Refeathering our nest

Field notes on an empty nest

Last week I found a birds nest on the brick walk leading to our backyard.  Im guessing the nest fell from a nearby silver maple; or maybe a neighbor found it while jogging and left it by the garden gate for us to admire.

Not much larger than a cereal bowl, the nest now perches indoors on a shelf near my desk.  Crafted from hundreds of delicate twigs, strands of grass, and patches of moss, its truly a work of art — and a timely reminder to prepare for my sons return to college after the long summer break.

Children of baby boomers are heading off to college in greater numbers than children of previous generations.  At the same time, the age-old ritual of “letting go” is the final frontier for those of us who’ve made child rearing a major focus of our adult lives.

Ive been discussing this tender rite of passage with other middle-aged parents. And we all agree there has to be a better term to describe our next season of parenting – something that doesnt sound as final or forlorn as “The Empty Nest.”  Our nests, after all, are not completely empty. Not yet.  My only child, for example, still has a bedroom here at home in addition to a loft in a crowded dormitory four hours away in South Bend, Indiana.

Whatever you want to call it, this to-and-from college phase is a thorny adjustment for parents and their almost-adult kids. College students are bound to ignore house rules when they return home for summer and holiday breaks. (“Curfew? What curfew?”) Even the most agreeable families discover that this can be a volatile time – a time when teen-aged tempers ignite and middle-aged feelings get scorched. All said and done, were all learning how to grow up and move on.

“When mothers talk about the depression of the empty nest, they’re not mourning the passing of all those wet towels on the floor, or the music that numbs your teeth…. They’re upset because they’ve gone from supervisor of a child’s life to a spectator. It’s like being the vice president of the United States.” — Erma Bombeck

A lot has changed since my son started college. 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 blank spaces, too, and is no longer buried under neon-color sticky notes announcing band concerts, Quiz Bowl meets, school conferences, and carpool schedules. At first, this was not cause for celebration.  Id become what our high school mothers club affectionately refers to as one of the “Alumni Moms.”

While I suddenly found myself with unlimited bolts of time to devote to my marriage and writing career, I mourned what I perceived to be the loss of my role as a hands-on parent. Despite the fact that I had a cleaner, quieter house, I missed all the athletic shoes and flip-flops piled near the back door. I missed the boisterous teenagers gathered around the kitchen counter, or in front of the television downstairs. I missed bumping into other parents at school functions, and wondered if life would ever be the same.

Life isnt the same, but Im OK with that now. Ive come to realize that a mom is always a mom, even though her parenting role changes over time.

Not long ago, I stayed at my own mothers place for a few weeks while I recovered from major surgery. When I apologized for disrupting her normal routine, she said, “My home will always be your home, too.”  I found comfort in knowing that. Yet at the same time, I missed my own house. And I felt grateful that Mom had encouraged me, years ago, to craft a life — and a home — of my own.

Its hard to believe my son is packing for another year of college this week. The hall outside his bedroom is now an obstacle course of boxes, crates, and suitcases stuffed with everything he needs for the months ahead. Im still not very good at saying good-bye when his dad and I leave him at the dorm and steer our emptied SUV back to the expressway. I manage to compose myself until I notice the tearful parents of college freshmen going through this ritual for the first time. But it does get easier each term.

So, is the nest half-full or half empty?

Reflecting on the small birds nest perched near my desk, Ive come to believe that every family is a labor of love and a work in progress. Its a bittersweet adjustment, but Im at peace with the idea that our household is just one stop on our sons way to his future.  Hell be flying back and forth over the next couple of years or so. And hopefully, patience and love will be the threads that weave our family together, no matter how far he travels. Cindy La Ferle, September 2006

— Top photo: Detail from “Nature,” a mixed-media collage by Cindy La Ferle. Bottom photo (nest) by Cindy La Ferle —

Ghosts

A college campus is its own village, full of folklore and traditions and initiation rituals. Like a village, it has its haunted places, its ghost stories.” — Michigan author Laura Kasischke

It’s nowhere near Halloween, but here I am, waxing poetic about the supernatural. I just finished reading a new literary thriller, The Raising, and can’t stop thinking about “ghosts” and how we’re haunted by people and places from our past.

If Daphne du Maurier were alive today, this is the sort of novel she’d write. Part gothic suspense, part ghost story, it’s deliciously creepy and atmospheric. Set on the campus of a prestigious Michigan university, The Raising circles around a car accident that killed Nicole Werner, a straight-A sorority sister. Driving on the night of the accident, her boyfriend miraculously (or mysteriously) survived the crash. A year later, it’s rumored that Nicole has been spotted on campus. From then on, the goosebumps don’t let up.

Mira Polson, the cultural anthropology professor who teaches a seminar on the folklore of death rituals at the university, is among the novel’s most intriguing characters, giving the plot its much-needed weight and focus. Mira delivers some compelling — and well-researched — theories on our collective fear of dying and the dead. In contrast to Mira’s macabre obsession with her topic are the college students whose cavalier sexuality and cruel beauty drive the story to its end. (Most college students believe they’re immortal, don’t they?)  One caveat: If you’re a female student considering Greek life, you’ll think twice before stepping inside a sorority house after reading this one.

Award-winning author Laura Kasischke, who teaches at the University of Michigan in the MFA program, deftly moves back and forth between past and present, interweaving the back stories of her characters without muddling her plot or confusing her readers. She’s also careful enough to avoid the typical Stephen King horror cliches — though I see terrific possibilities for one heck of a spooky screenplay.

I agree with some of the reviewers who were a bit disappointed in the novel’s conclusion. Without revealing too much here, I’d hoped for a bit more closure on the “whereabouts” of certain characters, not to mention retribution for others. That said, life itself doesn’t always wrap up the way we’d like it to — and the ending of this novel didn’t spoil the experience of reading it.

It’s been a long time since I’ve picked up a book and couldn’t it put down, so I’m especially grateful to the indie bookstore in St. Joseph, Michigan, where I found this one on a “staff recommends” shelf. My only wish is that it had been released a little closer to Halloween. — Cindy La Ferle

Yellow Door Art Market

Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.”  ~Twyla Tharp

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column for a local publication on how to be a tourist in your hometown. Taking my own advice — and literally going the extra mile — I drove across town to Berkley, the city next door, and made a new discovery. Located on 12 Mile Road, the Yellow Door Art Market showcases the wares of more than 60 top-notch Michigan artists and crafters. From gift cards to jewelry to fiber art, there’s something to delight everyone at this colorful emporium. In fact, next time I need a gift, I’m heading straight for the Yellow Door.

During my visit, I noticed a display of books by Michigan authors. Later that week, I dropped off a review copy of Writing Home for the store manager. She phoned me two days later and invited me to hop aboard. So — yay! — I’m also proud to announce that copies of my book are now available at the Yellow Door Art Market. (Life Lesson #10: Never be afraid to ask, because sometimes you get a “yes” instead of a “no.”)

It’s always exciting to discover a new local business that supports Michigan artists as well as charities in our community. Next time you’re in the area and need cheering up, walk through the Yellow Door (or check out their official website). I promise you’ll get a lift seeing so much creativity under one roof. The store is located at 3141 W. 12 Mile Road. — CL

Support your local authors

Miss a meal if you have to, but don’t miss a good book.” — Jim Rohn

Earlier this year, I went to a friend’s book signing event that was so well attended it brought tears to my eyes. My friend and his co-author gave a wonderful presentation to a standing-room-only crowd — and sold more books than they’d initially planned.

I was reminded of my very first book signing for Writing Home at our local Borders. Before the signing, I worried that only a handful of relatives would show up. Imagine my surprise, and gratitude, when I walked into Borders and saw a line forming at my table — a line of new friends, old neighbors, and column readers from all over the community. I sold so many books that the manager invited me back to do another book signing at holiday time two months later.

All of this got me thinking: What if I could provide a similar supportive experience — a huge book signing — for other authors in my hometown, all in one location? And what if this book sale event could also serve as an opportunity to encourage aspiring authors who want to learn more about getting published?

The first annual Royal Oak Authors Book Fair sprouted from that seed. Thanks to the Royal Oak Public Library, a dozen authors from Royal Oak will gather for a community book signing and public panel discussion this Saturday, Oct. 9, 1:30 – 4:30 p.m.

Nearly every literary genre, from fiction to self-help will be represented at the Fair. Many of Royal Oak’s authors have been featured nationally and are “best-sellers” in their own right: Book Fair authors and publishers will include: Gerry Boyan, David Clements, Judy Davids, Steve Haffner (Haffner Press), Dr. Charles K. Hyde, Steve Lehto, Trevor McCauley, Maureen McDonald, Eleanor Payson, John S. Schultz, Tom Weschler, and yours truly.

So bring your questions on publishing and the writing life to our panel discussion at 1:30 in the Royal Oak Public Library Auditorium. Help us celebrate the printed word. And plan to do some book shopping afterward. I’ll be signing copies of my own book, plus you’ll find several books on Detroit’s automotive history; fantasy and sci-fi novels: a biography on Bob Seger; a hitchhiker’s novel; a photo-history of Royal Oak; a self-help guide; plus memoirs, murder mysteries … and more! — Cindy La Ferle

Royal Oak Authors Book Fair poster (above) designed by Judy Davids. Click on the poster for a larger view.

Recipe for balance

Be aware of wonder. Live a balanced life. Learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.” — Robert Fulghum

This year I’m trying to strike a healthy balance between living creatively and being consumed by creative work. All too often, when I’m immersed in an art project or engrossed in a piece of writing, it’s as if I’m living on another planet. I neglect other things I care about. I might forget to brush my teeth or return phone calls or feed my family.

When I first started writing weekly columns, for instance, everything was potential fodder for the newspaper. I couldn’t watch a new TV show or shop for toilet paper without thinking I should scribble some commentary about it. For weeks I carried a notebook everywhere, and would even jump out of the shower to jot down ideas for a column. Thankfully, that ridiculous phase was short-lived. As a photo-journalist friend reminded me: We need to ask ourselves if we’re living from the depth of our lives or merely documenting them.

Then there was the time I slaved for weeks on a book manuscript. I got into the habit of working until midnight, then rising at daybreak to revise or proofread what I’d typed the day before. My husband worked full-time then, so we grabbed most of our meals at local restaurants. Our son was away at college, and I was living the life I’d dreamed about for years — working 24/7 on my writing.

That’s when it hit me: My dream life wasn’t quite as satisfying as I’d imagined. I was exhausted and vaguely disappointed.  Something essential was missing. And it’s not that the work wasn’t going well. For the most part, my writing was getting published in places I was proud to list on my resume. With my nest was empty, I’d even found extra hours to teach writing.

And there was problem, hidden in plain sight. Given my newly won freedom from parenting responsibilities, I’d become a woman obsessed. My whole life was about writing, writing, and more writing. I’d become so one-dimensional that I bored myself.

Kitchen lessons

The thing is, I’ve always believed the “good life” is a balanced life. A richly textured, multifaceted life.

After my epiphany, I made a list of “ingredients” that remain as essential to my happiness and well-being as writing. The list includes long talks with my husband and friends; gardening; keeping house; reading for pleasure; volunteering in my community; making art; visiting museums, and more. Of course, I’ve always enjoyed cooking (and reading about food) but my love affair with my computer left little time for the sensual pleasures of the kitchen.

And so, after putting my book project aside for a few days, I spent my first free morning poring over my cookbooks. Shopping for groceries later, I found even more inspiration in the colorful produce aisles at the local market. I couldn’t wait to get home and start cooking again. My mood lifted as I chopped and sauteed onions and red peppers, crafting a simple but satisfying meal with my hands.

“Real nourishment involves our whole being,” writes Anne Scott in Serving Fire: Food for Thought, Body, and Soul (Celestial Arts). “The search for it takes us on a journey into ourselves, confronting us with our inner hunger.”

In other words, my soul had been starving for something more than words and ideas heaped on a page or a computer screen. I was tired of living in my head, and kitchen work provided the physicality I’d been missing. For me, the ordinary arts of daily living are not optional — and I try to remember that whenever I’m off-kilter or obsessed.

Even if cooking isn’t your thing, you have your own list of pleasures to draw from when you need to feel balanced and whole.

“Be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance,” advised the philosopher Epicurus. In the Epicurean view, the hallmarks of the good life include tranquility, freedom from fear, a variety of experiences, and the pure enjoyment of simple pleasures.  Easier said than done, of course, but worth aspiring to. — Cindy La Ferle

— Kitchen photos (our kitchen in Royal Oak) by Cindy La Ferle–