On Communities, Solitude, and Situational Goals

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes belonging is complicated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Clay and Conversation

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Safe Havens

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we figure out what we need.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Lake Magic and Collaboration

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we must collaborate to find magic and peace.

You think you’re doing okay. You are. You’re handling all the things this life has thrown at you. You open new little doors and through them you step into huge worlds of strength and resilience. Some nights you don’t sleep, some nights you do. You worry about what will come next and then you are in it, being what is next, and you reassure yourself. This is what life is, this is what it looks like for me, here, now. But everything takes its toll and you feel stress accumulating like mud in your cells. Your thinking and the way you move through the world feels muddy, though you know you have to keep doing it anyway. And then you manage, almost by accident, to find your way to a great big lake that lets itself feel like the edge of everything, and the instant your toes are greeted by the first big wave crashing then lapping up to meet you, you begin to cry. Is this relief? Release? Something seems to wash away, weight seems to fall away from your tired shoulders. It is as if your lungs have filled fully for the first time in who knows.

Sometimes it is like that. Sometimes we fall into a moment where we can, at long last, regroup and breathe deeply.

I have always known that being near a body of water calms me. When I say that, it doesn’t feel like it truly conveys what I need it to. It’s not simply that I was feeling a little stressed and can relax now. It feels more like an elemental return to self. Most people who know me have heard me say something about how it has long been my dream to live in a little cottage on a lake. I do hope one day I can figure out how to make that happen. Until then, I know that I must create more opportunities to wind my way toward water.

Lake Michigan works magic well, but it wasn’t just the lake. It was spending time with my sister. It was both of us and both of our families figuring out how to let us place on hold all the other things that require our attention, and all of us letting us have this.

It was us a collaborative effort to build open space.

I’m tuned in to this notion of collaboration lately. When I think about dating again, about trying once more to find someone with whom I’m compatible and who also wants the same thing for the future that I do, I realize that I want a collaborator. Someone who wants to build what we have and where we are going, together, as equal partners with different strengths and weaknesses.

I realize, too, the extent to which the various parts of myself need to collaborate with each other in order to pursue dreams, to calm anxiety, to find rest when it is needed, or motivation when it is time to roll up sleeves and get to work.

Part of that process involves making peace with myself for all the things that Weren’t Supposed to Be This Way. For all the reshaping I tried to do that ended up collapsing in on itself anyway, like a carefully built sand castle eroded by waves.

Letting go of things we need to be free of is as difficult as it is necessary. But, there is no magical process. One of the reasons it is so hard to let go of past griefs and experiences is that as much as we want to forget, there is a fear that if we do forget, we might repeat mistakes. Our mammalian minds and bodies know that a remembered pain can trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response that can, theoretically, protect us. That sometimes does protect us. And so, moved by the tremendous force of instinct, we hang on to what hurts. We need to override this sometimes, and it takes conscious effort. It takes learning about ourselves layer by layer.

One way to override this instinctual response within us is to understand that a lot of the anxiety we shoulder on a day-to-day basis is a companion of this pain, because it is fear of future pain. For me, addressing this requires me to remind myself of what I’ve handled, of what I’m capable of. It makes the prospect of future pain less frightening. We have to work together, collaborate, the part of me that doubts myself and the part of me that knows better. No one is handing out gold stars for the millions of things we have taken care of and continue to manage. We just do it, and sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s messy.

Only after layers of lessons have accumulated can you see the beauty in what you created out of trouble and tears. You become able to acknowledge what you were willing and able to do for yourself, in honor of yourself, in service of yourself.

If you’ve ever harbored a secret notion to be delivered from what you’re struggling with, take a moment now to look at what you’ve accomplished. Take a moment to breathe deeply and see yourself with fresh sight, to see the beauty in your strength, in the variegated patina of your experience.

So often, we push through things that we never give ourselves credit for. And because we don’t, we have not cultivated an accurate understanding of ourselves, our worth, our strength. If we take the time to do that every so often, we can find a bit of peace, we can let go of the anxiety that spools through us, binding us tighter and tighter to fear and pain. We can do this because we do know what we can handle.

In a few days, I’m going to have to handle a new transition, my son moving off to college (again). We did this before, last fall, knowing he would be home for the summer. But the dorms closed and he moved back home at Thanksgiving. He’s a good roomie, I’m going to miss him. He’s ready for the next part. I mostly am, but this time is different. After he moves, he likely won’t live at home again. And when I return home, it won’t be like last year, when I was cultivating a relationship. This year, I’ll be empty nesting without a partner. There is much to look forward to, but I know the transition is likely to be bumpy at times. I will be cultivating and collaborating, but in a different direction.

Whatever your next transition is, I wish you peace and strength. I hope you are able to collaborate with self, and with your people, to create space for relief and growth. And I’m wishing us all a little lake magic, too.

Love, Cath

From Dissection to Healing to Magic

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes it takes science and fairy tales to get there.

Sometimes I feel as though I cannot get out of my own head, and that this is a blessing and a curse. When I think of the events of the past year, around the globe and in our country, is it any wonder that a person would want to escape? At the same time, seated at the shiny black lab table in my brain, dissecting the minutiae of what is working and what isn’t, on a less global, more personal level, thinking of what was, and what could be, and what won’t be, is exhausting.

I remember my advanced biology class, the eviscerated fetal pig in front of me – a tough memory for a vegan, no doubt – and labeling a diagram. I remember the smell of formaldehyde. Who could forget the sour chemical pungency of that smell? Near the end of the semester, late May, perhaps, I sat in Mrs. Fitzgerald’s class, and the windows were open, and the air was warm and heavy. The faint breeze that huffed in through the window did little to dissipate the odors in the room. The paper in front of me, next to my tray of pig, was limp from humidity, and I can see myself sitting there with a scalpel in my hand.

I think, how like that I sometimes feel now, attempting to take an objective scientific look at myself, my brain, my heart. Everything in front me.

Thinking analytically about self is no easy task. It is one part of what we talk about when we say we are doing the work. When I say we here, I mean the people I talk to who are also endeavoring through intentionality to figure out their lives and relationships. Rolling up our sleeves and doing the tough thinking about who we are, who we were, who we want to be. Where are we going and how we get there. The other part of this endeavor is messier. It is the grieving that happens when we follow certain lines of thinking, tracing the paths of arteries back to the heart.

Lately, I’ve been doing this analytical work, and following all the emotions that accompany it. It is painstaking work that involves patience, which I’ve never been very good at, and also why I would have made a poor scientist.

The universe insists on patience, whether or not we are good at it, whether or not we are overcome by a sense of urgency.

There are many ways people talk about what they carry and what they are working through. Sometimes we use terms like weight, or wounds or scars. What I’m beginning to understand is that maybe, though we are focused on this work, though we tend what needs attention with a sense of urgency, frustration, and impatience, we also must focus on the rest of us.

What I mean is this: When we are injured, we care for the wound, but also know that we need our bodies to be strong and healthy in order to heal, so we make sure we are eating the right foods, getting enough sleep, etc. When we meet people, if the injury is obvious, involving a cast, or bandages or crutches, that is likely going to be the first thing they notice about us. We, and they, are rightly focused on this Big Thing that has happened and is now a part of our lives.

Similarly, when we are heart-sore and soul-wounded from large-scale psychic pain and grief, it is just as obvious to the world around us as a broken leg in a cast. But over time, those injuries that may still cause us pain become less apparent to the world at large, just as a once-broken bone may always cause us an ache that no one else can see.

What I’m learning is this: there is a point in our healing process where our focus is able to shift from the wound, the scar, the weight, to the rest of us, to the whole self. And when we are ready, we will let it. We will welcome it.

A holistic view of self neither privileges nor ignores injury. Likewise, it does not privilege or ignore what is healthy and healed.

It is said that some people lead with their hearts, some with their heads. And by lead, I mean, lead themselves, through life. I think, when a heart has been busy healing from new bruising upon old trauma, a person tends to lead with that, with the weight, the wounds. It’s hard not to, when that’s what you’ve been focused on for so long, in an effort to transcend the past.

But, think of this: in a garden, you water the healthy plants and the sick ones. In a writing workshop, you focus both on what’s working and what isn’t. Some of us, perfectionists or people who have otherwise developed a strong compulsion toward proving themselves, can only seem to focus on what needs improving, and do so in a way that presents itself as hyper-self-criticism. We look at this intense attention to what needs to be done as necessary and good, but if we spend too much time and too much energy on that endeavor, we are effectively abandoning the rest of ourselves.

People say, know your worth, and if you’ve been in the process of recovering and healing, it isn’t as if you don’t, but it certainly hasn’t been your area of focus.

We are told that if we do not heal past traumas, we are doomed to repeat destructive patterns. Yet, the notion of healing is a blurry one. We dissect, we study, we grieve, and we do this over and over, trying with each attempt to understand our whole heart and mind more fully.

There are always going to be moments where we shift our attention once again to those old, troubling wounds, but if you have been focusing primarily on that, with an urgent desire to heal, this might be the time and place to say, enough. We might imagine a doctor hovering over healed sutures saying, well, you’re always going to have that scar, but you’re pretty much good to go.

We might imagine ourselves hovering over that poor dissected creature in front of us, saying I’ve learned everything I could from you. Thank you for your sacrifice. Place the scalpel on the table and walk away.

We turn our attention to self as a whole organism and instead of cataloging the injuries that have cried out for healing, we count them as tended to. The analytical part of us can now assess the new being that we now are, scars and all. If we are list makers, we begin a new one. We start small. We think of praise that we received as a child, what we were we good at. We cobble together a collection of our accomplishments, our strengths, big and small.

Photo by Klaus Nielsen on Pexels.com

We soon realize that we are doing more than cobbling. We are cracking something open, like a fairytale egg, and what’s inside is something we’ve been hoarding without knowing it – all of the good things, the joyful things, the brilliant unwounded, indestructible, infinite parts of ourselves gifted from the cosmos. We sigh, pleased with our magic, and think, there you are, and are reunited with ourselves.  

Love, Cath

On Truces and Getting Back to True

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes life feels like a strange kind of algebra.

“Truce?” I say. I say this to myself one morning as I fill the kettle. Moments before, I had been staring into the bathroom mirror, questioning my decision to let my hair do as it likes, which is grow unruly streaks of silver. I also tried out different expressions, ones that tried to let my face look more like I remember. Big smile. No smile. Head tilted this way, that way. I gave up, made the coffee, begged myself for some peace.

I am knocking around in this unfamiliar place, in this almost-fifty-one year-old structure, which houses a self that often feels like it doesn’t belong to these bones. But I realized that morning, as I waved my white flag, that this was about more than physical aging. I was doing calculations, I was adding up what could be counted as victories in recent years, subtracting the things that feel like failures, taking into account the variables.

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There is the feeling I had in my algebra class long ago. I’d done the torturous calculations and felt uncertain but hopeful about my answer, and then checked the back of the book and realized that no, my answer wasn’t right after all. “I hate this,” I’d say. I even had the moxie to say it to my algebra teacher once. He was encouraging me to keep pursuing advanced mathematics courses, in high school, and later, in college. “No, you don’t,” he told me. “You can’t be this good at something and hate it.” It didn’t make sense to me. I was getting an A in the class, but it didn’t feel as if I was good at it. I was good at my English classes, and I knew I was good, because not only was I getting an A, but those classes were easy for me. And even when they weren’t easy, the hard work felt . . . right. I somehow knew I had the tools I needed to succeed. But algebra, physics, geometry, trigonometry – these were all different. I couldn’t be good at something that remained confusing even when the correct answer was achieved.

So, when I look at my life now, approaching another birthday, single again, physical appearance shifting, still reaching toward goals that aren’t being achieved at the pace I’d hoped, I feel at times that I’m at war with myself. There is a new clarity here, now, in writing that sentence, in voicing it aloud. Often, it feels as though I must be doing it incorrectly. Living. Aging. Being. Working. Right answers are supposed to feel certain, true. And even if you must work hard to get them, that work is supposed to make sense. When it doesn’t, everything feels like algebra.  

I wonder sometimes if I should write such things down and share them. But I have to believe, if we are being honest with ourselves, that everyone feels like this at various points in their life. And if we can be honest with ourselves, then we can be honest with each other, which allows us to communicate with one another in the same language. We can connect more truly and deeply with one another. And why else are we bumping around here on this rock floating in space, if not to try and understand each other?

Often, for me, when one element of my life has been thrown askew, everything seems off. I recently purchased a new bike and had been reading about the differences between disc brakes and rim brakes. I came across the phrase, “out of true.” As in, what happens with the braking when the wheel is out of true. The recent ending of my relationship surely has thrown my heart out of true, and I’m feeling the need to fine-tune the way I look at my whole self.

One thing that has helped this process has been reconnecting myself to a writing community, via a workshop I’ve recently become a part of. We met for the first time, over Zoom, and afterward, though we haven’t even shared any writing yet, I breathed deeply for the first time in weeks. I had a tremendous sense of relief that something was making sense once again. And lots of other feelings began to settle down. It is as if writing – and not only me writing alone in this room, but the act of cultivating my writing and my writing life and my writing friendships – is one of the tools I can use to fine tune everything that feels out of true.

As I’ve written in previous posts, writing is the surest, truest path for me to get back to me. We all have our own paths. What are yours? Do you think about them? What do you do, when you feel out of true?

Writing though, as magic as it is, isn’t a panacea. This feeling of being at war with myself calms when I’m exploring and discovering and creating with my writing, or when I’m focused on other things like gardening, but the work of peace-making with myself is complex. Writing can help me work through what needs to be considered and evaluated and re-conceptualized, but I suspect the process will be long, gradual, painful, and largely algebraic. It is a consideration of variables, of working with unknown values, of getting it wrong and then starting again. I have just realized, in writing that sentence, that writing involves the same things: variables, unknown values, failures, new attempts. Maybe this is how the war ends. Maybe reconciliation with self is simply the realization that things are as they are, that they take the work and the time and the patience and the love that they do. That realities don’t change. Whether I’m in algebra or English class, the problems are quite similar, and hard work is hard.

Maybe the trick is knowing which perspectives to shift into depending on what is going on in our lives at any particular time, just the way we shift gears to adapt to changes in the terrain beneath our wheels.

Here’s to getting back to true.

Love, Cath

On Wildishness: Brambleberries, Books, and the Blue Path

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes no paths are marked, but we keep finding our way.

Last week:

Outside it is glowing green. The heavy cloud cover is too much for the early morning sun to shine through much, but there is a strange brightness to the world. The sycamore branches hang low, forming an enchanted canopy over the front yard. The lawn, more clover than grass, needs mowing, but I don’t know if the respite from the rain will last long enough. I can see, through this big window, the plants I inherited, and those I lovingly introduced into my own little ecoscape. I can see in my efforts several themes: a disregard for research, for the details of what will thrive where; a passion for the hues and textures I love, the pinks of the cosmos, the fuzzy white surface of angel’s wing leaf; two competing desires – to create order from chaos, and to let things be at least half-wild.

It has rained so continually and with such force in recent days that many people have experienced flooding. I am lucky. For me, only this: the yard is puddled, the dogs’ paws are perpetually muddy, the firepit is full of rainwater, and the pages of my library book are noticeably limp from the humidity.

I look for a place to shelve my heartache. It has no call number, like the library book on the sofa next to me. There’s no order for it, no alpha, by author, though that is an intriguing thought if you follow it.

A Few Days Ago:

The weather has turned blisteringly hot again, and the humidity is ever-present. The AC is still broken, but I have finally scheduled the repair. Sometimes such mundane tasks seem overwhelming.

At times, I feel heaved, in the way that land masses heave in an earthquake. Emotions upend one another, and I list, unbalanced. And I make a list: what I want. I don’t know how to make the next list: how to get there. I do not know how to map the new topography. Each time I find myself alone, unpartnered, the landscape looks different. I am different, changed.

The puppy is eight months old now, and over 62 pounds, and wants to eat constantly. I have 30 minutes to write. I have walked both dogs, separately. I need to begin work soon. I give myself 30 minutes, but the puppy begins to bark at the food cupboard. His empty stomach and growing body will not wait. I think of all the things in me that are growing, that feel snarled and surly, and which also do not want to wait. I feed the dogs. I make sure no one fights over food. The clock ticks.

Last night at dusk I picked the wildish berries growing in the yard. I call them brambleberries, my sister told me they were black caps. The setting sun lit up a giant fluff of cloud till it glowed pink, and I tried to capture it all and save it, this simple moment that offered a spark of joy. I try to collect them, such joyful moments, like the fireflies the puppy chases, like a handful of brambleberries.

My thoughts are everywhere lately, in the past, the present, the future, everywhere at once it feels, as though the hourglass has become a snow globe, and all the seconds are all happening at once. I wait for things to slow, and to settle.

Today:

Today I am making a blueberry crisp. I have walked the dogs. The puppy lunged at every robin and sparrow that he saw. When I woke this morning, I felt as though things were relatively manageable. It is a feeling I don’t have every day. It sometimes doesn’t last through the morning.

I think of how many times in one’s life everything cries out to be reassessed, usually at an ending, before the next beginning. I try the trick of looking at it all from different angles, seeing opportunities to grow, and I wonder, have I grown in the right directions? Maybe it is always the right direction if you can look back and realize what you have learned about yourself, when an offshoot took you down an unexpected path. Maybe.

A Couple of Weeks Ago:

My son and I went for a hike in some local woods where we’d previously had a difficult time navigating. We were determined to be observant, to stay on the path marked in blue on the map at the entrance, the path marked crudely in blue spray paint on trees and markers in the woods. It felt impossible. The trail doubled back on itself multiple times. We’d approach a crossroads, and there would be blue everywhere, in each new direction. At one point we theorized that vandals had spray painted random blue markers to be mischievous, to get people lost.

You never know when the mischievous universe will let you think you’re on the right path. Unless, there is no mischief, and it is all the blue path, and you are always going where you need to, and it isn’t always out of the woods. Though, I do believe there is always some mischief at work in the universe.

Today:

There is no place to shelve anything, none of the difficult feelings. There are no shelves, just piles of books, a wildish, half-ordered forest of them, and we find pathways through. We’ve follow our noses, our guts, or our hearts, and if we’ve learned anything it is that the only way is the way we are going.

On Want, Work, and Growth

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we will try many ways of looking before we can see.

Sometimes when we want something very badly, we will look at it from every angle, multiple times, even creating angles that are not there. Hope can do that – create prisms out of thin air. Shiny things that distract our minds and hearts from difficult truths. But at some point, the blinding brightness of the light is muted by a cloud – of anger, of fear, of sadness – and we are able to see things with a new clarity, and then, to move in the direction we need to go.

I told my sister recently that I’ve been gardening as if my life depended on it, and I wondered if it really did, in a way. Not the fact of my life itself, but the way I want it to unfold. I told her that when there is so much to do, you can hardly even tell I’ve done anything. A lot of the hard work we do can be like that. We wonder and worry about how our efforts will be perceived, though we know how we’ve endeavored.

When we say we want something “very badly” we mean this: we want it very much. Sometimes we are told that what we want is a bad thing to want. It is silly, it is pointless, it is too much, it is ill-defined, you won’t get it, the world doesn’t work that way, who do you think you are, to want such a thing? No one gets what they want. As if wanting the right thing for ourselves and our future is somehow the wrong thing to do. I suppose sometimes it is. I suppose, in some philosophies, the teaching is to eliminate wants, the way some people eliminate carbs. They are bad for us. Maybe that’s true. Or maybe we are all wired differently. Sometimes we simply must respect the differences.

We offer trellises to vines, thinking of future growth. There is planting and wanting and planning everywhere. There is growth in new directions. We are many things at once: the vine, the trellis, and the gardener who plants the vine and places the trellis. We are who we’ve been and who we want to be, as much as we are who we are in this moment. Multitudes, always.

My gardening has involved creating beds and pathways out of an overgrown, weedy, neglected area behind my garage. It was long abandoned when I arrived in this place, about a year ago, and for many reasons, I was not able to make it a top priority. Now, with more time available and some fraught and frenetic energy on hand, I got to it. Digging, planting, creating. It isn’t finished. Like everything good, it is a work-in-progress, something to always tend.

We need the work and the work needs us.

I planted a little baby of an Eastern white pine. I’d been longing to plant a pine tree for a while. I researched them. Realized many of the specimens I thought were pine trees were really spruces. Things often reveal themselves to be something other than what you thought they were.

I looked for trees months ago, but it was too early and none of the gardening or landscape stores had them yet. Then I looked too late, I thought, because I still was not finding what I was looking for. But yesterday, I found the white pine. I greeted this creature, as if knowing it already. There you are, hiding here in the back at this store I never come to. So, there’s hope I guess, buried in gardening metaphors, about timing and finding, maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard to see clearly sometimes. Remember?

My current state of mind is work- and growth-focused. Writing and gardening. Dig, prune. Wait for rain. Be patient. Blossom? Maybe. Sometimes it works out that way.

Love, Cath

On Swarming and Signifying

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes a swarm has something to say.

A recent rain brought down a bald-faced hornets’ nest that had hung high on a branch of my neighbor’s silver maple. The nest was active last summer but its papery cavities, in the cold months, were excavated by birds for sustenance, or so my son has informed me. The silver maple branch of my neighbor’s tree juts across my back yard, so that the nest hung squarely above my yard, until last week. We discovered the nest at dusk, and in the fading light, it reminded me so much of a giant human heart, misshapen after the fall. When I took the dogs out in the middle of the night, they stood near its eerie mass, not indicating a threat so much as something I should take notice of. This, they seemed to say. In the morning, we studied the nest’s construction, the intricate cavities; we marveled at the engineering. I thought how wonderful it was that the hornets’ well-made home allowed them the safety and security necessary to live out a full life cycle, even if we, their human neighbors, occasionally needed to dodge them in the summer.

When I was little, we had a cluster of forsythia shrubs in the yard. Their long, arching branches wove together at the top, forming a little airy atrium. My two older sisters and I would spread a blanket on the dirt floor of this chamber, and spend many a spring afternoon escaping, planning and plotting, adventuring, and resting there. Sometimes now I would like to ask them: do you remember staring up at the crisscrossing branches above us, looking at all the yellow stars blooming, and feeling safe? And have you ever felt so safe in your lives since? Our baby brother was napping away the spring afternoon, our mother worked in the house, our father was gone to his job, his life away from the house mostly a mystery to us, except when he let us come to the grocery story on Sundays when it was closed, and we’d help him by turning all the cans so their bright labels neatly faced the aisles. It was years before our other sister was born, though sometimes I imagine she was there too, somehow. I think this is the safest I’ve ever felt, long before the sting of any loss, before we tumbled into our adult selves. Nestled in our flowering nest, there was no understanding of anything that couldn’t easily be made better.

Sometimes we are lucky, and we can recognize happiness when it comes along, feel the solid pressure of it aching in our ribs, patiently, until we notice it and name it. It is in these moments of recognition, where, feeling both solid and buoyed, I find myself most vulnerable. Where the mere whisper of a threat to what I’ve so carefully constructed feels like a storm of wind and rain, ready to send it all crashing to the earth. Everyone feels vulnerable to loss. I think when you have very specific memories and a set of circumstances that surround a past, significant loss, part of you becomes hyper aware of what you can lose, and how it will feel. Part of you becomes an ever-vigilant swarm of hornets, swirling in a confused haze around the nest, looking for threats. People talk about “angry” hornets, or wasps, or bees. They are not angry – they are instinctively protecting their collective heart, the nest, or hive. Yet it is easy to wonder, if our perceived-threat response is hornet swarm, how can we ever feel soothed, and what will it take to feel capable of being happy without feeling overwhelmed by the corresponding fear of its loss? I think back to the forsythia days, and how that was the magical quality. There was no fear of loss; we didn’t know what it was. Happiness and love existed like air and sunshine.

I have spent years trying to teach myself to live in the moment, to not what if my life away, to not swoop and swarm when I fear the world could give way beneath me. In no way have I mastered this. But in some ways, I’m managing to navigate, sometimes. In some ways, it is only the swarm of words that can calm the other swarm. I talk my way through, I write my way through, and I talk some more. I wish it were easier. And I’m ever thankful for being loved in returned, and listened to, with empathy. I’ve also considered that there is another way to think of the swarm that tries to protect me from losing what I love. Rather than thinking of the swarm as the dark shape of past fear protecting me against future loss, it can be viewed as a signifier, one that underscores that this love I have is something worth protecting. Like the dogs in the yard hovering over the nest, and the forsythia blossoms hovering over three little sisters, the swarm says simply, This.

Love, Cath

On Art, Home, and Haziness

By Catherine DiMercurio

A friend and I recently were writing to one another about why we write. That conversation yielded for me an understanding that why is a question awkwardly affixed to the relationship I have with writing, which is more akin to the relationship I have with my skin than anything else. In a broad sense, it is something I have, something I need, something that protects me.

On a practical level, yes, writing is also something I do. Sometimes it is an act of artistic creation and sometimes it is an involuntary function that happens automatically and silently, the way my brain tells my lungs to breathe. Things are unfolding all the time in my mind and I wish I could somehow capture more of it. Sometimes writing is my only hope for effectively communicating my heart to the world, (or to the more individual and larger universe of me and you).

Sometimes writing is a job and sometimes it is a wish, but it is always skin.

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years, weeks, days, minutes, always, trying to pinpoint such facets of my identity throughout the changing circumstances of my life. This intense scrutiny was kickstarted by my divorce, though I had long been focused on issues of identity in my writing, always trying to figure out if we become more of who we are as we age, or less.

As I enter my first spring in this new place, I sat down recently with my coffee and felt myself settling in, to here, to now, to me. And I thought, maybe I’ve been asking the wrong questions about identity and self-awareness. Maybe the most direct route to understanding who am now is this: what makes me feel at home within my own skin, no matter where I am?

The first thing I thought of was the coffee I was drinking, as I sat on my new-ish IKEA sofa in this still-new-to-me home. I then pictured myself at my boyfriend’s place, still new-ish to him. It is a curious thing: you find yourself in a life where none of the places in which you find yourself are ones in which you have much history. So where is home, then, except housed within us, and created anew, sitting next to this person who seems able to keep making space for you, and you for him. You put out the welcome mats for one another, sweeping them off or airing them out if there is ever difficult weather.

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It is a marvelous but strange thing to be aware of your own history-making. To contemplate the ways in which home and history are related, but not in the ways you once thought. I recommend keeping an eye out for it, for the art you are making of self, seemingly out of thin air, or from webby gossamer strands, every day.

As I walked around the yard with the dogs one morning, it smelled like summer. Recent rain on thirsty dirt, a damp promise of heat panting in the air. I thought of drinking camping coffee, sitting with the kids in the morning, outside the tent, feeling cozy. The memories collaged in my brain, out of order, but collective. This too is history and home and self. It remains, clean and bright and clear, even in the aftermath of events that left much of the past feeling sooty and smudged.

It may seem strange to utilize list-making and note-taking as paths to self-discovery. Such a process lacks the romance of the quintessential road trip motif. However, sometimes things don’t work that way. It is less a fun, crazy journey and more paying attention and hard work. Mostly, I crave simplicity. I want to create obvious paths to certain self-knowledge, so that I can quickly run toward what I know and like about myself. So I can gallop toward safety, when I’m feeling anxious, or filled with self-doubt, or self-criticism. It is so easy for the negative to overtake us sometimes. We need to have our escape routes planned. Sometimes you have to sit down with yourself and go through the checklist, the way in elementary school we had to ask our parents what the escape plan was if the house were on fire. You have to tell yourself, when dark thoughts begin to suck you in, that there are the paths back to yourself, that you know the way. It is too easy to get lost in the thick haze and smoke of anxiety, depression, fear, or grief.

I feel as though I’m often vacillating between extremes – between being overly candid or completely withdrawn, between whole-hearted enthusiasm and active detachment. I wonder how people find middle ground. I speculate that there is a place thought of as “normal” and most of us hover around the edges, not seeing each other, and the imaginary normal place is teeming with a healthy population of individuals that can communicate with one another with ease and confidence. But in reality, most of us fumble, we hurt and get hurt, we regroup, we take deep breaths and fall silent. We clear our throats, and our eyes, try to speak and see, and be seen once more. Sometimes we manage to get it right, to find a safe, strong hand in the haze, and so we practice the art of holding on to one another.

Love, Cath