My heart catches a little, sometimes a lot, when I see their faces. In person, in jpgs from my pictures folders, on Facebook or Instagram. My heart catches because they’re so cute. My heart catches because I am their mother. What is it about a mother’s heart?
How did I get a mother’s heart?
How did they happen? I didn’t deserve it. I didn’t want it.
These three know by now that I take everything they tell me about their future with a big chunk of salt because this was my line:
I’m going to travel and write. I won’t settle. Not down, not in one place, not for one person. I’m a free spirit. Oh . . . and I’ll never be a teacher.
My life would have been full without them, without my students, without any of the things I didn’t plan for. But my life is full in ways I couldn’t have imagined with my children.
To be clear: My path is not more brilliant than those whose experiences are foreign to APGAR, possible CPD, Pitocin, or a lake of Amniotic Fluid at the nursery window of the labor and delivery unit. You don’t have to be a mom to feel your heart catch for your blessings. You don’t have to be a mom to live a blessed and full life. While we hold up our children for all the good reasons, the paths of the childless-by-destiny or childless-by-choice are also filled with value and unexpected blessings that catch their hearts.
My path included APGAR, possible CPD, Pitocin, and a lake of Amniotic Fluid at the nursery window of the labor and delivery unit. These three humans are my surprise, my unexpected blessings, and I’m deeply grateful.
My heart catches when I see their faces because, even as I crested a quarter of a century, I never wanted or imagined motherhood for myself. This could have been dreadful for all of us! But they are my blessing. I’m grateful for these humans who littered my path. For every lego that dug into my heel, every ribbon that caught my toes, every piece of goo that stuck to my shoe, every chunk of love that caught my heart, I’m grateful.
Happy Mother’s Day
This weekend, as we celebrate moms, I lift up my gratitude for these unexpected blessings in my life. I also lift up the others who gathered around me and have been mothers to my children. You are too many to name. Not all of you have children (you don’t have to be a mom to be a mom), but all of you have mothered and blessed my blessings.
I lift up my mom. I’m nothing without her. Growing up, she wasn’t like all the other moms. I didn’t always value the difference, especially in my youth. My mom, my coach, my mentor, my listener: she set the bar higher for depth, endurance, uniqueness, and patience of love. She gave me my grit, and I lift her high.
I am ever the lucky one who had the mom she didn’t always appreciate and the children she never expected. My heart catches.
©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2018
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:
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.
Let me preface the main message about how I make time with a couple of notes:
- It’s easy to look “derelict” or collapsable in Louisiana because the mildew/mold embraces even the least embraceable of us.
- My house isn’t falling down. It’s solid.
A few days ago, a friend was giving me advice, and folded into it was a comment that might have insulted or angered some folks. I don’t remember the exact words, but they entered the advice something like:
. . . because your house is falling down anyway . . .
I think the reason I don’t remember her exact words is because I was not angry or insulted. Besides, I had experienced a similar comment from a stranger. “Derelict” was the word he had used. One good pressure wash sent that mold and mildew into space (or maybe to a neighbor’s house), and a friend (not the falling down friend, but a different tidy, appointed-house friend) exclaims “your house looks so great, so fresh.”
My house is solid.
I Make Time
Back to my friend who has this idea that my house is crumbling: it’s not true, but her perception is not without cause. It’s about time. My house and my projects need some attention, that is, they need my time.
A day or two before the falling down conversation, the same friend and I were talking about the bead run for our Mardi Gras Krewe.
I never imagined that, empty nest, I’d be battling time. But I do. Surprised? No. My dad stands, sword unsheathed, furiously battling the minutes of each day every time I visit. I don’t think we were born time warriors, but the work ethic, the (over)commitment, the creative yearnings, the desire to do, these traits and habits shape us, until one day, midlife, no young children to blame for time challenges, we find ourselves atop a mountain of obligations, endeavors, and relations, battling to make time for them all.
- I don’t have time to go.
- I don’t have time to visit.
- I don’t have time to attend the ball.
- I don’t have time to Mardi Gras.
- I don’t have time to write this blog.
I don’t like the don’ts, and they bring me to what I told my friend.
I don’t have time, but I make time.
This is how I do battle atop my mountain. I make time for people and tasks that matter most.
I don’t always make time to take a shower. But I’ll make time for a friend who drops by. I probably won’t make time to dust or mop unless I’m having a get together. But I make time to visit my parents every month. I may not make time to tidy my office. But I’ll steal those extra minutes I save to write a story, post a blog, or tinker with jpegs. I don’t make time to organize that spare bedroom. But I’ll always make time to help you lift a brick off your chest or to join you for a laugh or a jig.
If I do anything that isn’t work, I made time.
They make time to appoint their rooms. Those moments in between work and friendship, when my friends might dust shelves and vacuum rugs, I’m writing or making something. Maybe you’ll come to my house and think “It’s falling down.” But I started a novel. Maybe you’ll notice that I didn’t finish moving the ponds, but I finished a screenplay. Maybe you’ll see the dust and birdseed on my end table, but I’m so happy that you’re wearing the earrings that I made. And did you see my garden?
Time and Choices
We all make choices about how we spend our time. Judge me if you will about what I don’t do in mine. I don’t judge you if you do, and I don’t judge you for choosing to chase the dust. I mainly hope I have time to finish Elle’s story so you can read about what happens to her when she lands in 2019 from 3014 after a time hiccup. Sweet Ophera also needs my attention. She’s anxious to reconcile with the grandmother she ditched on a restaurant patio.
I have a couple dozen personal projects that wait patiently mid-dream for me to make time. Dust collects on the furniture. It will always collect, and no matter how often I pull it away, it will always return. I’d rather make time to till my words, dig my stories, write my garden, fire enamel, and photoshop my friends, the ones who come visit me in my falling down dusty home and the ones who fall from my foggy head into that shimmering computer screen.
I’m not yet a celebrated novelist or screenwriter, but I take comfort in stories about folk such as JK Rowling, who explains how living in squalor is the answer, and other creative humans, who sequester themselves to concentrate on creative endeavors. They confirm for me that squalor and sequestering pave the path. I took my time getting here, and now I’ll make time to follow this path.
My friend’s falling down comment didn’t upset me. But it gave me pause to ponder my choices. Falling down is my validation. This is my path. and, like my house, it’s solid.
© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2018.
I greet the first dawn of the New Year, standing in a familiar place, toes chilled by an unfamiliar freeze. First freeze of the new year.
2017 was a challenging year, horrid for some people in my life. I’m tempted to join the “Good Riddance, 2017!” chorus but I’ll resist. The lyrics to that song don’t honor the blessings, however brief or small, that I experienced this year. So, I’ll give my challenges and shortcomings a nod, because they deserve that much if I’m going to learn from them. However, I choose to focus my memory energy on the good things.
Some of the highlights:
- 20-foot U-Haul New Orleans to Chicago trip through Storm Helena and a child’s successful step towards her future
- burning trees
- Cakes beach trip
- mom’s cognitive therapy and mom’s green thumb in my garden
- Magical Mystery Gleaux (Mardi Gras)
- blue birds
- “A grandmother’s garden” canvasses (I love PhotoShop!)
- boatloads of code in my brain (I can explain why to use overflow-x:auto with overflow-y:hidden)
- pins, fieldwork, and a bright career ahead for my oldest
- work trip to Chicago, joyful visit with daughter
- 40th high school reunion: old friends, new friends, heartwarming events
- birthday and drop dead slumber party
- beginnings of a new novel (can’t finish what I don’t start!)
- birthday surprises for family and friends (I love Photoshop!)
- 13th Gate Escape (we died the first time)
- #ruralhomeoffice established: more time with mom and dad and a beautiful setting for work
- Washington Parish Fair with my folks
- Thanksgiving with family and a wee morning talk with my favorite nephew
- Christmas with all my children, my folks, and family friends
- And, on the last day of the year, a brand-spanking new (first-time!) subscription to PhotoShop (no more sluggish outdated PhotoShop for me!)
As any good freelancer would do on a holiday, I was on my way to work at daybreak on this first day of 2018. But I saw the first colors of the new year sky, and a minute later, I stood in bare feet in a frozen yard trying to capture the colors with a phone.
I will work today, but, first, I’m saying hello to 2018 with my words. First, I’m making a 2018 folder in my Pictures library. First, I’m writing for myself.
First me on this first day begins 2018 on the right foot (no matter the frozen toes). First me feels good and opens the door to more blessings.
I’m not one to make robust resolutions on the first day of any year, but I have become a fan of the monthly calendar resolutions. So on this first day, I look forward to the good habits that each month will bring. On this first day, my first promise is to take better care of myself and my time. On this first dawn, I resolve to seek the blessings in each day and make more time for family and friends. On this first freeze of the new year, I’ll allow the distractions of beauty, curl my toes against the frozen brick, and snatch a bit of the moment for myself.
This is how I find my first blessing of the new year. Wishing you a first and many more blessings this new year.
©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2018.
Post-op recovery threw me into all of my zones of discomfort. The surgery was minor, recovery time relatively brief, but the discomfort was enormous. The physical discomfort was tolerable with a few pain killers and Advil. But the discomfort in the socio-emotional spheres was damn-near intolerable.
The Secret’s Art of Allowing and Don Miguel’s Don’t take it personally
The largest harp that I play to family and friends has two strings:
- not taking things personally
Even as I play that harp, I know allowing is challenging. I am aware of the energy it takes to make peace with cruel or thoughtless words and acts. I play the harp well and I mostly live the tune.
For a couple of days after my surgery, I was failing at my most convincing harp tunes.
- I was pissed because my surgeon didn’t warn me how painful recovery would be.
- I was pissed because I had to allow myself to be helpless (I truly had no choice) as my daughter and a couple of friends made sure I was safe, hydrated, nurtured, and, importantly, that the plumbing was working properly.
- I was pissed because I couldn’t get up and go as I pleased.
I’m not in control
On the third day, just as I was beginning to feel a little more at ease if not more independent, Luda, our first family dog, started behaving oddly. She was still wagging her tail, so we opted out of the only available vet visit that day. By evening, I realized this beagle-blue healer mix was breathing just like our mother cockatiel Annie did on her last day. My heart sank, then it sank deeper: I couldn’t invite Luda onto my lap. I couldn’t even bend over to pet her. I couldn’t be the one to go with her to the animal hospital.
The hospital called me at 2:20 in the morning. Luda had died in a breathing tent there. I had to allow her to slip away without a lap cuddle, without sitting with her like I did for Annie. I was angry and sad, but crying wasn’t an option with staples stitching parts of my core.
The next day, my first day home alone, our first foster fail had another seizure. This happens about once a month (that we know of), and I normally lie on the floor and hold her to protect her from hurting herself during the seizure. This time I couldn’t. Core staples. That distress was soon left behind by the stress of witnessing a “limp” seizure. She looked dead. After almost 20 minutes of my gentle foot nudges, she wobbled up and out. I’m still suspicious that that seizure changed her more than any previous (much more violent) ones.
That night, to most of the city’s delight, it snowed. I wasn’t expecting a snow, so the weekend before my surgery, I had done nothing to prepare for it. My garden and my pots of peppers were exposed. The power went out for 36 hours. I sat from my recovery chair watching the white dusting of snow and cold choke my plants. To salvage what they could, my daughter and my honey dragged some of the plants onto the back porch and ran water over the plants that were in beds. They boiled pots of water on our gas stove and pulled out camping equipment to warm the air so our cockateils wouldn’t freeze to death. I sat. I watched as others took care of a problem because I couldn’t.
Lessons in Allowing and Forgiveness
Maybe because I fiercely play that harp of allowing and forgiveness. Maybe because I find it so simple to apply in most of my situations and so logical when I harp at others about applying it. Maybe because I shouldn’t play the harp at others. Maybe because I needed a reminder. Part of allowing is allowing your own ugly feelings and process. Part of allowing is allowing yourself to face emotions that can’t be digested at that moment. And part of not taking anything personally is not taking your own shortcomings personally. Part of the tune is allowing yourself to recover even as you shake your fists at the pain.
The process trips over and folds into itself, but on the other side of it is forgiveness for what we didn’t like and couldn’t control and hope as we embrace what we still have and can take forward.
My recovery isn’t over. I still can’t jump up and go. I’m not supposed to lift anything over 5 lbs. (But I need that bag of sugar! It’s Christmas, for crying out loud!)
This is an itty-bitty recovery. This recovery is not worthy of sympathy, empathy, or even a blog post. The worthy is in the reminder. The worthy is finding the path on the other side of recovery.
©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2017.
This is the final post of my October daily blog challenge.
Writing a blog post each day for a month was harder than I expected, but easier than I imagined. I missed one day but I gave myself a deserved pass after energy well and fully spent selling jelly. On at least fifteen other days, I clicked “New Post” feeling doubtful. I can’t do this today. But I did, mostly because it was easier than I imagined.
The Daily Blog Calendar Challenge
I expected this to be the most challenging of my challenges so far, but it easily lags behind healthy daily movement. The goal was to make writing for myself like muscle memory, a good daily habit, a practiced craft. Although I write boat loads of words every day, I was not taking time to write for myself.
In general, the calendar challenges have made me more mindful of how I spend my time, what I make time for. The challenge to make time for and be mindful about writing drove home some specific, unexpected lessons. These are not new thoughts, but the process helped me embrace and trust them.
- Small things can be profound. Woven into the minutia of our days are subtly rich threads of wisdom and emotion. When we reflect on our rainbow dances, frustrations, or walks through the field, we wrap ourselves in them.
- It’s a crooked path. Nearly every post I wrote was retitled once if not a half-dozen times. The observations I led with unfailingly took me somewhere else. Seizures might end up being a post about embracing strength in the face of vulnerability, working through the frustration of a botched appointment might become about the culture of blame.
- Trust myself. If not myself, at least trust my words or thought patterns. This is in part authenticity: being myself. It’s also mindfulness, which is seminal to the calendar challenge I took on. A chunk of it, maybe the most important for writing, is letting go and allowing, letting words lead me, trusting them, even through the crooked jaunts along the way.
Tomorrow I’ll start a new calendar challenge. I haven’t decided on it yet, but I may make it a little less up hill. Especially since tomorrow is also the kick-off of NaNoWritMo. But I’m ready! I have this writing habit!
©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.
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?
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.
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.
Last weekend I visited the annual Mini Maker Faire at our local public library. Ten days ago, my mom and I perused the wares of hundreds of makers at the parish fair. At the beginning of this month, I set up a booth to sell my wares during the Plant Fest at the arboretum. Next weekend, we have the Artisans’ Bazaar at our church.
I’m drawn to making. I feel a deep reverence for makers. Not only for the crafty and artsy ones, but also for the ones who grow the vegetables I buy from the farmer’s market and CSA, for the handy ones who show up with planks of wood and a pocket of nails to build a deck or a shed, and for that guy who sells hand-crafted gelato at just about any event where makers gather in my town. I’m drawn to the old ones whose creations are infused with years of practice and knowledge. I’m drawn to the youthful ones who surprise with fearless imagination and ingenuity. I’m drawn to making and makers who add beauty and goodness to our experience.
Makers make a difference.
Makers boost our spirits every time we admire that print on the wall or fondle the clay bowl we bought at the fair. They make us more attractive every time we wear that ring or scarf we bought at the bazaar. They make our meals better with organic vegetables and cleverly blended seasonings we bought at the farmer’s market. They provide comfort every time we wrap ourselves in that hand-sewn quilt or bathe in hand-crafted salts we bought at the fest. I could go on and on about how makers improve our personal lives (take my jelly for example!), but there’s more than that more.
Makers at local venues reduce pollution. When we buy their wares, we avoid the transportation and paperwork shipping entails. Makers add integrity. We’re not wearing trinkets or clothing made in a sweat factory or decorating our home with pricy objects imported by a company who underpaid the artisan. Importantly, makers bring community together at events like the farmer’s market, the fair, and the bazaar. Even when we don’t purchase, makers provide eye candy, ideas, and a good dose of Ooooh, look at that!
Look for the makers at your local fest, market, bazaar, or fair. Admire their wares. Listen to their stories about what and how they make. Get inspired. Invest in your community and buy a trinket or some vegetables. Better yet, invest in yourself and make something!
©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.
Recently, work became a frenzied flurry of files and folders as we made final tweaks to a project, trying to keep the files flying at a pace that would guarantee meeting the big deadline. My teammates and I received comments like:
Wow! You’re on fire!
That felt nice. But the feeling was a little iced when I realized:
This is normal for me. I always work this fast and furious.
Although this truth is annoying, it will never change the “visibility” of the quiet work I do during most of any project.
In Praise of Quiet Work
What is the quiet work? For “job” work, it’s excel spreadsheets, PhotoFixes, file sorting, data logging, or whatever drudgery your job includes. You might be on fire, getting it done at a sharp clip, catching and resolving the slipperiest of problems, but few see that fire. Not because it’s unworthy, but because it lacks the flashy that excites. You’ll miss out on the dopamine that comes with praise and a sense of accomplishment, but the quiet work is arguably the more important part of a project, and makes those Wow! You’re on fire! moments possible. The quiet work is the ground work.
For creators, the quiet work begins with staring at your screen, canvas, wheel, loom, or whatever tool you use to create. It includes organizing your workspace, sorting your beads or yarn, sitting alone with your words, tubes of paint, or tubs of clay. The quiet might be interrupted by flurries of discomfort and restlessness. Before I’m truly quiet, I get up to grab a handful of nuts or water the plants. I pace around the room, rearrange the furniture. I might even do a little housework (gads!). But then I sit down and I sink into the quiet work of creating. The attention (yes, we’re vain, but that makes for better creations) will come later.
Remuneration for work and the satisfaction of finishing will do most days, but, I won’t lie, that little dopaminic shot of appreciation (Wow! You’re on fire!) is delightful. It makes the quiet work less lonely.
©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.