On Obstacles, Works-in-Progress, and Works of Art

By Catherine DiMercurio

This week, I’m thinking a lot about work. How we look at work and reward impacts so many areas of our lives.

If we do creative work, focusing on what many define as success or reward will leave us feeling defeated and discouraged. If success is selling the product of your effort, then unless you are both extremely lucky and wildly talented, you will be discouraged over and over again. It is just the nature of trying to smoosh creativity and capitalism together. The world is full of creative folk trying to get their work “out there,” and monetizing it is tricky business. But for many creative people, the joy is in the process, in learning your craft and practicing it, and in being a part of a community of like-minded people, in sharing our work in ways that have little to do with recognition or gain. We shape words or pigment or clay or musical notes in an effort to capture truth, beauty. And even if no one is buying we are still making, because we have to.

When I was growing up, I gradually came to understand a couple of things about work and reward. At school, working hard yielded good grades, which seemed to matter a lot to my teachers and parents and I felt happier when no one was grumpy with me. And I didn’t have to work that hard most of the time. At home, I observed my parents working hard to provide for us, so I assumed that this was a given in life. Work is necessary, and if you’re going to do it, you may as well do it well was another message I got. If you’re going to do something, don’t do it half-assed, my father would say.

Yet, the work-reward model left me to conclude that not achieving a hoped-for reward meant that you didn’t work hard enough or you didn’t work long enough, or both. Those conclusions don’t always lend themselves to a healthy way of looking at ourselves. Work tends to feel futile, or washed over with something the color of failure. It took me a long time to understand that some rewards remain elusive no matter how long and hard you work, to understand that in pursuing difficult-to-achieve rewards, I was benefitting in ways I hadn’t expected.

I have had to reexamine the way I look at work and reward since my divorce. This life-changing experience, also washed over with something the color of failure, makes you look at a lot of things differently. The work of relationships is one of them. Good relationships don’t just happen, and good relationships take more work than bad ones.

I don’t know of any relationship that doesn’t take effort to maintain. Certainly, some are easier than others, but how people relate to us and us to them in any given moment is influenced by everything that has brought us each to that moment. My past has created me, in everything I learned from it and everything I didn’t, just like yours has.  

People talk a lot about “baggage,” especially when you’re dating in your 50s. I don’t think anyone’s so-called baggage is the sum of every bad thing that has happened to them. I do think we carry the weight of everything we haven’t learned from those experiences. That is why there is always work to do. With each person we interact with, our past experiences reveal themselves in new ways. We may believe we have worked through and healed from difficult events or difficult people, but we cannot foresee all the ways something will impact us. We are forever works-in-progress. That is a beautiful thing, or can be, if we turn ourselves again and again to the work that we our called to do. If we lovingly embrace that we are living, breathing works of art.

Many of the things I considered to be challenging aspects of past relationships were pointing to things I needed to learn from myself and for myself about myself. But that learning could benefit the relationship as well. For example, if a partner and I fought because I responded strongly to their avoiding communicating about their feelings, it was a chance for both of us ask why. Understanding why a person withholding their feelings triggered such a deep anxiety in me helped to pinpoint what I needed to work on, and allowed me to explain my response to my partner and ask for support. But I could only do my part. A partner unwilling to ask himself why he avoided communicating about his feelings meant that not only could he not give me the support I needed, but that he could also not ask me for the support he needed. So the issue continued to sow conflict. Instead of two people working in partnership to improve the relationship, two people suffered individually with not getting their needs met.

Not everyone sees value in this work, and not everyone is ready to do it. I think we are all able, capable of such introspection and responding to it. It is uncomfortable, but why wouldn’t we be willing to do this work for ourselves and each other? Isn’t this growth what makes us better partners, better parents, better friends, better people?

It is difficult to accept that someone can look at you, see the value in what you bring to the table, understand that there is unattended work in themselves that would present obstacles in a relationship, and choose to embrace the obstacles instead of you. They equate the obstacles, which are often learned behaviors, with their identity.

The say this is how I am.

But obstacles aren’t identity. Yes, our past gives us things to stumble over. But we are not the boulders in our way.

We are the way.

We are as much the path behind us as the path in front of us. But we are not our experiences. We are not the coping behaviors we adapted ourselves to. We are neither our joys nor our traumas. We are everything we told ourselves in response to those experiences. We are what we tell ourselves we are.

Photo by Jim Richter on Pexels.com

The beautiful thing is that as we grow and become increasingly self-aware, our responses to our experiences feel more like choices (because they are), instead of reactions that just happen.

So often people insist that they won’t change for anyone, can’t change. What do we have a right to expect of others? What should we expect of ourselves? How do we sort out what is a (maladaptive) behavior or response that we have learned from a painful experience and what is truly part of our identity? Perhaps trying to find the difference between those things only matters if there is something you wish to change about yourself, only matters if you see value in, and the need for, self-improvement. We can love ourselves for who we are at the same time that we seek growth. Those are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Perhaps it is a question of risk and reward rather than work and reward. If the journey toward self-discovery and growth could lead you toward a relationship with the potential to either be the beautiful bond you’ve dreamt of or another possible heartbreak, maybe it is a self-protective mechanism to insist that change is impossible, that this is how I am, take it or leave it, accept me as I am or walk away.

How often I have been told just that, and remained in the relationship, still pursuing my growth while trying to see how that fit in with a partner who proclaimed they would not or could not change. For me, it hasn’t worked, and I am learning to be as willing to love myself as I am to love other people.

For me, that has meant walking away, and continuing to do my own work, while I look for someone who understands that growth is a non-terminal journey. That each day gives us the opportunity be in the present in a new way, with a new understanding of what has brought us here together.

Our brains are designed to adapt to new circumstances and to one another. We have evolved to be in community with one another. We can accept who we are, and what has happened to us, and that we are flawed individuals. That is normal. That is human. But so too is taking stock of all that, and wondering how we can build on it, learn and grow from it. Is that not part of what binds us to those we love, the desire and sense of duty to learn to love one another better? And like all things, this journey begins with ourselves.

Remember, they don’t call it a “work of art” for nothing. We work hard and in that work, we are breathless, we are breathtaking.

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 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

 

 

On Hope, Gratitude, and Purposeful Wandering

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

Gut Check on Purpose and Intentions

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

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

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

Fish and Feet and Hunger

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

foot stepson grey sands with waters nearing it
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

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

Speaking of Gratitude

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

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

And One More Thing about Feet

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

But I love your feet

only because they walked

upon the earth and upon

the wind and upon the waters,

until they found me.

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

Love, Cath