My book is on Kindle!

Though I dragged my feet initially, last month I joined the legions of enthusiastic ebook readers — as a reader and a writer.

When my son surprised me with a Kindle for my birthday, I was immediately impressed at how handy and economical it is. Whether I’m sitting in a medical waiting room with my mother or traveling on vacation, I’ve got a mini electronic library that fits in my purse. Best of all, I downloaded Thoreau’s Walden for free, and found that e-reader versions of bestsellers are cheaper than the print editions.

Of course, I had to make my own book, Writing Home, available on Amazon’s Kindle store — complete with a new introduction. A memoir of my earlier motherhood years and a tribute to my family, this book is especially dear to my heart and I’m thrilled to make it available to another set of readers.

If you’d like to add Writing Home to your own electronic library, this link will take you directly to the book’s page on Amazon. (The paperback edition can be ordered there, too.) You can read sample pages from Writing Home as well as several national and local reviews of the book on Amazon.

How about you? Do you use an electronic reader, or do you prefer ink on paper?

Our lady of letting go

A crisis is a holy summons to cross a threshold. It involves both a leaving behind and a stepping toward, a separation and an opportunity.” – Sue Monk Kidd, When the Heart Waits

As every frequent flyer knows, airline passengers are required to perform a series of rituals before the aircraft takes off. Your seat must be in its upright position; the seat belt fastened securely. The tray in front of you must be locked firmly in place.

Likewise, freshman orientation weekend prepares students for college – and is a major rite of passage for their parents.

The University of Notre Dame is just a three-and-a-half-hour drive from our home in suburban Detroit. But when Doug and I left Nate there to begin his freshman year in 2004, it seemed as if we were launching our only child to Jupiter.

As the orientation program kicked off on that hot August weekend, flocks of Notre Dame freshmen were herded off to other parts of campus for their introduction to university life. Parents were corralled inside the Joyce Center Fieldhouse for a series of pep talks on the importance of giving children “roots and wings.”

The Joyce Center is cavernous, and I suddenly felt like Jonah in the belly of the whale. Fighting tears, I bolted to the nearest restroom and locked myself in a toilet stall to indulge in a private meltdown — a meltdown that must have been waiting to erupt from the moment we’d packed the car that morning. Remembering that Doug was waiting for me, I managed to leave the restroom in time to catch most of the introductory speech.

As we took our seats, one of the deans was already reminding parents not to panic if our kids called home sounding lonely or homesick.  Or if days stretched into a week and we didn’t hear from them at all. Our children were standing “at the threshold of opportunity,” and they would adjust and thrive, he promised. In other words, helicopter parenting was not encouraged.

Our role in this tender rite of passage was to let go of our children.”

Next, a woman in a crisp linen business suit stepped up to the lectern and reminded all parents to exit the campus at the conclusion of the orientation program. At that point, she said, the Notre Dame marching band would give us a rousing sendoff as we headed back to the parking lot.  We were advised to say our good-byes quickly and cheerfully. No tears, no drama, no clinging. Our role in this tender rite of passage was to let go of our children.

Easy for her to say.

Like many mothers, I’d often sought advice in the pages of childcare guides and parenting magazines. But as Karen Coburn and Madge Treeger remind us in Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years (Perennial), once our kids head off to college, “there are no Dr. Spocks to reassure us.”  We’re on our own.

Watching Nate survey the campus — his new home for the next four years — I recalled an early memory of a wiry little guy who often begged to escape the boundaries of our suburban Detroit back yard. And it occurred to me that I’d always fostered his keen sense of adventure, his drive to be independent. Now a six-foot-tall young man with a five o’clock shadow, he was ready to move on.

So, the real question was: What would my days be like without him? While Nate worked on his degree at college, I’d have some homework of my own to do. Now that my starring role as Mom was fading to a cameo, it was time to redesign my life.

Touring several buildings before we left the campus, I drew comfort from the dignified beauty of Notre Dame’s architecture and manicured gardens. And even though I’m not Catholic, I was buoyed by the stunning view of the Sacred Heart Basilica, not far from Nate’s dormitory. I was reminded, too, that “Notre Dame” translates to “Our Lady” — the most celebrated mother in world history. My boy would be in good hands.

And how could anyone feel sad in the midst of so much excitement and pageantry? The whole campus throbbed with youthful energy.  The school fight song blared from every window, and rallying cries of “Go Irish!” echoed across campus.

That afternoon, the sky was postcard blue, and the university’s famous Golden Dome shimmered reassuringly in the late summer sun.  Heading back to our car in the parking lot, I squeezed Doug’s hand and congratulated him for making it through the long weekend. Doug eyed me cautiously, knowing full well that I’d been the one struggling to compose myself. Smiling and dry eyed, I assured him that I knew our son was going to be just fine — and, yes, I’d be just fine, too.

Cindy La Ferle

Photographs of the University of Notre Dame campus and Sacred Heart Basilica by Cindy La Ferle

For friends turning 50

The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.” –Madeleine L’Engle

To all of my beautiful friends turning 50 this year:

Rather than send each of you a bunch of black balloons and a silly card with a joke about adult diapers or memory loss, I’m writing you a letter with some advice.

There’s no denying that 50 is a landmark birthday. A turning point. The Big One. Over the next few weeks, you’ll be paying more attention to the mirror in your bathroom. Reading your face like a road map, you’ll scrutinize your eyelids and check the skin around your cheekbones. Maybe you’ll notice a couple of age spots that can’t quite pass as freckles. Or wonder why your jawline isn’t as sharp as it used to be.

Before I turned 50 (eight years ago), I realized that even my hands were starting to look like a topographical survey. The pale blue veins over my knuckles are more prominent now, and the skin on my face is etched with fine lines and small valleys. But I’m really OK with all of this.

After all these years, my body has been a very good friend. It endured years of ballet and Scottish Highland dancing classes. Its knees were skinned and bruised countless times. Its tonsils were removed; it was hit by a car; it gave birth to one spectacular child. It survived a couple of blood transfusions and two complete hip replacements. And despite the injuries, it managed to travel all over the United States and parts of Europe. I marvel at how my body still works, and I’m grateful that it does. (This is why I get so damned mad at the fashion magazine editors and advertisers who keep telling me there’s something wrong with my body — just because it isn’t 30-something anymore.)

Age spots aside, what you’ll notice most after turning 50 is that you become more philosophical, less hurried. You’ll care care more about things that matter in the long run, including deep relationships and good health. You’ll get wise to the marketing tricksters, and you won’t be as influenced by the trendy or the superficial. You might watch a lot less television and read whatever intrigues you, not just the books Oprah endorses or the ones that make the best-seller lists. You’ll start wearing clothes that work for you — not necessarily what’s promoted in fashion magazines. Best of all, you’ll stop seeking approval from others. You’ll trust your own opinions.

In years to come, you might start thinking about making a real difference in your community, your world. But awards and accolades won’t interest or impress you quite as much anymore. Before taking on any new assignments or volunteer work, you’ll find yourself pausing to examine your real motivations. At least that’s what happened to me. I wanted to give from the heart, not the ego. To borrow from Thoreau, I wanted to live deliberately.

For me, living deliberately has come to mean spending more time with the people I love most, and more time on the projects I love best. So I have to be careful before I say “yes” to anyone or anything else. One of the gifts of middle age is that we finally realize we cannot be all things to everyone. And what a relief that is!

Once you’ve crossed the threshold between 49 and 50, you’ll notice — more than ever — that American film directors and magazine editors rarely celebrate the strength, power, and beauty of older women. And the few fashion magazines that do cater to our age group still insist on using models that look closer to 35 than 55. Regardless, resist the foolish temptation to dress like your daughter or your son’s girlfriends. Show younger women what 50 really looks like — and prove that maturity isn’t something to be ashamed of.

It helps to have older friends. Older women friends will help you navigate the thornier parts of middle age, including the empty nest and suspicious mammograms. Like senior discounts and a good eye cream, they are definitely worth seeking out. When you find them, cherish them, and listen to what they have to say.

Another friend who turned 50 a few years before I did has held up a light for me every step of the way, insisting that the fifties can be wild and juicy years if you get your priorities straight. I love her attitude. “I quit being a doormat and I don’t try to please everyone,” she once told me. “I know who I am now.”

Isn’t it a shame that we have to travel through five decades to figure this out? I hope you’ll celebrate this birthday for all the good things it represents, for being a signpost to the richly textured life ahead of you. You are wise and beautiful, and I’m right there with you on this incredible midlife journey.

Love and Happy Birthday to you,

Cindy

*Part of this essay was excerpted from Writing Home by Cindy La Ferle. The illustration above is a detail from an altered book, Renaissance Woman, by Cindy La Ferle.

 

Coping with a crappy review

Criticism is something one can avoid by saying nothing and doing nothing.” — Aristotle

Seven years after its publication, my collection of essays on home and family topics scored its first negative review on Amazon.

The reviewer, who identified herself as a copywriter and was brave enough to include her full name and city of residence, found my writing style “rather bland” and my topics “so-so” or uninteresting. Ouch.

Making its abrupt appearance in my “Most Recent Reviews” column, the two-star review splashed a small but indelible stain on my Amazon page. Never mind that the other reviews, many of which were written by fans of my long-running newspaper columns, were five-star praise fests. Never mind that the book had already won several press awards.

And never mind than I’ve been writing professionally since 1984 and should be accustomed to criticism (not to mention rejection letters) by now.

That one crummy review from a copywriter in Atlanta threw me into a ridiculous dark-blue funk that lasted a couple of days. In a fit of self-doubt, I even grabbed a copy of my book and scanned several pages for incriminating evidence of “blandness” and boring topics.

In any event, the review provided a much-needed lesson in humility. But before I could cool off — and yes, I did cool off — I had to Google the reviewer’s name. I had to figure out how she’d managed to stumble on my seven-year-old book — and why she felt compelled to knock it down a few stars. I was half tempted to email her after discovering we had a loose connection through a professional writing group.

Instead, I did what most writers do when they realize they’ve been spending too much time alone with their computers: I turned to a few trusted colleagues who always know how to set me straight.

“Bad reviews are part of the risk of getting our work published,” one of my editor-pals reminded me. “And that’s why we all need to keep growing thicker skin.” In other words, if we’re going to put our stuff out there, we must learn to accept a few hurled tomatoes along with the roses and the press awards. Furthermore, if we’re willing to listen up, one piece of honest criticism can do more to improve our game than a dozen accolades.

Mean-spirited criticism is more about the critic and less about the work under fire.”

The crappy review also led to an online discussion about how to take (and give) criticism — an invaluable skill, no matter what your profession. To master this skill, you must know the difference between constructive criticism and mean-spirited criticism.

For starters, constructive criticism is always very specific. It includes concrete examples of what didn’t work along with reasons why the reviewer thinks your writing fell short. Even if it’s unsolicited and painful, constructive criticism can be a terrific learning tool.

On the other hand, mean-spirited criticism (or “sniping”) is more about the critic and less about the work under fire. Dead giveaway: The word “I” appears too often throughout the review or critique. “I don’t like Hemingway’s writing,” for example, isn’t nearly as specific and informative as “Hemingway overplays the declarative sentence.”

Mean-spirited criticism might be the product of a foul mood or professional envy. Or maybe the critic doesn’t share your passion, in which case your work doesn’t necessarily fall short, or stink.

The reviewer who dissed my book didn’t cite examples of what irked her, nor did she suggest what I could have done to meet her standards. But she got me thinking about why I failed to engage or entertain her.

And that’s why a bad review can be an unexpected gift or a wake-up call. If we’ve been writing and publishing for a while, especially, a negative review challenges us to keep improving and refining our craft. Or, at the very least, to stop being so complacent.

William Faulkner once said that real writers and artists “don’t have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, and the ones who want to write don’t have the time to read reviews.” And I suppose there’s some truth in that.

Still, it’s perfectly normal to feel bruised after getting hit with a rotten review. Scores of authors who are far more prolific than I am still wince when they get negative press. Or, as Danielle Steel once put it, “A bad review is like baking a cake with all the best ingredients and having someone sit on it.”

All said and done, serious writers get over it, then gather their new “ingredients” and get back to work. — Cindy La Ferle

— Detail from an altered book collage by Cindy La Ferle —

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School supplies for Mom

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” — Mary Oliver

I have a hunch that fall will arrive early this year. Maybe it’s the angle of sunlight on the black-eyed Susans in our perennial garden. Or maybe it’s the snap and crunch of acorns under my tires when I bicycle around the neighborhood.

Whatever triggers it, I can’t ignore the maternal instinct to shop for back-to-school supplies — even though I don’t have a student anymore.

It’s been four years since my son moved to his own place in Chicago. Yet I still struggle to wrap my mind around the fact that I’m officially an empty nester.

Watching the younger moms in my neighborhood — the ones buying new Crayolas and lunch boxes — I recall the exhilarating sense of freedom I’d get when my little boy started school each year. I’d thank the Blessed Mother every time I dropped him off at the local Catholic grade school, believing it was a miracle to have several kid-free hours a day to meet deadlines and run errands all by myself. In those days, the calendar on our kitchen wall was a perpetual list of music lessons, Cub Scout meetings, school conferences, field trips, baking marathons, and rotating carpool schedules. (And I was the mother of an only child.)

Even now, I can’t fathom how any parent finds the time to juggle it all, no matter how many children she has.

Spreading my own wings

In retrospect, I’m surprised at how long it took to adjust to the void my son left when he moved into his freshman dorm at college. His bedroom at home looked so eerily clean and empty that I made a habit of keeping its door shut. Up until then, I hadn’t fully realized that the vocation I’d enjoyed most — more than writing or publishing or teaching — was mothering.

Determined not to become a long-distance helicopter parent, I had to figure out where to devote my maternal energy during this uncharted phase of my middle age. I needed to explore something different — something just for myself. Was it time for a puppy or a brand-new hobby? The late-summer ritual of buying school supplies provided my first clue.

The week before his big move to college, my son and I headed for the nearest office supply store. While my son made a beeline for the computer supplies, I was magically drawn to a rainbow display of felt-tipped calligraphy pens, colored markers, glitter glue and drawing pads.

And that’s when my inner artist — who’d been banished to a corner of my psyche after I graduated from college — finally reasserted herself. I had no idea what she planned do with all the tubes of glitter glue and Magic Markers she tossed in our shopping cart, but she refused to leave the store without them.

I think author John Updike explained it best when he said, “What art offers is space — a certain breathing room for the spirit.” Which is exactly what I needed at the time.

A month later, I went shopping for real art supplies at Michael’s craft store, where I also discovered several art magazines featuring how-to articles on mixed-media collage and altered books. I couldn’t learn fast enough. By the end of that fall, I’d started clearing space for an art studio upstairs above the garage. While my son studied (and partied) through his freshman year at college, I happily painted, cut, and pasted a whole new path of my own.

No matter how old we are, school bells signal a change of seasons and inspire us all to start something fresh. For me, it’s time to put the garden to rest and head back indoors to discover where art will lead me next. In preparation for a new season of creative projects, I’ve already swept the floor of the studio, which I now consider my classroom. Last week I made a list of the things I’ll need to get started — and I can hardly wait to shop for my new supplies. — Cindy La Ferle

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