School supplies for Mom

The grace to be a beginner is always the best prayer for an artist. The beginner’s humility and openness lead to exploration. Exploration leads to accomplishment. All of it begins at the beginning, with the first small and scary step.” — Julia Cameron

Remember the late-summer thrill of buying notebooks, Magic Markers, and bright yellow Ticonderoga pencils for a new year of grade school? And who could forget the incomparable scent of a fresh box of Crayolas? For me, the ritual of buying school supplies softened the hard reality of summer’s end.

Even if your kids have flown from the nest, the beginning of the new school year still inspires personal growth and renewal.

Is there a dormant passion you’d like to rekindle? A hobby waiting for you to explore? My new column on Royal Oak Patch details the first season my son left home for college, and how I started a new “term” in the school of lifelong learning. Included with the essay are several photos of my art projects.  Please click here to read it. — Cindy La Ferle

Remembering Margo LaGattuta

My eyes like old glass windows, dusted with lost days, are ready to hold the new light.” — Margo LaGattuta, from “Pretending to Be a Barn”

IMG_0051I found the e-mail from another writer-friend early this morning. It wasn’t unexpected, though I’d learned only two days ago that Margo LaGattuta was suddenly terminally ill.

“Margo died peacefully tonight, surrounded by her sons and sisters and friends….It was quite beautiful and I just know she’s writing a poem about it….”

It’s never easy to lose a mentor or a friend, and the best we can hope for is one last chance to say thank you. Which is why I am grateful to writer Carolyn Walker for contacting me this week — just in time to make it to the hospital to see Margo yesterday morning.

Over the years, Margo became a treasured friend. Whenever we were speaking at the same writers’ conferences, or attending literary events around town, I loved spotting her smiling face and wild bohemian outfits in the crowds of more conservatively dressed journalists and writers who were attending the programs. She always looked every inch the poet — the unbridled creative spirit — that she was.

She interviewed me for her radio show (“Art in the Air”/ WPON) after my first book was published in 1994, and in the process, I learned a thing or two from Margo about book promotion. Later on, it meant the world to me when she agreed to be the keynote speaker at the banquet when my second book, Writing Home, was awarded “Book of the Year” by Think Club Publications in 2006. There was also a time when the two of us wrote columns for the same newspaper, so we’d often chat on the phone when we had trouble navigating the ever-changing seas of print journalism.

But our relationship began as teacher and student. It seems that whenever I was going through a dry spell, or felt lost and blocked, Margo happened to be offering a local creative writing workshop that would shake me out of myself and inspire me to start writing again. In particular, I remember a weekend workshop at Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, about 18 years ago, which I attended a month after my father died. That same year, the travel magazine I’d been editing for five years suddenly folded — and I had no idea what to do next. I was blocked and sad.

But after that weekend workshop at Cranbrook, I felt as if the fog had magically lifted. Margo helped me find new ways to express my grief, and best of all, I got back on my proverbial horse and rode off to one of the most productive periods of my writing life.

I know I’m only one of hundreds (or thousands) claiming to be moved and changed by Margo’s “Inventing the Invisible” workshops, not to mention all the students she inspired in her college English classes over the years. Her encouragement launched countless writing careers. And, of course, we all deeply admired her poetry, newspaper columns, and essays. Shocked by her sudden passing, many of us are asking: Where will we find another Margo?

I am going through another rough period now, as my widowed mother is slowing drifting through the foggy landscape of dementia, needing more of my time and care. Once again, I’m at a creative impasse. When I arrived at Margo’s bedside at the hospital yesterday, I desperately wanted to say: “Margo, I need your advice again.” Instead, I simply thanked her for everything — for introducing me to some of my favorite poets, including Billy Collins and Mary Oliver and Margo LaGattuta. I told her I was grateful for all the times she helped rescue and refuel my creative soul. I also told her that Billy Collins had just come out with a new book of poems, and that I didn’t think they were as good as his earlier stuff. She was unable to speak, but she smiled.

Tonight I’ll pull down Margo’s books of poetry from my shelves and reread my favorites. Here is one from The Dream Givers (Lake Shore Publishing; 1990). It’s an early poem that, for me, conjures the light and spirit Margo brought to her work, her students, her creative life:

and the journey flashed
through me like a light
year.  Some electric sound
got me moving from
the original place over
mountains and dusty
windows outside of time.

I became a small shadow,
something anyone might have
missed. I began spinning
deep in tomorrow’s orchard.

I came by a river
and the water keeps rising.
I came to begin something wild.

(By Margo LaGattuta; 1990; Lake Shore Press.) 

— Top photo: “Morning in Vinsetta Park” by Cindy La Ferle; 2010 —


Celebrate Margo and her poetry Wednesday, August 31, 7 – 10pm, at the Lido Gallery in Birmingham. Bring ONE of your favorite Margo poems to read aloud to honor her memory. This event is free to the public.


The September 5 issue of Community Lifestyles, where Margo published her popular “Word in Edgewise” columns, will be devoted to her memory. This issue will include a new piece I wrote, detailing Margo’s influence and impact on the metro-Detroit writing community. Watch for the issue online or in your mailbox if you live in the area.

Refeathering our nest

Field notes on an empty nest

Last week I found a birds nest on the brick walk leading to our backyard.  Im guessing the nest fell from a nearby silver maple; or maybe a neighbor found it while jogging and left it by the garden gate for us to admire.

Not much larger than a cereal bowl, the nest now perches indoors on a shelf near my desk.  Crafted from hundreds of delicate twigs, strands of grass, and patches of moss, its truly a work of art — and a timely reminder to prepare for my sons return to college after the long summer break.

Children of baby boomers are heading off to college in greater numbers than children of previous generations.  At the same time, the age-old ritual of “letting go” is the final frontier for those of us who’ve made child rearing a major focus of our adult lives.

Ive been discussing this tender rite of passage with other middle-aged parents. And we all agree there has to be a better term to describe our next season of parenting – something that doesnt sound as final or forlorn as “The Empty Nest.”  Our nests, after all, are not completely empty. Not yet.  My only child, for example, still has a bedroom here at home in addition to a loft in a crowded dormitory four hours away in South Bend, Indiana.

Whatever you want to call it, this to-and-from college phase is a thorny adjustment for parents and their almost-adult kids. College students are bound to ignore house rules when they return home for summer and holiday breaks. (“Curfew? What curfew?”) Even the most agreeable families discover that this can be a volatile time – a time when teen-aged tempers ignite and middle-aged feelings get scorched. All said and done, were all learning how to grow up and move on.

“When mothers talk about the depression of the empty nest, they’re not mourning the passing of all those wet towels on the floor, or the music that numbs your teeth…. They’re upset because they’ve gone from supervisor of a child’s life to a spectator. It’s like being the vice president of the United States.” — Erma Bombeck

A lot has changed since my son started college. Im still adjusting to the hollow echo of his (oddly) clean and empty bedroom, looking for remnants of my old self — my mothering self — in the bits and pieces he left behind.  The family calendar in our kitchen has some blank spaces, too, and is no longer buried under neon-color sticky notes announcing band concerts, Quiz Bowl meets, school conferences, and carpool schedules. At first, this was not cause for celebration.  Id become what our high school mothers club affectionately refers to as one of the “Alumni Moms.”

While I suddenly found myself with unlimited bolts of time to devote to my marriage and writing career, I mourned what I perceived to be the loss of my role as a hands-on parent. Despite the fact that I had a cleaner, quieter house, I missed all the athletic shoes and flip-flops piled near the back door. I missed the boisterous teenagers gathered around the kitchen counter, or in front of the television downstairs. I missed bumping into other parents at school functions, and wondered if life would ever be the same.

Life isnt the same, but Im OK with that now. Ive come to realize that a mom is always a mom, even though her parenting role changes over time.

Not long ago, I stayed at my own mothers place for a few weeks while I recovered from major surgery. When I apologized for disrupting her normal routine, she said, “My home will always be your home, too.”  I found comfort in knowing that. Yet at the same time, I missed my own house. And I felt grateful that Mom had encouraged me, years ago, to craft a life — and a home — of my own.

Its hard to believe my son is packing for another year of college this week. The hall outside his bedroom is now an obstacle course of boxes, crates, and suitcases stuffed with everything he needs for the months ahead. Im still not very good at saying good-bye when his dad and I leave him at the dorm and steer our emptied SUV back to the expressway. I manage to compose myself until I notice the tearful parents of college freshmen going through this ritual for the first time. But it does get easier each term.

So, is the nest half-full or half empty?

Reflecting on the small birds nest perched near my desk, Ive come to believe that every family is a labor of love and a work in progress. Its a bittersweet adjustment, but Im at peace with the idea that our household is just one stop on our sons way to his future.  Hell be flying back and forth over the next couple of years or so. And hopefully, patience and love will be the threads that weave our family together, no matter how far he travels. Cindy La Ferle, September 2006

— Top photo: Detail from “Nature,” a mixed-media collage by Cindy La Ferle. Bottom photo (nest) by Cindy La Ferle —

What the sidewalk says

Draw a crazy picture,
Write a nutty poem,
Sing a mumble-gumble song,
Whistle through your comb.
Do a loony-goony dance
‘Cross the kitchen floor,
Put something silly in the world
That ain’t been there before.” — Shel Silverstein

Yes, I’ll admit that I love a good poop joke. And I love it when I stumble on something that tickles my funny bone when I least expect it.

Walking to the local Trader Joe’s for groceries today, Doug and I discovered the sidewalk commentary, at left, printed in newly poured concrete. Clearly, somebody’s inner child was gleefully responsible for this. It made me laugh so hard that I had to come back to take a photo after the morning shadows shifted away from the sidewalk.

I’m now inspired to look for a “fresh discovery” that makes me smile — no matter how small — every morning when I go for walks. No matter how old we are, we all need reminders to stop taking everything too seriously, right? — CL

— Photo by Cindy La Ferle —

August blooms

Plant your own garden and decorate your own soul, instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.” – Veronica A. Shoffstall

Full disclosure: Someone did bring me flowers for my birthday this week, and they’re so gorgeous, so vibrant, that I was inspired to take a photo to share with you here. If August were a bouquet of blooms, this is what they’d look like!
Even if it weren’t my birth month, August would still inspire me to savor what’s left of summer’s “glory days” — just as I need to savor every year, every moment, I’m given.
Happy birthday, fellow Leos! Don’t wait to buy yourself (and someone else) a bouquet of flowers! — CL