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). 

Remembering 9/11

This piece is included in 09/11 8:48 AM: Documenting America’s Greatest Tragedy, an anthology of raw, immediate accounts published across the nation after the tragedy of 9/11, edited by Ethan Casey with the New York University School of Journalism. It first appeared in The Daily Tribune (Royal Oak, MI).

The Long Way Home

By Cindy La Ferle

September 20, 2001, Royal Oak, MI

A little more than a week has passed since our country was attacked and brought to its knees. A friend of mine says she is trying to wake up from what she calls Stephen Kings worst nightmare. The rest of us still feel as though weve been wandering in a fog, unable to find our way home. Home, it seems, has been completely redesigned by horrific acts of terrorism. Ever since last Tuesday, everything is different. Everything.

sept11I have stopped assuming that home will ever be completely safe from disaster. This thought alone makes every wall, every window, every piece of oak, maple, brick, or concrete in my neighborhood, my world, seem all the more precious.

Ive stopped obsessing over the things I used to obsess about. Ive stopped worrying about the fact that my refrigerator needs cleaning and the walls in the kitchen need repainting. Things like that dont matter now. My focus has changed.

It doesnt matter if my family leaves a mess on the breakfast counter every morning. And so what if I trip over somebodys shoes in the hallway? I am deeply grateful that there are people living here — eating breakfast and wearing shoes.

I imagine this is all part of the grieving process, and that someday things will seem normal again. Right now, though, I feel a bit like Emily in Thornton Wilders Our Town. Emily is the character who, near the end of the play, returns to her hometown as a ghost and realizes how much she took for granted when she was alive. Emily recites a list of the simple things that made her days precious — things like the smell of freshly brewed coffee in the morning.

I know exactly what she meant. This week Im savoring the taste of summers last tomatoes. Im taking time to watch the sun set behind the maples in our yard, and to listen to the sound of cathedral bells just a few blocks away.

But I cant think of anyone who is appreciating the comforts of home as much as Norma Gormly of Troy, Michigan.

Normas plane was diverted back to Londons Gatwick Airport immediately following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Norma and her daughter, Jan, had been on vacation and ended up stranded at a bed-and-breakfast inn outside London until the airways were cleared for their return to the United States. Theirs was the first Northwest flight to leave last Friday. As Norma told me, it was quite an experience.

“We had to go through four checkpoints and check in all bags,” she recalled. “We were allowed our purses with personal stuff only. Following a body search, we were admitted to the lounge area.”

None of the passengers complained, though, even though their wait was long.  Another three hours passed before their flight left Gatwick.

“We felt good that they had done all that they could for our safety,” Norma said. “We had the same flight crew from our diverted plane.”

That crew, Norma recalled, wore black ribbons around the gold wings on their uniforms. Some were fighting tears, “but they all promised to do their best to make our trip as normal as possible. Our captain was informative and soothing.”

Norma and her fellow passengers clapped and cheered loudly as their plane finally took off. They cheered again when the plane passed over Canada. And it was, as Norma remembers, a tremendous relief to arrive back home in America.

“We cheered and clapped, then cheered and clapped again upon landing at Metro Airport. We were home at last!”

No matter what shape its in, Norma added, theres no place like home. Home is a word every American cherishes – more than ever, now. — Cindy La Ferle

This essay was originally published in The Daily Tribune (Royal Oak, Michigan) and is also included in my essay collection, Writing Home. The book is available locally at the Yellow Door Art Market, Berkley, MI 

Reinvention

To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.” — Henri Bergson

It’s so much easier to stay rooted in the same place, whether it’s a desk chair or an old neighborhood. Or even a toxic relationship.

Once we nestle into our proverbial comfort zone, it takes work to pull ourselves up to the next level or move to a better place.

Staying in a rut has its benefits. Even when we know we deserve more, for instance, we tend to justify earning low wages while working at jobs we’ve already mastered. We tell ourselves that the economy is lousy; that we’re lucky to have any job with pathetic wages. We lower our expectations.

Likewise, instead of seeking out healthier relationships, it might feel safer to put up with neglect or abuse from friends or relatives who’ve been part of our history. Or we keep performing the same family “roles” we outgrew ages ago. (Victim? Competitor? Big brother? Benefactor? Brat?)

Change is hard, and asking for what we need takes courage. It also requires that we take risks and face what scares us. Is there a new door you’ve been waiting to open? Are you leaning your ladder against the wrong wall? –CL

— Photo: detail from “What We Remember”, a mixed-media construction by Cindy La Ferle —

Unexpected sparks

Our brightest blazes of happiness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.” — Samuel Johnson

It was one of those luminous Indian summer afternoons — clear cobalt skies and pure yellow light shimmering through the maples on our front lawn. This was autumns last hurrah, and even the neighborhood kids sensed the day was ripe for celebrating.

We woke early that morning to find a crisp runner of mustard-gold leaves carpeting the sidewalks. If you squinted hard enough and used your imagination, you’d swear it led straight to Oz.

Id taken the day off work and suggested we drive to the old cider mill in Franklin Village, where its always worth standing in line for the best cinnamon doughnuts made in Michigan. But Nate, who was six at the time, had his own ideas. He and Catie, the girl next door, would set up their own cider-and-doughnuts stand in our front yard, which faces a well-traveled boulevard.

Naturally, I ended up at the local fruit market, loading a shopping cart with doughnuts and several gallons of apple cider.

Back home, I retrieved a card table and some cardboard for a poster, then rallied the kids to assemble the doughnuts and paper cups on a serving tray. The three of us positioned the cider stand at the corner of our front yard.

The small entrepreneurs perched on lawn chairs and waited patiently for customers. They waved at passing cars and periodically rearranged the paper cups. Business was painfully slow. Watching the eager pair from the front porch, I felt my heart skip each time a car sped past them.  Surely some generous adult would step on the brakes, reach deep into a pocket, and pull out a dime for a cool cup of cider.  But most drivers didn’t seem to notice.

I’ve been guilty of similar oversights. Rushing to the office, the bank, or an appointment, I’ve driven past countless children trying to earn spare change at their sidewalk stands. Sometimes I rolled down the window and promised to catch them on my way back, at my convenience, which was usually too late.

Slowly but surely, my faith in humanity was restored as a few neighbors came around to patronize the cider stand.  Quarters, dimes, and nickels clinked musically in the collection cup, while Nate and Catie whirled around the card table.

And I’ll never forget how stunned the pair looked when a stranger pulled up in a red convertible with the top down, radio blaring. Leaping from the car, the man sprinted up to the table, grabbed one of the cups, and downed his cider in one memorable gulp. He smiled as he stuffed a bill into the collection cup, and didn’t wait for his change. As the stranger roared down the boulevard, the children flew to me on the front porch, chirping like startled sparrows all the way up the steps.

“Guess what!  That guy in the car gave us ten dollars for the cider and he didn’t want any change!!  TEN DOLLARS!!”

Breathless and giddy, the two began negotiating how the miraculous windfall would be divided. One of them remarked that the cider must have been very good, having earned such an awesome profit.

Despite everything thats wrong in the world, its hard to remain cynical on a grace-filled day like that. I remembered a phrase I’d read by the poet John Keats, and I knew that this was what he meant by “Moments big as years.”   –Cindy La Ferle

— Copyright 2005; Hearth Stone Books; excerpted from Writing Home —

October Memories

October is a symphony of permanence and change.” — Bonaro W. Overstreet

The following short essay began as a journal entry after my father died. I recently rediscovered the notebook in which I’d written it longhand. First published in the October 1998 edition of Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, it’s also included in my book, Writing Home.

October Memories

Lately I’ve been thinking of these lines from Anne Mary Lawler’s poem about the seasons: October dresses in flame and gold, Like a woman afraid of growing old.

This is a potent month for memories. Yesterday I watched while my son and the children next door tumbled like acrobats in the fallen leaves. (Is there a kid in the Midwest who hasn’t done this?) And later in the evening, I sniffed the familiar aroma of wood-burning fires, another indisputable sign that winter is on its way.

For me, the smoky scents of October always evoke a favorite memory of my father raking leaves in the small backyard of our first home. The memory is more than three decades old, but it glows as vividly as the logs crackling in the grate tonight.

When I was growing up — before environmental laws — everyone in my neighborhood raked leaves into neat brown piles, then burned them near the curb or in backyard bonfires. Dry and brittle as bones, the leaves and twigs snapped furiously when introduced to a match. Back then, October weekends seemed to drift in mysterious clouds of gray-blue smoke — the perfect prelude to Houdinis Halloween.

Like most fathers, mine worked on weekdays, and often spent his weekends doing yard work. Long before the term “quality time” was coined by childcare experts, Dad would enlist my help raking leaves on Sunday after church. I offered very little assistance, preferring to toss his neatly piled leaves back into the air, or to roll in what remained of his handiwork. Regardless, he seemed to enjoy my reckless company — and I enjoyed the novelty of helping him. Unlike my mom, who would have seized the opportunity for “girl talk,” my dad didn’t always communicate with words. On those brisk autumn afternoons, with the sun glinting through bare branches of oak and maple, it was enough for us to be together. He raked, I rolled, and nothing of dire importance was ever said.

_______________

October weekends seemed to drift in mysterious clouds of gray-blue smoke — the perfect prelude to Houdinis Halloween.

_________________________

Still, young as I was, I felt the ancient ache and pull of October.

By then, I understood the seasons were cyclical; that the easy days of summer would return as surely as apples had ripened every fall. But I’d also begun to grasp the concept that time trudges ahead in a straight line, like it or not, ruffling the smooth texture of our days as it marches forward. I couldn’t have explained it quite this way, but suddenly I knew I’d have to “yield with a grace,” as Robert Frost once wrote, “the end of a love or a season.”

I recall watching my handsome young father in his plaid flannel shirt while he whistled and tended his banks of smoldering leaves, their acrid smoke filling my nostrils and forcing tears. I remember wishing that everything could stay the same — that I wouldn’t have to grow up or grow old; that autumn afternoons wouldn’t bleed to winter.

It was as if I had glimpsed the distant future and seen my father’s empty chair at our Thanksgiving table.

Of course, Dad had no idea that I had stumbled on a vast, disturbing truth and was forever changed by it. He worked contentedly, pausing only to watch me or to loosen the dried leaves from the long teeth of his rake. And that is the way I like to remember him:  arrested in time on that October afternoon, living in the moment, always whistling. — Cindy La Ferle

— Top photo of a maple tree in my Vinsetta Park neighborhood. (copyright Cindy La Ferle) —