On Emotional Economy, and Keyholes

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes listening is both our greatest strength and our biggest weakness.

I read the first half of a Clarice Lipsector story on the Paris Review website that made my heart ache. I’ve been thinking about halves, wondering if a person could have half a broken heart, or maybe it doesn’t work that way.

I realize I’m not entirely sure how to do things halfway, how to be half in and half out of something at the same time. Without perfecting this skill, one risks missing out on something, even half of something, by walking away too soon. On the flip side, possibly you can still be very much wounded by something you only intend to do by halves.

These lessons in emotional economy are always difficult ones. Whether one is nineteen or forty-nine there are bargains made between head and heart. If we sculpt the words differently, might we reduce the risk of getting hurt? If we think in terms of caring instead of loving, if we think of each moment as a whole universe–divorced from past and future–a now to be enjoyed, an adventure sought. Or, is it all a mash-up between a game of semantics and a game of chess?

As I move through life and relationships post-divorce I have come to understand this about myself: I typically see the best in people, regardless of what angle they are showing me. I seek out the earnestness that sighs in the space between their words, I listen to them speak around the things they care about, hear tenderness in silences. It is easy to connect this way. Some might say it is fiction, that I am creating stories that aren’t true because I want something to be that maybe isn’t.

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But I don’t buy that. What I often fail to recognize though is that other things are true at the same time. The earnestness and gentleness I see so clearly exist as concretely as guardedness, anxiety, pain. As I’m listening at keyholes, I’m not seeing closed doors. This is either a naïve act of will or one of sheer recklessness, or both. But it is a choice. And like any choice, it has consequences.

“Insist on yourself, never imitate,” instructs Ralph Waldo Emerson. Everyone choses the version of themselves they are going to be every day. I have often grappled with the question of whether we become more or less of who we truly are as we go through life. Sometimes I wonder what the through-line is. I think we all have one, an element of our character, perhaps our soul, that remains as constant as our heartbeat throughout our lives, though we may attempt to obscure or ignore it at times, and live by it religiously at others. Maybe my through-line is this way of seeing, this way of searching for space, for the ways people open up to one another instead of the things that close us off. Maybe that’s why I write. “There is a guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.” Another Emerson quote. Maybe my through-line is this guidance. It is just as likely that I’m wrong. But I am not a person of faith and one has to believe in something.

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My collection of Emerson’s essays was recently the object of my dog’s intense curiosity. The book survived, but needs attention. It was already aging, the pages brittle and fragile, the spine having been taped together more than once. It is now more or less broken in half, an apt metaphor for the discussion at hand, the words contained in the halves still a through-line. In every way, I’m reminded of what makes us strong and what makes us fragile, of the power of words and intentions, of the significance of keyholes, and doors, both opened and closed.

Love, Cath

 

Transformation and the Nature of the Resist

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

Messages, Mixed and Otherwise

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

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

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

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

Timing and Taffy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Hope, Gratitude, and Purposeful Wandering

By Catherine DiMercurio

As Thanksgiving nears, it’s a good time to think about what we hunger for.

Gut Check on Purpose and Intentions

From the outset of this blog journey, I invited you to wander with me through love and life, heartbreaks and wholeness, and everything in between. In my first post, I described how, in the aftermath of my divorce, I found myself on a new, frightening, exhilarating path of singlehood—being a single parent and being a single person after twenty years of married partnership. In my first post I described how I met the man I was dating at the time. Not long after, I spoke about the end of that relationship.

Here we are now, more than five months after that ending. In the aftermath of the break up, I remembered the way I wondered how I might feel about it six months out. I wondered if I would feel bitter, or uneasy about dating again, or if I would have met someone else by then. I wondered if I would still feel open hearted.

In truth, nearly six months out, it’s a little bit of everything, but I find that, more than anything, I’m hopeful.

Fish and Feet and Hunger

It’s funny how things play out, how our hearts adapt and evolve, depending on what they have an appetite for. I think of prehistoric fish, and how the ones that loved being fish dove deep and explored the depths, and the others, either curious, or simply by virtue of finding themselves in proximity to land, explored the shallows. They sprouted limbs and feet, finding footing as amphibians. We are shaped by our appetites, our hunger. I have an appetite for hope, I suppose, and, finding myself a fish out of water in the world of singlehood, I hoped for solid footing, stretched my legs toward it.

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I don’t have much of an appetite for bitterness, though those times come and go, ebbing and flowing like the tide. Sometimes I’m uneasy about the future. I do have a decent appetite for anxiety, in the way that we often get hungry for things that don’t serve our bodies well.

Thanks to a dear friend, I read an article recently that suggested our brains get a dopamine hit from worry, because it feels like we are at least doing something. I guess it’s like having a craving for potato chips. Sometimes you gorge yourself and sometimes you have a lot of will power and find a healthier snack, though it is probably smarter to not buy the chips at all. Too bad you can’t avoid having anxiety in your mental house the same way you can keep potato chips out of your home. You have to rely on will power to chose a healthier mental snack. You have to try feasting on gratitude instead. It all comes down to mindfulness, being able to call things what they are, and recognizing the timing, that things ebb and flow.

Speaking of Gratitude

I think gratitude is, in a way, the missing (or hidden) link, the one that yokes memory to hope. In a dark, underwater place, we can at least remember the sun, and in the remembering, swim a little closer to the surface, and near the surface, realize we still feel sun-warm when submerged. We can be grateful for the sun, grateful we remembered it, and grateful for our strength in kicking toward it.

And I think that’s where hope happens—in a heart that remembers that it has known love, or peace, or purpose—whatever your particular sun may be.

And One More Thing about Feet

There is a Pablo Neruda poem, “Your Feet,” which I adore. The final stanza reads:

But I love your feet

only because they walked

upon the earth and upon

the wind and upon the waters,

until they found me.

I love the sense of movement in this poem, the sense of purposeful wandering it conveys. I am not knowingly making my way toward someone, nor him to me, but wander we will—in all the ways that our lives, and the tides and the sun and the waves take us. Maybe at some point we will find that we are wandering side by side. Or maybe we won’t. But either way we can still move toward the sun.

Love, Cath

 

 

 

On Wanting, Writing, Sleep, and Geraniums

By Catherine DiMercurio

Usually, a blog post finds me, I don’t have to go looking for it. It’s like a little floaty seed pod, a dandelion fluff, that drifts my way and takes root. But I realized it has been a while since my last post, and nothing had declares itself. I thought about the geraniums I brought in from the porch when the temperature suddenly dipped. Everything was still in bloom, the early week had surprised us with 80-degree temperatures, and then, it was suddenly and consistently going to be below freezing at night. So I brought in eight plants. I rearranged the living room, the dining room, and made places for the terra cotta pots near the windows. I’ve never brought in impatiens before, but they were still blooming, so I will experiment. I’ve watched them for almost a week now, as they begin the expected transition. Leaves yellow and fall away. They get scraggly. I water often as they get used to the indoor temperature that fluctuates only a little. I worry they won’t get enough light.

Compensation

When this house was purchased we didn’t think about the way that porch I loved so much would prevent the light to pour into the living room from the southern-facing windows. I think about trade-offs, about transitions, about the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote about compensation, something about loss and gain, I will look it up later, I tell myself. As always, I seek a metaphor to make meaning, this time in the geraniums.

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Sleep and Not-Sleep

When I suffer from a few weeks of troubled sleep, I recall the cycles of the past. It won’t last, I tell myself. It’s stress, hormone fluctuations, it’s normal, be patient, try this or that. I try. I look for the gain that comes with this loss – I finished a book at 3:30 a.m., I thought some interesting thoughts as I let my mind wander. In the mornings, I talk to my son, always tired, with five classes of AP homework and cross country practice. Our morning conversations always involve how did you sleep. We report out. I tell him I can’t find a metaphor about insomnia, something that will make it matter, make meaning, and he says stop looking. He says the lack of the metaphor is a metaphor. I have to turn this over in my head many times. But I keep looking. There must be something here.

Writing and Wanting

It’s not that I haven’t been writing. While I waited for interesting blog post ideas to find me, and I said things like – I can’t go on road trips to California all the time and have I said all I wanted to say? – I’ve been working on a story. I told myself, when I began, it would probably be a flash piece of under 1,000 words. But as I wrote, it shaped itself into something more and I’m at a place where I decide, is it, in it’s almost-6,000-word current state, a part of something larger, or is a regular-sized short story hiding in there waiting to be found and pruned? I like this place, of possibility and growth and richness. Sometimes I’m sad that my job doesn’t make me feel this way. I wonder, could it? Am I looking at it wrong? And I wonder, should it? Am I being greedy? I have my writing. I have my mothering.

“For every thing you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Compensation”

Greed and Goals and a Little Bit of Luck

It’s hard to say. When I was in high school, it was common for many people not to go to college, and if they did, to not go away to school. My parents didn’t go to college, and not a lot of people in their extended families had either. I didn’t know any college people, but I figured I should. I didn’t know anything about how. I didn’t know about wanting it. I remember my guidance counselor talking to me about where I could go, with my grades. He talked about how it was possible, with financial aid and scholarships. He cracked a door open I hadn’t thought about too much as if to say this is for you, not just other people. He helped me to want something for myself I didn’t know was available for wanting. Sometimes I wonder if I don’t dream big enough but when I do, I wonder, is it being greedy? To want that, too? And I wonder, who cares, but I don’t wonder that often enough.

When I think about how to tie all of this together, I think of the way you can trick geraniums into blossoming all winter. They get confused for a bit, when it’s suddenly about 67 degrees all the time. It’s almost as if they can’t believe their luck, and maybe it’s not real, it probably isn’t, and there goes another leaf, we probably aren’t going to make it. But I’ve been bringing the geraniums in every fall for more than ten years and I’ve only had one not make it.

Maybe it’s greedy, wanting the geraniums to bloom through the winter. It’s probably not that hard, and I’m sure lots of people do this all the time and don’t consider it greedy or a miracle or anything, it’s just what you do with geraniums.

Love, Cath

The Age of Compromise: On Aging and Surrender

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

Distance and Pain

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

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

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

The Fine Art of Compromise

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

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

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

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

Whiplash: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

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

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

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

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

The Alchemy of Experience

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

 

Dog Days and Heart Breaks

By Catherine DiMercurio

When my dog Oslo was first diagnosed with cancer, I developed the notion that it was my fault. His diagnosis came about a year after my divorce was final: lingual malignant melanoma. The timing did not escape me. I knew somehow that Oslo had, on a cellular level, absorbed all the malignancies of my heart—all my grief, all my rage, all my fear. He had been at my side, as always, but especially during that really bad year when I cowered in a heap after the children left for school. I sobbed into his smooth brown fur and when I was exhausted and tried to rest, he curled up next to me, pressing the curve of his spine into the backs of my knees. That was the kind of support I needed during the divorce year, and Oslo knew just what to do.

Puppy Love

He was five at the time of the diagnosis. We got him when he was a smooth-bellied puppy, about five months old, according to the estimates of the shelter. They say he was a beagle-lab mix, but he did not look like his siblings, who were all beagle-sized but with the coats of black Labs and yellow Labs. Oslo was bigger. His brown fur was flecked with black, and the tip of his tail was black. His face had a sweet, beagle expression and he possessed the strong wide chest of a stout, muscular dog, most likely a pit bull, though no one wanted to write that on any official record of his.

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Just before the diagnosis, he had become excessively drooly and his mouth smelled foul. I presumed he had some sort of tooth decay, so I scheduled him for a cleaning. I assumed they’d have to remove a tooth. When Oslo’s long tongue hung from the side of his mouth as he panted anxiously during the examination, the vet discovered a walnut-sized tumor on the back of Oslo’s tongue. The results of the biopsy came back positive, and the vet recommended an oncologist so that we could discuss his prognosis and options. My vet tried to be optimistic, but he did tell me how aggressive this cancer was. I didn’t even know there were oncologists for dogs. At the appointment with the oncologist, they x-rayed his lungs, which were clear still, somehow. But that was pretty much the only good news. There was more—talk about the tumor that was removed, and margins, and lymph nodes. Basically I was told he had 30 to 60 days. DAYS.

Beating the Odds

But Oslo kept being fine. He was happy and eating and playing with the children and with our other dog, Phineas. For almost another two years, he was his sweet, normal, loving, devoted self. In that time, life around our house improved considerably. The initial trauma of the divorce and all of the life changes that came with it had evened out. Everyday life was different now for me, my daughter and son, and our two dogs. It was calm and predictable once again. Once your life isn’t being shaken up like a snow globe, the simplest things fill you with joy. Completing a task like getting your oil changed or going to your job and coming home, or being able to call the dentist to make an appointment and attend parent-teacher conferences on the same day was cause for celebration. I did two things! In addition to going to work! It sounds silly maybe, but after turmoil, there is such unbelievable delight in normalcy. And Oslo loved normalcy as much as I do. I think that kept him going. And maybe he needed to make sure we were going to be okay.

Meanwhile, the cancer was all still spreading within him, seeping from cell to cell and turning his body against him. An x-ray in this past fall confirmed it had spread to his lungs. His lymph nodes became enlarged. His eye began to swell with the pressure and became infected. He started to slow down. Once his breathing began to sound labored I knew we didn’t have much time, and the morning after a sleepless night for both of us was the morning I knew we didn’t have any time left at all.

My children are eighteen and almost sixteen. We’d talked very openly about all of this during the past two years, about everything that might happen and when it might happen, so they were as prepared as anyone could be, and none of us wanted him to struggle. In a way, then, we were ready. But, it really isn’t like that at all when you walk into the building with your family and realize that not all of you are walking out.

Goodbyes

There were lots of hugs and tears in that room that Sunday morning. A nice comfy, clean dog bed took up a considerable amount of floor space, but Oslo refused to get on it. So we all sat on the cold, tiled floor around him. He wouldn’t lie down, but finally at least he sat. The image that keeps returning to my brain is how he slid to the floor after he was administered the heavy sedation, known by anyone who has been through the process of witnessing a pet being euthanized as “the first shot.” The second shot is the one with the lethal medication that stops the heart. After the first shot, as Oslo slid to the floor in a deep, heavy sleep, I had the sense of time slowing. I keep seeing that long, slow slide and I remember trying to hold him and gently easy him down. In that prolonged moment Oslo was still with us, but not. We all had our hands on him, all three of us weeping with as much restraint as we could muster until the vet left the room. You can feel it happen, life leaving a body. You can feel your sweet, loving friend leave this world.

My missing of him is aggressive and sharp, like the taste of very burnt sugar in my mouth. It eases sometimes and I’ve stopped expecting to see him walking into the room. Mostly. Some days I still try to put his food in his bowl before I realize his bowl is no longer there.

Crying to a friend about losing Oslo, I extolled his virtues. I talked about how devoted to me he was, and how he followed me around the house, needing always to be wherever I was, and how he was always there for me. She reminded me of something else: I was always there for him. Even though I mourned the fact that I should have done more with him—more walks, more dog park, more treats, more attention—she said his life was better than it would have been because I adopted him and not someone else. I hadn’t thought of it that way before. I hope it’s true.

Doing Things That Break Your Heart

When I originally envisioned this blog, I thought of it as a series of “Twelve Things That Will Break Your Heart and Why You Should Do Them Anyway.” I didn’t know how to work that in but I knew it was in this context that I would be writing about Oslo. Loving a dog—adopting from a shelter, taking in a dog that someone needs to “rehome,” fostering, volunteering at a shelter—it doesn’t matter how you come at it. But it is one of those relationships that our language does not have the right words for. I didn’t mother Oslo in the way I mother my children, and I didn’t own him the way I own a pair of shoes, and I didn’t care for him in the way that I care for my friends. The way dogs and their people love each other doesn’t fall into any of the people-people or people-object categories. We don’t have useful, loving, warm words for interspecies companionship. For some of the most important relationships in our lives, language truly fails us.

Last week, I talked about being on the road, of recognizing and appreciating where you are and whom you are with. I hope your company includes someone like Oslo.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

Open Road, Open Heart, and Other Post-Divorce Discoveries

By Catherine DiMercurio

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Into one of the few cooler mornings of a hot, dry summer, a light drizzle fell. As I drove, the world felt grey and quiet, soft somehow. I tried to soak in some of that peacefulness the way the road unfolding in front of me soaked up the light rain.

I’d traveled this route before, from one metro Detroit suburb to another. But today, I wasn’t headed to the mall with my teenagers, or to that good Asian market with all the noodles. I wasn’t shopping for homecoming dresses or black slacks for orchestra or soccer cleats or cross-country spikes. I headed for the Barnes and Noble, but not for books. Well, not only for books. This particular location was roughly the halfway point between me and my first Match date. A morning bookstore coffee date seemed like the softest, easiest way for me to fall into this new world.

When the Journey Begins with Break Downs and Traffic Jams

At 46, I was a year and a half post-divorce. The rebound relationship was out of the way, though you never want to think about it like that when you are in it. I had done what lots of divorced people do. I looked up someone from my past. I knew it was too soon, and I knew we were probably different people now, but I didn’t want to miss my shot. It seemed better to take a chance when I was still raw and vulnerable from the ending of my marriage. I figured that later, I’d be bitter and closed off. And I was afraid of being stranded in the middle of nowhere by myself after twenty years of having someone at my side.

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Though I green-lighted the relationship, it went nowhere fast. It wasn’t the beautiful story I wanted it to be. Instead, it was an uncomfortable traffic jam of mismatched expectations and compatibilities. With a tremendous sense of relief, I extricated myself and settled into not being with anyone. And I liked it. I didn’t feel stranded. Being on this stretch of road with my daughter and son seemed like right where I was supposed to be. It had been healthy and good for me to choose to be alone, to close the door, and wave goodbye.

Several months into my being-alone-ness, I understood something: I could do this for the rest of my life. I luxuriated in not having to deal with anyone else. No baggage, no quirks, no personality differences to keep trying to make peace with. Around this time, a good friend encouraged me to try something like Match or eHarmony or one of those sites, just for fun. At first, I had no interest and dismissed the notion entirely. But I began to wonder if my hesitation was rooted in something deeper. Was I afraid of being with someone again? In the same way that other people are afraid of being alone? I didn’t come all this way to start being afraid of everything again. I also considered that while 46-year-old me was happy alone, would 56-year-old me want something different? Would 66-year-old me long for companionship? And so on.

When the Detour Becomes the New Route

My initial plan was to go on a couple of Match dates and check that off my list. Get un-rusty at meeting new people. I wanted to dabble with the idea of being with someone, but with lower stakes than that whole rekindling an old love thing.

With these expectations in place, I got on Match, and exchanged a few emails with a couple of people. At first, it was fun and exciting. But after a couple of weeks of liking photos and sending some emails here and there, the shine wore off. I didn’t really want to talk to the hot guy in Ann Arbor with baby twins who hoped to find someone to help him parent. I reached out to the yoga-loving vegetarian because here was someone with some common interests finally, but never heard back. I didn’t want to spend an hour having a drink with any of the men who only wanted to talk about their own travels, their fitness routines, or their favorite sports team. I considered letting my subscription run out without even meeting anyone in person. The online dating thing, it seemed, was an interesting part of my journey but I was ready to put it behind me. Maybe the whole thing had just been a detour and it was time to get back on my way.

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But then someone liked one of my photos. He invited me to chat with him on the app if I wanted to. I didn’t respond right away, but I found myself going back to his profile. He liked books and wasn’t into sports. Books! The last book he had read was a biography of Aldous Huxley. This intrigued me, and I finally emailed him and we went back and forth with long emails about books and our divorces and our families and he asked if I wanted to meet. I bought a little more time. A face-to-face meeting could bring all this hypothetical alignment and compatibility to an end. I had also never dated someone I didn’t already know. In college, relationships grew out of familiarity—living together, working together, knowing people as friends. I said okay. I said let’s meet.

Without realizing it, I had been developing a new pattern in the aftermath of my divorce. If something scared me—like pursuing an old relationship, ending a bad one, finding a new job—I paid attention to the fear but I didn’t let it stop me as I had in the past. I had begun to live differently. Not fearlessly, but more openly. I think I was too naïve and inexperienced to be specifically afraid of getting hurt by meeting this man, but I feared everything that was new about it, everything I didn’t know. And I was afraid of being too me. Too shy, too emotional, too nerdy and bookish, too much a single mom, too vegan, too unable to converse easily with new people about trivial things, too likely to talk too much about the wrong things. I wanted to cancel. I really wanted to get myself out of this situation. But I also didn’t.

So here I was, driving to the bookstore through the light drizzle on a Saturday morning in late July. I was early. I wandered around, listening to the Beatles play over the sound system. I finally bought a coffee and sat down, heart thumping like a flat tire on the highway. And he walked in.

There’s No GPS for This

Life shatters us sometimes. It looks different on everyone, the way we wear this pain. For me the big shattering was my divorce. I live in the aftermath of it. At times, we all find ourselves stranded in the places life dumps us when crises hit. It’s like being shoved from a moving vehicle and once you stop falling, and crashing, you assess your injuries. Then you have to pick yourself up and limp along the road. You don’t do it because you’re strong or fearless. You do it because even though you have no idea where you are going, you get simply grow tired of feeling stranded.

My perspective shIMG_5295ifted after life shoved me from the moving vehicle of my marriage. I used to live in a what-if mindset. What if something happens? But something always happens, and it’s rarely the thing you thought you prepared yourself for. Quite often the big thing that happens, the thing that shatters us, is precisely the one and only thing we didn’t think we needed to prepare ourselves for. After I stopped falling and crashing and nursing my wounds, I wanted to stop feeling as though another disaster would strike at any moment. As I started down the road, I soon grew weary from looking over my shoulder, waiting to see what was going to hit us next. That mindset is still a part of me, and it slips back in sometimes, but it drains so much energy. I want that energy for other things, for loving and laughing. I have to remind myself to be open to joy instead of looking for disaster, but it gets easier. I try to keep my eyes on where I am, where I’m going, and who is with me. Maybe the only thing to do is be vagabonds on this road together.

And that first Match date? He’s still on the road with me, at my side, holding my hand, almost two years later.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath