Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category
Cindy La Ferle on May 8th, 2013
When I go into the garden with a spade and dig a bed, I feel such exhilaration and health that I realize I have been defrauding myself in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Throughout my life, gardens have provided many spiritual lessons and moments of refuge.
Among them was the fern garden my Scottish grandfather tended in his back yard on Detroit’s west side — an oasis that restored his spirit during the sad summer my grandmother died. The essay I wrote about that garden was published in both British and American editions of Reader’s Digest magazine, and is included in my book, Writing Home.
Today, my own garden is so much more than a plot for herbs and perennials. Working the soil, I’m often mentally untangling one of my elderly mother’s health problems. Or, while preparing a bed for basil and rosemary, I might be digging my way through a stubborn case of writer’s block. Or just daydreaming.
As I reminded my husband recently, gardening is the best therapy I know. (The money I ought to save for a psychiatrist is well spent on garden gadgets and plants at the local nurseries.)
Along these lines, several authors have written inspiring books on gardening as soul work. Here are a few of my favorites.
Praised as a hymn to nature, Diane Ackerman’s Cultivating Delight (HarperPerennial Library) is a sensuous garden memoir. With the keen eye of a naturalist, Ackerman recounts her back-yard discoveries through the seasons, including the time she uncovered a tiny frog asleep inside a tulip.
“By retreating farther and farther from nature,” Ackerman warns, “we lose our sense of belonging, suffer a terrible loneliness we can’t name, and end up depriving ourselves of what we need to feel healthy and whole.”
“No matter how saddened I become by the events of life, when I see the world as a garden, I feel better,” writes author Julie Moir Messervy in The Magic Land: Designing Your Own Enchanted Garden (Macmillan). A landscape designer and consultant, Messervy also sees the garden as a perfect outlet for personal growth. Her book includes exercises to plan your own paradise, whether you want an elaborate storybook garden with a gazebo or a Zen-like oasis. I used many of her tips when I plotted my own Japanese garden a few years ago.
The Sanctuary Garden (Fireside) reminds us that any garden can be a place of reflection. Authors Christopher Forrest McDowell and Tricia Clark-McDowell are founders of the Cortesia Sanctuary for Natural Gardening and Healing in Eugene, Oregon. Their illustrated guide provides tips on attracting wildlife as well as ideas for creating space for prayer and meditation.
“One of the most powerful examples of our relationship to the land came to me when witnessing the end of the war in Bosnia,” writes McDowell. “I was touched to learn that the first act of many of the citizens of Sarajevo was to till and plant their gardens.”
So what are you waiting for? Dust off your garden boots, grab a trowel, ditch your bad mood, and dig in.
– Garden photos (copyright) by Cindy La Ferle –
Cindy La Ferle on April 29th, 2013
Excuse the mess, but we live here.” — Roseanne Barr
When we moved into our first apartment in 1980, my architect husband and I rarely discussed the delicate issue of housework. Newly married and devoted to our business careers, Doug and I left early for work every weekday morning, tripping over mounds of unfolded laundry and dust bunnies as we headed for the door. We rushed through domestic chores on Saturdays, never quite sure who was responsible for emptying the trash or disinfecting the toilet bowl.
All of this came tumbling back last summer, when I discovered some old books on housekeeping at a second-hand bookstore. Blowing layers of dust from their covers, I was rewarded with some fascinating glimpses of early Americana.
First published in 1924, Good Housekeeping’s The Business of Housekeeping, by Mildred Maddocks Bentley, was a veritable textbook on the domestic arts. Its mildewed, yellowing pages reminded me that household management was once taken seriously. Speaking to young brides, the book covered such topics as “Managing Servants and Housekeepers,” “Dishwashing Three Times a Day,” “Sprinkling and Folding,” and “The Chemistry of Washing.”
As the book’s title suggested, Mrs. Bentley meant business: “The good housekeeper must bring to her task of housekeeping every one of the qualities that make for a successful executive in the downtown business world.”
Another artifact, Housekeeping Made Simple (The Homemaker’s Encyclopedia, Inc.), was published in 1952, two years before I was born. Editor Miriam B. Reichl revealed that, after WWII, women had lightened up a bit and were looking for labor-saving methods. The average housewife, after all, no longer employed domestic help.
Reichl’s book contained some amusing black and white photo-illustrations. One showed a woman smiling broadly (and, yes, wearing high heels and pearls) as she demonstrated several ways to use a vacuum. Another shot featured an attractive woman doing laundry in a satin evening gown. Male models were conspicuously absent.
Back in the late ’70s, when I was single and rented my first apartment, books devoted to home economics (or “Home Eck” as my girlfriends called it) were rare — although my friends and I could have used a few tips on stocking a pantry or planning balanced meals. We left housework to the cleaning fairies.
Even today, few men or women admit they enjoy doing anything remotely domestic, unless it makes them as rich as Martha Stewart. Homemaking is messy business, after all — something we’d rather hire someone else to do if we can afford it.
“You keep a house, but you make a home,” observes anthropology professor Mary Catherine Bateson in Composing A Life (Plume/Penguin). “As we free the ideas of home and homemaking from their links to old gender roles, we can now also draw on metaphors of home to enrich our perceptions of the world.” Home, after all, is where everyone begins.
Of course, I’d never welcome another era in which women have few career options beyond vacuuming. And I’d hate to see ironing raised to an art form. But I agree with Bateson when she suggests that we lose our sense of place — the foundation that keeps us grounded — when we neglect the home front. The driveway becomes a mere parking lot; the house exudes an atmosphere as impersonal as a chain motel.
Lately I’ve noticed a new crop of home-care guides in local bookstores. These books are saturated with a deep yearning for the comfort of roots and shelter. Unlike their predecessors, they’re refreshingly devoid of sexism, though women will most likely buy them. Whether or not younger Americans will embrace a homemaking revival remains to be seen. Right now, we’re still arguing over whose turn it is to clean the bathroom.
–Part of this essay is excerpted from my column collection, Writing Home, now available in Kindle and print editions on Amazon.com —
Cindy La Ferle on April 17th, 2013
To the people who love you, you are beautiful already. This is not because they’re blind to your shortcomings but because they so clearly see your soul.” — Victoria Moran
It’s barely spring here in southeast Michigan, but magazine editors are positively frantic about Bathing-Suit Season. My god, there’s not a magazine cover on the stands that isn’t warning me to tighten, tone, and self-tan my ugly winter-white thighs. And of course, I won’t “look hot in that bikini” unless I try another new diet. Right now.
This still scorches like a bad sunburn.
In high school, I spent hours poring over Glamour and Seventeen magazines, desperately seeking validation for my own looks. I never found it. In the early 1970s, the coolest cover girls – Cybil Shepard, Cheryl Tiegs, Patti Hansen – were as blonde and leggy as the Malibu Barbie dolls I’d barely outgrown.
I was never blonde enough, tall enough, or tan enough to pass for a California Girl. My face was too freckled; my dark auburn hair was too thin; my legs were too short. Given my genetics, I could have posed as a back-up singer for the Irish Rovers, at best.
Trying to mirror what I saw in fashion magazines, I began experimenting with Summer Blonde, which, given my Celtic heritage, turned my hair bright orange. I sunbathed without sunscreen, burning my freckled skin to the point where I’d eventually develop basal-cell skin cancer.
Not surprisingly, the real me got lost under layers of costume and make-up. It took years to find her again.
In her new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, sociology professor Brene Brown devotes several pages to the topic of women, shame, and self-image.
Listing what she describes as the 12 categories of shame — including addiction and money — Brown lists “appearance and body image” right at the top. “After all of the consciousness-raising and critical awareness, we still feel the most shame about not being thin, young, and beautiful enough,” she writes. While women in our culture are expected to be perfect, Brown adds, it’s also shameful to look as if we’re “trying too hard.” We can’t win.
These days, fashion and beauty editors give lip service to the concept of “aging gracefully.” But who’s really buying it? If there were nothing shameful about wrinkles, under-eye bags, and sagging skin, there wouldn’t be countless products marketed to “fix” them.
Now, in addition to worrying about how we look in our bathing suits, we’re advised to conceal every hint of experience on our faces. (Pantene even has products to correct “aging hair,” for crying out loud.) Periodically, fashion editors throw older women a bone by featuring a “mature” model with silver-streaked hair, or a gorgeous grandma in plus-sized clothing. For the most part, however, even the older models in magazines geared to my demographic rarely look my age.
But the self-assured woman defines beauty on her own terms, insists Victoria Moran. Writing from personal experience, Moran is author of Lit from Within: Tending Your Soul for Lifelong Beauty (HarperSanFrancisco). A rarity among beauty advisors, she reminds us to look beyond mirrors and magazines to find our radiance.
Moran claims that miraculous things happened when she finally stopped obsessing about her weight and wardrobe. “To my utter amazement,” she writes, “I started looking a whole lot better – and worrying about it a great deal less. I started thanking God at night for the good in my day, and although I stopped asking to be thin and gorgeous, I sometimes asked if I could be strong and helpful.”
Moran reminds us that authentic beauty, at any age, requires depth of character and a yearning to live in grace. It demands that you spend more time revealing your truth than shopping for a plastic surgeon or a better eye cream. It’s all about respecting your inner worth.
Take a dive, Malibu Barbie.
Cindy La Ferle on April 3rd, 2013
Caregivers are forced to let go of a loved one little by little, again and again, sometimes over a span of many years.” — Leeza Gibbons, Take Your Oxygen First
Crafted from fine cotton yarn, the black cardigan sweater became a staple in my spring wardrobe after my mother bought it for me 10 years ago. Rediscovering it in the back of my closet last week, I suddenly recalled a happier memory of Mom – a time when I wasn’t overwhelmed by what social workers describe as “caregiver burnout.”
And then came an unexpected flood of tears.
It’s not like me to fall apart over a sweater while I’m reorganizing my closet. Usually, I welcome the chance to shove my winter-weary woolens back into storage and replace them with the lighter fabrics of spring.
But then again, my mother hasn’t been herself for several seasons, either.
Things began to unravel after my son left for college — just when my husband and I earned the freedom of our newly emptied nest.
First, we noticed Mom was repeating her favorite stories more often than usual. Then her friends would call to report that she’d forgotten to show up for club meetings and lunch dates. She’d drive herself to the ER during her panic attacks, which started occurring with alarming frequency. Not long afterward, her doctors told me to confiscate her car keys.
Mom was 79 and had been widowed for 16 years when she was officially diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2009. She was also battling heart disease and severe hearing loss.
Her only child, I was handed full responsibility of her medical care along with a checklist outlining her worrisome diagnosis.
“Start researching senior housing with memory care – now — so you’ll have choices,” her primary care physician advised. The doctor also asked if I had durable power of attorney (which I did) and reminded me to get all the legal documents in order.
At the time, Mom lived alone in a condo near my house. She refused to consider any type of senior housing, regardless of the fact that she’d been in and out of William Beaumont Hospital half a dozen times, and averaged 45 medical visits annually for countless illnesses, real and imaginary. (I took her to every single one.)
Facing the reality
More than anything, I wish my mother would have helped map the course of her own future. But no matter how tactfully I approached the topic of assisted living — and offered to schedule tours of the best facilities — she’d look at me as if I’d asked her to move to the Outer Hebrides with nothing but a toothbrush.
Regardless, I researched several senior housing options on my own. And just as the doctors had predicted, the decision was made for us — after yet another trip to the ER with Mom in December of 2011.
The research I’d done earlier made our next step a little easier. While my mother recovered from heart surgery at the hospital, my husband and I put a deposit on a studio apartment at an assisted living residence near our home. We moved her there the day she was released from rehab.
By this time, Mom’s dementia had progressed to the point where she couldn’t remember that she’d had surgery and spent weeks in the hospital. I tried to preserve her dignity while sugar-coating the progressive dementia issue. I reminded her that her health and safety were our biggest concerns. Through it all, she insisted she was “perfectly capable” of caring for herself at home.
And how could I blame her for denying reality? Lately, I wish I could rewrite the whole scenario, too.
The grieving process
Saddest of all, dementia robbed Mom’s interest in almost everything she once enjoyed — Early American history, needlework, reading, lunch with friends. And clothes shopping.
In her prime, Mom had elevated bargain shopping to an art form, taking pleasure in scouting for gifts for people she loved. Even when I reached middle age, she’d insist on purchasing a new item of clothing for me whenever the seasons changed.
Which brings me back to the black sweater I mentioned at the start.
Ten years ago, Mom knew I’d been hunting for such a sweater — a classic black cardigan that would bridge the seasons. I’d shopped at several stores in two malls — but with no luck. I’d nearly given up when I discovered a T. J. Maxx shopping bag hanging from the side door of my house one afternoon. In it was the perfect black cotton sweater, which Mom had found on sale at one of her favorite haunts.
When I rediscovered it last month, my unexpected tears released a tsunami of mixed emotions.
Until then, I’d been raging inwardly at the dementia that had devoured my mother’s mind and rendered her incapable of making her own decisions. I hadn’t fully realized that I was grieving the loss of my “real” mother — the woman who had shared her wisdom and recipes, encouraged my career, babysat my son, and took delight in buying me new clothes.
Facing the unfixable
The ongoing nightmare of dementia is hard to explain to others who haven’t walked through this dark tunnel with a parent or a spouse. Whether you’re talking about Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia, helping a loved one with a memory loss disorder isn’t the same as nursing a heart condition or a broken limb.
“With memory loss disorders, there is no comfort to be found in hoping for future recovery or improvement,” writes Leeza Gibbons in Take Your Oxygen First, an excellent guide to caring for a loved one with memory loss.
“If we don’t grieve for what we have lost, we can’t experience what we have now,” Gibbons goes on to explain. “In the end, life isn’t about choosing what happens to us; we only get to choose how to respond to it.”
As I write this, Mom is in a nursing rehab facility after fracturing her back at her assisted living residence last month. Her team of physical therapists can’t determine, at this point, if she’ll learn how to walk again. She is twice as fearful and confused. I do my best to remain strong for her, though I’m often exhausted, hopeless, and resentful — and ashamed for feeling that way, too.
In my better moments, I learn everything I can about my mother’s health problems and advocate for her 24/7. I’ve also learned to guard my own health — and my time — knowing that I’m not the only one who depends on both.
Meanwhile, the black sweater serves as an emblem of my mother’s best years; a tangible reminder of her former self. But I doubt that I’ll wear it again. It doesn’t wrap around me as well as it did when Mom first gave it to me — as if to remind me that I’m not the same woman I was 10 years ago. – Cindy La Ferle
For tips on dealing with caregiver stress from the Mayo Clinic, click here.
Cindy La Ferle on March 1st, 2013
Originally published on March 1, 1998, this piece was assigned by The Christian Science Monitor to honor the birthday of Dr. Seuss. It’s included in my essay collection, Writing Home, now available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon.
It was the late 1950s, and he put the fun back in reading when he booted Dick and Jane out of my neighborhood. To me, he was (and still is) the wizard of words, the “gandorious” great-uncle of terrific tongue-twisters.
To many adults who have since become parents, he’s a beloved household icon. His rhymes have thrilled more young bookworms than even he could have imagined. And nobody could imagine things quite like Theodore Seuss Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss.
His influence is so awesome, in fact, that March 2 — Geisel’s birthday — is designated “Cat in the Hat Day.” Endorsing the holiday, the National Education Association suggests we celebrate by reading to a child tomorrow evening.
Starting in 1937, when he wrote and illustrated his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Geisel found his niche churning out tales of the weird and the whimsical, populating them with squawking fish and top-hatted cats. Even today, few other children’s authors can tickle a four-year-old funny bone as swiftly as Dr. Seuss. Which is why it’s hard to believe that this creator of nerkles and nerds had no kids of his own. Yet he penned 47 children’s books — and sold more than 100 million copies in more than a dozen languages.
Geisel was born in 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father was a brewer who ran a zoo during Prohibition — a zoo that undoubtedly provided endless fodder for young Geisel’s fantasies. (Geisel, by the way, coined the term “nerd” in If I Ran the Zoo.) In 1925 he graduated from Dartmouth, where he’d drawn cartoons for a humor magazine. While studying literature at Oxford in England, he met Helen Palmer, an American literature student who encouraged him to pursue an art career. For a while he drifted in Paris.
In 1927 he came back to the states to marry Helen Palmer. Though he had planned to write novels, the Depression temporarily derailed his art career, and he resumed writing gags for humor magazines. Though his first attempts to publish had been difficult, by the late 1950s “Dr. Seuss” was producing nearly two children’s books a year. Delighting young baby boomers and their parents, Horton Hears a Who was published in 1954, followed by How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat in 1957.
After Helen Palmer’s death in 1967, Geisel married Audrey Dimond and acquired two stepdaughters. He died in 1991 at eighty-seven, with his family at his bedside.
“His contribution was making reading fun again,” says Laurie Harris, a Pleasant Ridge parent and series editor of Biography Today for young readers. “The rhythm and warmth of his words stay in a child’s head forever.”
“I like nonsense,” Geisel once said. “It wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living; it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.”
But as every fan discovers, Geisel’s “nonsense” isn’t just for kids. His stories are laced with sophisticated messages and illuminating parables, which is why they’re so much fun to read aloud – with or without children. The Butter Battle Book, for example, tackles the perils of the atomic age. Meanwhile, the uproarious Cat in the Hat gets into big trouble, yet somehow manages to redeem himself and straighten out his messes.
Whether we’re nine or seventy-nine, after all, there are many horrific hills to climb and, yes, incredible kooks to reckon with. — Cindy La Ferle, March 1, 1998
MARCH IS NATIONAL READING MONTH. WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO CELEBRATE?