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.
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
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?”
“To lift him up. Maybe add something.”
“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.
- 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.
In 2005, we accidentally started a tradition: we set our Christmas tree on fire.
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.
After 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:
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.
Part 1: A circle of thanksgiving
We stand in a circle holding hands, a tradition that evolved in my parents’ home from a combination two traditions, leftovers, if you will: grace before a meal and gratefuls during meals.
Boil these down for gumbo tomorrow.
Every link in our circle has suffered at least one wrench or break from another link in this circle. Yet, here we are. “First, we’ll take turns expressing what we’re grateful for . . . It can be anything,” to ease the younger links into the tradition.
“I’m thankful for this family . . . “
Gratitude has become a bandwagon for those anxious to reap the emotional, spiritual, as well as fiduciary benefits of thankfulness. Rewire your brain! Relieve stress. Improve sleep. Improve relationships. I ride that bandwagon. Gratitude helps me deal with leftovers of relationships, disasters, even meals.
What are we going to do with all of these potatoes?
In gratitude we push away shortcomings to focus on our strengths, we see beyond our losses to be joyful for our blessings, we displace grudges with forgiveness.
“I’m grateful for this time together . . .”
We acknowledge that, like all families, there have been unfortunate turns in our family. Ours comes back to this circle of thanksgiving, woven with the strength of our love for each other, the joy of the blessings we share, and the magic of forgiveness. And food.
Can we freeze the rest of the cranberry relish?
Thankfulness in many ways is magical. When divides —whether political, religious, social, or emotional— feel irreparably deep, gratitude for the leftover goodness mends, a circle of thankfulness bridges gaps between us.
“I’m grateful to be included in this family.”
We all have at least one thing in common, at least one thing we can be grateful for together.
How many pies?
I’m thankful for common ground.
“. . . and for the children, who are present and engaged.”
My dad closes the circle of gratitude with a prayer.
” . . . and for these blessings, we give thanks.”
We squeeze hands and chime in “Amen” before we dig in and begin creating . . . the leftovers.
Part 2: Leftovers
Stacks of dishes, naps on recliners, impossible puzzles, long walks through the fields, disappointing football games, and then the question.
What should I do with this?
For those of you who tuned in for leftover recipes, here are a few ideas.
In Louisiana, we often pull the okra and sausage out of the freezer and cook up a pot of turkey gumbo on Black Friday. Online recipes for exact ingredients and measurements are plentiful. This is the basic process.
- Start with a stock.
- Boil the bones alone or with some herbs (bay leaf, oregano, for example) and vegetable scraps (onion ends and skin, a head of garlic cut down the middle).
- Make a roux.
- About 1 cup each of flour and vegetable oil for a big pot of gumbo.
- Slowly heat the flour in the pot until it becomes golden.
- Add oil and whisk until it blends smoothly with the flour.
- Continue to heat slowly until the roux is dark.
- Add vegetables.
- Add chopped onion, bell pepper, and celery (1-2 cups of each).
- Once these are soft, follow with minced garlic (4-5 cloves).
- Add the stock, leftover (and chopped) turkey, Andouille sausage medallions (Italian sausage will do), sliced okra (1-2 cups), and 2-4 tbsp of Worcester sauce (to taste).
- Season (salt, cayenne, Tabasco, black pepper) to taste.
- Bring the gumbo to a boil, then simmer for 20-30 minutes.
- Serve with rice.
If you end up with extra dressing or stuffing, make dressing croquettes.
- Work a beaten egg into a bowl of about 3 cups of dressing.
- Form balls (slightly bigger than a golf ball).
- Optional: Fill the balls with cranberry relish or any compatible leftover.
- Poke a hole.
- Cook for about 5 minutes:
- To fry, roll in a little flour then deep fry.
- To bake, place on cooking sheets and bake at 400º.
- To air fry, place balls in Airfryer and cook at 330º.
Sweet Potato Chips
Leftover baked sweet potatoes?
- Slice the cooked sweet potatoes about ¼ inch thin.
- Season to taste (salt and cayenne or cinnamon and brown sugar).
- 300º for 10 minutes in Airfryer.
- Deep fry for 2-3 minutes.
- 400º for 10-15 minutes in the oven.
I was the last to leave my parents’, which means my mom filled my car with the leftovers she didn’t want. As I repurposed the turkey, dressing, potatoes, and relish, I reminisced about the week our family spent together. I’m grateful for that leftover lagniappe.
Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.
Your friend has cancer. Every genuine, heartfelt phrase you want to share sounds cliché and the more you delete and rewrite, the more your words become faded Hallmark sentiments. “How can I express to her how I’m feeling?”
Then you ask yourself, “What can I do? Should I call? No, she’s probably flooded with calls, but what if she thinks . . . ? Maybe I’ll pop in to check on her. No, what if her whole family . . . ? I’ll just text. But I need to do something. I’ll bring meals for the family. But what if someone already did?”
Struggling with these questions after you receive the news is a sign that you might be a truly supportive friend. Thoughtful words and gestures are a good beginning. Thoughtful awareness is an excellent delivery vehicle for your words and acts.
Over the past fifteen years, nineteen friends and close acquaintances have faced cancer. Eight died. Geography, level of intimacy, and personal circumstances were factors in the extent of my connection during their treatment and recovery. While my involvement varied greatly, the struggle with words and acts was a constant. No matter how close I am to the person, physically or personally, I want the things that I say and do to make a difference, even if as simple as a fleeting smile.
I ambitiously set out to write a list of dos and don’ts for interacting with a friend who has cancer. After reaching out to friends with cancer stories, I realized the futility of a concrete list. The perfect thing for one friend is the worst for another. What did come from my conversations and ruminations is this list of guidelines, two of which I touched on above, all of which are relevant to caring for friends in any difficult circumstance.
1. Check in.
Let your friend know that you’re thinking about her. If you decide not to call because her lines are flooded or you’re not sure what to say, send a card, an email, or a text. If you’re struggling with the words, let that struggle go and use the words you find. Even a short text that borders on cliché can make a difference to a friend who is going through a tough time.
Keep checking in. Your friend will be flailing through waves of emotions, physical hardships, and practical concerns throughout her treatment and beyond. Even if you’re not one of the primary people taking care of her, check in regularly to let her know you’re thinking of her or to offer help. When treatment is complete, check in some more. The emotional and physical impact of cancer treatments can linger well beyond the last treatment date.
2. Tune in.
Be thoughtful and aware. Each cancer journey is unique. One friend explained: “the most important thing is to remember that every person is different, and we all have different problems / obstacles / challenges, which means there is no single appropriate response.”
Tuning in is listening. If you ask: “How are you feeling?” or “How are you doing?”, listen to the response.
Tuning in is also practicing thoughtful awareness of your friend’s support network, personality, and receptiveness.
If your friend has a family or community support network, communicate with that network so that you’re not duplicating or hindering the efforts of others. If there is no “built-in” support network, team up with other friends to create one.
Your friend’s personality is your guideline for interactions. Is she stoic or does she need a little extra boost? Is she all business or does she enjoy a laugh? A little levity can be helpful, but only if she’s ready for it. During a chemo treatment, the art therapist told my friend, “You’re back! Remember me?” My friend responded no. The therapist asserted, “Yes, you were here last week,” which wasn’t true. After the fourth insistence, I responded, “Well, she’s got that bald thing going on. They all look alike, don’t they?” The art therapist stood stunned. My friend belly-laughed, and she was ready for that.
How communicative is your friend? Is she open to sharing details about her treatment and feelings? Give your friend a chance to open up if she wants, but don’t pry her for details she’s not ready to share.
3. Be specific about what you can do.
Spell out it out. Don’t carelessly toss your friend an extra burden: “Let me know if you need anything.” Specify: “Can I mow your lawn this weekend?” or “I’m available to run errands for you for two hours on Friday.”
Your friend may not know what she needs; even if she does, she may not reach out. Tuning in and being specific can help. I asked two questions in one afternoon:
“Can I get you anything from Costco?”
“No, I’m good.”
Fifteen minutes later:
“I’m at Costco. Do you need any salmon?”
“Yes, that would be great. And can you check to see if they have any LaCroix?”
In the end, my friend requested five things. After tuning in to her habit of responding, “No, I’m good,” I called back with a specific question. This helped her think through and verbalize what she needed.
4. Be a thoughtful visitor.
Don’t pop in. During treatment, your friend may feel weary and not particularly social or presentable. Call ahead, make sure it’s a good time, and specify how long you will stay. “I can visit for fifteen minutes tomorrow if you like. I’ll bring ice cream.”
Don’t linger. Be cognizant of how your friend is feeling when you arrive. She may not be up for the visit after all, or she may be feeling anxious and need the company. One friend explained that the fifteen- to twenty-minute visits from a friend with a listening ear and comfort food were the best.
Don’t react. Avoid: “This is just dreadful!”, “I can’t believe this is happening to you!”, or “This is a piece of cake! You can do it.” On the other hand, be open to and don’t sugarcoat the emotions your friend is feeling. Her fear and anxiety are part of her story. If she wants to share those, listen but don’t try to qualify them.
Don’t give medical advice. Well-intended advice is often annoying, even disturbing. If you have information that might be helpful, don’t discuss it. Simply share the website or the book. It’s not your place to prescribe or recommend treatments. Your friend will discuss those with her doctors.
Don’t vent or ramble about inconsequential events. This can be insulting to the friend you’ve come to visit. Sure, she may want to talk about something other than her cancer, but let the communication flow from your friend to you. If conversation stalls, ask about other things in her life. “How is Timmy doing in school?” “Is Olivia still playing soccer?” Or, just sit and allow the quiet presence of companionship.
5. Remember the primary caregivers.
Reach out to the primary caregiver. Although that spouse, sibling, or friend may have meals, errands, chores, and visitation perfectly coordinated, he or she may need some additional support. Check in to find out and offer specific things you can do.
6. Don’t try to own her cancer.
Respect the boundaries. Friends often rush in to help a sick friend. Don’t let that become a competition or complication. Coordinate your efforts, avoid squabbles and pettiness. What you do for your friend and your struggle to find the right things to say and do are valid, but that story is the sub-plot. This is her cancer story. It’s her cancer. Not yours. Quiet support is often the biggest expression of love.
Thanks to my friends who shared their cancer stories and whose thoughts helped me cobble together some guidelines. Specifically, thanks to these ladies.
Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.
Five Reasons I Shouldn’t Have a Pepper Garden
Five Reasons I do
The inception of my pepper obsession escapes me. Peppers went from Yes, jalapeños on my burger! to Yum! Let’s makes some more pepper jelly! to How many pepper varieties can I grow this year?
Growing peppers is fascinating, yet equally frustrating. My modest pepper garden has an extravagant history of false starts, flustered efforts, and full fails. I know at least five reasons I should not have a pepper garden.
My pepper ventures begin with a bubble of excitement, selecting and purchasing pepper seeds online, imagining what those seeds will become. That bubble swells with the successful seedling, the plant, the flowers, the peppers . . . And Pop! Wait! This isn’t . . . What kind of pepper is this? I want a refund! But the line is disconnected and emails go into cyberwasteland. Shysters!
2. Broken promises
Some plants keep their promises. Peppers, like the seedy seed vendors, are often renegers. My pepper seed success rate stands at about 20%, and that´s probably an exaggeration. The low performance rate is only part of the treachery. Sometimes the plant that produces a fabulously perfect pepper —Yes! That’s the seed I ordered!— exhales its last puff of oxygen days after its one and only pepper. Heroic efforts fail to perk up the limp leaves of these one-pepper wonders. I never trust a pepper plant.
Critters burrow, critters nibble, and sometimes critters crush the plant. As infuriating as these delinquencies can be, the most annoying critter habit of all involves my carefully placed plant labels. Why do they move my plant labels? Are they playing toss the plastic? Having pretend sword battles? My plants and my pseudo-scientific efforts to track and positively identify them often fall victim to the shenanigans of nocturnal critters. Note to self: must map the garden plot.
The beginning of any season is bliss. The beds are fresh, and that order-day bubble of excitement billows with hope. The seedlings will mature, the seeds will produce what the label says they should, the newspaper and mulch will control the weeds . . . But one bright morning, Pop! The stink bug convention is in full swing! Before long, my garden becomes a playground for stink bug babies, tiny other-worldly nymphs with creepy red bodies. I battle other insect invasions, but stink bugs are the most aggressive. I only use organic pesticides, so short of grabbing the leaf-footed bugs and crushing them against my thighs, there is no instant termination. I dust them with diatomaceous earth, coat them with neem oil solutions, shoo them away, and pray my dreams aren’t infested with them.
Peppers are bratty, lazy children. No, not yet! I’m tired! I’ll germinate tomorrow. Too much water! I need more water! Additionally, the peppers that manage to survive the critters and insects are prone to almost any disease, bacteria, or fungus that gambols through the garden. My inchoate gardening skills are part of the problem, but a PhD in peppers could not sufficiently school me on the essentials and afflictions of my pepper plants.
The list of frustrations goes on. Even success can be frustrating because the yield is never just right. Too few to follow the recipe or too many to use before the peppers surrender to mush.
Why am I still pampering pepper plants?
Five possible reasons:
I love a challenge. This one goes beyond negotiating my way around seed shysters, nocturnal critters, and alien insects. This challenge has culinary and intellectual branches. What can I make with this pepper? How can I showcase this pepper’s attributes without killing a friend? The more I learn about peppers —from names and types of plants to different canning and storing methods—, the more I know I don’t know. I’m sure that even my last pepper plant will teach me something, a lesson in survival, a story of surrender, an anecdote about its indigenous history, or maybe a simple moment of grace as I accept the firm, perfect pepper my plant offers.
Gardening, especially cultivating peppers, takes me out of my head and into the dirt. Many gardening acts feel holy: harvesting compost and worm castings, organizing seed trays, mixing organic elements. The garden is my quiet room, where I sow and weed thoughts, pamper ideas, and whisper affirmations. I find myself in the failures and bounty of the plants, especially my pepper plants.
Discovery, exploration, and, of course, heat. Each year I discover new varietals we must try and explore recipes and techniques. What are we having for dinner? I still can’t answer, Peppers! But peppers are the exciting compliment, brightening a dish with bold flavors and color. Elation escalates with rising Scoville ratings. Even people who can’t tolerate hot peppers are fascinated by heat. They will watch with anticipation as a friend bites into a spicy morsel and dance with excitement when the friend´s eyes tear up from the heat. Like many pepper addicts, I’m on a quest to grow the hottest varieties available. My mission, however, is divergent. I aim to tame. I dance with excitement when I harness the hottest devils and chaperon them into palatable jellies, sauces, and relishes.
Peppers are art —my garden canvas, my kitchen palette, my pepper gallery. The pepper laden limbs, a basket full of ripe peppers, jars of pickled peppers, the goat cheese log draped in bright pepper jelly. Beautiful art. Although they will never be the reliable what’s-for-dinner vegetable, peppers are a splendid extravagance, the aesthetic bounty I harvest and share with friends and colleagues.
Peppers are my garden children, unpredictable attention seekers. Watch me dance! Watch me shine! Listen to my story! Did you know I can . . . ? The peppers that survive my 80%-plus failure rate are worth the frustrations and stink-bug nightmares. I shamelessly show them off to anyone who gives me a moment. I parade my pepper jellies at parties, share pepper photos, fill gift boxes with pepper delicacies. I love peppers. No apologies.
Notes and tips for my fellow pepper enthusiasts
This is a list of some of the positively identified peppers that I’ve successfully cultivated. The list of failed attempts is longer.
alma paprika, ancho, ascent, banana, various bells, Bulgarian carrot, Caribbean (or maybe Bolivian?) red, cayenne, cayenne thick, chocolate ghost, fireball, habanero, ghost, jalapeño, NuMex Jo Parker, moruga scorpion, moruga scorpion yellow, pizza, planet, purple jalapeño, scotch bonnet, Serrano, sheepnose pimento, sweet chinese giant, Tabasco, Trinidad scorpion
If you harvest seeds for the next season, clean, dry, and store them in sealed bags or containers in the freezer.
Pre-soaking seeds in solutions of saltpetre or citric acid can help overcome stubborn germination.
Start the seeds in seed trays or hydroponic systems.
Start early! I start making seed trays in late January and early February, but many of my pepper plants don´t start performing until late summer or fall. They can be painfully sluggish.
If you live in a warm climate, many of your peppers can winter over. Pamper them through the cold months, and protect them from the occasional freeze.
Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.
“You never loved me!”
I didn’t answer back. At the time, I didn’t know how. The accusation wasn’t true, yet there was some truth in it.
I had loved my ex-husband, even in that moment, but my love wasn’t that our-hearts-beat-as-one love. The soulmate, I-can’t-live-without-you “true” love.
A side note: I’m not including in this tangle of thoughts love for children or parents or pets. This is about romantic love.
You never loved me!
I felt the raw pain in his accusation. After three children and more than fifteen years of marriage, there it was, this half-truth squatting uncomfortably on the shards of our relationship.
That moment haunted me for years. The untrue truth didn’t prompt the demise of our marriage (we had other problems), yet for years, I struggled with the notion that I had a defect in my love gears that made me incapable of “true” love.
Is true love a childish fantasy or daydream? I don’t think so. I know couples who have “true” love, who feel they are soulmates. At times, I felt envious. I compared myself and wondered, “Why can’t I have that? Am I broken?”
In an effort to untangle the nature of my love mechanism and hoping to find out what was broken, I committed quite a bit of thought and energy to these questions. I looked in, but I also looked out.
Looking out, I became aware that assumptions often made about “true” love and other relationships fall apart on scrutiny. Couples who feel they are soulmates are not without their ups and downs and missteps. Even soulmates must work on right relationship. Couples who don’t fancy themselves soulmates can enjoy depth of commitment and compassion. Old solid relationships may still have embarrassing middle-school moments, and budding ones often work through hurdles with maturity and wisdom.
Looking out, I confirmed what I already knew: romantic love comes in many sizes, shapes, and tones.
Looking in, I started defining the expectations I had going into a relationship and understanding the qualities I wanted in a partner and partnership. Pretty damn practical. Share in all things domestic, complete projects together yet have projects of our own, communicate with compassion and patience, journey together and journey apart. My list did not include requisites such as “must be my soulmate” or “I would die without him.”
The observations and introspection helped me understand that I wasn’t broken at all. Perhaps I guard my heart, perhaps my love is not “true” love as conceived by many. Yet I would argue that my love is true.
Explain? OK. I love my partner of nine years. I’m still working on domestic equity, but we share, we fuss, we communicate, we have projects, we take trips, and we have independent interests and endeavors. We’re not soulmates, but our love is good. True love? I would say that my love is true, but I would hasten to point out that, if he were to die tomorrow, I would be sad, deeply sad. I would mourn and grieve. But I would not be devastated or feel lost. Is that because he’s not my soulmate? Is it because I guard my heart? I’m not sure what the answer is. I do believe, however, that the “trueness” of my love should not be measured by my dependence on the presence of that person.
For those who would accuse me of settling for a partner I can love instead of waiting for the soulmate I can’t live without, let me assure you I didn’t settle, I chose. We chose each other. That said, I’m not writing this for those doubters. I’m writing this for the other people like me, who, at some point wondered if they were getting it all wrong, if they were incapable of true love, if they were broken because they couldn’t surrender their hearts with abandon.
While we can make generalizations about love, define it, classify it, even qualify it, those intellectual exercises confuse the love we live. I don’t believe in hard edges that define where you cross into or out of true love. Instead of ideals and definitions, I would have been better served as a young adult by this kind of advice:
- Don’t chastise yourself if your love doesn’t fit a standard definition.
- Observe others in love but don’t belittle your love for being different.
- Your unique love journey should start from within, loving yourself, understanding your expectations and needs.
- Be true to yourself and your love will be true.
My ex was a little right but mostly wrong. I did love him. In some ways I still do.
In the end, no matter what size, shape, or tone, love is love. Be true to it.
Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.
I recently took one of those FB tests developed by a psychologist to “colorize” your personality type.
Green: go with the flow type.
The “analysis” was fairly accurate. I flow.
I “flow” because I’m a little lazy. It takes a lot of fight and energy to beat back the river.
Not to mention the rewards I receive as I float down the river! Like volunteer seed sprays and sunflowers from feeding the birds outside.
So what if I’m not so careful about cleaning up after the wild critters? I love the sunflowers. My cockatiels love the seed sprays.
Life will provide plenty of opportunities to put your dukes up and fight a good battle. That river of small things? Let it go. Flow as often as you can.
Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.
Sharing can be caring.
Four times in less than twelve months, I’ve received texts from friends that start something like this: “I have some distressful news . . . ” The bad news unfolded into stories of doctors, hospitals, and scary procedures. The stories belonged to my friends, not to me, but I shared the stories. Mostly to and with other friends, but sometimes I shared these stories that didn’t belong to me outside of my circle of friends. I think I shared the stories responsibly.
But how can I be sure?
Normally, I would not ask myself this question, but a couple of the most recent distressful-news stories were shared abusively. So I had to ask myself: “Am I oversharing?”
I don’t think I’m alone in this. We receive bad news from a friend (cancer, divorce, collapse, death, accidents, drug problems), and the wildfire of story sharing breaks out. Unlike yesteryear when stories moved slowly as they navigated landlines, rotary phones, and handwritten letters, today’s stories are fanned by cellphones and social media, and the wildfire engulfs everyone in an instant.
Most often, the sharing is genuine, a loving effort to let other friends and the community know so that the support network can kick in. In less elevated iterations, the sharing is simply gossip. In its most banal form, the sharing is derisive, a weapon to undermine those who are already suffering.
But what about that place between genuine sharing and gossip? You were there if you ever asked yourself: “Why did I share this with them?” or “Would my friend be upset that I told them?”
My midlife throttle is wide open, and, unfortunately, distressful news is the new normal.
I created some guidelines for navigating those moments I feel compelled to share a friend’s story. Before I unveil them, a tiny confession:
- Being the first to inform another friend about the news can be oddly satisfying. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.
- Not telling a friend’s story can sometimes be less genuine than sharing it.
Remember the genuine vs. gossip, vs. weapon? Along those lines, I roughed out basic levels of sharing to use as a guideline.
- Sharing helps my friend. Does it help spread the news, set up a support network, and so on? If yes, share. If not, next question.
- Sharing helps me. Is it on my my mind, does it impact my performance or mood, am I expanding the prayer circle, can I share it without violating my friend’s trust or privacy? If yes, share. If not, next question.
- Sharing is part of a casual conversation outside of the circle that includes my friend. At this point, the only relevant question is: “Does it violate my friend’s trust or privacy?” If yes, don’t share.
For me, there are no more questions. If you made it this far and think there should be more, these are the definite don’ts:
- Sharing is just an anecdote. If it is just gossip, don’t share.
- Sharing is an excuse. If this is a way to get out of work or an obligation, an excuse to ask for money, do not share.
- Sharing is a weapon. Wow. You’re not a friend.
The golden rule applies. Your friend is distressed. He/She needs a good friend. Be good. Share responsibly.
Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.
This is one in a series of open letters to lost friends.
Dear Sandy H,
When I remember you, filaments of anger are still tangled in the jagged edges of my sadness.
The first call came on a Sunday morning in October. The conversation began with your typical Southern notes of greetings and inquiries. Your turn and you responded, “Oh, I’m fine,” adding after a pause, “I need a favor.”
“Sure, Sandy, whatever you need.”
We had that “It’s been years but it’s like we’ve never been apart” grace in our amity. Months or years might slip away, but we could pick it up. It had been nearly five years since our last visit. Fit to be tied that night: your father had died, you hated your mom, and the will had wrecked your life .
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“I need to borrow six dollars.”
“Yeah, I just need six dollars?”
The inception of our friendship was a Shakespeare lit class. You commuted to attend classes, so our friendship never extended into the evenings or weekends. I loved listening to stories about your derailed marriage. You were a non-traditional student before that was a thing and the first divorced friend I had. Even though our friendship didn’t go beyond swooning over our lit professor and sharing snorts over things people said in class, I valued the time together.
After graduation, I moved to your city for grad school. We kept up on the phone but our visits were only occasional. You continued to be that peculiar friend. You lived in elegant condos with fine furniture; my other friends and I holed up in noisy apartments or dilapidated houses. You cruised around in a sporty VW with leather seats. We sputtered to class in used cars with worn fabric seats and failing headliners.
“Well, sure. I’m happy to give you six dollars. Did they turn off your water? Your lights? You can come over if you like.”
“No, no. My car is out of gas, so if you could bring me six dollars, . . . I’ll pay you back.” This odd request was new to our relationship but it wasn’t surprising.
At the end of those two years of grad school in your city, I stopped by your condo to say good-bye before I left for a new phase of grad school in Austin. You were in a huff that day. You had always been angry with your mom, but today you were also bickering about your dad and your credit card. “They won’t let me use the damn card unless I pay $300 first!” you carped. Still creditcardless, owing a big chunk of money on a bigger chunk of debt sounded exotic to me. The icing on the cake: “And daddy wants me to pay my own car insurance now!”
Steven warned me, “This sounds very suspicious,” as I was leaving to take you six dollars. It’s okay, I explained, adding that you were a little eccentric, had probably maxed out all of your cards, had a fight with your mom, and just needed some gas or milk. What could it hurt? Six dollars?
I didn’t recognize you at first. Arms wrapped across your abdomen, as you wait for your dog to mark her territory in a patch of grass. Your hair was matted into a flat up-do, your face was swollen, your skin ruddy and blotched, and your linen clothes were torn and stained. Even from my car I knew that you were draped in a rancid cloud. You didn’t sound like this on the phone. You never sounded like this.
Your eyes brightened. “Thank you so much. I’ll pay you back. I promise. How are you?”
“No worries. I’m fine.” My desire to leave was not as strong as my desire to understand. “Do you need anything else? A ride to the gas station?”
“I need a ride to Hi Nabor?”
“Sure,” I said, realizing it wasn’t for milk or eggs.
The books and movies I enjoy revisiting most are the ones with the big “Gotcha!” twist at the end. The ending you didn’t see coming. Even as I waited for you in the car, I started revisiting all of our visits. I had missed something. How could I have missed it?
You limped to the car holding Parish. “Do you mind?” Her matted and discolored coat camouflaged her breed. Shih Tzu? Poodle? “Of course,” I responded, regretting the absence of towels to drape across the seats. You jumped agilely into your diatribe. The details, impossibly tangled in my memory now, were basically the same as our last visit: “My life is crap since dad died, I hate mom, the will was unfair.” The only saving grace in your life was this stinking (but very sweet) dog.
No idea what to do, I offered food. “While you’re in the store, I’ll grab us some lunch, and we’ll catch up, OK?”
“Please don’t leave me,” you implored, doddering out of the car. I promised I’d be back. You watched as I drove across the parking lot to the drive-through. Your fear was real.
When I returned, you were waiting, paper bags clutched to your chest, oblivious to the looks of passersby, relieved when you finally saw me.
At your house, even an “excuse the mess” hostess plea wouldn’t have prepared me. Holding the boxes of food, I turned on my heels, looking for a free surface, a place to sit in the battleground of slain fine furniture: the carved wood accent chair snapped in half, the porcelain lamp in pieces, the once-plush leather sofa gutted, springs and stuffing protruding. The condo was bulging with the smell of urine, ammonia, excrement, and rotting food. Circling, circling.
You plopped into your spot on the dead couch and pointed at an injured but standing accent chair: “Sit there.” I handed you one of the boxes, then sat carefully on the edge of the chair. Your mood had brightened, and I knew why. You had tucked the brown bags behind the cracked desk by the door. The hundreds (yes hundreds) of cheap vodka bottles (every possible size) and diet Coke cans under and on top of the coffee table were my cue to the contents of the brown bags I had enabled.
I tried to follow the frayed threads of your stories. Your limp was from an accident that nearly killed you. “Damn doctors. They were mean to me and didn’t put the right kind of pin in my foot. Didn’t they know who my dad was!?” Your doctor dad. You needed your meds but your mom wouldn’t take you to the clinic. No, I shouldn’t take you to get gas, You hated those people at the Circle K. And could I believe that your family wanted to take away this condo your dad had left to you!? Times were bad. You even sought out free meals at churches when you had gas to get there.
I spied Parish pooping on a throw pillow close to the dining table and began to rise to take care of it.
“Oh, that’s OK. Don”t worry about it.” Could you be serious?
It had been fifteen years prior, yet it was typical of those initial years. “Isn’t it wonderful?” you had said, sweeping your arm to indicate the carpet. “I love to vacuum. It makes me feel like everything is in order. Everything will be all right.”
This was a new you, surrounded by piles of dog poo and urine stains. Parish even had poo on her bed pillows, next to piles of canned dog food that you had dumped on it.
I was feeling ill. I knew you wanted me to leave. Eyeballing your brown bags, you told me you needed a nap several times and became increasingly agitated when I didn’t take the hints. I needed to get a number, a name.
You sunk into the couch and into another tirade about your father. I could see the area of the couch responsible for your matted up-do. You beat the loose stuffing for each syllable of “I’m just so angry,” and I understood that, as frail as you seemed, you had broken your own furniture.
After acquiring a few numbers, I left you and drove home with my windows down, my tears a bitter cocktail of anger, sadness, and confusion. I was still sharing my bewilderment with Steven when you called an hour later. “I feel much better now. Thank you for coming by.”
I was prepared for your next I need a favor call. “Sandy, I won’t bring you money for alcohol. I’ll bring you food, take you to the clinic, or help with an errand, but that’s all.”
This wasn’t the first time you had heard this. Without reaction, you said you understood. I imagine, though, that you threw the phone and beat the I’m.so.angry out of the couch stuffing after we hung up.
We interacted more in the subsequent ten months than in the previous twenty years I had known you. Clinic visits, rehab lobbies, grocery runs, AA meetings, Tex-Mex lunches, resume help. I tried to sort the chronology of our twenty years of infrequent visits with that life you lived: your accident, the expensive rehab clinics, the DUIs, the move to Florida, the boyfriends. I was baffled by my ignorance of those fierce formations and events that had developed beneath the crystalline waters of our chats.
I finally met your mom. You had been forthcoming and accurate about her. She called when you had dislocated your shoulder. You couldn’t remember the tumble down the stairs of your condo. A hospital visit and arm brace later, you had no choice but to stay with your mom until you could use your arm. One night after I had brought groceries for you and your mom, you followed me to the door. “I’m going crazy,” you whispered wide-eyed. “You’ve got to get me out of here!”
When you were finally at your condo again, I started receiving phone calls from your mom. “Have you heard from Sandy?” I sometimes stopped by to check on you. Through a crack in the door, the response was always the same: “I’m okay. The damn phone broke again.” I doubt you remembered those drive-by visits.
The last call came on a September afternoon. I had never met your twin brother, and this was only the second time I spoke to him. He wasn’t crying at first. “Sandy is gone,” he explained. “I was calling to pick her up to watch a Saints game with us. When she didn’t answer, I figured she broke the phone again.”
Your brother was an alcoholic too. He was successfully recovering. I often wonder about his recovery versus your struggle. Maybe his wife and two children gave him more motivation to recover? You had Parish, but Parish didn’t even require a dish for her food. Many alcoholics have family responsibilities and still fail, but perhaps more often than not, family helps.
Your brother and your niece went to pick you up. Your door was unlocked. She found you on the floor in your kitchen, dog poo, rotting food, and an open fridge. Your brother started sobbing at this point in the story. I think he regretted sending his daughter in instead of going in himself. Your heart had given out, drowned in the violent waves of alcohol.
At your wake, a computer ran a series of photos of your fifty-five years, focusing mostly on the first thirty. Birthday parties with your twin brother, beach trips with friends, fancy dinners with your family. I wasn’t in any of the photos. I don’t think I have a single photo of the two of us. I wasn’t part of that life you had lived under the surface of the Sandy I knew. The photos of friends and family were sad reminders of the relationships that had crumbled under the burden of your disease. I realized as I left the wake that I was that acquaintance that teetered on the edge of friendship, I was the last number in your little black book. The last call for alcohol.
That little bit of anger still stuck in my craw is not about your dark secrets, not about the transparent manipulation of our last ten months, and certainly not about being last on your list. I’m angry that there’s nothing I could have done.
I thank you for the laughter of our first twenty years. I love you for the lessons of our last ten months. I hope you’re at peace.
Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.
This is one in a series of open letters to lost friends.
Dear Mona Z,
I remember our last visit. Sitting on your patio with newborns in our laps and toddler girls playing in the yard, we laughed, exchanged mommy stories, daycare plans, and anticipations for our families. The afternoon was pleasant, yet on that day I understood that our friendship had reached its natural end.
When our chat turned to houses, you explained that your in-laws had recently purchased a home in the most exclusive neighborhood. My lack of awe galvanized your campaign to impress upon me the import of that move. Honestly, I was unaware of the status of that neighborhood then, and now, even in the knowing, my dearth in reaction would remain. The undulations were already tugging at our interests. One slipping over the ebb, the other rolling with the flow.
You nudged the conversation to the furniture you had recently purchased and the updates you had made to your nearly new home. I felt happy for you and a little amazed. I quietly reflected on the futon that my husband and I still sat on every evening, in a home full of hand-me-downs and holdovers from college. You had visited our home briefly just before we moved the furniture in, exclaiming as you opened doors and peeked around jambs: “Oh. They didn’t paint the closets.” They hadn’t. Eight-months pregnant and still working, I wasn’t gonna. Even knowing the merits of freshly painted walls, the tenor of my tastes never drew me into a closet, not even my own, to inspect the paint.
As you described and recommended your maid, I floated further away, aware already that house cleaning would always plummet off my priority list in favor of other endeavors. I drifted back as you explained: “. . . except the toilets. I prefer to clean the toilets my way.” Even now, when I clean toilets, I remember and wonder, “Am I doing it right?”
As we talked about our children, the undercurrent drew me beyond the breaking waves of our conversation. Children in our sails, our courses would diverge absolutely. Soccer vs. dance, music vs. football, volleyball vs. cheerleading. In the blink of a childhood, we would be oceans apart. Our girls played happily that day. Even though they grew up less than ten miles away from each other and later graduated from the same university, that was their last play date. Washed away by their moms, with their moms?, on eddies away from the circle.
The end was natural and necessary.
We were incidental friends, drawn together by the men we dated in college. Riding the wave of their friendship, we camped on beaches and in cabins, skied on Lake Maurepas, danced into the morning at discos. When that wave melted into the shore, I moved on, but you stayed and married your college sweetheart. We chuckled about him that afternoon on the patio, how he had run out in his drawers that morning to rush the garbage cans to the street for pick up.
I had been back for almost a year, and we had clumsily picked up our friendship, scheduling play dates and lunches. Many friendships rise up with the grace of “it’s like we were never apart.” Ours didn’t. I resisted the end because you had been a good friend. You had given me one of those perfect moments that even now I remember.
The moment came an hour or two before dawn when we were riding the college wave. The guys were still outside drinking and playing cards. We were crashing, yawning comments about the day. Then you said it. Clearly. Honestly.
“You should leave him, you know.”
For a moment I thought you were in my head. How did you know?
“He’s going nowhere.”
The gnawing nowhere of my relationship with him. You spoke what I felt but needed to hear. I had been afraid to break the circle because I knew it would break many.
As simply and to the point as you had been about cleaning toilets, “He’s not right for you.”
The ex-boyfriend had come up from time to time in our conversations, perhaps even on our last patio day. He wasn’t an awful guy. Just not the right guy. You had helped me embrace that.
Some friends are forever. Some aren’t. I don’t dwell on the many layers of friendships, intersecting circles of friends, or levels and types of friends. I do splash around a bit to understand the gifts of the people in my life, past and present. Even for lost friends, not all is lost. I may have to dive into the cool depths to find the treasure, the shiny little something we shared. I always find it.
We said good-bye that afternoon, made promises we couldn’t keep. Internet, social media, and obituaries have kept me marginally informed. Your daughter is a beautiful young medical professional and your handsome son is pursuing a degree in film. Your dreams with your college sweetheart withered in the tedium of day-to-day. I hope the dissolution was not too painful. I hope you’re happy.
I don’t miss you, Mona. Even twenty-three years ago, I knew the friendship wasn’t sustainable. I do, however, remember you fondly. Odd little memories, the clean toilet, the “neat” burger (no condiments, no vegetables for you, just meat on a bun), the straight smile with the tiniest of curls on each end, and the honest truth. I hope your friends appreciate your frankness and know how to bring a tiny curl to your smile. You were a good friend to me. I still love you for that.
Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.