Being the Change

The Hidden Brain podcast about being the change you want to see moved me.

The host Shankar Vedantam asks what would happen if we truly stood by our principles. He also points out how exhausting people who stick to their principles can be.

The podcast showcases the journey of one couple and their effort to raise their daughter free from gender stereotypes. This story is not only moving, but also enlightening. To shield their child from gender stereotypes these parents struggled against words, clothing, and colors. They struggled with family and friends. But they held true to their path and trusted their truth. And, importantly, they were patient.

Changes take time. Being the change takes patience.

This couple takes being the change to a fiercely high level. I feel privileged to know a few young souls who are as strong and brave as that couple. The bravery of people who fearlessly stand by their principles gives me hope. They also inspire me to be better and being the change.

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

Circles Are Better

Circles are better than echo chambers.

Yet we increasingly isolate ourselves in chambers where everyone nods at the words we utter. We nod at their ideas in return. Same. Yes. Same.

We poke our heads out just long enough to point an accusing finger across the increasingly deep and wide divide, screaming shame and blame at the other side. The other side shouts back, and we declare ourselves informed.

The algorithms of social media compound the isolationism. Our beliefs and ideas bounce around without scrutiny, and we dance around the chamber drinking our favorite flavor of Kool-Aid.

Circles are better.

More bridges. More conversations. Bigger circles.

At my church, the poem “Outwitted,” by Edward Markham, is often recited in services.

He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!Circles art better

Why should we draw a circle to take in those who would shut us out, the ones who dance in the echo chamber on the other side?

The reasons are many, but dragging others into our own echo chamber is not one of them. The circle is for inclusion, not isolation. For conversation, not accusation. For listening, not pedantry.

The circle is not a ring for idealogical arm-wrestling, where the winner takes the converts. We don’t have to convert each other. The center of the circle is about empathy, not agreement.

Listening is hard, but worthy work. Empathy may take practice, but it is the path, the bridge.

Let’s sit in more circles. Let’s be better listeners.

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2017

On finding my público

In spring of 1985, I was wrapping up my masters’ thesis on Federico García Lorca’s not-quite-finished play El público. Two moments between me and my thesis director struck me and have stuck with me to this day.

You’re the expert.

The first moment was when I asked him a question about my topic. I don’t remember the question. But I remember the answer: I don’t know, Pennie. You’re the expert on this now.

What?!

How did that happen? How did I suddenly go from student struggling to know enough —anything!— to support a thesis, to expert?

He was —alarmingly— correct. I had joined the ranks of a very few who had obsessed over this tiny little unfinished play. Hence: expert. I experienced a similar alarm after having my first child. Weeks after giving birth, questions and comments suggested that I had taken a mysterious leap from floundering finder-outer to expert. But I was nowhere near having faith in myself.

You can’t write.

The second thesis moment between me and my director stuck in my craw for years. It’s still jammed in there a bit, but I’m slowly pulling it out. I shared with him my dream of writing my own plays, even my own novels and poems. I imagined beautiful, engaging words. What he told me felt like one of those Oh, honey (bless your little heart) moments. Paraphrasing roughly from his Spanish: There are those who do, and those who teach. In other words, Pennie, you won’t write. You’ll teach about writers.

This was heartbreaking and maddening to hear.

Every writer lives with that doubter that nags: You can’t write. You’re not that. My director’s comment gave my writer-doubter a juicy dose of vitamin B and adrenaline, and I have spent half of my life (literally), smothering that you-can’t-do-that voice and building up enough faith in myself to complete my own sentences.

My público

This weekend I took time to touch up a screenplay I wrote last January and re-read the first thirty pages of a novel I started last November. I had enough distance from both to read them like they weren’t mine, and damn! I want to read more. I don’t care if I’m my one and only público. I’m glad I wrote these things.

As often happens with students and teachers, my director and I became friends. We’ve managed to stay in touch, so I plan to send him a copy of my screenplay. And maybe that snippet of the novel-in-the making. There’s a bit of a snarky hrrmph! in the gesture, but I suspect he’ll be happy to read it, and happy to be part of my writer journey.

So here’s to my fellow writers who contend with resident doubters: trust yourself. You can eat your cake and have it too (that’s the correct way to say that, by the way). You can be a teacher (or editor!) and writer too. Keep writing. Keep reaching for your público.

© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2017.

Happy Father’s Day! You’re the Greatest.

Dad’s all over this country will receive cards, gifts, and time with their families because they’re… well, fathers! I’m not the biggest fan of relationship holidays like Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, or even Mother’s Day. It’s not the sentiment that rubs me wrong, but the forced sentiment obliged by commercialization. That said, when these holidays slap us upside the head, we can ponder the gifts of these celebrated relationships. I’ll celebrate this day with family, but I also offer a game. Meet four dads and read their “Happy Father’s Day” cards. Can you match each card to the dad?


The dads

Marcus is a firefighter in a small town in Pennsylvania. He was raised mostly by his six siblings after his father was killed in a plant accident when Marcus was eight. He has a daughter by his high school girlfriend and two sons by his ex-wife. He spends as much time with his children as their moms, his work, and time allow. At least once a month, he sends a letter to each of them, hand-written and stamped. His daughter teases him about it and says he’s old-fashioned, but she collects her dad’s letters in a binder.

Chuck (Charles Whitney Campbell, IV) is a CEO at a Fortune 500 Company. His relationship with his tycoon father was strained and cold. In college, Chuck met Ann, a brilliant girl with a full FAFSA and scholarship ride. In the beginning he dated this girl from a modest middle class family to irritate his father, but, shortly after spending the best Thanksgiving ever with her family, Chuck accidentally fell in love with her. While Chuck makes sure their three children have everything they need, he also makes sure he provides what Ann’s father gave to his children: playful devotion.

Micah is a first-generation immigrant with a small sandwich shop that he opened in Houston a year after Katrina destroyed his home and the restaurant his father established in New Orleans. After a year in shelters and temporary housing, Micah decided to stay in Houston. He and his wife opened a deli-style sandwich shop instead of a full-service restaurant so that they would have more time with their four children. They still live in a small apartment where the children have to share a bedroom, but the little apartment complex with a pool and playground is their dream home.

Louis is a doctor with a private practice in Boston. Louis was born and raised in Idaho, but moved to Massachusetts for college. He met Paul in med school and decided to stay. He and Paul have a son and daughter, both adopted. Despite the demands of their medical careers, Louis or Paul (sometimes both!) are always home after school to help with homework and cook dinner. Dinnertime is when they “put it on the table!” Not just the food. They share stories about their day. This is everyone’s favorite family time.


The cards

You're the greatest because


The Happy Father’s Day message

Dear dads: It’s not your title at work, the games you buy, the things you accumulate, the money you spend. It’s the loving time you spend with them, the things you make with them, the games you play with them, the role you play in their lives. Those are the moments your children will hold in their hearts.

If you’re still trying to match the cards, stop! You can’t. These four kids all received what mattered most. Those moments.

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads. May today be a day of celebration and remembrance, a day to make new memories.

© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2016

Penny Nichols: Why We’re Connected

Penny Nichols from Baton Rouge died yesterday.

I’m not referring to a metaphorical death. The death was real. But it wasn’t me. I’m P-e-n-n-i-e Nichols.

Penny Nichols’ heart stopped on April 12, and, although she was revived by paramedics, she slipped away on Sunday, April 18.

I’m sad. Some would say sadder than I should be. We weren’t close friends, yet I feel the loss as if we were.

We knew each other because of our names. It started when I received a phone call from New York in the era of clunky phone books with thin gray pages and 411 operators. I thought he knew me. He greeted me by name. Only after a few references to “that time together” did I realize he had the wrong Penny/Pennie. I offered to look up her number for him (after all, I already felt chummy with him). He was grateful. We laughed. I was pretty sure Penny would too.

After the second call for Penny not Pennie, I wrote Penny’s number down and pinned it in a place I could easily see. I learned things about her through the calls: her Pillsbury prize for a chicken recipe, antique linen upcycling, love of travel and wine, and more. I took to telling her friends as we would hang up, “Please tell Penny Pennie says hi!” I wanted to be her friend too.

One day she called me. This misdirection was for-Pennie-not-Penny: she had received a graduation announcement for one of my daughter’s friends. The misdirection gave us occasion to chat for the first time.

“We only live about three miles from each other!”

We laughed about the phone calls I had been receiving for fifteen years. We talked about the other two Penny Nichols in town.

“We should have a Penny/Pennie Nichols get together!”

“That would be lovely! Let’s do!”

Flash forward another five years, I was shopping at the farmer’s market. I was no longer receiving calls from Penny’s friends. 411 operators and phone books where Pennie Nichols preceded Penny Nichols entries were out of fashion. I gave a cheese vendor my debit card.

“Oh, you’re buying this for Penny?”

“What?”

“You’re buying this for Penny Nichols?”

“Sure. I’m buying it for me. Why do you ask?”

After a few awkward moments, I convinced the vendor I hadn’t stolen Penny’s debit card. She directed me to Penny’s antique linen booth, and I met Penny for the first time. I was sure I wanted to be her friend.

Although we became Facebook friends, and I felt like I knew her well, we never hung out or traveled together.

Maybe I’m sadder than I should be because we never had the Penny/Pennie party. Or because I never joined her for tea or wine on her patio.

Maybe I’m sadder than I should be because I’m projecting. One day there will be an obit for Pennie Nichols. Some acquaintances have already called my daughter, concerned.

The projection is not just a name thing. When something happens to a friend, I tend to imagine myself in his or her shoes. I don’t think I’m the only one. I remember, when I divorced, most of my married friends shared stories about their marriages, their fantasies about divorcing or their struggles to avoid it. My divorce opened a door to stories they hadn’t shared before. Maybe they projected my circumstance on theirs, maybe they felt connected to my story. I’m not sure, but I do know that when something happens to someone else, we tend to personalize it, connect it to our own experiences.

Maybe I’m not sadder than I should be. I had been connected to Penny for over twenty years, after all, starting with that first call when I listened to her friend’s story for five minutes before I realized, I’m not that Penny. We're connected

Maybe I’m not sadder than I should be because I did lose a friend.

I didn’t die this week. But Penny did. And a little bit of Pennie and of a friendship imagined was swooped away with her.

I will miss the connection. A connection that wasn’t young, but a friendship that was just budding. Peace, Penny, for you and your family.

Copyright © Pennie Nichols, 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Open Letter to a Lost Friend: Cancer Sucks

This is one in a series of letters to a lost friend. You can also read about Mona and Sandy.

Dear Dela,

We had so many good days together. May 26, 2010, wasn’t one of them.

  • I was out when you called.
  • I didn’t hear my cell when you tried it.
  • I didn’t have a car that day.
  • You were already at ER when I returned your call.
  • Did I already mention? I didn’t have a car that day.

Every bit of alignment was off. I’m not sure that a swimmingly perfect alignment would have made a difference. Your body was weary of battling that monster. I couldn’t have saved you. But I could have been there. My absence still pains me.

Dave dropped you off! We told you all along (I feel the same now), we don’t like Dave.

You were alone in the ER. I was home without a car. But I had a phone, so I scolded damn Dave, and, desperate for a ride, I called a friend. She happened to be at the hospital!

“I can check on her, let you know how she’s doing.”

Leukemia is a sneaky monster. Your complexion, your posture, your gate, they never betrayed your illness. Your cheeks always rosy, your smile always quick. Damn leukemia.

“She was a little groggy, but she seems okay. She kept asking me if she could get me something!”

You were always the gracious hostess, Dela. Even in your last hours. I relaxed. This was good.

A midnight call: “I’m on her emergency list but I’m out of town.” Cracking in her voice. “They say she’s not going to make it. Can you go?”

My partner, home by then, hoisted me off to the ER. Running. “How can this be happening?” Long, wide, confusing white corridors. “Damn Dave!” Panic. Fear. “How does anyone get to the right place!?”

But I found you. Leukemia was no longer hiding its ugly face. Those paddles couldn’t save you, but in the effort, they had beaten you to bloody bruises. Your head was cushioned in blood-soaked hospital towels.

The doctor’s pointed question: “She’ll probably crash again. Should we keep doing this?”

Everything you feared. Everything you didn’t want. How could I respond, “Yes! Beat the bloody hell out of her again!”?

I thought perhaps you’d linger a bit longer.

“I’ll go home to get a few things and come back, sit with her until her brother arrives.”

What the hell “things” did I need? Stupid! The misalignment of thought and circumstance persisted.

In my driveway, I was poised to run into the house to grab this and that thing when the doctor called.

Dela's dragonfly

I found myself surrounded by dragonflies in my garden the day you died. Coincidentally, my daughter named her purple car Adelaide, and the day she traded her in, this guy was perched on her antenna. Were you reaching out?

You slipped away around 2 am on the 27th of one of my favorite months.

I take comfort in this: While I was still at the hospital, trying to decide where it was safe to touch you without causing pain, I found one of your hands under the bloody towels. I breathed in the story you had told me about your father, who, during his last days, seemed to fret over cemeteries with no vacancies. You told him, “It’s OK day, Dad. They have a place for you.” He passed that day. I exhaled: “It’s OK to let go. I love you. You are a mess, but you lived life beautifully.”

I spoke at your memorial service. When it was over, one friend said half-jokingly, “That was beautiful. I want you to speak at mine.” Her comment reminded me: Say it now. Let your friend know now why she or he is special to you.

Since May 27, 2010, more friends have become entangled in the cancer web. Most have found their way out. We try to understand how to be good friends to them. We tell their stories responsibly. I’m telling yours again. Next month, it will be six years. We still don’t like Dave. We still love you. This (A Beautiful Mess) was my tribute to you.

A Beautiful Mess

This is the story about me and Dela. Dela was beautiful. I’m a mess. End of story.

Actually, the “mess” is the elephant in the room and I like to kick sedentary elephants around whenever I get a chance. I often end up with a sore foot, sometimes a new perspective, but I always learn something in the process. So, for just a minute or two, I hope you’ll bear with me as I give this elephant —the mess— a kick.

Dela was a beautiful person, a beautiful friend. She was a mess of interesting things and interests. She had countless circles of friends. And for every friend in every circle, there’s a different story of Dela, a different bright moment of joy he or she remembers. I’ve been getting messages from friends of Dela, some of whom haven’t seen her for as many as 30 years. They want to tell their story of Dela. She had an untidy network of friends. She traveled through that mess of a network with grace and touched and lifted up many.

So . . . what is a “mess,” anyway? Sometimes it’s a tangle. Sometimes it’s an untidy clutter. Sometimes it’s just the noise or the pace or the plans. What is a beautiful mess? It doesn’t have to be a bad or ugly thing. It just is.

Dela was a beautiful mess, and if we focus on her home for a moment, we can get a glimpse of the breadth and depth of her mess, her life, her circles of friends, her fields of adventure.

  • A china cabinet full of dainty teapot and tea cup sets.
  • An armoire full of exquisite French linens.
  • A small kitchen bursting at the seams where she prepared ratatouille, homemade biscotti, and Tanqueray and tonics with lots and lots of lime . . . all of this on small counters crowded with fancy dishes and gadgets that didn’t quite fit in the cupboards.
  • A beautifully resurfaced wooden floor, strewn with newspapers, often turned to the sports page for baseball scores and stats.
  • Boxes and piles of amazing paper: textured, colored, handcrafted . . . all kinds of paper.
  • Shoes. Lots of shoes.
  • The dining table loaded with a flat of Ponchatoula strawberries in the winter or sweet Washington Parish watermelons in the summer.
  • Shelves and shelves and shelves of books.
  • A maze of beauty products to fight off signs of passing time.
  • and so much more . . .

Many of us close to Dela occasionally fussed at her about the different piles of mess in her life, sometimes we’d even try to tidy things up for her. But 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.

Now . . . I miss her mess. But mostly, I miss her graceful way of living through, above, and in spite of any mess.

I’ve had messes in my life. On occasion, she sat down in the middle of a mess with me. She was better than I was. She never judged my mess or me for it. Dela simply brought joy into the place where we sat. She brightened the moment with her humor and acceptance. She lifted our thoughts and our emotions above the mess, whether it was physical, emotional, or spiritual.

I will treasure those moments.

When one of the biggest messes any of us might fear or dread fell into her life, Dela was, quite simply, amazing. That mess, leukemia, was a pesky, annoying mess. And although this cancerous cantankerous disease followed her around EVERYwhere she went for better than ten years, most people didn’t know it. Dela did not live IN the mess.

Dela chose to live through it, above it, and in spite of it, up until the very end. Where many of us might cringe and hole up, whine and take pity on ourselves, Dela continued to laugh, to live in the light of the moment, and to bring joy to any place she was present.dela-cancer-sucks-2

I am humbled by her grace and elegance as she endured the fears disease inspires, as she sat through hours of treatments and tests, as she thumbed through endless waiting room magazines, hospital bills, and insurance papers. I am grateful she chose, for those ten diseased years, to live her life, to laugh with her friends, and to lift us up even as she was being swallowed by a monster. I am honored to have been one of her friends, and I hope that I can be half as brave, half as beautiful, and half as elegant standing in the messes of my life. Mostly, I hope I told her often enough, when she was present and brightly alive, what a beautiful mess she was and how much I loved her.

Copyright © Pennie Nichols, 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Worthy of Kindness?

When does a person become unworthy of kindness?

Although it’s not a rhetorical question, I’m not looking for any answers. I think there are many.

This question came up in my home the day Derrick Todd Lee, convicted serial killer, died. I wasn’t thinking about Lee, though. I googled Trevor Reese.

Trevor was my son’s high-school classmate and soccer teammate. Until he wasn’t.

Between their sophomore and junior years of high school, Trevor did the unthinkable. On a summer day, he slit the throat of Jack Attuso, a happy eight-year-old, out for a walk with his family.

My son was sixteen at the time, as was Trevor.

“Mama!!!”

The news was confounding. Even today when I read about it, my heart breaks in every direction.

  • Jack’s parents
  • Trevor’s parents
    • Jack’s siblings
    • Trevor’s siblings
      • Jack
      • Trevor

And the heartbreak goes on.

In his sixteenth year, Trevor felt he was like a Derrick Todd Lee. On that summer day in 2010, Trevor set out to get some “relief.” To get “high,” if you will. To feel better. He was sure killing would do it. In his court testimony, he explains that he was disappointed after the act.

The Lee and Trevor stories are horrifying. Google their names if you really want to know more. But I ask this:

When did/will/would a Derrick Todd Lee or a Trevor Reese become unworthy of kindness?

“Maybe he (my son) could write to him, tell him something nice he remembers about him?”

“Why?

“To lift him up. Maybe add something.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean why?

“Why waste your energy on someone like that?”

I was surprised to hear this from someone who sees the value in lifting up. But my partner had a point. Why expend good energy and goodwill on someone who may be immune to it? We have many people, projects, and commitments in our lives. If we prioritize it all, where would a Lee or a Trevor fall on our list?

Can I make the time? Should I make the time? Stripped down, the question is: “Is he worthy of my kindness?”

My heart answers “yes” every time.

Good people do bad things. Bad people do good things.

In a scene from an Argentinian film Hombre mirando al sudeste (Man Facing Southeast), Rantes, the protagonist, is in a pathology lab. He slices a brain in half and asks a series of questions as he explores the crevices: “Where is that afternoon where he first felt the love of a woman?”  “What marks are left of the moments of pleasure and pain that this man felt?” As he tears apart pieces of the brain and washes them down a drain: “There goes Einstein. Bach. Mr. Nobody.  A crazy man.  A murderer.” Rantes asks the doctor who is visiting him: “What do you think, doctor? Does this drain spill into hell or into heaven?”

There are so many things we can’t truly know.

  • Why?
  • What’s in a person’s head?
  • Will my kind words be fruitless or fruitful?

When I asked my son what he thought:  “I think I would actually like to write to him. I don’t know what I’d say. ‘I hope you find peace.’ Something. It can’t hurt.”

Those words, that missive would be small. Light as a ping pong ball. So why not toss it over? That ping pong ball could hit a brick wall then bounce away, back at us, over our heads, into oblivion. Or, the ball could fall into an open heart. Maybe lift it a little.

Maybe Trevor would remember something good. He’ll spend the rest if his life in Angola. What could a ping pong ball of kindness hurt?

I confess I’m drawn to stories like the Amish story of forgiveness and grief. Within weeks of the shooting in which the milk truck driver entered a school and shot ten students, killing five and then himself, Amish families donated money to the murderer’s widow and children. What’s more, the day after the services for the victims, some of the family members of the victims attended the killer’s burial service, hugged his widow, and expressed condolences to the family.

Trevor’s mom was my son’s math teacher. My son liked her. I often thought about reaching out but never did. I regret that. I should have written. I should have tossed her a ping pong ball of kindness. Maybe it’s not too late to send a kind missive, perhaps even an uplifting word to her son, Trevor. Tossing that out there will feel good, no matter how it lands or where it bounces.

Copyright © 2016 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

Rituals Without Rules

In 2005, we accidentally started a tradition: we set our Christmas tree on fire.2016-tree-burn-2

My mom and son had built a Handy Man fire pit. We were shy of firewood, we did, however, have a dry tree.

I honestly don’t recall if we stuffed the tree that first year, or if we started it the next, but at some point, we included invitations and dismissals in our accidental tradition. On slips of paper, we wrote down things we wanted to invite into our lives, and things we wanted to remove.

We stuffed the tree with the invites and get-outs, then watched our tree give us its most spectacular gift: the fire dance.

2016-tree-burn-1After the first burn, we were addicted. This is the eleventh year and the tenth time (we missed one year) that we delighted in the ritual of stuffing the tree with our invitations (hellos, welcomings) and dismissals  (goodbyes, good riddances) before placing it in the pit for its final fiery moments.

Our tree burning tradition satisfies my personal affection for fire, my love for candlelight, fireplaces, and campfires.

Tree burning also plays on ancient emotions within us, inspired by rituals and events of past and present. Cleansing and killing, devil and god. Fire warms a home and cooks a meal. Fire ravages forests and buildings. Fire is the send-off ceremony of the dead. Fire is the light that leads the way. Fire inspires and terrifies in equal measure.

For my family, fire delights. Our fire-pit tree burn has become an annual inter-generational party and a post-holiday kick-off for a new year. After a couple of years, we began collecting one or two additional trees for the ritual. That’s when the questions about rules escalated.

  • Is this the welcoming tree or the dismissal tree?
  • Do I have to fold the paper?
  • Do I put the invitation on one side and the dismissal on the other?
  • Does it matter where I put it in the tree?
  • Can I write more than one?

Every year I explain: there are no rules. This idea makes some people suspicious. What kind of ritual is this, after all, if there are no rules?

I understand why they ask. They’re afraid they’re going to mess up the magic. 

Here’s the life lesson, regardless of your religion, creed, or culture:2016-tree-burn-3

The magic isn’t in the rules of ritual.

The magic is in our gratitude.

The magic is in our affirmations, in our prayers.

The magic is in us, always within us.

This year after the third tree completed its fire dance, I realized I had not attached any dismissals to the trees. I had only inserted welcomings. Did I break the rules? Absolutely not. Maybe I was influenced by new year resolution diet talk: the more good things you put in, the less room there is for bad to get in.

This year’s tree burn was fabulous. I’m grateful for the friends and family who participated, for the food and fun.

My takeaway: I stuffed my 2016 tree trunk with welcomings and welcome-backs; there was no room for my bad baggage on that trunk.

May 2016 light up your hopes and dreams and bring you the warmth of joy and bright blessings.

Copyright © 2016 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

I don’t want your money, but . . .

I had swept through Trader Joe’s for a couple of culinary delights and was on my way to my car when: “Hi m’am, I don’t want your money. I just want to feed my four grandbabies. My daughter is locked up again for crack, and they left me to take care of the grandbabies, and . . . “coins1

Marketing folks who specialize in the five-minute elevator pitch could learn from her. She crystallized the essentials in under three minutes. I didn’t shut her down. I admired her for not watering down the drug challenges in her situation.

“Hold on, let me unload my groceries.” I was almost embarrassed to say “groceries.” Costa Rican Tarrazu coffee beans, dried orange flavored cranberries, sparkling water, organic heavy whipping cream, triple ginger snaps, . . . and the list didn’t get less embarrassing. Not a single suitable I-need-to-feed-my-family item.

As we walked to my car and I unloaded my cart, she rambled a bit about her situation and her gratitude. I was silently assessing her. Missing several (maybe most) of her teeth, worn out clothes, and worn-through shoes.

The what-ifs started ticking off (escalating) in my head.

  • What if she’s the crack head?
  • What if there are no grandbabies?
  • What if it’s a trick to kidnap me?
  • What if she whacks me over the head and takes my car and all of my “hard-earned” “groceries”?

And the perpetual what-if when we see an outstretched hand or a cardboard sign:

  • What if she’s taking advantage of me!?

I stopped myself and tried to channel my friends V and Jane.

On a chilly night during my visit to San Francisco, V stopped for several people. Looking them in the eyes, she greeted them and asked them a question or two. She tenderly placed coins in their hands as she wished them a good night.

During a trip to San José, Costa Rica, Jane seemed to have a special pocket just for the people she met on the street. Like V, she looked each one in the eyes, asked real questions, exchanged a genuine greeting as she gently handed over coins. She didn’t pause to consider where the coins would go, assess the condition that human’s condition was in, or worry that the person might be taking advantage of her.

Impressively, Jane and V both seemed to carry a stash of coins just for those moments.

I didn’t have a pocketful of coins to reach for, but this lady didn’t want my money. She wanted groceries. I reached past my what-ifs to find the compassion to look into her eyes. As I closed my car I asked, “What do your grandbabies like to eat?”

“God bless you, ma’am. I knew the lord would hear my prayers. God bless you. They like chicken.”

For this sweep through Trader Joe’s I focused on the “real food” aisles. She steadily talked as if our connection depended on it. I would interject every few minutes for direction.

“Whole chicken, or a package of breasts, legs, or wings?”

“Whole.”

“Potatoes or rice?”

“Potatoes.”

I picked up a bag of red potatoes and headed to the bananas. She lingered behind, then ran towards me with a bag of white potatoes.

“These are cheaper and they’re just as good.” She was a frugal shopper.

As we picked out a loaf of bread, she asked, “Can I give you a hug?” I realized then that as subtle as I had tried to be, people were beginning to notice us. I didn’t care. She wanted a hug. Genuine. I knew because I wasn’t looking away. Her god bless yous floated over my shoulder and danced around the bananas and bread. I felt unworthy of her gratitude. Just a few coins. I had just spent more on my frivolous purchases.

During checkout, I was the one maintaining the chatter. I didn’t want her to feel awkward or apologetic. We left the store, another hug, then parted ways.

From my car, I saw her pull the grocery cart up to a big pickup, probably newer than my car. A young man was closing the hood, then wiping off smudges as she put her groceries into the covered bed.

Was this a scam!?

Before I sank deep into assumptions, I pulled myself out. So what? She earned the chicken and potatoes with her three-minute parking lot pitch. She repaid me for the bread and bananas with a hug. We set a positive community compassion example. Noteworthy as well, I felt confident that none of the food in those bags could be chemically processed into street drugs, and certainly not traded for them. New what ifs started ticking off in my head:

  • What if she does have four hungry grandbabies?
  • What if that young man with the nice truck was just a kind neighbor (or stranger) who agreed to give her a ride to the store?
  • What if those few little things made a big difference to someone today?

coins2All over the world, Vs and Janes gracefully and graciously reach out to the less fortunate, in small and great measure. They are greatly outnumbered by those who look away and coil up with their “hard-earned” coins. I would rather be like V and Jane. Even in the uncertainty of it, sharing those coins feels better.

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

Diapers and Dandelions: Mindful Balance

Should I pick it or leave it for the bees?

Should I pick it for me or leave it for the bees?

Last year I was beside myself when I found this dandelion lotion bar recipe.

I had begun my journey making DIY organic cleaners and beauty products a few months earlier, and this recipe was “Wow! Weeds to wonderful!” I loved everything about it.

The walks with the dogs were redefined. We were on a mission to collect dandelions. Unfortunately, I discovered the recipe late in the summer and soon learned that dandelions are more prolific in spring than in summer here. Through my efforts to find the weed, I became familiar with which households eliminated it and which ones simply mowed the lawn. I timed walks along some routes because I knew which tree had a dandelion growing under it.

I had a tray for drying the flowers, a jar for infusing them, and all the ingredients for the recipe. My first batch was small due to dandelion scarcity, and I fumbled the canning lid method, but I was thrilled with my lotion bars.

When we finally broke through our five or six days of Louisiana winter, I made sure to have pockets when I went for walks. Dandelions popped up everywhere before spring had even sprung on the calendar. DIY excitement!

Then it happened. The very first week I began harvesting weeds for wonder, a post: “Don’t pick the dandelions! They’re the bee’s first food in the spring.”

Whaaat?! I had become a bee enemy? I was trying to do a good thing.

I recovered from the sunken heart quickly. I don’t pick all of the dandelions and I provide a smorgasbord of bee sustenance throughout the year in my little yard. Nevertheless, I became more cautious about my harvest.

Bottom line: I am more aware of the impact of my actions. Isn’t that an important key to finding balance? Awareness.

When my children were babies, I used cloth diapers. For some reason this topic came up in a class I was teaching. One of my students mumbled something about bad and wasting water and Clorox. I may have reacted a bit. What did this 18 year old know about diapers. baby poop, and aquifers? Granted, I lived in Austin at the time, and water shortages were an issue, but really? Using cloth diapers worse than using disposable diapers?

In the end, my student gave me pause. Awareness.

I often live in the gray —in the middle, open-to-argument— because I strive be aware of both sides of a topic. Painfully at times when matters are personal, between friends. Happily when that awareness informs me in ways that bring measure to choices I make.

The things we do, even the good things, always have multiple impacts, and some are less felicitous than others. If we are aware and act with care, we can have dandelions for our skin without starving the bees, and we can use cloth diapers without drying up the aquifers.

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.