She isn’t safe.

Mom sees her first, noticing her through the bay window, walking on the highway with her dogs. “That’s not safe.”

Cars and trucks barrel over the hill and around our bend of highway. Most slow as they pass her, some stop as her dogs cross.

She’s sporting reddish floral leggings, a yellow sweater, another sweater around her waist, a turquoise necklace, a red purse, and tennis shoes. The metal quad cane extends from her right arm, its four feet steadying her as she leans hard into the handle with each step.

“Would you like some help?”

“Oh, I’m okay.”

Cars approach us from both directions as one of the smaller dogs runs towards us, mid-lane. I step into her path and reach down to pick her up as she approaches. Two larger dogs rest in the ditch, watching us with interest.

“I can help.”

“Thanks.” She lifts her right arm and points with the cane, “I’m going right there.” That’s when I notice the small dog in her left arm, slowly slipping out.

“I can carry that one too if you like.”

“Thanks.” She allows me to take the brown and white puppy. She nods at the brown and white dog in my left arm, “That’s the momma.”

The walk to her driveway is less than 300 feet, but our pace to safety is slow. The momma dog is relaxed, but the puppy wiggles and whines for his owner.

During a pause, she lifts her right arm again, this time to point at the dogs in the ditch. “Those two,” then lifting to point farther up, “Remember when those trailers were there?”

Some of the trailers still are.

“Those two were born in those trailers. Their momma died. They’re all’s that’s left of her dogs.”

The two ditch dogs stay put during our stroll to her driveway. Maybe they understand the danger of the highway.

Her story

My strolling companion becomes immediately familiar, talking in fragments and slivers of personal information.

“I normally don’t come this way,” she explains. In snippets I can’t always follow, she describes how she ended up here today. She’s clearly exhausted. Based on what I know about the area and her description, she’s been walking at least two miles.

“My lights are out, you know.” She’s talking at a steady clip now, looking up at me between phrases. Her words flow like water over a ridge, cascading and splashing, mixing, tumbling. “My husband, after he passed…”

She explains that they lived in Baton Rouge. I start to tell her I’m from there, but it’s not easy to interject.

“That was my big mistake, coming here.”

I hear a big truck approaching, so I pause and shield her while he passes, slowing only slightly.

“I should have stayed in Baton Rouge, but they made me sell my trailer.”

As we approach her driveway, she seems hesitant to continue with me.

“This is far enough.”

“That’s okay. I’ll walk you to the driveway.”

Catching her breath she continues the cascade of life history. “You know…” she points her cane and names one of the neighbors up the road, “He took my car. They told me I can’t drive no more. But I have a driver’s license. I can drive. But they took my car.”

I know some of her kin probably don’t always do right by her, but taking away her car is not something I fault them for. Sure, maybe she can drive, but that doesn’t mean she should.

“This is far enough,” she repeats as we reach the drive.

“I’ll walk you to the gate.” I want to get her all the way off the highway.

“You see my son’s signs?” she asks.

I smile and nod.


Large, threatening hand-sprayed signs. I wouldn’t dream of going beyond them.

“I’ll just walk you to the gate.”

She changes directions, back towards the highway. “Let me check to see if they delivered my mail!”

She hobbles to the box, talking with each step, bends into the box. Empty.

When we come closer to the gate, I hand her the puppy, set the momma dog down, and watch them walk towards the DO NOT ENTER sign leaning just inside the gate. She turns to me, “Thank you.”

As she turns back to the gate, I tell her, “My name is Pennie.”

She smiles, “I’m Eloise.”

I watch Eloise skirt the giant puddle in front of the gate and walk into the property. As I walk home, I see mom on the my front porch, wringing her hands.

We all deserve a safe place.

I know a little about the families across the street, but mostly second-hand and so it’s not mine to tell stories about them.

  • What I know first-hand after today is the tenderness of Eloise. The puppy begged to get back to her the whole time I held him. The momma dog and two bigger dogs followed her devotedly.
  • What I know first-hand after my walk with her is the resilience of Eloise. She walked at least two miles on the rural roads and a highway and she probably lives without electricity.
  • What I know first-hand after talking to Eloise is her mind is slipping.

Mom isn’t walking down the highway with a red purse and four dogs, but she’s falling apart too. I think her heart leapt from the sofa when she saw Eloise shuffling along the highway with a cane and four dogs because she knows what it is to be lost.

Eloise looks healthy enough, her puppies are well-fed, and she’s not driving, so someone’s doing something right for her. My prayer for Eloise is that she is and feels safe at home.

I share with mom some of the things that Eloise told me. When I explain that I offered to walk her to the gate, mom says, “You can’t go in there!”

“I know mom,” and we walk into the safety of my home.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021


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.

Skin in the Game and 4 Conflict Conversation Tips

Skin color and police force have defined this month in my community. Many of us feel that one is undervalued, the other used in excess, and opposing views on these topics have become uncomfortably heated on social media and in conversations. Unfortunately, the impotency of many heated exchanges has paralyzed true communication and stretched the divide, most notably among white friends and family.

I haven’t struggled to find my position on the topics, but I have struggled to find my voice, an effective voice.

I’m putting my skin in the game.

In my middle-aged whiteness, I’ve reached back to my own experiences to find truths in current events.

I know skin color matters.

Flash back 39 years ago. I was head lifeguard of the city pool of a small town. I had a twenty minute commute to work on a rural highway, up a Smokey foothill, and I loved to speed.

The inevitable happened: one afternoon, a sheriff deputy pulled me over. I was doing about 90 mph in a 50 mph zone.

What didn’t happen? I didn’t get a ticket, not even a written warning. Just a verbal, “You need to slow down on these highways, missy.”

I know my skin color mattered. The blond hair and golden tan were fortuitous as well.

I know some policemen use excessive force.

Flash forward 20 years from my unticketed speeding stop. I was a young mother, leaving a city park with my 7, 4, and 2 year-old children. We were leaving the way we came in and the only way I knew out of the park.

A cop held up his hand to stop me. I rolled down my window, “I’m just trying to get out.”

“Turn around!” he screamed. My kids were alarmed.

“But I need to . . . !”

“I said turn around! Now!”

“But how can I . . .?”

He slapped his hand on my windshield, next to my inspection sticker and inspected the date. (Whew! It’s current.) His face was red as he screamed louder and louder. My kids joined in, screaming, crying, terrified by this man in blue with one hand on a gun and another slapping my windshield and pointing us in the other direction.

I submitted, turned around, pulled over a few minutes to collect myself.

Let’s take a moment to review the situation: a suburban park an hour before a football game, cars and people only beginning to arrive; no protesters, no picket signs, no dangers. Yet this cop was unhinged.

After a few minutes of assuaging my nerves and crying children, I saw cars entering from another direction, a second entrance I didn’t know about, that little bit of information the officer didn’t listen long enough to know I needed.

This minor, avoidable incident petrified my children. Incensed, I called the police department to report it. “You’ll have to come in to file a report.” So I went.

The visit to the police headquarters was infuriating and fruitless. The officer listened impatiently to my complaint, handed me a form, then dropped an album in front of me. Photos of every single member of the police force. The officer knew I couldn’t possibly identify the screaming white cop I had encountered among the hundreds of photos of mostly white cops.

“You could give me a list of the officers who were on duty last night.”

“No I can’t.”

I pushed away the heavy album and explained, through tears and much less eloquently than I’m recounting: “I came here to file a complaint, not a formal report. I came here to let you know that your officer was unnecessarily forceful, he wasn’t listening, and, as a result, my children are traumatized. I came here hoping someone could explain to him that his behavior was out of line. I came here in hope that I could make a difference in how he handles his next encounter.”

My incident was trivial, but suggestive.

Most policemen don’t but I know that policeman used unnecessary force. But the Force did not want to engage in real conversation about it.

Furthermore, I know my skin color mattered, again. It’s speculation, but not ludicrous to imagine that my perceived impertinence would have had a less trivial outcome for a black parent.

Sadly, this statement is not facetious: “I’m white, so I lived to write the story.”

The disastrous marriage of racial prejudice and excessive police force is nothing new in this country. The problem isn’t escalating. The difference now is that the ubiquitous camera and the activist movements are pulling away the veil and exposing the inequities and crimes. We have work to do. All of us. This work requires unity and conversation.

Stay in the Conversation

Staying in the conversation is strenuous. Standing in the middle to work through a conflict is challenging, sometimes confusing. But bringing our voices and efforts together is the only way through.

If the conversation and the conflict aren’t over and you throw your hands up (“I’m done!” “I’m over it!”), you also surrender your voice and will not be part of the conversation or solution.

What is conversation?

This is what it’s not. It’s not a bumper sticker. It’s not a tirade of insults. It’s not a clever tweet. It’s not a series of Facebook slaps. It’s not one-sided.

Conversation is a communicative exchange, a give and take. Two sides. Two tasks. Listen. Speak.

The Center for Nonviolent Communication offers information and training in what is sometimes called compassionate communication, a process developed in the 60s. The NVC website details its mission and principles. Their communicative model is the takeaway that could help guide us through conversation around conflict:

Skin in the Game

The LISTEN side of this NVC model is painfully absent in most “discussions” about race and police abuse. I’ve steered clear of most interpersonal and social media “conversations” on the topic, not because I’m unsure about my position, but because most seem to deteriorate into an escalating series of taunts and feckless but oranges!, but apples! but elephants! comparisons.

For my part, I’m listening, lifting my voice in prayer and peace as I seek real conversation. I want more communicative and unifying conversation, so I offer these four tips for jumping into, out of, or clear of a conversation.

  1. If you’re not informed, steer clear. Listen and read before you jump in. If you haven’t done your homework, you don’t have any ground to stand on as you express an opposing view. 
  2. If you have something to offer, express it with respect, empathy, even love. Dagger tongues and poison pens never advance a conversation or solution, especially not on social media platforms.
  3. If the conversation is about apples, don’t jump in with oranges and elephants, unless the point is fruit genus (malus vs. citrus) or size (apple vs elephant mouth). Tackle one conflict or issue at a time.
  4. If the other parties diminish the conversation by trying to sustain it with barbs and misinformation, jump out! My dear cousin recently advised my daughter during a FB conversation scuffle with a quote that Brené Brown shared on her website: “Don’t try to win over the haters. You’re not the jackass whisperer (Scott Stratten).

Empathetic and Responsible Reading and Listening

I saw a meme last week that said: “We’re drowning in information but starving for wisdom.” Seek out thoughtful, factual articles and commentaries.

Racial Equity

  • If you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?”, this post by Justin Cohen offers good advice for white folks who want to be an ally.
  • If your response to Black Lives Matter is All Lives Matter! or Blue Lives Matter!, there is a misunderstanding, and chances are you haven’t visited the BLM website or read the guiding principles. This is a not a “we matter, but you don’t” movement.

Police Misconduct

  • This article explains General Honoré’s thoughts on the militarized response in my city. I was appalled that this is what protesters faced at the conclusion of their peaceful march.
  • That said, I’m not anti-cop. Our police forces have an exacting, thankless, and underpaid job. That doesn’t excuse misconduct. I am anti-misconduct. I expect the police force to own and address the problems in their ranks, and the law to hold officers responsible for misconduct.

Coming Together

  • Real conversations aimed at uniting us are happening online and in real spaces. Join in. Put your skin in the game. Listen with empathy. Express yourself honestly. Come together. Be part of the solution.
© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2016