread and toss.
- Add the grated cheese to the bread cubes and toss.
- Spread on top of baked vegetables.
- Return vegetables to the oven and bake an additional 5-10 minutes, the croutons are golden brown and crisp.
- Use only zucchini or only squash.
- Use a different pepper: ancho, jalapeño, or banana.
- Use more tomato, or none at all.
- Instead of topping with homemade croutons, sprinkle with just cheese.
- For a vegan dish, finish the vegetables with nutritional yeast instead of croutons or cheese.
© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2016