On Throat-Clearing, Self, and Voice

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we can almost find the melody.

I put a lot of effort into trying to make sense of things that don’t. In my writing, it feels like the practice of untangling knots that can’t be untied, though each story takes a fresh try at undoing. My brain attacks most present worries in the same way.

When I sit still, I sometimes feel both restless and exhausted. This state is a product of many things – pandemic year, new and old anxieties, writing frustrations, aging realities, leaving and moving and settling in.

In my writing, I begin to wonder about voice – what manner of expressing myself is unique to me, my fingerprint of creative expression. And voice, as in, mine, in this world. Lately I have revisited half-begun stories and can’t take them anywhere. I think of a top spinning at the end of its movement, the wobbly tilt and hobble where I find my creative practice these days. Tops get spun again; I don’t worry that I’m done, but wonder where to go from here, and how.

In a way, it feels as though this year of largely staying in place has been one of incubation. During this time, I focused on trying to make my new house feel like mine. I thought a lot about home. I also began to reckon more consciously and deliberately with the notion of aging. I periodically take photos of myself that I show to no one to document the progress of the incoming greys, and to acclimatize myself to the changing terrain of my face.  We have kept ourselves as hidden as possible from the hidden virus, and I have grown tired of hiding myself from myself. But I often don’t recognize me.

I heard somewhere recently that resilience is never losing your enthusiasm in the face of failure. This made me feel angry and a bit deflated, because I want to think of myself as resilient, but I always feel enthusiasm flag when faced with failure. I would counter that resiliency is never losing hope in the face of failure. You can feel defeated, but at the same time you keep fighting for what’s important to you. Enthusiasm feels like a bit too much pressure sometimes. Then again, it is possible that I am not actually resilient. But I am good at hope.

As I’ve noted before in this space, Clarice Lipsector wrote “It is also possible that even then the theme of my existence was irrational hope.” We all have themes, not only as artists but as humans, patterns we observe in our lives, values we attempt to adhere to, wishes we twirl around our hearts. Maybe none of us could extricate ourselves from the themes of our existence if we tried. Some things are as they are. I will find love stories everywhere. I will write them. I will be hopeful about everything and everyone I love. I wonder if all hope is irrational.

Everything I have ever written has turned into a love story. Love, loss, seeking, finding – these are the structural frameworks of most everything I compose. I wonder sometimes, when I feel defeated, and the rejections land solemnly in my in-box, if all I can build are dollhouses, while better writers are busy building cities, universes. But then I think that maybe the world needs dollhouses too. We all need different entry points into the art we interact with. Maybe someone is just waiting for the right-sized door. Maybe it’s all that Alice in Wonderland game of feeling too big or too small to get to where we want to go. But eventually, we find a way to connect.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The themes we don’t stray from are, in a way, one path toward maintaining our connection with ourselves. I have a novel manuscript that has undergone more permutations than I care to number. I have left it unsubmitted for a long time and had nearly decided to abandon all hope (and enthusiasm).  But, I have dedicated myself to one more overhaul, and I’m now working with a trusted writer who is helping me take a fresh look at it. I feel hopeful once again, but daunted. Possibly I am not now, nor ever was, up to the task of doing what so many novelists do so well, which is, to do everything well – plot, character, pace, language, theme, subtext, and so on. Everything must be precisely fine-tuned for the work to sing. Currently there is a lack of harmony, there is a lot of out-of-tune warbling, and a fair amount of throat clearing. Sometimes I think the melody’s there though.

I listen for melody too in the world outside my door, but I’m finding it clunky to emerge from this pandemic isolation, as we receive our vaccinations and make plans once again. I see other vaccinated folk pursuing “normalcy” as if they hear a tune and feel compelled to follow it. I can almost hear it. And there are people I’m so looking forward to spending non-masked time with. I can’t wait to spend more than a few odd hours with my daughter, and to see her whole wonderful face the whole time. Yet, in general, I feel both excited and enormously anxious about jumping back into the world at large. Maybe I’m feeling as though I’m still incubating. As with many things, we grow when we learn to be empathetic with regard to the timetables of the people around us.  

When I think of empathy and growth, I think of the way growth often doesn’t always look like growth – it looks like incubation, it looks like cocooned pupae. And when I think of empathy, I remember that I often forget to have it for myself.

This weekend I did a little hiking. It felt good to be in the woods. My son took a picture of me at my request and I’ve looked at it many times since, trying to see what I wanted to see there. A recognizable person. She seemed familiar, me and not-me at the same time, but the setting seemed right and that helped. I don’t know why it feels so difficult so often to know and be at peace with myself. Maybe this year too much happened and too much didn’t happen, and it changed me more than I am consciously aware. Maybe the image in the photo is a reflection of reality and it is my ability to see it truly that has been altered by time and experience. Perhaps how we see changes more than what we see, and how we hear melodies differently from one another explains so many things. This is all the more reason for us to cultivate empathy toward one another and to build our reserves of resiliency and irrational hope, as we attempt to both listen and sing in this world.

Love, Cath

On Swarming and Signifying

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes a swarm has something to say.

A recent rain brought down a bald-faced hornets’ nest that had hung high on a branch of my neighbor’s silver maple. The nest was active last summer but its papery cavities, in the cold months, were excavated by birds for sustenance, or so my son has informed me. The silver maple branch of my neighbor’s tree juts across my back yard, so that the nest hung squarely above my yard, until last week. We discovered the nest at dusk, and in the fading light, it reminded me so much of a giant human heart, misshapen after the fall. When I took the dogs out in the middle of the night, they stood near its eerie mass, not indicating a threat so much as something I should take notice of. This, they seemed to say. In the morning, we studied the nest’s construction, the intricate cavities; we marveled at the engineering. I thought how wonderful it was that the hornets’ well-made home allowed them the safety and security necessary to live out a full life cycle, even if we, their human neighbors, occasionally needed to dodge them in the summer.

When I was little, we had a cluster of forsythia shrubs in the yard. Their long, arching branches wove together at the top, forming a little airy atrium. My two older sisters and I would spread a blanket on the dirt floor of this chamber, and spend many a spring afternoon escaping, planning and plotting, adventuring, and resting there. Sometimes now I would like to ask them: do you remember staring up at the crisscrossing branches above us, looking at all the yellow stars blooming, and feeling safe? And have you ever felt so safe in your lives since? Our baby brother was napping away the spring afternoon, our mother worked in the house, our father was gone to his job, his life away from the house mostly a mystery to us, except when he let us come to the grocery story on Sundays when it was closed, and we’d help him by turning all the cans so their bright labels neatly faced the aisles. It was years before our other sister was born, though sometimes I imagine she was there too, somehow. I think this is the safest I’ve ever felt, long before the sting of any loss, before we tumbled into our adult selves. Nestled in our flowering nest, there was no understanding of anything that couldn’t easily be made better.

Sometimes we are lucky, and we can recognize happiness when it comes along, feel the solid pressure of it aching in our ribs, patiently, until we notice it and name it. It is in these moments of recognition, where, feeling both solid and buoyed, I find myself most vulnerable. Where the mere whisper of a threat to what I’ve so carefully constructed feels like a storm of wind and rain, ready to send it all crashing to the earth. Everyone feels vulnerable to loss. I think when you have very specific memories and a set of circumstances that surround a past, significant loss, part of you becomes hyper aware of what you can lose, and how it will feel. Part of you becomes an ever-vigilant swarm of hornets, swirling in a confused haze around the nest, looking for threats. People talk about “angry” hornets, or wasps, or bees. They are not angry – they are instinctively protecting their collective heart, the nest, or hive. Yet it is easy to wonder, if our perceived-threat response is hornet swarm, how can we ever feel soothed, and what will it take to feel capable of being happy without feeling overwhelmed by the corresponding fear of its loss? I think back to the forsythia days, and how that was the magical quality. There was no fear of loss; we didn’t know what it was. Happiness and love existed like air and sunshine.

I have spent years trying to teach myself to live in the moment, to not what if my life away, to not swoop and swarm when I fear the world could give way beneath me. In no way have I mastered this. But in some ways, I’m managing to navigate, sometimes. In some ways, it is only the swarm of words that can calm the other swarm. I talk my way through, I write my way through, and I talk some more. I wish it were easier. And I’m ever thankful for being loved in returned, and listened to, with empathy. I’ve also considered that there is another way to think of the swarm that tries to protect me from losing what I love. Rather than thinking of the swarm as the dark shape of past fear protecting me against future loss, it can be viewed as a signifier, one that underscores that this love I have is something worth protecting. Like the dogs in the yard hovering over the nest, and the forsythia blossoms hovering over three little sisters, the swarm says simply, This.

Love, Cath

On Sleeplessness, Starlings, and Sparrow Eggs

By Catherine DiMercurio

This morning began too early, as mornings sometimes do, when I wake at 4 to let the puppy out, and I cannot fall back to sleep. Maybe today it was actually 3, with all the springing forward. It is usually the second hour of trying to get back to sleep when the turn occurs. When I know I’m running out of time. When the day will begin whether I’ve slept enough or not.

I took the dogs for a long walk just after the sun came up. Afterwards, we played in the yard. I filled the bird feeder. My son rose a while after I did, and we watched the birds together for a bit. A starling tried to attack a sparrow nest as the pair guarded their eggs. The sparrows built their nest under the roof of all that remains of my sunporch, the walls of which we demolished due to a carpenter ant invasion. I am currently planning on having the sunroom rebuilt. Hopefully the baby sparrows will have hatched by the time construction begins, if it does. Plans sometimes elude us.

We all feel under attack sometimes; the world is full of starling-shaped threats. We all have to rebuild; our worlds are perpetually damaged in big ways and small by tiny things that eat away at our foundations.

This year has left many of us simultaneously grateful for our shelter and exhausted by sheltering in place and overwhelmed, as if we are drowning in place. We look around at all that is to be done, still. When I am unable to sleep, these feelings are heightened. The dogs fall back to sleep. The sparrows have chased off the starling. I have no such luck.

This past year, the day-to-day lives within our homes have been relentlessly predictable, but at the same time, we crave the familiar and the predictable within the larger world, within the larger time. We want to know what is next, what comes after this part, even while we know what tomorrow and the next day and the next look like.

Last night, as I considered all the worries roiling in my unsleepable brain, I told myself that some things are not for solving; they simply unfold. I employed the little mindfulness technique I’d just read about to calm anxiety. Things got blurry sometimes, the line between wakefulness and sleeping, like the way a wispy cloud fades into the blue sky. I imagined myself strolling down a little country road in England, where I’ve always wanted to go, a yellow stone cottage on my left, a creek tripping along on my right. I’m sure I slept lightly, a little, but whenever I felt myself falling backward into the pool of deep sleep something shoved me forward, as if I was meant to skip through time, to morning, spring forward, spring forward. Normally I’m impatient for what is next, but sometimes I wish I could remain longer in a dozy half-made world.

In a way, this whole year has been a bit blurry. Having to move in the first few months of the pandemic, and getting settled in a new and unfamiliar place, has left me a bit muddled. As I walk through the neighborhood with the dogs, some faces are becoming newly familiar. At first it was refreshing to shake off all my old history. And I still do feel refreshed, sometimes, but it is also very strange to be waking into this spring, my first here, and finding myself perpetually in a place where I am largely unrecognizable to the people I see, and they, to me. I don’t have any regrets about the move, but I don’t know how to do this yet, and the pandemic has made it difficult to keep in touch in a meaningful way with those I left behind. My story is not unique; we have all dealt with different levels of isolation over the course of this year. And I have been so incredibly fortunate in so many ways.

I am simply . . . recalibrating.

Recalibration is the easiest way I can think of to describe a daily reflection on perspective, a frequent readjusting of the way I look at this circumstance, or that one, whether it is the worry that keeps me up at night or the obstacle that trips me up during the day. I think of the sparrows fending off the starling and realize this: nothing that picks away at the peace I try to carefully construct is a matter of life or death. I am not guarding nest and egg. Though in a way, I am, we all are. I am striving toward many things – wellness of heart and mind, those constructs that house my me-ness, as well toward ensuring the vitality of my own hopes and dreams – those eggs I’m perpetually incubating.

Sometimes I’m unsure about what it is okay to want. What is greedy, what is unrealistic, what will hurt too much to not have. But when I think that way, it feels as if I’m being both the starling and the sparrow egg.

I don’t have anything against starlings, though many loathe them. They are doing what instinct tells them, even if, from the outside, it hurts to watch them ruin little sparrow lives, and we will chase them off if given the chance. We owe it to ourselves to do the same for ourselves.

Love, Cath

On Fallowness and Mud

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes a word grabs me and won’t let go. Yesterday morning, walking the dogs in the strange warmth of February sun, it was “fallow.” Fallow as in, plowed and unsown earth; as in, quietly replenishing after having been depleted.

The recent warmish weather and the thawing of a frozen winter’s worth of snow has got me thinking of what it means to be fallow and waiting. Maybe these thoughts took root at least in part because of the Rilke quote I came across recently: “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.” (Ranier Maria Rilke, from “Letters to a Young Poet.”)

Like anything that I consider to be a strength, patience, that deep cosmic kind I think Rilke is talking about, plays hide and seek with me. I must peek in corners to catch a glimpse of it, or chase it down, often unsuccessfully, when I need it. I think I do possess it, somewhere, but it is elusive. And there is plenty about myself that feels unsolved, plenty that resists my current capacity to understand. How like fallowness it is, this kind of patience, and how hopeful to imagine there is a latent richness that will produce a surprising yield at some unknown time.

This way of thinking stands in sharp contrast to the restlessness I often feel, to my urgency to know what is going to happen next, in the coming weeks, and years. Often, this anxiety about the future is rooted in past experiences; for me this is true. Many, maybe most, people endure events at some point in their lives that change every version of the future they had envisioned for themselves, and have an awareness as it is happening that this is what is occurring, this loss playing out in full vibrant color all around you. You see the future erasing before your eyes, you see yourself vanishing too, in a way, in all the ways. New things, good things, begin to coalesce and emerge, though. They begin to form themselves into solid figures here and now, and you start to feel healthy and strong in ways you didn’t imagine possible before. Even so, there remains a fog up ahead in which you fear you will lose your footing, or everything.

I would like to think this long, cold, pandemic winter, this period of vigilant caution, of staying put, of worry and fatigue, is all part of a prolonged fallowness, a period of forced patience. Maybe like the soil under a bed of leaves lying beneath melting snow and ice, we are in a process of becoming enriched, we are readying ourselves for understanding what we cannot yet comprehend, truths about selfness and strength. Maybe after the period of fallowness is over, we will understand something we currently do not about the way expectations can vanish, but selves do not.

Still, it is difficult to wait. It is difficult to pursue goals – whether they be artistic, personal, professional, relationship-related – and not see the results we hope for. We wonder, why will this not look the way I thought it would? We wonder if we’re doing it wrong, or if we are simply looking at it from the wrong perspective. Maybe everything is falling into place exactly the way it should, and we have not yet reached the point where we can make sense of it. Maybe it is all still fallow-ing and when we are ready, we will grow – into our selves, and our lives, into our own big hearts and dreams, into the worlds we’ve been constructing for ourselves almost without knowing it. We are tiny lives in iris bulbs building our selves in the rich hidden worlds in the soil all winter long.

So many things do not look the way we thought we wanted them to. I think of my veneration of soil here and wonder how I can be so anxious to get my hands in dirt and plant things, when at the same time, the melted snow and the pounding dog feet have made a mud pit of my little plot of suburban soil. It is all the same substance but when acted upon by external forces, it changes form. We are not so different. Our little selves in iris bulbs transform to stem and leaves with the application of sunlight over a certain number of hours each day. We are all acted upon by time and by the weather of our lives. Even so, we are comprised of the same elements we always were.

Perhaps it is the same with everything we do not yet understand about ourselves. Truths waiting to be seen from another angle. Us, waiting to be acted upon by this force or that until we are ready. But for now, we must be patient, learn to love the mud and the questions, wait for the sun and rich soil, wait for the answers, knowing it is all the same stuff anyway. Maybe in this way we get closer to knowing and loving what we are made of, here, now.

Love, Cath

On Baking Bread, and Meditating, and Un-Failing

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves what failing is not.

I have forgotten how to meditate. I once utilized meditation techniques as tools for cultivating calmness, and then, when I needed peace the most, could not summon the energy necessary to pursuit it. There was only the exhaustion of surviving and rebuilding.

Life feels fairly well rebuilt now, but even so, there are snags. Everyone gets tripped up sometimes. Do you ever feel that life was once so chaotic and overwhelming, it now only takes a few small stressors piling up to make you feel exactly the same way? I sometimes think: Why does it feel like everything looms and threatens? These are little things, everything is okay. But sometimes things feel bigger than they are, because they once were bigger and more dangerous, and every cell in our bodies remembers the past.

At my calmest and most generous, I see myself as capable of peace and growth, capable of mastering the pain of the past, along with the anxiety such pain has been reborn as in my current life.

I remember this from meditation: you do not try to avoid the stray thoughts that creep in; rather, you acknowledge them and let them float by, and away. I imagine mastering pain and anxiety in this way. I see you but you will not infiltrate my peace. What I don’t remember is what it is I am supposed to actually focus on. My breathing? A blank page? An image?

Perhaps this is the difficulty I have now: I am more focused on what to do with all that intrudes than I am on what remains. What are we, in the absence of the intrusions of past grief and present worry about future troubles? And, what self is not composed at least in part by these molecules?

Yesterday, I once again tried to bake bread. I approached this activity the way I approach the rest of my baking: Here is a recipe. I have most of these ingredients. I could swap that. All I need are general proportions and an understanding of process. This works for most things I attempt: cookies, cakes, pies. It has not, thus far, worked very well, if at all, for bread. I have discovered that this process is also how I approach any creative endeavor: writing, watercolor painting, crocheting. I learn enough to get started and then I wing it. There have been times I attempted greater discipline. I took a watercolor class. I read crocheting patterns and occasionally actually follow a recipe for a cake. My successful pursuit of an MFA in creative writing was a defiant attempt against my own nature to be disciplined about craft. I wish I could do it again. To force myself with a financial and temporal commitment to learn how to be a better writer.

All things considered, though, I like the way I bake, even if things don’t always turn out. It feels like art to me, more of a creative exploration than the experience of following instructions. I realize you need both for things to be successful, some instruction and some creativity. I worry that in too many areas of life, I rely too heavily on figuring it out as I go rather than following instructions or sticking to a plan.

I liked school, so I’m not sure where this resistance to instruction comes from. I do remember, as a child, possessing a strong dislike for anything I would not be competent at from the beginning. (This, along with the lack of any natural ability, accounts for my failure at any and all sports-related activities.)

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

About the bread. It didn’t turn out very well. I was asking a lot of my ingredients, did not have enough of the right kind of flours. I used a recipe for guidance but tried to make it work with what I had. It is easy to think of it as a failure, as far as bread goes. Most people would.

There used to be a corporate buzz phrase going around the office for a while: fail fast. In grad school, we used to say, fail better. I understand the ideas, mostly, but really what the phrases point to is that we all struggle to find a way to make failure mean something, as if by talking about failure in the right way we can make success somehow more achievable.

I wish we could call “failure” something else. It probably does not matter what we call our process. It is never going to feel spectacular to have something not work out as we hoped. It is always going to feel as though we wasted some resource, our time, our money, our energy. In the end, we all know that the only thing we can do is give it another go. This is true for every aspect of our lives, for our careers and relationships and interests and artistic endeavors.

That being said, the bread isn’t a disaster. It has a pleasant flavor, and the texture is not as bad as I originally thought, now that it has cooled. It does not reflect mastery, but it was intentional effort.

That being said, what else do we think of as failure that is really far from it, that is the opposite, that is un-failing?

We cannot clutch our past failures so tightly to our hearts that we allow them to become prophesies of the future.

We cannot allow ourselves to hold on this way because soon, or eventually, we will get to the why even bother part of this thinking. It is entirely likely we will want to give up before we achieve success, if we regard every effort as failure instead of another step in the journey.

What I keep coming back to in so many blog posts, is this: like many people, I am in the process of figuring out what I am all about now. For me, the now markers are fifty-years old, half a dozen years post-divorce. It is clear that I’d like to feel less anxious, more peaceful. To do that, I’ll need to be tuned in to the weird lessons my life reveals every day, in little things, like baking imperfect bread. To look at the idea of “failure” as a only a word, and one that my life is rigorously attempting to empty of meaning and power. And, I like this process, this figuring out self in this deliberate way, where I’m making a conscious effort to be awake to what I’m doing and why.

I wish you happy baking, endeavoring, figuring, and un-failing.  

Love, Cath

On Wishing and Light and Shadow

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes wishes are better than goals.

Fear does crazy things to our brains and our hearts. I don’t mean that fun kind of crazy like in a road trip movie where the unexpected detour leads to laughs and adventure. I mean crazy as in dangerous and suffocating. In the past two weeks the world has given us much to be fearful about, and for many of us, the looming specter of fear out there in the world serves as a reminder to our body’s chemistry that threats are imminent, that we could lose all the things we are most afraid to lose, even if the reality of that threat is a bit illogical.

For the past two weeks I have felt exhausted by the leapfrog game fear and anxiety and anticipatory grief have played with my soul.

I had some relief on a recent walk I took at dusk with my dog. The pale pink and grey sky, the fading light, the deepening purple shadows, they all allowed something to loosen. And I could breathe a little again and I thought about the constricting grip big emotions have had around my throat. I took a moment to inhale and exhale the January air, and as oxygen and relief flooded me, a thought popped into my fatigued mind: my only goal for 2021 is to have no goals.

I decided I am not not even going to “try and be a better person.” I think I’d like to take a shot at being this person as she is now and see how I feel about her. This is not to say I’ll ignore the things I’ve decided it is important to work on. I know that cultivating patience will benefit me and the people around me, and I’ll continue to do that work. I have a hunch that if I remove the time-bound constraints that I have been taught distinguish wishes from goals, the work will be easier, and the results more fulsome.

I am learning a beautiful lesson, but not easily, and not quickly. You know that idea that someone can be mad at you and still love you? The one we’re supposed to learn as children? I think it got lost somewhere along the way, and I’m trying to rediscover it. I’m also endeavoring to apply it to myself, to remind myself that I can be angry and frustrated by my flaws and shortcomings and still love who I am. I can be patient with myself for not having everything figured out yet.  

I have looked at every past relationship through a lens clouded with the smudges of what did I do wrong and how can I avoid those mistakes again. As if I was always supposed to intrinsically know the right thing to do. As if in any situation, I was somehow the only one of us who had work to do.

In the aftermath of my divorce, my thinking initially was that if I was to ever be happy again, I had a lot of work to do, and that if I didn’t do it properly, and soon, then failure – in love, in life – was imminent. I constructed this scenario out of the same goal-oriented mindset that had gotten me through life thus far. I was to study hard, get good grades, get a job, and get married.

But sometimes you work hard with good intentions toward goals you were taught to value and then it all doesn’t add up the way you thought it was supposed to. Then what? I was taught: messes are for cleaning up. Good people work hard at that, and they get what they deserve. Unspoken but implied was the message, if you didn’t get what you thought you deserved, either you did not deserve it, or you didn’t really work hard enough.

But maybe what we call a mess is something else entirely. Maybe that place where we embrace whatever the opposite of if-then thinking is, that beautiful place where we become something new instead of accepting that we are something damaged/failed/broken because the if-then construct failed us, maybe that is the place where we let ourselves live and breathe and love.

The whole world tells us that there is an order to which you do things, and a timeline. I lost count of the times people told me over the years since my divorce: how long grief should last; what the steps of recovery should look like; how long it takes to move past something; how many relationships you need to go through to learn x, y, and z, about yourself before you get to the next part; how long you should wait before you say I love you; and on and on.

I long to arrive at a place in my thinking – my heart thinking and my brain thinking – where wishing and creation are all that is needed. When do we learn that being gentle with ourselves is acceptable? When do we learn to trust ourselves to be firm when we need to be, to push ourselves toward the wishes we’d like to actualize, and to be soft and sweet with ourselves when we need it?

We are snails – sometimes we are as tough as our shells, and sometimes we are the tender organisms housed within. How is it that we so easily forget to keep inching toward ourselves? How is it that we watch the play of light and shadow on the living room floor as the day rolls along only so that we know when it is time to make dinner, instead of just reveling in the joy and beauty of light and shadow? Sometimes my son reminds me to take a deep breath. I wish it wasn’t so easy to forget that.

Love, Cath

On Companionship and Work

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes being part of the pack means doing your share of the work.

With a head full of the fog of disrupted and insufficient sleep, I listen gratefully to the peaceful snoring of two dogs. I have two dogs again. In truth, I hadn’t been contemplating getting another dog for very long. Until recently, I’d still been discovering the new rhythm to the days after my son moved home from college. My son and I get along quite well, but when it was time for him to move into the dorm in the fall, he was ready for the next part, as was I. I admit that single parenting since the kids were eleven and thirteen had in many ways exhausted me. It was a beautiful, joyful, painful, bittersweet collection of years, and the three of us grew in strange and fascinating directions during that time. It felt as though we were always finding our footing, but we kept finding a way to make it work. Still, when my son left for college, as trepidatious as I was, for him and for me, I was looking forward to it.

He moved home before Thanksgiving, as the university was announcing that next semester would be exclusively remote for most students. What was supposed to be several weeks home for the end of the term and winter break began to unfold differently. It was now the beginning of something longer: the end of term, and then the break, and then the next semester, and then summer. We tried once more to find our footing, unsure of what the balance between independence and family time should look like, now. Other things were happening, too. My eleven-and-a-half-year-old dog, Phin, had begun to visibly pine for the companionship of the husky that lives behind us. As I worked in the yard, Phin would position himself by the fence and stare at Apollo’s back door, waiting for the moment when the dog would bound toward the fence and play chase along the fence line. And at the same time, a friend was fostering a pregnant dog who had just given birth to a litter of eight. Daily, my boyfriend and I watched the progress of the puppies on Facebook. We began to consider the reality of what it might be like to adopt one. We pondered the logistics. And when I contemplated one obstacle or another, I thought of Phin, staring through the fence at the neighbor’s backdoor, waiting for the companionship of one of his own. Isn’t that what we all crave? I kept thinking, we’ll figure it out. We’ll just figure it all out.

Zero is the puppy we adopted. Phin was overjoyed when we brought him home, though the excitement has been tempered by reality. We knew it was going to be a lot of work; Phin did not. The work has begun in earnest. For now, the focus is on potty training and redirecting the natural puppy inclination to chew on everything that moves and everything that doesn’t. Phin is playful and patient, and sometimes, too tired to be either of those things, but the relationship shows every indication of being the type of canine friendship I’ve long wanted for Phin, and the kind that Zero clearly wants too, particularly in the absence of his seven siblings.

Consequently, I’ve been thinking a lot about companionship, and the work it entails. About the relationship I’m cultivating with my boyfriend. About the ever-changing relationships I have with my children, each tended differently, but earnestly. I think of the friendships I try to maintain, and those that have been difficult to keep up with. Like Phin, most of us seek the companionship of our own kind. In my boyfriend, I see a sensitive, artistic, empathetic thinker, a fellow introvert who often looks at the world the same way I do. We are not like-minded in everything, but to me, it seems as if his heart and brain are filled with as many curious twists and turns as mine. From the time I met him, I sensed he was one of my kind. Being near him, I feel both at ease and exhilarated. I lean in, like one big dog greeting another.

This post has been written in fits and starts. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve let the puppy outside, or redirected his chewing. Yet, it is my job to teach him. It is my responsibility to help him grow into his friendship with Phin, to help him become a good companion for our whole family. Growth and learning are funny things, at once organic and structured. A balance must be struck between intentional guidance and wild abandon. I think of my own growth and learning in a similar way, characterized by focused attention on the things I struggle with and the permission to be unabashedly joyful. Throughout the course of this year, I’ve tried to monitor my own ups and downs, my growth and my continued struggles. I don’t imagine I’m always the best companion for the people around me. None of us can be at our best all the time, and it has been a bizarre and challenging year. However, working with Zero is reminding me that I am responsible for continuing to learn how be the person I want to be. When my anxiety spikes, regardless of the nothing or something that triggers it, I witness myself as if from a distance, reactive and fearful. Anxiety is a specter that has haunted me for many years, and sometimes I tire of the work it takes to feel in control of it. It nips at me sharply and persistently, and leaves me feeling harried and hounded. It hampers the way I handle stress and conflict; I become defensive and prickly, though what I want is to be open and sensitive, confidently able to do the work of working through things that come up.

We all have our own work to do, and this is mine, this taming. We keep finding our footing, we keep figuring it out, and we keep supporting our pack in the process.

Love, Cath

On Aging, Magic, and Waterfowl

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you look for magic, or it finds you, and it gets you through.

I don’t think I have ever stopped looking for magic, not since I read the Chronicles of Narnia as a child. The thrill of wonder that overtakes me at times connects me to my childhood self, but also, to something else, something I have a difficult time shaping with words into a recognizable form.

A few afternoons ago, I was out walking with my son and our dog. We live near some wooded areas, a golf course, a creek. On a few occasions, at dusk or dawn, I’ve been lucky enough to catch glimpses of deer in the neighborhood. I’ve seen a couple of fawns, and recently, a buck. There always seems to be some magic to it, somehow, though I know it isn’t an uncommon thing. I suppose it is the juxtaposition between wildness and domesticity that moves me. When we were walking, we came upon a scattering of deer scat right on the sidewalk. My son and my dog barely gave it a second a glance, but I stopped in my tracks in wonder. He was here! I thought, thinking it was the same buck I’d seen previously.

I am not a person who easily identifies things to love about myself, but I’ll admit, being able to feel the sense of wonder and magic that I felt when gazing at deer poop is one of them.

Moments like these stand in sharp contrast to those times when I walk by a mirror and find the face looking back to be somewhat unrecognizable. There is some other force working here, one absent delight and wonder, one that instead offers confusion and dismay.

Time and experience mark us in different ways. Periods of intense stress seem to accelerate the aging process, but even in the spaces in between, a process that seems slow and gradual in your thirties begins to pick up steam in your forties. And now I am fifty and keenly aware of all that time and the world have wrought in my life. When I look in the mirror I have the distinct sense of looking at someone who seems familiar, in a way, but whose face I can’t quite place.

Obviously, aging brings with it a host of physical issues, and mental ones, too. I have not reached a way of looking at all these changes that I’m comfortable with yet. I’m torn between resignation and resistance. I hate that aging frightens me, and I have yet to dissect all the reasons that this is true. At the same time, I admit to a certain sense of shame that I haven’t embraced gracefully where I am in life. That I stumble still in trying to figure out how to inhabit myself.

I think of the ugly “duckling,” who eventually grew up to be not a duck but a swan. When I was little, I thought the point of this story was that one should be relieved to grow up beautiful, and that if you feel ugly, don’t worry, it might work out for you if you happen to be a swan. Or, baby ducks are cuter than baby geese, but grown up swans are more beautiful than grown up ducks. It wasn’t lost on me that the story was about belonging, but it was also about very much about beauty. What a tricky story to tell a child. The cygnet felt out of place in a duck’s world, but only because the ducks were so cruel about his appearance. And then he grew up and became what he was, and he felt better about himself, which was easy to do once he realized he was a beautiful swan. So often, particularly as we age and notice our appearance changing rapidly, we feel like we can’t quite find that sense of comfort or confidence in our own skin, or feathers. It’s a mirror image of adolescence, but what is on the other side of this transition is different. Aging brings us closer to our own sense of mortality, so it is tempting to not make peace with the process. It is much easier to not think about such things at all. But our faces and bodies refuse to let that denial happen.

Other people seem to know themselves better as they age. I look at how many times I’ve written about the idea of multiplicity of selves and consider that while I’m making a greater effort to understand myself than I have before, the effort is more complex than I imagined it would be. Perhaps I’m overthinking it. Perhaps that’s precisely how it’s done.

Sometimes, I cast myself out into the future and look for myself there, wondering what that person will be like. Will she have settled into herself finally? How long will it take? I wonder if it is unfair to rush the process. Maybe I’m not supposed to un-confuse myself about myself quite yet, maybe this is part of the journey. Nothing else can be rushed, so why should this be any different? And haven’t I been trying to learn patience all my life?

It is easy to regard aging as an accumulation of losses, though intrinsically I know the fallacies embedded in this way of thinking. As uncomfortable as it is to have an awareness of all that I do not know about myself, there is a freedom, too, in the understanding of all there is to discover, all there is to create.

For a moment, imagine the beauty and mystery of a found feather. Image imagining what type of bird it came from, imagine imagining yourself that way, as a beautiful bird in flight, leaving clues for someone to discover, to discover themselves.

Imagine the power of creating a story about yourself, not the one in which you have parsed each and every failure, mapped each and every wrinkle and scar, but the one in which you take flight, and recognize your reflection in the water beneath you as you soar, and recognize yourself as beautiful and strong.

I’m currently writing a story about a woman, who, enduring a grief, looks to magic for solace. I think maybe it isn’t in the mirror where we should look for a familiar face, because that face is going to keep changing. Maybe the trick of it is to find the through lines, the magic that has always made you feel like yourself. Maybe the way to keep learning who we are now is to keep in touch with who we’ve always been. Of course time and experience change us, change our faces, change our hearts. But I think that there is always something elemental within us, something it takes a little magic to access, something that eludes definition or description.

These days are difficult ones for many of us, for many reasons. On the other side of this, we will all be older, we will all look into the mirror and see an altered self. The way we look at the world will also be changed. We must hold close the things that keep us feeling connected to each other and to ourselves. Wishing everyone reading this love, self-love, and of course, magic.

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 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