Why I Look Up

Every week I spend at my rural office, I can’t help myself. I look up. I stare at the sky. I nearly lost the dogs walking through the dark fields one night because I couldn’t stop looking at the stars and the moon.

I look upI look up

A few months ago, I made a commitment to spend a week each month in my “rural home office” so I could hang out with my parents a bit more. You can read about this Uncertain Journey here. An unexpected delight of these visits has been the sky. I didn’t come for the sky’s daily pageantry, but it’s why I look up when I do.

Perhaps looking up is part of my living metaphor. I don’t know what I’m doing on this journey. I could look up more at home. There is, after all, a sky, followed by the expected entourage: sun, moon, stars, and clouds. The blessing when I come here is not so much the looking up, but that I’m inclined to look up.

Sky FuelI look up

I expected these visits to be challenging because of my schedule. Instead, they’re becoming easy, like muscle memory. I look forward to the visits. The time here, however, has not weakened my connection to my home fire. Since beginning this journey, I feel more connected and engaged when I’m home. The long list of to do’s doesn’t magically shrink, but I’m more focused and energized when I set out to tackle it.

Maybe looking up for a week fuels me.

The sky, the light, the colors, and the dance of the clouds are a faithful source of healing energy and peace. I need to remember to look up more when I’m home.

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2017.

The Magic of Freelancing from Home Part 2

So you want to work from home? For yourself? Wondering how to “get in”? Sounds magical when you hear someone else talk about getting home to finish up some work? Honestly, it’s not any more magical than that very phrase taken out of context, and “getting in” depends on more variables than I could cover in a post. But if you’re considering the leap from workplace to home office, chew on these five freelancing-from-home essentials to decide if it’s right for you.

Five Freelancing-from-Home Essentials

1. Qualifications

One rule that doesn’t change when you freelance: you need to be able to supply what’s in demand. Data entry, coding, copyediting, writing, proofreading, PhotoShopping . . . the list is endless. Is there a demand that you can supply?

2. Home Space

If you’re going to work at home, make sure you have the appropriate space. It might be a room, the kitchen table, or even the coffee shop on the corner. But you need a space where you can be productive.

3. Tools and Technology

Do you have the things you need to do the job? Computer? Software? If you’re moving from an office where you have access to expensive software that is part of what you would bring to the freelance table, you’ll need your own at home.

4. Discipline and Chaos

You’ll need the discipline to get the work done, and often, you’ll need to hurdle chaos as you go. I’ll get into the dark side of the battle between domestic and freelancing in another post (when I’m ready for a deeper share), but consider the logistics of working at home: your workspace is in the middle of things that need tidying, sorting, cleaning, tossing, or (and especially if you have children at home) feeding and entertaining. It’s best if you can ignore them, except, of course, the hungry pets and children. Tuning out the chaos around you to work is crucial to content focus and turnover deadlines, which will become the very reason you can snag the next freelance gig.

5. Connections

Even if you have the first four essentials locked down, you’ll need connections. These might be connections you have through your industry, workplace, friends, or school. If you don’t already have one or some of those in your pocket, you won’t have the magic key until you seek out the necessary connections. The good news is that it has become easier to connect both socially and professionally. Be wary, however, as you seek out connections. After all, you’re working to get paid. Make sure they have a reputation for that!

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

The Magic of Freelancing from Home Part 1

Many people fantasize about working from home and freelancing. I do both. I was that wide-eyed “I want to do that!” I wanted to know that magic of freelancing from home.

Magic of Freelancing Germination

This idea seeded itself in me when I spoke with a mom in the daycare parking lot back in 1993. Maybe you’re on the edge of your seat hoping to discover the magical formula, just as I was when I listened to her bellyache about getting home to finish a project, pamphlets for a local business.

Eyes wide with wonder.

You work from home!

I didn’t stop there, I was so hungry!

I want to work from home! How do you get started?

The mom pal condescendingly cocked her head and said (something like):

Well, I have a degree in art and advertising design.

Today, I get it. I know why she rolled her eyes.

But my heart sank. I wasn’t an art or ad grad, just an underpaid Liberal Arts PhD. I was teaching at a university but felt unenthused about playing the publish or perish game. I loved teaching (was good at it), but my paycheck barely covered that 45 minute commute each way and daycare. What a dream it would be to work from home.

Less than a year after that condescending cocked head in the parking lot, I received a call from a grad school friend. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that call was my toe in the door of the freelancing world.

Do you think you have what it takes to freelance from home? Stay tuned. Next post: some (sometimes ugly) magic of freelancing truths.

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2017

Six Good Habits of a Lazy Gardener

I’m a suburban gardener. I garden in spurts because I’m busy, and, sometimes, just lazy. Thanks to a few good gardening habits I picked up from my mom, I have cucumbers to pickle, more peppers than I have time to eat and put up, herbs, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, okra, tomatoes, onions, and . . . well, there are lots of peppers.

My mom is the antithesis of rushed and lazy and, when it comes to gardening, she’s the real deal. She pushes a hand plow through straight, fertile rows. As her plants grow and produce, she weeds, waters, and hoes on a predictable and reasonable schedule. My rows are crooked, and my schedule is irregular, but I managed to take on few good gardening habits that I learned from her, mostly the ones that involve reusing and repurposing things you have on hand.

Six Good Gardening Habits

  1. Newspapers: Unfold and stack newspaper pages, pulling out the ones with waxy finishes (those aren’t so great for the garden). Arrange newspapers (at least 6 layers thick) around the seedlings or plants. The newspaper serves as weed block. When it’s time to pull up old plants and turn the soil, till in whatever papers hasn’t already composted itself.
  2. Mulch: Leaves, grass clippings, pine needles. They can all be your garden friend. I prefer leaves in my vegetable garden because they are less likely to introduce weed spawn and they break down more quickly than pine needles. For Wow! weedblocker, after covering your garden rows/beds with layers of newspaper, add a layer of leaves. Once your plants peter out, you can till the leaves and the newspaper into the soil, and you’ll have an even richer soil for the next round.
  3. Cardboard: To create a raised bed above a grassy or weedy area, don’t buy weed block or dig up the grassy patch. Use cardboard. Remove any tape or stickers from the cardboard and place on top of the grass. Make sure it’s a solid layer by overlapping pieces of cardboard so no grass sticks through. Once your bed walls are up (I use cinder blocks), fill your raised bed with soil, peat moss, compost, etc.
  4. Eggshells: Save and grind eggshells. I have a little compost bucket in the kitchen, dedicated to eggshells. When it’s full, I grind the shells in my food processor. NOTE: Eggshells will scratch plastic blenders and food processors. If you want to avoid this, place the eggshells in a Ziploc back, smashing them as you do. Remove as much air as possible before zipping, and roll over the bag with a rolling pin.
  5. Vegetable waste: Compost! There are many dos and don’ts about composting correctly, but I don’t have time for all of that. I just toss my vegetable scraps into my compost pile, a 3-sided area (the fence and two sides of cinder blocks) just over the back fence in the right of way. My compost is unkempt, but when I need good dirt, it has never disappointed.
  6. Plastics: Don’t recycle those plastic containers. Let the other R take over and Reuse the plastic jugs and jars. I use vinegar for nearly everything: cleaning, canning, cooking, even washing my hair. The empty vinegar jugs become scoops and funnels that I use for distributing soil and fertilizer. In June, the jug becomes a fruit picking bucket that hangs like a holster on a belt while I pick blueberries and figs with two hands. Wide-mouthed plastic containers are great for storing seeds, ground up egg shells, and fertilizer.
©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

Too many cucumbers? Try keeping a pickle jar

Cucumbers! They’re delicious, but they don’t keep very long in the vegetable bin and the freezer is not an option. Gardeners and CSA members know that the leap from no cucumbers to buckets full is sudden. What to do with all those cucumbers when you don’t (have time to) can pickles? Toss them in a pickle jar.

Buy time with a pickle jar

Whenever you have more cucumbers than you can manage, take a couple of minutes to rinse and slice them (peel if you prefer), then toss them in the pickle jar, shake to mix the liquid and slices, and refrigerate.pickle jar

The liquid you keep in your pickle jar is up to you.

  • If you make pickles, save the extra pickle juice in a jar in the fridge. You can toss cucumbers (or other vegetables) in the jar to make them last a little longer. They won’t last as long as truly pickled vegetables, but the pickle juice will buy you some time.
  • If you’re not the canning type, dissolve about 1 tsp pickling or kosher salt in 1 cup of white or cider vinegar. Again, vegetables tossed in this solution will have a shorter life than canned pickles, but the vinegar solution buys you more time than if you just toss the extra cukes in a vegetable bin. If you want to add seasonings, add whole, not ground seasonings. Peppercorns and mustard seeds, for example.
  • Finally, leftover juice from store bought pickles can be used to buy some extra time. This is a particularly pleasing alternative if you discover a brand of pickles you adore and hate throwing that delicious pickle juice down the drain. Use it!
©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

Double Choked Shrimp Brie Soup

Choked Shrimp Brie Soup: a brief history

On a whim, I picked up some sunchokes at the market even though I had no clue what they were. At home, I looked them up —texture similar to potato, flavor similar to artichoke, can be eaten raw or cooked, with or without the peel, great for creamy soups/dishes— then tossed them in the vegetable bin.

A few nights later, my honey and I had dinner at a restaurant where the special soup du jour was shrimp brie artichoke soup. We melted into love for the soup, and I decided to try to recreate it. I remembered my sunchoke discovery and decided to include them.

After culling for ideas online, I made this. If you love shrimp and cheese, you won’t be sorry I took the time to note the process.

Choked Shrimp Brie Soup: The recipe (or something like a recipe)

Ingredientschoked shrimp brie soup

  • 1/4 cup Olive Oil (or part olive oil, part butter)
  • 1 cup chopped carrots (2 medium)
  • 1 cup sliced celery (2 stalks)
  • 1 large chopped onion
  • 4-5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup (or more) peeled and chopped (bite-size pieces) sunchokes
  • 1 quart shrimp stock (you can make these with the shrimp heads/peels. See below)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • salt to taste (I didn’t use any)
  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 2 cups (or more) of peeled and deveined gulf shrimp
  • 1 4 1/2-ounce round Brie cheese (I used more like 6 ounces), rind removed and cut up

Optional

  • 1/2 cup (or more) of artichoke hearts cut into bite-size pieces (fresh is what I used, but thawed frozen could work)
  • Croutons and/or chives (optional)

Directions

  1. In a large saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and sunchokes. Cook and stir till tender. Add shrimp stock, white pepper (and salt). Bring to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes.
  2. Add cream and use hand-held blender or masher to cream the mixture (I didn’t completely cream, just a little)
  3. Stir in shrimp, artichoke hearts (if you’re using them), and Brie. Cook and stir over medium-low heat about 5 minutes more or till shrimp are pink, soup is heated through, and cheese is melted. (Stir often to make sure soup doesn’t scorch on bottom of saucepan.) Serve topped with croutons and/or chives, if you like.

Makes 8 side-dish or 4 main-dish servings.

SHRIMP STOCK

To make shrimp stock,

  • Place shrimp heads and peels in about 2 quarts of water.
  • Add quartered onion, 3-5 cloves of garlic, quartered lemon, bay leaf, peppercorns to taste, and thyme (or any mixture of herbs).
  • Boil for 10-15 minutes (reduce to 1 quart).
  • Strain.
©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

Being the Change

The Hidden Brain podcast about being the change you want to see moved me.

The host Shankar Vedantam asks what would happen if we truly stood by our principles. He also points out how exhausting people who stick to their principles can be.

The podcast showcases the journey of one couple and their effort to raise their daughter free from gender stereotypes. This story is not only moving, but also enlightening. To shield their child from gender stereotypes these parents struggled against words, clothing, and colors. They struggled with family and friends. But they held true to their path and trusted their truth. And, importantly, they were patient.

Changes take time. Being the change takes patience.

This couple takes being the change to a fiercely high level. I feel privileged to know a few young souls who are as strong and brave as that couple. The bravery of people who fearlessly stand by their principles gives me hope. They also inspire me to be better and being the change.

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

Hobbies and Derelicts

Today, I realized hobbies and derelicts are connected.

The Venue

Every six months, I load my beach wagon with boxes of pepper jellies, drag the wagon of jellies through the arboretum, and set up a booth to sell my wares. I think of vendor venues like the Plant Fest! as enabling events. When you make things, if you can’t hang them on the wall, display them on a shelf, wear them more than once a year, or eat them before they expire, you’d best have friends who clamber for them or a place to sell them. Hobbies and Jelly addicts

Peppers and pepper products are one of my many hobbies. Even when I sell several hundred dollars worth, I don’t really make money. I make just enough to enable my addiction hobby. That’s what I meant. Hobby. It’s also a chance to pop my work bubble, spend a few hours outdoors, and mingle with friends, vendors, and clients.

The Neighbor

One of the neighboring vendors asked about my jellies and peppers. My muscle memorized explanation:

I grow my own peppers and forage the fruits I can’t grow.
“Oh really! Where do you grow them?”
Right here. In my backyard. I live behind the arboretum. 
“I live in this neighborhood too!”
I’m on Corby.

I could tell by the tone of his “Oh no, I don’t live there” that he wasn’t fond of my street. After he explained where he lived, he went on:

“What has happened to Corby? It’s become derelict.”
Derelict? How so?
“Oh, the houses are so run down.”
Hmmm. You’re probably talking about my house! 

My house needs gutter repair (not easy on a two-story home), a pressure wash, and paint on the front door. I guess the guy thought I was joking, because he kept going.

“You know the house with the DeLorean?”
That’s my house!

Domestic To-Dos vs. Hobbies

I tried to keep my tone true. Amused, because I found this amusing, not insulting.

I mostly live within my financial means. No yard guy, no maid, and I don’t hire that guy who knocks on my door and offers to pressure wash my house. I have a mower, a mop, and a pressure washer. I’ll do all that myself.

But I do NOT live within my temporal means. My time is fully spent: frenzied freelancing hours and more hobbies than I can count on both hands.

When hobbies and domestic trifles land on the same to-do list, pressure-washing the house is more likely to fall off than tilling the garden. I’m more likely to can peppers than dust. Vacuuming versus writing? I’ll choose writing every time.

I don’t judge those who spic the span and have picture-perfect homes. I’m just not there.

The Derelict

My vendor neighbor seemed uncomfortable, so I didn’t insist on explaining My street is fine, and several houses have been recently painted, windowed, or flipped. Mine is not one of them. So me. That’s me in the derelict house. I let him shift the topic to the car (what’s up with the DeLorean?) and cars, and all the cars that he has parked in his garage.

I don’t know why he thought my street was derelict, so I can only guess and assume.

My street has become more diverse over the years. This is something that thrills me. If he associates run-down and derelict with color (and I don’t know that he does), I am even more amused since the only three houses (all in a row) that need more TLC on my street belong to a middle-aged white woman, a white family who rent to their son and two other white twenty-somethings, and another white family whose parents are of the brilliant computer-geek types.

If long-in-the-blade yards are bothersome, I’m with the computer-geeks two houses down: I do my own and get to it when I can. The twenty-somethings next door? Since when do college-age guys keep a tidy lawn?

The Hobby

I’m going to own “derelict.” Since I’m sort of my own boss, maybe this can become part of a title: Derelict Product Developer? Freelance Derelict? Derelict Novelist? Jelly Dereliction? Derelictious Gardener?

I’ll also own that I have taken on more than time allows. I could take a loan and just get some of the domestic things done, but I prefer the pay-as-I-go plan. And honestly, I’d much rather finish a novel and a screenplay (writing is my loftiest hobby) than fret over a well-kept yard or an appointed house. I take comfort in one of J.K. Rowling’s replies when she was asked how she raised a baby and wrote a book.

I didn’t do housework for four years! I’m not Superwoman, and living in squalor that was the answer.

Here’s to more years ahead of hobbies and dereliction! And owning the creative squalor.

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

Giving: Did I Do the Right Thing? A Revisit and a Scrutiny

“I don’t want your money, but . . . “  That’s how our brief encounter began. I wrote about it (and giving) two and a half years ago.

When is giving good?

A few months ago, a friend posted about the same woman. She had seen her at several stores, hustling for groceries. It was a scam, a hustle for pricey items that she probably resold. Don’t give to her!

I had already given. Chicken, potatoes, bananas . . . What I gave was the opposite of high-ticket, but after my friend’s post I spent the next few months tumbling questions:

  • Did I make a mistake?
  • Was giving to her a bright spot in my human interaction or was it a bad (foolish!) decision?
  • Knowing what I know now, would I have still do the same?
No. Not sure. And absolutely yes.

Here’s the thing. She wanted chicken. The cheaper potatoes. Bananas. Bread. And (maybe I’m imagining this) validation.

She’s a human being making her way through a life. It doesn’t match mine and probably not any else who is reading my post, but she’s doing what she can with the circumstances she was given.

Who am I to judge?

I don’t and wouldn’t judge you for walking past her or blatantly turning her down. I get it. I often don’t feel comfortable giving. But I won’t judge her for asking for the chicken and sides.

If we’re all subjects in a massive human experiment, a test to deteremine what “humanity” is, I’d rather err on the side of a little foolish and warm-hearted than cold and clinging to my dollar bills.

I stand by my initial decision and expenditure. But mostly I stand by my initial biological feedback. It felt good.

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

My Garden Control

The hunter’s full moon is shining down on my garden tonight. I don’t have much in the garden, but the soil is freshly tilled and a dozen seedlings are reaching for the sky. My garden, honestly, is about everything but the vegetables. Sometimes it’s about control.

I can’t say I control my garden well. And the garden certainly doesn’t control me.

If the bean counters showed up, my garden would be condemned. It’s a bad business model. More money for the lesser vegetables, or, often, no vegetable at all. Add to that, the garden takes up precious time, space, and effort.

If the bean counters, however, would factor in more than harvest, my garden would receive a “best deal” sticker. My garden is for unplugging, for meditation and movement, for physical and mental therapy, for emotional grounding.

Tonight as I studied the hunter moonshadows on my crooked rows, I felt a surge of comfort.

Just as everything was spinning completely out of control, I took time last weekend to weed and till my garden. The weeds in some spots were chin-high. It took two days and many I’m-going-to-pass-out moments.

Control becomes an emotion. I felt it immediately. Sure, I was panting and wiping the sweat from my face. But I had restored something. Taken control.

I started this week with more direction and strength. And tonight, as that out-of-control feeling was creeping back in, I went outside to see the full moon. I knew she’d be there. That helped.

I looked at the shadows she cast. My garden rows and seedlings beamed up at me in the moonlight. They restored me.

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.