On Incongruity and Metaphor (Or, On Not Giving Up on Yourself)

By Catherine DiMercurio

If you follow this blog, you know my approach: I write about things that are going on with me—in my head, and in my heart, and in my life—in the hopes that it reaches someone who might be going through something similar. Someone who is thinking/feeling the same thing and feeling crazy or isolated or scared because of it. I try to say quietly and loudly and slantwise and head-on, you are not alone, you are not alone, you are not alone. Because it is so easy to feel that way. To think that. To be trapped in the thought patterns that keep us feeling like we have no one who can relate to us. Writers are often told to write the book they want to read or that they feel is missing from the world. While I do keep trying to do that with my fiction, I’m also trying to do that here: write the words that I feel should be out in the world.

This may or may not be true, but I imagine there are plenty of people in the world who have long felt secure in themselves, who aren’t troubled by anxiety or depression, who might stumble on my blogs and wonder what is wrong with that person or geez, another one about self-trust? Or, why isn’t she over some of this stuff already?

But I’m writing for the people who feel things deeply, who have maybe have given too much of themselves away and in doing so, created on their heart a soft surface where blows leave marks that last a long time.  

I do feel like a broken record sometimes though. I wonder if I’m ruminating too much. I’m weighing all the advice about feeling your feelings and processing things and trying to make sense of it all and figuring out what is next, and when, and how, and why. It’s a lot, isn’t it? Life is a lot, for everyone.

This week was full of difficult anniversaries of things and a terrible dentist appointment and if it hadn’t been for a couple of texts, messages, and phone calls, along with an enormously satisfying throwing session in pottery, I would have struggled a lot more than I did. Though, the week did not end without tears.

I realize sometimes that I almost let pottery slip through my fingers. It would have been easy in the beginning to do the thing I used to do: not try, or not follow through on something that I knew I was not going to be good at right away, or at all. I was very discouraged that initial semester.

I think if I had started pottery even just two years ago, I might have given up in those early months. Might have powered miserably through the first semester and never taken another class. Might have told myself “You’re never going to get the hang of this. You’re too uncoordinated. It’s too hard.”

When I was feeling frustrated and like I wasn’t learning fast enough during that first semester, I bought a wheel, a cheap model I ordered online. I practiced at home. I reduced the amount of time I was “failing” publicly. In a way, I outsmarted myself. I knew the biggest obstacles to continuing with pottery were the feelings that everyone was better at this (and many were; there were a lot of returning students) and the huge—though needless—embarrassment I felt that I was slow to acquire skills and techniques everyone seemed to possess already. Even the other new people seemed to learn faster than me. But practicing at home, privately messing up and starting over and over, was what enabled me to get more comfortable with the clay, and with myself. In a way, I was battling a lot in myself. There was a part of me who desperately wanted to keep doing this, keep trying, get better. Keep playing. And there was the uncomfortable, anxious, critical part of me who fought back. That part is vulnerable and self-protective, and I have been working so hard to heal it. I couldn’t tell myself to just toughen up and push through, though. Pottery—or, a deep longing to explore this medium—both encouraged and enabled me to have these two disparate parts of myself start working together.

First, I had to stop telling myself never. I stopped saying, “you’ll never figure this out; you’ll never be good at this.” Instead, I’d ask people how long they’d been doing pottery. I’d gauge how long it might take me to feel more proficient, and I introduced the term yet into the way I talked to myself about my efforts. I haven’t learned that yet. I haven’t mastered that yet.

So what was the difference? How was I finally able to get to a point of mediating between these two competing parts of myself, both very childlike, one wounded and wary, one playful and enthusiastic? How did I not fall into the usual trap of avoiding something I couldn’t excel at quickly? It’s hard to pin it down, but I think one reason this lesson finally “took”—after years of similar internal battles—was because of the things I’d been learning about myself after my last breakup. I told myself a lot of things in that relationship that did not serve me. One of them being that I had to make it work because I was 50. I had reached the cutoff point I’d given myself. I didn’t want to start over with someone new. I tried so hard to mold myself into who I needed to be to make that relationship work, except, that person was a shadow-me. That person couldn’t, or wouldn’t express what she needed, and felt like she ought to not need anything at all, since needy was bad, right? But when it began to feel all too incongruous with who I was, I talked myself into changing course. I talked with my partner about what I needed and hoped for, and it soon became clear that we weren’t good fit after all.

One of the lessons I learned from that experience, the one that helped me stay in pottery, was to stop saying things to myself that make things worse. Just as I needed to stop telling myself to “make it work” in that relationship, I also need to stop telling myself that I’d never be able to center the clay or pull up walls or make a cylinder. I needed to stop saying that I’d never be able to do it or never be good enough.

At the end of the relationship, the incongruous feeling I was having centered around the me I knew I was, and the me I was telling myself I needed to be to make the relationship work. By the time I was taking that first semester of pottery class, I was starting to get more and more comfortable with listening to myself, to watching out for what made me feel less like myself (whether it was my own words or someone else’s). What was incongruous that first semester was the part of me saying give up. Most of me didn’t want to give up. But I had to have a long, difficult talk with that other part of myself who kept saying I should.

[Disclaimer: there are obviously times when it makes sense to try with everything you’ve got to make a relationship work! There are plenty of relationships worth fighting for. The ones that are worth that effort are those in which you do not have to be someone you aren’t for it to work. Yes, both parties should be willing to compromise, but you compromise about preferences, choices, behaviors, not who you are, and not the essentials of what you need. Some key questions (among many) to ask yourself: Is it safe to be myself? Am I becoming less of who I am in this relationship? And are my efforts to improve the relationship being matched and reciprocated? No relationship is worth disappearing over, and both people should be giving it everything they’ve got.]

Sometimes in my current pottery class, I still get overwhelmed with how much I don’t know. Sometimes it feels like beautiful, endless, possibility and other times I feel small and uncreative and like I can’t tap into whatever it is I need to in order to grow, to feel like I’m as much of an artist as the other people in the studio. I still feel like I’m learning rudimentary skills. But after a great throwing day, where I pushed myself and made some larger pieces, I took a look at everything I threw and thought, I’m a potter. I’ve said it before, even put it in a dating profile, but this was the first time I’d thought it and felt it. It took eleven months to get to that point, and it has been worth the effort.

I love it when a metaphor presents itself to me. I used to say that running is a metaphor for everything, and it is. So is pottery. The world is full of metaphors rushing to in to help you understand the meaning of effort and beauty and reward and . . . self. How we return to ourselves is one of the most important journeys we can ever embark on. Wishing you peace and insight as you find your journey, and the metaphors that become your maps.

Love, Cath

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