Giving it up for Lent

Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is discord, harmony ….” — St. Francis of Assisi

Traditionally, some Christian churches ask us to forfeit something we enjoy for the duration of the Lenten season. We might choose to give up alcohol, potato chips, peanut butter, shoes shopping, ice cream, favorite TV shows (or, heaven forbid, dark chocolate truffles) while we prepare for “rebirth” on Easter Sunday.

I won’t argue with any of that — and I’m not incapable of postponing pleasure when the occasion calls for it. Truth is, I find that chocolate, one of my diehard addictions and pleasures, is so much easier to surrender than a genuine bad habit.

So what’s the point?

Over the years I’ve come to view Lent as a fresh opportunity for serious soul-searching. I love the idea of escaping to a metaphorical desert for 40 days to review and purge my bad habits; to strip away the stubborn layers of outworn grievances. (Not that I’ve been entirely successful in previous attempts.) All said and done, I try to use the whole Lenten season as an extended spa for the spirit; a reflective retreat.

Though my list is long and overly ambitious for 40 weekdays, here are just a few of the lousy habits and ridiculous behaviors I’d like to give up:

*Caring (too much) about what other people think.

*Believing that it’s my role in life to keep everyone happy all the time — even when I’m exhausted or over-extended.

*Believing I must achieve something big in order to make a difference or have value as a human being.

*Taking the key players in my life for granted while fussing over others who don’t deserve as much attention.

*Buying more black clothing than I can possibly wear.

*Worrying about things I can’t possibly fix or control, including my mother’s dementia.

*Assuming that the most expensive product is always superior.

*Feeling guilty if I’m not “productive” all the time.

*Allowing the beauty, fashion, and cosmetic industries to make me feel ashamed about aging and looking older.

*Wasting time on the computer when I could use a walk and fresh air.

*Not taking enough time to form well-researched (balanced) political opinions.

*Playing small when I should be aiming higher.

*Expecting more from some people than they are capable of giving.

*Making foolish assumptions before I have gathered all the necessary information.

*Putting up with people who make foolish assumptions before they have gathered all the necessary information.

*Neglecting my feet when I moisturize.

*Not taking time out to meet friends for coffee when I’m invited because it’s easier to stay home in my pajamas and communicate via social media.

*Dwelling on the mistakes I’ve made.

*Dwelling on the mistakes other people have made.

*Apologizing for things that aren’t my fault.

*Failing to notice — and apologize — when I am at fault.

*Clinging to old stuff I need to pitch, which includes just about everything in the attic.

*Forgetting to appreciate what I’ve already accomplished.

*Feeling guilty for reading the books I want to read instead of the ones on the neighborhood book club list.

This is only a start, of course; there are other much-needed improvements I can’t even list here. So, how about you? What will you do differently — or give up — this season? – Cindy La Ferle

To access an earlier Lent reflection from my book, Writing Home, please click here.

— Original artwork (above) by Cindy La Ferle. Please click on the image 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–


Notes from Janus

And now, let us welcome the New Year/ Full of things that have never been.” — Rainer Maria Rilke

janus-statue-in-vatican-wc-pdIt’s perfect — how the month of January is named for Janus, the Roman god of gates and entrances, beginnings and endings.  With his two heads facing opposite directions, Janus inspires us to look backward and forward as we step over the threshold and begin again.

Last year was a year of change and transition for me and my small family.

My only child, who moved to Chicago after graduating from college in 2008, purchased his first condo in the summer. On moving day, his dad helped him haul boxes up and down the elevator of his new residence while I organized his kitchen. Unpacking my son’s dinnerware and utensils, I recalled other “firsts” in his young life. First day of kindergarten. First formal dance with his girlfriend. First day of driver’s ed. First day of college at Notre Dame. How quickly those days flew off the pages of our family calendar.

Meanwhile — almost overnight — my widowed mother lost her old spark. Independent for years, she began forgetting things. Important things. She forgot that certain people in her life had died. She forgot phone conversations we’d had the day before. When tested by the neurologist, she couldn’t recall the name of the county we live in, or what day of the week it was.  Not surprisingly, in November she was diagnosed with early stage dementia — a diagnosis that immediately reordered my priorities and changed the shape of my days.

Looking forward; looking back. My son moves ahead with his new life in Chicago while my elderly mother’s world grows smaller and smaller. Clearly, the seasons of family living are unfolding exactly as they should. And despite the inevitable heartache, I find myself feeling deeply grateful for every step, stumble, or leap that brought me to this path, this life of mine.

As a freelance writer with a supportive husband, I’m lucky to have the flexibility to help my mother when she needs me. Impromptu trips with Mom to the doctor’s office or the emergency room aren’t fun — but they’re not as much of a challenge now as they would have been when I had office jobs.

Still, there’s no denying that it’s been a very tough year for every writer and journalist I know. If there’s a silver lining in any of it, the sad state of journalism here in Detroit forced many of us to try markets we’d neglected or overlooked when we were employed full-time or working other assignments. Out of necessity in 2009, I developed new writing workshops. I worked harder at promoting Writing Home. I outlined a viable idea for a new book project. Several of my personal essays were published in national anthologies and magazines. Best of all, a piece I wrote about my Zen garden was accepted for the March/April 2010 issue of Victoria — a lifestyle magazine I’ve read and admired for years. Regardless, freelance writing is a crazy business, so I’m forever grateful to my local writer pals and support groups for keeping me (somewhat) sane last year.

Typing these notes, I’m also overcome with gratitude for all of you who read my reflections here. Your comments and support always cheer me. And I apologize for not visiting (and commenting on) your blogs and Facebook walls as often as I wish I could. Too often lately, real life has made it impossible to spend as much time on my computer.

I’ll be offline for most of next week too. It’s time to pull down the Christmas decorations and begin the ritual of clearing out things I no longer need — holiday treats and leftovers; old clothes and grudges; bad attitudes. Getting started this morning, I opened our front and back doors to let the old year out and welcome the new one inside. It’s an old Celtic custom that’s still praticed in parts of Ireland and Scotland, and it makes perfect sense to me. The first cold blast of January wakes me up and hurries me back to work.

So there you have it. Doors opening and closing. Endings and beginnings. I wish you all a peaceful, healthy start for your own new year. — Cindy La Ferle