The Struggle

I struggle with the struggle of body image, loving yourself, healthy weight . . . all of the things that go into healthy regard for differences. There’s this no-win vortex.

  • When you’re overweight, don’t body-shame yourself.
  • When you lose weight, be careful how you announce it, lest you shame someone who hasn’t.
  • When you’re too skinny, don’t body shame yourself.
  • When you change your diet and work out to build muscle on those bones, don’t brag in a way that body shames the skinny girl.

We tiptoe around healthy body image vs. healthy body weight vs. loving where we are vs. setting goals for where we want to be. I have friends who have legitimately worked on nutrition and exercise, but when they take photos of themselves to show their progress, they include a “disclaimer” of sorts to make sure they don’t tread over those who are still in the struggle.

I’ve always struggled with weight. We set impossible standards. When I look back at photos of my younger self, I wonder why I felt like I was fat all those years. I was fine. Can I say that? Fat? Fine? But fat vs. fine is not the real struggle for me. And this is not about PC.

A few years ago, I was sitting on my friend’s patio across from her then boyfriend. I don’t remember what we were talking about but, apparently, we were disagreeing  about something. I think he had had a few. When I felt like I was making a little traction in our discussion, he said:

Sit your fat ass down.
Whoa!

Can you hear me?

My friend apologized for her boyfriend’s comment. But my “whoa!” was not about his comment or my fat ass. At the time, my ass was bigger than I wanted, but I wondered Is that all you see? We were having a conversation. Is that really all you have?

I didn’t have a clever comeback in the moment. Honestly, I didn’t need one. I didn’t really care what he thought. But I’ve thought about that incident over the years. I realize that people, especially women, are dismissed if they’re too heavy, too skinny, too plain, too made-up, too pretty even! They don’t get to keep their voice at the table: Sit your ___ ass down!

I struggle with body image because it gets in the way when it shouldn’t. I remember an episode of a show Judd Hirsch was in, where he “met” a woman over the phone. They had several conversations and he pretty much fell in love with her. Then he met her in person, and she wasn’t what he expected.

I get it. Body chemistry counts for something. But it shouldn’t discount everything else. He liked her! She was funny. Clever. And Judd’s character could hear and understand her before he met her in physical.

Whoa! Sit your ass down! You don’t look like what I wanted.

I don’t have answers and I don’t think any single one of us can fix this. I’m also not unguilty of dismissing someone because they’re too something physically. But I’ll do my part to listen harder, hear better, see through it, and allow all the voices at the table —no matter what shape, color, or size— to be heard. Yeah. Even if you don’t or can’t, I’ll sit my fat ass down and listen.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2020.

Time Out

Time out

You’re in time out
Could be worse.
It could be a spanking.
You just wait until dad gets home!
Or it could be a rejection.
Out! I can’t look at you anymore!
But it’s just time out.

Stay in your room.
No, you can’t leave yet.
What did you say?
Just wait until I tell your mom!

You’re in time out squirt.
Sit here and think about what you did.
The mindlessness,
Like a rat, gnawing away at the fine edges of all the beautiful things.
No respect. No consideration for me
your mom
your dad.
Taking all the things we’ve provided for granted.

You sit here and think about that, why don’t you?
The ease of playing with friends in parks and at parties.
Parties! Dinner parties, birthday parties, retirement parties
where everyone shared cakes and punch and finger foods.
You sit here and think about all those things you didn’t appreciate.
The mountains of choices at stores.
The restaurants, Can I have a taste of yours?
The Hi! Come give me a hug!s at church.
The neighborly handshakes across a fence.
The friendly conversations around a fire pit.
Drinking from water fountains.
Splashing around in public fountains and pools.

You’re in time out and you’d best do as I say.
Sit here.
Be grateful for all you still have.
And don’t come back out until you can be a better human.

You’re in time out.
It’s for your own good.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2020.

Two Grandmothers, One Disease, Three Stories

Two Grandmothers

I’ve begun to ask myself why I feel more inclined to tell the story of one grandmother versus the other. Where emotion and humor are concerned, I probably have more in common with the one I’m less inclined to story about.

So why does one story draw me more than the other?

They competed for our affections. Not openly, but every now and then it would slip out.

You like her chicken-n-dumplings better than mine.
Y’all spend more time at her house.
You always go there first.

Both were Mama grandmas, but pronounced differently: Mama Nick (MAH-mah Nick) and Mama Wilson (MAW-Maw Wilson). Mama Wilson was average height —maybe a little tall for her generation— and stout; Mama Nick was short and, by her 60s, hunched.

Both were excellent cooks. One favored gardening. The other sewing and crafts.

Mom learned her domestic skills (cooking and gardening) from her mother-in-law. Arguably, this is because mom was the red-headed middle child and neither parents’ favorite, and she married fresh out of high school, living the first few months of marriage in a trailer next to her in-laws’ house. Whatever the reasons, mom’s chicken-n-dumplings are more like her mother-in-law’s than her own mom’s, and, while mom can sew if she puts her mind to it, she prefers the dirt, like her mother-in-law.

Why her?

I prefer the dirt, too. So, why do I feel more inclined to write about my maternal grandmother?

Mama Wilson wasn’t the “sweet” grandmother. She was wonderful, we loved her; but she was strung between sweet and stern, between doting and “don’t-do-that!” She had a bush just outside her back door that we, the grandchildren, called the stick bush. If she became cross with one of us, in an instant, she had reached through the back door without looking, snap!, and was swishing the switch that would blister our bottoms.

I remember hiding under one of the cupboards she used for storing cloth, needles, patterns, and thread. From there she might just scold us, the switch becoming more of an exclamation point on the reprimands.

Thankfully, those switch moments didn’t define our relationships with her. Even as children, we joked about the switch bush.

Skills

August 20, 1956, my four grandparents and my parents, at their nuptials. Mom is wearing the wedding gown Mama Wilson made for her.

What I remember more about mawmaw are her amazing skills. For fun, she made wall-hangings and things like mantel clocks, using molds, plaster, and paint. To supplement their income, she sewed dresses, vests, pants, pajamas, and wedding gowns for friends and neighbors. Of course, on-the-house garments for family.

She probably didn’t realize she had extraordinary skills and creativity. I remember the year we were in town, and she found out we would be shopping for clothing. I was at the grow-an-inch-each-month age. She looked at me, head to toe, toe to head, pulled out a bolt of cloth and a pattern from the cupboard. After spreading the cloth on the floor, she opened the pattern.

In my mind, she tossed the light tissue pattern in the air and let it fall perfectly on the cloth, but that would be an exaggeration. She smoothed the used pattern on the material, then went to the kitchen and came out with a fist full of butter knives and threw them (not exaggerating here) along the edges of the pattern before cutting the material. That afternoon, I had a McCall’s skirt, knickers, and vest that would fit me for more than a mere month.

My mom and I can sew okay, but we didn’t inherit those skills. Maybe that’s one reason I’m drawn to her story.

The oak tree roots

I think mostly, though, it’s the tree incident. I wasn’t witness but heard more than one first-hand account about her fall on the roots of the oak tree. That year, I began writing about her: a short story “Divinity” and a novel. The oak-tree story inspired the opening scene of the novel, and later, of my first screenplay. The oak tree probably marks when I first really started paying attention to what was happening to my grandmothers.

One disease

Did I mention that both of my grandmothers had Alzheimer’s?

The first signs of it began in their mid to late 60s. By 80, the disease had ravaged their minds. I would come to Louisiana for disheartening holidays, stories about the meek, sweet grandmother, now in a nursing home because she was too difficult to care for, swearing like a sailor, starting two kitchen fires, and running off two caretakers; the stern grandmother, now meek, fumbling with safety pins on her sweater where she’d lost buttons she could no longer sew back on, clinging to my grandfather’s every move, and painfully pleasant to everyone around her.

The stern-to-meek grandmother had developed a tendency to wander at night. On one of her wee-hour excursions, the roots of the old oak tree tripped her up, an incident that prompted the installation of door alarms.

That oak tree and the timing draw me to Mama Wilson’s story. Mama Nick died before I moved back to Louisiana. My visits with her were brief and heart-breaking, often spent trying to figure out where her dentures were and what happened to that new slip mom had brought her last time. I knew less about the day-to-day of her relationship with the disease. She had fallen while I was away.

The falls

I was around enough to watch some of Mama Wilson’s fall. Her fall wasn’t any less heart-breaking, but I was able to catch glimpses of the grandmother I remembered. We helped her with her safety pins, she fussed with my daughters’ hair, and we answered when she asked “Where’s Norman?” Before she slipped away, she held all three of my babies. She didn’t always realize they were her great-grandchildren, but that she held them was a blessing.

As Mama Wilson declined, mom wasn’t always patient. She watched her with dismay and started to say things like, “I hope you can be more patient than me . . . ” and “If I get like that . . . ” Then, mom got like that.

This time, I’m here for the whole fall. We’re blessed that mom’s fall started much later, in her late 70s, and that mom is an exemplary and compliant patient.

I started this essay years ago, before mom stumbled across the rough roots of Alzheimer’s. Some of the beginning of the essay is no longer accurate in the present tense. Mom cooked her last pot of chicken-n-dumplings on her own two or three years ago, she’s no longer able to put her mind to complex tasks like sewing, and her gardening is limited to weed-pulling now. She can’t hoe a row or organize the planting of it. This year, she wasn’t able to make any of the Christmas cookies on her own.

Three stories

I never finished writing about Mama Wilson’s fall before mom tripped on her own diseased roots. I haven’t even begun the forensic work to write about Mama Nick’s fall into the disease. I’m drawn to Mama Wilson’s story first because it was the first time I witnessed alertness spilling from the eyes, awareness and stories slowly draining until finally the gaze is vacant.

All three stories —Mama Wilson’s, Mama Nicks, and mom’s— inform my own as I stare down the triple-barreled Alzheimer’s rifle. All three stories challenge me. Like stubborn weeds, they break above the root and require more than the casual tug to be released.

My intention this year is to dig a bit deeper, to finish Mama Wilson’s story, explore Mama Nick’s, and continue to be part of mom’s. Turning over their stories with my words, my heart will break a little more, but I’ll learn more about these women I cherish, the disease I dread, and myself.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2020

Alzheimer’s and Bumper Cars

With each new day, the vacancy in her facial expression seems to widen a bit, her gate is less assured, her voice weaker. I feel like the physical “absence” mirrors the mental.

On becoming a bumper car

She’s still pretty good. But she fights hard for that. She continues to understand what’s happening to her, the Alzheimer’s. She remembers basic routines and she knows her people. The names come out like lottery tickets from a barrel, sorted mainly by gender, no longer by age, relation, or even death. Nearly every time she talks to me about her sister, who died in September, she refers to her as Pennie.

You mean your sister Norma, don’t you?
Oh yes! Norma.

I think family and friends expect less of her when they come to visit. She perks up a bit when she has company. It’s part of her fight, solving the puzzles, sorting the names, following the stories, washing dishes. And, without dwelling on it, she’s open about her battle. When she has a load of company that she wasn’t expecting, she does very well, she seems improved even. But the not expecting part is the key. If she’s not expecting something, she’s not in charge.

My dad and I have learned, not gracefully, that when there will be an event, company for the holidays, or a trip, the anticipation undoes mom. An anxious wheel spins out of control in her head and she becomes frantic with worry about getting ready because . . . she’s in charge of getting things ready.

Who’s in charge?

My mom is from stock that takes charge. We weren’t military families but there was something militant about the tasks and projects, practical approaches, no nonsense. You could count on mom, as well as her siblings and parents, to swoop in, make things easier, get things done.

That’s the wicked twist now. The thing she was known for, good at, sought out for—that gift she had—sends her into a nasty, out of control spiral. A bumper car, bouncing off the edges of her world. The bigger the upcoming occasion, the steeper the disorientation, the more severe the loss of sleep.

What are you looking for?
I don’t know.

My dad and I try to include her in as many activities as possible, especially the ones that make her feel useful. She wants to contribute. But it’s hard to know where the edges fray.

How can I help?

Mom has been refinishing a few small pieces of furniture for me. She’s always been an excellent painter, whether furniture, inside walls, exterior trim and walls. Not just good, excellent. I gave her the first small table.

I’ll come up in a bit and help you with this.

But a bit later, she had already sanded it. She didn’t remember I had also given her the paint.

What color do you want me to paint it?
Remember, I gave you the paint.
No.

But she did all the prep work without me coaching her.

More recently, she has needed more help collecting things for the task. The sander. The brushes. It’s hard to know from day to day how much help she’ll need.

Dad invited her to paint a shed he recently built. Her face lit up and she was off to collect her things. But bumper cars and being in charge.

What are you looking for?
I don’t know.

The anxiety escalated quickly, and dad wasn’t sure she would be able to handle the task at all. As he collected the brushes and trays, and removed the stress of being in charge, she was able to move comfortably into the task. Her work was excellent.

She fights for it. She wants to be in charge, but she also she doesn’t want to be a burden. Who knew the two impulses would collide? Bumper car.

Knowing her limits

Dad and I want mom to feel at ease, to find purpose in her day, and we’re learning what her shifting limits are. We’re learning how to be present for her.

Mom comes down to my house three or four times a week to see what she can do for me. She likes to wash my dishes, take out the compost. When she arrives, I’ll look out and see her bent over a walkway pulling up weeds. That’s useful. Then, as she walks to the door, I watch her move. Sometimes I know by her steps or her gaze: bumper car.

I should know where this goes but . . .
Here, let me help. I’ll put the clean dishes away for you so you can wash the dirty ones.  

©Pennie Nichols 2019 All Rights Reserved

Alzheimer’s Bull

Is it OK to ask? Is it Alzheimer’s?

How’s she doing?, you ask.

The answer depends on how you’re asking the question?

Are you asking about how her days are going?
Mostly OK. Although the answer sometimes sounds like a question: Mostly OK?

Maybe you want to know how she’s feeling?
She mostly feels good. You can hear the white-noise rumble of worry. But she’s happy. Now and then (not every day yet) she has a clap of confusion, fear even. But she mostly feels fine.

Or maybe you aren’t asking how she’s feeling. You mean: How’s her body holding up?
Great! She’s slowing down a bit but she can still run circles around me.

You know that, though, don’t you? She’s always been fit as a fiddle. You aren’t asking about that at all, are you? Maybe you feel a little confusion about what (and how) you’re asking, teetering along the edge of morbidly curious.

You ask, How’s she doing?, but you’re curious about where she is on the Alzheimer’s spectrum.

Is she still driving?
Does she still bake ginger snaps?
Will she know who I am?

You’re confused about what and how to ask, but yes, yes, and yes. Like I said, she’s mostly ok.

She misplaces more things than she used to. Sometimes she repeats her questions. The forgetfulness surfaces most when she’s anxious. Before a gathering at home or an event she needs to attend. Any disruption to her routine, really.

She’s pacing and repeating questions today because I took dad to the ER at 3 a.m. this morning. She’ll probably misplace something before I get home.

Placebo

And how are YOU doing? you might add.
I’m mostly OK.

But I’m not sure how you’re asking that question either.

Perhaps it’s: How are you feeling?
Helpless, to be honest.

Or maybe you mean: How are you helping?
Honestly, I don’t know how to help. I just show up for a while each month.

I’m a placebo. I don’t really do anything. I’m a beneficial effect even though I can’t attribute those benefits to anything I do. I help because mom believes I help. Like a patient who feels the effect of the placebo.

Alzheimer’s bull

Her Alzheimer’s doctor says we’re lucky. Unlike many of his patients, mom is not in denial. She’s facing this with her headlights on, staring deep into the bull’s eyes, fingers clenched around his horns. Aware. She’s a slight thing; the bull is not. She knows her chances, but she’ll make him work for every lucid drop he tramples.

We’re lucky because mom is engaged in her treatment. Mostly lucky. Sometimes the awareness makes her anxious. Anxious because she’s sure she’s about to forget something if she didn’t already forget something.

How’s she doing?
Sometimes, she’s anxious.

Anxiety is a trigger for misplaced purses, repeated questions, and stunted errands (What was I looking for?).

Anxious twirl

The cycle is vicious.

I’m holding Alzheimer’s  by the horns. I don’t want to forget anything. Did I forget something? I feel anxious. I can’t find my purse. Did I forget something? Sometimes I forget but I’m gripping Alzheimer’s by the horns. I don’t want to forget. Did I forget something? . . .

Anxiety is like the picador’s lance in the bull’s back. These picas may provide clues about which side the bull is favoring, but they don’t make the bull weaker. Just more anxious.

A good night’s sleep helps. A steady diet of brain puzzles and predictable tasks deflates the bubble of anxiety. Sometimes I can help. Sometimes more than just by placebo.

Party

Mom turned 80 this month. If you turn 80, you deserve a big party. It’s significant.

Mom deserved a party. But she also didn’t. Expecting a big party would spiral, the bull making hooved donuts, mom holding his horns with all her slight might, spinning through the air dizzily, helpless.

How are you doing? you might ask her.
Who are you? she might reply.

She didn’t deserve the anxiety of expecting a party. So we pretended there wouldn’t be one, until thirty minutes before the open-house (not technically a party) started.

Who’s coming? she asked.
Everyone. I said.

And they did. And the bull didn’t have time to swing her through the air and drop her dizzy in the middle of fifty plus family and friends. She only had time for wonder.

How did you do that?

An Alzheimer’s silver lining? She’s never been an easy person to surprise, but that day we did. The bull was napping as she navigated gracefully through the waves of family and friends who came to greet her on her significant day.

You should have been there.

Changes

Being here on a regular basis, the changes aren’t as shocking.

The change is not sudden, like the one you might feel if you’ve been away for six months or more. And it is sudden. The change isn’t gradual. Yet it is. It’s bull.

The bull takes long naps in the pasture. But events are inevitable and can’t always be a surprise. Events wake the bull. Sometimes suddenly, with a snort. Or it can be gradual, lazy stretches, then a slow spin. Sometimes only slow, but if he feels the pica, he’ll jerk anxiously into a faster spin. I dread the day when there is no spin and he just charges full force. Even a good night’s sleep and a full bottle of placebo won’t help then, but for now, we’re still napping and going for an occasional spin. The changes are sudden and gradual, but not as big as the bull yet.

Corn

Last week we harvested and put up corn. Putting up creamed corn involves several steps as well as some specific timing and methodology. That’s enough to make the bull pound his front-left hoof hard into the dirt, especially since mom’s picky about her creamed corn. This time, we also had the utility-room sink situation.

We need lots of ice.
I already bought the ice. It’s in the freezer.
Where are we going to put it all? I need my sink. You should have fixed the sink.

The bull is beginning to spin her.

I’ll get some big tubs or coolers.
They have to be big. You need to get ice.
The ice is in the freezer.
This is going to be hard. How are we going to do this without the sink?

Once she begins to brush the silk from the ears, the bull calms down. There’s an occasional snort (Those tubs won’t be big enough. What we needed was the sink.), but mostly the bull naps through the blanching, creaming, and bagging, waking occasionally to repeat three or four questions. It’s the planning that sends the bull into a twirl. Busy hands . . . something (I forget) mind. Busy hands are good.

Cutters

At the end of the first corn operation, we cleaned up.

Go on. I got this.

The bull seemed to have been lulled into a deep slumber by the predictable rhythms of blanching, cutting, creaming, and bagging. We would all sleep well that night and start the next day fresh.

It started much the same.

We need lots of ice.
I already bought the ice. It’s in the freezer.
This is going to be hard. How are we going to do this without the sink?

Then the calming rhythm settled over us as we picked, shucked, and de-silked. Inside, we set the blanching pots to boil.

Where are the cutters?
I don’t know. Where did you put them yesterday?
I don’t know.

Twirling bull

That bull wasn’t as deep in slumber as I had thought. We can’t find the cutters. It’s hard, after all, to keep things from flying out of control and out of sight when you’re gripping the horns for dear life. Dad dashed to the Tractor Supply to buy their last corn cutter. We would need at least one to replace the one we had borrowed.

While we searched high and low (literally), mom had turned my blanching pots off.

They’re not boiling yet, she pointed out.
No, you turned them off.
I can’t do anything right today.

My heart splattered on the floor. How do I step this one back?

The pots boiled soon enough. I blanched, and she cut. She decided to use her favorite knife instead of the new cutter.

You didn’t find the other ones yet?, you ask.
Nope. I even looked through the garbage and in the freezer.

Caretakers

Dad only picked half as many ears on that second day, probably a good thing. We were all tired, and dad wasn’t feeling right. That’s the other question you might ask.

How’s he doing?
Honestly, a little less than OK. This is hard on him.

We neglect the well-being of the caretakers. My grandfather (mom’s dad) took care of my grandmother as the bull twirled her in vicious circles. I saw the weariness climb like choking vines up his limbs, around his trunk, as he cared for my grandmother.

How’s she doing? everyone would ask.

I don’t think very many asked him, How are YOU doing?

Go on, I got this, mom said at the end of the second corn operation.

My heart was still on the floor. Why did I stick that extra pica in the bull’s back?

I’m going to finish some work, mom. Then I’ll shower and take you to Dirt Cheap.

Something to throw off the bull and let dad rest a bit.

Salvage stores and recoveryAlzheimer's

Mom loves salvage stores and she brightened when I suggested it.

I hate to shop, but a salvage store isn’t like shopping. It’s more like an adventure, and it’s perfect for anyone who’s been spun for two days by an anxious bull. You don’t have to remember the shopping list. You don’t need a shopping list at all because you can’t know what you’ll find there.

The inside is much like any scrambled mind.

  • Diapers stacked next to bags of pinto beans, next to bottles of Armor All. On purpose.
  • Plastic spatulas, hair clips, rat traps, and shoe laces intentionally hung on the same rack.
  • Furniture in-between racks of dresses and purses.

It’s not necessary to remember where things are because they’re not where you would remember.

We laughed and oooh, look!ed for a couple of hours, hours well spent away from corn cutters, far away from my computer. The bull was sound asleep.

We came home with beeswax foot products, chocolates, paintbrushes, boots, and more. We also brought dinner to dad.

How’s he doing?
He’s mostly OK, but he needs some attention.

What can I do?

They’re watching dad today because the electrical system in his ticker is off a bit. Atrial or one of those flutters. Mom has been pacing since 3am. After spending time with dad at the hospital, I bring her lunch.

You’re a blessing, she says.
No I’m not, I think. I’m a placebo.

I’ll stay here until they release dad tomorrow. He’s doing OK but it’s better to be here.

I’ll linger until he’s home with mom. I don’t want her to spend the night alone.

I’ll sit here, doing nothing really, until the bull dozes off again.

How are you doing?, you ask, maybe a little unsure, a little confused about what and how to ask. 

It’s OK. You can ask.

I’m OK. I’m just trying to be here for mom. For dad too. Trying to pay attention. 

I’m just a placebo, but even placebos can calm an anxious bull.

©Copyright 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.

Strong and Vulnerable

Bernice, our first foster failure, had another seizure this evening. This was a strong seizure. Her legs stiff but flailing as if she were trying to run or swim away, body folded at one moment, hyperextended the next, eyes popping out and sinking at once, and mouth clenched. I held her close to protect her from banging against edges, my hand cupped over her racing heart. How was her heart not exploding under the pressure of these seizures?

I fell to pieces the first time I saw her have a seizure. I woke a little after midnight and I fussed at her.strong

Settle down, Bernice.

When she didn’t I turned the light on.

Steven!!!! Something’s wrong with Bernice! 

I couldn’t sort through any of the questions.

What do we do? Who do we call? How do we get her downstairs? She’s not going to die, is she?

She didn’t, but we learned a lot about seizures into the wee hours of the morning.

We’re Both Strong and Vulnerable

As far as I know, Bernice has about one seizure a month. I probably see most of them since I work from home, and she’s my shadow. Seizures vary from violent (she might hurt herself or me) to limpish (stiff but no flailing or shaking). Sometimes she groans as if she’s in pain or afraid. Sometimes it’s as if she’s not even breathing.

As I hold Bernice through a seizure, I’m amazed that this strong creature is so helpless. Of our three dogs, she’s the strong, buff one. Through a seizure, I marvel at her heart, those delicate layers of tissue continue to pump blood, holding together even as her body seems to be imploding.

During a seizure, strong and vulnerable collide, spilling reminders: No guarantees. In a heartbeat. Life is precious.

I know the seizure is almost over when Bernice begins to pant and drool. Her joints slowly loosen up. She struggles to get up, but I hold her a few seconds more. It takes a few more for her legs to steady. I follow as she hazards a crooked path through the house to go outside. She’s going to be fine.

Yes, we’re also vulnerable. Sometimes, it’s in those moments that we find our strengths, like Bernice’s heart, fragile layers of tissue, solid as a rock as they give her the oxygen and strength to pull through the seizure.

I’m vulnerable, but I’m also strong.

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

Rest and the To-Do List

My to-do list was ridiculously long this weekend. I managed to cross out quite a bit of it. After I did a few things that weren’t on the list, I quickly jotted those down and just as quickly crossed through them, tilting the balance of done and still to-dos. I felt a little more accomplished.

Add Rest to the To-Dos

My to-do lists are always ambitious. I’m not alone, and like many who scratch out marathon to-do lists, for years I skimped on rest to tackle them. Recently, I began making it a point to sleep more than four hours a night. It’s hard on my joints, but even when I wake up after four hours, I make the effort to go back to sleep a little longer.

Sometimes as I drift off, work is heavy on my mind. I might have odd dreams of being physically trapped in excel spreadsheets or in div code. One night, when my honey came to bed and spooned me, I barely woke from dreams of HTML and CCS code. I quickly slipped back into dream to figure out the div and flex code for his body spooned next to mine.

To avoid dreams of excel prisons and html relations, I consciously fold ideas from creative endeavors —characters, plots, and personal projects— into that sleep liquid that bathes the brain.

I honestly don’t notice a great difference in the way I feel after two to four extra hours of sleep. I’ve never been a sound sleeper. But I do notice that I have more energy for those creative endeavors. More creative stamina.

I trust those sleeping brain juices. I trust the quiet.

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

Congratulations! It’s a hernia!

I realized a few months ago that the chunk at the top of my belly seemed to be independent of my belly. For years I’ve made self-deprecating jokes about my “kitty litter belly,” shaped like a litter box, but maybe just a belly full of kitties.

The chunk grew a bit. I ignored it a long bit. Until I realized I was trivializing when I shouldn’t, and perhaps my cavalier disregard for this growth might even be disrespectful of friends who had dealt with the discovery of dangerous bodily growths.

When I finally mentioned it to people in my life, the response was mostly alarm and that tilted-head, raised-brow look.

OK!! I’ll go to the doctor.

And I did. The diagnosis took mere minutes.

A gigantic umbilical hernia!

Happy the Hernia

He didn’t actually say gigantic or use an exclamation point, but it is big, and . . . (exclamation point please) I am so happy!!!! It’s a hernia!! I’ll name it Happy. I don’t have a square belly! I don’t have a tumor! I have a Happy Hernia!

I didn’t think it would be any more serious than a lump of fat, but, what do I know? Sometimes the odd things that appear on our bodies are not only serious, they are life-snuffing. I’ve been on that journey with more than one friend.

This is not one of those journeys.

I’m grateful. I’m grateful for my health. My knees are wrecked, my back is a little crooked, and I have regular bouts of IBS. But, my heart rate is low, my blood pressure is impressive, I don’t take a single medication, and that lump on my belly is just a hernia!

I’m also grateful for my friends and family. They’re the ones who will make sure I sit still long enough to heal after the hernia extraction. If you’re the praying type, pray for them. Sitting still is not listed among the skill sets on my résumé.

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

Thirty Days

Today begins the fourth month of my “commitment” calendar (thirty days more or less), during which I commit to doing something each day. This month, lucky world!, it’s a blog post each day!

I was first intrigued about making a monthly commitment when I heard Matt Cutts on the Ted Radio hour. This sounded doable. Safe. Fruitful.

For my birthday, I created a calendar with beach photos I took during a women’s retreat. That first month, I committed to moving for at least five minutes a day. Yup. Working from home requires unspeakable things. I would go, not only days, but weeks!! with minimal movement. Chained to my computer getting the job done. I was only able to cross out 19 of the 31 days of July, but hey! That was better than any of the previous 6 months! I walked, gardened, mowed, and . . . other things? I can’t figure out what some letters I jotted on my calendar mean (CJ? Jacks? P?), but they all mean I moved at least five minutes. Most often 30 plus minutes.

In August I committed to a cup of green tea every day. After the stress of moving for at least five whole minutes daily, I deserved to relax and have tea. 29 out of the 31 days of August! On 12 of those days I continued to move at least five minutes (mowing and walking).

For September, I set the bar higher: clear the kitchen table. Working from home also requires special talents.  One of those is the ability to turn a blind eye to housework. After twenty plus years as a freelancer, I’m an expert, so even clearing the table was a special challenge.

What’s heartening to me is that the challenges from the previous two months kept chiming in. Not 100%, but often enough to know that the challenges had made a difference. I moved at least 5 minutes (often over 30 minutes) for 23 days, and drank green tea 21 of those days.

The calendar challenge doesn’t and will not perfect me. But it makes me a more mindful and balanced person.

October is for Blogging

This month the commitment is to a blog post a day. This feels less “doable” and less “safe,” but here I go! I promise these won’t be introspective posts about how I manage to write a blog post. I have much more to explore: feeling choked, living in echo chambers, murderers, stories, friends, and a smidgin of politics.

So let’s dive into October. I won’t be perfect. It’s after midnight and I’m already late dammit. But I’ll be more balanced. More mindful.

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.