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.

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

The Longest Night

Tonight is the longest night of the year and the moon is just about full, almost super.

Professional photographers have been known to share and exchange stories of the extreme efforts they went through in order to get the shot. Awkward positions, uncomfortable weather or surroundings, painstakingly long waits. I’m not a professional photographer. In fact, I’m still a kindergartener photographer and will probably only graduate to 1st grade before I die. Still, I have some images to share, not because they’re great and not even because of the “extreme” measures I went through to take the shot(s). But to breathe out a little.Longest night

What’s my story on the longest night?

Barbed wire, ant beds, eye-high grasses, briar patches, highways, and muddy ditches. There was daylight when I climbed over the barbed wire fence, but I circled back and crossed the ditch towards home in darkness. I could have fallen face-first navigating those briar patches. Or slipped on the steep ditch into the mud. Or worse, tripped into the highway just as a giant diesel truck came barreling down the hill. I won’t take any photos of my ankles that bravely stripped through the briars, but suffice it to say, I survived my obstacles and came out on the other side with a couple of photos of the cold moon of the longest night.

I haven’t shared any thoughts on my blog lately, hence the need to exhale a bit. I process what I’m thinking and feeling through writing, but the emotional barometer has been high, so I’ve let the pen rest and allowed my thoughts to steep.

I will endure whatever awkward position, discomfort, or stay I must to wrap my head and words around the thoughts and emotions that have tied me up. But tonight, there are moon shadows and meteor showers. It’s cold out and hard to dance in the moonlight for long or sit and stare at the stars more than ten or fifteen minutes, but the chill on my cheeks feels fine.

My moon shadow casts long and clean, and I look forward to the arc of the sun climbing higher and longer through the days. I look forward to the light.Longest night

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2018

Giving Up Happiness

Ministers on Happiness and Giving Up

I blame this twisted line of thoughts about happiness and giving up on the ministers at my church.

Last Sunday, Fat Sunday to many of us here, one of my ministers delivered a homily on happiness, the happiness parade, as he titled it. Then, on Fat Monday, the associate minister circulated a question on social media: “What are you giving up (or taking on) this Lent?”

Somehow, I pinched these two messages together and began to ask myself:

What if for these “giving up” occasions we give up something that seems elusive yet desirable, something we define as important and good?
What if I give up happiness for forty days?
What if I give up love?

During Lent, many give up naughty or indulgent habits.

  • I’m giving up chocolate.
  • I’m giving up alcohol.
  • I’m giving up social media.
  • I’m giving up cigarettes.

The fasting is not always about something consumed. Sometimes it’s giving up bad behaviors: gossip, complaining, worry. But I’m stuck here: what if I give up something good? Something more abstract?

Giving Up Good Things

And so I continue to mush the happiness homily and Lenten question together. Initially this line of thought seemed silly. But turning it over and trying to imagine what giving up happiness would look like, how I could achieve it, how it would make me feel, I realized that it would not be a trivial endeavor. This fashion of giving up would be damn hard.

I don’t think of myself as exuberantly happy or brimming over with love (my happiness and love are muddled with a big dose of grumpy), but as I imagined pushing something good away for forty day (Happiness? No, not having any of that! Not for forty days.), two words surfaced to the top of my muddled musings:

  • failure
  • awareness

The former puts me among the more fortunate. I would fail at pushing happiness away.

I consider the latter the more important of the two bubbles. The awareness gives turning this thought over a few times merit, because too often the good things, just like bad habits, linger quietly. Good things take their places behind the grumpy routines and the humdrum of our day. Like bad habits and habitual indulgences, good things can go unnoticed for long periods of time.

When I give up an indulgence or bad habit for Lent or any other occasion, what I give up becomes isolated, noticed, and inspected. I start noticing my complacent patterns. That glass of wine while I’m cooking? Never thought about it until I gave up wine on weekdays. That extra helping of dinner? I didn’t realize that I was never really hungry for it until I made a mental note to only have one helping.

Exercising the Mindfulness of Giving Up

I don’t advocate giving up good things like happiness and love. But I do think there is a giving up exercise that can enrich those good things. Perhaps it’s as simple as giving up our complacency about the good things.

Lent is not part of my religious tradition, but I’ll join the giving up energy of it this Lent. I’ll give up my complacency about happiness. I’ll be mindful of it as I stretch into each new day of Lent. I’ll look for it as it follows me, as quiet and as true as a shadow. I’ll pull it up to my chin as I fall into the night and curl up with a good book.

My minister’s query included a parenthetical phrase: “What are you giving up (or taking on) this Lent?” This exercise in giving up will roll easily into taking on.

Love? Why yes! I’ll have some more of that please.

It is Valentine’s Day, after all.

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2018.

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.

Sense of Wonder

Steven and I are full of bird wonder.

sense-of-wonder-titmouse

Titmouse

Our backyard, patio, and window chatter goes something like this:

  • “Look, look! A titmouse!”
  • “What kind of bird is that?”
  • “The hummers are back!”
  • “There’s a woodpecker at the feeder!”
  • “Get the camera! I see a blue bird!”
  • “Those birds that make babbling brook sounds are cowbirds. I looked it up.”
  • “He’s not very gold for a goldfinch!”

One day, however, Steven scrunched his face and asked: “Are we getting old? Why are we so fascinated by birds all of a sudden?”

sense-of-wonder-finch

Red finch

sense-of-wonder-hummer

Hummingbird

Old? Shudder the thought! I blew off his comment with: “It wasn’t all of a sudden! I’ve always loved birds.” I confess, though: I retreated to quietly chew on the idea.

Why was I chasing the hawk through the arboretum with a camera? Why did I care what kind of LBB (little brown bird) that one was? Why would I stand holding sugar water until it hurt, waiting for a hummingbird to feed from my hand? Why does the titmouse delight me so?

Steven had a point. Bird watching carries the stigma of senioritis. I don’t mean the kind that afflicts 12th graders or college seniors. I mean the stigma of doing senior things. Using canes. Eating crackers for dinner. Filling conversations with the latest on aches and pains. Watching birds through binoculars.

I argued to myself: I don’t feel senior and I’m only in my fifties, so it’s silly to think I chase the hawk because of my age.

Soon after Steven’s ridiculous query, our senior minister included Rachel Carson in his Earth Day homily. My ears perked when he quoted from her 1962 book Silent Spring.

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that cleareyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe inspiring is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

sense-of-wonder-blue-card

Cardinal and blue bird

sense-of-wonder-chickadee

Carolina chickadee

I was wiggling in my church seat! See, Steven! We’re not old. We’re arguably acting younger, not older!

This is my theory about my (not-really-new) sense of wonder for birds. My mind scraped across the sandpaper of time, responsibilities, and worries. I’ve been wearing adult shades that darken my world and dull my wonder for it. In my forties, I began reaching for inner peace and well-being. Now, in my fifties, I’ve been able to reclaim that sense of wonder. Not because I’m old, but rather because I removed those ridiculously dark adult glasses. I’ve remembered how to see (really see) the wonders of the world. I think Steven has too.

© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2016

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.