The waiting season

Take time, slow down, be still, be awake to the Divine Mystery that looks so common and so ordinary, yet is wondrously present.” –Edward Hays

A longer version of this essay was published in The Heart of Christmas, a Guideposts anthology. It’s also included in my book, Writing Home. — CL

The Waiting Season

December 13, 2003

Advent is a time of waiting and anticipation; a time that feels as if something truly awesome is about to unfold. For most Christian churches, it marks the beginning of the liturgical year. Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day — the Sunday closest to November 30 — and ends on Christmas Eve. If Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday, it is then counted as the fourth Sunday of Advent. In many churches, a ceremonial candle is lighted near the altar every week during the season.

I still remember my first Advent calendar. A simple cardboard model, it was sprinkled with gold and silver glitter and had tiny perforated windows to be opened daily until Christmas. Behind each window was a small illustration associated with the Nativity in Bethlehem – an angel with a trumpet, a Wise Man, or a shepherd with a lamb.

My best friend in grade school was a devout Catholic and a seasoned authority on the proper use of Advent calendars. As she often reminded me, the perforated windows were meant to be opened only on their designated days. Sneaking a peak at the future was strictly prohibited.

Being a practical Presbyterian at the time, I could see nothing sinful in staying ahead of schedule. And by the second week of Advent, I knew what was behind every door and window, including the largest and final one that revealed the baby Jesus. Once I did this, of course, Id completely spoiled my own fun. Half the beauty of any Advent calendar, after all, is the magical sense of wonder and anticipation it provides. If nothing else, Id learned a small lesson in patience — or how to wait gracefully.

“Most of us think of waiting as something very passive,” writes Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen in “Waiting for God,” a lovely essay on Advent. “Active waiting means to be fully present to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and that you want to be present to it.”

My own sons birthday also falls during Advent. Nate just turned eighteen last week — a landmark birthday that got me thinking about patience, grace, seasons, and the incredible journey of motherhood.

A senior in high school now, Nate is over six feet tall and diligently preparing for college. Every day after school he makes a beeline to the mailbox, hoping to find acceptance letters from the various universities hes applied to. He is in a waiting mode, too, anticipating a bright and challenging future.

My duties as a parent often seem paradoxical. I must help my child feel grounded and secure, yet loosen my maternal grip a little more each year. And like most parents, I often try to imagine what the future holds. I want some assurance that my boy will be safe, happy, and fully capable of managing on his own. But its not for me to know whats behind every door or window to his future.

The only thing I have for certain is the moment at hand, a moment to be seized and cherished. Its another lesson in patience for me – one little window at a time. — Cindy La Ferle

Homecoming memories

Nobody cares if you can’t dance well.  Just get up and dance.”  ~Dave Barry

My son Nate is 25 now, and past the stage of high school homecoming dances. But this week, some of my neighbors are gearing up for this sweet tradition, and I remembered this essay from my book, Writing Home. Happy news: Nate is engaged to the young woman mentioned at the end of the essay and shown in the photo at left. –CL

“The Homecoming Dance”

September 21, 2003

From baptism to bar mitzvah, rituals and rites of passage honor the milestones in our lives.  Certain rituals are so closely tied to autumn, in fact, that I cant imagine the season without them. Raking leaves, visiting cider mills, and digging woolens out of storage are just a few.

But the annual high school homecoming dance crowns them all.

At our house, as surely as the maples shed yellow leaves on the lawn, this semi-formal event kicks up a whirlwind of activity and emotion. Some of it is not pretty.

Since Im the mother of a son, my homecoming rituals do not include shopping for the ultimate evening gown and the perfect shade of nail polish. Admittedly, I miss playing Fairy Godmother to Cinderella, so I live vicariously through other moms who have teenaged daughters. Thats how Ive learned that things are different with boys. The angst level, for instance, is much lower in the wardrobe department. Guys dont worry about their hair, and they dont have to obsess over finding a purse to coordinate with a pair of shoes that will be worn only once.

Traditionally, a boy waits until forty-five minutes before the big event to consider whether or not his dress shirt needs to be unearthed from the closet floor. (This is based on the assumption that he owns a dress shirt.) At that point, all hell breaks loose, sending his beleaguered parents in search of an ironing board while the boy hunts down a pair of matching socks. He also waits until the final hour to announce that his good suit has cake frosting on the lapel – a souvenir from the last semi-formal event he attended.

Homecoming rituals will test any parents mettle, but I believe Im a sturdier person because of them.

I miss playing Fairy Godmother to Cinderella, so I live vicariously through other moms who have teenaged daughters.

Last year, a week before the big dance, we drove Nate to Nordstroms to shop for a new shirt and tie. Anticipating conflict, I backed off and let him sort through the merchandise with his dad. I tried to keep quiet – until I spotted a handsome gold dress shirt that was perfect for his black suit.

“Look at this one, guys!” I shouted, holding up the prize. On cue, Doug spotted a great tie to go with it. Our sweet son glanced at the ensemble, rolled his eyes, and muttered his new favorite word: “Hideous.”

Seconds later, Nates cell phone rang. It was Andrea – a young lady with impeccable fashion sense. Andrea happened to be shopping in the area and would come to his rescue. She would help him find the right shirt.

Well, when the fashionista arrived in the mens department, she immediately chose – you guessed it – the gold shirt. Suddenly this shirt was awesome, and the tie was fairly cool, too. (I bit my tongue and reminded myself that God really does look out for parents, and He is everywhere, including Nordstroms.)

As I type this, the next homecoming dance is a week away. Just as I did last year, and the year before that, Ive reminded Nate to ask a date in advance. Once again, Ive explained how girls need time to shop for dresses and book hair appointments. And just as he did last year, the kid kept his plans under wraps until he needed advice on ordering a corsage.

As it turns out, Nates date this year is Andrea, the sharp young lady with good taste in mens shirts. Thinking ahead last week, we bought Nate a new shirt and tie to co-ordinate with her dress. Thank goodness, Andrea approves. Meanwhile, I am not taking any chances and have dropped off the black suit at the dry cleaner.

This is senior year, after all, and weve finally learned the steps to the homecoming dance. — Cindy La Ferle

Writing Home is available in local bookstores and on Amazon.com (see link at the top of this page). Proceeds from my book sales are donated annually to organizations serving the homeless, including the Welcome Inn and South Oakland Shelter, at holiday time.

 

New Year’s newsletter

Cheers to a new year and another chance for us to get it right.”  ~Oprah Winfrey

Though I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, I’ve always loved how January nudges us toward self-improvement and encourages fresh starts. The month, after all, is named for the two-faced Roman god, Janus, who’s always depicted looking backward and forward. Janus seems to remind us that we should pause long enough to consider the events that brought us to the present moment before we start something new.

My father-in-law died of Alzheimer’s in June. As you probably recall from previous posts, the months preceding his death were especially tough on Doug. There were grueling decisions that involved finding the right nursing home for his dad as well as helping his mother with the changes in her household and finances. In retrospect, I was so involved with the upheaval in my own mother’s situation, that I don’t think I offered as much emotional support to my husband as I should have.

And isn’t that always the case when we are preoccupied with our own stuff? We turn inward and neglect others who need us — especially when the others who need us appear to be handling things well enough on their own. That’s something I need to remember and work on in the year ahead. Because people who have strong arms sometimes need a helping hand, too.

Meanwhile, this week, we completed the last of four appointments for my mom at the Beaumont Geriatric Evaluation Clinic. Offering health-care and lifestyle consultation for the elderly and their caregivers, the Clinic put my mother through a series of tests (including a neuro-psychological interview) in addition to a complete physical. The good news: My mother’s memory loss was re-diagnosed as vascular dementia, not Alzheimer’s. Regardless, dementia is dementia, no matter which label you paste on it.

My mother is in the milder stage, and still capable of caring for herself in her condo with minimal assistance. Even so, I’ve been told that putting Mom in an assisted living facility would make things much easier for me. But Mom loves her home — it remains one of few things she’s genuinely enthused about — so I’m honoring her wish to stay there as long as possible.

The bad news: Once a patient is officially diagnosed with any type of dementia, there are serious liability issues when it comes to allowing that patient to drive. So, early in the evaluation process last year, the doctors suspended my mother’s driving privileges. She never drove very far, anyway, but she’s nonetheless freaked about having her wings clipped. The final verdict will come after Mom completes an official driving test to be conducted at another Beaumont Hospital facility in a couple of weeks. Ah yes, more appointments.

Even when we’re adults with kids of our own, and even when we uphold our most noble intentions, most of us secretly struggle with the idea of becoming parents to our parents. For the past two years, Mom’s doctors have asked me to show up at her appointments, oversee her medications, and supervise her health-care decisions. I haven’t minded that half as much as I’ve mourned the loss of my real mother — the strong, capable woman she used to be. These days she’s like a surly teenager riddled with anxiety. It all makes me sad and angry and, mostly, emotionally drained … which is another thing I need to work on this year.

It does get better, though …

When I tally up some of the year’s happiest moments, I recall the good friends who’ve been at the ready with a listening ear and a willingness to meet for lunch, dinner, or drinks. Or heartfelt conversations on the phone. As an only child, I don’t have much of an extended family to speak of, so having longtime friends who function like a true family has been more valuable than I can express in words.

And in the fun department, Doug and I continued the recreational foray into background acting we began in September of 2009. Between the two of us, we’ve been in 14 different film and television productions to date. We continue to support the film industry in Michigan, and hope our new Michigan governor will see the benefits of hosting Hollywood here.

Writing-wise, I didn’t start many new projects. Like the dormant plants under the snow in my garden, my muse was sleepy, or maybe she was deliberately giving me extra time to focus on my mom’s health care. I did manage to get a new essay published in Victoria, and several of my previously published essays were chosen for national anthologies. Guideposts gift books, for instance, published a Christmas piece (from Writing Home) in The Heart of Christmas. It was a thrill and an honor to see my work in a collection containing writings by Sue Monk Kidd, Pearl S. Buck, Marjorie Holmes, and others whose work I’ve admired. And in the fall, I was hired to write a weekly column for Royal Oak Patch, one of AOL’s hyper-local online newspapers.

After a long day with my mom earlier this week, I came home and crashed with a book in one of the big chairs in the living room. Doug and I had taken down the Christmas decorations the day before, and it was a relief to see the mantel and tabletops cleared of elves, angels, pine boughs, and other holiday doodads. I was reminded once again that, when life gets more complicated than usual, the sanest thing you can do is to clear some space, cut back where you can, and focus only on the essentials.

Wishing you all a wonderful, healthy New Year. — Cindy La Ferle

— Winter garden photos by Cindy La Ferle —

Support your local authors

Miss a meal if you have to, but don’t miss a good book.” — Jim Rohn

Earlier this year, I went to a friend’s book signing event that was so well attended it brought tears to my eyes. My friend and his co-author gave a wonderful presentation to a standing-room-only crowd — and sold more books than they’d initially planned.

I was reminded of my very first book signing for Writing Home at our local Borders. Before the signing, I worried that only a handful of relatives would show up. Imagine my surprise, and gratitude, when I walked into Borders and saw a line forming at my table — a line of new friends, old neighbors, and column readers from all over the community. I sold so many books that the manager invited me back to do another book signing at holiday time two months later.

All of this got me thinking: What if I could provide a similar supportive experience — a huge book signing — for other authors in my hometown, all in one location? And what if this book sale event could also serve as an opportunity to encourage aspiring authors who want to learn more about getting published?

The first annual Royal Oak Authors Book Fair sprouted from that seed. Thanks to the Royal Oak Public Library, a dozen authors from Royal Oak will gather for a community book signing and public panel discussion this Saturday, Oct. 9, 1:30 – 4:30 p.m.

Nearly every literary genre, from fiction to self-help will be represented at the Fair. Many of Royal Oak’s authors have been featured nationally and are “best-sellers” in their own right: Book Fair authors and publishers will include: Gerry Boyan, David Clements, Judy Davids, Steve Haffner (Haffner Press), Dr. Charles K. Hyde, Steve Lehto, Trevor McCauley, Maureen McDonald, Eleanor Payson, John S. Schultz, Tom Weschler, and yours truly.

So bring your questions on publishing and the writing life to our panel discussion at 1:30 in the Royal Oak Public Library Auditorium. Help us celebrate the printed word. And plan to do some book shopping afterward. I’ll be signing copies of my own book, plus you’ll find several books on Detroit’s automotive history; fantasy and sci-fi novels: a biography on Bob Seger; a hitchhiker’s novel; a photo-history of Royal Oak; a self-help guide; plus memoirs, murder mysteries … and more! — Cindy La Ferle

Royal Oak Authors Book Fair poster (above) designed by Judy Davids. Click on the poster for a larger view.

October Memories

October is a symphony of permanence and change.” — Bonaro W. Overstreet

The following short essay began as a journal entry after my father died. I recently rediscovered the notebook in which I’d written it longhand. First published in the October 1998 edition of Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, it’s also included in my book, Writing Home.

October Memories

Lately I’ve been thinking of these lines from Anne Mary Lawler’s poem about the seasons: October dresses in flame and gold, Like a woman afraid of growing old.

This is a potent month for memories. Yesterday I watched while my son and the children next door tumbled like acrobats in the fallen leaves. (Is there a kid in the Midwest who hasn’t done this?) And later in the evening, I sniffed the familiar aroma of wood-burning fires, another indisputable sign that winter is on its way.

For me, the smoky scents of October always evoke a favorite memory of my father raking leaves in the small backyard of our first home. The memory is more than three decades old, but it glows as vividly as the logs crackling in the grate tonight.

When I was growing up — before environmental laws — everyone in my neighborhood raked leaves into neat brown piles, then burned them near the curb or in backyard bonfires. Dry and brittle as bones, the leaves and twigs snapped furiously when introduced to a match. Back then, October weekends seemed to drift in mysterious clouds of gray-blue smoke — the perfect prelude to Houdinis Halloween.

Like most fathers, mine worked on weekdays, and often spent his weekends doing yard work. Long before the term “quality time” was coined by childcare experts, Dad would enlist my help raking leaves on Sunday after church. I offered very little assistance, preferring to toss his neatly piled leaves back into the air, or to roll in what remained of his handiwork. Regardless, he seemed to enjoy my reckless company — and I enjoyed the novelty of helping him. Unlike my mom, who would have seized the opportunity for “girl talk,” my dad didn’t always communicate with words. On those brisk autumn afternoons, with the sun glinting through bare branches of oak and maple, it was enough for us to be together. He raked, I rolled, and nothing of dire importance was ever said.

_______________

October weekends seemed to drift in mysterious clouds of gray-blue smoke — the perfect prelude to Houdinis Halloween.

_________________________

Still, young as I was, I felt the ancient ache and pull of October.

By then, I understood the seasons were cyclical; that the easy days of summer would return as surely as apples had ripened every fall. But I’d also begun to grasp the concept that time trudges ahead in a straight line, like it or not, ruffling the smooth texture of our days as it marches forward. I couldn’t have explained it quite this way, but suddenly I knew I’d have to “yield with a grace,” as Robert Frost once wrote, “the end of a love or a season.”

I recall watching my handsome young father in his plaid flannel shirt while he whistled and tended his banks of smoldering leaves, their acrid smoke filling my nostrils and forcing tears. I remember wishing that everything could stay the same — that I wouldn’t have to grow up or grow old; that autumn afternoons wouldn’t bleed to winter.

It was as if I had glimpsed the distant future and seen my father’s empty chair at our Thanksgiving table.

Of course, Dad had no idea that I had stumbled on a vast, disturbing truth and was forever changed by it. He worked contentedly, pausing only to watch me or to loosen the dried leaves from the long teeth of his rake. And that is the way I like to remember him:  arrested in time on that October afternoon, living in the moment, always whistling. — Cindy La Ferle

— Top photo of a maple tree in my Vinsetta Park neighborhood. (copyright Cindy La Ferle) —