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