On Not Knowing, or, (Not) Navigating Deep Water

By Catherine DiMercurio

I’m not sure why, but part of me still clings to this idea that the clarity I look for as I navigate some of the things I’m struggling with is something that will reveal itself to me as a shout, as a brand new beginning, the shiny other side of the coin, freshly tossed. I want to cross over along the timeline, from one side of a vertical line to the next. To say, definitively, I am here now.

But what the world has tried to teach me over and over is that everything is non-linear. Even a circle would be a welcome, familiar shape, but my life is not that either. Despite the continuity of my days, my carefully cultivated habits and routines, my inner world zig zags, soars and dives, as much as the chaos of the world outside my door.

I began writing this several days ago, firmly convinced I understood my mindset on a particular issue. I had decided I was Done, yes, with a capital D, with dating apps, Done searching for a partner, Done with the false (?, hopefully false) urgency of a timeline. Done with that feeling that I would somehow run out of chances or will or heart if I didn’t meet someone in a certain number of months or heartbeats. I don’t think there is a biological clock to this part. Though, I suppose future-me might wake up one day and wish I had tried harder sooner. But we do what we can, when we can. Don’t we? Don’t I? I mean, it is already too late for some of the dreams I once had. I have run out of time to ever celebrate a 61-year anniversary with someone, as a friend’s post about her parents celebrating their anniversary reminded me. I once had dreams of celebrating those types of anniversaries, but I’m aging out of that possibility. Letting go of that, as I’ve tried to do for some time now, means there really isn’t a clock ticking in that sense anymore. If I do meet someone, I’ll likely wish we’d had more time together, whether I met him tomorrow or in five or ten years.

So, I had let myself be Done. For now. For as long as it feels good to be doing the kind of growing and listening to myself as I’m doing now. Until I know how to do that no matter what. Until it’s like breathing, and something that won’t be abandoned like an ill-conceived New Year’s resolution the second I’m dating again.

Because I don’t want to go back to that way of loving, and I’m scared that I will. I wonder, was the reason it felt so good to be completely consumed by a relationship that I had little knowledge of or respect for myself? Did I enjoy losing myself because myself was such a flimsy concept, easy to let go of, so much so that I didn’t realize that she was lost?

Before I decided to be Done, I had grown more careful, deliberate, about who I entered into conversation with on those apps. I didn’t want to enter into anything nonchalantly. If I was going to expend my limited social capital, it had to be on someone I thought there was a chance with. I didn’t want a collection of first dates with men I didn’t plan on seeing again; I wanted to meet someone who was also looking for something long term, not just gathering with me out of sense of gathering loneliness.

I’m not lonely, which comes as a surprise to me. I have periodic moments or hours, maybe even a day or two at the most, of deep, sharp loneliness. But it is something that happens to me and falls away. It isn’t what I am.

I’ve leaned into that. What does it mean, then, to not be pursuing a relationship? I have always been in a relationship, or in between relationships. Being single but open to something happening still felt for a long time like many things: expectation, hope, wish. The natural order of things had been, for so long, that I was partnered. I always thought that I was a better me with someone else, but I didn’t have much to compare it to. If my time alone were drops of water, they would have filled a few drinking glasses, whereas my time with a partner over the years, between my marriage and my post-divorce relationships, filled up bathtubs. A swimming pool maybe. But, on my own, I am something else entirely. Something that can’t be measured by way of shallow, domestic containers. On my good days I feel like a lake, carved fathoms-deep by ancient glaciers. I have always been this same person, even when in relationships, but I didn’t know her yet. And if I didn’t, neither did the men I was with. How could they?

Photo by Miguel on Pexels.com

I often feel slow to understand things. My comprehension feels impaired by an onslaught of input. I’ve regarded myself as deep-thinking, but not quick-witted. Brains work differently. Mine is full of images and words, teeming with them. I can only handle so much external input at a time. So when I look back at what it was like to be in relationships where I prioritized the needs of my partner over my own (and unpacking that tendency is a whole different series of essays) it is no wonder that I have been slow to know myself. Think of all that additional input! Not that you can’t learn anything about yourself in a relationship. I can and did. But because of the way I was going about being in a relationship, there were things that I couldn’t learn about myself until I was on my own.

But for some reason I felt as though I needed to commit to the idea of being Done. To say, I am here now, on this side of that line. I felt as though I had to say, I know exactly what I want and it is this. That way, I know what to do, or not to do, next. When I had a tug of longing to be with someone, I then wondered, did I commit to the wrong idea, the wrong game plan? Do I still want to find someone?

The bottom line is, I don’t know, and I’m not comfortable not knowing what I want. It feels like failure. It feels like lack of insight, not knowing my gut. It feels wrong, and as if it must be remedied. It feels like wasted time. If I knew what I wanted, I could pursue it, and get on to the next part that much faster. It feels like something I ought to be ashamed of and I’m not sure why. Maybe it is because by now I should have this part figured out?

How can I not know what I want? I feel like I was always supposed to know. What do you want to be when you grow up, where do you see yourself in five years, etc. We’re supposed to be able to visualize it so we can manifest it, right?

I think one of the reasons I don’t know what I want in terms of a partner is that I’m figuring out what I want in other areas of my life. I know that I want to continue to pursue both writing and pottery, and I know that I can’t do either of those things without my “real” job that keeps a roof over three heads, mine and the two dogs. And I want a big enough roof so that when my kids come home to visit everyone has a place. And I want to nurture relationships with family and friends, connections that mean so much to me, that have on and off over the years been largely neglected when I was busy being totally consumed by romantic relationships that I let swallow me up. All of this adds up to a fullness I didn’t realize was possible. Sometimes I can’t imagine where a partner would fit into all that, possibly because I’ve never had a partnership where the fullness of both people’s lives was respected and nurtured in a healthy way.

I think the most important thing for me right now is the idea of embracing the mindset of not knowing, instead of fearing it, or, embracing it and the fear. It’s a little like swimming in deep water with no shore in sight. Yet, when I think about it, when we struggle with understanding ourselves, we are, in a way, both the swimmer and the deep water. We can keep ourselves afloat, or we can pull ourselves under. We are vast and deep, not easily navigated, and there is no shame in that. Oddly, what I am finding, is that a person can be true to themselves without having it all figured out. 

Love, Cath

On Owls, Cranes, Practice, and Purpose

By Catherine DiMercurio

In the late afternoon, before the light began to fade, I stretched on my purple yoga mat in my bedroom. The puppy, (now two years old), is always at my side and it is no different when I’m standing on my head or sinking into shavansana, corpse pose. He’s right there, at least one paw on the mat, connected to me. When I finished, I found myself thinking that as I go into the new year, one of the things I’d like to move toward is a daily yoga practice. Right now, I do a couple of half hour sessions a week, but I remain stiff in some poses, can’t do some of the things I used to be able to do. So, I’m deciding that I will try to do at least 15 minutes a day. I have other goals for daily exercise, ranging from dog walks to long hikes, and I’ll still do longer, deeper yoga sessions a couple of days each week, but 15 minutes on the other days seems like a reasonable goal, and something I know will benefit me both mentally and physically, particularly as I try to get through these long, cold, dark months. I realized, as I sat on my mat, petting my dog, that my goal did not need to be about getting back to where I was with my yoga when I was younger, or reaching a certain point of mastery over a pose. It is simply this: I feel good when I do yoga. I feel like me and I want more of that.

As I continued to think about how setting this type of goal differed from the ways I set goals in the past, I realized that what I’m after is a practice that is more about habit and effort, rather than outcome. And I began to reflect on how this type of goal setting might be helpful in other areas of my life. Too often I set goals that are achievement-based. I want to be able to do this type of pose perfectly, or get this number of pieces of short fiction published. Then, I further encumber such goals with a timeline. Life teaches us to do this. Self-help books, social media posts, and professional development materials, all often insist that goals need to be measurable and time bound. I even remember reading someplace that goals without a timeline are just wishes.

But I am curious about this: what naturally evolves from a habit-based practice versus achievement-based effort? If I practice yoga for 15 minutes every day and observe my body and my mind, what benefits might I notice? This is different than saying, I am going to do yoga for 15 minutes every day so that I can do a back bend by the end of February.

Likewise, if one of my writing goals is to submit two short stories to literary journals every month, what could grow from that practice of writing and submitting? And how might that practice differ than if I aim for getting, say, three acceptances in the coming year?

My point is that there is so much we are not in control over. And what discourages us, depresses us, keeps us in a sluggish instead of vibrant mental state is that feeling of failure, of letting ourselves or others down, of comparing ourselves to others and not measuring up, because we haven’t gotten to where they are, and shouldn’t we, by now?

Yet, I have little control over whether or not something gets published. I can keep writing, and choose what to submit and to whom, and after that it is out of my hands. We can, to some extent, choose how to spend our time, though we all have responsibilities that can make even this challenging. Still, we can control our own efforts, shape our own habits. What we can’t do is force the world to react to any of that in a certain way.

My writing practice, my yoga practice, my pottery practice—these are more important to me, the doing of them, than the achievement markers that indicate to the world that I’m successful at them. But I get hung up on the proof sometimes. I try to avoid the trap of external validation, though, like most people, I enjoy it. So I want to point to publication as proof of my writing effort; I want to show up in a yoga class and prove I belong because I can keep up; I want to throw a large piece or create something exquisitely artful as evidence that my hard work and practice has paid off. But, what am I really trying to prove, and to whom? Is my desire to demonstrate effort a performance for an audience? Does someone else saying that’s good or I can see you tried really hard matter more than me saying those things to myself?  I don’t think that it is wrong to envision what we might accomplish, to want those things, to work toward them. But I’m starting to wonder if practicing with achievement-based goals at the forefront of our effort is the healthy way to go. Maybe, we could let achievement be the by-product of effort, of habit. And if our effort does not produce those tangible markers, then so be it. If we are working with our own satisfaction, enjoyment, thrill of discovery, etc., foremost in our hearts, rather than what we hope to prove to ourselves or others, wouldn’t the habit itself be more delightful to cultivate?

This is not news to everyone, this idea of practicing the things you love, that are important to you, for the sake of the practice itself rather than what you can show for it or get out of it. It’s not even news to me, but sometimes we lose our way a little. The world teaches us to be goal-oriented, our professional lives hammer home messages of efficiency, productivity, success. But I’m finding there is little living happening in that way of doing things. There is striving and measuring, but not breath, pleasure, joy, satisfaction.

While I am often resentful of the notion that I should make New Year’s resolutions, I have always found that it is a good time to reflect. But in reality, I’ve been doing so since the solstice. The time frame between solstice and the new year has been, continues to be, a rich one for contemplating what I’m learning, what makes sense, what doesn’t. In the coming year, I want to stretch as if I’m waking up from all that has kept me asleep, and still, and sad. I want to “relax into the pose,” as my very first yoga teacher taught me.

As the new year approaches, I’m going to continue to reflect on what other habits I’d like to cultivate with a heart focused on the habit itself, rather than what it produces, or how efficiently. This coming year, I want to relax: into poses, practice, purpose. To unfold, to deconstruct the beliefs that have led me to approach goals as rigid, structured things measured by success and failure, beliefs that have led me to view myself in the same way, like an origami crane made of glass, something that can be easily broken, instead of something sturdy yet flexible, something that can be unfolded, smoothed out, and remade.

Photo by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz on Pexels.com

After my yoga practice, just after dusk, I heard a great horned owl. Across the street, behind a row of brick ranch houses, is a creek and little woodland strip that separates this subdivision from the next. It is the home for a lot of wildlife—deer, opossums, groundhogs, skunks, hawks, and owls, among others. I don’t know that I can ever hear an owl without thinking of some kind of sparkling magic happening just outside my door. I want more of my life to feel that way, infused with the everyday magic of living things being themselves. I want to be part of that, be completely and unselfconsciously myself, making and unmaking myself as needed, as easily as my owl friend hoots in the settling of night over the woods, as soft as moonlight on feathers. I think our habits and practices can lead us there. Don’t you?

Love, Cath

On Lanterns, Looking, and Home

By Catherine DiMercurio

Many people have been inspired by the line Emily Dickinson wrote to a friend, “I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.” It struck me today too, as I came across it again.

Recently, I was texting with my firstborn, about various things, but the conversation turned to the idea of home. Several months ago, I helped them and their partner move from the house they’d been living in with too many college housemates into their own place, one of those quirky Ann Arbor apartments comprised of a collection of rooms in an older house. It is cozy and suits them. My child was telling me that they finally have a place that feels like a home that is their own. This delights me: my child feels safe and happy, in their own place, in a healthy relationship.

Less recently, though it still feels like yesterday to me, I moved out of the house I’d lived in for twenty years, raised my kids in, lived the best and worst years of my marriage in, into this little ranch house in a different suburb, not far away but very far away from where I used to be. And I only feel that my new house is home some of the time. I do love what I’ve built here, that this house is a reflection of my personality, filled with books, watercolors, pottery, artwork from friends, and dogs. It is cozy and it suits me. But sometimes, it doesn’t feel quite exactly right. It’s like a newish shirt you mostly love but when you put it on you remember that the tag is itchy. Sometimes. Other times, like now, everything feels safe and good, happy and peaceful. It’s early morning and I’m drinking coffee from a mug I threw and glazed myself. I’m snug under a blanket I crocheted years ago. The puppy is cuddled up next to me. I’ve decorated a small tree—my solstice/Christmas/winter magic tree—and strung up some colorful lights. I feel lucky. I have created peace and stability for myself in a way that several years ago I wouldn’t have ever thought possible.

When I feel restless, or have that what am I doing here feeling, I know where it comes from now. When loneliness hits, it is usually from two directions. One is from the past, from the part of my life where I woke up in the same house as my children for the first 18 years of their lives. I don’t think it matters how full your life is as an empty nester; part of you is always aware that the loss you know was coming is happening. That empty space takes up space. The other direction loneliness attacks from is from the future. We all have points in our lives, after the loss of a meaningful relationship, where it feels as though the future we had anticipated is being erased, like an Etch-a-Sketch turned upside down and vigorously shaken. As new relationships unfold, we wonder, is this the future, beginning to take shape? When those dissolve too, it feels like starting all over, with the future blank again.

I also keep forgetting that “the future” is not a single fixed point. It is hard to embrace the idea that nothing is really fixed, as in, a single unchanging point in time, and fixed, as in finally and fully repaired. Everything is in perpetual motion, our healing, and where we’re headed. What happens next is the same thing as how am I continuing to grow, and it appears in my mind like night, with a sky full of stars, and I’m out wandering, with my lanterns.

Photo by Burak The Weekender on Pexels.com

And all of this is tied into the idea of home for me. The house I currently live in blinks on and off, in a way. It feels like home, and then it flickers, and the feeling fades, and then it’s back on, steady as ever. What I’m beginning to realize is that it is less about this house and how long I’ve been in it, and whether or not my kids have lived here, and more about me being at home with myself. This feeling is getting stronger and stronger with me, after years of faltering, and looking for home in someone else. I didn’t even know that feeling that way about myself was possible, or important, until recently. It’s beautiful to think of home as either where you were raised, or, being with the people who love you regardless of your physical location or place of residence. But feeling at home with yourself, knowing that you are the safe place and you are the someone who loves you, that is something else entirely. I love that this is happening for me, that I finally thought to look for it, and that the feeling is becoming fuller and steadier.

Sometimes when I’m out with those lanterns, I’m not really looking for myself anymore. Sometimes I’m feeling found, and I’m just enjoying a starry walk with myself. But I do know that everything changes, especially selves, and that I am no more a fixed point than anything in future. So, to some degree, I’ll have to be out looking with some regularity. Sometimes that’s a scary thought and sometimes I’m just tired, but it feels important and necessary.

I keep returning to these same ideas over and over but sometimes we need to keep hearing the same message, whether from ourselves or from outside sources, multiple times as we learn and grow and acclimate ourselves to new ways of looking at things. For me, this is part of being open hearted. To grow, I need to be patient with myself, with the way I learn and the pace at which I learn. So I’ll be out there with lanterns, as usual. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Love, Cath

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

On Vulnerability, Lessons, and Learning

By Catherine DiMercurio

Lately, I’ve been thinking about lessons, and the ways we learn and remember. Maybe it was because I had to spend some time thinking about whether I’d invest in another semester of pottery, or because I recently got to spend some time with my math teacher sister.

I was talking to my sister about one thing, and then suddenly, as we were driving home from a hike, I realized I was talking about something else, my old boyfriend. As I recounted an incident that underscored what had gone wrong in that relationship, I realized that I have become a student of my past. In so many ways, this has helped me to understand the way I respond to the world around me. Yet, there are some experiences I revisit without intending to. It is almost like reciting a memorized piece, a prayer, poem, or song, the way I chronicle the events and their consequences. It is as if part of me is determined to always have certain things known by heart, as if only the periodic reminder of what and how something hurt will prevent it from happening again.

Can we protect ourselves and still be open hearted? Is this a binary situation or do we flow between those poles? A Venn diagram maybe, and somewhere in the middle of two intersecting circles is a state where we’re both open eyed and open hearted.

Remember when we were children and we had to memorize multiplication tables and spelling words? I recited things back to myself over and over, even after pop quizzes and tests, worried that I’d forget something. A memory floats back to me of sitting in my parents’ car, a stick-shift van of some sort, in our driveway. My mother was in the driver’s seat; she hated to drive that car. We were talking about a word I’d gotten wrong on a spelling test. I must have been in first or second grade. The word was “ladder,” but I’d spelled it “latter.” I was so frustrated; I’d sounded it out and everything. I don’t remember exactly what my mother said, but the memory is suffused with her gentleness. She repeated both words, emphasizing the different letter sounds of the d’s and the t’s to help me hear the difference. I don’t know why I was so upset by one wrong word on a spelling test, but any kind of test always created a feeling of urgency. It must have been after this that I’d started memorizing everything.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

Even then I was forming and performing the pattern of memorization as a means of avoiding the discomfort of “failure.” [I would later spell the word “oxidation” wrong in the spelling bee, thinking there must be a “y” like in “oxygen.” I would always stumble over 7 x 8 for some reason, and the 12s were always hard.]

Now, I instead of spelling words and multiplication tables, I play out remembered scenes in my head, conflict with past partners. To be clear, this study of the economics of emotional vulnerability was necessary work. In trying to understand why my willingness to be vulnerable and honest with a partner was not reciprocated, I realized that my response to what felt like rejection was to attempt to prove my worth through my ability to be accommodating. But, those equations didn’t add up. And now instead of trying to remember 12 x 9, I know by heart the way my emotional vulnerability and honesty does not equal a healthy relationship when multiplied by 0.

I tiptoed into one aspect of vulnerability again with a brief foray back into online dating. I had a small spark of hope and interest in someone for a little while, but the conversation revealed that I had good reason to keep my guard up a bit. I know that in a way, dating is just like submitting my fiction to literary journals, and that disappointment is common, and you can’t let it dissuade you. But my heart is on the line in a different way in the dating world and I find that I’m more reluctant to keep “putting myself out there” in the face of disappointment than I am with my writing. Maybe this is a lack of bravery, a fear of getting hurt, but it is also fatigue, and a growing sense that maybe it doesn’t matter that much anyway. It is hard to imagine that I will ever simply stop writing and seeking publication; it’s much easier to imagine that I’ll stop looking for the relationship that I once believed was just as important as my writing. Some people say that’s exactly when you find someone—when you stop looking. Other people say you’ll never find someone if you aren’t looking.

Right now, I think I’m going to have to trust that as I explore the boundaries of vulnerability and safety, I’ll be open to the possibility of meeting someone should the opportunity arise.  And that in living my life and exploring my interests, I’m creating opportunities.

What I’d like to do in the meantime is let go of the feeling that lessons must be recited, memories re-dissected, in order for the learning to stick. Life isn’t spelling tests and multiplication tables. There is no pop quiz, but sometimes it feels like there is. Scrolling through a social media feed, I see pop psychologists informing me of the things I need to do to recover from the wounds of past relationships. It’s as if there’s a way to tabulate the self-knowledge gained and unless you can do a presentation for the class on your attachment style and inner child work, you’re not getting an “A” and graduating to “healed” and “ready.”

But I don’t want to do it that way. While I don’t want to miss out on guidance that might help me, I am also fatigued by input, from advice snippets on social media, from the few chapters of self-help books I’ve been able to get through, even from therapy, though that has been vital to me over the years. Do you ever have the sense that everything you need is right in front of you, but the more you listen to other people the harder it gets to put it all together?

Here’s something I haven’t really thought of before: maybe I will intuitively know when I need to seek help. That I can’t “miss out” on guidance that will help me because if I need it, I’ll go looking for it. I don’t have to leave the faucet on, letting a steady stream of help wash over me.

Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “There is a guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening, we shall hear the right word.” I think again of a Venn diagram, this time of our inner voice in one circle and the competing voices of every place and person we’ve turned to for advice, or that has offered it in some way. Maybe there is some amazing overlap at the center where we trust ourselves but also are doing some appreciative “lowly listening” to the outside world as well. I think it’s a little dangerous to think we have all the answers ourselves, but it’s just as harmful to think that we don’t have any, that our own intuition, experience, and introspection is less valuable than the flood of information pouring down round us.

I think, too, that sometimes we create our own noise. We’re reciting our lessons, the ones that are supposed to help us, the ones we can’t forget, and maybe that mumbling recitation becomes part of the static we hear. One of the hardest things about self-trust is believing that what we’ve learned stays with us, that it is a part of us, and will be accessible when we need it. Maybe the lesson learned about a past relationship won’t be quite at our fingertips the way we want it to be, in a new relationship, but we can pause. We can check our spelling and verify the math. Because even if we don’t remember the order of the letters, or can’t quite recall the equation, we do know when something sounds off. We ask ourselves, wait, is that right, is this adding up? The trick is to expand that moment, to slow down and take the time to check. And that might also be the right place to reach out if we need to—to a therapist, a friend, a family member—and go over what it is that’s troubling us.

Some days, I’m reveling in freedoms I couldn’t comprehend when I was tumbling from one relationship into the next. I feel at times like I’ve had the best and worst of three worlds. I know what it is like to love someone for years and years with every single cell of my being, and I know what it is like to be betrayed and devastated by them. I know what falling in love with a new person is like, and I have fully felt the pain of those endings, the dull, persistent ache of realizing that the hope of reshaping your life with someone isn’t going to work out, again. I know the giddy glow of finally getting to know and love myself, and I know how the loneliness swoops in at a rush, extinguishing the lights and leaving me low. And I know that it departs swiftly and mysteriously these days. The only thing I don’t know is what’s next. But I’m curious.

Love, Cath

On Music, Muscle Memory, and Mattering

By Catherine DiMercurio

One of my earliest memories is of sitting next to my maternal grandmother, my Busia, on the bench in front of her shiny, black piano. She was a beautiful pianist and she was teaching me to play. I don’t remember much about how I felt about the music, but I loved being next to her. I felt safe and good. With her soft, dry hands she would position my fingers over the keys.

Photo by Bryan Geraldo on Pexels.com

The essay I thought I wanted to write came to me all at once, and it began there, on my grandmother’s piano bench. It was about the way the ensuing lack of music education in my life shaped me, the way some absences do. And while this version of my history is not wholly untrue, something felt . . . out of tune.

At home, we had a piano in the basement, and I remember not wanting to go down there because it was cold and I didn’t like being by myself in the basement, but that’s where I had to practice. I plunked away at “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” But it wasn’t the same, sitting there by myself. And then, we moved to a small apartment, and we couldn’t take the piano. We still saw my grandparents frequently, but somehow the piano lessons drifted away.

Later, I wanted to get into the school band program. At my school, fifth grade was when students could select an instrument and join the program. My sisters before me had elected to do so, with one on the clarinet, and the other on the trumpet, but they didn’t continue for very long. I longed to play the saxophone. Instruments were, and are, expensive and my sisters’ instruments were used. M y family suffered a financial setback, and buying another instrument, for me, wasn’t in the cards. (My younger brother would go on to play the saxophone, and my baby sister, born after I was in college, would excel at the flute.) Somewhere along the line, I turned to writing. Cost was not a factor here. I began with a diary and a journal full of poetry.

I think, in that almost-essay, I was looking for my “origin story,” as a writer, and believed I had found it once I began excavating these memories of my desire to pursue music and how I turned to writing. But the fact is, I didn’t find writing because of a thwarted musical pursuit. I think if I had connected with music more, I would have gone after it again and again and again, which is what I did with my writing.

As an adult, I have periodically tried to teach myself piano, with the help of a keyboard my ex-husband and I bought for the kids one year. No one played it much, the kids gravitating toward stringed instruments and excelling in their middle and high school orchestras on the violin and cello. Trying to teach myself piano was a struggle. So many things are easier to learn when you are young. Still, I sing around the house, old songs that get stuck in my head, little songs I make up on dog walks. I sing in the shower and in the car. It isn’t as if music-making is completely absent from my life.

But all this thinking about the way music wasn’t a part of me the way it might have been underscored something else that I’ve been feeling lately. It’s as if I’m caught between two things: wanting my existence right now to have been imbued with a history that it wasn’t, and trying to figure out how to make the future what I want it to be. I wonder which dreams it’s too late for, and which are the ones to pursue.

There is a poem by W. S. Merwin, “Separation,” that reads: “Your absence has gone through me / Like thread through a needle. / Everything I do is stitched with its color.”

I read that and I thought about several things at once. One was music. I romanticized the absence of it in my life. And though I have truly felt that absence as a pervasive presence in my life, I think I was using the music thing as a cover. Was I actually feeling the pain of a different absence? I thought about my past romantic relationships. I don’t feel the way Merwin describes in his poem about any of men from my past. When my marriage ended, I did feel that way, but not about who my ex-husband was at the time. I was mourning who he used to be, what we’d once been to each other, and that’s what stitched its way through everything that I did for some time. Still, that feeling has dissipated to a faint echo over time.

But I wonder now if the reason that poem resonated so much with me is because I gave so much of myself away for so long. To the world, when I wanted to be accepted, to the men in my life, when I wanted to feel as fully loved as I was loving them. Maybe the true absence that has threaded its way through everything was me, the me that was loving everyone else so fiercely because I never even knew that you were supposed to love yourself. And by the time I learned how important that was, I had no muscle memory for it, just like I have no muscle memory for piano. A few piano lessons when I was very young did not etch themselves within me, nor did any innate self-love I possessed survive what the rest of my life was teaching me, that selflessness was a virtue, that pride was a sin, arrogance unattractive. Many women of my generation had a similar experience, where we heard mixed messages: you can be anything you want, but also, cultural and religious messages told us not to be too bossy or smart or sexual or strange or confident. Reveling in one’s self-ness was selfish.

An old friend and I were talking recently about enough-ness, about a self-identity not constructed out of purpose and mattering. There are [rare] times when I believe with my whole being that regardless of anything that I’m pursuing or achieving, I am enough. That be-ing is enough purpose in my life. But more often than not, I feel compelled to demonstrate worth, to feel like I’ve accomplished something, to have a larger purpose. To matter. But isn’t it enough to be the central thread stitched through my own story?

It’s no wonder then, that something in me wanted to push toward an origin story, to shine a light on something that underscores who I am, and what I want to continue to be. There is a type of coming of age story, a subcategory for coming of age as an artist: Künstlerroman. I wanted that story. I’ve talked to other writers who identified music as an artform they pursued before they found writing. They mention ways in which a serious musical pursuit was thwarted for them, so writing both filled that artistic need and opened new doors for them. Maybe I wanted a little bit of that, something like an artist’s journey, as if my sitting in my bedroom with a little grass green notebook—which I still have—penciling in poetry was not the beginning of a story that mattered.

Yesterday I took the day off work. I was feeling myself spinning out and away like a loose spool of thread, coming all undone. I made sourdough pancakes and listened to BBC world news while I ate breakfast. I stared out of the window at leaves I have no intention of raking anytime soon. I hoped the dogs would continue to sleep quietly and not need anything from me so I could just be. Self-love can be as difficult to learn as the piano, but I have learned enough to know when I need to regroup. I’m trying to hold on to being over mattering, to enough-ness. I’m focusing on being a bright thread stitching its way through everything, instead of letting my own absence weave its way through my story. Maybe one day I’ll develop more muscle memory for it, and my heart will know how to do it as effortlessly as my fingers can fly over this keyboard, typing out these essays, which are really just a kind of love letter, from me to you, and me to me.

Love, Cath

On Stories, Journeys, Maps, and Signs

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes, all we want is a sign.

Recently, I wrote a short story with a happy ending. Or, more accurately, I finally wrote the happy ending to a story I thought I was done with. I write a lot about broken relationships and wounded people who are trying to find their way toward new versions of themselves or new love. I write about them in various stages of this process. I’ve imagined people in their 20s and people in their 80s struggling with different versions of this same journey. The stories end not hopelessly, but with some acknowledgment that the journey is long, and not over.

I’d been revising this particular story, taking a fresh look at it the beginning of it for a workshop. As I worked deeper into the story, I suddenly began to see a richer ending taking shape, one that moved the characters past the moment of not being able to connect with one another. As I read the last scene I’d written, I sensed what was supposed to happen next, able now to imagine these two people drawing on the bravery they both possessed in order to be emotionally honest with one another and finally move toward one another. Maybe it’s less artful now, with its happy ending. So many short stories end in ways that leave you thinking and wondering, and maybe I still won’t be able to place it with a literary journal. It’s too soon to tell. But, either way, I feel as though I achieved something with this story.

I was not capable of writing that ending to the story before now. I could not have written it one year ago, and I certainly couldn’t have written it eight years ago. It’s not that I couldn’t envision such an ending, but I felt stuck in a way, or, unable to unstick the words from my throat. Confused about how to unravel the fibers, comprehend them, and knit them back together into meaningful sentences, though I felt all the fine threads in my hands. There were insights that eluded me, and that I didn’t know were eluding me. How often do we feel that way, that everything is right in front of us but we can’t see what we need to? So often, we make do with what we can. We show up with everything we’ve been able to make sense of and everything we haven’t, because, what else can we do?

Journeys take a long time, and often long stretches happen in the dark. It’s no wonder we want to look for signs that tell us we are on the right path, that things are coming together, that we are getting unstuck. It is easy to notice things that we hope are signs, once we are looking.

(A yellow butterfly crosses your path while a meaningful song is playing. You once again happen to glance at the clock and the time is your birthday. As passcode for a two-factor verification comes up as 123456. A moth patiently waits for you to save it from death by lightbulb and you do. On a dating app, you see a picture of a man with a crow behind him on a fencepost. You see this picture just after you’ve finished writing a story with a happy ending, a story that happens to prominently feature a crow. [Yes, I commented on his crow picture. No, he did not message me back.])

Photo by Alfonso Ramirez on Pexels.com

Often, I find myself believing that there is no “right” path. And if that’s the case, what need have I of signs to verify that I’m on it? There is no timeline, nor a single trajectory that you follow to get from one point to another, from the point of hurt to healed, over it, better. Still, sometimes we feel a sort of peace settling in over scars, like gold dust or starlight, and we feel soothed, sometimes even shining and spectacular. We can notice that things feel aligned, or balanced, or magical, if only for a moment. We can take all of this as validation that we are doing something well, even if there is no right path, no one way to go.

This bears repeating. I find my self craving answers sometimes to specific questions: should I do this thing or that? Is it the right time to take this step? And though I agonize over the details of these questions in my head, when my heart raises its voice through all that clatter it asks am I doing this right? Is this okay? Am I on the right path? Deep down, essentially, all I really want is to know what I already know. I’ve got this. I’m doing this right. Everything is going to be okay. And the feeling I get when I see the things that feel like signs to me is one of peace. The voice I hear is one telling me you’re doing well. I think I’m not actually looking for a sign that I should get back on Bumble or whatever. I simply want to know that the decisions I make – about anything – are well-fashioned out of awareness, and contemplation, and self-trust. Sometimes, what we really seek is the validation that we are doing/living/being well, and that this path or that, while not inconsequential, matters less than trusting ourselves to do what feels true and good for us.

The way forward after the low points in our lives is a blue-veined map across the surface of our souls. We follow paths that make sense at the time, and find our way back to our heart, and we leave again, replenished but uncertain about where we’re supposed to go next.

Autumn is a good season to pause, consider your surroundings. The days are getting shorter but for the moment, there is a pleasant balance between activity and restfulness, at least for a little while. When you think about the next steps you want to take, consider whether you need some time to get to know your own heart again. Take a visit back, refresh yourself. Consider too, if you’re heading out once more, that there’s no one right way. You don’t have to pursue whatever it is the world has told you should have by now. You get to do it your way, and if you find yourself looking for signs maybe it’s because you already know whatever it is you’re trying to validate.

But it’s okay to want the sign. It’s okay to crave the sight of crows settling in trees at dusk, or cardinals leading the way on your morning walk, or days when your favorite number keeps popping up everywhere. Dreams of pets who have passed, or the same old song turning up on different radio stations multiple times a day, the butterfly that lands on your shoulder or the cricket that has hitched a ride in your car. Whatever it is that strikes you as special, unusual, take in these signs and cherish them. Then figure out what it is that your heart already knows. Maybe it’s just waiting for the rest of you to catch up.

Love, Cath

On Windmills and Waterfalls, Dreaming and Doing

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we have to protect and feed our energy.

I love a morning moon. Recently I stood under a 5 a.m. waning gibbous, after the harvest moon. I’m not sure what planet glowed nearby but between the moon, the planet, the still bright stars, and a symphony of crickets, letting the dogs out that early was quite pleasant. It was good energy to begin the day on.

I’ve been thinking a lot about energy lately. My sister recently told me about a dream she had, involving the two of us and a windmill and a waterfall. I feel things churning toward change, as if I’m at some sort of turning point but I haven’t yet discerned what’s next or where exactly I am. I liked the symbols of energy and power she spoke of.

Photo by JACQUES BARBARY on Pexels.com

I’ve had strange dreams about energy as well. One was about electrical cords that were plugged in in strange places, like across the room instead of the nearest outlet, so I was always tripping over them. Another was about a horse. My kids and dogs and I were in the pen with him, and he was alternately restless and bucking, or nuzzling us. Finally, we realized he was hungry, and after we fed him, he was content. This beautiful creature was trying to tell me something simple and urgent, and was getting impatient that I couldn’t figure it out. These dreams left me feeling as though I should be doing something.

On another recent morning, I stood outside at dawn, and white clouds blanketed the sky. I couldn’t get a sense of the sun rising so much as the sky began to lighten every so gradually. And I thought, maybe some transitions are like that. Soft, quiet, and so subtle you don’t notice they’re happening. So unobtrusive you can’t tell where the light is coming from. They are not full of do-ing energy but with be-ing energy.

What is the right balance between energetically pursuing your dreams and patiently waiting for your efforts to pay off? When I look at where I am, what I’m doing, and what I want, it’s unclear where I should focus my energy. Sort of. I am pursuing my writing goals; I’m not yet it a position to pursue my dream of living by woods or water; I’m feeding my creative needs not only with writing but with pottery; I’m maintaining friendships, and trying to be a good dog guardian, and doing my best to be there for my kids to the extent that they still need me to be. But a question mark hovers in the relationship category.

For a long time, I thought if I experienced loneliness, then I was not doing the “being on my own” thing properly. As if I had to prove that solo was perfect and right for me by being fine all the time. But everyone gets lonely. That doesn’t mean I’m failing. Occasional loneliness is a normal thing for everyone, for people in relationships and for people not in relationships. There are going to be times when the feeling crests, but that doesn’t mean it has to swallow us up.

I was hiking this weekend, and while I often find a friend to go with, on this occasion, my usual hiking buddies were busy, so I went alone. I was excited to explore a different part of my usual trail. While doing so, a couple came up behind me. They were walking a bit faster than I was, and to avoid a prolonged period of stalking right at my heels, they said to one another, “want to do a little trot here?” and they jogged past me and got far enough ahead that I wouldn’t be encroaching on them.

When I thought of the ease they had with one another, and having heard snippets of their conversation, I felt a sudden piercing burst of loneliness that brought tears to my eyes. How beautiful to have a likeminded partner to share a hike with, to be so familiar with one another that the conversation flows, and you instinctively communicate with one another on the trail. I thought of my past relationships, and how little we actually had in common in terms of how we enjoyed spending our free time. It’s easy in a moment of loneliness to slide further and further into the past. But I also had the very conscious thought that I did not want to let this bitter pang to continue intruding on my current joy.

I remembered something—a tool to help ground you when you’re feeling anxiety or grief taking over. I knew I needed to firmly root myself into the present moment, the beautiful experience I was having out in the world, not the twists and turns inside my head and heart. I reached out, letting my fingertips skim the bark of a beech tree, and then the next tree, and the next. I took deep breaths of woodsy air, warm and humid on this September morning. I looked down. At my feet was a fallen yellow leaf, of a shape I couldn’t quite identify. It didn’t look like anything around it. I thought it was vaguely poplar shaped, but oddly asymmetrical. I carried it with me, rubbing it between my fingers as though it were a talisman helping me ward off evil.

Because it was. Not that our emotions themselves are evil. But here’s the thing. There’s a difference between noticing/feeling your emotions and having them bond with anxiety in that toxic way they sometimes do. Anxiety distorts our emotions, mutates them. It’s a bad combo. I saw that beautiful couple being awesome in the woods together, and the emotions came at me hard and fast. Grief, loneliness, the confusion of “have I ever had that?” I felt it all in an instant. But I knew anxiety was kicking in when I began to ask the “what if” questions. What if I never find it, etc. That’s when I reached out to the trees for help. We have to know when to reach out.

Funny that I found a little distorted leaf that looked like it didn’t belong anywhere since that’s exactly how I was feeling. It’s like the woods were saying, “you’re not alone.” And that’s also when I realized that feeling lonely doesn’t undermine any progress we’ve made with self-trust and healing. It is simply another emotion. We notice it, feel it, and it’s a good sign when we can prevent it from pairing up with anxiety.

I was pleased that I’d managed to hold onto the good energy, to nurture it. But what of the other energy, the dream energy that seemed to be urging me to do, to act. Was it relationship related? Am I ready to try again? Or is it better to simply be, be me, be open to possibility, to wait and see what happens?

So much of what we want in life, so many of our dreams, are not entirely within our control, so it’s no wonder that it’s confusing when we consider how much energy to put into something. I think we have to listen to what our dreams are pointing us to, but they can be hard to interpret. Maybe the doing my subconscious was hinting at was about simply protecting my own energy. Not wasting it. Feeding it. Maybe it was about reassurance, a reminder to keep tending and keep trusting.

Love, Cath

On Love Letters and Pancakes

By Catherine DiMercurio

Pancakes are love letters I write to myself on weekend mornings. Yesterday’s were slathered in vegan butter and a syrup made from mixed berries and turbinado sugar, since, shockingly, I was out of maple syrup. I have a long history with pancake-as-love-letter. I used to make them for my family when the kids were little. It was a favorite treat. Every once in a while, if I was up early, I’d make them on a school morning and the kids would be surprised and delighted to have a break from their usual school morning fare of toast and tofu, cereal, frozen hashbrown patties hastily heated, smoothies, or whatever else we threw together. When we’d have neighbor kids over for a sleepover, I could easily be cajoled into making chocolate chip pancakes. All of this was a way for me to say, let me do this for you, make you feel welcome and delighted and full-bellied. Comforted and loved.

Messy but tasty.

Once, when my marriage was building toward its demise, and it seemed like my husband had gradually evolved into someone I didn’t know, who didn’t know me, I made pancakes on a Saturday morning and called the family to the table for breakfast. He sat down, reluctantly, in front of the steaming plate of love letters I’d placed in front of him. “I don’t really like pancakes,” he said. He didn’t even say “anymore,” as I recall. It was as if he was telling me that all along, he’d never liked them, and all along, he’d let me labor under the delusion of my delight in feeding him this treat. All along, what I knew and what I thought I knew were different things. Some seemingly mundane moments like this etch themselves into your soul and you try and talk yourself out of letting them mean too much, but later you are able to understand why it hurt so much more than it “should” have.

Later, after the divorce, after the rebound boyfriend summoned from my college days (for whom I made gluten-free pancakes), my first real new boyfriend spent the night for the first time while the kids were away. I made him pancakes in the morning. I delighted in how much he enjoyed them, how pleased he seemed to be in my space, sitting at the dining room table with me over pancakes and my syrupy love notes. I fell in love easily then, though that relationship did not last long, nor did the one that followed. I have a pancake story for that one too, but like most of the love notes I offered then, the reception was lukewarm.

Now I make pancakes for myself and it still feels like a special treat. Yesterday, I needed to feel taken care of, so I made myself the aforementioned pancakes. It started out just as something that sounded good but as I began mixing the batter, I thought of how satisfied I felt whenever I bothered to make myself a good meal instead of just scraping something together because it’s “just me.” So I completed the task with more deliberateness, thinking about why I was feeling the need for care in this moment, and also being grateful for being tuned in to what I needed. Even just months ago, it was challenging for me to consider both what I needed and figure out a way to get it. It was no easy task to make myself feel loved. To allow myself to feel loved. By the people in my life, by myself. Being partnerless felt burdensome, heavy, huge. It felt like an enormous cloud that shadowed my life. I felt that, theoretically, I loved myself, but I sort of waved away the notion that such knowledge could do anything to assuage my grief or loneliness. Now, I’m able to enact that love in different ways, to sit with emotions that need attention, to take comfort in a thoughtfully made meal, to pull myself away from the damaging loop of anxiety-thoughts by going for a walk or heading to the pottery studio or playing with the dogs.

It’s taken me so long to learn how to connect all these dots. For most of my life the messaging around me was that there was something wrong with prioritizing oneself. We don’t really learn how to do it. I didn’t. Or that we can, or should. For me, it has been so much easier to do now that I haven’t been in a relationship for a while. A year ago, I would not have imagined that I would come to think of the ending of my relationship as a gift. At the time, I felt I was making a healthy decision for myself but it was still a painful process and a grieved ending. It has taken me these many months to get to the point where, beyond knowing what I want in the next relationship (when/if that happens for me), I know myself so much better. Further, I know myself better for the sake of myself, not for the sake of any past, present, or future relationship. In the years since my divorce, I’ve been doing this work, but having this time entirely to myself for the past year has allowed me to further those efforts, to be more conscious, aware, and deliberate about my wants, needs, choices, preferences, and so on. To be clearer about my motivations and my triggers.  

Obviously, as a human, I still desire external validation, connection, conversation, etc. I’m learning what it means to feel wholeness and peace and at the same time desire connection and community. They aren’t mutually exclusive. I also have bad days where nothing seems to help. I’m still a work-in-progress. We all are, and there is so much beauty in that. The people I’m most drawn to are those who possess that same awareness. 

Pancakes are not the only love letters I write to myself. When I look around my space and see houseplants in every room and jars of found objects—pinecones, driftwood, rocks—I see all the ways in which I bring nature inside so that it is all around me, because it calms me and centers me. Every little stone I’ve ever pocketed or tucked inside my beach bag was a way of me saying to myself, trust me, you’re going to need this later.

So, if you’re reading this, take a moment amidst all the loud clatter and chaos that seem to be the norm of the world around us most of the time, and think about what little love note you could give yourself today. Is it cooking a comforting meal, writing an actual note, going for a walk, picking up a lucky penny? Maybe it is pouring coffee into your favorite mug, and stepping away from work for 15 minutes outside. What are the ways you’ve expressed love for others in the past that you can offer yourself now, like me and my pancakes? It’s worth thinking about. You’re worth it. I am.  

Love, Cath

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