Doing something

One is not born into the world to do everything, but to do something.” — Henry David Thoreau

It’s that time of year. Everyone is gearing up to run marathons and raise funds for a favorite cause or organization, whether it’s breast cancer or juvenile diabetes or the local Boys & Girls Club. I used to feel guilty for not joining Detroit’s annual Race for the Cure, but my bionic hip replacements weren’t designed to meet the long-distance challenge.

Several years ago I came up with another way to honor my paternal grandmother, Ruby Gullion, who had breast cancer. At least once a year, I volunteer to lead writing workshops for William Beaumont Hospital’s Sharing & Caring, an educational support group for breast cancer patients, survivors, and their families. My workshops always focus on the healing aspects of writing and sharing our stories. Since many of the women who attend are new to journal-keeping and personal writing, my job is to talk up the benefits and give them the tools to begin.

For starters, I ask the participants to list a few of the lessons they’ve learned from breast cancer. Or to write about the strengths they didn’t know they had until they were diagnosed and treated.

Giving them 20 minutes of free-writing time, I tell them not to worry about editing their work or even completing the exercise. The goal is to get pens moving and thoughts flowing. Those who are comfortable reading aloud are invited to share what they’ve written with the group. Invariably, every lesson, every story shared, touches another woman in the group who needed to hear it.  Most of the women are amazed at what they’ve put into words — and the evenings typically end with tears and hugs and promises to keep on writing.

As many teachers will tell you, I always end up learning more from my “students” than they learn from me. Sharing their struggles, fears, triumphs, and courage, the breast cancer patients and survivors I meet at Beaumont always remind me to treasure every single moment I’m given in this life.

I may have donated my time, but I walk away richer for the experience.

I share this information for two reasons. First, I want to underscore the therapeutic, connective powers of writing — and to remind everyone that “getting published” isn’t necessarily the goal of a writing practice. Secondly, you don’t have to run a marathon or walk miles to support a cause or organization you believe in. You have gifts and talents that you can volunteer to share with others who need your expertise. So get out there and do something. — Cindy La Ferle

Background!

Movies are like an expensive form of therapy for me.” — Tim Burton

Most people who work in creative fields are jockeying to land a leading role, a front-page story, or first prize in an art competition. Aiming high, we usually compete for the spotlight. We’re all trying to make it in a culture that worships overnight success and holds its collective breath for the latest American Idol winner.

So, who’d want to work long, repetitive hours as a background extra in films? Who’d get a kick out of working for little more than minimum wage and a few fleeting seconds of screen time?

Lots of people. And I’m one of them.

Thanks to Michigan’s new film incentive program, Hollywood has been sending a variety of productions to our state, creating thousands of new jobs for labor, crew, and actors.

My first gig as a background extra in a feature film began on a lark last fall — another item on my bucket list. Along with my husband Doug and several of our neighbors, I was cast in the opening scene of the big-budget Red Dawn remake when our own neighborhood was used as a film set. Humvees and assorted army vehicles rolled down our tree-lined suburban streets while a troop of gun-wielding Communist soldiers took us captive. It was a total blast, literally and figuratively, and some of us were called back to work in additional scenes in Detroit.

Doug and I had so much fun, in fact, that we registered with a couple of casting agencies, and have worked in several more projects. Among our favorites was the soon-to-be-released Lifetime TV movie, Secrets in the Walls, in which we were cast as a doctor and a nurse in a hospital scene. As Doug likes to joke, “Now I can finally tell people, ‘No I am not a real doctor, but I played one on TV.”

Now that we’re listed with casting agencies, the toughest part is learning to deal with the unpredictability. We might get a call or an e-mail inquiring about our availability a week (or a day) before a particular shoot. At that point, we must commit to a time frame — with no immediate guarantee that we’ll be booked for the job. We’re usually left hanging until the casting agents confirm our roles and send additional details. The agents aren’t being coy or cruel — they’re also waiting for a schedule from the production people.

So it can be hard to plan your life around this sort of work. Last-minute bookings  — and production schedule changes — aren’t unusual. Last year, Doug got an emergency call from a casting agent, asking him to pack a sports jacket and drive immediately to Ann Arbor to cover for another extra who couldn’t show up on the set that morning. (He made it in record time.)

Lights, camera …

Pay rates vary, depending on each film’s budget. As a rule, hourly pay is rarely much more than minimum wage, so I wouldn’t advise anyone interested in this work to consider quitting your day job or ditching your best freelance clients. There’s always a chance that your 15 seconds of “face time” will end up on the proverbial cutting room floor, anyway.

But there are untold rewards, especially if you love movies as much as I do. For starters, background extras get a rare look behind the scenes and a chance to learn more about filmmaking. This takes most of the glitter out of the stardust, yet you can’t help but return home with a deeper respect for the hard work and long hours invested in any given film project. You meet some of the nicest people too — everyone from legal administrators to retired engineers and stay-at-home dads will show up for work. And yes, sometimes you do rub elbows with celebrities.

For me, film work provides an interesting contrast to my (real-life) role as a professional writer. Writers are often loners out of necessity — but we enjoy company too. Working in a film, I enjoy the same rush of adrenaline and camaraderie I used to get when I was in theater years ago. I thrived on the nervous hum of activity backstage while the crew geared up and my fellow actors prepped for their scenes.

Last week I worked as a background extra in an HBO television series. I was waiting for my cue from an assistant director half my age when it hit me that this sort of work is both humbling and freeing.

No matter which production I’m working for, I know I’m just a very small part of a much bigger picture. I have no lines to memorize or deliver, and mugging for the camera is strictly prohibited. Unlike writing a story — where I’m in creative control and get my own byline — I’m merely fulfilling someone else’s vision while working as an extra. My role in a film might be as simple as running across the street from an explosion, singing hymns in a church, working at a desk, hanging around the town square, or standing in a corner with a drink in hand.

Years ago, I worked with a director who liked to remind everyone on stage that “there are no small parts, just small actors.” And that’s still terrific advice for every performer.

But hey, I’m not going to get rich or famous working as a background extra. It’s honorable work, and while I’m on set, I take it seriously. I show up on time and follow the instructions I’m given to the letter. Yet I know I won’t be discovered and given a one-way ticket to Hollywood. And I’m really OK with that. This is teamwork. This is what I do for fun. — Cindy La Ferle

Top photo: I’m on the right, hamming it up with Laurie and Bryan Valko, fellow background extras, after getting fitted for a hospital scene in Secrets in the Walls, a Lifetime TV thriller scheduled to air this fall. Middle photo: My husband Doug (left) posting with background extra Vong Lee, the Communist soldier who held us captive on the set of Red Dawn in our Royal Oak neighborhood last year. Bottom Photo: One of several head shots I use for background extra gigs.

“In Perpetual Spring”


The greatest gift of the garden is the restoration of the five senses.”  ~Hanna Rion

Spring reminds us that we humans were not designed to hunker down in front of a computer monitor for days on end. At some point, we must wake up and engage all of our senses. We need to feel the sun on our backs and to inhale the scents of plants and rich earth.

My own garden has always been a place of healing and renewal. I’m deeply nourished by kneeling in the grass, working the soil, and tending new growth. By the the end of April, I can hardly wait to dig in — and my heart pumps peanut butter every time I drive past a local garden center or nursery. It’s all I can do to refrain from planting too early.

I’m really looking forward to expanding the herb garden outside our back door when the real danger of frost is past. In the meantime, I’m soaking up these gorgeous lines of Amy Gerstler’s, below. — CL

In Perpetual Spring
by Amy Gerstler

Gardens are also good places
to sulk. You pass beds of
spiky voodoo lilies
and trip over the roots
of a sweet gum tree,
in search of medieval
plants whose leaves,
when they drop off
turn into birds
if they fall on land,
and colored carp if they
plop into water.

Suddenly the archetypal
human desire for peace
with every other species
wells up in you. The lion
and the lamb cuddling up.
The snake and the snail, kissing.
Even the prick of the thistle,
queen of the weeds, revives
your secret belief
in perpetual spring,
your faith that for every hurt
there is a leaf to cure it.

–Reprinted from Bitter Angel, by Amy Gerstler; New York: North Point Press; 1990.–

— Garden photo by Cindy La Ferle —

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BLOG TOUR ALERT: If you missed a chance to win a free copy of my book, Writing Home, on other tour stops, here’s another. Click here to read Angie Muresan’s review and to participate in her  giveaway this week. I’ve always enjoyed Angie’s view on life — and I think you will too.

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Enchanted April

Every spring is the only spring — a perpetual astonishment.” — Ellis Peters

Who doesn’t love an early spring? This year, at least in Michigan, April has been unseasonably kind and beautiful. Our daffs and tulips are blooming, and best of all, moods are lifting as we spend more time outdoors.

But I can’t let the month slip away without recommending a favorite indoor ritual. Even if you’ve already seen it, go rent Enchanted April.  I’ve enjoyed this little gem of a film so much over the years that I’ve shared it with my women’s group, and even organized a “girlfriends’ movie night” around it.

Adapted from Elizabeth von Arnim’s 1922 novel of the same title, the award-winning film revolves around four British women — unlikely friends, all — who meet in Italy to spend an April holiday in a secluded castle-like villa with a lush garden and a view of the Portofino coast. Each character has a back story, of course, and as the film progresses, we discover how retreating to a special place can help us rekindle relationships, heal old wounds, and see things anew. And in this gorgeous film, the location competes with the characters for attention.

On an anniversary trip five years ago, my husband and I were lucky enough to tour Castello Brown, the small castle and surrounding property where Enchanted April was filmed. It was every bit as magical as the film itself, and I enjoyed exploring the gardens while recalling my favorite scenes.

Arranging a bouquet of flowers I’d purchased from the grocery this week, I remembered a key moment from the beginning of the film.

It’s the scene in which the emotionally bankrupt Mellersh Wilkins (played by Alfred Molina) scolds his depressed wife Lottie (Josie Lawrence) for buying a bouquet of fresh flowers for the dining table, declaring it “an extravagance of the most blatant kind.” At that moment, Lottie starts to realize it’s time to claim a little joy for herself. As the story unfolds, we’re all reminded that a few indulgences are essential to our well-being and can be downright transforming. — Cindy La Ferle

A little of what we love

The ordinary arts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest. — Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul

Up to my elbows in spring cleaning and redecorating this spring, I’ve been thinking about how we humans express our style and creativity in our homes.  I like to imagine that our rooms are 3-D scrapbooks of our lives, honoring the places we’ve traveled and the things we love. My favorite homes to visit are always the ones that truly reflect the personalities of their owners.

Even our bathrooms reveal a little of who we are. My own bathroom, for instance, is barely big enough to hold a sink, tub, toilet, and cast-iron radiator — yet I still try to make it an inspiring place in which to begin the morning.

It doesn’t take much to thrill me. In my private world, the smallest details illuminate and elevate the ordinary.

Shopping at Target last month, I discovered a set of bathroom accessories that spoke to my love of all things French. (I’ve been lucky enough to visit France twice.) The pieces coordinated perfectly with the color scheme, and helped me organize the toiletries I keep near the sink. And I even found a cool bar of French-milled soap at Anthropologie. My husband made me a copy of a vintage print of the Eiffel Tower to hang on the wall — and voila! — the tiny space now looks like a powder room in a Parisian hotel.

Do you have spaces in your home that showcase your interests, travels, or creative spirit? Which room is the best expression of who you are? — CL