On Vestigial Vigilance, Instinct, and Happiness

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes self-protective vigilance masks our instincts …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

On Bargaining, Warmth, and Crickets

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(photo credit: Photo by Kal Visuals on Unsplash)

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.

pathway between tomato fruits
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.

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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

The Age of Compromise: On Aging and Surrender

By Catherine DiMercurio

This is a moment of surrender. Or, at least, a movement toward that moment. This weekend, I sat in a high school classroom, listening to my children playing a duet—my son on the cello, my daughter on the violin. As a graduating senior, my daughter was performing at her last state solo and ensemble event. It was also the last time the two of them would be performing a duet together in this context. I often close my eyes when I listen to them play and for a moment, Beethoven’s Sonatina drifted through memories, picking up images that hung for a moment in the melody so I could see them, images of the two of them as children, playing together, kneeling in the grass, heads bent toward one another, communicating in the deeply familiar and private way siblings often have.

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Now, they sit on black chairs in this sunny room, communicating differently—with the interplay of cello and violin, trading the melody—heads still inclined toward one another, almost fully fledged and ready to fly. It is difficult to think about the journey of all those years, to think about how much my son and daughter have grown, without considering the impact of my own accumulation of years.

I have an uneasy relationship with the notion of aging. I’ll be 48 later this year. It isn’t the number itself that gives me any trouble, but rather, the undeniable signs that this is happening. It’s different for everyone, the collection of symptoms that pile up, that make you notice them not as individual random things but as parts of a pattern. At some point, it all adds up and you realize that getting older—which you were fine with—means you are actually getting old.

Distance and Pain

Did you notice what happened there? That slip from first person into second person? Writers sometimes do this with a first-person narrator as a hint that the topic is so difficult or painful for the speaker that they—consciously or not—slipped into speaking about it using the more distant, generalized “you.” It diffuses the pain. An example: Hemingway does this with his (autobiographical) narrator at the end of A Moveable Feast when he’s discussing the affair that ended his marriage to his first wife, Hadley. Hemingway describes the progression of the affair from something “stimulating and fun” to “truly wicked.” He speaks of the way “You lie and hate it and it destroys you.” He doesn’t say, “I lied and hated it and it destroyed me.”

So perhaps, it’s more accurate for me to say, “At some point it all adds up and I realize that getting older—which I was fine with—means I’m actually getting old.”

This progression from getting older to becoming an old person might be an easier journey if our society esteemed old age in any way. It doesn’t. The daily toil endured to be productive, tax-paying members of communities, the sacrifices made to raise children, the wisdom gained through the trial and error of living and loving and being human and making it to your 60s and 70s and beyond, are all frequently overlooked by our American society collectively, and by many of us individually on a day to day basis.

The Fine Art of Compromise

For me there are clear, outward facing indicators of my age I’m not comfortable with. I used to be regularly told that I looked younger than my age. I don’t hear that too much any more. For a period of time I read every article I could about the way stress—particularly some of the deep, long-lasting, chronic stress of divorce—ages a person rapidly on a cellular level. Though this idea was upsetting, it helped me accept some of the changes I was seeing and feeling. The grey hair, the bouts of insomnia. Sometimes it seems unfair, as if I thought I could cheat aging because I’ve focused on healthy eating for most of my adult life and tried to stay active since the kids were small. My lifestyle should at least yield healthy and productive later years, but I’m not naïve enough to believe there are any guarantees.

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I also find myself reading articles about the benefits of slow running. I ran two half marathons the year of my divorce. Running helped me purge a lot of the toxins I felt seeping into the tissues of my body. I felt like stress was devouring me breath by breath and I needed to burn it off the way fever kills infection. I’m not an efficient runner though and in the years since, long runs seem out of my reach. It’s hard to make peace with that. At the same time, I want to keep running. I’d rather do a few short runs, and some long walks, every week and be able to maintain that routine for the next twenty years rather than try and rack up mileage the way I used to and risk injuring myself to the point where I can’t run at all. My late 40s seem to be The Age of Compromise.

These are all small things. I feel good, really good, most of the time. I don’t wake up with aches and pains. The insomnia gets bad sometimes but I found that not eating after 7 pm really helps. The grey hair feels personal. I know it is a superficial thing. It is hard to find a vegan hair color that really does the job. I have researched articles on the best ways to go grey. I’ve pulled up pictures of Ann Bancroft in The Graduate and thought, maybe just let those streaks come in?

All of this research, these thoughts, these little allowances, are part of a movement toward surrender. Yet I remain unwilling to stop fighting the idea of growing older. I suspect that when I embrace it, a lot of things will fall into place. It’s worked out that way in other arenas. But right now I don’t even know what surrender and embrace look like. Is it when I decide to stop coloring my hair? Is it when I stop reacting so angrily to articles with headlines like “The 40 Things Women Over 40 Should Never, Ever Wear”? Maybe acceptance gets feathered in at the edges and you simply start noticing that you really don’t care about such things anymore. It’s possible that even thinking of it as embrace or surrender is to suggest I’m still fighting. Maybe it all happens organically, quietly in its own way, like when you remember that thing on the tip of your tongue finally, hours after you stopped trying so hard to catch it.

Whiplash: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

The flip side of all of this—of watching my children grow into adulthood, of making little deals with myself about how to shift the way I think about my age or changing my eating patterns—is that being honest with myself about aging means I also have to acknowledge that my parents are aging. I think now of that sonatina again and the memories shift. It’s my sisters and me—before my brother was even born and long before my baby sister was born. We are huddled in the fort made by the arching branches of forsythia bushes, speaking almost a private language, breathing in the delicately scented air under the first yellow blooms of spring.

Maybe my parents watched from the window. Maybe, as their little girls were graduating from high school, they thought about their own aging, and now, with their grandchildren graduating, they are simply living it. They are in their seventies. They deal with more doctor appointments than they used to, but they are active and happy and healthy. Like the good parents they have always been, they are modeling for me what aging can look like. They are simply living their lives, enjoying their journey, and dealing with obstacles along the way as they have always done and taught me to do.

So what am I so afraid of? Maybe it’s simply that the transitions in life are the hardest, and once we make our compromises, make our tweaks and our peace, we adapt and get on with it. It seems that every time I think this road is familiar and I know the way, the scenery changes and I get a little lost. Usually though, once the fear subsides I find I can relax and enjoy the adventure. I hope aging is like that.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

The Alchemy of Experience

By Catherine DiMercurio

Walking down South University in Ann Arbor with the U of M tour guide, our group of admitted students and their parents files past a row of children, who have descended from their yellow school bus to the sidewalk. Parent volunteers and a teacher herd the youngsters into a straight line. They are perhaps second or third graders—small, wide-eyed, wearing brightly colored jackets, the reds and yellows bursts of color like poppies against the grey streetscape. And here we are, another group of parents shepherding our children, trying to keep being what we are—a presence that can still shape and guide and protect them—though within a few short months they won’t even live with us anymore. It’s easy to see how fast it goes.

We all knew it, how quickly it was happening. We did what we were supposed to do, and didn’t take anything for granted, and cherished every moment, good and bad, every first and every fever, every struggle, every tear, every belly laugh and broken heart and broken bone. We still couldn’t will time to go any slower.

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I’m here with my daughter, the focus of our attention all day—how are you doing? are you excited? maybe this is where you’ll live—and my son, and their father. It’s been a long while, since the four of us have spent any amount of time together, and that isn’t lost on any of us. But the day unfolds pleasantly despite its potential for awkwardness, and more than once I think, look how far we’ve come. I wonder if the children think about that, or if they relax and accept this as a new normal. Before the divorce, the four of us visited Ann Arbor on many occasions. It is where our story began, where my ex-husband and I met. Now, what is equally prominent in my mind is how many other stories began when I attended U of M as well—friendships that remain an important part of my life, that buoyed me through dark times, and quite simply, my own story. When I started at U of M, it was the first time in my life I’d truly been away from my parents and siblings, the first time I began to see myself as more than a part of that family unit, as someone whole and separate.

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After we pass that row of children, part of my mind remains fixed in two pasts. It is as if being here has unwound several threads in my brain. I follow myself down one path, remembering myself as a freshman. And I also recall parenting my daughter when she was a second grader, spirited and smart and seemingly always eager for whatever was next. I look up and see she’s gotten ahead of me. Glancing past the little ones, I spot her French braids and her black windbreaker and I manage to move myself forward into now once again. But the day’s journey into the past isn’t over. Before long I find myself in my old dorm, Mosher-Jordan. It’s been renovated, but much of it still looks like it did in 1988 when I first moved in. The building is an old brick one, warm and inviting. Oddly, it is when I see the staircase that a flood of memories come back to me—specifically, traipsing up and down the tiled steps to the cafeteria where I worked. I know that living in this dorm was transformative for my ex-husband as well. Though we knew each other when we lived here, we didn’t date until long after we had both moved out of the dorm. I suspect that he is coping with a flood of memory as well. He, too, made life-long friendships here, and I can appreciate that like me, he’s probably recalling what it was like to be eighteen and at the beginning of it all.

For me, being at the beginning of it all meant discovering what it meant to be me without all the qualifiers—sister of, daughter of. It was incredibly difficult to leave my parents, my sisters, and my brother. I honestly did not know how I was supposed to do it. Though I remember feeling exhilarated, I was also so incredibly sad and terrified. And now, my daughter is preparing to make that same transition, and I’ll experience it from this side of the mother-daughter relationship. I’m sure I’ll probably call my mom and sob and ask her how she did it. How do you leave that dorm room? I console myself with the fact that I have a few months to get ready.

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For a long while, the question that percolated through much of my writing centered on the question of whether we become more or less who we truly are as we accumulate experience. Do we start out as our “true” selves and lose that identity along the way, or does what happens to us in life continue to add on to who we are. For some time, I’ve been trying to figure out what felt wrong about that way of looking at things. Something occurred to me though during this last trip to Ann Arbor. I realized: I’m not the sum of all the emotions and experiences that have brought me here. It isn’t about addition or subtraction—I didn’t become more me or less me because of things that have happened to me, or how I responded to them. I have become, and continue to become, who I am in each moment. It’s not math. It’s more like chemistry. Life is transformative and in many ways nonlinear, and there is mystery and magic to it, so maybe it’s more accurate to say that the process of identity-shaping is more like alchemy than anything else.

Love breaks your heart and mends it and breaks it again in a different place. Sometimes in the same place. Parenting makes it feel as though this process is happening with each heartbeat. By some alchemy our hearts remain completely whole and completely broken at the same time and we continue to love and grow, though each breath is another goodbye. But I wouldn’t change a thing.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath