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

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the failure of language points us toward wonder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Suns, Swimming, and Floating

By Catherine DiMercurio

{Sometimes you have to look at the sun.}

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

 

 

 

On Fear and Shelter, Reckoning and Work

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Works-in-Progress

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Hermit Crabs and Habits

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we seek ourselves in our habits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are what we inhabit.

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

Love, Cath

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

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes, it seems we are too loud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nature animal cute sitting

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

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

Love, Cath

On Tenderness, Torrents, and Tortoises

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we are very close to understanding self and other. And then…

I want to write a tender letter to myself about acceptance, but it’s really to us; we are multiplicities. We are many selves. When I woke this morning, the predicted rain was just beginning. It began as a torrent, rather than slow sprinkles that built to something larger. I thought about how happy could exist, like a bright vanilla cake as large as the sun, right along side the sludgy worry sluicing away near my ankles. And I thought it was because we are many things, all at the same time, we are contained by a cell membrane, unique units all operating within the same space, together and separate. How else can biology and baking and weather all make so much sense to me within the space of a paragraph.

With some sense of delight, I realize this perspective helps me understand other things, other people. With some sense of dread, I realize this perspective helps me understand. There are things I don’t want to understand. But I will try to look at it as beautiful, now that I’m here.

I’ve warmed up some of yesterday’s coffee and sit in front of the heater, the coziest place in the house and my mind drifts to other days, long past, of sitting there, chilled to my core, and I think how ready I am for a new place. I will be looking at two houses today, though it’s a bit too soon, really, but it keeps me motivated to take on the tasks of basement purging and kitchen painting. It’s not the first time in the past few days that I’ve been possessed by an awareness of how far I’ve traveled in the five years since my divorce. Sometimes I’m certain it’s not much, it doesn’t look like much from the outside, but when you think about the journey our hearts take it really is something. It’s like being the tortoise and the hare all at the same time, rushing and plodding all at once.

This year I will be fifty and by the time I hit what our society has deemed a milestone, I will most likely be living in a new house, with two kids in college, and I’ll be settling into a new reality, my many selves exploring a new space. It’s been four years since I got my MFA and I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words since, and only a tiny percentage of them have been read by anyone else, despite my best efforts to publish them. I recently received another really good rejection, at once enormously encouraging, and infinitely demoralizing. Hare yells to Tortoise, come ON, what’s taking you so long. Tortoise to Hare: working on it! We refuse to consider any of it failing; all of us rally behind resiliency and journey.

brass needle through red cloth button
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I think of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, language I’ve only glimpsed but never studied and just now vow to do so, this year, because I cannot get the phrase out of my head today. I think of purpose, and binding self to self, in that gentle way only buttons can do, and I hear myself say you will know me then, and I don’t know what I mean. I wonder if my whole life I’ve been meeting other selves within my selves and all the while taking in others as if each person is some sort of solitary singular unified being. How foolish to have spent so little time considering the cells and suns that make up everyone else. To have not considered all that they understand and don’t want to understand about cell and self. I think sometimes I was getting there, arriving at more complex appreciations, but the world slips away from us sometimes, people do, selves do, and I think one of the saddest and loneliest parts of human existence is that sense of waking from a dream and not being able to remember it.

Sometimes I feel as though I exist as full torrent, that is to say, not in the punishing way of a hard rain, but as if I have come into this moment all at once, rather than gradually, as if I’ve always known how to be all of my selves all at once. Other times I see the gradual gathering, the building drop by drop, history by history, a coming into being that has taken all of my cells centuries. Each version, the torrent and the drop, begs for forgiveness and acceptance. I’m sorry I’m too much. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long. I do wonder sometimes if I think about Being so much because I don’t know how to do it or because I do, because we all do.

Even now, I feel as though I’m moving away from understanding something important, I’m having that sense of waking from a dream and at the same time relishing the dream that can barely, wait—no, not at all—be remembered, which calls to mind one of the stanzas from “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (by Wallace Stevens):

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.

For now, I’ll just have to enjoy the just-after moment of the blackbird whistling, and keep trying.

Love, Cath

 

 

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.

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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.

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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