On Windmills and Waterfalls, Dreaming and Doing

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we have to protect and feed our energy.

I love a morning moon. Recently I stood under a 5 a.m. waning gibbous, after the harvest moon. I’m not sure what planet glowed nearby but between the moon, the planet, the still bright stars, and a symphony of crickets, letting the dogs out that early was quite pleasant. It was good energy to begin the day on.

I’ve been thinking a lot about energy lately. My sister recently told me about a dream she had, involving the two of us and a windmill and a waterfall. I feel things churning toward change, as if I’m at some sort of turning point but I haven’t yet discerned what’s next or where exactly I am. I liked the symbols of energy and power she spoke of.

Photo by JACQUES BARBARY on Pexels.com

I’ve had strange dreams about energy as well. One was about electrical cords that were plugged in in strange places, like across the room instead of the nearest outlet, so I was always tripping over them. Another was about a horse. My kids and dogs and I were in the pen with him, and he was alternately restless and bucking, or nuzzling us. Finally, we realized he was hungry, and after we fed him, he was content. This beautiful creature was trying to tell me something simple and urgent, and was getting impatient that I couldn’t figure it out. These dreams left me feeling as though I should be doing something.

On another recent morning, I stood outside at dawn, and white clouds blanketed the sky. I couldn’t get a sense of the sun rising so much as the sky began to lighten every so gradually. And I thought, maybe some transitions are like that. Soft, quiet, and so subtle you don’t notice they’re happening. So unobtrusive you can’t tell where the light is coming from. They are not full of do-ing energy but with be-ing energy.

What is the right balance between energetically pursuing your dreams and patiently waiting for your efforts to pay off? When I look at where I am, what I’m doing, and what I want, it’s unclear where I should focus my energy. Sort of. I am pursuing my writing goals; I’m not yet it a position to pursue my dream of living by woods or water; I’m feeding my creative needs not only with writing but with pottery; I’m maintaining friendships, and trying to be a good dog guardian, and doing my best to be there for my kids to the extent that they still need me to be. But a question mark hovers in the relationship category.

For a long time, I thought if I experienced loneliness, then I was not doing the “being on my own” thing properly. As if I had to prove that solo was perfect and right for me by being fine all the time. But everyone gets lonely. That doesn’t mean I’m failing. Occasional loneliness is a normal thing for everyone, for people in relationships and for people not in relationships. There are going to be times when the feeling crests, but that doesn’t mean it has to swallow us up.

I was hiking this weekend, and while I often find a friend to go with, on this occasion, my usual hiking buddies were busy, so I went alone. I was excited to explore a different part of my usual trail. While doing so, a couple came up behind me. They were walking a bit faster than I was, and to avoid a prolonged period of stalking right at my heels, they said to one another, “want to do a little trot here?” and they jogged past me and got far enough ahead that I wouldn’t be encroaching on them.

When I thought of the ease they had with one another, and having heard snippets of their conversation, I felt a sudden piercing burst of loneliness that brought tears to my eyes. How beautiful to have a likeminded partner to share a hike with, to be so familiar with one another that the conversation flows, and you instinctively communicate with one another on the trail. I thought of my past relationships, and how little we actually had in common in terms of how we enjoyed spending our free time. It’s easy in a moment of loneliness to slide further and further into the past. But I also had the very conscious thought that I did not want to let this bitter pang to continue intruding on my current joy.

I remembered something—a tool to help ground you when you’re feeling anxiety or grief taking over. I knew I needed to firmly root myself into the present moment, the beautiful experience I was having out in the world, not the twists and turns inside my head and heart. I reached out, letting my fingertips skim the bark of a beech tree, and then the next tree, and the next. I took deep breaths of woodsy air, warm and humid on this September morning. I looked down. At my feet was a fallen yellow leaf, of a shape I couldn’t quite identify. It didn’t look like anything around it. I thought it was vaguely poplar shaped, but oddly asymmetrical. I carried it with me, rubbing it between my fingers as though it were a talisman helping me ward off evil.

Because it was. Not that our emotions themselves are evil. But here’s the thing. There’s a difference between noticing/feeling your emotions and having them bond with anxiety in that toxic way they sometimes do. Anxiety distorts our emotions, mutates them. It’s a bad combo. I saw that beautiful couple being awesome in the woods together, and the emotions came at me hard and fast. Grief, loneliness, the confusion of “have I ever had that?” I felt it all in an instant. But I knew anxiety was kicking in when I began to ask the “what if” questions. What if I never find it, etc. That’s when I reached out to the trees for help. We have to know when to reach out.

Funny that I found a little distorted leaf that looked like it didn’t belong anywhere since that’s exactly how I was feeling. It’s like the woods were saying, “you’re not alone.” And that’s also when I realized that feeling lonely doesn’t undermine any progress we’ve made with self-trust and healing. It is simply another emotion. We notice it, feel it, and it’s a good sign when we can prevent it from pairing up with anxiety.

I was pleased that I’d managed to hold onto the good energy, to nurture it. But what of the other energy, the dream energy that seemed to be urging me to do, to act. Was it relationship related? Am I ready to try again? Or is it better to simply be, be me, be open to possibility, to wait and see what happens?

So much of what we want in life, so many of our dreams, are not entirely within our control, so it’s no wonder that it’s confusing when we consider how much energy to put into something. I think we have to listen to what our dreams are pointing us to, but they can be hard to interpret. Maybe the doing my subconscious was hinting at was about simply protecting my own energy. Not wasting it. Feeding it. Maybe it was about reassurance, a reminder to keep tending and keep trusting.

Love, Cath

On Love Letters and Pancakes

By Catherine DiMercurio

Pancakes are love letters I write to myself on weekend mornings. Yesterday’s were slathered in vegan butter and a syrup made from mixed berries and turbinado sugar, since, shockingly, I was out of maple syrup. I have a long history with pancake-as-love-letter. I used to make them for my family when the kids were little. It was a favorite treat. Every once in a while, if I was up early, I’d make them on a school morning and the kids would be surprised and delighted to have a break from their usual school morning fare of toast and tofu, cereal, frozen hashbrown patties hastily heated, smoothies, or whatever else we threw together. When we’d have neighbor kids over for a sleepover, I could easily be cajoled into making chocolate chip pancakes. All of this was a way for me to say, let me do this for you, make you feel welcome and delighted and full-bellied. Comforted and loved.

Messy but tasty.

Once, when my marriage was building toward its demise, and it seemed like my husband had gradually evolved into someone I didn’t know, who didn’t know me, I made pancakes on a Saturday morning and called the family to the table for breakfast. He sat down, reluctantly, in front of the steaming plate of love letters I’d placed in front of him. “I don’t really like pancakes,” he said. He didn’t even say “anymore,” as I recall. It was as if he was telling me that all along, he’d never liked them, and all along, he’d let me labor under the delusion of my delight in feeding him this treat. All along, what I knew and what I thought I knew were different things. Some seemingly mundane moments like this etch themselves into your soul and you try and talk yourself out of letting them mean too much, but later you are able to understand why it hurt so much more than it “should” have.

Later, after the divorce, after the rebound boyfriend summoned from my college days (for whom I made gluten-free pancakes), my first real new boyfriend spent the night for the first time while the kids were away. I made him pancakes in the morning. I delighted in how much he enjoyed them, how pleased he seemed to be in my space, sitting at the dining room table with me over pancakes and my syrupy love notes. I fell in love easily then, though that relationship did not last long, nor did the one that followed. I have a pancake story for that one too, but like most of the love notes I offered then, the reception was lukewarm.

Now I make pancakes for myself and it still feels like a special treat. Yesterday, I needed to feel taken care of, so I made myself the aforementioned pancakes. It started out just as something that sounded good but as I began mixing the batter, I thought of how satisfied I felt whenever I bothered to make myself a good meal instead of just scraping something together because it’s “just me.” So I completed the task with more deliberateness, thinking about why I was feeling the need for care in this moment, and also being grateful for being tuned in to what I needed. Even just months ago, it was challenging for me to consider both what I needed and figure out a way to get it. It was no easy task to make myself feel loved. To allow myself to feel loved. By the people in my life, by myself. Being partnerless felt burdensome, heavy, huge. It felt like an enormous cloud that shadowed my life. I felt that, theoretically, I loved myself, but I sort of waved away the notion that such knowledge could do anything to assuage my grief or loneliness. Now, I’m able to enact that love in different ways, to sit with emotions that need attention, to take comfort in a thoughtfully made meal, to pull myself away from the damaging loop of anxiety-thoughts by going for a walk or heading to the pottery studio or playing with the dogs.

It’s taken me so long to learn how to connect all these dots. For most of my life the messaging around me was that there was something wrong with prioritizing oneself. We don’t really learn how to do it. I didn’t. Or that we can, or should. For me, it has been so much easier to do now that I haven’t been in a relationship for a while. A year ago, I would not have imagined that I would come to think of the ending of my relationship as a gift. At the time, I felt I was making a healthy decision for myself but it was still a painful process and a grieved ending. It has taken me these many months to get to the point where, beyond knowing what I want in the next relationship (when/if that happens for me), I know myself so much better. Further, I know myself better for the sake of myself, not for the sake of any past, present, or future relationship. In the years since my divorce, I’ve been doing this work, but having this time entirely to myself for the past year has allowed me to further those efforts, to be more conscious, aware, and deliberate about my wants, needs, choices, preferences, and so on. To be clearer about my motivations and my triggers.  

Obviously, as a human, I still desire external validation, connection, conversation, etc. I’m learning what it means to feel wholeness and peace and at the same time desire connection and community. They aren’t mutually exclusive. I also have bad days where nothing seems to help. I’m still a work-in-progress. We all are, and there is so much beauty in that. The people I’m most drawn to are those who possess that same awareness. 

Pancakes are not the only love letters I write to myself. When I look around my space and see houseplants in every room and jars of found objects—pinecones, driftwood, rocks—I see all the ways in which I bring nature inside so that it is all around me, because it calms me and centers me. Every little stone I’ve ever pocketed or tucked inside my beach bag was a way of me saying to myself, trust me, you’re going to need this later.

So, if you’re reading this, take a moment amidst all the loud clatter and chaos that seem to be the norm of the world around us most of the time, and think about what little love note you could give yourself today. Is it cooking a comforting meal, writing an actual note, going for a walk, picking up a lucky penny? Maybe it is pouring coffee into your favorite mug, and stepping away from work for 15 minutes outside. What are the ways you’ve expressed love for others in the past that you can offer yourself now, like me and my pancakes? It’s worth thinking about. You’re worth it. I am.  

Love, Cath

On Slow Dancing and Wet Sand

By Catherine DiMercurio

Yes, but are you happy? is a question that we chase each other with. We want it for our loved ones, maybe more than we even want it for ourselves. It certainly means something different for each person. I have long wondered, is the “point” of life to be happy? Is it to have purpose, to make the world a better place? To simply survive it? Is it something else? This of course leads down a philosophical road. Depending on your larger belief systems about how we got here and what happens after, the question of the “point” of it all is going to be answered differently. But certainly happiness is something we all want.

Recently, after a period of feeling quite good for a long stretch, a collection of troublesome things happened and I found myself slipping toward the edges of the dark mental space that it can be hard to climb out of. Is happiness real if it goes away when life gets tough? Why does it feel so ephemeral for some of us, and others seem to find it wherever they go?

I used to think that happiness meant spending time with the people you love, but when the people you love exit your life, or they live far away, or the people are your adult children, building their own separate lives, you realize that if your happiness depends on time spent with anyone but yourself, you’ll never be happy.

So, then, is happiness doing the things you enjoy? Pursuing what you love? This seems obvious. Of course, we are happy when we are doing the things we enjoy, but how do we retain that sense of happiness when we are done doing the thing, when the hike has ended, the garden planted and weeded, the sunset on the beach viewed? How do we retain it when we are making dentist appointments or paying for expensive car repairs?

I am not saying that I expect or even want to be happy all the time. There are times when other emotions can and should be foremost in our hearts. I’m talking about happiness in terms of a calm, centered peace that we can hang on to when life gets bumpy, that we can find the path back to once we’ve dealt with some of the more serious things that life throws at us.

If happiness is that peaceful, centered state, is it accurate to say it is a reprieve from anxiety/fear/doubt? And how do we cultivate that? How does anyone, if daily there are battles with physical or mental health, or with financial woes, or any number of things that rattle the calm, that busy us and keep us buzzing and unable to be still and settled?

And some days, sadness feels like thick wet sand, cold, gritty, clinging.

I’m trying to learn how to process heavy emotions. To slow dance with them and listen to what they are trying to tell me.

Photo by Mathias Reding on Pexels.com

The trick is to know when to stop. My old habit when I’m feeling that deep down tug of sadness like there’s an anchor inside, is to sink, stay with it, fall into myself. Here in the dark, I can see that the enemy of happiness is not exactly sorrow, but fear of future sorrow. It is the thought that maybe everything won’t be okay after all.

I think of how future-focused I’ve always been. Not in a sensible way like retirement planning. But, I’ve always had the same question thrumming through me, for as long as I can remember: “But everything is going to be okay, right?” I suppose it is time I start asking myself what I meant by “everything” and “okay.”

This blog has been largely about my path forward since my divorce, the ups and downs of it all, single parenting, relationships. And since ups and downs are universal, I hoped that by writing about mine, you could think about yours, and we could connect that way, cultivate contemplation, and in so doing, co-create a more deliberate way of moving through this world and coping with its challenges and celebrating its joys. Help each other to feel less alone, which is certainly another kind of happiness.  And I have written here about the aftermath of marriage but I rarely talk about my marriage itself. I can tell you this: when I was married, whenever I asked that question to myself, “is everything going to be okay?”, I knew the answer. I knew everything would be okay because I was with the person I wanted to spend my life with.

Before I was divorced, I didn’t think too much about what it meant for people. It was something that happened to other people. So, when it happened to me, and in all the ways it happened—and it happens differently for everyone—one of the biggest inversions to my world view and sense of self was this idea that the future as I had imagined it was erased. And somehow, I felt erased, too. Everything would not be okay, at least, not in the ways I had imagined and hoped.

This past year, since my most recent breakup, I have realized that this part of my journey is trying to get that “everything’s going to be okay” feeling on my own. To take time to slow dance with that. Feeling like everything is going to be okay means that you have an absence of fear about future sorrow, or, more accurately, you have confidence that you will handle the future sorrow and make everything okay, in time. One of the things I’m trying to remember is that no matter how badly I want to figure out if future-me is going to be okay, there are things I can’t know, can’t predict. And the only way that future version of myself is going to be okay with whatever life throws at her is if I figure out how to be okay now. Because if I can do it now, then I can do it then. And what I fail to do so regularly is to realize that I have done it. I am doing it.

Sometimes I feel like the world gets meaner every day and I’m no match for it. Just me and my hokey dreams trying to feel like I’ve got things figured out enough to feel “okay.” But the more we talk about these things, the more we can help each other find paths to “okay” and “happy.” Maybe we can slow dance with the light emotions too, not just the heavy ones, slow dance with joy, slow dance with each other, feel the cool comfort of wet sand instead of a dark pull. And maybe we can create a ripple effect and gradually wash away some of the meanness and be a match for this cruel world together.

Love, Cath

On Safe Spaces and Swimming

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we undervalue the gift of safe spaces.

Sometimes I think the only thing I did right as a single parent was to offer a safe space for my kids to raise themselves. That is, of course, an exaggeration on a couple of levels. But it speaks to what I told my eldest upon their graduation from college this past weekend. Kids have good instincts, and they seek and need agency. Sometimes trusting our children and getting out of their way is the only way. Obviously it isn’t always the answer. But in they years after my divorce, a lot of things happened to me, and one of them was that anxiety created a sense of hypervigilance. It led me to think about emotional safety a lot, especially about how to provide it to my kids during a difficult transition to our new family structure. With my child’s recent graduation from college, I witnessed, reflected on, and admired who they are and how they have grown and become more and more themselves over these last few years. I hope, at the very least, that I played a role in helping them feel safe and loved and cared for along their journey.

As parents, we work toward where I find myself now—being ancillary in our children’s lives. On a day-to-day basis, our presence is not needed for our older children to function and flourish in the world. It isn’t that they don’t turn to us, and it isn’t that they don’t feel emotionally connected to us, but their lives are their own. When problems arise, they may or may not ask us for advice, they may or may not even tell us there is a problem. They are simply living and handling things. This self-sufficiency is what we have striven for as parents. I’ve always had a sense since my children were very little that everything I did was in preparation for them to leave me. Yet, living on this side of it is a strange and emotional time.

When your child graduates from college it is inevitable that you reflect on your parenting. It is impossible to not recall the first day of preschool and kindergarten, all the ups and downs of middle school and high school. The day you helped them get the dorm room set up is etched on your heart, the way you drove away and left them there, thinking, as you did when you dropped them off at preschool, is this right? This is what people do? We walk away now?

For divorced families, when you think about your child’s upbringing, there is a Before and After. Inevitably you will wonder if you got things right, on either side of that line. Each situation is different. For me, as a single parent I felt as though I was constantly trying to figure out how to make what had been fractured feel whole and safe and enough again.

It occurs to me that after years trying to make my children’s lives feel that way, I am now trying to make my own life feel that way. Whole and safe and enough. With each milestone the kids achieve, with each further step they take into their own lives and futures, I am left with increasingly stark reminders of what I need to do for myself.

My own childhood was populated with a crowd of siblings and two parents who are still together. College was full of roommates, boyfriends. Not long after, I was married and soon after, having children. After the divorce I tried soothing the loneliness of single parenting with relationships that ultimately could not be parlayed into something long-term. Each time something ended, as hard as it was, as disappointing as it was that it didn’t “work out” the way I had hoped, parenting, in many ways, was easier. Flying solo, I was able to try and tune in more effectively to what my kids needed.

But now, I have the time and space to focus wholeheartedly on myself. Yet I have had very little practice trying to figure out how to make that whole and safe and enough scenario happen by myself and for myself.

I’m getting closer, but I’m still not there. And I wonder, too, are we ever truly there? I haven’t even been able to articulate it as a goal until recently. Since I’m always thinking about the future, worrying about it, I imagine scenarios. If I decide I’m okay, if I’m whole and safe and enough on my own, does that mean I’m closing the door on a future with someone? Or is that mindset what actually opens the door to the “right” relationship? I’m thankful to friends who help me consider these ideas, who remind me to spend some time in right now instead of always trying to fill in the blanks ahead.

Sometimes I mentally catalogue when I felt the most whole and safe and enough so I can try and recreate it. There was usually someone by my side. Can I not remember feeling that way when I was alone, or did it never happen? It is easier to remember the times I did not feel that way, far easier to remember the events that left me feeling fractured and unsafe and inadequate. I have spent a long time trying to stop feeling hobbled by heartbreaks. This is precisely what this time is for, this time I have to myself right now. It is a time not only to heal from all the past hurts but a time to reassess how I look at myself.

When was the last time you looked at yourself in a way that freed you from context? How do we see ourselves when we remove all the filters of what we do, who we’re related to, who we live with, who and what we’ve lost?

Photo by Ellie Burgin on Pexels.com

Of course those things are all huge parts of who we are but there’s a self in there who is the one doing all the adapting to all the things that happen to us. I wrote a poem once, called “Minnows.” It opens like this:

Do we learn to love

The way fish learn to swim

Or the way we learn to fish?

There are things we begin to teach ourselves out of instinct, about how to know and love ourselves. These ideas are soon enhanced and/or undercut by other external lessons. Sometimes I think the more we know of the world, the less we know of ourselves.

Sometimes, we are in relationships that are collaborative and supportive and allow us the space and care to help us to know ourselves better. These might be romantic relationships, familial ones, or friendships. And sometimes, we are in relationships that take us further and further away from ourselves. Usually when we’re in them we are not thinking about them in such terms but when we’re out, it all becomes clearer. And of course, some relationships morph from the former to the latter, and it’s hard to tell what’s happening. I wish I’d understood the importance of this distinction sooner. But I’m learning. The more I learn about myself, the more I understand how hollowing it is to be in relationships where I am becoming less of who I am instead of more. It is this knowledge that soothes loneliness when it strikes: at least that isn’t happening.

I often think of this chapter as a rebuilding one, as if I’m putting myself back together, reconstructing, improving. But maybe it is one more characterized by paring down, unwinding, unlearning. Maybe it is just remembering how to be a sleek little minnow learning how to swim.

Love, Cath

On Messiness, Moodiness, and Harmony

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Ravi Kant on Pexels.com

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

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

Love, Cath

On Spinning, Wobbling, and Stillness

By Catherine DiMercurio

For a long time, I was sleeping okay, and then that little fragile peace in me eroded. Though the far-too-early-morning wakefulness startled me with the way it insisted on itself night after night, I am not surprised. Too many things have churned together to create a new storm of worry that percolates at the edges of my consciousness even when I’m not actively focused on it.

On a macro level, the world is perpetually upside down. Though it seems the pandemic is abating somewhat, we are on the edge of our seat waiting to see if it is true, if there won’t be some new variant, if this will be a collective dream we get to wake from. Added to this hazy fog of uncertainty we have the war in Ukraine, the stunning, unprovoked invasion by Russia that has shocked the world. Though we are un-shocked at the same time; we have been watching Putin’s machinations all along and in a way, there is nothing surprising at all about his actions. We stare at the images of people fleeing their homes or taking up arms, of children and pets huddled in subways, and our problems seem small. Then we turn off the news and remember that we are still trying to cope with our own troubles and though the scope of them is not as dire, everyone has either a small collection of large troubles, or a large collection of small ones, and we are tired. Our feelings and experiences don’t cease to exist when placed within the context of global tragedies. I am learning this. We do not need to obligate ourselves to feel guilty about our own griefs and troubles because someone else is dealing with something bigger. Acknowledging our own pain and struggles does not exclude us from feeling grateful for all that we have, or from feeling compassion and empathy for others. These things can all exist together.

At 4 a.m., my own collection of troubles doubles in size and intensity, because that is 4 a.m.’s particular magic—expanding, elongating, and distorting trouble. It doesn’t matter that I can unpack this suitcase. That I can name each thing that is suddenly on my mind and concerning me. That I can recognize that none of the worries should be overgrown and hungry right now. Things gnaw at us anyway.

I spent several nights sleeping in the guest room after my daughter vacated it following a brief but lovely visit. For one night, both son and daughter were under my roof with me, and there was a powerful sense of safety and familiarity, despite the foreignness that still clings to this new house. Now that they are both in back at school, something in me shifts. I scramble for a metaphor, as if being able to visualize myself moving from one way of being to another will ease the transition. I think of a spinning top wobbling toward stillness. Wobbly. Still. Is that how it feels to return to solitude? I am more familiar with my mother-self than my solitary-self, so the shift from one to the other still feels clumsy.

Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

Yet, have I ever not felt clumsy? And all transitions feel awkward, don’t they?

The past eight months have been a long transition for me, following the ending of a relationship. After break-ups in the past, I have thought of myself as being in-between relationships. I had a sense that I would find someone else, and I would know when the time is right to do so. Since the last one though, my frame of mind has been different. As I have worked to understand where I have come from, how past relationships have impacted me, and what self that has remained, the certainty that a new relationship is on the horizon has evaporated, while my comfort level with that uncertainty is growing.

I wonder if this is the part where I start to feel less clumsy in my own skin. That is tough to imagine: a me who moves through the world confidently. I think of all the experiences throughout my life that have bricked into place my sense of anxiety and my awkwardness, knowing the way each incident was built on those that came before. As a view of ourselves begins to take shape when we are young, we begin to believe in it. We believe in our perception of the way others see us. And because we are young and do not know that what these beliefs are creating is a construct that can be dismantled, the construct becomes our identity. It shapes us, and our relationships, and when we finally begin to see it for what it is, the façade is so intricate and finely formed it is hard to see it as anything separate from us.

I have always placed a high value on knowing myself. And though it is easy to lose oneself in a relationship, it is often in relationship to an intimate other where we can understand aspects of ourselves that remain elusive when we are alone. We learn about ourselves in those small moments where we compare ourselves with our partners. Preferences and needs rise to the surface. We consider what matters and what does not. On our own, we must find other methods. The work is uncomfortable at times as we excavate, uncover our identities through a slow, sifting process.

Sometimes I tell myself this work will make me a better partner one day, but I realize I am no longer doing it in order to make myself better for someone else. I believed for so long that this is what I needed to do, that this was why things in the past haven’t worked out: because there was something in me that I needed to make better in order for someone to love me. And if by some miracle they loved me even before I was better, then I should consider myself lucky to be loved when I still had so much work to do. It has not been easy, dismantling these damaged notions of self-worth and value. We all have these experiences, incidents that trigger feelings of not being enough. For me, it has been helpful to trace this feeling to its roots, to feel the collection of griefs I learned to bury along the way, to understand finally, so that I do not have to continue to re-create this pattern. It has been a clunky and awkward process but one that has allowed new perspectives to blossom.

This work feels important to me, and I have discovered that I feel a sense of peace and purpose in pursuing a certain harmony within myself. It has the power to leave me feeling at home whether I am spinning or still. I think one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves is cultivate the self-awareness that allows us tune in to what leaves us feeling at home within ourselves.

Love, Cath

On Obstacles, Works-in-Progress, and Works of Art

By Catherine DiMercurio

This week, I’m thinking a lot about work. How we look at work and reward impacts so many areas of our lives.

If we do creative work, focusing on what many define as success or reward will leave us feeling defeated and discouraged. If success is selling the product of your effort, then unless you are both extremely lucky and wildly talented, you will be discouraged over and over again. It is just the nature of trying to smoosh creativity and capitalism together. The world is full of creative folk trying to get their work “out there,” and monetizing it is tricky business. But for many creative people, the joy is in the process, in learning your craft and practicing it, and in being a part of a community of like-minded people, in sharing our work in ways that have little to do with recognition or gain. We shape words or pigment or clay or musical notes in an effort to capture truth, beauty. And even if no one is buying we are still making, because we have to.

When I was growing up, I gradually came to understand a couple of things about work and reward. At school, working hard yielded good grades, which seemed to matter a lot to my teachers and parents and I felt happier when no one was grumpy with me. And I didn’t have to work that hard most of the time. At home, I observed my parents working hard to provide for us, so I assumed that this was a given in life. Work is necessary, and if you’re going to do it, you may as well do it well was another message I got. If you’re going to do something, don’t do it half-assed, my father would say.

Yet, the work-reward model left me to conclude that not achieving a hoped-for reward meant that you didn’t work hard enough or you didn’t work long enough, or both. Those conclusions don’t always lend themselves to a healthy way of looking at ourselves. Work tends to feel futile, or washed over with something the color of failure. It took me a long time to understand that some rewards remain elusive no matter how long and hard you work, to understand that in pursuing difficult-to-achieve rewards, I was benefitting in ways I hadn’t expected.

I have had to reexamine the way I look at work and reward since my divorce. This life-changing experience, also washed over with something the color of failure, makes you look at a lot of things differently. The work of relationships is one of them. Good relationships don’t just happen, and good relationships take more work than bad ones.

I don’t know of any relationship that doesn’t take effort to maintain. Certainly, some are easier than others, but how people relate to us and us to them in any given moment is influenced by everything that has brought us each to that moment. My past has created me, in everything I learned from it and everything I didn’t, just like yours has.  

People talk a lot about “baggage,” especially when you’re dating in your 50s. I don’t think anyone’s so-called baggage is the sum of every bad thing that has happened to them. I do think we carry the weight of everything we haven’t learned from those experiences. That is why there is always work to do. With each person we interact with, our past experiences reveal themselves in new ways. We may believe we have worked through and healed from difficult events or difficult people, but we cannot foresee all the ways something will impact us. We are forever works-in-progress. That is a beautiful thing, or can be, if we turn ourselves again and again to the work that we our called to do. If we lovingly embrace that we are living, breathing works of art.

Many of the things I considered to be challenging aspects of past relationships were pointing to things I needed to learn from myself and for myself about myself. But that learning could benefit the relationship as well. For example, if a partner and I fought because I responded strongly to their avoiding communicating about their feelings, it was a chance for both of us ask why. Understanding why a person withholding their feelings triggered such a deep anxiety in me helped to pinpoint what I needed to work on, and allowed me to explain my response to my partner and ask for support. But I could only do my part. A partner unwilling to ask himself why he avoided communicating about his feelings meant that not only could he not give me the support I needed, but that he could also not ask me for the support he needed. So the issue continued to sow conflict. Instead of two people working in partnership to improve the relationship, two people suffered individually with not getting their needs met.

Not everyone sees value in this work, and not everyone is ready to do it. I think we are all able, capable of such introspection and responding to it. It is uncomfortable, but why wouldn’t we be willing to do this work for ourselves and each other? Isn’t this growth what makes us better partners, better parents, better friends, better people?

It is difficult to accept that someone can look at you, see the value in what you bring to the table, understand that there is unattended work in themselves that would present obstacles in a relationship, and choose to embrace the obstacles instead of you. They equate the obstacles, which are often learned behaviors, with their identity.

The say this is how I am.

But obstacles aren’t identity. Yes, our past gives us things to stumble over. But we are not the boulders in our way.

We are the way.

We are as much the path behind us as the path in front of us. But we are not our experiences. We are not the coping behaviors we adapted ourselves to. We are neither our joys nor our traumas. We are everything we told ourselves in response to those experiences. We are what we tell ourselves we are.

Photo by Jim Richter on Pexels.com

The beautiful thing is that as we grow and become increasingly self-aware, our responses to our experiences feel more like choices (because they are), instead of reactions that just happen.

So often people insist that they won’t change for anyone, can’t change. What do we have a right to expect of others? What should we expect of ourselves? How do we sort out what is a (maladaptive) behavior or response that we have learned from a painful experience and what is truly part of our identity? Perhaps trying to find the difference between those things only matters if there is something you wish to change about yourself, only matters if you see value in, and the need for, self-improvement. We can love ourselves for who we are at the same time that we seek growth. Those are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Perhaps it is a question of risk and reward rather than work and reward. If the journey toward self-discovery and growth could lead you toward a relationship with the potential to either be the beautiful bond you’ve dreamt of or another possible heartbreak, maybe it is a self-protective mechanism to insist that change is impossible, that this is how I am, take it or leave it, accept me as I am or walk away.

How often I have been told just that, and remained in the relationship, still pursuing my growth while trying to see how that fit in with a partner who proclaimed they would not or could not change. For me, it hasn’t worked, and I am learning to be as willing to love myself as I am to love other people.

For me, that has meant walking away, and continuing to do my own work, while I look for someone who understands that growth is a non-terminal journey. That each day gives us the opportunity be in the present in a new way, with a new understanding of what has brought us here together.

Our brains are designed to adapt to new circumstances and to one another. We have evolved to be in community with one another. We can accept who we are, and what has happened to us, and that we are flawed individuals. That is normal. That is human. But so too is taking stock of all that, and wondering how we can build on it, learn and grow from it. Is that not part of what binds us to those we love, the desire and sense of duty to learn to love one another better? And like all things, this journey begins with ourselves.

Remember, they don’t call it a “work of art” for nothing. We work hard and in that work, we are breathless, we are breathtaking.

Love, Cath

On Communities, Solitude, and Situational Goals

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes belonging is complicated.

During a terrible storm this weekend, the thunder woke me. The dogs were restless. I was awake for hours and I went through the list of things that might go wrong because of the weather, and the logical part of my brain reminded me I could handle it, and the anxious part suggested otherwise. In the middle of traversing this terrain of highs and lows, I found myself returning to the same plateau where I told myself: You don’t belong here.

Sometimes anxiety amplifies a message we don’t want to hear. And sometimes it confuses it. We can’t always tell the difference.

I worried from the beginning that I wouldn’t belong in this house, in this town, but there were compelling reasons to be here. There was a need to jump off of one path and onto another. It wasn’t a big move; I didn’t move across the country. But I left the familiar and headed in the risky direction my heart hoped was the right one.

I never considered myself the type of person to take things for granted. When I was married, I had a deep sense of gratitude for my family, for the life we’d built. But I also felt that my relationship was immune to the troubles other people experienced. That it was unassailable.

Since my divorce and everything that followed, through my recent move, I have taken for granted the notion of community. I knew I was leaving a tight-knit community, but because so much of my community-history was woven together with my marriage-history, I longed, in some ways, to be in a place that had no such history. Besides, I was moving to a house where I’d be closer to my boyfriend, so it seemed that this would balance out the loss of proximity to my neighborhood friends, with whom I vowed to stay connected with.

But when that relationship ended, I began to feel stranded. I work hard to maintain connections to friends from the old neighborhood, but busyness and the lack of proximity is a challenge on both sides. Building a sense of community with my new neighborhood has been an effort compromised by the pandemic. There is a tiny bit of progress. Yet, it isn’t the same.

My writing community is another story. Being part of a low-residency MFA program meant that I’d be making friends I wouldn’t see in person all too often. It was baked into the system. I’ve been lucky enough to keep in close contact with a few of those friends over the years, and to have a lifeline to opportunities like the workshop I’m now a part of. And lifeline is not a hyperbolic description. Through my writing community I have been able to embrace a part of my identity that for a long time struggled to breathe: I am an artist. I sought out this community once I could no longer shush the part of me that had been standing around clearing her throat, hoping to get noticed. I sacrificed a lot to pursue it and now I don’t know what I would do without it.

What I’m learning from my experience with my writing to community is that all community must be pursued and developed, right down to the micro-communities of our families. Now that I am single and living alone, I am realizing how much I benefited from ready-made communities I was a part of when my children were growing up. It was all right there, in my living room, in the halls of my kids’ school, in the walk to the grocery store, in the Memorial Day parade. People I knew and cared about were always gathering, and I could dip into that whenever I needed to.

Now, I am learning so much about myself and I am grateful for that. Yet I had not anticipated that everything that feels like connection was going to involve focused effort on my part to pursue. It isn’t as if I’m the only one making the effort, but the majority of people I’m trying to maintain connection and community with have other humans in their physical orbit on a daily basis. But I have not been within hugging distance of anyone since Thanksgiving. (It did not seem appropriate to hug other the repairman or the grocery clerk.)

I also have some things that a lot of people who live in a busy household have told me that they envy: peace, solitude, time to think, freedom from anyone else’s schedules. And I treasure these things. I have wondered if the pleasure I take in such things means that I don’t even want to find a relationship anymore. I used to think it had to be one thing or the other. Now I see that goals can be situational. If I am single, I want it to look this way; if I am in a relationship, I want this kind. Sometimes I’m actively seeking, sometimes I take a step back.

And it isn’t any different with communities. Sometimes we feel we belong and sometimes we have to keep looking for new places to belong. It’s okay to need multiple communities. Someone once told me, “there is no right way to do this.” There is not even one right way to do this for me.

In a few weeks, I’ll get a new community, my pottery community. Again, a community which I sought out, sacrificed time and money to be a part of. But one that I anticipate will be very valuable to me. It takes work as an adult to find new connections. Belonging within a community is one of the things I thought would be easier.

Yesterday, I was supposed to hike with a friend from my old neighborhood, but she was unable to make it. I tried to find someone else to go with at the last minute, since I was already bundled up against the December chill, but nothing panned out. I almost didn’t go. I have an intense fear of getting lost and tend toward well-marked trails with a friend. But I got in the car before I could change my mind. Drove to the state park where my friend and I had hiked once before, several months ago. I walked with a careful eye on my surroundings and the trail markers, noticing the way my walking, when I’m unsure of the way, mirrors my handwriting when I’m unsure of my thoughts. There is a tidy deliberateness to my movement that is absent when I’m feeling sure of myself or lost in my imagination.

I didn’t get lost, and my return path was brisk, comfortable. This was a baby step, a decently marked path in a well-traveled wood. It struck me again, the trade-offs between solitude and community. I missed my friend. I miss being face-to-face with humans I care about, who care about me. I miss hugs. At the same time, this solo hike did me some good, too.

I am surprised by so many things these days. Realizations that come to me in the middle of the night. My task is accepting the things that didn’t work out, and pouring my energies into a new relationship with myself and into appreciation of communities, old and new.

Love, Cath

On Clay and Conversation

By Catherine DiMercurio

So much of life depends on how you look at things.

I don’t mean seeing things from a different angle in order to guide yourself toward a more positive perspective. I mean new experiences sometimes hand you a metaphor and give you a way to contemplate something more deeply or fruitfully than you have before.

Recently, my daughter and I took a trial wheel-throwing pottery class. It was something we’d both wanted to try for a long time. I was nervous about investing time and money into a semester-long class without first having some idea about how I would feel about working with this medium, so the two-hour workshop format appealed to me.

On the drive over to the studio, I had a strange thought. I was feeling anxious and as I dug around in that feeling I realized part of it was because I did not want to disappoint the instructor, some person I’d never met before. Why on earth would I care about that? Maybe I didn’t want them to think that my inability to follow directions, or create “properly” meant that they were not doing their job well. I wanted to be a good student so they could feel like a good teacher. It was also part of my people-pleasing mentality. [The reasons people do this are varied and complex. Sometimes it is because we’ve lived with emotionally volatile people and we learn to not make waves. Sometimes it is because we need others to think well of ourselves since we have a hard time doing that on our own. This is often a result of us having internalized messages—religious, cultural, societal messages—in such a way that we feel it is necessary to prove that we are, in fact, good people.]

Still, I tried to shelve these ancient worries. I wanted to focus on having fun with my daughter and learning something new. I wanted to prove to myself that I could.

As it happened, my daughter and I were both feeling a little anxious, because it’s normal to feel that way when you’re trying out something you’ve never done before. But once we walked into the studio, met the owners and their dog, and toured the space, I began to feel more relaxed. Shelves of drying cups and bowls and vases, pale stoneware waiting to be glazed. Gorgeous curved and sumptuous shapes. Rows and rows of completed, glazed work, waiting for students to collect them. Oh, the glazes. I love glazes. I wish I had the vocabulary to describe them, understood their chemical composition. Reddish browns, honeyed golds, pale bronzy greens. It all washed over me. I felt both calm and exhilarated. I love that hard-to-come-by feeling.

I couldn’t wait to feel the clay beneath my fingers, to begin to see how it responded to the corresponding forces of my touch and the movement of the wheel. I’d watched enough of a British pottery competition program to imagine what it might be like but now I’d be getting my own hands dirty and trying it out.

One of the owners, Mike, sat down at the wheel and talked us through various processes and techniques. And then suddenly we were doing it. Mike helped when we weren’t sure if our clay was centered, or if a bowl was widening to the point of collapse. He was a good guide.

I wasn’t shockingly good at it for a beginner, though I really wanted to be! I may not have uncovered a hidden talent, but I also did not uncover the disaster I’d been fearing. This wasn’t gym class, and I wasn’t unbelievably horrible at it, as I was with most sports. Have you ever been so bad at something that people are embarrassed for you? Not fun. But here, in the studio, I did have fun, and so did my daughter.

There was some kind of perfect little relief in the newness of it all. A bliss in getting to believe in something else, a different kind of space, a different kind of making. I think my daughter and I both experienced that and it felt important to be able to share that with her.

In the days since the class, one of the things I’ve reflected on is the notion of conversation. Working with the clay, my hands had to be in conversation with one another. They didn’t simply work “together.” They worked in harmony and in response to one another. It is different than say, playing a musical instrument, where your hands are working together, but each is performing a separate task. In building a bowl on the wheel, my hands had to talk to each other, listen to each other, in order to create something together. It was impossible not to see this as a beautiful metaphor for what I hope to one day find in a relationship. If you are not working together, focused on the relationship you’re creating, it will not hold together, things will spin out of control. You must want the same thing. You might end up making something different than what you intended at the beginning, but you’re in on it together. And unless there is a cooperative, positive effort, it won’t be anything at all.

Because my brain works the way it does, I seized upon this metaphor and tried applying it retroactively to past relationships that did not turn into what I’d hoped they would. Maybe this was the way I could make sense of how things happened the way they did. The pottery metaphor provided an effective lens with which to view things and helped me to remind myself of why those things didn’t work out.  

I’ll be honest. Sometimes I need a new way to look at an old thing I’ve been turning around endlessly in my head. The ending of relationships is hard. Grief is real, full, and deep, no matter how much you believe that the ending was necessary. I often find myself reciting the stories and their endings back to myself, so I remember, so I don’t repeat past mistakes. So that, if I’m lucky enough to get a next time, I get to keep it. Grief takes up a lot of space in a heart. In a way, we remain in conversation with our grief, long after the loss that caused it.

Another thing about conversation is that in the past I’ve mistaken emotional or intellectual connection for emotional intimacy. It’s all about conversation, but they are not the same things. We have to look closely and see if what we are offering to our partner is what we are being offered in return. There were times that I was not actually having the conversation that I thought I was. Things take time to reveal themselves. People do. We all try to be the best versions of ourselves when we want something to work out. But we can’t keep that up indefinitely. And one person’s idea of something “working out” can be very different from another’s and in the absence of emotional intimacy it might take a while to figure that out. We may think we are building something with a partner, but unless we are in true conversation with one another, one hand might be trying to create a saucer while the other is trying to make a vase.

Another lesson here for me is about a new kind of open heartedness. It took a bit of pushing myself to decide to take this class. I must remember to do that sometimes, to nudge myself into action, into new ways of looking at things. I admire people who can jump into new things without the anxiety that sometimes holds me back. At the same time, I love that these experiences for me feel special, wonderous, even, given that it wasn’t easy for me to approach them.

We all come at the world and all it has to offer differently, but I don’t believe that there are methods that are superior to others. We go at our own pace and are rewarded in the ways that feel meaningful to us. And we learn the lessons we need to when we are ready for them.

After you make something at the wheel, it goes through many other steps. It air dries, then is trimmed, then dried in the kiln, and then glazed, and then fired once more. Or something like that. My daughter and I didn’t get to do those other steps—that is what the full class is for—but we did get to pick out glazes. I’m eagerly awaiting the call from the studio saying that our pieces are ready. Pottery, it seems, like everything else in my life, is trying to teach me patience.

I’m pretty sure I’m going to sign up for the full class, but the next session will begin in January, and meets for three hours on Monday nights. That’s a big commitment! But I think I’m intrigued enough to take it on.

Wishing you true conversation and a little bit of genuine bliss.

Love, Cath

On Safe Havens

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we figure out what we need.

Some transitions take longer than others; or, I am slow to acclimate to change. I think about where I belong and where I don’t and have not come to any conclusions except that sometimes it feels like nowhere, or at least, not here.

A few weeks before my house began a revolt with its perpetually problematic furnace, I finally got out of it for a couple of days. I’d booked a cabin in the woods in a state park not too far from home. I’d painstakingly arranged for care for the dogs, though I worried about my absence being difficult for them. My plan was to go away to write in solitude, but when one of my sisters, who was in need of some solitude herself, asked to join me, I was happy to say yes. She volunteered to take care of all the food, and let me write, and when I needed breaks we’d be able to enjoy each other’s long-missed company, and walk in the woods. Few things are ever exactly what you need, but this was. It felt soft and safe. It felt like the childhood safety and freedom from worry she and I had enjoyed together. It was laughter and peace. And I did get a fair bit of writing done. And we rambled through the woods in the late-September sun.

Back at home, I tried to hold on to that sense of peace and security, but I was also faced with what I had left—living in a house and in a town that I’m still acclimating to after a year, a place that resists feeling like home. Part of it is that in addition to my son leaving for college, the relationship I thought I’d be cultivating here had ended and I have found it difficult to create a sense of belonging to a place that did not have my people in it. For decades, home had been about family. Adjusting to a lack of a human population within these walls has been a bumpy ride.  

It’s a strange thing to make peace with an object as big as a house, and one that at times has seemed like it has wanted to eject me. Look, I say. We just have to make this work. Yet, you are not what you pretended to be. Things I loved about you when we first met all need to be repaired or replaced. Other things I loved about you that no longer matter: you kept me close to someone who mattered.

You were supposed to be a safe haven. But then I remember, that’s my job, not yours.

Safety, in all its forms, is both complex and simple. So easy to lose, so hard to get back. I think many of us experience this loss of a sense of safety at various points in our lives, whether it be in the aftermath of trauma large or, smaller but chronic, or an ongoing familial or financial crises that takes its toll.  We look back and try to remember what it was like to feel safe. Maybe it was so long ago you can hardly remember, or maybe it was a recent loss, sudden or gradual. Or a combination of all these things.

I believe it is also true that many people who feel anxiety or stress are unable to identify its true source as the absence of a sense of personal safety. It is difficult to pinpoint the source of trouble within ourselves, and it is easy to write off a deep, unsettled feeling as “stress.” But I have been wondering if it is actually stress that is the source of the anxiety I often struggle with, or something deeper.

In the course of these past couple of months of adaptation—to the loss of a relationship, to my newly emptied nest, to solitude that wears a different face every day—I have tried to explore troubled feelings when they arise. One of the things I’ve come to recognize is that a chain reaction of harm is occurring, and it is eroding my ability to be what we all need to be for ourselves: unassailable safe haven.

When I have a setback—expensive home repairs, a rejection of a writing submission I was really hopeful about, the text that erases the budding hope for a new potential relationship—my first thoughts are not those that self-soothe and comfort. They are those that self-criticize. Worse, they sometimes wound even deeper, mirroring the act of shaming that others have done to me in the past. What’s wrong with you? How could you let this happen?

How can we ever feel safe with someone who is makes us feel less than, who prods us about things we should have known or done, or belittles us for “bad” decisions, or for outcomes beyond our control? If we told a friend that someone we cared about was treating us this way, they might say, “that’s awful, that person does not love you.” What might our response be? Would we defend? Insist that they are only trying to protect us? What do you do when the person hurting you and tearing you down is yourself?  

There is undoubtedly a part of us that thinks it can protect us by pointing out things we could have done differently, things that didn’t work out well before, in order to try and keep us safe from further harm. There is a part of us that wants us to do better, be better. This critical voice pushes us because it loves us, and when we have pushed ourselves before, when we have tried harder and achieved, it may have seemed that this did make other people love us more. We may have told ourselves that. That people love us better when we can demonstrate that we have achieved certain external success. And that means a lot when we have been unable to create that love and safety within ourselves.

Did we even know we were supposed to? I’m not sure I even knew that as a concrete thing, that it wasn’t going to be enough to let my sense of safety be housed within my relationships instead of myself.

Sometimes we learn too well from all those who have been critical in the past, individuals and institutions that have used shame as a tool to control us. And when we use the same tools on ourselves the result is anxiety and self-doubt and depression. But how can we self-soothe, how can we turn inward for comfort when times are tough, if we have cultivated an inner critic whose voice is louder and meaner than anything else inside us?

For some of us, this all results in a situation in which we feel more at peace with a partner than on our own, because in solitude we have not been able to create a space in which we feel completely safe. This has been true for me. Yet I felt entirely comfortable providing that safety that I withhold from myself to someone else. When it works, when it is mutual, it can beautiful, and some healing can happen there, to feel that your heart is being cared for so tenderly by someone else. You might even begin to learn how to do this for yourself. But if such care is withheld, what often kicks in is not an instinct to self-nurture. Rather, it is the voice that tells us that we were never worth it to begin with.

I think all this is why writing feels so important to me—I can transcribe not just the darkness and hurt, but also the light and the balm, and I can create, in an imaginary world, things that I struggle to create internally. I try to teach it to myself, by showing what works and what doesn’t. This, not that, please.

It is also why rejection in all forms is so difficult. When connection feels like safety, then being told we aren’t someone’s cup of tea, or our creative work is not a good fit, or good enough, can be demoralizing. There is no magic to feeling okay with any of that. However, practicing and learning how to be a source of connection and safety within and for ourselves is the key, and not just to handling rejection. It is the path to being able to cope effectively with all that life throws at us.

We must be able to believe ourselves when we say I am safe. We must be able to give that gift to ourselves. I must. I’m working on it, now that I have finally figured out that this is what I should be doing. If this is your work too, I wish you love and luck.

Love, Cath