Prep Work

—I have to do what first?
—The prep work.
—Ugh.

Why is prep work important?

When I finally decide to do something, I just want to jump in and get down to . . .

painting the bedroom.
tiling the floor.
planting the garden.

Yet, almost always, just jumping in is not prudent. Sometimes it’s not possible.

prep work

Before painting, clear and wash down the walls, fill the holes, tape the edges and windows, and, unless you’re also replacing the it, protect the floor.
Before tiling, remove the old flooring (even if the last owners didn’t!), then clean, clean, and clean. Over there, clean a little more.
Before planting the garden, pull the weeds, turn the soil, make the rows, and feed the soil.

In school, prep work is attending class, studying for the test, reading before writing a research paper. At work, similar.

But what’s the prep work for creative work?

Sometimes it’s just staring into the space before you. Sometimes it’s getting a good night’s sleep.

Just do it. It nourishes the work you’re about to take on.

Good night! I have prep work to do.

prep work

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

The Parish Fair

parish fairI took a few hours this morning to go with my parents to the Washington Parish Fair, purportedly the largest free county/parish fair in the country and the second-oldest fair in the state.

A Creek Runs Through It

My dad is proud of this fair. When my kids were young, we spent the bulk of our time on the carnival rides. Today, however, my folks and I spent the morning winding through the craft booths, the blue ribbon displays, the 4-H barn, and the Mile Branch Settlement, a pioneer village, with authentic cabins and structures, and “pioneers” in period dress.

One of the best decisions the organizers ever made was to put the carnival rides on the other side of the creek.parish fair

Dad’s not opposed to carnival rides, but he’s proud that, at this fair, they are secondary to the “main” part of the fair. The creek that separates the two parts, he believes, has helped keep the emphasis on the slice of Americana displays and competitions.

I had forgotten that most fairs were primarily capstones for those who worked the land and livestock. These days, “Let’s go to the fair” is more likely to excite images of ferris wheels and ball and bucket toss, not historical displays, the steer a teenager raised, or jars of canned goods draped in blue, red, and white ribbons.parish fair

This fair is primarily organized, operated, and imagined by people from the parish and nearby communities, not by “outside,” disconnected businesses that drop in to make a buck.  That is special.

parish fair

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

 

Renewing Ritual

Moon Ritual

When my first-born was a toddler, her favorite book was Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. We read it every night, until we were reciting it. We both loved our ritual.

When I realized we didn’t need the book for the words, I recreated the images from each page on construction paper, and tacked them to the wall of her bedroom, circling the room from left to right. (GM fans will appreciate that her room was dark green.) We could fall back on her pillow, nestled in a Goodnight Moon room, and let our eyes skip from image to image as we recited the words. The words morphed here and there over time, but this ritual worked its way deep into my heart.

Calendar Ritual

I haven’t been practicing any positive daily rituals of note since around the time we drifted away from the green room. My yearning for more ritual probably drew me to the calendar commitment. I didn’t begin the thirty-day commitment with ritual in mind, but as I crest my fourth month I realize, these are tiny rituals. Some are more mundane than others (so far, movement, tea, clear table, write . . .), mostly things I felt I didn’t have time to squeeze in.renewing ritual

When I mark off each day after I complete the commitment, if I have also completed a commitment from a previous month, I note that month’s number. It’s usually all of them. I’m changing my habits, my routine. I’m allowing myself time for positive, indulgent moments.

Bath Ritual

This evening, a flock of bluebirds swooped in for bathtime. I have more work to do tonight. But I allowed myself the time to enjoy them. When they lingered, I took a little more time to take photos. I took them through a window so they’re not great, but they are an affirmation, the ripples of ritual, of allowing these moments.

I’ve never seen twenty plus bluebirds in one place. Today I did. And bird watching is not even on my commitment calendar.

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

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.