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.

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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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Photo by NEOSiAM 2020 on Pexels.com

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

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

This part is over. Has been over, actually.

I was slow to realize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On 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.

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Photo by William LeMond on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

We are what we inhabit.

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

Love, Cath

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. 

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

Watercolor Pears and Other Journeys

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we let love remind us we’re okay.

As I hug my daughter, I want to steal back the moments I let go of maybe too easily. I tried to cherish everything I could. But when our children are ready to leave, our becoming ready to let them go gets messy. We let anger, or distance grow, because there is an illusion that it makes the leaving easier. It makes readiness appear to be something finished and beautiful, a little masterpiece of growth, and in a way, it is. But it is also green and new, for us as parents and for them as children.

My daughter left for college a year and a half ago. This weekend, visiting, I wondered, how is it that you do not live in my house anymore. How is it that we so often misunderstand and misuse time, and each other, even when we are telling ourselves different truths. I am not taking this for granted. I appreciate this moment, and that one. The easy ones, the tough ones, the laughter and tedium in between. The fact is, it isn’t possible to appreciate them all, not in the moment. But, possibly, I don’t comprehend the universes contained in each moment. The way that when mother and daughter yelled across the threshold of her pre-slammed door, the instant was a multitude, was everything that brought us there, was everything it would launch us into.

All of what I understand about living and loving could fit in a thimble. If I were a fruit fly, I would swim in it like a swan at sunrise.

At the same time maybe I knew more than I thought I did, and I let go enough and held on enough, and it is only now, with the absence of my daughter in my home a daily reminder of how life tumbles forward, that I feel as though I want to sweep it all back into my embrace for just another minute, every breath we breathed under the same roof. At the same time, it’s now, and she’s doing okay, more than okay.

The dog has found a spot near my feet. Sometimes I think he understands living and loving better than anyone, but maybe he has never quite adjusted to my daughter leaving. He attached himself differently to my son next. But soon, my son will also be gone and my dog will look at me and not understand why love has come to this. Why I, with all my insufficiencies, am the one he is left with. He will think of his girl and his boy and sigh and wish for them every day and I will come home from work and he will resign himself to loving me as best as he can. Possibly, though, he simply loves me.

I think of how many ways there are to love and how each one of them tries to break our hearts even as it expands them. Because it expands them.

I think too of the love we find – after time and heartbreak have suggested, perhaps urged, maybe you’ve had enough. I think of the way I ran toward it, us, anyway. How we sat over coffee cups, hearing each other’s voices for the first time, not really knowing what to expect of self, other, this. How learning the shape of this is a gift.

Years ago, I took a watercolor class. I learned a little, most of which I’ve forgotten. The instructor mentioned that I’d benefit from a drawing class, advice I never took. But I learned that I loved this medium, and that it calms me even if my work is simplistic and flawed, and to call it amateurish would be a compliment.

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I love seeing pencil sketch lines beneath pale washes, the way the layers build and you can see both the cumulative effect and the process at the same time. It’s like witnessing journey and arrival in the same moment, even if the arrival is not at the intended destination. No, that is not the way I thought this painting of a pear would turn out. But, still. The beautiful thing is, both “good” and “bad” paintings can be witnessed and appreciated in this same way.

How luxurious it is to appreciate and be appreciated not because we’ve made it to an expected or anticipated destination, but simply as journeyers who have arrived, here, now. In this multitude of a moment. And we’re okay. More than okay.

How new and beautiful it can be to love (ourselves) this way.

Love, Cath

 

On Patterns, Perspectives, and Puzzles

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes context helps us puzzle things out and find the substance behind the charm.

On the last day before taking my daughter back to college, after her short holiday visit home, we sat at the dining room table, she and my son and I, putting together a puzzle. It was a 500-piece nature scene, quite beautiful and moderately complex, and we laughed and chatted and worked silently, falling into a peace so easily we forgot about the various things we’d bickered about here and there. Tucked away, too, were the few weightier conversations we’d had, and the brief but powerful emotional storms that sweep through a household sometimes, when new transitions are on everyone’s horizons.

In the course of those few hours that we worked, on and off, we found ourselves each selecting a favorite puzzle piece. I was particularly drawn to one of the few which contained a recognizable image, a little vignette, or so it seemed to me. I liked it. It seemed to make sense on its own, independent of the bigger picture it was a part of. So little of life is like that; it so often doesn’t bother to make sense at all.

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Speaking of bigger pictures, I often get the impression that my understanding of the “bigger picture” is flawed or misguided or not fully formed. But maybe, the problem is with the very notion of the bigger picture.

We blame our perception, our perspective, we question how our shortcomings keep us from seeing things clearly sometimes, keep us from understanding our lives, our place in the world. But maybe understanding is muddied because the thing we are trying to understand is a shifting, muddy thing itself.

It’s no wonder that we sometimes flounder, that we can’t grasp how all the pieces fit together, that we are at once puzzled, and puzzle.

The afternoon of the puzzle, I found it utterly impossible to snap puzzle pieces into place without becoming overwhelmed by metaphor and wonder. Sometimes I stared at pieces blankly while my brain scrambled up ideas about identity and purpose and meaning and connection and context. Sometimes I was amazed that we were able to fit any of the pieces together, particularly the ones that were part of a uniform background, the starry dawn sky, the rush of water over rocks. We hunted for pieces, each in our own way, seeking patterns in the shapes. I wondered what it would have been like to try and work that puzzle without the picture on the box as a map.

Life is built piece by piece without context, without a map. Instead, we fashion ideas of what it is supposed to look like, in general, and for us. We look for patterns, we seek partners. We create context. We are thirsty for shape, meaning, structure.

I think all of our endeavoring, this trying to see what fits together, is what connects us and binds us in a shifting world.

We create constants, foundations we hope will withstand the shifting muddiness.

When I look at the photo I took of that puzzle piece, I’m struck by how I romanticized the image. It’s a treetop. It appears to me now less like a self-contained scene, a story within a story, as it sits isolated against a dark background. Only in proximity to a sea of other puzzle pieces does the poetry of the little piece begin to hang together. You have to see it within the context of chaos to understand its clarity.

Throughout all of this reflection, which is so unlike an unmade puzzle itself, some things manage to become clear to me. I am growing comfortable with my tendency toward romanticizing things. It no longer seems a silly or naïve trait, now that I understand it within the larger context of myself. It used to be so much a part of me that I was unaware of it as a distinct characteristic but now, because I can usually see it, I can understand it is a part of me, but not so much so a part of me that I’m blind to its effects. That is to say, I do like to be charmed. I enjoy being able to see idealized versions of things, people. In a way, it is a gift. But, gradually, I have learned to see reality and substance more clearly, too. I have learned to see beyond and around charm more clearly now than I have been able to in the past, can more readily recognize, and subsequently respect, that which we call substance. This is not to say that I’ve perfected this move. Even a practiced self-awareness takes time to become a habit. But still.

When we begin to know ourselves more fully, the way the parts are related to the whole, it can be easier to make sense of things, and not just puzzle pieces.

For example, I recently began looking at houses, as I get ready to sell a house, buy a house, to move. I have been a bit afraid that my tendency toward romanticizing things, to be seduced by charm, would run amok. That my love of original glass doorknobs and built-ins and pretty little details would prevent me from seeing the enormous inconvenience of a too-small kitchen or cracks in a foundation. Happily though, while I did feel that swoonful delight in vintage details, I also witnessed myself being able to see the place as a whole – clearly – and to know it wasn’t right for me. (Happily, too, I find myself lovingly supported on this journey by someone who is not only charming – he has the best smile – but who is full of substance, and who is very much looking out for me. Thank you.)

To put it another way, that little puzzle piece, and my affection for it, make more sense when the piece is viewed not in isolation but within the context of the jumble of the unmade puzzle. Looking at it as a separate thing, I’ve wondered, why did it seem so significant? Sometimes trying to remember the sense we’ve made of something is as challenging as trying to remember song lyrics that we misheard the first time anyway.

But we can gain a new understanding of ourselves, and maybe even one another, through this effort of sense-seeking, even when the context is initially unclear. We recreate context when we return to the effort of the puzzle. And we can do the same in terms of our understanding of ourselves, of each other, of what connects us to one another.

It takes sustained effort, but we can and should create and recreate and build and strengthen the connections and foundations to withstand the muddiness of an ever-changing big picture. There is substance there, in that context and in those connections, and we should seek it, regardless of how dazzled we are by the charm in a detail — whether it be a puzzle piece, a vintage doorknob, or a warm smile.

Love, Cath

 

 

On Magic, Work and Worry, and Joy Like a Canary

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes magic finds us; sometimes we have to go looking for it to get through the day.

Part 1. In Which Magic Infiltrates the Everyday

I find myself thinking about magic lately. I think about peeking in wardrobes, and the half-expectation of seeing a snowy landscape and a lamppost on the other side. To be clear, I’m not talking about actually expecting to walk into another world – Narnia, or anywhere else. I’m talking about a spark of feeling that is at once wonder, hope, joy, and something else I’m not sure I’ve been able to pinpoint.

Sometimes, life is all alarm clock and schedule and commute and cubicle. But one recent morning I walked my dog at dawn. The sky blushed, nudging away grey remnants of night, and the chill in the air had no pinch in it. My almost-eleven-year-old-galoot trotted and pulled in his undignified way, lurching toward the joy of the day, of scents and fresh air and movement and company. Rounding a corner as we headed downtown, I saw that the little city tree branches had already been strewn with holiday lights. The glow of the bulbs, set against the peaches and pinks of the dawn, that companionable contrast, made me grin out loud; there was more magic in that moment than I had expected from a Tuesday pre-work walk. Maybe the magic was in how long it stayed with me.

defocused image of illuminated christmas lights
Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on Pexels.com

And for the rest of the day, my wandering thoughts strayed Narnian. I thought of all the other things that work their magic on us day by day, though it can be easy not to notice.

I want to notice, and I want to remember the noticing.

I get a little lift when squeezing dish soap into the sink and a stray bubble floats toward the ceiling. It reminds me of my sweet brown dog who died before he should have had to, and how delighted bubbles seemed to make him. He always stayed with me in the kitchen when I did the dishes. And something about that dish soap bubble does more than make me think of him. In that moment the melancholic pull of missing him evaporates, and in its place is that moment of inexplicable delight and peace and . . . something else.

[I think, too, of the way my heart lurches when a certain text tone chimes, pulling all of me along with it, toward joy, as if my heart is the dog on the walk and the rest of me is leash.]

We move through our day, through ordinary moments, walking the dog, doing the dishes, sending and receiving texts. If we are observant, we might find ways to layer joy onto the bones of the moments in our days.

I look at this as some sort of everyday magic. I think that it is in fact miraculous that there is an emotion that lives near joy, hope, wonder, peace, love, delight, all these things, that I cannot name. What a gift that is, especially when you look at the spectrum of nameable emotions, and how familiar we are with the names of all of them, even and maybe especially the less pleasant ones.

Part 2. In Which the Magic is Too Easily Overcome

A couple of mornings ago, I went for a run for the first time in a while. I’ve been avoiding the cold. I used to like running in the cold. I reminded myself of that. I reminded myself that it wasn’t snowy or icy, and that the temperature, though below freezing, was above 0. It was 20 degrees out. Throughout the run, I thought of being done with the run. I thought about how I should have warmed up, and how I was forcing my muscles to do what I often force my brain to do – figure things out as I go. I didn’t have time for a warm-up. Finding my cold weather layers, that was pretty much my warm-up. I thought about metaphors and I thought about my knee and about little crystalline ice formations in my lungs.

I tried to pretend to be some kind of bad-ass when I got home, because I ran a couple of miles in the cold. The dog was not impressed. I tried to hold on to the post-run lift, to hold on to all the things that made me smile throughout the week. I was marginally successfully. But it got to be too much work when costly car troubles and other normal life stresses combined with holiday stresses began to pile up.

Stress and worry seem to weigh so much more when gathered up than all the moments of peace and happy and magic I’ve been storing up weigh. Or, I notice them more than when the stresses dribble in one at a time. But then life happens and the stresses pool together. They somehow increase in density and seep heavily into everything, groaning in a deep bass tone at the base of my skull that their totality is greater than the sum of their parts.

Part 3. In Which Overthinking Leads to Perspective and Turns Out to be Just the Right Amount of Thinking

It is easy to sink, hard to pull myself back into equilibrium. I have to be on both sides of the leash to lurch myself back into what feels like a more natural state sometimes.

Does it sound selfish, this gluttonous desire for joy and love and peace and peace of mind and hope? Why can’t we though, why can’t we want that, why can’t we throw the weight of our selves and seeking behind such pursuits?

I think how upside down the world is, of how much time we spend fighting for the things we care about and how little is left for the caring. Sometimes I feel the panicked pull of it all and I just want reprieve, and when I find it, it is in the presence of the people I care about and I’m reminded that the reprieve is actually the world, and everything else is the noise and clutter. The reprieve is the place where we can’t be hurt and fatigued and wearied by everything outside the door. And sometimes we find it in the quiet place within us, in solitude, though like anything, there can be too much of that.

I wish I could un-upside-down the world, and make the reprieve take up slightly more time than the clutter, noise, work and worry. I’m not good at rationing, though and who knows what balance looks like. I’m trying to be better about savoring, enjoying to the fullest all the moments of reprieve that I can collect throughout a day, a week. I try to not be resentful that the pile of bills or the cubicle or repairs to home and car whittle away at it all, thin it out in the middle.

It takes work, sometimes, keeping ourselves living in the mindset we want to maintain. I like my goofy optimism, I like try-your-best, look-for-magic thinking. I get resentful of the way life eats at that. I think we all do. It’s hard to not take it personally sometimes.

I think that all the art I’ve ever loved in some way captures the joy that exists within a world designed to see it fail, joy like the proverbial canary, like a doorway at the back of a wardrobe that only sometimes opens to a fantastic place, and you can’t always find it anyway. And I suppose that’s why we seek art, because it makes us feel understood, whether it be a painting, film, image, song, or collection of words. Maybe it’s just the art we compose every day, in the way we frame the world the way we want it to be, seeing the way a tree-lit night ebbs into an apricot-colored dawn.

We make art, we make joy, we make love, we make reprieve, we make magic. Because we have to.

Love, Cath

On Circles, Themes, Acceptance

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you have to accept your themes.

It’s cold. I want to write something beautiful. I want to sleep better, more. I’ve started and stopped and started this post over and over. I find the ideas of sleep and dreams floating to the surface. But at the same time, my thoughts are scattered, a little murky. I think of the pond in the nature area where my kids and I sometimes walked, and the lily pads, and the weeds, and the rocks where the turtles sun, and how much my thoughts feel like that sometimes, all a part of an ecosystem, but appearing at any given moment to be quite disparate. Over there floats a blog post about earnestness, there’s one about sleeplessness, and still another about the things we imagine about our future selves. Sometimes it all comes together into a cohesive thread, as I write about it, and I can finally see the themes that have woven themselves into my consciousness for the past days. Other times, things will not coalesce.

photo white water lily flower on body of water surrounded by leaves
Photo by Jacoby Clarke on Pexels.com

Currently, continuity feels elusive, and I wonder if that’s the point of things right now. That sometimes it doesn’t all fit together, and we can’t find the meaning. This week hasn’t been the first time my son has chided me about my desire to figure out the meaning or lesson in something. Like anyone, he has a collection of anxieties he carries with him, but he also possesses a calm, almost Taoist sort of perspective, that things just are. [I should note here too that my understanding of Taoism derives largely from Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh.] It’s a view that makes my little mental quests seem frantic and unnecessary sometimes. But, if things just are, then, too, this is just the way am, so sometimes I have to accept the fact that my desire for synthesis and understanding will sometimes reward, and may just as often thwart and frustrate.

We get stuck in loops sometimes. In various ways, we are taught to look for patterns, in our lives, in our work, in art, music, architecture, politics. Everywhere repeated motifs call out to be recognized. We swoop, circling understanding. I don’t think this effort is without value. We emphasize lessons to and for ourselves. We find new ways to look at the same things we’ve studied for years, how to love, how to grow, how to be brave, how to be vulnerable. We study what things are worth.

At the same time, we can only pay attention to so many things at a time. What’s in our peripheral vision, and what do we fail to notice? I think sometimes of the way we laugh when we see a dog chasing his tail, but I maybe it’s not so funny for him. We catch glimpses of a threat out of the corner of our eye. There’s not much to do once it’s caught. It’s untenable to keep holding on – it is, after all, our own tail – but letting go feels dangerous, because, what if it isn’t? What if it’s something bigger than us? And so we are caught, circling. We are dizzied, we exhaust ourselves, we hold on unreasonably to things that keep us spinning instead of letting go and letting ourselves move differently, forward, playfully, peacefully.

I think of how many times I have written on the same themes, trying to see them from new perspectives. We don’t always know why things feel important to us; or, we don’t know if they should feel as important to us as they do; we don’t know if we should fight impulses, or explore them. Yet, things are as they are; you are, I am. You have your themes, I have mine. Maybe it’s best to not question our themes too much, maybe we should simply acknowledge them as part of us. Does the dog let go once he realizes it’s his own tail? Even so, it’s still his tail. The perceived threat may dissipate, but the thing itself is still a part of him.

This is all to say, fine, then. Let me expend mental energy thinking about time and identity and transitions. Let me think about what it means to be a mother, and ponder “home” as an emotional construct. These are the themes of the hour, or year, of my mind right now. They are not chasing me, demanding my attention; they are part of me, and as such, they simply will infuse what I think, feel, do, and write. I wonder, if the act of such acceptance is what opens the space for new ideas. Once the dog is not so focused on the threat or wonder posed by his tail, is he able to take part in a new activity? Run to a loved one, find a sunny place to nap, discover a treat in his food dish? Who doesn’t love love and sun and naps and treats?

Some things are part of us, whether or not we want them to be, and they remain so whether or not we focus our attention on them. Maybe, sometimes, at the very least, it is okay to take a break from them for a little while. To notice what/who is there in our peripheral vision.

This is not beautiful, not this metaphor, not this idea, not this prose. But some things just are and maybe it is for someone else to apply descriptors. Maybe nothing bad will happen if we stop for a moment, stop trying to figure it all out, though this can seem like an alarming concept, particularly if life has given us the message that unless we pay attention, bad things will happen. So we chase our tails, worried about the proximity of threat, unable to distinguish self from trouble. When the whirl and whine of it become too much and we collapse, exhausted, it is often only to sleep, then to take up the chase again the next day, without pause, without fail, but often full of failure, failure to think other thoughts, to break out of patterns that keep us focused and working hard, but often to no end.

Sometimes it takes only a gentle nudge from someone nearby, a simple, “hey,” to point us in a new direction, to help us, as Ralph Waldo Emerson says, to “draw a new circle.” Sometimes it takes sheer force of will. Sometimes the work we do is unclenching our jaw, letting go, and simply noticing.

Love, Cath

On Cranes and Kites, Work and Wishes

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we feel fragmented, abstract; we are connected.

I keep unfolding this origami shape, trying to make a kite.

What’s the right way to look at the work we do? Does anyone notice the difference between folding and flight?

We are told to do the work, and we want to, and it comes as easily to us as flight does to a thousand paper cranes.

paper cranes
Photo by David Yu on Pexels.com

It is easy to believe we are doing it wrong. It is easy to believe that there is a dull ache, there are sore muscles, even when we are doing it right.

And everything is right.

Everything is all right.

I’m not not spelling it out in order to obfuscate; I wouldn’t do that to either of us. I’m not spelling it out because the test is wrong, and I know the answers, but not to these questions. We know everything, and we have never known any single thing.

I know this: I draw hearts in Douglas fir sawdust with my fingertip, believing always in yes, now, this.

We whisper wishes into night, day, storm, sun. We whisper gusts. We keep the kites aloft.

Some days I don’t know where to begin. I think of how hard our psyche rushes in the background, trying to escape remembered danger or pain that isn’t anything now, isn’t more than paper in a puddle, but we wake up exhausted anyway.

Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that the way we work is in a straight line, as if we don’t loop back around again, as if we won’t need to. And I think of the way a kite stays up, and the way when I was little, I ran in circles trying to catch the wind in the muddy field with my father. My feet in boots navigating slippery clumps of soil, heavy grey clouds churning above his head as he ran for the string that slipped through my fingers.

And I think of catching and holding, and running, and waiting for the wind, and fighting it, and those few moments in between when it’s all just grace and flight and lift and it feels like it’s no work at all.

Let’s give each other the space and grace to navigate, to slip sometimes, to falter. I’ll give chase for you.

Sometimes work is a four-letter word, the way we put ourselves back together every day, for ourselves, for each other. Do we privilege one audience over another, and why do we feel maligned for doing either, or both?

I’ve been gripped for the past several days by a certain melancholy I can’t quite source. Touching base with a number of people in my life, I hear they also feel marked in this way. I think about the things that we sense collectively, the cold heaviness of a loud, mean world. I think of the way it makes us feel separate, though we are feeling the same thing, each in our own way.

I think of this: sometimes the kite string doesn’t simply slip from our grasp because the wind was strong or because we slid in the mud. Admit it. Sometimes we let it go. Sometimes we woke up exhausted. And I think, I’ll chase that for you today. Will you help me start again, tomorrow? I think of the way I was given paper. The way I watched you transform a thousand origami cranes into kite, the way I managed to let the wind take mine again, though getting into the air in that day was a feat, and you said so.

Sometimes I try and take the view of the kite, and look down on the field, on all the endeavoring, and I’m struck by the earnestness of it all, by the web of string, the kaleidoscopic pattern of arms outstretched, by the chasing we are willing to do, for ourselves, for one another, even though you can only see it from this vantage point.

Love, Cath