Living art

To improve the golden moments of opportunity and catch the good that is within our reach, is the great art of living. — Samuel Johnson

Lately we’ve had some wonderful conversations here about the arts — writing and the visual arts, in particular. But in my view, just as essential to “the great art of living” are several gifts and talents that we sometimes take for granted.

These include cooking, baking, nurturing our relationships — and occasionally pulling out all the stops to host a party for someone we cherish. All of this came to mind last weekend when I attended a tea party honoring my friend Norma, who recently celebrated her 80th birthday.

Since Norma’s birthday falls close to Christmas, her daughter Jan had decided to host the party on a quiet Saturday afternoon in January. Wise move. The tea was held at Norma’s church, and Jan, a talented caterer, made all of the tea sandwiches and baked goods. Everything was perfect, from the coral roses and deliberately mismatched vintage tea cups on the tables to the large gathering of devoted friends who came to celebrate Norma.

Clearly, a party can be a work of art. I’ve known Jan for years, and have always admired the creative sense of style she brings to everything she does. Aside from the pretty tables, Jan also arranged a small gallery of photos chronicling her mother’s life from her girlhood in New England to the present. The photos prompted conversation around the tables, and even those of us who’d known Norma for years got to know her better.

Norma looked more beautiful than ever at her tea party.  Seeing the sheer happiness on her face as she chatted with her guests on Saturday, I was reminded how important it is to celebrate our mothers — and our elder friends — while we can.

Jan is Norma’s only child, and since I’m an only child too, I understand the special closeness of their relationship. My own mother turns 80 in September. Inspired by Jan’s generous spirit, I’m already planning Mom’s birthday party in my head. — CL

Poems to inspire

You must learn one thing. The world was made to be free in.” — David Whyte, “Sweet Darkness”

I often read favorite poems aloud in my writing workshops. I do this not only because I love good poetry, but because I believe everyone will benefit from exploring it. The right poem can work magic, and even change a life.

Typically, I select poems that remind us to honor our true nature — or encourage us to keep working even when we’re blocked or discouraged. Some, like David Whyte‘s poem, below, ponder the loneliness of being an artist or a creative outsider. Others, including a Billy Collins poem I’ll share later on, offer writing advice with a sense of whimsy and humor. My students seem to enjoy discussing the poems — even the ones who claimed they never cared much for poetry — and many ask for copies to take home.

It’s important to read a poem several times, listening for new meaning to reveal itself.  Whyte’s “Sweet Darkness” is a longtime favorite of mine. But after rereading it in the new year (with middle-aged perspective) I find that different lines touch a chord in me now. This time around, the poem reminds me that life is short. It urges me to fill my days with non-toxic, supportive people — and to get on with the work I was meant to do.

Today I’m excited about launching a new series for this blog. Every week or so, I’ll post a poem here that speaks to the creative process, or inspires me in some way. At the end of each poem I’ll include the name of the book in which the work originally appeared — in case you’d like to read more of the poet’s work. I’ll save all of the poems in a new category titled “Poems to inspire.” I promise they’ll be accessible — and appeal to everyone who dreams big and deep. — CL

By David Whyte

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone,
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your home

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

–Reprinted from The House of Belonging, by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press); 1997

— Top photo, “Winter Sky” (copyright) by Cindy La Ferle —

Recipe for balance

Be aware of wonder. Live a balanced life. Learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.” — Robert Fulghum

This year I’m trying to strike a healthy balance between living creatively and being consumed by creative work. All too often, when I’m immersed in an art project or engrossed in a piece of writing, it’s as if I’m living on another planet. I neglect other things I care about. I might forget to brush my teeth or return phone calls or feed my family.

When I first started writing weekly columns, for instance, everything was potential fodder for the newspaper. I couldn’t watch a new TV show or shop for toilet paper without thinking I should scribble some commentary about it. For weeks I carried a notebook everywhere, and would even jump out of the shower to jot down ideas for a column. Thankfully, that ridiculous phase was short-lived. As a photo-journalist friend reminded me: We need to ask ourselves if we’re living from the depth of our lives or merely documenting them.

Then there was the time I slaved for weeks on a book manuscript. I got into the habit of working until midnight, then rising at daybreak to revise or proofread what I’d typed the day before. My husband worked full-time then, so we grabbed most of our meals at local restaurants. Our son was away at college, and I was living the life I’d dreamed about for years — working 24/7 on my writing.

That’s when it hit me: My dream life wasn’t quite as satisfying as I’d imagined. I was exhausted and vaguely disappointed.  Something essential was missing. And it’s not that the work wasn’t going well. For the most part, my writing was getting published in places I was proud to list on my resume. With my nest was empty, I’d even found extra hours to teach writing.

And there was problem, hidden in plain sight. Given my newly won freedom from parenting responsibilities, I’d become a woman obsessed. My whole life was about writing, writing, and more writing. I’d become so one-dimensional that I bored myself.

Kitchen lessons

The thing is, I’ve always believed the “good life” is a balanced life. A richly textured, multifaceted life.

After my epiphany, I made a list of “ingredients” that remain as essential to my happiness and well-being as writing. The list includes long talks with my husband and friends; gardening; keeping house; reading for pleasure; volunteering in my community; making art; visiting museums, and more. Of course, I’ve always enjoyed cooking (and reading about food) but my love affair with my computer left little time for the sensual pleasures of the kitchen.

And so, after putting my book project aside for a few days, I spent my first free morning poring over my cookbooks. Shopping for groceries later, I found even more inspiration in the colorful produce aisles at the local market. I couldn’t wait to get home and start cooking again. My mood lifted as I chopped and sauteed onions and red peppers, crafting a simple but satisfying meal with my hands.

“Real nourishment involves our whole being,” writes Anne Scott in Serving Fire: Food for Thought, Body, and Soul (Celestial Arts). “The search for it takes us on a journey into ourselves, confronting us with our inner hunger.”

In other words, my soul had been starving for something more than words and ideas heaped on a page or a computer screen. I was tired of living in my head, and kitchen work provided the physicality I’d been missing. For me, the ordinary arts of daily living are not optional — and I try to remember that whenever I’m off-kilter or obsessed.

Even if cooking isn’t your thing, you have your own list of pleasures to draw from when you need to feel balanced and whole.

“Be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance,” advised the philosopher Epicurus. In the Epicurean view, the hallmarks of the good life include tranquility, freedom from fear, a variety of experiences, and the pure enjoyment of simple pleasures.  Easier said than done, of course, but worth aspiring to. — Cindy La Ferle

— Kitchen photos (our kitchen in Royal Oak) by Cindy La Ferle–

Winter garden tour

“Nature has undoubtedly mastered the art of winter gardening and even the most experienced gardener can learn from the unrestrained beauty around them.” — Vincent A. Simeone

Of course, I’d rather be gardening on my knees — on the soft green lawns of May and June.  But being an optimist, I try to look for beauty in unexpected places, including my Royal Oak garden in the winter.

I love how the snow dresses the statuary in and around the beds. (Friends unload their garden treasures in my yard when they downsize, knowing how much fun I have with them.) I love the pure stillness of the winter-white air, and how the Zen garden looks more contemplative with less foliage.

The holiday lights are packed away now, but January brings its own subtle beauty to the landscape. It invites us to rest and reflect. Gardening, after all, demands back-breaking chores that start in April and don’t end until mid-November. As garden writer Ruth Stout observed, only in the winter “can you have longer, quiet stretches when you can savor belonging to yourself.” –CL

— Garden photos (copyrighted) by Cindy La Ferle. For more photos of my garden in winter and summer, visit my “Garden Magic” and “Winter Garden” albums on Facebook. —

Now on the stands

When my son was growing up, I wrote pieces for parenting magazines, including Detroit’s own MetroParent. Now that I’m an empty nester, I’ve naturally moved on to other topics. But I was honored last year when the managing editor of MetroParent invited me to submit an essay on preparing for a new season of parenthood — the empty nest. It’s fun to revisit a magazine that I often used as a resource when I was a younger mom. My piece now appears in the January 2010 issue, and readers in southeast Michigan can find the magazine at bookstores, libraries, and newsstands. — CL