This is my house!

This is my house! but she’s walking away.

I popped in for a short visit last Saturday.

“How you doin’?” I asked mom.

Without looking at me, she answered, “It’s bad.”

“Your… ?” I pointed at my head. She looked at me and nodded.

It’s getting bad.

A few weeks ago, I received reports of drama in the house.

“This is my house!” mom told the sitter, and the sitter’s tender efforts to help mom manage the house were thwarted.

Was she sweeping the kitchen? Maybe starting lunch? Clearing the dining room?

This is my house!

The dining room furniture is a set that mom and dad bought the year we lived in San José, before we went to Spain for three. The great big before, when mom could buy furniture in stores in California that she wouldn’t use until she moved to Spain, into a house she had yet to see.

The dining room set has been with mom and dad for fifty three years and counting. The set is modest, but solid. Real wood. Well-traveled, from California to Spain, then to Alabama, from Alabama to Tennessee, then into storage in Mississippi, and finally to Louisiana, where it took its place in the center of the home mom helped dad build.

They don’t make them like this anymore.

After the chairs came out of storage, mom reupholstered the cushions, repaired the wicker backs. She painted the dining room where they currently stand at attention around the table, ready for the next family gathering. Mom painted all the rooms of the house, not just this house, many rooms of many houses. Mom is the best at painting, the one we count on to spackle, paint perfect lines around trim, even coats… She is the expert…

Mom is… She was the best painter.

I struggle with verb tense. She isn’t as she was.

This is my house, she reminds the sitter. She reminds us.

It still is, mom.

I struggle with seeing her skills in past tense. She not only painted her houses, she helped dad with many stages of the build. She wove wires and PVC through frames for light and water. How many of us can say that about the houses we claim?

And she was extra. When they poured walkways, she collected leftover concrete in plastic planters from the nursery to make hundreds of stepping stones that we still use, that our friends use in their yards. People I don’t know walk on her stepping stones at my church.

It’s hard to let go of the person she has been.

Exasperation

I visited from college one year when mom and dad were building their home in Tennessee.

“I’m not learning anything new!” she told me. “The more you know how to do, the more you have to do.”

I was an eager college student, and her words confused me, their wisdom twisted around the exasperation of a 40-something weary woman.

In her early 30s, mom was in college, attending school as she raised children. She interrupted my homework one afternoon to tell me, “I wish we didn’t need sleep! I could get so much more done if I didn’t have to sleep.” Exasperation.

She’s exasperated now.

This is my house!

She won’t say it but I can hear the exclamatory dammit at the end.

Mom is not and never was a quitter. She kept learning new things beyond her 40s. After she was done with building her own home for the third time, she read Mother Earth News for gardening hacks, Southern Living for Christmas cookie recipes, Reader’s Digest for something new and different. Stacks of magazines on all the end tables, night stands, and in the kitchen and bathrooms.

I wish I had paid more attention. Most of what she learned, knew, did, and was, is no longer.

I needed her last year when I tried to make buckeyes for my brother and son. She was right there with me, but she wasn’t. I made a tub of buckeye badness that no one could eat.

Walking away

This week dad called to let me know she walked out. He came out of the bathroom to go to bed, and she was gone.

When he didn’t find her in the kitchen or living room, he looked for her outside. He looked in the back. Not there, and thank god! not in the pool. Then to the front where, through the darkness, he spotted her walking down the long driveway towards the highway.

She’s been walking away from us for a long time. It’s hard. It’s scary. Some days it’s exasperating.

This is our present tense, where she is now: she is walking away.

Even knowing she isn’t what she was, we cling to the pieces. We’re trying to hold the pieces together, sitters to keep her safe and keep her company, housemaid to help her keep a tidy house.

This is my house!

It’s hard.

I can’t imagine the memories and questions that swirl in dad’s head as he meets mom where she is day after day, less and less of her there. I struggle with deep questions, but most of the tangle in my head is about the small things, moments I didn’t hold well, skills I didn’t master.

How do I make your buckeyes? When will I have time to revive your garden?

I miss mom. I want her back.

I don’t want to learn anything new!

What can we do? She’s tired.

Sit with me

“It’s bad,” she was looking at the floor as she told me. I wondered what images were going through her mind, but I knew what she meant.

For that fragile moment, she stood on top of the disease, talking about it, not from beneath it. I knew if I dug in with questions, she’d slip back under.

The exasperation was mutual.

She’s walking away from all that was hers, her home, her husband, her children, and grandchildren. Yet in these moments, she clings to what’s left.

I wish I could do something to fix this for her. I reached for her hand, “I’m so sorry,” and we sat for a spell.

They don’t make them like this anymore.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021

Eloise

She isn’t safe.

Mom sees her first, noticing her through the bay window, walking on the highway with her dogs. “That’s not safe.”

Cars and trucks barrel over the hill and around our bend of highway. Most slow as they pass her, some stop as her dogs cross.

She’s sporting reddish floral leggings, a yellow sweater, another sweater around her waist, a turquoise necklace, a red purse, and tennis shoes. The metal quad cane extends from her right arm, its four feet steadying her as she leans hard into the handle with each step.

“Would you like some help?”

“Oh, I’m okay.”

Cars approach us from both directions as one of the smaller dogs runs towards us, mid-lane. I step into her path and reach down to pick her up as she approaches. Two larger dogs rest in the ditch, watching us with interest.

“I can help.”

“Thanks.” She lifts her right arm and points with the cane, “I’m going right there.” That’s when I notice the small dog in her left arm, slowly slipping out.

“I can carry that one too if you like.”

“Thanks.” She allows me to take the brown and white puppy. She nods at the brown and white dog in my left arm, “That’s the momma.”

The walk to her driveway is less than 300 feet, but our pace to safety is slow. The momma dog is relaxed, but the puppy wiggles and whines for his owner.

During a pause, she lifts her right arm again, this time to point at the dogs in the ditch. “Those two,” then lifting to point farther up, “Remember when those trailers were there?”

Some of the trailers still are.

“Those two were born in those trailers. Their momma died. They’re all’s that’s left of her dogs.”

The two ditch dogs stay put during our stroll to her driveway. Maybe they understand the danger of the highway.

Her story

My strolling companion becomes immediately familiar, talking in fragments and slivers of personal information.

“I normally don’t come this way,” she explains. In snippets I can’t always follow, she describes how she ended up here today. She’s clearly exhausted. Based on what I know about the area and her description, she’s been walking at least two miles.

“My lights are out, you know.” She’s talking at a steady clip now, looking up at me between phrases. Her words flow like water over a ridge, cascading and splashing, mixing, tumbling. “My husband, after he passed…”

She explains that they lived in Baton Rouge. I start to tell her I’m from there, but it’s not easy to interject.

“That was my big mistake, coming here.”

I hear a big truck approaching, so I pause and shield her while he passes, slowing only slightly.

“I should have stayed in Baton Rouge, but they made me sell my trailer.”

As we approach her driveway, she seems hesitant to continue with me.

“This is far enough.”

“That’s okay. I’ll walk you to the driveway.”

Catching her breath she continues the cascade of life history. “You know…” she points her cane and names one of the neighbors up the road, “He took my car. They told me I can’t drive no more. But I have a driver’s license. I can drive. But they took my car.”

I know some of her kin probably don’t always do right by her, but taking away her car is not something I fault them for. Sure, maybe she can drive, but that doesn’t mean she should.

“This is far enough,” she repeats as we reach the drive.

“I’ll walk you to the gate.” I want to get her all the way off the highway.

“You see my son’s signs?” she asks.

I smile and nod.

DO NOT ENTER / KEEP OUT

Large, threatening hand-sprayed signs. I wouldn’t dream of going beyond them.

“I’ll just walk you to the gate.”

She changes directions, back towards the highway. “Let me check to see if they delivered my mail!”

She hobbles to the box, talking with each step, bends into the box. Empty.

When we come closer to the gate, I hand her the puppy, set the momma dog down, and watch them walk towards the DO NOT ENTER sign leaning just inside the gate. She turns to me, “Thank you.”

As she turns back to the gate, I tell her, “My name is Pennie.”

She smiles, “I’m Eloise.”

I watch Eloise skirt the giant puddle in front of the gate and walk into the property. As I walk home, I see mom on the my front porch, wringing her hands.

We all deserve a safe place.

I know a little about the families across the street, but mostly second-hand and so it’s not mine to tell stories about them.

  • What I know first-hand after today is the tenderness of Eloise. The puppy begged to get back to her the whole time I held him. The momma dog and two bigger dogs followed her devotedly.
  • What I know first-hand after my walk with her is the resilience of Eloise. She walked at least two miles on the rural roads and a highway and she probably lives without electricity.
  • What I know first-hand after talking to Eloise is her mind is slipping.

Mom isn’t walking down the highway with a red purse and four dogs, but she’s falling apart too. I think her heart leapt from the sofa when she saw Eloise shuffling along the highway with a cane and four dogs because she knows what it is to be lost.

Eloise looks healthy enough, her puppies are well-fed, and she’s not driving, so someone’s doing something right for her. My prayer for Eloise is that she is and feels safe at home.

I share with mom some of the things that Eloise told me. When I explain that I offered to walk her to the gate, mom says, “You can’t go in there!”

“I know mom,” and we walk into the safety of my home.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021

A year in the life of morning pages

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 novelFlower in light
  • 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

 

The Writing River: One Writer’s Journey

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.

We flow.

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.

Don’t blow the gift of 2020: Reflect

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.

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-DaoEveryday 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…!”

“Must I?”

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.

A good story

We all like a good story.

The power came back on one hour after we cranked up the new generator, just as we were falling asleep, just before midnight.

“Oh no!” Steven groaned next to me.

“What’s wrong? I thought you’d be happy the power’s back on.”

“But we just bought the generator.”

Steven and I had just “buttoned down the house” for a night without power, floating on the sounds of generators and the refreshment of the gusts of post-hurricane winds. Steven is a self-professed AC addict, but his response was “Oh no!” when our salt lamp lit up.

Sometimes it’s not about the good fortune but rather what we’ve prepared ourselves for. If we prepared ourselves for a storm, we expect a storm. We’re not upset about averting damage. And yet, the relief that the storm missed us or was a dud arrives with a vague, irrational sense of disappointment.

It’s human nature. We don’t want the devastation. “Oh no!” We just want a good story to tell. You can fight me if you think you’re above that, but I’ll win.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2020

The flow: I’m here for it.

Sometimes I side-eye my neighbors with envy when I work on my yard. One neighbor’s yard is mostly concrete and structures, no trees. The other yard is mostly grass, just one tree interfering with the flow of the mower. My yard is a tangle of spaces, the pond by the patio, the tattered greenhouse and giant philodendron in the middle, the fire pit, palm trees, the picnic table, pines, gardenia bushes, vegetable and flower beds, fig trees, the hill in one back corner, and the decrepit shed in the other. There are no straight paths for to flow the mow.

Crooked paths

I’ve never taken straight paths and sometimes I side-eye those who do with a little envy. The straight path seems much easier when I’m in the thick of a bush yanking at Virginia creepers that have climbed twenty feet (Virginia, please come collect your creepers and take them home).

I don’t hate my crooked paths. Most days, I love them. They’re organic, mysterious, and, in unexpected moments, healing.

My crooked paths are complicated by my disinclination to domestic tasks. I delay the exhausting, thankless tasks like trimming the edges of the lawn or chasing the dust that collects on the surfaces of my home. Why bother when a week later the edges are ragged and the dust has collected again? Some might judge me for it, but, even as an adolescent, I am happiest sitting in my sacred space, exploring, dreaming, delighting in the words, in the markers and colors, in the creative opportunities before me.

The neighbors’ yards are disciplined, controlled. Easier to maintain. The space might seem beautiful and peaceful on days when I drag my mower around impossible edges and swear as I yank weeds from the fence, but they don’t feel sacred to me. Where’s the whimsy, the fun, the flow? I hope the neighbors have more fun than their beautifully kept yards feel.

Disciplined control versus organic flow

My life is a testimony to going with the flow. I could spin my story many different ways.

  • She didn’t have any backbone, so she just stumbled from one thing to the next.
  • She let the flow of life lead her through beautiful years of education, relationships, and careers.
  • She could never make up her mind.
  • She is good at taking care of what is before her and dealing with chaos.
  • She never planned for the future.
  • She lived in the present.
  • She’s lazy.
  • She’s creative.
  • She’s undisciplined.
  • She’s free.

It’s all true.

If “flow” conjures for you images of water, you’re not alone. Imagine all the waters. The slow, mighty river; the babbling brook; the ocean’s gentle swells; the crashing waves; the dark, quiet lake; the puddles of rain; the deafening falls. All of the water metaphors, even the ones that contradict each other, are correct. There is truth in all of them.

The two metaphors that speak most strongly to me lately are going with the flow (everything I desire is downstream) and standing in the stream as the waters of time, of life, wash over my feet (always water, yet always different). But when do I let go and just float with the flow and when should I stand? Or maybe I just allow the flow to take me, oars up, dropping my hand in the waters from time to time to test the waters, guide the flow? Yes and yes. It’s everything. All the metaphors. All the things.

In the flow of 2020

After flowing between worlds for a year and a half, moving back into our home when Steven returned from Puerto Rico in January, I stopped, stood in the stream, to take inventory. Then came the pandemic, for which we all stopped to asses our situation.

This year, as we shelter in place, I stand in the stream and know my experience is privileged and comfortable. In March, I dove into programs that nourished me. I showed up for myself every morning, to write, to explore, to dream, just like that young girl I remember. In my reduced Covid19 world, I took care of things in front of me: the pond I started three years ago, the garden beds that were unkempt for two years, the novel I started twenty-five years ago, the Tweet-story launch I conceived three years ago. I took a crooked, organic, undisciplined path to tackle my projects, but I finished them. All of them.

I’m here for the flow.

What’s next? I’m not sure. If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s deal with what is right before you. But mostly, to trust my intuition. I’ll know when it’s time to stand and time to float. That divine gift of intuition will guide my hand to the waters when it’s time.

What’s next is whatever else 2020 drops along my crooked path. And when I face it, I’ll know what to do.

Some days, this might look like bouncing from this to that. If it’s dusting or mowing, that’ll be true. But most days, I’ll be mindful as I commit my energy to a new project, to my circles, to work, to social justice, and to lifting up. I’ll find my place in the flow of this dissonant year. I’ll find my voice in the lessons of this turbulent flow. My path will be organic but, with the luxury of youth behind me, mindful, disciplined even. I stand mindfully in the rough bed of 2020, unsure when and how to show up, but ready. As I surrender to the stream, I dip my hands into the water to guide my path downstream, going with the flow but no longer drifting.

La Fête Nat (Fireworks in France for me?)

Bigger, harder things may be ahead, but what’s before me today? My birthday! And I’m here for it.

I showed up for my quiet time this morning. What’s before me now? The maddening backyard, which I mowed in my flip flops and a sundress because it’s my birthday and I can. Covered in clippings and sweat by 8 am, I asked, What’s before me now? This will be my mantra. What’s before me now? 

I’m going into this new trip around the sun mindful, flowing, and grateful for all of the waters, all of the experiences that have flowed through and enriched my life.

Thank you for all the wishes I know I’ll receive from phone calls, cards, emails, texts, and on social media. Please accept this heartfelt wish in return:

I hope on this day you feel the flow, whether you’re standing in it as it cools your heels or whether you float and flow with it, downstream. May this flow fill you with joy and delight.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2020

Eulogies for living

I did a thing. I wrote five eulogies for living friends.

Why I speak

This eulogy thing started in 1994, the year my son was born and my grandmother died.

In April, my grandmother went down quickly and unexpectedly. For many in our family, the timing was awkward. Awkward for me because my parents were out of the country; my husband out of state; and I was alone with three young children. We were all caught off-guard. Unready.

Just like that, we were all gathered for my grandmother’s funeral. The minister, who had never met her, stumbled through some niceties (good Christian woman), maybe one other speaker read her very traditional obit: survived by all these people sitting here. I felt a strong desire to bolt to the podium : “I have a few things to say . . . ” but I sat, stewing between my daughters on the pew, holding my baby.

How did we let this happen? The service didn’t honor her memory. No one talked about her mad sewing skills. Not a peep about her chicken and dumplings or biscuits and gravy. No reference to her heart-warming smile. Not a single story about her terrifying switch bush. No one who spoke at her service knew her, ate her food, wore an outfit she had made, or lurched in a circle around her as she gripped an arm with one hand and swatted a switch with the other. I was furious, I was sad, and I walked out of that experience determined.

Feeling determined: Part 1

Less than a decade later, my grandfather died. I asked my family who would speak at his service and answered my own question: I will.

At his service, I shared tiny memories: the coins he rattled in his pockets, the rubber bands he kept handy to snap playfully at a grandchild, the VO5 hairstyle, and the long-sleeved shirts.

Nine months later, my cousin died. I spoke again, reading memories and messages from all the cousins. We remembered our youngest cousin well, with sad but warmed hearts.

Giving voice to the memories felt right, necessary, so I continued to speak at services of family, especially if no one else was delivering a personal message.

Almost nine years ago, I eulogized a friend. My friend Dela was dear, complicated, brave. She was a beautiful mess. Her brothers and some friends judged her for the mess: the piles of interests in her home, the messy relationship, the untidy career. But as I watched her battle leukemia for ten years, I grew to appreciate her messes and spoke about it at her service.

. . . there was beauty, openness, acceptance, and love in her chaos. The mess, really, was reverence for the moment. There was presence when she was present.

After the service, another friend approached me.

That was beautiful. I want you to write my eulogy when I die.

Feeling determined: Part 2

That request haunted me for several years. Losing friends is hard, sorting through who might go first is unpleasant, but the notion that haunted me most was why do we wait until the person is gone to find those beautiful memory crystals?

After gnawing on the question for a few years, I decided to write pre-eulogies (I call them preulogies) for a handful of friends and give them as birthday presents. These were unannounced and I asked each recipient not to say anything to future recipients until I made the cycle through the birthdays, closing the circle with the friend who initially requested: write my eulogy.

Writing a regular eulogy can be challenging, not only because the moment is packed with emotion and loss, but also, the eulogist struggles to capture a lifetime, a personality, the giant journey of a person in a few well-strung words. I discovered that preulogies are no less challenging.

Crystals remembered

To find the words, I dragged my mind into the grief of the friend’s absence, across the experiences we shared, and also through the myriad of ways she may have touched others as a parent, friend, child, or co-worker. I struggled to crystalize a friendship in three or four sentences.

Here are a few of the crystals I dug up in this process:

Kathy: I felt a peace wash over me every time I watched her draw in a deep breath after listening to me, lift her hands out and forward as if opening a giant instruction manual, “Here’s what you need to do . . . “

Patti: Sometimes it seemed she was drifting, but she always seemed anchored. [. . .] Wishy washy? An anchored drifter? Hardly. All along, she’s been the anchor. The glue. The strength of the bonds.

Mim: Mim is to blame for many joyful occasions. Girl Scout trips to transplant sea grasses and dance around in medieval attire. Krewe meetings, workdays, and parades. Excursions to hear live music, splash around in shallow streams, explore the flip side, dig our toes in the sand, and paddle across a lake. Latke parties, dinner parties, and girls’ gatherings . . . my house at 6!

Jackie: That act of friendship, that model of taking control of chaos, changed me. It wasn’t about the furniture. She also modeled this for me as an artist, as a scorned lover, and as an explorer. But moving the furniture drove it home for me: take what’s before you, make it yours, make your peace in it, make it work for you.

Betsy: I always felt small next to Betsy. Not in a bad way, in fact, I loved being next to her because I felt complicit, like maybe I could get a little cred when she made the room roar with laughter or when the audience joyfully rattled and shook along as she played her music.

The crystals that capture the friend as I know her are only half of the story with preulogies. I also needed to project: where would my friend go from today, how would she die, who would she be.

Crystals imagined

This might be the trickiest part for me. What if I imagine it wrong, that is, what if she has a totally different outlook for her future? Will this made-up death upset her? What if she hates me for this?

Thankfully, I’m still friends with all of them. Maybe their futures were full of the plausible joys and rewards. Kathy went up in flames in the elbow of the effigy at Burning Man. Patti passed at her beach home, draped across her favorite beach towel, head resting on a thick novel. Mim took her final slumber at a campsite by a lake, Scrappy nearby, a photo of Skip in her hand. Jackie took her last breath drifting through the bayou on her paddle board. And Betsy . . . I didn’t include the details of her death in the preulogy. Maybe because she’ll actually outlive me? Or maybe because we’re so focused on her three long overdue Grammies.

Find the words

Not everyone wants to stand in the absence of a friend to find the words. And not everyone needs to. I certainly couldn’t do this for everyone in my life because the process can be gut-wrenching. But I move forward from this experience mindful of what my family and friends mean to me and open to opportunities to share that with them.

Your friend should know why you’re drawn to her company, why you feel inclined to call and catch up, what memory of her makes you giggle. Maybe stand for a moment in these questions: What will I most miss about her? What well of sorrow will her absence leave?

Remembering Betsy, I wrote:

What I wouldn’t give to hear her tell one more Marie and Boudreaux joke. Right? I’m sure everyone has a favorite. Mine? Marie, the coffee, the oatmeal, and the hot flashes. Ha! You’ve all heard it. Your laughter, that joy that just rose up in you as you remembered her tell that joke, that’s the gift, that’s what we take with us today. That’s the joy in this well of tears.

Friendship is a gift. Take a moment while your friend is living and find that joy, share the words.

©Pennie Nichols All Rights Reserved 2019

Full Moon Goals

I should leave her alone.
I run out,
all go and gullible,
excited to capture that perfect shot.
I never do.
I should stop wasting her time,
requiring the poses.
The peak through the clouds.
The burst of light through haze.
She rises bright and full.
Snap snap snap.
Merely mediocre.
I didn’t take the lessons.
I didn’t read the manual.
Snap snap snap.
Why can’t I . . . ?
If only I could capture that mist over the water.
Snap snap snap.
And the bursts of firefly in the dark field.
Moon shadows ripple on the water.
Snap snap snap.

Enough.full moon goals

I can’t do her justice.
I trudge back through the field,
turning to see her
again and again.
Snap.
Through the dark fields
where the mist captures her light
and fireflies dance in the darkness.
Snap snap snap.
Dark sparkless frames.
I should stop wasting her time.
I shouldn’t come out here snap snap snap.
I should leave her be.
Bright. Full. Rising.
Graceful journey that eludes my lens.
I should stop wasting her time,
I mumble, as I rest my lens,
and drift into slumber,
my heart —bright, full, rising—
dreaming of chasing the perfect shot
of her next full journey.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2019