Archive for the ‘Columns & essays’ Category
Cindy La Ferle on December 14th, 2013
Most people have less than perfect holiday gatherings — they have family tension, melancholy, and dry turkey too.” — WebMD article
Christmas is my least favorite holiday, and I’m no longer ashamed to admit it. In newspapers across the country and in blogs throughout cyberspace, scores of fellow grinches are expressing their Yuletide angst. And you know there’s something to it when health and medical Web sites like WebMD publish serious articles on how to survive this stressful season.
My annual winter holiday dread has little to do with religion. In fact, at this point in time, Christmas itself has little to do with religion. Christmas has become a performance art; a commercially manufactured event designed to benefit our nation’s retailers. Even worse, it’s a form of emotional blackmail — cleverly repackaged with Martha Stewart trimmings.
Originally a pre-Christian Roman celebration known as Saturnalia, December 25th was converted to Jesus’s birthday celebration by the Roman Catholic Church. What started out as a rowdy solstice festival involving the lighting of torches, drinking to excess, and doing all manner of wild things to chase away winter’s darkness has slowly evolved into a rowdy Christian festival involving the lighting of torches, drinking to excess, and doing all manner of wild things to chase away winter’s darkness.
So there you have it. Just don’t accuse people like me of being sacrilegious for wishing the holiday would melt away quietly with the weekend snowfall. Regardless, as Garrison Keillor once said, Christmas is “compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all get through it together.”
We feel steamrolled by the sheer force of family tradition. The key is to take some control over the holidays, instead of letting them control you.” — WebMD
Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve come to believe about Christmas — plus how I’ve learned to cope with it and (sort of) enjoy it:
*Giving to a favorite charity always restores my drooping holiday spirit. When the bah-humbugs start biting, there are two antidotes: (1) Roll up my sleeves and help someone who needs me. (2) Pull out the checkbook and make a donation to a good cause.
*I remind myself that it’s not my job as a woman (or a family member) to make Christmas merry for everyone. Seriously, we all must STOP relying on women — usually the elderly — to keep cranking the Christmas Machine for us. Either we all contribute to the festivities — in any way we can — or settle for the holiday we get. Unless you’re still in college, you’re too old to hold your mom, your grandma, or your aunts totally responsible for your holiday happiness.
*I resist the pressure to bake and I’ve stopped feeling guilty about it. I love to cook, but I’m not a baker. This is the secret to holiday weight loss. I even purchase pre-made pie crust for our Christmas morning quiche, and nobody seems to mind. My lack of participation in the annual cookie exchange doesn’t mean I don’t admire everyone’s Yuletide talents. Just not my thing.
*When Christmas makes me sad or angry, I remember I’m not alone. I’ve grown more sensitive to the fact that many people are grieving losses (including death, health crises, and divorce) during the holidays. With its glaring focus on family unity, Christmas illuminates all the vacancies at the holiday table as well as any emotional distance that separates us from extended family. Talking with my friends, I’ve learned that almost everyone is facing some sort of holiday change or challenge, and is trying to make the best of it. Nobody’s having loads more fun than anyone else.
*I can decorate the way I want, and stuff the rest in the attic. Every year, Doug banks our fireplace mantel with evergreens, pheasant feathers, twigs, and twinkle lights. It’s a set-designer’s fantasy that delights everyone who sees it — especially me. That tradition is a keeper. But over the years I’ve pared down to a few sentimental treasures, including a sterling silver bell (dated 1985) that was given to us by a dear friend when our son Nate was born. In recent years, Doug and I have lost interest in putting up a Christmas tree — which baffles some holiday visitors. We reserve the right to change our minds in the future.
*I do something ordinary, with people I know and love. Forced merriment is not my idea of a good time. Even with people I like. So I have to question the need to cram our calendars with “special events” between December and January. Why not spread the love throughout the year? Likewise, I enjoy giving gifts — but not under pressure and not all at once. What touches me more are the simple, reliable, consistent efforts made all year ’round by my nearest and dearest. I’m nourished by un-fussy gatherings with both friends and relatives who don’t expect me to turn myself into a pretzel just because it’s Christmas.
*I’ve lowered my expectations and welcomed the new. Nobody will ever throw a Christmas party like my Scottish immigrant grandparents did when I was a kid. But I usually encounter a dash of their old-country energy and gregarious spirit at the Christmas Eve open house hosted by my son’s Croatian mother-in-law every year. Following my grandparents’ example, I try to bring some Celtic cheer (and a bottle of Bailey’s) to every party I attend. That said, I also privately acknowledge the times I feel mournful or alone — even in a big roomful of partying people.
*I’ve accepted the fact that I’ve finally grown up. I cannot return to the home of my childhood Christmases (the house was sold years ago). My beloved father has been dead for more than 20 years, and my mother’s dementia has progressed to the point where she doesn’t know it’s Christmas. My son Nate is 28 years old now, and married to a woman we all adore. As much as I love to recall the memory of Nate’s first train set chugging around the tree when he was small, our family’s early traditions and special moments cannot be recreated or reenacted. And that’s the way life is supposed to work — every month, every day, of each beautiful year we’re given. We grow, we change, we endure, we mature, we move on … Glory be.
– Photography and artwork by Cindy La Ferle –
Cindy La Ferle on December 11th, 2013
Most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of a witness.” ~Margaret Millar
Like many of the items at The Leaping Lizard gift shop in Traverse City, Mich., the talking feather is steeped in Native American lore. The moment I spotted it, I knew I had to own it.
Attached to a thin leather cord, the feather is nicely embellished with strands of brightly colored beads. But the legend printed on the card that came with it is what cinched my decision to buy it:
“When crowds gathered and conversation grew louder, it was hard to hear one speaker, so the person wishing to address the crowd was passed ‘the talking feather.’ It was held above the crowd to signify that the person had the floor as speaker.”
I’m no expert on Native Americana, so I can’t vouch for the authenticity of this charming legend. Regardless, it occurs to me that — given a fair chance — the talking feather could restore the dying art of two-way conversation.
I won’t even touch on political discussions in Washington. But just imagine what would happen if you brought the talking feather to family gatherings — especially during the holidays — where several conversations are carried on simultaneously, in competition with televised football games. Every in-law would be entitled to speak his mind while the rest of the family would listen intently, the room hushed. The magic words, “Please pass the talking feather,” would enable everyone to get a word in edgewise. There would be fewer interruptions and better digestion.
And imagine how different things would be if everyone carried a talking feather to work. Colleagues would air opinions more carefully, taking time to breathe between sentences. Inspiration would have a chance to percolate at morning coffee breaks.
What if I carried the talking feather in my purse, or hung it around my neck, to remind myself to think carefully before speaking?
In any type of social situation, the well-timed use of a talking feather could silence — at least temporarily — the ramblers, egotists, narcissists, braggarts, jabberwocks, and other conversation dominators who love to hear themselves talk (even if nobody else does). In classrooms, too, teachers could silence a roomful of chatty youngsters with a mere wave of a feather.
A born talker, I’m inclined to interrupt, and sometimes I let my thoughts rush out of my mouth like too much salt from a shaker. I often find myself wishing I could take back the foolish things I’ve said. But what if I carried the talking feather in my purse, or hung it around my neck, to remind myself to think carefully before speaking?
“The right word may be effective,” Mark Twain once said, “but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”
All said and done, good conversation is a reciprocal exchange between people — never a monologue. So here’s a simple test: The next time you leave a holiday party, ask yourself if you’ve spent more time explaining yourself — or learning something new about someone else. Just sayin’.
This is an excerpt from a longer and slightly different essay published in my collection, Writing Home.
Cindy La Ferle on December 8th, 2013
If you do a good job for others, you heal yourself at the same time.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Until my mother was officially diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2009, I wasn’t sure how to deal with her changing behavior. And I didn’t know where to turn, at first, to get the help we’d both need as her disease progressed. I was often frustrated and exhausted — and frightened.
Whether your elderly parent is showing signs of a memory loss disorder or other major health problems, you won’t want to miss Michigan Prime’s 2014 Resource Guide: Special Caregivers’ Issue. My column in this issue recalls how I faced the early stages of my mother’s dementia. The issue also includes an excellent feature and checklist on how to choose an assisted living residence. (You can read my piece on page 6 of the online edition.)
I wish I’d had a resource like Michigan Prime several years ago. And that’s why it’s so important to me to write about caregiving issues today. I hope that my experience — including a few blunders along the way — will serve as a guidepost for others who are starting this difficult journey with their own parents.
Cindy La Ferle on December 5th, 2013
When you discover something that nourishes your soul and brings joy, care enough about yourself to make room for it in your life.” — Jean Shinoda Bolen
Whether you’re caring for a young child or an elderly parent, it’s hard enough to schedule time for your own dental appointments — not to mention a facial or a therapeutic massage.
Like most women I know, I feel a bit guilty when I schedule beauty and spa treatments on my calendar. Luckily, my husband likes to surprise me — on birthdays and holidays — with gift certificates for local pampering. That’s how I ended up cocooned in a terrycloth bathrobe in a spa treatment room at the Douglas J Aveda Institute in Royal Oak earlier this week.
The Douglas J Aveda Institute is a cosmetology school offering a full menu of beauty and spa services, from hair styling to body waxing. For this visit, I chose the Elemental Nature facial and Perfecting Plant Peel, both of which employ heady doses of aromatherapy.
Haley, the student assigned to give my facial, invited me to take a seat in one of the treatment rooms while she filled a metal bowl with warm water for my feet. (A foot soak and massage are always included with Aveda facials.) While my feet soaked, Haley asked a few questions about the health of my skin and what I expected from my facial. We also selected the scented oils to be used in my treatments.
A scented candle flickered on a nearby table stacked with thick white towels. Meanwhile, the obligatory spa music – Native American flute and new-age piano – wafted through the hallway beyond my curtained treatment room. It occurred to me that the modern Asian ambiance of Royal Oak’s Douglas J could easily hold a candle to some of the pricier professional spas I’ve visited on vacations in northern Michigan. Better yet, this escape is less than a 10-minute drive from my house.
My facial also included a hand massage as well as special attention to my neck and chest. And while Haley performed all of the spa services by herself – and was totally professional – her support instructors periodically stopped by to check her progress. This is standard procedure at all Douglas J Institutes, which are part of a statewide Academy of Cosmetology founded by Douglas and Sharon Weaver in 1986. The academy partnered with Aveda in 1993.
Aveda’s spa treatments combine physiological and psychological benefits – and nothing synthetic is used in the products. It’s all about “high touch versus high tech,” with an emphasis on helping each client relax and re-balance.
It’s very affordable, too. My 90-minute Elemental Nature facial/massage was $49, plus $15 with the added Perfecting Plant Peel. (Gratuities are not accepted.) I ended up with a fresher complexion, new skincare tips, and a much brighter outlook on life.
Best of all, for two blissful hours, I hadn’t given a thought to my caregiving duties, or anything else on my to-do list. I enjoyed the experience so much, in fact, that I booked another facial for January — knowing I’ll need a remedy for post-holiday burnout. As author and therapist Brene Brown advises: “We can’t practice compassion with others if we can’t treat ourselves kindly.” Copy that in your day planner.
HOLIDAY TIP: Most Aveda Institutes offer gift certificates for spa services, hair styling, manicures, and pedicures. You might want to mention this to Santa.
Cindy La Ferle on November 25th, 2013
Now in its second printing and available on Kindle, Writing Home is a collection of my published magazine essays and family newspaper columns. Awarded several prizes for creative nonfiction, it’s been dubbed “a love letter to home and family life.” If you enjoy my personal blog and current newspaper essays, you might appreciate this collection of earlier memoirs, too.
To read excerpts, reviews, and the new introduction to the Kindle edition, please click this link and visit the book’s page on Amazon.
To purchase Writing Home locally, visit The Yellow Door Art Market, where you’ll find a wonderful selection of other Michigan books and gifts for everyone on your list.