Simple living is complicated

Posted on February 19, 2015
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Browsing through a stack of women’s magazines in a waiting room recently, I counted no less than half a dozen features outlining how to “banish clutter” or “simplify and organize” everything that’s muddled in my chaotic household.

One article suggested that dumping the contents of my junk drawers would enhance my self-esteem. Another promised I’d experience more “positive energy” in other areas of my life — if I’d spend a week purging my closets and drawers, and clearing the tabletops throughout my home. If only it were that simple, right?

DSCN6509By now, we all know that the simplicity movement dates back to Henry David Thoreau’s famous sabbatical in the woods. And it kicked up some new dust in the early 1980s with the publication of Duane Elgin’s classic handbook, Voluntary Simplicity. Suffice it to say that the movement is more than a passing new-age trend.

Real Simple magazine, for instance, is taking Elgin’s movement for yet another spin. I should disclose that I’m the grateful recipient of a gift subscription to Real Simple. It’s a beautiful magazine and, for the most part, has the best intentions. Life is complicated enough these days, especially for families, and most of us could use some handy tips on streamlining our recipes and cleaning routines.

Cleaning frenzy?

Still, I worry. To magazine editors, simplicity has become a religion for the stressed. Order is godliness. Blank space is Nirvana. If these editors had their way, our homes would be totally purged of clutter — and nearly devoid of character. Our living rooms would be as sparsely furnished as a Quaker meetinghouse. Our kitchen and bathroom cabinets would be sanitized, organized, and alphabetized. The tools in the basement and garage would be labeled and stored in clear plastic boxes on shelves within easy reach.

If your inner slob is cringing, take heart: Most shelter magazines advertise a wide variety of products that will aid your efforts to simplify. Once your cabinets and closets are cleared, of course, you’ll have lots of room to stash all the spiffy new organizing components they want you to buy.

Problem is, I’m a born collector with years of garage sale shopping under my belt. Getting rid of things works against my nature. Just one example: My favorite hobby is making collage art – a messy pastime that’s fueled by my hopeless flea-market addiction. Over the years I’ve developed finely tuned radar for locating miscellaneous junk for potential art projects. According to the Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, I don’t (yet) qualify as a “compulsive hoarder,” since my clutter hasn’t reached the point where it produces “severe distress” or blocks entrance to our living room.

We’re only human

I envy disciplined homemakers with a talent for controlling clutter. And I salute them as they empty their junk drawers and attics. Nothing warms my heart more than the sight of these good people hosting rummage sales in my neighborhood.

But I’m trying to make peace with the reality that my home will never be featured in a magazine like Real Simple. My furniture is often covered with the flotsam and jetsam of a busy life — books, souvenirs, family photos and heirlooms, dog hair, cat hair, and unprocessed laundry. Sometimes I go through phases when this drives me crazy, and I end up parting with mementoes that, later, I wish I’d kept.

As I settle into middle age, I’m learning to value the richer textures of complexity. Real life is messy and difficult, and its broken parts can’t always be sorted by category or tastefully hidden from view. Our homes, along with all our crazy things, tell the stories of our lives.

If I’m ready to unload anything this season, it’s the ton of guilt I’ve accumulated after reading too many magazine articles on simplifying life. Like the ancient Egyptians in their pyramids, I plan to be buried with all my stuff. – Cindy La Ferle

A valentine to old love

Posted on February 7, 2015
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ValentineThe divorce rate may be rising again, but I didn’t have to look far to find many happy couples to interview about their long-running marriages. And last month, when I asked Facebook friends to share the secrets of keeping an old love new, I received more responses than I had room to quote in a short, 550-word column. So what are the common ties that bind?

Look for my tribute to “old love” in the February issue of Michigan Prime, delivered with your Sunday Detroit News and Free Press this weekend. Or read it online here, on page 5.

– “We’re in the Same Boat” Collage by Cindy La Ferle –

What I did on my staycation

Posted on January 9, 2015
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DSCN6264The flu bug hit me with a double-whammy at Christmas, rebounding as a respiratory infection on New Year’s Day. Out of courtesy to the public, I cancelled social plans and stayed home during my weeks of recovery.

It took getting sick to remind me that I hadn’t taken a moment to sit quietly since my mother died in September, exactly six months after she’d been placed in hospice care. Doug and I had barely recovered from an epic August flood that devastated our community (and drenched our basement). As another friend put it, for many of us, last year was a TV series that should have been titled “One Thing After Another.”

I’m not the sort of person who likes to stay in bed all day, even to nurse a flu virus. And so, in between cat naps, I listed the household projects I’d put off for ages, including new linens for the bed. (I’d just published a column on the topic of breaking out of our metaphorical comfort zones, which also made me realize, ironically, that I’d neglected my own “comfort zone” here at home.)

Having adopted a large rescue dog in October, Doug and I needed to rearrange some furniture to accommodate our new family member and lifestyle. So, while nursing our nagging coughs, we tinkered with our surroundings. The dog’s crate was moved to a better location in the garden room, where we also created a cozier seating area for the humans. In the process, I enjoyed a renewed interest in the domestic arts and found that my post-holiday depression (if not the flu) was starting to lift.

Along the same lines, I remembered an old column I wrote back in 2003 for The Oakland Press. Titled “Puttering,” the full version of the essay is included in my book, Writing Home. Here’s a short excerpt:


Cheaper than air fare or psychotherapy, puttering lets your mind wander while your body hangs out around the house. Unlike fall or spring housecleaning, which involves physical energy and high-powered appliances, puttering puts you in a Zen-like state of bliss. Not to be confused with slacking, fidgeting, noodling, fiddling, or piddling, puttering is good for mental health.

Sadly, ours is a goal-directed, work-till-you-drop culture. And since most of us like to boast about how terribly busy we are, puttering is never easy to pull off.

DSCN6329For those who practice on the sly, like I do, puttering styles are varied and highly personal. Puttering can be the act of sorting through a box of college textbooks in the basement; tinkering under the hood of an old Chevy; or rearranging things on a shelf while you listen to jazz on the stereo. Puttering is a way of clarifying life’s myriad details, especially when it’s done with reverence for the objects at hand. It’s an opportunity to reconsider what we most enjoy in our homes, and to make a mental list of what we’d like to edit later.

Feeling sluggish and blue last week, I decided to putter in the kitchen. Taking inventory of my good china, I lost myself in happy memories of the two grandmothers who had actually used all the serving pieces for holiday dinners. I marveled, too, at how both sets of dishes have survived several moves and kitchen renovations – and somehow outlived their original owners.

If puttering still sounds like a chore you’ve postponed, it’s only because you haven’t found a method that cheers or relaxes you. One man’s notion of drudgery, after all, can be another’s idea of soul craft.

“I can’t explain it, but I enjoy doing dishes,” writes Thomas Moore, a former Catholic monk and author of the best-selling Care of the Soul. “I’ve had an automatic dishwasher in my home for over a year, and I have never used it. What appeals to me, I think, is the reverie induced by going through the ritual of washing, rinsing, and drying.” Thomas Moore can come over to my house and wash dishes any time he visits Detroit (especially if his visit coincides with another power failure). Meanwhile, I’ll keep loading my dishwasher.

Still, there’s merit in savoring the ordinary tasks of daily living. A lot of us spend our lives reaching for lofty goals, or at least trying to look productive 24/7. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if so many of us weren’t scratching our heads and wondering what’s missing even after we’ve won all the trophies. (Consider all those baby-boomer executives who can’t wait to retire.)

“My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet I’m happy. I can’t figure it out. What am I doing right?” observed Charles M. Schulz, creator of Peanuts.

Charlie Brown, after all, was pretty good at puttering.

Top photos: Our garden room, after rearranging the furniture this week. 

Our year to break free

Posted on January 2, 2015
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DSCN1160Are you stuck in a rut? Set in your ways? Afraid to take risks or try something new? The start of a new year is the perfect time to break free of our self-sabotaging beliefs and habits. My January column in Michigan Prime highlights several brave people who’ve taken the leap in midlife, plus I’ve provided a few tips and resources to help you get started. The whole issue has great articles to motivate and inspire you. The print edition is delivered to subscribers of the Sunday Detroit News and Free Press, or read the January 2015 issue online (my column is on page 4).

A light to warm our winter

Posted on December 21, 2014
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This essay was originally published in The Daily Tribune on December 24, 1998, and is included in my book, Writing Home.  

candle3Over the centuries, Christmas has been reinvented and repackaged, promoted and pummeled, like the cookie dough we cut into festive shapes and decorate every year in December. Christmas is a mass of contradictions.

The day was chosen to honor the birth of a king in a lowly manger — a king who ultimately advocated a life of humility and charity. Yet today the holiday is celebrated more as a buying frenzy than as the birthday of a humble messiah.

Then again, Christmas is a mirror reflecting our culture.

As author Bill McKibben explains in Hundred Dollar Holiday (Simon and Schuster), “Christmas has been, and always will be, a product of its time, shaped to fit the particular needs of people, society, and faith in particular moments of history. And nowhere is that clearer than at the very beginning.”

Historians can’t certify the exact date of Christ’s birth. Christian church leaders decreed in the fourth century that the Feast of the Nativity would be observed December 25 — originally a pagan holiday.

The date was deliberately selected to replace the rowdy winter solstice festivals held in those days. On the old Julian calendar, December 25 was the longest night of the year, which partly explains why the torch-carrying pagans had chosen it to glorify the sun. As church leaders hoped, Christianity took root, and by the end of the thirteenth century, most Europeans celebrated the birth of Jesus. But the pagan aspects of Christmas never were completely snuffed out.

Today, the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s serve as an extended invitation to indulge our national craving for activity and entertainment. We’ve forgotten that the sentimental Christmas we long for, as McKibben explains in his book, evolved during the 1840s when Americans “were mostly poor, worked with their hands, and lived with large, extended families.” Today it would be impossible to re-create such a Christmas in suburban America.

“More and more, that old Christmas finally feels played out,” McKibben writes. If we’ve grown ambivalent about the holiday – or even disappointed in it — that’s partly why.

Still, at its heart, Christmas remains a celebration of light’s triumph over darkness. A celebration of miracles.

Light is also the enduring symbol of Hanukkah, the annual Jewish festival that coincides with the Christian holiday season. Hanukkah marks the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem and the ceremonial oil that burned miraculously for eight days. With the ritual lighting of the menorah at its core, Hanukkah prevails as a tribute to religious freedom.

It’s sobering to remember, especially now, that many people still struggle for the right to worship as they choose. In Ireland, the Middle East, and other parts of the world, many have lost their lives in the names of conflicting gods or warring denominations. Even here, in our own community, we’re not totally free of violence, poverty, hunger or hypocrisy. We know it’s not enough to donate last year’s coats to the poor, or to serve meals at a soup kitchen, but we still haven’t figured out how to solve the dilemma of our homeless and needy. And our personal difficulties pale in comparison.

Yet Christmas can be, to borrow from Luke 1:79, “a lamp to give light to those who sit in darkness.”

So tonight we rekindle the embers of our faith.

Like pagan revelers, we build fires and throw one last party before surrendering to winter’s chill. Like hopeful Magi, we track the glimmer of a distant star, trusting there is something wondrous and good at the end of our most difficult journey. We plug in the lights on the Christmas tree and leave the porch light on for Santa. In church, we light the last candle of Advent to invoke the Divine.

And we still believe in miracles.



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