Used Books

I arrived excited. I found all the books! Laforet, Cela, Delibes, Martín Gaite, Goytisolo…

This is going to be a great semester!

I love novels and these novelists would take me back to a place in time, my Spain.

Our professor stopped to admire my stack of novels at the end of class.

“I was able to find all but one used!”

That’s exciting for a grad student squeezing all her pennies.

“And in these all the important passages are already highlighted!” I bubbled as I opened one of the books to show her the streaks of florescent yellow.

“Careful with that,” she said. “We don’t all read for the same reasons.”

“Oh? But the important parts… ”

“Are not the same for everyone.”

She took my novel and flipped through it.

“She might highlight the cleverly camouflaged references to the Civil War. He underscored the metaphors about gay communities. Maybe what’s significant to you are the alliterations… the ones that make the passages roll off the tongue like poetry.”

I do enjoy well-placed poetry in prose.

Life is a used book. We’re not the first to fall in love, we’re not the first to shatter on the rocks of heartbreak. We’re not the first to raise a child, to find a friend, to lose a loved one.

We live used stories. But we make our used books our own, stopping to mark and chew on the words that resonate within us.

After class, I stopped at the coop again to buy an orange highlighter.

I wish I could let that professor know, find her and tell her how much she taught me about life that sunny afternoon in Prescott Hall.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021

 

 

 

Pattern Interrupts: Oh, Ida

What are pattern interrupts?

Pattern interrupts come in many shapes and sizes.

  • Vacation / War
  • Newborn / Newly deceased
  • House in flames / House under construction
  • Debilitating / Empowering
  • Fresh spring breeze / Fierce hurricane winds

Pattern interrupts heal or batter our emotional, physical, and financial well-being. They can be the cure or the hard stop. Or both. They can feel good, bad, or in between, but they’re almost always uncomfortable.

An intentional well-timed pattern interrupt is great for untethering from a habit or dull pattern. I’ve used them for overcoming writer’s block, developing healthier routines, and exploring new things.

Hurricane Ida

My current pattern interrupt is Ida. I never love a hurricane, but I don’t always hate them because a pattern interrupt can be interesting, if uncomfortable.

This time I wasn’t in the mood.

Collectively, we have not yet emerged from the giant pattern interrupt of 2020, the pandemic. My family is in a pattern interrupt as my mom is slowly swallowed by Alzheimer’s. I’m in a personal pattern interrupt as I seek balance in the author vs. editor routines.

I wasn’t in the mood because I’m tired from all the interruptions, imposed and intentional.

Lucky

I’m tired but I’m one of the lucky ones.

The big limbs fell next to my house, not on it. The rains bathed my home, they didn’t fill it. We have a generator and gas for it and we have a gas stove and water heater.

We are the lucky ones.

What is interrupted then? Some of same things we experienced in 2020. Empty shelves or closed groceries. Lines for gas and food. Inconvenience. The hurricane brings extra. Extra inconvenience, extra discomfort. Hot uncomfortable homes with damp surfaces and thick air. Spotty or broken phone and internet services. The morning breeze offers a little peace, but that peace is tempered by the 100dB hum of the 100 generators in earshot.

We’re lucky, but we’re tired.

Things we carry

For hurricane interruptions, most of the things we cling to require a generator.

Here, one cord leads from the generator to the kitchen, where I power the refrigerator and coffeemaker. I have coffee in the morning, salads for lunch, and a cool glass of wine when the sun goes down.

Another cord leads to our office, where I power the computers, a lamp, and my phone charger. I write and work, look up synonyms and post to social media. I wanted to stay connected and I am, because the generator powers our devices, and my phone sits full time on the charger to keep up with hot spot duties.

Things we create

Sometimes we develop a new routine to blast the interruption. During Covid, I devised my own pattern interrupt against the pattern interrupt, a new daily routine to prioritize my writer. This routine was my 2020 takeaway: morning pages, morning readings, and soul before soup, that is, creative writing before clocking in for work.

One week before Ida hit, I embarked on a new weekly routine designed to interrupt some blasé patterns and a daily exercise routine to interrupt… well, the spread of thighs. I worried Ida would smash it, but here I am today, blogging because its B-day. Yesterday I queried. It was Q-day. And I’ve biked or walked every day.

Pattern interrupts —intentional or imposed— can teach us a lot about ourselves. Harnessed they can be empowering. When I look back on some of my interruptions —new house, marriage, graduations, children, divorce, moves, vacations, illness, deaths—, I didn’t always go through them with my mind wide open. I wasn’t mindful about what I carried through them and mostly I didn’t create a intentional pattern interrupts of my own in answer to the situation.

I’d like to believe we come out on the other side with something we carried through, something we created, whether we are aware or not.

I’m better at mindful choices now.

  • What do I pack in that little bag to carry through the pattern interrupt?
  • What will I take away, learn or change about myself?

I wasn’t in the mood for Ida, but I paid attention.

  • What did I carry through Ida? Coffee, empowering routines, and connections.
  • What did I take away? I’m not sure yet, but as I pull on my biking shorts, I think the takeaway might be “I can do anything I set my mind to.”
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021

Open Letter to a Lost Friend: #SpreadLight

Yesterday I received a message from a former colleague that reminded me: #SpreadLight now.

“I didn’t know if you knew about Carmen. She passed away Friday.”

“What?”

The light you bring

Carmen was both a mentor and a colleague. When I was writing my Master’s thesis, she gave me one of the most pivotal nudges of my life.

“Apply to the UT doctoral program.”

The next fall semester, I was learning my way around Austin and Batts Hall. I lived in Austin for six years, formed lifelong friendships, married, bought my first house, gave birth to my first child.

When I returned to Louisiana, back to the city I had left six years prior, Carmen reached out again.

“Come teach with us.”

For four years, I did and they were some of the most rewarding years of my teaching career.

After I left the classroom to freelance from home, Carmen and I were in touch less and less. Over the next twenty five years, I sent Christmas cards, and we had the occasional call. In 2019, after a long spell of not communicating, I met up with Carmen and two other dear colleagues for lunch.

“We should do this more often!”

With a history of years between visits and calls, I wasn’t alarmed that we didn’t meet up for lunch again right away. We should have.

My first thought when I read “Carmen passed away” was Covid. But it wasn’t. Carmen fell ill about a year after I last saw her. My second thought was, did she get my card?

#SpreadLight

This year I started my #SpreadLight campaign, postcard missives to let people in my life know what they have meant to me. Some cards arrive as expected, some never do. A few cards arrive damaged, torn in half even. Other cards arrive months after being sent. I’ve heard back from recipients, and some tell me how impeccable the timing of the card is.

“I really needed this today.”

I’d like to take credit, but I can’t. I’m not in charge of the timing. Once I surrender my tiny missives of light, the timing and journey depend on forces outside of my control.

I sent Carmen a card. Based on what my colleague told me, I’m pretty sure I was too late.

“She has been seriously ill since last fall… I visited her a couple of times but she didn’t recognize me.”

I was late, and also, maybe not too late. Maybe someone along the card’s journey turned it over and read the light. Maybe one of the someones who read it also knew Carmen, had experienced the light she brings.

Shine on

I don’t know exactly what I wrote, but it would have gone something like this.

“Thanks for the light you bring. You probably don’t realize how deeply impacted my life. I’m grateful for your friendship, for your guidance, for the strength and leadership you modeled for me.”Thanks for the light you bring

Anyone tempted by the metaphorical quip Her light went out would be wrong.

Carmen’s light shines on. In the lives of thousands of colleagues and students, in the lives of the battered and imprisoned women she sat with, in my little life.

I’m sad that she suffered, sad we didn’t have another lunch or phone call. But I am grateful to have stood in a Carmen’s light. Today, I honor her in the way I know best: through words of remembrance and gratitude.

Thanks, Carmen, for the light you bring. Shine on.

©Pennie Nichols 2021 All Rights Reserved

More open letters to lost friends:

Mothers, I see you

Happy Mothers Day.

It’s mothers day. If you’re one of those who feels squirmy and uncomfortable because this isn’t your day or because it’s a hard day, keep in mind that this day, like many of our “holidays,” is a devised day, not intended to lift anyone above you or leave you out, certainly not intended to bring you down. We are all worthy of celebration.

As every year, I see those of you standing on the edge of this day.

Maybe you’re:

  • a mom who is estranged from her children
  • not a mom but you mother others
  • not a mom even though you tried
  • not a mom because you never wanted to be

Or maybe your mom is:

  • living with dementia
  • no longer with you
  • estranged
  • difficult or mean, perhaps even a monster

I see you.

Which gets me past the greeting and to the point: I also saw the post “Mothers around the world,” images of mostly “exotic” mothers from around the world with babies, sometimes more than one, strapped to their backs and chests. I saw the mom that labors in a muddy field, carries a basket of wet laundry on her head, or, oh my goodness!, balances bricks on her head as the baby sleeps on her back.

Yes…

  • the photos are stunning and hint at a story.
  • those women are amazing.
  • we should know about these women, mostly women of color, and see their motherhood.

But do we? And by “we” I mean those of us in the US and western European countries. Do we really see the women in these photos?

Do we know their story?

What are we celebrating when we circulate this collection of images for mother’s day? I’m not studied in the socio-economics of motherhood around the world, but something makes me uneasy as I click through these images.

Firstly, if the point is to be cultural, do you know what country all of these women are from? I don’t. I see the Guatemalan skirt, the Bolivian bowler hat, the Indian bindi. But I mostly can only guess at the continents and countries, much less have any inkling of the community or tribe. Not to mention that many of these women don’t even represent the majority of their own country.

What are we trying to convey?

First World and Other

The photos do tell the story of women who work in fields and brick yards, as they nurse babies and provide daycare for their brood. But what are we modeling? Some of these women probably go home to dirt floors and rooms lit by candles and lanterns. They cook meals over an open fire in the corner of a smoke-smudged room inside their home. But even so, they’re not representative of the “norm” of their countries, so what are we saying about these places?

These women deserve to be celebrated, but what are we celebrating with their images on mother’s day?

I’m humbled. Maybe that’s the point. I feel my privilege to the bone. But that’s not what makes me uneasy.

I’m uneasy because I’m an uninformed trespasser looking at a photo. Did she give the photographer consent to snap the photo?  I don’t know, and now the photo of that mother circulates on social media in a culture very foreign to her experience as a way to what? Exalt motherhood?

What do we take from this? Motherhood goals? Or is it a reprimand? “How can you complain about car pool and soccer laundry? You don’t have to carry the basket of wet jerseys and socks four miles from the river to your hut.”

Celebrate all mothers

All of our experiences are valid and unique. I’d also like to celebrate the experiences of these women, but it doesn’t feel like we’re celebrating them.

In this collection of thirty five images of women, thirty three are women of color. The women of color wear their everyday clothing, mostly different from our own, sarongs, woven skirts, brightly dyed fabrics. They walk through fields and along dirt roads with children on their backs and bags on their heads wearing their “real” clothes, some of which are skirts that would tangle between my legs and trip me on my way to a plumbed toilet.

These are indeed “Mothers around the world,” but I’m uneasy because I’m not sure what I’m celebrating. My privilege or their perseverance? My dependence on western comforts or their determination and peace in the lack of them?

Also, these don’t come close to representing all the women.

All the colors

There are two exceptions in this montage, two white women standing in a street, not a field or a work yard.

One does have two children strapped on, a baby on her chest in a tie dyed baby wrap and a toddler strapped to her back in a backpack. The toddler is wearing crocks. The mom has fun rainbow hair. They’re not in a field or on a dirt road, but rather on a street, behind them, tidy apartment buildings on plumbing and electrical grids.

It’s a lovely image, but I’m not surprised to read some indignant remarks and reactions under her photo.

—She doesn’t belong!

—What do you mean? Who are you to judge? The title is Mothers around the WORLD!

The other white mom —a woman with her daughter, both wearing traditional Romanian outfits— also draws social media drama and name calling. But for me, it’s not about whether or not the Romanian mother belongs in a montage titled “Mothers around the world.” With that title, what mom doesn’t belong? But why are more moms not represented? I don’t mean more white moms. I mean moms from those same countries who live in lit houses with toilets. I mean moms from a few miles away who have access to daycare for toddlers.

This collection suggests that the moms of most countries of color live like this when in its simply not true.

I don’t think the objectors to the post are wrong. Unlike most of the images, the two white women have bright eyes and an unlabored easiness, a jolt that the title of the collection cannot assuage. I also think those who are incensed by the objectors aren’t wrong. They are absolutely correct, not because the title is “Mothers around the world,” but rather because who are we to know what labor and tribulations the two white mothers endure?

There are several tears to take if we take into account the thread on the white ease of living versus the “colorful” burdens to endure that this collection suggests.

Which takes me back to this: these photos don’t tell the story.

Who are we?

What does it say about us when we take images that don’t belong to us, that don’t belong to our experiences, that don’t tell the whole story of their subjects, that don’t even represent the experiences of the countries the images represent… what does it say about us when we use these images to say: “This is motherhood!”

I, for one, never pulled crops from a muddy field with my skirts tucked under my waist and a baby on my back. I never trudged up a hill under crippling bags of laundry or firewood while carrying a child. Is that the goal? And if not, if motherhood should never be that hard, what are we doing for these women?

Are there initiatives “around the world” that allow me to help? These women don’t need white saviors, but they may need food, new shoes for themselves and their children, shelter. I’m not sure. I don’t know. But I’ll explore the question I would want to ask each one who carries a load that would collapse me: “What can I do to make raising your family easier?”

Motherhood comes with challenges and blessings. Sometimes just being seen makes the uphill climbs easier and the good parts sweeter. Sometimes being included gives you the strength to get through the day. Some of these images are stunning. But I don’t think the images made the mothers in them feel more seen.

I see you. I see all of you who are mothers, who mother, and who celebrate or grieve mothers, mothering, and motherhood. And I celebrate the light you bring.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021

 

 

Your Shoes

I cannot truly stand in your shoes.
I can stand at your side
to face the rise and fall of the sun,
stand firm with you as the shadows drift,
hold space for you as you ground in your light.
I cannot know what it is to stand in your shoes,
but I can stand with you.

I cannot imagine what it is to be in your shoes.
I can listen to the crunch
of the twigs and pebbles beneath your soles,
the stories of the paths you’ve walked,
the creak of the leather as it bends with the bones of your feet.
I can never know being in those shoes,
but I can listen to you.

I cannot know what it is to walk in your shoes.
I can teeter behind you
along the fallen trunk to cross the chasm,
through the bramble that litters your path,
stepping high over the patches of briars and berries.
I will never walk in your shoes,
but I can walk with you.

I cannot know your feet in those shoes.
But I can sit with you,
our weary feet beneath the table,
where we share stories of callouses and recovery,
blisters born of rough edges, tender arches protected by thick soles.
I cannot know your shoes,
but, in this stillness, I can hear your heart.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved.  2021

Lost and Found: This is me

This is me

This is me

This is me before anyone told me “You can’t do that!”

This is me before anyone responded “Here’s what I think.”

This is me before anyone said “You don’t know how.”

This is me before anyone suggested “You’re not doing it right.”

 

This is me before I questioned “Can I?”

This is me before I worried “What will they think?”

This is me before I paused “How can I do that? ”

This is me before I doubted “Is this right?”

 

This is me remembering “I can do that!”

This is me asserting “Here’s what I think.”

This is me celebrating “Hell yes and here’s how!”

This is me knowing “I knew it all along.”

 

©Pennie Nichols 2021 All Rights Reserved

Covid Memorial Project

I signed up for a slot to participate in our Covid Memorial Project.

The Covid Memorial task?

Mindfully, meditatively count 1500 stones as you place them into a jar. They represent lives lost to Covid in the United States. Then, place the jar of 1500 stones on one of the benches in our Peace Meadow.

I could tell you so many things about my church, this project, and the Peace Meadow, but you can find information in the links I included. This is an account (and accountability) of my personal experience as a participant.

I love this memorial project for many reasons. I stink at meditation. I knew right away that this was the perfect meditative project for me, because it involved movement, I didn’t have to sit still. I would be counting, sorting, filling my jars. I’m grateful to those who conceived this project.

I also love the project because, in this endless era of pandemic and political helplessness, I have something I can do: honor those we have lost.

Breaking the rules

I read the instructions on the table: count the stones into the jars, then carry the jar to the Peace Meadow. I deviated slightly, but I felt comfortable deviating towards comfort because, if my church does one thing well, it’s accept and allow for difference.Piles of dead stones

Instead of counting into the jars, I counted into piles of ten, much like I would count out coins when I collected and sorted coins, triggering pleasant childhood memories. I lined the stones up in columns of ten. I sorted 15 columns of 10 piles of 10 pebbles for one jar with mostly my dominant hand and fingers, then I moved to the other side of the table and counted out piles of 10 with mostly my left hand.

Spur of the moment decision.

I’ve been writing ten lines a day with my left hand for a few of months. My left-hand writing (left handwriting?) has improved a bit, but that’s not the point. I’m trusting the process to trigger something within. The shift resembles, for me, the walks along the same route but the opposite way. When I make the loop through my neighborhood or through the farm fields the “opposite” way, I see different parts of homes, notice different trees and structures. I feel a difference. Sorting the stones for the dead of Covid with my left hand gave me pause. I felt the loss from a different angle.

This is for me.

Counting complete, I placed my two jars of stones on the benches, took some photos, looked for angles. I don’t have anything special to share except that these stones represent real.

People I know are represented in these jars. The jars only hold the dead. I’m not sure my church campus could contain all those who have suffered and survived.Tears in a jar of stones

I don’t expect to change hearts of deniers, convince doubters, or corral troops around a cause. But I can do this. I can honor those we lost. I can be mindful of those who suffered and survived. I can hold up my child and his partner as they recover from the disease, my parents as they receive their vaccines. I can use both my right and left hands to embrace the losses and challenges. I can commit my restless body to an hour of remembrance and prayer.

As I took a few photos, I noticed some jars held condensation. I prefer to see these drops as our collective tears.

May those who were lost and have suffered loss during the pandemic be healed and remembered by our collective tears, by our mindfulness, by our commitment to do better, be better, and be present for each other.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021

Connection

Sometimes the best part about putting yourself out there is being seen by friends with whom you thought you had lost touch forever.

Note to self: The best part is always the Connection.

1984 World Fair in New Orleans

Sure I put myself out there because I want to find the perfect agent, garner the publishing deals, receive the kudos, be listed on the lists.

But this is sweeter.

On this New Year’s eve, a comment on my blog from a dear friend with whom I’d lost touch brought me to tears. The tears were not for the content of the comment. Tears of joy for the re-connection. “The perils of Pennie and Patti” she notes in her comment because our connection is study abroad and a novel-worthy Youth-Rail travel adventure through Europe.

Put yourself out there for the “money” but mostly put yourself out there because the unexpected returns can be delightful. I look forward to catching up with Patti in 2021. Maybe I’ll be inspired to write about our epic journey through Spain, France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and Greece. We missed a few classes but we learned so much more than the tired professors could have taught us.

I continue to learn (to be taught!) how important our connections to friend and family are.

Thank you for reaching out Patti!

Happy New Year, y’all!

©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.

Collapse the Box

She put me in a box.

She posted a message on social media about “those people.” My people. Me! I considered canceling. I’m not going.

Before her post, I thought we were in the same box. She’s in that box?

I shouldn’t go. What if the boxes come up? Damned boxes.

But are they damned?

Boxes help us.

They sort and organize our lives and belongings. They safe keep keepsakes, store the out-of-seasons.

Boxes are essential.

Those virtual boxes in our heads, in our textbooks, on spreadsheets, on reports —categories, classes, types, styles…— this is how we sort our world and each other, for a better understanding.

  • They’re paramedics. They save lives.
  • Those are invertebrates. They have no backbone.
  • He’s a math teacher. He explains numbers to students.
  • We’re professional soccer players. We have strong legs.
  • This is a dangerous narcotic. Keep it out reach of the children.
  • She’s Hindu. She believes in reincarnation.

But boxes can blind us.

  • She’s a Republican.
  • She’s a Democrat.

I saw her political box. It wasn’t mine. Should I go?

What I know

It’s not like I don’t know people in that box, the other box. I have family in that box.

  • I love them.
  • I spend time with them.
  • I sit at their table.
  • We talk.
  • I know them.

And there it is. I know them. I know that box is only part of their story, I know they are more than the box we use to understand their politic. I know they are much better than any box of politic.

The Golden Rule

I was bothered when I saw how her meme boxed us, made assumptions about me. I considered canceling. But I want to go! I don’t want to cancel.

I turned the boxes over with the Golden Rule. I don’t want to be confined to a box, only understood within that box. Why would I do that to her?

I went. We met, we spent time together, we sat together. We didn’t talk about those boxes, but we talked deeply. She is much more than her box of politic, and I am more for having gone. I gained a friend.

Boxes can be good, but we shouldn’t allow boxes to limit our love and understanding.

Stepping outside the box

These are difficult times. We can stir the difficult pot or step outside the box to be the change, to make a difference. We can’t control others. We can, however, choose how we interact with others.

I choose love over the boxes. I want to be heard, but first I must listen. I want to be seen, but first I must collapse all the boxes.

The process is slow and sometimes painful. Listening and seeing to make a difference, to be the change, requires faith and love, but the magic of that slow alchemy is worth it.

I’m glad I went. We saw each other. We heard each other. We didn’t kick around our boxes of politic this time, but I think we’re in a better position to hear each other when we come round to that.

©Pennie Nichols All Rights Reserved 2020