Walking the Line: Peacefulness versus Purpose

By Catherine DiMercurio

Does self-acceptance threaten our sense of purpose?

Since its inception, this blog has been intended two serve to purposes. I have wanted to share my post-divorce journey, and my corresponding intention to remain open hearted along the way, in the hopes that some reader out there might find a sense of connection, might feel slightly less alone on his or her own journey, post-divorce or as a parent, or simply as a fellow human having similar struggles. My other purpose, the one that operates so quietly in the background I sometimes don’t pay attention to it, has been much more personal. It is about trying to cultivate a sense of peace about where I am on each step of this journey. It’s about acceptance in a way. To be perfectly honest, the idea of self-acceptance scares me a little. If I’m too at peace with where I am now, will my goals evaporate? Will I stop caring about reaching them? It’s a tricky line to walk, and I think intention is at least one of the keys to walking it.

Running is a Metaphor for Everything

My son is a cross country runner. He developed a love of running long before he discovered cross country running as a sport. At his meet this past Saturday, I watched my son, along with hundreds of other people’s sons and daughters, run three miles. It is way more exciting than it may sound. And, as running often does, this meet put a few things in perspective for me.

It was a wonderful morning for a run, cool, in the upper 50s, a welcome break from temperatures in the upper 80s, which the kids have been running in. Perhaps the sun shone a bit brighter than some runners prefer (I like it a little overcast). A light but chilly breeze made us spectators snuggle into our sweaters or windbreakers. The course was quite flat. Everyone one the starting line came with a particular time goal, and I’m sure they all felt the additional pressure that favorable conditions—the flat course, the cool temperature—inspire. All of them wanted to be faster than the meet before, all of them wanted to achieve a PR (personal record). As the gun went off, I knew many of the runners, like all of us who run, would end the race frustrated. Sometimes, even when all the conditions are perfect, and you’ve been putting in all the hard work day after day, you still don’t achieve your goal.

It’s excruciating, when it feels like all the necessary components are present, but things still aren’t adding up. And this is something I relate to, as a fellow runner, as a human in her forties, as a writer. There are plenty of areas in my life where I feel like my efforts are not yielding the results I’m hoping to achieve. How do we find peace with that, but still keep striving to hit the mark we’ve been working toward?

I suspect it comes down to knowing yourself, knowing your heart. Not only do we need to be honest with ourselves about how hard we are working, we have to be willing to give ourselves some credit for what we’ve accomplished, for pushing through when the course isn’t flat, and the conditions aren’t favorable.

Like many of the kids on the course that day, my son did PR. And like many others, that pleased him, but only for a little while. He was faster than he was before, faster than his last race, faster than he’s run in a meet before. But it still isn’t where he wants to be.

Frenzy versus Focus

My personal tendency, if something isn’t falling into place, is to try and find a way to throw more energy at it. I begin to wonder if I can work harder than I thought I could, maybe I can sleep less so I can write or run more, for example. But this frenzied approach begins to feel counterproductive. I wonder if making some peace with where I am, despite not having reached my goals, might help me settle into a mindset where I can take more deliberate, focused action.

Frenzied action can often feel like hard work—after all, we’re expending a lot of energy—but often it produces frustrations that might actually be getting in our way. Think of how easy it is to get agitated while looking for missing car keys. You need to leave, the clock is ticking, but you can’t depart without the keys and the more frustrated you get, the more you are getting in your own way, the more you are not finding what you’ve misplaced. That energy you are frantically expending isn’t doing you any good until you calm down and take deliberate and focused action, such as retracing your steps.

So here we are, walking that line between acceptance and ambition, between where we are and were we want to be, whether it is with a fitness goal, a professional one, a parenting issue, or, how our lives are evolving in the aftermath of the loss of a partner through death or divorce. How do we get to where we want to be? Do we truly know what we want that to look like? And how do we not self-accept ourselves right into a state of complacency?

Here’s the thing: I crave a sense of peacefulness about who I am, and where I am in life, but I also don’t want the flame of urgency around my goals to be extinguished. How does one cultivate both serenity and purposefulness at the same time? I keep coming back to the image of a surging ocean wave; it captures the essence of what I’m after, but I don’t quite know how to emulate it.

photo of sea wave
Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Pexels.com

I wish I had the answer to this conundrum, but as I suggested above, my hunch is that intention is key. Perhaps we begin in a place of respect for our own work ethic. Maybe this is a component of that elusive self-acceptance, perhaps a good starting point. We can acknowledge our good intentions and our determined effort, and not view the lack of expected results as an indication that we’re somehow doing it wrong. Chances are, we are reaping other rewards that are less quantifiable, less obvious. Perhaps, from that solid starting point, we look at our path in a new way. Can we maintain our energy, our work ethic, but make subtle adjustments that gradually help us get to where we want to go, maybe just a little more slowly than we would like?

Perhaps, as in both running and writing, we must pause and assess our technique, our form. Is my stride too long or too short, are my arms pumping, am I focused on breathing efficiently? Am I choosing active verbs, am I falling too often into a passive voice, am I maintaining a meaningful daily habit?

For now, I suppose I’ll attempt to keep surging forward, and once in a while, I’ll look up from my course and make sure the direction I’m headed is still where I want to go. And maybe it’s enough sometimes to be able to recognize others trying to do the same thing.

Love, Cath

 

 

Against Epiphanies, Literary and Otherwise

By Catherine DiMercurio

If you’ve been following this blog, you know I’ve been talking about transitions a lot lately. One kid is off at her first year of college. One kid has a freshly minted driver’s license, beginning his junior year of high school, and driving himself to school, work, cross country practice. I’m entering my fourth post-break-up month and watching how fast it’s all going by, imagining the day in the not-far-off future when I drop my son off at college and return to an empty house. It has been an angsty summer, and some of the freshness of fall has similarly been curdled by anxiety. So much is changing, so quickly. The children are strong, adaptable, but also not impervious the stress of these new circumstances either. As their mom, I long to make it easier somehow, but I know there’s nothing I can really do. The hardest part is, they know it.

Some days, I have the sense, that I’m close, that I’m on to something. I’ll turn a corner and gain a new understanding that allows me to put a difficult past into perspective, to synthesize. I’ll be able to embrace the new normal, stop caring what people think. Soon, I tell myself, I’ll be truly moving forward, not in this halting, breathless, slowpoke, dizzying way I’ve been doing. Soon, I’ll be one of those wise, forgiving women full of light and kind words, good humored, emotionally supple. I keep feeling that I’m close to having a transformative realization, an epiphany that allows me to step gracefully into the next phase.

Against Epiphanies: Lessons from Fiction

When I was in grad school I read a series of essays on writing by Charles Baxter, a favorite author of mine (please read his novel, The Feast of Love, if you haven’t, and please read it again if you have). One of the essays came to mind as I thought about this feeling of being within reach of something—an epiphany—that I could not quite grasp.

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In “Against Epiphanies,” Baxter writes, “I can say with some certainty that most of my own large-scale insights have turned out to be completely false. They have arrived with a powerful, soul-altering force; and they have all been dead wrong.” I underlined this and wrote some questioning notes in the margins of this page, Baxter’s comments having ushered in a sense of discomfort I couldn’t pin down. Later, he goes on to say, “I must confess a prejudice here, which is probably already apparent. I don’t believe that a character’s experiences in a story have to be validated by a conclusive insight or a brilliant visionary stop-time moment. Stories can arrive somewhere interesting without claiming any wisdom or clarification, without, really, claiming much of anything beyond their wish to follow a train of interesting events to a conclusion.”

Sometimes Things Just Happen

I think this is one of the qualities I like most about reading Baxter’s fiction, the realness of the fact that life serves up precious few epiphanies. At the same time, I found it tough medicine to swallow as a writer. There is an urge to distill, to make meaning, to have everything lead somewhere. But sometimes, often, everything doesn’t lead somewhere, or even, anywhere. Perhaps, too, it is what I’m struggling with as a human. Experiences don’t necessarily lead us to brilliant conclusions, a life-altering insight: “it was then that I realized that everything had led me to this point.” Because what if it didn’t, it hadn’t? Does this leave us in some existential morass? Or do some experiences shape us, but not necessarily in an obvious, it-taught-me-a-lesson sort of way? Even though everything doesn’t lead us to something, we still have a journey, and we still find ourselves in various places along the way.

My son and I recently had a conversation about this very thing. We’d headed out to a local lake to do some kayaking on one of the few days we both didn’t have any other obligations. My daughter was already away at school. Some car trouble though threatened to end our fun before it began. In the end, we sorted through it and were still able to enjoy a little time on the water together. As we drove home, I wondered aloud what lesson I was supposed to learn from this. Maybe it was about resiliency or something. My son’s response to my line of questioning was, “Maybe it’s not a lesson. Maybe it’s just a thing that happened.”

Validation and the Role of Trauma

I think Baxter and my son were essentially saying the same thing—experiences don’t have to be validated by insight. At least not all of them. It’s not as if we never learn anything from our experiences. But an experience isn’t rendered valueless if we haven’t translated it into a discrete life lesson.

I think the tricky part is being able to tell the difference between when we do have something to learn, and understanding when an event is simply a thing that happened. When a person has been through a trauma, it can be difficult in the aftermath to not have every stressor feel exactly the same as the trauma itself. It takes a while before our stress response can calm down, before an argument with a loved one or a traffic jam that makes us late for work feel different from the worst parts of the trauma. Maybe being able to tell the difference between experiences from which we can draw meaningful insights and experiences that are simply happenings is a skill that takes time to develop, or an instinct we have to train ourselves to trust. I’m certain trauma plays dark tricks here too, making us believe that if we don’t learn something meaningful from every experience something bad will happen, again.

I’m certain trauma plays dark tricks here too, making us believe that if we don’t learn something meaningful from every experience something bad will happen, again.

I like insights. They are comforting. And they are important. But the big life-changing ones are few and far between, and maybe, like Baxter points out, they are often dead wrong. I wonder if the reason such powerful epiphanies turn out to be dead wrong is that we gave them so much power. We smother them with expectations. Perhaps accumulating smaller insights, making minute course corrections as we go without expecting them to change our lives is, in fact, how we change our lives. Perhaps the perspective we seek, or the life we’re after, will be achieved forty-seven small insights from now, rather than in one big epiphany.

Love, Cath

 

Heart-Sore and Healing: On Watching Your Children Fly

By Catherine DiMercurio

Suddenly I want to bake a pie full of peaches and sugar because my heart is sore, sore in the steady sharp low hum manner of a hangnail or a paper cut straight through the meat of your thumb pad. Sore, because I know home is not the same anymore, but for all the right reasons. Right, because it was time, time for her to move to the next part, not far in miles but autonomy isn’t measured that way. Just college, not really moving out but still, away and beyond into all the next things. And here, at home, the not knowing, what you ate for breakfast, and how is that book you are reading, and did you make it home okay. And okay, it’s not just her, because he now too wears his new independence so casually, as if it is just a piece of paper that says he can drive without me, the real license hasn’t even arrived in the mail yet. But off he goes, and did you make it there okay? Please be okay, and okay, it’s more than a hangnail or a paper cut sometimes.

Do you know what it costs? We talk about raising children and I think of the way bread dough expands to fill the available space and more. It’s only air, pulling off that miracle, the same as the breath in our lungs. And by the way, it costs everything. It costs everything to have every first be one step closer to all the goodbyes, it costs your whole heart and more.

This is what we signed up for, and we knew it would be tough, but you never know all the ways it will hurt, just like we never know all the ways it expands us. I would do it all over again because I know. I would because I know her, I know him, but if we didn’t, if someone painted us a picture and depicted exactly how much it would hurt us and exactly how much it would lift us, would we believe it? Would we believe a heart could survive that much expansion and contraction, heaving and sundering and cracking like an overfilled pie crust broken apart by something as slight and brutal as steam?

I will bake the pie after I buy a peck of overripe peaches from the farmer’s market, a little bruised and bursting through their own skins.

round orange fruits
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

I don’t recommend condensing into the space of a few days the dropping off of one child at college, and the testing and licensing of the other for driving. There is so much good in it, I know that. They are strong and full of everything they need to be where they are. I can take little credit for this. I see how they were born with the spirit and the strength, always ready for the next part, even the times when they didn’t know they were. Maybe I was too. Maybe I’m ready for the next part too, even when I don’t know I am. Even when the heart is bruised and sore, growing and bursting and breaking. How many times do we mend ourselves, with something as slight and brutal as breath?

A Cross-Country Road Trip with Teens, Part Two: Camping in California

By Catherine DiMercurio

After driving for four days, we had finally landed at our final destination: Crescent City, California, and the nearby Del Norte State Park Mill Creek Campground. Once we had breathed in the ocean for a while, we decided we had better go set up camp. This was, after all, our annual camping vacation. We had set up our small, easy tent twice on the way out instead of getting a hotel room. But now that we were settling in for the week, it was time to pull out the roomier tent, our home away from home for the next five nights.

The campground was located south of Crescent City, up a winding, steeply climbing road about two and a half miles off the 101. I had read that it isn’t a drive you want to make to and from camp too many times a day, and I agreed, but this distance and height did leave us far from any traffic noises. It was still and quiet within the park, aside from the noises of other campers, and the early morning squawking of crows.

Setting Up Camp, Contemplation, and Coziness

Setting up camp is a pleasure after a long drive, as long as you aren’t setting up when people are hungry or it’s dark or raining. We had staved off hunger with snacks, and the sun was bright. The kids took a walk to purchase wood for the campfire while I finished loading the tent with our sleeping gear and duffel bags. Inside the empty tent, I had one of those moments, those aching pangs, when you see all so many memories of the past jumbled together. I think this must be a fairly common occurrence for parents of teens. I suddenly recalled camping when the children were little, when our party numbered four instead of three. I took a deep breath, watched a few of the memories as if they were a slideshow, and decided to put them away. I wonder, in the aftermath of moments like these, how other people navigate these twists and turns of memory and the churn of emotions that accompany them. I wonder how others regard the past and its often discordant juxtaposition with the present.

We sat around the campfire that night. Because of the risk posed by bears, we had been instructed to keep our campsite “crumb clean.” Normally, camping for us includes a lot of campfire cooking. Here though, we had to be extremely careful with food preparation and clean up, and having traveled so far, it had been inconvenient to travel with perishables. So we had purchased a lot of instant meals. We warmed up some water over the fire and gobbled up soups and noodles. The night was chilly and the fire and warm meal gave us a heightened sense of coziness. There are few things more wonderful in this world than sitting around a campfire with your kids and enjoying a heightened sense of coziness, especially when you’ve journeyed far from home and are finally at your destination and beginning the next part of your adventure.

Exploration, Relaxation, Laughter, Listening

In the days that unfolded, we explored. One day, it was at the sandy beach, where we brought books and snacks but mostly just played with the ocean. Another, it was on a nine-mile hike through redwoods. We also explored tide pools and little used book stores in town, and the campground. We played games and read our books and laughed.

Seeing the redwoods and the Pacific Ocean had been the goals of trip, and they did not disappoint. Photographs cannot prepare you for the redwoods. Our first glimpse of them had been driving south from Oregon, as the highway wound through Jedidiah Smith State Park, home to some of the most stunning old growth groves. Our own campground was formerly a heavily logged area. The grounds were fully of massive stumps and secondary growth redwoods—not as old, and not as big. Living here for a week, sleeping among new giants and the remains of their fallen ancestors, one cannot help but think of what we’ve done in the name of “progress.” One can also not avoid thinking of the wild, walking and talking trees and tree spirits—the Ents of Middle Earth, the Dryads of Narnia. Being filled to the brim with wonder is entirely unavoidable. Our hike, on a long trail through old-growth redwoods, was nothing short of magnificent. I’d been nervous about navigating the trail, knowing that often, things are not well marked. There were some steep portions, but nothing too technical, and though our map deviated from what we experienced, we stayed on course. The route culminated in Stout Grove, a stand of particularly enormous—and, as the name implies, girthy—redwoods. Side note: trust your ranger. When he recommends one trail for its peace and beauty over another more crowded trail, take his advice.

And the ocean. To spend most of a day, sitting and listening to the churn and crash, to feel the wet sand on your bare feet, daring the next wave to reach you, to crouch among shells and seaweed and driftwood—these are among the most soothing and joyful experiences I’ve shared with my kids.

We weren’t ready to leave. We weren’t ready for the drive home. We avoided thinking about it for as long as possible.

Reconciliations and Compensations

There were several occasions on this trip where the past demanded to be attended to, a crying baby waiting to be soothed. Maybe that’s why I can’t simply ignore memories or griefs of the past when they bubble up. I’m not one to let babies cry it out. While I have a fairly high tolerance for my own physical pain, when something in me from the past is crying out, I have to stop and look and see what’s going on. It’s possible that it is easier to have more compassion for our past selves than for the present-day versions of ourselves. That’s not really fair, is it? Sometimes, the look back brought me happiness. Other times, it forced a contemplation, a reckoning of sorts between the way I thought things would be and the way things are.

Sometimes such disharmony sets our teeth on edge. But maybe, if we listen closely, we can hear a soft melody underneath. Perhaps the shock of the discontinuities we experience keeps us from recognizing the compensations afforded us. For me, despite the losses and the griefs, I have truly and wonderfully close relationships with my son and my daughter, and I see how connected they are to each other. That is a gift, a balm, but sometimes such gifts seem hidden from us when we are so busy thinking of how different life is from how we expected it would be. Hence, the drive toward conscious noticing. The practice is more easily cultivated, I found, away from the loud hum of everyday life. The quieter moments and moods of vacation—sitting in front of the ocean, or softly winding through redwoods—inspire introspection, and hidden things reveal themselves more readily when our minds are calmer. Whispered melodies are easier to hear.

On our last morning we rose before dawn, having packed up most of our gear the night before, I thought of all the adventure stories the three of us liked to read, and how they always say things like “We’ll leave at first light,” and I tried to think of the way home as just the next part of the adventure, rather than an ending.

Love, Cath

 

A Cross-Country Road Trip with Teens, Part One: The Trip West

By Catherine DiMercurio

I recently returned from an eleven-day road trip with my teenagers. Though I knew I’d be taking a break from writing during that time, I set a goal for myself to consciously notice. I wanted to cultivate a deliberate awareness of what I was experiencing—from new landscapes and people, to the way the trip impacted each of us as it unfolded. I wrote down some of these observations, but for the most part, I tried to simply take things in. In a way, I wanted to get out of my head for a while, to be looking outward instead of inward. I tried to absorb as much as I could without filtering it through conscious thoughts about how I felt about this or that. I found, though, that after three 12+ hour days of driving, my endurance for this way of looking at the world was reaching its limit. And that’s not a bad thing.

The Route

We departed early on a Tuesday morning, having loaded up the vehicle the night before. We drove across Michigan, through Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, and entered Nebraska on the evening of the first day. We camped for the night just west of Lincoln, on a beautiful little lake that we had almost to ourselves. The next morning, we hit the road at sunrise and drove across Nebraska and through most of Wyoming, spending the night at a hotel in Green River, and treating ourselves to Chinese takeout for a late dinner after a dip in the pool. In the morning, we left Wyoming and headed into Utah, where we navigated the tangle of highway around Salt Lake City and then drove through the salt flats, which astounded us as much as the gorgeous red rock, Martian-like terrain we experienced entering Utah. Not long after the salt flats, we left the interstate and navigated some through some of the loneliest land I’d ever experienced, through northern Nevada and southeastern Oregon. We camped again, in Oregon, at a little RV park situated on a vast cattle ranch. Perhaps it was an odd choice for a family of vegans, but we didn’t know it until after we checked in, and we always like to see cows (and we hoped they would somehow escape their fate). We had decided that, on the fourth day, instead of proceeding to our destination, we’d make a northerly detour to Crater Lake, which was absolutely astonishing. We drove south and west once more, through thick wildfire smoke, and finally into California, greeting the ocean in Crescent City and then setting up camp at Del Norte Mill Creek campground.

The trip out was roughly 2,500 miles, and though I’ve sketched out our route, this doesn’t begin to tell the tale of the journey. If you know me and/or have been reading this blog for a while, you know that my daughter is about to start college in a few weeks. This trip was her graduation gift. Part of my practice of conscious noticing involved my awareness of my children as individuals and as siblings and as offspring. I wanted to observe our identities and relationships in the same way I was observing the landscapes we were passing through, with curiosity and respect. It’s so much easier to do that on a trip like this than it is in daily life, but it is a worthwhile approach. More on this later.

When the Past Crashes the Party

As we journeyed west, the three of us laughed easily, relaxing more and more with each mile. We problem-solved as a group, our little expedition team working off each other to navigate unfamiliar territory and situations. It wasn’t really until the third day of driving, after the Midwest was behind us, that things got more challenging. For me, the moment came as we entered Utah, and I found myself driving up and down steep and winding roads hemmed in by semis. The heights, the narrowness of the roads, the speeds at which cars and semis were taking the mountain curves all combined to make a fairly stressful driving situation. Later in the day, with the salt flats behind us, we entered into the desolation of the desert. We gassed up the car and braced ourselves, not knowing what to expect. After hours of driving through sagebrush and barren mountains in the distance and little else we crossed the border into Oregon and experienced more of the same. There was one terrifying descent down a mountainside, with a huge drop off and no guardrail. I’d been dreading this type of driving and on that day, it never seemed to end. I relaxed by the time we finally set up camp that night, but as we began the fourth day of driving, I felt myself sort of shutting down.

For a couple of hours on the way up to Crater Lake, a stress response kicked in that left me frozen, detached. I felt as empty as the desert we had passed through the day before. I felt depleted and somehow vulnerable to the past in a way I didn’t fully understand.

Some context: I didn’t grow up traveling or camping. My children grew up camping, like their father. As the kids got older, their father encouraged us all to take on a little more adventure. We eventually climbed three mountains out East. My fear of heights stopped me in my tracks on some of these trips, but it was often incredible to push through that. At the time of these trips, I felt supported through my fearful moments. But later, at the end of the marriage, I realized we both had different memories and perceptions about such things. After the divorce, the kids and I still camped, but it wasn’t until a trip two years to the Badlands in South Dakota that I’d taken on a more adventuresome trip as a solo parent. And this trip out to California felt huge to me. To captain a trip of this magnitude on my own was challenging and meaningful, and not without emotional pitfalls.

On that fourth day, this past, these memories, caught up to me. I collapsed inward a little and I didn’t know how long it would last. The voices of the past had entered into the void created by vulnerability. I questioned what I was doing here, why we had set out on such an ambitious journey, how I would be able to handle some of the challenges that we would undoubtedly face. I didn’t feel fun enough, or brave enough, or competent enough. I didn’t feel enough of anything in that moment, though even swimming in this self-doubt I recognized that not all of these words weren’t my own. But as we experienced the magnificence of Crater Lake I felt this negativity, and the power of the past, ebb away. As I navigated the mountain roads, I tried to explain some of this to the kids. They’d been worried about the shift in my demeanor and it was with some relief that they recognized I’d come out of whatever spell I’d been under.

Fresh Air, Fresh Thinking

I began to understand that the stress of the long drive and coping with my fears had opened a little gateway to the past, and the griefs and failures that I’d experienced in the collection of years immediately before and after the divorce had flooded in. What brought me safely through it was a combination of fresh thinking and fresh air. Part of me was able to recognize what was happening and to name it, and in doing so, I was able to put all the pieces backed where they belonged and to close the gate. Getting out of the car and breathing the mountain air and watching my children take in the lake and the sky allowed me to do the same, to take it in and to return out of the past, the grief, and into the moment, into this part of the journey, the now. I also had the sense that my conscious noticing, that my goal of observing with curiosity and respect needed to encompass myself.

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Once we arrived at the Pacific Ocean, at a stretch of beach in Crescent City, California, I thought about what had happened, grateful to the journey to bringing me to that point so that I could move beyond it. I recognized too the way we are shaped by our interactions with their environment, and as I sat on a rock looking out at the water, I allowed myself to be shaped by the ocean, smoothed and calmed by the waves. My son and daughter were peering into tide pools and laughing and exploring. We stretched out into new versions of ourselves, having pioneered, in our way, across prairie and desert and mountain to the ocean.

On this trip, I moved back and forth through speechless awe and wonder, and trails and eddies of introspection. It will take some time and thinking and writing to sort through, so bear with me. I hope you will enjoy this part of the journey with me.

Love, Cath

 

Shifting Gears: On Routines, Resetting, and Rediscovering

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we need to escape the safety net of our routines and go seeking.

For the past several years, I’ve written steadily—mostly daily—writing and revising and rewriting and re-revising my novel, writing short stories and flash fiction pieces, and creating posts for this blog. I’ve been submitting my fiction and hoping something finds a home someplace. I’ll keep pursuing publication for those pieces, and I’ll keep writing. But right now, I’m wondering, is it beneficial to take a little break? Or do I remain committed to my daily writing habit? How do we reset and revive a practice—whether it be running, writing, yoga, or any other behavior we pursue to energize us and keep us healthy and grounded?

I’ll be taking some time off from work for a vacation soon, so it seems like a natural point for some shift to occur. I typically don’t like breaking a routine, particularly one that I’ve worked so hard to build. I’m also the type of person who finds regular routines comforting. Of course, I need breaks, but after some of life’s hard knocks, the predictability of routines feels safe. I think it takes longer for a routine to feel dull to me than a similar routine might make other people feel.

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Photo by Jan Kroon on Pexels.com

The Open-Ended Possibilities of the Road Trip

My children and I will soon be road-tripping across the country, headed to see the redwoods in northern California. Days of travel followed by exploration and camping will be pretty far from the normal structure of my life—wake up, write, work out or run, go to work, come home, spend time with the family, maybe do some light housework or yard work, and sleep. During the school year, the routine gets a little crazier, but with my daughter headed off to college, my son and I will be finding new patterns, and making adjustments as we go along, trying, as they say, to find and establish a “new normal.” There is a lot of transitioning ahead for all of us, so this road trip is welcome, not just for the break it offers from work and routine, but for the opportunity it will provide us to enjoy each other’s company—without the stress of everyday life intruding—and to rediscover each other.

I’ve thought a lot about how I want to handle the disruption this trip will have on my writing practice. One option is to not write at all, to deliberately abstain and allow my experiences to soak in. On the other end of the spectrum is taking my laptop and continuing to write every day, fleshing out new ideas, working on the story that’s in progress, drafting new blog posts. The most likely scenario though is that I’ll take my new notebook. I’ll observe, jot down impressions and observations, journal a little. Nothing too ordered, but a conscious effort to capture what I’m feeling, what I’m seeing. Sometimes, a story will form under these conditions, sometimes a character will come to life, sometimes a few sentences will materialize full formed and become the heart of a new piece of fiction. I might not write every day, but I’ll watch and listen and absorb. My daily habit will be one of conscious noticing.

In Search Of . . .

Another aim I have for this trip, and one that will hopefully be aided by this conscious noticing, is to seek something that I’ve been missing: lightheartedness. Though I’ve always been a contemplative, sensitive, and serious person, I feel as though lightheartedness was not something that was merely accessible to me, but rather it was a part of me. It was simply there, within me, a characteristic of each heartbeat. My experiences of the past several years, it seems, have altered that part of me, have anchored me to something heavy and sore. And it’s time to shift gears, to cut myself loose from that weight.

I have had lighthearted moments, sometimes weeks and months in the past several years where it felt like something had been lifted. But there was something different about this fleeting lightheartedness compared to my previous way-of-being lightheartedness, sort of like the difference in density between store-bought, prepackaged cotton candy and the gauzy, spun-right-in-front-of-you, summer fair cotton candy.

“The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” — J. D. Salinger

Something about these differences reminds me of that line from a J. D. Salinger story (it is “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” in Nine Stories, if you are curious): “The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” Maybe the transitory, fleeting lightheartedness I periodically experienced was joy—moments of joy that washed away. But I don’t think the solid-state happiness Salinger references and the way-of-being lightheartedness I’m seeking are the same thing. And I’m certainly not the type of person who expects to be happy all the time. I do, however, long for the type of lightheartedness that once inhabited me in a very real, solid way to once again take up permanent residence in my heart.

So, I’ll be away for a bit from these Chronicles, seeking, and noticing. But when I return I hope to have fresh insights and perspectives and stories to share with you.

Enjoy the road. I will be! Love, Cath

Thirteen Ways of Looking: On Finding Clarity, Not Conclusions

By Catherine DiMercurio

Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” has been running through my head like an 80s pop song. I had to stop and listen.

black and white bird
Photo by Freddie Ramm on Pexels.com

It’s not even that I know all the words, but there is something about it that keeps surfacing for me. The title of the poem will pop into my head, or a couple of lines, or the general mood of it. The poem contains lines like this:

     I do not know which to prefer,

     The beauty of inflections

     Or the beauty of innuendoes,

     The blackbird whistling

     Or just after.

I’ve learned that when something pushes at me like this, I should stop and listen. I think our minds are vast universes connected to deeper things, that since energy cannot be created or destroyed, there is timeless, transcendent energy in us that sometimes knows better than our conscious, thinking brain. And I think that part of us is what people talk about when they talk about gut or faith or intuition. And that part of me has lead me repeatedly to this poem in the past few weeks. And I think I now know why.

If you’ve read the last few posts here, you’ll know I’ve been thinking a lot about the way things end. Sometimes I wonder if I’m overthinking, fruitlessly trying to make logical sense of illogical things, dutifully trying to learn what I can from failures so as to avoid mistakes, prevent future regret or unhappiness. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” has given me some comfort, not only from its content, in beautiful words yoked together to convey deep, simple, elegant truths, but in its very form. “Thirteen Ways” is about looking at things from different angles. It isn’t about making sense of something or coming to a conclusion, but it is about keen observations rooted in both fact and feeling. It is about fullness and richness of understanding.

Contours, Not Conclusions

In a way, the poem offers both permission for and insight into the tasks my mind and heart have been performing as they looked at one ending—the terminal point in one relationship. My examination of the ending itself expanded into a postmortem of the past two years. I saw patterns that had hidden themselves from me before. The innuendoes, the beauty in the aftermath of the blackbird’s whistling, have settled in, and I have been able to see angles and contours of things in a way I hadn’t before. I’m becoming aware that sometimes these contours matter more than conclusions. Understanding and fullness of knowledge and experience are different things entirely than an argument or statement summarized. Life is not a five-paragraph essay with a thesis stated, a case made, a conclusion drawn.

What I’ve learned about myself through this process of allowing myself to retrace my steps, to study the relationship from beginning to end, is invaluable. There are insights I would not have gained had I simply tried to force myself to move on, get over it, or stop dwelling on it. Recognizing that this is my process, too, is freeing. When any relationship ends or changes—as they so often do in life—permitting yourself to explore it from all sides may be the necessary path for you in order to accept the transition, to gain greater insights about yourself, to change course, to grieve. There is no right way, no one answer, and you don’t have to land on a conclusion, whether or not anyone else expects one from you.

Buried Truths and New Circles

This process, let’s call it the “Thirteen Ways of Looking” approach, is a way to manage the ambiguity I discussed in an earlier post. It is a way to begin to make sense of seemingly incomprehensible things, not to discover answers, but to recover truths we lost sight of or buried. Truths get buried regularly I think, like bones, dog-buried, or lost to rock and centuries.

I dreamed last night of blackbirds. They were pulling at my shoulders, picking me up and flying me away. When I looked down I saw that I had been standing on an island that was suddenly engulfed in flames. I don’t know where the blackbirds will take me but I think I’ll be okay. I’ll leave you today with Stevens’s ninth way of looking at a blackbird: “When the blackbird flew out of sight, / It marked the edge / Of one of many circles.”

Love, Cath

 

 

 

On Future-Planning, Free Will, and Fate

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes life forces you to think about it in a very philosophical, free-will-versus-fate sort of way.

When you get divorced, one of the most dislocating, wrenching things you go through is watching the future you had imagined for yourself with your partner being erased. You try to make new plans, but things still seem hazy, at least for a while. You do begin to get your world back in order little by little, though, and you start to think about what life might look like after the children leave for college. And if you date, and if a few dates turn into a relationship, you cautiously begin to imagine your future with someone else. But sometimes these plans too go awry, and the relationship reveals itself to be something other than what you thought it was.

sun rays through the tree leaves and mist
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

When the Future is Foggy

This is where I find myself. The future – however tentatively imagined – once again gradually evaporating like fog as the day warms up and the sun burns it off. At least that is how I have been feeling for the past couple of weeks. But as I sit here watching the fog burn off, I am slowly starting to realize that it wasn’t the future, it was a future, one of many possible futures that could have been made reality. I suppose it all comes down to that philosophical fate versus free will debate. Is our future already written, and all the things we do, the relationships we have, are simply events leading us to a future that was “meant to be,” either in a faith-based sense or in a fairy-tale way?

It seems to me the designation “meant to be,” or the converse construct, “not meant to be,” is where we land at the end of a series of decisions whose consequences we can’t make sense of in any other way. But I’m not buying it.

I think we have a little more control and responsibility than that. In a way, the idea of control is an illusion. You can’t control much of what happens to you in life—the economy, natural disasters, the choices that other people in your life make, etc.—you can only control how you respond to all these things. But we do have control over our own choices, and a responsibility—our mission, should we choose to accept it—to be conscious of those choices, and to learn and grow in response to the consequences of those choices.

And though we have little or no control over the choices of others or random events that wreak havoc in our lives, we can plan for the future. We can decide what we want to see there after the fog lifts. I sort of have to. I’ve learned that I need goals and dreams, something to work toward and something to look forward to, whether or not someone is sharing that journey with me. Whether the events that have led me to this point are random or willed by cosmic forces, whether I have a little control or even less than that, I still find myself searching through the fog, looking for the constants within me, knowing that everything else is an external variable that can and will change.

Searching for the Constants in the Midst of Change

For me one of those constants is, in a way, a variable—it is growth, a desire for growth and openness that yields a range of constantly varying results. And encapsulated in this reaching outward is a search for connection. It is why I write—it is not only about my search for connection, but it is also an offering, a hope that others may similarly locate something that feels like a balm to the isolation that so many of us often experience. And I know that in the future, that is always the direction I want to be moving in, toward connection, and finding familiar, common ground with others. I have other, more concrete dreams for the future as well, like someday owning a cottage up north, and I think having something like that to work toward is as important, though maybe not as important as knowing who I am, and learning more about myself as life and love and years work their magic and shape me.

Micro Choices and Micro Changes

This might be all the sense I can make of things today, all the sorting through sadness and choices and consequences I can do for right now. But I’ll leave you with these final thoughts on choice and control. People often speak of changing the world, of what they can do to make it better, and many have noble, lofty goals in this regard, which are admirable and inspiring. I tend to think of things on a micro level, rather than a macro level. We all change the world in our own way, every day, whether we are conscious of it or not. It is in how we handle conflict with people we love—do we act on an instinct to rage or an inclination to resolve? It is in how we speak to the stranger standing across from us ringing up our groceries. It is in how we handle interactions with coworkers, with friends, with strangers, with animals. It is in the thousands of choices we make every day. My aim is to be conscious of as many of these choices as I can, of the way word and manner and energy and action impact the world, and shape it, hopefully for the better, little by little.

Love, Cath

 

 

 

On Endings and Openness

By Catherine DiMercurio

Endings—prolonged or abrupt—always leave more questions than answers, but they still push you forward.

When I started this blog, it was with a joyful heart, and part of that joy emanated from a relationship that has now arrived at its end. Endings always take me by surprise. My habit, in the wake of an ending, is to dissect, to analyze, to try and understand. It is a way of grieving, and the endpoint—the loss—is always the same. But there are things to glean along the way. You remember the good, you arrive at new understandings about what your boundaries and values are, you learn what you can, if you are willing to look.

Here, in the aftermath of this new heartbreak, that is what I’m trying to do. Learn. Remain open, and open hearted. It’s been a dark week, and I’ve noticed a pattern in the way I cope that began to occur in the wake of my divorce several years ago. Certain types of grief and injury—those related to matters of the heart—make me want to step back and close all the doors and windows. Not to heal, not to grieve, not even as a break from experiencing the flood of emotion. It is simply a closing. Certainly many people respond to endings in a similar way. For me, I’m sure it is a method of self-protection but I find I have to monitor it closely, because it closes down pathways to everything, even to the good things, to laughter and peace. It is probably a necessary part of the process of moving through the ending of a relationship, but I am more aware of this tendency now than I have been in the past. I’ve learned that this closed place is a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there.

Open Windows, Open Heart

There is a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier that ends with this line “And all the windows of my heart / I open to the day.” I find, increasingly, that this is where I want to land at the end of anything: open to the day. While my instincts may initially be to shut all the windows and doors—because there is a kind of reprieve there—it isn’t where I want to live.

I went to the beach alone just before dusk recently. The kids were both working, and I had so much to do. It would have made more sense to mow the lawn or clean the house. But I longed to be by water, to breathe different air. So I drove toward the setting sun. I laid out my blanket, with its stripes parallel to the water. I deposited my book and my reading glasses and my sunglasses, slid out of my sandals, and walked slowly through the warm sand to the water’s edge. It is early in summer and the water is much colder now in mid-June than it will be by the end of August. I waded in, the chill pressing against me until I grew accustomed to it. I floated, and listened, mostly to children’s laughter, and the waves and the wind, the far off chug of a boat motor.

sea black and white sunset beach
Photo by GoaShape – on Pexels.com

Back on my blanket I let the setting sun soak into my skin and I was able to breathe deeply in the way I had been longing to. It felt like respite from all the harsh emotions that had abraded my heart for a week. And I decided to let it be this way, to be reprieve. I decided to let lake water and fading sunlight soothe, and to stop trying to make sense of inexplicable things. In a way, I embraced this as a beginning of whatever is next for me, this evening alone on the beach. It seemed to matter. In the days that followed though, I felt myself sinking like a stone, that having been skipped across the waves, finally lands and steadily makes its way to the bottom. I forgot about feeling buoyed, and about beginning. I forgot until here and now, as I write this, and as I look back on what the last two weeks have been like.

It Takes Everything

So in my endless quest for synthesis I have come to this conclusion: that it takes everything to move forward. It takes shutting down, and it takes opening up, it takes analysis, it takes embracing the ineffable, it takes effort, and it takes surrender. It takes all of these things, every single day. And when the world at large also seems to be falling apart, the personal tragedies we may endure simultaneously seem both insignificant and so full of tumult they are the only things we can focus on. Which is why it takes everything, every day, for all of us.

Love, Cath

On Ambiguity

By Catherine DiMercurio

I think it is human nature to crave clarity; the nature of our world is to offer us, instead, a lot of ambiguity. When I hired in for my current job, the posting included a line about being comfortable with ambiguity. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the latest corporate buzzword, like “agile” or “synergy.” I remember laughing, thinking how silly that sounded on a job posting, and also feeling as though, having gone through a divorce, I’d muddled through so much ambiguity I was a pro at it. But I’m not. I can handle it, I can move through it. I can even fake a positive attitude about it when I have to. Sometimes, it’s not even faking. I can pull it off and accept that the world is simply this way. But often, ambiguity is, for me, a wellspring of stress.

Life and Algebra

In high school, my advanced algebra/geometry teacher encouraged me to go into some math-based profession, to keep taking advanced mathematics in college. I remember telling him, in a manner that was, for me, oddly candid, that I hated math. I was taking the classes the school’s advisor told me to take if I wanted to get into a good college, but I hated math. He told me that I couldn’t hate it and be so good at it. Part of me, he said, must really like it. I thought he was crazy. But when I think of that now, I realize he was a little right. Probably the part I liked was that at the end of ambiguity and confusion, there was a right answer and I could usually find my way there.

One of the worst parts about divorce was the realization—and it hits you in different ways almost daily—that the future you had been not only imagining but cultivating, simply wasn’t going to happen anymore. The erasure of it all is maddening. Talk about ambiguity. Moving forward and coping with that is often easier as time goes on, but sometimes it still feels like a punch in the gut. Building a different future and cultivating new dreams helps a lot, though. So, when I’m told I need to be comfortable working in an ambiguous environment, I think, no problem.

Clarity and Answers Are Not the Same Things

But like algebra, living in ambiguity doesn’t come easy to me. I have to work at it. Not being able to visualize how things are going to work out can feel quite threatening. I had a whole blog post written about dealing with something difficult at work, and how I struggled in the aftermath of knowing a mistake I’d made on the job had made more work and stress for a respected coworker. I agonized over the error.

But as my weekend unfolded, an event occurred that put this work issue in perspective. Those details are not fodder for this forum, but the situation reminded me that we have no choice but to live in ambiguity, that though we may be offered clarity, even finality on one front, this too offers new and uncertain paths that we have no choice but to take. We can’t control what others think about who we are or the choices or effort that we’ve made, and we often will never know what they think. All we can do is try and be our best and be true to ourselves. And this holds true within the workplace and outside of it.

Being who we are takes bravery and thoughtfulness, and if we want our true self to be perceived by those around us, all we can do is try earnestly and openly to keep being who we are. Still, we may have to accept that people’s unfavorable opinions about us have formed not because they have failed to understand us, but because they have accurately seen us for who we are, have understood on some level that which we want others to understand. They may have perceived our truth and still found fault, or a reason to pull away. We may also have to accept that we might never know what others see in us, or believe they know about us. We have to live within the cloudy grey space of not knowing if they got us “right” or if they got it all wrong somehow.

cold snow black and white road
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Understanding all this, living in this reality, is hard work for me. In part, this blog reflects my effort to live with openness and candor and integrity, knowing that in the end, I’m not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I say this in a lighthearted way, searching for silver linings, but when I say it’s hard work, I don’t mean the kind that makes you sweat with effort and feel good about it when you’re done. I mean the kind that hurts when you are doing it and never feels much better because there is always more of it. Maybe there is no victory in this work but there is balm for weariness in knowing ourselves better, in being our better selves through the effort.

Love, Cath