On Pottery, Pressure, and Place

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the pressure we feel is part of the process.

I was driving home alone after dropping my son off at college after the winter break. We stopped by my daughter’s place for a hug and a quick conversation about everyone’s covid concerns about going back to school and work, as well as some recent car trouble and how we would coordinate getting the vehicle repaired. It was a Monday, and I’d taken a couple hours off and would be jumping back into work after a week off as soon as I got home. That evening, I would have my first pottery class, and I was having some anxiety about that.

Somewhere along the line, my excitement about the upcoming class had turned into a not-unexpected collection of worries. I was experiencing my own classroom covid concerns, along with my usual social anxiety, as well as a lot of uneasiness about the learning something new in a public, exposed way.

As I drove home with all these worries tumbling in my brain, I turned the radio on, scanning randomly, and “Under Pressure” came on, by Queen and David Bowie. It all just hit me, on so many levels, how much pressure everyone is experiencing, and I cried and sang, moved by music in a way I hadn’t been in a while.

Oddly, I heard the song again on my way home from pottery class that night. Did I mention that along with all the other ways the class is out of my comfort zone, it also runs from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., which is a huge breach in my usual routine. So, it was very late for me to be out and driving on a winter Monday night, and I was overwhelmed and intimidated by the class, frustrated with not being able to master the thing you must master before you can really make anything—centering the clay on the wheel—when I heard “Under Pressure” again. I didn’t cry this time, but I felt it deeply. Again, it wasn’t just about me and the pressure I was feeling personally. It was impossible to listen to the song and not thing about what everyone has been dealing with the past couple of years. The song has been in my head all week.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

At one point when all I could think about before trying to fall asleep was clay, it occurred to me that so much of the struggle of centering is about pressure, which hand is applying pressure on the clay and where and how.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about for a while is place. I’ve been doing some soul searching and trying to figure out what that word means to me, and where I might belong, and how do I get there. But over the past couple of days, I’ve also been thinking about it in terms of where people are from. Some folks are fiercely from a place. Though I’ve lived about a half mile from Detroit for more than 20 years, I never say that I’m from Detroit, because people who are actually from Detroit really hate that, and though I love it, it isn’t my city. It didn’t shape me the way it shaped folks who grew up there, or who have made their life there in a meaningful way over the years. I get it. I don’t get to claim that.

I usually tell people I from Saginaw, which isn’t strictly true either. I grew up in Carrollton Township, a little working-class suburb of Saginaw. That’s what shaped me. There was a sense of community there, largely focused on the school, which I didn’t fully appreciate until many years later. Being from a suburb is kind of a strange thing in that it does not feel distinctive at all. Precisely because it is neither rural nor urban, a suburban upbringing can feel blurry, though suburbs are as different from one another as they are from rural towns or from cities. It is perhaps thought of as the middle ground between extremes, between the clear this or that of the rural or the urban. In fact, it is its own place.

There is much more to be said, and much more for me to explore personally, but it is fair to say that growing up where I did and how I did, the appropriate response to all the pressure I’ve been feeling would be an acknowledging shrug. Yup. That’s just how it is. (Parenting is hard. Everyone has car troubles.) The work ethic would kick in along with an accompanying sense of duty. You made a commitment, so you have a responsibility to stick with it and do your best. (You signed up for this class, so see it through and just keep trying.) The strong sense of community never leaves you, either. We have to help our neighbors when they need it. (We’re all tired—so tired—but it is important to keep protecting ourselves and each other with masks, vaccines, boosters, and common sense.)

In many ways, I have also been feeling a different kind of blurriness, this sense that I am in an in-between place, a mythical suburb of the soul. Maybe it is okay that it feels neither here nor there. Perhaps it, too, is its own place, and this it what it means to learn to belong to yourself.

In C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, there is a place known as the Wood between the Worlds, where some characters travel on their way between Earth and Narnia. Maybe we all have access to an in-between place like that. Perhaps at times we believe we are in the Wood between the Worlds, when in fact, we have moved through that place into a new world, a new version of self. And perhaps we pass through the Wood more times than we realize in our journey toward self. I have also speculated that it is only in the Wood between the Worlds—in the in-between place we sometimes find ourselves—in which we are truly ourselves, and that journeying there is necessary in order to both forget and to remember our selves, before we move on to the next chapter of our lives.

I think that sometimes the pressure that we experience is the discomfort of transition, of the shaping and reshaping of ourselves that is both natural and difficult. Maybe this centering of self gets easier though. Maybe that’s just how it is.

Love, Cath

On December Moments & a Moon, on Resolve & Routines

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you look at yourself in a new light.

I try not to make New Year’s resolutions. It feels so contrived. At the same time, contrived or not, I have always felt a kind of magic at the stroke of midnight. With a tick of a hand on the clock, we suddenly turn a page. These are just numbers, arbitrary ways of marking time conceived of long ago by men who needed to do so to efficiently wage war.

This is not an accurate account of the history of time. I have a vague memory of learning about Julius Caesar creating the calendar roughly as we know it, and I imagine him doing so in order to plan empire-building attacks. And “civilized” society grew on such foundations and now we are able to not only war more precisely, but we learned to mark out work weeks. I think I would have preferred just partnering my movements with those of the sun and the seasons.

But, here we are. Everything we do is pushed through the sieve of the clock.

So as this year is ending, I keep thinking of things I want to prioritize in the coming year. Things that have fallen away that I want to get back to, new things to explore.

I always have writing goals, but as I wait for the publishing world to make decisions on my submissions, I feel like I need a new way of looking at success. Is success, or the lack thereof, related to the fact that a tiny fraction of a percent of what I have written has been published? Or is success deliberately cultivating a writing life? Writing every day, learning about writing, finding ways to be parts of different writing communities, reading. There is no new story here. I want to see success as the journey, not the goal, since the goal is elusive and I’m working very hard and want the work to mean something. I imagine there are two types of people who do this: people who have not achieved the goals they hoped to, and people who have, and understand that achieving a goal is not as brilliant as you think it is going to be. You hold it for a moment and then it slips away, and in its place, we fix another goal/hurdle. The fact is, the world is going to define success however it wants to. And the only path to sanity (and one’s ability to remain motivated), is for each of us to decide for ourselves what success means. What if it is that simple?

On the morning of the solstice, I walked with my dog beneath a waning gibbous moon. I paused to notice its particular shape and glow, and decided in that moment that this was my favorite moon phase. Waning gibbous. [Later I will think of the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” when I consider why the waning gibbous is my favorite: “I do not know which to prefer / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendos, / The blackbird whistling / Or just after.” I love the settling calm after the full moon, like a bird’s ruffled feathers hushing back into place.]

A flutter of movement caught my eye, pulled my awareness fully from the moon and toward a young stag, on its way back to the little strip of wood between the golf course and the houses that abut the creek. We looked at each other. My dog was quiet, alert. The three of us paused this way, for several lovely moments. I always hope when something like this happens, on the rare occasions that it does, that it means something. That I’m on the right path.

Photo by Diego Madrigal on Pexels.com

A few days later, on Christmas morning, I awoke to the knowledge that my children once again slept in rooms a few feet from mine, snuggling with the dogs. We haven’t woken up together on Christmas Day in this house before. The knowledge left me with the feeling of peace and anticipation, like opening a letter from someone you missed and hadn’t seen for some time.

Some mornings, my first thoughts upon waking are about what is missing instead of what is present. I imagine someone kissing my shoulder, making us coffee, beginning our day together. Other mornings it is easier to unfold into my own day, rather than my imaginary one, to make the coffee and write and walk the dogs.

I have come to cherish this routine, my routine: waking in the darkness, finding words and purpose, then getting outside. I shake my sleepy head the way the dogs do and see what lands on the page—strange new ideas, one gorgeous metaphor to wrap a sentence around, or sometimes, thoughts I can’t quite string together or make sense of. And then, as the sky begins to lighten, I walk the puppy, who is jumpy still around anything unexpected—a car backing out of a driveway, a dog barking across the street. We move into the world before the world is moving, a short brisk walk where we sometimes dart from smell to smell as he investigates. And then, we return home, and I switch dogs. My senior pup’s walks are long and purposeful. Ahead, ahead, let’s go. Sometimes he stops to sniff but he is about movement, and I watch the way his stiff joints seem to loosen and ease. The joy he takes in his morning walks is spectacular. And even if I’m frustrated from the writing, or how much the puppy pulled or lunged, by the end of this second walk something in me usually loosens and eases as well.

I recall how difficult maintaining this routine was in my last relationship and I’m disappointed that I sacrificed so much of myself to a situation where little was offered in return. But this is how we learn. This past year I have learned so much about what I truly value. About what I like. Not only what I enjoy doing, or what pleases me about my life. I am learning what I like about myself. This is good territory. I’ve been here before but have not inhabited this space. I’ve dropped in for visits but only as a tourist. I’m becoming a local now. I didn’t know you could do that. That I could. If such things are taught some place, I missed the lessons. I feel as if it never occurred to me before to develop a more conscious understanding of myself in this manner. I think deeply and often about my feelings and my past and my flaws, but I have spent so little time in this other region of selfness. I keep returning to this thought: I didn’t know it was okay to want to.

Even as we are dealing with so many stressors and responsibilities, we somehow must learn to be our own guidance counselors, and to put ideas in front of ourselves to consider. For me, it was: have you given any thought to what you like about yourself? One of the benefits of pursuing this line of thinking is that there is so much less time and energy to pursue the endless ruminating on what relationships failed and why. I have ruthlessly covered every inch of that ground, dragging myself through the dark woods over and over again. What did I miss, could another path have been taken, what went wrong, what went right, you better learn from this so it doesn’t happen again. To spend time instead exploring the other worlds inside my heart is a gift. I could chastise myself for not getting here sooner, but I think we’ve covered the ground of self-recrimination in several ways at this point.

So instead, let’s explore lightness and joy. Instead, let’s allow that we have learned and re-learned old lessons, we have dissected mistakes, grief, loss, and failures. Let us now resolve to learn and re-learn what success means to us, what joy does, what self does.

Love, Cath

On Communities, Solitude, and Situational Goals

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes belonging is complicated.

During a terrible storm this weekend, the thunder woke me. The dogs were restless. I was awake for hours and I went through the list of things that might go wrong because of the weather, and the logical part of my brain reminded me I could handle it, and the anxious part suggested otherwise. In the middle of traversing this terrain of highs and lows, I found myself returning to the same plateau where I told myself: You don’t belong here.

Sometimes anxiety amplifies a message we don’t want to hear. And sometimes it confuses it. We can’t always tell the difference.

I worried from the beginning that I wouldn’t belong in this house, in this town, but there were compelling reasons to be here. There was a need to jump off of one path and onto another. It wasn’t a big move; I didn’t move across the country. But I left the familiar and headed in the risky direction my heart hoped was the right one.

I never considered myself the type of person to take things for granted. When I was married, I had a deep sense of gratitude for my family, for the life we’d built. But I also felt that my relationship was immune to the troubles other people experienced. That it was unassailable.

Since my divorce and everything that followed, through my recent move, I have taken for granted the notion of community. I knew I was leaving a tight-knit community, but because so much of my community-history was woven together with my marriage-history, I longed, in some ways, to be in a place that had no such history. Besides, I was moving to a house where I’d be closer to my boyfriend, so it seemed that this would balance out the loss of proximity to my neighborhood friends, with whom I vowed to stay connected with.

But when that relationship ended, I began to feel stranded. I work hard to maintain connections to friends from the old neighborhood, but busyness and the lack of proximity is a challenge on both sides. Building a sense of community with my new neighborhood has been an effort compromised by the pandemic. There is a tiny bit of progress. Yet, it isn’t the same.

My writing community is another story. Being part of a low-residency MFA program meant that I’d be making friends I wouldn’t see in person all too often. It was baked into the system. I’ve been lucky enough to keep in close contact with a few of those friends over the years, and to have a lifeline to opportunities like the workshop I’m now a part of. And lifeline is not a hyperbolic description. Through my writing community I have been able to embrace a part of my identity that for a long time struggled to breathe: I am an artist. I sought out this community once I could no longer shush the part of me that had been standing around clearing her throat, hoping to get noticed. I sacrificed a lot to pursue it and now I don’t know what I would do without it.

What I’m learning from my experience with my writing to community is that all community must be pursued and developed, right down to the micro-communities of our families. Now that I am single and living alone, I am realizing how much I benefited from ready-made communities I was a part of when my children were growing up. It was all right there, in my living room, in the halls of my kids’ school, in the walk to the grocery store, in the Memorial Day parade. People I knew and cared about were always gathering, and I could dip into that whenever I needed to.

Now, I am learning so much about myself and I am grateful for that. Yet I had not anticipated that everything that feels like connection was going to involve focused effort on my part to pursue. It isn’t as if I’m the only one making the effort, but the majority of people I’m trying to maintain connection and community with have other humans in their physical orbit on a daily basis. But I have not been within hugging distance of anyone since Thanksgiving. (It did not seem appropriate to hug other the repairman or the grocery clerk.)

I also have some things that a lot of people who live in a busy household have told me that they envy: peace, solitude, time to think, freedom from anyone else’s schedules. And I treasure these things. I have wondered if the pleasure I take in such things means that I don’t even want to find a relationship anymore. I used to think it had to be one thing or the other. Now I see that goals can be situational. If I am single, I want it to look this way; if I am in a relationship, I want this kind. Sometimes I’m actively seeking, sometimes I take a step back.

And it isn’t any different with communities. Sometimes we feel we belong and sometimes we have to keep looking for new places to belong. It’s okay to need multiple communities. Someone once told me, “there is no right way to do this.” There is not even one right way to do this for me.

In a few weeks, I’ll get a new community, my pottery community. Again, a community which I sought out, sacrificed time and money to be a part of. But one that I anticipate will be very valuable to me. It takes work as an adult to find new connections. Belonging within a community is one of the things I thought would be easier.

Yesterday, I was supposed to hike with a friend from my old neighborhood, but she was unable to make it. I tried to find someone else to go with at the last minute, since I was already bundled up against the December chill, but nothing panned out. I almost didn’t go. I have an intense fear of getting lost and tend toward well-marked trails with a friend. But I got in the car before I could change my mind. Drove to the state park where my friend and I had hiked once before, several months ago. I walked with a careful eye on my surroundings and the trail markers, noticing the way my walking, when I’m unsure of the way, mirrors my handwriting when I’m unsure of my thoughts. There is a tidy deliberateness to my movement that is absent when I’m feeling sure of myself or lost in my imagination.

I didn’t get lost, and my return path was brisk, comfortable. This was a baby step, a decently marked path in a well-traveled wood. It struck me again, the trade-offs between solitude and community. I missed my friend. I miss being face-to-face with humans I care about, who care about me. I miss hugs. At the same time, this solo hike did me some good, too.

I am surprised by so many things these days. Realizations that come to me in the middle of the night. My task is accepting the things that didn’t work out, and pouring my energies into a new relationship with myself and into appreciation of communities, old and new.

Love, Cath

On the End of the Line, and Catching Your Breath

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes it is hard to trust your instincts.

Sometimes, it takes us years to process something terrible that happened to us, that changed our lives, changed who we were. Are. Those years are spent trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, trying to metabolize pain before it metabolizes us.

And when it involves someone you trusted, trying to understand why and how feels like the most urgent and important thing in the world. It feels possible, but elusive.

If I stopped trying to understand, what would happen? It doesn’t mean I haven’t learned anything. It doesn’t mean that the journey has been a waste of time. To the contrary, the endeavoring was part of my healing process.

But it is also the part that has no where left to go.

I imagine it this way:  I have been moving forward carrying a large ball of twine that has been unwinding with each step. For years, it was always there, no matter how many steps I took in any direction. But now I find myself holding the end of it, and behind me, it winds all the way back to what happened, and it charts all the ways I tried to see it from all the angles. It’s not a straight line and it is wrapped around memories and snagged here and there so that as I hold it now, it’s taut. There’s no where left to go. To take the next step forward, I have to let go. Maybe I’ve been standing still longer than I realize, holding that last bit of twine, waiting for it all to make sense. It won’t. It can’t. Maybe I know, too, all the ways it connects me to more than just pain. It connects me to things that that were possible that aren’t anymore. Maybe that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out all along. How possibility, at least one thread of it, is cut short.

Photo by Jess Bailey Designs on Pexels.com

For years I held on tight to what hurt. I thought that if I could understand it, it would hurt less, or, it would offer some protection against future suffering. But I don’t think it works that way.

It wasn’t as if I wasn’t living and loving during this time. Hearts do complicated work while performing their function. It isn’t as if my endeavor to understand what happened insisted on being the only story, the whole story. But it was a through line. Life is a complicated interweaving of past and present and pain and love and you just keep going even as you keep working. Even if clumsy, we walk and chew gum. We love, we pursue dreams, we fall into old grief masquerading as new grief, we dig, we think, we learn, we move, we stand still and catch our breath.

Sometimes too, it seems silly almost, that I would have spent so many hours and thoughts and heartbeats and breaths and tears trying to get to a place where I could say, oh, yes, I see. That makes sense, especially when I see others going through different, bigger, harder traumas. But, I can’t change that this is how things felt to me, and this is how long it has taken me to get here. Sometimes things just are how they are. They take the time they need to and that has everything to do with us but nothing to do with choice.

So, what does it mean to open my hand and heart and take the next step without what has become a comfort, my tie to past hurt, my journey to understand it, that umbilical cord feeding me stories of how it used to be and never will be? What is like to move from but, it wasn’t supposed to be this way, to whatever is next? I don’t know yet. I don’t know what is beyond the reach of my tether. I’m still catching my breath. I’m still loosening my grip on that last bit of twine. But I think I’m close. Something in me, some instinct I can finally hear, is saying it’s time.

Peace to you all, wherever you are on whatever part of the journey you find yourself.

Love, Cath

On Clay and Conversation

By Catherine DiMercurio

So much of life depends on how you look at things.

I don’t mean seeing things from a different angle in order to guide yourself toward a more positive perspective. I mean new experiences sometimes hand you a metaphor and give you a way to contemplate something more deeply or fruitfully than you have before.

Recently, my daughter and I took a trial wheel-throwing pottery class. It was something we’d both wanted to try for a long time. I was nervous about investing time and money into a semester-long class without first having some idea about how I would feel about working with this medium, so the two-hour workshop format appealed to me.

On the drive over to the studio, I had a strange thought. I was feeling anxious and as I dug around in that feeling I realized part of it was because I did not want to disappoint the instructor, some person I’d never met before. Why on earth would I care about that? Maybe I didn’t want them to think that my inability to follow directions, or create “properly” meant that they were not doing their job well. I wanted to be a good student so they could feel like a good teacher. It was also part of my people-pleasing mentality. [The reasons people do this are varied and complex. Sometimes it is because we’ve lived with emotionally volatile people and we learn to not make waves. Sometimes it is because we need others to think well of ourselves since we have a hard time doing that on our own. This is often a result of us having internalized messages—religious, cultural, societal messages—in such a way that we feel it is necessary to prove that we are, in fact, good people.]

Still, I tried to shelve these ancient worries. I wanted to focus on having fun with my daughter and learning something new. I wanted to prove to myself that I could.

As it happened, my daughter and I were both feeling a little anxious, because it’s normal to feel that way when you’re trying out something you’ve never done before. But once we walked into the studio, met the owners and their dog, and toured the space, I began to feel more relaxed. Shelves of drying cups and bowls and vases, pale stoneware waiting to be glazed. Gorgeous curved and sumptuous shapes. Rows and rows of completed, glazed work, waiting for students to collect them. Oh, the glazes. I love glazes. I wish I had the vocabulary to describe them, understood their chemical composition. Reddish browns, honeyed golds, pale bronzy greens. It all washed over me. I felt both calm and exhilarated. I love that hard-to-come-by feeling.

I couldn’t wait to feel the clay beneath my fingers, to begin to see how it responded to the corresponding forces of my touch and the movement of the wheel. I’d watched enough of a British pottery competition program to imagine what it might be like but now I’d be getting my own hands dirty and trying it out.

One of the owners, Mike, sat down at the wheel and talked us through various processes and techniques. And then suddenly we were doing it. Mike helped when we weren’t sure if our clay was centered, or if a bowl was widening to the point of collapse. He was a good guide.

I wasn’t shockingly good at it for a beginner, though I really wanted to be! I may not have uncovered a hidden talent, but I also did not uncover the disaster I’d been fearing. This wasn’t gym class, and I wasn’t unbelievably horrible at it, as I was with most sports. Have you ever been so bad at something that people are embarrassed for you? Not fun. But here, in the studio, I did have fun, and so did my daughter.

There was some kind of perfect little relief in the newness of it all. A bliss in getting to believe in something else, a different kind of space, a different kind of making. I think my daughter and I both experienced that and it felt important to be able to share that with her.

In the days since the class, one of the things I’ve reflected on is the notion of conversation. Working with the clay, my hands had to be in conversation with one another. They didn’t simply work “together.” They worked in harmony and in response to one another. It is different than say, playing a musical instrument, where your hands are working together, but each is performing a separate task. In building a bowl on the wheel, my hands had to talk to each other, listen to each other, in order to create something together. It was impossible not to see this as a beautiful metaphor for what I hope to one day find in a relationship. If you are not working together, focused on the relationship you’re creating, it will not hold together, things will spin out of control. You must want the same thing. You might end up making something different than what you intended at the beginning, but you’re in on it together. And unless there is a cooperative, positive effort, it won’t be anything at all.

Because my brain works the way it does, I seized upon this metaphor and tried applying it retroactively to past relationships that did not turn into what I’d hoped they would. Maybe this was the way I could make sense of how things happened the way they did. The pottery metaphor provided an effective lens with which to view things and helped me to remind myself of why those things didn’t work out.  

I’ll be honest. Sometimes I need a new way to look at an old thing I’ve been turning around endlessly in my head. The ending of relationships is hard. Grief is real, full, and deep, no matter how much you believe that the ending was necessary. I often find myself reciting the stories and their endings back to myself, so I remember, so I don’t repeat past mistakes. So that, if I’m lucky enough to get a next time, I get to keep it. Grief takes up a lot of space in a heart. In a way, we remain in conversation with our grief, long after the loss that caused it.

Another thing about conversation is that in the past I’ve mistaken emotional or intellectual connection for emotional intimacy. It’s all about conversation, but they are not the same things. We have to look closely and see if what we are offering to our partner is what we are being offered in return. There were times that I was not actually having the conversation that I thought I was. Things take time to reveal themselves. People do. We all try to be the best versions of ourselves when we want something to work out. But we can’t keep that up indefinitely. And one person’s idea of something “working out” can be very different from another’s and in the absence of emotional intimacy it might take a while to figure that out. We may think we are building something with a partner, but unless we are in true conversation with one another, one hand might be trying to create a saucer while the other is trying to make a vase.

Another lesson here for me is about a new kind of open heartedness. It took a bit of pushing myself to decide to take this class. I must remember to do that sometimes, to nudge myself into action, into new ways of looking at things. I admire people who can jump into new things without the anxiety that sometimes holds me back. At the same time, I love that these experiences for me feel special, wonderous, even, given that it wasn’t easy for me to approach them.

We all come at the world and all it has to offer differently, but I don’t believe that there are methods that are superior to others. We go at our own pace and are rewarded in the ways that feel meaningful to us. And we learn the lessons we need to when we are ready for them.

After you make something at the wheel, it goes through many other steps. It air dries, then is trimmed, then dried in the kiln, and then glazed, and then fired once more. Or something like that. My daughter and I didn’t get to do those other steps—that is what the full class is for—but we did get to pick out glazes. I’m eagerly awaiting the call from the studio saying that our pieces are ready. Pottery, it seems, like everything else in my life, is trying to teach me patience.

I’m pretty sure I’m going to sign up for the full class, but the next session will begin in January, and meets for three hours on Monday nights. That’s a big commitment! But I think I’m intrigued enough to take it on.

Wishing you true conversation and a little bit of genuine bliss.

Love, Cath

On Safe Havens

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we figure out what we need.

Some transitions take longer than others; or, I am slow to acclimate to change. I think about where I belong and where I don’t and have not come to any conclusions except that sometimes it feels like nowhere, or at least, not here.

A few weeks before my house began a revolt with its perpetually problematic furnace, I finally got out of it for a couple of days. I’d booked a cabin in the woods in a state park not too far from home. I’d painstakingly arranged for care for the dogs, though I worried about my absence being difficult for them. My plan was to go away to write in solitude, but when one of my sisters, who was in need of some solitude herself, asked to join me, I was happy to say yes. She volunteered to take care of all the food, and let me write, and when I needed breaks we’d be able to enjoy each other’s long-missed company, and walk in the woods. Few things are ever exactly what you need, but this was. It felt soft and safe. It felt like the childhood safety and freedom from worry she and I had enjoyed together. It was laughter and peace. And I did get a fair bit of writing done. And we rambled through the woods in the late-September sun.

Back at home, I tried to hold on to that sense of peace and security, but I was also faced with what I had left—living in a house and in a town that I’m still acclimating to after a year, a place that resists feeling like home. Part of it is that in addition to my son leaving for college, the relationship I thought I’d be cultivating here had ended and I have found it difficult to create a sense of belonging to a place that did not have my people in it. For decades, home had been about family. Adjusting to a lack of a human population within these walls has been a bumpy ride.  

It’s a strange thing to make peace with an object as big as a house, and one that at times has seemed like it has wanted to eject me. Look, I say. We just have to make this work. Yet, you are not what you pretended to be. Things I loved about you when we first met all need to be repaired or replaced. Other things I loved about you that no longer matter: you kept me close to someone who mattered.

You were supposed to be a safe haven. But then I remember, that’s my job, not yours.

Safety, in all its forms, is both complex and simple. So easy to lose, so hard to get back. I think many of us experience this loss of a sense of safety at various points in our lives, whether it be in the aftermath of trauma large or, smaller but chronic, or an ongoing familial or financial crises that takes its toll.  We look back and try to remember what it was like to feel safe. Maybe it was so long ago you can hardly remember, or maybe it was a recent loss, sudden or gradual. Or a combination of all these things.

I believe it is also true that many people who feel anxiety or stress are unable to identify its true source as the absence of a sense of personal safety. It is difficult to pinpoint the source of trouble within ourselves, and it is easy to write off a deep, unsettled feeling as “stress.” But I have been wondering if it is actually stress that is the source of the anxiety I often struggle with, or something deeper.

In the course of these past couple of months of adaptation—to the loss of a relationship, to my newly emptied nest, to solitude that wears a different face every day—I have tried to explore troubled feelings when they arise. One of the things I’ve come to recognize is that a chain reaction of harm is occurring, and it is eroding my ability to be what we all need to be for ourselves: unassailable safe haven.

When I have a setback—expensive home repairs, a rejection of a writing submission I was really hopeful about, the text that erases the budding hope for a new potential relationship—my first thoughts are not those that self-soothe and comfort. They are those that self-criticize. Worse, they sometimes wound even deeper, mirroring the act of shaming that others have done to me in the past. What’s wrong with you? How could you let this happen?

How can we ever feel safe with someone who is makes us feel less than, who prods us about things we should have known or done, or belittles us for “bad” decisions, or for outcomes beyond our control? If we told a friend that someone we cared about was treating us this way, they might say, “that’s awful, that person does not love you.” What might our response be? Would we defend? Insist that they are only trying to protect us? What do you do when the person hurting you and tearing you down is yourself?  

There is undoubtedly a part of us that thinks it can protect us by pointing out things we could have done differently, things that didn’t work out well before, in order to try and keep us safe from further harm. There is a part of us that wants us to do better, be better. This critical voice pushes us because it loves us, and when we have pushed ourselves before, when we have tried harder and achieved, it may have seemed that this did make other people love us more. We may have told ourselves that. That people love us better when we can demonstrate that we have achieved certain external success. And that means a lot when we have been unable to create that love and safety within ourselves.

Did we even know we were supposed to? I’m not sure I even knew that as a concrete thing, that it wasn’t going to be enough to let my sense of safety be housed within my relationships instead of myself.

Sometimes we learn too well from all those who have been critical in the past, individuals and institutions that have used shame as a tool to control us. And when we use the same tools on ourselves the result is anxiety and self-doubt and depression. But how can we self-soothe, how can we turn inward for comfort when times are tough, if we have cultivated an inner critic whose voice is louder and meaner than anything else inside us?

For some of us, this all results in a situation in which we feel more at peace with a partner than on our own, because in solitude we have not been able to create a space in which we feel completely safe. This has been true for me. Yet I felt entirely comfortable providing that safety that I withhold from myself to someone else. When it works, when it is mutual, it can beautiful, and some healing can happen there, to feel that your heart is being cared for so tenderly by someone else. You might even begin to learn how to do this for yourself. But if such care is withheld, what often kicks in is not an instinct to self-nurture. Rather, it is the voice that tells us that we were never worth it to begin with.

I think all this is why writing feels so important to me—I can transcribe not just the darkness and hurt, but also the light and the balm, and I can create, in an imaginary world, things that I struggle to create internally. I try to teach it to myself, by showing what works and what doesn’t. This, not that, please.

It is also why rejection in all forms is so difficult. When connection feels like safety, then being told we aren’t someone’s cup of tea, or our creative work is not a good fit, or good enough, can be demoralizing. There is no magic to feeling okay with any of that. However, practicing and learning how to be a source of connection and safety within and for ourselves is the key, and not just to handling rejection. It is the path to being able to cope effectively with all that life throws at us.

We must be able to believe ourselves when we say I am safe. We must be able to give that gift to ourselves. I must. I’m working on it, now that I have finally figured out that this is what I should be doing. If this is your work too, I wish you love and luck.

Love, Cath

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