As I turn 60

-4I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that several of my friends turned 60 last year. 

At birthday parties large and small, they raised their glasses to six eventful decades. Some recalled pivotal moments and milestones of our youth: Kennedy’s assassination … the Beatles’ American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show… Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon. Others joked about wrinkles and hair loss, yet also expressed sincere gratitude for the hard-won gifts of maturity.

Even harder to digest is the fact that I will turn 60 next month. For starters, I don’t feel much different than I did when I turned 30. Aside from the lower back pain that underscores a long day of gardening, I’d have to say I’m in better shape — physically and emotionally — than I was 12 years ago following bilateral hip replacement surgery.

Regardless, like Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings and endings, I’m reflecting on what I’ve learned from past mistakes while mapping a nebulous future. I’m reconsidering what it means to grow up and grow old. Ready or not, I’ve arrived at the doorstep of seniority.

Wearing it well

Along the way it occurs to me that ageism isn’t going away without a fight. At 60, we’re more likely to see our peers represented in Viagra commercials than cast as romantic leads in a TV series. Fashion editors overlook us. Teenagers dismiss us. And even if we manage to keep pace with technological changes, we still work twice as hard to stay visible in our professions. Sixty is the new old.

Yet we’ve earned some real advantages too. We’ve achieved goals and survived crises we couldn’t have imagined in our twenties. Our bank of experience is so much richer now.

“One of the useful things about age is realizing that conventional wisdom is often inertia with a candy coating of conformity,” writes Anna Quindlen in her midlife memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Random House).

My 60-year-old friends would agree. Conducting an informal poll, I asked a dozen older folks I admire to list the biggest perks or benefits of maturing. Not surprisingly, I got several versions of the phrase: “I’ve stopped caring what other people think of me.”

For instance, a woman who’d been fretting over dressing appropriately for her age said she finally decided to ignore the fashion police and wear what she loves. Her purple nail polish and cowboy boots wouldn’t work on just anyone — regardless of age — but isn’t that the charm of authentic, original style? I admire how my friend’s wardrobe matches her damn-the-torpedoes attitude. She isn’t wearing her age the way my grandmother did.

Likewise, I was impressed at how many 60-year-olds said they don’t lie about their age. They own it. After all, fibbing about something as fundamental as your birth year only makes you appear vain or deceitful, not younger. The absolute-coolest human beings I know have stopped trying to hide who they are.

Taking no prisoners

Age seems to have blurred our stubborn edges, too. Or maybe it’s just that we’re tired of playing small. By the time we hit 60, we’ve endured enough heartache and buried enough loved ones to know that nursing crusty old grudges (or regrets) is a waste of precious time.

Maturity enables us to accept apologies and admit when we’ve been wrong or controlling or foolish. Maturity is expansive. It teaches us that forgiving others — and ourselves — clears the path to inner peace. We can’t be right all the time, just as surely as we can’t please everyone.

That said, we’ve earned enough self-respect to realize we don’t have to endure abuse, neglect, duplicity, rudeness, and other “less than” treatment from friends, family, or business associates. We’ve discovered, as Ann Landers once pointed out, that nobody can take advantage of us without our permission.

We’ve learned that every strong relationship is a gift and a privilege — and should be treated as such. We know that real grown-ups look for opportunities to reciprocate a favor or pay it forward. We know that good fortune — in our careers and in our relationships — doesn’t go half as far as sheer effort, and that taking anything wonderful for granted is the first step toward losing it.

Watching my fifties vanish in the rear-view mirror, I’m still struggling with what it means to age “gracefully.” One pal tells me it’s a matter of knowing when to quit, but that sounds like another euphemism for giving up. It’s too passive. Then again, unless you’re Mick Jagger or Tina Turner, it’s probably wise to have at least one alternative career plan. The way I see it, as long as you’re sincerely committed to the passion that fires you up in the morning, whether you’re talking animal rights or landscape design, well, it’s all up for grabs.

My 60-year-old pals and I are just gearing up for the next part of this crazy ride. So far, it looks like we’re seizing the next decade with moxie — and grace has taken a back seat. I’m actually looking forward to this.

This is a revised version of a shorter essay originally published in the January 2014 issue of Michigan Prime. The top photo of Doug and me (at a Boys & Girls Club fundraiser last year) was taken by our old buddy, John Schultz.  

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. —

Mrs. Lindbergh’s gift

It is not merely the trivial which clutters our lives but the important as well.” — Anne Morrow Lindbergh

IMG_2378Visiting southwest Florida several years ago, I finally made a pilgrimage to the tiny island of Captiva.  With our only child away at college then, it was the first time my husband and I had returned to the Sunshine State without plans to tour Disney World.

Barely four miles long and ½ mile wide, Captiva is where Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote Gift from the Sea during a brief ocean-side sabbatical. I’ve collected at least five different editions of Gift from the Sea, and I can’t think of a close friend who hasn’t received a copy from me.

First published in 1955, the little book spoke volumes to women on the brink of social change. Using seashells to describe the various stages of a woman’s life, from early marriage to the empty nest, Mrs. Lindbergh gave voice to the ache of the feminine spirit.

A thoughtful friend loaned me her copy when I was in my early thirties — when everything in my small universe was spinning faster than I could keep up. I was learning how to be a wife, raising a preschooler, working as a travel magazine editor, and trying to make a home out of a 1940s handyman special.  As much as I’d welcomed so many options and opportunities, I was too exhausted to understand why I felt something was missing.

Mrs. Lindbergh explained my dilemma.

“There are so few empty pages in my engagement calendar,” she wrote. “Too many worthy activities, valuable things, and interesting people. For it is not merely the trivial which clutters our lives but the important as well. We can have a surfeit of treasures –- an excess of shells — where one or two would be significant.”

BeachRereading those lines two decades later, I recall the epiphany that struck when I first read them. Like most young mothers I knew, I wanted to have it all — but didn’t realize the price I’d pay until “all” was piled high in my lap. It’s not that I was ungrateful for the richly textured life I’d crafted. I loved my husband, my child, my home, my writing career.  But I desperately needed to fill an unnamed void.

Thanks to Mrs. Lindbergh, I discovered that feeding my spirit was a necessity, not a luxury. I had to teach myself how to be still in the midst of suburban chaos, if only for a few moments between meeting deadlines and driving my carpool shift. As Mrs. Lindbergh wrote, my real challenge was “how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life.”

On Captiva Island, I had time to revisit these key issues with a hard-won midlife perspective. Even then, I was still inclined to overbook myself and neglect the call of my spirit. I still made the mistake of confusing my self-worth with my achievements. Today, as the sole caregiver of an elderly parent, I often need to be reminded to repair myself when my seams feel as if they’re unraveling.

“By and large, mothers and housewives are the only workers who do not have regular time off. They are the great vacationless class,”  Mrs. Lindbergh wrote.

Decades after Gift from the Sea was published, we’re still overwhelmed by the banquet of options available to us. Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s message remains as fresh as ever — and I’m grateful for her enduring gift.

Wish you all a beautiful summer vacation! — Cindy La Ferle

 Photo credits: Cindy La Ferle

Prime magazine

Be on the alert to recognize your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur.”  ~Muriel Spark

DSCN3801A supplement to The Detroit News and Free Press, Michigan Prime (formerly Michigan Senior Living) has a new title and design.

I’ve been writing a personal column for the magazine since June of last year, fulfilling my longtime dream of reaching a large audience of fellow Baby Boomers. So far, I’ve written columns about the decision to place my mother in assisted living; how to write a memoir; anger management; why self-care isn’t selfish; and more.

I’m always open to fresh ideas and midlife adventures for future columns, so please feel free to send me a private message using the “Contact” tab (above) on this site.

My goal for the bimonthly column is to inspire others who want to embrace the freedoms, changes, and challenges of the second half of life.  Even if you don’t live in the Detroit area, you can read Prime online, where you’ll find my current column, “A Mother-in-law in Training.”

Coping with parent loss during the holidays

They live forever in your broken heart….And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” — Anne Lamott

I‘m on holiday break for the next week, so I’ll continue to repost seasonal pieces. This one was published on Nov. 26, 2006 in my Daily Tribune “Life Lines” column. — CL

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No matter how old you are, losing a parent is a difficult rite of passage. Like childbirth, it is such a complex, emotional experience that it’s never easy to explain to anyone who hasn’t walked through it.

My own father died suddenly at 65. I was 38 and had a family of my own, yet I still felt unmoored and abandoned. Even though my mother was alive and in good health then, it seemed as though I’d been exiled to a strange frontier without a map. And in some ways, I had.

At that point, none of my closest friends had lost a parent. They couldn’t comprehend the depth of such a loss — or why my sorrow turned to anger or resentment during the holidays. And I couldn’t begin to articulate the unexpected waves of grief.

Writing about the loss of her own beloved father in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott said it best: “Sometimes, when I’ve done something fabulous, I feel like a gymnast who has performed a flawless routine in an empty auditorium.”

Before my dad died, I avoided most funeral homes and memorial services. On the rare occasions when I did attend, I struggled to find the right words for the bereaved. I found it awkward to view a casket, open or closed. In retrospect, I hadn’t found a direction for my own life yet — so how could I look death in the eye and make any sort of peace with it?

But a lot of things changed when my father died — and so did I.

I looked long and hard at the self-centered goals I’d been striving for in my twenties and thirties. In the weeks and months after Dad was buried, I listed everything that had been important to him: home, family, hard work, honesty, and kindness. In his honor, I decided to recommit myself to the values he’d hoped to pass along. And, most important of all, I stopped taking for granted the people I loved. The road back to normal was long, but I regained my footing and felt whole again.

In retrospect, I hadn’t found a direction for my own life yet — so how could I look death in the eye and make any sort of peace with it?

To be released this month, Always Too Soon by Allison Gilbert offers words of reassurance to anyone who is struggling with the loss of one or both parents. Gilbert, who was parentless by age 31, discusses the stages of her grief in the book’s introduction.

“My first parentless Thanksgiving came two months after my father died,” Gilbert recalls. “I didn’t feel old enough to be responsible for Thanksgiving…. I was no longer somebody’s child going home for the holidays. I felt overwhelmed, and despite my husband and brother’s support, utterly alone. I was also filled with self-centered anger.”

Always Too Soon features conversations with more than a dozen celebrities who were willing to share their own experiences with parent loss, including Rosanne Cash, Yogi Berra, Mariel Hemingway, Dennis Franz, and Rosanna Arquette. It also includes moving insights from not-so-famous people who lost parents in the Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11 terrorist attacks.

It’s a book I’d recommend highly to friends in need of comfort — and these days there are quite a few.

Within the past year and a half, two of my former college roommates watched their mothers lose their long battles with Parkinson’s disease. Another friend recently answered a late-night call announcing that her father had died unexpectedly of a heart attack.

Lately, visits to funeral homes and memorial services have become routine. I don’t always know the “right” things to say, but I do understand that my presence is important. I try to be the kind of friend I needed when my father died 14 years ago. I try to be honest. I remind my grieving friends that recovery from such a huge loss takes its own bittersweet time.

I also remind them that grief is a remarkable guide, if we’re willing to stay with it through the darkest places on our journey. We learn from our losses and grow stronger. Then we return to help each other heal.  — Cindy La Ferle