Joie de vivre

The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” — James Taylor, American songwriter

Here in the United States of Self-Improvement, daily life can feel like a major project. Watching TV or flipping through magazines, we’re bombarded with ads reminding us that we’re not quite up to standard. We’re too fat or too wrinkled or too sad. We’re not getting enough sleep or enough sex. Our wardrobe, not to mention our living room furniture, needs updating…

Meanwhile, a vast publishing industry thrives on this insatiable need to fix our broken parts. Over the years, most of the self-help books I’ve reviewed bank on the premise that I can’t possibly relax until I’ve repaired all of my character flaws and met every goal on my bucket list.

I’m guessing this might be why the French and their elusive joie de vivre continue to fascinate me.

Traveling in provincial France and Paris for an anniversary trip a few years ago, my husband and I had a rare chance to observe a lifestyle noticeably different from our own. As it turned out, the best souvenirs we brought back weren’t the trinkets we’d collected from museum shops or boutiques, but the sweet lessons we gleaned from French cafés.

The highlight of our trip was Aix-en-Provence, the birthplace of Post-Impressionist artist Paul Cezanne. Today it’s a university town bubbling with ancient fountains, art galleries, and sidewalk cafés.  We quickly discovered that cafe life is the nucleus around which the entire town revolves. Outdoor tables and chairs are deliberately turned to face the streets and sidewalks, making people-watching a legitimate pastime. And whatever the beverage of choice — coffee, tea, beer, wine, or pastis — it is always sipped and savored, never slugged or gulped.

During our visit, a few of our American traveling companions complained that French café service was too relaxed. They had to keep moving. But I would have gladly frittered my time watching the parade of people from the vantage point of those delightful cafes.

All too often, our over-booked schedules get in the way. We define ourselves by our tasks, commitments, and projects.”

A longtime fan of French style, I was thrilled to see plenty of middle-aged women wearing scarves and flaunting Catherine Deneuve allure.

But what charmed me even more were the French families strolling together on the streets of Aix and Paris. Dads pushed baby strollers while teenagers (yes, teenagers) walked arm-in-arm with their mothers and grandmothers.

One evening, while observing a large family at a cafe table next to us, I nearly dropped my fork when one of the adolescent sons draped his arm affectionately around his mom’s shoulder.

A romance with ordinary life was palpable everywhere in France. On market day, parents and kids shopped for fruits and vegetables at the colorful outdoor stands, then paused for long lunches in the town square. Nobody looked rushed or frazzled; toddlers weren’t whining. Clearly, pleasure was to be found in the simplest rituals of the day – shopping, eating, and sharing conversation (with few cell phones in sight).

Here in America, we give lip service to the pursuit of simple pleasures. But all too often, our over-booked schedules get in the way. We define ourselves by our tasks, commitments, and projects.

It occurred to me, on the flight home, that the secret to enjoying the second half of my life has less to do with fixing what’s imperfect or broken, and more to do with slowing down long enough to savor and appreciate what I have.  With that in mind, I bought a small CAFE sign from a local thrift shop here in Royal Oak, and displayed it in our kitchen as a reminder. — Cindy La Ferle

— Top photo: Pronto in downtown Royal Oak, MI. Here in Royal Oak, we’re lucky to have many European-style outdoor cafes, which is one of many reasons why I love living here. Bottom photo: French actress Catherine Deneuve–


The family columnist

We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today.”  ~Stacia Tauscher

Relying on our kids to provide column fodder is hardly new. Today there are countless “mommy blogs” and family sites online. But it was fun to reminisce about my own column-writing days in a new Home Forum essay for The Christian Science Monitor. I approached the piece with a light hand — but some heavier issues lurk between the lines. How much ink is appropriate to give our kids? How do we know if we’ve overstepped our boundaries or violated their privacy? Please click here to read the new essay. –CL


A dog, I have always said, is prose; a cat is a poem.”  ~Jean Burde

We lost a dear friend today. Sixteen years ago, when Nate was a boy, the two of us drove to the Royal Oak Animal Shelter after school. We were “just looking” and had no intention of adopting another cat. But we saw this gorgeous litter of kittens — half Siamese and half tabby. We adopted one on the spot and named her Emma Lou Lilypad.

She lived a long life, never causing a minute of trouble. She loved eating tuna for lunch and napping in the sun. She was devoted to her owners and never forgot Nate, even after he left for college.  She was one of the finest cats who ever owned us, and we will miss her.

Midlife lessons

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

Now in assisted living, my mother is battling vascular dementia and heart disease. Watching her decline, I often struggle to find the proverbial wisdom that comes with growing old. Does anyone really look forward to aging — especially in a culture that worships youth?

Even so, if anyone were to ask if I’d like to relive my twenties, my answer would be a firm “no.” I’ve reaped valuable lessons from the prolific fields of midlife, and wouldn’t trade them for the wrinkle-free skin of my youth. Here are just a few …

I’m grateful for (if not entirely thrilled about) the body I have.

I’ve finally accepted the fact that I’ll never be a size 4 and I’ll never be athletic. But I’m grateful that I can ride a bike and walk a few miles. And I’m grateful for Spandex.

I’ve never been into sports and my eyes glaze over when people start keeping score. Maybe I’m just wired that way, and I’ve stopped trying to pretend otherwise. I’m an artist and a writer — but that doesn’t mean I can’t be reasonably fit. I shop the outer aisles of the grocery store and try to eat all the veggies in my fridge before they rot.

Rather than focus on how much I weigh, I try to maintain a healthier lifestyle. My goal is to increase my energy levels and remain fit enough to embrace what life throws at me in the future — including, hopefully, grandkids.

Things aren’t necessarily better because they’re more expensive.

If you’ve never fallen under the spell of a trend or a designer label, you’re probably a candidate for sainthood. But most of us are suckers for status items and designer goods. Like kids who still believe in Santa, we believe the magazine editors who tell us we must buy pricey stuff if we want to be cool or beautiful.

Of course, some items are worth splurging on — but most are just a foolish drain on our retirement funds. If your closet is full of Coach bags you rarely use, you know what I mean.

I can’t tell you how many designer under-eye concealers I tried before making the happy discovery that a cheap one by Maybelline does the absolute-best job. Like seeing the naked emperor for the first time, it’s a thrilling when you get that quality doesn’t have to cost a bundle. It makes you feel like a grown-up.

Life is too short for long, boring books.

I think Socrates was in midlife when he reminded his followers that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Midlife is the time to ask ourselves why we keep doing the same things while expecting different results.

Until I hit my fifties, I still followed a lot of routines that worked when I was younger — like getting the same haircut every month for years. Even after my son left for college, it took me a few weeks to realize that I didn’t have to keep stocking the cupboard with his favorite snacks. And every time I bought a new novel, I made myself read it — no matter how boring it was. (I was an English major, after all.)

Life is painfully, beautifully short — and for that reason, I no longer feel obligated to finish reading books that don’t grab me by the third chapter. There are too many other things to check off my bucket list. Why waste an hour on anything that doesn’t feel truly worthwhile?

You gotta have friends and work hard to keep them.

She has many wonderful qualities, but my mother has always been a grudge-bearer — and I’ve learned some of my hardest lessons from her. Over the years I’ve watched Mom stew over every little thing that angered her. She’d get mad at her friends for the smallest offenses — things that barely mattered in the long run.

When her dementia and hearing loss got worse, it became even harder for Mom to maintain the friendships she had left. And it became twice as hard to open her mind to new ideas, new hobbies, new people. Mom’s doctors agree that her negative attitude exacerbated her decline — especially her heart disease.

Is there anything more heartbreaking than facing old age without a strong social network? Studies prove that friends are essential to our health, so I won’t stop encouraging my mother to socialize in her new assisted living residence.

At the same time, I know it’s just as important for me to make time for my own friendships. I’ll continue to practice forgiveness, reach out to others, and treasure the friends I’ve made.  — Cindy La Ferle 




Mommy Wars…again?

The phrase ‘working mother’ is redundant.” — Jane Sellman

So, who imagined that we’d be fighting the “mommy wars” … again … after all these years?

I’ve been working this month on a brand-new preface for the ebook edition of Writing Home, which my editor will finish converting within the next couple of weeks. In my new introduction, I felt the need to explain or redefine the so-called “mommy wars” — mainly because I hadn’t heard the phrase as often, and it places my parenting essays within a key social context. As I typed, I wondered: Do younger women even remember the old mommy wars?

Well, before I had a chance to proofread my new paragraphs, the remark made by Hilary Rosen Wednesday night reheated the issue and possibly set us back a few years.

If you’re not familiar with my book, I should explain that many of the motherhood essays in Writing Home were originally published in the early 1990s. At the time, parents and pundits alike were still arguing over “career versus family” — and the emotionally loaded debate fueled newspaper and magazine sales. Mothers were labeled with acronyms that sounded like Dr. Seuss characters: SAHM (stay-at-home mom); WAHM (work-at-home mom) or WM (working mom).

When I first started writing family columns and essays in the 1980s, the notion of working from home — so common today — was as new as the Internet that was making it all possible. (Blogging and social media were merely Silicon Valley fantasies in those days.) One of the pieces in my book, for instance, chronicles how proud I felt when I bought my first computer and moved my writing desk from the basement to a room in the main part of our house. Regardless, my toughest challenge was the same challenge every mother faces today: Striking a healthy balance for my family and for myself.

Meanwhile, the battle raged between moms who worked outside the home and those who didn’t. I watched it all from my home-office window, meeting my story deadlines while I babysat the children of friends who worked full time.

By the time my son graduated from high school in 2004, most mothers seemed to have reached a truce. We respected the lifestyle choices other women made, even when those choices didn’t mesh with our own. The truly wise among us understood that the woman who stayed home to raise her kids was no less a feminist than the mother who put in 45 hours a week at the office.

“I have several strategies for healing the mommy wars. First and foremost is to decide that its time to work together,” notes Amy Tiemann, Ph.D., author of Mojo Mom. “Any effort that women spend judging each other is wasted energy that could be used instead to work together for common goals. If you think about it, there is really no ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ only ‘us.'”

My own hope is that we — all of “us” — will finally come to terms and stop overlooking the real political issues at hand, including childcare. We can do better and our kids deserve more. –Cindy La Ferle