Plastic surgery face-off

“Welcome to the Great Plastic Surgery Debate — between women who do and women who don’t, and between the pressure to look 25 no matter the cost and our desire to be true to ourselves.” — Jane Ganahl

IMG_0349Timing is everything, isn’t it?  This week I’ve reached the two-month anniversary of the Mohs skin cancer surgery on my right cheek. As I mentioned in my essay on this topic for Michigan Prime, the five-hour procedure included plastic surgery reconstruction techniques to repair the three-inch incision.

Calling it an ordeal would be an understatement, but the pain and numbness are improving now, and the scar is healing … slooowly but surely. And there’s comfort in knowing the cancer was successfully removed.

Yesterday, the September/October issue of Spirituality & Health arrived in my mail, and the cover story caught my eye immediately. Written by veteran journalist and author Jane Ganahl, “Staring Plastic Surgery in the Face” delves beneath the surface (pardon the pun) of this controversial topic. The excellent piece shines a light on the spiritual and psychological aspects of aging — and why so many women go under the knife in order to meet the beauty standards of our youth-obsessed culture. Ganahl approaches the topic even-handedly, admitting she used to “judge” women who paid surgeons to tighten sagging jawlines and erase wrinkles.

Ganahl’s debate got me thinking. After undergoing Mohs surgery to repair a potentially disfiguring skin cancer, I’m not sure, now, if I’d submit myself to a facelift or cosmetic fillers to “fight” aging. For now, I’m grateful to be healing, and hoping to remain skin-cancer free while my new scar slowly blends into the laugh lines on my cheek.

What’s your opinion on this topic? Would you consider cosmetic surgery?

— Collage image by Cindy La Ferle —

When our sons marry …

I went from resenting my mother-in-law to accepting her, finally to appreciating her. What appeared to be her diffidence when I was first married, I now value as serenity.” — Ayelet Waldman

Nate and Andrea-1153Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal ran a feature stating the obvious: “Mothers worry more when sons marry than when daughters marry,” according to researcher Sylvia Mikucki-Enyart.

Duh. I’m hardly a leader in the field of social psychology, but I’ve telling my son Nate the same thing ever since he married last fall.

Even in the happiest circumstances, the family dynamic changes significantly when adult children marry. Whether were debating where to spend the holidays or how often to phone the newlyweds, everyone has to adjust or compromise.

Google the term “mother-in-law,” and you’ll find dozens of crude mother-in-law jokes and blogs describing toxic in-laws from hell. From Joan Rivers, for instance: “I told my mother-in-law that my house was her house, and she said, ‘Get the hell off my property.” Cast as the witch in American family mythology, the stereotypical mother-in-law is blamed for poisoning marriages and spoiling grandkids. No matter what she says or does, shes the proverbial scapegoat at the extended-family dinner table.

Of course, I want to avoid becoming this woman at all costs. Thankfully, I can revisit my own family tree for positive role models.

When I married 32 years ago, I felt awkward around my husbands mother, an emotionally distant woman whose personality was so different from mine. At the time, my own mother was quick to remind me that a cozy relationship with ones in-laws rarely evolves overnight.

Early in her marriage, Mom was uncomfortable with my dads mother, Ruby, a dowdy Scottish immigrant and teetotaler. Ruby was the polar opposite of my mothers alcoholic parents, and her brogue was so thick that my mother wished she could hire a translator.

Over time, however, Mom learned Rubys language of unconditional love and often turned to her in times of crisis. Serving comfort and counsel with bottomless pots of tea, Ruby provided the maternal stability my mother always lacked.

My new daughter-in-law, Andrea, hails from a happy family with solid Croatian roots, and isnt the sort wholl need Scottish-island wisdom or scone recipes. Having watched her grow up with Nate through high school and college, Im proud of the capable young woman shes become.

Given such a blessing, who wouldnt strive to be the worlds best mother-in-law?

Nate reminds me that Im “over-thinking” this phase of parenthood — a habit I can blame on my career as a family columnist. Even so, if hes lucky enough to be a father someday, hell find that letting go of ones children is the trickiest step to learn in the circle-dance of life.

All said and done, most of us have watched enough Dr. Phil to know we shouldnt meddle in the lives of our married children, and we know that our new extended family is likely to bring different customs to the table.

But I believe the rest is up to each of us: We decide how much love and effort to invest in our key relationships.

Meanwhile, I want my new daughter-in-law to know that Ill never compete for my sons attention; Ill do my best to respect her boundaries. Yet I want to be at the top of her list of women she can count on. And as our familys future unfolds, I hope shell turn to me whether she needs a book recommendation or a babysitter — or someone who will listen with an open heart.

Parts of this column originally appeared in Michigan Prime magazine, February 2013.

–Top photo: That’s me helping my son Nate with his boutonniere, moments before his wedding.–

For friends turning 50

The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.” –Madeleine L’Engle

To all of my beautiful friends turning 50 this year:

Rather than send each of you a bunch of black balloons and a silly card with a joke about adult diapers or memory loss, I’m writing you a letter with some advice.

There’s no denying that 50 is a landmark birthday. A turning point. The Big One. Over the next few weeks, you’ll be paying more attention to the mirror in your bathroom. Reading your face like a road map, you’ll scrutinize your eyelids and check the skin around your cheekbones. Maybe you’ll notice a couple of age spots that can’t quite pass as freckles. Or wonder why your jawline isn’t as sharp as it used to be.

Before I turned 50 (eight years ago), I realized that even my hands were starting to look like a topographical survey. The pale blue veins over my knuckles are more prominent now, and the skin on my face is etched with fine lines and small valleys. But I’m really OK with all of this.

After all these years, my body has been a very good friend. It endured years of ballet and Scottish Highland dancing classes. Its knees were skinned and bruised countless times. Its tonsils were removed; it was hit by a car; it gave birth to one spectacular child. It survived a couple of blood transfusions and two complete hip replacements. And despite the injuries, it managed to travel all over the United States and parts of Europe. I marvel at how my body still works, and I’m grateful that it does. (This is why I get so damned mad at the fashion magazine editors and advertisers who keep telling me there’s something wrong with my body — just because it isn’t 30-something anymore.)

Age spots aside, what you’ll notice most after turning 50 is that you become more philosophical, less hurried. You’ll care care more about things that matter in the long run, including deep relationships and good health. You’ll get wise to the marketing tricksters, and you won’t be as influenced by the trendy or the superficial. You might watch a lot less television and read whatever intrigues you, not just the books Oprah endorses or the ones that make the best-seller lists. You’ll start wearing clothes that work for you — not necessarily what’s promoted in fashion magazines. Best of all, you’ll stop seeking approval from others. You’ll trust your own opinions.

In years to come, you might start thinking about making a real difference in your community, your world. But awards and accolades won’t interest or impress you quite as much anymore. Before taking on any new assignments or volunteer work, you’ll find yourself pausing to examine your real motivations. At least that’s what happened to me. I wanted to give from the heart, not the ego. To borrow from Thoreau, I wanted to live deliberately.

For me, living deliberately has come to mean spending more time with the people I love most, and more time on the projects I love best. So I have to be careful before I say “yes” to anyone or anything else. One of the gifts of middle age is that we finally realize we cannot be all things to everyone. And what a relief that is!

Once you’ve crossed the threshold between 49 and 50, you’ll notice — more than ever — that American film directors and magazine editors rarely celebrate the strength, power, and beauty of older women. And the few fashion magazines that do cater to our age group still insist on using models that look closer to 35 than 55. Regardless, resist the foolish temptation to dress like your daughter or your son’s girlfriends. Show younger women what 50 really looks like — and prove that maturity isn’t something to be ashamed of.

It helps to have older friends. Older women friends will help you navigate the thornier parts of middle age, including the empty nest and suspicious mammograms. Like senior discounts and a good eye cream, they are definitely worth seeking out. When you find them, cherish them, and listen to what they have to say.

Another friend who turned 50 a few years before I did has held up a light for me every step of the way, insisting that the fifties can be wild and juicy years if you get your priorities straight. I love her attitude. “I quit being a doormat and I don’t try to please everyone,” she once told me. “I know who I am now.”

Isn’t it a shame that we have to travel through five decades to figure this out? I hope you’ll celebrate this birthday for all the good things it represents, for being a signpost to the richly textured life ahead of you. You are wise and beautiful, and I’m right there with you on this incredible midlife journey.

Love and Happy Birthday to you,


*Part of this essay was excerpted from Writing Home by Cindy La Ferle. The illustration above is a detail from an altered book, Renaissance Woman, by Cindy La Ferle.


School supplies for Mom

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” — Mary Oliver

I have a hunch that fall will arrive early this year. Maybe its the angle of sunlight on the black-eyed Susans in our perennial garden. Or maybe it’s the snap and crunch of acorns under my tires when I bicycle around the neighborhood.

Whatever triggers it, I cant ignore the maternal instinct to shop for back-to-school supplies — even though I dont have a student anymore.

It’s been four years since my son moved to his own place in Chicago. Yet I still struggle to wrap my mind around the fact that Im officially an empty nester.

Watching the younger moms in my neighborhood — the ones buying new Crayolas and lunch boxes — I recall the exhilarating sense of freedom I’d get when my little boy started school each year. Id thank the Blessed Mother every time I dropped him off at the local Catholic grade school, believing it was a miracle to have several kid-free hours a day to meet deadlines and run errands all by myself. In those days, the calendar on our kitchen wall was a perpetual list of music lessons, Cub Scout meetings, school conferences, field trips, baking marathons, and rotating carpool schedules. (And I was the mother of an only child.)

Even now, I cant fathom how any parent finds the time to juggle it all, no matter how many children she has.

Spreading my own wings

In retrospect, Im surprised at how long it took to adjust to the void my son left when he moved into his freshman dorm at college. His bedroom at home looked so eerily clean and empty that I made a habit of keeping its door shut. Up until then, I hadnt fully realized that the vocation I’d enjoyed most — more than writing or publishing or teaching — was mothering.

Determined not to become a long-distance helicopter parent, I had to figure out where to devote my maternal energy during this uncharted phase of my middle age. I needed to explore something different — something just for myself. Was it time for a puppy or a brand-new hobby? The late-summer ritual of buying school supplies provided my first clue.

The week before his big move to college, my son and I headed for the nearest office supply store. While my son made a beeline for the computer supplies, I was magically drawn to a rainbow display of felt-tipped calligraphy pens, colored markers, glitter glue and drawing pads.

And thats when my inner artist — whod been banished to a corner of my psyche after I graduated from college — finally reasserted herself. I had no idea what she planned do with all the tubes of glitter glue and Magic Markers she tossed in our shopping cart, but she refused to leave the store without them.

I think author John Updike explained it best when he said, “What art offers is space — a certain breathing room for the spirit.” Which is exactly what I needed at the time.

A month later, I went shopping for real art supplies at Michael’s craft store, where I also discovered several art magazines featuring how-to articles on mixed-media collage and altered books. I couldn’t learn fast enough. By the end of that fall, Id started clearing space for an art studio upstairs above the garage. While my son studied (and partied) through his freshman year at college, I happily painted, cut, and pasted a whole new path of my own.

No matter how old we are, school bells signal a change of seasons and inspire us all to start something fresh. For me, its time to put the garden to rest and head back indoors to discover where art will lead me next. In preparation for a new season of creative projects, Ive already swept the floor of the studio, which I now consider my classroom. Last week I made a list of the things I’ll need to get started — and I can hardly wait to shop for my new supplies. — Cindy La Ferle

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Birthday blues

Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional.”  ~Chili Davis

Doug and I just returned from a long birthday weekend in St. Joe. To be perfectly honest, my birthday (Saturday) felt a bit sad this time around, as if someone had let the air out of all the party balloons.

I suspect my blue mood had a lot to do with the fact that my mother totally forgot my birthday again this year. Of course, I’m not surprised. Mom’s dementia has progressed to the point where she no longer looks at the calendar I gave her, nor does she care what day or month it is. She still remembers her own birth date when hospital staffers ask her for it, but she can’t keep track of holidays and other special events — even when we write them down to remind her.

Not so long ago, before vascular dementia consumed her former, thoughtful self, my mother would call to schedule my birthday dinners at least a week in advance. And she’d always treat me to something special on a shopping trip we’d take together. Though I’ve learned how to deal with a new and difficult version of my mother, last week I found myself battling the same waves of grief I experienced on my birthday following my father’s death in the summer of 1992.

Watching our parents turn ill (or die) is a grim reminder of our own mortality — not exactly the frosting anyone would choose for her proverbial birthday cake.

It didn’t help that August 4th was blistering hot in St. Joe. And just before we left for dinner that night, a huge turkey vulture swooped down to perch in a poplar tree behind our house. It seemed like an awful omen of some kind. (Another vicious year ahead? Or am I reading too much Alice Hoffman?) Topping it off, a violent storm erupted while we were driving to a local restaurant for my birthday dinner.

Thankfully, my dark mood lifted with the brighter weather on Sunday. Doug and I spent a memorable evening on a gorgeous Lake Michigan beach, then rode the Silver Beach carousel after a casual dinner in St. Joe. (I chose the horse representing Michigan State, my alma mater.) Riding the carousel with my dear husband made me feel like a kid again, which is quite a feat, given that I just turned 58 years old.

Taking a long walk back to the car, the two of us watched the sunset on the beach. The majesty of Lake Michigan — my favorite lake in the world — reminded me that my problems are relatively small; that my mother’s dementia is part of a midlife journey that many others have traveled before me. Blessed with an incredibly patient and loving husband, I know I can handle any rough water ahead. And so turns another year. — Cindy La Ferle

Top photo: The sun begins to set on Lake Michigan in St. Joe. Bottom photo: Doug walks the beach.