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?

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

Against Brokenness

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you have to close the door on perspectives that don’t serve you.

There’s a narrative at work in our world in which human brokenness plays a key role. The idea that the pain of our lives, of the world, breaks us is not a new one, but social media proliferates it in different ways. Not long after my divorce I stumbled across this Hemingway quote: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” I affixed myself to that notion. I viewed it as a roadmap. Not only did it acknowledge how I felt and insisted that I wasn’t alone, it showed me that there was something I could do about it – get stronger.

The first guy I dated after my divorce actually told me I was broken, and very generously offered to help put me back together – the way he thought I should be. Unsurprisingly, that situation did not work out. If I was going to be strong at the broken places, I knew my first feat of strength would be to oust him from my life. I recently saw a meme about the way dating in your 40s and 50s is like going to the dump and looking for the least broken and disgusting thing. It reminded me of the way he had looked at me, and how much I’d hated it. But it also reminded me that this “broken” narrative was also a story I had told myself for some time, and hints of it still came back. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are the most powerful ones that exist. This notion of human brokenness is an idea that many people respond to, and it’s not exclusive to the way romantic relationships impact us. The world is brutal enough that we all feel this way sometimes, just like Hemingway said. The world breaks everyone, with tragedies tailored uniquely to our own hearts.

But, I’m through tolerating this analogy. Even if you haven’t thought of yourself in this way for a while it’s easy to fall back in to. We begin to see ourselves as healed, as actually stronger in the broken places, and then life pushes back. We face a challenge that’s harder to work through than we thought, or we find ourselves in the process of evolving into a new relationship, and consequently a new version of ourselves, and it naturally forces us to look at who we’ve been. That can hurt, and it can make us feel as though we haven’t come as far as we thought. Or, we witness a friend or loved one going through a tough time and it reminds us of challenges we have faced, and how maybe we didn’t come through to the other side as strong as we imagined. Through all of this, it is remarkably easy to fall back into thinking of ourselves as broken. It’s easy when faced with the pain of growth to feel as though we’re not as strong in the broken place as we thought, that maybe we are still broken, that maybe parts of us will always be broken. But in reality, we are simply changing. They aren’t called growing pains for nothing.

It’s true that hearts break, it’s true that we feel overwrought and undone by life’s pain. But it is a tragic way to think of people. It is an achingly solitary way of looking at ourselves. Whether or not we are trying to do our own repair work, or hope that others can somehow fix us, or hope to align ourselves with someone who has some sort of complimentary brokenness – as if our fractured or missing pieces can somehow fit together – the idea of brokenness still seems bleak. It is a notion filled with despair, easy to embrace, and difficult to move away from.

Within this notion of brokenness, we slide further and further away from ourselves. We imagine a fractured version of us, and insist it is who we are, and the world agrees.

I’m not saying there is something wrong with feeling broken. I think it’s pretty unavoidable. If you love any human or animal in this world, one way or another you are going to crumble. Sometimes I’ve felt that the breaks I thought I repaired are in fact poorly healed, weak spots that continue to pain me. Sometimes I’ve felt that no matter what I do, some breaks will always be there, as if their sole purpose is to remind me to question happiness that comes my way. Many of us who have experienced deep pain have at least for a time believed that the things that have broken within us have rendered us incapable of loving properly, trusting fully, of receiving the love being offered to us. But we have to stop telling ourselves these stories. We have to make other ideas just as real to us as brokenness.

It’s not enough to say, today I’m stronger at the broken places. Because tomorrow may re-break us and then what? It is certain that we need ways of looking at pain that make it palatable. We need those roadmaps, and to feel understood, and to feel less alone. Let yourself feel broken when you feel it, but don’t ever let anyone – yourself included – tell you that you are. Search the world for other metaphors.

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I spent the spring exploring the natural world in search of metaphors about renewal and growth (remember those crickets we talked about?). Lately, I’m loving this idea of rebuilding, rehabilitation, renovation – not of broken things, but of the parts of ourselves that get neglected when we the world hurts us. The process of renovation is slow, and non-binary. It is not a journey from broken to repaired, or, to come back to Hemingway, from broken to stronger. It’s a process of devoting attention to different areas of our lives and quietly reviving them, nurturing them, clearing away debris and shining a light on the strength of our foundations. It is about making things stronger, but the focus is not on the brokenness. The focus is on seeing all the potential and helping it come into being in a new way. It recognizes the past but builds toward the future.

The rest of that Hemingway quote is this: “But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” Hemingway saw first-hand much of the world’s pain and he did a fair amount of causing it himself. Maybe we can listen to other stories than this one. Maybe there is no roadmap to renewal in quotes about the way life is either going to break or kill us. Let’s not live by quotes or memes. Let’s remember resilience, let us recall strength that comes not from how many times we’ve gotten ourselves through something tough, but the strength that’s deeper than that in us, that has always been there. There is a part of us willing to find new metaphors if that’s what we need to move forward, there’s a part of us that embraces love even though we know the risks, there is a part of us that recalls even in the most painful moments of our lives that we are more than a collection of broken parts. Let us remember that in insisting on our own brokenness we inflict more wounds.

We all handle hurt differently. I rally around metaphor, my Pied Piper leading me someplace new. I crave new ways of looking at things, hoping to understand better the world around me, the people in it, the universe of my own heart. I think our strength lies in the seeking, more so than in whatever we find.

Love, Cath

On the Way We Move Through the World

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the way we see ourselves helps, sometimes it hurts.

When I found out I was pregnant with my first-born, my daughter, I developed a vision of myself, of the way I would move through my pregnancy. I imagined all that good, earthy, powerful woman-hood stuff and wanted to be infused with a grace and a centeredness that I hadn’t possessed before. I wanted to be transformed. Of course, I was transformed, but not the way I imagined. As my body changed, I grew to be clumsier and more awkward than ever. As much as I wanted to bond with my unborn infant, I often felt attacked by an unknown entity that was devouring me, making me feel fatigued, nauseous. I usually did not feel beautiful and earthy. Looking back, everything I felt was entirely normal. Of course all my experiences felt foreign and confusing; I’d never been pregnant before. And in all the ungainly heft of it, there were moments, hours that sometimes stretched into days, where I did feel somewhat miraculous. And the first time I felt a little nudge from my kiddo, elbow or foot, I’m not sure which, I did feel a crazy inexplicable bond begin to grow. I could call this entity in me a person, but a living creature gestating inside of you doesn’t always feel like a future someone in your life the first time around. So the bond I’m speaking of isn’t like the bond you feel with a human walking around outside your body. When my daughter was born and was placed in my arms, that which had long been other but part of me became something else. Her. Whole. I remember my first thought: Oh! If I had only known it was you. . . .

She was a universe unto herself. One that would depend on me and her father for everything. Of course, the entire time that she was incubating in me, I was developing a range of ideas about what kind of mother I would be. And I felt just as ungainly and confused learning how to parent as I did learning how to be pregnant. I didn’t have any sort of instinctual gift. I questioned every single instinct I did have. I never gained a sustained confidence in my abilities as a caregiver, moral instructor, spiritual advisor, shaper of another human’s psyche. And it didn’t become any clearer once my son was born. The territory shifted. There were two of them. And any ideas I had of myself as a mother once again were turned on their head, because this other little person needed a different me than the first one did in many ways. Once again my expectations of how I would walk through motherhood, of how to parent this little brood, butted up against the realities of doing the job. To be honest, they still do. Everything changes, all the time, and every skill you possess as a person and parent is called upon as your children change and as the world changes and as their world changes and you cannot keep up, not ever, but you simply have to keep trying to make sense of it. I am still not the mother I imagined I would be. To be honest, I’m still not the mother I hoped I’d be. She’s still out there, a version of me who will know and say and do the right things at the right time, and sometimes she and I inhabit the same space and we do okay.

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Our ideas about who we are and who we want to be are perpetually shifting as the terrain shifts beneath our feet, as people exit our lives, or enter. As we gain new experiences. As we leave pasts behind and enter new spaces. We envision ourselves in a certain, idealized way. In every vision I’ve had of how I want to be, how I expected to exist in the world, I always see this version of myself as graceful. I’ve always wanted to possess physical grace. As a child I desperately wanted to take ballet lessons. One Halloween I got to dress up like a ballerina and I was ecstatic. Being an actual ballerina was not in the cards, but that idea of confidence, poise, grace – it stayed with me, and I always wondered how it would have changed me. Would what seems like natural clumsiness have evaporated in a ballet studio? Would I be less likely to run into furniture, trip on sidewalk cracks, stub toes, tumble into garden mishaps that involve crucifixion via rose thorns through my palm?

I’ve imagined what it might look like to walk through my life with poise and confidence. I still envision myself in a manner I haven’t inhabited. I do not feel possessed by a sense of calm, by accumulated wisdom, by a carefully curated and fully-realized perspective, as I had hoped to be at this point in my life. Not every day. Not most moments. But sometimes. Sometimes we inhabit the same space, she and I, and we do okay.

I don’t know if it is good or bad, to have this vision of how we’d like to be. Are we setting ourselves up for failure? Or have we given ourselves realistic ideas of self to aim for? I guess it depends on our vision. Maybe grace and wisdom are out of reach most days, but who knows?

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)