A year in the life of morning pages
Today marks my 365th morning-pages morning. I took Julia Cameron’s (The Artist’s Way) directive to heart: Three pages every day, first thing in the morning.
In three hundred and sixty five days, I filled seven notebooks and I’m more than halfway through my eighth. Most of the notebooks were rescued from the piles of barely used notebooks my children left in the empty nest; others are new. They’re all used now, pages full of monkey droppings from my head, conversations with myself, conversations with my characters, to do lists, to done lists, plans for the weekend, some self-flagellation but mostly ánimo, encouragement and finding the courage.
So you filled a stack of notebooks. So what?
Well, here’s what. The practices that Julia Cameron promotes in The Artist’s Way are part of a process, steps on the road to authenticity, invitations to show up for yourself. Does it make a difference? I’ll let you be the judge.
What I did with 365 days of morning pages:
- I played…
- digging and building the pond in my back yard.
- making collages featuring my dream life.
- painting canvasses with messages to my inner child.
- making lemongrass baskets.
- painting rocks.
- taking a few artist dates (still not showing up as fully as I should for this but getting there).
- buying a lot of Colorful Pens!
- I made mornings a ritual…
- I looked back…
- digging through old pages of poems, stories, novel notes, and first chapters.
- searching photos of my younger self.
- reconnecting with my younger self.
- I committed to writing…
- every day.
- really writing for myself, not just morning pages.
- with a contract to myself I keep in my wallet.
- joining online writing groups and pages.
- I showed…
- some days tired.
- sometimes staring at the page.
- mostly writing.
- I showed up harder…
- flipping my schedule to write in the morning, beginning work at noon.
- setting daily and weekly goals.
- eager to greet the page.
Blah blah blah. So what?
I’m not done. Here are some nouns to chew on.
What I hold on the other side of 365 days of morning pages:
- My women’s fiction/ sci-fi novel
- 74K words of my second novel in the trilogy
- A writer’s retreat
- Four weekly creative check ins with four other creatives
- Two Twitter story threads
- My book proposal
- My author marketing plan
- A dozen plus queries
- Pitches in #pitmads
- Etsy shop
- My #spreadlight postcards
Still not impressed?
Doesn’t matter to me because I didn’t show up to the page for you. I showed up for myself. My list of “accomplishments” won’t impress all of you because some creatives do this and more before they turn 30, and I’m more than double that age.
Here’s the thing: these are the things of my dreams that seemed to hover in an impossibly distant future. Taking that time for myself to sit with a notebook and fill three pages, for about an hour every single morning made the change I needed. That practice bridged the gap between the life I live and the life of my dreams.
I filled almost eight notebooks in one year. If I live another 10 years, that’ll be another 80 or so notebooks. Maybe I’ll fill some 200 over the next 25 years. Maybe 300. I don’t know how much longer I have to fill notebooks, write novels and screenplays, and play. That notion —I’m running out of time!— haunts many of us at my age. I’m making peace with time, because every morning, I show up for myself to begin that new day in the best way I know how so that I can show up for the time I have left.
Did writing three pages a day, with colorful pens in used and new notebooks change me? You can judge for yourself, but my answer is yes!
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021
I want to be a hero, but today isn’t the day. Today is the day I bend into the sob and ask myself, “What is this?”
It’s a rhetorical question. I know what “this” is. But I double over anyway.
Losing is hard.
I spend two weeks at the suburban (capital city) home with my honey, then two at the water hollow (farm) home close to my parents. The first two days at the water hollow are the hardest.
She’s still swimming to the surface, bubbling “I can’t remember the words” because she’s a fighter. Even as we’re giving up, she hasn’t. She can’t hide what she’s lost. My throat catches as I fill in the blanks for her with the words that disappeared since… two weeks ago.
Sometimes I power through the two weeks without a wail. Not this time.
I would bargain, but with whom? For what? There are no more drugs. No heroes in the corner waiting to come forward with a measure of relief, certainly not a cure. Certainly not at her age.
At the end of a sitter’s day, I fetch mom. We walk from their house down to mine. I hold her hand because this incredible athlete’s steps are unsteady. Sometimes I hold her back as her gate careens her forward or off to one side.
I can’t… She flails her free hand for the word… they just go. I fill in the they blank —”legs”—, hold her hand tight, focusing on the sweetness of holding hands instead of the bitterness of an athlete’s loss.
Mom’s a fierce athlete. She didn’t always win but she never lost without a fight. I wish her grandchildren knew the tales of her prowess. I can’t pretend to know all the stories, but I witnessed a few, like these.
- Mom played on a basketball team when we lived in Spain. The year after they took the national championship, the league established a rule: no Americans. I think it was a more general “no foreigners” rule, but she was the reason for the rule.
- Mom returned to college in her 30s after we moved back to the US. She played on all the teams. It was her senior year, basketball season. She was the older woman in a league of 20-somethings. Mom stole the ball. She was wickedly good at dribbling the ball right out of your hand. This woman from the opposing team wasn’t having it. She grabbed mom by the arm and thrust her down. Mom was out for the rest of her senior year, arm in a cast. I remember doctor visits and bone spurs. But she was steel, cheering her team from the bench at every game she couldn’t play.
Can’t we stop? Stop this careening, this fall? Where are the referees to call this rough game? It’s unfair to grab a mom by the arm and snap her like that.
Mom still shows up, even if she’s benched. She fights hard because she doesn’t like to lose. She wags her tongue, “I don’t know what I’m saying,” as she fights for the words, as we fill in the blanks.
I listen to and read stories about other Alzheimer’s victims. They have common threads, but the patterns are singular. Mom’s story is uniquely hers.
I wondered, Why is she still telling us “I can’t find the word”? but I get it now. This is how she loses: not without a fight. Even if she can’t win all the points, she’s holding this damned disease back with every muscle she can until they call the game.
It’s hard for all of us.
Some days, after my heart drops to the floor, and I collapse into a groan of sadness, I kick my heart to the corner. What’s wrong with you!?
Sure, it’s shocking to come back every two weeks to mentally assess what’s gone, but Dad is witness to every drop that spills, every piece that falls away, waking next to her in the bedroom, watching her struggle to dress in the bathroom, helping her prepare dinner in the kitchen because she no longer can. He watches this show live. He sees step-by-step the dismantling of her beautiful energy.
I pick my heart up from the corner, coddle it a bit. This is stressful, but we’ll get through it.
Losing is hard.
I’m not the first to ask myself, Would it be harder if I lost her all at once? Boom! Heart attack. Snake bite. Car accident.
But who am I to compare?
Losing is hard no matter what.
Sudden is tangled in regrets and things unsaid. Gradual is woven with threads of impatience and anger.
And how can we compare experiences?
Losing is hard whether you’re the one who slept next to her for sixty plus years or whether you’re the one who looked up to her for nearly as many.
I kicked my heart to the corner today because I’m not always easy with this. I fall short of heroic, but I can hold space for forgiveness.
Forgiveness for myself, as I breathe through the grieving sob that numbs my thighs.
And for my dad? For my dad, space as he rises and collapses day-after-day next to this disease, empathy when he kicks his own heart to the corner, grace when he needs time to recover energy for the next steps.
She’s not going down without a fight.
We’ll come to a day when all of her words are blocked by the gravel in her throat and the fog in her mind. Maybe I’ll need a moment to curl into my thighs and sob, maybe I’ll take it. But on that day, I want to be her hero. I want to show up like she did in her cast for her teammates. I want to sit next to her on the patio, hold her hand in the long stretch of silence between the lawn chairs, even if we can’t both be in the game. I’ll cheer her on. I’ll point at the bats for her as they fly into the dusk.
Losing is hard.
Losing is a lot to live through. But who she was and what she will always be in my heart are more.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021
The Writing River
I played in the river when I was young, I dared in it, I flowed with ease.
As I aged, I was smarter. I knew more than the ancient river. Dam that river, I thought. I fought for my control.
When the dam collapsed, I swam upstream to find what I was missing. I beat against the current until I buckled on the banks, fighting my lungs for the air.
I dragged my cleverness along the banks, from time to time dipping my toes in the stream that lured me. When I couldn’t bear to be so close yet not in it, I stuffed miles between me and the river to muffle its song, to escape the never-ending babbling, trickling, rippling, burbling that mocked me.
Even across the miles and years, the river beckoned: Come flow with me, gentle, downstream. Let me carry you to your dreams.
Forty years passed. I returned to the river. I made promises about dams and downstream, about showing up, about the flow.
As is the river, so am I: older, different, changing.
I’m one with the river now. The river is in me.
When the flow slows, spilling into eddies, I spin in the eddy. Relax. Gentle reflection. When the waters thrill around boulders, spill over crags, I gasp delight, take long graceful dives into deep pools.
Every day, I stand on the banks of the ancient, wise river that will always and only flow. I show up at the writing river, ready for its gifts. I show up to let go and let flow.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021.
“I had this friend,” mom told me on our drive today.
My ears perked up, and I wished I had brought along my recorder or at least learned the strokes to use my phone as a recorder.
Memory shards surface.
I smiled at her and focused hard. Sometimes, often on drives, she tells me stories from her childhood and youth. A couple of Novembers ago, we drove out to a Christmas-tree farm, close to where she grew up.
“We had an old bike with a no chain,” that story began.
She talked about how they would walk the chainless bike up the hill on what I have to presume was a dirt road, then take turns flying down the hill on the bike.
I’m fairly certain the bike was also without brakes.
They were a single-car family. I’m not sure they had a phone yet. Maybe my grandfather was at work with the car, or maybe my grandmother had the car shopping. I don’t remember what mom told me (she doesn’t either), but there was no car. The bike had no brakes. And my wiry, red-headed mom wiped out flying down the hill.
Her brother and maybe some friends ran down the road to fetch someone to help, someone with a car or a phone. Even though I didn’t grow up with cellphones and I handled many things without one well into my forties, I can no longer wrap my head around managing a crisis, big or small, with no cellphone and no car.
“Somebody told my dad…”
She doesn’t remember how he found out, but he showed up at the hospital where they had taken her.
Was it the excitement that sheltered that memory from the Alzheimer’s storm? Why do some memories —old and new— unexpectedly stick while others are swept away?
The memory of a friend
Today, I thought I was going to get another childhood story. We were driving along rural highways on our way to visit my cousin, and while these roads don’t run close to Pine where mom grew up, they look similar.
Mom has rarely spoken about friends. I was excited.
“My friend, her man is sick. He can’t do anything. She does everything for him, makes all the food, feeds him…”
We turn into my cousin’s driveway.
“Oh, this is it! I can’t believe I get to see her again so soon. She has a such a big, big…”
“Heart?” I try to fill in the blank. She has more and more of these blanks.
“Yes! She’s a wonderful person. He doesn’t know how lucky he is to have her.”
Which memory is it?
This wasn’t a story about mom’s friend.
“We’re going to see your sister’s daughter,” I had explained several times during the thirty-minute drive, repeating my cousin’s and aunt’s names.
“Oh, I guess I’ll remember her when we get there,” she said. She usually does.
As we pulled up, I explained where we were. When my cousin came out, she seemed to remember her, but following the visit, I know it was in spurts, incomplete.
The memory shards
Half hour into our visit, my uncle joined us. He has been widowed for a year and a half now.
Mom had recently talked about him by name. “I haven’t seen him in a long time. But he seems to be doing well.”
I think my uncle is strongly tethered to her memory in that house of shattering mirrors. Losing her younger sister has compartmentalized him in the best way: the memory of him is protected. Or maybe the fear of widowing or becoming widowed keeps him clear.
Regardless, mom knew who he was today. She was happy to see him and became more engaged while he was there. We had a nice visit.
On the way home, mom said, “I’m so lucky I got to see her two times in a row,” referring to my cousin. Then she added, “I didn’t remember they were brother and sister.”
A hero and her bloody memory shards
I cried inside today, but I didn’t drop tears.
Here’s the thing. I was amazed. She’s still fighting, like that hero from a familiar story who you know will lose the battle. It’s close to the end. She’s so bloody she’s hardly recognizable but the hero will battle to the bloody end.
I saw through the cracks in the mirror today, had a glimpse of mom’s battle. Mom hasn’t stopped fighting this damned disease, wrangling that stubborn bull. She battles to grip the shards she has left, even when they bloody her fists. She fights to put together the pieces of a story, the characters in her stories, and the bloody pool of memory shards at her feet.
“They’re not brother and sister. That’s her dad, Mom. She’s your sister’s daughter,” I corrected her. I shouldn’t have.
We drove in silence much of the ride home. I’m sure we were both thinking about the visit, my cousin, my aunt who died, my uncle who survived her, and mom’s struggle to remember.
Just before we turned in, mom said, “I’m so lucky to see her again. I had forgotten they’re mother and daughter.”
I’m still sorting this out.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021.
This is me
This is me before anyone told me “You can’t do that!”
This is me before anyone responded “Here’s what I think.”
This is me before anyone said “You don’t know how.”
This is me before anyone suggested “You’re not doing it right.”
This is me before I questioned “Can I?”
This is me before I worried “What will they think?”
This is me before I paused “How can I do that? ”
This is me before I doubted “Is this right?”
This is me remembering “I can do that!”
This is me asserting “Here’s what I think.”
This is me celebrating “Hell yes and here’s how!”
This is me knowing “I knew it all along.”
©Pennie Nichols 2021 All Rights Reserved
I signed up for a slot to participate in our Covid Memorial Project.
The Covid Memorial task?
Mindfully, meditatively count 1500 stones as you place them into a jar. They represent lives lost to Covid in the United States. Then, place the jar of 1500 stones on one of the benches in our Peace Meadow.
I could tell you so many things about my church, this project, and the Peace Meadow, but you can find information in the links I included. This is an account (and accountability) of my personal experience as a participant.
I love this memorial project for many reasons. I stink at meditation. I knew right away that this was the perfect meditative project for me, because it involved movement, I didn’t have to sit still. I would be counting, sorting, filling my jars. I’m grateful to those who conceived this project.
I also love the project because, in this endless era of pandemic and political helplessness, I have something I can do: honor those we have lost.
Breaking the rules
I read the instructions on the table: count the stones into the jars, then carry the jar to the Peace Meadow. I deviated slightly, but I felt comfortable deviating towards comfort because, if my church does one thing well, it’s accept and allow for difference.
Instead of counting into the jars, I counted into piles of ten, much like I would count out coins when I collected and sorted coins, triggering pleasant childhood memories. I lined the stones up in columns of ten. I sorted 15 columns of 10 piles of 10 pebbles for one jar with mostly my dominant hand and fingers, then I moved to the other side of the table and counted out piles of 10 with mostly my left hand.
Spur of the moment decision.
I’ve been writing ten lines a day with my left hand for a few of months. My left-hand writing (left handwriting?) has improved a bit, but that’s not the point. I’m trusting the process to trigger something within. The shift resembles, for me, the walks along the same route but the opposite way. When I make the loop through my neighborhood or through the farm fields the “opposite” way, I see different parts of homes, notice different trees and structures. I feel a difference. Sorting the stones for the dead of Covid with my left hand gave me pause. I felt the loss from a different angle.
This is for me.
Counting complete, I placed my two jars of stones on the benches, took some photos, looked for angles. I don’t have anything special to share except that these stones represent real.
People I know are represented in these jars. The jars only hold the dead. I’m not sure my church campus could contain all those who have suffered and survived.
I don’t expect to change hearts of deniers, convince doubters, or corral troops around a cause. But I can do this. I can honor those we lost. I can be mindful of those who suffered and survived. I can hold up my child and his partner as they recover from the disease, my parents as they receive their vaccines. I can use both my right and left hands to embrace the losses and challenges. I can commit my restless body to an hour of remembrance and prayer.
As I took a few photos, I noticed some jars held condensation. I prefer to see these drops as our collective tears.
May those who were lost and have suffered loss during the pandemic be healed and remembered by our collective tears, by our mindfulness, by our commitment to do better, be better, and be present for each other.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021
Sometimes the best part about putting yourself out there is being seen by friends with whom you thought you had lost touch forever.
Note to self: The best part is always the Connection.
Sure I put myself out there because I want to find the perfect agent, garner the publishing deals, receive the kudos, be listed on the lists.
But this is sweeter.
On this New Year’s eve, a comment on my blog from a dear friend with whom I’d lost touch brought me to tears. The tears were not for the content of the comment. Tears of joy for the re-connection. “The perils of Pennie and Patti” she notes in her comment because our connection is study abroad and a novel-worthy Youth-Rail travel adventure through Europe.
Put yourself out there for the “money” but mostly put yourself out there because the unexpected returns can be delightful. I look forward to catching up with Patti in 2021. Maybe I’ll be inspired to write about our epic journey through Spain, France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and Greece. We missed a few classes but we learned so much more than the tired professors could have taught us.
I continue to learn (to be taught!) how important our connections to friend and family are.
Thank you for reaching out Patti!
Happy New Year, y’all!
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2020
Whether or not you celebrate a specific holiday, the long nights of this season are perfect for reflection. Many use these dark, cold nights to reflect on what they did with the 365 days of the year.
How did I grow? What have I lost? What have I gained?
In keeping with all things 2020, we get an extra day this year. We can reflect on 366, not just 365, days. 8,784, not just 8760, hours.
Let’s not blow that extra day.
Sure, 2020 is a thief. Pandemonium. Maelstrom. She has taken away many things, many lives, with another eleven days (264 hours or so) left to wreak havoc. But perhaps, she is giving one thing back: a chance to reflect. To truly reflect.
This year we have permission to go small and go within. We have a pass on the frazzle and the bustle of the season. We can stay home and stay well.
Let’s not blow this “down” time as we isolate to love each other better. Let’s embrace this parting gift, this time to reflect.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2020
The moon does not fight. It attacks no one. It does not worry. It does not try to crush others. It keeps to its course, but by its very nature, it gently influences. What other body could pull an entire ocean from shore to shore? The moon is faithful to its nature and its power is never diminished.
―Deng Ming-Dao, Everyday Tao: Living with Balance and Harmony
“The moon does not fight.”
Condemn and correct? Or observe and allow? Call out and judge? Or model and shine?
The process is slow, sometimes blistering as I squirm in place, swallowing the dismay: “But, but… you’re wrong!”
“It attacks no one.”
But, if I let the words loose, if I point the finger, I’m no longer observing and allowing. I’m no longer a model for the change I crave.
Some of you reading will judge me, you might even call me out with a “But you MUST call them out!”
Defensive blisters may form on my tongue, protective tears might well, but I see you too. Without judgment.
“It does not try to crush others.”
“But you must…!”
I need the sun, but the moon heals me.
I’m grateful for those who turn over the tables in the temple, who stand up in public places against aggressors and institutions. While your light sets the dirty pages aflame, there is also a place for the quiet ones who reflect that light, who softly reach out to stand up as an ally, who work diligently in a corner to gently influence those who aren’t.
Both paths have their challenges. The sun must work tirelessly, and even as you rest, set for a few hours, your work is never done. The moon waxes and wanes. Sometimes I turn away, go within, to examine an aggression or injustice. “Is that also in me? How do I fix that in me?”
“It keeps to its course, but by its very nature, it gently influences.”
This is hard to write about because my words —the place I’m claiming for myself— might be dismissed as virtue signaling. So, I’ll be clear. I’m not virtuous. I screw up this moon journey on a regular basis, perhaps every day. Walking the tight rope between controlling the things around me and allowing them is treacherous, and I’ve lost my footing, spun off the tight rope many times.
This is not an apology. I feel called to write about this because I’m not the only one whose eyes sting when my quiet path is misunderstood as complicity, when I’m accused of not showing up properly because I’m not turning over the tables in the temple.
“What other body could pull an entire ocean from shore to shore?”
Sometimes the protest looks like the tide, hard to notice. Not a pointing finger and a sign waving above the angry crowd, but the hushed hand that reaches out to help the fallen.
Sometimes the call to justice looks like me. Not a take down across the Thanksgiving table, but the question that moves the aggressor to look within and question himself.
“The moon is faithful to its nature and its power is never diminished.”
Sometimes change is a gentle shift, not violent slip of tectonic plates.
I’m imperfect at my mission, but I will stand faithfully as a model. I intend see all of you, really see you, and look for that part of you within me. I will reach within for the light we all need.
The moon does not fight, it does not attack, but it moves oceans. Quietly. I love the moon, I chase her through the fields. The moon is my model, my authenticity. I will quietly keep this course.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2020.
She put me in a box.
She posted a message on social media about “those people.” My people. Me! I considered canceling. I’m not going.
Before her post, I thought we were in the same box. She’s in that box?
I shouldn’t go. What if the boxes come up? Damned boxes.
But are they damned?
Boxes help us.
They sort and organize our lives and belongings. They safe keep keepsakes, store the out-of-seasons.
Boxes are essential.
Those virtual boxes in our heads, in our textbooks, on spreadsheets, on reports —categories, classes, types, styles…— this is how we sort our world and each other, for a better understanding.
- They’re paramedics. They save lives.
- Those are invertebrates. They have no backbone.
- He’s a math teacher. He explains numbers to students.
- We’re professional soccer players. We have strong legs.
- This is a dangerous narcotic. Keep it out reach of the children.
- She’s Hindu. She believes in reincarnation.
But boxes can blind us.
- She’s a Republican.
- She’s a Democrat.
I saw her political box. It wasn’t mine. Should I go?
What I know
It’s not like I don’t know people in that box, the other box. I have family in that box.
- I love them.
- I spend time with them.
- I sit at their table.
- We talk.
- I know them.
And there it is. I know them. I know that box is only part of their story, I know they are more than the box we use to understand their politic. I know they are much better than any box of politic.
The Golden Rule
I was bothered when I saw how her meme boxed us, made assumptions about me. I considered canceling. But I want to go! I don’t want to cancel.
I turned the boxes over with the Golden Rule. I don’t want to be confined to a box, only understood within that box. Why would I do that to her?
I went. We met, we spent time together, we sat together. We didn’t talk about those boxes, but we talked deeply. She is much more than her box of politic, and I am more for having gone. I gained a friend.
Boxes can be good, but we shouldn’t allow boxes to limit our love and understanding.
Stepping outside the box
These are difficult times. We can stir the difficult pot or step outside the box to be the change, to make a difference. We can’t control others. We can, however, choose how we interact with others.
I choose love over the boxes. I want to be heard, but first I must listen. I want to be seen, but first I must collapse all the boxes.
The process is slow and sometimes painful. Listening and seeing to make a difference, to be the change, requires faith and love, but the magic of that slow alchemy is worth it.
I’m glad I went. We saw each other. We heard each other. We didn’t kick around our boxes of politic this time, but I think we’re in a better position to hear each other when we come round to that.
©Pennie Nichols All Rights Reserved 2020