Refeathering our nest

Field notes on an empty nest

Last week I found a bird’s nest on the brick walk leading to our backyard.  I’m 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, it’s truly a work of art — and a timely reminder to prepare for my son’s 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.

I’ve 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 doesn’t 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, we’re 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. 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 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.  I’d 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 isn’t the same, but I’m OK with that now. I’ve 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 mother’s 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.

It’s 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. I’m 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 bird’s nest perched near my desk, I’ve come to believe that every family is a labor of love and a work in progress. It’s a bittersweet adjustment, but I’m at peace with the idea that our household is just one stop on our son’s way to his future.  He’ll 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 —

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 —

School supplies

Midlife is a time to listen deeply to your heart, a period of transition and reappraisal.” — Carl Jung

I have a hunch that fall is arriving early. Maybe it’s the angle of sunlight on the last of the black-eyed Susans in my perennial garden. Or maybe it was the sound of berries and acorns crunching under my bicycle tires on the nature trails yesterday.

Whatever triggered it, I can’t ignore the maternal instinct to shop for back-to-school supplies – even though I don’t have a student to buy them for.

My only child did exactly what all parents hope their kids will do. He grew up. He attended the university of his choice, then started a grown-up’s job just two months after commencement ceremonies.  His dad and I helped him pack up the car, headed with him down the expressway, and waved a tearful good-bye in front of a small flat in Chicago after we unloaded the last piece of stereo equipment.

That was two years ago. But sometimes I struggle to get my mind around the fact that I’m officially an empty nester now.

Watching the younger moms in my neighborhood – the ones buying new Crayolas and lunch kits – I recall the exhilarating sense of freedom I’d get when my son started school each year.  In those days, it was a blessing to have six quiet hours a day to meet writing deadlines and run errands all by myself. At the time, the calendar on our kitchen wall was scribbled top to bottom with kid-related events and appointments – a perpetual list of band concerts, school conferences, homeroom baking marathons, and carpool schedules.  Not to mention all the medical appointments for my pending hip-replacement surgeries.

I still can’t fathom how any mother finds the time to do it all — no matter how many kids she has. In any event, I’m not sure how I kept my own balance on the roller-coaster ride we call “the parenting years.”  But I did, and sometimes I really miss those years.

Retiring or redefining?

It took several months to regain equilibrium after my son first left for college in 2004.  His bedroom at home looked so eerily clean and empty that I made a habit of keeping the door shut. Until then, I hadn’t fully realized that the career I’d loved most — more than writing or publishing or teaching — was being a mom. It caught me off-guard, like a thunderstorm on the freeway, or the tears that roll unexpectedly when you catch the lyrics of an old song on the radio while you’re driving.

So I had to figure out where to devote my enthusiasm in this uncharted phase of my midlife.

My relationship with my husband was (and always will be) at the top of my priority list. And yes, I’d have more time to devote to writing and long lunches with friends. But I also needed to explore something creative and different. Something just for myself.

The ancient ritual of buying school supplies provided my very first clue — and I’m sharing it with the hope that every empty nester who’s reading this will look for the bread crumbs on the path leading to her own passion.

The inner artist emerges

I was browsing at the office supply store with my son a week before he moved into his freshman dorm. While he wandered the computer aisles in search of an essential gizmo, I was magically drawn to a rainbow display of felt-tipped calligraphy pens, colored pencils, and drawing pads. My inner artist, who’d been hushed and banished to a corner of my psyche after I graduated from college, pushed forward and made herself heard. At the time I wasn’t sure what she’d do with all those pens and markers, but she refused to leave the store without them.

I think John Updike explained it best when he said, “What art offers is space — a certain breathing room for the spirit.” Because that’s exactly what I needed.

A month later, I started shopping for real art supplies at the local craft store, where I also discovered several gorgeous art magazines featuring how-to articles on mixed-media collage and altered books. I couldn’t learn fast enough. And by the end of that year, I found myself clearing space for an art studio upstairs above the garage. My son reveled in his freshman year at the University of Notre Dame while I happily painted, cut, and pasted another path of my own.

So, it’s getting to be that time of year again. Time to get the garden ready for bed. Time to head upstairs to the art studio and see what art will teach me next.

I’ve already started making notes on projects I’d like to begin — a line of greeting cards, a mixed-media collage or two, and a deliciously creepy construction for an upcoming Halloween show. Preparing for the new season, I swept the floor of the studio last week and took stock of what I’ll need to begin again. I can hardly wait to shop for my new supplies. — Cindy La Ferle

— Art studio photos by Cindy La Ferle —

Zen garden

All my hurts my garden spade can heal.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Titled “The Art of Midlife Gardening,” this essay was originally published in Victoria magazine, March/April issue this year. With the editor’s permission, I’m sharing the piece with you while I’m off this week…

Last spring, members of our local 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 blossoms. 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, designing gardens, and more. I bow to their expertise.

Barely getting my hands dirty, I’ve written a few magazine pieces 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 just an eager amateur who’s murdered rose bushes and planted 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 my 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 serves to remind 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 there, 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 my writing deadlines and the clutter inside our home. It’s also living proof to me 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 blue moods hover like pending thunderstorms.  During fallow time, 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 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 with permission from Victoria magazine. All garden photos copyrighted by Cindy La Ferle. Please click on each photo for a larger view. —

Background!

Movies are like an expensive form of therapy for me.” — Tim Burton

Most people who work in creative fields are jockeying to land a leading role, a front-page story, or first prize in an art competition. Aiming high, we usually compete for the spotlight. We’re all trying to make it in a culture that worships overnight success and holds its collective breath for the latest American Idol winner.

So, who’d want to work long, repetitive hours as a background extra in films? Who’d get a kick out of working for little more than minimum wage and a few fleeting seconds of screen time?

Lots of people. And I’m one of them.

Thanks to Michigan’s new film incentive program, Hollywood has been sending a variety of productions to our state, creating thousands of new jobs for labor, crew, and actors.

My first gig as a background extra in a feature film began on a lark last fall — another item on my bucket list. Along with my husband Doug and several of our neighbors, I was cast in the opening scene of the big-budget Red Dawn remake when our own neighborhood was used as a film set. Humvees and assorted army vehicles rolled down our tree-lined suburban streets while a troop of gun-wielding Communist soldiers took us captive. It was a total blast, literally and figuratively, and some of us were called back to work in additional scenes in Detroit.

Doug and I had so much fun, in fact, that we registered with a couple of casting agencies, and have worked in several more projects. Among our favorites was the soon-to-be-released Lifetime TV movie, Secrets in the Walls, in which we were cast as a doctor and a nurse in a hospital scene. As Doug likes to joke, “Now I can finally tell people, ‘No I am not a real doctor, but I played one on TV.”

Now that we’re listed with casting agencies, the toughest part is learning to deal with the unpredictability. We might get a call or an e-mail inquiring about our availability a week (or a day) before a particular shoot. At that point, we must commit to a time frame — with no immediate guarantee that we’ll be booked for the job. We’re usually left hanging until the casting agents confirm our roles and send additional details. The agents aren’t being coy or cruel — they’re also waiting for a schedule from the production people.

So it can be hard to plan your life around this sort of work. Last-minute bookings  — and production schedule changes — aren’t unusual. Last year, Doug got an emergency call from a casting agent, asking him to pack a sports jacket and drive immediately to Ann Arbor to cover for another extra who couldn’t show up on the set that morning. (He made it in record time.)

Lights, camera …

Pay rates vary, depending on each film’s budget. As a rule, hourly pay is rarely much more than minimum wage, so I wouldn’t advise anyone interested in this work to consider quitting your day job or ditching your best freelance clients. There’s always a chance that your 15 seconds of “face time” will end up on the proverbial cutting room floor, anyway.

But there are untold rewards, especially if you love movies as much as I do. For starters, background extras get a rare look behind the scenes and a chance to learn more about filmmaking. This takes most of the glitter out of the stardust, yet you can’t help but return home with a deeper respect for the hard work and long hours invested in any given film project. You meet some of the nicest people too — everyone from legal administrators to retired engineers and stay-at-home dads will show up for work. And yes, sometimes you do rub elbows with celebrities.

For me, film work provides an interesting contrast to my (real-life) role as a professional writer. Writers are often loners out of necessity — but we enjoy company too. Working in a film, I enjoy the same rush of adrenaline and camaraderie I used to get when I was in theater years ago. I thrived on the nervous hum of activity backstage while the crew geared up and my fellow actors prepped for their scenes.

Last week I worked as a background extra in an HBO television series. I was waiting for my cue from an assistant director half my age when it hit me that this sort of work is both humbling and freeing.

No matter which production I’m working for, I know I’m just a very small part of a much bigger picture. I have no lines to memorize or deliver, and mugging for the camera is strictly prohibited. Unlike writing a story — where I’m in creative control and get my own byline — I’m merely fulfilling someone else’s vision while working as an extra. My role in a film might be as simple as running across the street from an explosion, singing hymns in a church, working at a desk, hanging around the town square, or standing in a corner with a drink in hand.

Years ago, I worked with a director who liked to remind everyone on stage that “there are no small parts, just small actors.” And that’s still terrific advice for every performer.

But hey, I’m not going to get rich or famous working as a background extra. It’s honorable work, and while I’m on set, I take it seriously. I show up on time and follow the instructions I’m given to the letter. Yet I know I won’t be discovered and given a one-way ticket to Hollywood. And I’m really OK with that. This is teamwork. This is what I do for fun. — Cindy La Ferle

Top photo: I’m on the right, hamming it up with Laurie and Bryan Valko, fellow background extras, after getting fitted for a hospital scene in Secrets in the Walls, a Lifetime TV thriller scheduled to air this fall. Middle photo: My husband Doug (left) posting with background extra Vong Lee, the Communist soldier who held us captive on the set of Red Dawn in our Royal Oak neighborhood last year. Bottom Photo: One of several head shots I use for background extra gigs.