Gardening for the soul

A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself.”  ~May Sarton

I’m taking a week off to work in the garden, so I’ll leave you with one of my gardening essays. This one was published in Victoria magazine, March 2010. I’ll be back next week after a few more trips to the nursery ….


Last spring, members of our Oakland County Master Gardener Society invited me to speak at one of their meetings. I was honored, at first, but as soon as the date of the talk rolled around, I started getting nervous.

And with good reason.

Master Gardeners arent just fooling around with bulbs and Miracle-Gro. These folks earn a minimum of 40 hours of instruction in horticulture science. Meeting for at least 11 weeks, they take classes in caring for indoor and outdoor plants; establishing lawns; growing vegetables and fruit trees. I bow to their expertise.

Barely getting my hands dirty, Ive written a few magazine pieces and newspaper columns on my romance with plants and flowers. Ive shared back-yard memories of sweet peas and apple trees and my grandfathers ferns. But set me loose with a shovel, and Im a dangerous amateur with a record of murdering rose bushes and planting azaleas in the wrong spot.

Regardless, the kindly president of our Master Gardener Society assured me that his group of green thumbs would be open to anything I had to say about writing and gardening. They would humor me — and even offer some tips on deadheading tulips. Somewhat relieved as I prepared for the talk, it occurred to me that gardens have taught me many valuable lessons. At this stage of my life, especially, gardening is rich with metaphor.

Five years ago, when my husband and I turned 50, our only child left home for college. That same year, we also lost several stately maple trees to disease. The removal of those trees wreaked havoc on our back yard: The lawn was totally destroyed and the surrounding beds were trampled. Not a single root or shoot was left of the delicate woodland shade perennials – trillium, Solomons seal, or bleeding heart – that Id collected over the years.

As every gardener knows, the natural world reminds us that change and upheaval are part of the master plan. Likewise, our bulldozed back yard reflected my emotional state as I adjusted to the changes in my menopausal body and my newly emptied nest. For a while, I felt uprooted in my own household. Yet it also occurred to me that when a new space opens up – by choice or by accident – you have an opportunity to try something else; something you couldnt do before.

A Japanese garden had been at the top of my wish list for several years, but until all those dead trees were removed, Id never had the right spot for my dream garden. And so, with the help of a landscaping team, I created a path and some raised beds for my meditation garden, which now includes a small wooden bridge and a dry river of beach stones my husband and I collected from Lake Michigan. The garden has become an outdoor sanctuary, a peaceful escape from deadlines and the clutter inside our home. Its also living proof that middle age can be a signpost to a new life — not just the end of our greener years.

At the end of my talk, I reminded the Master Gardeners that I often struggle with acute writers block, or fallow time. I would guess that anyone whos been doing the same work for so many years does too. Fallow time is the desert where ideas shrivel and evaporate, if they sprout at all. Fallow time is the waiting season, the creative slump, when black moods hover like pending thunderstorms.  But we can turn to the garden for another lesson.

Michigan winters are incredibly long and dull. For those of us who battle the blues, its easy to believe that spring might forget us on its way north. But just when things cant get any gloomier, usually in early April, along comes a balmy 60-degree day — a day drenched in the scent of moist earth, tulip bulbs, and tender new grass waking up. Suddenly, a glimmer of hope breaks through, melting all those months of doubt and dejection. The frozen river thaws. Possibility stirs.  And that when I know it’s time to grab my tools, dig in, and begin again. — Cindy La Ferle

–Reprinted from Victoria magazine. All garden photos copyrighted by Cindy La Ferle. Please click on each photo for a larger view. —

Life is a beach

Its hard for me to put into words why I like the beach so much. Everything about it is renewing for me, almost like therapy…Beach Therapy.”  —Amy Dykens

I took this photo from our porch at LeBear resort in Glen Arbor, overlooking Lake Michigan, earlier this week. I’ve been lucky enough to visit many gorgeous beaches around the country, but this one remains my all-time favorite.

With over public 100,000 votes in 2011, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was named the “Most Beautiful Place in America” on ABC’s Good Morning America. Those of us who’ve been visiting the area since we were kids weren’t surprised at the news … but some of us were a wee bit sorry that our best-kept secret is finally out.

Nothing says “summer” like a day or two at the beach. I’m wishing you a wonderful Memorial Day weekend — and a beautiful summer launch! — CL

Facebook: Why I’m back

When we change the way we communicate, we change society.” — Clay Shirky

My husband was the first to deliver the happy news: Two of our son’s best friends from high school had announced their wedding engagements on Facebook last week — within a few short days of each other. As the family reporter, I’m usually on top of these things. But because I had deactivated my Facebook account in January, I was totally out of the loop.

And I felt like one of the Flintstones. I’d been living under a rock while everyone else was throwing a big party in cyberspace without me.

Which is partly why I tip-toed back to Facebook after cruising along happily without it (most of the time) for the past four months.

Before I go on, I need to tell you that I’m not the least bit sorry for taking a break from it. My self-imposed sabbatical from social media — Facebook, especially — helped me appreciate the positive aspects of being connected 24/7 to the Big World Out There. At the same time, I thought long and hard about the difference between online friendships and 3-D friendships and how much attention I can (reasonably) give to each.

During my time away from Facebook, I missed a lot of good news from a lot of nice people. And I rediscovered how much harder it is to communicate with out-of-town friends and colleagues. Facebook makes it so much easier to share announcements of any kind in one fell swoop — writing classes; new blog posts; wedding engagements — something I had taken for granted while using it.  Though posting my updates seemed awfully impersonal at times, that was part of Facebook’s ease and charm. When I wasn’t on Facebook, I was sending more email announcements, which were probably more annoying and more invasive than status updates.

What I didn’t miss about Facebook was its dangerously addictive aspects. Once I got through the initial withdrawal period, I rediscovered luxurious bolts of time to write and sell more essays and articles. More time to meet friends for lunch. More time to catch up on the phone. More time to get my home in order. More time for long walks outside. In other words, after pulling away from the distractions of social media, I felt more focused and balanced — even in the midst of my elderly mother’s ongoing health crises.

In other words, I figured out how and where I’d been wasting all the time I thought I didn’t own anymore.

In other words, I realized I’d been abusing Facebook.

Like any tool, Facebook is incredibly handy. But there’s a right way — a respectful way — to use it. So, this time around, I am setting tighter limits. I’ll be checking in less often, and won’t be leaving as many comments as I used to. I’ll continue to exercise most of my bragging rights — and personal info — here on my blog. I plan to enjoy Facebook for what it is — and refuse to feel guilty if I can’t keep up with it daily.

All said and done, I still believe it’s essential to strike a healthy balance between the time I spend “communicating” online and the time I spend with loved ones in the real world. And yes, I remain conflicted about Facebook — and worried our culture’s obsession with social media. A recent article on Facebook in The Atlantic‘s “Culture Issue” articulates many of my concerns. How about you? How do you use Facebook?— Cindy La Ferle


Write your life

Everything in life is writable if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” — Sylvia Plath

Whether you want to write a book-length memoir for your family or a short personal essay for publication, you need to master the basic rules of good, clear writing.

Perfect for beginners, Write the Stories of Your Life might be the nudge you need to get started. It’s my favorite workshop to teach, and I’m very happy to be able to offer it again at the Royal Oak Public Library on three consecutive Wednesday evenings: June 13, 20, and 27, from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. (Please note that each class will be different. If you miss a class, please arrange to have a fellow student save the handouts for you.)

This three-week workshop is free to the public, but it fills up quickly. (Pre-registration is required.) If you miss it this time around, another session will be offered later in the summer or fall; details to be announced here on my blog. For registration contact info, please visit To read a Royal Oak Patch article about the workshop, click here.

Copies of my own memoir, Writing Home, will be available at a special discount to workshop students at the ROPL.

— Original collage, “Writer Girl,” by Cindy La Ferle —

Anna gets her cake

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”– Anna Quindlen

I was in awe of Anna Quindlen’s writing when I started reading her syndicated New York Times column, “Life in the Thirties.” Her highly personal yet carefully crafted reflections on being a woman in the 1980s struck a resonant chord. As Publishers Weekly put it, Quindlen shared our “chronology of adulthood,” from college to marriage to children. Even readers who didn’t subscribe to her political views were charmed by her writings on parenthood.

“The Lightning Bugs Are Back,” included in her Living Out Loud collection (1988), is possibly one of the loveliest tributes to childhood ever written. “The lightning bugs are my madeleine, my cue for a wave of selective recollection,” Quindlen wrote. “My God, the sensation the other night when the first lightning bug turned on his tail too soon, competing with daylight during the magic hour between dusk and dark.”

I’ve been hooked ever since.

Several novels and column collections later, Quindlen is back with Plenty of Candles, Lots of Cake, her memoir crafted on the cusp of age 60. Quindlen has acquired a house in the country and Botox treatments for a wrinkled brow. She’s less attached to the “stuff” she’s accumulated. Her three kids are grown. And she stopped going to Mass.

While Plenty of Candles includes a couple of sweet-but-predictable pieces about friendship and parenting, Quindlen goes deeper in this collection. In “The Little Stories We Tell Ourselves,” she considers the damage inflicted on American women: “We have a culture that elevates women in advertisements who are contoured like thirteen-year-old boys, a culture that showcases actresses on television so undernourished that they look like bobblehead dolls…. In other words, we have a culture that reflects contempt and antipathy toward a realistic female body.”

Her essay on faith and why she left the Catholic church is brave and complex (and ambivalent in places). It must have been difficult for Quindlen to go public with it. “At some level I may have lost my religion, despite the deep talons of its traditions and forms within me,” she writes. “But I’ve never lost, and will never lose, my faith.”

Married more than three decades to Gerry Krovatin, Quindlen also tackles the thorny subject of marriage. “I tell my children that the single most important decision they will make is not where to live, or what to do for a living, it’s who they will marry,” she writes. Still in love with Krovatin, Quindlen praises his loyalty: “He may not remember our social schedule or the names of some of our kids’ friends, but he never forgets who wrote the bad review of my last book. And woe betide that individual if they ever meet him at a cocktail party.”

No longer “muddling through the middle,” as she described her life in Living Out Loud, Quindlen embraces maturity without fear or regret: “That’s the hallmark of aging, too, that we learn to go deeper, in our friendships, in our family life, in our reflections on how we live and how we face the future.”  — CL

Note: Anna Quindlen’s son recently interviewed her for The Christian Science Monitor. Click here to read the interview.