Gardening for the spirit

When I go into the garden with a spade and dig a bed, I feel such exhilaration and health that I realize I have been defrauding myself in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

IMG_0582Throughout my life, gardens have provided many spiritual lessons and moments of refuge.

Among them was the fern garden my Scottish grandfather tended in his back yard on Detroits west side — an oasis that restored his spirit during the sad summer my grandmother died. The essay I wrote about that garden was published in both British and American editions of Reader’s Digest magazine, and is included in my book, Writing Home.

Today, my own garden is so much more than a plot for herbs and perennials. Working the soil, I’m often mentally untangling one of my elderly mother’s health problems. Or, while preparing a bed for basil and rosemary, I might be digging my way through a stubborn case of writer’s block. Or just daydreaming.

As I reminded my husband recently, gardening is the best therapy I know. (The money I ought to save for a psychiatrist is well spent on garden gadgets and plants at the local nurseries.)

Along these lines, several authors have written inspiring books on gardening as soul work. Here are a few of my favorites.

Praised as a hymn to nature, Diane Ackermans Cultivating Delight (HarperPerennial Library) is a sensuous garden memoir. With the keen eye of a naturalist, Ackerman recounts her back-yard discoveries through the seasons, including the time she uncovered a tiny frog asleep inside a tulip.

“By retreating farther and farther from nature,” Ackerman warns, “we lose our sense of belonging, suffer a terrible loneliness we cant name, and end up depriving ourselves of what we need to feel healthy and whole.”


“No matter how saddened I become by the events of life, when I see the world as a garden, I feel better,” writes author Julie Moir Messervy in The Magic Land: Designing Your Own Enchanted Garden (Macmillan). A landscape designer and consultant, Messervy also sees the garden as a perfect outlet for personal growth. Her book includes exercises to plan your own paradise, whether you want an elaborate storybook garden with a gazebo or a Zen-like oasis. I used many of her tips when I plotted my own Japanese garden a few years ago.

The Sanctuary Garden (Fireside) reminds us that any garden can be a place of reflection. Authors Christopher Forrest McDowell and Tricia Clark-McDowell are founders of the Cortesia Sanctuary for Natural Gardening and Healing in Eugene, Oregon. Their illustrated guide provides tips on attracting wildlife as well as ideas for creating space for prayer and meditation.

“One of the most powerful examples of our relationship to the land came to me when witnessing the end of the war in Bosnia,” writes McDowell. “I was touched to learn that the first act of many of the citizens of Sarajevo was to till and plant their gardens.”

So what are you waiting for? Dust off your garden boots, grab a trowel, ditch your bad mood, and dig in.

— Garden photos (copyright) by Cindy La Ferle —

The art of reinvention

Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.” — H. Jackson Browne

IMG_0007Feeling like your second chance is long overdue? From time to time, everyone “burns out” or gets stuck in a familiar rut. As I learned several years ago, a midlife career crisis can be an opportunity for personal growth or a chance to explore a hidden talent.

My new column in Michigan Prime magazine also includes tips on reinventing your life from Birmingham life coach Betsy Hemming. To read “The Art of Reinvention” online, click on the Oakland County edition, then flip to page 6. Click here to get started.

If my column inspires you to dig deeper, look for these guides on burnout recovery and career reinvention at your favorite bookstore or public library:

Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live, by Martha Beck. (Three Rivers Press)

Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive, by Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. (Hay House, Inc.)

Getting Unstuck: A Guide to Discovering Your Next Career Path, by Timothy Butler. (Harvard Business Press)

Driving past comfort

Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward or scared or uncomfortable when you try something new.” — Brian Tracy

Working as a film extra since last fall, I’ve rarely had to drive beyond metro Detroit for a booking. Which is a good thing, since my sense of direction is pitiful — especially if I’m trying to navigate unfamiliar expressways.

Luckily, my husband Doug has worked in many of the same film gigs. He drives while I squint to read the directions on a Google map.

But two weeks ago, one of our casting agents phoned on short notice to ask if we’d be willing to take a five-day job in Grand Rapids, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from suburban Detroit. And there was another catch: The job required both of our cars for various scenes, so we would have to drive separately.  We’d also have to book a hotel in downtown Grand Rapids, since we’d be working at least 12 hours daily on location.

Doug was all set to pack up and hit the road. “We could think of it as a working vacation,” he said hopefully, adding that we hadn’t taken a real break this summer.

Regardless, I could feel my anxiety slamming on the brakes. Working out of town for five days would present some unique challenges — the least of which would be finding convenient laundry facilities for our film wardrobes. My elderly mother’s “early stage” dementia had moved to the middle stage this summer, leaving me vaguely uneasy about leaving town. (I’m not as free as I’d hoped to be at this stage of midlife.)

And what would I do if Doug and I got separated by a caravan of trucks barreling down the expressway? What if, en route to Grand Rapids, my tire blew and my cell phone died? As Doug likes to point out, I can spend hours imagining all kinds of ridiculous “what-if” scenarios.

Stretching lessons

There’s a wonderful quote by Les Brown, one of my favorite motivational speakers: “If you put yourself in a position where you have to stretch outside your comfort zone, then you are forced to expand your consciousness.”

Clearly, I’ve never been much good at stretching — or tiptoeing — beyond my comfort zone. But wasn’t that one of the reasons why I’d signed on to work as a film extra last year?  Feeling cooped up in my newly emptied nest, I had hoped to get out there and meet some new people. I wanted to experience a new creative medium; to learn more about filmmaking. And hadn’t I hoped to be challenged just a little?

So I called the casting agent back and said yes to the booking.

Before I go on, I need to explain that I’m not at liberty to discuss many details about the films I’ve worked in before they’re  released. Since the magic of movies involves an element of surprise, everyone who works on a production is warned against sharing plot details. Taking photos on set is strictly prohibited, too, and I’ve heard several accounts of crew and background extras who’ve been fired for ignoring that rule.


Though our roles in these films have been very, very small, we’ve learned some valuable life lessons in the process of answering call-outs, working with directors, and following protocol on set.”


But I can tell you that the film is an action-comedy. I learned how car crash scenes are filmed — and even got to drive my car in one. The Grand Rapids police, who’d been enlisted to close several intersections for the filming, were super-friendly and fun to work with. And what a thrill it was when a production assistant handed me a walkie talkie so I could hear the assistant director’s cues in my car. It wasn’t exactly stunt driving, but it was a totally different experience from any other films I’ve worked in. My comfort zone was reasonably stretched, and by the end of the week, I was starting to feel at home in the middle of Grand Rapids’ busiest intersections.

Spending a few hours in “holding” — the place where background extras wait when we’re not on set — is another opportunity to push past boundaries and comfort zones. At times, it can feel like you’re hanging out in a circus tent. At the very least, it’s an intensive exercise in public relations — and a fascinating glimpse into human nature.

In holding, you meet characters you wouldn’t ordinarily find around one lunch table. This type of work attracts everyone from tattooed college students to laid-off auto execs and stay-at-home moms in need of a break. A few have full-time careers in more lucrative fields — and simply took time off work to discover what it’s like to be in a movie. (It’s always a fun story to share with friends.) Others are very serious about becoming film actors.

After working with these folks for nearly a week, it’s hard to return home without fresh insight — and several new friendships.

Shaking up the old routine

Still, it wasn’t easy to wake up at 5:15 every morning. Our call times were rarely later than 6:30 or 7:00, so we’d arrive bleary eyed at base camp to sign in and wolf down enough breakfast to hold us until our late-afternoon meal. Wrapping up around 9:00 each night, Doug and I would grab a sandwich and dash down to the basement of the hotel to launder our clothes. (We had to wear the same outfit every day but one.)  Then we’d crawl into bed, exhausted.

Working as a film extra probably isn’t your idea of pushing past your own comfort zone. But now is the perfect time to take a closer look at your bucket list and ask yourself what’s keeping you from following a dream or trying something quirky, fun, and new. Even if it merely shakes up your ordinary routine for a day or two, I promise you’ll score a few points for self confidence.

All said and done, this turned out to be one of the most unusual “vacations” Doug and I have ever taken. It also capped the one-year anniversary of our foray into film work — and was the 12th production we’ve worked on to date. Though our roles have been very, very small, we’ve learned some valuable life lessons in the process of answering call-outs for bookings, working with directors, and following protocol on set. (More about those lessons in upcoming columns.)

On the way back to Detroit, I felt as if we’d been away much longer than a week. In a few whirlwind days I’d seen movie stars and stunt-car crashes and the heart of Michigan’s second largest city. And I’d made some wonderful new friends.

Pulling into our driveway at home, I felt relieved to be back in my comfort zone, and I thanked my car sincerely for getting me there safely. It had worked hard for me, and I can’t wait to see how it cute it looks in the movie. — Cindy La Ferle

Another birthday

Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.” — Samuel Ullman

My birthday rolled around again this week. As I do annually during the first week of August, I take stock of everything that’s happened over the past year. I ask myself where I’ve fallen short or succeeded — but mostly consider what I’ve learned along the way.

Smack in the middle of my fifties now, I’ve finally accepted my imperfections and my weird streak. It’s been a struggle, but I’m also at peace with the idea that not everyone on Earth is going to like me or my ideas.  A woman whose political views I admire once pointed out that if everyone adores you, it’s likely that you don’t have a spine — or any opinions worth defending. I’d rather keep my spine and my opinions.

That said, I don’t ever want to stop growing, changing, and attempting to improve. With that in mind, here are a few things I want to keep working on in the coming year….

Curiosity. One of my favorite quotes from Ray Bradbury goes like this: “Life is trying things to see if they work.” Enthusiasm and curiosity demand a lot of energy — but they keep everyone young in spirit. I’m finding that it helps to hang around with creative people who take risks, seize their passions, try new things, and encourage others to do the same.

Patience. Growing up in the age of instant gratification, I have to keep reminding myself that waiting isn’t such a bad thing. Sometimes I need to chill. Anything worth its salt — including well-written articles, durable relationships, and a great marriage — takes a fair amount of time. And patience. The older I get, the more I appreciate the things I’ve earned through sheer perseverance. But I still need to learn to wait patiently for answers, and to keep the lid sealed on the slow cooker.

Being silly. When I’m at my lowest, it’s usually because I’ve started taking myself way too seriously. And I never cared much for humorless people who take themselves too seriously. I was lucky enough to be raised by a boatload of whimsical Scots who believed that acting silly — really silly — keeps you sane when nothing else makes sense. Now that I’m almost grown up, I know they were spot on.

Listening skills. I’m a talker and a teacher by nature. But as I mature, I hope to become a more accomplished listener and thoughtful conversationalist. My biggest pet peeve is other people who deliver self-absorbed monologues in social situations. I wish I had a dollar for every hour I’ve had to spend with tiresome folks who ramble on and on about their their own stuff — and never ask a single question about my stuff. My new rule of conversation: I must never leave a party, family gathering, lunch date, or interview without knowing at least three new things about the people with whom I’ve spent a few hours. No matter how well I think I know them.

Reality checks. One of my favorite scenes in The Wizard of Oz is when Toto pulls back the curtain and reveals the goofy old guy pretending to be Oz. I’m grateful for every opportunity that serves to zap false illusions and expose the naked emperor. As I age, I hope to have more of these opportunities. This year, I’ve been booked to work as an extra in several feature films and TV episodes. I’ve learned a lot about filmmaking — and human nature. I’ve learned, for instance, that Hollywood is synonymous with hard work, long hours, and sleep deprivation. I’ve met some of the nicest people behind the scenes, and also discovered that real movie stars aren’t quite as glamorous up close as they appear on film. Of course, I knew that all along, but wanted proof. Movie stars are (mostly) regular folks with a knack for high drama. I prefer to be a regular person without the high drama, and I’m ever so grateful I came to that conclusion in my own backyard.

Authenticity. I believe this is the highest quality anyone can aspire to.  As surely as I continue to seek it out in other people and experiences, I must continue to nurture sincerity in myself, in everything I do.

Reading the fine print. I hope to live a healthy life, well into old age, and to die clutching a book in one hand and a real newspaper in the other. I appreciate the Internet and all its wonders, but there isn’t a blog or site in cyberspace that can top or replace the scent of fresh ink on paper, or the discovery of a wonderful novel at my favorite bookstore. This year I must, and will, continue to support the printed word by purchasing newspapers and books and magazines. The employment of many of my dearest (and most respected) friends depends on the endurance and triumph of the printed word. I believe that civilization itself depends on it too.

Appreciation. This has been a year of loss and worry, laced with many reminders to cherish and appreciate the people I love. My father-in-law died in June, and my mother’s health is in question. Meanwhile, a very dear friend is recovering from cancer surgery. Appreciation is the incomparable thrill I get each time I walk through my side door and am reminded of my day-to-day blessings. It’s the sense of comfort that washes over me when I hear my husband breathing next to me, or my son’s voice on the phone. Or when I flip through my address book and glance at the names of the good people I could easily call on for help any time of the day or night. I appreciate every single day and every friend I’m given, and I need to send a thank-you note to the Universe. I really do. — Cindy La Ferle

— Photo: “Crazy Science” by Doug La Ferle —