New ground

Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning.” — John O’Donohue

It started off as a horrific week. My Web site was attacked by a malicious virus, requiring several days of tedious repairs (and I’m still not finished with the archives yet). Same happened to one of those Datacard ID card printers I got, but nothing serious. Later that same day, my dermatologist removed five pre-cancerous patches from my skin. It got a little worse than that, but I won’t go there. It’s enough to say that everything seemed to be eating away at me all at once, or was trying to shed itself. Next appointment – Cellfina in NYC, can’t wait!

Regardless, I was making plans for my garden this morning when I was struck with an overwhelming sense of grace and peace. Which shouldn’t surprise me.

My worry list always seems less significant when I breathe deeply in a garden. Working the soil, I forget about midlife health issues, household chores, film bookings, aging parents, unfinished projects, and what I should try to publish next. I forget about blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. I forget about all those outdated magazines piling up next to the bed, unread. I turn off the endless loop of chatter from the outside world.

Weeding the Zen garden, I am fully engaged in the moment. Clearing space around the stepping stones, I consider summer’s possibilities. I feel the green stirring of something new, though I cannot name it yet. This Celtic blessing says it all. — CL

For a New Beginning
by John O’Donohue

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

–Reprinted from To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings by John O’Donohue, Doubleday Religion, 2008.  Special thanks to Sharon of One Woman’s Life in Maine for sharing this beautiful poem with me.

Survival tips for grads

At commencement you wear your square-shaped mortarboards. My hope is that from time to time you will let your minds be bold, and wear sombreros.” ~Paul Freund

A blog pal recently asked if any of her regular readers had a few pithy words of advice for new graduates. I was reminded of an earlier column I wrote when my only son graduated from high school in 2004. I tucked it into his suitcase when he left for college, then dug it out of the archives the week before he walked across a stage in a black cap and gown at the University of Notre Dame.

Like most moms I know, I spent years drilling my kid on the importance of working hard, keeping his integrity, writing thank-you notes, and ironing his dress shirts. But I overlooked some things along the way. And besides — there are a few infallible pieces of advice that a parent simply cannot overemphasize. That’s why, six years ago, I wrote a list of “survival tips” and included them in the newspaper column. Here’s an excerpt:


*Relationships, like cars, need regular upkeep or they won’t keep running. Maintain the good friendships you’ve made as surely as you forge new ones. Treat your old friends with as much respect as you’d treat business clients you want to impress.

*Learn from your adversaries. The people who push our buttons tend to reflect qualities we dislike in ourselves.

*Encourage others to talk about themselves. You’ll make a great first impression and learn something new. Unless you’re on a job interview, the talk should never be all about you.

*Don’t be too proud to ask for help when you need it.

*The notion that everyone is having a better time somewhere else is one of the world’s dumbest illusions. Refuse to believe it.

*Losing is a great character builder. If your best effort misses the mark, ask yourself what you can learn from the loss.

*Be a community builder wherever you go. If we can’t make peace with our neighbors, there’s no hope for the rest of the world.

*Be thoughtful. Good manners were designed to make others feel comfortable.

*Handle money with respect. Never let it run your life, overshadow your career, or spoil your personal relationships.

*Strive for decency and compassion, and accept nothing less from everyone you hang out with.

*Get enough sleep; take care of your body. Pay attention to what you eat, where it came from, and why you’re eating it.

*Make good on your word. Show up on time. If you promised to bring the salad or move furniture, follow through. Return what you borrow.

*Keep your faith, but learn about the great religions of the world. Self-righteousness is a huge turn-off.

*Spend time outdoors. A walk in the woods is the best antidepressant.

*Spend time alone. Creative ideas and solutions are sparked in solitude.

*Never leave your underwear on the floor. As every good room mate will tell you, neatness is essential in cramped spaces.

*Don’t wait for holidays to tell people how much you appreciate them.

*Always take the high road. Admit your blunders and apologize if you’ve hurt someone.

*Find your inner compass and stop seeking approval from others. Be too busy to wonder what other people think of you.

*Don’t limit your shopping to chain stores. Support local businesses and discover the heart and soul of every new location you visit.

*Travel is the best way to learn about the world, but stay on the lookout for a place to set down roots.

*Savor your memories but don’t live in the past. Anyone who insists their high school or college years were “the best” is stuck in a rut. Life gets richer and juicier as you move on. Enjoy every minute.

*Never forget how much you are loved. Phone home when you need a reminder.

— Cindy La Ferle

–The full version of this essay originally appeared in The Daily Tribune (Royal Oak, Mi.) and is reprinted in my book, Writing Home

Top photo: My son Nate (the tall guy) and his Zahm Hall buddies. Bottom photo: Andrea (Nate’s girlfriend) with Nate, Dad, and Mom on graduation day, 2008. Both photos taken on the University of Notre Dame campus.

“Wild Geese”

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination.” — Mary Oliver

Sunset1“Wild Geese” is another favorite by our old friend Mary Oliver, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry we’ve explored in previous posts. Listening to Anne Lamott’s Word by Word, an audio CD on creative writing, I learned that Lamott posted this poem near her desk — and advises all writers and artists to do the same.

“Wild Geese” touched a tender place in my soul. Like so many friends of mine, I was taught as a child to obey the edicts of the organized religion my family practiced. I was terrified of making mistakes — and terrified of disappointing a punitive, unforgiving God. (Not to mention disappointing my parents and teachers.) No matter how “good” I was, or how closely I followed the rules and colored within the lines, I still felt unworthy. A nasty inner critic took up residence inside my head, too, sitting right next to the punitive God.

Today, I follow a strong code of ethics and my own faith, but no longer allow fear to constrict my life or narrow my view. As Mary Oliver reminds me, we were all made to shine our creative light, and to dance freely in this gorgeous world of ours. — CL

Wild Geese
By Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

— Reprinted from Owls and Other Fantasies, by Mary Oliver; Beacon Press; 2003.

All my children

When you have raised kids, there are memories you store directly in your tear ducts.” — Robert Brault

Today’s essay first appeared on Mother’s Day 2004 in my Sunday column in The Daily Tribune of Royal Oak. At the time, my son and his longtime friends, a.k.a. “The Crew,” were preparing to graduate from high school. This piece is dear to my heart, so I’m sharing it with all of you in celebration of Mother’s Day. — CL

All My Children

When people ask me how many kids I have, I tell them I’ve lost count. This might sound strange or irresponsible to most parents, but some of you know exactly what I mean.

If, like me, you’re the parent of an only child, you’ve probably invested a lot of time scouting for playmates to foster some pseudo sibling rivalry in your own backyard. To entertain an “only,” you often have to play Pied Piper to the neighborhood kids.

But I look back fondly on the years I made our home kid-friendly and child-proof, and I like to think I became a more patient parent while getting to know and love other people’s children.

So I like to remind all of you younger moms that it’s really worth the effort to host as many playmates as you can. Keeping extra snacks on hand is always a good start. But you also need to lower your standards for house and garden.

One summer, for instance, my son and the neighborhood kids decided to build a fort out of discarded appliance boxes. Raiding parking lots and trash piles, they collected enough scrap metal and cardboard to make our entire yard look like a temporary shelter for Royal Oak’s homeless population. Occupying our property for weeks, the fort was a tribute to inventive teamwork. Still, I was amazed our neighbors never complained about its lack of curb appeal.

Later, in the middle school years, the kids developed a burning interest in chemistry, often using our home as their laboratory. There was the time my son and a buddy decided to make their own paper pulp in the basement, for instance. Using an old 10-speed blender, the boys pulverized newspaper scraps in a perilous base of water and craft glue. One of them forgot to put the top on the blender, and the resulting glop still decorates half of the basement ceiling.

Our home was also frequently chosen as a location for school video projects. I don’t recall where the kids obtained all the pyrotechnics they used for special effects, but the final footage was typically awesome. One year, after the crew filmed Macbeth for an English lit class, I spent several days picking melted candle wax from the Oriental carpet in the hallway.

Believe it or not, I’m really going to miss all of this. As the old cliche goes, kids grow up way too fast. By the time you’ve finally figured out how to spell baccalaureate, they are packing for college and you’re praying they’ll come back to mess up your house all over again.

Next Sunday I’ll be watching the graduation ceremony for Shrine Catholic High School’s Class of 2004. There will be tears and accolades and promises to keep in touch. There will be words of gratitude for teachers and school administrators — and for all the parents who created a real extended family for these kids.

Decked in cap and gown, my son will pose for photographs with the talented young people who have graced the past thirteen years of his life. I will add these to our family albums, which are already bursting with earlier photos of the same kids dressed up for Heritage Day, bike parades, Halloween contests, prom nights, and homecoming dances.

I’ve also kept a nostalgic stash of notes from these youngsters. Some are thank-you cards for special gifts, impromptu field trips, or birthday parties. There’s even a heartfelt letter of apology for the spilled candle wax from Lady Macbeth. Re-reading these notes never fails to touch me, and I couldn’t be more proud.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I’ve never doubted this maxim. But I have also grown to believe it takes a village to raise a mother. — Cindy La Ferle


Originally published on Mother’s Day 2004 in The Daily Tribune of Royal Oak, this essay was reprinted in Hometown America (Ideals/Guideposts; 2008) and is included in my own collection of essays, Writing Home.

Top photo: “The Crew” dressed for senior prom, posing on our front porch in 2004. My son is the tall guy, second from left. Bottom photo: “The Crew” at a summer BBQ in 2008, after college graduation.

Wild words

What more could I do with wild words?” — Mary Oliver

I’m a cat lover and a morning person, so Mary Oliver‘s “Morning” spoke to me the first time I read it. And each time I revisit the poem, something else strikes me.

Last week, for instance, a student in one of my workshops told me that list-making helps her get started when she’s trying to write a piece. Note how the first few lines of Oliver’s poem, below, work as a list of her morning observations. And note how the cat becomes a metaphor for “wild words,” and how, once again, the most ordinary experiences are sheer poetry. — CL

By Mary Oliver

Salt shining behind its glass cylinder.
Milk in a blue bowl. The yellow linoleum.
The cat stretching her black body from the pillow.
The way she makes her curvaceous response to the small, kind gesture.
Then laps the bowl clean.
Then wants to go out into the world
where she leaps lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn,
then sits, perfectly still, in the grass.
I watch her a little while, thinking:
what more could I do with wild words?
I stand in the cold kitchen, bowing down to her.
I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me.

–Reprinted from New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver; Beacon Press; Boston; 2005.

–Top Photo: Our wonderful cat, Jack, was a “wild thing” from the local animal shelter. —