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).
Are you a perfectionist or a control freak? If so, you’ll relate to my new column in the February issue of Michigan Prime, delivered this weekend with your Sunday Detroit News and Free Press. Click here and flip to page three to read it.
This article was originally published in Michigan Prime, in November 2015.
Your memoir may be the most valuable treasure you leave for your loved ones. Here’s how to get started…
Under each arm he carried a large grocery bag stuffed with old letters, sepia-toned photos and leather-bound journals. When it was his turn to introduce himself to the class, he announced that he hoped to turn the contents of the grocery bags into a “national bestseller.” Then he turned to me and asked if I would look through all the materials and “ghost-write” his memoir. (As I discovered in subsequent workshops, this kind of request wasn’t at all unusual. I had to learn to say “no” as gently as possible.)
For starters, I explained that I wasn’t a biographer – and that nobody else can write our memoirs for us. And I wasn’t in the business of editing or ghostwriting. But I promised to help guide him through the process during our time together in the class.
Written by heart — in our own words — our memoirs probably won’t top the bestseller lists. But they could be the most valuable legacies we bequeath to our loved ones. Luckily, the gentleman with the grocery bags had saved plenty of evidence of a life richly lived. All he needed was the time and the discipline to spin it into a readable story.
Whether your goal is to pen a book-length memoir or a few personal essays, it’s essential to understand the difference between autobiography and memoir.
“Memoir isn’t the summary of a life, it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph is selective in its composition,” William Zinsser explains in On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction (Harper Perennial).
In other words, your autobiography would document your entire life, starting with, say, your first memory of nursery school and chronicling events up to the present. A memoir, on the other hand, would focus tightly on a peak experience or turning point, starting with, say, the brittle November afternoon your father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, or the day you quit your office job to work at a rodeo.
Mining your buried treasure
Like the man with the grocery bags brimming with souvenirs, most new memoirists are overwhelmed by the thought of choosing which stories to share – or where to begin. The following tips usually subdue their fears and help plow through writers’ block at various points along the way.
- Silence your inner critic and write freely. Your first order of business is to get words on paper or on the computer. Worry about editing and packaging the final product after you’ve written a first draft. (See #8.)
- Take small bites. Start with a series of short personal essays, each on a different experience. Gathered together, these could be expanded as chapters in your book.
- Be a family archaeologist. Unearth old memories while exploring keepsakes and heirlooms. Choose one item, then write about how you acquired it and what it means to you.
- Get cooking. Use a family recipe as a prompt and write the memories it stirs. My Scottish grandmother’s shortbread recipe, for instance, is redolent of her old-country proverbs and family gatherings.
- Brush up your interview skills. Talk with elders in your family, asking them to share anything from a favorite love song to war stories.
- Use sensory detail and proper names. Turn to family photo albums if you need visual reminders of former homes, cars, and clothing styles.
- Avoid aimless rambling, no matter how poetic. Your memoir will be more engaging if it imparts wisdom or a life lesson. Let your stories reveal who you are.
- Read published memoirs; observe how other writers craft their work. Ask your librarian for recommendations.
- Polish your gems. Proofread your final draft to catch errors of fact, spelling or grammar. Show your work to friends or family members if you’re worried about getting stories straight.
The ultimate reward
Once you’ve committed a few memories to the page, you’re entitled to feel proud of your accomplishment. Keep writing.
As memoirist Mary Karr notes in her new book, The Art of Memoir (HarperCollins; $31), it takes courage to share our true experiences: “None of us can ever know the value of our lives, or how our separate and silent scribbling may add to the amenity of the world, if only by how radically it changes us, one by one.”
While packing clothes for a short vacation late last month, I realized (once again) that I have way too many drawers and closets in dire need of weeding out. January, the month of renewal and change, feels like the right time to dig in and start pitching.
At the same time, I have a lot of other baggage I need to unload, from outdated opinions to stale grudges. That’s the theme of my January column in Michigan Prime, delivered Jan. 3 with your Sunday Detroit News and Free Press. To read the column in the online edition, please click here and flip to page 3.
Need a last-minute, affordable gift this Christmas?* My essay collection, Writing Home, is available on Amazon or can be purchased locally (in Berkley, MI) at the Yellow Door Art Market, where you’ll find lots of Michigan-made gifts and books.
Now in its 2nd edition, Writing Home won several awards for creative nonfiction, including one from Writer’s Digest. It’s a large collection of my favorite published pieces — inspirational, feel-good stories about home, family, and life itself. It’s now available in both print and Kindle editions. Over the past 10 years, several hundred dollars from the profits of my book sales have been donated to organizations serving the homeless in my community.
Wishing you a wonderful, meaningful holiday season this year!
*With apologies for the shameless plug.« go back — keep looking »