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 Dreams, and the Shape of Things

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the true shape of our dreams is not yet known.

Recently, I was asked to take a self-assessment for a professional development workshop. The questions were different than other personality assessments I’ve taken in the past, but the results were similar. Familiar descriptors floated to the surface: introspective, intuitive, creative, nurturing, etc. And I thought, I’ve known all this since before I had words to name these characteristics.

Some things have never been a mystery, not to me, about me.

The mystery lies elsewhere, as our known selves try to find ways to acclimate to the different environments in which they find themselves – to different homes, neighborhoods, jobs, relationships. All those always characteristics adapt into various ways of being, and we come to believe that those behaviors, those ways of expressing ourselves, are the same thing as self. But BEing and ways of being are distinct. At times, they are a close mirror of each other, and it feels as if everything is falling into its place. Then, we find a way to be in our current existence in a manner that is in near-perfect harmony with the self we have always known.

Some mornings, when it is quite early and I want to listen to the quiet in my brain, I warm up what is left of yesterday’s coffee and sit in the half-light of the living room. When there isn’t much coffee left, I add a generous pour of oat milk. It reminds me of the coffee that my mother permitted me to have as child. More milk than coffee, with a little sugar, it is not grownup coffee, and it lets my thoughts be childlike in their wanderings, without a need for order or progress. I remember that younger me having a distinct awareness of a blurriness of self, as if I knew that my consciousness resided in this body and in this existence, but could tell itself apart. I remember a particular moment, sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, looking out the window at the trees blurring past in the sunlight, telling myself I am me, I am me. I remember discomfort, as if it took some effort to hold within me an understanding of both unity and fracture. The depth of my love for this little thinker, my desire to protect her and that inner world, has never dissipated. When I say that my writing stems from a desire for connection, I do not mean only with others. I mean with myself, including that little girl contemplating matters for which she had no name.

Sometimes, when I’m mulling a tough problem and stumbling up against the self questions that cartwheel in front of me these days, I think of what the people who have known me the longest would say, and then I think of what the people who have only known me since my divorce would say. They are often very different things, which is unsurprising, but which does not help when I’m seeking the through-line. I sense instinctively that there is a truth that I can uncover, as if there is a way in which everything aligns.

We are told to be true to ourselves, but do we know what that means?

When I look at my childhood self I wonder if she is an accurate gauge by which to consider my own current authenticity. Does that put too much pressure on the past, on fallible memory, on a self that, because she is comprised of memories, is more myth than truth?

Our lives are fragmented. We move in between worlds, perpetually navigating different situations and environments and recalibrating ourselves as needed. It is easy to feel as though our understanding of self gets lost along the way. We too quickly become who we are seen as, rather than who we’ve always been.

Recently I have looked at my old watercolor paintings with a fresh eye. I’ve hung up some of my first attempts at apples, completed during a class at a community college when my daughter was a baby, and have judged them far less harshly than I once did. I’m not saying they are good. I’m saying that when I look at them, I feel a connection to the experience of being an anonymous and aspiring artist in a classroom full of unknown people. I barely remember the professor, and I certainly don’t remember any classmates. But I recall the feeling of being there and trying. And I see all my curiosity and earnestness in those paintings.

And curiosity and earnestness feel like links to the little girl in the back of the car contemplating her existence.

I think of how many times those words, curiosity and earnestness, have made an appearance in previous blogs. Those concepts catch with me, like the little burrs that stick to your socks when you hike through a field. I think, this is how I want to be. These qualities underpin one of the refrains that chorused through our household when my children were growing up: try your best. Among other things, it is about being open to learning, and being willing to work hard.

Perhaps this comes with a little too much pressure, pressure that I put that on myself. Often, I’m frustrated when the results do not seem to match the effort. I wonder – was that my best? Did I work hard enough? Did I not learn well? I am trying to be more process-oriented, and less results-oriented, but it is not an easy shift, and perhaps, it is not a necessary one. Perhaps working toward a specific result – a better apple, a published story – is a good and motivating thing for me, and maybe all I need to work on is not being overly discouraged by imperfect watercolor fruit and rejected fiction.

However, I wonder if all goals or dreams are well-served by this approach. Maybe some things won’t look the way we always wanted them to, and maybe that’s a wonderful thing. Pursuing a goal that we are only looking at from one angle may result in us giving up on the goal instead of swapping one perspective for another. Some dreams are more complex than we realize and have many facets; maybe when we focus on a singular component, we can’t truly understand the value of the whole.

There was a book I used to read to my children: The Important Book, by Margaret Wise Brown. Here’s an example of the way this book works:

“The important thing about an apple is that it is round. It is red. You bite it, and it is white inside, and the juice splashes in your face, and it tastes like an apple, and it falls off a tree. But the important thing about an apple is that it is round.”

Sometimes we need to clarify for ourselves what the important part about a particular goal or dream truly is. Possibly, and without knowing it, we do harm to our ability to achieve the dream because instead of focusing on the important part we are expending energy on something we mistakenly believe is the important part. Sometimes, we don’t want precisely what we think we want. When we try to know our own hearts, we have to look well beneath the surface. Our true dreams are often obscured, layered over by years of doubt, history, pain – our own, and that of other people, who, though well-meaning, might weigh in on how our own dreams should look and feel to us. It is no wonder we are often plagued by thoughts of, and fears about, loss and lost-ness. Others might try and tell us what should be important to us, and that can nudge us off course. Do you think the most important thing about an apple is that it is round? I do not. But who am I to say what should be important to someone else?

There is no getting around the fact that the process of making our own hearts known to us takes time, and careful examination. This is true for any dream, wish, or goal that we have for ourselves, whether it is concerned with our personal relationships, or our pursuit of our art, or our work, or something else entirely. I do not know the way to reveal that which I cannot yet see, though I’m certain that I must keep exploring my heart and all its sedimentary layers. This discovery process will involve more ambiguity than I am comfortable with, and that is a reality I reckon with daily.

As an example of all this, I can give you a peek into one of my dreams. My writing dream has always involved publication. Yet, I am beginning to explore the idea that instead of this being the most important facet of this dream, it is but one part of a writing life, which is perhaps more what I’m truly after. In truth, I’m not exactly sure what that means, nor am I certain of the path I need to take to get there. For now, I’m focusing more on what I need to say, and how best to say it. In the coming months, I will be immersing myself in a couple of workshop experiences with other writers, led by artists and mentors I trust. The time feels right for this approach, though the work will be challenging.

This is but one of the dreams I’m searching out the true shape of. Everyone has some. We carry pockets full of stones gathered from lakebeds and we don’t know why. We wish for the unknown to reveal itself. We throw pennies into fountains, wishing, wishing.

On the night of the lunar eclipse, I dreamed I was mending an unknown world with pink thread.

Dream on, friends.

Love, Cath

On Throat-Clearing, Self, and Voice

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we can almost find the melody.

I put a lot of effort into trying to make sense of things that don’t. In my writing, it feels like the practice of untangling knots that can’t be untied, though each story takes a fresh try at undoing. My brain attacks most present worries in the same way.

When I sit still, I sometimes feel both restless and exhausted. This state is a product of many things – pandemic year, new and old anxieties, writing frustrations, aging realities, leaving and moving and settling in.

In my writing, I begin to wonder about voice – what manner of expressing myself is unique to me, my fingerprint of creative expression. And voice, as in, mine, in this world. Lately I have revisited half-begun stories and can’t take them anywhere. I think of a top spinning at the end of its movement, the wobbly tilt and hobble where I find my creative practice these days. Tops get spun again; I don’t worry that I’m done, but wonder where to go from here, and how.

In a way, it feels as though this year of largely staying in place has been one of incubation. During this time, I focused on trying to make my new house feel like mine. I thought a lot about home. I also began to reckon more consciously and deliberately with the notion of aging. I periodically take photos of myself that I show to no one to document the progress of the incoming greys, and to acclimatize myself to the changing terrain of my face.  We have kept ourselves as hidden as possible from the hidden virus, and I have grown tired of hiding myself from myself. But I often don’t recognize me.

I heard somewhere recently that resilience is never losing your enthusiasm in the face of failure. This made me feel angry and a bit deflated, because I want to think of myself as resilient, but I always feel enthusiasm flag when faced with failure. I would counter that resiliency is never losing hope in the face of failure. You can feel defeated, but at the same time you keep fighting for what’s important to you. Enthusiasm feels like a bit too much pressure sometimes. Then again, it is possible that I am not actually resilient. But I am good at hope.

As I’ve noted before in this space, Clarice Lipsector wrote “It is also possible that even then the theme of my existence was irrational hope.” We all have themes, not only as artists but as humans, patterns we observe in our lives, values we attempt to adhere to, wishes we twirl around our hearts. Maybe none of us could extricate ourselves from the themes of our existence if we tried. Some things are as they are. I will find love stories everywhere. I will write them. I will be hopeful about everything and everyone I love. I wonder if all hope is irrational.

Everything I have ever written has turned into a love story. Love, loss, seeking, finding – these are the structural frameworks of most everything I compose. I wonder sometimes, when I feel defeated, and the rejections land solemnly in my in-box, if all I can build are dollhouses, while better writers are busy building cities, universes. But then I think that maybe the world needs dollhouses too. We all need different entry points into the art we interact with. Maybe someone is just waiting for the right-sized door. Maybe it’s all that Alice in Wonderland game of feeling too big or too small to get to where we want to go. But eventually, we find a way to connect.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The themes we don’t stray from are, in a way, one path toward maintaining our connection with ourselves. I have a novel manuscript that has undergone more permutations than I care to number. I have left it unsubmitted for a long time and had nearly decided to abandon all hope (and enthusiasm).  But, I have dedicated myself to one more overhaul, and I’m now working with a trusted writer who is helping me take a fresh look at it. I feel hopeful once again, but daunted. Possibly I am not now, nor ever was, up to the task of doing what so many novelists do so well, which is, to do everything well – plot, character, pace, language, theme, subtext, and so on. Everything must be precisely fine-tuned for the work to sing. Currently there is a lack of harmony, there is a lot of out-of-tune warbling, and a fair amount of throat clearing. Sometimes I think the melody’s there though.

I listen for melody too in the world outside my door, but I’m finding it clunky to emerge from this pandemic isolation, as we receive our vaccinations and make plans once again. I see other vaccinated folk pursuing “normalcy” as if they hear a tune and feel compelled to follow it. I can almost hear it. And there are people I’m so looking forward to spending non-masked time with. I can’t wait to spend more than a few odd hours with my daughter, and to see her whole wonderful face the whole time. Yet, in general, I feel both excited and enormously anxious about jumping back into the world at large. Maybe I’m feeling as though I’m still incubating. As with many things, we grow when we learn to be empathetic with regard to the timetables of the people around us.  

When I think of empathy and growth, I think of the way growth often doesn’t always look like growth – it looks like incubation, it looks like cocooned pupae. And when I think of empathy, I remember that I often forget to have it for myself.

This weekend I did a little hiking. It felt good to be in the woods. My son took a picture of me at my request and I’ve looked at it many times since, trying to see what I wanted to see there. A recognizable person. She seemed familiar, me and not-me at the same time, but the setting seemed right and that helped. I don’t know why it feels so difficult so often to know and be at peace with myself. Maybe this year too much happened and too much didn’t happen, and it changed me more than I am consciously aware. Maybe the image in the photo is a reflection of reality and it is my ability to see it truly that has been altered by time and experience. Perhaps how we see changes more than what we see, and how we hear melodies differently from one another explains so many things. This is all the more reason for us to cultivate empathy toward one another and to build our reserves of resiliency and irrational hope, as we attempt to both listen and sing in this world.

Love, Cath

On Calm, and Quirks, and Being

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes I don’t want to calm down, because I’m not sure what to do once I get there. I wonder if I know how to do more than visit. I’m so used to allowing my anxiety as much space as it needs that it feels more like home somehow, to be worried. To be in the void, the one at the center of calm, to be without the fluster and fear, means dealing with a situation instead of reacting to it. In a way, there is safety in not-calm. It shields us from work we haven’t learned how to do, or that we were forgot we were competent at. Or, from work that needs doing, but sometimes we are so very tired of doing it.

Photo by Evie Shaffer on Pexels.com

Recently, I was startled by the sudden and violent death of a mourning dove who’d been grazing on the snowy ground at the base of the bird feeder in the back yard. We first noticed the large hawk, hunched over something. It dawned on us then that he must have killed something. After he flew off, carrying the body, we traipsed through the snow and viewed what remained. A scatter of grey and cream colored feathers surrounded a circle of blood-stained snow. Surmising it must have been one of the mourning doves we had noticed earlier, we cleaned up what we could. As I used a plastic grocery bag to gather up feathers and bloody snow in shaky fistfuls, I thought, abstractly, “the dogs,” not able to articulate my worry over them examining the scene. It simply seemed bad to allow them to investigate and possibly consume anything left of the bird. And then I was startled by a sudden grief for the mourning dove I’d invited to the feeder.

When I was attending my graduate school residencies, I heard a lot of talk about “liminal spaces.” The term liminal wasn’t part of my usual vernacular. This notion of in-between-ness felt writerly. It was a lofty concept, an emotionally self-aware and intellectual way of looking at things, and I liked it. Wanted to inhabit a me whose boundaries encompassed the use of such words. I remember thinking about how much living existed in the space between our words. I found myself fully invested in exploring this concept, probably because I was in such an in-between place myself, in between versions of myself, headed away from a married me, and becoming a divorced me, but not really knowing what it was supposed to look like, who I wanted her to be. The liminal eventually became a meaningless concept for me because I felt as though I would be perpetually unable to leave behind one existence and inhabit the next. I felt trapped in an existential game of Twister, limbs tangled and reaching back and forward and everywhere at the same time, grasping urgently for a sense of self. I thought, rather than arriving at the next iteration of myself, I would succumb to becoming a not-me. As if I was nothing more than this tangle of selves, rather than someone who insisted on her own certain form. A scatter of feathers and blood. No longer bird, but still evidence of bird.

In a way, calm itself is liminal. It is an in-between space, the place that exists between anxiety and the next part, work. The work of undoing or repairing or rebuilding whatever sent you falling in the first place. I think of the place in between bird and not-bird and realize it is a very different thing than transitioning from one state of mind to the next, from anxiety to calm to work. It is final. Full stop. Though moving oneself from a state of anxiety to a state of calm can inspire dread and more fear, we always know it is a journey we have to make. But, it takes time. Sometimes we need help, sometimes we need solitude to regroup. Yet it is always characterized, eventually, by movement, not by stopping.

I think about the little movements, like a flutter of breath once we realize we’ve been holding it, that invite us toward calm. The half-formed thought that suggests the difference between the instincts we trust and the hazy, malformed notions that are more remembered grief than the deeper knowledge that points us to what we need, when we need it. Admittedly, it can be hard to tell the difference sometimes. It is even harder to tell the difference when our state is not calm.

I wonder sometimes if it is healthy to spend so much energy considering such abstract things as anxiety and fear and states of mind and states of being. But I also don’t know how to exist, how to be me, without also considering my whole self and my place within the larger world. I think too that such considerations play a vital role in allowing us to grow together and harmoniously with those close to us.

We must keep sharing our real selves with our people, and encouraging them to do the same.

How lucky we are when they allow us to do so without out judgement. I consider myself to be an open, heart-on-your sleeve person. But at the same time, I carry around a certain level of shame and embarrassment about the things I don’t love about myself, like my easily triggered anxiety, or certain weather-related phobias, or the panic my periodic insomnia induces. I admit, I hoped to downplay these qualities to my boyfriend, worried about how he would perceive them. But who we are simply and without fail reveals itself. And, I’ve happily discovered that I am with a person who seems able to accept everything about me, even when my quirks seem unexpected or incomprehensible. We have been together two years now, and it is beautiful to be able to offer one another this grace, this space to be who we truly are with one another.

I’m wishing you all calm today, and am supporting you in being who you are, who you are becoming. If you have a chance, take a moment to hug or thank the people who are happy to let you do that.

Love, Cath

On the Utility of Failed Metaphors, Or the Clock, the Iron, and the Buckthorn

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the failure of language points us toward wonder.

Over the course of the long weekend, metaphors arrived at my feet, floated to me like wishes made on dandelion puffs. They arranged themselves into a series of vignettes and waited for me to make sense of them.

First, there was the clock. I sometimes watch a show about antique and vintage items being repaired by a hodgepodge collection of craftspeople in England. In one episode, a woman brought in a badly damaged clock which had fallen from its perch on a side table. The clock had been made in the 1800s, and as the horologist began to take apart and clean and repair the time piece, he discovered that on the hour wheel within its mechanism, there was a date wheel, yet, there was no corresponding place on the clock’s face to indicate a date. He explained that this oddity was indicative that a repair was made at some point with this additional foreign part. He noted, “That’s not a terrible thing, it’s just part of the clock’s life.”

I was struck by this. The idea that we are comprised of things not native to ourselves; life adds functioning parts to our brains and hearts that we were not born with. And we keep on, we keep time, we move forward. It isn’t good or bad to be acted upon, intruded upon in this way; it is simply the way of things. At first, it seemed beautiful, this idea that we incorporate into ourselves these non-native mechanisms, ways of functioning we might not have considered before. At the same time, I recalled the painful ways people have attempted to repair within me what they believed was broken. Too much this, not enough that, here let me help you. I once had a boyfriend who, when he believed I was not understanding his perspective, because I was not agreeing with it, would insist he was trying to help me. In these moments he would say my name over and over, so much so that I grew to loathe the syllables.

Well-intentioned repair can nevertheless leave us feeling altered, worse off than we were before; transformed in a way we didn’t chose. The clock metaphor becomes muddled, I turn it over and over in my mind, the tick-tocking heartbeat of it hiccups, starts, stops. I set aside for now.

Second, there was the iron table, my love’s, a treasured piece from his past. We considered its making. Weighed the notions of cast versus wrought.

Cast – poured into a mold; wrought – shaped by tools. I had never thought about the distinction before.

Later, as I walked the dog, I wondered whether love could be considered this way, as either cast or wrought.

I think of the molds we create throughout our lives, the way we shape ideas about what love is supposed to be, then pour our experiences into this fixed space. We expect everything to fit, our love to hold the shape we’ve told ourselves it should take. Alternatively, if or when we are wiser, we may fashion the shape of it as we go. We hone, engaging in an act of perpetual creation, knowing better now what any skillful craftsman knows: we must diligently attend to what we are making.

Still, I keep reconsidering these ideas and starting over, because the metaphor seems at once to have some truth, but feels a little flawed, maybe forced. It seems to want me to land on a conclusion, to go from an if to a then, to state something about strength or craftsmanship, but perhaps love is wilder and more organic than iron, whether cast or wrought. [Though, it is worth noting, that according to a quick bit of research, wrought iron is stronger than cast iron, and at least in this way, the metaphor comes together.]

Third, there was the buckthorn. Little buckthorn shoots are benign things, proliferate, but just another weed to pull out. Wait a week, and they develop enough root that a simple tug will not loosen them easily from the earth. Wait a few summer weeks, and they are saplings with trunks about one and a half inches in diameter, fully mature with berries, and possessing the thorns that give them their name, thorns as long as the trunk is thick, nearly.

IMG_0763

I woke this morning with a mysterious weepy red scratch between my thumb and forefinger. The mark sprouted like a little branch off of my life line, which is one of the few things I know of palmistry. Playing back my yesterday, I recalled my discovery of the thorns on the mature buckthorns. I remembered that when I was cutting up the saplings my love had felled in the little wayward woods at the back of the yard, I’d been snagged by a particularly determined thorn. This morning, I was struck by the placement of the wound it created, the scratch joining perfectly with the life line.

Of course, I cannot help but see metaphor here. My mind wends through possible meanings, maybe about the stubborn insistence of wildness to be in our lives, to shape us, to mark us. Maybe it is about how eagerly love thrives when the conditions are right, how quickly and sturdily it can grow. Again though, as a metaphor, it is faulty. To shape it to my purposes I must focus on the buckthorn’s heartiness and resilience, and little else.

So, as I wondered about this trio of metaphors throughout the day, I stumbled, often and roughly. What to do with it all? Why did I return to these ideas so adamantly – the clock, the iron, the buckthorn?

At the end of the day, what has made itself plain to me is this: there is a richness to life that offers itself up to us when we are of a mind to see it. I am happy to consider various ways of looking at a clock mechanism, the prettily wrought iron table leg, the buckthorn and its sturdiness and its thorns. It is a delight to contemplate deeper meanings, to cherish the beauty in the way objects and words wish to position themselves in proximity to each other, even if in the end, we determine these couplings to be inadequate ciphers for understanding the complexities of love.

My perspective this weekend revealed a world honeyed with meaning. I may not grasp it all, not all at once, but there is power in what we can glimpse of ourselves and each other and our connections in these little moments, in everyday objects and occurrences, when we allow ourselves the space to notice. Keep noticing. Enjoy the metaphors, even if they fall apart a little when scrutinized. Look at what the world nudges you toward and enjoy the wonder of it all.

Love, Cath

On Suns, Swimming, and Floating

By Catherine DiMercurio

{Sometimes you have to look at the sun.}

As my children get ready for the next part – for my son, beginning college, living away from home, for my daughter, beginning her junior year, formulating plans for what post-undergrad looks like for her – it is impossible to avoid looking at the sun of it all. Sometimes the shifts in our lives and relationships are small and gradual and we adapt to them almost without noticing the effort, but sometimes the shifts announce themselves brightly; they greedily signal their significance.

beach dawn dusk ocean
Photo by Sebastian Voortman on Pexels.com

Looking back, I see the inevitable trying too hard, the flurries of energy expended in multiple directions, the lack of calm that often characterized my efforts as a parent. I tried to be better than myself for them, tried to shape myself to tasks that shifted at the very moment I thought I know how to accomplish them, or at the very moment I realized I had no idea what I was doing. I tried to unmake the damage of divorce with deluges of emotion, with little proofs of the constancy and consistency of love, with notes, lots of talking, and sleepless nights full of worry, with hugs, cookies, gifts, lectures, as many meals together as we could, everything I could think of. I tried to pick up jagged shards of broken hearts, and puzzle the pieces back together. I tried to make everything count. I gave up sometimes, angry, resentful, tired, lost. I tried to relax, tried to not be cannibalized by guilt when I got things wrong, when either child was obviously hurting or struggling. I wanted more beach time and forests for us. More breakfasts, more stories, more magic – always. More pasta, too, and road trips fueled by potato chips and coffee. More holding hands. More laughter. More books, more lake-smoothed stones, more stars, moons, more wishes.

Sometimes I think of the curly brackets, or braces, these: {}, and I think being a parent is somehow like them, full of mysterious and elegant purpose, an effort to order, shape, contain the infinite nature of love. I admit, I don’t really know what they mean, for math, or language, and I don’t know what I mean, for my children, but I know that by some cosmic calculus, they have made me who I am, and that I am for them, always. Please know that, wherever you are. I am for you, always.

For me, now, I do what any mammal does when their young grow hearty and capable and ready. Send them off, let them go, and then I return to the den. After that, who knows. The nature shows seem to leave that part out, the camera follows the juveniles as they seek out new lives, not the lumbering mother bear or the lioness, or fox, or hare.

This is like any other part of parenting. You know you will be challenged and changed, but you don’t always know in what ways and you can’t quite predict how you’re going to feel about it.

I’m always amazed at our ability as parents to keep at it even once we realize that everything we do is focused on preparing our children to leave us. We practice goodbye, early, often. The first day of preschool is marked indelibly upon my heart and brain, the exact shape of the moment when I hugged each child, the way their arms felt around my neck. I knelt on the sidewalk. My daughter received and returned my embrace, tight, quick, and then she squirmed away to wait in line in front of the door. My son lingered, waiting, uncertain. He was always a naturally curious child who loved to learn but this sudden separation seemed unexpected and a bit unnecessary to him.

The separation that begins tomorrow is less unexpected, and is clearly a next step that he is more than prepared for. Our mutual sometimes-sadness is rooted quite simply in knowing we will miss each other, and in comprehending that his childhood has ebbed. Is it okay to regard this as a kind of grief for an ending, even though it is surrounded by the joy and excitement about what comes next? And we are, joyful and excited. For both of us, there is new, there is growth and learning, there is a fresh independence, and discovery.

I think of all the energy and urgency I put into parenting and I wonder what becomes of it, and does it turn inward or toward other relationships, or is it so unique to parenting that it exists for itself only. I’m sure it is different for everyone. I know I am not suddenly done parenting, but it is necessarily time to float instead of swim. I am curious what the coming weeks will reveal, if that will feel like a natural movement or a forced one. Will it seem as unfamiliar and urgent as learning to swim felt?

I wrote a while ago about trying to replace anxiety with curiosity and I do try to remind myself of this. A lot of my writing about this transition is a part of that effort, a way to pay attention to what our hearts and brains do during changes like this, a way to wonder and perceive. There is not dread here, only a surplus of emotion.

But surpluses do have a way of overwhelming us sometimes and I have found that this is one of the ways I teach myself about how to manage them. I think that is what we are called to do, perpetually, is to continue to teach ourselves how to manage the multiplicity of evolutions we experience in our lives. We learn, we lean on each other. We celebrate the joys and let ourselves feel the griefs and make ourselves and each other whole through all of it, through the celebration and tears and puzzling the pieces together and swimming and floating and leaning.

Love, Cath

 

 

 

On Fear and Shelter, Reckoning and Work

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you offer shelter, sometimes you seek it, sometime it is the same thing.

“I’m making hash browns. Do you want some?” My son asked me this morning. He is a good roommate. I think back to a time when I didn’t have any roommates. It has been a couple of decades and it wasn’t for long. At times, I’m wistful, at times excited. I know my son and I are both ready for the next part, his moving, though we will surely miss one another.

I hesitate to embrace summer’s waning. I want to stay here a bit, getting settled into the new house and enjoying my son’s company before he leaves for college. But many of my actions are guided by the coming change of season. I work in the yard, envisioning the space as it might look in the future. I try to prune and nurture what I inherited with the purchase of the house, and gently guide growth into a slightly different direction. There is much work to do indoors, but it can wait. Focusing on the outside tasks when the weather is good is what calls to me right now.

The summer-to-fall transition does not come gently when school years factor in. The late August move-in date for my son is insisting on itself as a turning point. We have gone from feeling as if there is so much time left to understanding that everything held within the current balance is about to shift.

We were running some errands recently, and as we drove, our conversation took a serious turn, as our talks lately do. We discussed fears and anxieties, his and mine. I recalled a stumbled-upon observation stored in my memory from long ago: we create what we fear.

Though I acknowledge the power of fear to shape reality, I don’t always know what to do about it. We wondered, my son and I, how do you simply stop being afraid of something? We ran through the most obvious options: you face it, or you remind yourselves of the times you’ve faced something similar before and triumphed, or at least, survived.

But what does facing something really mean, and, what if, having faced something and overcome it, you find yourself just as afraid as you were before, because it was every bit as painful or as challenging as you imagined it would be? We both talked about the ways you keep working and trying, because, what else can you do. Without much of a segue, we turned our conversation to dinner options.

I love that he and I can talk about such things. I wish I had better, or any, guidance for him. Or me. Still, I take comfort in the fact that conversations like these exist, if nothing else, as shelter.

brown wooden cottage at the field during day
Photo by Simon Matzinger on Pexels.com

Sometimes though, I wonder if I have had the reckoning with myself that I should. How often do we look squarely at ourselves and admit our shortcomings? I do not mean to suggest that the fears my son and I were discussing are flaws. We all have fears; it is a part of being human and it would be cruel and unnecessary to fault ourselves for what rises up within us intrinsically and sometimes irrationally.

But I do think that the way we respond to our fears can impact other people in negative ways. Our individual fear-response has the power to alter the shape of our interactions. Sometimes, without us even noticing, it transforms us into different iterations of ourselves. We may grow anxious and panicked; paranoid and judgmental; withdrawn; distant; angry. We may also quietly retreat and keep up a façade of normalcy and hope no one notices, though they often do. The work of it all, for so many of us, is learning how to stop such reactions – regardless of whether they are a chain reaction of thoughts or brain chemistry or both – and respond consciously and positively and calmly to ourselves instead.

This is easier said than done, in my experience, however worthwhile the endeavor may be. Quite honestly, the only effective strategy I have found is a combination of attentiveness to, and patience with, myself. And oh, how grateful I am for the patience, as well as empathy, that is extended to me by those who love me, who understand me, who are similarly introspective and cognizant and earnestly endeavoring. I’ve written about this here before, and I’ll do so again. Never underestimate the power of giving and receiving the gifts of patience and empathy. Talk about shelter!

[Let us pause here a moment and acknowledge some truth. Let us note that there are very few people in this world who are willing and able to not only meet us where we are, but who likewise open up space and allow us to do the same for them. Let us candidly and generously say thank you to those with whom we are able to build the shelters that inspire us to simultaneously feel safe and to grow. Thank you, Ian.]

Still, for some of us, it remains difficult to be empathetic with ourselves. It is easy to be critical, to wish we were different, to witness the way others seem to gracefully move through life and to long for a more peaceful inner world, one that naturally exists that way, rather than one that must be vigilantly attended to. It is like having a house plant whose precise need for light and water can’t be discerned. Maybe it’s better near that window, does it like long drinks once a week, or a little bit of water every other day, is it dying, is that a new leaf?

Sometimes I marvel at how much stumbling is involved in growth, at how much journeying is accomplished between steps. I don’t truly know if feeling well and growing is harder now than it used to be, or if it is simply the case that I’m working at it more earnestly or paying closer attention to the process.

I remind myself that we are like those perennials that flower repeatedly through the summer, rather than those that are all show and glory once and then are done.

How delighted I am by impatiens and their habitual blossoming, how understood I feel by a plant whose name reminds me of one of my least wonderful traits.

Love, Cath

On Works-in-Progress

By Catherine DiMercurio

For most of my life, home has looked like backyards sutured together with chain link. Neighborhoods comprised of various parts, various wholes, my yard, shared fence, our block. As I was growing up, summertime smelled like charcoal smoldering on grills. We stuck our toes into the gooey tar that mended fissures in the street in front of our house.

gray metal chain link fence close up photo
Photo by Kendall Hoopes on Pexels.com

One of the days I was working at the new house, before I moved, I smelled a neighbor’s charcoal grill and thought of my dad, tending ours when I was little, and I had the sense of returning, as if I’d just peddled home as fast as I could because the street lights were coming on and I heard my father’s distinctive get your asses home now whistle. I’ve chatted with new neighbors across old fencing, and have had thought about how easy it is to feel both at home and out of place amidst the almost familiar.

This morning I arose after waking too early and trying futilely to get back to sleep. There are still boxes to unpack, things I can’t find. At times, when fatigued or overwhelmed, I get unreasonably melancholy. I fret over the fact that I cannot fix things to their proper places here so far. Is this where the coffee cups should go? Why is it so difficult to buy a couch? The kitchen table seems right though, so that’s a beginning.

Sometimes, though I’ve only just begun sleeping here several nights ago, it feels as though I’m only borrowing the place for a little while, though we have put in so many hours and dollars to make it feel new, mine. I hope she likes it when she gets here.

I sort of thought the house would let me know what it wanted somehow. But it’s still making me do all of the work.

This sense of almost being home is perhaps exacerbated by that looming birthday, though I don’t place a lot of stock in fifty as a milestone, despite the countless ways the world says I should. I’m expected to know by now exactly if I’m going to keep coloring my greys or not, and I’m supposed to know why. I’m supposed to not care what people think, and know precisely what I think about this or that or everything. I’m supposed to know more, know me, or, I’m supposed to know how much I don’t know and embrace that.

Perhaps I’m as much almost home as I am almost me.

I do know a few things. I know that possibly I might never stop being at least a little afraid that the good things will slip away if I don’t pay close enough attention. Vigilance and worry aren’t the same as spells of protection, but I whisper incantations nonetheless. Things weren’t always so, and though I can pinpoint the exact moment when this circuit in my brain was tripped, it doesn’t seem to mean that I can access an easy remedy for it. It does mean that there is work to do, and that’s okay. Everyone has their own work to do, and it changes as we go, and as with homes, the work is never quite done, and timelines are a bit unnecessary and perhaps even unhelpful. We must be both patient and diligent, with ourselves and with each other.

I know also how the extent to which love makes so much of this so much easier, possible, fulfilling. Though I sometimes struggle with my shortcomings, though we all do, having those we love supporting us, while we offer the same loving support in return, is what stitches together our little communities of you, me, us. So much of the world around us is mended and bound together and I love the way we mend each other and bind ourselves to one another through kindness and gestures, glances, kisses, effort, words, all of it, all of us.

I don’t always know the best way to tackle the work that needs to be done, and it seems all too easy sometimes to see task after task piling up, to get overwhelmed and undone about it all. I’m trying, in this new almost-home place to give myself the space to figure it out, to get closer to where and how I want to be, to have a little more patience with myself with regard to work in progress. It’s the kindest thing we can do for ourselves, and each other.

Love, Cath

On Hermit Crabs and Habits

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we seek ourselves in our habits.

A few days ago, as I was out walking, I decided to see how running felt again. It had been a while, and when I was a little younger it was easy to start again after a lull. I’ve noticed in the past few years that getting back up to speed has taken longer, been a little more clunky. So, I took it slow. I interspersed some running into the walk and it felt like maybe I’d do it again. I ordered new shoes the next day. At the same time, I know how easy it is for me to fall out of the habit when life gets busy, and I wonder, if I loved it so much why does that happen? And I wonder, is wanting to try again more of an effort to connect the current me to a past version of me? Perhaps I am seeking running again, because it makes me feel strong, and I need evidence of strength right now.

With all the transition happening related to moving, which I’ve been writing about here for some time, I am feeling very vulnerable in many ways. I was sitting at my desk trying to work and I kept thinking of hermit crabs, and what I remembered of them from the Eric Carle story about the hermit crab, a children’s book I had read to my children long ago. They live in discarded shells from other sea creatures. When they outgrow one shell, they must leave it behind and find another more suitable one. I’ve been ruminating about this period of exposure, the seeking, the being in-between places. I think of this current house not so much as something I’ve outgrown, but as something with a shape better suited for another family. I’ve evolved differently, and it has been fitting awkwardly these days, as familiar as it is. Maybe that’s why I’m in search of some external marker of strength, as I’m moving between shells and the exposure is getting to me.

crab macro hermit hermit crab
Photo by William LeMond on Pexels.com

Sometimes I feel that we are evaluated in the same way that we explore a prospective new space. It is a relief to be recognized as something having both potential and current value, even when all our flaws are on display, as they especially are when the stress of transition exposes us.

I think too of the way humans in general move into someone else’s former shelter and make it their own. Some people do build houses specifically to suit their own tastes, but in general we search for something that will do the job. We fit ourselves into a space and are constrained by external factors like cost and availability, yet within such parameters we try to find something that suits our personality and our needs. We seek out something that mostly fits and we adapt.

I suspect many of us feel like hermit crabs right now, tucked away in a home that might be starting to feel too small, even if the fit seemed just fine early in March. Inside our homes we make attempts at keeping up habits that feel good, discarding some, taking on new ones. I try to keep writing, keep up with that habit. I’m revisiting the running habit. I imagine what these activities will look like in my new house, which I now can visualize. It’s there waiting for me, pending paperwork. Or any other disaster that a worrier like me can easily imagine.

Our habits are a huge part of our ability to adapt to new circumstances. We talk a lot these days about “normal” and “new normal.” But I don’t think we participate in various habits because they make our lives feel normal. I think we do them because they make us feel like ourselves. Washing the dishes in my new house will help acclimatize me to the new space, the performance of a routine domestic activity that says life goes on, here in this space now, instead of there and then. But the things that will help me to truly adapt will be cooking for people I love, writing, gardening, exploring the new neighborhood on walks and runs. We have habits that are integral to who we are, for better or worse, and our personal evolution is tied to which ones we hold on to and which ones we let go of. And we all have some we wish to let go of. I find it very easy to lose myself in an anxiety loop and I don’t know how much of that is a conscious embrace of a habit, or a chemical stress response I don’t have much control over. I think it is both – first one, then the other, so I continue to work on what I can control, I work on letting go of the habit, and I look forward to seeing if it’s easier to do in a new environment.

All this leads me to consider how much our homes make us who we are. Do they? Or are they reflections of who we are? Perhaps the answer is both, first one, then the other, but I don’t know which comes first. Perhaps this is another way we are like the hermit crab. We are this version of ourselves in one space.

We are what we inhabit.

And then we inch toward something else, changing either something about our home to better suit us, or finding a new space all together. We inch forward, we adapt, we inhabit a new version of ourselves, here and now.

Love, Cath

On Distraction, Obstacle, Winter Malaise, or, the Squawk of Self

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes, it seems we are too loud.

On a Sunday afternoon I find myself once again futilely facing what needs doing. On a Wednesday evening, I come home from work feeling utterly spent and frustrated. In so many areas of our lives, we sometimes find ourselves bogged down, unable to find the productivity we seek, unable to move through the day without feeling overwhelmed.

Certainly the watery winter light, devoid of warmth or brightness, failing in duration, doesn’t help. It is easy to feel unfocused, to have that sense that we couldn’t see the shore if we tried. We drift. We wonder, when was the last time we even saw a bird.

We all have tasks that seem impossible to tackle. Or, collections of tasks. Or, work in general. It feels as though we are encountering things that are somehow, simply un-doable. We can’t fathom how to get through this chore, this day, this week.

All my life, I’ve been told that I take things too personally, I’m too sensitive. I wonder how people can or should respond to such “observations.” Shame and defensiveness? Frustration with one’s own reactiveness? Perhaps dismay that passion is often regarded as anger or negativity. It all becomes part of a web, tangling movement, thwarting focus, dulling energy.

If we have become habituated to negatively regarding our own response to the world at large, it is easy – so easy – to negatively regard our own response to our own world.

In such a state, how can we get out of our own way? How can we look at a task that needs doing in our lives and divorce it from our personal response to both task and self?

It can be exhausting to cut through it all. The problem with accomplishing goals, large or small, rarely has to do with the goal as a thing, but rather, with how we feel about it, and how we feel about ourselves.

I don’t have any answers but I do know this: we can’t stop feeling. What I mean is not: we shouldn’t stop feeling, as in, the world needs this, we need it. What I mean is: we can’t. We are unable to stop. We aren’t wired that way. We will be reactive and sensitive and thinky and overthinky.

At the same time, we do get in our own ways sometimes. So, if we can’t change that we react/think/feel/overthink/overfeel, all we can do is try and keep trying to change what we think and feel, about task, about others, about self.

This is the part where I realize there is nothing new to say.

This is the part where I think back on so many other blog posts about self and identity and perspective. About how the story we tell ourselves about ourselves matters.

By way of example, let’s circle back to my Sunday afternoon and the task at hand that day, basement purging (which is by now familiar, if you’ve been reading this blog). It is easy to now see that facing this challenge isn’t as simple as divorcing “task” from “emotion about the task.” This challenge doesn’t simply pertain to the fact that cleaning out the basement is hard because I’m attached to the memories in the boxes I need to purge. I’m actually okay with looking at those memories, happy and sad. I’m looking forward to moving, and I don’t feel a melancholic pull rooting me to this place; I’m ready to leave. The challenge is this: the basement needs so much work because of what I’ve neglected. Thinking about what I’ve neglected and why leads me to re-litigating my attitude about my past self, and how I navigated the aftermath of divorce and the competing demands of single motherhood and work life and life-life, and the priorities I chose, and those I didn’t.

The thing is, for each and every task at hand, the ones we pull away from are those with the strong potential for self-censure – of current self, of past self. Our resistance usually has very little to do with one discreet chore, with the work itself, and very much to do with our larger set of views about ourselves and about a larger collection of tasks.

This is to say, we have a lot of unpacking to do before we can actually begin the process of task-tackling. We have to remember that it may seem that a box is just a box, a chore is just a chore, but because we are multiple selves, it is not so easy.

nature animal cute sitting

We are our past, and our present, and our future, and we all have ideas about what should have been done, what needs to be done, what will need to be done. It’s loud and distracting. It’s a nest full of hungry birds. We swoop back but we never have enough to feed them all, all our selves, all our squawking selves.

Maybe all we can do to quiet things is admit that we tried our best, or we thought we did, and that really amounts to the same thing. What we thought was our best, was, in fact, our best, so let’s let ourselves off the hook a little on that. And that is all we can do now. Our best. Whatever we think it is.

Love, Cath