On the Dwindled Familiar

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you are out of step and looking for something familiar within yourself.

Lately and often, I’ve been considering the impact of erosion, the way events and transitions and life can lead to a dwindling of the sense of familiarity between ourselves and the world around us, and/or between ourselves and ourselves.

For most people in this chaotic, viral year, familiar routines and habits have evaporated. In the midst of it, as I’ve been writing about here, I’ve moved to a new home, and my son is preparing to leave for college, where he’ll join my daughter on campus, and I’ve been trying to acclimate to it all.

A couple of days ago, my son and I visited my daughter. She’s moved back in with her housemates and is also awaiting the new school year. The three of us walked through the collection of small buildings that form the dorm complex where my son will live. We drove to the river, watched the swans prune, the ducks play, and the geese eat and eat. After ordering some takeout bibimbop, we sat on my daughter’s porch, quietly devouring our spicy rice and vegetables and tofu. We talked about ways to be safe.

two person hold hands
Photo by NEOSiAM 2020 on Pexels.com

I sat on the porch swing, close to my daughter and I held her hand, as if she were my five-year-old once more, and I missed her suddenly and intensely now that we were together again. I listened to the two of them talk to one another about their class schedules, their futures.

It is not that I’ve been oblivious to how much of their life now unfolds without me in it on a regular basis, but sometimes it just hits you.

This part is over. Has been over, actually.

I was slow to realize.

With my daughter, even though she’s beginning her junior year and talking about what faraway things come next for her after she graduates, it still almost felt like I had time for everyday moments. Even though, despite a brief pandemic-induced period where she moved back home, I haven’t lived with her for some time. Maybe it is because my son is about to leave too that the truth of it all is clarifying for me. Whatever privileged status I may hold in their lives as their mother will not necessarily translate into daily relevance.

At home, at this home-in-the-making, I walk through the house in the morning, letting the dog out, making the coffee, making the bed, and none of it has quite coalesced as familiar. Sometimes, I only feel as at home here as I would in any place where I like the décor. Those books. That pottery vase. The pink tile in the bathroom. The way the light moves through the house throughout the day is pleasing. And we have begun building memories here, a birthday, morning coffee on the back porch, a wide sweep of conversation. Tears and laughter, sleep and restlessness. Meals prepared and eaten together. At the same time, the notion of familiarity can feel elusive.

I am only slowly realizing that familiar does not always have to do with what the things I thought it did – time, memory, history, objects.

I have new possessions and old ones here in this new place, but the old things have the same hum as the new, though I know them better. Possibly I’m confusing the notion of familiarity with something else.

And then suddenly sometimes it all shifts into place with a soft sigh. I am not always half a step off from the general flow of things, but with all the churn and shove of these transitions, I can be a beat behind. I’m noticing too that people notice what I haven’t, like how long I pause sometimes before I’m able to catch up. I tried explaining this recently to my son but I don’t think I was able to make much sense of it.

At times, I feel at once melancholy and joyous, as if both of these are simultaneously my natural states, and I am perpetually tugged in one direction or the other, and the unease I feel within my own skin sometimes is a side effect of the journey from one state to the other.

This is all to say that sometimes our world and the miniscule and the enormous upheavals therein cause us to feel unfamiliar to ourselves, as we try to respond to all the things we need to. Sometimes we try and fail. Sometimes we try and are slow to realize that we aren’t failing. We are in a state of trying. We are earnest. We are tugged between versions of ourselves. We are tugged in and out of the flow that everyone else seems to keep pace with.

Perhaps the most centering power, the thing that consistently brings me back to myself, is the act of looking into the eyes of those people I love, and being recognized. The warm brown eyes of my son, kind and astute, grounded and curious. My daughter’s sea gaze, all grey and green, passion and power and depth. The blue sky eyes of my love, a soar of melody and truth, wisdom and sweetness.

We are all moving through our own states, and sometimes we are trying to catch up to ourselves and to each other and to the world. We owe ourselves and each other recognition and respect, patience and compassion.

Love, Cath

On Works-in-Progress

By Catherine DiMercurio

For most of my life, home has looked like backyards sutured together with chain link. Neighborhoods comprised of various parts, various wholes, my yard, shared fence, our block. As I was growing up, summertime smelled like charcoal smoldering on grills. We stuck our toes into the gooey tar that mended fissures in the street in front of our house.

gray metal chain link fence close up photo
Photo by Kendall Hoopes on Pexels.com

One of the days I was working at the new house, before I moved, I smelled a neighbor’s charcoal grill and thought of my dad, tending ours when I was little, and I had the sense of returning, as if I’d just peddled home as fast as I could because the street lights were coming on and I heard my father’s distinctive get your asses home now whistle. I’ve chatted with new neighbors across old fencing, and have had thought about how easy it is to feel both at home and out of place amidst the almost familiar.

This morning I arose after waking too early and trying futilely to get back to sleep. There are still boxes to unpack, things I can’t find. At times, when fatigued or overwhelmed, I get unreasonably melancholy. I fret over the fact that I cannot fix things to their proper places here so far. Is this where the coffee cups should go? Why is it so difficult to buy a couch? The kitchen table seems right though, so that’s a beginning.

Sometimes, though I’ve only just begun sleeping here several nights ago, it feels as though I’m only borrowing the place for a little while, though we have put in so many hours and dollars to make it feel new, mine. I hope she likes it when she gets here.

I sort of thought the house would let me know what it wanted somehow. But it’s still making me do all of the work.

This sense of almost being home is perhaps exacerbated by that looming birthday, though I don’t place a lot of stock in fifty as a milestone, despite the countless ways the world says I should. I’m expected to know by now exactly if I’m going to keep coloring my greys or not, and I’m supposed to know why. I’m supposed to not care what people think, and know precisely what I think about this or that or everything. I’m supposed to know more, know me, or, I’m supposed to know how much I don’t know and embrace that.

Perhaps I’m as much almost home as I am almost me.

I do know a few things. I know that possibly I might never stop being at least a little afraid that the good things will slip away if I don’t pay close enough attention. Vigilance and worry aren’t the same as spells of protection, but I whisper incantations nonetheless. Things weren’t always so, and though I can pinpoint the exact moment when this circuit in my brain was tripped, it doesn’t seem to mean that I can access an easy remedy for it. It does mean that there is work to do, and that’s okay. Everyone has their own work to do, and it changes as we go, and as with homes, the work is never quite done, and timelines are a bit unnecessary and perhaps even unhelpful. We must be both patient and diligent, with ourselves and with each other.

I know also how the extent to which love makes so much of this so much easier, possible, fulfilling. Though I sometimes struggle with my shortcomings, though we all do, having those we love supporting us, while we offer the same loving support in return, is what stitches together our little communities of you, me, us. So much of the world around us is mended and bound together and I love the way we mend each other and bind ourselves to one another through kindness and gestures, glances, kisses, effort, words, all of it, all of us.

I don’t always know the best way to tackle the work that needs to be done, and it seems all too easy sometimes to see task after task piling up, to get overwhelmed and undone about it all. I’m trying, in this new almost-home place to give myself the space to figure it out, to get closer to where and how I want to be, to have a little more patience with myself with regard to work in progress. It’s the kindest thing we can do for ourselves, and each other.

Love, Cath

On Hermit Crabs and Habits

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we seek ourselves in our habits.

A few days ago, as I was out walking, I decided to see how running felt again. It had been a while, and when I was a little younger it was easy to start again after a lull. I’ve noticed in the past few years that getting back up to speed has taken longer, been a little more clunky. So, I took it slow. I interspersed some running into the walk and it felt like maybe I’d do it again. I ordered new shoes the next day. At the same time, I know how easy it is for me to fall out of the habit when life gets busy, and I wonder, if I loved it so much why does that happen? And I wonder, is wanting to try again more of an effort to connect the current me to a past version of me? Perhaps I am seeking running again, because it makes me feel strong, and I need evidence of strength right now.

With all the transition happening related to moving, which I’ve been writing about here for some time, I am feeling very vulnerable in many ways. I was sitting at my desk trying to work and I kept thinking of hermit crabs, and what I remembered of them from the Eric Carle story about the hermit crab, a children’s book I had read to my children long ago. They live in discarded shells from other sea creatures. When they outgrow one shell, they must leave it behind and find another more suitable one. I’ve been ruminating about this period of exposure, the seeking, the being in-between places. I think of this current house not so much as something I’ve outgrown, but as something with a shape better suited for another family. I’ve evolved differently, and it has been fitting awkwardly these days, as familiar as it is. Maybe that’s why I’m in search of some external marker of strength, as I’m moving between shells and the exposure is getting to me.

crab macro hermit hermit crab
Photo by William LeMond on Pexels.com

Sometimes I feel that we are evaluated in the same way that we explore a prospective new space. It is a relief to be recognized as something having both potential and current value, even when all our flaws are on display, as they especially are when the stress of transition exposes us.

I think too of the way humans in general move into someone else’s former shelter and make it their own. Some people do build houses specifically to suit their own tastes, but in general we search for something that will do the job. We fit ourselves into a space and are constrained by external factors like cost and availability, yet within such parameters we try to find something that suits our personality and our needs. We seek out something that mostly fits and we adapt.

I suspect many of us feel like hermit crabs right now, tucked away in a home that might be starting to feel too small, even if the fit seemed just fine early in March. Inside our homes we make attempts at keeping up habits that feel good, discarding some, taking on new ones. I try to keep writing, keep up with that habit. I’m revisiting the running habit. I imagine what these activities will look like in my new house, which I now can visualize. It’s there waiting for me, pending paperwork. Or any other disaster that a worrier like me can easily imagine.

Our habits are a huge part of our ability to adapt to new circumstances. We talk a lot these days about “normal” and “new normal.” But I don’t think we participate in various habits because they make our lives feel normal. I think we do them because they make us feel like ourselves. Washing the dishes in my new house will help acclimatize me to the new space, the performance of a routine domestic activity that says life goes on, here in this space now, instead of there and then. But the things that will help me to truly adapt will be cooking for people I love, writing, gardening, exploring the new neighborhood on walks and runs. We have habits that are integral to who we are, for better or worse, and our personal evolution is tied to which ones we hold on to and which ones we let go of. And we all have some we wish to let go of. I find it very easy to lose myself in an anxiety loop and I don’t know how much of that is a conscious embrace of a habit, or a chemical stress response I don’t have much control over. I think it is both – first one, then the other, so I continue to work on what I can control, I work on letting go of the habit, and I look forward to seeing if it’s easier to do in a new environment.

All this leads me to consider how much our homes make us who we are. Do they? Or are they reflections of who we are? Perhaps the answer is both, first one, then the other, but I don’t know which comes first. Perhaps this is another way we are like the hermit crab. We are this version of ourselves in one space.

We are what we inhabit.

And then we inch toward something else, changing either something about our home to better suit us, or finding a new space all together. We inch forward, we adapt, we inhabit a new version of ourselves, here and now.

Love, Cath

On New Shapes and Exercises in Normalcy

By Catherine DiMercurio

In this state of suspension, we are given conflicting orders. We are told don’t move and keep moving as much as possible. We are playing freeze tag. We are it for a moment, running frantically with purpose, then frozen and waiting once again.

We are told many things, about how we should feel about all this, what we should and should not be doing, how we should and should not react. How can our responses to this “information” overload be anything but mercurial?

We fall back into what is familiar to us as a way of coping. We want to reach out to those who give us comfort, though our access to them may be limited, and they are going through the same thing, so it almost doesn’t seem fair anyway.

Sometimes I am fighting the feeling of shutting down, of retreating inwardly until it’s over. Except that I know that returning to self, from self, is a scary climb out of darkness sometimes and I don’t want to do that anymore or again or ever so I’m really trying, as we all are, each in our own way, to stay present, hopeful, aware and connected.

Sometimes I am feeling immersed in a task or a conversation or a thought and for a moment, or a handful of them, the world is relatively normal, and I breathe deeply and hold it, trying to keep it.

Sometimes I am talking on the phone feeling at once that all is well, and that hovering at the edges of the bubble is the dark strangeness, waiting to seep back in.

ball ball shaped blur bubble
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The most important relationships in our lives are all being pushed and pulled into new directions, new shapes, and each one of them is being explored and navigated differently, carefully, and we are uncertain about what we are getting right and what we are getting wrong.

Sometimes I am very much aware that a specific conservation of energy is happening within me.

When my children were in elementary school, we participated in a fundraiser in which we bought caterpillars that we housed in homemade shelters outfitted with the necessities. A small branch upon which to build a chrysalis. Some sort of food, I don’t remember what. One year we released two butterflies. Another year, one butterfly emerged from its chrysalis with a malformed wing. Sometimes it feels like we are all busy mis-shaping part of ourselves as we try to adapt to what our world has become, all the while, hoping we’ll emerge properly.

If we emerge newly malformed, it will be into a world that’s similarly altered, and we will fit one another, us and the world.

What I am discovering, perhaps just in this moment, that it is maybe best to not call it anything. Maybe it is best to not define it, to just have it be whatever it is on any given day, and to continue. To do the work of the day, whatever it may be, and be done with it.

I have found that I function better when counting on some version of the plans I’d been making. Timelines shift, the contours morph, but still, there is forward, next, soon. Though it all might be tenderly misshapen. Though we were all frozen too long, or it too long, the game of tag prolonged indefinitely. We are not being called in to dinner, or waiting for the streetlights to come on, our cue to go home.

Now there is only home. And it doesn’t mean quite what it used to. It’s not its fault.

We want so badly to not be balancing quite so precariously, on the edge of how things were, and the unknown of how they will be, how we will be. How will we be? But maybe we were always precariously balanced and we just didn’t know it.

There are no fresh insights here, just me poking around at perspectives, trying to find the best one to fit my current state of mind. I think, what is the point of writing this anyway. I think of the little butterfly, awkwardly flying as if she had the hiccups, and the great tenderness I felt toward this not-okay little creature, and I think that maybe that is the perspective that fits me today.

It helps me to think of the constants. Spring was on its way when this all started and is decidedly here now. The forsythia is an effulgent yellow, tight lilac buds are preparing to bloom once the forsythia tires from showing off. The grass is greening with each rainfall. The chubby robins chipped me awake earlier and I’m here, taking it all in. The fresh lush truth of spring. This is hard. We are lonely. We are missing each other. We are counting down the days. I am.

I cannot craft this into something cohesive. It is, if nothing else, an exercise in normalcy. It is the way I interact with ambiguity. I’m exploring the odd new way of things and trying to land on a way of being for right now, and I have great tenderness for our new shapes.

Love, Cath

 

On Tenderness, Torrents, and Tortoises

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we are very close to understanding self and other. And then…

I want to write a tender letter to myself about acceptance, but it’s really to us; we are multiplicities. We are many selves. When I woke this morning, the predicted rain was just beginning. It began as a torrent, rather than slow sprinkles that built to something larger. I thought about how happy could exist, like a bright vanilla cake as large as the sun, right along side the sludgy worry sluicing away near my ankles. And I thought it was because we are many things, all at the same time, we are contained by a cell membrane, unique units all operating within the same space, together and separate. How else can biology and baking and weather all make so much sense to me within the space of a paragraph.

With some sense of delight, I realize this perspective helps me understand other things, other people. With some sense of dread, I realize this perspective helps me understand. There are things I don’t want to understand. But I will try to look at it as beautiful, now that I’m here.

I’ve warmed up some of yesterday’s coffee and sit in front of the heater, the coziest place in the house and my mind drifts to other days, long past, of sitting there, chilled to my core, and I think how ready I am for a new place. I will be looking at two houses today, though it’s a bit too soon, really, but it keeps me motivated to take on the tasks of basement purging and kitchen painting. It’s not the first time in the past few days that I’ve been possessed by an awareness of how far I’ve traveled in the five years since my divorce. Sometimes I’m certain it’s not much, it doesn’t look like much from the outside, but when you think about the journey our hearts take it really is something. It’s like being the tortoise and the hare all at the same time, rushing and plodding all at once.

This year I will be fifty and by the time I hit what our society has deemed a milestone, I will most likely be living in a new house, with two kids in college, and I’ll be settling into a new reality, my many selves exploring a new space. It’s been four years since I got my MFA and I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words since, and only a tiny percentage of them have been read by anyone else, despite my best efforts to publish them. I recently received another really good rejection, at once enormously encouraging, and infinitely demoralizing. Hare yells to Tortoise, come ON, what’s taking you so long. Tortoise to Hare: working on it! We refuse to consider any of it failing; all of us rally behind resiliency and journey.

brass needle through red cloth button
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I think of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, language I’ve only glimpsed but never studied and just now vow to do so, this year, because I cannot get the phrase out of my head today. I think of purpose, and binding self to self, in that gentle way only buttons can do, and I hear myself say you will know me then, and I don’t know what I mean. I wonder if my whole life I’ve been meeting other selves within my selves and all the while taking in others as if each person is some sort of solitary singular unified being. How foolish to have spent so little time considering the cells and suns that make up everyone else. To have not considered all that they understand and don’t want to understand about cell and self. I think sometimes I was getting there, arriving at more complex appreciations, but the world slips away from us sometimes, people do, selves do, and I think one of the saddest and loneliest parts of human existence is that sense of waking from a dream and not being able to remember it.

Sometimes I feel as though I exist as full torrent, that is to say, not in the punishing way of a hard rain, but as if I have come into this moment all at once, rather than gradually, as if I’ve always known how to be all of my selves all at once. Other times I see the gradual gathering, the building drop by drop, history by history, a coming into being that has taken all of my cells centuries. Each version, the torrent and the drop, begs for forgiveness and acceptance. I’m sorry I’m too much. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long. I do wonder sometimes if I think about Being so much because I don’t know how to do it or because I do, because we all do.

Even now, I feel as though I’m moving away from understanding something important, I’m having that sense of waking from a dream and at the same time relishing the dream that can barely, wait—no, not at all—be remembered, which calls to mind one of the stanzas from “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (by Wallace Stevens):

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.

For now, I’ll just have to enjoy the just-after moment of the blackbird whistling, and keep trying.

Love, Cath