On Playfulness and Practice

By Catherine DiMercurio

In the days that have passed since I returned from the camping trip I wrote about in my last post, I have struggled with exactly what I feared would happen. When I was spending my days in the woods or on the beach, feeling my anxiety get up and take a long walk away from me, I wondered what would happen when I returned home to the things that typically trouble me. Would I be able to hang on to that feeling of being both weightless and grounded, or would I get pulled back under the worry? I wondered if my mindset on the trip meant that I had turned a corner, arrived at someplace new, someplace I could stay and set up camp, so to speak. Or was it temporary, just vacation brain, and nothing more?

While I believe I sort of “leveled up” in my thinking, in my ability to acknowledge my full self and to lean into self-trust in a way I haven’t been able to fully embrace for a painfully long time, I have also realized, in the days since my return, that living in that mindset takes practice. Now that I’ve been there and know how it feels and understand how I got there, I realize that it will take effort to find my way back to that way of thinking sometimes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about practice lately. With pottery, it is easy to understand the importance of practice. At any point you might have a day where it feels like you never learned a single thing. Once I began to be able to center my clay on the wheel consistently, for example, I thought I had reached a certain level. I had this, my muscles had developed the memory they needed to always be able to execute the task. But, I learned quickly that it doesn’t work that way, and that practice is as much about building muscle memory as it is about teaching yourself how to fail. How to not get thrown when you can’t throw. How to make practice feel like play. When my brain insists that I need to accomplish something right now, so that I can prove to my instructor, my classmates, or myself, that I’m learning, that I deserve to be here, that I am a potter, I get frustrated with myself. I create pressure and urgency that impacts my ability to throw the way I want to. I get embarrassed if anyone notices, or mentions that I seem stressed. Then the embarrassment (shame by another name) compounds that feeling of failure. It is difficult, but I am learning that I must practice changing my mindset before I reach that point of frustration. And I do know how to do this, even if I’m not always able to execute. When I haven’t created a sense of urgency for myself, I’m able to say, after messing something up, oh, well, it’s just practice. And I believe it.

A writing friend and I were talking about this recently too. I realized that playful practice is the point of the writing prompts we’re experimenting with. It’s about being open to creativity, and urging your brain to set aside the frustration. You just write without judgement. You are not writing for a deadline or a purpose other than exploration. It’s just play. And unless you are trying to win something that’s all practice needs to be.

The only reason why I have created pressure around the notion of practice is out of habit, out of a cultivated perfectionism predicated on a lot of wrong ideas about love and worth. The benefits of practice, in terms of progress toward your goal, are more easily evidenced in the absence of urgency. At least for me. As soon as there is the pressure of time—I need to learn this faster, be able to demonstrate progress sooner—whatever I’m practicing gets worse instead of better.

Do we practice to improve, or do we practice because we enjoy something, and improvement is a side benefit?  

And how does this relate to being able to maintain a healthy mindset and sense of identity like the one I found/embraced/earned when I was camping on the shores of Lake Michigan? Cultivating that mindset is something else that benefits from playful practice. It’s hard not to think about consequences. If I have a bad throwing day or write something that’s terrible, it does not matter at all. But if I fail to approach my mental health in the right way, the consequences are more serious. My anxiety starts to call the shots, and it changes who I am, how I want to be. If I don’t approach it with a light touch, all I can think of are the consequences, the what-ifs: what if I can’t get back there—to myself, to self-trust. What if I forgot how?

Here again, play is the answer. Play is the way back. Play is how I found myself. All I did after the “work” of setting up camp was to listen to myself and do what sounded fun. The challenging hike was something I was anxious about at first, but aside from the bear scare, it was an uplifting and joyful experience. So was waking up to the sunrise over the lake and listening to the waves. So were campfires, and games of solitaire in the tent while it rained, and reading book after book on the beach, and swimming, and rock hunting, and more woodland wandering.

Being playful is something I need to practice. So today, after a stressful week, I decided that nothing bad would happen if I didn’t sweep up the dog hair or clean the gutters, and I took myself to the beach. I read my book. I ate marshmallows and toasted almonds. I swam and waded and people-watched. i watched the clouds and the sea gulls.

Photo by Nick Nu00fau00f1ez on Pexels.com

I have spent so much time over the years doing “the work.” That is, trying to understand and to heal and to grow. I’ve had experiences that seemed like detours or roadblocks, but they were all part of the process, in their own way. But in all that time in my head, thinking and reconsidering and exploring new perspectives, it was easy to overlook the point of being playful. I try to be open to and observant of joy, but I don’t always make opportunities to welcome it, to seek it, grow it. I’ve always had a bit of a Cinderella mentality in that I usually feel like I don’t get to do something enjoyable unless I’ve finished my chores, been productive, done my work. But it is in play, in doing the things we find enjoyable, however silly or small, that we can get in touch with a safe and happy place within ourselves. And when we feel safe and happy, we trust ourselves, we are buoyant, relaxed. There is no anchor of anxiety pulling us down and holding us back, holding us under.

Who would have thought that you would have to practice being playful? Not everyone does, but if you’re learning or re-learning this too, I see you. Have fun! Your very own kind of fun.

Love, Cath

On Lake and Forest Magic, and Self-Reliance

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes, water and woods work magic on your soul.

I planned the vacation I could afford. Camping, no hotel room. Driving far, but not so far that gas prices made it unfeasible. Wonderful family and friends to watch the dogs, so I didn’t have to double the vacation price by paying for dog sitters too. I have traveled alone but this was my first time vacationing alone. I have camped before, but this was the first time I camped alone. I have hiked alone before, but this was the first time I was navigating unfamiliar territory alone. This is all to say that as I headed out for the trip, I had some concerns. My anxiety was stacked up inside me like the clothes in my slightly overpacked duffel.

After a seven-ish-hour drive that included some stretches of blinding rain, I set up camp at a Michigan campground in the Upper Peninsula on Green Bay, where I was about thirty minutes from Wisconsin, in a different time zone, and perfectly situated to watch the sun rise over Lake Michigan. As I set up, not long after a downpour and just before a light sprinkle, I felt deliberate, focused. Later, I would recall what was absent from my mind at the time: reminiscences about past trips, those I had taken with my kids, and before that, those we three had taken with their father, before the divorce.

Those memories did bubble to the surface, but they were more like documentary images and less like melancholy stories. There were certainly moments throughout the trip where I fondly recalled other trips the kids and I had taken, moments where I did miss them. But even these moments were drained of longing and rumination. My brain had begun to work differently than usual. I guess that’s why it’s important to break out of our routines and habits sometimes.

For the first couple of days, I found that relaxing was different when I pursued it and chose it, instead of crashing into at the end of a workday when it feels like I can’t do anything else. I chose activities that I was drawn to in childhood summers—like reading big stacks of library books, and playing solitaire; I chose activities that I knew I liked but associated with a past relationship and that I wanted to reclaim as mine—like doing crossword puzzles; and I chose things that I’ve enjoyed for as long as I can remember—like hanging out at the beach, swimming, looking for rocks, lazing in the sun, and going on rambling woodland hikes. I ate when I was hungry, I slept when I was sleepy.

I was, however, anxious about the longer hike I was planning. Navigating the trails at the campground, despite some confusing signage, was relatively easy, as it was situated between Lake Michigan and M35, the state highway. It was always easy to know where you were in relation to those things. But the state forest campground was different. The Cedar River equestrian campground consists of a handful of rustic sites with paddocks and a small network of trails through the state forest. On the third day of camping, I  followed a dirt road to the gravel lot at the entrance to camp/trail area, and found the parking lot empty. I checked that I had what I needed in my pack and set out, having studied the trail map one more time. There was a gravel road into the campsites, and beyond the camping area, the woodland trails began. It was on that roughly ½-mile stretch that led from the parking lot that I noticed what I thought to be bear scat. I had read a bit about what to do in the event that you see a bear, and I had read that encounters were rare. A little prickle of panic ran through me. I had stuffed my keys, which I carry on a lanyard, into my pack, but at this point I pulled them out to wear around my neck, hoping that the jangling noise would alert the bear, if there was one, that I was around, and keep him or her away from the path.

My noisy rambling did startle some deer, who crossed the path in front of me. It had recently rained and their footprints were everywhere. And some horse poop here and there. The trails didn’t look like they got frequent use, but they had had recent use.

As I came upon each trail marker, I snapped a picture of the marker and took a screenshot of the time. The trail map indicated mileage, so I had a rough estimate of how long it should take me to make it from one point to another, so I figured that would be a useful gauge if I ever started to feel like I had taken the wrong path. This was largely unnecessary, but it was a precaution that comforted me. Unlike some of the well-used nature areas I hike closer to home, these trails were not intersected by numerous side paths that typically make me wonder if I’m on the right one. Nor were the markers so spread out that I ever felt as though I’d taken a wrong turn. In that regard, it was good, confidence-building foray into solo hiking. The only part that gave me pause was when I reached the section of the trail that extended into a large grassy area. The grasses were long and the trail very hard to make out, as they had been mostly grown over. I also didn’t love the idea of traipsing through knee-high grass and possibly having to deal with a crazy tick situation. It was quite warm and sunny that day and the cool shady forest seemed much more appealing than the broad, exposed grassy plain. I turned and backtracked, and tacked on a couple of the interior loops instead.

I was feeling a lot of things at this point, all of them good. The anxiety I’d had about the hike had melted. I felt strong and capable, peaceful and curious. The Cedar River itself was dark and still. The pines and cedars produced such a clean, sweet scent. I could not identify the birds by their calls, but there were plenty of them, some singing and chirping, some squawking. Eventually, as I made my way out of the woods, I once again passed what I was now sure was bear scat. I’d seen enough of the horse poop in the woods to confirm what I’d suspected from the beginning. A few minutes later, I heard a loud crash in the trees. I had seen no other people on the trail or in the camp, and it was not a windy day when a branch might have fallen, and deer don’t make that much noise. I froze and looked carefully around me but did not see any movement in the woods. I remembered reading that if you do encounter a bear, you shouldn’t run, nor should you turn your back on it. All I could really do was pick up my pace and try to make a lot of noise as I headed out of there.

At the car, I kept an eye on the woods and changed out of my hiking boots into a pair of comfortable sandals. The black flies had come out so I didn’t linger long at the car. As I drove away, I had the sensation of something heavy inching itself off of my chest and slinking away. Something heavy that had been there for a long, long time. Deep breaths felt different. More expansive. Sweeter, as if I was still inhaling what the trees had exhaled. I know that compared to what a lot of people do, this six-mile hike alone in the woods was no big thing. But for me, it was about facing a collection of fears, and I had done it successfully. I felt at once elated and grounded. It is a feeling that I’ve had in the past, but only with other people, typically with men I’d once been in love with, when I experienced a feeling both of being safe and exhilarated. Being able to cultivate this feeling on my own, to give this gift to myself, was significant, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt that way by myself. The whole trip made me feel this way, but it ignited on this hike.

We all experience challenges in our lives differently, so I’m not sure how relatable this experience might be. But because of some of the events of my past, I have over the years developed such self-doubt and self-criticism that life has been very confusing and painful at times, both in relationships and out of them. I’ve worked so hard to dissect it all. To understand all the reasons this came to be, and to try and untangle these knots. To have this experience of feeling safe within my own skin, comfortable and pleased with myself, happy, eager, curious, and calm in my headspace, my heart . . . I wasn’t sure if it was possible for me. Long ago, I read Emerson’s Self-Reliance, in which he says, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Is this what it felt like? How long had it been since I’ve had this feeling? I couldn’t remember. This wasn’t just about trusting your gut, this was about trusting who you are.

And as the trip continued, my brain continued to empty itself of anxiety. It pulled away from me the way the waves crashing against the rocks near my campsite were pulled back into the lake. At the beach, the water was clear and cold, and I had the sensation of it taking something from me that I didn’t need or want anymore. The lake was big enough to hold it without hurting anyone, this prickly darkness I’ve carried. I felt both the warm water near the surface and the colder, deeper water that came from far away.

I’m not a great swimmer and deep water is at once fascinating and scary. I like to be near it but not too immersed in it. At this beach, and all public beaches on Lake Michigan, and the other Great Lakes as well, there are signs about dangerous currents. This beach had a flag system so that the safety, or lack thereof, could be communicated to potential swimmers by someone reading the conditions. There was another sign about the fatalities that had occurred. In short, I did not take the risks lightly. Maybe it was for these reasons, though we only had green flag days, that the beach was often deserted. Maybe it was because the temperatures were a little cooler than most people like for beach days. But I reveled in the lake, grateful the waves were calm enough that the beach remained open. I would hike a mile and half from my rustic tent site, past the modern campground, to the swimming beach most days of the trip, and hang out for hours, reading my library books, doing crossword puzzles, and jumping into the water whenever the sun warmed me too much.

The lake is magic. I felt like a creature with dormant or depleted powers who was close enough to the source to have them rejuvenate. I know that sounds crazy and I’ve been reading too many books about witches and fables. But I haven’t felt that myself in so, so long. When I took pictures of myself, I could see it in my face, the recognition, as if I had returned after a long, blurry journey. It was as if I’d happened upon an old, familiar friend I hadn’t seen in a while.

I don’t recall if I’ve ever spent a birthday alone before, but I turned 52 on a sunny Sunday morning sitting on a rock, gazing at the lake, and enjoying the sun. I felt good. I made decadent birthday pancakes for lunch, after spending the morning at the beach. I chocked them full of chocolate chunks, leftover from chocolate bars I hadn’t used for s’mores. I topped them with vegan butter and maple syrup and cherry jam.

This trip was a meditation, in a way, or, how I imagine mediation should be. I want to say it was effortless, and it was, after a few days. But at first, I had to work at it, just like when I sit down on my yoga mat and try to let my thoughts drift by, acknowledging them but not attending to them. Most of the time it feels so effortful, and often ineffective. I had to keep asking myself what I wanted to do next, keep checking in. A hike? Sit by the water? Read? Eat? As the week progressed, I soon found myself moving toward one activity or another, or no activity, and having fewer conscious thoughts about what I was going to do. I found my rhythm. Things felt natural. Familiar.

So much has changed in my life since my divorce, has kept changing. I’ve had major shifts and false starts, and trying over, and over. And so often, in the course of adapting and readapting, my circumstances felt so unfamiliar, and I felt so unfamiliar. I’d remain in relationships flawed in all the wrong ways for far too long, hoping that at some point we’d arrive at the place where it felt familiar. Safe. I kept looking for myself in the face of other people.

I’ve learned that that which is familiar is not always healthy or safe. I also realize now how vital it is to continue this journey toward feeling familiar and safe to myself. To be the source of that. I’ve always tried to provide that in relationships and always expected it in return, never realizing the impact its absence was having within me. I don’t know if I’m there, because everything shifts and changes so rapidly, and progress gets eroded. But I feel as though I’m closer than I have been in a long, long time.

Love, Cath

On Weeds and Water and Honeycomb Hearts

By Catherine DiMercurio

When I started this blog, I described it this way: “This is the chronicle of a journey many of us find ourselves on — the search for meaning in all the things that break our hearts and all the things that make them whole again.”

All my life, I’ve had this sense that searching for meaning and purpose was something I needed to do. Something I did do, whether or not I wanted to. It just happened. Just like some brains are intrinsically focused on the mechanics of how things work, mine is and was focused on what things mean. Not just what do they mean for me, but what do they mean cosmically. As in, why is the world this way instead of that way, or what does this particular detail mean within the larger context of the world, the universe.

The grasping toward our understanding of our place in the universe necessarily encompasses a grasping toward an understanding of the universe itself. I am ill-equipped to do this, save for a couple of philosophy courses in college.

Helpfully (?), the world we have built as humans is focused on goals and milestones, so that my perpetual and at times frantic efforts to understand the cosmos were redirected toward practical things like education, marriage, parenthood. I poured my search for larger meaning into finding granular meaning in my choices and pursuits. When I became a mother, though, I felt as though these two separate, higher- and lower-level searches had merged. Everything clicked, in a way. I felt cosmically connected to these two souls, and also, in a very real way, I was responsible for their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. Motherhood was rarely easy, and I remember being surprised and disappointed that it didn’t come more naturally to me. I thought I would understand intrinsically how to soothe a crying baby, or make peace with a frustrated toddler, or advise an angsty teen. But the work, as challenging as it was, felt hugely important. I never regarded the children themselves as mine but they were in my care; the work was mine; the honor of raising them was mine.

I was writing too, during these years, and got a novel published when the kids were six and four. I felt like this was it. Life was what it was supposed to be. I was doing it: pursuing a meaningful creative/professional goal and being a good mom and a good wife.

Later, after I became a single mom, the way I parented changed, but what hadn’t changed was that the kids were my number one focus. They were fourteen and twelve at the time of the divorce. There was a lot of parenting left to do. But last summer was the last time the last child lived at home. The day he left, my frantic search for meaning ignited again. It just happened. I knew that I was still needed by and connected to my kids as their mother, but everything was different now. And we all knew it.

I’ve spent the past year trying to better understand who I am now, and who I was, and who I want to be. I’ve tried to fashion that into my purpose. I’ve focused on my writing, I’ve focused on dog training, I’ve focused on learning a new skill/art with my pottery. All of these are good things, and I’ve grown and I will continue to pursue them.

But at the same time, all these things feel more like places to channel my energy but less like the sense of purpose I possessed when mothering was a daily activity.  

I am trying to be patient with myself.

I know that now that the twenty years of nitty gritty parenting are over, I tend to suffuse that time with a certain glow. Still, I haven’t forgotten all the difficult parts: when I felt like a horrible mother and that I was ruining everything for everyone; when I just wanted to leave for a little while because it was too hard and I never got a chance to even finish a thought or have three seconds to breathe alone; days when I was quite certain that one or both of the kids hated me and always would; times when I didn’t know how any of us would ever feel healed and whole again, and the terrifying realization that we could all drown if I could not figure out how to inflate the raft with my exhausted, heart-broken breaths. No one has forgotten how hard it was.

But still, looking back, I see how the sense of deep purpose I always felt—that strange, alchemical comingling of love and purpose, duty and wonder—helped get us through. I say helped because I did not do it alone. I had friends and family I began to learn to lean on. And my kids are stronger and more resilient than I’ll ever be. I’m proud of them and all the work that they’ve done. And I’m proud of myself, and as a person who has struggled with self-confidence and self-trust, that is a huge thing for me to believe, to voice.

And now in this moment, there is a freedom here, and it is taking up a larger space than I expected it to. It isn’t just about time, as in, now I have more time for writing, or for exploring new things. It’s different, multi-dimensional, so unfamiliar and so full of something, power? that I feel uneasy stepping into it. Within, I imagine, is all the me-ness that there wasn’t much time or energy for before.

I’ve been trying to think of the best way to describe this new sensation, this freedom that seems to be taking up more space than I thought was available. The way large, leafy weeds don’t just take up the space allowed by the crack in the driveway pavement, they expand the space. But it feels more like my heart is a honeycomb that keeps being added on to by something busy inside me, and the result is I keep recognizing myself in different places. Do you ever have that feeling where you look at a photo of yourself and it doesn’t look like all the other curated images you or someone else has taken? You look at it and think there I am. Or, do you ever that moment, upon arriving at a location where something clicks into place, and you are suddenly relaxed and energized all at once, and you think this. I needed this. For me that photo was the one I took of myself at the pottery studio. And that place is usually by large body of water.

Photo by David Hablu00fctzel on Pexels.com

Lately I’m experiencing all of that, more and more. It feels akin to the existential wandering my soul did when I was a child. I have a very distinct memory (which I’ve written about, here) of trying to understand my self-ness within this existence, as if part of me could comprehend I was something larger and freer than what my current body was containing, and I wanted to have both, the knowledge of who I was in this time and place, and the knowledge of the larger self that was struggling to understand its physical containment in this vessel, this me. It’s like that now. It’s like I’m close to getting it. I am trying to relax and let it all align.

I used to think that maybe I had to let go of one thing—a past version of myself—before I could step into the next iteration. But maybe that’s not the case. Maybe we get closer and closer to being able to hold all the versions of ourselves in place at a time. Maybe we are the honeycombs, and the bees, and the honey all at once.

Love, Cath

On Slow Dancing and Wet Sand

By Catherine DiMercurio

Yes, but are you happy? is a question that we chase each other with. We want it for our loved ones, maybe more than we even want it for ourselves. It certainly means something different for each person. I have long wondered, is the “point” of life to be happy? Is it to have purpose, to make the world a better place? To simply survive it? Is it something else? This of course leads down a philosophical road. Depending on your larger belief systems about how we got here and what happens after, the question of the “point” of it all is going to be answered differently. But certainly happiness is something we all want.

Recently, after a period of feeling quite good for a long stretch, a collection of troublesome things happened and I found myself slipping toward the edges of the dark mental space that it can be hard to climb out of. Is happiness real if it goes away when life gets tough? Why does it feel so ephemeral for some of us, and others seem to find it wherever they go?

I used to think that happiness meant spending time with the people you love, but when the people you love exit your life, or they live far away, or the people are your adult children, building their own separate lives, you realize that if your happiness depends on time spent with anyone but yourself, you’ll never be happy.

So, then, is happiness doing the things you enjoy? Pursuing what you love? This seems obvious. Of course, we are happy when we are doing the things we enjoy, but how do we retain that sense of happiness when we are done doing the thing, when the hike has ended, the garden planted and weeded, the sunset on the beach viewed? How do we retain it when we are making dentist appointments or paying for expensive car repairs?

I am not saying that I expect or even want to be happy all the time. There are times when other emotions can and should be foremost in our hearts. I’m talking about happiness in terms of a calm, centered peace that we can hang on to when life gets bumpy, that we can find the path back to once we’ve dealt with some of the more serious things that life throws at us.

If happiness is that peaceful, centered state, is it accurate to say it is a reprieve from anxiety/fear/doubt? And how do we cultivate that? How does anyone, if daily there are battles with physical or mental health, or with financial woes, or any number of things that rattle the calm, that busy us and keep us buzzing and unable to be still and settled?

And some days, sadness feels like thick wet sand, cold, gritty, clinging.

I’m trying to learn how to process heavy emotions. To slow dance with them and listen to what they are trying to tell me.

Photo by Mathias Reding on Pexels.com

The trick is to know when to stop. My old habit when I’m feeling that deep down tug of sadness like there’s an anchor inside, is to sink, stay with it, fall into myself. Here in the dark, I can see that the enemy of happiness is not exactly sorrow, but fear of future sorrow. It is the thought that maybe everything won’t be okay after all.

I think of how future-focused I’ve always been. Not in a sensible way like retirement planning. But, I’ve always had the same question thrumming through me, for as long as I can remember: “But everything is going to be okay, right?” I suppose it is time I start asking myself what I meant by “everything” and “okay.”

This blog has been largely about my path forward since my divorce, the ups and downs of it all, single parenting, relationships. And since ups and downs are universal, I hoped that by writing about mine, you could think about yours, and we could connect that way, cultivate contemplation, and in so doing, co-create a more deliberate way of moving through this world and coping with its challenges and celebrating its joys. Help each other to feel less alone, which is certainly another kind of happiness.  And I have written here about the aftermath of marriage but I rarely talk about my marriage itself. I can tell you this: when I was married, whenever I asked that question to myself, “is everything going to be okay?”, I knew the answer. I knew everything would be okay because I was with the person I wanted to spend my life with.

Before I was divorced, I didn’t think too much about what it meant for people. It was something that happened to other people. So, when it happened to me, and in all the ways it happened—and it happens differently for everyone—one of the biggest inversions to my world view and sense of self was this idea that the future as I had imagined it was erased. And somehow, I felt erased, too. Everything would not be okay, at least, not in the ways I had imagined and hoped.

This past year, since my most recent breakup, I have realized that this part of my journey is trying to get that “everything’s going to be okay” feeling on my own. To take time to slow dance with that. Feeling like everything is going to be okay means that you have an absence of fear about future sorrow, or, more accurately, you have confidence that you will handle the future sorrow and make everything okay, in time. One of the things I’m trying to remember is that no matter how badly I want to figure out if future-me is going to be okay, there are things I can’t know, can’t predict. And the only way that future version of myself is going to be okay with whatever life throws at her is if I figure out how to be okay now. Because if I can do it now, then I can do it then. And what I fail to do so regularly is to realize that I have done it. I am doing it.

Sometimes I feel like the world gets meaner every day and I’m no match for it. Just me and my hokey dreams trying to feel like I’ve got things figured out enough to feel “okay.” But the more we talk about these things, the more we can help each other find paths to “okay” and “happy.” Maybe we can slow dance with the light emotions too, not just the heavy ones, slow dance with joy, slow dance with each other, feel the cool comfort of wet sand instead of a dark pull. And maybe we can create a ripple effect and gradually wash away some of the meanness and be a match for this cruel world together.

Love, Cath

On Elemental Lessons, Love, and Good-Messy

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the most basic lessons are the hardest to learn.

Sometimes I think the best in the shower. In my soul, I’m a water person, though this body can’t swim very well. But whenever I’m around water, I’m calmer. Recently, in the shower, it occurred to me that it is almost the one-year anniversary of the ending of a relationship. It was a relationship that was hard to let go of, in spite of the fact that it needed to end, and I got to thinking that I seem to have more anniversaries of things that ended than things that began. Not long ago, that thought would have sunk me, at least for a few days. I would have ruminated, and found ways to feel increasingly worse about myself. But standing there in the water, after a year of becoming more in tune with myself, my next thought was this (and yes, I do address myself in the second person sometimes): Wait. Are you really saying that you think you have more to mourn than to celebrate?

My immediate answer to myself was no, but part of me still wanted to tally, to dig into hurt and remember it. We get used to making ourselves feel terrible sometimes. For a lot of reasons. But I have spent the last year looking at those reasons, my past, my deeper past, and learning. And in this moment, I understood that it is natural for me to have a lot of emotions around this time of year about the ending of that relationship, and that having those feelings did not have to translate into a trip down the rabbit hole. That’s progress.

Some of that progress can be attributed to the pottery studio. I feel as though I’ve been on an incredible journey when I think of the first several classes back in January. I pushed myself way out of my comfort zone, not only in trying something new, but in hauling myself out of my cozy house in deep dark winter for a 7 to 10 p.m. class with strangers. I am definitely a morning person, so I knew one of my obstacles was going to be my own fatigue at this point in the day. Optimal learning and creative time for me happens much earlier in the day. And there were a lot of other obstacles, one being that physically, I am not very coordinated, and hand-eye coordination is pretty important when you are wheel-throwing.

I was not prepared for how challenging the experience would be, for how frustrated I would feel. I have no poker face, and even when I’m trying to have a neutral outward demeanor, it is plain for the world to see when I am struggling. Though the class was different from any that I’d ever taken, my brain slipped into student-mode where the usual process was: work hard, study, succeed. In the past, doing well in school meant that the people around me were happy (teachers, parents), and it allowed me the opportunity to excel at something, since it wasn’t going to be in the realm of sports, or anything social.

But, I struggled. Class after class, I felt clumsy and awkward and self-conscious. I had almost no control over what the clay was doing and trying to understand the relationship between the movement of the wheel and how my hands were interacting with the clay seemed like a mystery that I couldn’t unravel. There were too many factors—the wheel speed, the moisture level of the clay, the pressure, placement, and movement of each and every finger on both hands, my posture. I was certain the other new people were already better than me. I thought about quitting. A lot. I even bought a cheap-ish pottery wheel so I could practice at home. It is easier to fail without anyone watching. I wanted only to get a little better between classes so when I sat down in the studio it would be evident that I was making progress. I wanted so badly to be perceived as someone who worked hard, and if my work did not show evidence of that, how would anyone know?

And I did make progress, in my own epically slow way. But I was doing so out of some sort of ancient ache to prove myself, to insist on some kind of worthiness I wanted others to recognize in me even when I routinely overlooked it in myself. Part of my pottery journey has been to trace this powerful need, which has shaped (malformed) so many relationships, back to its roots. This work is not done, as the work of truly understanding ourselves and making peace with it all never is.

Even though I felt like I wasn’t progressing fast enough, my instructor was so good at underscoring how difficult it is to learn any new art form. I remember getting frustrated at the wheel, trying to accomplish something that wasn’t working out. I had a poorly centered lump of clay in front of me that I’d been able to open up enough to begin to pull up the walls. She was standing near, talking me through it, and I said something like, “I just can’t. . . .” I was unable to finish the sentence, because I felt like none of it was working. I couldn’t do any of it. And she replied, “And it’s what? Your third class?” She taught me to embrace wherever it was that I was in this journey. If something turned out wonky, and I could get it off the wheel, I could still practice trimming and glazing. It was all part of the process.

Photo by Regiane Tosatti on Pexels.com

That was kind of a turning point for me. After that, some fresh ideas began to make themselves known in my brain. Couldn’t I just learn and play and grow? Trying to force progress wasn’t working. And feeling tense internally was something that found its way into the clay. Everything was going to happen on my own timeline. And there was no grade. There was no metric by which to measure failure or success, only those that I imposed upon myself. Doors and windows flew open inside me. Soon, I began to feel energized and creative and good-messy, and suddenly, when I thought of all there was to learn, I saw the future blossoming in front of me, whereas only weeks before, when I thought of how much I didn’t know, I’d felt overwhelmed.

The whole experience thus far has reshaped the way I look at myself. It is shocking to me that learning how to throw and work with clay is revealing so much that has nothing to do with clay. I think because I was already doing some of this work, the experience simply shoved open doors whose locks I’d spent some time jimmying open.

To some friends and family, I’ve tentatively equated my evolving feelings about pottery to falling in love. I say tentatively because it seems a strange thing to admit. But what I’m beginning to comprehend is that what is happening is that I’m falling in love with myself. Sometimes it takes us so, so long to learn elemental lessons. And sometimes it takes the elements—earth, water, air, fire—to teach us.

Love, Cath

On Plans, and Doubts, and Dandelions

By Catherine DiMercurio

I awoke on a recent summery May morning to a cool breeze sighing through the open window and the smell of someone’s backyard woodfire still clinging to the air. It felt peaceful, but despite this fine context my first thoughts of the day were despairing ones. They were emotion-thoughts more than word-thoughts. I anticipated the coming day and recalled the previous one, wondering vaguely what I added to the world that had value. Thoughts like these result in anxiety and restlessness for me, and managing those emotions means I have to pep talk myself about what I contribute, what matters, what I’m grateful for, etc. It seemed a bit early in the morning for an existential crisis, but truth be told, I’ve been thinking about such things as long as I can remember. What is the point of all this, I wonder, often. Not just why am I here, but why are any of us? But given that we are, what should we be doing?

We live in a capitalist society in which many of us have internalized the notion that value and worth are tied to what we produce, and what we accumulate. To counter that, a whole culture has grown up around the idea that our personal value is tied not to those material things, but what we’ve done to make the world a better place.

Another way of looking at our personal worth centers on the love we’ve created in the world. Who we love, who loves us. For a while, this perspective really worked for me, but children grow up and move away, relationships dissolve, and there are plenty of people who haven’t felt loved, or haven’t had the opportunities to find and create love, and it doesn’t seem fair to tie personal worth to things that are often beyond our control.

Some people don’t question these things much because they have found answers in their faith. I was raised Catholic and my thoughts on why I’m not anymore could fill a book, which I likely will never write. A lot of people these days say they are spiritual but not religious and that means different things, depending on who you ask. It’s hard to say if it applies to me. I consider myself agnostic, meaning that for me, if there is anything divine in this universe, which I’m not sure of, the nature of it is unknowable. I do believe that energy cannot be created or destroyed, and this scientific principle seems more divine than anything else I’ve encountered. But the point of all this is to say, that I don’t believe there is a consciousness at the helm of all this, and certainly not one that has a plan for me, or anyone else. People also say things like “the universe is trying to teach you this or that.” It’s pleasant and nontheistic to think that, in a way, but that statement is not different from the “it’s all part of God’s plan” line of thinking and I’m not convinced the universe works that way. If the universe thinks I’m supposed to learn things, then it must be because there is a path it thinks I should be on. The whole notion of a plan—God’s or the universe’s—boils down to the centuries-old debate about free will versus determinism, and if theologians and philosophers have been playing this game for hundreds of years, I’m certainly not going to figure it out.

It makes me think of the University of Michigan football stadium at full capacity, with half the stadium yelling “Go” and the other half yelling “Blue.” It’s a battle of who can be louder, but it is also about the harmony of the message. Similarly, we seem to need to believe in both free will and fate. We want to believe we have choices, that it isn’t all preordained, but at the same time, we want to believe there’s a plan. When things happen that we don’t understand, people say it’s all part of God’s plan. Or when we are not where we expect to be in life, or have a setback, we are told it is because there are things we haven’t learned yet, and the universe will find different ways of sending the same lesson until we get it, and then somehow things will get better, or make sense. On any given day people believe what gives them the most comfort. On any given day, I see both chaos and order in the universe and I don’t know where I fit.

Everyone has advice. Find your purpose. Chase your dreams. Do what you love. Don’t overthink it. Others tell me that we are here to simply enjoy ourselves as best we can.

I think of all the philosophies I’ve embraced and either discarded or incorporated some parts of. I have sought clarity, but sometimes it accumulates as clutter. I often forget that moments can feel longer than they are, and time is like pulled taffy. Getting lost in ruminations about purpose, value, and identity is something my mind does every so often. But in other moments, I’m living less inside my brain, and I’m doing things I love, or just muddling through, and it all somehow makes enough sense. I don’t know if I’m on the verge of figuring things out for myself, and all the other things are a distraction from the work my brain wants to do, or if all the ruminations are the distraction, and real life and real meaning is in all the rest of it.

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Both, I realize in flashes of insight. It’s both. It’s the harmony between thinking and feeling, between doing and being, between contemplation and action. I do know that in all the advice I’ve internalized over the years, the phrase “be yourself” continues to ring true. This is the way my brain works, always has. But I think truly embracing the notion of being who I am might be the north star that I’m looking for. Maybe it is the way to recalibrate when I feel lost. Maybe it is the only way to understand our place in this mysterious universe. I just read something online about the dandelion, and how useful all its components are, and how resilient it is. A dandelion succeeds as an individual plant and has succeeded as a species for centuries because all of its parts work together to insure it thrives. It supports the lives of pollinators—it does good in the world—but it doesn’t exist in order to do so. It just is. It doesn’t need a plan, it just maximizes its resources: the sun, the rain, the wind that disperses its seeds (or the human making a wish).

I am this collection of cells and memories and have lived and evolved right up until this moment. I have a hard time believing there is a Plan beyond that, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make squishy, flexible plans for what I might want in the future. And letting go of things I had once planned for my future—things that I imagined were solid and fixed, things that will never come to be—that is some of the hardest and most necessary work I’ve done. But for now, it makes sense to be. Be myself. Maybe be a little like a dandelion.

Love, Cath

On Safe Spaces and Swimming

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we undervalue the gift of safe spaces.

Sometimes I think the only thing I did right as a single parent was to offer a safe space for my kids to raise themselves. That is, of course, an exaggeration on a couple of levels. But it speaks to what I told my eldest upon their graduation from college this past weekend. Kids have good instincts, and they seek and need agency. Sometimes trusting our children and getting out of their way is the only way. Obviously it isn’t always the answer. But in they years after my divorce, a lot of things happened to me, and one of them was that anxiety created a sense of hypervigilance. It led me to think about emotional safety a lot, especially about how to provide it to my kids during a difficult transition to our new family structure. With my child’s recent graduation from college, I witnessed, reflected on, and admired who they are and how they have grown and become more and more themselves over these last few years. I hope, at the very least, that I played a role in helping them feel safe and loved and cared for along their journey.

As parents, we work toward where I find myself now—being ancillary in our children’s lives. On a day-to-day basis, our presence is not needed for our older children to function and flourish in the world. It isn’t that they don’t turn to us, and it isn’t that they don’t feel emotionally connected to us, but their lives are their own. When problems arise, they may or may not ask us for advice, they may or may not even tell us there is a problem. They are simply living and handling things. This self-sufficiency is what we have striven for as parents. I’ve always had a sense since my children were very little that everything I did was in preparation for them to leave me. Yet, living on this side of it is a strange and emotional time.

When your child graduates from college it is inevitable that you reflect on your parenting. It is impossible to not recall the first day of preschool and kindergarten, all the ups and downs of middle school and high school. The day you helped them get the dorm room set up is etched on your heart, the way you drove away and left them there, thinking, as you did when you dropped them off at preschool, is this right? This is what people do? We walk away now?

For divorced families, when you think about your child’s upbringing, there is a Before and After. Inevitably you will wonder if you got things right, on either side of that line. Each situation is different. For me, as a single parent I felt as though I was constantly trying to figure out how to make what had been fractured feel whole and safe and enough again.

It occurs to me that after years trying to make my children’s lives feel that way, I am now trying to make my own life feel that way. Whole and safe and enough. With each milestone the kids achieve, with each further step they take into their own lives and futures, I am left with increasingly stark reminders of what I need to do for myself.

My own childhood was populated with a crowd of siblings and two parents who are still together. College was full of roommates, boyfriends. Not long after, I was married and soon after, having children. After the divorce I tried soothing the loneliness of single parenting with relationships that ultimately could not be parlayed into something long-term. Each time something ended, as hard as it was, as disappointing as it was that it didn’t “work out” the way I had hoped, parenting, in many ways, was easier. Flying solo, I was able to try and tune in more effectively to what my kids needed.

But now, I have the time and space to focus wholeheartedly on myself. Yet I have had very little practice trying to figure out how to make that whole and safe and enough scenario happen by myself and for myself.

I’m getting closer, but I’m still not there. And I wonder, too, are we ever truly there? I haven’t even been able to articulate it as a goal until recently. Since I’m always thinking about the future, worrying about it, I imagine scenarios. If I decide I’m okay, if I’m whole and safe and enough on my own, does that mean I’m closing the door on a future with someone? Or is that mindset what actually opens the door to the “right” relationship? I’m thankful to friends who help me consider these ideas, who remind me to spend some time in right now instead of always trying to fill in the blanks ahead.

Sometimes I mentally catalogue when I felt the most whole and safe and enough so I can try and recreate it. There was usually someone by my side. Can I not remember feeling that way when I was alone, or did it never happen? It is easier to remember the times I did not feel that way, far easier to remember the events that left me feeling fractured and unsafe and inadequate. I have spent a long time trying to stop feeling hobbled by heartbreaks. This is precisely what this time is for, this time I have to myself right now. It is a time not only to heal from all the past hurts but a time to reassess how I look at myself.

When was the last time you looked at yourself in a way that freed you from context? How do we see ourselves when we remove all the filters of what we do, who we’re related to, who we live with, who and what we’ve lost?

Photo by Ellie Burgin on Pexels.com

Of course those things are all huge parts of who we are but there’s a self in there who is the one doing all the adapting to all the things that happen to us. I wrote a poem once, called “Minnows.” It opens like this:

Do we learn to love

The way fish learn to swim

Or the way we learn to fish?

There are things we begin to teach ourselves out of instinct, about how to know and love ourselves. These ideas are soon enhanced and/or undercut by other external lessons. Sometimes I think the more we know of the world, the less we know of ourselves.

Sometimes, we are in relationships that are collaborative and supportive and allow us the space and care to help us to know ourselves better. These might be romantic relationships, familial ones, or friendships. And sometimes, we are in relationships that take us further and further away from ourselves. Usually when we’re in them we are not thinking about them in such terms but when we’re out, it all becomes clearer. And of course, some relationships morph from the former to the latter, and it’s hard to tell what’s happening. I wish I’d understood the importance of this distinction sooner. But I’m learning. The more I learn about myself, the more I understand how hollowing it is to be in relationships where I am becoming less of who I am instead of more. It is this knowledge that soothes loneliness when it strikes: at least that isn’t happening.

I often think of this chapter as a rebuilding one, as if I’m putting myself back together, reconstructing, improving. But maybe it is one more characterized by paring down, unwinding, unlearning. Maybe it is just remembering how to be a sleek little minnow learning how to swim.

Love, Cath

On Voice, Moment, and Movement

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes moments are motion, and our voice guides us through, if we listen.

Spring weather here can be a strange mix, with warm sun shining down while a frigid wind blows. Moment by moment you are alternately completely comfortable, basking in the sun that soaks into your skin, and then suddenly freezing and wishing you had a hat and gloves. This weekend my emotions played out similarly.

With my son home for a visit, relieving the solitude of my day-to-day life, I alternately felt happy, comfortable, and relaxed, and then suddenly sad and anxious, as if I existed in the moment and the ones just before and just after all at the same time.

In the course of running some errands, we stopped at the pottery studio where I take my class. I picked up a couple of glazed pieces that hadn’t turned out as I’d hoped, then we headed to the nearby gardening center. As we wandered the greenhouses, my emotions were all ebb and flow. There were layers washing over one another: the disappointment over my pottery was softened by plans for how I could improve next time; the excitement over what plants I might buy to spruce up the yard wilted as I worried about costs; but mostly, the joy at having my son home and spending time together was being washed over at the edges with the sadness of knowing we only had a short time together, and with the ache of wishing my daughter could have been with us too.

People say, live in the moment. In that moment, I was giving myself the same instruction. Do not focus on disappointment or sadness; be here with your son and the beautiful plants the smell of hyacinth and this adorable cat who wandered up to greet you. It isn’t as if I ignored joy and dwelled only in the darker thoughts. But sometimes, you have to hold it all at the same time. Sometimes the moment pushes and pulls you as though you are standing chest deep in a big lake and the waves make stillness impossible.

In navigating the movement of the moment, I often feel as though I’m straining to hear a voice over the distraction of ambient sound. I am trying to coax this voice to greater volume. The voice of instinct, of guidance, can be so quiet in me sometimes, but I have begun to understand why.

In my writer’s workshop, we’ve been talking about voice, and the way any novel opening can work if the voice is effective. When I’m writing a novel it takes a while to find that voice. Until recently, I hadn’t realized that the issue of voice in my writing and the strong clear voice of instinct that I have been listening for within me were one and the same.

There are many reasons why it is hard to hear and trust that voice within us, nudging us toward good things, warning us away from trouble. I think it can be difficult to hear your own voice if ever you were told that you were too sensitive or too needy. In response, you might have found yourself voicing feelings and needs less frequently and more quietly. You began to observe, trying to determine what emotions are allowed to be expressed, and when, and by whom. Over time, the weight of what you haven’t expressed makes you empathic. You are in-tune to the deep feeling of others because it is so heavy in you. You might have become a servant to other people’s emotions, knowing how it feels to have things unattended to. Sadly, in this way, we teach ourselves to listen more closely to others than we do to ourselves.

Well-meaning people tried to protect you from a mean world but didn’t understand that your openness and sensitivity were strengths, not liabilities. You didn’t need a thicker skin, you needed understanding, maybe some tools to help you cope. Later, less well-meaning people were able to spot your vulnerability, told you to trust them and not yourself, and that was easy to do, because your own voice had grown so quiet.

This voice is how we navigate everything, so when it is quiet, we are filled with self-doubt. And even when we train ourselves to listen for it again, it is easy to discount it.

I’ve recently tried to start running again, and I’m still incorporating a lot of walking into my running because in the past I’ve made the mistake of trying to ramp up too quickly, and I get injured, and then I can’t run at all for a while. I used to think that I “failed” at a run if I needed to stop at walk. The mindset I’m trying to cultivate now is that a successful run is the one I’ve begun. It is the one in which I listen to my body and walk when I need to.

I used to think that I failed if a story got rejected, if I never heard back from an agent, if the guy from the dating app who was messaging me disappeared. But I’m realizing now that every time I begin again, I succeed. Every time I listen to my instincts and chose hope, resilience, and perseverance, it matters. Of course, we need to rest, to pause and listen to that voice within us, to keep recalibrating our efforts to our purpose.

Do we ever get it right, the balance between when to push ourselves and when to pull back? Or does getting it “right” mean that we cultivate the awareness that balance is achieved through this movement? Sometimes it seems that balance is more about living in midst of that ebb and flow, the push and pull, than it is about a finding that briefest moment of stillness somewhere in the middle of it all. My comfort zone is in that middle space, and I’d love to learn how to expand it, but so much of life happens in the waves pushing and pulling me away from it.

Whether it is learning how to exist in a moment that is filled with the fluidity of past, present, and future all at once, or existing in the process of working through “failure” toward what we value and what we want, being able to accept the movement of the moment, of all that is pushing us and pulling us as we try to keep our footing, relies on us hearing our own voice and letting it guide us. This is our work.

I have learned that I only experience peace in the midst of all these processes when I am able to hold it all at once, when I can embrace a moment and the movement around it. It is the cat in the warm greenhouse, and the cold wind, and the peppering of disappointment and worry, and the scent of hyacinth, and my son with me now, and his imminent leaving, and missing my daughter, and the sunny joy of love, and all of it all at once.

I hope you find peace in the process and can always hear your voice.

Love, Cath

On Loss and “Lost”

By Catherine DiMercurio

On a recent damp and drizzly hike with my sister, I got us lost. Inconveniently lost, not dangerously lost. We were deep in conversation, and I missed one of the markers that would have helped me know where I was along this path that I’d hiked once before. We backtracked and figured it out. I tried not to let it bother me, this feeling that I should not have let that happen, but it did. It bothered me in a big way at first, as though I’d let us both down, and by the end of the hike, it only bothered me a little, like a small stone in my shoe. Yet for a while, this thinking also spiraled forward to a solo camping trip I’ll be taking in the summer. What if I get lost in unfamiliar woods when I’m hiking alone?

As we walked back to the car, I tried to return my awareness to the current moment. We’d hiked longer than we intended, but we were enjoying one another’s company and were never in any danger. She didn’t care, didn’t judge me. So, I managed to shake it off.

But, it did make me realize how easy it is for a moment of anxiety to amplify itself, reverberating into the past and into the future. How did I let that happen, and what if it happens again? Sometimes we exist in all the moments at once, as if time ceased its habit of being linear. In this instance, the sensation didn’t last long, but depending on the circumstances, we can get lost in these spirals. The experience reminded me of how connected lost and loss are.

Sometimes, the losses we’ve experienced in life unroot themselves from their context. We can’t pinpoint precisely why we are feeling a certain way, but this loss is wandering around inside us, untethered from memory. We feel confused about our sadness, our fuzziness, about the despondency that leaves us inexplicably tired. It as if the loss itself is lost within us.

Have you ever gone looking for your sense of worry when you actually feel fine? You have that sense that something is missing, and you aren’t sure what, so you search for it. Now what was it that I was so worried about? The worry needs a home, so you attach it to a dentist appointment, a financial concern, a work meeting, or larger and less-specific things, like the rest of your life. I think this is what we do when we have a big loss lost within us. There are some things we might never be done grieving, and the loss sometimes shows up as worry and needs to be taken by the hand escorted back to its context, its memories.

Photo by Kat Smith on Pexels.com

The trouble is, then we must confront those memories again. And we don’t want to. Who does? It hurts. Good memories can hurt more than bad memories, too. But when they are calling to us, it is better to give them some time and hug rather than ignore them. Otherwise, they will keep wandering away again and turning up in strange ways. Does all this mean, that despite our efforts to heal, to take time for grief, and go to therapy and journal and talk, and all the things we’ve tried to do to move forward, does it mean that none of it has worked?

Of course not. It means it IS working. Being able to recognize what is happening when feelings take us by surprise, when big anxiety comes at us for little reasons, is a sign that we are evolving. When we can pause and say: Oh, yes, I see. This old pain still hurts sometimes and wants to be felt as now-pain and is showing up in this weird way so it doesn’t get ignored, even though it doesn’t have much to do with the dentist appointment or my future goals or the fact that I accidentally got a little lost in the woods. Sometimes it takes a few days or longer to unpack a response, to look at a recent event and decode why our feelings felt outsized for what was happening.

I am not good at compartmentalizing anymore. I did it a lot when I had to, when I would not have been able to function otherwise. It is difficult now for me to say I shouldn’t feel this way about this situation, so I won’t. I need to know why. I want to understand the connections my brain is automatically making (you are nervous, here is danger, avoid this), so I can intervene and try to rewire (you are nervous, and it is normal to feel that way in this situation, but it reminds you of real danger and that was scary, but you don’t have to avoid this, and it is okay to feel uncomfortable).

Being able to decode and rewire allows growth. It allows the unexpected. It allows me to open doors I have been too tired or too anxious to open, and in doing so, I discover new loves. I have fallen in love with pottery, this mysterious thing I’m learning, this vast muddy sea of things to discover. I have fallen in love with the new novel I am writing, with the process of getting to know new people on the page, their desires, their flaws, their histories.

Sometimes you are ready for a new story, and you didn’t know how much until you start writing it.

I fall hard for moments sometimes too. I fall for the quiet writing hours I cobble together in the dark mornings, listening to the birds wake, to wind and rain, to the dogs snoring away nearby. I am often overcome by how happy this makes me, this simple gift of my favorite part of the day.

I know none of this is the same as falling in love with person, which I hope is still a possibility. But being able to embrace my life and my self and everything that I’m discovering is not a consolation prize, and that has surprised me. It startles me what wholeness can feel like, and sometimes it even scares me in ways that I’m still articulating for myself.

Sometimes I’m intimidated by all there is to learn about myself, where I’ve been and where I’m going and how to get there, and other times I think it is all in the palm of my hand already, or at my fingertips. Many of the realizations I’ve written about here grew out of a scene I was writing in my novel. I guess I must keep learning to trust myself, and when I write those words, I can see that this is the through-line, my wobbly dance with self-trust. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” I remember reading those words in college, sitting at a desk in a classroom with pale green walls, and having an overwhelming sense that this mattered in ways I didn’t fully understand. It seemed unfathomable, as impossible as someone telling me to run a four-minute mile or jump out of a plane, things that other people could do, but I’d never be able to. It is no wonder that the ability to follow that advice has taken me my entire lifetime. But, here we are, trying. It’s all we can do.

Love, Cath

On Messiness, Moodiness, and Harmony

By Catherine DiMercurio

I usually am craving spring by March. This year, I am stunned to discover that I am not, at least, I’m not consistently yearning for it the way I usually am this time of year. I am no fan of prolonged winters and I’m not as cold tolerant as a lifelong Michigander should be, yet with the promise of long days ahead I have the sense that I’m still in some sort of cozy, dark cocoon I’m not ready to come out of. I think much of this is due to the largely self-imposed idea that the longer the day, the more productive I should be. Yet, no one is policing me. And I do love finally feeling the sun and digging in the dirt. I’m sure, when the time comes, I will be ready.

But, the time change often makes the transition to spring feel forced, unnatural. In general, I have found that most transitions are difficult for me. It takes me longer than I expect, always longer, to recalibrate my brain and heart. Changes take time to get used to, even if we are ready for them.

This has been a time of noticing for me. I have spoken here often of the abrupt shift to solitude I experienced when my son moved out at the end of the summer, and this experience coming on the heels of other endings. In the months that have elapsed, I have taken care to notice things about myself that previously only fluttered to the surface of my perception, when my attention was more keenly attuned to the other people inhabiting my daily life. Despite periods of loneliness, it has been a gift to become reacquainted with my own natural rhythms, my own seasons.

Sometimes I wake to the feeling that I am in my own little bubble floating on the periphery. I don’t mean this in a covid way, though surely the isolation of the past two years has contributed to this feeling for many people, myself included. I think this shift must be common to many empty nesters, particularly single parents. One day you are the safe and solid center of a little family’s busy hum of activity. And then . . . you sense you are still that, but in a way that is fractured and more theoretical. It is normal, natural, abrupt, and jarring all at once. Though you always knew your children were universes unto themselves, not simply a part of yours, when you cohabitate all the universes merge and overlap and interact. And then, they do not, not in the same way.

Everyone’s life has changed dramatically in the past two years. We are still in the process of molding what things are supposed to look like now as a society, while individually we are integrating covid adaptations into our lives along with all the other changes that naturally happen to a person and a family over the course of two years. We simultaneously feel an urgency to play catch-up and to re-evaluate.

It is so messy. I find that the chaos of Michigan weather in early March mirrors my headspace at this time of year. When I began writing this earlier this week, it was about to snow and 19 degrees out. In a few days, the temperature is supposed to be almost 70 degrees. When I woke too early recently, I turned on the light, tried to write, got sleepy, tried to fall back asleep. Maybe I did for a few moments. I rose and warmed up yesterday’s coffee, let one dog out and in, greeted the other still half-asleep dog, and as I walked down the hall back to my bedroom, coffee in hand, I felt as though my mood changed with each step. I was angsty over beginning the workday on not enough sleep, worried and despondent about the collection of things that currently trouble me, overwhelmed by all the house and yard stuff that is going to need to be tackled soon. And as I reached the end of the hallway rug and my right foot hit the hardwood floor, I smiled. I smiled because of the dogs. I smiled at the glimpse of my bedroom, with its pretty blue walls and embroidered curtains. I snuggled back in bed to write, pleased to be in my own space, and that I still had time to write before I had to turn to the rest of the morning and all its business and busyness.

Photo by Ravi Kant on Pexels.com

One of the things about where I am now is that I have time and space to have mood shifts that don’t need to be explained or mediated. It is much easier for me now to experience difficult feelings and move through them in an organic way rather than to have to compartmentalize as I’ve done in the past. I have been the type of partner who has moved my own mood out of the way when it seemed like the simplest path toward what I perceived to be harmony. I made things disharmonious within myself to try and cultivate and preserve harmony in the relationship. I’m not certain I will ever know to what extent I did this because of internal or external expectations. Most likely, it was both. I like to imagine a future relationship in which this type of behavior will not be expected of me by my partner or myself, and in which I will keep the lessons I am learning about myself now at the forefront. In which my compulsion to make things easier for someone else will not supersede my ability to voice and address my own needs. It isn’t that we shouldn’t have empathy toward our partner, but we must have equal empathy for ourselves. No one should have to feel like they are somehow in someone else’s way.

March is a messy, muddled month. But it churns with energy, and we mirror its moods. We are sunny, it is raining, it is snowing, we are tired, hope sprouts beneath the dead leaves that protected it in the long cold months. It is windy, we are moody, look, here’s the sun again. It can be difficult to find harmony in this season of change. But if we cultivate a practice of noticing, of observing the fluctuations in our mood and states of minds, and states of hearts, if we let it all move through us, jangling and cacophonous like a windchime in a March storm, maybe it will be harmony that finds us in the aftermath.

Love, Cath