A Restrained Post on Limits and Darlings

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the unsaid thing is the most important part of a conversation.

I wanted to write something eloquent, but it was like falling up the stairs. I’ve been thinking about limits, those we place on ourselves, and why. But I’ve struggled with siphoning the thoughts into something meaningful. I think the friction arose not because there was there was some opposition between what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, but because my thoughts opposed one another, and I was looking for a way to mediate.

As a writer searching for meaning and connection, I want to say all the things. And as me my instinct aches toward openness. Yet I draw the lines, we all do, careful about what we share, and when, and where. People are censured for “oversharing” and at the same time opinions bleed all over social media pages. The messages we give and get are mixed, and loud.

It all makes me restless, so I put some of what I want to say in stories and send them out and wait. It occurs to me, when I think of all the other people writing and submitting and waiting, that we are all doing the same thing. Our heads and hearts are full and aching and so we put it all into our stories. Everyone, writer or not, is trying to do the same thing—looking for an outlet while we try to mind the boundaries the world sets out, and that we establish for ourselves.

The romantic, independent, fierce parts of us scream to be limitless, to not be silenced or subdued. And sometimes we do it, we say it, we scream it, but still. Boundaries serve us, and they often serve us well. In the world of our daily conversations, or the things that pass for conversation on social media, it is difficult to swallow the unsaid things sometimes, especially when it seems that no one else is. Likewise, I’m challenged by stories that have galloped away from me, too many words all wanting to not remain unsaid, all wanting a stake in the end result. Yet some words—mine, yours—don’t actually serve the bigger picture. Writers are told to “kill your darlings,” a quote intending to acknowledge how difficult and necessary it is to eliminate beautiful prose from a work it really isn’t serving.* Maybe this advice isn’t just for the words of writers.

At the same time, I think we’ve forgotten how to listen to one another’s stories, and how to ponder in paragraphs and pages instead of snippets. I love listening to meandering trains of thought but I haven’t heard one in a while. There is a place for darlings, but we have to create it. Please let’s have dinner and let me listen to your words wander.

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Photo by Baptiste Valthier on Pexels.com

This is all to say, boundaries are not the same things as walls. Limits are not about “in” versus “out,” or spoken versus unspoken, or romantic/independent/fierce versus censured/subdued/timid. They are often about civility. They are about time and place. They can make a story better, keep a conversation going instead of shutting it down. They are about knowing your audience. Boundaries shift. We open ourselves up differently to different people, and they to us.

In “Spiritual Laws,” Ralph Waldo Emerson states, “There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.” This is taken out of context, and his meaning was more about the personal nature of our own sense of morality and ethics. Yet, in many circumstances we can be guided by “lowly listening.” We can come closer to knowing the words that need to be written, or excised, the things that need to be said, and when, and to whom. And when it is more fruitful to simply be silent, and listen.

Love, Cath

 

* The original quote is from Arthur Quiller-Couch, and it’s “murder your darlings.” It has often been attributed to William Faulkner and Stephen King, who popularized the phrase and altered it to the catchier “kill your darlings.” I’m a big fan of searching down the original source of quotations, particularly those that become memes. My son periodically hears me yelling at the computer screen, “Hemingway didn’t say that!” My favorite site for quote checking is quoteinvestigator.com, though they didn’t have any info on kill your darlings. But I did find a well-researched piece at slate.com (https://slate.com/culture/2013/10/kill-your-darlings-writing-advice-what-writer-really-said-to-murder-your-babies.html). The Emerson quote I looked up in an actual book (Emerson’s Essays, Harper and Row, 1926).

 

On Hope, Gratitude, and Purposeful Wandering

By Catherine DiMercurio

As Thanksgiving nears, it’s a good time to think about what we hunger for.

Gut Check on Purpose and Intentions

From the outset of this blog journey, I invited you to wander with me through love and life, heartbreaks and wholeness, and everything in between. In my first post, I described how, in the aftermath of my divorce, I found myself on a new, frightening, exhilarating path of singlehood—being a single parent and being a single person after twenty years of married partnership. In my first post I described how I met the man I was dating at the time. Not long after, I spoke about the end of that relationship.

Here we are now, more than five months after that ending. In the aftermath of the break up, I remembered the way I wondered how I might feel about it six months out. I wondered if I would feel bitter, or uneasy about dating again, or if I would have met someone else by then. I wondered if I would still feel open hearted.

In truth, nearly six months out, it’s a little bit of everything, but I find that, more than anything, I’m hopeful.

Fish and Feet and Hunger

It’s funny how things play out, how our hearts adapt and evolve, depending on what they have an appetite for. I think of prehistoric fish, and how the ones that loved being fish dove deep and explored the depths, and the others, either curious, or simply by virtue of finding themselves in proximity to land, explored the shallows. They sprouted limbs and feet, finding footing as amphibians. We are shaped by our appetites, our hunger. I have an appetite for hope, I suppose, and, finding myself a fish out of water in the world of singlehood, I hoped for solid footing, stretched my legs toward it.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I don’t have much of an appetite for bitterness, though those times come and go, ebbing and flowing like the tide. Sometimes I’m uneasy about the future. I do have a decent appetite for anxiety, in the way that we often get hungry for things that don’t serve our bodies well.

Thanks to a dear friend, I read an article recently that suggested our brains get a dopamine hit from worry, because it feels like we are at least doing something. I guess it’s like having a craving for potato chips. Sometimes you gorge yourself and sometimes you have a lot of will power and find a healthier snack, though it is probably smarter to not buy the chips at all. Too bad you can’t avoid having anxiety in your mental house the same way you can keep potato chips out of your home. You have to rely on will power to chose a healthier mental snack. You have to try feasting on gratitude instead. It all comes down to mindfulness, being able to call things what they are, and recognizing the timing, that things ebb and flow.

Speaking of Gratitude

I think gratitude is, in a way, the missing (or hidden) link, the one that yokes memory to hope. In a dark, underwater place, we can at least remember the sun, and in the remembering, swim a little closer to the surface, and near the surface, realize we still feel sun-warm when submerged. We can be grateful for the sun, grateful we remembered it, and grateful for our strength in kicking toward it.

And I think that’s where hope happens—in a heart that remembers that it has known love, or peace, or purpose—whatever your particular sun may be.

And One More Thing about Feet

There is a Pablo Neruda poem, “Your Feet,” which I adore. The final stanza reads:

But I love your feet

only because they walked

upon the earth and upon

the wind and upon the waters,

until they found me.

I love the sense of movement in this poem, the sense of purposeful wandering it conveys. I am not knowingly making my way toward someone, nor him to me, but wander we will—in all the ways that our lives, and the tides and the sun and the waves take us. Maybe at some point we will find that we are wandering side by side. Or maybe we won’t. But either way we can still move toward the sun.

Love, Cath

 

 

 

On Not Being Bullied by Time

By Catherine DiMercurio

I sat in a coffee and pastry shop on Saturday afternoon with my sister. Though we don’t live far from each other, it had been some time since we had seen each other. Outside the window, the street glowed with yellow and orange maple leaves, clouds of them still clinging to the trees, and somehow, an equal amount blanketing the sidewalks. It wasn’t one of those moments where you feel as though, even though you haven’t seen someone in a long while, no time had passed. Time had indeed passed. But still, though the contours of our connection had evolved, there is a constancy about that connection that my sister and I both cherish. I was glad that we both made time to spend together.

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Time is on my mind these days, as daylight savings comes to an end, and darkness swallows up our evenings. It’s easy to see what feels like the swift passage of time as an enemy. I saw a post recently on social media that said something about “The trouble is, you think you have time,” (wrongfully attributed to Buddha), as if to say, our time here is short. It’s in line with carpe diem messages. We are told we should seize the day because we aren’t guaranteed anything. We have the present, and that’s all we can truly lay claim to.

Time and Identity

We also think of our identity in time-bound ways. Who we are today may be very different from who we were as children, and who we might become as our experiences shape us. And time itself, or the passage of it, shapes us. Try as we may, we are powerless to evade the changes to our biology that occur as we age.

The beauty of it all is the power of our own mind to conceptualize such ephemeral notions as time and past and future. We may only truly have the present, we may only truly bea collection of cells and experiences, but we get to create ourselves everyday. How much do I want the experiences of the past to dictate who I am today and where I’m headed? Our past only controls our future as much as we grant it permission to. And we may grant it a lot of leeway. Acknowledging all the good woven through even a rocky history is a worthwhile endeavor.

Twin Bullies: Time, Shame

One of the reasons time, or the passage of it, is often regarded as an enemy is that shame is becomes intertwined with time. Shame that we “wasted” time, shame about what time has done to us. We are told that our time in this world, or in the lives of our loved ones, is a gift, that the act of not spending that time well is something we should feel ashamed of. But our actions have little to do with time. Treating the people in our lives well is not something we should do because our time with them is precious. It is something we should do because people are precious. This may be splitting hairs to some, but I think the distinction is important. If we focus on the people in our lives, our actions are focused on them, on treating well the people we love because we love them. If we focus on the idea that our time with them is some sort of a gift, our actions are focused on ourselves, on behaving in a certain way because of what we get out of it. A subtle shift in perspective can privilege the action of loving over the reward of not wasting time.

I didn’t have coffee with my sister thinking that my time with my sister is a gift. I don’t want to waste it. I want to make the most of it. Time is not the gift. Time just is. My sister is the gift. We wanted to share love and friendship and laughter and conversation so we decided to dedicate a portion of our time that day to each other. I think we should be clear about what we value. In this way our actions are more focused, and we elevate one another in this revaluation.

Time Is What You Believe It Is

The thing about time is that it functions independently, objectively, dispassionately—ticking away with each sunrise and sunset. It doesn’t care about us. Yet it remains very personal in the way it is recognized and attended to in our own lives. My time is mine. Yours is yours. Our relationship with time is almost spiritual in this way. If you believe you must make the most out of each and every moment because tomorrow is not promised and you live your life accordingly, so be it. Let it fill you up and give you joy. But avoid the trap of shame for not doing enough, for not seizing enough. Recognize what you value—the people you are seizing the day with, or the sunlight, or the trail, or the road. If I believe my future is filled with great things, and I’m making little plans every day to inch my way to where I want to be, so be it. I may regard the moments of today not as seconds to be seized but as a place to pause and catch my breath. A place to be, with my own thoughts, with my loved ones. And tomorrow, instead, I will seize each moment with gusto. But I will leave any shame behind, and place value where it belongs.

This is all to say, know your worth. Know the worth of those you love. Known the worth of your life. No one gets to tell you what is wasted.

Love, Cath

On Wanting, Writing, Sleep, and Geraniums

By Catherine DiMercurio

Usually, a blog post finds me, I don’t have to go looking for it. It’s like a little floaty seed pod, a dandelion fluff, that drifts my way and takes root. But I realized it has been a while since my last post, and nothing had declares itself. I thought about the geraniums I brought in from the porch when the temperature suddenly dipped. Everything was still in bloom, the early week had surprised us with 80-degree temperatures, and then, it was suddenly and consistently going to be below freezing at night. So I brought in eight plants. I rearranged the living room, the dining room, and made places for the terra cotta pots near the windows. I’ve never brought in impatiens before, but they were still blooming, so I will experiment. I’ve watched them for almost a week now, as they begin the expected transition. Leaves yellow and fall away. They get scraggly. I water often as they get used to the indoor temperature that fluctuates only a little. I worry they won’t get enough light.

Compensation

When this house was purchased we didn’t think about the way that porch I loved so much would prevent the light to pour into the living room from the southern-facing windows. I think about trade-offs, about transitions, about the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote about compensation, something about loss and gain, I will look it up later, I tell myself. As always, I seek a metaphor to make meaning, this time in the geraniums.

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Sleep and Not-Sleep

When I suffer from a few weeks of troubled sleep, I recall the cycles of the past. It won’t last, I tell myself. It’s stress, hormone fluctuations, it’s normal, be patient, try this or that. I try. I look for the gain that comes with this loss – I finished a book at 3:30 a.m., I thought some interesting thoughts as I let my mind wander. In the mornings, I talk to my son, always tired, with five classes of AP homework and cross country practice. Our morning conversations always involve how did you sleep. We report out. I tell him I can’t find a metaphor about insomnia, something that will make it matter, make meaning, and he says stop looking. He says the lack of the metaphor is a metaphor. I have to turn this over in my head many times. But I keep looking. There must be something here.

Writing and Wanting

It’s not that I haven’t been writing. While I waited for interesting blog post ideas to find me, and I said things like – I can’t go on road trips to California all the time and have I said all I wanted to say? – I’ve been working on a story. I told myself, when I began, it would probably be a flash piece of under 1,000 words. But as I wrote, it shaped itself into something more and I’m at a place where I decide, is it, in it’s almost-6,000-word current state, a part of something larger, or is a regular-sized short story hiding in there waiting to be found and pruned? I like this place, of possibility and growth and richness. Sometimes I’m sad that my job doesn’t make me feel this way. I wonder, could it? Am I looking at it wrong? And I wonder, should it? Am I being greedy? I have my writing. I have my mothering.

“For every thing you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Compensation”

Greed and Goals and a Little Bit of Luck

It’s hard to say. When I was in high school, it was common for many people not to go to college, and if they did, to not go away to school. My parents didn’t go to college, and not a lot of people in their extended families had either. I didn’t know any college people, but I figured I should. I didn’t know anything about how. I didn’t know about wanting it. I remember my guidance counselor talking to me about where I could go, with my grades. He talked about how it was possible, with financial aid and scholarships. He cracked a door open I hadn’t thought about too much as if to say this is for you, not just other people. He helped me to want something for myself I didn’t know was available for wanting. Sometimes I wonder if I don’t dream big enough but when I do, I wonder, is it being greedy? To want that, too? And I wonder, who cares, but I don’t wonder that often enough.

When I think about how to tie all of this together, I think of the way you can trick geraniums into blossoming all winter. They get confused for a bit, when it’s suddenly about 67 degrees all the time. It’s almost as if they can’t believe their luck, and maybe it’s not real, it probably isn’t, and there goes another leaf, we probably aren’t going to make it. But I’ve been bringing the geraniums in every fall for more than ten years and I’ve only had one not make it.

Maybe it’s greedy, wanting the geraniums to bloom through the winter. It’s probably not that hard, and I’m sure lots of people do this all the time and don’t consider it greedy or a miracle or anything, it’s just what you do with geraniums.

Love, Cath

On Empathy and Breath

By Catherine DiMercurio

I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately. I’ve noticed that empathy comes easily, almost involuntarily for some. For others, it seems to be a completely voluntary act, guided by their judgement or determination of worthiness. In these ways, empathy functions almost as a system within us, like the respiratory system, which can also be either voluntary or involuntary. We breathe whether we think about it or not, but we can also choose to control our breath – we can hold it, we can release it, we can slow it down or speed it up. Perhaps our empathic systems function in the same way. Maybe it’s not one of those “there are two kinds of people in the world” situations. Maybe there aren’t those of us who feel empathy for others almost uncontrollably and others who award their empathy at will. Perhaps, we can do both. Should we?

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Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

For highly empathic people, life can be a dizzying ride. We often find ourselves in-taking the emotions of those around us. It’s easy to say things like, I understand how you feel, because we find ourselves feeling it too. We are surrounded – in our minds – by our memories and our emotions about those memories all the time. It’s not difficult to draw on them, particularly when we see someone struggling with their own emotions, or in a challenging situation, or feeling misunderstood. Though dizzying, this way of walking through life is familiar, comfortable in its own powerful way.

On the other hand, I’ve had close relationships with people who are highly selective about the individuals they allow themselves to feel empathy for. It’s like a prize, a gift they offer, when they clearly convey a connection to how someone else feels. It can seem cold, and there’s often a set of factors at play that only they can see, factors that allow them to determine who is worthy of their empathy. What I understand of this way of being comes from my own experiences of being wounded enough by a person that I retreat, and I find myself shutting off that connection I once felt for them. It’s like holding my breath, a conscious decision to stop doing what comes naturally in order to protect my heart from further injury. This makes me wonder, are people who approach empathy this way – empathy awarders – also doing so as a way of protecting themselves? But from what, from whom? I suppose it is not difficult to understand that the world at large may seem threatening or unworthy. At the same time, when you approach people — strangers or acquaintances or anyone else — as individuals, I wonder if they seem as dangerous.

I understand needing to control our empathic breath on an individual basis. We all have people in our lives who form a clear and persistent danger to our soul health, and sometimes it’s best to maintain an emotional distance. It is difficult for me though to understand the withholding of empathy as a way of being, to understand those of us who refuse to even experiment with offering empathy for someone who may appear undeserving—say, someone who seemed rude while you waited in line to get your coffee, or someone with a different political ideology than you, or someone whose experiences – such as being poor, being discriminated against, or being sexually assaulted – are foreign to you. Practicing empathy, the way we might practice deep breathing exercises to combat anxiety, is the best tool we possess to combat our own biases.

Perhaps the hardest part of establishing and maintaining an empathy practice, of being cognizant of where our empathic energy flows, is letting it exist even for people whom we suspect might never have empathy for us. It’s challenging but I believe vital to the collective well-being of our selves, our communities, our world.

So, breathe. If empathy does not come naturally to you, experiment with it. If it does come naturally to you, but our current political climate has caused you shut off empathy channels you once left open, try again, breathe deeply once more, and try to remember how naturally it once came to you. Empathy breeds compassion and respect, and our world needs more of it.

Love, Cath

 

Walking the Line: Peacefulness versus Purpose

By Catherine DiMercurio

Does self-acceptance threaten our sense of purpose?

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

Running is a Metaphor for Everything

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

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

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

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

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

Frenzy versus Focus

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Pexels.com

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

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

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

Love, Cath

 

 

Against Epiphanies, Literary and Otherwise

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

Against Epiphanies: Lessons from Fiction

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

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

Sometimes Things Just Happen

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

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

Validation and the Role of Trauma

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

 

Heart-Sore and Healing: On Watching Your Children Fly

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

Setting Up Camp, Contemplation, and Coziness

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

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

Exploration, Relaxation, Laughter, Listening

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

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

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

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

Reconciliations and Compensations

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

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

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

Love, Cath

 

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

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

The Route

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

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

When the Past Crashes the Party

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

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

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

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

Fresh Air, Fresh Thinking

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

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

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

Love, Cath