On Feathers and Full Moons, Equinox Rain and Wheel Barrows

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we find lost things and lose sleep.

On a recent early, early morning when I couldn’t sleep, I pulled out a notepad to try and capture the things that were making me anxious and unsettled. I often can’t sleep around the time of a full moon. When I return to such notes, I’m often saddened and alarmed at how amplified my worries can be at this dark hour, how they reach and seep, inky and dark. For me, so many of the things that keep me awake at night hinge on the notion of self, on what I believe I am and am not capable of.

I think of the line from the William Carlos Williams poem: “So much depends / upon a red wheel / barrow.” So much depends on how I view myself, so much depends on the idea that I can be depended upon. On the longing to depend on myself, and the fears of falling short. So much depends upon the notion that I must be useful, effective, sturdy as a wheel barrow waiting to carry the weight and do the work.

How quickly when something isn’t going well my brain shifts all its patterns to shame. Many of us worry that we will be perceived as weak, unable to handle this or that. Not worthy of the work, not useful, not effective. Why is it, when we acknowledge that we struggle, that we are compelled to feel shame or embarrassment? I see how readily people judge one another on social media, how prevalent the notion of shame is in our society, a hungry mouth fed by religion and class or other similarly contrived ideas about worth.

I often wonder how to let go of expectation – mine and yours. Is it an act of will or fatigue?

What I wrote on that sleepless notepad was this: If hope is the thing with feathers (as Emily Dickinson suggested) then I must be doing it wrong, because there is no downy softness, no lightness, no promise of flight. And I have felt it leaving me sometimes, like a lover in the early morning. I have wondered if hope is more thorn than feather, but maybe I’m getting it mixed up with something else. Expectation, maybe.

Sometimes I try and think about what connects us all, and I think about love and loss. We have all loved and lost in so many ways, yet we get stuck in our own heads. I do. I get stuck. It’s easy to do, isn’t it? So much of life is pulling oneself out of the muck. For some of us, it takes a lot of endeavoring to cleave to the higher ground, to keep our perspective focused on what moves us forward instead of what is wrong, what has gone wrong, what might go wrong. Our accumulated griefs are heavy and they conspire against us in the form of fear of future pain. We anguish over the possible fading of strength and loss of will to do heavy work, to carry and pull our weight.

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The persistent rain outside my window has erased the steamy summer days that preceded it. It is an equinox rain and you can feel autumn in the space between the rain drops. I have set things in motion to look forward to this fall – a writing weekend away, a pottery workshop, a pile of books that I vow to turn to instead of collapsing in front of the television at the end of a workday. I know that when I feel as though I’m falling, I have to throw myself a rope here and there in the near future. Maybe that can be another thing that connects us.

A few moments ago, I heard a bird singing in this downpour. I thought it strange, wanted it to seek shelter. But also, I considered the rest of Dickinson’s opening stanza:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

And then some magic drew me into its circle again. It is often like this for me when the changing season corresponds to a personal transition. Things feel weighty and moods shift in pendulum parabolas. It is a time of deep thinking, of reflection on where I’ve been and where I’m going. This is my way. I’m not sure I truly was cognizant of it before now, the way sleeplessness coincides with full moons, and a deep sense of reckoning coincides with changing seasons.

This is what writing does for me. It crystalizes things, translates and distills it all, so I know what to focus on. Some people find this through nature, prayer, meditation, physical exertion, this clarity. But I think we all seek it, each in our own ways, which is another thing that perhaps connects us.

This rumination begins in the middle of a stream of thought and seems to go nowhere when I read it through, but at the same time, it is doing what I need it to do. It pins down a moment, arrests a thought in flight long enough to view it a little more closely. And it reflects where I am and where I suspect a lot of us are in these turbulent times. We are uncertain, not confident, wondering what we are made of and what we will be when we grow up and into the next part of our lives. We are at once in the middle and at the end and at the beginning again, waking from a hazy dream during a full moon in the middle of the night. We are listening to a few notes of birdsong in equinox rainfall.

Wishing you wisdom and clarity.

Love, Cath

On Lake Magic and Collaboration

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we must collaborate to find magic and peace.

You think you’re doing okay. You are. You’re handling all the things this life has thrown at you. You open new little doors and through them you step into huge worlds of strength and resilience. Some nights you don’t sleep, some nights you do. You worry about what will come next and then you are in it, being what is next, and you reassure yourself. This is what life is, this is what it looks like for me, here, now. But everything takes its toll and you feel stress accumulating like mud in your cells. Your thinking and the way you move through the world feels muddy, though you know you have to keep doing it anyway. And then you manage, almost by accident, to find your way to a great big lake that lets itself feel like the edge of everything, and the instant your toes are greeted by the first big wave crashing then lapping up to meet you, you begin to cry. Is this relief? Release? Something seems to wash away, weight seems to fall away from your tired shoulders. It is as if your lungs have filled fully for the first time in who knows.

Sometimes it is like that. Sometimes we fall into a moment where we can, at long last, regroup and breathe deeply.

I have always known that being near a body of water calms me. When I say that, it doesn’t feel like it truly conveys what I need it to. It’s not simply that I was feeling a little stressed and can relax now. It feels more like an elemental return to self. Most people who know me have heard me say something about how it has long been my dream to live in a little cottage on a lake. I do hope one day I can figure out how to make that happen. Until then, I know that I must create more opportunities to wind my way toward water.

Lake Michigan works magic well, but it wasn’t just the lake. It was spending time with my sister. It was both of us and both of our families figuring out how to let us place on hold all the other things that require our attention, and all of us letting us have this.

It was us a collaborative effort to build open space.

I’m tuned in to this notion of collaboration lately. When I think about dating again, about trying once more to find someone with whom I’m compatible and who also wants the same thing for the future that I do, I realize that I want a collaborator. Someone who wants to build what we have and where we are going, together, as equal partners with different strengths and weaknesses.

I realize, too, the extent to which the various parts of myself need to collaborate with each other in order to pursue dreams, to calm anxiety, to find rest when it is needed, or motivation when it is time to roll up sleeves and get to work.

Part of that process involves making peace with myself for all the things that Weren’t Supposed to Be This Way. For all the reshaping I tried to do that ended up collapsing in on itself anyway, like a carefully built sand castle eroded by waves.

Letting go of things we need to be free of is as difficult as it is necessary. But, there is no magical process. One of the reasons it is so hard to let go of past griefs and experiences is that as much as we want to forget, there is a fear that if we do forget, we might repeat mistakes. Our mammalian minds and bodies know that a remembered pain can trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response that can, theoretically, protect us. That sometimes does protect us. And so, moved by the tremendous force of instinct, we hang on to what hurts. We need to override this sometimes, and it takes conscious effort. It takes learning about ourselves layer by layer.

One way to override this instinctual response within us is to understand that a lot of the anxiety we shoulder on a day-to-day basis is a companion of this pain, because it is fear of future pain. For me, addressing this requires me to remind myself of what I’ve handled, of what I’m capable of. It makes the prospect of future pain less frightening. We have to work together, collaborate, the part of me that doubts myself and the part of me that knows better. No one is handing out gold stars for the millions of things we have taken care of and continue to manage. We just do it, and sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s messy.

Only after layers of lessons have accumulated can you see the beauty in what you created out of trouble and tears. You become able to acknowledge what you were willing and able to do for yourself, in honor of yourself, in service of yourself.

If you’ve ever harbored a secret notion to be delivered from what you’re struggling with, take a moment now to look at what you’ve accomplished. Take a moment to breathe deeply and see yourself with fresh sight, to see the beauty in your strength, in the variegated patina of your experience.

So often, we push through things that we never give ourselves credit for. And because we don’t, we have not cultivated an accurate understanding of ourselves, our worth, our strength. If we take the time to do that every so often, we can find a bit of peace, we can let go of the anxiety that spools through us, binding us tighter and tighter to fear and pain. We can do this because we do know what we can handle.

In a few days, I’m going to have to handle a new transition, my son moving off to college (again). We did this before, last fall, knowing he would be home for the summer. But the dorms closed and he moved back home at Thanksgiving. He’s a good roomie, I’m going to miss him. He’s ready for the next part. I mostly am, but this time is different. After he moves, he likely won’t live at home again. And when I return home, it won’t be like last year, when I was cultivating a relationship. This year, I’ll be empty nesting without a partner. There is much to look forward to, but I know the transition is likely to be bumpy at times. I will be cultivating and collaborating, but in a different direction.

Whatever your next transition is, I wish you peace and strength. I hope you are able to collaborate with self, and with your people, to create space for relief and growth. And I’m wishing us all a little lake magic, too.

Love, Cath

From Dissection to Healing to Magic

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes it takes science and fairy tales to get there.

Sometimes I feel as though I cannot get out of my own head, and that this is a blessing and a curse. When I think of the events of the past year, around the globe and in our country, is it any wonder that a person would want to escape? At the same time, seated at the shiny black lab table in my brain, dissecting the minutiae of what is working and what isn’t, on a less global, more personal level, thinking of what was, and what could be, and what won’t be, is exhausting.

I remember my advanced biology class, the eviscerated fetal pig in front of me – a tough memory for a vegan, no doubt – and labeling a diagram. I remember the smell of formaldehyde. Who could forget the sour chemical pungency of that smell? Near the end of the semester, late May, perhaps, I sat in Mrs. Fitzgerald’s class, and the windows were open, and the air was warm and heavy. The faint breeze that huffed in through the window did little to dissipate the odors in the room. The paper in front of me, next to my tray of pig, was limp from humidity, and I can see myself sitting there with a scalpel in my hand.

I think, how like that I sometimes feel now, attempting to take an objective scientific look at myself, my brain, my heart. Everything in front me.

Thinking analytically about self is no easy task. It is one part of what we talk about when we say we are doing the work. When I say we here, I mean the people I talk to who are also endeavoring through intentionality to figure out their lives and relationships. Rolling up our sleeves and doing the tough thinking about who we are, who we were, who we want to be. Where are we going and how we get there. The other part of this endeavor is messier. It is the grieving that happens when we follow certain lines of thinking, tracing the paths of arteries back to the heart.

Lately, I’ve been doing this analytical work, and following all the emotions that accompany it. It is painstaking work that involves patience, which I’ve never been very good at, and also why I would have made a poor scientist.

The universe insists on patience, whether or not we are good at it, whether or not we are overcome by a sense of urgency.

There are many ways people talk about what they carry and what they are working through. Sometimes we use terms like weight, or wounds or scars. What I’m beginning to understand is that maybe, though we are focused on this work, though we tend what needs attention with a sense of urgency, frustration, and impatience, we also must focus on the rest of us.

What I mean is this: When we are injured, we care for the wound, but also know that we need our bodies to be strong and healthy in order to heal, so we make sure we are eating the right foods, getting enough sleep, etc. When we meet people, if the injury is obvious, involving a cast, or bandages or crutches, that is likely going to be the first thing they notice about us. We, and they, are rightly focused on this Big Thing that has happened and is now a part of our lives.

Similarly, when we are heart-sore and soul-wounded from large-scale psychic pain and grief, it is just as obvious to the world around us as a broken leg in a cast. But over time, those injuries that may still cause us pain become less apparent to the world at large, just as a once-broken bone may always cause us an ache that no one else can see.

What I’m learning is this: there is a point in our healing process where our focus is able to shift from the wound, the scar, the weight, to the rest of us, to the whole self. And when we are ready, we will let it. We will welcome it.

A holistic view of self neither privileges nor ignores injury. Likewise, it does not privilege or ignore what is healthy and healed.

It is said that some people lead with their hearts, some with their heads. And by lead, I mean, lead themselves, through life. I think, when a heart has been busy healing from new bruising upon old trauma, a person tends to lead with that, with the weight, the wounds. It’s hard not to, when that’s what you’ve been focused on for so long, in an effort to transcend the past.

But, think of this: in a garden, you water the healthy plants and the sick ones. In a writing workshop, you focus both on what’s working and what isn’t. Some of us, perfectionists or people who have otherwise developed a strong compulsion toward proving themselves, can only seem to focus on what needs improving, and do so in a way that presents itself as hyper-self-criticism. We look at this intense attention to what needs to be done as necessary and good, but if we spend too much time and too much energy on that endeavor, we are effectively abandoning the rest of ourselves.

People say, know your worth, and if you’ve been in the process of recovering and healing, it isn’t as if you don’t, but it certainly hasn’t been your area of focus.

We are told that if we do not heal past traumas, we are doomed to repeat destructive patterns. Yet, the notion of healing is a blurry one. We dissect, we study, we grieve, and we do this over and over, trying with each attempt to understand our whole heart and mind more fully.

There are always going to be moments where we shift our attention once again to those old, troubling wounds, but if you have been focusing primarily on that, with an urgent desire to heal, this might be the time and place to say, enough. We might imagine a doctor hovering over healed sutures saying, well, you’re always going to have that scar, but you’re pretty much good to go.

We might imagine ourselves hovering over that poor dissected creature in front of us, saying I’ve learned everything I could from you. Thank you for your sacrifice. Place the scalpel on the table and walk away.

We turn our attention to self as a whole organism and instead of cataloging the injuries that have cried out for healing, we count them as tended to. The analytical part of us can now assess the new being that we now are, scars and all. If we are list makers, we begin a new one. We start small. We think of praise that we received as a child, what we were we good at. We cobble together a collection of our accomplishments, our strengths, big and small.

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We soon realize that we are doing more than cobbling. We are cracking something open, like a fairytale egg, and what’s inside is something we’ve been hoarding without knowing it – all of the good things, the joyful things, the brilliant unwounded, indestructible, infinite parts of ourselves gifted from the cosmos. We sigh, pleased with our magic, and think, there you are, and are reunited with ourselves.  

Love, Cath

On Truces and Getting Back to True

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes life feels like a strange kind of algebra.

“Truce?” I say. I say this to myself one morning as I fill the kettle. Moments before, I had been staring into the bathroom mirror, questioning my decision to let my hair do as it likes, which is grow unruly streaks of silver. I also tried out different expressions, ones that tried to let my face look more like I remember. Big smile. No smile. Head tilted this way, that way. I gave up, made the coffee, begged myself for some peace.

I am knocking around in this unfamiliar place, in this almost-fifty-one year-old structure, which houses a self that often feels like it doesn’t belong to these bones. But I realized that morning, as I waved my white flag, that this was about more than physical aging. I was doing calculations, I was adding up what could be counted as victories in recent years, subtracting the things that feel like failures, taking into account the variables.

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There is the feeling I had in my algebra class long ago. I’d done the torturous calculations and felt uncertain but hopeful about my answer, and then checked the back of the book and realized that no, my answer wasn’t right after all. “I hate this,” I’d say. I even had the moxie to say it to my algebra teacher once. He was encouraging me to keep pursuing advanced mathematics courses, in high school, and later, in college. “No, you don’t,” he told me. “You can’t be this good at something and hate it.” It didn’t make sense to me. I was getting an A in the class, but it didn’t feel as if I was good at it. I was good at my English classes, and I knew I was good, because not only was I getting an A, but those classes were easy for me. And even when they weren’t easy, the hard work felt . . . right. I somehow knew I had the tools I needed to succeed. But algebra, physics, geometry, trigonometry – these were all different. I couldn’t be good at something that remained confusing even when the correct answer was achieved.

So, when I look at my life now, approaching another birthday, single again, physical appearance shifting, still reaching toward goals that aren’t being achieved at the pace I’d hoped, I feel at times that I’m at war with myself. There is a new clarity here, now, in writing that sentence, in voicing it aloud. Often, it feels as though I must be doing it incorrectly. Living. Aging. Being. Working. Right answers are supposed to feel certain, true. And even if you must work hard to get them, that work is supposed to make sense. When it doesn’t, everything feels like algebra.  

I wonder sometimes if I should write such things down and share them. But I have to believe, if we are being honest with ourselves, that everyone feels like this at various points in their life. And if we can be honest with ourselves, then we can be honest with each other, which allows us to communicate with one another in the same language. We can connect more truly and deeply with one another. And why else are we bumping around here on this rock floating in space, if not to try and understand each other?

Often, for me, when one element of my life has been thrown askew, everything seems off. I recently purchased a new bike and had been reading about the differences between disc brakes and rim brakes. I came across the phrase, “out of true.” As in, what happens with the braking when the wheel is out of true. The recent ending of my relationship surely has thrown my heart out of true, and I’m feeling the need to fine-tune the way I look at my whole self.

One thing that has helped this process has been reconnecting myself to a writing community, via a workshop I’ve recently become a part of. We met for the first time, over Zoom, and afterward, though we haven’t even shared any writing yet, I breathed deeply for the first time in weeks. I had a tremendous sense of relief that something was making sense once again. And lots of other feelings began to settle down. It is as if writing – and not only me writing alone in this room, but the act of cultivating my writing and my writing life and my writing friendships – is one of the tools I can use to fine tune everything that feels out of true.

As I’ve written in previous posts, writing is the surest, truest path for me to get back to me. We all have our own paths. What are yours? Do you think about them? What do you do, when you feel out of true?

Writing though, as magic as it is, isn’t a panacea. This feeling of being at war with myself calms when I’m exploring and discovering and creating with my writing, or when I’m focused on other things like gardening, but the work of peace-making with myself is complex. Writing can help me work through what needs to be considered and evaluated and re-conceptualized, but I suspect the process will be long, gradual, painful, and largely algebraic. It is a consideration of variables, of working with unknown values, of getting it wrong and then starting again. I have just realized, in writing that sentence, that writing involves the same things: variables, unknown values, failures, new attempts. Maybe this is how the war ends. Maybe reconciliation with self is simply the realization that things are as they are, that they take the work and the time and the patience and the love that they do. That realities don’t change. Whether I’m in algebra or English class, the problems are quite similar, and hard work is hard.

Maybe the trick is knowing which perspectives to shift into depending on what is going on in our lives at any particular time, just the way we shift gears to adapt to changes in the terrain beneath our wheels.

Here’s to getting back to true.

Love, Cath

On Wildishness: Brambleberries, Books, and the Blue Path

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes no paths are marked, but we keep finding our way.

Last week:

Outside it is glowing green. The heavy cloud cover is too much for the early morning sun to shine through much, but there is a strange brightness to the world. The sycamore branches hang low, forming an enchanted canopy over the front yard. The lawn, more clover than grass, needs mowing, but I don’t know if the respite from the rain will last long enough. I can see, through this big window, the plants I inherited, and those I lovingly introduced into my own little ecoscape. I can see in my efforts several themes: a disregard for research, for the details of what will thrive where; a passion for the hues and textures I love, the pinks of the cosmos, the fuzzy white surface of angel’s wing leaf; two competing desires – to create order from chaos, and to let things be at least half-wild.

It has rained so continually and with such force in recent days that many people have experienced flooding. I am lucky. For me, only this: the yard is puddled, the dogs’ paws are perpetually muddy, the firepit is full of rainwater, and the pages of my library book are noticeably limp from the humidity.

I look for a place to shelve my heartache. It has no call number, like the library book on the sofa next to me. There’s no order for it, no alpha, by author, though that is an intriguing thought if you follow it.

A Few Days Ago:

The weather has turned blisteringly hot again, and the humidity is ever-present. The AC is still broken, but I have finally scheduled the repair. Sometimes such mundane tasks seem overwhelming.

At times, I feel heaved, in the way that land masses heave in an earthquake. Emotions upend one another, and I list, unbalanced. And I make a list: what I want. I don’t know how to make the next list: how to get there. I do not know how to map the new topography. Each time I find myself alone, unpartnered, the landscape looks different. I am different, changed.

The puppy is eight months old now, and over 62 pounds, and wants to eat constantly. I have 30 minutes to write. I have walked both dogs, separately. I need to begin work soon. I give myself 30 minutes, but the puppy begins to bark at the food cupboard. His empty stomach and growing body will not wait. I think of all the things in me that are growing, that feel snarled and surly, and which also do not want to wait. I feed the dogs. I make sure no one fights over food. The clock ticks.

Last night at dusk I picked the wildish berries growing in the yard. I call them brambleberries, my sister told me they were black caps. The setting sun lit up a giant fluff of cloud till it glowed pink, and I tried to capture it all and save it, this simple moment that offered a spark of joy. I try to collect them, such joyful moments, like the fireflies the puppy chases, like a handful of brambleberries.

My thoughts are everywhere lately, in the past, the present, the future, everywhere at once it feels, as though the hourglass has become a snow globe, and all the seconds are all happening at once. I wait for things to slow, and to settle.

Today:

Today I am making a blueberry crisp. I have walked the dogs. The puppy lunged at every robin and sparrow that he saw. When I woke this morning, I felt as though things were relatively manageable. It is a feeling I don’t have every day. It sometimes doesn’t last through the morning.

I think of how many times in one’s life everything cries out to be reassessed, usually at an ending, before the next beginning. I try the trick of looking at it all from different angles, seeing opportunities to grow, and I wonder, have I grown in the right directions? Maybe it is always the right direction if you can look back and realize what you have learned about yourself, when an offshoot took you down an unexpected path. Maybe.

A Couple of Weeks Ago:

My son and I went for a hike in some local woods where we’d previously had a difficult time navigating. We were determined to be observant, to stay on the path marked in blue on the map at the entrance, the path marked crudely in blue spray paint on trees and markers in the woods. It felt impossible. The trail doubled back on itself multiple times. We’d approach a crossroads, and there would be blue everywhere, in each new direction. At one point we theorized that vandals had spray painted random blue markers to be mischievous, to get people lost.

You never know when the mischievous universe will let you think you’re on the right path. Unless, there is no mischief, and it is all the blue path, and you are always going where you need to, and it isn’t always out of the woods. Though, I do believe there is always some mischief at work in the universe.

Today:

There is no place to shelve anything, none of the difficult feelings. There are no shelves, just piles of books, a wildish, half-ordered forest of them, and we find pathways through. We’ve follow our noses, our guts, or our hearts, and if we’ve learned anything it is that the only way is the way we are going.

On Want, Work, and Growth

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we will try many ways of looking before we can see.

Sometimes when we want something very badly, we will look at it from every angle, multiple times, even creating angles that are not there. Hope can do that – create prisms out of thin air. Shiny things that distract our minds and hearts from difficult truths. But at some point, the blinding brightness of the light is muted by a cloud – of anger, of fear, of sadness – and we are able to see things with a new clarity, and then, to move in the direction we need to go.

I told my sister recently that I’ve been gardening as if my life depended on it, and I wondered if it really did, in a way. Not the fact of my life itself, but the way I want it to unfold. I told her that when there is so much to do, you can hardly even tell I’ve done anything. A lot of the hard work we do can be like that. We wonder and worry about how our efforts will be perceived, though we know how we’ve endeavored.

When we say we want something “very badly” we mean this: we want it very much. Sometimes we are told that what we want is a bad thing to want. It is silly, it is pointless, it is too much, it is ill-defined, you won’t get it, the world doesn’t work that way, who do you think you are, to want such a thing? No one gets what they want. As if wanting the right thing for ourselves and our future is somehow the wrong thing to do. I suppose sometimes it is. I suppose, in some philosophies, the teaching is to eliminate wants, the way some people eliminate carbs. They are bad for us. Maybe that’s true. Or maybe we are all wired differently. Sometimes we simply must respect the differences.

We offer trellises to vines, thinking of future growth. There is planting and wanting and planning everywhere. There is growth in new directions. We are many things at once: the vine, the trellis, and the gardener who plants the vine and places the trellis. We are who we’ve been and who we want to be, as much as we are who we are in this moment. Multitudes, always.

My gardening has involved creating beds and pathways out of an overgrown, weedy, neglected area behind my garage. It was long abandoned when I arrived in this place, about a year ago, and for many reasons, I was not able to make it a top priority. Now, with more time available and some fraught and frenetic energy on hand, I got to it. Digging, planting, creating. It isn’t finished. Like everything good, it is a work-in-progress, something to always tend.

We need the work and the work needs us.

I planted a little baby of an Eastern white pine. I’d been longing to plant a pine tree for a while. I researched them. Realized many of the specimens I thought were pine trees were really spruces. Things often reveal themselves to be something other than what you thought they were.

I looked for trees months ago, but it was too early and none of the gardening or landscape stores had them yet. Then I looked too late, I thought, because I still was not finding what I was looking for. But yesterday, I found the white pine. I greeted this creature, as if knowing it already. There you are, hiding here in the back at this store I never come to. So, there’s hope I guess, buried in gardening metaphors, about timing and finding, maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard to see clearly sometimes. Remember?

My current state of mind is work- and growth-focused. Writing and gardening. Dig, prune. Wait for rain. Be patient. Blossom? Maybe. Sometimes it works out that way.

Love, Cath

On Dreams, and the Shape of Things

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the true shape of our dreams is not yet known.

Recently, I was asked to take a self-assessment for a professional development workshop. The questions were different than other personality assessments I’ve taken in the past, but the results were similar. Familiar descriptors floated to the surface: introspective, intuitive, creative, nurturing, etc. And I thought, I’ve known all this since before I had words to name these characteristics.

Some things have never been a mystery, not to me, about me.

The mystery lies elsewhere, as our known selves try to find ways to acclimate to the different environments in which they find themselves – to different homes, neighborhoods, jobs, relationships. All those always characteristics adapt into various ways of being, and we come to believe that those behaviors, those ways of expressing ourselves, are the same thing as self. But BEing and ways of being are distinct. At times, they are a close mirror of each other, and it feels as if everything is falling into its place. Then, we find a way to be in our current existence in a manner that is in near-perfect harmony with the self we have always known.

Some mornings, when it is quite early and I want to listen to the quiet in my brain, I warm up what is left of yesterday’s coffee and sit in the half-light of the living room. When there isn’t much coffee left, I add a generous pour of oat milk. It reminds me of the coffee that my mother permitted me to have as child. More milk than coffee, with a little sugar, it is not grownup coffee, and it lets my thoughts be childlike in their wanderings, without a need for order or progress. I remember that younger me having a distinct awareness of a blurriness of self, as if I knew that my consciousness resided in this body and in this existence, but could tell itself apart. I remember a particular moment, sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, looking out the window at the trees blurring past in the sunlight, telling myself I am me, I am me. I remember discomfort, as if it took some effort to hold within me an understanding of both unity and fracture. The depth of my love for this little thinker, my desire to protect her and that inner world, has never dissipated. When I say that my writing stems from a desire for connection, I do not mean only with others. I mean with myself, including that little girl contemplating matters for which she had no name.

Sometimes, when I’m mulling a tough problem and stumbling up against the self questions that cartwheel in front of me these days, I think of what the people who have known me the longest would say, and then I think of what the people who have only known me since my divorce would say. They are often very different things, which is unsurprising, but which does not help when I’m seeking the through-line. I sense instinctively that there is a truth that I can uncover, as if there is a way in which everything aligns.

We are told to be true to ourselves, but do we know what that means?

When I look at my childhood self I wonder if she is an accurate gauge by which to consider my own current authenticity. Does that put too much pressure on the past, on fallible memory, on a self that, because she is comprised of memories, is more myth than truth?

Our lives are fragmented. We move in between worlds, perpetually navigating different situations and environments and recalibrating ourselves as needed. It is easy to feel as though our understanding of self gets lost along the way. We too quickly become who we are seen as, rather than who we’ve always been.

Recently I have looked at my old watercolor paintings with a fresh eye. I’ve hung up some of my first attempts at apples, completed during a class at a community college when my daughter was a baby, and have judged them far less harshly than I once did. I’m not saying they are good. I’m saying that when I look at them, I feel a connection to the experience of being an anonymous and aspiring artist in a classroom full of unknown people. I barely remember the professor, and I certainly don’t remember any classmates. But I recall the feeling of being there and trying. And I see all my curiosity and earnestness in those paintings.

And curiosity and earnestness feel like links to the little girl in the back of the car contemplating her existence.

I think of how many times those words, curiosity and earnestness, have made an appearance in previous blogs. Those concepts catch with me, like the little burrs that stick to your socks when you hike through a field. I think, this is how I want to be. These qualities underpin one of the refrains that chorused through our household when my children were growing up: try your best. Among other things, it is about being open to learning, and being willing to work hard.

Perhaps this comes with a little too much pressure, pressure that I put that on myself. Often, I’m frustrated when the results do not seem to match the effort. I wonder – was that my best? Did I work hard enough? Did I not learn well? I am trying to be more process-oriented, and less results-oriented, but it is not an easy shift, and perhaps, it is not a necessary one. Perhaps working toward a specific result – a better apple, a published story – is a good and motivating thing for me, and maybe all I need to work on is not being overly discouraged by imperfect watercolor fruit and rejected fiction.

However, I wonder if all goals or dreams are well-served by this approach. Maybe some things won’t look the way we always wanted them to, and maybe that’s a wonderful thing. Pursuing a goal that we are only looking at from one angle may result in us giving up on the goal instead of swapping one perspective for another. Some dreams are more complex than we realize and have many facets; maybe when we focus on a singular component, we can’t truly understand the value of the whole.

There was a book I used to read to my children: The Important Book, by Margaret Wise Brown. Here’s an example of the way this book works:

“The important thing about an apple is that it is round. It is red. You bite it, and it is white inside, and the juice splashes in your face, and it tastes like an apple, and it falls off a tree. But the important thing about an apple is that it is round.”

Sometimes we need to clarify for ourselves what the important part about a particular goal or dream truly is. Possibly, and without knowing it, we do harm to our ability to achieve the dream because instead of focusing on the important part we are expending energy on something we mistakenly believe is the important part. Sometimes, we don’t want precisely what we think we want. When we try to know our own hearts, we have to look well beneath the surface. Our true dreams are often obscured, layered over by years of doubt, history, pain – our own, and that of other people, who, though well-meaning, might weigh in on how our own dreams should look and feel to us. It is no wonder we are often plagued by thoughts of, and fears about, loss and lost-ness. Others might try and tell us what should be important to us, and that can nudge us off course. Do you think the most important thing about an apple is that it is round? I do not. But who am I to say what should be important to someone else?

There is no getting around the fact that the process of making our own hearts known to us takes time, and careful examination. This is true for any dream, wish, or goal that we have for ourselves, whether it is concerned with our personal relationships, or our pursuit of our art, or our work, or something else entirely. I do not know the way to reveal that which I cannot yet see, though I’m certain that I must keep exploring my heart and all its sedimentary layers. This discovery process will involve more ambiguity than I am comfortable with, and that is a reality I reckon with daily.

As an example of all this, I can give you a peek into one of my dreams. My writing dream has always involved publication. Yet, I am beginning to explore the idea that instead of this being the most important facet of this dream, it is but one part of a writing life, which is perhaps more what I’m truly after. In truth, I’m not exactly sure what that means, nor am I certain of the path I need to take to get there. For now, I’m focusing more on what I need to say, and how best to say it. In the coming months, I will be immersing myself in a couple of workshop experiences with other writers, led by artists and mentors I trust. The time feels right for this approach, though the work will be challenging.

This is but one of the dreams I’m searching out the true shape of. Everyone has some. We carry pockets full of stones gathered from lakebeds and we don’t know why. We wish for the unknown to reveal itself. We throw pennies into fountains, wishing, wishing.

On the night of the lunar eclipse, I dreamed I was mending an unknown world with pink thread.

Dream on, friends.

Love, Cath

On Throat-Clearing, Self, and Voice

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we can almost find the melody.

I put a lot of effort into trying to make sense of things that don’t. In my writing, it feels like the practice of untangling knots that can’t be untied, though each story takes a fresh try at undoing. My brain attacks most present worries in the same way.

When I sit still, I sometimes feel both restless and exhausted. This state is a product of many things – pandemic year, new and old anxieties, writing frustrations, aging realities, leaving and moving and settling in.

In my writing, I begin to wonder about voice – what manner of expressing myself is unique to me, my fingerprint of creative expression. And voice, as in, mine, in this world. Lately I have revisited half-begun stories and can’t take them anywhere. I think of a top spinning at the end of its movement, the wobbly tilt and hobble where I find my creative practice these days. Tops get spun again; I don’t worry that I’m done, but wonder where to go from here, and how.

In a way, it feels as though this year of largely staying in place has been one of incubation. During this time, I focused on trying to make my new house feel like mine. I thought a lot about home. I also began to reckon more consciously and deliberately with the notion of aging. I periodically take photos of myself that I show to no one to document the progress of the incoming greys, and to acclimatize myself to the changing terrain of my face.  We have kept ourselves as hidden as possible from the hidden virus, and I have grown tired of hiding myself from myself. But I often don’t recognize me.

I heard somewhere recently that resilience is never losing your enthusiasm in the face of failure. This made me feel angry and a bit deflated, because I want to think of myself as resilient, but I always feel enthusiasm flag when faced with failure. I would counter that resiliency is never losing hope in the face of failure. You can feel defeated, but at the same time you keep fighting for what’s important to you. Enthusiasm feels like a bit too much pressure sometimes. Then again, it is possible that I am not actually resilient. But I am good at hope.

As I’ve noted before in this space, Clarice Lipsector wrote “It is also possible that even then the theme of my existence was irrational hope.” We all have themes, not only as artists but as humans, patterns we observe in our lives, values we attempt to adhere to, wishes we twirl around our hearts. Maybe none of us could extricate ourselves from the themes of our existence if we tried. Some things are as they are. I will find love stories everywhere. I will write them. I will be hopeful about everything and everyone I love. I wonder if all hope is irrational.

Everything I have ever written has turned into a love story. Love, loss, seeking, finding – these are the structural frameworks of most everything I compose. I wonder sometimes, when I feel defeated, and the rejections land solemnly in my in-box, if all I can build are dollhouses, while better writers are busy building cities, universes. But then I think that maybe the world needs dollhouses too. We all need different entry points into the art we interact with. Maybe someone is just waiting for the right-sized door. Maybe it’s all that Alice in Wonderland game of feeling too big or too small to get to where we want to go. But eventually, we find a way to connect.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The themes we don’t stray from are, in a way, one path toward maintaining our connection with ourselves. I have a novel manuscript that has undergone more permutations than I care to number. I have left it unsubmitted for a long time and had nearly decided to abandon all hope (and enthusiasm).  But, I have dedicated myself to one more overhaul, and I’m now working with a trusted writer who is helping me take a fresh look at it. I feel hopeful once again, but daunted. Possibly I am not now, nor ever was, up to the task of doing what so many novelists do so well, which is, to do everything well – plot, character, pace, language, theme, subtext, and so on. Everything must be precisely fine-tuned for the work to sing. Currently there is a lack of harmony, there is a lot of out-of-tune warbling, and a fair amount of throat clearing. Sometimes I think the melody’s there though.

I listen for melody too in the world outside my door, but I’m finding it clunky to emerge from this pandemic isolation, as we receive our vaccinations and make plans once again. I see other vaccinated folk pursuing “normalcy” as if they hear a tune and feel compelled to follow it. I can almost hear it. And there are people I’m so looking forward to spending non-masked time with. I can’t wait to spend more than a few odd hours with my daughter, and to see her whole wonderful face the whole time. Yet, in general, I feel both excited and enormously anxious about jumping back into the world at large. Maybe I’m feeling as though I’m still incubating. As with many things, we grow when we learn to be empathetic with regard to the timetables of the people around us.  

When I think of empathy and growth, I think of the way growth often doesn’t always look like growth – it looks like incubation, it looks like cocooned pupae. And when I think of empathy, I remember that I often forget to have it for myself.

This weekend I did a little hiking. It felt good to be in the woods. My son took a picture of me at my request and I’ve looked at it many times since, trying to see what I wanted to see there. A recognizable person. She seemed familiar, me and not-me at the same time, but the setting seemed right and that helped. I don’t know why it feels so difficult so often to know and be at peace with myself. Maybe this year too much happened and too much didn’t happen, and it changed me more than I am consciously aware. Maybe the image in the photo is a reflection of reality and it is my ability to see it truly that has been altered by time and experience. Perhaps how we see changes more than what we see, and how we hear melodies differently from one another explains so many things. This is all the more reason for us to cultivate empathy toward one another and to build our reserves of resiliency and irrational hope, as we attempt to both listen and sing in this world.

Love, Cath

On Swarming and Signifying

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes a swarm has something to say.

A recent rain brought down a bald-faced hornets’ nest that had hung high on a branch of my neighbor’s silver maple. The nest was active last summer but its papery cavities, in the cold months, were excavated by birds for sustenance, or so my son has informed me. The silver maple branch of my neighbor’s tree juts across my back yard, so that the nest hung squarely above my yard, until last week. We discovered the nest at dusk, and in the fading light, it reminded me so much of a giant human heart, misshapen after the fall. When I took the dogs out in the middle of the night, they stood near its eerie mass, not indicating a threat so much as something I should take notice of. This, they seemed to say. In the morning, we studied the nest’s construction, the intricate cavities; we marveled at the engineering. I thought how wonderful it was that the hornets’ well-made home allowed them the safety and security necessary to live out a full life cycle, even if we, their human neighbors, occasionally needed to dodge them in the summer.

When I was little, we had a cluster of forsythia shrubs in the yard. Their long, arching branches wove together at the top, forming a little airy atrium. My two older sisters and I would spread a blanket on the dirt floor of this chamber, and spend many a spring afternoon escaping, planning and plotting, adventuring, and resting there. Sometimes now I would like to ask them: do you remember staring up at the crisscrossing branches above us, looking at all the yellow stars blooming, and feeling safe? And have you ever felt so safe in your lives since? Our baby brother was napping away the spring afternoon, our mother worked in the house, our father was gone to his job, his life away from the house mostly a mystery to us, except when he let us come to the grocery story on Sundays when it was closed, and we’d help him by turning all the cans so their bright labels neatly faced the aisles. It was years before our other sister was born, though sometimes I imagine she was there too, somehow. I think this is the safest I’ve ever felt, long before the sting of any loss, before we tumbled into our adult selves. Nestled in our flowering nest, there was no understanding of anything that couldn’t easily be made better.

Sometimes we are lucky, and we can recognize happiness when it comes along, feel the solid pressure of it aching in our ribs, patiently, until we notice it and name it. It is in these moments of recognition, where, feeling both solid and buoyed, I find myself most vulnerable. Where the mere whisper of a threat to what I’ve so carefully constructed feels like a storm of wind and rain, ready to send it all crashing to the earth. Everyone feels vulnerable to loss. I think when you have very specific memories and a set of circumstances that surround a past, significant loss, part of you becomes hyper aware of what you can lose, and how it will feel. Part of you becomes an ever-vigilant swarm of hornets, swirling in a confused haze around the nest, looking for threats. People talk about “angry” hornets, or wasps, or bees. They are not angry – they are instinctively protecting their collective heart, the nest, or hive. Yet it is easy to wonder, if our perceived-threat response is hornet swarm, how can we ever feel soothed, and what will it take to feel capable of being happy without feeling overwhelmed by the corresponding fear of its loss? I think back to the forsythia days, and how that was the magical quality. There was no fear of loss; we didn’t know what it was. Happiness and love existed like air and sunshine.

I have spent years trying to teach myself to live in the moment, to not what if my life away, to not swoop and swarm when I fear the world could give way beneath me. In no way have I mastered this. But in some ways, I’m managing to navigate, sometimes. In some ways, it is only the swarm of words that can calm the other swarm. I talk my way through, I write my way through, and I talk some more. I wish it were easier. And I’m ever thankful for being loved in returned, and listened to, with empathy. I’ve also considered that there is another way to think of the swarm that tries to protect me from losing what I love. Rather than thinking of the swarm as the dark shape of past fear protecting me against future loss, it can be viewed as a signifier, one that underscores that this love I have is something worth protecting. Like the dogs in the yard hovering over the nest, and the forsythia blossoms hovering over three little sisters, the swarm says simply, This.

Love, Cath

On Art, Home, and Haziness

By Catherine DiMercurio

A friend and I recently were writing to one another about why we write. That conversation yielded for me an understanding that why is a question awkwardly affixed to the relationship I have with writing, which is more akin to the relationship I have with my skin than anything else. In a broad sense, it is something I have, something I need, something that protects me.

On a practical level, yes, writing is also something I do. Sometimes it is an act of artistic creation and sometimes it is an involuntary function that happens automatically and silently, the way my brain tells my lungs to breathe. Things are unfolding all the time in my mind and I wish I could somehow capture more of it. Sometimes writing is my only hope for effectively communicating my heart to the world, (or to the more individual and larger universe of me and you).

Sometimes writing is a job and sometimes it is a wish, but it is always skin.

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years, weeks, days, minutes, always, trying to pinpoint such facets of my identity throughout the changing circumstances of my life. This intense scrutiny was kickstarted by my divorce, though I had long been focused on issues of identity in my writing, always trying to figure out if we become more of who we are as we age, or less.

As I enter my first spring in this new place, I sat down recently with my coffee and felt myself settling in, to here, to now, to me. And I thought, maybe I’ve been asking the wrong questions about identity and self-awareness. Maybe the most direct route to understanding who am now is this: what makes me feel at home within my own skin, no matter where I am?

The first thing I thought of was the coffee I was drinking, as I sat on my new-ish IKEA sofa in this still-new-to-me home. I then pictured myself at my boyfriend’s place, still new-ish to him. It is a curious thing: you find yourself in a life where none of the places in which you find yourself are ones in which you have much history. So where is home, then, except housed within us, and created anew, sitting next to this person who seems able to keep making space for you, and you for him. You put out the welcome mats for one another, sweeping them off or airing them out if there is ever difficult weather.

Photo by Nathan J Hilton on Pexels.com

It is a marvelous but strange thing to be aware of your own history-making. To contemplate the ways in which home and history are related, but not in the ways you once thought. I recommend keeping an eye out for it, for the art you are making of self, seemingly out of thin air, or from webby gossamer strands, every day.

As I walked around the yard with the dogs one morning, it smelled like summer. Recent rain on thirsty dirt, a damp promise of heat panting in the air. I thought of drinking camping coffee, sitting with the kids in the morning, outside the tent, feeling cozy. The memories collaged in my brain, out of order, but collective. This too is history and home and self. It remains, clean and bright and clear, even in the aftermath of events that left much of the past feeling sooty and smudged.

It may seem strange to utilize list-making and note-taking as paths to self-discovery. Such a process lacks the romance of the quintessential road trip motif. However, sometimes things don’t work that way. It is less a fun, crazy journey and more paying attention and hard work. Mostly, I crave simplicity. I want to create obvious paths to certain self-knowledge, so that I can quickly run toward what I know and like about myself. So I can gallop toward safety, when I’m feeling anxious, or filled with self-doubt, or self-criticism. It is so easy for the negative to overtake us sometimes. We need to have our escape routes planned. Sometimes you have to sit down with yourself and go through the checklist, the way in elementary school we had to ask our parents what the escape plan was if the house were on fire. You have to tell yourself, when dark thoughts begin to suck you in, that there are the paths back to yourself, that you know the way. It is too easy to get lost in the thick haze and smoke of anxiety, depression, fear, or grief.

I feel as though I’m often vacillating between extremes – between being overly candid or completely withdrawn, between whole-hearted enthusiasm and active detachment. I wonder how people find middle ground. I speculate that there is a place thought of as “normal” and most of us hover around the edges, not seeing each other, and the imaginary normal place is teeming with a healthy population of individuals that can communicate with one another with ease and confidence. But in reality, most of us fumble, we hurt and get hurt, we regroup, we take deep breaths and fall silent. We clear our throats, and our eyes, try to speak and see, and be seen once more. Sometimes we manage to get it right, to find a safe, strong hand in the haze, and so we practice the art of holding on to one another.

Love, Cath