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
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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 Maps and Moonlight: Navigating

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we make a path both known and possible by drawing it.

When I was a child, one of the most delightful and satisfying experiences I knew was that of opening a fantasy novel and discovering a map in the opening pages. Whether it was Narnia, Middle Earth, Earthsea, or a lesser-known place such as Hed being depicted, I was captivated. Sometimes, I was inspired enough to sketch out my own maps, too, of places that had no stories or characters, but that I envisioned nonetheless. I penciled in borders, mountains, seas, rivers, and cities, making it up as I went along, happy that the only right way was the way I was drawing it.

beige analog gauge
Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

I’ve been thinking a lot about those maps lately. Remembering the crackling sound of worn library binding, the smell of freshly mown grass. An old cotton blanket spread beneath a tree, half in and half out of the shade. Reading for hours during summer vacation, when it seemed to span far longer than a couple of months.

Looking back now, I can see more clearly what I loved about those maps, but would never have been able to articulate back then. They were an achievement in the realm of the impossible, a carving out of a something from nothing, from mystery, from void. They sketched out meaning and shape and form in line and letter from the unfathomable. How beautiful is that? To map out a place that doesn’t exist and give it to someone else and through the words you place around it, make them believe, or half-believe, that it is a landscape that could be traversed, at least by someone.

I think of half-believing, and what a gift it is.

I think of unmappable, shapeless places, the paths traversed between past and now, now and future, peaks and valleys of emotion, the roads and streams of memory and want that form through-lines through the course of our days. The longing to map it, to give it shape, is not so much about understanding where to go. It is more about acknowledging how little we really know of ourselves, the kingdoms of brain, heart, dream, past, ache, love, fear. What is the truth of our own personal terrain, what level of consciousness do we actually possess about why we do what we do and think what we think and feel what we feel?

I wonder sometimes how many neurological processes are involved in deciding which coffee cup to use, if I should say this now, will this sweater be warm enough, is this the right time for this action, or that. Theoretically, I suppose, one could map the firing of synapses, a decision in the brain to move the hand to reach for this cup or that sweater, but can any of the rest of it be traced? The way the memory of wearing that sweater the morning I sat next to you drinking coffee made me want to wear it today? It won’t be warm enough because it is a light sweater, but it will be warm enough because I will think of you all day.

I think we want to know which path to take and what obstacles might be faced on the way but we also want to know if knowing matters. I wonder if I’m on a quest at all, like the adventurers in the stories of my childhood, or am I free to discover as I go?

I wonder if we create urgency around time and destination because we feel we ought to, because everyone else is, and is there a way we get left behind if we don’t figure this out?

I think of mapping this hidden terrain because I suspect it’s more beautiful than I can imagine if taken in as a whole and I’d like to see it that way, if only for a moment. Would it be like standing in a clearing in the woods in the dead of night, waiting for that one moment when the moon slips free of the clouds?

What is (to be) lost and what is (to be) found?

Thinking back on those maps of fantasy worlds from childhood books, it is impossible, really to separate them from the stories that go with them, the characters who journeyed through these worlds, sometimes alone, sometimes with an unlikely band of adventurers. There was usually a seemingly impossible quest. Protagonists often were lead to discover that they couldn’t do it alone, and, just as often, that there were some things that they could only do alone. I get that now.

I wonder sometimes, if we’ve all been mapping out the same place, but each of us, from our own perspective. I wonder about the way we journey alone and together, and how easy it is to confuse the two.

I think about how difficult it is sometimes to admit there’s no map, though wouldn’t it be nice to know that as long as we kept the river on our left and continued north we’d be okay? I think about the clearing in the woods, and the waiting for the moon. When there’s enough light to see by, should we look at the map, or look around us?

The thing about maps is that they often lead us to believe there are right answers, best routes, clear paths, known quantities. And maps of fictional places always imbued in me a half-belief that anything could be charted, made known, ordered. In fact, we can barely map where we’ve already been, let alone where we currently are, even if the moon is out and shining on our clearing.

But, that doesn’t mean we can’t navigate. That doesn’t mean we can’t reach out a hand in the dark and lead one another. It doesn’t mean we can’t compare notes, learn from each other, see the way our paths are intertwined, because they are. We can cheer each other on the solo parts of our journeys, we can be cheered on, we can let ourselves be buoyed by cheers. We can lean on one another, in the dark or in the moonlight or as the day breaks.

And as far as maps go, the only right way is the way we are drawing it, and we make pathways possible when we imagine them and we can at least half-believe in that, because it is the same as believing anyway.

Love, Cath

 

 

On Expectations and Ecosystems

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes I consider my place in my ecosystem, and yours.

Sometimes the wild hum of it all is overwhelming and you feel perched in the center, balancing, trying not to fall. Sometimes you focus on the sounds of the crickets at dusk and dawn and try to not think about how many things you have to think about, and how many things the people you love have to think about.

You wonder: what can be offered, what can be spared, what can be given, what can be asked, what can be answered. How do we care for each other?

Several nights ago, when I awoke sometime in the very early morning, I realized it was the first time I heard crickets this summer. The windows were open, and the night was warm, and as I lay there in a state of semi-consciousness, I thought that it seemed late in the season, but with a cold wet spring perhaps normal cricket development was a bit delayed.

I think about expectation and delay, and the way life is like that, how it’s about what we expect will happen and when, what we as children imagine our adult lives will be like, the way we come to accept that many of the things we want we must wait for, and other things we cherish must be given up too soon.

There is so much of adult life we cannot imagine as children. Everything seems so far away, and yet, attainable. When I was little, I wanted to be a clown or a waitress or a florist or a poet and a wife and mother and a baker and someone who got to read a lot of books.

This summer was the first summer of my children’s lives, from the time that my son was three and my daughter five, that we did not take a summer camping trip. This summer both kids are working and saving money and we couldn’t quite get the timing right for the three of us to go away. With both of them working hard for future goals they aren’t quite sure of, I can see how confusing it must be, the sense that something is expected of you. It isn’t just me, or their father, or their peers, or themselves, expecting something.

The world expects us to make something of ourselves, to be some sort of contributing member of society. And that isn’t a bad thing, but it is a vague thing, and it is a thing that insinuates a debt of some kind, as if we owe the world somehow to make something of ourselves. What thing? Why?

I can see them weighing everything associated with expectation and delay, and though I’m at a different point in my life, I feel this soul-lurch sometimes, too.

We are caught, in a way, fluttering all our lives toward a web of ever-changing expectation.

pattern cobweb spiderweb spider web
Photo by Donald Tong on Pexels.com

And some of the things we want, we must delay, and some of thing things we’d prefer not to delay have a way of eluding us anyway.

And what is our cold wet spring? What causes us a shift in development, when is the right time to sing?

Later in the season than expected doesn’t matter much to a cricket, does it? And a cold wet spring might make things tough on a cricket, but maybe it is ideal for other creatures. Are we more like a cricket or more like an ecosystem?

It is easy as we move through our adult lives to grow dismal from responsibilities, to feel burdened by the necessity of income-driven labor, to feel an unspecified longing that makes us uneasy. It is easy to frame our adult gratitude not in terms of the presence of things but absences, in terms of what we haven’t lost, or haven’t lost yet. A component of our health, tiny pieces of mental acuity, loved ones, a dream or several, a particular way of hoping, that easy way we had when we were kids of knowing that things would work out.

We didn’t know much about cold wet springs then, or maybe, we did, but we sang.

We have always been, after all, both cricket and ecosystem.

It’s is also alarmingly easy to feel separate, apart from everything, neither cricket nor ecosystem, but more like a bird in a cage, careening from this perspective to that, looking out of this side of the cage, or the other. Be this, do that, look at them, look at me. Wait, don’t look at me, I’ll be over here.

Sometimes we blink and realize there is no cage, there are only narrow views shaped by frames we did and did not create.

Sometimes we can see that lives – yours, mine, ours, theirs – are not there to be viewed from this perspective, or that, they are not a spectacle, though I am more prone than ever to looking at my own life and witnessing it as if it is an object separate from myself.

Mid-life-ish is already a natural time to be introspective, a time of before and after, of comparing the expectations of youth to the reality of now and weighing all of that against our desires for what we’d like the rest of our lives to be like. Perhaps it crystallizes in a new way now, as we witness our children shift from childhood to adulthood, transforming and leaving behind versions of themselves.

We notice, unexpectedly, cicada husks still clinging to the cement base of the pillar on the porch. I’ve seen two in as many days.

We are time-bound creatures, there’s no getting around it, but there are also limitless parts of us, energies that cannot be created or destroyed.

We might be cricket and ecosystem but we are also cricket song, we are what we create.

Voices carry, amplify, are heard and listened to. They become a part of someone else.

This is all to say, at any given time, when we are feeling overwhelmed and overly constructed by time and environment and expectation, that we might hear a note in the night that allows us to remember we are something else, too, than the current shape of our thoughts and worries.

We are song and energy, the note in someone else’s night.

We are for each other as much as we are for ourselves. And that is sometimes all we can ask and all we can offer and sometimes it is enough and sometimes it is everything.

Love, Cath

 

 

 

On Crystallization, Perception, and Power

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes our strengths are weaknesses in disguise.

One recent morning, I woke early with an idea in my head for a new story. I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. It was still dark outside and a cool breezed huffed in through the open windows, shushing me back to sleep. Yet a clear picture arose in my mind of a man and two singular aspects of his life, and these ideas hummed themselves together into a beautiful sentence. My sleepy self insisted the ideas would hold together, the words would cling in my heart like syrup to fingers. I told myself it was okay to go back to sleep.

honey on white bowl
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

But whoever remembers such things? The words or dreams we want to stay with us evaporate the more we want them to remain. I sat up and turned on a light. After a trip to the kitchen to warm up yesterday’s coffee, I did something I hadn’t done in a while, and wrote in bed. It was chilly enough that I donned the sweater linked by sensory memory to writing – I wore it almost daily at the writing retreat I attended in Vermont in the spring. As I flipped open my laptop I relished the sweet perfection of feeling at once cozy and creative and content. I began to write in that cherished, blissful way, where it all flows, and there is no thought or judgment about it, just all the words becoming themselves.

One of the reasons writing something new like this feels so freeing is that nothing about it is centered on thinking. When I’m working this way, the process is about throwing open doors and windows and letting everything that needs to get out get out, and letting everything that needs to get in get in. John Greenleaf Whittier says in one of his poems, “All the windows of my heart / I open to the day.” It’s like that.

When I write, my heart does the heavy lifting and my brain offers vocabulary, some structural tools, a bit of philosophy here and there. Most days though, my heart and brain team up differently. My heart is feeling and my brain is thinking and they feed off of each other, but it is more like a relay race and less like the very intimate dance of writing.

This interplay of thoughts and feelings has led me to consider why I have often been the subject of two observations: you think too much and you feel too much. The more familiar variants are: you’re overthinking this and you’re too sensitive. I have recently – through much thinking and feeling on the matter – come to a new understanding on the topic: I am thinking and feeling exactly the right amount for me. However, I am reacting far too quickly.

How overwhelming this must be for other people, considering how overwhelming it is for me! Friends and loved ones have often looked at me, bewildered at best, and frustrated, annoyed, or angry at worst, because my reactions seem out of sync with their understanding of a situation. And while my thoughts and feelings may not be out of sync, my outward reactions admittedly have been at times.

Realizing this, I have begun to explore a new-to-me idea. Mouth shut, heart and mind open. This is the part where I observe my heart and mind doing what they do best, without trying to interpret everything in the moment, with words that have not yet had a chance to catch up to meaning. I’m learning to take time and space to allow a process to occur, rather than rushing into speaking about things I have not yet had a chance to make sense of. It’s unfair to everyone and processes take time.

Yet it is important to note the following: the things we feel hypersensitive to or want to overthink about are the things our hearts and brains are signaling as significant. Heart bucking and full of ache? Thoughts galloping in all directions? These are clues. These are frantic, arm-waving events where we are trying to tell ourselves Pay attention! This is what and whom you care about the most and we are trying to tell you why and how it all matters! We owe it to ourselves to be contemplative about such things; we owe it to the people in our lives to consider how to react.

We all have these perceived weaknesses, characteristics that we’ve been told are flaws but don’t feel that way to us, yet still, they trip us up. It’s confusing, and difficult to untangle, when you get the sense that you are too something, or not enough of something else. We internalize these messages. External criticism of misunderstood qualities becomes internal self-censure, and over the years we accumulate a misunderstanding of ourselves. But maybe our weaknesses are strengths we have not yet learned to harness. Maybe they are clues to a higher level of understanding or way of being that we have not yet caught up to.

Perhaps my over-thinking and super-sensitivity can provide me sustained guidance in a way they haven’t before, now that I’ve begun to pay attention to them in a new way. Perhaps I can do more than catch glimpses of insight, a flash of inspiration. Maybe I can cultivate intuition and wisdom. Maybe I can hold on to it.

It isn’t easy, turning away from reacting and ruminating and toward contemplation. It takes sustained effort, and flexing muscles we may not be used to. I’m hopeful that as I practice this way of feeling and thinking, I’ll learn more about myself, about how to know when a situation is about quietly healing past wounds – self-inflicted or otherwise – and when it is about an ongoing external situation.

How many times have we been surprised to find our emotions running high, not knowing what brought them on, and how many times do we assume a situational trigger is at work, rather than an internal struggle we’d prefer to ignore because we don’t fully understand it? Sometimes when we are urgently trying to make connections between thoughts and feelings and words, we make mistakes, connect dots and form inaccurate pictures, and in doing so, we do more harm than good to the connections we share with the people we care about.

I am hopeful that the rewards of revaluing the characteristics perceived as weaknesses will be as sweet and as satisfying as the golden rush of new writing. All of it comes from the same source. The unfiltered flow of a new story is not much different from the unfiltered outpouring of deeply felt emotions and so many scattered thoughts. Perhaps, just as the process of revision shapes a story, so too will contemplation crystalize overwrought thoughts and overwhelming feelings into insights that can be savored, and when desired, shared.

Maybe, too, we can begin to consider the ways in which the perceived weaknesses of others might be regarded in a new light. Let’s be patient with one another; we all have powers we don’t yet know how to wield.

Love, Cath

 

On Waves, and Rain, and Corpses

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the new perspective you’ve been seeking is all wrong.

On a sunny Sunday, I drive through an unfamiliar neighborhood, trying to imagine what it would be like to live there. One hand on the steering wheel, one clutching a coffee cup, I imagine kitchens. I take a deep breath, but that underwater feeling is seeping in and I shiver for a moment. I turn off the AC and unroll the window and let in the July heat and humidity. I can’t picture the kitchen. I don’t see myself puttering around in this yard, or that one, and I drive on, overwhelmed and sinking.

I have written often here about different types of transitions I’ve experienced in recent weeks, months, years, and just when I feel I’ve ridden the wave of one, another arrives. I used to think “normal life” happened in the calm space between the waves. It was that place where you could float a while, regroup, catch your breath. And maybe life is like that sometimes. But right now, normal life is as much the waves as the calm, and there is not much time in the in-between place. I’ve been looking for a new way of looking at transitions, something to grab on to so that I can keep my head above water, but maybe what I really need to do is realize that transitions aren’t so much sometimes-things in life, they are what it means to be living.

big waves
Photo by Tatiana on Pexels.com

I have often thought that there are multiple “coming of age” processes in adult life that mirror what we experience in our adolescent years, coming into early adulthood. Major shifts occur for all of us that we somehow readjust to, or we do so on a surface level such that onlookers can note that we’ve done it, but inwardly it feels like a transformation eons in the making, as if we are remaking the landscape of our own psyche.

But there are other processes more subtle, barely noticeable by the outside observer, that occur within us as the atmosphere of our lives shifts around us. They are the internal changes wrought by wave after wave of transition. Those close to us might notice we are especially moody, or sullen, maybe nervous, maybe quieter than normal, or just the opposite as we try and mask what’s going on under the surface. And internally, we are not shifting cooling lava into mountains but rather turning the same small stone over and over, examining the heft of it, the shape, the color, seeking answers to scarcely formed questions. We find ourselves inching in this fashion toward perspectives that will help us make sense of the way our place in our own life is morphing.

In a year I’ll be sending off my youngest for his freshman year of college, and my oldest will be starting her junior year, and I’ll be in some stage of the selling my house and moving and remaking home someplace else. It is difficult to know what the constants will be. And I love constants. I adore certainty. We crave what’s scarce.

I’ve spent some afternoons the past few weekends driving around different neighborhoods, trying to get a sense of where I might land when I sell my house. Sometimes it feels exciting, but it is daunting. Sometimes it is downright scary. It’s often lonely. The phrase I don’t know what I’m doing bubbles through my consciousness and I practice the tools I am supposed to use to keep my anxiety at bay. I think of successes, I think of the times I thought I didn’t know what I was doing but still got through the challenge. I’ll figure it out, I say. I’ll ask for help, I have people. I imagine what it will be like to be putting dishes away in a cute kitchen someplace else, and looking out the back window, my back window, and considering where I’ll plant a garden. But, still.

I drive back home, the brick and mortar analog to flesh and blood. It is almost a person, a character who’s been in my life for twenty years. It’s the place where most of my marriage happened, where it ended, the first and only place the kids called home. It’s walls and paint and memory and it is okay to be sentimental about it and when I think about leaving it I don’t feel a sense of loss or grief, but I do have a tremendous amount of respect for it as place and shelter. I am connected to it as a constant, a sure thing. Let’s go home. I know what that means. I know how it feels, and how hard I worked to have this address, these walls, be a constant for my children, for me, when times were uncertain, and that lost-at-sea feeling, treading water, was my every moment. But I learned to float, to swim, to find things to hold on to. I learned it here, in the time and place that this aging structure represents.

I’ve noticed, too, the way anxiety pools, the way unrelated worries dribble into one another like raindrops on a window. You can’t tell them apart anymore and all of them seem amplified beyond reasonableness. Because they have joined forces it becomes harder and harder to address them individually. You feel a little crazy. People start to notice. You make an effort to separate the puddle back into raindrops. The stress of preparing to sell a house, preparing for the senior year of the youngest child and his looming departure for college, these weighty changes muddy thinking on simpler things, because they are always there, dribbling into everything.

Sometimes it feels as though histories likewise pool into a present moment, as if an entire universe exists in the space of a breath. I notice, and wonder which of the raindrops are real, and which are fictions I created out of water molecules, histories and futures I’ve simply concocted while waves crashed over my head and I couldn’t see clearly. Sometimes all you can do is shake your head and try and clear it, shake off water the way a dog does.

Thinking of history, of memory this way, reminds me of something Ralph Waldo Emerson says in “Self-Reliance.” “But why,” as Emerson asks, “should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this monstrous corpse of your memory? . . . It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, scarcely even in the acts of pure memory, but bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day. Trust your emotion.”

This “monstrous corpse” of our memory often appears as another wave hits, another transition demands to be managed, navigated, understood. The monstrous corpse floats next to us and whispers stories about how we failed, about how we once did trust our emotion, our instincts, and we were wrong. How did you not know, not see?, our memory echoes. We may believe the purpose of memory is to teach us, and sometimes it can, and sometimes, it does. And sometimes it tricks us. We must be careful to not fall into the trap of the binary, and see the lessons of our personal histories as good/bad, pain/not-pain. It isn’t all “if I’d only listened to my head” or “if I’d only trusted my heart.”

Maybe the only way for memory to be instructive is to do what Emerson suggests, and bring into the “thousand-eyed present” for judgment. Let’s see it from all angles before we let it chart a new course. He exhorts us to trust our emotion, and maybe that would be easier to do if we let ourselves see that it exists already in the “thousand-eyed present.” It is not a dark, wild, unknown thing. It is a living part of us, created of us, by us, and for us. We are often suspicious of our current instinct, trusting instead fallible, dead memories to guide us through this wave, and the next. But we have better ways. We have instinct, and knowledge, and strength, and we have people to reach out to, though often we feel like we shouldn’t need to reach out. We have an understanding that they are navigating their own waves and it would be rude to mention that we are drowning a little. But maybe we can buoy each other.

Love, Cath

 

 

 

 

Against Brokenness

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you have to close the door on perspectives that don’t serve you.

There’s a narrative at work in our world in which human brokenness plays a key role. The idea that the pain of our lives, of the world, breaks us is not a new one, but social media proliferates it in different ways. Not long after my divorce I stumbled across this Hemingway quote: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” I affixed myself to that notion. I viewed it as a roadmap. Not only did it acknowledge how I felt and insisted that I wasn’t alone, it showed me that there was something I could do about it – get stronger.

The first guy I dated after my divorce actually told me I was broken, and very generously offered to help put me back together – the way he thought I should be. Unsurprisingly, that situation did not work out. If I was going to be strong at the broken places, I knew my first feat of strength would be to oust him from my life. I recently saw a meme about the way dating in your 40s and 50s is like going to the dump and looking for the least broken and disgusting thing. It reminded me of the way he had looked at me, and how much I’d hated it. But it also reminded me that this “broken” narrative was also a story I had told myself for some time, and hints of it still came back. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are the most powerful ones that exist. This notion of human brokenness is an idea that many people respond to, and it’s not exclusive to the way romantic relationships impact us. The world is brutal enough that we all feel this way sometimes, just like Hemingway said. The world breaks everyone, with tragedies tailored uniquely to our own hearts.

But, I’m through tolerating this analogy. Even if you haven’t thought of yourself in this way for a while it’s easy to fall back in to. We begin to see ourselves as healed, as actually stronger in the broken places, and then life pushes back. We face a challenge that’s harder to work through than we thought, or we find ourselves in the process of evolving into a new relationship, and consequently a new version of ourselves, and it naturally forces us to look at who we’ve been. That can hurt, and it can make us feel as though we haven’t come as far as we thought. Or, we witness a friend or loved one going through a tough time and it reminds us of challenges we have faced, and how maybe we didn’t come through to the other side as strong as we imagined. Through all of this, it is remarkably easy to fall back into thinking of ourselves as broken. It’s easy when faced with the pain of growth to feel as though we’re not as strong in the broken place as we thought, that maybe we are still broken, that maybe parts of us will always be broken. But in reality, we are simply changing. They aren’t called growing pains for nothing.

It’s true that hearts break, it’s true that we feel overwrought and undone by life’s pain. But it is a tragic way to think of people. It is an achingly solitary way of looking at ourselves. Whether or not we are trying to do our own repair work, or hope that others can somehow fix us, or hope to align ourselves with someone who has some sort of complimentary brokenness – as if our fractured or missing pieces can somehow fit together – the idea of brokenness still seems bleak. It is a notion filled with despair, easy to embrace, and difficult to move away from.

Within this notion of brokenness, we slide further and further away from ourselves. We imagine a fractured version of us, and insist it is who we are, and the world agrees.

I’m not saying there is something wrong with feeling broken. I think it’s pretty unavoidable. If you love any human or animal in this world, one way or another you are going to crumble. Sometimes I’ve felt that the breaks I thought I repaired are in fact poorly healed, weak spots that continue to pain me. Sometimes I’ve felt that no matter what I do, some breaks will always be there, as if their sole purpose is to remind me to question happiness that comes my way. Many of us who have experienced deep pain have at least for a time believed that the things that have broken within us have rendered us incapable of loving properly, trusting fully, of receiving the love being offered to us. But we have to stop telling ourselves these stories. We have to make other ideas just as real to us as brokenness.

It’s not enough to say, today I’m stronger at the broken places. Because tomorrow may re-break us and then what? It is certain that we need ways of looking at pain that make it palatable. We need those roadmaps, and to feel understood, and to feel less alone. Let yourself feel broken when you feel it, but don’t ever let anyone – yourself included – tell you that you are. Search the world for other metaphors.

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Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

I spent the spring exploring the natural world in search of metaphors about renewal and growth (remember those crickets we talked about?). Lately, I’m loving this idea of rebuilding, rehabilitation, renovation – not of broken things, but of the parts of ourselves that get neglected when we the world hurts us. The process of renovation is slow, and non-binary. It is not a journey from broken to repaired, or, to come back to Hemingway, from broken to stronger. It’s a process of devoting attention to different areas of our lives and quietly reviving them, nurturing them, clearing away debris and shining a light on the strength of our foundations. It is about making things stronger, but the focus is not on the brokenness. The focus is on seeing all the potential and helping it come into being in a new way. It recognizes the past but builds toward the future.

The rest of that Hemingway quote is this: “But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” Hemingway saw first-hand much of the world’s pain and he did a fair amount of causing it himself. Maybe we can listen to other stories than this one. Maybe there is no roadmap to renewal in quotes about the way life is either going to break or kill us. Let’s not live by quotes or memes. Let’s remember resilience, let us recall strength that comes not from how many times we’ve gotten ourselves through something tough, but the strength that’s deeper than that in us, that has always been there. There is a part of us willing to find new metaphors if that’s what we need to move forward, there’s a part of us that embraces love even though we know the risks, there is a part of us that recalls even in the most painful moments of our lives that we are more than a collection of broken parts. Let us remember that in insisting on our own brokenness we inflict more wounds.

We all handle hurt differently. I rally around metaphor, my Pied Piper leading me someplace new. I crave new ways of looking at things, hoping to understand better the world around me, the people in it, the universe of my own heart. I think our strength lies in the seeking, more so than in whatever we find.

Love, Cath

On the Way We Move Through the World

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the way we see ourselves helps, sometimes it hurts.

When I found out I was pregnant with my first-born, my daughter, I developed a vision of myself, of the way I would move through my pregnancy. I imagined all that good, earthy, powerful woman-hood stuff and wanted to be infused with a grace and a centeredness that I hadn’t possessed before. I wanted to be transformed. Of course, I was transformed, but not the way I imagined. As my body changed, I grew to be clumsier and more awkward than ever. As much as I wanted to bond with my unborn infant, I often felt attacked by an unknown entity that was devouring me, making me feel fatigued, nauseous. I usually did not feel beautiful and earthy. Looking back, everything I felt was entirely normal. Of course all my experiences felt foreign and confusing; I’d never been pregnant before. And in all the ungainly heft of it, there were moments, hours that sometimes stretched into days, where I did feel somewhat miraculous. And the first time I felt a little nudge from my kiddo, elbow or foot, I’m not sure which, I did feel a crazy inexplicable bond begin to grow. I could call this entity in me a person, but a living creature gestating inside of you doesn’t always feel like a future someone in your life the first time around. So the bond I’m speaking of isn’t like the bond you feel with a human walking around outside your body. When my daughter was born and was placed in my arms, that which had long been other but part of me became something else. Her. Whole. I remember my first thought: Oh! If I had only known it was you. . . .

She was a universe unto herself. One that would depend on me and her father for everything. Of course, the entire time that she was incubating in me, I was developing a range of ideas about what kind of mother I would be. And I felt just as ungainly and confused learning how to parent as I did learning how to be pregnant. I didn’t have any sort of instinctual gift. I questioned every single instinct I did have. I never gained a sustained confidence in my abilities as a caregiver, moral instructor, spiritual advisor, shaper of another human’s psyche. And it didn’t become any clearer once my son was born. The territory shifted. There were two of them. And any ideas I had of myself as a mother once again were turned on their head, because this other little person needed a different me than the first one did in many ways. Once again my expectations of how I would walk through motherhood, of how to parent this little brood, butted up against the realities of doing the job. To be honest, they still do. Everything changes, all the time, and every skill you possess as a person and parent is called upon as your children change and as the world changes and as their world changes and you cannot keep up, not ever, but you simply have to keep trying to make sense of it. I am still not the mother I imagined I would be. To be honest, I’m still not the mother I hoped I’d be. She’s still out there, a version of me who will know and say and do the right things at the right time, and sometimes she and I inhabit the same space and we do okay.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Our ideas about who we are and who we want to be are perpetually shifting as the terrain shifts beneath our feet, as people exit our lives, or enter. As we gain new experiences. As we leave pasts behind and enter new spaces. We envision ourselves in a certain, idealized way. In every vision I’ve had of how I want to be, how I expected to exist in the world, I always see this version of myself as graceful. I’ve always wanted to possess physical grace. As a child I desperately wanted to take ballet lessons. One Halloween I got to dress up like a ballerina and I was ecstatic. Being an actual ballerina was not in the cards, but that idea of confidence, poise, grace – it stayed with me, and I always wondered how it would have changed me. Would what seems like natural clumsiness have evaporated in a ballet studio? Would I be less likely to run into furniture, trip on sidewalk cracks, stub toes, tumble into garden mishaps that involve crucifixion via rose thorns through my palm?

I’ve imagined what it might look like to walk through my life with poise and confidence. I still envision myself in a manner I haven’t inhabited. I do not feel possessed by a sense of calm, by accumulated wisdom, by a carefully curated and fully-realized perspective, as I had hoped to be at this point in my life. Not every day. Not most moments. But sometimes. Sometimes we inhabit the same space, she and I, and we do okay.

I don’t know if it is good or bad, to have this vision of how we’d like to be. Are we setting ourselves up for failure? Or have we given ourselves realistic ideas of self to aim for? I guess it depends on our vision. Maybe grace and wisdom are out of reach most days, but who knows?

Love, Cath

On a Revolutionary Way of Trusting

By Catherine DiMercurio

Maybe vulnerability and trust are not connected in the way we thought they were.

Being away from our usual routines often affords us new insights, but sometimes it isn’t until we return home that new ways of looking at things emerge. I recently travelled to the Vermont College of Fine Arts for a week-long writing retreat. While there, I attended a panel discussion with other writers, led by the retreat’s faculty members, on being vulnerable and what it means as a writer. Inevitably, in the days that followed, I considered what it meant to be vulnerable as a regular woman-person, not exclusively as a writer-person. Like many people, I have experienced the emotionally wrenching side effects of vulnerability. I don’t see much difference between allowing one’s self to be emotionally vulnerable and the notion of being open hearted. It is a deliberate choice, an act, to open ourselves to others.

As writers (in our relationship with our work and with our audience), and as “regular” people (in our relationships with the loved ones in our lives), the risks of vulnerability include pain, rejection, being misunderstood—in short, isolation. We expose ourselves in order to seek connection, and the risk we take is that the opposite effect will occur. And the more we’ve been hurt in our past, or misunderstood, or rejected, the greater the perceived risk of this exposure. We simultaneously want to protect ourselves and want to be open, to seek out all those things that make us feel good about being a person in this world.

Most of us want to understand and be understood, regardless of our perspectives as writers, artists, lovers, family members, friends. But I think it goes a bit deeper than this longing. In endeavoring to connect with one another, we seek to reveal not just what we think, but how our brains operate, not just that we love but how our hearts function. It is in the intricacies of these processes of thinking and loving that we truly engage with one another, and understanding them in ourselves and in others offers us pathways to the sought-after connection.

We want roadmaps as we wander through the mazes of each other’s heartscapes, and each of us in our own way wants to offer the same guidance to those we welcome into our worlds. It is not just why some people make art, it is why we all read it, see it, hear it, touch it, taste it.

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Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

Being vulnerable, or, opening our hearts to each other, is an act of trust. It is an act of relinquishing (perceived) control of outcomes. But when we extend and open ourselves in this way, we are often filled with self-doubt. Will isolation instead of connection be the result of our exposure? We can’t know. But we trust. In many ways, in all of the emotional interactions we seek out, we place our trust in the other party – whether it be a partner, a family member, a friend, or those who consume our art. We place our trust in them, hoping that what we offer will be accepted, that the roadmap will be decipherable, that the other person or people will willingly journey with us. We hope that in return, we may receive the reciprocal invitation to understand and connect. It is a seemingly simple conversation, an exchange, but beneath it exists a complex system of highways and byways, along which race countless thoughts and emotions as we try and gauge the success or failure of a particular act of vulnerability.

I think though what we often fail to realize is how unfair all that is, and the burden it places on those we care about. We delude ourselves into thinking we are entering into a pact and in doing so we are obligating others to behave in a certain way.

How freeing it would be to look at it another way, to consider that when we decide to be vulnerable, we are only making an agreement with ourselves, trusting that in opening ourselves in this way, we are welcoming whatever good may come of it. And if there is pain, or sorrow, or rejection, we welcome that too, not for the hurt itself, but for the growth that comes from it.

How kind it would be to those with whom we seek connection to let them off the hook, to not have any expectations of reciprocity.

How loving it would be to invite them into our worlds, offer them that roadmap, and then, simply be. Be there when they get there. Be understanding if they got lost along the way. Be joyful if they are delighted for the opportunity for connection and welcome us with open arms into their headspace and heartspace.

Maybe trust should not be about what we hope for from one another. Maybe it should be about what we are offering, and why.

We are never in control of outcomes that are tied to the emotional responses of others, and that is a beautiful thing. Maybe it is about trusting ourselves to know what is best for us, trusting ourselves to offer our world to those we love, to those we seek connection with. Our vulnerability lies in our willingness to do that, regardless of how we will be responded to.

Our lives are so full of uncertainty, in so many areas, professionally and personally. It is understandable that we want to control an outcome here or there, understandable to think that we actually can. At the novel retreat, participants were invited to read from their work to the other writers present, participants and faculty members alike. As a group, we discussed this as an act of vulnerability, this offering of our art in a public way, when we know all the ways it could be misunderstood, deemed unworthy, when we know that our physical performance too is under scrutiny. At the time, I looked at this endeavor under the dual lens of vulnerability and trust, and I told myself that it was my ability to trust this room of writers to be open to me that allowed me to be up at the podium reading my work. They did not let me down. They were kind and generous in their response to me and to my work. Yet, I could have entered into the reading in another way, trusting my desire to share my work, trusting that regardless of how it was received, this was what I wanted for myself. Audiences will receive us how they will.

It would be disingenuous of me to say that this way of looking at trust is anything but experimental. It feels sort of revolutionary to me to consider that trust perhaps has, or should have, little to do with the other party. But what right do we have to obligate others, however obliquely, to respond to us in a certain way? If I expose thoughts and emotions, my true self, to others in a vulnerable way, and I do so because I trust both my instinct and my willingness to accept the outcome of this particular exposure, it is a gift to bear witness to how this act of exposure is received. Consider too how miraculous are the gifts offered to us by others, when those we love are expressing themselves in a space free of demand, obligation, or expectation. Perhaps being vulnerable and being truly trusting work quite differently than we thought.

Love, Cath

On Vestigial Vigilance, Instinct, and Happiness

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes self-protective vigilance masks our instincts …

Life has been busy. Good-busy, mostly. In the middle of it all, living, loving, and learning are all happening. Life unfolds in all directions the way fern fronds sprawl slowly out and askew in the spring, the silent and celebratory party favors of the season.

closeup photography of green fern palnt
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Yet, the part of me that maintains a hyperawareness, a vigilance about everything in this phase of my life is looking for trouble. It wants categories; it strains to sort. It wonders, are we now post-[post-divorce]? If so, do we need to call it something else? That vigilant consciousness is always on the lookout for chaos, ready to find a way to diffuse it. It feels like an anxious, hyperactive, working dog without a job to do is pacing inside my head, nervously chewing on shoes. But another part of me – maybe new, maybe long dormant and grizzly bear waking now – is wanting to learn the way to live differently. Without waiting for the other shoe to drop. Without needing to gnaw on something to feel busy and safe and purposeful.

Sometimes I wish we could extricate ourselves from the parts of our psyche we don’t need anymore. Perform surgery on a vestigial organ and bury it, entomb it, pharaoh-less, with no afterlife. I suppose, though, we worry that we might need it again someday. I suppose we maintain a sentimental attachment to it as a once-favorite thing. The vestigial and vigilant worrier warrior, the protector, was once more than a part of me. It was most of me. And though now I’d like to bury it or send it packing, sometimes it remains, fretting and pacing and making work where there isn’t any. Today I wonder if I can find another job for it to do. I wonder if it can be escorted off the premises, and if not, can it be given a makeover. It’s too bad I can’t simply assign it a different task. You don’t need to protect me anymore. I’m okay. Can you help me learn to play the piano instead? How are you at financial planning?

During tough, or worse, traumatic times, the vigilant worrier in all of us gets amplified, elevated to superhero status. It works overtime; it has to. When life calms, and chaos retreats, that part of us can be unwilling to relinquish its elevated status. Sometimes it seizes on any worry, no matter how big or small, and amplifies it, so the cloud of anxiety cloaks everything, things we didn’t even think we needed to worry about. The vigilance works against us. As if to say, you don’t recognize threats anymore; I need to remind you.

I think the worst part of this is two-fold. Though our psyche wants to protect us, it goes too far, and seeks to shield us from threats that aren’t there. But it makes it hard for the rational part of us to grow and get stronger and be able to see clearly. It also makes us question our gut. We wonder, what if all this anxiety, this worry, IS my gut. Is this what it looks like when it is trying to tell me something? Sometimes it is tough to know. But, if it is tough to know, then I suspect it isn’t your gut. Instinct doesn’t make us chase our tail or pace and fret at everything – experience does that. Instinct is a magnet that pushes us toward what’s good for us and repels us from what isn’t. It is strong and quiet and deep, not frantic.

For me the question has become, at this (post [post-divorce]) point in my life, how do I move past what my good-natured but often misguided vigilant worrier warrior is trying to do, and grow more in tune with my instincts? How do we move away from fretful what-if-ing and move toward calm, toward trust (both self-trust, and beyond)?

I think that answer is different for everyone. Sometimes I have to write my way to it, sometimes I have to pick at it, run toward it, run away from it and back again, talk through it over and over. Sometimes we wear ourselves out with worry and then, quiet and exhausted, we find our true way. I’d like to find the straight line there, the shortest-distance-between-two-points path rather then the endless circles I pace in first. But I suppose that’s part of the journey too.

All of this might sound a bit familiar, if you’ve been following this blog for a while. We tell ourselves the same stories in different ways, trying to make it all make sense. I also find that anxiety rises up most in periods of happiness, a pattern that is perhaps common to many of us. It’s easy to be wary, easy to wonder how will this be taken away (this time) or how will I mess this up (again)? Seeing others do this, I wholeheartedly want to reassure, to tell them, go easy on yourself, it’ll be okay, let yourself have this. It’s always more difficult to be generous and kind and loving with ourselves than it is to be with other people.

It’s a good time for all of us to try. Love, Cath

 

On Bargaining, Warmth, and Crickets

By Catherine DiMercurio

“March is a bargaining month. . . . How like happiness this is.”

Maybe it is because I live with dogs that I find myself, hound-like, snuggling well-loved ideas with familiar scents. I perpetually consider notions of happiness, transition, ambiguity, and identity—philosophical bones for these forty-something-year-old teeth to gnaw on. As March expires, I return to thoughts about negotiating with the past—and and the ghosts that hound us—in our pursuit of happiness.

Speaking of hounds, I look to mine for lessons, not really knowing what else to do with the half-wild thing I adopted a few months ago. We make tiny bits of progress and then leap back. I have written in other posts about his past, about how, during his most impressionable time he was kenneled, not learning, not bonding. I lecture myself about expectations and push away the feeling that I do not understand how to make this small plot of real estate a large enough home for this big-hearted, loud and loping beast. On my good days there is fresh resolve, an eager, well-meaning patience. On bad days, frustration boils, then quiets as I remind myself of his history, then simmers once again. I remind myself: past and present must some how find a way to live together.

We make bargains with the ghosts of our past. But often, we must learn to make them with ghosts and pasts of others, too.

I began writing this post a week ago and am returning to it on the last day of March. March is a bargaining month. I haggle with yard mud and slopped paws. Crocuses hem and haw, deciding when to take the risk. March begins a transition to spring that stretches through dreaded April snows. In Michigan, we do not fully believe it is spring until it is nearly summer. How like happiness this is.

It is easy to doubt that a joyful mood will live to see the light of the next day, and the next, until we realize finally that we’ve been happy all this time. How comfortable it is to doubt joy, given histories of endured loss. Sometimes, I decide to stop counting losses and try to only tally the wins—the joyful moments, the kitchen laughter, the soft morning kisses, the contented sighing of freshly walked dogs, the smell of spring rain, every sip of coffee, texts from teenage children checking in on me, on each other.

I decide to watch happy pile up around me. The losses will still come whether or not we are ready for them. Maybe, if we soak up enough sun we can take on the cold when it comes, take it on with a little more vigor and confidence. To always be steeling ourselves, waiting for the next trouble and trying to prepare for it, dilutes the joys we could be experiencing every day. Let the sun be the sun.

I know this: what today feels like a bump in the road would have felt like a steep and rocky mountain, nearly impassible, just a few years ago. Mostly. Sometimes obstacles still feel bigger than they are. Setbacks still sting—the broken appliance I can’t really afford to replace, another rejection from a literary journal, taxes, parenting stressors, the strange new noise the car is making—these are all still part of life, and can all gang up on me from time to time.

The practice of joy-tallying takes perspective, it takes meditative awareness, and is a conscious expenditure of psychic energy. And sometimes our zeal for it flags, and the cold seeps in even though the sun is shining. Sometimes we need to have another conversation with our ghosts. We need to make bargains about what we allow ourselves to remember, and to forget. In the end, it may be that what protects us the most from future pain is not, in fact, the memory of past pain. It may be that it is the willful act of forgetting that unthickens the skin and lets us feel the sun.

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Right now, hosts of crickets that have been wintering as eggs or nymphs (depending on whether or not they are fall field crickets or spring field crickets, apparently). They have been feeling the changes in soil temperature. Like all of us in Michigan, they are trapped between the end of the cold and the beginning of warmth. They wait to see when there have been enough consecutive warm days to call it spring. Then instinct kicks in, warmth is certain, emergence is imminent. Maybe we don’t have to wait as long as the crickets do, but sometimes we have to trust the instinct and seek the warmth. I suspect letting happiness soak in, one joy at a time, yields a stronger protection against the cold than developing too thick a skin.

Enjoy the warmth, whenever you find it. Love, Cath

(photo credit: Photo by Kal Visuals on Unsplash)