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

 

 

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

Persimmon Lessons

Sometimes we learn lessons from teachers. Sometimes we learn persimmon lessons.persimmon tree

The fruits we bear

The persimmon tree is a slight thing. Most years, the limbs —strong old-lady-finger things that look more delicate than they are— hold just the weight they can bear, bending in all directions under the weight of the dense fruit.

You mustn’t pick the persimmons early because, ick! They’re like sticky chalk on the tongue. So you watch the limbs bear their limit. Some mornings, you might find she released a few orange fruits on the ground. But she mostly carries the load.

Last year, 2019, Miss Persimmon had a crisis. We’ll never know the story of her heartache. The three or four (maybe many more) years prior, the tree was burdened, straining to hold the fruits. Then, ugh. Last year, unapologetically, “This is all you get. One persimmon and a bird’s nest.”bare persimmon tree

I haven’t been to the farm as often this year due to Covid, so I haven’t been following Miss Persimmons’s progress closely. But oh my gosh! When I visited mom and dad last weekend for dad’s birthday, this is what I saw. That’s the same (and a single) tree. And keep in mind you, they’ve already picked a few. loaded persimmon tree

Metaphors and lessons

Metaphorically, more branches than we can shake a stick at in a post.

  • She rested then she could?
  • She felt embarrassed for the one persimmon so now she’s showing off?
  • Persimmons and persistence?
  • or maybe Persimmons on the dangers of persistence?

But let’s face it. This right here —the tree’s exuberance— is ridiculous. This year is ridiculous.

Whether she rested and now she can (when hardly anyone can!) in 2020 or whether she’s showing off just because it’s 2020, she overdid it. She bore more than she could carry alone, more than she should carry alone. In her exuberance to give, she found herself in desperate need of support.

Fortunately, mom and dad love her.

For me, the lesson is not about not giving. Giving is beautiful, but give what you can. Comfortably.

Or maybe the lesson’s about your support group? If you can’t self-regulate, if you can’t be reasonable, make damn sure you have a Mama and Papa Nick on your team to throw some support under your burdened limbs when you’re holding out your gifts.

Maybe the truth nugget is that my family needs to learn how to treat a persistent persimmon tree.

I’m not done chewing on this, but the lessons in the persimmon tree splay in more directions than I have the energy or capacity to explore in a blogpost.

Maybe one of those persimmon lessons speaks uniquely to you. If so, take it and sit with it. But don’t pick the fruit too early. Seriously. When it’s ripe it’s yum. But too early, just ick.

©Pennie Nichols All Rights Reserved 2020

Love Out of Love

Today would have been our 32nd wedding anniversary. But we fell out of love.

We’re human. We’re imperfect, and about half-way through those 32 years that might have been, we divorced.

Our status changed, and we tick Divorced on forms now, but that status, the divorce, didn’t define our relationship. Love, even when we were out of love, defined us.

Love out of love

My ex husband and I fell out of love and after almost sixteen years of marriage, we finalized our divorce. We went through rough patches during the transition, but even those rough patches didn’t define where we would land after we spun out.

Love did.

NOTE: I’m not sharing our story prescriptively. Our story can’t be every divorced couple’s story. I’m not suggesting that this is the better path, the good vs. the bad journey. This is not a lesson. I’m sharing this because the dates and numbers bring our story round to my heart. I’m sharing because I’m grateful.

I’ve written about this before, but today the numbers compel me to revisit. Almost 16 years of marriage. Just over 16 years divorced. Today would have been our 32nd anniversary. We lost something, sure. We lost a lot, but I learned to carry love forward and allow it to redefine itself. I’m sharing our story again because I’m still grateful.

Our story

I’m grateful for many things, but the first swell of gratitude to spring from that well is our children. They are the tether, the balance, the bond that helped redefine my feelings for and relationship to my ex. Thanks to them, I can make space to celebrate some of the good things these 32 years allowed, starting with the wedding.

We were married under two ancient oaks on my college roommate’s parents’ property, Deux chênes, where the stars and stripes of the U.S. flag alongside the cedar of the Lebanese flag hung on the gates to welcome guests. I’m grateful to Nora and Gerald for hosting our quirky wedding.

I’m grateful for my friends (former roommates) who stood with me for the ceremony. I’m grateful for all the family who attended and participated: my uncle who married us, my cousin who gifted us with hundreds of photos, my cousin who styled my hair, my cousin’s son who carried the rings. I’m grateful for my parents who supported me as I took that adult leap.

The day wasn’t perfect. August in Louisiana! A deluge just hours before the outdoor nuptials soaked the grounds. My dad had to find a giant swath of green tarp post haste. The pre-ceremony included meltdowns and nerves. Post ceremony found me standing in ants for a photo, then spending some time kicking and writhing as they scurried up my wedding gown. To seal the imperfections, when it came time to sign the certificate, we learned that ministers don’t bring the marriage certificates to the wedding. Oops!

You’re not really married, my uncle sighed.

It wasn’t perfect, but the things I remember most are the beautiful moments. The lush air as the ceremony began. The belly dancer who led us away post vows. The dresses my mom and my mother-in-law wore. The belly dancing during the reception. The food. The laughter and joy of family and friends.

Celebrate the love

I lift up those good memories of our wedding day. I also celebrate the 16 years inside the marriage: the adventures of raising three children; our two homes; the mutual friends we made along the way; the meals we shared as a family (chicken rice again, Baba?!) and with friends; the wine tastings; the vacations on a budget; the church we found together.

The church was one of several sacred spaces we discovered together. When things fell apart, the path through was a memory from that sanctuary. Years before the divorce, I sat in our church when Sharon Williams Andrews delivered a sermon on forgiveness as a guest minister. I can honestly say that her words took purchase in my heart and carried me through many moments of the 16 years after the divorce.

Post divorce, my ex and I moved on. We found new partners, new places, new circles, new journeys separate from each other, yet made space for love on the other side of being in love. We come together for holiday and special occasions. We’ve even squeezed in a beach trip together.

We’re divorced for many reasons. We made mistakes. We weren’t a match made in heaven, but we’re happily divorced for a more important reason. We allowed love. And reflecting on that, I would argue that, despite the divorce, I chose well when I married my ex.

He’s a keeper.

My dad called last week to tell me what a wonderful visit he and mom had with my ex. My ex went to the farm (bearing groceries as usual) two weekends in a row, not for a special occasion, not because the kids were there. Love carried him there. He knows my parents are limping through these months, mom’s Alzheimer’s and dad’s heart intensified by the isolation of COVID. He took time, spent time, cooked and visited. Love.

My grandmother would have said, “He’s a keeper.” Except I didn’t keep him. 

Love still wins.

We had a marriage that didn’t last, but the divorce didn’t define us. The divorce didn’t wreck the relationships that become entangled in a marriage. We still share love for each other’s parents, we still have mutual friends, and we are still a family.

Falling out of love didn’t define us. Love did. Love wins, and I’m grateful for this twisted road we took to know love.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved 2020

 

Happy Father’s Day

Gifts

He gave me my first typewriter.

He bought me my first car, a red Toyota Celica stick shift because everyone should know how to shift a stick.

Sure he left me sleeping sideways in a swing for a few minutes when I was barely one, but he came back with the camera and took the photo. Twenty years later, he gave me his Nikon.

He infected me with the lure of dark rooms, trays of chemicals, and glossy black and whites, so I signed up for a photography class my last semester of undergrad.

He gifted me with curiosity. I languished way too long in college, but that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about that innate curiosity that today sends me down Google rabbit holes and through mazes of YouTube tutorials. Always yearning for new skills.

Space

Happy Father's Day!

My first typewriter circa 1968

Did I mention he gave me typewriters? My first one. And then some.

I took a very crooked path, sometimes I felt I had lost my way, but after years of art-numbing theory courses, distractions, and living life, I’m back. Sure, it’s a PC, not a typewriter. It’s a Canon, not a Nikon. But I’m showing up. And that’s also something he gave me. The stick-to-it-ness. The courage to come back, to try. That steady hand, that stubborn determination.

Mostly, he gave me space. When I was two, to feed the hens he’d already fed. When I was ten, to explore the castle on the hill. When I was fifteen, to hole up in my room for days with cassette tapes and a typewriter. Through the years, to sign up for the all the lessons, horseback, judo, painting, pottery, piano, topped off with thirteen years of college! He gave me space to learn and explore.

He had seen my scores, which, like his, highlighted sciences and numbers, yet he allowed me to explore literature, art, speech, creative writing, liberal arts. He gave me the freedom to nurture that chaotic part of me, that inner artist child. The crooked path.

Covid19 chronicles

Emotions are high these days. Mine may have spiked in one of those twenty-some hours I spent sitting with dad in the hospital. Heart work. Even though the procedure is now routine, you can’t avoid entertaining mortality when the lessons involve aortic valves, Cath labs, and beating hearts.

I watched him, I saw myself. Those fears behind a curtain. The stoic, I got this. I know him. Left brain strong, right brain leanings. I watched and learned a couple of things.

First lesson: He’s not the greatest patient (I warned my kids that they’re in trouble if I inherited his hospital patient gene). In his defense, he carries a heavy load and no matter where he is, sitting still and waiting is a struggle.

Second lesson: he talks in his sleep… with some profundity!

When I saw him doze off, I wiggled on the hospital couch to resume my mini reading vacation. My plans were quickly thwarted when he began speaking very clearly, as if sitting at a table with a dozen colleagues.

“I wonder what happens when you get to the last page?”

The last page

Right away, I knew I had to take notes.

I could chew on the first line for years, but he continued, “You take a picture of the next-to-the-last page.”

What!?

He kept going. I couldn’t keep up, mostly because of the first two lines. What is this last page?

“It looks very thorough if what I see is correct.”

Most of his life, dad followed the science, gave his energy to his left brain, but his right brain has always been strong. Maybe part of me is the version of him that managed to wriggle lose from the confines of left brain. Whether left or right, science and art, we share this —facing the last page—, we share our mortality, imagining it, facing it, wrangling with it.

“Where is the next-to-the-last page?” he asked.

A question I wanted to ask, but he voiced it and quickly offered a response.

“I wouldn’t want to answer that.  [pause] We just passed through.”

My eyes focused on his chest for the rise and fall of life. Thank god!

Happy Father’s Day!

Happy Father's Day

We all have a father, a sperm donor at least. We don’t all have a dad.

I have a dad. I am still learning how much this has blessed my life. After this week and as we move through Covid19, I’m grateful that my dad is still here with me. Even on the days he confuses me and scares me with his sleep talking. I’ll think about that last page for many days, years even. What do we do when we get there? I’m immensely grateful that this week wasn’t a last page for us.

Thanks, Dad. I’m grateful for all you’ve taught me, all the space and love you’ve given me.  I’m sorry we can’t be with you today to celebrate, but know I love and appreciate you. I promise, after we get a couple more Q-tips up our noses, we’ll be right over with shrimp and coconut cake to make our own Happy Father’s Day time.

©Pennie Nichols. 2020. All Rights Reserved.

No perfect mom

Healing work centers around recovery and often the recovery is from damage inflicted by a parent. Yeah! Your mom and/or your dad!

So this is a different kind of mother’s day message. If you wanted sappy sweet, this isn’t the one.

What parents do

Some of you were truly battered by a parent, emotionally, some of you physically, but I felt nurtured and supported, even spoiled, by my parents. I have trouble embracing the notion that my mom or dad damaged me. Yet any healing work, any counseling turns the loop to the family dynamic.

I get it. There are moments when a parent, deliberately or unwittingly, stifles something she should have nurtured. Moments where you were swept through his journey of choice when it wasn’t ideal for you. You may live your life without ever examining it. Maybe you harbor subterranean anger that poisons every garden you plant, every effort you make. Or you may spend hundreds of dollars diving deep into the childhood wounds.

No one is perfect.

Not a single one of us. If we’re lucky enough to move through parenting years, we’re going to trip up somewhere, drop a ball over there, wreck a moment here, shove a secret into a closet. If I find a moment that needs healing because of mom or dad, I try to see them, human, doing the best they could, dad looking for the user’s manual, mom for the plugs to close up the leaks. I lean in just enough to heal, just enough to acknowledge those moments from my childhood that lift their heads and say: Remember this? when the counselor demands it. I lean in deeper to forgive.

But, yikes. When I lean back, I panic! What damage did I do to my kids!!?? What kind of recovery-from-mom work do they need to do?

There is no perfect mom.

Mine’s not. I’m not. Yours wasn’t. If you’re one, you aren’t a perfect mom either. But let’s be tender with our moms, with ourselves. None of us received that user manual, and even if you read all the parenting books and magazines, you fell off the page from time to time. It’s inevitable. We all need to forgive and be forgiven.

Can you still tell mom “You’re the best mom ever” or smile when your children tell you the same? Sure! We’re in this together. Learning. And we did the best we could with the tools we were given (that last phrase is loaded). Those of us who can afford it or understand we need it, will spend at least a little time in recovery from mom. But feel free to tell her Thanks for being the best mom ever. And if you’re a mom, don’t let Dr. Doubt smother the emotion when yours tell you the same. It’s code for I love you, and we all need more love.

Happy Mother’s Day, y’all.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2020

Living In Between

2019 forced me to face living in between.

In between places, in between people, in between homes, in between climates.

I read a bit about the in between from a variety of perspectives: a Jewish journal, a family dealing with cancer and chemo, a parent of a fugitive son, and more. I discovered many different in betweens and ideas to chew on: the loss of clarity in that liminal space; living in the middle versus focusing on the goal; living between knowing and not-knowing.

Here are some of the lessons I am digesting as I emerge from 2019 and living in between. They aren’t unique to living in between, but these lessons became more pronounced in that threshold.

Transitions are hard.

I spent the last five to seven days before my first trips between Baton Rouge, Puerto Rico, and the farm grieving about leaving. This was particularly disturbing for those eight-day stints because I was wasting most of my stay sad about leaving and/or anxious about going.

Lesson: Be present.

Be present has become cliché because we’re reminded to do this from many corners. If it feels watered down, it’s not any less important or vital. After I recognized what I was doing, I made a mindful effort to be present up to the very last minute, wherever I was. The transition is still hard, but I learned to spend less time transitioning and more time living where I stood.

I don’t miss.

During my first trip to Puerto Rico, I experienced an aha! moment. For all the angsting I did before leaving for San Juan,

I don’t want to leave.
Will my dogs be ok?
How much more will mom decline while I’m gone?

the aha! came one evening when Steven was watching a show in which a character was expressing I miss you so much! I realized I hadn’t thought about my dogs in days. I hadn’t missed anything or anybody back home in days. My first thought was: I’m broken! How could I not miss anyone?

I started mulling over past absences and found a disturbing truth: I never miss anyone or any place. I look forward to reunions and visits to places, but I couldn’t find that yearning in me that we associate with absence.

Lesson: Be grateful.

The discussion was tricky, but I talked about this with Steven. I had to admit to him that I never miss him. I’m grateful that he didn’t fall apart and equate love with missing/yearning in absence, thankful that he helped me come round to a deeper understanding of myself. I’m grateful for Steven.

Burdens are often self-inflicted.

I’m especially grateful for Steven for taking this deployment to Puerto Rico. We’ve had a year of adventures.

Steven’s gig in Puerto Rico meant, however, being apart anywhere from a week to six weeks, together eight to fourteen days. My I don’t miss you was pretty damn handy for this. As a couple we experienced odd moments of relearning each other and settling territory (the Puerto Rico condo was his, not mine; the farm house was mine, not his; the house in Baton Rouge was no longer either of ours). The absences were hard on Steven, my pets, and my mom.

The hard part for me? I felt pulled in opposite directions, overwhelmed at times because wherever I showed up, someone needed something from me. Some days, I felt crushed by responsibilities. I held a couple of pity parties for myself, sharing them mainly with Steven and my daughter who was keeping the fort down at our main home.

I don’t want to [insert domestic tasks] everywhere I go!
Why can’t you [insert domestic tasks]?

Fussing never feels great and it certainly wasn’t how I wanted to spend the time I had with my people. One day I was sulking about this pattern, and then, the aha! No one was demanding anything from me. I was choosing to take on tasks.

Lesson: Be mindful.

Being mindful helped me set comfortable boundaries around the domestic tedium and tasks. Once I stopped blaming people I was doing things for and owning the responsibility of my choices, I was able to navigate to a more comfortable balance. In some instances, I didn’t change what I did. Understanding that it was my choice made the task less burdensome. In other instances, I chose differently and no one was less for it.

Relationships are a gift.

For each moment I spent with/between my parents, Steven, my friends, and my children, I spent much more time alone.

In solitude, I explored the wall around my heart. It’s not unrelated to why I don’t miss people. I’ve written about this wall before. I’m clearer now on what that wall is, why it’s there, even why I may have needed it at some point in my life. With mom’s health declining and my dad’s scary heart episodes, I’m motivated to keep the wall fortified. Who wants to be vulnerable at times like these?

The wall protects me from things I fear but that protection comes at a cost. I know it’s time to bring the wall down, but awareness doesn’t make that any easier or any less frightening.

Lesson: Let love.

I know that I love, but I have never loved with abandon. Years ago, when I first began exploring this and admitted that I thought I’d never have a soul mate, Steven begged to differ. (So grateful for him.)

I’m grateful for the love I have allowed in —my family, my friends, Steven— and I’m grateful for Steven’s patience and trust as I’ve discovered my wall, fortified it from time to time, defended it. I’m taking baby a-brick-at-a-time steps, but that wall is coming down. In this liminal space, I feel anxious and afraid, but even in the uncertainty of this threshold, I sense opportunity and new beginnings. It’s a beautiful thing to peek over my wall and discover a sea of love.

Emerging from living in between (or into a new one?)

In 2019, I lived in between the suburbs, the island, and the farm, an experience that was a gift of travel adventures, self-awareness, healing, and mindfulness. The experience was also a microcosm of life because don’t we all always live in the in between?

On the largest scale, in between birth and death.
On smaller scales: in between milestones and celebrations, in between semesters and jobs, in between Mondays and Fridays, Fridays and Sundays, in between appointments and dates, in between waking and sleeping.

We are all living in between something.

As we enter a new year, my wish is that we find peace in that in between. Be present, be grateful, be mindful, and be love. Best of everything to you in 2020.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2019

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

Celebrate the Lessons

How would you celebrate a milestone birthday?

My dad will celebrate a milestone birthday this week.

“Celebrate” applied loosely here.

  • he’s not nuts about birthdays
  • his idea of a fun vacation might be going to his niece’s house to help her with post-hurricane repairs (a recent discussion), which means his idea of “celebrate” is a little skewed.

I knew I couldn’t pull off a second surprise 80th birthday party in a single year, so our idea of celebrating his 80th was a family gathering at my cousin’s new home in Charleston, close to the coast. A few days of fishing, beaches, kayaks, and paddle boards, evenings on her porch sharing the catch of the day and the joy and melancholy of new and old stories.

Hurricanes and celebrations

Florence  stirred up the fishing and kayaking waters but didn’t damage my cousin’s house (see previous note about his idea of fun vacations). So we postponed the trip. How to celebrate now?

It’s no big deal. Really, just the thought that counts.

But darn it. I want to do something special!

My Chicago daughter reroutes her flight from South Carolina to Louisiana. All three children under a single roof along with my folks: that’s special.

The celebration isn’t an inshore fishing excursion on the east coast, but we nom and yum over steelhead trout and baked vegetables, laugh and sing over the flattened white-chocolate strawberry cake, and celebrate one of the most intimate, joyful family gatherings in years.

As delicious and heartwarming as our meal is, that isn’t the only highlight of the day, maybe not even the brightest for dad.

As my Baton Rouge daughter and I arrive earlier that day, Wayne, mom and dad’s farmhand, is coming up the hill on the tractor. He flags us down.

You don’t have any water!!

Water, Wells, and Lessons

For my house on the farm just down the hill from mom and dad, no water also means no AC. A water crisis wasn’t how I had hoped to celebrate dad’s birthday.

A water crisis with any other folks might indeed be a crisis, but today, there is zero panic and 100% can-do.

I’m not sure what dad had planned to do that day before his birthday meal but he never moans or groans about this disruption. On the contrary, I think he enjoys the opportunity to share and teach us a few rural-life lessons.Celebrate the Lessons

  • The water comes from the well.
  • The well feeds from the aquafer below the property.
  • The well is about 150 feet deep.

150 feet!! Wow!

Yeah. That line goes all the way down.

Wow!

  • When the pump dies, we pull 150-feet of hose and electrical wire up through the well to repair or replace it.

Celebrate the LessonsAnd that’s the pump?

Yes.

And this . . .

That’s the holding tank.

We don’t have a water tower. We have a blue tank in the gazebo, camouflaged under a “table.” But not today.

But where’s the well.Celebrate the Lessons

Down that hole.

That was a lot of digging! How did you do it?

Wayne, getting good giggles from our city questions, chimes in with dad to explain derricks, augers, aquafers, and sand as we snap photos with our phones. We have so much to learn.

Pipe clamps secure the heavy pump on the end of the hose.

Can’t let the pump slip off the hose and into the well. Then you’d have to call the well guy to fish it out, and that’s the last thing you’d want to do.

Celebrate the LessonsBlack tape to secure the wires snugly around the pump and pipes.

So they don’t snag on the way down or on the way back up next time.

Next time? Next time we celebrate another birthday or have a family gathering?

Everything wears out eventually.

But today, we fix it.

“We” applied loosely here.

  • Most of the “we” watch dad and Wayne work in synchrony to fix it.
  • Most of the “we” would have panicked, would need to call the well guy, but would need to make a lot of phone calls and google searches to even know that there is a well guy.

All of the “we” gather in the rain (did I mention the series of small thunderstorms?), the less informed of us helping in tiny ways, learning lots, and warming dad’s heart as we give him audience.

He’s 80 today. We have so much to learn from him still. I’m glad we gathered, I’m glad we listened, I’m glad we celebrate another year with him.

Happy Birthday, Papa Nick!! Thanks for letting us celebrate with you! Thanks for the lessons.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2018.