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My newest book, Writing Home, is currently available on Amazon.com. Proceeds from new book sales are donated to organizations serving the homeless in Oakland County, Mich.
Writing Home is also available at the Yellow Door Art Market in downtown Berkley, Mich.
Cindy La Ferle on November 9th, 2013
It takes a long time to grow an old friend.” — John Leonard
True friends occupy the top of my gratitude list this Thanksgiving. I can’t imagine where I’d be without the dear ones who chatted past midnight in college, coached me through my pregnancy, or held my hand at my dad’s funeral. And most of all, I cherish the troopers who still show up for emergencies as well as holiday parties.
As we age, our friendships change. As Irene Levine, PhD points out, finding the time to maintain strong friendships — and knowing where to look for new ones — can be challenging in our middle years. That’s the topic of my November column in Prime, which includes some helpful tips on friendship from Dr. Levine, also known as “The Friendship Doctor.” If you subscribe to the Sunday Detroit News and Free Press, look for a print copy in your November 10 edition. Click here and flip to page 12 to read it online.
Researching this topic for my column, I ran across lots of good material on friendship, in addition to Dr. Levine’s blog. Here are just a few articles you might enjoy:
On friends you should fire: http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikaandersen/2012/11/17/3-kinds-of-false-friends-you-must-fire-from-your-life/
From Psychology Today: What makes a true friend: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/happiness-in-world/201002/what-makes-true-friend
Why it’s hard to make friends after 30: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/fashion/the-challenge-of-making-friends-as-an-adult.html?_r=1&
Must read: On friendship and paybacks in the Wall Street Journal.
Cindy La Ferle on November 2nd, 2013
So I’ll try to see into your eyes right now, and stay right here, ’cause these are the good old days.” — Carly Simon, “Anticipation”
My grown son, who’s married and lives in Chicago, is back in town with his wife for a friend’s wedding. It’s a short weekend visit, but I plan to enjoy every minute of it.
This morning I recalled an earlier autumn homecoming, nine years ago, when Nate first left the state for college. As a brand-new empty nester, I’d been anticipating his fall break and return home. I looked forward to being Mom again, if only for a few days.
Two weeks earlier, I channeled my inner June Cleaver and planned a week’s worth of family meals and favorite snacks. I reorganized my work deadlines, freeing extra time to take him out for lunch at his former haunts. My husband repaired the plaster damage from a roof leak in Nate’s bedroom, and then repainted it.
As soon as our son walked in the side door, the truth hit home: What the kid really needed was a low-key week. Stressed-out from exams, Nate wasn’t expecting a fanfare or fancy dinners. He’d been looking forward to sleeping in and simply hanging out with family and friends. In my efforts to turn his visit into a special event, I’d forgotten that my son didn’t want to feel like a guest in his own home.
Realizing my error, I released my grip and let the week unfurl without a plan.
In retrospect, the high points of that first break were the times we ran a few mundane errands together. Driving around town, between trips to the dry cleaner and the drugstore, we chatted about Nate’s classes, his new friends in the dorm, and the music he was listening to then. College was turning my snarky adolescent boy into a thoughtful young man — and I found myself enjoying his company.
More than wrinkles and gray hair, our kids never fail to remind us of our own aging. Overnight, they morph from preschoolers in OshKosh overalls to college students in size 12 running shoes. Letting go also requires that we accept the fact that time isn’t standing still for any of us.
It’s a sobering thought — and ever more poignant when autumn leaves start to scatter across our doorstep.
Earlier this fall, for instance, I watched from a distance while the neighborhood teens posed for homecoming photographs in their formalwear. Giddy with anticipation, the girls could barely stand still while a group of proud parents focused their cameras. The boys struggled to look comfortable in freshly pressed suits and ties. Their youthful beauty took my breath away, and my heart ached a little.
It occurred to me then that my days of snapping photos of prom gowns and homecoming suits were over. And I wondered: Had I fully experienced those moments, or simply captured them on film to savor later? How often had I dashed mindlessly from one “special” event to the next?
Recalling the lyrics to Carly Simon’s “Anticipation,” I’m struck by the fact that our “good old days” are unfolding right here and right now. But we have to slow down long enough to appreciate them.
It’s a worthy thought to ponder before the onset of the winter holidays – before all of us get tangled up in holiday lights and lists, decorating marathons, and long lines at the malls.
In anticipation of Thanksgiving, I’m adding all things beautifully mundane and uneventful to my gratitude list. I’m counting my commonplace blessings — the bowl of red apples on the kitchen counter; the mischievous cat chasing the pens on my desk; a pot of vegetable soup simmering in my slow cooker; a weekend visit with my son and his wife.
This season I’ll practice coming home to the present moment, to the grace of ordinary days on my calendar.
Cindy La Ferle on October 26th, 2013
The darkness took on a special feel because it was All Hallows’ Eve…. Smoke panted up out of a thousand chimneys like the plumes of funeral parades. From kitchen windows drifted two pumpkin smells: gourds being cut, pies being baked.” – Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree
Halloween always stirs a delicious caldron of memories. Baby boomers are a nostalgic bunch, and most of us can recall at least one costume we wore in grade school. Wearing yards of pink tulle and a homemade foil crown, I dressed up as Miss America when I was in the first grade in 1960. And who could forget trick-or-treating in packs until our pillowcases were too heavy to lug around the block?
While the holiday suffered a lull in the 1970s, the “season of the witch” now competes with Christmastime as the biggest party season of the year. And with all due respect to religious groups refusing to celebrate it, I never thought of Halloween as inherently evil. What most people seem to enjoy about the holiday is the creativity factor.
Stepping over age limits, Halloween extends an open invitation to play dress-up. It inspires us to raid attics and local thrift shops for the most outlandish outfits we can jumble together. If only for one magical night, it gives us permission to drop the dull disguise of conformity.
For wardrobe junkies like me, Halloween is reason enough to hoard pieces of vintage clothing and jewelry that, by all rights, should have been donated to charity ages ago. My husband now refers to our attic as “the clothing museum,” and with good reason. Friends who have trouble rustling up an outfit will often call for help during dress-up emergencies. (“Can I borrow one of your medieval jester hats for a clown costume?” is not an unusual request.) Over the years, in fact, I’ve collected so many crazy hats that we have to store them in a large steamer trunk behind the living room couch. Those hats get the most wear near Halloween, when even the most reserved engineer who visits will try on a pith helmet or a plumed pirate hat and wear it to the dinner table.
And why not? Historically speaking, the holiday has always been a celebration of the harvest, a madcap prelude to the more dignified ceremonials of Thanksgiving.
Halloween’s roots weave back more than 2,000 years to the early Celts of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It was originally known as the festival of Samhain, according to Caitlin Matthews, a Celtic scholar and author of The Celtic Book of Days (Destiny Books). The festival, she explains, marked the end of the farming season and the beginning of the Celtic new year. Lavish banquet tables were prepared for the ancestors, who were believed to pierce the veil between the living and the dead on the eve of Samhain. It was also time to rekindle the bonfires that would sustain the clans in winter.
“In the Christian era,” Matthews writes, “the festival was reassigned to the Feast of All Saints; however, many of the customs surrounding modern Halloween still concern this ancient understanding of the accessibility of the dead.”
And we can thank our Irish immigrants for the jack-o’-lantern, which reputedly wards off evil spirits. This custom evolved from the old practice of carving out large turnips and squash, then illuminating them with candles. The term jack-o’-lantern was derived from a folk tale involving a crafty Irishman named Jack, who outwitted the Devil.
On cool autumn nights, when the moon is bright and leaves scatter nervously across the sidewalk, a bittersweet chill runs up and down my spine.
Like my Celtic ancestors, I’m moved to take stock of how much I’ve accomplished throughout the year, and how many things I’ve left undone. My to-do list is yards long. There are parts of the world I haven’t seen; stories I haven’t written; debts and favors to repay. I marvel at the mellow beauty of the season, which has always been my favorite, but also feel a little sad that one more year is drawing to its close.
All said and done, I like to think of Halloween as the big good-bye party we throw for autumn. All in good fun.
This piece is reprinted from my story collection, Writing Home. For information on where to purchase a copy, click the links at the top of this page. Photos (copyright Cindy La Ferle) show our Halloween decorations over the years.
Cindy La Ferle on October 16th, 2013
At midlife, our hearts and bodies often become increasingly sensitive to things that no longer serve us.” — Christiane Northrup, M.D.
Long before the weird heart palpitations started, my first warning was a never-ending series of medical appointments on my day planner.
Not one of those appointments was for me.
Three years ago, I’d purchased a new day planner to keep track of my widowed mother’s care management. While transferring dates and phone numbers from my previous planner, I noticed I’d driven Mom to nearly 50 medical appointments in less than a year — yet I’d neglected to schedule an annual physical for myself.
Unable to drive due to her progressing vascular dementia, Mom lived alone in her condo then, relying solely on me to help maintain her “independence.” Between regular trips to Mom’s cardiologist, urologist, audiologist, primary care physician, pacemaker clinic, and various surgeons, I was lucky if I could book a free morning to get my teeth cleaned.
Friends told me I was looking tired, but I ignored them (and thought they were being cruel). Months of worry and caregiving were starting to take their toll — yet I was too frantic to notice.
The beat goes on and on
Since March of this year, Mom has fallen twice, first fracturing her back and later shattering her ankle. (By this time, we’d finally made the difficult decision to move her, totally against her wishes, to a skilled nursing care facility.) These episodes required three extended hospital stays and two surgeries — plus weeks of physical therapy.
Meanwhile, I endured two minor surgeries of my own, but ended up spending my recovery time overseeing my mother’s care at the hospital. I would try to care for myself later, I promised.
Visiting Mom at the hospital, I could feel my blood pressure rising every time she insisted she was “perfectly capable” of caring for herself at home. Deluded by the insidious fog of dementia, she refused to believe she’d broken her ankle and was unable to walk — even when we pointed to the cast on her leg.
Over and over, she’d ask: Why are you keeping me here, there is nothing wrong with me … Why can’t I go home now?… When are you taking me home?
By August, I’d developed some alarming new symptoms of my very own — including heart palpitations — and a wretched case of insomnia. My heart would pound for no reason — even while I was relaxing in front of the TV.
It scared the hell out of me, unpredictably, several times a day.
I was terrified enough to finally schedule an appointment with Dr. Paul Ehrmann, my family doctor, who ordered several tests. As Dr. Paul explained it, I’d been living on adrenaline fumes after functioning on “high alert” for the past couple of years.
Taking versus giving
More than one-third of caregivers who provide continuing care for a spouse or another family member are doing so “while suffering poor health themselves,” notes a study cited by the Family Caregiver Alliance (www.caregiver.org). Not surprisingly, middle-aged and older female caregivers are more susceptible to heart disease, hypertension, and depression than those with no caregiving duties. The stats are sobering, so I won’t go on here.
“In many midlife women, heart palpitations are primarily caused by increasing heart energy trying to get in and be embodied in a woman’s life,” explains Christiane Northrup, M.D., author of The Wisdom of Menopause. “My experience has been that our bodies speak to us only when we can’t seem to ‘hear’ them any other way. When issues of love, issues of the soul, or issues of a woman’s unmet passions cry out for attention, they often take the form of heart palpitations.”
Dr. Northrup challenges women to ask what could be weighing heavily on our hearts — including our key relationships. Are friends and loved ones “investing” as much in our emotional bank as we’re investing in theirs? If not, why do we hang on to unbalanced alliances?
Of course, some relationships — family, especially — are not dispensable. I have no choice but to show up for my mother and to manage all aspects of her life, from finances to healthcare. But when others make silly or unfair demands on my time — or ignore my emotional needs — I have every right to question those relationships. My heart depends on it.
“When issues of love, issues of the soul, or issues of a woman’s unmet passions cry out for attention, they often take the form of heart palpitations.” – Christiane Northrup, M.D.
Reading Dr. Northrup’s advice, I also realized I’d been putting everyone else’s needs ahead my own for the past two decades. Starting in early motherhood, I’d completely redesigned my career goals around the schedules of my husband and son. As soon as my son left for college, my widowed mother’s health began failing, throwing me unexpectedly into the role of full-time caregiver again.
Hearing the heart sounds
Once we “listen” to what our hearts are telling us, Dr. Northrup says, our symptoms begin to fade — though it’s always best to have them checked by a physician, as I did.
Even though Mom has been in a nursing home for several months, I have to remind myself that I needn’t worry about her 24/7. Professional caregivers are being paid to tend to her needs.
I’ve also learned that it’s best to avoid visiting her when I’m feeling especially depressed or exhausted. Mom still begs me to take her “home” — which inevitably leads to more heartbreak and frustration for both of us. The social worker at the nursing home has suggested “redirecting” our conversations to focus on happier memories — which rarely works for anxious dementia patients like my mother, but I keep trying.
Though it might seem otherwise, this post isn’t a pity party. I fully accept the privilege of being part of a family — which often includes caring for a chronically ill (or incredibly difficult) elderly parent. I hope it serves as a warning for anyone fulfilling the role of caregiver while navigating her own middle years — years that inevitably present health challenges and other turning points she might ignore at her peril.
It’s time to listen up. Listen to your heart.
The artwork in this essay — “Cycles of the Muse,” by Cindy La Ferle — is featured in The Rust Belt Almanac, a new anthology of art, fiction, and poetry about growth, change and loss in America’s Rust Belt. Copies available for purchase on Amazon.com.
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Cindy La Ferle on October 1st, 2013
The belief in a thing makes it happen.” — Frank Lloyd Wright
Everyone who loves houses enjoys stories about “do overs” and makeovers — so here’s a new one for you. Besides, it’s been a while since I’ve posted news about our second home on the west side of the state.
The past few months have been stressful and exciting for our Frank Lloyd Wright home, designed for industrialist Carl Schultz in 1957. Wright fans appreciate the fact that the house represents the famous architect’s final mark in western Michigan before his death in 1959.
Overlooking a wooded ravine and riverbank in historic St. Joseph, it even came with some of its original Wright-designed furniture.
But the home wasn’t in good repair when we found it.
The day we took ownership five years ago, I was on my knees scrubbing gruesome rust stains in the bathrooms while my husband, Doug, scouted the hallway for more roof leaks. (When you think of a haunted house, you probably conjure images of a crumbling gothic Victorian that only the Addams family could love. But trust me: Even mid-century modern homes can be very scary when they fall into disrepair.)
In other words, the Schultz house needed more than a new roof and a cleaning service. In fact, it was the beauty of the nearby river – along with the leaky roof and plumbing problems – that inspired me to name the house “Runningwater.” Luckily, Doug is a tireless architect, constantly working toward the goal of leaving the Schultz house better than we’d found it.
This spring, Doug launched a massive renovation/restoration project, driving back and forth across the state almost weekly to work with his construction crew. Not a day flew by when he wasn’t on the phone with the construction manager.
I won’t elaborate on the architectural specifics, because you can visit The Carl Schultz House Web site for a complete history of the house and more photos of the renovation process, including the repair and restoration of the original red concrete floors.
Putting it back together
If I’ve learned nothing else over the years, I’ve discovered that architects and construction crews — like newspaper columnists — cannot kick ass without deadlines.
With that in mind, Doug agreed to put our freshly renovated Schultz house on two house tours this fall. The first, a fundraiser for the Symphony League of Southwest Michigan, was held Sunday, September 29th. The second tour — for the national Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy — will be held later this month.
Being the sweet, devoted wife that I am, I volunteered to help Doug redecorate the house — and style it — for its big public debut.
Well, I wish you could have heard me swearing (WTF!? was just for starters) when I arrived at the house on Friday — 48 hours before the first tour. A dozen trucks blocked the driveway. Construction workers had taken over the living room and master bedroom, and construction dust wafted everywhere. All the furniture and accessories were buried under drop cloths and tools, or scattered like roadkill around the driveway. (See top photos.)
The workmen labored on until 7pm the night before the house tour. With the help of a wonderful local housecleaning duo, we all scrubbed and dusted like the devil and somehow managed to put everything back together — excluding the master bedroom and bath — for public viewing. At one point, I looked down and noticed my right foot was bleeding — and I have no idea how it happened.
Once again, I want to emphasize that the two “before” photos at the top were taken last Friday — just 48 hours before the last two photos shown at the end of this post. The second photo, with tool boxes in the foreground, shows another view of the finished room in the bottom photo. You can click on the photos for a larger view.
All said and (almost) done, the hard work on this project has its rewards — the best being the dozens of people on the tour who’ve thanked us for opening our doors and sharing a slice of architectural history.
Meanwhile, I’ve returned home to my old Tudor here in Royal Oak, which is really starting to look like it needs a paint job …
All photos copyrighted by Cindy and Doug La Ferle. Middle photo shows Doug La Ferle (right) with the late Balthazar Korab, who came to photograph the Schultz home in 2010.
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