Winging it

The turning point in the process of growing up is when you discover the core of strength within you that survives all hurt.”  ~Max Lerner

When the walls around my little world seem to be caving in, my first impulse is to isolate myself while I put the bricks back in place. Luckily, I have a great support system to help bolster those walls and to remind me that I’m really not in this thing alone.

Earlier this week, my 80-year-old mother was in the hospital with a broken rib and multiple compression fractures in her spine. Meanwhile, my husband’s own mother has been leaning heavily on him to avert a family crisis of a different kind. There’s been so much going on in our realm of elder care, in fact, that the two of us are operating in what we call “divide and conquer mode.” Yet through it all, Doug always makes time to sit down and listen to my daily litany of “What’s wrong with Mom now.” He’s my main port in the storm.

While my mother wants to remain independent in her own condo, her health issues (including early stage dementia) now require a team of home-care professionals to make that possible. Thank goodness, by the time my mother was discharged from the hospital, her internist had ordered a nurse, an occupational therapist, and a physical therapist to work with her at home several times a week. When the discharge nurse informed me of this development, I fought tears of relief. At first, Mom objected to the idea of having strangers in the house to assist her. But when I explained that I’ll need help in order to help her, she reluctantly backed down.

Of course, this is only a temporary solution. As a retired RN reminded me, determining how to care for our elderly — with love and dignity — is one of the toughest challenges for my generation. Whether you’re an only child like me, or have five handy siblings willing to roll up their sleeves, you need a plan to care for your aging parents. Another friend is wrestling with similar issues for her widowed mom — and she still has teenagers at home. Her brothers live out of state, so, as she put it, she’s been functioning almost as if she were an only child.

Meanwhile, dear ones have warmed my heart and soul with supportive notes and cards and e-mails.  Shirley sent three chocolate bars with a sweet note that read, “These will help.” (And yes, they did.) My aunt volunteered to help with Mom’s meals and grocery shopping. And out of the blue, my neighbor Joanne invited me to a spiritual program at the nearby Manresa Jesuit retreat center yesterday. The program focused on the role of the Blessed Mother Mary, and circled around the theme of nurturing and “mothering” ourselves when life seems to ask too much of us. How perfect was that?

When I was preparing for my second hip replacement surgery back in 2002, my friend Jenny sent me a wonderful quote from Patrick Overton. My blog friend Marlynn, who didn’t know that I had already received the quote, sent it to me again last week. (Marlynn reminds me that there are no “coincidences.”) It worked like a charm the second time around, and I’d like to share it with you:

“When you come to the edge of all the light you have and must take a step into the darkness of the unknown, believe that one of two things will happen to you: Either there will be something solid for you to stand on, or, you will be taught how to fly.”

Thanks so much, everyone, for winging it with me. — Cindy La Ferle

— Collage in photo is from “Nature,” an altered book, by Cindy La Ferle —

“Against Hesitation”

Make music of what you can.” — Charles Rafferty

I always knew I wanted to be a writer. When I was a kid, I perched in the gnarly apple tree in my backyard and scribbled my own adventures in a ruled notebook. In college I majored in English and journalism, but it took years before I found the courage (not to mention the income) I needed to begin a real writing career.

The long path that led me here was marked with detours and littered with excuses. The poem below is the wake-up call I needed 25 years ago — but Charles Rafferty hadn’t written it yet. Today I keep it in my back pocket and read it whenever I need a creative kick in the pants.

What dream would you launch if you had all the time in the world? Where would you travel if you knew the road was wide open? What’s fueling your hesitation? –CL

Against Hesitation
By Charles Rafferty

If you stare at it long enough
the mountain becomes unclimbable.
Tally it up. How much time have you spent
waiting for the soup to cool?
Icicles hang from January gutters
only as long as they can. Fingers pause
above piano keys for the chord
that will not form. Slam them down
I say. Make music of what you can.
Some people stop at the wrong corner
and waste a dozen years hoping
for directions. I can’t be them.
Tell every girl I’ve ever known
I’m coming to break her door down,
that my teeth will clench
the simple flower I only knew
not to give … Ah, how long did I stand
beneath the eaves believing the storm
would stop? It never did.
And there is lightning in me still.

Reprinted from A Less Fabulous Infinity, by Charles Rafferty (Louisiana Literature Press; 2006)

–Photo: detail from a mixed-media collage by Cindy La Ferle —

This post is part of a weekly series of poetry appreciation.  To read more, please click on “Poems to inspire” in the CATEGORIES column at right.  I welcome your recommendations, too.

Victoria magazine

Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after the other.” — Walter Elliott

Speaking at a writers’ conference last year, a magazine editor fielded questions from an eager audience. Inevitably, a new freelance writer asked, “What does it take to break into national magazines now?” The editor’s answer: “Good old-fashioned perseverance.”

It’s true what they say about perseverance. It really pays off. So I’m sharing the following news not in the spirit of boasting — but to remind you to stay the course and keep trying, whatever goals or dreams you’re pursuing.

Several times over the past decade, I’ve tried to break into Victoria, one of my favorite shelter magazines. In the meantime, I published pieces in other national glossies and kept submitting new work, but the Victoria byline eluded me. (The magazine folded in 2004, then resumed publication in 2007.)

Over a year ago, I wrote a garden essay from threads of a talk I gave at a regional Master Gardener Society meeting. With high hopes, I submitted “The Art of Midlife Gardening” to Victoria. And then I waited.

Months passed — which isn’t unusual in this line of work — and I nearly forgot about the piece. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when Victoria‘s managing editor contacted me last year to ask if it was still available for publication in the March/April 2010 issue. That issue is now on the stands, and my essay’s on the back page. When I found a copy today at our local Barnes & Noble, I did a little happy dance right there in the magazine aisle. –CL

Shifting creative gears

Enjoy a tiny adventurous moment close to home. It changes your perspective, reminding you that the world is deep and rich and full of color and miracles.” –SARK

A lot of us are stumbling over creative blocks lately. Those who live in the wintry Midwest and Northeast blame it on lack of sunshine. Or cabin fever. Even if things are going reasonably well in other areas of our lives, we might gaze out our windows at the icy moonscape that once bloomed with roses or black-eyed Susans and feel twinges of ennui, or even despair.

Whatever the cause, it’s hard to get inspired when you’re sluggish and blue.

Last month I tripped over a huge creative block and hit a wall. For starters, what began as a satisfying home renovation project was abruptly stalled by a carpet order gone wrong, thanks to the evil Home Depot. (As a result, our master bedroom stayed torn apart for weeks.) Meanwhile, my elderly mom’s dementia-related health problems took a turn for the worse, requiring several trips to her doctor — and the hospital — for tests. As her sole caregiver, I felt helpless and exhausted.

Worst of all, I couldn’t seem to write or talk my way out of any of it. It was time to work from another side of my brain. Time to shift creative gears and to make something tangible and fun.

Bead therapy

Just in time, I received a clothing catalog featuring one of the coolest fetish necklaces I’d ever seen. Strung with African trading beads, brass trinkets, and a wild collection of charms, it evoked long walks on Caribbean beaches and cabana cocktails under the stars. A summer-fantasy vacation on a string!

I was tempted to pull out my credit card and purchase the fetish necklace online or over the phone. Instead, I decided to treat myself to the pure fun of making it myself.

Things were slow at the local craft store when I arrived on a gray Wednesday afternoon with the catalog photo in hand. The salesclerk working in the bead section was just as intrigued by the necklace, and eager to help with the project. Taking my time, I chose a few imported beads that had special meaning to me: a wooden bead with a butterfly motif (symbolizing transformation); another with a Celtic spiral; others that simply caught my eye.

At home I played with the beads until they became a necklace, stringing them together one by one and finding myself in a sunnier frame of mind. Of course, our master bedroom was still in chaos, beyond my control. And my mother’s dementia-related “episodes” were still unresolved. Regardless, I’d made something cheerful and new. The necklace wasn’t exactly like the one in the catalog — but I’d made it my own.

I often tell my workshop students that writing an essay or a chapter is a bit like stringing beads to form a beautiful necklace. Like the right bead, each word or sentence must do its share of the work to bring meaning or sparkle to the whole piece. You need to take your time, choose carefully, and take pleasure in the process.

That said, no matter what you’re working on, you could find yourself getting tangled up in “the process” at some point. When that happens, it helps to take a break. Or try making yourself a real necklace. — Cindy La Ferle

— Fetish necklace in photos by Cindy La Ferle —

“Unending Love”

My spellbound heart has made and remade the necklace of songs” — Rabindranath Tagore

Valentine’s Day is coming, and I’ll be the first to admit it can be a guilt-inducing Hallmark holiday. As hard as I try to avoid playing the sentimental fool, lately I’ve been jumping at any chance to celebrate the people I cherish. I’ve lost a few in recent years — so I’m burying old grudges and trying not to leave any of my love unsaid.

Reading Tagore‘s “Unending Love” for the first time, I knew it was the perfect poem to give my husband, whose birthday falls on Valentine’s Day. Doug and I met in art class in ninth grade, and immediately felt as if we’d been best friends for ages. We married several years later, after college, and we’ll gratefully celebrate our 30th anniversary this year.

This poem was Audrey Hepburn’s favorite, and if you click here, you’ll hear a reading dedicated to her by Gregory Peck. Love to all! — CL

Unending Love
By Rabindranath Tagore

(Translated by William Radice)

I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times
In life after life, in age after age, forever.
My spellbound heart has made and remade the necklace of songs,
That you take as a gift, wear round your neck in your many forms,
In life after life, in age after age, forever.

Whenever I hear old chronicles of love, its age-old pain,
Its ancient tale of being apart or together,
As I stare on and on into the past, in the end you emerge
Clad in the light of a pole-star, piercing the darkness of time:
You become an image of what is remembered forever.

You and I have floated here on the stream that brings from the fount
At the heart of time love of one for another.
We have played along side millions of lovers, shared in the same shy sweetness of meeting,
the same distressful tears of farewell —
Old love, but in shapes that renew and renew forever.

Today it is heaped at your feet, it has found its end in you,
The love of all man’s days both past and forever:
Universal joy, universal sorrow, universal life,
The memories of all loves merging with this one love of ours —
And the songs of every poet past and forever.

–Reprinted from Selected Poems, by Rabindranath Tagore (with an introduction by William Radice); Penguin Classics; 2005

— Photo: detail from a collage by Cindy La Ferle —