On Belonging, Nests, and Popsicle Sticks

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we find new ways to belong to ourselves.

I read recently that where we belong is not always the same as where we are used to.

That juxtaposition between belonging and familiarity is a curious one. I am in a prolonged state of transition. I have not yet moved into my new house, but have been steadily at work, along with my son, my boyfriend, and his son, to make some fairly dramatic changes there. My old house, which I’m simply occupying at this point, is in a state of disarray as I prepare to move. The yard is getting overgrown. We can only do so much to maintain both places. I have work responsibilities. I am tired.

When I think about belonging and familiarity I think of people, not places, now, which is a fine thing. I do look forward, though, to having the sense that I belong in my new space, to making memories there, building the familiar piece by piece like the log cabins my sisters and I used to make from popsicle sticks we’d collect throughout the summer. Belonging and familiarity aren’t always at odds.

The house I am leaving feels like a collection of homes, four walls filled with debris of different versions of home, good, bad, and otherwise. Here the familiar has a long history, sometimes sweet and wonderous, like bringing babies home from the hospital after they were born. The ensuing, often sleepless years, unfolding moment by moment. The familiar had its run of trouble here too and that’s ground I’ve covered before. The house is filled with discarded nests. It is all twigs and straw and popsicle sticks. There are things I don’t want to forget, and things I don’t want to remember. If I swept it all into a pile, I wonder what would be recognizable, what would still seem familiar. I wonder what to take with me.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Belonging is a funny thing. This house was mine because my name was on the deed and the mortgage, and now different pieces of paper bear that scrawl. Signing all the documents to transfer ownership for both houses, I remember looking at my signature and the way it changed from one document to the next. By the time you have signed your name fifteen times you begin to doubt that you know how to do it anymore.

[Side note on signatures and belonging: I think of the poetry of a name, the way the script mirrors mood, the way when I pen a note with the three letters of your name at the top and the roughly four and half of mine at the bottom, I attempt to corral with the shape of words the way I feel, and it feels like creating art together. It is the words as I write them and the sound of them in your head or on your lips when you read them, and what a beautiful thing it is, to make art with you.]

But despite the documentation and transfer of ownership of what I have called “mine,” what I now call “mine” doesn’t belong to me, because homes have the histories of other families and maybe in a way, the way we reshape a home to our personalities, the way we nest and re-nest over the years, is also a beautiful piece of enacted art, one that we make in collaboration with our own histories, along with those who have inhabited the space before us.

In many stories, place functions very much as a character, a real force the characters interact with, rather than simply a backdrop. Fiction that effectively executes this (Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love comes to mind readily as an example, but there are many others) is easy to immerse oneself in, because it feels like truth. We are products of our environment, acted upon by place, as much as we interact with it.

Belonging is a funny thing. I wonder if you can feel at peace with yourself and not in harmony with your personal setting, or does that peace create the sense of harmony no matter where you are?

I have the strong sense that feeling internally at peace but out of step with your environment is common, and is perhaps what propels us to look at our surroundings perhaps as a place where we do not belong, or no longer belong.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that tucked away within both the concept of belonging and in the word itself is longing. There is an ache within us to fit. I think of the two baby robins snugged in the nest at the new house. It sits securely in the crook of the downspout behind the garage. I think of how we long to feel safe, at least somewhere.

I wonder how it is built, our sense of belonging to one another? How much is instantaneous, how much constructed. I consider what that infrastructure comprised of.

And what does it mean to belong to ourselves? I was told that by the time I reached almost-fifty, I would not care what others thought of me; I would be wise; I would settle into myself. Yet I don’t settle in. I still often feel awkward in my own skin, in my own brain, though at times I have allowed myself to be at peace with that part of me.

The sparrow in the backyard at my old house pinched a beakful of just-brushed dog-fur-fluff. My dog has the softest fur, and I thought, well-chosen! What a happy, cozy little nest that will be to settle into.

And sometimes I think maybe I can settle into myself after all.

Love, Cath

On Home, Magic, Memory

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes home is not what you think it is.

For a few of the many moments that I’m curled up in my bed but unable to sleep, I cast my thoughts outward, trying to capture as much of the world as my heart can hold in a breath, for that is all that I can handle of the chaos sometimes. It feels selfish not to try. I feel so immersed in layers of details involved in home buying and selling that I struggle to focus on life beyond those decisions. But in that effort of casting my awareness out beyond my experience, I suddenly remember fishing with my father when I was young, standing on the bank, watching the ease with which his line sang out over the river. I pull back, clumsy as ever, unable to mimic the grace it takes. I long to be bigger and better than myself sometimes.

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Photo by Baskin Creative Studios on Pexels.com

We are told not to take for granted the things and people that make our lives feel full, rich, happy. I think about how often I say I love you and I wonder if I’m saying it as much to express the truth of it as I am to prove it to a cruel universe, as if a demonstration of love and gratitude can create a protective gloss around me and mine. I love you becomes an incantation to keep us safe and connected.

I started writing this post a couple of weeks ago when my arms were sore from painting. I moved from my desk, where I hunched and scrambled toward deadlines, to the basement where I poured white paint to neutralize my home for potential buyers. I thought I wouldn’t like it, but I do. It reminds me of that summer cottage I’ve always wanted, the white paint. I spend so much time scrolling through pictures of homes in another town, hoping one will feel a little bit like it could be mine, hoping that somehow in this world of wait and restriction and necessary cautions, I will be able to complete the necessary series of business transactions. A series of business transactions that, in a way, is the transfer of ownership of a thing from person to person, but is really the worldly calculus that frames the magical endowing of home to family. (It is a strange arrangement, but if you are lucky, as I am, you get to work with people who have an understanding of not just the business but the business of magic.)

I spent night after night in April falling asleep trying to write before bed. It was all fits and starts, no sense making, clumsy constructions of sentiments in random drafts. Sometimes my best work is the simple I love you, sung across rooms, tucked in a note of freshly folded laundry to be discovered later. Sometimes I feel as though I’m trying to inscribe home into every letter of a scrawled I love you.

I’ve been thinking about what home means, and now more than ever it is who, not where, and on the verge of moving I want my children to know that fact, more than ever. I want them to feel at home within themselves, I want them to know that all our lives we have to remake our ability to remake home. I want them to learn it so that it comes as readily and blindly as tying shoes. I want it to be easier for them. That is the first and most important layer of home.

The next is about the people you feel at home with, and about evolving into the idea that sometimes this will mean your family and sometimes it won’t. And that’s okay. Your idea of family expands and contracts, like a lung full of breath. But like a lung full of breath it has a rhythm, a cadence you can always find if you tune yourself in to it.

But it would be stubbornly naïve to pretend that home also wasn’t a physical place, and it’s okay to have a multitude of feelings about that place, feelings that might not always get on harmoniously with one another, just like family members sometimes don’t. It’s also okay for there to be an apparent dearth of feeling about a place. Sometimes we’ve spent them all, sometimes we will feel them later.

Sometimes years, decades, will pass, and we will suddenly remember standing on a riverbank with our father and we will remember an odd sense of home we forgot we had forgotten. Old magic. And we will realize again that what we thought was about a place really isn’t so much.

I think, too, of the brief vulnerabilities we allow ourselves when we are trying to be strong. I think of what being strong feels like, and how sometimes it doesn’t feel like trying, until we stop for a moment. Anxiety sneaks up sometimes like a soft rage of sorrow when I let my guard down. And sometimes it feels as though it is always there, like a soft flutter wings in the eves when you are lying in bed and hearing a bird take a little morning bath outside the window. It’s just there, letting you know the worrying is happening, but telling you don’t worry about it, it’s for a good cause. Learning to be at home with myself means trying to understand this.

Today definitely feels like spring, and with that sigh of air through the window, warm and a little damp and heavy with the scent of green, it’s a little easier today to feel hopeful and even content within the milieu of this moment.

Remember to protect yourself with whatever magic you can find, a memory, a feeling of home, an I love you.

Love, Cath

 

Love, Cath

On New Shapes and Exercises in Normalcy

By Catherine DiMercurio

In this state of suspension, we are given conflicting orders. We are told don’t move and keep moving as much as possible. We are playing freeze tag. We are it for a moment, running frantically with purpose, then frozen and waiting once again.

We are told many things, about how we should feel about all this, what we should and should not be doing, how we should and should not react. How can our responses to this “information” overload be anything but mercurial?

We fall back into what is familiar to us as a way of coping. We want to reach out to those who give us comfort, though our access to them may be limited, and they are going through the same thing, so it almost doesn’t seem fair anyway.

Sometimes I am fighting the feeling of shutting down, of retreating inwardly until it’s over. Except that I know that returning to self, from self, is a scary climb out of darkness sometimes and I don’t want to do that anymore or again or ever so I’m really trying, as we all are, each in our own way, to stay present, hopeful, aware and connected.

Sometimes I am feeling immersed in a task or a conversation or a thought and for a moment, or a handful of them, the world is relatively normal, and I breathe deeply and hold it, trying to keep it.

Sometimes I am talking on the phone feeling at once that all is well, and that hovering at the edges of the bubble is the dark strangeness, waiting to seep back in.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The most important relationships in our lives are all being pushed and pulled into new directions, new shapes, and each one of them is being explored and navigated differently, carefully, and we are uncertain about what we are getting right and what we are getting wrong.

Sometimes I am very much aware that a specific conservation of energy is happening within me.

When my children were in elementary school, we participated in a fundraiser in which we bought caterpillars that we housed in homemade shelters outfitted with the necessities. A small branch upon which to build a chrysalis. Some sort of food, I don’t remember what. One year we released two butterflies. Another year, one butterfly emerged from its chrysalis with a malformed wing. Sometimes it feels like we are all busy mis-shaping part of ourselves as we try to adapt to what our world has become, all the while, hoping we’ll emerge properly.

If we emerge newly malformed, it will be into a world that’s similarly altered, and we will fit one another, us and the world.

What I am discovering, perhaps just in this moment, that it is maybe best to not call it anything. Maybe it is best to not define it, to just have it be whatever it is on any given day, and to continue. To do the work of the day, whatever it may be, and be done with it.

I have found that I function better when counting on some version of the plans I’d been making. Timelines shift, the contours morph, but still, there is forward, next, soon. Though it all might be tenderly misshapen. Though we were all frozen too long, or it too long, the game of tag prolonged indefinitely. We are not being called in to dinner, or waiting for the streetlights to come on, our cue to go home.

Now there is only home. And it doesn’t mean quite what it used to. It’s not its fault.

We want so badly to not be balancing quite so precariously, on the edge of how things were, and the unknown of how they will be, how we will be. How will we be? But maybe we were always precariously balanced and we just didn’t know it.

There are no fresh insights here, just me poking around at perspectives, trying to find the best one to fit my current state of mind. I think, what is the point of writing this anyway. I think of the little butterfly, awkwardly flying as if she had the hiccups, and the great tenderness I felt toward this not-okay little creature, and I think that maybe that is the perspective that fits me today.

It helps me to think of the constants. Spring was on its way when this all started and is decidedly here now. The forsythia is an effulgent yellow, tight lilac buds are preparing to bloom once the forsythia tires from showing off. The grass is greening with each rainfall. The chubby robins chipped me awake earlier and I’m here, taking it all in. The fresh lush truth of spring. This is hard. We are lonely. We are missing each other. We are counting down the days. I am.

I cannot craft this into something cohesive. It is, if nothing else, an exercise in normalcy. It is the way I interact with ambiguity. I’m exploring the odd new way of things and trying to land on a way of being for right now, and I have great tenderness for our new shapes.

Love, Cath

 

A Brief Note on Surviving Pointless Worrying, and Loving Like a Dog

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you have to love like a dog does.

Most of us have been through enough to know that we have some thoughts that have a mind of their own. They mine our past for memories and our future for fears and merge them into narratives that seem like facts, like calculations, like ideas that will protect us somehow, from ever being blindsided by all the things life has to offer, all our lives once did offer.

In my own experience, periods of transition and uncertainty amplify this noise. If you ever have endured a sustained period of turmoil, the thing you keep craving long after is the reassurance that somehow everything is going to be okay. I want to hear it in the background, the way you hear the wind chimes on the porch when you’re almost home.

Recently, upon returning home from looking at a house (if you know me or have been reading this blog you know I’m on the verge of a move), I fell apart a little. I grew anxious about finances and location. And it all coalesced, all the fears about the future, and memories of past failures, into a guttural off-key chorus of always-never. It was a performance I desperately wanted not to hear but I couldn’t quite find the switch to flip to turn it off. I thought of the beautiful features that drew me to the house – the historic homes in the area, the beautiful brick, the graceful staircase, the wood floors, the leaded glass door in the foyer. I thought about the rest – the broken panes in that door, the plumbing and the windows and roof work that needed to be done. I thought about my budget. I what-iffed my way into tears of worry and frustration and self-censure, sitting in the spot in front of the large heating vent in my living room, where I had, in the past, gravitated to when things were bad. My thoughts, now thinking for themselves, decided that this was all somehow about what I deserved, or didn’t, thought this would be a good way to keep me realistic in terms of my expectations about the new house, and everything else. I cranked up the heat because I was so cold suddenly, and my big dog leaned into me, trying, in that way he does, to take some of it away.

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I gave myself fifteen minutes in this state. I may have taken a little longer, but I managed to throw myself with some deliberateness into the rest of my day. Looking back a few days later on those moments, I wish so much that instead of my thoughts having a mind of their own, the rest of my mind could just rally and be analytical and pick apart the faulty reasoning. It tries. But things don’t really turn around until my heart gets involved. Reminds me doggedly and wordlessly of what matters, what always matters, here, now. My heart thinks the way I imagine dog’s minds do – in images and smells and sounds, with no confusing web of language criss-crossing truth and lies until you can’t find your way out.

I suspect that anxiety is future-grief, worry and sorrow about what we haven’t lost yet. There is a steady, logical part of my brain that can say this is fruitless. There is another part of me that thinks this is a pretty good skill to have, thinks it can somehow protect me from being blindsided. My steady brain asks how it can matter; our hearts cannot really brace themselves for a punch the way other muscles can. If the world is going to hurt us, it will, whether we can see it coming or not. The thing that protects us is what we’re doing now, the thing that protects us is building a bank of heart-thoughts that we can dip into when we need to, that we can draw on to remind us: we are loved and loving, and we are strong because of it.

To those of you who are patient with me, who have spent a few minutes in conversation with me (or who have inched your foot toward mine during a late-night fit of worry, letting me know you are there for me), who reassure me with your steadiness and kindness and goodness and love, I thank you, and I hope I offer some measure of it in return. I am here for you, too.

Love, Cath

 

On Thresholds, Love, and Language

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we halt on a threshold and consider how words fail us.

As February inches to a halt in its slow, frozen way, and we in the Midwest stand here on the almost-verge of spring, I’m thinking of thresholds. Thresholds as in, the space existing after one thing and before another, and as in limits.

One of my earliest memories is of standing on the curb at the door of the school bus that was to take me to kindergarten. I remember the black rubber tread on the steps leading up and in, and little else. I remember feeling frozen. Years later, I asked my mother why I wouldn’t get on the bus. She said I told her it was too loud. A lot of the world feels that way, still. The overall sensory impact of a chaotic world is like a static-y radio turned up too loud. Outside that kindergarten bus, I imagine it wasn’t just the noise as overwhelming decibel level, but the clanging chaos of social unknowns, represented by overlapping voices, the chatter of classmates that I did not yet know, conversations in-progress, which I couldn’t access. My sisters were my friends, but they were in first and second grade.

I remember too the safe quiet bubble of my mother’s car as she drove me to school. I think she drove me for the first week, maybe longer. (The first time I managed to actually ride the bus was terrifying and I left my gym shoes on the bus and when everyone else was putting sneakers in cubbies against the wall, I was crying because I’d forgotten mine.) But in the car, there was reprieve. It was a hushed in-between place, and my mother was there, and it felt like everything was okay, at least for that little while, from house to school.

My son and I recently took an evening to visit my daughter at college. On the way home, he talked about how much he loved being in the car, because he did not have to be doing anything. He allowed himself to relax, chat, zone out, and not have to be productive. For him it was a reprieve from homework, student council emails, scholarship applications. Often, as I’m commuting 30 minutes or so to work, I similarly have the feeling of not wanting to get there yet. I can give myself credit for being a responsible adult going to work, but I do not yet have to face responsibilities and ingest their corresponding stresses.

I think of how much our lives create webs of responsibility and how there are very few places where we are legitimately de-obligated from fulfilling them.

Reflecting on that frozen moment when stepping onto the bus seemed equivalent to stepping off a cliff, I consider how words are such inadequate tools for conveying ideas related to feeling. We use collections of words as convenient but undersized vessels for ideas that don’t fit into them. We say terror or panic but what we mean involves the loss of a safe world, a known version of ourselves as its primary inhabitant, and the abyss of a new universe where there is no familiar anything, anyone. We try to contain with words emotions too big for our bodies, almost too big for our hearts to feel, let alone express.

I think of how else language fails us. I think of what mothering me would have been like, and though I am a mother I still can’t imagine it. I remember each of my own children’s first days – of preschool, kindergarten, high school. Dropping my daughter off at college. I imagine what it’ll be like, in a matter of months, to leave my son in his dorm room. How does one say, at such points of disembarking, I love you but I have to go this way. You have to go that way. Sometimes the simultaneous joy and pain of loving leaves us frozen.

That words never fail to fail us is especially true of love, all of our loves. We should have more words for it, better ones. There is no concise way to say I [love-that-holds-within-it-comprehension-of-all-my-maternal-shortcomings] you. No way to truly capture the sorrow of loss that grows like a long blade of grass alongside the child’s every accomplishment as witnessed from the parent’s perspective. The way loving means I am teaching you to leave me, to be you, to belong to yourself. Though you belong with me, now, you don’t belong to me. 

macro photography of droplet on green leaf during daytime
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Other ways of loving are similarly challenged by vernacular limitations. There is no easy way to express I [love-that-arrives-as-a-surprise-after-long-and-difficult-journeying] you. No way to really say that we simultaneously want to protect it as if it is vulnerable moss at the edge of a forest path in danger of being crushed by the heavy footfall of experience, and the way we lean against it as if it is the sturdiest oak in the woods.

I wonder, if we did have language for such things, would it be easier? If there were precise words for the types of love we wanted to express, would we use them more freely? Or, would our threshold for the feelings such words encapsulate still be in danger of being breached, and would we instead reach for softer words, blurry words, in order to contain? Perhaps language has limits for a reason. Perhaps as a species we have created the language we can safely wield, and nothing more.

I think, too, of those places of reprieve, and how they involve solitude sometimes, and quiet, supportive companionship at others. It might be in the car, in bed, over coffee. It might be that we don’t recognize these spaces as thresholds, as places in-between where we are allowed not to go this way or that way, not to have to deal with this responsibility, or that one. Where we don’t have to consider our threshold for what our hearts can express.

Writing this, my mind hops back to a couple of years ago when I began this blog and how the analogy of the road trip began it all, and how many times I have returned to it in various manners. Wherever you are journeying today, I hope you find that bubble of calm and quiet, when you are neither here nor there.

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.

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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 Patterns, Perspectives, and Puzzles

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes context helps us puzzle things out and find the substance behind the charm.

On the last day before taking my daughter back to college, after her short holiday visit home, we sat at the dining room table, she and my son and I, putting together a puzzle. It was a 500-piece nature scene, quite beautiful and moderately complex, and we laughed and chatted and worked silently, falling into a peace so easily we forgot about the various things we’d bickered about here and there. Tucked away, too, were the few weightier conversations we’d had, and the brief but powerful emotional storms that sweep through a household sometimes, when new transitions are on everyone’s horizons.

In the course of those few hours that we worked, on and off, we found ourselves each selecting a favorite puzzle piece. I was particularly drawn to one of the few which contained a recognizable image, a little vignette, or so it seemed to me. I liked it. It seemed to make sense on its own, independent of the bigger picture it was a part of. So little of life is like that; it so often doesn’t bother to make sense at all.

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Speaking of bigger pictures, I often get the impression that my understanding of the “bigger picture” is flawed or misguided or not fully formed. But maybe, the problem is with the very notion of the bigger picture.

We blame our perception, our perspective, we question how our shortcomings keep us from seeing things clearly sometimes, keep us from understanding our lives, our place in the world. But maybe understanding is muddied because the thing we are trying to understand is a shifting, muddy thing itself.

It’s no wonder that we sometimes flounder, that we can’t grasp how all the pieces fit together, that we are at once puzzled, and puzzle.

The afternoon of the puzzle, I found it utterly impossible to snap puzzle pieces into place without becoming overwhelmed by metaphor and wonder. Sometimes I stared at pieces blankly while my brain scrambled up ideas about identity and purpose and meaning and connection and context. Sometimes I was amazed that we were able to fit any of the pieces together, particularly the ones that were part of a uniform background, the starry dawn sky, the rush of water over rocks. We hunted for pieces, each in our own way, seeking patterns in the shapes. I wondered what it would have been like to try and work that puzzle without the picture on the box as a map.

Life is built piece by piece without context, without a map. Instead, we fashion ideas of what it is supposed to look like, in general, and for us. We look for patterns, we seek partners. We create context. We are thirsty for shape, meaning, structure.

I think all of our endeavoring, this trying to see what fits together, is what connects us and binds us in a shifting world.

We create constants, foundations we hope will withstand the shifting muddiness.

When I look at the photo I took of that puzzle piece, I’m struck by how I romanticized the image. It’s a treetop. It appears to me now less like a self-contained scene, a story within a story, as it sits isolated against a dark background. Only in proximity to a sea of other puzzle pieces does the poetry of the little piece begin to hang together. You have to see it within the context of chaos to understand its clarity.

Throughout all of this reflection, which is so unlike an unmade puzzle itself, some things manage to become clear to me. I am growing comfortable with my tendency toward romanticizing things. It no longer seems a silly or naïve trait, now that I understand it within the larger context of myself. It used to be so much a part of me that I was unaware of it as a distinct characteristic but now, because I can usually see it, I can understand it is a part of me, but not so much so a part of me that I’m blind to its effects. That is to say, I do like to be charmed. I enjoy being able to see idealized versions of things, people. In a way, it is a gift. But, gradually, I have learned to see reality and substance more clearly, too. I have learned to see beyond and around charm more clearly now than I have been able to in the past, can more readily recognize, and subsequently respect, that which we call substance. This is not to say that I’ve perfected this move. Even a practiced self-awareness takes time to become a habit. But still.

When we begin to know ourselves more fully, the way the parts are related to the whole, it can be easier to make sense of things, and not just puzzle pieces.

For example, I recently began looking at houses, as I get ready to sell a house, buy a house, to move. I have been a bit afraid that my tendency toward romanticizing things, to be seduced by charm, would run amok. That my love of original glass doorknobs and built-ins and pretty little details would prevent me from seeing the enormous inconvenience of a too-small kitchen or cracks in a foundation. Happily though, while I did feel that swoonful delight in vintage details, I also witnessed myself being able to see the place as a whole – clearly – and to know it wasn’t right for me. (Happily, too, I find myself lovingly supported on this journey by someone who is not only charming – he has the best smile – but who is full of substance, and who is very much looking out for me. Thank you.)

To put it another way, that little puzzle piece, and my affection for it, make more sense when the piece is viewed not in isolation but within the context of the jumble of the unmade puzzle. Looking at it as a separate thing, I’ve wondered, why did it seem so significant? Sometimes trying to remember the sense we’ve made of something is as challenging as trying to remember song lyrics that we misheard the first time anyway.

But we can gain a new understanding of ourselves, and maybe even one another, through this effort of sense-seeking, even when the context is initially unclear. We recreate context when we return to the effort of the puzzle. And we can do the same in terms of our understanding of ourselves, of each other, of what connects us to one another.

It takes sustained effort, but we can and should create and recreate and build and strengthen the connections and foundations to withstand the muddiness of an ever-changing big picture. There is substance there, in that context and in those connections, and we should seek it, regardless of how dazzled we are by the charm in a detail — whether it be a puzzle piece, a vintage doorknob, or a warm smile.

Love, Cath

 

 

On Peaches, Hiccups, and Fish, or Finding Talismans

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we work so hard trying to get it all right, but it already is alright.

Yesterday opened with a rejection that sounded at first like an acceptance, like a win, a big one. And also, a second rejection. I don’t usually get two literary journal rejections back-to-back on a Monday morning, with one of them needing to be re-read four times just to make sure. As the day unfolded, my Monday also gifted me with two “hiccups,” which involved each child texting me at work – simultaneously – with different issues that needed some urgent and ongoing consideration.

I write a lot about transitions here. I felt as though, at the end of August, I was properly girding myself for the emotions of the next transition. Moving my daughter into a room in a house she’d be sharing with several other students, her first non-dorm college living experience. Moving into my son’s senior year, beginning with the last orchestra camp and the last first day of high school.

I’ve reminded myself that at this point, life is not calm vs. storm, but really just water. A living, breathing ocean with quiet waves and ravenous storms and everything in between. It is characterized by constant movement. And with this insight I had prepared myself for a new season of shift and change, ebb and flow.

Yet I wonder sometimes, what do fish notice, and how does a storm feel deep below the waves? Is it only churn and chop near the surface?

blue discus fish
Photo by Lone Jensen on Pexels.com

On Sunday I blanched peaches in advance of jam-making. I was thinking about the particular and curious satisfaction of September’s liminality, that glorious, tumultuous in-between summer and fall place, a place where little scraps of peace, that feel at once like summer and fall, fall into place.

I stood at the sink gently pushing away the skin from the blushing fruit beneath my thumbs, and I found cherished calm there. I thought, maybe Love does that, loving and being loved. Maybe it makes it easier to find those quiet depths even when the rest of the world is topsy-turvy, even when the children are molding themselves to the shape of new expectations, and even when an avalanche of new transitions and uncertainty waits up ahead for me as well.

I think, I want to remember this, I want to remember the feeling.

I wanted Sunday’s interlude with peaches to be more than a lovely distraction. I wanted the memory of calm to be accessible later, to protect me from the seemingly omnipresent protective anxiety about my children I wear like a talisman.

I need a talisman to protect me from my talisman.

I wear worry like a tattooed eye warding off evil. I fret about catastrophe I hope to keep at bay by paying attention, somehow, to everything that might go wrong, large and small, money, the future, my impending move, how my view of myself will necessarily morph once I am no longer mothering in the same way.

I can imagine it all, and I can’t.

Though it may be something of an illusion, I think that if I spend time worrying about things now, I might be able to shape myself to change and new with some alacrity, if I’m paying attention in all the right ways to all the right things.

As my Monday progressed, post-lunchtime hiccups, I did my best to troubleshoot while staying focused at work; to assess and reassess once home; to weigh pros and cons; to manage the easier hiccup and consider and second guess the other, which was really quite a bit more than a hiccup; and to try and bury the popped-balloon anguish instilled by the rejection that opened with we’d like to congratulate instead of unfortunately. I tried to pay attention to all the right things in all the right ways.

At one point, my son noted, you’re handling this all really well. Though it was a wonderful compliment, it was also impossible for me not to see this observation in contrast to the immediate post-divorce years, when all the juggling and figuring out and managing felt crushing, and I maybe did not handle it all really well, maybe not at all, surely not often enough.

And enough. Enough. That word rises to the surface again and again and it isn’t a gentle rising to the surface like a little bubble rises. It’s a thrust generated by a seismic event on the ocean floor that disturbs the calm in the depths, causes destruction at the surface.

Enough is one of the cruelest words in the lexicon of identity because it is both quake and seismograph.

But, my evening progressed. I worked. I worked with my Love on tasks that wanted doing. I shaped myself to a purpose with recognizable dimensions and did it alongside someone I would pretty much do anything alongside of. I came home, put the final touches on whatever managing of hiccups/not-hiccups I could. I still felt the chop and churn of enoughness and not-enoughness. I didn’t remember what I wanted to about the peaches. Still, it was quite impossible to not feel loved. It was impossible to resist the perpetual buoy of it all, and I don’t really know anything that serves as greater protection against evil than that.

Love, Cath

On Expectations and Ecosystems

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

 

 

 

On Waves, and Rain, and Corpses

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

big waves
Photo by Tatiana on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath