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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Photo by Christine Haeften on Pexels.com

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

On Hope, Gratitude, and Purposeful Wandering

By Catherine DiMercurio

As Thanksgiving nears, it’s a good time to think about what we hunger for.

Gut Check on Purpose and Intentions

From the outset of this blog journey, I invited you to wander with me through love and life, heartbreaks and wholeness, and everything in between. In my first post, I described how, in the aftermath of my divorce, I found myself on a new, frightening, exhilarating path of singlehood—being a single parent and being a single person after twenty years of married partnership. In my first post I described how I met the man I was dating at the time. Not long after, I spoke about the end of that relationship.

Here we are now, more than five months after that ending. In the aftermath of the break up, I remembered the way I wondered how I might feel about it six months out. I wondered if I would feel bitter, or uneasy about dating again, or if I would have met someone else by then. I wondered if I would still feel open hearted.

In truth, nearly six months out, it’s a little bit of everything, but I find that, more than anything, I’m hopeful.

Fish and Feet and Hunger

It’s funny how things play out, how our hearts adapt and evolve, depending on what they have an appetite for. I think of prehistoric fish, and how the ones that loved being fish dove deep and explored the depths, and the others, either curious, or simply by virtue of finding themselves in proximity to land, explored the shallows. They sprouted limbs and feet, finding footing as amphibians. We are shaped by our appetites, our hunger. I have an appetite for hope, I suppose, and, finding myself a fish out of water in the world of singlehood, I hoped for solid footing, stretched my legs toward it.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I don’t have much of an appetite for bitterness, though those times come and go, ebbing and flowing like the tide. Sometimes I’m uneasy about the future. I do have a decent appetite for anxiety, in the way that we often get hungry for things that don’t serve our bodies well.

Thanks to a dear friend, I read an article recently that suggested our brains get a dopamine hit from worry, because it feels like we are at least doing something. I guess it’s like having a craving for potato chips. Sometimes you gorge yourself and sometimes you have a lot of will power and find a healthier snack, though it is probably smarter to not buy the chips at all. Too bad you can’t avoid having anxiety in your mental house the same way you can keep potato chips out of your home. You have to rely on will power to chose a healthier mental snack. You have to try feasting on gratitude instead. It all comes down to mindfulness, being able to call things what they are, and recognizing the timing, that things ebb and flow.

Speaking of Gratitude

I think gratitude is, in a way, the missing (or hidden) link, the one that yokes memory to hope. In a dark, underwater place, we can at least remember the sun, and in the remembering, swim a little closer to the surface, and near the surface, realize we still feel sun-warm when submerged. We can be grateful for the sun, grateful we remembered it, and grateful for our strength in kicking toward it.

And I think that’s where hope happens—in a heart that remembers that it has known love, or peace, or purpose—whatever your particular sun may be.

And One More Thing about Feet

There is a Pablo Neruda poem, “Your Feet,” which I adore. The final stanza reads:

But I love your feet

only because they walked

upon the earth and upon

the wind and upon the waters,

until they found me.

I love the sense of movement in this poem, the sense of purposeful wandering it conveys. I am not knowingly making my way toward someone, nor him to me, but wander we will—in all the ways that our lives, and the tides and the sun and the waves take us. Maybe at some point we will find that we are wandering side by side. Or maybe we won’t. But either way we can still move toward the sun.

Love, Cath

 

 

 

Failure, Rejection, and the Road to Nowhere

by Catherine DiMercurio

This is the blog post I keep running away from. The reason? I can’t find perspective. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about it, what insights to draw from it, because, to be candid, my writing life is filled with frequent rejections and persistent failure. My relationship with my writing is messy in a way that I learn to live with every day but don’t fully comprehend.

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I have written since I was about ten, when I began composing angsty tween poems, before being a “tween” was a thing. You were just ten, or eleven, or twelve. Then you were a teenager.

I often say that I love writing, which is true, but as with most loves, there exists a complex array of emotions for which the word is merely a cipher. The things we truly love cannot be separated from who we are.

Trying to Avoid the Pull of the Road

This identity-centric love happens to be a thing that many people have been able to monetize. Many people have found channels with which to share their work with others. It becomes expected that if you write, you do something with it. When I began my freshman year at U of M, I was interested in genetics. After I took my first science class though, and received the first C I’d ever gotten in my life, I wondered if maybe there were other career paths more suited to my strengths. I didn’t know what those were, however. I knew I liked to read, and I liked to write, but the whole point of college was to prepare myself for an actual job and I knew I didn’t want to teach. I’m sure if I’d had a little more confidence in myself I could have successfully pursued the career in genetic counseling I thought I wanted. Later, I would get a C in a poetry class and it didn’t slow me down one bit. In the end though, I sat with an advisor in a little room in Angell Hall. It was time to declare a major. He did the best he could with one more unfocused liberal arts student and told me I should do what I loved, because that was the most important thing, and things would fall into place. I’m still not sure if this advice was sound, but the idea was reinforced throughout the years after I graduated. I feel like for a decade or so the message many Gen Xers received, a message amplified by talk show hosts and self-help books, was do what you love.

Embracing the Longest Road Trip Ever

I declared as an English major that day. Still, I was afraid to take a creative writing class. I focused on literature, and I loved writing about it. A friend pointed me to a creative nonfiction class my senior year, and I was so engaged by it, I began seeking out the professor at her office hours to talk about writing. She encouraged me to write a story and submit it for the Hopwood award, a prestigious writing award at the University of Michigan. I did write. I did submit. I did not win. But the act of writing that story was a beginning for me. Something in me unlocked.

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After graduation, I landed a job as an assistant editor with a reference publishing company, hoping for two things: one, that the job would allow me time to keep writing, and two, that maybe it could lead to some publishing connections.

In a way, though it would take many years, it did both. I was only able to finish a novel after I left the company. I began freelancing, and with the power to structure my schedule differently, I was finally able to focus the way I wanted to. I wrote a novel and sent out dozens of query letters. The rejections piled up and the message I internalized was that the work simply wasn’t good enough. Perhaps all I needed to do was send out hundreds instead of dozens of letters. Perhaps I needed to get better. Later, still freelancing, and now raising two children, I tried again with another novel, and sent out query after query. The company I freelanced for had purchased a fiction imprint, and I was able to acquire the name of an actual person at the imprint to whom I could submit my query. Amazing Disgrace came out in 2006. The print run was small, but my foot was now in the door. I’d even contacted my former professor, who was still teaching. She came to one of my book signings and invited me to her class to speak. I couldn’t believe it; I finally had some momentum.

That momentum slowed and dissipated, a little ripple dying in the wet sand at the water’s edge. I wrote another novel. I revised that third novel over and over again and kept sending it out. Eventually I put it aside and focused on my freelance work, which now involved a lot of writing. Writing about literature. I was good at it, and I had a lot of jobs coming in. But, the work started to dwindle. At the same time, my marriage began to unravel. In the middle of it all, I applied to some MFA programs, thinking that maybe the reason I wasn’t getting published was because I needed to learn how to write better. It was a victory to be accepted into the Vermont College of Fine Arts creative writing MFA program. I felt like I belonged. I even did a post-grad semester so I could continue to work on my next novel.

When Things Don’t Add Up

All of the writing, the submitting, the rejections—each act is a lesson in vulnerability, in open heartedness, in loving the work rather than the reward. It would be a lie to say that the rejections don’t break my heart. They do. I imagine myself as a starfish, able to regenerate the necessary body parts to keep functioning. For the starfish, limbs; for me, my heart.

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Here I am now, two years post-MFA. I’m working full-time again at the same reference publishing company, squeezing in my writing time in the hours before or after work. In a way, I’m back to where I started. Currently, I have two short stories I’m submitting at various literary journals. They are getting rejected. But many of the rejection letters are detailed, positive notes that praise the work. I feel like I’m close, that soon maybe I’ll find the right person at the right time at the right journal. I also have several queries out for what is technically my fourth novel, and I’ve begun work on a new short story.

I wonder every day if the work is good enough, and if I’m trying hard enough. I’ve failed a lot and have seen so few successes. I lose sleep so I can write. I’ll be paying back student loans for the MFA for a long, long time. I have asked myself if it is worth it and all I know is that it doesn’t seem to matter. Converting the experience into tangible value in order to deem it a sound investment is like saying 2 + circle = purple. It doesn’t add up. I seem to be on a road that meanders in no discernable direction, and I’ve paid to be on it. So where do I go from here? Maybe onward is the only answer.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath