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

On Clumsiness and Singing Loudly and Off-Key

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes, I wonder if these posts are too small, too personal, when one considers the chaos in the world right now. And, they very well might be. But in the middle of the chaos we are also navigating our own lives, our own ups and downs, and I don’t know if we can help each other or not, but I feel as though we should try and compare notes, share maps and routes, even though the interior world I’m trying to understand is a different one than yours. So, perhaps it is more about strategies and empathy.

It was a difficult week. I have felt more reactive than usual, less calm. We all have old wounds from the past that sometimes find a way of reopening when we don’t expect them to. I’ve written before about the way some wounds are always with us and we have to keep trying to find ways to live with them, especially after we’ve put in years of work trying to heal them only to find out how easily they sometimes make themselves felt again.

A few days ago, I was walking to the auto shop to pick up my car after having the radiator replaced. The sun was shining cheerfully in that early autumn way it does when they air is just starting to get chilly. I noted this, more as a scientific observation than a sensation or experience that brought me joy, as it usually does. I was having a bad day, battling fears that, in truth, had no reason for existing. But sometimes, they exist anyway. Sometimes, a conversation or situation reminds you just enough, even if only by a sliver, of something from long ago, and the dormant fear sees that sliver as an opening to get a foothold again, and you spend time and energy trying to demuddle past and present, fear and not-fear.

As I was walking my feet itched and I had the urge to run and I felt so cold despite that cheerful sun and I thought about how tired I was. I thought about how some fear-pain responses are not things that you can run away from, nor are they things you can hide from; you just have to keep staring them down whenever they rise up, and I remembered again my fatigue. And how it all made me feel like I didn’t know what to do, though there was nothing to do. But it felt like something in me was readying me to fight, filling me with anxiety and adrenaline.

And then, there is no place to put it, because there is nothing to fight now.

And then, to be completely inelegant, what remains is only this greasy fat blob of emotional sludge to deal with. And that takes time.

And we wonder, how long will the people we love be patient, and can they keep loving us the next time we find ourselves ready for a battle that doesn’t exist? And we wonder, how can we wonder that? That’s not how love works. But we also remember, it did work that way once, when we called it love but it was really something different.

I made it to the auto shop and paid my six hundred sixty-two dollars and drove home. I tried to look at the emotional stumbles of the week like a messy room that will never be completely ordered. It would be easy to close the door and pretend it didn’t exist. But it does. Sometimes we have to be calm and brave enough to walk by and glance in, and keep walking. And sometimes we have to be even braver and walk in, and sort through the messes for a little while, even though the window we decided to leave open because we need fresh air allows in the gusts of wind that leave everything strewn like scattered leaves again.

Photo by Simon Matzinger on Pexels.com

My messy day progressed, and I still tripped and stumbled through the messiness. Until I didn’t. I found scraps of normal, and I found empathy, and I found that the feeling of ringing-in-my-ears-except-not-my-ears finally quieted.

It is easy to feel too small, too tired, too messy. I remind myself to be loud, but sometimes it comes out wrong. I remind myself that strong and loud are different, that I am not composed of the detritus cluttering the messy room.

The past creates such noisy whispers. Maybe sometimes I’m just trying to be louder than that. Sometimes we believe in completely fictional versions of ourselves written by everyone except us.

What drowns out whispers and erases fictions?  Maybe it’s just me, singing loudly and off-key.

At the same time, singing through it only gets us so far. It helps us be brave sometimes, or distracted enough to not be bothered. But we also have to face that the things that snag us impact our relationships, with our families, friends, our partner. And even if we allow that a particular wound within us is easily reopened, and no amount of trying to “fix” ourselves changes that, it doesn’t mean we get to leave the wound unadministered to. It means we have to stop sometimes, and talk ourselves through things, or, that we have to have uneasy conversations with others when talking ourselves through isn’t enough.

I’ve always been clumsy and always been told to pay attention. I am, to so many things. Sometimes we trip anyway, and there will always be skinned knees and hearts to tend to.

Sometimes, we simply must treat our wounds, again, and there is no reason we cannot treat ourselves with kindness and patience in the process, rather than judgment or resentment or anger. There is a softness maybe that we can let in, with acceptance. Maybe, when we feel something hurting that doesn’t seem like it should be, we can just say, oh, this again, sometimes this hurts, I need to lie down for a little while, I need a hug, a cup of tea, a walk. Maybe if we don’t feel compelled to judge the pain for existing it will have a little less control over our emotions and we can move forward with a little more grace. It’s okay, we can tell ourselves, each other. Everything’s going to be okay.

And it is, and it will be.

Love, Cath

On the Utility of Failed Metaphors, Or the Clock, the Iron, and the Buckthorn

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the failure of language points us toward wonder.

Over the course of the long weekend, metaphors arrived at my feet, floated to me like wishes made on dandelion puffs. They arranged themselves into a series of vignettes and waited for me to make sense of them.

First, there was the clock. I sometimes watch a show about antique and vintage items being repaired by a hodgepodge collection of craftspeople in England. In one episode, a woman brought in a badly damaged clock which had fallen from its perch on a side table. The clock had been made in the 1800s, and as the horologist began to take apart and clean and repair the time piece, he discovered that on the hour wheel within its mechanism, there was a date wheel, yet, there was no corresponding place on the clock’s face to indicate a date. He explained that this oddity was indicative that a repair was made at some point with this additional foreign part. He noted, “That’s not a terrible thing, it’s just part of the clock’s life.”

I was struck by this. The idea that we are comprised of things not native to ourselves; life adds functioning parts to our brains and hearts that we were not born with. And we keep on, we keep time, we move forward. It isn’t good or bad to be acted upon, intruded upon in this way; it is simply the way of things. At first, it seemed beautiful, this idea that we incorporate into ourselves these non-native mechanisms, ways of functioning we might not have considered before. At the same time, I recalled the painful ways people have attempted to repair within me what they believed was broken. Too much this, not enough that, here let me help you. I once had a boyfriend who, when he believed I was not understanding his perspective, because I was not agreeing with it, would insist he was trying to help me. In these moments he would say my name over and over, so much so that I grew to loathe the syllables.

Well-intentioned repair can nevertheless leave us feeling altered, worse off than we were before; transformed in a way we didn’t chose. The clock metaphor becomes muddled, I turn it over and over in my mind, the tick-tocking heartbeat of it hiccups, starts, stops. I set aside for now.

Second, there was the iron table, my love’s, a treasured piece from his past. We considered its making. Weighed the notions of cast versus wrought.

Cast – poured into a mold; wrought – shaped by tools. I had never thought about the distinction before.

Later, as I walked the dog, I wondered whether love could be considered this way, as either cast or wrought.

I think of the molds we create throughout our lives, the way we shape ideas about what love is supposed to be, then pour our experiences into this fixed space. We expect everything to fit, our love to hold the shape we’ve told ourselves it should take. Alternatively, if or when we are wiser, we may fashion the shape of it as we go. We hone, engaging in an act of perpetual creation, knowing better now what any skillful craftsman knows: we must diligently attend to what we are making.

Still, I keep reconsidering these ideas and starting over, because the metaphor seems at once to have some truth, but feels a little flawed, maybe forced. It seems to want me to land on a conclusion, to go from an if to a then, to state something about strength or craftsmanship, but perhaps love is wilder and more organic than iron, whether cast or wrought. [Though, it is worth noting, that according to a quick bit of research, wrought iron is stronger than cast iron, and at least in this way, the metaphor comes together.]

Third, there was the buckthorn. Little buckthorn shoots are benign things, proliferate, but just another weed to pull out. Wait a week, and they develop enough root that a simple tug will not loosen them easily from the earth. Wait a few summer weeks, and they are saplings with trunks about one and a half inches in diameter, fully mature with berries, and possessing the thorns that give them their name, thorns as long as the trunk is thick, nearly.

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I woke this morning with a mysterious weepy red scratch between my thumb and forefinger. The mark sprouted like a little branch off of my life line, which is one of the few things I know of palmistry. Playing back my yesterday, I recalled my discovery of the thorns on the mature buckthorns. I remembered that when I was cutting up the saplings my love had felled in the little wayward woods at the back of the yard, I’d been snagged by a particularly determined thorn. This morning, I was struck by the placement of the wound it created, the scratch joining perfectly with the life line.

Of course, I cannot help but see metaphor here. My mind wends through possible meanings, maybe about the stubborn insistence of wildness to be in our lives, to shape us, to mark us. Maybe it is about how eagerly love thrives when the conditions are right, how quickly and sturdily it can grow. Again though, as a metaphor, it is faulty. To shape it to my purposes I must focus on the buckthorn’s heartiness and resilience, and little else.

So, as I wondered about this trio of metaphors throughout the day, I stumbled, often and roughly. What to do with it all? Why did I return to these ideas so adamantly – the clock, the iron, the buckthorn?

At the end of the day, what has made itself plain to me is this: there is a richness to life that offers itself up to us when we are of a mind to see it. I am happy to consider various ways of looking at a clock mechanism, the prettily wrought iron table leg, the buckthorn and its sturdiness and its thorns. It is a delight to contemplate deeper meanings, to cherish the beauty in the way objects and words wish to position themselves in proximity to each other, even if in the end, we determine these couplings to be inadequate ciphers for understanding the complexities of love.

My perspective this weekend revealed a world honeyed with meaning. I may not grasp it all, not all at once, but there is power in what we can glimpse of ourselves and each other and our connections in these little moments, in everyday objects and occurrences, when we allow ourselves the space to notice. Keep noticing. Enjoy the metaphors, even if they fall apart a little when scrutinized. Look at what the world nudges you toward and enjoy the wonder of it all.

Love, Cath

On Suns, Swimming, and Floating

By Catherine DiMercurio

{Sometimes you have to look at the sun.}

As my children get ready for the next part – for my son, beginning college, living away from home, for my daughter, beginning her junior year, formulating plans for what post-undergrad looks like for her – it is impossible to avoid looking at the sun of it all. Sometimes the shifts in our lives and relationships are small and gradual and we adapt to them almost without noticing the effort, but sometimes the shifts announce themselves brightly; they greedily signal their significance.

beach dawn dusk ocean
Photo by Sebastian Voortman on Pexels.com

Looking back, I see the inevitable trying too hard, the flurries of energy expended in multiple directions, the lack of calm that often characterized my efforts as a parent. I tried to be better than myself for them, tried to shape myself to tasks that shifted at the very moment I thought I know how to accomplish them, or at the very moment I realized I had no idea what I was doing. I tried to unmake the damage of divorce with deluges of emotion, with little proofs of the constancy and consistency of love, with notes, lots of talking, and sleepless nights full of worry, with hugs, cookies, gifts, lectures, as many meals together as we could, everything I could think of. I tried to pick up jagged shards of broken hearts, and puzzle the pieces back together. I tried to make everything count. I gave up sometimes, angry, resentful, tired, lost. I tried to relax, tried to not be cannibalized by guilt when I got things wrong, when either child was obviously hurting or struggling. I wanted more beach time and forests for us. More breakfasts, more stories, more magic – always. More pasta, too, and road trips fueled by potato chips and coffee. More holding hands. More laughter. More books, more lake-smoothed stones, more stars, moons, more wishes.

Sometimes I think of the curly brackets, or braces, these: {}, and I think being a parent is somehow like them, full of mysterious and elegant purpose, an effort to order, shape, contain the infinite nature of love. I admit, I don’t really know what they mean, for math, or language, and I don’t know what I mean, for my children, but I know that by some cosmic calculus, they have made me who I am, and that I am for them, always. Please know that, wherever you are. I am for you, always.

For me, now, I do what any mammal does when their young grow hearty and capable and ready. Send them off, let them go, and then I return to the den. After that, who knows. The nature shows seem to leave that part out, the camera follows the juveniles as they seek out new lives, not the lumbering mother bear or the lioness, or fox, or hare.

This is like any other part of parenting. You know you will be challenged and changed, but you don’t always know in what ways and you can’t quite predict how you’re going to feel about it.

I’m always amazed at our ability as parents to keep at it even once we realize that everything we do is focused on preparing our children to leave us. We practice goodbye, early, often. The first day of preschool is marked indelibly upon my heart and brain, the exact shape of the moment when I hugged each child, the way their arms felt around my neck. I knelt on the sidewalk. My daughter received and returned my embrace, tight, quick, and then she squirmed away to wait in line in front of the door. My son lingered, waiting, uncertain. He was always a naturally curious child who loved to learn but this sudden separation seemed unexpected and a bit unnecessary to him.

The separation that begins tomorrow is less unexpected, and is clearly a next step that he is more than prepared for. Our mutual sometimes-sadness is rooted quite simply in knowing we will miss each other, and in comprehending that his childhood has ebbed. Is it okay to regard this as a kind of grief for an ending, even though it is surrounded by the joy and excitement about what comes next? And we are, joyful and excited. For both of us, there is new, there is growth and learning, there is a fresh independence, and discovery.

I think of all the energy and urgency I put into parenting and I wonder what becomes of it, and does it turn inward or toward other relationships, or is it so unique to parenting that it exists for itself only. I’m sure it is different for everyone. I know I am not suddenly done parenting, but it is necessarily time to float instead of swim. I am curious what the coming weeks will reveal, if that will feel like a natural movement or a forced one. Will it seem as unfamiliar and urgent as learning to swim felt?

I wrote a while ago about trying to replace anxiety with curiosity and I do try to remind myself of this. A lot of my writing about this transition is a part of that effort, a way to pay attention to what our hearts and brains do during changes like this, a way to wonder and perceive. There is not dread here, only a surplus of emotion.

But surpluses do have a way of overwhelming us sometimes and I have found that this is one of the ways I teach myself about how to manage them. I think that is what we are called to do, perpetually, is to continue to teach ourselves how to manage the multiplicity of evolutions we experience in our lives. We learn, we lean on each other. We celebrate the joys and let ourselves feel the griefs and make ourselves and each other whole through all of it, through the celebration and tears and puzzling the pieces together and swimming and floating and leaning.

Love, Cath

 

 

 

On Fear and Shelter, Reckoning and Work

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you offer shelter, sometimes you seek it, sometime it is the same thing.

“I’m making hash browns. Do you want some?” My son asked me this morning. He is a good roommate. I think back to a time when I didn’t have any roommates. It has been a couple of decades and it wasn’t for long. At times, I’m wistful, at times excited. I know my son and I are both ready for the next part, his moving, though we will surely miss one another.

I hesitate to embrace summer’s waning. I want to stay here a bit, getting settled into the new house and enjoying my son’s company before he leaves for college. But many of my actions are guided by the coming change of season. I work in the yard, envisioning the space as it might look in the future. I try to prune and nurture what I inherited with the purchase of the house, and gently guide growth into a slightly different direction. There is much work to do indoors, but it can wait. Focusing on the outside tasks when the weather is good is what calls to me right now.

The summer-to-fall transition does not come gently when school years factor in. The late August move-in date for my son is insisting on itself as a turning point. We have gone from feeling as if there is so much time left to understanding that everything held within the current balance is about to shift.

We were running some errands recently, and as we drove, our conversation took a serious turn, as our talks lately do. We discussed fears and anxieties, his and mine. I recalled a stumbled-upon observation stored in my memory from long ago: we create what we fear.

Though I acknowledge the power of fear to shape reality, I don’t always know what to do about it. We wondered, my son and I, how do you simply stop being afraid of something? We ran through the most obvious options: you face it, or you remind yourselves of the times you’ve faced something similar before and triumphed, or at least, survived.

But what does facing something really mean, and, what if, having faced something and overcome it, you find yourself just as afraid as you were before, because it was every bit as painful or as challenging as you imagined it would be? We both talked about the ways you keep working and trying, because, what else can you do. Without much of a segue, we turned our conversation to dinner options.

I love that he and I can talk about such things. I wish I had better, or any, guidance for him. Or me. Still, I take comfort in the fact that conversations like these exist, if nothing else, as shelter.

brown wooden cottage at the field during day
Photo by Simon Matzinger on Pexels.com

Sometimes though, I wonder if I have had the reckoning with myself that I should. How often do we look squarely at ourselves and admit our shortcomings? I do not mean to suggest that the fears my son and I were discussing are flaws. We all have fears; it is a part of being human and it would be cruel and unnecessary to fault ourselves for what rises up within us intrinsically and sometimes irrationally.

But I do think that the way we respond to our fears can impact other people in negative ways. Our individual fear-response has the power to alter the shape of our interactions. Sometimes, without us even noticing, it transforms us into different iterations of ourselves. We may grow anxious and panicked; paranoid and judgmental; withdrawn; distant; angry. We may also quietly retreat and keep up a façade of normalcy and hope no one notices, though they often do. The work of it all, for so many of us, is learning how to stop such reactions – regardless of whether they are a chain reaction of thoughts or brain chemistry or both – and respond consciously and positively and calmly to ourselves instead.

This is easier said than done, in my experience, however worthwhile the endeavor may be. Quite honestly, the only effective strategy I have found is a combination of attentiveness to, and patience with, myself. And oh, how grateful I am for the patience, as well as empathy, that is extended to me by those who love me, who understand me, who are similarly introspective and cognizant and earnestly endeavoring. I’ve written about this here before, and I’ll do so again. Never underestimate the power of giving and receiving the gifts of patience and empathy. Talk about shelter!

[Let us pause here a moment and acknowledge some truth. Let us note that there are very few people in this world who are willing and able to not only meet us where we are, but who likewise open up space and allow us to do the same for them. Let us candidly and generously say thank you to those with whom we are able to build the shelters that inspire us to simultaneously feel safe and to grow. Thank you, Ian.]

Still, for some of us, it remains difficult to be empathetic with ourselves. It is easy to be critical, to wish we were different, to witness the way others seem to gracefully move through life and to long for a more peaceful inner world, one that naturally exists that way, rather than one that must be vigilantly attended to. It is like having a house plant whose precise need for light and water can’t be discerned. Maybe it’s better near that window, does it like long drinks once a week, or a little bit of water every other day, is it dying, is that a new leaf?

Sometimes I marvel at how much stumbling is involved in growth, at how much journeying is accomplished between steps. I don’t truly know if feeling well and growing is harder now than it used to be, or if it is simply the case that I’m working at it more earnestly or paying closer attention to the process.

I remind myself that we are like those perennials that flower repeatedly through the summer, rather than those that are all show and glory once and then are done.

How delighted I am by impatiens and their habitual blossoming, how understood I feel by a plant whose name reminds me of one of my least wonderful traits.

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.

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

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

This part is over. Has been over, actually.

I was slow to realize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Hermit Crabs and Habits

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we seek ourselves in our habits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are what we inhabit.

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

Love, Cath

A Brief Note on Surviving Pointless Worrying, and Loving Like a Dog

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you have to love like a dog does.

Most of us have been through enough to know that we have some thoughts that have a mind of their own. They mine our past for memories and our future for fears and merge them into narratives that seem like facts, like calculations, like ideas that will protect us somehow, from ever being blindsided by all the things life has to offer, all our lives once did offer.

In my own experience, periods of transition and uncertainty amplify this noise. If you ever have endured a sustained period of turmoil, the thing you keep craving long after is the reassurance that somehow everything is going to be okay. I want to hear it in the background, the way you hear the wind chimes on the porch when you’re almost home.

Recently, upon returning home from looking at a house (if you know me or have been reading this blog you know I’m on the verge of a move), I fell apart a little. I grew anxious about finances and location. And it all coalesced, all the fears about the future, and memories of past failures, into a guttural off-key chorus of always-never. It was a performance I desperately wanted not to hear but I couldn’t quite find the switch to flip to turn it off. I thought of the beautiful features that drew me to the house – the historic homes in the area, the beautiful brick, the graceful staircase, the wood floors, the leaded glass door in the foyer. I thought about the rest – the broken panes in that door, the plumbing and the windows and roof work that needed to be done. I thought about my budget. I what-iffed my way into tears of worry and frustration and self-censure, sitting in the spot in front of the large heating vent in my living room, where I had, in the past, gravitated to when things were bad. My thoughts, now thinking for themselves, decided that this was all somehow about what I deserved, or didn’t, thought this would be a good way to keep me realistic in terms of my expectations about the new house, and everything else. I cranked up the heat because I was so cold suddenly, and my big dog leaned into me, trying, in that way he does, to take some of it away.

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I gave myself fifteen minutes in this state. I may have taken a little longer, but I managed to throw myself with some deliberateness into the rest of my day. Looking back a few days later on those moments, I wish so much that instead of my thoughts having a mind of their own, the rest of my mind could just rally and be analytical and pick apart the faulty reasoning. It tries. But things don’t really turn around until my heart gets involved. Reminds me doggedly and wordlessly of what matters, what always matters, here, now. My heart thinks the way I imagine dog’s minds do – in images and smells and sounds, with no confusing web of language criss-crossing truth and lies until you can’t find your way out.

I suspect that anxiety is future-grief, worry and sorrow about what we haven’t lost yet. There is a steady, logical part of my brain that can say this is fruitless. There is another part of me that thinks this is a pretty good skill to have, thinks it can somehow protect me from being blindsided. My steady brain asks how it can matter; our hearts cannot really brace themselves for a punch the way other muscles can. If the world is going to hurt us, it will, whether we can see it coming or not. The thing that protects us is what we’re doing now, the thing that protects us is building a bank of heart-thoughts that we can dip into when we need to, that we can draw on to remind us: we are loved and loving, and we are strong because of it.

To those of you who are patient with me, who have spent a few minutes in conversation with me (or who have inched your foot toward mine during a late-night fit of worry, letting me know you are there for me), who reassure me with your steadiness and kindness and goodness and love, I thank you, and I hope I offer some measure of it in return. I am here for you, too.

Love, Cath

 

On Thresholds, Love, and Language

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we halt on a threshold and consider how words fail us.

As February inches to a halt in its slow, frozen way, and we in the Midwest stand here on the almost-verge of spring, I’m thinking of thresholds. Thresholds as in, the space existing after one thing and before another, and as in limits.

One of my earliest memories is of standing on the curb at the door of the school bus that was to take me to kindergarten. I remember the black rubber tread on the steps leading up and in, and little else. I remember feeling frozen. Years later, I asked my mother why I wouldn’t get on the bus. She said I told her it was too loud. A lot of the world feels that way, still. The overall sensory impact of a chaotic world is like a static-y radio turned up too loud. Outside that kindergarten bus, I imagine it wasn’t just the noise as overwhelming decibel level, but the clanging chaos of social unknowns, represented by overlapping voices, the chatter of classmates that I did not yet know, conversations in-progress, which I couldn’t access. My sisters were my friends, but they were in first and second grade.

I remember too the safe quiet bubble of my mother’s car as she drove me to school. I think she drove me for the first week, maybe longer. (The first time I managed to actually ride the bus was terrifying and I left my gym shoes on the bus and when everyone else was putting sneakers in cubbies against the wall, I was crying because I’d forgotten mine.) But in the car, there was reprieve. It was a hushed in-between place, and my mother was there, and it felt like everything was okay, at least for that little while, from house to school.

My son and I recently took an evening to visit my daughter at college. On the way home, he talked about how much he loved being in the car, because he did not have to be doing anything. He allowed himself to relax, chat, zone out, and not have to be productive. For him it was a reprieve from homework, student council emails, scholarship applications. Often, as I’m commuting 30 minutes or so to work, I similarly have the feeling of not wanting to get there yet. I can give myself credit for being a responsible adult going to work, but I do not yet have to face responsibilities and ingest their corresponding stresses.

I think of how much our lives create webs of responsibility and how there are very few places where we are legitimately de-obligated from fulfilling them.

Reflecting on that frozen moment when stepping onto the bus seemed equivalent to stepping off a cliff, I consider how words are such inadequate tools for conveying ideas related to feeling. We use collections of words as convenient but undersized vessels for ideas that don’t fit into them. We say terror or panic but what we mean involves the loss of a safe world, a known version of ourselves as its primary inhabitant, and the abyss of a new universe where there is no familiar anything, anyone. We try to contain with words emotions too big for our bodies, almost too big for our hearts to feel, let alone express.

I think of how else language fails us. I think of what mothering me would have been like, and though I am a mother I still can’t imagine it. I remember each of my own children’s first days – of preschool, kindergarten, high school. Dropping my daughter off at college. I imagine what it’ll be like, in a matter of months, to leave my son in his dorm room. How does one say, at such points of disembarking, I love you but I have to go this way. You have to go that way. Sometimes the simultaneous joy and pain of loving leaves us frozen.

That words never fail to fail us is especially true of love, all of our loves. We should have more words for it, better ones. There is no concise way to say I [love-that-holds-within-it-comprehension-of-all-my-maternal-shortcomings] you. No way to truly capture the sorrow of loss that grows like a long blade of grass alongside the child’s every accomplishment as witnessed from the parent’s perspective. The way loving means I am teaching you to leave me, to be you, to belong to yourself. Though you belong with me, now, you don’t belong to me. 

macro photography of droplet on green leaf during daytime
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Other ways of loving are similarly challenged by vernacular limitations. There is no easy way to express I [love-that-arrives-as-a-surprise-after-long-and-difficult-journeying] you. No way to really say that we simultaneously want to protect it as if it is vulnerable moss at the edge of a forest path in danger of being crushed by the heavy footfall of experience, and the way we lean against it as if it is the sturdiest oak in the woods.

I wonder, if we did have language for such things, would it be easier? If there were precise words for the types of love we wanted to express, would we use them more freely? Or, would our threshold for the feelings such words encapsulate still be in danger of being breached, and would we instead reach for softer words, blurry words, in order to contain? Perhaps language has limits for a reason. Perhaps as a species we have created the language we can safely wield, and nothing more.

I think, too, of those places of reprieve, and how they involve solitude sometimes, and quiet, supportive companionship at others. It might be in the car, in bed, over coffee. It might be that we don’t recognize these spaces as thresholds, as places in-between where we are allowed not to go this way or that way, not to have to deal with this responsibility, or that one. Where we don’t have to consider our threshold for what our hearts can express.

Writing this, my mind hops back to a couple of years ago when I began this blog and how the analogy of the road trip began it all, and how many times I have returned to it in various manners. Wherever you are journeying today, I hope you find that bubble of calm and quiet, when you are neither here nor there.

Love, Cath