Who’s aging gracefully?

The key to successful aging is to pay as little attention to it as possible.”  ~Judith Regan

I get annoyed when the terms “anti-aging” and “age-defying” are used to market products to women who are barely out of high school.

Whether I’m thumbing through fashion/lifestyle magazines or surfing channels on TV, I’m bombarded with images of nubile celebrities touting the wonders of wrinkle creams, facial peels, and eye serums. And I rarely see photos of mature women representing my own middle-aged face or body when I browse through mail-order catalogs targeted to my own demographic.

So, I get the message: She who looks youngest wins.

Two years ago, I tried tackling this issue in one of my weekly columns on midlife issues. As a 50-something journalist, I vowed to join the campaign for honest aging. In my column, I promised to celebrate the beauty of graying temples and applaud the infectious charm of laugh lines. I also admitted that I plan to avoid cosmetic surgery (and that I’m terrified of Botox). I know the cliche is as exhausted as I am after a day of caring for my elderly mom, but I’m seriously trying to grow old gracefully.

“Women can look older and fabulous at the same time,” I wrote in the column. And I wasn’t suggesting that middle-aged women ought to give up on their looks. I even disclosed that my own medicine cabinet is an arsenal of anti-aging weapons. (Right now, there’s a back-up tube of Retinol and an outrageously expensive eye cream that promises to perform miracles just short of raising the dead.)  But I added that we all need to be more realistic — and that we’d all be happier if we paid less attention to the beauty-and-fashion police.

Days after the column was published, I received many grateful notes and comments from women even younger than I am. But soon enough, my editor — a sharp woman in her twenties — e-mailed a disturbing note of caution.

“We’re getting complaints from plastic surgeons,” the editor warned me. “With so many plastic surgeons and cosmetic salons as our advertisers, it’s really important that we cater to them.  So I am asking you to stop writing against face lifts and other cosmetic procedures. You can keep writing about the beauty of midlife, but be sure to say that cosmetic surgery is a good option.”

It was the first time in my 25 years as a columnist that I’d been told to alter or censor my editorial opinions.  I was miffed – but not totally surprised. Though I’d learned years ago in journalism school that it’s unethical for editors to allow advertisers to drive their editorial content, experience has taught me that many publications – especially women’s magazines – are highly influenced by advertising dollars. The editor who scolded me was simply trying to keep her job.

At 56, I hope to keep working and writing as long as there are markets open to me.  I’d like to use my years of experience to enhance the quality of life for other women my age. Yet I know it won’t be easy to write honestly about aging in a culture that worships at the temple of youth. Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering that the “advice” you read in most beauty and fashion magazines is barely skin deep, if not totally inspired or supported by advertising dollars. — Cindy La Ferle

–A different version of this column originally appeared in the Oakland Press. Photos by Cindy La Ferle–

No place like home

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” — Marcel Proust

When was the last time you really explored your own community? Chances are, there’s a restaurant, art gallery, thrift shop, or boutique that opened when you weren’t looking. And how much do you know about your city’s history? Is there a museum nearby? With gas prices skyrocketing, this might be the season for a “staycation.”

This week’s “No Place Like Home” column on Royal Oak Patch is packed with ideas for enjoying spring break without spending a bundle on hotel bills. The idea struck when my husband and I had to cancel a trip to Florida due to my elderly mother’s health issues. We’ve been following my advice all week, breaking out of our old comfort zone without straying too far from our own backyard.  –CL

— Photo of the Paris boutique in downtown Royal Oak, by Cindy La Ferle —

Being still

“Lent is the time for trimming the soul and scraping the sludge off a life turned slipshod. It is about taking stock of time….Lent is the time to make new efforts to be what we say we want to be.” — Joan Chittister

Variations on the theme of rebirth and transformation — waiting for spring and learning to overcome impatience — have always fascinated me. Today I’m running an excerpt from a column that was first published on April 4, 2004, in the Daily Tribune of Royal Oak. The complete piece is reprinted in Writing Home. As the Lenten season begins, what are your challenges? Are you letting go of grudges or foolish expectations? Surrendering an old habit? Using the season to take stock of your life?

________

Being Still

One of my favorite traditions at First Congregational Church of Royal Oak is the silent meditation service held the week prior to Easter. The midweek candlelit service is led by parishioners, and this year it’s my turn to help open it. The service is offered during Lent because it is, as T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem, Ash Wednesday, “a time of tension between dying and birth.” It is the perfect opportunity for reflection; a time to meditate on the fearsome darkness of the tomb and the pending miracle of Easter.

While a silent service is simple enough to plan, it isn’t as easy to carry out. Few of us are comfortable “being still” in a sanctuary with other people sitting near us. We expect to be enlightened, educated, entertained, preached to, or otherwise distracted from the white noise in our heads. Meditation makes us fidgety. We fear what might be revealed in the pauses and blank spaces.

As Sue Monk Kidd notes in her midlife memoir, When the Heart Waits, one of the guiding principles of American culture is “All lines must keep moving.” Even when we’re home alone, we rush to fill the void with mindless activity or television. Kidd says we resist getting quiet because we’re afraid to confront our own darkness.

Yet real miracles occur during moments of being still – and waiting in the dark. Spring bulbs do their hardest labor underground before blooming. Likewise, the work of spiritual growth and healing is done in silence.

The time I woke up alone in a dark hospital room, two years ago, immediately comes to mind.

It was just past midnight, a few hours after my second hip surgery. Barely conscious, I awoke to discover my legs were strapped to a large foam wedge to keep me from moving. While I realized this was essential to my recovery, I still felt trapped and terrified.  Equally scary was the sensation of waking up alone in a strange room. (I didn’t recall being wheeled in after surgery, of course.) And while most hospitals are buzzing with activity during the day and evening, the earliest hours of the morning are eerily quiet.

Breaking the silence, I shouted for help and pushed every button within reach. It was the first time I’d experienced a full-blown panic attack. When my nurse arrived, she explained that my panic was probably triggered by withdrawal from the anesthesia. She promised to check back periodically.  Meanwhile, I kept a light on above my bed. Afraid to fall asleep, I kept vigil for daybreak.

By the time the sun rose, I’d finally calmed down and accepted my temporary state of immobility. And in a luminous moment of grace, I suddenly knew I’d been given a second chance. I knew that I would heal and walk again. It would take time, but everything would be okay. And it was. Three days later, I was released early from the hospital to recover in bed at home.

A week before that last surgery, my friend Jenny had sent me a note of encouragement, which included a quote from Patrick Overton. Here’s how it begins:

“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.”

I’ve posted that quote where I can see it on my desk every day. It’s the one I like to remember when I’m stumbling in the dark or feeling stuck — or waiting impatiently for a new season to begin. — Cindy La Ferle

–Top photo: Detail from a mixed-media collage: “Birthing a Soul” by Cindy La Ferle. Please click on the image for a larger view. —

Spring break fantasies

Mothers and housewives are the only workers who do not have regular time off. They are the great vacationless class.” – Anne Morrow Lindbergh

My favorite comedy routine is the one in which Steve Martin blanks out in the middle of a monologue, then beams a vacant smile and informs his audience that he’s momentarily “visiting the Bahamas.” Martin redefined the ultimate dream vacation — which seems to be the only type of vacation most women can schedule these days.

Back when I was editor of a travel magazine, I studied the psychological benefits of taking real vacations. At a seminar for innkeepers and hotel managers, I was excited to learn that scads of scientific research had been done to determine what made female guests happy, and what inspired them to return for future holidays. Was it a room with a gorgeous view?  Complimentary chocolate truffles?  Bellhops who looked like Johnny Depp?

As it turned out, most women listed crisply laundered sheets, spanking-clean bathrooms, and attentive room service as top amenities on the hotel surveys. Or, as a mother of three explained, the best part of her family vacation to Disney World was simply returning every night to the hotel suite and discovering that the cleaning fairies had made all the beds.

So, lately I’ve been thinking: If women love to be pampered, why is it that so few of us book personal vacations when we need them? Why is it so hard for us to hit “pause”?

Despite all the labor-saving devices that modern living affords, we still can’t shake our Puritan work ethic. And we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that free time isn’t for leisure anymore. If we’re not designing our own line of furniture or auditioning for the symphony on our lunch breaks, we feel like slackers. It’s tough to justify a fifteen-minute soak at home in a Crabtree & Evelyn bubble bath, let alone a week at a spa.

Years ago, when I was a younger mom with a preschooler at home, an editor with whom I worked was kind enough to share her well-thumbed copy of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s inspirational classic, Gift from the Sea. First published in 1955, this little book of reflections was written during the famous author’s solitary retreats to an isolated beach house on Captiva Island.

Using seashells to represent the various stages of a woman’s life, Lindbergh wrote with amazing clarity about issues that still baffle us today — how to find spiritual serenity in suburban chaos; how to manage work and family; how to jazz up a droopy marriage.

Just as Virginia Woolf reminded us that we need a room of our own in which to dream and create, Lindbergh gave busy wives and mothers permission to schedule precious time alone.  I desperately needed that permission – and am forever indebted to the editor who loaned me Lindbergh’s book.

“The problem is not merely one of Woman and Career, Woman and the Home, Woman and Independence,” Lindbergh wrote. “It is more basically: how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life.” A deserted beach is the ideal place to hear one’s inner voice, she emphasized. Wandering the shore minus goals, deadlines, or diaper bags, a woman can replenish her depleted soul and reclaim her sanity.

Revisiting Gift from the Sea 20 years later, I realize I still need “a central core to my life” that will enable me to carry out my midlife obligations – caring for my aging mother; being a supportive wife; cheering my son’s independence; putting wings on my own dreams.

I don’t doubt that a solo flight to a cabana in the tropics would help me find that central core. A pina colada with a cute paper umbrella would help, too. But right now, there’s a new list of chores and appointments and deadlines competing for my attention. For now I’ll have to settle for a quick mental escape to a fantasy island. Once I get there, maybe I’ll run into Steve Martin. — Cindy La Ferle

— Top photo: detail from a mixed-media collage, “Primavera,” by Cindy La Ferle. Please click on the image for a larger view. —

Everyone’s favorite mom

Friends are relatives you make for yourself.”  ~Eustache Deschamps

Do you remember a special mom in your neighborhood whose influence made a difference when you were growing up?  An othermother? For me, it was Evie Carnahan, the mother of one of my best friends from Clawson Junior High. As an only child in a quiet household, I was grateful to Ev for periodically “adopting” me and giving me a glimpse of what it’s like to be part of a big family. After her funeral last month, I was moved to write a tribute to Ev — and our lifelong friendship. The column runs this week on both Clawson and Royal Oak Patch sites. Please click here to read it.

The photo at left was taken at Pronto! in Royal Oak, where I met with Ev and the “Carnahan sisters” to celebrate Ev’s 80th birthday nearly two years ago. Ev’s in the bottow row, far left.