On Not Knowing, or, (Not) Navigating Deep Water

By Catherine DiMercurio

I’m not sure why, but part of me still clings to this idea that the clarity I look for as I navigate some of the things I’m struggling with is something that will reveal itself to me as a shout, as a brand new beginning, the shiny other side of the coin, freshly tossed. I want to cross over along the timeline, from one side of a vertical line to the next. To say, definitively, I am here now.

But what the world has tried to teach me over and over is that everything is non-linear. Even a circle would be a welcome, familiar shape, but my life is not that either. Despite the continuity of my days, my carefully cultivated habits and routines, my inner world zig zags, soars and dives, as much as the chaos of the world outside my door.

I began writing this several days ago, firmly convinced I understood my mindset on a particular issue. I had decided I was Done, yes, with a capital D, with dating apps, Done searching for a partner, Done with the false (?, hopefully false) urgency of a timeline. Done with that feeling that I would somehow run out of chances or will or heart if I didn’t meet someone in a certain number of months or heartbeats. I don’t think there is a biological clock to this part. Though, I suppose future-me might wake up one day and wish I had tried harder sooner. But we do what we can, when we can. Don’t we? Don’t I? I mean, it is already too late for some of the dreams I once had. I have run out of time to ever celebrate a 61-year anniversary with someone, as a friend’s post about her parents celebrating their anniversary reminded me. I once had dreams of celebrating those types of anniversaries, but I’m aging out of that possibility. Letting go of that, as I’ve tried to do for some time now, means there really isn’t a clock ticking in that sense anymore. If I do meet someone, I’ll likely wish we’d had more time together, whether I met him tomorrow or in five or ten years.

So, I had let myself be Done. For now. For as long as it feels good to be doing the kind of growing and listening to myself as I’m doing now. Until I know how to do that no matter what. Until it’s like breathing, and something that won’t be abandoned like an ill-conceived New Year’s resolution the second I’m dating again.

Because I don’t want to go back to that way of loving, and I’m scared that I will. I wonder, was the reason it felt so good to be completely consumed by a relationship that I had little knowledge of or respect for myself? Did I enjoy losing myself because myself was such a flimsy concept, easy to let go of, so much so that I didn’t realize that she was lost?

Before I decided to be Done, I had grown more careful, deliberate, about who I entered into conversation with on those apps. I didn’t want to enter into anything nonchalantly. If I was going to expend my limited social capital, it had to be on someone I thought there was a chance with. I didn’t want a collection of first dates with men I didn’t plan on seeing again; I wanted to meet someone who was also looking for something long term, not just gathering with me out of sense of gathering loneliness.

I’m not lonely, which comes as a surprise to me. I have periodic moments or hours, maybe even a day or two at the most, of deep, sharp loneliness. But it is something that happens to me and falls away. It isn’t what I am.

I’ve leaned into that. What does it mean, then, to not be pursuing a relationship? I have always been in a relationship, or in between relationships. Being single but open to something happening still felt for a long time like many things: expectation, hope, wish. The natural order of things had been, for so long, that I was partnered. I always thought that I was a better me with someone else, but I didn’t have much to compare it to. If my time alone were drops of water, they would have filled a few drinking glasses, whereas my time with a partner over the years, between my marriage and my post-divorce relationships, filled up bathtubs. A swimming pool maybe. But, on my own, I am something else entirely. Something that can’t be measured by way of shallow, domestic containers. On my good days I feel like a lake, carved fathoms-deep by ancient glaciers. I have always been this same person, even when in relationships, but I didn’t know her yet. And if I didn’t, neither did the men I was with. How could they?

Photo by Miguel on Pexels.com

I often feel slow to understand things. My comprehension feels impaired by an onslaught of input. I’ve regarded myself as deep-thinking, but not quick-witted. Brains work differently. Mine is full of images and words, teeming with them. I can only handle so much external input at a time. So when I look back at what it was like to be in relationships where I prioritized the needs of my partner over my own (and unpacking that tendency is a whole different series of essays) it is no wonder that I have been slow to know myself. Think of all that additional input! Not that you can’t learn anything about yourself in a relationship. I can and did. But because of the way I was going about being in a relationship, there were things that I couldn’t learn about myself until I was on my own.

But for some reason I felt as though I needed to commit to the idea of being Done. To say, I am here now, on this side of that line. I felt as though I had to say, I know exactly what I want and it is this. That way, I know what to do, or not to do, next. When I had a tug of longing to be with someone, I then wondered, did I commit to the wrong idea, the wrong game plan? Do I still want to find someone?

The bottom line is, I don’t know, and I’m not comfortable not knowing what I want. It feels like failure. It feels like lack of insight, not knowing my gut. It feels wrong, and as if it must be remedied. It feels like wasted time. If I knew what I wanted, I could pursue it, and get on to the next part that much faster. It feels like something I ought to be ashamed of and I’m not sure why. Maybe it is because by now I should have this part figured out?

How can I not know what I want? I feel like I was always supposed to know. What do you want to be when you grow up, where do you see yourself in five years, etc. We’re supposed to be able to visualize it so we can manifest it, right?

I think one of the reasons I don’t know what I want in terms of a partner is that I’m figuring out what I want in other areas of my life. I know that I want to continue to pursue both writing and pottery, and I know that I can’t do either of those things without my “real” job that keeps a roof over three heads, mine and the two dogs. And I want a big enough roof so that when my kids come home to visit everyone has a place. And I want to nurture relationships with family and friends, connections that mean so much to me, that have on and off over the years been largely neglected when I was busy being totally consumed by romantic relationships that I let swallow me up. All of this adds up to a fullness I didn’t realize was possible. Sometimes I can’t imagine where a partner would fit into all that, possibly because I’ve never had a partnership where the fullness of both people’s lives was respected and nurtured in a healthy way.

I think the most important thing for me right now is the idea of embracing the mindset of not knowing, instead of fearing it, or, embracing it and the fear. It’s a little like swimming in deep water with no shore in sight. Yet, when I think about it, when we struggle with understanding ourselves, we are, in a way, both the swimmer and the deep water. We can keep ourselves afloat, or we can pull ourselves under. We are vast and deep, not easily navigated, and there is no shame in that. Oddly, what I am finding, is that a person can be true to themselves without having it all figured out. 

Love, Cath

On Incongruity and Metaphor (Or, On Not Giving Up on Yourself)

By Catherine DiMercurio

If you follow this blog, you know my approach: I write about things that are going on with me—in my head, and in my heart, and in my life—in the hopes that it reaches someone who might be going through something similar. Someone who is thinking/feeling the same thing and feeling crazy or isolated or scared because of it. I try to say quietly and loudly and slantwise and head-on, you are not alone, you are not alone, you are not alone. Because it is so easy to feel that way. To think that. To be trapped in the thought patterns that keep us feeling like we have no one who can relate to us. Writers are often told to write the book they want to read or that they feel is missing from the world. While I do keep trying to do that with my fiction, I’m also trying to do that here: write the words that I feel should be out in the world.

This may or may not be true, but I imagine there are plenty of people in the world who have long felt secure in themselves, who aren’t troubled by anxiety or depression, who might stumble on my blogs and wonder what is wrong with that person or geez, another one about self-trust? Or, why isn’t she over some of this stuff already?

But I’m writing for the people who feel things deeply, who have maybe have given too much of themselves away and in doing so, created on their heart a soft surface where blows leave marks that last a long time.  

I do feel like a broken record sometimes though. I wonder if I’m ruminating too much. I’m weighing all the advice about feeling your feelings and processing things and trying to make sense of it all and figuring out what is next, and when, and how, and why. It’s a lot, isn’t it? Life is a lot, for everyone.

This week was full of difficult anniversaries of things and a terrible dentist appointment and if it hadn’t been for a couple of texts, messages, and phone calls, along with an enormously satisfying throwing session in pottery, I would have struggled a lot more than I did. Though, the week did not end without tears.

I realize sometimes that I almost let pottery slip through my fingers. It would have been easy in the beginning to do the thing I used to do: not try, or not follow through on something that I knew I was not going to be good at right away, or at all. I was very discouraged that initial semester.

I think if I had started pottery even just two years ago, I might have given up in those early months. Might have powered miserably through the first semester and never taken another class. Might have told myself “You’re never going to get the hang of this. You’re too uncoordinated. It’s too hard.”

When I was feeling frustrated and like I wasn’t learning fast enough during that first semester, I bought a wheel, a cheap model I ordered online. I practiced at home. I reduced the amount of time I was “failing” publicly. In a way, I outsmarted myself. I knew the biggest obstacles to continuing with pottery were the feelings that everyone was better at this (and many were; there were a lot of returning students) and the huge—though needless—embarrassment I felt that I was slow to acquire skills and techniques everyone seemed to possess already. Even the other new people seemed to learn faster than me. But practicing at home, privately messing up and starting over and over, was what enabled me to get more comfortable with the clay, and with myself. In a way, I was battling a lot in myself. There was a part of me who desperately wanted to keep doing this, keep trying, get better. Keep playing. And there was the uncomfortable, anxious, critical part of me who fought back. That part is vulnerable and self-protective, and I have been working so hard to heal it. I couldn’t tell myself to just toughen up and push through, though. Pottery—or, a deep longing to explore this medium—both encouraged and enabled me to have these two disparate parts of myself start working together.

First, I had to stop telling myself never. I stopped saying, “you’ll never figure this out; you’ll never be good at this.” Instead, I’d ask people how long they’d been doing pottery. I’d gauge how long it might take me to feel more proficient, and I introduced the term yet into the way I talked to myself about my efforts. I haven’t learned that yet. I haven’t mastered that yet.

So what was the difference? How was I finally able to get to a point of mediating between these two competing parts of myself, both very childlike, one wounded and wary, one playful and enthusiastic? How did I not fall into the usual trap of avoiding something I couldn’t excel at quickly? It’s hard to pin it down, but I think one reason this lesson finally “took”—after years of similar internal battles—was because of the things I’d been learning about myself after my last breakup. I told myself a lot of things in that relationship that did not serve me. One of them being that I had to make it work because I was 50. I had reached the cutoff point I’d given myself. I didn’t want to start over with someone new. I tried so hard to mold myself into who I needed to be to make that relationship work, except, that person was a shadow-me. That person couldn’t, or wouldn’t express what she needed, and felt like she ought to not need anything at all, since needy was bad, right? But when it began to feel all too incongruous with who I was, I talked myself into changing course. I talked with my partner about what I needed and hoped for, and it soon became clear that we weren’t good fit after all.

One of the lessons I learned from that experience, the one that helped me stay in pottery, was to stop saying things to myself that make things worse. Just as I needed to stop telling myself to “make it work” in that relationship, I also need to stop telling myself that I’d never be able to center the clay or pull up walls or make a cylinder. I needed to stop saying that I’d never be able to do it or never be good enough.

At the end of the relationship, the incongruous feeling I was having centered around the me I knew I was, and the me I was telling myself I needed to be to make the relationship work. By the time I was taking that first semester of pottery class, I was starting to get more and more comfortable with listening to myself, to watching out for what made me feel less like myself (whether it was my own words or someone else’s). What was incongruous that first semester was the part of me saying give up. Most of me didn’t want to give up. But I had to have a long, difficult talk with that other part of myself who kept saying I should.

[Disclaimer: there are obviously times when it makes sense to try with everything you’ve got to make a relationship work! There are plenty of relationships worth fighting for. The ones that are worth that effort are those in which you do not have to be someone you aren’t for it to work. Yes, both parties should be willing to compromise, but you compromise about preferences, choices, behaviors, not who you are, and not the essentials of what you need. Some key questions (among many) to ask yourself: Is it safe to be myself? Am I becoming less of who I am in this relationship? And are my efforts to improve the relationship being matched and reciprocated? No relationship is worth disappearing over, and both people should be giving it everything they’ve got.]

Sometimes in my current pottery class, I still get overwhelmed with how much I don’t know. Sometimes it feels like beautiful, endless, possibility and other times I feel small and uncreative and like I can’t tap into whatever it is I need to in order to grow, to feel like I’m as much of an artist as the other people in the studio. I still feel like I’m learning rudimentary skills. But after a great throwing day, where I pushed myself and made some larger pieces, I took a look at everything I threw and thought, I’m a potter. I’ve said it before, even put it in a dating profile, but this was the first time I’d thought it and felt it. It took eleven months to get to that point, and it has been worth the effort.

I love it when a metaphor presents itself to me. I used to say that running is a metaphor for everything, and it is. So is pottery. The world is full of metaphors rushing to in to help you understand the meaning of effort and beauty and reward and . . . self. How we return to ourselves is one of the most important journeys we can ever embark on. Wishing you peace and insight as you find your journey, and the metaphors that become your maps.

Love, Cath

On Vulnerability, Lessons, and Learning

By Catherine DiMercurio

Lately, I’ve been thinking about lessons, and the ways we learn and remember. Maybe it was because I had to spend some time thinking about whether I’d invest in another semester of pottery, or because I recently got to spend some time with my math teacher sister.

I was talking to my sister about one thing, and then suddenly, as we were driving home from a hike, I realized I was talking about something else, my old boyfriend. As I recounted an incident that underscored what had gone wrong in that relationship, I realized that I have become a student of my past. In so many ways, this has helped me to understand the way I respond to the world around me. Yet, there are some experiences I revisit without intending to. It is almost like reciting a memorized piece, a prayer, poem, or song, the way I chronicle the events and their consequences. It is as if part of me is determined to always have certain things known by heart, as if only the periodic reminder of what and how something hurt will prevent it from happening again.

Can we protect ourselves and still be open hearted? Is this a binary situation or do we flow between those poles? A Venn diagram maybe, and somewhere in the middle of two intersecting circles is a state where we’re both open eyed and open hearted.

Remember when we were children and we had to memorize multiplication tables and spelling words? I recited things back to myself over and over, even after pop quizzes and tests, worried that I’d forget something. A memory floats back to me of sitting in my parents’ car, a stick-shift van of some sort, in our driveway. My mother was in the driver’s seat; she hated to drive that car. We were talking about a word I’d gotten wrong on a spelling test. I must have been in first or second grade. The word was “ladder,” but I’d spelled it “latter.” I was so frustrated; I’d sounded it out and everything. I don’t remember exactly what my mother said, but the memory is suffused with her gentleness. She repeated both words, emphasizing the different letter sounds of the d’s and the t’s to help me hear the difference. I don’t know why I was so upset by one wrong word on a spelling test, but any kind of test always created a feeling of urgency. It must have been after this that I’d started memorizing everything.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

Even then I was forming and performing the pattern of memorization as a means of avoiding the discomfort of “failure.” [I would later spell the word “oxidation” wrong in the spelling bee, thinking there must be a “y” like in “oxygen.” I would always stumble over 7 x 8 for some reason, and the 12s were always hard.]

Now, I instead of spelling words and multiplication tables, I play out remembered scenes in my head, conflict with past partners. To be clear, this study of the economics of emotional vulnerability was necessary work. In trying to understand why my willingness to be vulnerable and honest with a partner was not reciprocated, I realized that my response to what felt like rejection was to attempt to prove my worth through my ability to be accommodating. But, those equations didn’t add up. And now instead of trying to remember 12 x 9, I know by heart the way my emotional vulnerability and honesty does not equal a healthy relationship when multiplied by 0.

I tiptoed into one aspect of vulnerability again with a brief foray back into online dating. I had a small spark of hope and interest in someone for a little while, but the conversation revealed that I had good reason to keep my guard up a bit. I know that in a way, dating is just like submitting my fiction to literary journals, and that disappointment is common, and you can’t let it dissuade you. But my heart is on the line in a different way in the dating world and I find that I’m more reluctant to keep “putting myself out there” in the face of disappointment than I am with my writing. Maybe this is a lack of bravery, a fear of getting hurt, but it is also fatigue, and a growing sense that maybe it doesn’t matter that much anyway. It is hard to imagine that I will ever simply stop writing and seeking publication; it’s much easier to imagine that I’ll stop looking for the relationship that I once believed was just as important as my writing. Some people say that’s exactly when you find someone—when you stop looking. Other people say you’ll never find someone if you aren’t looking.

Right now, I think I’m going to have to trust that as I explore the boundaries of vulnerability and safety, I’ll be open to the possibility of meeting someone should the opportunity arise.  And that in living my life and exploring my interests, I’m creating opportunities.

What I’d like to do in the meantime is let go of the feeling that lessons must be recited, memories re-dissected, in order for the learning to stick. Life isn’t spelling tests and multiplication tables. There is no pop quiz, but sometimes it feels like there is. Scrolling through a social media feed, I see pop psychologists informing me of the things I need to do to recover from the wounds of past relationships. It’s as if there’s a way to tabulate the self-knowledge gained and unless you can do a presentation for the class on your attachment style and inner child work, you’re not getting an “A” and graduating to “healed” and “ready.”

But I don’t want to do it that way. While I don’t want to miss out on guidance that might help me, I am also fatigued by input, from advice snippets on social media, from the few chapters of self-help books I’ve been able to get through, even from therapy, though that has been vital to me over the years. Do you ever have the sense that everything you need is right in front of you, but the more you listen to other people the harder it gets to put it all together?

Here’s something I haven’t really thought of before: maybe I will intuitively know when I need to seek help. That I can’t “miss out” on guidance that will help me because if I need it, I’ll go looking for it. I don’t have to leave the faucet on, letting a steady stream of help wash over me.

Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “There is a guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening, we shall hear the right word.” I think again of a Venn diagram, this time of our inner voice in one circle and the competing voices of every place and person we’ve turned to for advice, or that has offered it in some way. Maybe there is some amazing overlap at the center where we trust ourselves but also are doing some appreciative “lowly listening” to the outside world as well. I think it’s a little dangerous to think we have all the answers ourselves, but it’s just as harmful to think that we don’t have any, that our own intuition, experience, and introspection is less valuable than the flood of information pouring down round us.

I think, too, that sometimes we create our own noise. We’re reciting our lessons, the ones that are supposed to help us, the ones we can’t forget, and maybe that mumbling recitation becomes part of the static we hear. One of the hardest things about self-trust is believing that what we’ve learned stays with us, that it is a part of us, and will be accessible when we need it. Maybe the lesson learned about a past relationship won’t be quite at our fingertips the way we want it to be, in a new relationship, but we can pause. We can check our spelling and verify the math. Because even if we don’t remember the order of the letters, or can’t quite recall the equation, we do know when something sounds off. We ask ourselves, wait, is that right, is this adding up? The trick is to expand that moment, to slow down and take the time to check. And that might also be the right place to reach out if we need to—to a therapist, a friend, a family member—and go over what it is that’s troubling us.

Some days, I’m reveling in freedoms I couldn’t comprehend when I was tumbling from one relationship into the next. I feel at times like I’ve had the best and worst of three worlds. I know what it is like to love someone for years and years with every single cell of my being, and I know what it is like to be betrayed and devastated by them. I know what falling in love with a new person is like, and I have fully felt the pain of those endings, the dull, persistent ache of realizing that the hope of reshaping your life with someone isn’t going to work out, again. I know the giddy glow of finally getting to know and love myself, and I know how the loneliness swoops in at a rush, extinguishing the lights and leaving me low. And I know that it departs swiftly and mysteriously these days. The only thing I don’t know is what’s next. But I’m curious.

Love, Cath

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.

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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