Being Exes Without Exing Family Bonds

When people find out that my ex and I are still friends and we do things together as a family (that we’re exes without exing family relationships), I get a lot of:

Wow! That’s wonderful. I really admire you. How do you do that?

I typically shrug (it’s an honest shrug) and respond:

Why would we not do this?

I sometimes go on to explain how we found ourselves here. It goes something like this.

Rounding the Bend Begins with Forgiveness

I was sitting across the teak patio table from my mom when she started the rant again. A list of all the anger and disappointment points, all of the things for which she faulted (eternally it seemed) my now ex-husband.

I have long practiced tolerance for the difference in points of view (primarily political and religious) between my parents and myself. I respect their choices and typically skirt any embroiled discussion because that’s not what matters about my relationship to them, and, importantly, because their choices are authentic and deeply rooted in a belief system I have no intention of undoing.

This was different. Beyond a difference in belief and perspective, a future was at stake. The future of family relations.

Mom? Why are you still so angry? I’m not.

That was the first line of a new chapter in our family.

My mom and I had a long conversation that afternoon about anger, responsibility (I, after all, was not exempt from the problems in the marriage that ended), and forgiveness.

Father’s Days and Holidays

A few months later was Father’s Day weekend. Before the divorce, we had celebrated together at my parents’ place with the two fathers: mine and my children’s. For the two years since the divorce, our children had had to split special occasions and holidays between me and their dad. Mom asked about our plans for the upcoming Father’s Day.exes without exing

I’ll be here with you and dad but the kids will spend it with their Baba. 

Silence.

Later that week, my oldest asked about the plans too.

You and your brother and sister will spend the weekend with Baba. I’m going to the farm to spend the weekend with my dad. 

No silence.

Why can’t we all spend the day together?!

Indeed, I thought. Why not?

I made the phone call and suggestion to my mom. The affirmative answer came with restrictions, but it was a step. A step towards healing anger and mending relations.

I think we were all a little nervous, but we had a great, if sometimes awkward, reunited Father’s Day.

The next family holiday was Thanksgiving. This time my eldest was the first to bring up the plans. She asked: Please, let’s spend the day together. We did. Since then, our family, the broken nuclear family and the rebonded extended family, has come together for holidays, special events, and vacations.

High Roads and Easy Roads

I’ve been trying to write this post for over a year now. Not because it’s hard to write. The story of it spills out. The difficulty is that it might sound too proud or that others whose post divorce relationships were more challenging might feel judged. I don’t feel proud. I’m simply happy and blessed. The path we took as a family was the natural path for us. And I certainly don’t judge. Just as every marriage and family is unique, every divorce comes with its own hurdles and heartache.

I should emphasize too that I didn’t take the high road. Those I admire you’s often suggest that I did. Maybe we’re on the high road, but this was the easier road, the right relationship road. The beginnings of it were a little narrow and scary, but this road has proffered our family better holidays and special occasions, richer relationships, and a deeper understanding of where love and forgiveness lead.

Every time we have a family gathering, we hold hands in a circle before the meal and take turns saying what we’re grateful for. My mom’s gratitude, without exception, has always been or at least included:

I’m grateful for this family and for Ziad and Pennie, for how they keep this family together. 

Me too, mom. I’m especially grateful this was the easy road.

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

DIY Skin Care Part 1: Oily Pantry

Arm yourself for the DIY skin care revolution.

Introduction

Japanese Facial Massage at Ten Thousand Waves. Heaven. As I became aware that my therapist was finishing, I braced myself for her spiel: what my skin needed, the routine I should follow, the products I should use.

“Your skin looks great. Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it,” she said as she wiped her products from her hands.

A bit baffled, I blurted. “Coconut oil!”

“Well, keep up the coconut oil!”

Middle-aged, pudgy, and far from fit, I take the compliments that come my way. This one was particularly pleasing. Coconut oil, however, wasn’t the whole story, not even the only story. For the last two and a half years, I have been dabbling in DIY ventures. At first I focused on laundry detergents, dish soaps, furniture oils, and other household products, but I eventually took a crack at DIY skin care.

I’m no expert and I credit other, mostly younger, women, who have explored, researched, and shared information and recipes for DIY cleaning and DIY skin care. Thanks to them, you can Google just about any condition or problem and find a DIY recipe for it. Most are good, some are great. A few, frankly, are hogwash.

Navigating the good versus bad recipes, however, wasn’t my biggest challenge. After a little exploring, I was drowning in new information and I compiled a $300 list of oils to buy. Not only had I never heard of some of the oils on my list, I also wasn’t sure why one oil versus another was necessary, except that it was in the recipe. I tumbled down the DIY rabbit hole.

This tri-part post is my effort to help others avoid slipping down that rabbit hole and arm themselves for their own DIY skin care revolutions.

  • Oily Pantry: Presented below, Part 1 is a list of oils and unguents to keep on hand, with notes about equipment and safety.
  • Oily StartersClick here to explore Part 2: four basic skin-care processes to help you get your toes wet oily.
  • Oily Personals. Click here for Part 3: charts with information to help you customize your DIY skin-care venture.

Oily Pantry

The staples of my oily pantry.

The staples of my oily pantry.

The list of products you should have on hand will vary based on your skin needs and personal preferences. You may be pleased to find out you already have some these in your kitchen pantry.

  • The Staples are your starter kit or must haves for DIY skin care.
  • The Complements are good to have.

They appear in alphabetical order, not in order of importance, because the hierarchy will vary depending on your needs. If you explore the Oily Personals, you may decide that some of my Complements are your Staples, and vice versa. Regardless, this list will allow you to try the Oily Starters.

Staples

  • Beeswax flakes or granules
  • Carrier Oils
    • Castor Oil
    • Coconut Oil
    • 1-3 additional oils: Sweet Almond, Jojoba, Avocado, Sunflower, Grape Seed, Extra Virgin Olive)
  • Liquid Castile Soap
  • Essential Oils
    • Geranium
    • Lavender
    • Lemon
    • Tea Tree
  • Raw Honey
  • Shea Butter
  • Vegetable Glycerin
  • Vitamin E Oil
  • Apple Cider Vinegar

Complements

  • More Carrier Oils
    • Argon Oil
    • Camellia Oil
    • Primrose Oil
    • Rosehip Oil
  • Cocoa Butter
  • More Essential Oils
    • Basil (Sweet)
    • Bergamot
    • Carrot Seed
    • Cedarwood
    • Chamomile
    • Clary Sage
    • Clove Bud
    • Eucalyptus
    • Frankincense
    • Juniper Berry
    • Myrrh
    • Neroli (Orange Blossom)
    • Niaouli
    • Oregano
    • Patchouli
    • Peppermint
    • Rose
    • Rosemary
    • Sandalwood
    • Thyme
    • Ylang Ylang

Online sources for buying oils are abundant, but my go-to source has been Bulk Apothecary. Their site provides useful descriptions, and I’ve never been disappointed with the quality of the products I receive. You can also Google just about any condition preceded by “Essential Oil for” and find information. Take care when exploring because not all online offerings are equal. These are three of sites I visit that provide some of the most thoughtful, useful information about essential and carrier oils, as well as DIY ideas and health/beauty advice.

Oily Safety and Equipment 

Shelf Life

  • Most essential oils have two-year shelf life, so stocking up on these is fine. However, you should avoid overstocking your pantry with carrier oils, as their shelf life is more limited.
  • Although some DIY concoctions will last much longer, you should only make amounts that you can use within six months. Including oils that extend shelf life (lemon essential oil and vitamin E oil, for example) is helpful. You can also refrigerate your lotions and creams, but this is not always convenient.
  • Store in a cool, dark cabinet.
  • Keep lids tight.

Sterilization

As with canning foods, cleaning and sterilizing your equipment and containers is important.

  • Run containers through the sterilization cycle of your dishwasher.
  • Microwave containers in a baby bottle sterilizer.
  • Place containers on a canning rack in a pot of water and bring to boil. Boil 10 minutes.

Equipment

oily-pantry-equipment

I use a make-shift double boiler: Pyrex mixing bowl and sauce pot. Remember to use plastic or metal spatulas, never wooden, to avoid introducing unwanted bacteria into your lotions and creams.

Although having dedicated equipment is not absolutely necessary, it is advisable. Oils and scents can be hard to remove. You will need some or all of the following to whip you your DIY concoctions.

  • sauce pan
  • double boiler or make-shift double boiler (sauce pan and heat-proof mixing bowl)
  • plastic or metal spatulas: Do NOT use wooden spatulas.
  • whisk
  • measuring cups and spoons
  • mixer
  • containers and lids: I use re-purposed glass and plastic jars, food tubs, and bottles. Baby bottles are a great size for storing face and eye creams.

Part 2: Oily Starters

Part 3: Oily Personals

Copyright © Pennie Nichols, 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Worthy of Kindness?

When does a person become unworthy of kindness?

Although it’s not a rhetorical question, I’m not looking for any answers. I think there are many.

This question came up in my home the day Derrick Todd Lee, convicted serial killer, died. I wasn’t thinking about Lee, though. I googled Trevor Reese.

Trevor was my son’s high-school classmate and soccer teammate. Until he wasn’t.

Between their sophomore and junior years of high school, Trevor did the unthinkable. On a summer day, he slit the throat of Jack Attuso, a happy eight-year-old, out for a walk with his family.

My son was sixteen at the time, as was Trevor.

“Mama!!!”

The news was confounding. Even today when I read about it, my heart breaks in every direction.

  • Jack’s parents
  • Trevor’s parents
    • Jack’s siblings
    • Trevor’s siblings
      • Jack
      • Trevor

And the heartbreak goes on.

In his sixteenth year, Trevor felt he was like a Derrick Todd Lee. On that summer day in 2010, Trevor set out to get some “relief.” To get “high,” if you will. To feel better. He was sure killing would do it. In his court testimony, he explains that he was disappointed after the act.

The Lee and Trevor stories are horrifying. Google their names if you really want to know more. But I ask this:

When did/will/would a Derrick Todd Lee or a Trevor Reese become unworthy of kindness?

“Maybe he (my son) could write to him, tell him something nice he remembers about him?”

“Why?

“To lift him up. Maybe add something.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean why?

“Why waste your energy on someone like that?”

I was surprised to hear this from someone who sees the value in lifting up. But my partner had a point. Why expend good energy and goodwill on someone who may be immune to it? We have many people, projects, and commitments in our lives. If we prioritize it all, where would a Lee or a Trevor fall on our list?

Can I make the time? Should I make the time? Stripped down, the question is: “Is he worthy of my kindness?”

My heart answers “yes” every time.

Good people do bad things. Bad people do good things.

In a scene from an Argentinian film Hombre mirando al sudeste (Man Facing Southeast), Rantes, the protagonist, is in a pathology lab. He slices a brain in half and asks a series of questions as he explores the crevices: “Where is that afternoon where he first felt the love of a woman?”  “What marks are left of the moments of pleasure and pain that this man felt?” As he tears apart pieces of the brain and washes them down a drain: “There goes Einstein. Bach. Mr. Nobody.  A crazy man.  A murderer.” Rantes asks the doctor who is visiting him: “What do you think, doctor? Does this drain spill into hell or into heaven?”

There are so many things we can’t truly know.

  • Why?
  • What’s in a person’s head?
  • Will my kind words be fruitless or fruitful?

When I asked my son what he thought:  “I think I would actually like to write to him. I don’t know what I’d say. ‘I hope you find peace.’ Something. It can’t hurt.”

Those words, that missive would be small. Light as a ping pong ball. So why not toss it over? That ping pong ball could hit a brick wall then bounce away, back at us, over our heads, into oblivion. Or, the ball could fall into an open heart. Maybe lift it a little.

Maybe Trevor would remember something good. He’ll spend the rest if his life in Angola. What could a ping pong ball of kindness hurt?

I confess I’m drawn to stories like the Amish story of forgiveness and grief. Within weeks of the shooting in which the milk truck driver entered a school and shot ten students, killing five and then himself, Amish families donated money to the murderer’s widow and children. What’s more, the day after the services for the victims, some of the family members of the victims attended the killer’s burial service, hugged his widow, and expressed condolences to the family.

Trevor’s mom was my son’s math teacher. My son liked her. I often thought about reaching out but never did. I regret that. I should have written. I should have tossed her a ping pong ball of kindness. Maybe it’s not too late to send a kind missive, perhaps even an uplifting word to her son, Trevor. Tossing that out there will feel good, no matter how it lands or where it bounces.

Copyright © 2016 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

Rituals Without Rules

In 2005, we accidentally started a tradition: we set our Christmas tree on fire.2016-tree-burn-2

My mom and son had built a Handy Man fire pit. We were shy of firewood, we did, however, have a dry tree.

I honestly don’t recall if we stuffed the tree that first year, or if we started it the next, but at some point, we included invitations and dismissals in our accidental tradition. On slips of paper, we wrote down things we wanted to invite into our lives, and things we wanted to remove.

We stuffed the tree with the invites and get-outs, then watched our tree give us its most spectacular gift: the fire dance.

2016-tree-burn-1After the first burn, we were addicted. This is the eleventh year and the tenth time (we missed one year) that we delighted in the ritual of stuffing the tree with our invitations (hellos, welcomings) and dismissals  (goodbyes, good riddances) before placing it in the pit for its final fiery moments.

Our tree burning tradition satisfies my personal affection for fire, my love for candlelight, fireplaces, and campfires.

Tree burning also plays on ancient emotions within us, inspired by rituals and events of past and present. Cleansing and killing, devil and god. Fire warms a home and cooks a meal. Fire ravages forests and buildings. Fire is the send-off ceremony of the dead. Fire is the light that leads the way. Fire inspires and terrifies in equal measure.

For my family, fire delights. Our fire-pit tree burn has become an annual inter-generational party and a post-holiday kick-off for a new year. After a couple of years, we began collecting one or two additional trees for the ritual. That’s when the questions about rules escalated.

  • Is this the welcoming tree or the dismissal tree?
  • Do I have to fold the paper?
  • Do I put the invitation on one side and the dismissal on the other?
  • Does it matter where I put it in the tree?
  • Can I write more than one?

Every year I explain: there are no rules. This idea makes some people suspicious. What kind of ritual is this, after all, if there are no rules?

I understand why they ask. They’re afraid they’re going to mess up the magic. 

Here’s the life lesson, regardless of your religion, creed, or culture:2016-tree-burn-3

The magic isn’t in the rules of ritual.

The magic is in our gratitude.

The magic is in our affirmations, in our prayers.

The magic is in us, always within us.

This year after the third tree completed its fire dance, I realized I had not attached any dismissals to the trees. I had only inserted welcomings. Did I break the rules? Absolutely not. Maybe I was influenced by new year resolution diet talk: the more good things you put in, the less room there is for bad to get in.

This year’s tree burn was fabulous. I’m grateful for the friends and family who participated, for the food and fun.

My takeaway: I stuffed my 2016 tree trunk with welcomings and welcome-backs; there was no room for my bad baggage on that trunk.

May 2016 light up your hopes and dreams and bring you the warmth of joy and bright blessings.

Copyright © 2016 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

Thanksgiving Leftovers

Part 1: A circle of thanksgiving

We stand in a circle holding hands, a tradition that evolved in my parents’ home from a combination two traditions, leftovers, if you will: grace before a meal and gratefuls during meals.

Boil these down for gumbo tomorrow.

Every link in our circle has suffered at least one wrench or break from another link in this circle. Yet, here we are. “First, we’ll take turns expressing what we’re grateful for . . . It can be anything,” to ease the younger links into the tradition.

“I’m thankful for this family . . . “

Gratitude has become a bandwagon for those anxious to reap the emotional, spiritual, as well as fiduciary benefits of thankfulness. Rewire your brain! Relieve stress. Improve sleep. Improve relationships. I ride that bandwagon. Gratitude helps me deal with leftovers of relationships, disasters, even meals.

What are we going to do with all of these potatoes?

In gratitude we push away shortcomings to focus on our strengths, we see beyond our losses to be joyful for our blessings, we displace grudges with forgiveness.

“I’m grateful for this time together . . .”

We acknowledge that, like all families, there have been unfortunate turns in our family. Ours comes back to this circle of thanksgiving, woven with the strength of our love for each other, the joy of the blessings we share, and the magic of forgiveness. And food.

Can we freeze the rest of the cranberry relish?

Thankfulness in many ways is magical. When divides —whether political, religious, social, or emotional— feel irreparably deep, gratitude for the leftover goodness mends, a circle of thankfulness bridges gaps between us.

“I’m grateful to be included in this family.”

We all have at least one thing in common, at least one thing we can be grateful for together.

How many pies?

I’m thankful for common ground.

“. . . and for the children, who are present and engaged.”

My dad closes the circle of gratitude with a prayer.

” . . . and for these blessings, we give thanks.”

We squeeze hands and chime in “Amen” before we dig in and begin creating . . . the leftovers.

Part 2: Leftovers

Stacks of dishes, naps on recliners, impossible puzzles, long walks through the fields, disappointing football games, and then the question.

What should I do with this?

For those of you who tuned in for leftover recipes, here are a few ideas.

Turkey Gumbo

In Louisiana, we often pull the okra and sausage out of the freezer and cook up a pot of turkey gumbo on Black Friday. Online recipes for exact ingredients and measurements are plentiful. This is the basic process.

  • Start with a stock.
    • Boil the bones alone or with some herbs (bay leaf, oregano, for example) and vegetable scraps (onion ends and skin, a head of garlic cut down the middle).
  • Make a roux.
    • About 1 cup each of flour and vegetable oil for a big pot of gumbo.
    • Slowly heat the flour in the pot until it becomes golden.
    • Add oil and whisk until it blends smoothly with the flour.
    • Continue to heat slowly until the roux is dark.
  • Add vegetables.
    • Add chopped onion, bell pepper, and celery (1-2 cups of each).
    • Once these are soft, follow with minced garlic (4-5 cloves).
  • Add the stock, leftover (and chopped) turkey, Andouille sausage medallions (Italian sausage will do), sliced okra (1-2 cups), and 2-4 tbsp of Worcester sauce (to taste).
  • Season (salt, cayenne, Tabasco, black pepper) to taste.
  • Bring the gumbo to a boil, then simmer for 20-30 minutes.
  • Serve with rice.

Dressing BallsThanksgiving-2

If you end up with extra dressing or stuffing, make dressing croquettes.

  • Work a beaten egg into a bowl of about 3 cups of dressing.
  • Form balls (slightly bigger than a golf ball).
  • Optional: Fill the balls with cranberry relish or any compatible leftover.
    • Poke a hole.
    • Fill.
    • Reclose.
  • Cook for about 5 minutes:
    • To fry, roll in a little flour then deep fry.
    • To bake, place on cooking sheets and bake at 400º.
    • To air fry, place balls in Airfryer and cook at 330º.

Sweet Potato Chips

Leftover baked sweet potatoes?

  • Slice the cooked sweet potatoes about ¼ inch thin.
  • Season to taste (salt and cayenne or cinnamon and brown sugar).
  • Cook.
    • 300º for 10 minutes in Airfryer.
    • Deep fry for 2-3 minutes.
    • 400º for 10-15 minutes in the oven.

I was the last to leave my parents’, which means my mom filled my car with the leftovers she didn’t want. As I repurposed the turkey, dressing, potatoes, and relish, I reminisced about the week our family spent together. I’m grateful for that leftover lagniappe.

 

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

Cancer? I’m lifting you up.

lifting-you-up

Your friend has cancer. Every genuine, heartfelt phrase you want to share sounds cliché and the more you delete and rewrite, the more your words become faded Hallmark sentiments. “How can I express to her how I’m feeling?”

Then you ask yourself, “What can I do? Should I call? No, she’s probably flooded with calls, but what if she thinks . . . ? Maybe I’ll pop in to check on her. No, what if her whole family . . . ? I’ll just text. But I need to do something. I’ll bring meals for the family. But what if someone already did?”

Struggling with these questions after you receive the news is a sign that you might be a truly supportive friend. Thoughtful words and gestures are a good beginning. Thoughtful awareness is an excellent delivery vehicle for your words and acts. (Related story: Whose Story Is It Anyway?)

Over the past fifteen years, nineteen friends and close acquaintances have faced cancer. Eight died. Geography, level of intimacy, and personal circumstances were factors in the extent of my connection during their treatment and recovery. While my involvement varied greatly, the struggle with words and acts was a constant. No matter how close I am to the person, physically or personally, I want the things that I say and do to make a difference, even if as simple as a fleeting smile.

I ambitiously set out to write a list of dos and don’ts for interacting with a friend who has cancer. After reaching out to friends with cancer stories, I realized the futility of a concrete list. The perfect thing for one friend is the worst for another. What did come from my conversations and ruminations is this list of guidelines, two of which I touched on above, all of which are relevant to caring for friends in any difficult circumstance.

1. Check in.

Let your friend know that you’re thinking about her. If you decide not to call because her lines are flooded or you’re not sure what to say, send a card, an email, or a text. If you’re struggling with the words, let that struggle go and use the words you find. Even a short text that borders on cliché can make a difference to a friend who is going through a tough time.

Keep checking in. Your friend will be flailing through waves of emotions, physical hardships, and practical concerns throughout her treatment and beyond. Even if you’re not one of the primary people taking care of her, check in regularly to let her know you’re thinking of her or to offer help. When treatment is complete, check in some more. The emotional and physical impact of cancer treatments can linger well beyond the last treatment date.

2. Tune in.

Be thoughtful and aware. Each cancer journey is unique. One friend explained: “the most important thing is to remember that every person is different, and we all have different problems / obstacles / challenges, which means there is no single appropriate response.”

Tuning in is listening. If you ask: “How are you feeling?” or “How are you doing?”, listen to the response.

Tuning in is also practicing thoughtful awareness of your friend’s support network, personality, and receptiveness.

If your friend has a family or community support network, communicate with that network so that you’re not duplicating or hindering the efforts of others. If there is no “built-in” support network, team up with other friends to create one.

Your friend’s personality is your guideline for interactions. Is she stoic or does she need a little extra boost? Is she all business or does she enjoy a laugh? A little levity can be helpful, but only if she’s ready for it. During a chemo treatment, the art therapist told my friend, “You’re back! Remember me?” My friend responded no. The therapist asserted, “Yes, you were here last week,” which wasn’t true. After the fourth insistence, I responded, “Well, she’s got that bald thing going on. They all look alike, don’t they?” The art therapist stood stunned. My friend belly-laughed, and she was ready for that.

How communicative is your friend? Is she open to sharing details about her treatment and feelings? Give your friend a chance to open up if she wants, but don’t pry her for details she’s not ready to share.

3. Be specific about what you can do.

Spell out it out. Don’t carelessly toss your friend an extra burden: “Let me know if you need anything.” Specify: “Can I mow your lawn this weekend?” or “I’m available to run errands for you for two hours on Friday.”

Your friend may not know what she needs; even if she does, she may not reach out. Tuning in and being specific can help. I asked two questions in one afternoon:

“Can I get you anything from Costco?”

“No, I’m good.”

Fifteen minutes later:

“I’m at Costco. Do you need any salmon?”

“Yes, that would be great. And can you check to see if they have any LaCroix?”

In the end, my friend requested five things. After tuning in to her habit of responding, “No, I’m good,” I called back with a specific question. This helped her think through and verbalize what she needed.

4. Be a thoughtful visitor.

Don’t pop in. During treatment, your friend may feel weary and not particularly social or presentable. Call ahead, make sure it’s a good time, and specify how long you will stay. “I can visit for fifteen minutes tomorrow if you like. I’ll bring ice cream.”

Don’t linger. Be cognizant of how your friend is feeling when you arrive. She may not be up for the visit after all, or she may be feeling anxious and need the company. One friend explained that the fifteen- to twenty-minute visits from a friend with a listening ear and comfort food were the best.

Don’t react. Avoid: “This is just dreadful!”, “I can’t believe this is happening to you!”, or “This is a piece of cake! You can do it.” On the other hand, be open to and don’t sugarcoat the emotions your friend is feeling. Her fear and anxiety are part of her story. If she wants to share those, listen but don’t try to qualify them.

Don’t give medical advice. Well-intended advice is often annoying, even disturbing. If you have information that might be helpful, don’t discuss it. Simply share the website or the book. It’s not your place to prescribe or recommend treatments. Your friend will discuss those with her doctors.

Don’t vent or ramble about inconsequential events. This can be insulting to the friend you’ve come to visit. Sure, she may want to talk about something other than her cancer, but let the communication flow from your friend to you. If conversation stalls, ask about other things in her life. “How is Timmy doing in school?” “Is Olivia still playing soccer?” Or, just sit and allow the quiet presence of companionship.

5. Remember the primary caregivers.

Reach out to the primary caregiver. Although that spouse, sibling, or friend may have meals, errands, chores, and visitation perfectly coordinated, he or she may need some additional support. Check in to find out and offer specific things you can do.

6. Don’t try to own her cancer.

Respect the boundaries. Friends often rush in to help a sick friend. Don’t let that become a competition or complication. Coordinate your efforts, avoid squabbles and pettiness. What you do for your friend and your struggle to find the right things to say and do are valid, but that story is the sub-plot. This is her cancer story. It’s her cancer. Not yours. Quiet support is often the biggest expression of love.

Thanks to my friends who shared their cancer stories and whose thoughts helped me cobble together some guidelines. Specifically, thanks to these ladies.

lifting-up-jane-1

Jane with her dad and brother shortly after surgery

lifting-up-mim-1

Mim and her husband, both of whom faced cancer

lifting-up-patti

Patti with her two children

lifting-up-lisa-1

Lisa with her sister, who was with her every step of the way

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

A Pepper Apology

Five reasons I shouldn’t have a pepper garden and Five reasons I do

The inception of my pepper obsession escapes me. Peppers went from Yes, jalapeños on my burger! to Yum! Let’s makes some more pepper jelly! to How many pepper varieties can I grow this year?

Growing peppers is fascinating, yet equally frustrating. My modest pepper garden has an extravagant history of false starts, flustered efforts, and full fails.


I know at least five reasons I should not have a pepper garden.

1. Shysters

These were sold to me as Ají Amarillo. I’ll allow that “ají” in Spanish is almost like saying pepper, but please. These mature to red, not yellow.

Ají Amarillo, they said. I’ll allow that “ají” in Spanish is almost as specific as saying “pepper” in English, but please. These mature to red, not yellow.

My pepper ventures begin with a bubble of excitement, selecting and purchasing pepper seeds online, imagining what those seeds will become. That bubble swells with the successful seedling, the plant, the flowers, the peppers . . . And Pop! Wait! This isn’t . . . What kind of pepper is this? I want a refund! But the line is disconnected and emails go into cyberwasteland. Shysters!

These were sold to me as ghost. Um, no! But I fell in love with them and I'm trying to find the right seeds.

The seeds for these were sold to me as ghost. Um, no! The worst part is I fell in love with them, but I’m not sure what they are and they didn’t reseed.

2. Broken promises

Some plants keep their promises. Peppers, like the seedy seed vendors, are often renegers. My pepper seed success rate stands at about 20%, and that´s probably an exaggeration. The low performance rate is only part of the treachery. Sometimes the plant that produces a fabulously perfect pepper —Yes! That’s the seed I ordered!— exhales its last puff of oxygen days after its one and only pepper. Heroic efforts fail to perk up the limp leaves of these one-pepper wonders. I never trust a pepper plant.

3. Critters

Critters did it

Many mornings I find evidence of wild parties and drunken endeavors. Or maybe it was an opossum.

Critters burrow, critters nibble, and sometimes critters crush the plant. As infuriating as these delinquencies can be, the most annoying critter habit of all involves my carefully placed plant labels. Why do they move my plant labels? Are they playing toss the plastic? Having pretend sword battles? My plants and my pseudo-scientific efforts to track and positively identify them often fall victim to the shenanigans of nocturnal critters. Note to self: must map the garden plot.

4. Insects

A leaf-footed nymph

A leaf-footed nymph

The beginning of any season is bliss. The beds are fresh, and that order-day bubble of excitement billows with hope. The seedlings will mature, the seeds will produce what the label says they should, the newspaper and mulch will control the weeds . . . But one bright morning, Pop! The stink bug convention is in full swing! Before long, my garden becomes a playground for stink bug babies, tiny other-worldly nymphs with creepy red bodies. I battle other insect invasions, but stink bugs are the most aggressive. I only use organic pesticides, so short of grabbing the leaf-footed bugs and crushing them against my thighs, there is no instant termination. I dust them with diatomaceous earth, coat them with neem oil solutions, shoo them away, and pray my dreams aren’t infested with them.

I've eked out a few peppers from this plant, but it has been unhappy since seedlinghood.

I’ve eked out a few peppers from this plant, but it has been unhappy since seedlinghood.

5. Peppers

Peppers are bratty, lazy children. No, not yet! I’m tired! I’ll germinate tomorrow. Too much water! I need more water! Additionally, the peppers that manage to survive the critters and insects are prone to almost any disease, bacteria, or fungus that gambols through the garden. My inchoate gardening skills are part of the problem, but a PhD in peppers could not sufficiently school me on the essentials and afflictions of my pepper plants.

The list of frustrations goes on. Even success can be frustrating because the yield is never just right. Too few to follow the recipe or too many to use before the peppers surrender to mush.

Why am I still pampering pepper plants? Five possible reasons:

1. Challenges

Pepper concoctions

I spy candied scotch bonnet, pickled pimento pepper, pickled pizza pepper, pickled planet pepper, chocolate ghost jelly, angry ginger (scotch bonnet) jelly, and candied jalapeños.

I love a challenge. This one goes beyond negotiating my way around seed shysters, nocturnal critters, and alien insects. This challenge has culinary and intellectual branches. What  can I make with this pepper? How can I showcase this pepper’s attributes without killing a friend? The more I learn about peppers —from names and types of plants to different canning and storing methods—, the more I know I don’t know. I’m sure that even my last pepper plant will teach me something, a lesson in survival, a story of surrender, an anecdote about its indigenous history, or maybe a simple moment of grace as I accept the firm, perfect pepper my plant offers.

Harvesting work castings

Harvesting worm castings

2. Grounding

Gardening, especially cultivating peppers, takes me out of my head and into the dirt. Many gardening acts feel holy: harvesting compost and worm castings, organizing seed trays, mixing organic elements. The garden is my quiet room, where I sow and weed thoughts, pamper ideas, and whisper affirmations. I find myself in the failures and bounty of the plants, especially my pepper plants.

Ascent peppers are similar to Tabasco peppers in their look and growth patterns. The name is descriptive, yet unfortunate. No one ever understands on first try. Scent peppers? No, ascent peppers. Cent peppers? No ascent. Sent? Writes down the name.

Ascent peppers are easily confused with Tabasco peppers. No one understands the name on first try. Scent peppers? No, ascent peppers. Cent peppers? No AH-scent. Sent? Writes down the name.

3. Excitement

Baby moruga

This baby moruga scorpion looks innocent enough, but it is a member of the pepper family that is being touted as the hottest in the world.

Discovery, exploration, and, of course, heat. Each year I discover new varietals we must try and explore recipes and techniques. What are we having for dinner? I still can’t answer, Peppers! But peppers are the exciting compliment, brightening a dish with bold flavors and color. Elation escalates with rising Scoville ratings. Even people who can’t tolerate hot peppers are fascinated by heat. They will watch with anticipation as a friend bites into a spicy morsel and dance with excitement when the friend´s eyes tear up from the heat. Like many pepper addicts, I’m on a quest to grow the hottest varieties available. My mission, however,  is divergent. I aim to tame. I dance with excitement when I harness the hottest devils and chaperon them into palatable jellies, sauces, and relishes. 

The coveted and feared ghost (bhut jolokia ) pepper

The coveted and feared ghost (bhut jolokia) pepper

4. Beauty

Peppers are art —my garden canvas, my kitchen palette, my pepper gallery. The pepper laden limbs, a basket full of ripe peppers, jars of pickled peppers, the goat cheese log draped in bright pepper jelly. Beautiful art. Although they will never be the reliable what’s-for-dinner vegetable, peppers are a splendid extravagance, the aesthetic bounty I harvest and share with friends and colleagues.

A pepper harvest

Pepper harvest

5. Peppers

Peppers are my garden children, unpredictable attention seekers. Watch me dance! Watch me shine! Listen to my story! Did you know I can . . . ? The peppers that survive my 80%-plus failure rate are worth the frustrations and stink-bug nightmares. I shamelessly show them off to anyone who gives me a moment. I parade my pepper jellies at parties, share pepper photos, fill gift boxes with pepper delicacies. I love peppers. No apologies.

My first chocolate success: the chocolate ghost pepper

My first chocolate success: the chocolate ghost pepper


Notes and tips for my fellow pepper enthusiasts

Not all seed vendors are trustworthy. So far, these are vendors I do trust: Territorial, ChilePlants, and Peaceful Valley.

This is a list of some of the positively identified peppers that I’ve successfully cultivated. The list of failed attempts is longer.

alma paprika, ancho, ascent, banana, various bells, Bulgarian carrot, Caribbean (or maybe Bolivian?) red, cayenne, cayenne thick, chocolate ghost, fireball, habanero, ghost, jalapeño, NuMex Jo Parker, moruga scorpion, moruga scorpion yellow, pizza, planet, purple jalapeño, scotch bonnet, Serrano, sheepnose pimento, sweet chinese giant, Tabasco, Trinidad scorpion

If you harvest seeds for the next season, clean, dry, and store them in sealed bags or containers in the freezer.

Pre-soaking seeds in solutions of saltpetre or citric acid can help overcome stubborn germination.

Start the seeds in seed trays or hydroponic systems.

Start early! I start making seed trays in late January and early February, but many of my pepper plants don´t start performing until late summer or fall. They can be painfully sluggish.

If you live in a warm climate, many of your peppers can winter over. Pamper them through the cold months, and protect them from the occasional freeze.

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

My CSA Adventure: The First Five Weeks

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.

I joined one for the first time this year. My excitement was met with:

  • But you already have a garden!
  • Your mom has a garden!
  • You frequent the farmers’ market!
  • Why!?

CSA Week 4That didn’t stop me. I’m finishing up my fifth week of waxed boxes and so far the only vegetable that escaped me was a cucumber. At week five, I have just two regrets: that slimy cucumber and week 3 (out of town and missed my box).

For general information and history about CSAs, visit Local Harvest.

This post is about my CSA experience, the content of my waxed boxes, and how I used it.

My CSA is Luckett Farms. I found out about them through friends who were already participating in the program. When I knocked on the garden gate, the CSA was in mid-season and not taking any new members. While I waited to join the next season, I read about the program and decided which box size best suited our empty nest.

Luckett Farms offers three share sizes: Senior, Average, and Abundant. I chose Average Share.

  • But you already have a garden!
  • Your mom has a garden!
  • You frequent the farmers’ market!
  • Why!?

Disregarding the possibility that I was biting off more than we could chew, I chose Average Share. I’m a little greedy. I wanted at least one of each thing. I had a couple of habits in my favor: I cook almost every day and I can and dehydrate produce at least once a month, sometimes weekly. If push came to shove, I could shove what we couldn’t consume, can, or dehydrate into our upright freezer. (Note: These are important strategies for CSA members).

My first pick-up day finally arrived. My friend, another veggie aficionada, went with me to claim my first box.

“That’s it?” my friend moaned. She rapped on the door of the home (maybe they can explain). No one answered. She peaked into several boxes as I retrieved my notes from the car.

“Yep. That’s it. That’s the right size.” We were both a little disappointed.

When I returned home, I decided to document my CSA venture because I knew the question was coming: “Did we save money by doing this?”

CSA Box 2

Week 2 of the CSA: the box almost doubled in size, and included locally grown rice!

I pulled out my scale and measured. This first box had eight items of fresh produce weighing a total of 6 pounds and 9.11 ounces. Luckett Farms promises at least eight items. They had delivered that, plus honey, a packet of seasonings, and a couple of recipes. I spoke with a friend who had participated in the CSA. She reassured me that the content of the boxes would vary from week to week not only in selection, but in abundance. (Note: The Local Harvest’s tips is an important read for potential CSA members.)

I took heart. I had already concluded that, even though my first “harvest” was less than I had expected, it was worth the $25 dollars. Based on my friend’s experience, I could expect more abundant harvests in future boxes.

I continued to weigh and document my harvests, except week 3 (dang it!), which, according to the newsletter, included mixed greens, scalloped or patty pan squash, and red beans.

What did I find in the boxes I did collect? Here it is in a nutshell box. To my delight, the number of items and total weight increased each week.

CSA-table-week-1-5-A

Except for one badly bruised tomato in week 4, and stings” on a squash, the produce was beautiful and fresh. We consumed (or stored) all but the one cucumber that turned on me.

This is what we did with our super-fresh vegetables.

CSA-table-week-1-5-applicat

We started out with loads of okra. When I have more than I can use, I typically dehydrate it, then grind it to use as a thickener for soups. Because my dehydrator bit the dust on week 1, I discovered grilled okra. This recipe from Southern Living includes a dipping sauce.

We enjoyed zucchini and squash (also plentiful) grilled, smothered, stir-fried, and in soups and salads. Some recipes I applied:

Cowboy candy and syrup

Cowboy candy and cowgirl syrup

Week 5 has been the most impressive box so far. The most celebrated members of this box were the corn and eggplant. We boiled and ate the corn straight. So sweet! The huge eggplant was perfect! I read five or six eggplant lasagna recipes, then made my own version of mostly this recipe, adding ground turkey and substituting mozzarella and Asiago cheese for the typical ricotta/egg mixture.

My friends get a giggle when I tell them there are peppers in my box. My thing is peppers. Pepper jellies, pepper sauces, pepper relishes, dehydrated peppers, roasted peppers, and it goes on. So what did I do with those jalapeños in my box when I already had a few in the fridge, and many still growing in the garden? I rounded up all my jalapeños and made my own version of Cowboy Candy or candied jalapeños. I have a jar full of leftover jalapeño syrup, which will be great for grill glazing or for that interesting oomph in a dish.

I still have a little time to cook up my sweet potatoes (although they will keep quite a while) and scalloped squash before I pick up box 6.

Am I pleased so far with my venture? You betcha! As I collect weeks 6 through 14, I’ll continue to document the harvests, and maybe I’ll follow-up with more recipes. If you’re considering joining a CSA,  I hope this information helps. Keep in mind, CSA models vary, so study up before you sign up.

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

Southern-style Smothered Squash

Smothered squash is one of my favorite sides.

Whether you just picked up some squash or zucchini from the market or your CSA box was overflowing with these versatile vegetables, a Southern-style smothered squash (or zucchini) recipe might just do the trick.


Smothered Squash (or Zucchini)

Ingredients

  • 6-8 squash and/or zucchini
  • 1 large or 2 medium onions
  • 1-2 peppers (bell or red)
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • ½ c wine
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • butter (optional)
  • Seasonings (salt, pepper)

Instructions

1. Prepare the vegetables

  • Slice the squash/zucchini into ¼-inch slices medallions.
  • Slice the onion into half-round slivers
  • Chop or slice the peppers

2. Saute the squash/zucchini, onions, and peppers in 1 tbsp olive oil until tender (about 5 minutes).

3. Add honey and wine. For a richer flavor, add 1-2 tbsp butter. Turn the heat up and reduce (about 5 minutes).

4. Season to taste. If you like heat, cayenne is great condiment for this dish.

Add-ons and Substitutions

  • Eggplant works nicely instead of or in addition to the squash/zucchini.
  • If you don’t have honey, use brown sugar or agave.
  • Add dried or fresh oregano or basil.
Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

Grill to Oven Squash and Zucchini

Squash and zucchini again!?

When they’re in season, CSA boxes tend to overflow with squash and zucchini. This is a tasty way to make sure they don’t go to waste.


Grill to Oven Squash and Zucchini

Ingredients

  • 4-6 squash and/or zucchini
  • 1 large or 2 medium onions
  • 1-2 peppers (bell or red, or jalapeño if you’re going for heat)
  • 1 head garlic
  • 2-3 fresh tomatoes
  • ½ c sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil
  • ½ grated cheese (optional: when I use cheese, I use Asiago. Parmesan, and Romano would also work well. For a creamier dish, use mozzarella.)
  • olive oil
  • Seasonings (salt, pepper) and fresh or dried herbs
  • 2-3 c marinara or tomato-based sauce (Many recipes, like this one, are available online. In a pinch, buy a jar of sauce.)

Instructions

Preheat grill.Grill to Oven Squash and Zucchini

1. Prep the squash/zucchini, onions, peppers, and tomatoes:

  • Slice the squash/zucchini into ¼-inch slices, lengthwise.
  • Peel and slice onions into ¼- to ½-inch medallions.
  • Wash peppers and tomatoes.

Brush vegetables with olive oil and season (salt, pepper, or mix).

2. Place garlic head in a square of tin foil. Sprinkle with olive oil then wrap the foil securely around it.

3. Clean and lightly rub oil on the grates with oil (I douse a paper towel in oil, and, using a silicone glove or tongs, wipe the grates).

4. Place all of the vegetables on the hot grill and close. After 5 minutes, turn the vegetables. As you roast the peppers and tomatoes, handle them gently. Remember to turn the garlic as well so it roasts on more than one side.

5. As the vegetables roast,

  • chop the sun-dried tomatoes,
  • grate the cheese (if you’re including cheese),
  • preheat the oven to 350o.

6. Remove the vegetables from the grill.Grill to Oven Squash and Zucchini

7. Prepare peppers, tomatoes, and garlic.

  • Remove the charred pepper and tomato skin.
  • Open the garlic and peel (the cloves should “pop” out of their skin).
  • Chop the roasted peppers, tomatoes, onions, and garlic.

8. Drizzle a little marinara sauce on the bottom of a 9X13” Pyrex pan.

 

9. Layer:

Grill to Oven Squash and Zucchini

  • squash/zucchini and sun-dried tomatoes
  • chopped peppers, tomatoes, onion, and garlic
  • sprinkle herbs
  • marinara
  • cheese

Repeat until you’ve used up your vegetables.

10. Place in the oven and cook for 20 minutes.

11. If you want to brown the top, turn oven to broil and cook 2 additional minutes or until brown.

Add-ons and Substitutions

  • For a more substantial dish, grill chicken and add the chicken to your layers, sliced or whole.
  • In the mood for pasta, layer the vegetables with tortellini, ravioli, or other noodles.
  • Mushrooms and eggplant can be used with or instead of the squash/zucchini. Brush the mushrooms with oil and grill whole. Slice the eggplant in ½-inch slices, brush with oil, and grill. Remove skin after grilling.
  • Substitute leeks for the onions. Slice them length wise (remember to clean them out), brush with oil, and grill.
  • For zestier dishes, add lemon zest as you layer, then sprinkle with lemon juice before putting in the oven.
Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.