“Calling the Owl”

Let us hear your faint vibrato and absorb
what is invisible, wild and nearly gone.” — Terry Blackhawk

Every time I read “Calling the Owl,” I can picture the poet standing still in a snowy meadow just before dawn, listening for that which is “wild and nearly gone.”

Terry Blackhawk is an acclaimed Michigan poet, so I’m especially proud to introduce her to readers who haven’t met her yet. She’s the founder and director of Detroit’s InsideOut Literary Arts Project, a poets-in-schools program serving over 5,000 students per year. Terry began teaching English in 1968 after graduating from Antioch College. As Terry explains it, she “took up writing poetry” when she was already teaching it to her students.

“I thought, ‘If I’m asking them to do this, I should have the same experience myself,’ ” she says. “I fell in love with it. I became a poet. It’s who I am.”

Poets, novelists, and essayists are often drawn to the unfettered beauty of nature and wildlife. Yet most of our work is carefully shaped, polished, and edited before it gets published. (This might be one reason we’re intrigued by things that cannot be captured or tamed — or face extinction?) If you could write a poem or a tribute to something in nature, what would you honor or explore? — Cindy La Ferle

CALLING THE OWL
By Terry Blackhawk

This time the owl eludes us
where we stand trying to call him in
with his own voice,
which we’ve captured on tape
to release to the predawn woods.

Press a button. The air flutters,
rushing from our black box
what is hidden from us —
wing-like quaverings —
soft bursts of song.

If light mutes him, shadows offer hope,
and we listen so intently into them
the snowy meadow
suddenly seems wider, brighter
with news from beyond its perimeter.

Don’t lift, I almost pray,
don’t disappear.
Day will break soon enough.
Let us hear your faint vibrato and absorb
what is invisible, wild and nearly gone.

Mist thickens the silence, promises
patience, echo, sound not sight.

I will let that fluty tremolo find,
fill me, give voice
to emptiness. I hold my breath to sustain
the long vowel of night.

— Reprinted from Body & Field; Michigan State University Press; 1999 —

This post is part of a weekly poetry appreciation series. Want more? Please click on the Poems to inspire section in the CATEGORIES column at right.

–Photo by Cindy La Ferle–

Parenting advice

A shaky child on a bicycle for the first time needs both support and freedom. The realization that this is what the child will always need can hit hard.” ~Sloan Wilson

Note: This essay was published earlier this year (“A New Season of Parenting”) in Metro Parent magazine. It was written especially for friends whose children will be starting college this fall…

It’s going to be a roller coaster year for a friend whose youngest child will graduate from high school in May, then head out of state to college in August. My friend is already working through some conflicting emotions. She gets a little teary at the thought of one less place setting at the family dinner table, yet she’s thrilled about the prospect of a keeping neater house (and gaining a spare bedroom) in the fall.

My son’s last year in high school was a bittersweet time for me, too. Like Janus, the ancient Roman god of gateways, beginnings, and endings, I found myself looking forward and backward as my son closed the door on high school and prepared for his new life at college.

When I wasn’t caught up in the May-June whirlwind of award banquets and graduation ceremonies, I spent a lot of time wondering where his childhood had flown. When no one else was looking, I’d search for it in a family album crammed with precious photos of birthday parties, Fourth of July bike parades, Cub Scout camps, Christmas mornings, and Halloween nights.

Around that time, it also hit me that one of the sweetest gifts of midlife is the maternal amnesia that blurs the other memories of infancy and childhood — the post-partum blues; the exploding diapers; the marathon temper tantrums. Not to mention those snarky adolescent insults. When our kids prepare to leave home for college, after all, we tend to focus on the Hallmark moments.

All of this reminiscing seems a bit maudlin to me now. But revisiting the highlights of my son’s childhood helped soothe my empty-nest blues. Pausing to savor and reflect on my early years of motherhood made it easier for me to move on. It also made me grateful for the privilege of raising a child — and grateful for the chance to spend time with so many terrific young people.

During the high school years, for example, our home was a favorite gathering place for my son’s friends, so I always stocked up on extra snacks and soft drinks. Looking in our refrigerator in those days, you wouldn’t have guessed that we were a small family of three. When I unloaded my grocery cart in the checkout line, clerks would often ask if I was feeding a very large family or hosting a party. I always answered yes to both questions.

And since my “extended family” left for college when my son did, my feelings of loss encompassed more than one child.

Taking flight, moving on

Grieving isn’t unusual in the early weeks of empty nesting. Raising children gives us a sense of mooring and purpose. That sense of mooring suddenly disappears when they move out, and getting used to a quieter household can be a huge adjustment. As essayist Marion Winik wrote, “Once you’re a mother you can never think something else is the most important thing.” Still, few parents I know are comfortable with the term “empty nest.” An empty nest sounds pathetic and forlorn  — adjectives that hardly fit the millions of accomplished women and men who are reinventing their lives after child-rearing.

“A word signifying a void or a vacuum is an unfair way to describe a time when life can be full of growth possibilities,” note Laura Kastner and Jennifer Wyatt in The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life (Three Rivers Press). But even more important than finding a new catchphrase for the empty nest is shifting our focus to the fresh opportunities awaiting our kids on the other side of the threshold.

Our job, after all, is to help them learn how to leave us; to let go.

It’s also our job to get on with our own lives. Just as we hope our kids will thrive without our constant supervision, they need to believe we’ll be just fine, too. In the long run, helicopter parenting doesn’t do anyone any good.

So, even if your kids aren’t leaving home this year, it’s not too early to sign up for those ballet lessons you’ve postponed for ages. Or to rediscover the sport or the craft that kept you juiced up and inspired before your name was Mom. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done. A new season of parenting will unfold. — Cindy La Ferle

— Nest photo by Cindy La Ferle —

“Begin”

Seat yourself next to your joy.” — Rumi

We all have to start somewhere. Truth is, the beginning is often the hardest part of any worthy project, whether we’re talking about writing books, designing clothes, breaking a habit, or plotting a garden. Before we can meet a deadline or plant the first seed, we have to face the proverbial blank page or fallow field.

So what the heck is stopping us?

Always a good excuse: kids to raise; dogs to walk; bathrooms to scrub; naps to take; debts to pay; day jobs that wring us dry. Fear can be a factor, too — fear of failure or fear of success. Maybe we can’t top the last amazing thing we did. Maybe our friends and families will resent our attempts to bloom or grow or shine (as if there’s never enough good stuff to pass around the table). Maybe someone will point out our mistakes and try to shrink us back down to size. Or maybe we’ll have to break free from the sweet safety of an old comfort zone.

Rumi’s poem challenges us to forget the excuses — and to weed the naysayers from our gardens. We’re called to do what makes us happy. To wake up and begin, right now. — CL

BEGIN

By Jalal al-Din Rumi; translation by Coleman Barks

This is now. Now is. Don’t
postpone till then. Spend

the spark of iron on stone.
Sit at the head of the table;

dip your spoon in the bowl.
Seat yourself next to your joy

and have your awakened soul
pour wine. Branches in the

spring wind, easy dance of
jasmine and cypress. Cloth

for green robes has been cut
from pure absence. You’re

the tailor, settled among his
shop goods, quietly sewing.

–Reprinted from The Soul of Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks (HarperCollins); 2001

— Garden photo by Cindy La Ferle —

Into white

Tables of paper wood, windows of light/ And everything emptying into White.” — Cat Stevens, “Into White”

The thing I love best about redecorating is that it inspires us to look at our old rooms in new ways. A “re-do” doesn’t necessarily require that we buy more furniture or knick-knacks — though paint, hardware, and elbow grease are typically involved. And while shelter magazines offer creative ideas (and jazzy new things to purchase), it still boils down to re-imagining what we already own.

In January, Doug and I finally decided to freshen up the master bedroom. We’d been living for several years with murky, sponge-painted walls and a dark rug in a busy Southwestern pattern. The room looked cluttered and weary — and it felt claustrophobic.

We needed to lighten things up. So we cleared out the space and hired a carpenter-friend to rebuild the old closet. Doug applied two different shades of white paint for the walls and trim. And while we prefer hardwood floors and area rugs in our home, the floor was in such bad shape — and cold during Michigan winters — that we made an exception and had pale taupe carpeting installed.

Taking advantage of the winter sales, I bought white linens in a variety of textures, and a simple, quilted white coverlet. We didn’t have to purchase any new furniture (our old pieces look nice against the white walls), but we added a new shabby-chic style chandelier from Lowe’s — a bargain at a little over $100. The project took longer than we’d hoped, due to a mix-up with carpeting measurements and an aggravating delay in the re-ordering process. But all said and done, Doug and I are pleased with the result.

Having spent the past year immersed in my widowed mother’s ongoing health crises — and trying to help her make sense of things — I didn’t realize how many key areas I’d neglected in my own home. Until recently, I was too tired (and uninspired) to make time to sort through it all. I’m slowly catching up now, one room at a time.

How good it feels to get my own life back in order now that spring is almost here. Our freshly decorated bedroom is a peaceful oasis in the midst of so many questions marks. — Cindy La Ferle

“Now I Become Myself”

I have been dissolved and shaken / Worn other people’s faces” — May Sarton

My early introduction to May Sarton‘s work was through her diary, Journal of a Solitude. I was new to personal writing at the time, and I admired how Sarton gracefully shared her private and public worlds — her beloved garden; domestic life in New Hampshire; her conflicting needs for solitude and companionship. Reading more of her work over the years, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit.

“Now I Become Myself” first struck me as a song of elder wisdom, a declaration of authentic power. Feeling her “own weight and density,” the poet has outgrown the petty insecurities of youth — including its sense of urgency. Yet the poem speaks to readers of all ages. I gave it to a friend on her 70th birthday and was thrilled to learn it is now one of her favorites. My friend was especially moved by the line, “Now there is time and Time is young.”  Which lines speak to you? –CL

Now I Become Myself
By May Sarton

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before –”
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

— Reprinted from Selected Poems of May Sarton edited by Serena Sue Hilsinger and Lois Brynes; W.W. Norton & Company; 1978–

–Top photo: Detail from “Book of Shadows,” an altered book, by Cindy La Ferle —

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