The family paper trail

Earlier this week, a student in my writing workshop read a wonderful essay about working as a newspaper carrier when he was a boy. It brought back a memory of a column I wrote for The Daily Tribune when my son was in high school. I promised I’d post this after our class discussion on nostalgia pieces. Here you go, Jim …

Newspaper careers seem to run in families. My great-great grandfather was a foreign correspondent based in Washington D.C., and while my work isn’t nearly as glamorous, I must have inherited his passion for newsprint. And I shouldn’t have been surprised this year when my son Nate decided to run for the editorship of his high school newspaper – and won.

DSCN6643I’ve always been careful not to push Nate in the direction of my own journalism career, but I discovered early on that printer’s ink runs in his blood, too. As soon as he turned twelve, the kid begged for his own paper route. His dad and I were ambivalent at first — and secretly relieved to learn that no routes for the local daily were available. But following a major blizzard that winter, Nate got a call with the good news: A route had opened up in our neighborhood. He couldn’t wait to get started.

“I hope you know what you’re getting into,” another parent warned me. “Not only are you writing for the paper, Cindy, but you’ll be delivering it, too.”

Soon after, mile-high stacks of freshly printed newspapers and ad supplements arrived daily on our porch. Rubber bands, plastic bags, and other delivery doodads littered every surface in the house.

In retrospect, I think it was worth the hassle. The smart-alecky seventh-grader got a sharp taste of the business world. He learned that customers expected his product on time, regardless of whether he was late from school or had “tons of math homework.” He discovered that readers were paying for the convenience of home delivery, not for papers tossed in puddles on the sidewalk. He learned the diplomacy required of every bill collector, as well as how to balance accounts when money was due. This was real-life math.

He also found that the biggest challenge for any newspaper carrier is crawling out of bed before sunrise on Sunday mornings – hours before the local pastors have opened their Bibles. Though Nate covered his own route on weekdays, his dad and I helped deliver the bulkier Sunday papers at dawn. Other parents told us we were spoiling the kid by chauffeuring him block to block when we could have been sleeping in, but I never saw it that way.

There was magic in those Sunday mornings. Since I’ve never been an early riser, it was a rare gift to watch the sun rise. In the summer, especially, the color show was spectacular – neon streaks of lavender, orange, and gold flashing above scarlet treetops on the suburban skyline. As each bundled newspaper hit its targeted porch, it also struck me that my relationship with this gangly boy had morphed overnight into a tug-of-war between my moody middle age and his stubborn adolescence. His boyhood was ending too quickly.  

“Please… slow… down!” I’d holler as he frantically scaled porch steps, two by two, trying to finish the route before 9:00 a.m.

The cheerful camaraderie we’d shared in the early grade-school years had recently given way to recurring battles over household messes and Internet use, but during the time we worked the neighborhood route we were back on common ground. If only for an hour or so a week, we were a team again.

To everyone’s surprise, Nate kept that job for nearly two years, quitting it only because homework and high school commitments had to take priority. It was a learning experience for the whole family. We never rushed home after the last paper was delivered, but made a special ritual of stopping for hot chocolate and hash browns. The rest of the day, and its deadlines, could wait. — Cindy La Ferle, June 21, 2003

A slightly different version of this column was first published in The Daily Tribune (Royal Oak) on June 21, 2003, and later reprinted in my essay collection, Writing Home.

Keep telling your stories

DSCN5701Today’s quote is for the students who attended my three-part “WRITING IT REAL” workshop series at the Royal Oak Public Library. All of you inspired me with your courageous essays and conversation. Thank you for spending the time with me. I found this excerpt in one of Martha Beck’s blog posts last week and thought of all of you …

“Toni Morrison said that ‘the function of freedom is to free someone else.’ This is the final step necessary for keeping your heart at liberty, and you do it in just one way: by telling your story. However you do it—a journal, an artistic creation, the pictures you hang on your walls, or the way you raise your children—telling your story demolishes the barriers between your heart and the outside world. I won’t lie: This means that your heart will be exposed and, yes, broken. But it’s important to remember that a heart is imprisoned not by being broken but by being silenced. There will be people who won’t like what you say. It’s going to hurt—and it’s going to heal… As you learn to live by heart, every choice you make will become another way of telling your story, finding your tribe, and liberating not only your heart but the hearts of others. This is the very definition of love, the process that makes people and societies capable of true humanity.”Martha Beck

Back to the garden

A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself.”  ~May Sarton

I’m taking time off to work in the garden, so I’ll leave you with one of my gardening essays. This one was published in Victoria magazine, March 2010. I’ll be back next week after a few more trips to the nursery ….

ZEN AND THE ART OF MIDLIFE GARDENING

Last spring, members of our Oakland County Master Gardener Society invited me to speak at one of their meetings. I was honored, at first, but as soon as the date of the talk rolled around, I started getting nervous. And with good reason.

Master Gardeners aren’t just fooling around with bulbs and Miracle-Gro. These folks earn a minimum of 40 hours of instruction in horticulture science. Meeting for at least 11 weeks, they take classes in caring for indoor and outdoor plants; establishing lawns; growing vegetables and fruit trees. I bow to their expertise.

Sure, I’ve written a few magazine essays and newspaper columns on my romance with plants and flowers. I’ve shared back-yard memories of sweet peas and apple trees and my grandfather’s ferns. But set me loose with a shovel, and I’m a dangerous amateur with a record of murdering rose bushes and planting azaleas in the wrong spot.

Regardless, the kindly president of our Master Gardener Society assured me that his group of green thumbs would be open to anything I had to say about writing and gardening. They would humor me — and even offer some tips on deadheading tulips. Somewhat relieved as I prepared for the talk, it occurred to me that gardens have taught me many valuable lessons. At this stage of my life, especially, gardening is rich with metaphor.

Five years ago, when my husband and I turned 50, our only child left home for college. That same year, we also lost several stately maple trees to disease. The removal of those trees wreaked havoc on our back yard: The lawn was totally destroyed and the surrounding beds were trampled. Not a single root or shoot was left of the delicate woodland shade perennials – trillium, Solomon’s seal, or bleeding heart – that I’d collected over the years.

As every gardener knows, the natural world reminds us that change and upheaval are part of the master plan. Likewise, our bulldozed back yard reflected my emotional state as I adjusted to the changes in my menopausal body and my newly emptied nest. For a while, I felt uprooted in my own household. Yet it also occurred to me that when a new space opens up – by choice or by accident – you have an opportunity to try something else; something you couldn’t do before.

A Japanese garden had been at the top of my wish list for several years, but until all those dead trees were removed, I’d never had the right spot for my dream garden. And so, with the help of a landscaping team, I created a path and some raised beds for my meditation garden, which now includes a small wooden bridge and a dry river of beach stones my husband and I collected from Lake Michigan. The garden has become an outdoor sanctuary, a peaceful escape from deadlines and the clutter inside our home. It’s also living proof that middle age can be a signpost to a new life — not just the end of our greener years.

At the end of my talk, I reminded the Master Gardeners that I often struggle with acute writer’s block, or fallow time. I would guess that anyone who’s been doing the same work for so many years does too. Fallow time is the desert where ideas shrivel and evaporate, if they sprout at all. Fallow time is the waiting season, the creative slump, when black moods hover like pending thunderstorms.  But we can turn to the garden for another lesson.

Michigan winters are incredibly long and dull. For those of us who battle the blues, it’s easy to believe that spring might forget us on its way north. But just when things can’t get any gloomier, usually in early April, along comes a balmy 60-degree day — a day drenched in the scent of moist earth, tulip bulbs, and tender new grass waking up. Suddenly, a glimmer of hope breaks through, melting all those months of doubt and dejection. The frozen river thaws. Possibility stirs. And that when I know it’s time to grab my tools, dig in, and begin again. — Cindy La Ferle

–Reprinted from Victoria magazine. All garden photos copyrighted by Cindy La Ferle. Please click on each photo for a larger view. —

From memory to memoir

writinghomesmallTo kick off its three-part Spring Writing Series, the Royal Oak Public Library is featuring my workshop, From Memory to Memoir: How to Write and Publish Your Life Stories on Monday, March 24 at 7:00 p.m.  Focusing on personal essays as well as book-length memoirs, we’ll discuss how to avoid the common pitfalls of this popular genre. Copies of my personal essay collection, Writing Home, will be available at a special discount. The event is free to the public — but reservations are required.

NEXT WEEK: I’ll be part of a professional panel discussion on blogging for writers. Contact the Royal Oak Public Library for details.

A cookbook memoir

Sometimes I suggest family recipes as points of entry for writing a memoir. Does your Italian grandmother’s pasta sauce stir up memories of holiday gatherings? Do you recall your kid brother’s grin every time you bake the oatmeal cookies he loved? Using this approach, some writers end up compiling cookbooks laced with treasured family stories and traditions.

IMG_1219Anyone can turn a memoir into a work of art by combining keepsakes and recipes. For inspiration on how to start this type of project (shown at left), you might want to visit my new art blog. Please click here to learn more.

Speaking of memoirs, I’ll be teaching an evening class on memoir writing at the Royal Oak Public Library on March 24, and participating as a panelist in a discussion on blogging on March 31. Complete details on the ROPL’s Spring Writing Series (including how to register for the classes) are included in this feature on Royal Oak Patch.

Photo: “House Wife” (an altered book) by Cindy La Ferle