Words, wires, and worms

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Whose story is it anyway?

Sharing can be caring.

distressful newsFour 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.

friends-bad-news

Remember the genuine vs. gossip, vs. weapon? Along those lines, I roughed out basic levels of sharing to use as a guideline.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. Sharing is just an anecdote. If it is just gossip, don’t share.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Open letter to a lost friend: Six Dollars and a Deadly Secret

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.”

“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.

I did my best to collect myself as I parked the car. Handing you a $20 bill from an ATM because I didn’t have six dollars: “Keep it.”sandy-3

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.sandy-2

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.

Pennie

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

Grief

 

 

Grief

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved, Text and Photo.

Open letter to a lost friend: Adrift

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. friends2

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.

friends3We were adrift.

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.”

Despite the haze from the wave of alcohol that had washed us to that moment, despite the darkness of that hour and the oceans of years between us now, that moment is still crystal, bright in my mind.friends4

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.

Pennie

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

I didn’t plan to be a mom

For the first quarter century of my life, I boasted that I’d never marry, that I wouldn’t have children.

I would write, travel the world. I would be a nomadic wordsmith.

Yet here I am, mother of three adult children. Despite an empty nest and a portable work-from-home career, here I sit, on the patio of my home of 23 years.

Where did I go wrong? I didn’t. While I didn’t plan to be nor get here this way, I made the choices that set me on this journey, sometimes to float and let the current take me.

Was my life adventure diminished? Absolutely not. My mama journey has included travel, lush paths, white water rivers, mountains, beaches, boat rides, horse back rides, soccer and volleyball games, swim meets, concerts, road trips, and every roller coaster in every theme park we ever visited.

This journey  —which isn’t over— includes good days and bad days, brilliant moments and miserable mistakes, heart split wide open (mostly with love but sometimes with ache), and just about every cheesy greeting-card cliche about being a mom.

How do I celebrate Mother’s Day?mother's-day

Casually at best.

My firstborn arrived on a Mother’s Day. So sure, Mother’s Day has a special place in my heart. But let’s face it Mother’s Day has become like a commercial holiday, with ads that guilt children into sending the card, flowers, a gift, making the phone call, going to visit . . .

  • What if she remembers too late to send a card?
  • What if he’s working on that day or studying for a final exam or writing a final report?
  • What if they don’t have the money to buy a gift or the time or creativity to make one?

This “special” day also brings heartache to some celebrants.

  • For children who have lost their mom, the day can be bittersweet and sometimes sad.
  • For moms who have lost a child, the day brings a new wave of grieving.
  • For the childless woman . . .

Let’s talk about her for a minute.

According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 20% of women between 40 and 44 are childless, and over half of those not by choice.

  • For the childless who long for a child, surely Mother´s Day brings a bitter reminder.

What of the childless by choice? Remember? That was my plan.

While Pew RC puts the statistic at around 7-8% of women between 40 and 44, a whopping 45% of my friends (mostly in their 50s and 60s now) are childless by choice. I calculated the same result for both the close-friend and closest-friend pools. Although the stigma of being childless by choice has diminished, it’s there.

  • For the childless by choice woman, Mother´s Day can stir her defensiveness against those empty-life prejudices.

In my little world, those prejudices hold no truth. The lives of my childless friends are full, exciting, and often selfless. Many have mom skills, and some have filled in as second moms. Yet this holiday excludes them.

Two more points that should not be excluded.

  • Some children have crap moms. They could buy her a house and a car for Mother’s Day and still fall short.
  • Some moms have crap children. This day is a poignant reminder of their narcissism.

Am I poo-pooing Mother´s Day?

Yes and no.

When my Mother’s-Day firstborn was still a baby, we went to a one-year old’s  birthday party. My friend joked that the celebration wasn’t about her son, but about her, the day she labored to bring this new person into the world. The first birthday was a Mother’s Day. I liked this idea! I announced the same sentiments for all three of my children’s first birthdays. It’s not your birthday, it’s your mother’s day!

Similarly and conversely, the most important part of Mother’s Day for me is my children. Not the card. Not the flowers. Not a gift. Certainly not guilting them into cooking, cleaning, or taking me out to eat (although I confess I tried that once or twice ). Mother´s Day is about this unexpected path, a journey I never imagined for myself. Motherhood. My children.

I celebrate my mom and her impeccable model of strength and love in action on this day. Most years we have a combined celebration in May: my mom’s birthday (first week of May), my daughter’s birthday, and Mother’s Day. Mother’s Days is never the thing, but one of the things we celebrate in early May.

So, to answer the question:mother's-day

  • Yes. I am poo-pooing the commercialization of Mother’s Day.
  • Yes. I am poo-pooing the negative feelings Mother’s Day generates for those who feel excluded.
  • Yes. I am poo-pooing the typecasting of women and the complex roles they play in the lives of children.
  • No. I’m not poo-pooing having a special day for mom. Maybe it’s the second Sunday of May. But it could be any day of the year. Or many days of the year.

Celebrating motherhood fans out. I reach back with love and gratitude for my mom. I reach forward and love this unplanned journey, my children. I reach more to unfold my gratitude for the friends I have made through my children, and my gratitude unfolds even more tenderly for the friends of my children who are a special part of my life.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of us!

Is all of this to say that I would I hate chocolates in a goblet or a snuggles and a visit from my children? Absolutely not. But if not on the second Sunday of May, any day would do. You’re part of my journey, and that’s what I celebrate.

Copyright © 2015 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.

Figs and Promises

I can count on this promise.

I can count on this promise.

My fig tree always keeps its promises.

Sometimes I break promises. Not intentionally. My intentions are to keep any promise I make.

Nevertheless, on occasion my intentions slip away from me.

I wait too long to pick the figs.

Maybe I pick the figs but don’t make the jam or freeze the fruit before the figs develop a second coat of fuzz and collapse into brown fermenting mush.

Then, for completely unreliable, there are years when the weeks of fig laden drooping branches fall off my calendar before I pick a single fig.

I can count on the fig tree. It can’t always count on me.

To be fair, I have a lot more going on than my fig tree and its fruit. Yet this spread-thin life that leads to broken promises bugs me. Promises, like deadlines, suffer a lexical erosion when we pile our days high but spread ourselves thin. This is a trend in many work environments and, to me, the trend feels infectious.

I don’t want the trend to spill into the pool of promises I make to friends, family, and myself. So this is my checklist for personal and friendly promises.

Making a promise
  • Be thoughtful. In other words, avoid hasty promises, whether to a friend, to a colleague, or to yourself.
  • Be realistic. Part of the thoughtfulness includes a reality check. If your promise involves time, check your calendar. If it involves money, check your wallet. If it involves your physical and emotional energy, check in with yourself. Avoid making promises you know you can’t keep. Being that can-do hero is not always prudent.
  • Do your best. If you make a promise, do your best to keep it.  Suddenly in over your head? Having a change of heart? I don’t advocate the hell or high water route. Sometimes the best we can do is circle back to reevaluate, redefine, or, if necessary, retract a promise.
Oops! The birds ate all of the figs before you picked a single one. What now?
  • Be honest. If you can’t keep the promise, admit it. Everyone at some point in life has to bail on something for some reason. The key to right relationship in those situations is not the goodness or badness of the reason, but the communication. Let anyone else involved know. Sometimes the only person involved is you. Yes, be honest with yourself.
  • Be forgiving. If you’ve been thoughtful, realistic, and honest and you’ve done your best and it still doesn’t work out, the broken promise isn’t a lie. You stumbled and scraped a knee. Don’t rub salt into the wound.

Dear fig tree:

I am grateful for your deliciously extravagant promises and I know you will deliver. 

I hope to harvest gallons and gallons of your fruit, infuse my jams and sauces with their sweet complexity, freeze what I can’t jam into jars for the slower days. I can’t promise how much I’ll pick, how many jars I’ll can, or how many bags I’ll freeze. But I promise to do my best.

I’m looking forward to the next round of figs. If you’re looking for something creative and delicious to do with your figs, check out this guy. This recipe is very tasty.

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

Boneless, Skinless, and (Yes!) Grilled

The boneless, skinless chicken breast

Boneless skinless chicken breast can be a grill AND moist.I confess that the primary reason the boneless, skinless chicken breast (BSCB) is a staple in my home is because I’m lazy. I don’t want to fuss with bones and skin.

Add to that: the BSCB colors me imaginative and creative because it is one of the most versatile places to start a meal.

And there’s more. The BSCB turns me into a clever, meticulous planner. It is hands down my favorite hack for (not) planning a week’s worth of meals.

So how does a lazy non-planner float gracefully through a week of meals?

  • Monday night: grilled chicken. I grill at least eight to ten chicken breasts even when it’s just two of us. Serve them with some grilled vegetables and rarely have a pot to wash when I’m done. The rest of the week is leftover magic.
  • Chicken quesadillas on Tuesday
  • Barbecue chicken and potatoes on Wednesday
  • Stir fry (just warming really) chicken and vegetables on Thursday
  • Chicken tossed in pasta on Friday

If I´m really clever and meticulous, I have tasty salads with sliced grilled chicken for lunch all week.

Grilled boneless, skinless chicken breast. I usually start there.

But you’re still shaking your head. “Boneless, skinless chicken breasts on the grill?! They’ll be dry as dirt!”

Not at my house.

What’s my secret?

Sour cream.

Not dollops of sour cream on top of dirt-dry grilled chicken. A sour cream marinade.

The sour cream-based marinade not only flavors the chicken, but is less likely to cause flare ups and will help retain the moisture.

I don’t have “a” recipe. Recipes are a bit like meal planning. I resist and rebel. The good news is I have a process, and if you already have sour cream and garlic at home, you can probably try this process without having to make a special trip to the store.

Sour Cream Marinade

Marinade Ingredients
Your marinade can be different every time. Start with sour cream and garlic, then add the herbs, spices, and condiments that suit you and suit the meal.

Your marinade can be different every time. Start with sour cream and garlic, then add the herbs, spices, and condiments that suit you and suit the meal.

  • 1/2 c sour cream
  • 2-4 cloves garlic: if you don’t have fresh garlic, substitute 1/2 – 1 tsp powdered garlic or 1-2 tsp garlic flakes (though fresh is always better).
  • sweet: I usually use 1 tbsp honey, but molasses, agave, coconut or brown sugar also work well.
  • herbs & spices: 1-2 tbsp dried (more if fresh) herbs and spices. This will completely depend on my mood and the sides that will compliment the chicken. The herbs I like to use include basil, rosemary, dill, oregano, thyme, parsley, and sage. Other spices that I might reach for are chili powder, paprika, cumin, other pepper powders, cinnamon, and turmeric.
  • tang: Sour cream is tangy on its own, but I often add a little more tang: 1 tbsp mustard, fresh or pickled ginger, lemon or lime juice, vinegar, or lemon or orange zest.
Process
  • Grind all of the ingredients in a mini food-processor or chopper/grinder.
Place sour cream, garlic, and seasonings in a grinder, chopper, or food processor. Grind all of the ingredients in a chopper/grinder. The color of your marinade will depend on the ingredients you include.

Place sour cream, garlic, and seasonings in a grinder, chopper, or food processor and grind. The color of your marinade will depend on the ingredients you include. This one included honey, paprika, parsley, and dill.

  • Pat dry the chicken breasts with paper towels.
  • Season the chicken breasts: I use a homemade combination of dried herbs and vegetables, but a little salt and pepper will do.
  • Tenderize the chicken breasts: I like to tenderize for a couple of reasons: to work in the seasonings and to “thin out” the thicker parts of the breasts so that they will cook more evenly.
After you pat the chicken dry, season and tenderize. Tenderizing works in your seasonings but also "levels the grilling ground." Pound the chicken to achieve an even thickness without  compromising the composition of the meat.

After you pat the chicken dry, season and tenderize. Tenderizing works in your seasonings but also “levels the grilling ground.” Pound the chicken to achieve an even thickness without compromising the composition of the meat.

  • Toss the chicken in the marinade: I often only marinate it for 15-30 minutes (I’m truly planning challenged), but you can marinate it longer, even overnight.
  • Grill! I start high on a hot grill for and sear each side 2-3 minutes, then turn to med-low for and additional 5-10 minutes, depending on the thickness.
  • Cover and sweat: when I remove the breasts from the grill, I like to cover and seal them with foil until we´re ready to serve.
While the chicken is marinading and the grill is heating, take out your platter and some foil so that you have them handy when you finish grilling. Have a platter and foil ready to receive the breasts hot off the grill. Seal and allow the meat to sweat for a few minutes.

While the chicken is marinating and the grill is heating, take out a platter and some foil. Have them ready to receive the breasts hot off the grill. Seal and allow the meat to sweat for a few minutes.

  • Eat!

moist-grilled-chicken-12

Soon to come, recipes processes for ways to use and/or repurpose the grilled BSCB.

Enjoy!

If you came here looking for grilling “rules” or techniques only to find a little side note for a grilling process, here are a few useful sites that range from geeky to practical: The Science Of Grilling13 Best Grilling Tips, 31 Grilling Tips from Grill Master, Steven RaichlenEstimating Grilling Times.

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”.

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