Words, wires, and worms

Words (Stories and Essays)

Worthy of Kindness?

When does a person become unworthy of kindness?

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

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

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

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

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

“Mama!!!”

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

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

And the heartbreak goes on.

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

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

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

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

“Why?

“To lift him up. Maybe add something.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean why?

“Why waste your energy on someone like that?”

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

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

My heart answers “yes” every time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2016 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

Rituals Without Rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The magic isn’t in the rules of ritual.

The magic is in our gratitude.

The magic is in our affirmations, in our prayers.

The magic is in us, always within us.

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2016 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

I don’t want your money, but . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whole.”

“Potatoes or rice?”

“Potatoes.”

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

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

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

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

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

Was this a scam!?

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

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

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

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

Diapers and Dandelions

Should I pick it or leave it for the bees?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

Deadlines Are Real

I missed a self-imposed deadline on Saturday.

Recurring: publish a post on Saturday.

Self-imposed: my effort to draw myself back to writing for real versus writing for rent.

I blew it.

I had my reasons.

But a deadline is a deadline. Or is it?

What does deadline even mean anymore?

With an etymological history that twists all the way back to civil war prisons and 19th century printing presses, the “line” was often imaginary. Yet, the word probably provoked terror among civil war POWs. Crossing the often unmarked imaginary line in a civil war prison could be lethal.

Today we wrap deadlines around our clocks and calendars, then toss them about with nonchalance. We start at a tender age, disguising the deadly words as “due dates” and end of term projects.

As our minds grow callous from rubbing against the calendars and clocks, we link our deadlines. Chains: The test is Tuesday. The term paper is due Friday. You’ll get your grade on Monday. If the chain is broken, Monday might be blue day.

Deadlines are the modern day ball and chain.

They’re often impossible. We toss about our calendars and clocks, and create a fabulously heavy ball. Everyone knows it will be a miracle to roll that ball up the mountain to that deadline. Yet, that is the deadline. When the weight of ball overtakes every effort and it rolls back down, smashing all the other little deadlines leading up to the big one, we regroup and reboot our calendars and clocks to start the deadline chain game again. Or we lose everything.

Deadlines are real.

I missed my deadline on Saturday. I didn’t lose my job over it. No company lost millions. Yet I was dismayed.

IMG_3491

Sunflowers towering over my garden

We learn mundane urgencies that we don’t always call deadlines, yet they are. “Tend to the garden or the plants will die.” They cross the dead line.

Plants have one. Pets have one. People have one. They all eventually die.

If they matter to us, we must nurture and enjoy them while we can. We don’t think of these things in terms of deadlines, but there is a deadline, an ending.

 

 

Sometimes our mundane deadlines are the most significant and real parts of our lives. I missed most of my daughter’s senior-year events because I was scrambling to meet “important” deadlines for a textbook. I don’t remember what I had to do for those deadlines nor why I chose them over senior-year events. I will always remember, however, that my daughter attended the senior breakfast without a parent. I missed the more significant and real deadline.

Even in the 19th century, “deadline” evoked dismay. Printers would dismay when their words spilled past the deadline on their printing press.

I dismayed when my words didn’t make it to the deadline.

I’ll do better. I’ve made tiny and big promises to myself over the last few years to be present. That means being present with an open ear and heart for family and friends. It also means honoring the imaginary and insignificant deadlines I impose on myself.

So does this post make up for the deadline I blew on Saturday? No, silly wabbit! I’m not a time-traveler and Saturday is gone. But today I chose to take a few minutes for myself and meet my Tuesday deadline to share something I wrote for real.

Do something real for yourself today. It matters.

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

Click here for more information on the origin of the word “Deadline”.


The Power of Presence

She walked with her dogs twice a day through our neighborhood and into the arboretum. I would see her, sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the late afternoon, ambling luxuriously with her greyhounds, mouth barely, but convincingly, turned up in a smile.

One of the bridges in the LSU arboretum

One of the bridges in the LSU arboretum

As I drove past her, she would turn in acknowledgment with a lazy grin and genuine southern saunter, as if she were nodding at me across the bubbles of a hot mineral spring, a sybarite draped across a chaise lounge mustering a sleepy greeting. She created a powerful wake of well-being as she passed. Whenever we crossed paths, I felt a wave of serenity, joy, and connection wash over me.

She lived around the block, not a quarter of a mile away from me, for as many as fifteen years. Yet I never exchanged more than those splendid passing greetings through the windshield. I didn’t know her name, her circumstance, her family, her profession. Even so, I felt like I knew her.

I’m sure this tall, slender, composed woman was that mom who would listen calmly to a frantic, troubled story, reach across the table when the story was complete and take the child’s hand, transfusing comfort and still: everything will be okay. She didn’t fall apart. She was the calm in the chaos, the unruffled in the frenzy. She was a good listener, communicating more in the quiet reverie of listening than the thousands of words she gracefully absorbed from a rambling friend.

I don’t know that I realized how much I enjoyed passing her as she strode into the arboretum, that I had a subconscious longing to be her friend, to get to know her. She lived so close and it was always wonderful to see her. I didn’t realize the magnitude of her presence until I realized that we no longer crossed paths. She was gone. Since she lived around the block on a parallel street, I wasn’t sure which house was her home and I hadn’t been aware of anyone moving out or into the neighborhood from that street. Nonetheless, I am certain now. She’s gone.

Most importantly, I have realized that I would love to be like her. I don’t mean that I would like to be taller and thinner, with short red hair, a pair of greyhounds, and a happy quiet life around the block. But I would love to exude that comforting presence that rippled around her as wide as the street and as infectious as a baby’s smile.

She may not have been any of the things I imagined. She may have been a frantic disaster, who troubled and tormented her family and friends. She may have self-medicated before taking walks so that she could step out with an artificial air of confidence and comfort. Though, I don’t think so. For me, she will always and ever be that lift in my day, that heartening neighbor, that genuine completely present person who inspired me to slow down the frenzy, uplift a friend, comfort a child, listen with good ears, and be present for the moment.

 

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

It’s time for a word.

I’m not sure how I’m suddenly on WordPress. I was notified that I’m being followed although I had never created an account. Creepy. But also a gift.

We all struggle with something or many things. Some things are a steeper climb than others. My steep climb, my Everest, is writing, really writing, for myself. I write. I write a lot. I write every day. But what I write is the equivalent of paying rent for a pad instead of paying mortgage for a home.

As we approach the new year, I have already spoken my resolution to “write for real” vs. “write for rent.”

I was accidentally WordPressed, and I’ll use that as a good reason to put aside the “write for rent” work for the rest of the day, and make a very first (not so engaging!) blog about beginning this journey to “write” my ship and steer it towards my intention of 30 plus years. Write for real.

Since I’m failing at understanding even the “blog for dummies,” the blog home will be constructed later. I’m not even sure if I’m really posting anything! Sad, but not the main concern. For now, this is my acknowledgment of taking control. It’s time for a word. I’m harnessing the power of my word for me.

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.