For women of certain age, the folding of More magazine last month was a major disappointment, but not a big surprise. Few magazine editors know how to meet our needs or cater to our interests these days — and fewer advertisers represent us fairly. That’s my topic this month in Michigan Prime, delivered with your Sunday Detroit Free Press this weekend. To read the column online, please click here and flip to page 4.
“But she wasn’t around, and that’s the thing when your parents die: You feel like instead of going in to every fight with backup, you are going into every fight alone.” ― Mitch Albom, For One More Day
No matter how old you are, losing a parent is a difficult rite of passage. In the April issue of Michigan Prime, I talk about facing life changes in midlife after your last parent dies. Look for the magazine in your Sunday Detroit Free Press this weekend. Click here to read “The Last Goodbye” in the online edition, on page 4.
“Despite social media, between two-thirds and three-fourths of Americans believe there is more loneliness in today’s society than there used to be, and feel they have fewer meaningful relationships than they did five years ago.” — Shasta Nelson, Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness.
In “Rebooting the Buddy System” — this month in Michigan Prime — I discuss the benefits of rebuilding our social circles in midlife and beyond.
What began as my usual 575-word monthly column ultimately morphed into a full-length feature based on interviews with friendship experts and responses from dozens of readers in the target audience. Look for Prime in your March 6 (Sunday) Detroit Free Press. Click here and flip to page 5 to read the piece online.
Photo: My neighbor pals at a holiday gathering, December 2015. I’m in the back row, far right (red hair).
Is this National Chronic Pain Month? I’ve been battling deep pain in my right hip — 14 years after it was replaced — and several of my friends are recovering from surgery or dealing with other painful health issues. With that in mind, I’m posting an earlier essay I wrote after my last hip replacement surgery. . . .
THE GIFT OF RECEIVING
August 29, 2002
A few years ago, when I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both hips, I read everything I could find about coping with chronic pain and illness. I was amazed at how often I’d stumble on a paragraph that advised patients to “look for the gift in your pain.”
Pain is a gift? Thanks, but no thanks, I’d mutter to myself. I had just turned 44 and hadn’t planned on slowing down so soon. I still had miles to travel with my journalism career — and a family that included a very active teenager. If pain was my gift, well, where was the return policy?
Within a year of my diagnosis, the disease progressed so quickly that total hip replacement surgery was my only option. By that time, I was unable to walk without assistive devices. Even on a good day, it hurt so much to crawl out of bed that I refused to unplug my heating pad and leave the house. Suddenly I was disabled – and even qualified for a “handicapped” parking permit.
Having been fit and active most of my adult life, I was way too proud to let others watch me struggle on a walker. I hated to appear needy. I started canceling lunch dates and appointments, and tried to hide behind a steely mask of self-sufficiency.
But my closest friends and family didn’t buy any of it. And it was through their patience and love that I finally discovered the “gift” in chronic pain: It slowly unravels your pride and opens you to the boundless generosity of other people.
“Surrender is no small feat in a culture that applauds the strong, the independent, and the self-sufficient,” writes Victorian Moran in Creating A Charmed Life: Sensible Spiritual Secrets Every Busy Woman Should Know (HarperSanFrancisco). “That heroic stuff is fine when the problem is something we can handle through our own self-sufficiency. But nobody climbs a mountain alone.”
Of course, stubborn self-reliance isn’t the sole province of the disabled.
Most women I know pride themselves on being nurturers, fixers, problem-solvers, givers. We’ll supply all the brownies for the bake sale at school after we’ve organized the rummage sale at church. We’ll rearrange our schedules to baby-sit other people’s kids. Just ask, and we’ll triple our workload at the office and still make it to the evening PTA meeting. Yet some of us would rather have a wisdom tooth pulled than ask somebody else for a favor when we need it. As a girlfriend told me recently, “It’s my job to be the glue that holds everyone and everything together. I can’t ask for help.”
The truth is, people who care about us really do want to help — if only we’d drop the mask of total self-sufficiency and admit that we’re not all-powerful all the time.
Discussing the aftermath of September 11 and the clean-up at Ground Zero, a talk show host suggested that if anything positive rose from the ashes of the tragedy, it was that America quickly evolved from a “Me” nation into a “We” nation. As she explained it, even the most self-absorbed among us realized that we cannot function as loners or islands. We need each other.
It was a good lesson for me to review immediately after my first hip replacement surgery. Strapped to a hospital bed and hooked up to several intravenous tubes, I was hit with the sobering reality that I wasn’t going anywhere by myself.
And during the early weeks of my recovery, I had no choice but to graciously accept support from my family and friends. When my husband processed mountains of laundry at home, I tried not to feel guilty. When our neighbors sent casseroles or offered to drive my carpool shift to school, I swallowed my pride and allowed their care to work like a healing balm. And it did.
As hard as it was to surrender, I discovered there’s real strength in vulnerability.
Deep down, I still believe it’s more blessed to give than to receive. And I still believe that putting the needs of others first isn’t such a bad precept to live by — unless it renders you incapable of accepting a favor or asking for help when you really need it.
Nobody climbs her mountain alone.
— This essay is excerpted from my book of published columns and essays, Writing Home (Hearth Stone Books; 2005). It was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul (Healthy Living Series) and reprinted in Catholic Digest, April 2007. It was also featured on Sirius Catholic Radio.
Throwback Thursday …. This piece was first published in Literary Mama in 2005, my first year as an empty nester.
Spring is just a few weeks away, yet the barren landscape outside my office window looks more like the moon than southeast Michigan. Mounds of brittle, gray snow flank the curb, and the sidewalk shimmers with black ice. Only diehard neighbors stick to their evening jogging routines. Spring is just a mirage.
On the liturgical calendar, it is the Lenten season. According to T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Ash Wednesday,” it is the time between “dying and birth.” It is not the ideal time to face a changing identity, pending menopause, a stalled career, or a recently emptied nest. It is the time of year when, despite my better judgment, my cheerful disposition is easily frayed.
Lately my writing life seems like a long wait in line at the post office. And it’s not that I’m seriously blocked. Just lonely.
For the past five months, my only child has been happily settled in his cramped dormitory room at a university in another state. I’m still adjusting to the hollow echo of his oddly clean and empty bedroom, looking for remnants of my old self — my mothering self — in the bits and pieces he left behind. The family calendar in our kitchen has some vacant spaces, too, and is no longer buried under neon-color sticky notes announcing band concerts, Quiz Bowl meets, school conferences, and carpool schedules. I’ve become what our high school mothers’ club refers to as one of the “Alumni Moms.”
Empty nesting is harder on mothers who work at home — mothers who stare into a computer monitor until the garden thaws in mid-April and children migrate home from college. This age-old ritual, cavalierly termed “letting go” by most parenting experts, is the final frontier for those of us who’ve made child rearing a major focus of our adult lives.
“You need to leave your comfort zone. Use your gifts in the community,” urged the pastor. In other words, do unto others and get over yourself. Which is how I ended up working a busy afternoon shift at a warming shelter for the homeless.
Answering a need during the cruel winter months, a small church in my neighborhood opens its kitchen and dining room to approximately 50 homeless men and women at a time. Job counselors and social workers volunteer their expertise to those who struggle with substance abuse or unemployment (or both). Parishioners are recruited to serve meals, scrub sticky tables, pour pots of black coffee, and perform simple clerical tasks for the under-staffed warming center.
The visiting homeless are required to wear nametags. Before starting my first shift, I was advised to call each person by name and to refer to the group as “guests.”
I have worked with the homeless in other circumstances. But I am always a bit shy at first. These people – the guests — have formed their own community, complete with its own set of rules and rhythms. Many of them know each other after weeks or months of sharing sandwiches and unrolling sleeping bags in the same church basements and overnight shelters. I am an outsider in their midst; a white journalist from planet Suburbia. I feel inept and alien when confronted by so much horrific need, yet I have come to serve, and in a small way, to mother.
My first assignment was to ladle out steaming heaps of boiled ham and potatoes to each hungry guest who had lined up at the serving table.
That day, there were close to fifty, mostly men. Most were eager to talk and visibly grateful for a free meal. I was taken aback, initially, at the way each guest wanted me to spoon his portion onto a plate and hand it to him. Not a single person would take the plates I had already filled and set on the table in the interest of moving the line more quickly.
Nearby, in a cluttered corner that served as makeshift office space for the center, another volunteer was keeping company with a guest whose nametag read “Marian.” Aloof and unkempt, Marian flashed angry, intelligent brown eyes and wore a burgundy wool cap over her brow. Playing a game of Scrabble on the office computer, she didn’t mix with the other guests, nor did she want to converse with my fellow volunteer. Her body language wasn’t hard to translate: Keep out. Don’t touch. My heart is not open for business or charity. She didn’t look up when we asked if she wanted a hot lunch or dessert. Fixed on the computer screen, she mumbled something about a candy bar she had eaten earlier, and declined our offer.
One by one, all the guests except Marian were served, and I was told by the center organizer that it was time to clear the tables for dessert. I began my assignment quickly, grateful once again for the focus required of even the simplest domestic routines.
Then, suddenly, a voice.
“Excuse me, excuse me?”
I barely heard her over the metallic clatter of roasting pans and serving utensils. It was Marian, the Scrabble player. Without turning from the screen, Marian repeated her question, more audibly this time, to anyone within earshot: “How do you spell fragile?”
Slowly, carefully, my fellow volunteer voiced the letters aloud and repeated them: F-R-A-G-I-L-E.
Returning to the kitchen with an armload of dishes, I reconsidered the word and what it meant. I recalled how carelessly I’d been using the adjective to define or describe the strange terrain of my new empty nest. And how, in a single instant, its meaning, its very etymology, had changed forever. — Cindy La Ferle, March 2005
This essay was originally published in Literary Mama, and is included in the print anthology, Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined (copyright 2006; Seal Press).« go back — keep looking »