On Thresholds, Love, and Language

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we halt on a threshold and consider how words fail us.

As February inches to a halt in its slow, frozen way, and we in the Midwest stand here on the almost-verge of spring, I’m thinking of thresholds. Thresholds as in, the space existing after one thing and before another, and as in limits.

One of my earliest memories is of standing on the curb at the door of the school bus that was to take me to kindergarten. I remember the black rubber tread on the steps leading up and in, and little else. I remember feeling frozen. Years later, I asked my mother why I wouldn’t get on the bus. She said I told her it was too loud. A lot of the world feels that way, still. The overall sensory impact of a chaotic world is like a static-y radio turned up too loud. Outside that kindergarten bus, I imagine it wasn’t just the noise as overwhelming decibel level, but the clanging chaos of social unknowns, represented by overlapping voices, the chatter of classmates that I did not yet know, conversations in-progress, which I couldn’t access. My sisters were my friends, but they were in first and second grade.

I remember too the safe quiet bubble of my mother’s car as she drove me to school. I think she drove me for the first week, maybe longer. (The first time I managed to actually ride the bus was terrifying and I left my gym shoes on the bus and when everyone else was putting sneakers in cubbies against the wall, I was crying because I’d forgotten mine.) But in the car, there was reprieve. It was a hushed in-between place, and my mother was there, and it felt like everything was okay, at least for that little while, from house to school.

My son and I recently took an evening to visit my daughter at college. On the way home, he talked about how much he loved being in the car, because he did not have to be doing anything. He allowed himself to relax, chat, zone out, and not have to be productive. For him it was a reprieve from homework, student council emails, scholarship applications. Often, as I’m commuting 30 minutes or so to work, I similarly have the feeling of not wanting to get there yet. I can give myself credit for being a responsible adult going to work, but I do not yet have to face responsibilities and ingest their corresponding stresses.

I think of how much our lives create webs of responsibility and how there are very few places where we are legitimately de-obligated from fulfilling them.

Reflecting on that frozen moment when stepping onto the bus seemed equivalent to stepping off a cliff, I consider how words are such inadequate tools for conveying ideas related to feeling. We use collections of words as convenient but undersized vessels for ideas that don’t fit into them. We say terror or panic but what we mean involves the loss of a safe world, a known version of ourselves as its primary inhabitant, and the abyss of a new universe where there is no familiar anything, anyone. We try to contain with words emotions too big for our bodies, almost too big for our hearts to feel, let alone express.

I think of how else language fails us. I think of what mothering me would have been like, and though I am a mother I still can’t imagine it. I remember each of my own children’s first days – of preschool, kindergarten, high school. Dropping my daughter off at college. I imagine what it’ll be like, in a matter of months, to leave my son in his dorm room. How does one say, at such points of disembarking, I love you but I have to go this way. You have to go that way. Sometimes the simultaneous joy and pain of loving leaves us frozen.

That words never fail to fail us is especially true of love, all of our loves. We should have more words for it, better ones. There is no concise way to say I [love-that-holds-within-it-comprehension-of-all-my-maternal-shortcomings] you. No way to truly capture the sorrow of loss that grows like a long blade of grass alongside the child’s every accomplishment as witnessed from the parent’s perspective. The way loving means I am teaching you to leave me, to be you, to belong to yourself. Though you belong with me, now, you don’t belong to me. 

macro photography of droplet on green leaf during daytime
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Other ways of loving are similarly challenged by vernacular limitations. There is no easy way to express I [love-that-arrives-as-a-surprise-after-long-and-difficult-journeying] you. No way to really say that we simultaneously want to protect it as if it is vulnerable moss at the edge of a forest path in danger of being crushed by the heavy footfall of experience, and the way we lean against it as if it is the sturdiest oak in the woods.

I wonder, if we did have language for such things, would it be easier? If there were precise words for the types of love we wanted to express, would we use them more freely? Or, would our threshold for the feelings such words encapsulate still be in danger of being breached, and would we instead reach for softer words, blurry words, in order to contain? Perhaps language has limits for a reason. Perhaps as a species we have created the language we can safely wield, and nothing more.

I think, too, of those places of reprieve, and how they involve solitude sometimes, and quiet, supportive companionship at others. It might be in the car, in bed, over coffee. It might be that we don’t recognize these spaces as thresholds, as places in-between where we are allowed not to go this way or that way, not to have to deal with this responsibility, or that one. Where we don’t have to consider our threshold for what our hearts can express.

Writing this, my mind hops back to a couple of years ago when I began this blog and how the analogy of the road trip began it all, and how many times I have returned to it in various manners. Wherever you are journeying today, I hope you find that bubble of calm and quiet, when you are neither here nor there.

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.

IMG_2758

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.

IMG_2761

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.

IMG_2759

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

pexels-photo-459451.jpeg

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.

pexels-photo-305264.jpeg

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.

pexels-photo-235975.jpeg

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