On Curiosity and Bonsai Confidence

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you take a chance on curiosity and notice its unexpected rewards.

This weekend, as I was folding and putting away laundry, I found myself purging the closet. Spring is in the air, and all that, no great mystery as to why I felt compelled to tackle that task. Yet I have been feeling some heightened sense of purpose around such chores lately. My son has one more year of high school. I look at the house with an eye toward selling. I think about how open-ended my future is once both kids are in college. I wanted them to grow up in this place, wanted the stability of this home for them before, during, and after the divorce. This bungalow has served its purpose well. But the question of what comes after this address is one steeped in ambiguity. This is at once terrifying and thrilling.

Like Mud in March

One of the lessons I learn on a daily basis these days is that the ambiguity I thought was a temporary state in the immediate aftermath of my divorce is simply a feature of daily life. Just as the first of my alarms will go off at 5:05 a.m., and one or both of the dog will bark when someone walks by, I will be confronted with another lesson in ambiguity. It’s a fact of life I grew intensely cognizant of when what I thought were life’s big certainties had evaporated. It’s as sure as mud in March, and it can be just as aggravating if you let it.

In the past, I’ve tried to gird myself against the emotional perils of ambiguity with lists and plans. I made large cosmic if-then deals. In the hallway at work near the elevators is a sign that reads, “Confidence is success remembered.” I first began working there not long after my divorce, and during a particularly low period I noticed the sign and thought, “No wonder I have no confidence.” That’s when I began journaling about achievements, big or small – to remind myself of what I’d gotten through, what I had accomplished. It was a deliberate effort to grow and tend to confidence, the way one cultivates a bonsai.

selective focus photography of green leafed bonsai
Photo by Zulian Yuliansyah on Pexels.com

Erosion

I certainly feel a lot better about things than I did a few years ago, but I still get gut-punched with self-doubt on a fairly regular basis. Parenting, relationships, or work issues (the day job or the writing), can all trouble us enough that seeds of self-doubt catch hold and take root, quietly eroding us from the inside out, leaving us feeling crumbly and decidedly un-sturdy.

It is perilously easy to slide into that mindset and stay there, eroded and anxious. I’ve gotten better at looking for things to hold on to as a way of halting that descent. Recently, it was a mere word that caught me. The word curiosity has flitted through unrelated conversations recently. I read it in something a friend sent, spoke it aloud to another, and realized there was something going on that I needed to pay attention to.

When the Weather Shifts

As I started thinking about being curious, I considered the by-products of curiosity, the focused but open mindset one has, for example, when trying to solve a crossword clue, or when sussing out a solution to a problem. Urgency and anxiety shed themselves away, empty husks our hearts shed. They aren’t an efficient part of a problem-solving mindset. Curiosity finds us in other ways, too. Sometimes it isn’t about problem solving, but about joy. We happen upon a new interest, find ourselves excited about a new book, or the prospect of a new activity now that the weather is shifting. We find ourselves simply contemplating: What would happen if . . . or, I never thought about it that way . . . or I wonder what it would be like to . . ..

What I began to realize was that curiosity could be an effective shield against anxiety and self-doubt. A subtle and very conscious shift in perspective is involved, but approaching a problem or a worry with an open heart and from a slightly different angle can remove urgency and hurt or doubt from the equation. We might find ourselves thinking, I wonder how this is going to turn out, or what if I just watch and see how things unfold?

I have spent a lot of time speculating about what others might be thinking, and sometimes contort myself through a series of emotions, as if I’m preparing for different realities that may unfold. Curiosity gives me permission to wonder what someone might be thinking without having to land on an answer, or a series of answers, and somehow deal with each one as if it is imminently true. We don’t have to prepare our hearts to endure every possible disaster, though the self-protective mindsets we develop after life’s traumas often make us feel otherwise. We walk around with umbrellas against rain and wind that isn’t there much of the time. We miss the sun.

It is unexpectedly freeing to allow yourself to be curious instead of anxious. Self-confidence is either a by-product of this shift, or the source, I’m not sure which. Perhaps a little of both. But there seems to be a blossoming effect. I’m trying it out in different situations and the beautiful thing is that not only do things shift in me in delightful ways, but equally delightful things seem to happen externally, within the situation I’d previously been anxious about. Curiosity seems to provide this room for things to grow the way they will, the way they want to, without interference. Perhaps it is the absence of anxiety and the sabotage if often sparks that allows such unfurling.

I think again of the bonsai. My son has been tending a little bonsai tree, I don’t know what kind, for almost a year. I was surprised to learn that it didn’t need to be brought in the house for the winter. It lived outside like any other tree, just in a little ceramic dish on our porch. Not that he hasn’t tended to it. In the summer and fall, he moved it out of the rain when it seemed like it was getting too much water. In early winter, he moved it to the porch where it would be more sheltered. At some point, he trimmed branches and guided one in a particular direction with the aid of wire. An odd combination of attention and neglect has allowed this little thing to flourish. The recalibration of my thoughts from worry to curiosity feels similar, a conscious effort that yields growth in small but delightful ways.

Love, Cath

On Thriving and Neglect

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

Being Open to Openness

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

What is Thriving?

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

Knowing What to Neglect, and When

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

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Photo by Artem Bali on Pexels.com

Resistance and Happiness and Magic

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Bravery and the Ineffable

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you let yourself careen optimistically toward the ineffable.

I’m thinking about bravery right now, for a variety of reasons, mostly for chances taken. Once I whispered to someone I loved very much, I’m afraid of everything. We both decided to agree it was true. But it wasn’t. That falsehood gave us a scapegoat, though, for the way things were ending. We fashioned a tacit compact: it was okay to tell ourselves this story, at least in that moment. In a way, it gave me something tangible to hold on to, this lie that, like all lies, held some whispers of truth. It was an answer, a way – a bad way – to make the inexplicable a little easier to stomach.

Eventually, though, I allowed myself to exist in the unfathomable. This was more from exhaustion than from any carefully cultivated skill set or some divine epiphany. Still, it felt brave, permitting myself to call the lie a lie. And consequently it became acceptable to not make sense of what happened. The thing about the unfathomable is that it expands. Don’t black holes do that? You begin to realize, at some point in post-divorce life, that a lot more things don’t make sense than do. You marvel at the things that bring people together, the things that keep them together, the things that pull them apart.

gold and brown ferry s wheel
Photo by Christine Haeften on Pexels.com

Ferris Wheels and Deep Water

Like most other humans strolling through this existence, I am, indeed, afraid of things. Fear of heights is right up there at the top of the list. If the ground is under my feet it’s not so bad, unless there is a real threat of falling off. So, a mountain hike with not a lot of exposure? I can handle that. Ferris wheel, not so much, though I still love to see them light up at night. Public speaking? Most people aren’t a fan and neither am I. Plan: avoid when possible. But I can manage it when necessary. Swimming in deep water? Feels like I’m dangling over a cliff, and it doesn’t help that I’m not a great swimmer. But I can deal in small doses. And I love being in and near the water, so I have some incentive to tackle this one.

One of the things I’ve come to realize in recent years is that some people are quite comfortable with whatever quirks like these they carry around with them. And others feel they have to hide them; perhaps, some how, they fear it makes them less than to possess such a wide and varied array of human responses to the world. Still others feel they have to face down everything as part of their journey. Our attitudes about our fears change, too, over time, and depending on how people respond to them. That context is key.

The Joys of the B-Side

I prefer the ineffable to the unfathomable. It’s the often-underappreciated B-side. Both concepts hold mystery, but to me the ineffable is something that in addition to being incomprehensible is also full of wonder and beauty, even. Sometimes I want to slide things from one category to the other, to look at some idea I will never understand and instead regard it as something I’m okay with never understanding, because it is a deep and powerful part of the universe. There is bravery here, in shifting the context. It takes courage to loosen our grasp, to let go of the need to dissect the things that cause us pain, the fears – our own and those of others – that bully us into corners.

The ineffable shifts, cloud-like, around us. Doesn’t it? Or are we doing the shifting? Today I cannot fathom how I can take this next step, or that one. Tomorrow, I fall contentedly into the not knowing, into trusting, somehow, that it’s what I should be doing.

This is all to say, as I have been for the past several posts, that being open takes a combination of things. It’s head and heart, and a little bit of context, a little bit of the world trying to show us when it’s a good time to take a risk, a little bit of someone encouraging us. You’ve got this goes a long way. So does a random smile from a stranger or a less random but equally ineffable smile from someone you just met. You don’t have to know what it means; you just have to know it’s for you.

Enjoy the ineffable, wherever it finds you. Love, Cath

Lessons for the New Year: On Patience, Love, Effort, and Squirrels

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we have to follow our hearts the way a hound follows a scent.

As the first hours of 2019 unfold, I’m thinking about patience, and promises. On Christmas Day, we welcomed into our home a new family member, a rescue dog named Dodger. We had already introduced him to our almost-ten-year-old hound mix Phineas at a boarding/training facility. The dogs got along well, so Christmas Day began our “trial period.” Dodger is tall and goofy. He is sweet-natured, but stubborn in the way hounds tend to be. His long ears drape far past his face, and his feet are enormous. We fell in love, the kids and I, with his big heart. When my daughter and I went to the adoption event a week later to officially adopt him, we learned a little more about his past from the woman who fostered him when he was a puppy.

He and his five litter mates, all males, went right into foster care after they were born. The mother was a hound from “the country.” Dodger was adopted when he was four months old, but the owners returned him. At that point, he was boarded at a kennel, which is where he has spent much of the last seven months. He’ll be a year old in mid-January.

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My original thoughts about the family who returned him were angry ones, because, who does that? Provides a home then takes it away. Dodger no longer had an available foster when he was surrendered. I don’t know the reason his owners gave up on him, except that the family had younger children, and perhaps he was too much of a high energy pup for them. They essentially sentenced a four-month-old puppy to growing up without a home, without much, if any, training, love, or daily affection. I can only imagine how an attention-starved, growing-bigger-every-day hound puppy came off to potential adopters. Dodger was not getting any smaller, more well-behaved, or adoptable while living in the kennel. But he was, I can only imagine, getting lonely, desperate, anxious, and stressed both physically and emotionally.

I saw his sweet face on the rescue’s Facebook page and I watched posts about him for a couple of weeks before I finally decided to act. He’s been with us for a week, now. When I begin to feel impatient with his puppy-like behavior—the way he pulls on the leash, or chews things he shouldn’t—I remind myself of his story, try and keep things in perspective. But also, I know my limitations. I’m one of those people that loves just about every dog I meet, but I don’t have that thing that some people have, that inner authoritative calm that dogs respond to. I’m not sure where the line is between being patient as an action and having a calm presence as a state of being. Maybe the former cultivates the latter.

Often, Dodger makes it easy. Despite his past, there is nothing in him that seems wary or slow to trust. He came at our family with a big open heart, ready to love us, which has made it easy to love him back just as enthusiastically. He is playful, and cuddly.

I want to say that the rest will fall into place, the way things do, acted upon both by time and effort. I’ll research different ways to work with dogs on various behaviors. I will try to not take it personally if Dodger once again snatches my reading glasses while I’m warming up my coffee and chews them past the point of rescue. I will be better about not leaving my reading glasses within reach. I remind myself that he is the first dog I adopted as a single person, my post-divorce rescue dog. A commitment.

At the same time, working with a rescue dog, particularly one of this size, is going to be challenging. The rewards are huge, but so is the effort. Dodger has hardly ever been on a leash. We’ve lost the months when Dodger would have been of the manageable size and the impressionable age where better habits are more easily learned. We have a large, full-grown dog who grew up in a kennel. Still. Worth it is an easy concept.

I’m left holding two truths in my heart at the same time, those related to love and to responsibility. I love this dog. And, raising him, working with him, training him—none of that is going to be easy. The loving comes to me as naturally as breathing, as naturally as this hound of mine trees a squirrel. The rising to the occasion and bearing the full weight of the responsibility for caring for him and teaching him can be daunting. I sometimes think, is this more than I can handle? But the heart answers the questions the head can’t help but ask. No, it isn’t too much. Do it. Handle it. Figure it out.

That was a bad walk we had this morning. No squirrel went unhounded, no scent unheeded. Dodger pulled constantly, with his full weight, while I (mostly futilely) tried different tactics to keep him focused on moving forward. Next walk, new tactics, I think, after we return home. In other ways, it was a good walk, too. We expended energy, and I exercised patience, only crying out, “Dodger, no!” in utter despair once or twice. And, I got some ideas. I’ll have a pocket full of treats next time, good ones. We’ll work on shorter, more focused walks. We’ll get the hang of this. Dodger might be a hound, but I’m a DiMercurio. We don’t give up easily either, though we might stomp our feet impatiently from time to time.

I’m not the first to be reminded by an animal I’ve welcomed into my life of a long-standing to-do list that has more to do with my work than his. Cultivate calm. Embrace patience. Understand your history, but don’t let it obstruct your future. These aren’t new lessons but sometimes someone enters your life who reminds you that certain things need attention, again, still.

Looking at Dodger’s face online before I rescued him reminded me of who I want to be, just as this blog does. Someone with a heart like a wide open door, embracing life with open arms. Having him in my home reminds me I’ve always been that person, but like anything worth being, it comes with effort.

I hope you enjoy where the road takes you this new year. Love, Cath

 

Transformation and the Nature of the Resist

By Catherine DiMercurio

Waking at 3 a.m. again, I think how sleep resists me in the middle of the night. I think about the pictures we made in elementary school. We drew with bright waxy crayons on paper, which we then painted over with blue-black watercolors. I made a night sky, my chunky yellow and red stars gleaming against the watery background of my night. The wax acts as a resist, I remember my teacher saying as she held up a crayon. I don’t remember which teacher it was, but I snagged on that word, on the magic of transformation, when the verb resist became a noun. A resist. Now my mind acted as a resist, sleep slipping off of it, unable to take hold.

Before I went to sleep, another night, I wrote in my journal, trying to corner trouble before it cornered me. I told myself: don’t worry, you aren’t trying too hard, or not enough. I’m not quite sure why those particular words spilled out at that time, but I thought about them again after I woke up. I slept better that night than the night before, and though I still arose before my alarm went off, it wasn’t hours before my alarm went off, so I felt pretty good. I warmed up some leftover coffee and sat down to write.

Messages, Mixed and Otherwise

But that line kept percolating back to the forefront. I think maybe we all fear getting in our own way by trying too hard in some ways or not doing enough in others. I imagine that there is some magical line to walk. On one side, there’s a sense of forging ahead when sometimes it’s only wheels spinning. On the other side, there’s a reliance on things taking care of themselves, there’s a sense of “letting go” in the hopes that things will happen the way they are “supposed to.”

The world gives us mixed messages. We have to go after what we want, follow our bliss. And at the same time we are told to relax, that if things are “meant to be” they will come to us when we least expect it. Provided of course that we have “done the work” we are supposed to do to improve ourselves.

It’s exhausting, mediating these messages, trying to measure the precise amount of effort that should go into something and hoping we get the timing right. I think of that British baking show in which one of the tasks is to bake a mystery dessert, which many of the contestants haven’t even heard of, with only the sketchiest of instructions provided. Somehow, some of the bakers manage to still create something that looks beautiful and tastes as it should, according to the judges. How do they do it?

Perhaps it comes down to having faith in your instincts. Maybe the “secret sauce” is the ability to do two things at once: tune out the noise and tune in to ourselves. We have to remember our strengths, and that we aren’t the sum of our weaknesses. All of this is easier said than done to be sure, which is probably why, as I sleepily wrote before bed that night, I encouraged myself toward self-trust. I honestly don’t think anyone can do that for us, no matter how many supportive people we have in our lives.

Timing and Taffy

Self-trust isn’t easy. Instincts get scrambled, or so we tell ourselves after an act of trust results in an open wound to the soul instead of the affirmation we hoped for. Pain makes our heart into a resist, joy slides off it and puddles along the edges. For the past six months or so, after that June break up I wrote about a while ago, I’ve been trying to live in two states of mind at the same time. I’ve tried to remain true to the open-hearted nature of the person I want to be, once was, and feel that at my core I still am, and I’ve also tried to exist in a state of perpetual self-protection. This isn’t an easy line to walk. Your heart feels like taffy, but for a time, it’s the only way forward, confusing and thinning as it may be.

Like many people, I sometimes do things until I can’t anymore, until it goes a step or several thousand beyond making sense. I hesitate before taking action until it feels like it’s already too late, or once I’m committed to a course of action, I remain too long, far past the expiration date.

So, one night recently, as I slipped into bed and hoped for a good night’s sleep, I had a moment where I understood that this taffy-hearted way of living was no good anymore—this stretching my heart till it thinned and slowly broke apart, this patiently putting it back together again and keeping it cooled off this time—all of this stopped feeling like the right way, like the only way forward. It had worked for a while, had been necessary even, but I wanted my hopeful, open-hearted way of being back. I wanted to stop protecting myself. I decided to commit to a course of action I’d been thinking about for many, many months.

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If you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning you’ll remember that last year, in January, I lost my sweet dog to cancer. His big brother, my almost-ten-year-old coonhound mix, Phineas, has been pretty lonely ever since, and I’ve thought for a long time about adopting another dog. I’ve begun the process of adopting once again, and Phineas and the kids and I will meet the new pup soon. I’m hopeful that they’ll get along well, and we’ll have him home with us before long. (I’ll keep you posted!)

I have a feeling that I’m ready for more, that my open-hearted embrace of my open-heartedness means that other new good things are on the horizon, that maybe I’ll do something about that crush, that maybe an idea I have for my next writing project opens itself up to me. But really, whether or not any of that happens, I simply feel happier having moved past that summer grief, happy to be growing and evolving, and happy to have respected the past six months as a necessary part of my journey.

Wishing you all a heart that blossoms in wonderful and unexpected ways in the coming year.

Love, Cath