Every writer’s dream

The only people with whom you should try to get even are those who have helped you.  ~John E. Southard

Everyone who’s ever launched a career — especially a career in a competitive field — knows that you need at least one supportive boss who believes in your goals and dreams. Which is why I’m so grateful to have worked for several terrific editors who helped shape my writing life.

Two in particular are Mike Beeson (left in the photo) and John Schultz, both former editors at Royal Oak’s Daily Tribune.  How lucky I was to find them at a newspaper office in my own hometown. In 1985, John was the first to give me a regular column, a weekly small business feature that introduced me to countless shops, galleries, and restaurants in our community. While I wrote many stories for the Trib in those days, from theater reviews to news items, my weekly business column taught me how to meet tight deadlines while scouting new story ideas.

When I first started writing for Mike, he had just replaced entertainment editor Ray Serafin. Later on, Mike took over the paper’s lifestyles section and made my biggest dream a reality: He offered me a coveted column space in the Sunday paper — and told me I could write about any family topic that struck my interest. In 1998, my weekly “Life Lines” column won a first place award for local columns in the Michigan Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest. Several of those columns are reprinted in Writing Home, my collection of essays and columns.

All of this came tumbling back when my husband snapped the photo, above, at the opening of his first one-man show at the Lido Gallery in Birmingham last night (Oct. 26).

John, who co-authored a book on the history of Royal Oak last year, currently works as a copy editor at Hour Media. Newly retired from the Trib, Mike now has time to travel and visit his new grandchild.

Chatting about the “old days” with John and Mike, I also felt a rush of nostalgia for all the times I had to drive downtown to deliver my finished articles to the Trib’s editorial offices. Back then — before we relied on the Internet — editors and writers discussed assignments on the phone, face-to-face at the office, or over a burger at lunch. It wasn’t nearly as quick or convenient as sending a story via email, of course. But in the process, we forged friendships that have endured despite several career moves and changes. I wouldn’t trade those days — and everything I learned — for anything. — CL

Why I love haunted houses

Home is a name, a word. It is a strong one; stronger than any magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.”  ~Charles Dickens

With Halloween approaching, I’m reminded of an essay I wrote about my passion for old houses. It was first published in the Detroit Free Press Sunday Magazine in August 1992, and is reprinted in my book, Writing Home, now on Kindle with a new preface 

Does Lurch Live Here?

Most people have the common sense to buy houses that are younger than they are.

They sleep snugly under leak-free roofs, secure in the knowledge that if something goes bump in the night, it probably isn’t the heating system.  Their homes are airtight sanctuaries of Pella windows, state-of-the-art plumbing, and bubbling Jacuzzis.

To homeowners with such modern sensibilities, my family’s 1920s Tudor-style home looks like a gloomy architectural relic, all dark woodwork and creaky floorboards.  A place only the Addams family could love.

“I cant believe people really live in these old places,” gasped one visitor who recently toured the house.

Throughout our twelve married years together, my husband and I have always purchased houses built before 1947. Weve searched, begged, and borrowed to get them. We’ve tolerated cracked plaster, peeling paint, damp basements, and antique toilets. We’ve put up with steam pipes that clank and moan after midnight like Marley’s ghost.

Are we out of our minds?  Why would we choose to live in an old house, subjecting ourselves to outrageous repair bills and leaded-glass windows that rattle in the slightest breeze?

I’m never quite sure how to explain my own passion for houses with a past. But I can trace its beginnings to my childhood vacations, when my parents drove me to Colonial Williamsburg and Mount Vernon.  While other kids rode roller coasters in Disneyland, I snooped around George Washington’s bedroom.  Early on, I discovered that buildings, like people, acquire nobility and character as they mature.

Old houses are survivors. They possess a mystique that seems to say, “Ive been here long enough to see some things that you havent.” And the best ones persevere despite the “improvements” inflicted upon them over the decades by various owners with questionable taste. Brick and stone prevail; solid architecture endures.

I’m also drawn to the history that comes with an older house; I’m intrigued by the everyday romance of the people and events that have become a part of its mortar and plaster. In fact, buying an older house usually has nothing to do with common sense — and everything to do with history and romance. In a way, choosing a house that someone else has lived in is a bit like choosing a marriage partner:  You grow to love the bumps and flaws, and accept the things you cannot change. (People who insist on having everything their own way should design new houses.)

My husband and I bought our first old house from Gertrude Morris, an endearing elderly woman who was reluctant at first to put her place on the market. She had years of memories tucked away in her kitchen cupboards and bedroom closets, and her late husband had left a legacy of wildflowers and wayward groundcover in the backyard.

Brick and stone prevail; solid architecture endures.”

After the closing, our real estate agent confided that Mrs. Morris “liked” us. So she graciously surrendered the keys to the door that had sheltered her family for so many years. She had agreed to a land contract with us, so she was, in a way, still keeper of those keys.

I remember sending her a monthly house report with each payment.  One time I told her about the red calico wallpaper I struggled to put up in our cramped kitchen; another time I wrote about the bright pink sweet peas I uncovered during my first spring in the garden.

Mrs. Morris couldn’t always respond. But one Christmas she answered, in a wavering hand, that she was pleased we were taking such good care of the house. After she died, I heard that she had looked forward to my letters in the nursing home. They were an important link to a place that mattered to both of us.

Its been several years since we sold “Mrs. Morris’s house,” but I drive by it sometimes, just to be sure its new owners are taking care of it.

We’ve lived in our 1920s Tudor for just over a year now — long enough to see the silver maples on the lawn change through a full cycle of seasons. But not long enough for the neighbors to think of this as our place. That will happen as our lives weave slowly into the fabric of the neighborhood, when our past becomes a longer chapter in the history of the house.

My son, now six, is learning to appreciate older houses, too.  He can call some of them by their proper names:  Cape Cod, Tudor, Dutch Colonial. He is just beginning to understand the inevitable progression of time, and how buildings connect us to the people who lived before us.

And my boy has become quite the preservationist, putting old things to clever new uses. When he and his friends come inside after playing in the snow, he shows them how to dry their soggy gloves on a cast-iron radiator in the hallway. During one of these winter rituals, I overheard him lecturing another child on the virtues of radiators and steam heat.

“Steam heat is the greatest heat there is, and you won’t find these big old radiators in new houses,” he boasted.  “That’s because old houses are better than new ones.”

A mother with more common sense would have tactfully interrupted the conversation, and assured both children that old houses are not necessarily better than new ones. I didn’t say a word. — Cindy La Ferle

–Top photo of Cindy La Ferle at home in Royal Oak (by Rick Smith); middle and bottom photos are details from an architecture tour in Chicago (by Cindy La Ferle). —

Extreme self-care

Over-giving is often a sign of deprivation — a signal that a need isn’t being met, an emotion isn’t being expressed, or a void isn’t getting filled.” — Cheryl Richardson

I’m finally starting to shake the sense that I’ve been wandering through a dream this season. Managing my mother’s ever-changing healthcare needs — while gearing up for Nate’s late September wedding — felt surreal at times.

If I wasn’t driving Mom to the oral surgeon or the pacemaker clinic (or tracking down a pair of shoes she could wear to the wedding), I was reviewing menus for the rehearsal dinner or writing names on place cards in calligraphy.

Not that I’m complaining. The wedding was absolutely beautiful — and I’m still savoring memories of the highlights, including a dance to a favorite Roxy Music tune with Nate at the reception.

Most important of all, I’ve come to realize that guiding an elderly parent through her final years while helping a son launch a new life of his own are inevitable steps in the ongoing circle-dance of life. Needless to add, I’m blessed to have a freelance schedule that gives me the flexibility to step up when others need me.

But as Cheryl Richardson points out in her newest guide, The Art of Extreme Self-Care, it’s easy to lose oneself in the service of others. If you’re a caretaker, a professional caregiver, a people-pleaser, a mom with kids at home, or anyone else who puts the needs of others first, you know what Richardson is talking about. And I hope you’ll make time to read her book. It’s been a life changer (and a game changer) for me, and I’m very grateful that I stumbled on it while doing some research for a column on “caregiver burnout” earlier this summer.

Richardson used to be a woman who couldn’t say no. To anyone. She taught seminars and workshops, mentored clients, volunteered for organizations, and “supported needy friends who were struggling.” She was often exhausted and had little time left for her marriage. “I was a good girl. I was so used to playing the role of caretaker that it had become a normal way of life,” she writes.

Richardson’s life coach challenged her to make some changes. Encouraging her to “desensitize” her fear of stirring conflict and letting people down, he suggested that she practice “disappointing” someone every day. As soon as I read that, it made my palms sweat. Like Richardson, I’ve often said “yes” when I should have said “no” — even when I knew I didn’t have the time or my heart wasn’t in it. All because I hate to disappoint people.

It’s not easy to break out of this pattern. As Richardson notes, “One of the harsh realities about practicing Extreme Self-Care is that you must learn to manage the anxiety that arises when other people are disappointed, angry, or hurt. And they will be.”

When you stop worrying about what others think, you’re changing the “rules of the game,” she warns. Some of the folks who claim they can always count on you will play the guilt card when you dare to admit that you’re too tired to help, or that you can’t change your schedule to accommodate them.

Yesterday I finally visited Dr. Paul Ehrmann, my family doctor, for a complete physical. After driving my mother to every medical specialist in Oakland County on a monthly basis for the past four years, it felt a little odd to focus on my own healthcare, my own needs. It hit me, while the technician hooked me up for my EKG, that I knew less about the general state of my own health than I do about my mother’s. (I’ll get test results Monday.) And when Dr. Paul began my exam with the words, “Cindy, this time is about you — not about your mom or Nate’s wedding,” I nearly dissolved into tears.

“If you want to live a meaningful life that also makes a difference in the lives of others, you need to make a difference in your own life first,” Richardson reminds us. “When we care for ourselves deeply and deliberately, we naturally begin to care for others — our families, our friends, and the world — in a healthier, more effective way.”

So … what have you done for yourself lately, my friend? — CL

— Top illustration: A detail from “Renaissance Woman,” an altered book by Cindy La Ferle. Bottom photo: Cheryl Richardson (Hay House) —



A beautiful day

September 29, 2012. Congratulations on your marriage and a most beautiful wedding, Andrea and Nate!”

Yes, it’s totally unlike me to miss the chance to capture a big moment on a screen or in print. But this time, my camera stayed in my tote bag and my laptop stayed at home. I wanted to savor and experience every minute of my son’s wedding, so I simply recorded favorite memories in my heart.

Over the next few days, other photographers will edit and share their own highlights, and I will try to post a few of those on Facebook. The photo at (top) left was taken by my dear friend, John Schultz, who caught Nate and Andrea in conversation with the bagpiper after the ceremony. The bottom photo was taken by Andrea’s aunt, Mira Mataija.

Reflecting on the wedding in her Facebook status update, our good neighbor Pam Rusinowski described the events of the weekend perfectly:

“This was one of the most awesome weddings and such a sweet love story (best friends, I believe, since grade school), starting with the Croatian band serenading the bride as she boarded the wedding bus, then on to the hospitality suite at the Detroit Renaissance Center, then up to Coach Insignia at the top of the RenCen.What a view of a perfect sunset over the Detroit River, then the moon rising over the Detroit River …. Fun neighbors, friends and family …. Dancing with the whole family. And the food: Lobster corn dogs, an amazing dinner, and the biggest sweet table in history!  Then a Sunday brunch at Andiamo’s at the RenCen, and more FOOD at the bride’s mother’s home (of course). All the while, Nate and Andrea’s friendship and love were shining through. They had a blast at their own wedding, which was wonderful to see. Two families joined that have already loved each other for a long time.”

Thanks to all for the many good wishes you’ve sent to our family!