Collecting beach stones

It takes courage to grow up and be who you really are.” — e.e. cummings

DSCN1955For me, the highlight of vacationing on Lake Michigan is the rare chance to collect my wits and a few beach stones.  Adventurous souls will dive into its frigid waves or skim its surface on motor boats and jet skis, but I’d rather mine the shore for treasures.

Morning is the best time to hunt for beach stones. The water is usually calm, your outlook is refreshed, and, if you’re really lucky, fellow beachcombers are still asleep. Rising with the sun, you’ll get first pick of the gems that rolled in with the tide.

It’s always a thrill to uncover exceptional Petoskey stones, which are rare these days. But don’t overlook the subtle beauty of milky quartz, and keep an eye out for perfect skipping stones that were tumbled smooth by the waves.

Look closely, and you’ll find beach stones imprinted with fossils, some bearing an uncanny resemblance to ancient tablets carved with runes or hieroglyphics. Others are miniature works of art — and you’d swear they’d been painted by an Asian calligrapher. As many Northern Michigan jewelers have already discovered, some of these beauties are worthy of stringing on a necklace.
During a recent visit to the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, where I celebrated my fiftieth birthday, it occurred to me that collecting beach stones is a bit like crafting a life. You have to remain grounded and focused, yet always open to new possibilities.

For starters, you need deep pockets to collect your bounty. And you must begin your quest believing that you’ll be rewarded with more than you bargained for. If you focus solely on the obvious — Petoskey stones, for instance — you might miss the other jewels of the lake. In my search for something rare or perfect, I’ve nearly overlooked other stones of beauty and character.

stones2And as every seasoned beachcomber knows, the rippling water teases like a mirage, making it hard to see things as they really are. I’ve rescued many stones that looked tempting under water, but were lackluster when they dried in the sun. Some were merely pieces of beach glass.

Selecting beach stones, in fact, is a bit like choosing what is essential in life: friends, partners, schools, career paths, a church, and a place to call home. It’s wise to make these choices slowly and carefully; to consider what feels right, lasting, and true.

As the cliché goes, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, and beach stones are no exception. I always end up with too many, and have to edit down my finds to an exemplary few. Otherwise, I’d need a gravel truck to haul them back to Detroit.

This is a lesson I need to apply at home, too.

I tend to hang on to some things longer than I should — outdated clothing, fair-weather friends, silly grudges, bad ideas, hairstyles, broken tools, receipts, and stale opinions. And over the years I’ve tolerated things I should have protested, including dumb TV shows, insensitive comments, junk food, energy vampires, unfair wages, and degrading articles in women’s magazines.

Wandering the shore at sunset, I ask myself: What’s truly essential now? How much of what I buy do I really need? How can I make better use of my time and the blessings I’ve been given? And what in this overbooked/ over-connected world of ours is most in need (or deserving) of my attention?

Collecting beach stones, I’m reminded that the second half of life offers the freedom to choose again — to polish, edit, refine and reconsider.

Once again, I empty my pockets before returning home.

This essay is reprinted from my essay collection, Writing Home. It appeared in slightly different form in my Daily Tribune “Life Lines” column in August 2004. Photos are of Lake Michigan (top) and a detail from my Zen garden in Royal Oak. TO ORDER A COPY OF WRITING HOME in Kindle or paperback, CLICK HERE.

Becoming a mother-in-law

WeddingFrom the moment she posed for those first high school prom photos on our front porch 10 years ago, I knew Andrea was perfect for my only son, Nate.

Yet I felt a subtle shift in our relationship when the two exchanged wedding vows last fall.

Even in the happiest circumstances, after all, the family dynamic changes when adult children marry. Whether we’re debating where to spend the holidays or how often to phone the newlyweds, everyone has to adjust or compromise.

In other words, my new supporting role as “mother-in-law” is making me a little nervous.

Googling the term “mother-in-law” last week, I found dozens of websites listing crude mother-in-law jokes and personal blogs describing toxic in-laws from hell. From Joan Rivers, for instance: “I told my mother-in-law that my house was her house, and she said, ‘Get the hell off my property.’”

Cast as the witch in American family mythology, the stereotypical mother-in-law is blamed for poisoning marriages and spoiling grandkids. No matter what she says or does, she’s the proverbial scapegoat at the extended-family dinner table.

Of course, I want to avoid becoming this woman at all costs.

Comfort and counsel

Thankfully, I can revisit my own family tree for positive role models.

When I married 32 years ago, I felt awkward around my husband’s mother, whose shy personality was so different from mine. At the time, my own wise mother was quick to remind me that a cozy relationship with one’s in-laws rarely evolves overnight.

Early in her marriage, Mom was uncomfortable with my dad’s mother, Ruby, a dowdy Scottish immigrant and teetotaler. Ruby was the polar opposite of my mother’s alcoholic parents, and her brogue was so thick that my mother wished she could hire a translator. Over time, however, Mom learned Ruby’s language of unconditional love and often turned to her in times of crisis. Serving comfort and counsel with bottomless pots of tea, Ruby provided the maternal stability my mother always lacked.

My new daughter-in-law, Andrea, hails from a happy family with solid Croatian roots, and isn’t the sort who’ll need Scottish-island wisdom or scone recipes.

Having watched her grow up with Nate through high school and college, I’m proud of the capable young woman she’s become.

Given such a blessing, who wouldn’t strive to be the world’s best mother-in-law?

New family values

Nate reminds me that I’m “over-thinking” this phase of parenthood — a habit I can blame on my former career as a family columnist. Even so, if he’s lucky enough to be a father someday, he’ll find that letting go of one’s children is the trickiest step to learn in the circle-dance of life.

All said and done, most of us have watched enough Dr. Phil to know we shouldn’t meddle in the lives of our married children, and we know that our new extended family is likely to bring different customs to the table.

But I believe the rest is up to each of us: We decide how much love and effort to invest in our key relationships.

Meanwhile, I want my new daughter-in-law to know that I’ll never compete for my son’s attention; I’ll do my best to respect her boundaries.  Yet I want to be at the top of her list of women she can count on. And as our family’s future unfolds, I hope she’ll turn to me whether she needs a book recommendation or a babysitter — or someone who will listen with an open heart.

This column was first published last year in Michigan Prime.

Small-town romance

When it comes to staying young, a mind-lift beats a face-lift any day.”  ~Marty Bucella

CedarCoveIf you’ve spent any time in front of your television, you might wonder if midlife romance is a seasonal rarity or a gratuitous joke. And I’m not just referring to the Viagra ads. Hollywood doesn’t cast many older women in romantic leading roles.

So I’m cautiously optimistic about “Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove” series on the Hallmark channel. The new TV series is based on Macomber’s best-selling Cedar Cove books (I’ve lost count of how many there are) which feature several central characters over the age of 50.

In the Hallmark series, Andie MacDowell — looking fabulous at 55 — plays Olivia Lockhart, a municipal-court judge who presides over the fictional coastal town of Cedar Cove, Washington. This storybook universe manages to spin minus the grit of urban violence, but its resident characters still get divorced, struggle to overcome addictions, and rally to save their town’s landmarks while trying to balance careers with family.

Some — like Judge Olivia and her best friend Grace (Teryl Rothery)– are looking for midlife romance, post-divorce. At this point in the Hallmark series (episode 5 airs tomorrow night), Olivia is falling for Cedar Cove’s handsome newspaper editor, Jack Griffin, played by Dylan Neal.

As Nancy DeWolf Smith said in her Wall Street Journal review, the characters in Cedar Cove “seem to have time, to make time, to smell the muffins. The reason more of us don’t do that is because slowing down doesn’t work unless everybody around you is moving more slowly too, and that is not likely to happen anyplace but in fictionland.”

And yes, Hallmark’s “Cedar Cove” is fictionland — as neat and cozy as the clapboard art galleries and tea shops that line its quintessential Main Street. It’ll never be as enthralling as Stephen King’s “Under the Dome” series, or “The Walking Dead” — both of which I find highly entertaining, too. But if you’re over 50 and you appreciate small-town drama, you just might warm up to Hallmark’s sweet Saturday-night break from zombies, politicians, bloodied medical examiners, and murder investigators.

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. —