On Throat-Clearing, Self, and Voice

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we can almost find the melody.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Sleeplessness, Starlings, and Sparrow Eggs

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am simply . . . recalibrating.

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Fallowness and Mud

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Home, Magic, Memory

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes home is not what you think it is.

For a few of the many moments that I’m curled up in my bed but unable to sleep, I cast my thoughts outward, trying to capture as much of the world as my heart can hold in a breath, for that is all that I can handle of the chaos sometimes. It feels selfish not to try. I feel so immersed in layers of details involved in home buying and selling that I struggle to focus on life beyond those decisions. But in that effort of casting my awareness out beyond my experience, I suddenly remember fishing with my father when I was young, standing on the bank, watching the ease with which his line sang out over the river. I pull back, clumsy as ever, unable to mimic the grace it takes. I long to be bigger and better than myself sometimes.

time lapse photography of lake
Photo by Baskin Creative Studios on Pexels.com

We are told not to take for granted the things and people that make our lives feel full, rich, happy. I think about how often I say I love you and I wonder if I’m saying it as much to express the truth of it as I am to prove it to a cruel universe, as if a demonstration of love and gratitude can create a protective gloss around me and mine. I love you becomes an incantation to keep us safe and connected.

I started writing this post a couple of weeks ago when my arms were sore from painting. I moved from my desk, where I hunched and scrambled toward deadlines, to the basement where I poured white paint to neutralize my home for potential buyers. I thought I wouldn’t like it, but I do. It reminds me of that summer cottage I’ve always wanted, the white paint. I spend so much time scrolling through pictures of homes in another town, hoping one will feel a little bit like it could be mine, hoping that somehow in this world of wait and restriction and necessary cautions, I will be able to complete the necessary series of business transactions. A series of business transactions that, in a way, is the transfer of ownership of a thing from person to person, but is really the worldly calculus that frames the magical endowing of home to family. (It is a strange arrangement, but if you are lucky, as I am, you get to work with people who have an understanding of not just the business but the business of magic.)

I spent night after night in April falling asleep trying to write before bed. It was all fits and starts, no sense making, clumsy constructions of sentiments in random drafts. Sometimes my best work is the simple I love you, sung across rooms, tucked in a note of freshly folded laundry to be discovered later. Sometimes I feel as though I’m trying to inscribe home into every letter of a scrawled I love you.

I’ve been thinking about what home means, and now more than ever it is who, not where, and on the verge of moving I want my children to know that fact, more than ever. I want them to feel at home within themselves, I want them to know that all our lives we have to remake our ability to remake home. I want them to learn it so that it comes as readily and blindly as tying shoes. I want it to be easier for them. That is the first and most important layer of home.

The next is about the people you feel at home with, and about evolving into the idea that sometimes this will mean your family and sometimes it won’t. And that’s okay. Your idea of family expands and contracts, like a lung full of breath. But like a lung full of breath it has a rhythm, a cadence you can always find if you tune yourself in to it.

But it would be stubbornly naïve to pretend that home also wasn’t a physical place, and it’s okay to have a multitude of feelings about that place, feelings that might not always get on harmoniously with one another, just like family members sometimes don’t. It’s also okay for there to be an apparent dearth of feeling about a place. Sometimes we’ve spent them all, sometimes we will feel them later.

Sometimes years, decades, will pass, and we will suddenly remember standing on a riverbank with our father and we will remember an odd sense of home we forgot we had forgotten. Old magic. And we will realize again that what we thought was about a place really isn’t so much.

I think, too, of the brief vulnerabilities we allow ourselves when we are trying to be strong. I think of what being strong feels like, and how sometimes it doesn’t feel like trying, until we stop for a moment. Anxiety sneaks up sometimes like a soft rage of sorrow when I let my guard down. And sometimes it feels as though it is always there, like a soft flutter wings in the eves when you are lying in bed and hearing a bird take a little morning bath outside the window. It’s just there, letting you know the worrying is happening, but telling you don’t worry about it, it’s for a good cause. Learning to be at home with myself means trying to understand this.

Today definitely feels like spring, and with that sigh of air through the window, warm and a little damp and heavy with the scent of green, it’s a little easier today to feel hopeful and even content within the milieu of this moment.

Remember to protect yourself with whatever magic you can find, a memory, a feeling of home, an I love you.

Love, Cath

 

Love, Cath

On Scattered Things and Rabbit Holes

By Catherine DiMercurio

These days, I collect moments. We had coffee in bed. I couldn’t name the bird singing outside as the sun was rising. I found myself becoming aware of all the details at once. The unnamed birds (somehow wilder because I didn’t know what to call them) and the tightness of the red tree buds and the morning light on our faces and the scattered and speckled pattern the coffee made on the white sheet where I spilled it.

And this: that day, was it only earlier this week? and the warm fog of my dog’s breath in the morning air when I, after days of saying I need to go for a walk, went for a walk. And it had just snowed and the flakes were thick and damp and insisting on themselves as they settled on my face and on the black spots of my dog’s coat, making much ado as they rained down on warm March sidewalks before they disappeared.

Another walk, a few days later, and it suddenly feels like spring. Another walk, trying to beat the rain, and failing at that. Arriving home, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I’m washing my hands and I see the pattern the warm raindrops made on my skin, like something spilled and scattered.

I insist on noticing the ordinary things these days, and I can’t tell if it is to keep the confusion of the world out and a semblance of peace in, or to let the chaos in my brain out and the tiny fragments of life as we knew it in. It is a permeable membrane maybe, this fragile sheen of sought normalcy. I soak beans for soup. I fold the laundry. I hum while I wash dishes.

Maybe the insistence (that normal activity exists not just in the world as we knew it but as it is now) is the result of our brain’s worrying us away from the rabbit holes of news, social media, statistics, exponential growth graphs. I think of rabbit holes, and Alice, her miscellany of sense and nonsense, the way she sought to match known world to new. Adapting.

I think, too, that rabbit holes work just fine for rabbits, and if I could only think like one maybe it would be okay down here, cozy like the little home where Peter Rabbit’s mother tucked him in bed with chamomile tea when he wasn’t feeling well.

two brown rabbits
Photo by Jim Long on Pexels.com

What is the overlap between known and new? Is it simply the unfolding of ordinary moments, of insisting on them?

I think of the things we forget to insist on when we scramble to adapt to the upending of everything.

These days, I don’t just collect moments. I work, and I try to box up worry and stuff it in a corner, lock it up with luck. I’m lucky; I have work I can do at home. I’m lucky; we’re still healthy. I hum loudly with my fingers in my ears as if it can keep luck from running out. I work, but it is hard to focus. Deadlines clang in the distance like the tardy bell at school half a mile away and I remember how I heard it on the first day that school was cancelled and I don’t hear it any more, but maybe I just stopped noticing.

These days, I’m perpetually calibrating, trying to tune my psychological and emotional response to the day, moment, beat. Sometimes it’s all static.

Like anyone these days, I don’t know what to think, and coping looks different all the time. More information. Less information. Different information. Silence. Noise. Coffee. Music. Breath. I like to look at faces, sometimes longer than people like to be looked at.

It’s impossible to stop myself from thinking of how quickly things have changed, how immediately so many plans we had for ourselves seem to have unraveled. But we are nothing if not weavers, and we routinely loop things back together and of course we will do so again. Rebraid the frayed strands, remake our plans, create new ones. Adapt.

A friend reminded me recently that our days are filled with choices, though things seem limited now, constrained and boundaried in ways we weren’t able to imagine just a couple of weeks ago. We choose moment by moment to be hopeful, to proceed, to connect, to insist.

I try to read a little poetry every day. To keep writing. To keep up with the home improvements that need to be done before I can sell my house. Though plans everywhere are collectively paused, we know they won’t stay that way. Timelines might have to be reimagined, details tweaked, but we will move forward, individually and collectively. It’s what we do, what we are doing. Inch by inch. Choice by choice. Coffee by coffee, poem by poem, word by word, walk by walk. Breath by breath.

I’m trying to see something of value in the scatter of my thoughts here. I feel like I have tried to organize a few stones on the beach into little cairns, but having failed, stare at the jumble of them and stop searching for sense. Isn’t that how Alice began to navigate Wonderland? Wasn’t it easier when she stopped expecting sense? Though innately, we do keep trying.

I think of scattered things, birdseed that ends up taking root, crumbs carried away by squirrels, coffee grounds across the garden soil. Things have a way of working out, I suppose, of rooting like seeds, or nurturing in unexpected ways like the crumbs from my bread or the grounds from my coffee.

Things have a way of connecting us to other, like all those tunnels in a rabbit warren. It makes sense to rabbits. They know where safety is, and what to look for, and when, and there is comfort in that, and beauty, too. We just have to look for it, adapt. We become curiouser and curiouser.

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 Maps and Moonlight: Navigating

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we make a path both known and possible by drawing it.

When I was a child, one of the most delightful and satisfying experiences I knew was that of opening a fantasy novel and discovering a map in the opening pages. Whether it was Narnia, Middle Earth, Earthsea, or a lesser-known place such as Hed being depicted, I was captivated. Sometimes, I was inspired enough to sketch out my own maps, too, of places that had no stories or characters, but that I envisioned nonetheless. I penciled in borders, mountains, seas, rivers, and cities, making it up as I went along, happy that the only right way was the way I was drawing it.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about those maps lately. Remembering the crackling sound of worn library binding, the smell of freshly mown grass. An old cotton blanket spread beneath a tree, half in and half out of the shade. Reading for hours during summer vacation, when it seemed to span far longer than a couple of months.

Looking back now, I can see more clearly what I loved about those maps, but would never have been able to articulate back then. They were an achievement in the realm of the impossible, a carving out of a something from nothing, from mystery, from void. They sketched out meaning and shape and form in line and letter from the unfathomable. How beautiful is that? To map out a place that doesn’t exist and give it to someone else and through the words you place around it, make them believe, or half-believe, that it is a landscape that could be traversed, at least by someone.

I think of half-believing, and what a gift it is.

I think of unmappable, shapeless places, the paths traversed between past and now, now and future, peaks and valleys of emotion, the roads and streams of memory and want that form through-lines through the course of our days. The longing to map it, to give it shape, is not so much about understanding where to go. It is more about acknowledging how little we really know of ourselves, the kingdoms of brain, heart, dream, past, ache, love, fear. What is the truth of our own personal terrain, what level of consciousness do we actually possess about why we do what we do and think what we think and feel what we feel?

I wonder sometimes how many neurological processes are involved in deciding which coffee cup to use, if I should say this now, will this sweater be warm enough, is this the right time for this action, or that. Theoretically, I suppose, one could map the firing of synapses, a decision in the brain to move the hand to reach for this cup or that sweater, but can any of the rest of it be traced? The way the memory of wearing that sweater the morning I sat next to you drinking coffee made me want to wear it today? It won’t be warm enough because it is a light sweater, but it will be warm enough because I will think of you all day.

I think we want to know which path to take and what obstacles might be faced on the way but we also want to know if knowing matters. I wonder if I’m on a quest at all, like the adventurers in the stories of my childhood, or am I free to discover as I go?

I wonder if we create urgency around time and destination because we feel we ought to, because everyone else is, and is there a way we get left behind if we don’t figure this out?

I think of mapping this hidden terrain because I suspect it’s more beautiful than I can imagine if taken in as a whole and I’d like to see it that way, if only for a moment. Would it be like standing in a clearing in the woods in the dead of night, waiting for that one moment when the moon slips free of the clouds?

What is (to be) lost and what is (to be) found?

Thinking back on those maps of fantasy worlds from childhood books, it is impossible, really to separate them from the stories that go with them, the characters who journeyed through these worlds, sometimes alone, sometimes with an unlikely band of adventurers. There was usually a seemingly impossible quest. Protagonists often were lead to discover that they couldn’t do it alone, and, just as often, that there were some things that they could only do alone. I get that now.

I wonder sometimes, if we’ve all been mapping out the same place, but each of us, from our own perspective. I wonder about the way we journey alone and together, and how easy it is to confuse the two.

I think about how difficult it is sometimes to admit there’s no map, though wouldn’t it be nice to know that as long as we kept the river on our left and continued north we’d be okay? I think about the clearing in the woods, and the waiting for the moon. When there’s enough light to see by, should we look at the map, or look around us?

The thing about maps is that they often lead us to believe there are right answers, best routes, clear paths, known quantities. And maps of fictional places always imbued in me a half-belief that anything could be charted, made known, ordered. In fact, we can barely map where we’ve already been, let alone where we currently are, even if the moon is out and shining on our clearing.

But, that doesn’t mean we can’t navigate. That doesn’t mean we can’t reach out a hand in the dark and lead one another. It doesn’t mean we can’t compare notes, learn from each other, see the way our paths are intertwined, because they are. We can cheer each other on the solo parts of our journeys, we can be cheered on, we can let ourselves be buoyed by cheers. We can lean on one another, in the dark or in the moonlight or as the day breaks.

And as far as maps go, the only right way is the way we are drawing it, and we make pathways possible when we imagine them and we can at least half-believe in that, because it is the same as believing anyway.

Love, Cath

 

 

On Vestigial Vigilance, Instinct, and Happiness

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes self-protective vigilance masks our instincts …

Life has been busy. Good-busy, mostly. In the middle of it all, living, loving, and learning are all happening. Life unfolds in all directions the way fern fronds sprawl slowly out and askew in the spring, the silent and celebratory party favors of the season.

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Yet, the part of me that maintains a hyperawareness, a vigilance about everything in this phase of my life is looking for trouble. It wants categories; it strains to sort. It wonders, are we now post-[post-divorce]? If so, do we need to call it something else? That vigilant consciousness is always on the lookout for chaos, ready to find a way to diffuse it. It feels like an anxious, hyperactive, working dog without a job to do is pacing inside my head, nervously chewing on shoes. But another part of me – maybe new, maybe long dormant and grizzly bear waking now – is wanting to learn the way to live differently. Without waiting for the other shoe to drop. Without needing to gnaw on something to feel busy and safe and purposeful.

Sometimes I wish we could extricate ourselves from the parts of our psyche we don’t need anymore. Perform surgery on a vestigial organ and bury it, entomb it, pharaoh-less, with no afterlife. I suppose, though, we worry that we might need it again someday. I suppose we maintain a sentimental attachment to it as a once-favorite thing. The vestigial and vigilant worrier warrior, the protector, was once more than a part of me. It was most of me. And though now I’d like to bury it or send it packing, sometimes it remains, fretting and pacing and making work where there isn’t any. Today I wonder if I can find another job for it to do. I wonder if it can be escorted off the premises, and if not, can it be given a makeover. It’s too bad I can’t simply assign it a different task. You don’t need to protect me anymore. I’m okay. Can you help me learn to play the piano instead? How are you at financial planning?

During tough, or worse, traumatic times, the vigilant worrier in all of us gets amplified, elevated to superhero status. It works overtime; it has to. When life calms, and chaos retreats, that part of us can be unwilling to relinquish its elevated status. Sometimes it seizes on any worry, no matter how big or small, and amplifies it, so the cloud of anxiety cloaks everything, things we didn’t even think we needed to worry about. The vigilance works against us. As if to say, you don’t recognize threats anymore; I need to remind you.

I think the worst part of this is two-fold. Though our psyche wants to protect us, it goes too far, and seeks to shield us from threats that aren’t there. But it makes it hard for the rational part of us to grow and get stronger and be able to see clearly. It also makes us question our gut. We wonder, what if all this anxiety, this worry, IS my gut. Is this what it looks like when it is trying to tell me something? Sometimes it is tough to know. But, if it is tough to know, then I suspect it isn’t your gut. Instinct doesn’t make us chase our tail or pace and fret at everything – experience does that. Instinct is a magnet that pushes us toward what’s good for us and repels us from what isn’t. It is strong and quiet and deep, not frantic.

For me the question has become, at this (post [post-divorce]) point in my life, how do I move past what my good-natured but often misguided vigilant worrier warrior is trying to do, and grow more in tune with my instincts? How do we move away from fretful what-if-ing and move toward calm, toward trust (both self-trust, and beyond)?

I think that answer is different for everyone. Sometimes I have to write my way to it, sometimes I have to pick at it, run toward it, run away from it and back again, talk through it over and over. Sometimes we wear ourselves out with worry and then, quiet and exhausted, we find our true way. I’d like to find the straight line there, the shortest-distance-between-two-points path rather then the endless circles I pace in first. But I suppose that’s part of the journey too.

All of this might sound a bit familiar, if you’ve been following this blog for a while. We tell ourselves the same stories in different ways, trying to make it all make sense. I also find that anxiety rises up most in periods of happiness, a pattern that is perhaps common to many of us. It’s easy to be wary, easy to wonder how will this be taken away (this time) or how will I mess this up (again)? Seeing others do this, I wholeheartedly want to reassure, to tell them, go easy on yourself, it’ll be okay, let yourself have this. It’s always more difficult to be generous and kind and loving with ourselves than it is to be with other people.

It’s a good time for all of us to try. Love, Cath

 

On Bravery and the Ineffable

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you let yourself careen optimistically toward the ineffable.

I’m thinking about bravery right now, for a variety of reasons, mostly for chances taken. Once I whispered to someone I loved very much, I’m afraid of everything. We both decided to agree it was true. But it wasn’t. That falsehood gave us a scapegoat, though, for the way things were ending. We fashioned a tacit compact: it was okay to tell ourselves this story, at least in that moment. In a way, it gave me something tangible to hold on to, this lie that, like all lies, held some whispers of truth. It was an answer, a way – a bad way – to make the inexplicable a little easier to stomach.

Eventually, though, I allowed myself to exist in the unfathomable. This was more from exhaustion than from any carefully cultivated skill set or some divine epiphany. Still, it felt brave, permitting myself to call the lie a lie. And consequently it became acceptable to not make sense of what happened. The thing about the unfathomable is that it expands. Don’t black holes do that? You begin to realize, at some point in post-divorce life, that a lot more things don’t make sense than do. You marvel at the things that bring people together, the things that keep them together, the things that pull them apart.

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Ferris Wheels and Deep Water

Like most other humans strolling through this existence, I am, indeed, afraid of things. Fear of heights is right up there at the top of the list. If the ground is under my feet it’s not so bad, unless there is a real threat of falling off. So, a mountain hike with not a lot of exposure? I can handle that. Ferris wheel, not so much, though I still love to see them light up at night. Public speaking? Most people aren’t a fan and neither am I. Plan: avoid when possible. But I can manage it when necessary. Swimming in deep water? Feels like I’m dangling over a cliff, and it doesn’t help that I’m not a great swimmer. But I can deal in small doses. And I love being in and near the water, so I have some incentive to tackle this one.

One of the things I’ve come to realize in recent years is that some people are quite comfortable with whatever quirks like these they carry around with them. And others feel they have to hide them; perhaps, some how, they fear it makes them less than to possess such a wide and varied array of human responses to the world. Still others feel they have to face down everything as part of their journey. Our attitudes about our fears change, too, over time, and depending on how people respond to them. That context is key.

The Joys of the B-Side

I prefer the ineffable to the unfathomable. It’s the often-underappreciated B-side. Both concepts hold mystery, but to me the ineffable is something that in addition to being incomprehensible is also full of wonder and beauty, even. Sometimes I want to slide things from one category to the other, to look at some idea I will never understand and instead regard it as something I’m okay with never understanding, because it is a deep and powerful part of the universe. There is bravery here, in shifting the context. It takes courage to loosen our grasp, to let go of the need to dissect the things that cause us pain, the fears – our own and those of others – that bully us into corners.

The ineffable shifts, cloud-like, around us. Doesn’t it? Or are we doing the shifting? Today I cannot fathom how I can take this next step, or that one. Tomorrow, I fall contentedly into the not knowing, into trusting, somehow, that it’s what I should be doing.

This is all to say, as I have been for the past several posts, that being open takes a combination of things. It’s head and heart, and a little bit of context, a little bit of the world trying to show us when it’s a good time to take a risk, a little bit of someone encouraging us. You’ve got this goes a long way. So does a random smile from a stranger or a less random but equally ineffable smile from someone you just met. You don’t have to know what it means; you just have to know it’s for you.

Enjoy the ineffable, wherever it finds you. Love, Cath

Transformation and the Nature of the Resist

By Catherine DiMercurio

Waking at 3 a.m. again, I think how sleep resists me in the middle of the night. I think about the pictures we made in elementary school. We drew with bright waxy crayons on paper, which we then painted over with blue-black watercolors. I made a night sky, my chunky yellow and red stars gleaming against the watery background of my night. The wax acts as a resist, I remember my teacher saying as she held up a crayon. I don’t remember which teacher it was, but I snagged on that word, on the magic of transformation, when the verb resist became a noun. A resist. Now my mind acted as a resist, sleep slipping off of it, unable to take hold.

Before I went to sleep, another night, I wrote in my journal, trying to corner trouble before it cornered me. I told myself: don’t worry, you aren’t trying too hard, or not enough. I’m not quite sure why those particular words spilled out at that time, but I thought about them again after I woke up. I slept better that night than the night before, and though I still arose before my alarm went off, it wasn’t hours before my alarm went off, so I felt pretty good. I warmed up some leftover coffee and sat down to write.

Messages, Mixed and Otherwise

But that line kept percolating back to the forefront. I think maybe we all fear getting in our own way by trying too hard in some ways or not doing enough in others. I imagine that there is some magical line to walk. On one side, there’s a sense of forging ahead when sometimes it’s only wheels spinning. On the other side, there’s a reliance on things taking care of themselves, there’s a sense of “letting go” in the hopes that things will happen the way they are “supposed to.”

The world gives us mixed messages. We have to go after what we want, follow our bliss. And at the same time we are told to relax, that if things are “meant to be” they will come to us when we least expect it. Provided of course that we have “done the work” we are supposed to do to improve ourselves.

It’s exhausting, mediating these messages, trying to measure the precise amount of effort that should go into something and hoping we get the timing right. I think of that British baking show in which one of the tasks is to bake a mystery dessert, which many of the contestants haven’t even heard of, with only the sketchiest of instructions provided. Somehow, some of the bakers manage to still create something that looks beautiful and tastes as it should, according to the judges. How do they do it?

Perhaps it comes down to having faith in your instincts. Maybe the “secret sauce” is the ability to do two things at once: tune out the noise and tune in to ourselves. We have to remember our strengths, and that we aren’t the sum of our weaknesses. All of this is easier said than done to be sure, which is probably why, as I sleepily wrote before bed that night, I encouraged myself toward self-trust. I honestly don’t think anyone can do that for us, no matter how many supportive people we have in our lives.

Timing and Taffy

Self-trust isn’t easy. Instincts get scrambled, or so we tell ourselves after an act of trust results in an open wound to the soul instead of the affirmation we hoped for. Pain makes our heart into a resist, joy slides off it and puddles along the edges. For the past six months or so, after that June break up I wrote about a while ago, I’ve been trying to live in two states of mind at the same time. I’ve tried to remain true to the open-hearted nature of the person I want to be, once was, and feel that at my core I still am, and I’ve also tried to exist in a state of perpetual self-protection. This isn’t an easy line to walk. Your heart feels like taffy, but for a time, it’s the only way forward, confusing and thinning as it may be.

Like many people, I sometimes do things until I can’t anymore, until it goes a step or several thousand beyond making sense. I hesitate before taking action until it feels like it’s already too late, or once I’m committed to a course of action, I remain too long, far past the expiration date.

So, one night recently, as I slipped into bed and hoped for a good night’s sleep, I had a moment where I understood that this taffy-hearted way of living was no good anymore—this stretching my heart till it thinned and slowly broke apart, this patiently putting it back together again and keeping it cooled off this time—all of this stopped feeling like the right way, like the only way forward. It had worked for a while, had been necessary even, but I wanted my hopeful, open-hearted way of being back. I wanted to stop protecting myself. I decided to commit to a course of action I’d been thinking about for many, many months.

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If you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning you’ll remember that last year, in January, I lost my sweet dog to cancer. His big brother, my almost-ten-year-old coonhound mix, Phineas, has been pretty lonely ever since, and I’ve thought for a long time about adopting another dog. I’ve begun the process of adopting once again, and Phineas and the kids and I will meet the new pup soon. I’m hopeful that they’ll get along well, and we’ll have him home with us before long. (I’ll keep you posted!)

I have a feeling that I’m ready for more, that my open-hearted embrace of my open-heartedness means that other new good things are on the horizon, that maybe I’ll do something about that crush, that maybe an idea I have for my next writing project opens itself up to me. But really, whether or not any of that happens, I simply feel happier having moved past that summer grief, happy to be growing and evolving, and happy to have respected the past six months as a necessary part of my journey.

Wishing you all a heart that blossoms in wonderful and unexpected ways in the coming year.

Love, Cath