I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.”  ~Henry David Thoreau

When I was a student at Michigan State University in the 1970s, three natural science courses were required of all liberal arts students.

An artsy kid, I’d nearly flunked math and biology in high school. So I was terrified, initially, by MSU’s rigid science requirement.  But thanks to a very creative counselor who supervised my independent study track, I was allowed to replace the final natural science class with a graduate-level botany course in my senior year.

I was born with a green thumb, so this was both a thrill and a relief. The class required several field trips to outdoor nature centers, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Throughout the term, I learned to identify a wide variety of plant life, and even memorized the Latin names of species. I collected leaves, seed pods, and mushrooms. I sniffed berries and wildflowers. I learned that nature is an intelligent system; more than a thing of beauty in a controlled suburban landscape. Understanding and respecting that system — the miraculous cycle of decay and regeneration — has gotten me through some of the roughest times in my life.

But I digress. Botany was a blast — and guess what? I ended up with the top grade in the class — the first (and only) 4.0 I ever earned in a science curriculum. I’m still proud of that grade, and awed by the fact that so much of what I learned in a botany class serves me well to this day.

My love affair with plants is reflected in the Botanic Garden dish set my family uses now.

Produced by the Portmeirion Pottery company in Great Britain, the Botanic Garden pattern first caught my eye when I was outfitting my first apartment after college graduation. Durable and beautifully crafted, the designs were inspired by original 19th-century botanical drawings, replete with the Latin name of each plant. But the imported dishes were way out of my price range at the time. I was newly employed as a research assistant for a reference book publisher in Detroit, earning an annual income of $7,500.

Margaret, a favorite room mate from MSU who shared the post-grad apartment with me, bought my first Botanic Garden cup and saucer for my birthday in 1979.  “If I know you as well as I think I do, then I’m sure you’ll find a way to get the whole set one day,” Margaret wrote on the card that came with the gift.

I didn’t have the nerve to register for the Botanic Garden pattern when I got engaged 30 years ago; Doug and I thought it was too much to ask of our wedding guests during an economic recession.  But over the years, we managed to acquire a full set. Luckily, the price of the dishes started coming down in the last decade, and we found several pieces on sale at discount stores and Bed Bath & Beyond. We’ve also received a few of the serving pieces as holiday gifts.

Typing this, I realize it might seem silly or frivolous to romanticize plant science or a set of dishes. But at the end of a very difficult week, awaiting test results for my widowed mother’s worrisome health issues, I find comfort in these simple, ordinary pleasures. And Margaret was right. When you want something badly enough and your heart is in the right place, you’ll find a way to get it. That includes meeting academic challenges — and acquiring expensive dinnerware. — Cindy La Ferle

— Photos by Cindy La Ferle —

“The Poet”

Let her have a chair, her shadeless lamp, the table.” — Jane Hirshfield, “The Poet”

The place in which we work — an art studio, a home office, a spare bedroom, or the corner booth at the local diner — is essential to our creative lives.

I often hear would-be writers and artists complain that they can’t practice their craft because they don’t have a studio or a home office. But if we really want to write or paint, sculpt or sew, we’ll find a way to make a space for it. My friend Debbie, for instance, makes no apologies for keeping her sewing machine set up in the living room while she’s working on her projects. And nobody thinks she’s messing up the place. Her visitors are inspired by the cool things she’s creating.

An evocative portrait of an unknown poet’s writing room, this sweet poem, below, always tugs at my heart. It’s a universal image — the writing desk with a single lamp — but Jane Hirshfield makes it intensely personal. She also reminds us that the support of family and loved ones is just as essential as having a room of one’s own. –– CL

The Poet
By Jane Hirshfield

She is working now, in a room
not unlike this one,
the one where I write, or you read.
Her table is covered with paper.
The light of the lamp would be
tempered by a shade, where the bulb’s
single harshness might dissolve,
but it is not, she has taken it off.
Her poems? I will never know them,
though they are the ones I most need.
Even the alphabet she writes in
I cannot decipher. Her chair —
Let us imagine whether it is leather
or canvas, vinyl or wicker. Let her
have a chair, her shadeless lamp,
the table. Let one or two she loves
be in the next room. Let the door
be closed, the sleeping ones healthy.
Let her have time, and silence,
enough paper to make mistakes and go on.

—Reprinted from The Lives of the Heart, by Jane Hirshfield; HarperPerennial; 1997

This post is part of a new weekly series of poetry appreciation. To read more, please click on “Poems to inspire” in the CATEGORIES column at right. As always, I welcome your recommendations, too.

–Top photo “My Desk Chair” (copyrighted) by Cindy La Ferle–

Got secrets?

As a culture, I see us presently deprived of subtleties. The music is loud, the anger is elevated, and sex seems lacking in sweetness and privacy.” — Shelley Berman

Last week I told 325 friends on Facebook that our bedroom in this old house is torn apart for remodeling and looks like a mess. Later that same day, I announced that I was making pea soup for dinner. (Earlier in the month, as part of a dubious “campaign” for breast cancer awareness, I also posted the color of my bra in my status update.)

I haven’t even met some of these Facebook buddies — so I’m asking myself why I’m compelled to do this.

Touching on a Facebook issue in Newsweek earlier this month, a journalist confessed that she tries to avoid “over-sharing” on social networks. Likewise, a friend of mine recently asked: “Is there such a thing as ‘personal’ anymore? Is any topic sacred?”

My friend was referring to her co-worker’s latest blog post — a post in which the co-worker over-shared intimate details of her love life.  As my friend put it, “Blogs and social media are sucking the mystery, romance, and privacy out of everything. Everyone’s a publicity whore.” I had to smile at her use of the words mystery, romance, and privacy — words that seem to have gone the way of the manual typewriter. But she has a point.

As a writing coach who specializes in memoir and personal essays, I’ll be the first to defend the importance of sharing our stories. Sharing stories is how we connect with our fellow humans — and crafting those stories beautifully makes us artists. We glean invaluable lessons when we read memoirs, autobiographies, blogs, and essays by gifted writers. When handled with care, the personal can be universal.

But I wonder if we (as a culture) need to rethink what’s fair game for public consumption? How far “out there” do we need to be? How much do other people need to know about us — and why?  If we wouldn’t dare include a personal detail or episode in an essay or a memoir, is it really appropriate for a blog? For Twitter or Facebook? Exactly what are the dangers of over-sharing?

Writing a weekly newspaper column early on, I learned the hard way when I’d crossed the line and violated the tender privacy of loved ones. My son, who was often mentioned in my columns when he was much younger, taught me to think carefully before exploiting a person — or a topic — for the sake of entertaining or amusing my readers.

I’m quick to add here that I seriously enjoy connecting (and reconnecting) with friends on Facebook. And keeping a blog is almost as much fun as writing a weekly newspaper column. Still, I’m intrigued that so many of us today are driven to share our deepest yearnings and secrets with virtual strangers.  At the same time, we complain that it’s hard to forge true emotional intimacy with others — in person. As a writer who covers lifestyle issues for magazines and newspapers, I can’t overlook the paradox. Women’s magazines thrive on this very topic.

So what is it that compels so many to unload information that was — in the past — considered rude (or just plain foolish) to parade in public? I open this topic for discussion here. Please share your thoughts in the “Comments” section below. — Cindy La Ferle

— Photo above: Detail of “Box of Secrets,” altered art piece by Cindy La Ferle —

“The Journey”

And there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own.” — Mary Oliver

In my workshops for new writers, we often discuss the importance of developing a “voice.” Early on, most of us hear a cacophony of inner critics and advisers inside our heads — former teachers, co-workers, neighbors, spiritual directors, family members, and friends. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between what others expect of us and what’s truly essential to us.

Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” gives us clues along the way. It’s one of my favorite tributes to the authentic life — and it brings shivers of recognition each time I read it aloud in class. –CL

By Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

— Reprinted from New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press); 1992

— Top photo “Journey” by Cindy La Ferle —

Michigan art show

Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.”  ~Twyla Tharp

Two of my art pieces are in the Michigan Annual art exhibition through Feb. 27 at the Anton Art Center in Mount Clemens. A link to an Oakland Press article on the show includes a photo of one of the pieces, “Shrine to Mary: Our Lady of the Lost & Found.”

The other piece (at left) is an altered book titled “Nature.” A tribute to Thoreau’s Walden, it was made from a vintage insurance ledger and embellished with things I collected on long walks and bike rides.

Most of my artwork features found objects or recycled materials. I’m drawn to the rusty, ragged beauty of broken things. (I’ve been caught going through trash and pocketing rusty bottle caps littering the curbs in my neighborhood on trash day.) Most of my pieces are personal tributes to favorite works of literature or poems.  –CL