On Vulnerability, Lessons, and Learning

By Catherine DiMercurio

Lately, I’ve been thinking about lessons, and the ways we learn and remember. Maybe it was because I had to spend some time thinking about whether I’d invest in another semester of pottery, or because I recently got to spend some time with my math teacher sister.

I was talking to my sister about one thing, and then suddenly, as we were driving home from a hike, I realized I was talking about something else, my old boyfriend. As I recounted an incident that underscored what had gone wrong in that relationship, I realized that I have become a student of my past. In so many ways, this has helped me to understand the way I respond to the world around me. Yet, there are some experiences I revisit without intending to. It is almost like reciting a memorized piece, a prayer, poem, or song, the way I chronicle the events and their consequences. It is as if part of me is determined to always have certain things known by heart, as if only the periodic reminder of what and how something hurt will prevent it from happening again.

Can we protect ourselves and still be open hearted? Is this a binary situation or do we flow between those poles? A Venn diagram maybe, and somewhere in the middle of two intersecting circles is a state where we’re both open eyed and open hearted.

Remember when we were children and we had to memorize multiplication tables and spelling words? I recited things back to myself over and over, even after pop quizzes and tests, worried that I’d forget something. A memory floats back to me of sitting in my parents’ car, a stick-shift van of some sort, in our driveway. My mother was in the driver’s seat; she hated to drive that car. We were talking about a word I’d gotten wrong on a spelling test. I must have been in first or second grade. The word was “ladder,” but I’d spelled it “latter.” I was so frustrated; I’d sounded it out and everything. I don’t remember exactly what my mother said, but the memory is suffused with her gentleness. She repeated both words, emphasizing the different letter sounds of the d’s and the t’s to help me hear the difference. I don’t know why I was so upset by one wrong word on a spelling test, but any kind of test always created a feeling of urgency. It must have been after this that I’d started memorizing everything.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

Even then I was forming and performing the pattern of memorization as a means of avoiding the discomfort of “failure.” [I would later spell the word “oxidation” wrong in the spelling bee, thinking there must be a “y” like in “oxygen.” I would always stumble over 7 x 8 for some reason, and the 12s were always hard.]

Now, I instead of spelling words and multiplication tables, I play out remembered scenes in my head, conflict with past partners. To be clear, this study of the economics of emotional vulnerability was necessary work. In trying to understand why my willingness to be vulnerable and honest with a partner was not reciprocated, I realized that my response to what felt like rejection was to attempt to prove my worth through my ability to be accommodating. But, those equations didn’t add up. And now instead of trying to remember 12 x 9, I know by heart the way my emotional vulnerability and honesty does not equal a healthy relationship when multiplied by 0.

I tiptoed into one aspect of vulnerability again with a brief foray back into online dating. I had a small spark of hope and interest in someone for a little while, but the conversation revealed that I had good reason to keep my guard up a bit. I know that in a way, dating is just like submitting my fiction to literary journals, and that disappointment is common, and you can’t let it dissuade you. But my heart is on the line in a different way in the dating world and I find that I’m more reluctant to keep “putting myself out there” in the face of disappointment than I am with my writing. Maybe this is a lack of bravery, a fear of getting hurt, but it is also fatigue, and a growing sense that maybe it doesn’t matter that much anyway. It is hard to imagine that I will ever simply stop writing and seeking publication; it’s much easier to imagine that I’ll stop looking for the relationship that I once believed was just as important as my writing. Some people say that’s exactly when you find someone—when you stop looking. Other people say you’ll never find someone if you aren’t looking.

Right now, I think I’m going to have to trust that as I explore the boundaries of vulnerability and safety, I’ll be open to the possibility of meeting someone should the opportunity arise.  And that in living my life and exploring my interests, I’m creating opportunities.

What I’d like to do in the meantime is let go of the feeling that lessons must be recited, memories re-dissected, in order for the learning to stick. Life isn’t spelling tests and multiplication tables. There is no pop quiz, but sometimes it feels like there is. Scrolling through a social media feed, I see pop psychologists informing me of the things I need to do to recover from the wounds of past relationships. It’s as if there’s a way to tabulate the self-knowledge gained and unless you can do a presentation for the class on your attachment style and inner child work, you’re not getting an “A” and graduating to “healed” and “ready.”

But I don’t want to do it that way. While I don’t want to miss out on guidance that might help me, I am also fatigued by input, from advice snippets on social media, from the few chapters of self-help books I’ve been able to get through, even from therapy, though that has been vital to me over the years. Do you ever have the sense that everything you need is right in front of you, but the more you listen to other people the harder it gets to put it all together?

Here’s something I haven’t really thought of before: maybe I will intuitively know when I need to seek help. That I can’t “miss out” on guidance that will help me because if I need it, I’ll go looking for it. I don’t have to leave the faucet on, letting a steady stream of help wash over me.

Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “There is a guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening, we shall hear the right word.” I think again of a Venn diagram, this time of our inner voice in one circle and the competing voices of every place and person we’ve turned to for advice, or that has offered it in some way. Maybe there is some amazing overlap at the center where we trust ourselves but also are doing some appreciative “lowly listening” to the outside world as well. I think it’s a little dangerous to think we have all the answers ourselves, but it’s just as harmful to think that we don’t have any, that our own intuition, experience, and introspection is less valuable than the flood of information pouring down round us.

I think, too, that sometimes we create our own noise. We’re reciting our lessons, the ones that are supposed to help us, the ones we can’t forget, and maybe that mumbling recitation becomes part of the static we hear. One of the hardest things about self-trust is believing that what we’ve learned stays with us, that it is a part of us, and will be accessible when we need it. Maybe the lesson learned about a past relationship won’t be quite at our fingertips the way we want it to be, in a new relationship, but we can pause. We can check our spelling and verify the math. Because even if we don’t remember the order of the letters, or can’t quite recall the equation, we do know when something sounds off. We ask ourselves, wait, is that right, is this adding up? The trick is to expand that moment, to slow down and take the time to check. And that might also be the right place to reach out if we need to—to a therapist, a friend, a family member—and go over what it is that’s troubling us.

Some days, I’m reveling in freedoms I couldn’t comprehend when I was tumbling from one relationship into the next. I feel at times like I’ve had the best and worst of three worlds. I know what it is like to love someone for years and years with every single cell of my being, and I know what it is like to be betrayed and devastated by them. I know what falling in love with a new person is like, and I have fully felt the pain of those endings, the dull, persistent ache of realizing that the hope of reshaping your life with someone isn’t going to work out, again. I know the giddy glow of finally getting to know and love myself, and I know how the loneliness swoops in at a rush, extinguishing the lights and leaving me low. And I know that it departs swiftly and mysteriously these days. The only thing I don’t know is what’s next. But I’m curious.

Love, Cath

On Stories, Journeys, Maps, and Signs

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes, all we want is a sign.

Recently, I wrote a short story with a happy ending. Or, more accurately, I finally wrote the happy ending to a story I thought I was done with. I write a lot about broken relationships and wounded people who are trying to find their way toward new versions of themselves or new love. I write about them in various stages of this process. I’ve imagined people in their 20s and people in their 80s struggling with different versions of this same journey. The stories end not hopelessly, but with some acknowledgment that the journey is long, and not over.

I’d been revising this particular story, taking a fresh look at it the beginning of it for a workshop. As I worked deeper into the story, I suddenly began to see a richer ending taking shape, one that moved the characters past the moment of not being able to connect with one another. As I read the last scene I’d written, I sensed what was supposed to happen next, able now to imagine these two people drawing on the bravery they both possessed in order to be emotionally honest with one another and finally move toward one another. Maybe it’s less artful now, with its happy ending. So many short stories end in ways that leave you thinking and wondering, and maybe I still won’t be able to place it with a literary journal. It’s too soon to tell. But, either way, I feel as though I achieved something with this story.

I was not capable of writing that ending to the story before now. I could not have written it one year ago, and I certainly couldn’t have written it eight years ago. It’s not that I couldn’t envision such an ending, but I felt stuck in a way, or, unable to unstick the words from my throat. Confused about how to unravel the fibers, comprehend them, and knit them back together into meaningful sentences, though I felt all the fine threads in my hands. There were insights that eluded me, and that I didn’t know were eluding me. How often do we feel that way, that everything is right in front of us but we can’t see what we need to? So often, we make do with what we can. We show up with everything we’ve been able to make sense of and everything we haven’t, because, what else can we do?

Journeys take a long time, and often long stretches happen in the dark. It’s no wonder we want to look for signs that tell us we are on the right path, that things are coming together, that we are getting unstuck. It is easy to notice things that we hope are signs, once we are looking.

(A yellow butterfly crosses your path while a meaningful song is playing. You once again happen to glance at the clock and the time is your birthday. As passcode for a two-factor verification comes up as 123456. A moth patiently waits for you to save it from death by lightbulb and you do. On a dating app, you see a picture of a man with a crow behind him on a fencepost. You see this picture just after you’ve finished writing a story with a happy ending, a story that happens to prominently feature a crow. [Yes, I commented on his crow picture. No, he did not message me back.])

Photo by Alfonso Ramirez on Pexels.com

Often, I find myself believing that there is no “right” path. And if that’s the case, what need have I of signs to verify that I’m on it? There is no timeline, nor a single trajectory that you follow to get from one point to another, from the point of hurt to healed, over it, better. Still, sometimes we feel a sort of peace settling in over scars, like gold dust or starlight, and we feel soothed, sometimes even shining and spectacular. We can notice that things feel aligned, or balanced, or magical, if only for a moment. We can take all of this as validation that we are doing something well, even if there is no right path, no one way to go.

This bears repeating. I find my self craving answers sometimes to specific questions: should I do this thing or that? Is it the right time to take this step? And though I agonize over the details of these questions in my head, when my heart raises its voice through all that clatter it asks am I doing this right? Is this okay? Am I on the right path? Deep down, essentially, all I really want is to know what I already know. I’ve got this. I’m doing this right. Everything is going to be okay. And the feeling I get when I see the things that feel like signs to me is one of peace. The voice I hear is one telling me you’re doing well. I think I’m not actually looking for a sign that I should get back on Bumble or whatever. I simply want to know that the decisions I make – about anything – are well-fashioned out of awareness, and contemplation, and self-trust. Sometimes, what we really seek is the validation that we are doing/living/being well, and that this path or that, while not inconsequential, matters less than trusting ourselves to do what feels true and good for us.

The way forward after the low points in our lives is a blue-veined map across the surface of our souls. We follow paths that make sense at the time, and find our way back to our heart, and we leave again, replenished but uncertain about where we’re supposed to go next.

Autumn is a good season to pause, consider your surroundings. The days are getting shorter but for the moment, there is a pleasant balance between activity and restfulness, at least for a little while. When you think about the next steps you want to take, consider whether you need some time to get to know your own heart again. Take a visit back, refresh yourself. Consider too, if you’re heading out once more, that there’s no one right way. You don’t have to pursue whatever it is the world has told you should have by now. You get to do it your way, and if you find yourself looking for signs maybe it’s because you already know whatever it is you’re trying to validate.

But it’s okay to want the sign. It’s okay to crave the sight of crows settling in trees at dusk, or cardinals leading the way on your morning walk, or days when your favorite number keeps popping up everywhere. Dreams of pets who have passed, or the same old song turning up on different radio stations multiple times a day, the butterfly that lands on your shoulder or the cricket that has hitched a ride in your car. Whatever it is that strikes you as special, unusual, take in these signs and cherish them. Then figure out what it is that your heart already knows. Maybe it’s just waiting for the rest of you to catch up.

Love, Cath

On Voice, Moment, and Movement

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes moments are motion, and our voice guides us through, if we listen.

Spring weather here can be a strange mix, with warm sun shining down while a frigid wind blows. Moment by moment you are alternately completely comfortable, basking in the sun that soaks into your skin, and then suddenly freezing and wishing you had a hat and gloves. This weekend my emotions played out similarly.

With my son home for a visit, relieving the solitude of my day-to-day life, I alternately felt happy, comfortable, and relaxed, and then suddenly sad and anxious, as if I existed in the moment and the ones just before and just after all at the same time.

In the course of running some errands, we stopped at the pottery studio where I take my class. I picked up a couple of glazed pieces that hadn’t turned out as I’d hoped, then we headed to the nearby gardening center. As we wandered the greenhouses, my emotions were all ebb and flow. There were layers washing over one another: the disappointment over my pottery was softened by plans for how I could improve next time; the excitement over what plants I might buy to spruce up the yard wilted as I worried about costs; but mostly, the joy at having my son home and spending time together was being washed over at the edges with the sadness of knowing we only had a short time together, and with the ache of wishing my daughter could have been with us too.

People say, live in the moment. In that moment, I was giving myself the same instruction. Do not focus on disappointment or sadness; be here with your son and the beautiful plants the smell of hyacinth and this adorable cat who wandered up to greet you. It isn’t as if I ignored joy and dwelled only in the darker thoughts. But sometimes, you have to hold it all at the same time. Sometimes the moment pushes and pulls you as though you are standing chest deep in a big lake and the waves make stillness impossible.

In navigating the movement of the moment, I often feel as though I’m straining to hear a voice over the distraction of ambient sound. I am trying to coax this voice to greater volume. The voice of instinct, of guidance, can be so quiet in me sometimes, but I have begun to understand why.

In my writer’s workshop, we’ve been talking about voice, and the way any novel opening can work if the voice is effective. When I’m writing a novel it takes a while to find that voice. Until recently, I hadn’t realized that the issue of voice in my writing and the strong clear voice of instinct that I have been listening for within me were one and the same.

There are many reasons why it is hard to hear and trust that voice within us, nudging us toward good things, warning us away from trouble. I think it can be difficult to hear your own voice if ever you were told that you were too sensitive or too needy. In response, you might have found yourself voicing feelings and needs less frequently and more quietly. You began to observe, trying to determine what emotions are allowed to be expressed, and when, and by whom. Over time, the weight of what you haven’t expressed makes you empathic. You are in-tune to the deep feeling of others because it is so heavy in you. You might have become a servant to other people’s emotions, knowing how it feels to have things unattended to. Sadly, in this way, we teach ourselves to listen more closely to others than we do to ourselves.

Well-meaning people tried to protect you from a mean world but didn’t understand that your openness and sensitivity were strengths, not liabilities. You didn’t need a thicker skin, you needed understanding, maybe some tools to help you cope. Later, less well-meaning people were able to spot your vulnerability, told you to trust them and not yourself, and that was easy to do, because your own voice had grown so quiet.

This voice is how we navigate everything, so when it is quiet, we are filled with self-doubt. And even when we train ourselves to listen for it again, it is easy to discount it.

I’ve recently tried to start running again, and I’m still incorporating a lot of walking into my running because in the past I’ve made the mistake of trying to ramp up too quickly, and I get injured, and then I can’t run at all for a while. I used to think that I “failed” at a run if I needed to stop at walk. The mindset I’m trying to cultivate now is that a successful run is the one I’ve begun. It is the one in which I listen to my body and walk when I need to.

I used to think that I failed if a story got rejected, if I never heard back from an agent, if the guy from the dating app who was messaging me disappeared. But I’m realizing now that every time I begin again, I succeed. Every time I listen to my instincts and chose hope, resilience, and perseverance, it matters. Of course, we need to rest, to pause and listen to that voice within us, to keep recalibrating our efforts to our purpose.

Do we ever get it right, the balance between when to push ourselves and when to pull back? Or does getting it “right” mean that we cultivate the awareness that balance is achieved through this movement? Sometimes it seems that balance is more about living in midst of that ebb and flow, the push and pull, than it is about a finding that briefest moment of stillness somewhere in the middle of it all. My comfort zone is in that middle space, and I’d love to learn how to expand it, but so much of life happens in the waves pushing and pulling me away from it.

Whether it is learning how to exist in a moment that is filled with the fluidity of past, present, and future all at once, or existing in the process of working through “failure” toward what we value and what we want, being able to accept the movement of the moment, of all that is pushing us and pulling us as we try to keep our footing, relies on us hearing our own voice and letting it guide us. This is our work.

I have learned that I only experience peace in the midst of all these processes when I am able to hold it all at once, when I can embrace a moment and the movement around it. It is the cat in the warm greenhouse, and the cold wind, and the peppering of disappointment and worry, and the scent of hyacinth, and my son with me now, and his imminent leaving, and missing my daughter, and the sunny joy of love, and all of it all at once.

I hope you find peace in the process and can always hear your voice.

Love, Cath

On Messiness, Moodiness, and Harmony

By Catherine DiMercurio

I usually am craving spring by March. This year, I am stunned to discover that I am not, at least, I’m not consistently yearning for it the way I usually am this time of year. I am no fan of prolonged winters and I’m not as cold tolerant as a lifelong Michigander should be, yet with the promise of long days ahead I have the sense that I’m still in some sort of cozy, dark cocoon I’m not ready to come out of. I think much of this is due to the largely self-imposed idea that the longer the day, the more productive I should be. Yet, no one is policing me. And I do love finally feeling the sun and digging in the dirt. I’m sure, when the time comes, I will be ready.

But, the time change often makes the transition to spring feel forced, unnatural. In general, I have found that most transitions are difficult for me. It takes me longer than I expect, always longer, to recalibrate my brain and heart. Changes take time to get used to, even if we are ready for them.

This has been a time of noticing for me. I have spoken here often of the abrupt shift to solitude I experienced when my son moved out at the end of the summer, and this experience coming on the heels of other endings. In the months that have elapsed, I have taken care to notice things about myself that previously only fluttered to the surface of my perception, when my attention was more keenly attuned to the other people inhabiting my daily life. Despite periods of loneliness, it has been a gift to become reacquainted with my own natural rhythms, my own seasons.

Sometimes I wake to the feeling that I am in my own little bubble floating on the periphery. I don’t mean this in a covid way, though surely the isolation of the past two years has contributed to this feeling for many people, myself included. I think this shift must be common to many empty nesters, particularly single parents. One day you are the safe and solid center of a little family’s busy hum of activity. And then . . . you sense you are still that, but in a way that is fractured and more theoretical. It is normal, natural, abrupt, and jarring all at once. Though you always knew your children were universes unto themselves, not simply a part of yours, when you cohabitate all the universes merge and overlap and interact. And then, they do not, not in the same way.

Everyone’s life has changed dramatically in the past two years. We are still in the process of molding what things are supposed to look like now as a society, while individually we are integrating covid adaptations into our lives along with all the other changes that naturally happen to a person and a family over the course of two years. We simultaneously feel an urgency to play catch-up and to re-evaluate.

It is so messy. I find that the chaos of Michigan weather in early March mirrors my headspace at this time of year. When I began writing this earlier this week, it was about to snow and 19 degrees out. In a few days, the temperature is supposed to be almost 70 degrees. When I woke too early recently, I turned on the light, tried to write, got sleepy, tried to fall back asleep. Maybe I did for a few moments. I rose and warmed up yesterday’s coffee, let one dog out and in, greeted the other still half-asleep dog, and as I walked down the hall back to my bedroom, coffee in hand, I felt as though my mood changed with each step. I was angsty over beginning the workday on not enough sleep, worried and despondent about the collection of things that currently trouble me, overwhelmed by all the house and yard stuff that is going to need to be tackled soon. And as I reached the end of the hallway rug and my right foot hit the hardwood floor, I smiled. I smiled because of the dogs. I smiled at the glimpse of my bedroom, with its pretty blue walls and embroidered curtains. I snuggled back in bed to write, pleased to be in my own space, and that I still had time to write before I had to turn to the rest of the morning and all its business and busyness.

Photo by Ravi Kant on Pexels.com

One of the things about where I am now is that I have time and space to have mood shifts that don’t need to be explained or mediated. It is much easier for me now to experience difficult feelings and move through them in an organic way rather than to have to compartmentalize as I’ve done in the past. I have been the type of partner who has moved my own mood out of the way when it seemed like the simplest path toward what I perceived to be harmony. I made things disharmonious within myself to try and cultivate and preserve harmony in the relationship. I’m not certain I will ever know to what extent I did this because of internal or external expectations. Most likely, it was both. I like to imagine a future relationship in which this type of behavior will not be expected of me by my partner or myself, and in which I will keep the lessons I am learning about myself now at the forefront. In which my compulsion to make things easier for someone else will not supersede my ability to voice and address my own needs. It isn’t that we shouldn’t have empathy toward our partner, but we must have equal empathy for ourselves. No one should have to feel like they are somehow in someone else’s way.

March is a messy, muddled month. But it churns with energy, and we mirror its moods. We are sunny, it is raining, it is snowing, we are tired, hope sprouts beneath the dead leaves that protected it in the long cold months. It is windy, we are moody, look, here’s the sun again. It can be difficult to find harmony in this season of change. But if we cultivate a practice of noticing, of observing the fluctuations in our mood and states of minds, and states of hearts, if we let it all move through us, jangling and cacophonous like a windchime in a March storm, maybe it will be harmony that finds us in the aftermath.

Love, Cath

From Dissection to Healing to Magic

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes it takes science and fairy tales to get there.

Sometimes I feel as though I cannot get out of my own head, and that this is a blessing and a curse. When I think of the events of the past year, around the globe and in our country, is it any wonder that a person would want to escape? At the same time, seated at the shiny black lab table in my brain, dissecting the minutiae of what is working and what isn’t, on a less global, more personal level, thinking of what was, and what could be, and what won’t be, is exhausting.

I remember my advanced biology class, the eviscerated fetal pig in front of me – a tough memory for a vegan, no doubt – and labeling a diagram. I remember the smell of formaldehyde. Who could forget the sour chemical pungency of that smell? Near the end of the semester, late May, perhaps, I sat in Mrs. Fitzgerald’s class, and the windows were open, and the air was warm and heavy. The faint breeze that huffed in through the window did little to dissipate the odors in the room. The paper in front of me, next to my tray of pig, was limp from humidity, and I can see myself sitting there with a scalpel in my hand.

I think, how like that I sometimes feel now, attempting to take an objective scientific look at myself, my brain, my heart. Everything in front me.

Thinking analytically about self is no easy task. It is one part of what we talk about when we say we are doing the work. When I say we here, I mean the people I talk to who are also endeavoring through intentionality to figure out their lives and relationships. Rolling up our sleeves and doing the tough thinking about who we are, who we were, who we want to be. Where are we going and how we get there. The other part of this endeavor is messier. It is the grieving that happens when we follow certain lines of thinking, tracing the paths of arteries back to the heart.

Lately, I’ve been doing this analytical work, and following all the emotions that accompany it. It is painstaking work that involves patience, which I’ve never been very good at, and also why I would have made a poor scientist.

The universe insists on patience, whether or not we are good at it, whether or not we are overcome by a sense of urgency.

There are many ways people talk about what they carry and what they are working through. Sometimes we use terms like weight, or wounds or scars. What I’m beginning to understand is that maybe, though we are focused on this work, though we tend what needs attention with a sense of urgency, frustration, and impatience, we also must focus on the rest of us.

What I mean is this: When we are injured, we care for the wound, but also know that we need our bodies to be strong and healthy in order to heal, so we make sure we are eating the right foods, getting enough sleep, etc. When we meet people, if the injury is obvious, involving a cast, or bandages or crutches, that is likely going to be the first thing they notice about us. We, and they, are rightly focused on this Big Thing that has happened and is now a part of our lives.

Similarly, when we are heart-sore and soul-wounded from large-scale psychic pain and grief, it is just as obvious to the world around us as a broken leg in a cast. But over time, those injuries that may still cause us pain become less apparent to the world at large, just as a once-broken bone may always cause us an ache that no one else can see.

What I’m learning is this: there is a point in our healing process where our focus is able to shift from the wound, the scar, the weight, to the rest of us, to the whole self. And when we are ready, we will let it. We will welcome it.

A holistic view of self neither privileges nor ignores injury. Likewise, it does not privilege or ignore what is healthy and healed.

It is said that some people lead with their hearts, some with their heads. And by lead, I mean, lead themselves, through life. I think, when a heart has been busy healing from new bruising upon old trauma, a person tends to lead with that, with the weight, the wounds. It’s hard not to, when that’s what you’ve been focused on for so long, in an effort to transcend the past.

But, think of this: in a garden, you water the healthy plants and the sick ones. In a writing workshop, you focus both on what’s working and what isn’t. Some of us, perfectionists or people who have otherwise developed a strong compulsion toward proving themselves, can only seem to focus on what needs improving, and do so in a way that presents itself as hyper-self-criticism. We look at this intense attention to what needs to be done as necessary and good, but if we spend too much time and too much energy on that endeavor, we are effectively abandoning the rest of ourselves.

People say, know your worth, and if you’ve been in the process of recovering and healing, it isn’t as if you don’t, but it certainly hasn’t been your area of focus.

We are told that if we do not heal past traumas, we are doomed to repeat destructive patterns. Yet, the notion of healing is a blurry one. We dissect, we study, we grieve, and we do this over and over, trying with each attempt to understand our whole heart and mind more fully.

There are always going to be moments where we shift our attention once again to those old, troubling wounds, but if you have been focusing primarily on that, with an urgent desire to heal, this might be the time and place to say, enough. We might imagine a doctor hovering over healed sutures saying, well, you’re always going to have that scar, but you’re pretty much good to go.

We might imagine ourselves hovering over that poor dissected creature in front of us, saying I’ve learned everything I could from you. Thank you for your sacrifice. Place the scalpel on the table and walk away.

We turn our attention to self as a whole organism and instead of cataloging the injuries that have cried out for healing, we count them as tended to. The analytical part of us can now assess the new being that we now are, scars and all. If we are list makers, we begin a new one. We start small. We think of praise that we received as a child, what we were we good at. We cobble together a collection of our accomplishments, our strengths, big and small.

Photo by Klaus Nielsen on Pexels.com

We soon realize that we are doing more than cobbling. We are cracking something open, like a fairytale egg, and what’s inside is something we’ve been hoarding without knowing it – all of the good things, the joyful things, the brilliant unwounded, indestructible, infinite parts of ourselves gifted from the cosmos. We sigh, pleased with our magic, and think, there you are, and are reunited with ourselves.  

Love, Cath

On Want, Work, and Growth

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we will try many ways of looking before we can see.

Sometimes when we want something very badly, we will look at it from every angle, multiple times, even creating angles that are not there. Hope can do that – create prisms out of thin air. Shiny things that distract our minds and hearts from difficult truths. But at some point, the blinding brightness of the light is muted by a cloud – of anger, of fear, of sadness – and we are able to see things with a new clarity, and then, to move in the direction we need to go.

I told my sister recently that I’ve been gardening as if my life depended on it, and I wondered if it really did, in a way. Not the fact of my life itself, but the way I want it to unfold. I told her that when there is so much to do, you can hardly even tell I’ve done anything. A lot of the hard work we do can be like that. We wonder and worry about how our efforts will be perceived, though we know how we’ve endeavored.

When we say we want something “very badly” we mean this: we want it very much. Sometimes we are told that what we want is a bad thing to want. It is silly, it is pointless, it is too much, it is ill-defined, you won’t get it, the world doesn’t work that way, who do you think you are, to want such a thing? No one gets what they want. As if wanting the right thing for ourselves and our future is somehow the wrong thing to do. I suppose sometimes it is. I suppose, in some philosophies, the teaching is to eliminate wants, the way some people eliminate carbs. They are bad for us. Maybe that’s true. Or maybe we are all wired differently. Sometimes we simply must respect the differences.

We offer trellises to vines, thinking of future growth. There is planting and wanting and planning everywhere. There is growth in new directions. We are many things at once: the vine, the trellis, and the gardener who plants the vine and places the trellis. We are who we’ve been and who we want to be, as much as we are who we are in this moment. Multitudes, always.

My gardening has involved creating beds and pathways out of an overgrown, weedy, neglected area behind my garage. It was long abandoned when I arrived in this place, about a year ago, and for many reasons, I was not able to make it a top priority. Now, with more time available and some fraught and frenetic energy on hand, I got to it. Digging, planting, creating. It isn’t finished. Like everything good, it is a work-in-progress, something to always tend.

We need the work and the work needs us.

I planted a little baby of an Eastern white pine. I’d been longing to plant a pine tree for a while. I researched them. Realized many of the specimens I thought were pine trees were really spruces. Things often reveal themselves to be something other than what you thought they were.

I looked for trees months ago, but it was too early and none of the gardening or landscape stores had them yet. Then I looked too late, I thought, because I still was not finding what I was looking for. But yesterday, I found the white pine. I greeted this creature, as if knowing it already. There you are, hiding here in the back at this store I never come to. So, there’s hope I guess, buried in gardening metaphors, about timing and finding, maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard to see clearly sometimes. Remember?

My current state of mind is work- and growth-focused. Writing and gardening. Dig, prune. Wait for rain. Be patient. Blossom? Maybe. Sometimes it works out that way.

Love, Cath

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