The October of a Few Minutes Ago: On Time and Memory and Self

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes it’s impossible to not think of masks and the tricks of time.

Let’s talk about the October of a few minutes ago, the one that got away from us in a last late rush of wind and rain, and the way it feels quite suddenly that fall too has disappeared, a dog slipped free from his collar who is now halfway down the street.

I think about the shape of time and how we package it. Every so often we are hit with this sense that time is rushing along faster than it ever did. We like to say it plays tricks on us. Only when we are bored, or clutched by some physical or emotional pain, does it seem to slow. We box time into comprehensible components – seconds, weeks, years – or bundle it into memories. And in this way, it is intrinsically tied to who we are. So much of our identity is built this way, memory by memory, and maybe we are the shape of time, a physical manifestation, or a border anyway.

autumn leaf board colors dark
Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

But how did this October slip by so quickly, and how is it that when we remember bad Octobers we know they went on forever, as if there were long empty stretches of weeks embedded between the days? But those were maybe just the nights I couldn’t sleep.

Though we remember pain and grief differently than the way we look back on joy and laughter, all the memories are components of our soul-DNA. If you stripped out this memory or that one, would I be the same person I am now? I suppose everyone has days in which they are not particularly fond of the person whose life they seem to be inhabiting, and maybe the experiment of selective memory stripping would be one they’d be willing to take on, but I think it would be a dangerous game.

What is perhaps under-sung is the notion of the ordinary moment, the seemingly mundane experiences we scarcely remember that are, in a way, the connective tissue of our days and our selves. The big memories, all the firsts and lasts, and ceremonies and delights and gutting griefs, they all are spotlight hogs. But what of all the minutes and hours and days in between?

In a way, we are collections of ordinary moments. We are pumping gas into empty tanks in older model Mercurys. We are grinding coffee beans. We are holding hands. We are standing in line, holding too many items because we thought we wouldn’t need a basket. We are holding too much sometimes. But sometimes it’s just enough to get us through the express lane and home to dinner.

I wonder sometimes what it would be like to be able to remember all the ordinary moments of a lifetime, or, perhaps more manageably, just of that October that so recently broke free and slipped away from us. Why would I want to forget that moment standing in line at the grocery store, juggling bread and almond milk and coffee beans and sugar, along with one yellow onion and a bag of apples? In that moment, maybe I thought of kissing my love, maybe I thought of what would happen next in the story I’m writing, maybe I noticed the way the baby in front of me smiled at her sibling, and maybe that made me think of my own children when they were that little. Maybe I just stood there and let my mind drain free of the workday, and it was pleasant to not think or do anything for an instant, with only the ache in my arm and the smell of apple and onion and coffee reminding me of my current reality.

I don’t always know why something suddenly feels important to me, why I must think now about the significance of the mundane minutes in our days, or why I’m compelled to poke around in the murkiness where time and identity mingle. I remember being ankle-deep in a wide puddle. I was a child in rubber rain boots, standing in the low part at the back of our corner lot, stick in hand, poking in puddles. I remember that I probably pretended that I was fishing, though I probably was too old to be pretending, and I remember the hot prickle of embarrassment when the neighbor boy, my age, road by on his bike and asked me if I had caught anything yet, as he laughed and pedaled away.

What am I doing poking around in here anyway? Have I caught anything? Is there any point to wondering who I might be, if I could simply not remember feeling so childish and silly and stupid for that collection of odd minutes when I was an odd child?

But this too is part of who I am. Our metacognition shapes us as much as anything, what we feel and think about what we feel and think. In a way, it is a through-line, spanning years, weaving through moments, good memories and bad. The way we consider ourselves, including our own thoughts and feelings, evolves slowly, and it reaches both backward, overlaying context onto the past, and forward, projecting different versions of ourselves into the future, as we wonder how it might be to be this type of self, or that one, in five years or ten.

Last night, as I sat on the porch with my son, I watched the last of the trick-or-treaters drift off toward the next puddle of porch light. How can we not think of time and memory and identity on such nights, when it all blurs together, the masks we wear, the identities we inhabit over time, discarded, taken up again, all of it mixed up into a dark October night with red and yellow leaves plastered by rain to the sidewalk like so many candy wrappers.

I want to say it was just one more ordinary moment, but I’m beginning to believe that none of the moments are ordinary, really, if you think about it.

Maybe, the way we think about the way we think about it all is the formula for shaping time and self differently, for urging the boundaries into new directions and possibilities. Maybe there is some sort of magic at work here, playing upon our brains as one month turns arbitrarily into the next and we turn our clocks back tomorrow and play with time some more. Maybe I simply like the idea of expanding time and not losing moments, not any of them, because I like it here, I like me here, and I like you here, and maybe looking around at all that is all we really need to do to sometimes.

Love, Cath

 

On Rituals and Running and Fog

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you need five more minutes.

It’s a school morning and I wake up early to my wind-chime alarm and put the kettle on, grind the coffee beans, add them to the freshly rinsed French press pot. At six, I slip into my son’s room. “Do you want five more minutes?” He grumbles assent. I close the door.

This is a ritual, a habit, but it’s largely unnecessary. He wakes up just fine on his own. At the same time, we measure time differently now that he is a year away from leaving home for college. Less than a year, I remind myself. The days and minutes and seconds tick away in an almost palpable manner during this last school year. So, I respect the ritual.

Do you want five more minutes? Yes, I do.

I pocket this particular heartache and will tap it absentmindedly throughout the day, like a lost tooth I’ve placed close to my heart for safe-keeping.

The kettle whistles, I add a little water to the press pot, wait a minute for the grounds to “bloom,” add the rest of the water, stir, watch the clock for about four minutes, and compress the plunger and pour the first cup of Sumatra. I add a little turbinado sugar and some almond milk. I think of other people, making their coffee, and I think of their rituals, and what we absorb from the people we love. I think of the way we bloom.

After my son’s car rumbles toward school, I slip into my running gear, enjoying the ritual and familiarity of that, too, but I’m unable to stop the voice in my head chiding me that the two miles I’ll run today are nothing compared to what I used to do. Still, I lace up, and head out. It’s mid-September and the air holds both summer and fall in it. It’s humid and cool and I try to pay attention to my form, my knees, my breath. I run down streets I’ve run down for twenty years, knowing that in a year, the streets will be different, the neighborhood unfamiliar. I notice my arms doing that T-Rex thing and I focus on form again.

I see three different women walking their dogs, and I nod to each human and greet the dogs alternately with “Hi, baby,” “Hey, honey,” and “Hello, puppy.” I notice the change in the flowers as I pass by. The magenta zinnias are a bit ragged and a little fallen now, the yellow and burgundy mums in people’s yards look store-bought. Golden dahlias and those urgently pink ones remain vibrant. I finish the two-mile run on a sprint, feeling that it was a pretty good run, even though it wasn’t that fast, or that long. I feel strong, and the morning is lovely.

Sometimes I can’t quite untangle whether I’m running because I ought to, health-wise, or simply because the ritual of it brings me some kind of peace, a bit of enjoying-the-journey satisfaction that is hungry to be noticed amid complaints of too slow, and not far enough.

Sometimes there’s a lot to untangle. We want to move through life in a clear-sighted way, but we have stress and memory and obligation and politics and time and change intruding on vision and joy and love and laughter and dreams.

I’ve been disappointed about my lack of progress with my writing lately and I’ve noted it here, sometimes, feeling a bit exposed, but talking about it anyway, because we all have failures and disappointments and we may as well be honest about it. It’s hard to avoid seeing the parallels between my writing and running. I feel like the effort is there, the consistency, the focus, if not the amount of time I’d prefer to devote. But progress is elusive. I remind myself, as I kick off my shoes, they are different things, running and writing. Also, I’m trying to measure writing progress with publication success and those, too, are different things. Isn’t the progress in the consistency, effort, and perseverance? I remind myself of form, of focus, having learned over the years that being my own cheerleader – or practicing cognitive reconditioning, if you prefer – does pay off.

What we tell ourselves about ourselves matters.

I remind myself too, of those people in my life who love me, and even those who just like me a bit, who have encouraged me in my writing, or otherwise have demonstrated support or kindness when I’ve expressed a need for it, or even when I haven’t. It matters.

dirt road between trees
Photo by Lucas Pezeta on Pexels.com

Sometimes it seems we are running through the same fog we have found ourselves navigating over and over again, a haze comprised largely of absence, or need – for validation, respect, nurturing, who knows, it’s different for everyone – but likely, whatever it is, it’s a void that feels like a thing. It keeps us looking over shoulders, peeking around corners, it keeps us waiting, keeps us up at night, keeps us guarded and uncertain, but in truth, this thing is not a thing at all. If it is a void, it is an empty place, it is no thing at all, and so, let’s call it what is. It’s nothing, which means it doesn’t really have any power. I mean, it could. But we don’t have to let it. We don’t have to give it thing-ness, body, form, shape, substance. We can let it dissolve into nothingness. We can remind ourselves of the solid things that do exist, of what others offer us, of what we offer ourselves.

So maybe let’s be on the journey with open eyes, and run as slowly as we need to, and as far as we want to, and take it all in, the neighbor, the dog, the street, the zinnia and mum and dahlia.

Let’s give ourselves five more minutes.

Let’s enjoy the rituals of coffee-making and running and writing and kissing, and holding hands, and quiet moments next to each other, and creating beautiful things and useful things, and doing the work that gives us joy and tasting toast with homemade jam. Let a void be a void. Let the things we give substance and shape to only be the things we want to hold on to.

Love, Cath

On Silence, Symphony, and Liminality

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes silence is symphony and in-between places are the world.

I’m not sure how I finally decided that I would go to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra instead of saying it’s something I should do, some day. Perhaps it was when I stumbled across the fact that a world-renowned violinist would be playing Henry Ford’s Stradivarius at an upcoming show. Though I’m not a musician, I’ve heard the lore of Stradivarius from a “civilian” perspective and have long been intrigued. Plus, the program also included a selection from West Side Story, which simply seemed like a whole lot of fun.

adult arch art band
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Atmosphere, Music, and Memory

I didn’t pay much attention to the other items on the program until my date and I were seated and I had a moment to flip through the hefty booklet featuring musician bios and programs for the whole series of shows this season. To be honest, I was a little star-struck by the building’s interior, so sophisticated and opulent I could barely focus on the glossy pages in my hand. The pale columns and tasteful Greek-looking embellishments contrasted in just the right way with the red velvet upholstery of the narrow seats. The whole affair seemed both extravagant and restrained. Up in the highest balcony, I felt almost dizzy. This could have been in part because we failed to leave ourselves enough time to eat before the 8 p.m. performance, and the peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich I’d had in my cubicle at 11:30 a.m. had worn off long off long before.

Sitting there, absorbing the atmosphere the same way I take in beach air. I felt taut and eager. I wondered if the musicians felt that way too, waiting to take the stage to tune up.

My children began playing in their school’s orchestra in the fourth grade; my daughter is a violinist, my son, a cellist. I do not play an instrument, I cannot read music. The reasons for this seem largely economic, and therefore, unfair, but much of life works out this way and you can’t really dwell on it too much. When I was very young, my grandmother had begun to teach me the piano. We had a piano in the basement of our home where I practiced. I don’t remember if I loved to practice or hated it. I remember the music books, and how friendly they seemed, eager to teach me how to plunk out the notes to “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” My family moved, though, to a smaller place and we did not take the piano with us. Later, in fifth grade, when band started in my middle school, I wanted to try out the instruments, maybe play the saxophone. But the financial difficulties my family was experiencing at the time made it impossible to acquire an instrument. In my adult life, I’ve tried to teach myself the piano again, with an inexpensive keyboard and a beginner’s book. My daughter also showed me some chords on the ukulele. I wanted to learn Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” but I could not figure out the way the chords, and a strumming pattern I was unable to grasp, worked together to create the song. I’ve often thought of taking piano lessons, but the cost combined with my previous failures have intertwined and amplified, creating what I know is only the illusion of an obstacle. But it still feels like an obstacle.

The Thrill of Anticipation

So when the musicians took the stage and began to warm up, the thrill I felt was that of an outsider peering into a secret, coveted world. And at the same time, I was here, with all of these other people, all feeling everything they had brought with them from the outside world into this space. We all waited together, a collective holding of breath that only gathered like a wave as the musicians tuned their instruments.

The combination of the knowledge and skill possessed by the musicians, along with the obvious communion among them, always leaves me feeling a sense of bittersweet love and longing. After a few words from conductor Leonard Slatkin, the first notes sounded, and I sighed. My right hand was taken by my date, a man I was thrilled to be sharing this experience with. I closed my eyes for a moment, to listen, to feel, with focus.

The program opened with a premiere of a new composition, Dune Acres, by Kristin Kuster. That the composer was a woman was something Slatkin observed was still a rarity, though things were changing, he told us hopefully. The piece was stunning. What I remember most was the second movement, where the deep, graceful notes of a harp seemed to form the backbone of the piece.

Sound and Silence

And then Slatkin introduced John Cage’s 4’33”. To this point, I was unfamiliar with the work of this experimental composer. Slatkin described what we were about to hear: four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. What? Slatkin didn’t speak extensively about Cage’s intent, but he described Cage’s interest in what happens in the space between the notes, where the reverberation ends and just before the next note sounds. He spoke of the interaction between the musicians and the audience, and he quipped about the sounds we might hear—most notably, from the previous night’s performance, people coughing.

It began without much fanfare, because, well, it’s silence. It is a peculiar thing, sitting in a room filled with hundreds of people doing their best to be completely silent. Well, some of them were. There were the whisperers behind us, who frustrated me. I wanted them to take it seriously. Cage’s piece didn’t have the feel of a colossal, sophisticated joke, although I supposed one could take it that way. But I think Cage was calling us to awareness, he was calling us to participation, to comraderie. In a way, I sensed that Cage perhaps intended with this piece to quietly erase the boundary that I had been feeling when I walked into Orchestra Hall, the boundary between musician and non-musician. We were all in this together. I listened to the gentle, relaxed breathing of the man at my side, felt him caress the inside of my wrist with the warm stroke of his fingers. There were moments where no one coughed or whispered, and traffic noises from outside intruded. The rustling of fabric as people fidgeted carefully seemed unobtrusive, a feathery component of this symphony of ambient noise. We had been offered the arguably rare opportunity to be completely present in this singular time and place, participating as individuals and as community. Slatkin had noted that the piece would seem longer than four and a half minutes, but to me, it went by quickly. It was a peaceful thrill of ebb and flow, this silence.

We were brought out of this trance with a few words from Slatkin. The violinist, Kimberly Kaloyanides Kennedy, took the stage with the famed Stradivarius. I don’t have the technical music vocabulary to describe her performance, only ordinary words poorly employed and applied to the sublime—breathtaking, exquisite, magnificent. Following this performance of Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14, was a brief intermission and a romp through the “symphonic dances” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.

In the aftermath of the evening though, I kept turning back to Cage’s piece, this hushed orchestration of the sounds around us. I thought about what Slatkin had noted about the spaces between the notes. I’ve considered this notion in the past in terms of spoken and written words, in terms of all that is implied within that liminal space, that expanse between syllables. We find ourselves often in such liminal spaces – the places in-between observed phases of our lives, of our relationships – and we often feel compelled to take note of them exclusively within the context of what came before, what was to follow, or what might come next. We see them as the end of beginnings, as the beginnings of ends.

How luxurious to be allowed the space to see them for what they are, symphonies in their own right.

Love, Cath

 

On Thriving and Neglect

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes instead of pulling weeds, you focus on sunshine and water.

Most of us live in a world where resources—our time and our energy—are limited. Sometimes we feel a great sense of urgency to focus on areas of our lives or places in our hearts that have been neglected for too long. Currently there seems to be some huge collective urge to purge and simplify. Sometimes our homes need purging, sometimes our hearts do, sometimes we discover it is time to put away emotions or memories or thoughts we’ve held on to for long enough.

Being Open to Openness

I’m a firm believer in the idea that there is no “too long” with regard to the duration of time we take to work through emotions, ponder old wounds. Things take as long as they take. We react when we are damn good and ready. Sometimes if you have to ask whether or not something brings you joy, it is too soon to be considering the answer. I have learned to be patient with myself, to look for signs that I am ready to put something away, or rid myself of it. I’m learning how to recognize when I am ready to close doors, and to know when I’m truly open to opening them.

What is Thriving?

Sometimes, we have to step back to see what actually is already thriving. We need to recognize when to focus on the doors we’ve opened and those parts of our hearts that are pumping and churning in the background, rather than on the recently healed parts that we watch over protectively, or the wounded, hurting parts trying actively to unbreak. It’s harder to do, in a way, to focus on positivity and vitality. If something is working, even with marginal efficiency, the tendency can often be to let it hum along, doing its thing. Some things cry out for attention – messy rooms, old griefs, painful memories. It is easy to feel as though anxieties and worries have been quietly festering while we’ve been attending to the day-to-day business of life. So, we turn our attention to fixing things, we surge toward repair, toward improvement. This is important work, but it isn’t the only work. And it’s okay to back-burner it.

Knowing What to Neglect, and When

The good thing is that things like anxiety and worry do not thrive on neglect. They require our fevered, obsessed attention, which keeps them well-nourished enough to tangle and choke. Nothing of value thrives on neglect. Not happiness, joy, delight, peace, calm, gratefulness, compassion, empathy, love. They all need our careful, considered attention to flourish. It is easy to get caught up in the need to fix broken things, to clear away items no longer of use to us. But when we nurture healthy states of being, things like pain, trouble, and worry can, and do, get crowded out, like tomato plants in August refusing to give up ground to weeds.

pathway between tomato fruits
Photo by Artem Bali on Pexels.com

Resistance and Happiness and Magic

I think of the way, when threading a needle, the more you try, the more the thread resists, shrugging and fraying. Somehow it takes an odd combination of focus and nonchalance to get it. I have licked the split end to a point, found the good light by the window, but I don’t care if the thread makes it through, I don’t much want this button secured anyway. It’s almost that way when tending to such things as happiness. I see you, you need me. But too much direct, obvious attention makes it somehow pale and ghostly, as if it’s about to evaporate, a wish made at the wrong time and place, without pennies or fountains or the first star at dusk.

There’s a magic to it, but not tricks. There is magic in the sensing and noticing and breathing life into happiness while at the same time not chasing it, not reducing it to formulas, to mathematical if/then equations. Magic doesn’t work that way and neither does happiness. Some things, good things, are arrived at obliquely.

This is all to say, don’t forget on the thriving things too, not just the neglected things. Don’t forget to focus, but focus as in, staring at something with half-closed eyes, blurring the object but heightening the experiential sensation of sight, in that hazy Christmas light manner. This is to say, be patient. Be patient with that thread, the element of chance and change chasing the constant of the needle.

Love, Cath

On Not Being Bullied by Time

By Catherine DiMercurio

I sat in a coffee and pastry shop on Saturday afternoon with my sister. Though we don’t live far from each other, it had been some time since we had seen each other. Outside the window, the street glowed with yellow and orange maple leaves, clouds of them still clinging to the trees, and somehow, an equal amount blanketing the sidewalks. It wasn’t one of those moments where you feel as though, even though you haven’t seen someone in a long while, no time had passed. Time had indeed passed. But still, though the contours of our connection had evolved, there is a constancy about that connection that my sister and I both cherish. I was glad that we both made time to spend together.

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Time is on my mind these days, as daylight savings comes to an end, and darkness swallows up our evenings. It’s easy to see what feels like the swift passage of time as an enemy. I saw a post recently on social media that said something about “The trouble is, you think you have time,” (wrongfully attributed to Buddha), as if to say, our time here is short. It’s in line with carpe diem messages. We are told we should seize the day because we aren’t guaranteed anything. We have the present, and that’s all we can truly lay claim to.

Time and Identity

We also think of our identity in time-bound ways. Who we are today may be very different from who we were as children, and who we might become as our experiences shape us. And time itself, or the passage of it, shapes us. Try as we may, we are powerless to evade the changes to our biology that occur as we age.

The beauty of it all is the power of our own mind to conceptualize such ephemeral notions as time and past and future. We may only truly have the present, we may only truly bea collection of cells and experiences, but we get to create ourselves everyday. How much do I want the experiences of the past to dictate who I am today and where I’m headed? Our past only controls our future as much as we grant it permission to. And we may grant it a lot of leeway. Acknowledging all the good woven through even a rocky history is a worthwhile endeavor.

Twin Bullies: Time, Shame

One of the reasons time, or the passage of it, is often regarded as an enemy is that shame is becomes intertwined with time. Shame that we “wasted” time, shame about what time has done to us. We are told that our time in this world, or in the lives of our loved ones, is a gift, that the act of not spending that time well is something we should feel ashamed of. But our actions have little to do with time. Treating the people in our lives well is not something we should do because our time with them is precious. It is something we should do because people are precious. This may be splitting hairs to some, but I think the distinction is important. If we focus on the people in our lives, our actions are focused on them, on treating well the people we love because we love them. If we focus on the idea that our time with them is some sort of a gift, our actions are focused on ourselves, on behaving in a certain way because of what we get out of it. A subtle shift in perspective can privilege the action of loving over the reward of not wasting time.

I didn’t have coffee with my sister thinking that my time with my sister is a gift. I don’t want to waste it. I want to make the most of it. Time is not the gift. Time just is. My sister is the gift. We wanted to share love and friendship and laughter and conversation so we decided to dedicate a portion of our time that day to each other. I think we should be clear about what we value. In this way our actions are more focused, and we elevate one another in this revaluation.

Time Is What You Believe It Is

The thing about time is that it functions independently, objectively, dispassionately—ticking away with each sunrise and sunset. It doesn’t care about us. Yet it remains very personal in the way it is recognized and attended to in our own lives. My time is mine. Yours is yours. Our relationship with time is almost spiritual in this way. If you believe you must make the most out of each and every moment because tomorrow is not promised and you live your life accordingly, so be it. Let it fill you up and give you joy. But avoid the trap of shame for not doing enough, for not seizing enough. Recognize what you value—the people you are seizing the day with, or the sunlight, or the trail, or the road. If I believe my future is filled with great things, and I’m making little plans every day to inch my way to where I want to be, so be it. I may regard the moments of today not as seconds to be seized but as a place to pause and catch my breath. A place to be, with my own thoughts, with my loved ones. And tomorrow, instead, I will seize each moment with gusto. But I will leave any shame behind, and place value where it belongs.

This is all to say, know your worth. Know the worth of those you love. Known the worth of your life. No one gets to tell you what is wasted.

Love, Cath