On Playfulness and Practice

By Catherine DiMercurio

In the days that have passed since I returned from the camping trip I wrote about in my last post, I have struggled with exactly what I feared would happen. When I was spending my days in the woods or on the beach, feeling my anxiety get up and take a long walk away from me, I wondered what would happen when I returned home to the things that typically trouble me. Would I be able to hang on to that feeling of being both weightless and grounded, or would I get pulled back under the worry? I wondered if my mindset on the trip meant that I had turned a corner, arrived at someplace new, someplace I could stay and set up camp, so to speak. Or was it temporary, just vacation brain, and nothing more?

While I believe I sort of “leveled up” in my thinking, in my ability to acknowledge my full self and to lean into self-trust in a way I haven’t been able to fully embrace for a painfully long time, I have also realized, in the days since my return, that living in that mindset takes practice. Now that I’ve been there and know how it feels and understand how I got there, I realize that it will take effort to find my way back to that way of thinking sometimes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about practice lately. With pottery, it is easy to understand the importance of practice. At any point you might have a day where it feels like you never learned a single thing. Once I began to be able to center my clay on the wheel consistently, for example, I thought I had reached a certain level. I had this, my muscles had developed the memory they needed to always be able to execute the task. But, I learned quickly that it doesn’t work that way, and that practice is as much about building muscle memory as it is about teaching yourself how to fail. How to not get thrown when you can’t throw. How to make practice feel like play. When my brain insists that I need to accomplish something right now, so that I can prove to my instructor, my classmates, or myself, that I’m learning, that I deserve to be here, that I am a potter, I get frustrated with myself. I create pressure and urgency that impacts my ability to throw the way I want to. I get embarrassed if anyone notices, or mentions that I seem stressed. Then the embarrassment (shame by another name) compounds that feeling of failure. It is difficult, but I am learning that I must practice changing my mindset before I reach that point of frustration. And I do know how to do this, even if I’m not always able to execute. When I haven’t created a sense of urgency for myself, I’m able to say, after messing something up, oh, well, it’s just practice. And I believe it.

A writing friend and I were talking about this recently too. I realized that playful practice is the point of the writing prompts we’re experimenting with. It’s about being open to creativity, and urging your brain to set aside the frustration. You just write without judgement. You are not writing for a deadline or a purpose other than exploration. It’s just play. And unless you are trying to win something that’s all practice needs to be.

The only reason why I have created pressure around the notion of practice is out of habit, out of a cultivated perfectionism predicated on a lot of wrong ideas about love and worth. The benefits of practice, in terms of progress toward your goal, are more easily evidenced in the absence of urgency. At least for me. As soon as there is the pressure of time—I need to learn this faster, be able to demonstrate progress sooner—whatever I’m practicing gets worse instead of better.

Do we practice to improve, or do we practice because we enjoy something, and improvement is a side benefit?  

And how does this relate to being able to maintain a healthy mindset and sense of identity like the one I found/embraced/earned when I was camping on the shores of Lake Michigan? Cultivating that mindset is something else that benefits from playful practice. It’s hard not to think about consequences. If I have a bad throwing day or write something that’s terrible, it does not matter at all. But if I fail to approach my mental health in the right way, the consequences are more serious. My anxiety starts to call the shots, and it changes who I am, how I want to be. If I don’t approach it with a light touch, all I can think of are the consequences, the what-ifs: what if I can’t get back there—to myself, to self-trust. What if I forgot how?

Here again, play is the answer. Play is the way back. Play is how I found myself. All I did after the “work” of setting up camp was to listen to myself and do what sounded fun. The challenging hike was something I was anxious about at first, but aside from the bear scare, it was an uplifting and joyful experience. So was waking up to the sunrise over the lake and listening to the waves. So were campfires, and games of solitaire in the tent while it rained, and reading book after book on the beach, and swimming, and rock hunting, and more woodland wandering.

Being playful is something I need to practice. So today, after a stressful week, I decided that nothing bad would happen if I didn’t sweep up the dog hair or clean the gutters, and I took myself to the beach. I read my book. I ate marshmallows and toasted almonds. I swam and waded and people-watched. i watched the clouds and the sea gulls.

Photo by Nick Nu00fau00f1ez on Pexels.com

I have spent so much time over the years doing “the work.” That is, trying to understand and to heal and to grow. I’ve had experiences that seemed like detours or roadblocks, but they were all part of the process, in their own way. But in all that time in my head, thinking and reconsidering and exploring new perspectives, it was easy to overlook the point of being playful. I try to be open to and observant of joy, but I don’t always make opportunities to welcome it, to seek it, grow it. I’ve always had a bit of a Cinderella mentality in that I usually feel like I don’t get to do something enjoyable unless I’ve finished my chores, been productive, done my work. But it is in play, in doing the things we find enjoyable, however silly or small, that we can get in touch with a safe and happy place within ourselves. And when we feel safe and happy, we trust ourselves, we are buoyant, relaxed. There is no anchor of anxiety pulling us down and holding us back, holding us under.

Who would have thought that you would have to practice being playful? Not everyone does, but if you’re learning or re-learning this too, I see you. Have fun! Your very own kind of fun.

Love, Cath

On Lake and Forest Magic, and Self-Reliance

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes, water and woods work magic on your soul.

I planned the vacation I could afford. Camping, no hotel room. Driving far, but not so far that gas prices made it unfeasible. Wonderful family and friends to watch the dogs, so I didn’t have to double the vacation price by paying for dog sitters too. I have traveled alone but this was my first time vacationing alone. I have camped before, but this was the first time I camped alone. I have hiked alone before, but this was the first time I was navigating unfamiliar territory alone. This is all to say that as I headed out for the trip, I had some concerns. My anxiety was stacked up inside me like the clothes in my slightly overpacked duffel.

After a seven-ish-hour drive that included some stretches of blinding rain, I set up camp at a Michigan campground in the Upper Peninsula on Green Bay, where I was about thirty minutes from Wisconsin, in a different time zone, and perfectly situated to watch the sun rise over Lake Michigan. As I set up, not long after a downpour and just before a light sprinkle, I felt deliberate, focused. Later, I would recall what was absent from my mind at the time: reminiscences about past trips, those I had taken with my kids, and before that, those we three had taken with their father, before the divorce.

Those memories did bubble to the surface, but they were more like documentary images and less like melancholy stories. There were certainly moments throughout the trip where I fondly recalled other trips the kids and I had taken, moments where I did miss them. But even these moments were drained of longing and rumination. My brain had begun to work differently than usual. I guess that’s why it’s important to break out of our routines and habits sometimes.

For the first couple of days, I found that relaxing was different when I pursued it and chose it, instead of crashing into at the end of a workday when it feels like I can’t do anything else. I chose activities that I was drawn to in childhood summers—like reading big stacks of library books, and playing solitaire; I chose activities that I knew I liked but associated with a past relationship and that I wanted to reclaim as mine—like doing crossword puzzles; and I chose things that I’ve enjoyed for as long as I can remember—like hanging out at the beach, swimming, looking for rocks, lazing in the sun, and going on rambling woodland hikes. I ate when I was hungry, I slept when I was sleepy.

I was, however, anxious about the longer hike I was planning. Navigating the trails at the campground, despite some confusing signage, was relatively easy, as it was situated between Lake Michigan and M35, the state highway. It was always easy to know where you were in relation to those things. But the state forest campground was different. The Cedar River equestrian campground consists of a handful of rustic sites with paddocks and a small network of trails through the state forest. On the third day of camping, I  followed a dirt road to the gravel lot at the entrance to camp/trail area, and found the parking lot empty. I checked that I had what I needed in my pack and set out, having studied the trail map one more time. There was a gravel road into the campsites, and beyond the camping area, the woodland trails began. It was on that roughly ½-mile stretch that led from the parking lot that I noticed what I thought to be bear scat. I had read a bit about what to do in the event that you see a bear, and I had read that encounters were rare. A little prickle of panic ran through me. I had stuffed my keys, which I carry on a lanyard, into my pack, but at this point I pulled them out to wear around my neck, hoping that the jangling noise would alert the bear, if there was one, that I was around, and keep him or her away from the path.

My noisy rambling did startle some deer, who crossed the path in front of me. It had recently rained and their footprints were everywhere. And some horse poop here and there. The trails didn’t look like they got frequent use, but they had had recent use.

As I came upon each trail marker, I snapped a picture of the marker and took a screenshot of the time. The trail map indicated mileage, so I had a rough estimate of how long it should take me to make it from one point to another, so I figured that would be a useful gauge if I ever started to feel like I had taken the wrong path. This was largely unnecessary, but it was a precaution that comforted me. Unlike some of the well-used nature areas I hike closer to home, these trails were not intersected by numerous side paths that typically make me wonder if I’m on the right one. Nor were the markers so spread out that I ever felt as though I’d taken a wrong turn. In that regard, it was good, confidence-building foray into solo hiking. The only part that gave me pause was when I reached the section of the trail that extended into a large grassy area. The grasses were long and the trail very hard to make out, as they had been mostly grown over. I also didn’t love the idea of traipsing through knee-high grass and possibly having to deal with a crazy tick situation. It was quite warm and sunny that day and the cool shady forest seemed much more appealing than the broad, exposed grassy plain. I turned and backtracked, and tacked on a couple of the interior loops instead.

I was feeling a lot of things at this point, all of them good. The anxiety I’d had about the hike had melted. I felt strong and capable, peaceful and curious. The Cedar River itself was dark and still. The pines and cedars produced such a clean, sweet scent. I could not identify the birds by their calls, but there were plenty of them, some singing and chirping, some squawking. Eventually, as I made my way out of the woods, I once again passed what I was now sure was bear scat. I’d seen enough of the horse poop in the woods to confirm what I’d suspected from the beginning. A few minutes later, I heard a loud crash in the trees. I had seen no other people on the trail or in the camp, and it was not a windy day when a branch might have fallen, and deer don’t make that much noise. I froze and looked carefully around me but did not see any movement in the woods. I remembered reading that if you do encounter a bear, you shouldn’t run, nor should you turn your back on it. All I could really do was pick up my pace and try to make a lot of noise as I headed out of there.

At the car, I kept an eye on the woods and changed out of my hiking boots into a pair of comfortable sandals. The black flies had come out so I didn’t linger long at the car. As I drove away, I had the sensation of something heavy inching itself off of my chest and slinking away. Something heavy that had been there for a long, long time. Deep breaths felt different. More expansive. Sweeter, as if I was still inhaling what the trees had exhaled. I know that compared to what a lot of people do, this six-mile hike alone in the woods was no big thing. But for me, it was about facing a collection of fears, and I had done it successfully. I felt at once elated and grounded. It is a feeling that I’ve had in the past, but only with other people, typically with men I’d once been in love with, when I experienced a feeling both of being safe and exhilarated. Being able to cultivate this feeling on my own, to give this gift to myself, was significant, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt that way by myself. The whole trip made me feel this way, but it ignited on this hike.

We all experience challenges in our lives differently, so I’m not sure how relatable this experience might be. But because of some of the events of my past, I have over the years developed such self-doubt and self-criticism that life has been very confusing and painful at times, both in relationships and out of them. I’ve worked so hard to dissect it all. To understand all the reasons this came to be, and to try and untangle these knots. To have this experience of feeling safe within my own skin, comfortable and pleased with myself, happy, eager, curious, and calm in my headspace, my heart . . . I wasn’t sure if it was possible for me. Long ago, I read Emerson’s Self-Reliance, in which he says, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Is this what it felt like? How long had it been since I’ve had this feeling? I couldn’t remember. This wasn’t just about trusting your gut, this was about trusting who you are.

And as the trip continued, my brain continued to empty itself of anxiety. It pulled away from me the way the waves crashing against the rocks near my campsite were pulled back into the lake. At the beach, the water was clear and cold, and I had the sensation of it taking something from me that I didn’t need or want anymore. The lake was big enough to hold it without hurting anyone, this prickly darkness I’ve carried. I felt both the warm water near the surface and the colder, deeper water that came from far away.

I’m not a great swimmer and deep water is at once fascinating and scary. I like to be near it but not too immersed in it. At this beach, and all public beaches on Lake Michigan, and the other Great Lakes as well, there are signs about dangerous currents. This beach had a flag system so that the safety, or lack thereof, could be communicated to potential swimmers by someone reading the conditions. There was another sign about the fatalities that had occurred. In short, I did not take the risks lightly. Maybe it was for these reasons, though we only had green flag days, that the beach was often deserted. Maybe it was because the temperatures were a little cooler than most people like for beach days. But I reveled in the lake, grateful the waves were calm enough that the beach remained open. I would hike a mile and half from my rustic tent site, past the modern campground, to the swimming beach most days of the trip, and hang out for hours, reading my library books, doing crossword puzzles, and jumping into the water whenever the sun warmed me too much.

The lake is magic. I felt like a creature with dormant or depleted powers who was close enough to the source to have them rejuvenate. I know that sounds crazy and I’ve been reading too many books about witches and fables. But I haven’t felt that myself in so, so long. When I took pictures of myself, I could see it in my face, the recognition, as if I had returned after a long, blurry journey. It was as if I’d happened upon an old, familiar friend I hadn’t seen in a while.

I don’t recall if I’ve ever spent a birthday alone before, but I turned 52 on a sunny Sunday morning sitting on a rock, gazing at the lake, and enjoying the sun. I felt good. I made decadent birthday pancakes for lunch, after spending the morning at the beach. I chocked them full of chocolate chunks, leftover from chocolate bars I hadn’t used for s’mores. I topped them with vegan butter and maple syrup and cherry jam.

This trip was a meditation, in a way, or, how I imagine mediation should be. I want to say it was effortless, and it was, after a few days. But at first, I had to work at it, just like when I sit down on my yoga mat and try to let my thoughts drift by, acknowledging them but not attending to them. Most of the time it feels so effortful, and often ineffective. I had to keep asking myself what I wanted to do next, keep checking in. A hike? Sit by the water? Read? Eat? As the week progressed, I soon found myself moving toward one activity or another, or no activity, and having fewer conscious thoughts about what I was going to do. I found my rhythm. Things felt natural. Familiar.

So much has changed in my life since my divorce, has kept changing. I’ve had major shifts and false starts, and trying over, and over. And so often, in the course of adapting and readapting, my circumstances felt so unfamiliar, and I felt so unfamiliar. I’d remain in relationships flawed in all the wrong ways for far too long, hoping that at some point we’d arrive at the place where it felt familiar. Safe. I kept looking for myself in the face of other people.

I’ve learned that that which is familiar is not always healthy or safe. I also realize now how vital it is to continue this journey toward feeling familiar and safe to myself. To be the source of that. I’ve always tried to provide that in relationships and always expected it in return, never realizing the impact its absence was having within me. I don’t know if I’m there, because everything shifts and changes so rapidly, and progress gets eroded. But I feel as though I’m closer than I have been in a long, long time.

Love, Cath

On Weeds and Water and Honeycomb Hearts

By Catherine DiMercurio

When I started this blog, I described it this way: “This is the chronicle of a journey many of us find ourselves on — the search for meaning in all the things that break our hearts and all the things that make them whole again.”

All my life, I’ve had this sense that searching for meaning and purpose was something I needed to do. Something I did do, whether or not I wanted to. It just happened. Just like some brains are intrinsically focused on the mechanics of how things work, mine is and was focused on what things mean. Not just what do they mean for me, but what do they mean cosmically. As in, why is the world this way instead of that way, or what does this particular detail mean within the larger context of the world, the universe.

The grasping toward our understanding of our place in the universe necessarily encompasses a grasping toward an understanding of the universe itself. I am ill-equipped to do this, save for a couple of philosophy courses in college.

Helpfully (?), the world we have built as humans is focused on goals and milestones, so that my perpetual and at times frantic efforts to understand the cosmos were redirected toward practical things like education, marriage, parenthood. I poured my search for larger meaning into finding granular meaning in my choices and pursuits. When I became a mother, though, I felt as though these two separate, higher- and lower-level searches had merged. Everything clicked, in a way. I felt cosmically connected to these two souls, and also, in a very real way, I was responsible for their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. Motherhood was rarely easy, and I remember being surprised and disappointed that it didn’t come more naturally to me. I thought I would understand intrinsically how to soothe a crying baby, or make peace with a frustrated toddler, or advise an angsty teen. But the work, as challenging as it was, felt hugely important. I never regarded the children themselves as mine but they were in my care; the work was mine; the honor of raising them was mine.

I was writing too, during these years, and got a novel published when the kids were six and four. I felt like this was it. Life was what it was supposed to be. I was doing it: pursuing a meaningful creative/professional goal and being a good mom and a good wife.

Later, after I became a single mom, the way I parented changed, but what hadn’t changed was that the kids were my number one focus. They were fourteen and twelve at the time of the divorce. There was a lot of parenting left to do. But last summer was the last time the last child lived at home. The day he left, my frantic search for meaning ignited again. It just happened. I knew that I was still needed by and connected to my kids as their mother, but everything was different now. And we all knew it.

I’ve spent the past year trying to better understand who I am now, and who I was, and who I want to be. I’ve tried to fashion that into my purpose. I’ve focused on my writing, I’ve focused on dog training, I’ve focused on learning a new skill/art with my pottery. All of these are good things, and I’ve grown and I will continue to pursue them.

But at the same time, all these things feel more like places to channel my energy but less like the sense of purpose I possessed when mothering was a daily activity.  

I am trying to be patient with myself.

I know that now that the twenty years of nitty gritty parenting are over, I tend to suffuse that time with a certain glow. Still, I haven’t forgotten all the difficult parts: when I felt like a horrible mother and that I was ruining everything for everyone; when I just wanted to leave for a little while because it was too hard and I never got a chance to even finish a thought or have three seconds to breathe alone; days when I was quite certain that one or both of the kids hated me and always would; times when I didn’t know how any of us would ever feel healed and whole again, and the terrifying realization that we could all drown if I could not figure out how to inflate the raft with my exhausted, heart-broken breaths. No one has forgotten how hard it was.

But still, looking back, I see how the sense of deep purpose I always felt—that strange, alchemical comingling of love and purpose, duty and wonder—helped get us through. I say helped because I did not do it alone. I had friends and family I began to learn to lean on. And my kids are stronger and more resilient than I’ll ever be. I’m proud of them and all the work that they’ve done. And I’m proud of myself, and as a person who has struggled with self-confidence and self-trust, that is a huge thing for me to believe, to voice.

And now in this moment, there is a freedom here, and it is taking up a larger space than I expected it to. It isn’t just about time, as in, now I have more time for writing, or for exploring new things. It’s different, multi-dimensional, so unfamiliar and so full of something, power? that I feel uneasy stepping into it. Within, I imagine, is all the me-ness that there wasn’t much time or energy for before.

I’ve been trying to think of the best way to describe this new sensation, this freedom that seems to be taking up more space than I thought was available. The way large, leafy weeds don’t just take up the space allowed by the crack in the driveway pavement, they expand the space. But it feels more like my heart is a honeycomb that keeps being added on to by something busy inside me, and the result is I keep recognizing myself in different places. Do you ever have that feeling where you look at a photo of yourself and it doesn’t look like all the other curated images you or someone else has taken? You look at it and think there I am. Or, do you ever that moment, upon arriving at a location where something clicks into place, and you are suddenly relaxed and energized all at once, and you think this. I needed this. For me that photo was the one I took of myself at the pottery studio. And that place is usually by large body of water.

Photo by David Hablu00fctzel on Pexels.com

Lately I’m experiencing all of that, more and more. It feels akin to the existential wandering my soul did when I was a child. I have a very distinct memory (which I’ve written about, here) of trying to understand my self-ness within this existence, as if part of me could comprehend I was something larger and freer than what my current body was containing, and I wanted to have both, the knowledge of who I was in this time and place, and the knowledge of the larger self that was struggling to understand its physical containment in this vessel, this me. It’s like that now. It’s like I’m close to getting it. I am trying to relax and let it all align.

I used to think that maybe I had to let go of one thing—a past version of myself—before I could step into the next iteration. But maybe that’s not the case. Maybe we get closer and closer to being able to hold all the versions of ourselves in place at a time. Maybe we are the honeycombs, and the bees, and the honey all at once.

Love, Cath

On Elemental Lessons, Love, and Good-Messy

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the most basic lessons are the hardest to learn.

Sometimes I think the best in the shower. In my soul, I’m a water person, though this body can’t swim very well. But whenever I’m around water, I’m calmer. Recently, in the shower, it occurred to me that it is almost the one-year anniversary of the ending of a relationship. It was a relationship that was hard to let go of, in spite of the fact that it needed to end, and I got to thinking that I seem to have more anniversaries of things that ended than things that began. Not long ago, that thought would have sunk me, at least for a few days. I would have ruminated, and found ways to feel increasingly worse about myself. But standing there in the water, after a year of becoming more in tune with myself, my next thought was this (and yes, I do address myself in the second person sometimes): Wait. Are you really saying that you think you have more to mourn than to celebrate?

My immediate answer to myself was no, but part of me still wanted to tally, to dig into hurt and remember it. We get used to making ourselves feel terrible sometimes. For a lot of reasons. But I have spent the last year looking at those reasons, my past, my deeper past, and learning. And in this moment, I understood that it is natural for me to have a lot of emotions around this time of year about the ending of that relationship, and that having those feelings did not have to translate into a trip down the rabbit hole. That’s progress.

Some of that progress can be attributed to the pottery studio. I feel as though I’ve been on an incredible journey when I think of the first several classes back in January. I pushed myself way out of my comfort zone, not only in trying something new, but in hauling myself out of my cozy house in deep dark winter for a 7 to 10 p.m. class with strangers. I am definitely a morning person, so I knew one of my obstacles was going to be my own fatigue at this point in the day. Optimal learning and creative time for me happens much earlier in the day. And there were a lot of other obstacles, one being that physically, I am not very coordinated, and hand-eye coordination is pretty important when you are wheel-throwing.

I was not prepared for how challenging the experience would be, for how frustrated I would feel. I have no poker face, and even when I’m trying to have a neutral outward demeanor, it is plain for the world to see when I am struggling. Though the class was different from any that I’d ever taken, my brain slipped into student-mode where the usual process was: work hard, study, succeed. In the past, doing well in school meant that the people around me were happy (teachers, parents), and it allowed me the opportunity to excel at something, since it wasn’t going to be in the realm of sports, or anything social.

But, I struggled. Class after class, I felt clumsy and awkward and self-conscious. I had almost no control over what the clay was doing and trying to understand the relationship between the movement of the wheel and how my hands were interacting with the clay seemed like a mystery that I couldn’t unravel. There were too many factors—the wheel speed, the moisture level of the clay, the pressure, placement, and movement of each and every finger on both hands, my posture. I was certain the other new people were already better than me. I thought about quitting. A lot. I even bought a cheap-ish pottery wheel so I could practice at home. It is easier to fail without anyone watching. I wanted only to get a little better between classes so when I sat down in the studio it would be evident that I was making progress. I wanted so badly to be perceived as someone who worked hard, and if my work did not show evidence of that, how would anyone know?

And I did make progress, in my own epically slow way. But I was doing so out of some sort of ancient ache to prove myself, to insist on some kind of worthiness I wanted others to recognize in me even when I routinely overlooked it in myself. Part of my pottery journey has been to trace this powerful need, which has shaped (malformed) so many relationships, back to its roots. This work is not done, as the work of truly understanding ourselves and making peace with it all never is.

Even though I felt like I wasn’t progressing fast enough, my instructor was so good at underscoring how difficult it is to learn any new art form. I remember getting frustrated at the wheel, trying to accomplish something that wasn’t working out. I had a poorly centered lump of clay in front of me that I’d been able to open up enough to begin to pull up the walls. She was standing near, talking me through it, and I said something like, “I just can’t. . . .” I was unable to finish the sentence, because I felt like none of it was working. I couldn’t do any of it. And she replied, “And it’s what? Your third class?” She taught me to embrace wherever it was that I was in this journey. If something turned out wonky, and I could get it off the wheel, I could still practice trimming and glazing. It was all part of the process.

Photo by Regiane Tosatti on Pexels.com

That was kind of a turning point for me. After that, some fresh ideas began to make themselves known in my brain. Couldn’t I just learn and play and grow? Trying to force progress wasn’t working. And feeling tense internally was something that found its way into the clay. Everything was going to happen on my own timeline. And there was no grade. There was no metric by which to measure failure or success, only those that I imposed upon myself. Doors and windows flew open inside me. Soon, I began to feel energized and creative and good-messy, and suddenly, when I thought of all there was to learn, I saw the future blossoming in front of me, whereas only weeks before, when I thought of how much I didn’t know, I’d felt overwhelmed.

The whole experience thus far has reshaped the way I look at myself. It is shocking to me that learning how to throw and work with clay is revealing so much that has nothing to do with clay. I think because I was already doing some of this work, the experience simply shoved open doors whose locks I’d spent some time jimmying open.

To some friends and family, I’ve tentatively equated my evolving feelings about pottery to falling in love. I say tentatively because it seems a strange thing to admit. But what I’m beginning to comprehend is that what is happening is that I’m falling in love with myself. Sometimes it takes us so, so long to learn elemental lessons. And sometimes it takes the elements—earth, water, air, fire—to teach us.

Love, Cath

On Seedlings, Rip Currents, and New Things

By Catherine DiMercurio

Solitude is one of those gifts that doesn’t always feel like one. There is much delight in self-discovery, but the responsibility to make the most of this time can be troubling. Yet in the absence of other humans to react to and with on a daily basis there is a freedom to observe ourselves, to re-learn what makes us tick.

For me, this prolonged period of solitude has provided the opportunity to ask questions. What does being me look like when I am not in the mode of daily parenting or in a state of being partnered? In a way, being in solitude is like being the control group in an experiment about my own identity.

Here, I have the time and space to observe what affects my mood, my sense of well-being. What stressors alter the course of my day, how do I respond to them? How did I respond differently when I lived with my children, when I was with a partner? What do I like about the way that I live and think and feel, and what would I like to improve?

Here is something I’m learning about growth. Imagine one of those old, time-lapsed photography videos of a germinating seedling, the way it pushes through the dirt up to the warm sunlight and begins to unfurl. I wish my growth was like that, unconscious and inevitable, rooted in the instinct to move toward the light. When a human chooses to pursue growth—emotional, psychological, relational, etc.—they bump up against obstacles that can feel more troublesome than the soil a seedling faces. We must move through them somehow to get to where we want to go. It is not an instinctual movement with a clear direction. For many, growth requires confronting fears, and most fears stem from old wounds, from past relationships that reach all the way back through our childhoods. Our growth often requires that we dig down before we can inch up.

Photo by Gelgas Airlangga on Pexels.com

One of the things I have learned about myself is about the way I pursue things, or avoid pursuing them. Sometimes I can’t sink my teeth into something that intimidates me until I have run out of all the excuses to avoid trying. Sometimes I can’t truly let go of someone—even after the relationship has ended—until I have exhausted myself trying to figure out why it didn’t work. Things take as long as they take. Especially because we have to live life at the same time we are doing this work.

We owe ourselves these searches, these explorations of wounds to be done grieving, of lessons to be learned. But it’s hard and we need to take breaks. And the work does not have an exclusive claim to our time. We have other things to do. I have a full-time job, writing goals, hobbies, dogs who are strangely like best friends half the time, and mysterious toddler-like creatures with a never-ending set of demands the other half.

Some people seem better equipped to live in the moment. I feel as though I’m almost ready for whatever moment I find myself in, I just have to think about a few more things first.

In having all this time to myself, I decided it was time to learn something new. I had two aims in mind: learn the new thing, and, to learn something about myself in the process. One of the reasons I wanted to learn the new thing is that I have begun to understand the extent to which I have lost myself in past relationships. So, I am exploring the lost self, the remaining self. Further, I have a duty to undertake this exploration openly and honestly, to side-step self-criticism, and to nurture myself through this process with as much care as I would treat anyone who is going through transition or transformation.

The new thing, if you’ve read any of my recent blog posts, is pottery. It is an artform rich in metaphor. It is an artform where proficiency is elusive. Developing even rudimentary skills is challenging, more so than I ever imagined. Instead of being able to feel relaxed, or excited, or joyful, or curious about learning this new thing, I have found with dismay that I’m often frustrated or anxious. It is a disappointing reaction. I try not to be disappointed. I try to dig. Anxiety tries to point us in certain directions. Just like pain is our body’s way of telling us something is wrong, our anxiety is a way of our brain telling us that something is off. Certainly, there is nothing much actually dangerous about pottery, so why was I reacting this way, with so much worry? Was it more than just wanting to do well and struggling to get there?

I was about to head to the pottery studio and my anxiety was jangling so loudly it felt like I could hear my teeth rattle. Instead of ignoring it, or trying to distract myself, or telling myself to knock it off, I decided to talk myself through it. I asked myself a series of questions that kept whittling down the issue to a couple of difficult past experiences (long past!) and the years of emotional residue they left. I let myself experience the emotions those memories brought with them.

Sometimes anxiety makes us feel as we are in current danger even though our brains are remembering something else. So, this time, I tried to be aware of what was remembered, and feel it, and understand it, and forgive myself and the people around me. Miraculously, the anxiety that had gripped me so tightly evaporated. I didn’t realize it at first. I just found myself packing my tools, and I sensed that I felt better, calmer. I went in and spent three hours making a lot of mistakes on the wheel and when I was finished, I didn’t feel terrible about the mistakes as I had done in the past. I thought, this is great; my hands are getting used to how the clay feels, how it behaves. I was able to enjoy the process of failure.

If you’ve ever swum in Lake Michigan you may have seen the signs posted about dangerous rip currents, and how they pull unsuspecting swimmers away from the shore. The signs instruct you, should you get caught in a rip current, to swim parallel to the beach, so that you can get out of the rip current, before heading back to shore. Though I have never experienced a rip current, this is what anxiety sometimes feels like. There is no current (immediate) danger, but there is current danger (danger of getting pulled under and away by the current). The moment when I started asking myself questions about the anxiety that I felt was key. I took it seriously and didn’t panic. I realized that while I was not in imminent danger physically, I was in danger of the anxiety taking over, pushing me under. My questions allowed me the opportunity to swim parallel to the shore. Arriving at the studio in a calm state was much better than having to fight the jangling the whole time.  

While pottery is the new thing I am using to try and learn about myself as I learn about the art itself, life is going to give us all other new things. I think it is important to try and understand ourselves so that when things come our way, we know what to do with them, how to handle them, what holds us back, what pushes us under, what moves us forward.

I have a Post-it note stuck to my computer monitor. It reads: curiosity. I’m trying to let that guide me. To be curious rather than skeptical about new things and to wander through this part of my life with the open-heartedness with which I started the blog in the first place. Happy wandering! May your next new thing be good to you.

Love, Cath

On Pottery, Pressure, and Place

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the pressure we feel is part of the process.

I was driving home alone after dropping my son off at college after the winter break. We stopped by my daughter’s place for a hug and a quick conversation about everyone’s covid concerns about going back to school and work, as well as some recent car trouble and how we would coordinate getting the vehicle repaired. It was a Monday, and I’d taken a couple hours off and would be jumping back into work after a week off as soon as I got home. That evening, I would have my first pottery class, and I was having some anxiety about that.

Somewhere along the line, my excitement about the upcoming class had turned into a not-unexpected collection of worries. I was experiencing my own classroom covid concerns, along with my usual social anxiety, as well as a lot of uneasiness about the learning something new in a public, exposed way.

As I drove home with all these worries tumbling in my brain, I turned the radio on, scanning randomly, and “Under Pressure” came on, by Queen and David Bowie. It all just hit me, on so many levels, how much pressure everyone is experiencing, and I cried and sang, moved by music in a way I hadn’t been in a while.

Oddly, I heard the song again on my way home from pottery class that night. Did I mention that along with all the other ways the class is out of my comfort zone, it also runs from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., which is a huge breach in my usual routine. So, it was very late for me to be out and driving on a winter Monday night, and I was overwhelmed and intimidated by the class, frustrated with not being able to master the thing you must master before you can really make anything—centering the clay on the wheel—when I heard “Under Pressure” again. I didn’t cry this time, but I felt it deeply. Again, it wasn’t just about me and the pressure I was feeling personally. It was impossible to listen to the song and not thing about what everyone has been dealing with the past couple of years. The song has been in my head all week.

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At one point when all I could think about before trying to fall asleep was clay, it occurred to me that so much of the struggle of centering is about pressure, which hand is applying pressure on the clay and where and how.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about for a while is place. I’ve been doing some soul searching and trying to figure out what that word means to me, and where I might belong, and how do I get there. But over the past couple of days, I’ve also been thinking about it in terms of where people are from. Some folks are fiercely from a place. Though I’ve lived about a half mile from Detroit for more than 20 years, I never say that I’m from Detroit, because people who are actually from Detroit really hate that, and though I love it, it isn’t my city. It didn’t shape me the way it shaped folks who grew up there, or who have made their life there in a meaningful way over the years. I get it. I don’t get to claim that.

I usually tell people I from Saginaw, which isn’t strictly true either. I grew up in Carrollton Township, a little working-class suburb of Saginaw. That’s what shaped me. There was a sense of community there, largely focused on the school, which I didn’t fully appreciate until many years later. Being from a suburb is kind of a strange thing in that it does not feel distinctive at all. Precisely because it is neither rural nor urban, a suburban upbringing can feel blurry, though suburbs are as different from one another as they are from rural towns or from cities. It is perhaps thought of as the middle ground between extremes, between the clear this or that of the rural or the urban. In fact, it is its own place.

There is much more to be said, and much more for me to explore personally, but it is fair to say that growing up where I did and how I did, the appropriate response to all the pressure I’ve been feeling would be an acknowledging shrug. Yup. That’s just how it is. (Parenting is hard. Everyone has car troubles.) The work ethic would kick in along with an accompanying sense of duty. You made a commitment, so you have a responsibility to stick with it and do your best. (You signed up for this class, so see it through and just keep trying.) The strong sense of community never leaves you, either. We have to help our neighbors when they need it. (We’re all tired—so tired—but it is important to keep protecting ourselves and each other with masks, vaccines, boosters, and common sense.)

In many ways, I have also been feeling a different kind of blurriness, this sense that I am in an in-between place, a mythical suburb of the soul. Maybe it is okay that it feels neither here nor there. Perhaps it, too, is its own place, and this it what it means to learn to belong to yourself.

In C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, there is a place known as the Wood between the Worlds, where some characters travel on their way between Earth and Narnia. Maybe we all have access to an in-between place like that. Perhaps at times we believe we are in the Wood between the Worlds, when in fact, we have moved through that place into a new world, a new version of self. And perhaps we pass through the Wood more times than we realize in our journey toward self. I have also speculated that it is only in the Wood between the Worlds—in the in-between place we sometimes find ourselves—in which we are truly ourselves, and that journeying there is necessary in order to both forget and to remember our selves, before we move on to the next chapter of our lives.

I think that sometimes the pressure that we experience is the discomfort of transition, of the shaping and reshaping of ourselves that is both natural and difficult. Maybe this centering of self gets easier though. Maybe that’s just how it is.

Love, Cath

On December Moments & a Moon, on Resolve & Routines

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you look at yourself in a new light.

I try not to make New Year’s resolutions. It feels so contrived. At the same time, contrived or not, I have always felt a kind of magic at the stroke of midnight. With a tick of a hand on the clock, we suddenly turn a page. These are just numbers, arbitrary ways of marking time conceived of long ago by men who needed to do so to efficiently wage war.

This is not an accurate account of the history of time. I have a vague memory of learning about Julius Caesar creating the calendar roughly as we know it, and I imagine him doing so in order to plan empire-building attacks. And “civilized” society grew on such foundations and now we are able to not only war more precisely, but we learned to mark out work weeks. I think I would have preferred just partnering my movements with those of the sun and the seasons.

But, here we are. Everything we do is pushed through the sieve of the clock.

So as this year is ending, I keep thinking of things I want to prioritize in the coming year. Things that have fallen away that I want to get back to, new things to explore.

I always have writing goals, but as I wait for the publishing world to make decisions on my submissions, I feel like I need a new way of looking at success. Is success, or the lack thereof, related to the fact that a tiny fraction of a percent of what I have written has been published? Or is success deliberately cultivating a writing life? Writing every day, learning about writing, finding ways to be parts of different writing communities, reading. There is no new story here. I want to see success as the journey, not the goal, since the goal is elusive and I’m working very hard and want the work to mean something. I imagine there are two types of people who do this: people who have not achieved the goals they hoped to, and people who have, and understand that achieving a goal is not as brilliant as you think it is going to be. You hold it for a moment and then it slips away, and in its place, we fix another goal/hurdle. The fact is, the world is going to define success however it wants to. And the only path to sanity (and one’s ability to remain motivated), is for each of us to decide for ourselves what success means. What if it is that simple?

On the morning of the solstice, I walked with my dog beneath a waning gibbous moon. I paused to notice its particular shape and glow, and decided in that moment that this was my favorite moon phase. Waning gibbous. [Later I will think of the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” when I consider why the waning gibbous is my favorite: “I do not know which to prefer / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendos, / The blackbird whistling / Or just after.” I love the settling calm after the full moon, like a bird’s ruffled feathers hushing back into place.]

A flutter of movement caught my eye, pulled my awareness fully from the moon and toward a young stag, on its way back to the little strip of wood between the golf course and the houses that abut the creek. We looked at each other. My dog was quiet, alert. The three of us paused this way, for several lovely moments. I always hope when something like this happens, on the rare occasions that it does, that it means something. That I’m on the right path.

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A few days later, on Christmas morning, I awoke to the knowledge that my children once again slept in rooms a few feet from mine, snuggling with the dogs. We haven’t woken up together on Christmas Day in this house before. The knowledge left me with the feeling of peace and anticipation, like opening a letter from someone you missed and hadn’t seen for some time.

Some mornings, my first thoughts upon waking are about what is missing instead of what is present. I imagine someone kissing my shoulder, making us coffee, beginning our day together. Other mornings it is easier to unfold into my own day, rather than my imaginary one, to make the coffee and write and walk the dogs.

I have come to cherish this routine, my routine: waking in the darkness, finding words and purpose, then getting outside. I shake my sleepy head the way the dogs do and see what lands on the page—strange new ideas, one gorgeous metaphor to wrap a sentence around, or sometimes, thoughts I can’t quite string together or make sense of. And then, as the sky begins to lighten, I walk the puppy, who is jumpy still around anything unexpected—a car backing out of a driveway, a dog barking across the street. We move into the world before the world is moving, a short brisk walk where we sometimes dart from smell to smell as he investigates. And then, we return home, and I switch dogs. My senior pup’s walks are long and purposeful. Ahead, ahead, let’s go. Sometimes he stops to sniff but he is about movement, and I watch the way his stiff joints seem to loosen and ease. The joy he takes in his morning walks is spectacular. And even if I’m frustrated from the writing, or how much the puppy pulled or lunged, by the end of this second walk something in me usually loosens and eases as well.

I recall how difficult maintaining this routine was in my last relationship and I’m disappointed that I sacrificed so much of myself to a situation where little was offered in return. But this is how we learn. This past year I have learned so much about what I truly value. About what I like. Not only what I enjoy doing, or what pleases me about my life. I am learning what I like about myself. This is good territory. I’ve been here before but have not inhabited this space. I’ve dropped in for visits but only as a tourist. I’m becoming a local now. I didn’t know you could do that. That I could. If such things are taught some place, I missed the lessons. I feel as if it never occurred to me before to develop a more conscious understanding of myself in this manner. I think deeply and often about my feelings and my past and my flaws, but I have spent so little time in this other region of selfness. I keep returning to this thought: I didn’t know it was okay to want to.

Even as we are dealing with so many stressors and responsibilities, we somehow must learn to be our own guidance counselors, and to put ideas in front of ourselves to consider. For me, it was: have you given any thought to what you like about yourself? One of the benefits of pursuing this line of thinking is that there is so much less time and energy to pursue the endless ruminating on what relationships failed and why. I have ruthlessly covered every inch of that ground, dragging myself through the dark woods over and over again. What did I miss, could another path have been taken, what went wrong, what went right, you better learn from this so it doesn’t happen again. To spend time instead exploring the other worlds inside my heart is a gift. I could chastise myself for not getting here sooner, but I think we’ve covered the ground of self-recrimination in several ways at this point.

So instead, let’s explore lightness and joy. Instead, let’s allow that we have learned and re-learned old lessons, we have dissected mistakes, grief, loss, and failures. Let us now resolve to learn and re-learn what success means to us, what joy does, what self does.

Love, Cath

On Clay and Conversation

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

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