Fragile Season

twigsThrowback 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. Eliots 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 its not that Im 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. Im 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. Ive 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.

IMG_0090Heeding the advice of a friend who happens to be a local pastor, Ive learned that community service is the best antidote for what we Midwesterners describe as acute cabin fever.

“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 didnt mix with the other guests, nor did she want to converse with my fellow volunteer. Her body language wasnt hard to translate: Keep out. Dont touch. My heart is not open for business or charity. She didnt 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.

Fragile.

Returning to the kitchen with an armload of dishes, I reconsidered the word and what it meant. I recalled how carelessly Id 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).

A fragile season

FragileSpring 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. Eliots 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 its not that Im 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. Im 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. Ive 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.

Heeding the advice of a friend who happens to be a local pastor, Ive learned that community service is the best antidote for what we Midwesterners describe as acute cabin fever.

“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 didnt mix with the other guests, nor did she want to converse with my fellow volunteer. Her body language wasnt hard to translate: Keep out. Dont touch. My heart is not open for business or charity. She didnt 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.

Fragile.

Returning to the kitchen with an armload of dishes, I reconsidered the word and what it meant. I recalled how carelessly Id 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 first published in the online magazine, Literary Mama, and is included in the print anthology, Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined (copyright 2006; Seal Press). 

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 arent 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, Ive written a few magazine essays and newspaper columns on my romance with plants and flowers. Ive shared back-yard memories of sweet peas and apple trees and my grandfathers ferns. But set me loose with a shovel, and Im 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, Solomons seal, or bleeding heart – that Id 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 couldnt 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, Id 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. Its 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 writers block, or fallow time. I would guess that anyone whos 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, its easy to believe that spring might forget us on its way north. But just when things cant 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. —

Mother’s Day “Ideals”

unnamed-1Ideals magazine was launched in 1944 with a Christmas issue compiled by Van B. Hooper, a public relations manager for a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, manufacturer. Over the years it has featured the writings of well-known authors such as Edgar Guest, Sue Monk Kidd, Chris Bohjalian, Susan Allen Toth, Garrison Keillor, and many others.

Now produced by Guideposts and edited by Melinda Rumbaugh, the magazine continues its nostalgic celebration of American holidays with timeless stories, quotations, poetry, recipes, and fine art illustrations.

Since 2008, several of my own essays (including a few from my book, Writing Home) have been published in several issues of Ideals and its hardcover gift anthologies.

This spring, my essay describing my son’s first year away from home (“Field Notes on an Empty Nest”) is included in Ideals‘ Mother’s Day 2014 issue — complete with a beautiful painting by Lee Kromschroeder. The magazine is available where books are sold, including Barnes and Noble, Costco, Target, Family Christian, Books-a-Million, and Mardel.  To purchase the magazine directly from Ideals, click here.

Our lady of letting go

A crisis is a holy summons to cross a threshold. It involves both a leaving behind and a stepping toward, a separation and an opportunity.” – Sue Monk Kidd, When the Heart Waits

As every frequent flyer knows, airline passengers are required to perform a series of rituals before the aircraft takes off. Your seat must be in its upright position; the seat belt fastened securely. The tray in front of you must be locked firmly in place.

Likewise, freshman orientation weekend prepares students for college – and is a major rite of passage for their parents.

The University of Notre Dame is just a three-and-a-half-hour drive from our home in suburban Detroit. But when Doug and I left Nate there to begin his freshman year in 2004, it seemed as if we were launching our only child to Jupiter.

As the orientation program kicked off on that hot August weekend, flocks of Notre Dame freshmen were herded off to other parts of campus for their introduction to university life. Parents were corralled inside the Joyce Center Fieldhouse for a series of pep talks on the importance of giving children “roots and wings.”

The Joyce Center is cavernous, and I suddenly felt like Jonah in the belly of the whale. Fighting tears, I bolted to the nearest restroom and locked myself in a toilet stall to indulge in a private meltdown — a meltdown that must have been waiting to erupt from the moment we’d packed the car that morning. Remembering that Doug was waiting for me, I managed to leave the restroom in time to catch most of the introductory speech.

As we took our seats, one of the deans was already reminding parents not to panic if our kids called home sounding lonely or homesick.  Or if days stretched into a week and we didn’t hear from them at all. Our children were standing “at the threshold of opportunity,” and they would adjust and thrive, he promised. In other words, helicopter parenting was not encouraged.

Our role in this tender rite of passage was to let go of our children.”

Next, a woman in a crisp linen business suit stepped up to the lectern and reminded all parents to exit the campus at the conclusion of the orientation program. At that point, she said, the Notre Dame marching band would give us a rousing sendoff as we headed back to the parking lot.  We were advised to say our good-byes quickly and cheerfully. No tears, no drama, no clinging. Our role in this tender rite of passage was to let go of our children.

Easy for her to say.

Like many mothers, I’d often sought advice in the pages of childcare guides and parenting magazines. But as Karen Coburn and Madge Treeger remind us in Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years (Perennial), once our kids head off to college, “there are no Dr. Spocks to reassure us.”  We’re on our own.

Watching Nate survey the campus — his new home for the next four years — I recalled an early memory of a wiry little guy who often begged to escape the boundaries of our suburban Detroit back yard. And it occurred to me that I’d always fostered his keen sense of adventure, his drive to be independent. Now a six-foot-tall young man with a five o’clock shadow, he was ready to move on.

So, the real question was: What would my days be like without him? While Nate worked on his degree at college, I’d have some homework of my own to do. Now that my starring role as Mom was fading to a cameo, it was time to redesign my life.

Touring several buildings before we left the campus, I drew comfort from the dignified beauty of Notre Dame’s architecture and manicured gardens. And even though I’m not Catholic, I was buoyed by the stunning view of the Sacred Heart Basilica, not far from Nate’s dormitory. I was reminded, too, that “Notre Dame” translates to “Our Lady” — the most celebrated mother in world history. My boy would be in good hands.

And how could anyone feel sad in the midst of so much excitement and pageantry? The whole campus throbbed with youthful energy.  The school fight song blared from every window, and rallying cries of “Go Irish!” echoed across campus.

That afternoon, the sky was postcard blue, and the university’s famous Golden Dome shimmered reassuringly in the late summer sun.  Heading back to our car in the parking lot, I squeezed Doug’s hand and congratulated him for making it through the long weekend. Doug eyed me cautiously, knowing full well that I’d been the one struggling to compose myself. Smiling and dry eyed, I assured him that I knew our son was going to be just fine — and, yes, I’d be just fine, too.

Cindy La Ferle

Photographs of the University of Notre Dame campus and Sacred Heart Basilica by Cindy La Ferle