Backyard exhibition

Whether it’s classical urns or pink plastic flamingos, limestone saints or impish ceramic elves, Ionic Styrofoam pedestals or poured concrete birdbaths, you are the curator of your own backyard exhibition.” — Mary Randolph Carter

I believe a garden should be more than rows of groomed beds and well-tended flowers. Just as the interior of a home reveals the personalities of its residents, a garden can reflect the quirks and passions of the people who tend it.

My favorite gardens tend to be “decorated” in the true sense of the word. For instance, I love the little thrill I get when I explore a friend’s herb garden and discover a stone cherub with a broken wing tucked behind the parsley and basil. Or a rusty flea-market bench perched in a bed of roses.

I’m also a huge fan of weathered gates used to support tomato vines, and one-of-a-kind birdbaths crafted by local artists.  In other words, I’m a sucker for garden junk.

Like the things I’ve collected for my home over the years, most of my garden ornaments have sentimental meaning. Some don’t actually qualify as “junk,” as they were given to me as birthday gifts — including the granite Buddha (from my husband) resting in the Zen garden.

Of course, there’s always room for castoffs in my garden. When my friend Shirley moved to an apartment, she unloaded some of her own garden ornaments in my backyard. One of my favorites is the terracotta rabbit head that peeks out from a gnarled maple behind the patio.

I miss all my blogging friends this summer, but I hope you’re also outside soaking up some Vitamin D. (Remember, we can sit at our desks all winter and stare at the computer screen while the snow piles up.)

Meanwhile, I’ve been working long hours as an extra in several different film projects since June — quite a diversion from writing, blogging, and teaching! When I’m not working or looking in on my mother, I try to spend as much time as I can pulling weeds or admiring the blooms of my early summer handiwork. Here’s to summer! Cindy La Ferle


— All photos in this post were taken in my garden. Click each one for a larger view.

Soul sisters

Is solace anywhere more comforting than in the arms of a sister?”  ~Alice Walker

A dear friend of mine is undergoing cancer surgery this week. It’s the kind of surgery I can’t imagine having to face, and while my friend is handling it with grace and courage, my heart is breaking for her.

She’s part of a small group of friends I call my “soul sisters.” The four of us met 16 years ago when I started a women’s spirituality circle at our church. We soon discovered that the difference in our ages only enriched the connection, and our friendship deepened even more after we started organizing our own retreats. We’d book rooms at a nearby Jesuit retreat center, where we’d stay up all night and rehash our doubts and toughest questions as well as our belief in something greater. I like to remember those nights as soul-filling pajama parties.

Over the years we’ve rallied our collective strength to grieve and repair our wounds and losses. I was a certified basket case the week before my first hip replacement surgery, for instance. So the soul sisters booked an overnight retreat to get me out of the house and to ease my anxiety. We’ve also celebrated birthdays, holidays, and our kids’ graduations together. But the thread that really binds us is the unshakable knowledge that our love is unconditional.

Since I am an only child, having “sisters” like these is one of the greatest gifts in my life.

Earlier this week the four of us gathered for lunch at an upscale seafood restaurant. We wanted to see our friend one more time before her surgery, and to give her a safe place to talk about the days ahead. We wanted to renew our vow of solidarity, and to remind her that we’re here to do anything she needs.  It was a humid afternoon, and despite the fact that a storm was brewing, we chose to dine outdoors on the restaurant’s patio.

An hour passed quickly, as it always does when we’re together. Meanwhile, the sky turned charcoal, thunder rumbled, and the rain came down. It drummed like a mad percussionist on the canvas patio cover, threatening to dampen our table — but it didn’t. So we stayed outside under the canopy, just the four of us, talking and laughing nonstop.

And we enjoyed the rain. We all agreed there was something cozy and romantic about it — sort of like being little kids and feeling safe in bed under the covers while a storm roars overhead.

And that’s what pure friendship is all about, really. It’s about feeling safe with each other when the storms roll in, sometimes one after another. Our friend told us as we left the restaurant that she believed her surgery would be successful, no matter what the outcome, because she had so many loved ones lifting her up.  She reminded us that love is more powerful than anything and is impervious to things like cancer and surgery. Love rides out the storm. — Cindy La Ferle

— The oil painting above, “Four Women and Music,” is by Marilene Sawaf, and is used with her kind permission. Please visit Marilene’s beautiful blog to learn more about her art.  —

Vintage duds

Clothes make the man.  Naked people have little or no influence on society.”  ~Mark Twain

I have a love-hate relationship with fashion — or, should I say, fashion trends? I’m suspicious of magazines that try to dictate what’s in and what’s out. And I resent the fashion editors and “style experts” who make me feel old or uncool or unattractive if I’m not following their advice or wearing what they advertise. (Who the heck are these people, anyway?)

Yet I’ve always adored beautifully crafted and unusual clothes, new and old.

I’m especially intrigued by vintage clothing, and for years I’ve haunted thrift shops in search of one-of-a-kind treasures to mix with my own wardrobe basics. What I enjoy most about vintage pieces is how they make an outfit totally personal — especially when combined with something classic or relatively new.

Among my favorite pieces: A vintage Christian Dior tux jacket; a way-cool military style coat with unusual detailing; and a double-breasted black polyester blazer with big buttons, circa 1975. I also own vintage scarves, belts, and evening bags — always handy for jazzing up an outfit. While some of my evening dresses from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s are collectibles and not entirely suitable for wearing out, I use and enjoy most of my vintage clothing.

Luckily, I have a large attic for storing my finds. And lately, some of the things I’ve collected have come in handy for my part-time work as a background extra in films.  Typically, background actors are given costume guidelines and asked to bring their own clothes to a shoot. The wardrobe department must approve our choices, or provide another option. The more clothing options we have, the more likely we are to make the production people happy — and ultimately snare more bookings. So it helps to keep a variety of clothing at the ready for this type of work.

Earlier this summer, though, Doug and I were cast in a scene calling for western wear, which sent us on a quick search for western-style shirts and cowboy hats. This isn’t the sort of attire we’d typically sport in suburban Detroit unless we were invited to a Halloween party. So thank goodness for the local thrift shops, which happened to have all kinds of affordable options.

A week later, we were booked for two scenes set in 1980s Paris.  As it happens, I own an Ungaro khaki blazer and a cool trench coat (both thrift-shop finds) from the era. I made a quick trip to the Salvation Army thrift store (during their summer sale) and picked up a couple of 1980s dresses for less than four dollars each.  I brought it all to the fitting with my vintage Chanel scarf — and voila! — the wardrobe people were duly impressed.

Whether I’m shopping for a costume or my personal wardrobe, I carefully examine thrift-shop clothing for damage before I make a purchase. I’m not an accomplished seamstress, but I’m handy with minor repairs and stain removal — and always willing to change buttons.

An added bonus: Some of the best thrift shops in my community support local charities, or are run by charitable organizations. It feels good to know that my purchases will benefit others in need. Fashion is fleeting, after all, and I’m glad I don’t have to break the bank for it.  — Cindy La Ferle

If you’re new to “thrifting” or want to learn more about vintage clothing, start with a copy of The Little Guide to Vintage Shopping, by Melody Fortier, which provides a good introduction and is one of the newer books on the topic.

Wild things

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”  ~Albert Einstein

I’m always tickled when my essays are chosen for new story collections. Released this summer, Jennifer Bove’s Wild with Child: Adventures of Families in the Great Outdoors, includes a piece I wrote about surviving Cub Scout camp when my son was a kid.

Don’t let another summer weekend go by without spending quality time outdoors. Unplug your gadgets for a few days and reconnect with Mother Nature. Pitch a tent, swim in a river, feel the grass on your bare feet, cook dinner on an open fire, and make your own family memories under the stars.  –CL