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
The dreadful dream
A few years ago I awoke in the wee morning hours with a start. Heart racing, I traipsed down the stairs and curled up on the couch. Clutching a pillow, staring into the darkness, I agonized. “What had I done!?”
I felt sure it was heinous. I had hidden it, . . . hadn’t I? Maybe. And if I didn’t? Would I be caught? All the details were foggy. Something I did or didn’t do, but the result was the same: a dead body. Had I hidden the body? Covered my tracks?
Blurred details aside, the sense that —either by commission or omission— I had ended a life was starkly vivid and disturbing. So much so that I sat in the darkness more than two hours, sorting images in my head. Motel stairs, running down passageways, damp night, and a car trunk. Irreversible. Whether I faced retribution or not, this dreadful remorse and self-contempt would be mine forever.
As early morning light began filtering through the blinds, the fingers of dread and regret eased their grip on my mind and heart. I took some convincing, but I finally realized: It was just a dream. A dreadful dream.
This was a new dream, not one that revisited previous dreamlands or dreamscenes. Maybe that’s why the emotions of it squeezed my mind for so many hours.
I kept the dream and my reaction to myself for several days, because the idea of disclosing it produced a sense of dread and guilt. Finally, a week later, I shared it with a friend at a party. She gave me an odd look then glanced at her husband, and moved to the patio without responding.
I obsessed about her reaction and finally, a few days later, I built up the nerve to ask why she reacted that way.
Oh nothing! I had a disturbing, hard-to-shake dream. My husband and I had just talked about it before we saw you that day.
Whew! So I’m not psycho, right?
A few months later, I had a similar dream that woke me with a start, and the dread and self-doubt began setting in. This time, however, I didn’t have to wait for the sun to rise to snap out of it.
These dreams. They are the most infrequent but the most dreadful. What do they mean?
This week, I had another one. Although the “crime” seemed less severe, I started my day with a foggy head and a sack of sand on my heart.
Like most anyone, I’ve done things I don’t like to confess. I may have actually done a thing or two that I’ve never confessed, but those embarrassing acts never involved loss of life, as do these dreams.
What do my dreadful dreams mean?
I’ve considered three things: Community, politics, and self-achievement.
Summer 2016 has me thinking and frozen. The shootings and the injustices in my city, the deaths of friends, the heartbreak of friends, the floods, and the piles of molding memories stretching along curbs of entire neighborhoods . . . frenzied thinking.
In the struggle to do something significant and helpful, in the effort to make a difference when the need is so large, I question my days, the history of my endeavors, my time spent. Does it help? Does it matter? Can I do better?
Are the dreadful dreams about time not spent in lifting up my community?
When I fold in the 2016 political climate, I question my honesty. As the mis-/dis-information piles higher and higher, like moldy belongings on a curb, I wonder if my polite quiet is appropriate. Maybe my political silence is even harmful and dishonest.
I’ve always been gray, in-the-middle. Gray, grey, gray . . . never extreme. Am I lost in that?
Is it dishonest —a crime!— when sometimes my mind draws dark, bold lines through the mucky muck of political banter, but I politely listen. Doesn’t someone need to listen?
I wonder if the occasional angst and existential dream that jolt me out of bed are driven by my gray pool of politeness.
Maybe my dreadful dreams are about crimes against myself. Not so much about what I have done, but rather about what I did not do, what I didn’t complete. Those three novels, fifty-some short stories, mediocre poems, and a few screenplays.
Could those dreadful dreams indeed be about a death? The death of a writer? A malnourished mind and a neglected “pen”?
Then I circle back. The sunlight pushes through the blinds.
I’m sure my dreadful dreams may have something to do with paths not taken, the house I didn’t help gut, the well-bitten tongue in a swarm of political nonsense, the books I didn’t write, the time I butchered with bites too big to chew, and the broken promises to myself.
But I’m a believer in allowing. And in mirrors for reflection.
Allowing begins with self.
I gave what I could.
It’s in my nature to be gray, to listen.
I write when I can.
Is my dreadful dream a crime?
You might say “the jury is still out.” But not really. It was a dream. I’m the jury. I know I didn’t kill anybody. I decide if I’m guilty or not of a crime against myself. It’s up to me to define the dream, to come to terms with myself. Maybe I’ll decide to help more, to speak more often, to write more. If I don’t, that’s my dreadful dream.
What are your dreadful dreams?
© Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2016
or Kicking the Bucket or Going on for my Reward
An eker in an empty nest will make less trips to thrift-store drop-offs than the typical empty nester. Unlike most empty nesters, an eker does not purge so much as recycle the things the children leave behind. An eker strives to master, over time, the art of empty nest recycling.
Recycling Remnants of Childhood and Youth
I still have most of the children’s furniture. My daughter’s bed has become a guest bed. The chest of drawers is photo album storage. All of the children’s closets are holding areas for things undecided. The homework desk with all its sharpie marks and pen indentations became my jewelry making station. It now lives under my son’s double loft bed, where the built-in shelves make a perfect craft cove.
And those leftover school supplies! Backpacks, composition notebooks, binders, dividers, clips, pens, pencils . . . I’ll never run out of college-ruled paper or index cards.
I have a tub of pencils, some of which date back to kindergarten. The erasers are shot, but the pencils find new purpose, like marking measurements for flooring installation and greenhouse construction.
Most of the plastic tubs we used for school supplies have been re-purposed. The tubs are filled with canning lids, garden whatnots, and necessary miscellany. Spiral notebooks —some partially used, some untouched— are my scratch pads for scribbling recipes and grocery lists and for doodling or writing when I’m stuck in a waiting room. I keep a nightstand notebook for those seldom occasions when I wake in the night with an idea. The chalk moved to the kitchen chalkboard, where we scribble to-dos and to-buys. The school supplies are stealing their way into every room of the house!
Recycling for the Farm Purchase
As I continue to find re-uses for remnants left in my nest, I’m pleased with last week’s recycling move. A plastic multi-pocket folder has become my folder of documents for the day that I buy the farm.
A friend’s mom recently passed, leaving her children a notebook with instructions, last wishes, and all the useful information to help navigate a mournful final farewell. Her thoughtfulness inspired me to get my check-out papers in order. I scanned the shelves of school supplies for a notebook. Instead of a spiral notebook, I pulled out a purple, multi-pocket folder. The sturdy pockets will hold my last will and testament, cadaver instructions, information about my accounts, and some thoughts on how my survivors might survive the days following my death.
Recycling Beyond the Nest
The act of filling out death documents was laced with a bit of morbid dread. However, as I collect the documents and thoughts in the folder, that dark, alloyed emotion morphs toward the antipodal feeling of joy. I feel comfort as I fill the folder. I feel I am tying an important loose end. I feel the satisfaction of a gift well-conceived and well-given.
No amount of preparation can preclude the grief and regret of words said or unsaid, acts done or undone. My hope is that this recycled folder will make the journey through it easier. That the thoughts I scribble on index cards and college-ruled paper will bring at least one smile. That the pockets will offer one last gentle caress, one last comforting squeeze, one last I love you locked onto their hearts to float them well beyond that day.
I remind my children and myself that I expect the folder to collect many more years of dust in my empty nest. That idea of dust helps dissipate the morbid dread as well.
The empty nest recycling job is as yet incomplete. Far from complete, I would say. But with the Farm Purchase Folder in order, I have my eye out for a pretty something that could serve as an urn. Not sure I’ll find it among the pencil boxes and sheet protectors, but I’m searching. This, too, I do in love.
© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2016
Skin color and police force have defined this month in my community. Many of us feel that one is undervalued, the other used in excess, and opposing views on these topics have become uncomfortably heated on social media and in conversations. Unfortunately, the impotency of many heated exchanges has paralyzed true communication and stretched the divide, most notably among white friends and family.
I haven’t struggled to find my position on the topics, but I have struggled to find my voice, an effective voice.
I’m putting my skin in the game.
In my middle-aged whiteness, I’ve reached back to my own experiences to find truths in current events.
I know skin color matters.
Flash back 39 years ago. I was head lifeguard of the city pool of a small town. I had a twenty minute commute to work on a rural highway, up a Smokey foothill, and I loved to speed.
The inevitable happened: one afternoon, a sheriff deputy pulled me over. I was doing about 90 mph in a 50 mph zone.
What didn’t happen? I didn’t get a ticket, not even a written warning. Just a verbal, “You need to slow down on these highways, missy.”
I know my skin color mattered. The blond hair and golden tan were fortuitous as well.
I know some policemen use excessive force.
Flash forward 20 years from my unticketed speeding stop. I was a young mother, leaving a city park with my 7, 4, and 2 year-old children. We were leaving the way we came in and the only way I knew out of the park.
A cop held up his hand to stop me. I rolled down my window, “I’m just trying to get out.”
“Turn around!” he screamed. My kids were alarmed.
“But I need to . . . !”
“I said turn around! Now!”
“But how can I . . .?”
He slapped his hand on my windshield, next to my inspection sticker and inspected the date. (Whew! It’s current.) His face was red as he screamed louder and louder. My kids joined in, screaming, crying, terrified by this man in blue with one hand on a gun and another slapping my windshield and pointing us in the other direction.
I submitted, turned around, pulled over a few minutes to collect myself.
Let’s take a moment to review the situation: a suburban park an hour before a football game, cars and people only beginning to arrive; no protesters, no picket signs, no dangers. Yet this cop was unhinged.
After a few minutes of assuaging my nerves and crying children, I saw cars entering from another direction, a second entrance I didn’t know about, that little bit of information the officer didn’t listen long enough to know I needed.
This minor, avoidable incident petrified my children. Incensed, I called the police department to report it. “You’ll have to come in to file a report.” So I went.
The visit to the police headquarters was infuriating and fruitless. The officer listened impatiently to my complaint, handed me a form, then dropped an album in front of me. Photos of every single member of the police force. The officer knew I couldn’t possibly identify the screaming white cop I had encountered among the hundreds of photos of mostly white cops.
“You could give me a list of the officers who were on duty last night.”
“No I can’t.”
I pushed away the heavy album and explained, through tears and much less eloquently than I’m recounting: “I came here to file a complaint, not a formal report. I came here to let you know that your officer was unnecessarily forceful, he wasn’t listening, and, as a result, my children are traumatized. I came here hoping someone could explain to him that his behavior was out of line. I came here in hope that I could make a difference in how he handles his next encounter.”
My incident was trivial, but suggestive.
Most policemen don’t but I know that policeman used unnecessary force. But the Force did not want to engage in real conversation about it.
Furthermore, I know my skin color mattered, again. It’s speculation, but not ludicrous to imagine that my perceived impertinence would have had a less trivial outcome for a black parent.
Sadly, this statement is not facetious: “I’m white, so I lived to write the story.”
The disastrous marriage of racial prejudice and excessive police force is nothing new in this country. The problem isn’t escalating. The difference now is that the ubiquitous camera and the activist movements are pulling away the veil and exposing the inequities and crimes. We have work to do. All of us. This work requires unity and conversation.
Stay in the Conversation
Staying in the conversation is strenuous. Standing in the middle to work through a conflict is challenging, sometimes confusing. But bringing our voices and efforts together is the only way through.
If the conversation and the conflict aren’t over and you throw your hands up (“I’m done!” “I’m over it!”), you also surrender your voice and will not be part of the conversation or solution.
What is conversation?
This is what it’s not. It’s not a bumper sticker. It’s not a tirade of insults. It’s not a clever tweet. It’s not a series of Facebook slaps. It’s not one-sided.
Conversation is a communicative exchange, a give and take. Two sides. Two tasks. Listen. Speak.
The Center for Nonviolent Communication offers information and training in what is sometimes called compassionate communication, a process developed in the 60s. The NVC website details its mission and principles. Their communicative model is the takeaway that could help guide us through conversation around conflict:
The LISTEN side of this NVC model is painfully absent in most “discussions” about race and police abuse. I’ve steered clear of most interpersonal and social media “conversations” on the topic, not because I’m unsure about my position, but because most seem to deteriorate into an escalating series of taunts and feckless but oranges!, but apples, but elephants! comparisons.
For my part, I’m listening, lifting my voice in prayer and peace as I seek real conversation. I want more communicative and unifying conversation, so I offer these four tips for jumping into, out of, or clear of a conversation.
- If you’re not informed, steer clear. Listen and read before you jump in. If you haven’t done your homework, you don’t have any ground to stand on as you express an opposing view.
- If you have something to offer, express it with respect, empathy, even love. Dagger tongues and poison pens never advance a conversation or solution, especially not on social media platforms.
- If the conversation is about apples, don’t jump in with oranges and elephants, unless the point is fruit genus (malus vs. citrus) or size (apple vs elephant mouth). Tackle one conflict or issue at a time.
- If the other parties diminish the conversation by trying to sustain it with barbs and misinformation, jump out! My dear cousin recently advised my daughter during a FB
conversationscuffle with a quote that Brené Brown shared on her website: “Don’t try to win over the haters. You’re not the jackass whisperer (Scott Stratten).”
Empathetic and Responsible Reading and Listening
I saw a meme last week that said: “We’re drowning in information but starving for wisdom.” Seek out thoughtful, factual articles and commentaries.
- If you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?”, this post by Justin Cohen offers good advice for white folks who want to be an ally.
- If your response to Black Lives Matter is All Lives Matter! or Blue Lives Matter!, there is a misunderstanding, and chances are you haven’t visited the BLM website or read the guiding principles. This is a not a “we matter, but you don’t” movement.
- This article explains General Honoré’s thoughts on the militarized response in my city. I was appalled that this is what protesters faced at the conclusion of their peaceful march.
- That said, I’m not anti-cop. Our police forces have an exacting, thankless, and underpaid job. That doesn’t excuse misconduct. I am anti-misconduct. I expect the police force to own and address the problems in their ranks, and the law to hold officers responsible for misconduct.
- Real conversations aimed at uniting us are happening online and in real spaces. Join in. Put your skin in the game. Listen with empathy. Express yourself honestly. Come together. Be part of the solution.
© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2016