On Distraction, Obstacle, Winter Malaise, or, the Squawk of Self

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes, it seems we are too loud.

On a Sunday afternoon I find myself once again futilely facing what needs doing. On a Wednesday evening, I come home from work feeling utterly spent and frustrated. In so many areas of our lives, we sometimes find ourselves bogged down, unable to find the productivity we seek, unable to move through the day without feeling overwhelmed.

Certainly the watery winter light, devoid of warmth or brightness, failing in duration, doesn’t help. It is easy to feel unfocused, to have that sense that we couldn’t see the shore if we tried. We drift. We wonder, when was the last time we even saw a bird.

We all have tasks that seem impossible to tackle. Or, collections of tasks. Or, work in general. It feels as though we are encountering things that are somehow, simply un-doable. We can’t fathom how to get through this chore, this day, this week.

All my life, I’ve been told that I take things too personally, I’m too sensitive. I wonder how people can or should respond to such “observations.” Shame and defensiveness? Frustration with one’s own reactiveness? Perhaps dismay that passion is often regarded as anger or negativity. It all becomes part of a web, tangling movement, thwarting focus, dulling energy.

If we have become habituated to negatively regarding our own response to the world at large, it is easy – so easy – to negatively regard our own response to our own world.

In such a state, how can we get out of our own way? How can we look at a task that needs doing in our lives and divorce it from our personal response to both task and self?

It can be exhausting to cut through it all. The problem with accomplishing goals, large or small, rarely has to do with the goal as a thing, but rather, with how we feel about it, and how we feel about ourselves.

I don’t have any answers but I do know this: we can’t stop feeling. What I mean is not: we shouldn’t stop feeling, as in, the world needs this, we need it. What I mean is: we can’t. We are unable to stop. We aren’t wired that way. We will be reactive and sensitive and thinky and overthinky.

At the same time, we do get in our own ways sometimes. So, if we can’t change that we react/think/feel/overthink/overfeel, all we can do is try and keep trying to change what we think and feel, about task, about others, about self.

This is the part where I realize there is nothing new to say.

This is the part where I think back on so many other blog posts about self and identity and perspective. About how the story we tell ourselves about ourselves matters.

By way of example, let’s circle back to my Sunday afternoon and the task at hand that day, basement purging (which is by now familiar, if you’ve been reading this blog). It is easy to now see that facing this challenge isn’t as simple as divorcing “task” from “emotion about the task.” This challenge doesn’t simply pertain to the fact that cleaning out the basement is hard because I’m attached to the memories in the boxes I need to purge. I’m actually okay with looking at those memories, happy and sad. I’m looking forward to moving, and I don’t feel a melancholic pull rooting me to this place; I’m ready to leave. The challenge is this: the basement needs so much work because of what I’ve neglected. Thinking about what I’ve neglected and why leads me to re-litigating my attitude about my past self, and how I navigated the aftermath of divorce and the competing demands of single motherhood and work life and life-life, and the priorities I chose, and those I didn’t.

The thing is, for each and every task at hand, the ones we pull away from are those with the strong potential for self-censure – of current self, of past self. Our resistance usually has very little to do with one discreet chore, with the work itself, and very much to do with our larger set of views about ourselves and about a larger collection of tasks.

This is to say, we have a lot of unpacking to do before we can actually begin the process of task-tackling. We have to remember that it may seem that a box is just a box, a chore is just a chore, but because we are multiple selves, it is not so easy.

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We are our past, and our present, and our future, and we all have ideas about what should have been done, what needs to be done, what will need to be done. It’s loud and distracting. It’s a nest full of hungry birds. We swoop back but we never have enough to feed them all, all our selves, all our squawking selves.

Maybe all we can do to quiet things is admit that we tried our best, or we thought we did, and that really amounts to the same thing. What we thought was our best, was, in fact, our best, so let’s let ourselves off the hook a little on that. And that is all we can do now. Our best. Whatever we think it is.

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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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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 Curiosity and Bonsai Confidence

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you take a chance on curiosity and notice its unexpected rewards.

This weekend, as I was folding and putting away laundry, I found myself purging the closet. Spring is in the air, and all that, no great mystery as to why I felt compelled to tackle that task. Yet I have been feeling some heightened sense of purpose around such chores lately. My son has one more year of high school. I look at the house with an eye toward selling. I think about how open-ended my future is once both kids are in college. I wanted them to grow up in this place, wanted the stability of this home for them before, during, and after the divorce. This bungalow has served its purpose well. But the question of what comes after this address is one steeped in ambiguity. This is at once terrifying and thrilling.

Like Mud in March

One of the lessons I learn on a daily basis these days is that the ambiguity I thought was a temporary state in the immediate aftermath of my divorce is simply a feature of daily life. Just as the first of my alarms will go off at 5:05 a.m., and one or both of the dog will bark when someone walks by, I will be confronted with another lesson in ambiguity. It’s a fact of life I grew intensely cognizant of when what I thought were life’s big certainties had evaporated. It’s as sure as mud in March, and it can be just as aggravating if you let it.

In the past, I’ve tried to gird myself against the emotional perils of ambiguity with lists and plans. I made large cosmic if-then deals. In the hallway at work near the elevators is a sign that reads, “Confidence is success remembered.” I first began working there not long after my divorce, and during a particularly low period I noticed the sign and thought, “No wonder I have no confidence.” That’s when I began journaling about achievements, big or small – to remind myself of what I’d gotten through, what I had accomplished. It was a deliberate effort to grow and tend to confidence, the way one cultivates a bonsai.

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Photo by Zulian Yuliansyah on Pexels.com

Erosion

I certainly feel a lot better about things than I did a few years ago, but I still get gut-punched with self-doubt on a fairly regular basis. Parenting, relationships, or work issues (the day job or the writing), can all trouble us enough that seeds of self-doubt catch hold and take root, quietly eroding us from the inside out, leaving us feeling crumbly and decidedly un-sturdy.

It is perilously easy to slide into that mindset and stay there, eroded and anxious. I’ve gotten better at looking for things to hold on to as a way of halting that descent. Recently, it was a mere word that caught me. The word curiosity has flitted through unrelated conversations recently. I read it in something a friend sent, spoke it aloud to another, and realized there was something going on that I needed to pay attention to.

When the Weather Shifts

As I started thinking about being curious, I considered the by-products of curiosity, the focused but open mindset one has, for example, when trying to solve a crossword clue, or when sussing out a solution to a problem. Urgency and anxiety shed themselves away, empty husks our hearts shed. They aren’t an efficient part of a problem-solving mindset. Curiosity finds us in other ways, too. Sometimes it isn’t about problem solving, but about joy. We happen upon a new interest, find ourselves excited about a new book, or the prospect of a new activity now that the weather is shifting. We find ourselves simply contemplating: What would happen if . . . or, I never thought about it that way . . . or I wonder what it would be like to . . ..

What I began to realize was that curiosity could be an effective shield against anxiety and self-doubt. A subtle and very conscious shift in perspective is involved, but approaching a problem or a worry with an open heart and from a slightly different angle can remove urgency and hurt or doubt from the equation. We might find ourselves thinking, I wonder how this is going to turn out, or what if I just watch and see how things unfold?

I have spent a lot of time speculating about what others might be thinking, and sometimes contort myself through a series of emotions, as if I’m preparing for different realities that may unfold. Curiosity gives me permission to wonder what someone might be thinking without having to land on an answer, or a series of answers, and somehow deal with each one as if it is imminently true. We don’t have to prepare our hearts to endure every possible disaster, though the self-protective mindsets we develop after life’s traumas often make us feel otherwise. We walk around with umbrellas against rain and wind that isn’t there much of the time. We miss the sun.

It is unexpectedly freeing to allow yourself to be curious instead of anxious. Self-confidence is either a by-product of this shift, or the source, I’m not sure which. Perhaps a little of both. But there seems to be a blossoming effect. I’m trying it out in different situations and the beautiful thing is that not only do things shift in me in delightful ways, but equally delightful things seem to happen externally, within the situation I’d previously been anxious about. Curiosity seems to provide this room for things to grow the way they will, the way they want to, without interference. Perhaps it is the absence of anxiety and the sabotage if often sparks that allows such unfurling.

I think again of the bonsai. My son has been tending a little bonsai tree, I don’t know what kind, for almost a year. I was surprised to learn that it didn’t need to be brought in the house for the winter. It lived outside like any other tree, just in a little ceramic dish on our porch. Not that he hasn’t tended to it. In the summer and fall, he moved it out of the rain when it seemed like it was getting too much water. In early winter, he moved it to the porch where it would be more sheltered. At some point, he trimmed branches and guided one in a particular direction with the aid of wire. An odd combination of attention and neglect has allowed this little thing to flourish. The recalibration of my thoughts from worry to curiosity feels similar, a conscious effort that yields growth in small but delightful ways.

Love, Cath

On Emotional Economy, and Keyholes

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes listening is both our greatest strength and our biggest weakness.

I read the first half of a Clarice Lipsector story on the Paris Review website that made my heart ache. I’ve been thinking about halves, wondering if a person could have half a broken heart, or maybe it doesn’t work that way.

I realize I’m not entirely sure how to do things halfway, how to be half in and half out of something at the same time. Without perfecting this skill, one risks missing out on something, even half of something, by walking away too soon. On the flip side, possibly you can still be very much wounded by something you only intend to do by halves.

These lessons in emotional economy are always difficult ones. Whether one is nineteen or forty-nine there are bargains made between head and heart. If we sculpt the words differently, might we reduce the risk of getting hurt? If we think in terms of caring instead of loving, if we think of each moment as a whole universe–divorced from past and future–a now to be enjoyed, an adventure sought. Or, is it all a mash-up between a game of semantics and a game of chess?

As I move through life and relationships post-divorce I have come to understand this about myself: I typically see the best in people, regardless of what angle they are showing me. I seek out the earnestness that sighs in the space between their words, I listen to them speak around the things they care about, hear tenderness in silences. It is easy to connect this way. Some might say it is fiction, that I am creating stories that aren’t true because I want something to be that maybe isn’t.

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Photo by Lukasz Dziegel on Pexels.com

But I don’t buy that. What I often fail to recognize though is that other things are true at the same time. The earnestness and gentleness I see so clearly exist as concretely as guardedness, anxiety, pain. As I’m listening at keyholes, I’m not seeing closed doors. This is either a naïve act of will or one of sheer recklessness, or both. But it is a choice. And like any choice, it has consequences.

“Insist on yourself, never imitate,” instructs Ralph Waldo Emerson. Everyone choses the version of themselves they are going to be every day. I have often grappled with the question of whether we become more or less of who we truly are as we go through life. Sometimes I wonder what the through-line is. I think we all have one, an element of our character, perhaps our soul, that remains as constant as our heartbeat throughout our lives, though we may attempt to obscure or ignore it at times, and live by it religiously at others. Maybe my through-line is this way of seeing, this way of searching for space, for the ways people open up to one another instead of the things that close us off. Maybe that’s why I write. “There is a guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.” Another Emerson quote. Maybe my through-line is this guidance. It is just as likely that I’m wrong. But I am not a person of faith and one has to believe in something.

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My collection of Emerson’s essays was recently the object of my dog’s intense curiosity. The book survived, but needs attention. It was already aging, the pages brittle and fragile, the spine having been taped together more than once. It is now more or less broken in half, an apt metaphor for the discussion at hand, the words contained in the halves still a through-line. In every way, I’m reminded of what makes us strong and what makes us fragile, of the power of words and intentions, of the significance of keyholes, and doors, both opened and closed.

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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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

Lessons for the New Year: On Patience, Love, Effort, and Squirrels

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we have to follow our hearts the way a hound follows a scent.

As the first hours of 2019 unfold, I’m thinking about patience, and promises. On Christmas Day, we welcomed into our home a new family member, a rescue dog named Dodger. We had already introduced him to our almost-ten-year-old hound mix Phineas at a boarding/training facility. The dogs got along well, so Christmas Day began our “trial period.” Dodger is tall and goofy. He is sweet-natured, but stubborn in the way hounds tend to be. His long ears drape far past his face, and his feet are enormous. We fell in love, the kids and I, with his big heart. When my daughter and I went to the adoption event a week later to officially adopt him, we learned a little more about his past from the woman who fostered him when he was a puppy.

He and his five litter mates, all males, went right into foster care after they were born. The mother was a hound from “the country.” Dodger was adopted when he was four months old, but the owners returned him. At that point, he was boarded at a kennel, which is where he has spent much of the last seven months. He’ll be a year old in mid-January.

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My original thoughts about the family who returned him were angry ones, because, who does that? Provides a home then takes it away. Dodger no longer had an available foster when he was surrendered. I don’t know the reason his owners gave up on him, except that the family had younger children, and perhaps he was too much of a high energy pup for them. They essentially sentenced a four-month-old puppy to growing up without a home, without much, if any, training, love, or daily affection. I can only imagine how an attention-starved, growing-bigger-every-day hound puppy came off to potential adopters. Dodger was not getting any smaller, more well-behaved, or adoptable while living in the kennel. But he was, I can only imagine, getting lonely, desperate, anxious, and stressed both physically and emotionally.

I saw his sweet face on the rescue’s Facebook page and I watched posts about him for a couple of weeks before I finally decided to act. He’s been with us for a week, now. When I begin to feel impatient with his puppy-like behavior—the way he pulls on the leash, or chews things he shouldn’t—I remind myself of his story, try and keep things in perspective. But also, I know my limitations. I’m one of those people that loves just about every dog I meet, but I don’t have that thing that some people have, that inner authoritative calm that dogs respond to. I’m not sure where the line is between being patient as an action and having a calm presence as a state of being. Maybe the former cultivates the latter.

Often, Dodger makes it easy. Despite his past, there is nothing in him that seems wary or slow to trust. He came at our family with a big open heart, ready to love us, which has made it easy to love him back just as enthusiastically. He is playful, and cuddly.

I want to say that the rest will fall into place, the way things do, acted upon both by time and effort. I’ll research different ways to work with dogs on various behaviors. I will try to not take it personally if Dodger once again snatches my reading glasses while I’m warming up my coffee and chews them past the point of rescue. I will be better about not leaving my reading glasses within reach. I remind myself that he is the first dog I adopted as a single person, my post-divorce rescue dog. A commitment.

At the same time, working with a rescue dog, particularly one of this size, is going to be challenging. The rewards are huge, but so is the effort. Dodger has hardly ever been on a leash. We’ve lost the months when Dodger would have been of the manageable size and the impressionable age where better habits are more easily learned. We have a large, full-grown dog who grew up in a kennel. Still. Worth it is an easy concept.

I’m left holding two truths in my heart at the same time, those related to love and to responsibility. I love this dog. And, raising him, working with him, training him—none of that is going to be easy. The loving comes to me as naturally as breathing, as naturally as this hound of mine trees a squirrel. The rising to the occasion and bearing the full weight of the responsibility for caring for him and teaching him can be daunting. I sometimes think, is this more than I can handle? But the heart answers the questions the head can’t help but ask. No, it isn’t too much. Do it. Handle it. Figure it out.

That was a bad walk we had this morning. No squirrel went unhounded, no scent unheeded. Dodger pulled constantly, with his full weight, while I (mostly futilely) tried different tactics to keep him focused on moving forward. Next walk, new tactics, I think, after we return home. In other ways, it was a good walk, too. We expended energy, and I exercised patience, only crying out, “Dodger, no!” in utter despair once or twice. And, I got some ideas. I’ll have a pocket full of treats next time, good ones. We’ll work on shorter, more focused walks. We’ll get the hang of this. Dodger might be a hound, but I’m a DiMercurio. We don’t give up easily either, though we might stomp our feet impatiently from time to time.

I’m not the first to be reminded by an animal I’ve welcomed into my life of a long-standing to-do list that has more to do with my work than his. Cultivate calm. Embrace patience. Understand your history, but don’t let it obstruct your future. These aren’t new lessons but sometimes someone enters your life who reminds you that certain things need attention, again, still.

Looking at Dodger’s face online before I rescued him reminded me of who I want to be, just as this blog does. Someone with a heart like a wide open door, embracing life with open arms. Having him in my home reminds me I’ve always been that person, but like anything worth being, it comes with effort.

I hope you enjoy where the road takes you this new year. Love, Cath

 

On Film, Families, and Foxes

By Catherine DiMercurio

Most people who know me are aware that I’m an introverted homebody type. I prize coziness. After a long week it takes a lot of motivation for me to get excited about going out, at night, among people. But when your daughter—who within months will be moving to campus—says hey, we should do this Wes Anderson costume party thing, you get motivated. My daughter, my son, and I all enjoy evenings at home spent watching movies, reading, and hanging out together. The fact that my almost-sixteen-year-old son, my eighteen-year-old daughter, and I truly enjoy each other’s company is a source of continual joy for me. I know going through the divorce, as hard as it was on all of us, brought us even closer together in a new way. Oddly, we are sometimes gifted with healthy, joyous by-products of trauma, like superheroes who come by their powers via spider bites or extreme exposure to gamma radiation.

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My first Wes Anderson film was Rushmore. I remember watching it in my living room and thinking about how much it reminded me of two of my favorite films, The Graduate and Harold and Maude. I was hooked. My daughter was thirteen when Moonrise Kingdom came out on DVD and I let her watch it after she repeatedly asked if she could see it. My son sat in on subsequent viewings and they both responded to Wes Anderson’s quirky storytelling, his spot-on casting, and pretty much everything about his cinematography, even though they didn’t articulate their enjoyment in those terms. Over the years, they got caught up on his body of work and Wes became a shared obsession.

A Recipe for Wes Anderson-Level Awkwardness?

When my daughter suggested that we attend the Wes Anderson party, it was her idea that we invite my boyfriend, who is also an avid fan, as well. The party was an all-ages theme night at a local bar, and my son was on the fence about whether or not he wanted to go. He eventually declined, though he would have made an excellent Max Fischer. A few days before the event, after all costume-related items had been procured, I wondered about the potential awkwardness of the evening. There was the generalized social anxiety I typically experience before going out. And there was the more focused anxiety about heading to such an event with both my boyfriend and my daughter. This was new. The four of us—my kids, my boyfriend, and I—have spent time together as a group on a number of occasions, but we’ve explored this territory cautiously over the past year and a half, a strategy that has worked to our advantage. Nothing has felt rushed or forced. So, though I had no reason to believe that our interaction for the evening would be anything less than relaxed and enjoyable, I let the idea of it, the labels, get in my way. Me, boyfriend, teenage daughter. This might seem weird to people. Was it weird? Surely this mix went awry for lots of people. But, he wasn’t some random guy, and she wasn’t simply a stereotype of a teenage daughter. And even if it was weird that the three of us would socially interact in this way, as a friend of mine pointed out: this would be the way Wes would want it.

The Way We Connect to Character and Theme

This comment opened things up for me, and in particular, got me thinking about the costumes we had chosen. The Facebook event page exhorted us to dress up as our favorite Wes Anderson character. My daughter chose Suzy Bishop from Moonrise Kingdom, a teenage girl whose parents seem like they are on the verge of divorce. Suzy follows her heart and embarks on a wilderness adventure with the boy of her dreams, her record player, and her cat. My boyfriend, one of three brothers, chose Francis Whitman, one of three brothers, from Darjeeling Limited. Francis is organized and focused and attempts to re-bond with his brothers after the death of their father.

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Throughout the film, Francis sports a bandaged and bruised face and walks with a limp, these injuries having resulted from an accident brought on by the deep grief he experiences after his father’s death. And I chose Felicity Fox, from Fantastic Mr. Fox. Felicity is strong and tenacious, loving and realistic. At one point, she tells Mr. Fox “I love you, but I shouldn’t have married you.” She rightly bristles at being lied to by her husband, and lashes out after his dismissive comment that he is, after all, a wild animal. She points out that he is also a husband and father. A fierce and protective mother, Mrs. Fox is perhaps most deeply hurt by Mr. Fox’s deceit because it has put their son, as well as their nephew, in danger. This gives you a sense of Wes, who is able to develop nuance and emotional depth even in a stop motion animation film based on a Roald Dahl children’s story.

Wes returns again and again to themes related to absent or deeply flawed fathers, troubled relationships between siblings, and mothers that are present and protective but in many ways distant, or alternately, decidedly unavailable. Despite the recurring nature of these themes, the characters rarely become monochromatic archetypes. Even when Wes’s settings seems outlandish or far away—a fox hole or a train rattling through India—the way his characters relate to one another with regard to family dynamics is, I believe, what draws people into his stories.

So a Teenage Girl, a Fox, and a Bandaged Man with a Cane Walk into a Bar . . .

. . . and had a relaxed and enjoyable time. We sat and talked about our favorite Wes Anderson films and moments, we struck up conversations with those around us about Wes and other directors, other films. We people-watched, admired others’ costumes, laughed together, and congratulated ourselves on leaving the house and being social. We were home just after 10 pm.

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Later in the weekend, I happened upon a Facebook conversation about Lady Bird, a film I have not yet seen. Whether or not it was well liked by the people discussing it, the film clearly sparked introspection about parent-child relationships, perhaps in the same way that Wes Anderson films do, a little through humor, and a little through darkness. We come at these stories through our experiences as children, parents, and siblings. Sometimes the portrayal of families in film resonates with us in a profound way and sometimes it leaves us feeling disconnected, almost as if we are being left out of a private joke.

This left me thinking about Max Fischer, in Rushmore, and his desire to tell stories through theater. In the end, Max’s theatrical endeavors aren’t about the subject matter of the plays he writes, but really, about the fact that he writes plays as a way to remain connected with his mother, who died when he was young. It was his mother who supported his art, who gave him his typewriter after he wrote the play that got him admitted to Rushmore as a child. In fact, it was his mother’s act of submitting the play to Rushmore that got the young Max into the private school. Max’s connection to his deceased mother is at the heart of his relationship to Rushmore Academy and to his art as a playwright. And throughout the film, we see Max searching for connections and meaning, undoubtedly as a way of coping with this deep sense of loss.

This is why writer’s write, why movies are made, and why people seek art, whether it be on film, in print, on canvas, or molded out of clay. We all have concrete or ambiguous losses, pain that shifts in form and intensity as we get older. Whether we make art or consume it or both, the art-person relationship is as much about mitigating loss and seeking connection or empathy as it is about entertainment. These desires are also at the root of our often very strong reactions to film or books: I loved that book. I hated that film. It spoke to me. It left me feeling disappointed.

I talk about “the road” a lot, as it is a metaphor that endures in its ability to help me make sense of life. And I think attempting to make sense of it all is what we are called to do as artists and what we seek as consumers of art. We simply want to make sense of this often confusing and painful journey and to feel a little less alone, to be in on the joke.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

Open Road, Open Heart, and Other Post-Divorce Discoveries

By Catherine DiMercurio

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Into one of the few cooler mornings of a hot, dry summer, a light drizzle fell. As I drove, the world felt grey and quiet, soft somehow. I tried to soak in some of that peacefulness the way the road unfolding in front of me soaked up the light rain.

I’d traveled this route before, from one metro Detroit suburb to another. But today, I wasn’t headed to the mall with my teenagers, or to that good Asian market with all the noodles. I wasn’t shopping for homecoming dresses or black slacks for orchestra or soccer cleats or cross-country spikes. I headed for the Barnes and Noble, but not for books. Well, not only for books. This particular location was roughly the halfway point between me and my first Match date. A morning bookstore coffee date seemed like the softest, easiest way for me to fall into this new world.

When the Journey Begins with Break Downs and Traffic Jams

At 46, I was a year and a half post-divorce. The rebound relationship was out of the way, though you never want to think about it like that when you are in it. I had done what lots of divorced people do. I looked up someone from my past. I knew it was too soon, and I knew we were probably different people now, but I didn’t want to miss my shot. It seemed better to take a chance when I was still raw and vulnerable from the ending of my marriage. I figured that later, I’d be bitter and closed off. And I was afraid of being stranded in the middle of nowhere by myself after twenty years of having someone at my side.

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Though I green-lighted the relationship, it went nowhere fast. It wasn’t the beautiful story I wanted it to be. Instead, it was an uncomfortable traffic jam of mismatched expectations and compatibilities. With a tremendous sense of relief, I extricated myself and settled into not being with anyone. And I liked it. I didn’t feel stranded. Being on this stretch of road with my daughter and son seemed like right where I was supposed to be. It had been healthy and good for me to choose to be alone, to close the door, and wave goodbye.

Several months into my being-alone-ness, I understood something: I could do this for the rest of my life. I luxuriated in not having to deal with anyone else. No baggage, no quirks, no personality differences to keep trying to make peace with. Around this time, a good friend encouraged me to try something like Match or eHarmony or one of those sites, just for fun. At first, I had no interest and dismissed the notion entirely. But I began to wonder if my hesitation was rooted in something deeper. Was I afraid of being with someone again? In the same way that other people are afraid of being alone? I didn’t come all this way to start being afraid of everything again. I also considered that while 46-year-old me was happy alone, would 56-year-old me want something different? Would 66-year-old me long for companionship? And so on.

When the Detour Becomes the New Route

My initial plan was to go on a couple of Match dates and check that off my list. Get un-rusty at meeting new people. I wanted to dabble with the idea of being with someone, but with lower stakes than that whole rekindling an old love thing.

With these expectations in place, I got on Match, and exchanged a few emails with a couple of people. At first, it was fun and exciting. But after a couple of weeks of liking photos and sending some emails here and there, the shine wore off. I didn’t really want to talk to the hot guy in Ann Arbor with baby twins who hoped to find someone to help him parent. I reached out to the yoga-loving vegetarian because here was someone with some common interests finally, but never heard back. I didn’t want to spend an hour having a drink with any of the men who only wanted to talk about their own travels, their fitness routines, or their favorite sports team. I considered letting my subscription run out without even meeting anyone in person. The online dating thing, it seemed, was an interesting part of my journey but I was ready to put it behind me. Maybe the whole thing had just been a detour and it was time to get back on my way.

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But then someone liked one of my photos. He invited me to chat with him on the app if I wanted to. I didn’t respond right away, but I found myself going back to his profile. He liked books and wasn’t into sports. Books! The last book he had read was a biography of Aldous Huxley. This intrigued me, and I finally emailed him and we went back and forth with long emails about books and our divorces and our families and he asked if I wanted to meet. I bought a little more time. A face-to-face meeting could bring all this hypothetical alignment and compatibility to an end. I had also never dated someone I didn’t already know. In college, relationships grew out of familiarity—living together, working together, knowing people as friends. I said okay. I said let’s meet.

Without realizing it, I had been developing a new pattern in the aftermath of my divorce. If something scared me—like pursuing an old relationship, ending a bad one, finding a new job—I paid attention to the fear but I didn’t let it stop me as I had in the past. I had begun to live differently. Not fearlessly, but more openly. I think I was too naïve and inexperienced to be specifically afraid of getting hurt by meeting this man, but I feared everything that was new about it, everything I didn’t know. And I was afraid of being too me. Too shy, too emotional, too nerdy and bookish, too much a single mom, too vegan, too unable to converse easily with new people about trivial things, too likely to talk too much about the wrong things. I wanted to cancel. I really wanted to get myself out of this situation. But I also didn’t.

So here I was, driving to the bookstore through the light drizzle on a Saturday morning in late July. I was early. I wandered around, listening to the Beatles play over the sound system. I finally bought a coffee and sat down, heart thumping like a flat tire on the highway. And he walked in.

There’s No GPS for This

Life shatters us sometimes. It looks different on everyone, the way we wear this pain. For me the big shattering was my divorce. I live in the aftermath of it. At times, we all find ourselves stranded in the places life dumps us when crises hit. It’s like being shoved from a moving vehicle and once you stop falling, and crashing, you assess your injuries. Then you have to pick yourself up and limp along the road. You don’t do it because you’re strong or fearless. You do it because even though you have no idea where you are going, you get simply grow tired of feeling stranded.

My perspective shIMG_5295ifted after life shoved me from the moving vehicle of my marriage. I used to live in a what-if mindset. What if something happens? But something always happens, and it’s rarely the thing you thought you prepared yourself for. Quite often the big thing that happens, the thing that shatters us, is precisely the one and only thing we didn’t think we needed to prepare ourselves for. After I stopped falling and crashing and nursing my wounds, I wanted to stop feeling as though another disaster would strike at any moment. As I started down the road, I soon grew weary from looking over my shoulder, waiting to see what was going to hit us next. That mindset is still a part of me, and it slips back in sometimes, but it drains so much energy. I want that energy for other things, for loving and laughing. I have to remind myself to be open to joy instead of looking for disaster, but it gets easier. I try to keep my eyes on where I am, where I’m going, and who is with me. Maybe the only thing to do is be vagabonds on this road together.

And that first Match date? He’s still on the road with me, at my side, holding my hand, almost two years later.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath