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.

Photo by Sourav Mishra on Pexels.com

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 Dreams, and the Shape of Things

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dream on, friends.

Love, Cath

On Art, Home, and Haziness

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Nathan J Hilton on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Calm, and Quirks, and Being

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes I don’t want to calm down, because I’m not sure what to do once I get there. I wonder if I know how to do more than visit. I’m so used to allowing my anxiety as much space as it needs that it feels more like home somehow, to be worried. To be in the void, the one at the center of calm, to be without the fluster and fear, means dealing with a situation instead of reacting to it. In a way, there is safety in not-calm. It shields us from work we haven’t learned how to do, or that we were forgot we were competent at. Or, from work that needs doing, but sometimes we are so very tired of doing it.

Photo by Evie Shaffer on Pexels.com

Recently, I was startled by the sudden and violent death of a mourning dove who’d been grazing on the snowy ground at the base of the bird feeder in the back yard. We first noticed the large hawk, hunched over something. It dawned on us then that he must have killed something. After he flew off, carrying the body, we traipsed through the snow and viewed what remained. A scatter of grey and cream colored feathers surrounded a circle of blood-stained snow. Surmising it must have been one of the mourning doves we had noticed earlier, we cleaned up what we could. As I used a plastic grocery bag to gather up feathers and bloody snow in shaky fistfuls, I thought, abstractly, “the dogs,” not able to articulate my worry over them examining the scene. It simply seemed bad to allow them to investigate and possibly consume anything left of the bird. And then I was startled by a sudden grief for the mourning dove I’d invited to the feeder.

When I was attending my graduate school residencies, I heard a lot of talk about “liminal spaces.” The term liminal wasn’t part of my usual vernacular. This notion of in-between-ness felt writerly. It was a lofty concept, an emotionally self-aware and intellectual way of looking at things, and I liked it. Wanted to inhabit a me whose boundaries encompassed the use of such words. I remember thinking about how much living existed in the space between our words. I found myself fully invested in exploring this concept, probably because I was in such an in-between place myself, in between versions of myself, headed away from a married me, and becoming a divorced me, but not really knowing what it was supposed to look like, who I wanted her to be. The liminal eventually became a meaningless concept for me because I felt as though I would be perpetually unable to leave behind one existence and inhabit the next. I felt trapped in an existential game of Twister, limbs tangled and reaching back and forward and everywhere at the same time, grasping urgently for a sense of self. I thought, rather than arriving at the next iteration of myself, I would succumb to becoming a not-me. As if I was nothing more than this tangle of selves, rather than someone who insisted on her own certain form. A scatter of feathers and blood. No longer bird, but still evidence of bird.

In a way, calm itself is liminal. It is an in-between space, the place that exists between anxiety and the next part, work. The work of undoing or repairing or rebuilding whatever sent you falling in the first place. I think of the place in between bird and not-bird and realize it is a very different thing than transitioning from one state of mind to the next, from anxiety to calm to work. It is final. Full stop. Though moving oneself from a state of anxiety to a state of calm can inspire dread and more fear, we always know it is a journey we have to make. But, it takes time. Sometimes we need help, sometimes we need solitude to regroup. Yet it is always characterized, eventually, by movement, not by stopping.

I think about the little movements, like a flutter of breath once we realize we’ve been holding it, that invite us toward calm. The half-formed thought that suggests the difference between the instincts we trust and the hazy, malformed notions that are more remembered grief than the deeper knowledge that points us to what we need, when we need it. Admittedly, it can be hard to tell the difference sometimes. It is even harder to tell the difference when our state is not calm.

I wonder sometimes if it is healthy to spend so much energy considering such abstract things as anxiety and fear and states of mind and states of being. But I also don’t know how to exist, how to be me, without also considering my whole self and my place within the larger world. I think too that such considerations play a vital role in allowing us to grow together and harmoniously with those close to us.

We must keep sharing our real selves with our people, and encouraging them to do the same.

How lucky we are when they allow us to do so without out judgement. I consider myself to be an open, heart-on-your sleeve person. But at the same time, I carry around a certain level of shame and embarrassment about the things I don’t love about myself, like my easily triggered anxiety, or certain weather-related phobias, or the panic my periodic insomnia induces. I admit, I hoped to downplay these qualities to my boyfriend, worried about how he would perceive them. But who we are simply and without fail reveals itself. And, I’ve happily discovered that I am with a person who seems able to accept everything about me, even when my quirks seem unexpected or incomprehensible. We have been together two years now, and it is beautiful to be able to offer one another this grace, this space to be who we truly are with one another.

I’m wishing you all calm today, and am supporting you in being who you are, who you are becoming. If you have a chance, take a moment to hug or thank the people who are happy to let you do that.

Love, Cath

On Multitudes and Surprise

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we have to listen to our multitudes, and each other’s.

Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself, “I am large, I contain multitudes” and I think of the crowd of people in my head and I nod at Whitman in solidarity. Yes, us too, I answer, for me and everyone clamoring. My body is a mouthpiece. The disparate voices wait for their turn to speak. In moments of synthesis, I think about I instead of we, but it isn’t always that way. Sometimes we don’t have a leader making sense of it all for us; sometimes we see each other clearly. It would be easy to call them facets of our persona, but at times they seem whole; they seem to have a mind of their own, and they have things they’d like to say.  

Sometimes I think about all the misshapen pears and moths I paint and how I despair over the forms I can’t get right. But maybe my hand with a mind of its own is getting this part right: in each asymmetrical moth wing, or that poorly postured pear, whose twisted shape is the result of growing in uneven sun, we see reflections of ourselves.

Sometimes I write we and I intend it to refer to a collective of individuals reading what I’ve written. I project outward; I imagine everyone else working hard to make sense of the world. Sometimes I write we and I feel as if the crowd in my head is cheering for the recognition. We contain multitudes.

This past weekend, my love and I found ourselves taking a bit of a work-related road trip. The beautiful thing about long drives with someone you love is that you and the multitudes in your head get to have unbroken stretches of time with him and his multitudes. I don’t know if that sounds strange or not, I don’t know how other people see themselves and the people close to them, but for me, opening into this truth of our mutual complexities is at once an act of love and an act of self-love. I cherish times like these, and I am in awe of the way being with him opens up pathways not only to know him better, but to know myself better.

I’ve been thinking about these multitudes a lot lately. Many blogs ago I talked about how I needed to listen to the other stories and voices within me, in terms of my writing. I think all writing is personal, and I think it is impossible to avoid privileging the I within us that synthesizes the multitude of voices clamoring to be heard. This morning I walked the dog after sleeping an unbelievable nine hours. I tried to shake off sluggishness and dream fragments as we trotted through the pale morning, looking for downed branches from yesterday’s windstorm. I was surprised by how few branches the sycamores had dropped. My dog was surprised by the break in our routine – morning walks are not the way we usually do things. My legs were surprised by the sudden brisk and sustained movement. I began to realize that surprise was what some of my recent writing was missing. There are voices in the crowd I haven’t listened much to, voices that long to be heard. And going into the dark winter months with a new perspective on my writing feels good. It is time to listen to the other voices and write new stories.

Maybe that’s what we all need a little bit of at this time of year. A nudge to listen to what is latent and waiting within us, new ways of thinking that have nothing to do with the disciplined focus we’ve sustained on current events. I get lost in my own head a lot. Many people do. Sometimes you have to get out of your head a bit, but sometimes, as long as you’re in there, maybe just wander around a bit. Listen for the quieter thoughts and let them lead you, rather than stomping down the well-worn paths of the usual anxieties. Sometimes it is difficult to feel creative and new in the cold dark months. It is easy to slip into a sort of mental hibernation as we fatigue sooner in the day with the early setting of the sun.

I know that I’m prone to romanticizing. My heart was built this way. But I can’t help thinking of those few hundred miles with my love at my side, and how the simple slipping away of the road beneath us, the cadence of it, underscored the easy rhythm of our interaction. How the surprise of the road trip, a somewhat unexpected turn in our Saturday morning, was something our mutual multitudes seemed to delight in.

In these short dark days, when so many of us fall helplessly into a slow sadness that is not easily eased, I’m pointing myself toward surprise, both in my creative work and in my life. My morning walk today helped propel me from the molasses-y state I woke into, and I know it will take work to keep finding ways to unstick myself as the dark cold months wear on. I’m thankful for whatever voice within me suggested the walk this morning. I’m grateful, too, to be with someone whose multitudes know how to speak to mine; I’m grateful for the surprise and delight of simple things like driving someplace unexpected together.

I feel as though I have an awareness now of what I’m going to need as November unfolds into December and as our Michigan winter extends unceasingly through March. Let us all remind each other of our multitudes, that there are other voices we can listen to besides the ones that speak the loudest to us, the ones that pull us toward our usual blues, our worn out but persistent anxieties. Let’s help each other to look for surprise, and to be delighted by it.

Love, Cath

On Water, Identity, and Focus

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes I’m very much aware of how much water I’m comprised of.

When I began this post, it was raining again, and I had an odd sense of inexplicable relief. I had spent the previous night painting malformed moths with watercolors, struggling with the shapes, but delighting in the relationship between pigment, water, pulp. Last week I dipped my feet into Lake Erie, the biggest water I could get to quickly. And this weekend, my Love and I greeted the sun rising over Lake Huron. I have been so drawn to water in these recent days I have become almost overwhelmed by it.

When we think of what it means to be human, we must also think of what it means to be water.

I think of the Great Lakes, their depth, churning toward shores without really knowing how or why. I think of what I used to know about being human, years ago, when I thought I understood my history, and when I was naively confident that I knew the general shape of my future. Then suddenly, these understandings and beliefs dissolved. I think of the paper crane in a puddle, that image from a story, maybe one that I wrote, and the way water returned it to pulp, and then nothing.

Sometimes our past is not what we thought was, and we have no easy path back that allows us to remember what we were before. And sometimes the future we thought we were building simply dissipates, revealing that it was never really a constructed thing, it was only vapor, which has now evaporated.

Life does that sometimes, reminds us that we are water, and we are churning, and we don’t really know where we came from or where we are going but we are going nonetheless, toward shore, toward sky, moon, toward ourselves, maybe.

I’ve stumbled across a lot of incidental philosophy that instructs on the moment, the now, being all that we have, all that we can be sure of. My reaction to this concept is always a dual one: I feel simultaneously the logical truth of it, and I feel a hint of dread. I have always wanted to know the future, its contours, and always used to feel that I understood how the past has shaped me. Now, though, I see the present, less like a moment and more like a vast lake. We churn with the waves, toward somewhere, and from somewhere.

And despite all the mysteries of past and future, the water knows itself anyway. Molecule by molecule, it understands its selfness.

I forget sometimes, forget the understanding of self that I possessed before I was conscious of experience or memory, forget the identity I already lived when emerging into this world. Maybe that is why I’m so drawn to water, despite being a poor swimmer. I’m not seeking sport, but self. Sometimes it feels like I’m always trying to remember that me, the one emerging from water into air, a whole self, even though this world had not yet imprinted me with experience. We are always whole, always were. Why is it so difficult to remember that sometimes?

Our true self has nothing to do with anything that ever happened to us or anything we ever knew or anything we have ever hoped for. How ridiculously easy it is to wrap that being in thing-ish notions that feel real, the things we tell ourselves about ourselves. I am this quality or that, how many times do we listen to ourselves, watch our words forming apology shapes as we admit our perceived flaws. Why do we let ourselves conform to those notions? I believe it is because we have an understanding, however misshapen it may be, of what the world expects. How presumptuous to assume that the world knows better than we do how to be ourselves. What if in our efforts to fit, to appear less alien, we appear more so? Worse, what if, in our efforts to fit, we become less of who we are? I am not sure if it is possible to lose that sense of our true self entirely, but I do believe it is far too easy to drift further and further away and make it harder and harder for ourselves to return.

Maybe the trick is learning to know water in all its forms. Maybe if I hold my breath and dive below, I can see who and how I was long ago, and not so long ago. Maybe, surfacing, I can hold my focus long enough and see a little of the future. Not all of it, all at once, in grand cloud formations, but glimpses, in the water droplets captured and rising in the air when I splash with joy in the pink sunrise.

As for the present, we live in a world of uncertainty. I know that many introspective folk like myself consider their understanding of their own identity, their relationship to past and future versions of themselves. Personal transitions lend urgency toward such explorations, and journeying toward self in this way during the times we live in can feel chaotic and confusing. So, embrace and thank and love those people in your life who have the ability see the self you are seeking, even when you cannot. [Thank you, as always, my Love]. And let us also allow ourselves to be embraced for the same reason. Our clarity of vision can be as much of a boon to others as theirs is to us.

Be open to and available for the love that is being presented to you. Let us focus and see through each other’s endeavors to mimic what the world expects, and instead see the people in our lives truly. Let us give and receive that gift, and be thankful, and bold, and authentic.

Love, Cath

On Sycamore Selves and Unknown Things

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we are unsolved selves.

I walk a lot in my new neighborhood and have been watching the leaves begin to change, and I have been talking to trees.

Several streets here are lined with sycamores, and they often stand in some proximity to birches, silver maples, and the like. It would be easy, at this time of year, to take greater notice of the fiercely crimson and orange maples, or the cheerful yellow hues of the birch leaves. But, a mature sycamore is casually elegant. There is some kind of exuded wisdom you get a whiff of, along with a heady scent that reminds me of honey and hops. The bark of the trunk peels off in strips or patches, leaving behind swaths of varying shades, a silver-grey-green-brown palette that is beautiful, and charming, and comforting. The branches perform unique twists and turns, and the bark on these smaller limbs has an almost swirled coloration, again the silvery greys and browns along with a breath of green. The fallen leaves are yellow or brown, and have their own kind of vibrancy, green and amber heartbeat.

We are learning a lot about each other, these sycamores and I. Fallen branches provide new opportunities to understand the mysteries of how they grow, what they look like up close, up there.

You are strong and mysterious, I say to the sycamore out front, whom I call Henry, for now. I imagine he has observed my own somewhat strange behavior, the jumbled and overwrought moods I sometimes leave the house in when I walk the dog. The calm that often leads me home. Perhaps he thinks I’m strange, too, perhaps he worries about how much I worry. He says, maybe, why do you not see how strong you are?  

Today as I get ready for my walk, I decide I will leave my hair unbrushed and wild from sleep, so that I can be more like Henry. I look out the window at him and he tells me that’s not what makes you wild. Sometimes I imagine I’m part witch and that my friendship with Henry is a real and normal thing, and that my humanized translation of our conversation is an ability my coven was known for long ago and part of it still lives in me. And I tell myself I’m crazy and that I should write a short story about it instead of this little essay, which might make people worry about me, and Henry just shakes his leaves a little. I wonder if I’m actually part tree, not part witch.

Sometimes, I get the sense that I’m part me as well, which is a relief.

[It is worth noting that my Love has a special intuitiveness with plants and animals, and he seems to have good instincts about Henry, too. He and Henry had a nice moment together recently one golden autumn morning, and I get the sense that Henry approves of him.]

On my walk today I pocketed pinecones and leaves that caught my eye and was reminded of how often I did so with my children when they were little. I’ve had such a strong instinct to gather these treasures lately that I’ve been tempted to start bringing a bucket with me like I did with the kids so long ago. Shiny chestnuts freed from spiky green shells, leaves, cones, sticks, stones, blades of pretty grass, dandelions.

Sometimes we want to gather close to our hearts all the things that make us feel solid and safe, all the things that bring us back to ourselves when random fears, anxieties, and stresses all make us feel like we’ve been scattered. Too far. Too wide.

On today’s walk I noticed that the dry, fallen leaves from the sycamore trees are louder than all the others when they skitter on sidewalks. The sycamore voice is similarly strong when the wind blows through its leaves.

It makes me smile, thinking that Henry doesn’t really whisper any better than my daughter, which is fine with me, because I’ve never had much use for secrets.

Sometimes, it is difficult for me to tell the difference between a secret and an unknown thing, between a truth deliberately kept hidden and a thing that has not yet made itself known. There is uncertainty in both, and uncertainty can be especially frightening if you’ve ever lost more than you ever thought you would. We try to protect ourselves, once we are strong again, but we don’t really know how. We are clumsy with our defenses because the enemy is a vague and foggy thing – usually the unknown itself. We don’t know its intentions and our instinct is to shield ourselves. Sometimes, too, we are the unsolved thing, which can feel too wild. Maybe this is what Henry meant. Maybe, when life has been full of transitions, it seems as though we need to answer questions, solve for x, know the future, listen for whispers, listen through them.

Sometimes Henry seems so heroic to me. He doesn’t need to fathom the nature of the things that might threaten him, and he doesn’t waste time on false senses of security that might be gained through defense mechanisms, because he doesn’t really have any, except for being what he is. If he loses a branch to weather or to a tall truck passing by, he lets go, and keeps growing. He keeps being his sycamore self because it is the only thing a sycamore can do. I tell him how beautiful this is. And somehow, I know he’s rooting for me, hoping I settle into my sycamore self, or whatever kind of tree, or witch, or me, I am.

Love, Cath

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

A Brief Note on the Liminal and Limitless

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you have to take a moment to float.

When I woke this morning after the first decent night of sleep in over a week, I had a moment of being amazed that it can get so cool at night during this intense heat wave. It was like a breath of clarity in the midst of confusion and chaos. Life has been confusing and chaotic lately. My one-month furlough began several days ago, and it has been a month since I closed on my new house. In that time there has been a tremendous amount of intense effort and endeavoring to ready the new house to be lived in, and I’ve been both guided by and partnered with my love, who can see things that I cannot, who can sense what can be, what shouldn’t be, what might be. Walls have been removed and every surface cared for. We’re getting there.

white clouds and blue sky
Photo by Swapnil Sharma on Pexels.com

I’ve always told myself I’m bad at transitions. From the simplest goodbye, see you later, to the larger-scale move from city to city. Liminal spaces, no matter how big or how small are filled with unknowns, and while unknowns are not necessarily frightening in and of themselves, I’ve always been keenly aware of them. Of their numbers, of their depths. I can feel myself searching sometimes, the way your toes reach for the sandy bottom of the lake bed when swimming. I am awestruck by the limitless, by everything that seems without boundary or border, the night sky, love, deep water, work, forests, fire, joy. It is not fear that strikes me when I contemplate the unknown, though I fear it is taken as such. It is the unbounded nature of the possibilities – good, bad, or otherwise – that yawn open upon a kiss goodbye, the soft thump of the screen door, the boxing up of books and dishes, the zipping of a backpack. It is simply that there is so much.

There is an unbounded universe of next and sometimes I feel as though I am somehow trying to take it all in at once, like a vista glimpsed too quickly from a moving car, like breathing in the ocean, like seeing what the clouds taste like. I like the hug that lingers, that offers me one more breath of this, of now, of known.

As I plot out the next few days of work at the house, and packing at the old, and consider all that is enjambed within those phrases, I take a moment to float in this morning of transition, instead of reaching toward the sandy bottom. To appreciate how thoughtfully and thoroughly I’ve been buoyed by love through all of this.

There is more to say, and/but much work to do. Taste the clouds and/but enjoy that hug for one breath longer.

Love, Cath