Paying it forward

IMG_2891There are times when friends and loved ones need more than a get-well bouquet. In this month’s issue of Michigan Prime, I share ways to offer your help and support during an emergency or serious health crisis. The column appears in the print edition of the magazine (delivered with your Sunday Detroit Free Press) and online here, on page 3

Why More Wasn’t Enough

MoreMagApril206CoverFor 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.

Wisdom for graduates

I always pass along good advice. It is the only thing to do with it, since it is never of any use to oneself.” – Oscar Wilde

FamilyphotonewIt’s graduation season. The flowering trees are in bloom, everywhere, and suddenly I’m flooded with sweet memories of my son’s baccalaureate ceremonies at Shrine High School (2004) and the University of Notre Dame (2008). Of course, I’ve got an album crammed with photos documenting both events. In one of my favorite pictures, Nate stands tall under incredibly blue skies. He looks proud, relieved, and a little awkward as he balances the mortarboard on his head.

This is the time of year when parents, mentors and elected officials like to pass along pithy nuggets of wisdom or advice to students who’ll be starting college or launching new careers. To all our local graduates of 2015, I send my very best wishes for your future. Meanwhile, here’s a rehash of the Post-graduate Survival Tips I wrote for Nate before he left for college ….

*Relationships, like cars, need regular upkeep. Maintain the good friendships you’ve made.

*Learn from your adversaries. The people who push our buttons tend to reflect qualities we dislike in ourselves.

*Encourage others to talk about themselves. You’ll make a great first impression and learn something new.

*If you settle for less, that’s exactly what you’ll get. Strive for decency and expect nothing less from everyone you hang out with.

*The notion that everyone is having a better time somewhere else is one of the world’s dumbest illusions. Refuse to believe it.

*Losing is a great character builder. If your best effort misses the mark, ask yourself what you can learn from the loss.

*Choose a career you can be proud to list on every form you’ll have to fill out.

*Be a community builder. If we can’t make peace with our neighbors, there’s no hope for the rest of the world.

*It can be lonely at the top. Be careful not to alienate loved ones while achieving your goals.

*Be thoughtful. Good manners were designed to make others feel comfortable and respected.

*Get enough sleep.

*Show up or don’t sign up. Make good on your word. Never volunteer out of guilt or for personal gain; give from the heart.

*Keep your faith, but learn about the great religions of the world. Never publicly criticize someone’s religious beliefs. Self-righteousness is a huge turn-off.

*Stay in shape; enjoy a recreational sport.

*Spend time alone. Creative ideas and solutions are sparked in solitude.

*Never leave your underwear on the floor. As every good room mate will tell you, neatness is essential in cramped spaces.

*Always take the high road. Admit your blunders and apologize if you’ve hurt someone.

*Return what you borrow.

*Go easy on the junk food. Pay attention to what you eat, where it came from, and why you’re eating it.

*Find your inner compass and stop seeking approval from others. Be too busy to wonder what other people think of you.

*Spend time outdoors. A walk in the woods is the best antidepressant.

*Splurge on comfortable shoes.

*Don’t limit your shopping to chain stores. Support local businesses and discover the heart and soul of every new location.

*Travel is the best way to learn about the world, but stay on the lookout for a place to set down roots.

*Savor your memories but don’t live in the past. Anyone who insists their high school or college years were “the best” is stuck in a rut. Life gets richer and juicier as you move on. Enjoy every minute.

A slightly different version of this column was first published in The Daily Tribune in May 2004, and is reprinted in its original form in my book, Writing Home.

Top photo: Graduation day at University of Notre Dame, May 18, 2008. Pictured are Andrea Benda (who became Nate’s wife in September 2012), Nate La Ferle, Doug La Ferle (Nate’s dad) and me.  

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. 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.

Heeding the advice of a friend who happens to be a local pastor, I’ve 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 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.

Fragile.

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 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 aren’t 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, I’ve written a few magazine essays and newspaper columns on my romance with plants and flowers. I’ve shared back-yard memories of sweet peas and apple trees and my grandfather’s ferns. But set me loose with a shovel, and I’m 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, Solomon’s seal, or bleeding heart – that I’d 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 couldn’t 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, I’d 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. It’s 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 writer’s block, or fallow time. I would guess that anyone who’s 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, it’s easy to believe that spring might forget us on its way north. But just when things can’t 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. —