A Cross-Country Road Trip with Teens, Part One: The Trip West

By Catherine DiMercurio

I recently returned from an eleven-day road trip with my teenagers. Though I knew I’d be taking a break from writing during that time, I set a goal for myself to consciously notice. I wanted to cultivate a deliberate awareness of what I was experiencing—from new landscapes and people, to the way the trip impacted each of us as it unfolded. I wrote down some of these observations, but for the most part, I tried to simply take things in. In a way, I wanted to get out of my head for a while, to be looking outward instead of inward. I tried to absorb as much as I could without filtering it through conscious thoughts about how I felt about this or that. I found, though, that after three 12+ hour days of driving, my endurance for this way of looking at the world was reaching its limit. And that’s not a bad thing.

The Route

We departed early on a Tuesday morning, having loaded up the vehicle the night before. We drove across Michigan, through Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, and entered Nebraska on the evening of the first day. We camped for the night just west of Lincoln, on a beautiful little lake that we had almost to ourselves. The next morning, we hit the road at sunrise and drove across Nebraska and through most of Wyoming, spending the night at a hotel in Green River, and treating ourselves to Chinese takeout for a late dinner after a dip in the pool. In the morning, we left Wyoming and headed into Utah, where we navigated the tangle of highway around Salt Lake City and then drove through the salt flats, which astounded us as much as the gorgeous red rock, Martian-like terrain we experienced entering Utah. Not long after the salt flats, we left the interstate and navigated some through some of the loneliest land I’d ever experienced, through northern Nevada and southeastern Oregon. We camped again, in Oregon, at a little RV park situated on a vast cattle ranch. Perhaps it was an odd choice for a family of vegans, but we didn’t know it until after we checked in, and we always like to see cows (and we hoped they would somehow escape their fate). We had decided that, on the fourth day, instead of proceeding to our destination, we’d make a northerly detour to Crater Lake, which was absolutely astonishing. We drove south and west once more, through thick wildfire smoke, and finally into California, greeting the ocean in Crescent City and then setting up camp at Del Norte Mill Creek campground.

The trip out was roughly 2,500 miles, and though I’ve sketched out our route, this doesn’t begin to tell the tale of the journey. If you know me and/or have been reading this blog for a while, you know that my daughter is about to start college in a few weeks. This trip was her graduation gift. Part of my practice of conscious noticing involved my awareness of my children as individuals and as siblings and as offspring. I wanted to observe our identities and relationships in the same way I was observing the landscapes we were passing through, with curiosity and respect. It’s so much easier to do that on a trip like this than it is in daily life, but it is a worthwhile approach. More on this later.

When the Past Crashes the Party

As we journeyed west, the three of us laughed easily, relaxing more and more with each mile. We problem-solved as a group, our little expedition team working off each other to navigate unfamiliar territory and situations. It wasn’t really until the third day of driving, after the Midwest was behind us, that things got more challenging. For me, the moment came as we entered Utah, and I found myself driving up and down steep and winding roads hemmed in by semis. The heights, the narrowness of the roads, the speeds at which cars and semis were taking the mountain curves all combined to make a fairly stressful driving situation. Later in the day, with the salt flats behind us, we entered into the desolation of the desert. We gassed up the car and braced ourselves, not knowing what to expect. After hours of driving through sagebrush and barren mountains in the distance and little else we crossed the border into Oregon and experienced more of the same. There was one terrifying descent down a mountainside, with a huge drop off and no guardrail. I’d been dreading this type of driving and on that day, it never seemed to end. I relaxed by the time we finally set up camp that night, but as we began the fourth day of driving, I felt myself sort of shutting down.

For a couple of hours on the way up to Crater Lake, a stress response kicked in that left me frozen, detached. I felt as empty as the desert we had passed through the day before. I felt depleted and somehow vulnerable to the past in a way I didn’t fully understand.

Some context: I didn’t grow up traveling or camping. My children grew up camping, like their father. As the kids got older, their father encouraged us all to take on a little more adventure. We eventually climbed three mountains out East. My fear of heights stopped me in my tracks on some of these trips, but it was often incredible to push through that. At the time of these trips, I felt supported through my fearful moments. But later, at the end of the marriage, I realized we both had different memories and perceptions about such things. After the divorce, the kids and I still camped, but it wasn’t until a trip two years to the Badlands in South Dakota that I’d taken on a more adventuresome trip as a solo parent. And this trip out to California felt huge to me. To captain a trip of this magnitude on my own was challenging and meaningful, and not without emotional pitfalls.

On that fourth day, this past, these memories, caught up to me. I collapsed inward a little and I didn’t know how long it would last. The voices of the past had entered into the void created by vulnerability. I questioned what I was doing here, why we had set out on such an ambitious journey, how I would be able to handle some of the challenges that we would undoubtedly face. I didn’t feel fun enough, or brave enough, or competent enough. I didn’t feel enough of anything in that moment, though even swimming in this self-doubt I recognized that not all of these words weren’t my own. But as we experienced the magnificence of Crater Lake I felt this negativity, and the power of the past, ebb away. As I navigated the mountain roads, I tried to explain some of this to the kids. They’d been worried about the shift in my demeanor and it was with some relief that they recognized I’d come out of whatever spell I’d been under.

Fresh Air, Fresh Thinking

I began to understand that the stress of the long drive and coping with my fears had opened a little gateway to the past, and the griefs and failures that I’d experienced in the collection of years immediately before and after the divorce had flooded in. What brought me safely through it was a combination of fresh thinking and fresh air. Part of me was able to recognize what was happening and to name it, and in doing so, I was able to put all the pieces backed where they belonged and to close the gate. Getting out of the car and breathing the mountain air and watching my children take in the lake and the sky allowed me to do the same, to take it in and to return out of the past, the grief, and into the moment, into this part of the journey, the now. I also had the sense that my conscious noticing, that my goal of observing with curiosity and respect needed to encompass myself.

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Once we arrived at the Pacific Ocean, at a stretch of beach in Crescent City, California, I thought about what had happened, grateful to the journey to bringing me to that point so that I could move beyond it. I recognized too the way we are shaped by our interactions with their environment, and as I sat on a rock looking out at the water, I allowed myself to be shaped by the ocean, smoothed and calmed by the waves. My son and daughter were peering into tide pools and laughing and exploring. We stretched out into new versions of ourselves, having pioneered, in our way, across prairie and desert and mountain to the ocean.

On this trip, I moved back and forth through speechless awe and wonder, and trails and eddies of introspection. It will take some time and thinking and writing to sort through, so bear with me. I hope you will enjoy this part of the journey with me.

Love, Cath

 

Shifting Gears: On Routines, Resetting, and Rediscovering

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we need to escape the safety net of our routines and go seeking.

For the past several years, I’ve written steadily—mostly daily—writing and revising and rewriting and re-revising my novel, writing short stories and flash fiction pieces, and creating posts for this blog. I’ve been submitting my fiction and hoping something finds a home someplace. I’ll keep pursuing publication for those pieces, and I’ll keep writing. But right now, I’m wondering, is it beneficial to take a little break? Or do I remain committed to my daily writing habit? How do we reset and revive a practice—whether it be running, writing, yoga, or any other behavior we pursue to energize us and keep us healthy and grounded?

I’ll be taking some time off from work for a vacation soon, so it seems like a natural point for some shift to occur. I typically don’t like breaking a routine, particularly one that I’ve worked so hard to build. I’m also the type of person who finds regular routines comforting. Of course, I need breaks, but after some of life’s hard knocks, the predictability of routines feels safe. I think it takes longer for a routine to feel dull to me than a similar routine might make other people feel.

grayscale photo of road
Photo by Jan Kroon on Pexels.com

The Open-Ended Possibilities of the Road Trip

My children and I will soon be road-tripping across the country, headed to see the redwoods in northern California. Days of travel followed by exploration and camping will be pretty far from the normal structure of my life—wake up, write, work out or run, go to work, come home, spend time with the family, maybe do some light housework or yard work, and sleep. During the school year, the routine gets a little crazier, but with my daughter headed off to college, my son and I will be finding new patterns, and making adjustments as we go along, trying, as they say, to find and establish a “new normal.” There is a lot of transitioning ahead for all of us, so this road trip is welcome, not just for the break it offers from work and routine, but for the opportunity it will provide us to enjoy each other’s company—without the stress of everyday life intruding—and to rediscover each other.

I’ve thought a lot about how I want to handle the disruption this trip will have on my writing practice. One option is to not write at all, to deliberately abstain and allow my experiences to soak in. On the other end of the spectrum is taking my laptop and continuing to write every day, fleshing out new ideas, working on the story that’s in progress, drafting new blog posts. The most likely scenario though is that I’ll take my new notebook. I’ll observe, jot down impressions and observations, journal a little. Nothing too ordered, but a conscious effort to capture what I’m feeling, what I’m seeing. Sometimes, a story will form under these conditions, sometimes a character will come to life, sometimes a few sentences will materialize full formed and become the heart of a new piece of fiction. I might not write every day, but I’ll watch and listen and absorb. My daily habit will be one of conscious noticing.

In Search Of . . .

Another aim I have for this trip, and one that will hopefully be aided by this conscious noticing, is to seek something that I’ve been missing: lightheartedness. Though I’ve always been a contemplative, sensitive, and serious person, I feel as though lightheartedness was not something that was merely accessible to me, but rather it was a part of me. It was simply there, within me, a characteristic of each heartbeat. My experiences of the past several years, it seems, have altered that part of me, have anchored me to something heavy and sore. And it’s time to shift gears, to cut myself loose from that weight.

I have had lighthearted moments, sometimes weeks and months in the past several years where it felt like something had been lifted. But there was something different about this fleeting lightheartedness compared to my previous way-of-being lightheartedness, sort of like the difference in density between store-bought, prepackaged cotton candy and the gauzy, spun-right-in-front-of-you, summer fair cotton candy.

“The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” — J. D. Salinger

Something about these differences reminds me of that line from a J. D. Salinger story (it is “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” in Nine Stories, if you are curious): “The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” Maybe the transitory, fleeting lightheartedness I periodically experienced was joy—moments of joy that washed away. But I don’t think the solid-state happiness Salinger references and the way-of-being lightheartedness I’m seeking are the same thing. And I’m certainly not the type of person who expects to be happy all the time. I do, however, long for the type of lightheartedness that once inhabited me in a very real, solid way to once again take up permanent residence in my heart.

So, I’ll be away for a bit from these Chronicles, seeking, and noticing. But when I return I hope to have fresh insights and perspectives and stories to share with you.

Enjoy the road. I will be! Love, Cath

Thirteen Ways of Looking: On Finding Clarity, Not Conclusions

By Catherine DiMercurio

Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” has been running through my head like an 80s pop song. I had to stop and listen.

black and white bird
Photo by Freddie Ramm on Pexels.com

It’s not even that I know all the words, but there is something about it that keeps surfacing for me. The title of the poem will pop into my head, or a couple of lines, or the general mood of it. The poem contains lines like this:

     I do not know which to prefer,

     The beauty of inflections

     Or the beauty of innuendoes,

     The blackbird whistling

     Or just after.

I’ve learned that when something pushes at me like this, I should stop and listen. I think our minds are vast universes connected to deeper things, that since energy cannot be created or destroyed, there is timeless, transcendent energy in us that sometimes knows better than our conscious, thinking brain. And I think that part of us is what people talk about when they talk about gut or faith or intuition. And that part of me has lead me repeatedly to this poem in the past few weeks. And I think I now know why.

If you’ve read the last few posts here, you’ll know I’ve been thinking a lot about the way things end. Sometimes I wonder if I’m overthinking, fruitlessly trying to make logical sense of illogical things, dutifully trying to learn what I can from failures so as to avoid mistakes, prevent future regret or unhappiness. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” has given me some comfort, not only from its content, in beautiful words yoked together to convey deep, simple, elegant truths, but in its very form. “Thirteen Ways” is about looking at things from different angles. It isn’t about making sense of something or coming to a conclusion, but it is about keen observations rooted in both fact and feeling. It is about fullness and richness of understanding.

Contours, Not Conclusions

In a way, the poem offers both permission for and insight into the tasks my mind and heart have been performing as they looked at one ending—the terminal point in one relationship. My examination of the ending itself expanded into a postmortem of the past two years. I saw patterns that had hidden themselves from me before. The innuendoes, the beauty in the aftermath of the blackbird’s whistling, have settled in, and I have been able to see angles and contours of things in a way I hadn’t before. I’m becoming aware that sometimes these contours matter more than conclusions. Understanding and fullness of knowledge and experience are different things entirely than an argument or statement summarized. Life is not a five-paragraph essay with a thesis stated, a case made, a conclusion drawn.

What I’ve learned about myself through this process of allowing myself to retrace my steps, to study the relationship from beginning to end, is invaluable. There are insights I would not have gained had I simply tried to force myself to move on, get over it, or stop dwelling on it. Recognizing that this is my process, too, is freeing. When any relationship ends or changes—as they so often do in life—permitting yourself to explore it from all sides may be the necessary path for you in order to accept the transition, to gain greater insights about yourself, to change course, to grieve. There is no right way, no one answer, and you don’t have to land on a conclusion, whether or not anyone else expects one from you.

Buried Truths and New Circles

This process, let’s call it the “Thirteen Ways of Looking” approach, is a way to manage the ambiguity I discussed in an earlier post. It is a way to begin to make sense of seemingly incomprehensible things, not to discover answers, but to recover truths we lost sight of or buried. Truths get buried regularly I think, like bones, dog-buried, or lost to rock and centuries.

I dreamed last night of blackbirds. They were pulling at my shoulders, picking me up and flying me away. When I looked down I saw that I had been standing on an island that was suddenly engulfed in flames. I don’t know where the blackbirds will take me but I think I’ll be okay. I’ll leave you today with Stevens’s ninth way of looking at a blackbird: “When the blackbird flew out of sight, / It marked the edge / Of one of many circles.”

Love, Cath

 

 

 

On Future-Planning, Free Will, and Fate

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes life forces you to think about it in a very philosophical, free-will-versus-fate sort of way.

When you get divorced, one of the most dislocating, wrenching things you go through is watching the future you had imagined for yourself with your partner being erased. You try to make new plans, but things still seem hazy, at least for a while. You do begin to get your world back in order little by little, though, and you start to think about what life might look like after the children leave for college. And if you date, and if a few dates turn into a relationship, you cautiously begin to imagine your future with someone else. But sometimes these plans too go awry, and the relationship reveals itself to be something other than what you thought it was.

sun rays through the tree leaves and mist
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

When the Future is Foggy

This is where I find myself. The future – however tentatively imagined – once again gradually evaporating like fog as the day warms up and the sun burns it off. At least that is how I have been feeling for the past couple of weeks. But as I sit here watching the fog burn off, I am slowly starting to realize that it wasn’t the future, it was a future, one of many possible futures that could have been made reality. I suppose it all comes down to that philosophical fate versus free will debate. Is our future already written, and all the things we do, the relationships we have, are simply events leading us to a future that was “meant to be,” either in a faith-based sense or in a fairy-tale way?

It seems to me the designation “meant to be,” or the converse construct, “not meant to be,” is where we land at the end of a series of decisions whose consequences we can’t make sense of in any other way. But I’m not buying it.

I think we have a little more control and responsibility than that. In a way, the idea of control is an illusion. You can’t control much of what happens to you in life—the economy, natural disasters, the choices that other people in your life make, etc.—you can only control how you respond to all these things. But we do have control over our own choices, and a responsibility—our mission, should we choose to accept it—to be conscious of those choices, and to learn and grow in response to the consequences of those choices.

And though we have little or no control over the choices of others or random events that wreak havoc in our lives, we can plan for the future. We can decide what we want to see there after the fog lifts. I sort of have to. I’ve learned that I need goals and dreams, something to work toward and something to look forward to, whether or not someone is sharing that journey with me. Whether the events that have led me to this point are random or willed by cosmic forces, whether I have a little control or even less than that, I still find myself searching through the fog, looking for the constants within me, knowing that everything else is an external variable that can and will change.

Searching for the Constants in the Midst of Change

For me one of those constants is, in a way, a variable—it is growth, a desire for growth and openness that yields a range of constantly varying results. And encapsulated in this reaching outward is a search for connection. It is why I write—it is not only about my search for connection, but it is also an offering, a hope that others may similarly locate something that feels like a balm to the isolation that so many of us often experience. And I know that in the future, that is always the direction I want to be moving in, toward connection, and finding familiar, common ground with others. I have other, more concrete dreams for the future as well, like someday owning a cottage up north, and I think having something like that to work toward is as important, though maybe not as important as knowing who I am, and learning more about myself as life and love and years work their magic and shape me.

Micro Choices and Micro Changes

This might be all the sense I can make of things today, all the sorting through sadness and choices and consequences I can do for right now. But I’ll leave you with these final thoughts on choice and control. People often speak of changing the world, of what they can do to make it better, and many have noble, lofty goals in this regard, which are admirable and inspiring. I tend to think of things on a micro level, rather than a macro level. We all change the world in our own way, every day, whether we are conscious of it or not. It is in how we handle conflict with people we love—do we act on an instinct to rage or an inclination to resolve? It is in how we speak to the stranger standing across from us ringing up our groceries. It is in how we handle interactions with coworkers, with friends, with strangers, with animals. It is in the thousands of choices we make every day. My aim is to be conscious of as many of these choices as I can, of the way word and manner and energy and action impact the world, and shape it, hopefully for the better, little by little.

Love, Cath

 

 

 

On Endings and Openness

By Catherine DiMercurio

Endings—prolonged or abrupt—always leave more questions than answers, but they still push you forward.

When I started this blog, it was with a joyful heart, and part of that joy emanated from a relationship that has now arrived at its end. Endings always take me by surprise. My habit, in the wake of an ending, is to dissect, to analyze, to try and understand. It is a way of grieving, and the endpoint—the loss—is always the same. But there are things to glean along the way. You remember the good, you arrive at new understandings about what your boundaries and values are, you learn what you can, if you are willing to look.

Here, in the aftermath of this new heartbreak, that is what I’m trying to do. Learn. Remain open, and open hearted. It’s been a dark week, and I’ve noticed a pattern in the way I cope that began to occur in the wake of my divorce several years ago. Certain types of grief and injury—those related to matters of the heart—make me want to step back and close all the doors and windows. Not to heal, not to grieve, not even as a break from experiencing the flood of emotion. It is simply a closing. Certainly many people respond to endings in a similar way. For me, I’m sure it is a method of self-protection but I find I have to monitor it closely, because it closes down pathways to everything, even to the good things, to laughter and peace. It is probably a necessary part of the process of moving through the ending of a relationship, but I am more aware of this tendency now than I have been in the past. I’ve learned that this closed place is a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there.

Open Windows, Open Heart

There is a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier that ends with this line “And all the windows of my heart / I open to the day.” I find, increasingly, that this is where I want to land at the end of anything: open to the day. While my instincts may initially be to shut all the windows and doors—because there is a kind of reprieve there—it isn’t where I want to live.

I went to the beach alone just before dusk recently. The kids were both working, and I had so much to do. It would have made more sense to mow the lawn or clean the house. But I longed to be by water, to breathe different air. So I drove toward the setting sun. I laid out my blanket, with its stripes parallel to the water. I deposited my book and my reading glasses and my sunglasses, slid out of my sandals, and walked slowly through the warm sand to the water’s edge. It is early in summer and the water is much colder now in mid-June than it will be by the end of August. I waded in, the chill pressing against me until I grew accustomed to it. I floated, and listened, mostly to children’s laughter, and the waves and the wind, the far off chug of a boat motor.

sea black and white sunset beach
Photo by GoaShape – on Pexels.com

Back on my blanket I let the setting sun soak into my skin and I was able to breathe deeply in the way I had been longing to. It felt like respite from all the harsh emotions that had abraded my heart for a week. And I decided to let it be this way, to be reprieve. I decided to let lake water and fading sunlight soothe, and to stop trying to make sense of inexplicable things. In a way, I embraced this as a beginning of whatever is next for me, this evening alone on the beach. It seemed to matter. In the days that followed though, I felt myself sinking like a stone, that having been skipped across the waves, finally lands and steadily makes its way to the bottom. I forgot about feeling buoyed, and about beginning. I forgot until here and now, as I write this, and as I look back on what the last two weeks have been like.

It Takes Everything

So in my endless quest for synthesis I have come to this conclusion: that it takes everything to move forward. It takes shutting down, and it takes opening up, it takes analysis, it takes embracing the ineffable, it takes effort, and it takes surrender. It takes all of these things, every single day. And when the world at large also seems to be falling apart, the personal tragedies we may endure simultaneously seem both insignificant and so full of tumult they are the only things we can focus on. Which is why it takes everything, every day, for all of us.

Love, Cath

On Ambiguity

By Catherine DiMercurio

I think it is human nature to crave clarity; the nature of our world is to offer us, instead, a lot of ambiguity. When I hired in for my current job, the posting included a line about being comfortable with ambiguity. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the latest corporate buzzword, like “agile” or “synergy.” I remember laughing, thinking how silly that sounded on a job posting, and also feeling as though, having gone through a divorce, I’d muddled through so much ambiguity I was a pro at it. But I’m not. I can handle it, I can move through it. I can even fake a positive attitude about it when I have to. Sometimes, it’s not even faking. I can pull it off and accept that the world is simply this way. But often, ambiguity is, for me, a wellspring of stress.

Life and Algebra

In high school, my advanced algebra/geometry teacher encouraged me to go into some math-based profession, to keep taking advanced mathematics in college. I remember telling him, in a manner that was, for me, oddly candid, that I hated math. I was taking the classes the school’s advisor told me to take if I wanted to get into a good college, but I hated math. He told me that I couldn’t hate it and be so good at it. Part of me, he said, must really like it. I thought he was crazy. But when I think of that now, I realize he was a little right. Probably the part I liked was that at the end of ambiguity and confusion, there was a right answer and I could usually find my way there.

One of the worst parts about divorce was the realization—and it hits you in different ways almost daily—that the future you had been not only imagining but cultivating, simply wasn’t going to happen anymore. The erasure of it all is maddening. Talk about ambiguity. Moving forward and coping with that is often easier as time goes on, but sometimes it still feels like a punch in the gut. Building a different future and cultivating new dreams helps a lot, though. So, when I’m told I need to be comfortable working in an ambiguous environment, I think, no problem.

Clarity and Answers Are Not the Same Things

But like algebra, living in ambiguity doesn’t come easy to me. I have to work at it. Not being able to visualize how things are going to work out can feel quite threatening. I had a whole blog post written about dealing with something difficult at work, and how I struggled in the aftermath of knowing a mistake I’d made on the job had made more work and stress for a respected coworker. I agonized over the error.

But as my weekend unfolded, an event occurred that put this work issue in perspective. Those details are not fodder for this forum, but the situation reminded me that we have no choice but to live in ambiguity, that though we may be offered clarity, even finality on one front, this too offers new and uncertain paths that we have no choice but to take. We can’t control what others think about who we are or the choices or effort that we’ve made, and we often will never know what they think. All we can do is try and be our best and be true to ourselves. And this holds true within the workplace and outside of it.

Being who we are takes bravery and thoughtfulness, and if we want our true self to be perceived by those around us, all we can do is try earnestly and openly to keep being who we are. Still, we may have to accept that people’s unfavorable opinions about us have formed not because they have failed to understand us, but because they have accurately seen us for who we are, have understood on some level that which we want others to understand. They may have perceived our truth and still found fault, or a reason to pull away. We may also have to accept that we might never know what others see in us, or believe they know about us. We have to live within the cloudy grey space of not knowing if they got us “right” or if they got it all wrong somehow.

cold snow black and white road
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Understanding all this, living in this reality, is hard work for me. In part, this blog reflects my effort to live with openness and candor and integrity, knowing that in the end, I’m not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I say this in a lighthearted way, searching for silver linings, but when I say it’s hard work, I don’t mean the kind that makes you sweat with effort and feel good about it when you’re done. I mean the kind that hurts when you are doing it and never feels much better because there is always more of it. Maybe there is no victory in this work but there is balm for weariness in knowing ourselves better, in being our better selves through the effort.

Love, Cath

Labors of Love

By Catherine DiMercurio

I’ve been away for a bit, working on novel revisions and searching for places to submit my manuscript. The phrase “labor of love” comes to mind, and “labor” surfaces for me in the context of both birthing and work. Writers often speak of their work in this way, as if the piece they have written is offspring, a living, breathing thing that they have given birth and breath to, nurtured from a tiny kernel of an idea into maturity. It is easy to do, even as a parent of an actual living, breathing thing that I have nurtured from a tiny kernel of an idea (“let’s have a baby!”) into maturity, maturity as in, she has turned eighteen and is about to graduate from high school, about to leave this home and make a new one. These various notions of labor, and the fruit it bears, are joined right now in my mind.

Confluence and Connotation

Because of this intertwining, the coming together of my emotions about my daughter graduating at the same time I was nurturing into maturity the novel, early drafts of this post centered on the notion of confluence. I was specifically thinking about the way emotionally weighted or significant things seem to happen at the same time in our lives. I considered the way sorrows pool, floods of grief crash together, or odd jumbles of joy seem to happen all at once and you wonder when is it going to all fall apart because life has taught you that it often does. But something about this felt off to me and I spent some time thinking about “confluence.” Though it originally entered into my brain in terms of the way things come together, I hadn’t really been thinking of the geographic imagery and understanding of the word. The most common usage focuses on the flowing together of two or more bodies of water at a certain point to form a single channel. I realized I had the right word but had originally latched on to the wrong connotation.

So now I am thinking about the power of confluence, the force of these two strong rivers flowing together. Sometimes you can see it happening, this coming together of powerful things in your life, but you don’t know what to do about it. You sense the importance but haven’t yet found a way to inhabit it. I see myself with my hand outstretched. I’m reaching for the next part, my next part (in terms of writing and also, whatever else life becomes after my home no longer includes my children living in it). At the same time, I’m holding on ferociously to those two children, wanting to keep them with me, safe and sound (the illusion being that I have the power to protect them), and wanting also to be strong enough to open my arms and let them go. And they, too, are both holding on and reaching forward. I wonder sometimes if the best thing to do is enter the current and see where it takes me, because I can’t yet see how I can harness the power of the emotions that this transition, this confluence, is churning up, and I also feel that I can’t hold on at the shore much longer, the current is already sweeping us up in these changes and inevitably we will be swept up and away and forward.

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Photo by NMQ on Pexels.com

I wonder, too, how do I keep myself as a safe place on the shore when they need refuge from the churn of their own lives as they get older? How do I maintain that space and at the same time see where life takes me?

Mistake Making

In a way, this post is about mistakes and false starts, as I try to harness language, sometimes the wrong language, sometimes the right language in the wrong way, to convey the bewildering array of emotions and thoughts that gather around me and inhabit me in the midst of this transition. Metaphor feels like the only tool to make sense of it all but it merely hints at the real, attempts to show with linguistic equations how the heart and mind heave and ache and reach in currents of memories, fears, joys, wishes.

But life is mistakes and false starts. It is memory and wish, it’s reaching back and vaulting forward, storm and sanctuary, river and shore, and maybe all I’m trying to do here is tell my daughter as she graduates and prepares for the next phase in her life, that life will be this way. Life might be a clear day after the rain or it might be the rain but no matter what it is, no matter what metaphors are used to make sense of it, the safe place I’ve built for her is always there, in every memory made together, every penny-tossed fountain wish she and I have cast, side by side. We’ve built it already and it isn’t going anywhere.

Wishing you safety in storms, laughter in rain, and the wisdom to appreciate the sun on your face every time the clouds part.

Love, Cath

 

On Mothering and Metabolism

By Catherine DiMercurio

I circled around this blank page for a while, looking for a place to land. The week percolated with activity and emotion and I found myself trying to keep up and keep catching my breath. It was like tripping and falling. There’s a slow motion moment where it feels like you should be able to stop the tumbling but the momentum already has a grip.

This week began (or last week ended) with Mother’s Day. I spent a quiet morning with my children, then traveled an hour and a half north to visit with my mother, father, and a handful of sisters.

In the days that followed, I dealt with the irritation of a broken dryer and the frustration that comes with rearranging my work schedule to accommodate a repair, which, incidentally remains incomplete. The dryer is 19 years old. Parts were ordered. And now we wait.

That night, my daughter had an away soccer game. It was one of the only games this season that I did not attend. Luckily her father was there, because my daughter had a severe allergic reaction that landed her in the emergency room. I met them at the urgent care clinic where he had taken her, and where she passed out, and where EMS was arriving. She was only out for a moment, and they were assessing her vitals. Everything was stabilizing, the two doses of Benadryl—one administered by her father and one, intravenously, by the EMT—had taken care of her hives, and her throat was no longer feeling tight. She did not need epinephrine. At the hospital, we were joined by her boyfriend and his mother. We circled my daughter’s bed, waiting for her to be seen. After about 3 hours, the attending physician reviewed her chart and told us to follow up with her doctor and an allergist. (Obviously!) There were no answers, which I didn’t really expect. Many things could have triggered the hives. The passing out, within the realm of everything that was happening to her body, was not a concern to the attending, but certainly something to keep an eye on. We returned home, exhausted and perplexed.

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Photo by Pok Rie on Pexels.com

This day tumbled into the next—a promotion at work, a vet visit, prom again (my daughter and her boyfriend had already attended her school’s prom, and now they were off to his), and my son preparing for his first job interview. His sixteenth birthday is next week.

Exhausted and perplexed, I suppose, are the emotions that linger after this week of highs and lows, some of which I found I could not yet wrap words around, as they are still percolating in their raw and formless way, waiting for me. I find myself struggling to take it all in and comprehend it. I’ve been using the word “metabolize” frequently lately in this context, feeling as though life is often comprised of ingesting this array of experience and emotion. Metabolizing it all consists of gleaning what wisdom and knowledge I can, and crying or laughing the rest of it away, to make room for the next round. This week has been full of lessons. I became aware, for instance, that learning what it means to let other people in to the lives of my children is not something that happens all by itself, quietly, in the background. It is something I became aware of as the week unfolded and was at times overwhelming, though inherently and wonderfully positive. Good things take time to be metabolized too, not just the tough stuff. I chew on things. I process slowly. I think a lot, some say overthink, but it’s more that I’m turning it all over in my mind, looking at all the subtle contours, thinking about it all the same way lake water and sediment erode and soften beach glass or stone.

I’m still making sense of things this week, so I’m going to do something different right now and leave you with this, a poem I drafted not too long ago while I was getting my MFA, and which I’ve pulled out recently to reexamine and revise. I’ll be taking a couple of weeks off after this post. I’m in the middle of novel revisions again, trying to polish and tighten in time to submit, by the end of the month, to a contest for “older published writers of fiction.” I hope you enjoy the poem. It’s about mothering, which seems appropriate in the context of this week and this post.

Mine

The moon tugs oceans of grief.

In the wet sand in-between place, I can begin to see what’s mine.

What isn’t.

In between history and anguish, my failures imprint themselves.

When I say this is my daughter,

What I mean is that she is the one who tore through me once.

But to use the possessive to describe this feral female, all rage and rangy and tangled but who still lopes near, as if to the porch for a saucer of milk and a scratch, well, that doesn’t make her mine.

When I say this is my son,

All I mean is that he is the one who slipped almost quietly into this world, from my world, quietly once in the early morning, too early, shallow breathing fish out of water boy.

But to use the possessive when describing this wild hidden one who stays close but not too close, like a secret thing whisper-peering out from behind a red milk crate left out back by the strawberry patch, well, that doesn’t make him mine.

Watching these two brooding ones ruminate on the way things broke, I don’t think they use the possessive either. I’m not theirs. I’m it.

The one who saw the fissures in the world and couldn’t stitch and mend fast enough or in the right places

Or the gaps were too big

Or the stuffing shook loose anyway.

Still I made sure there were porch and milk and crate and strawberries.

Still I broke apart

Still I found the feral and the fierce and the stillness.

Still I grasped us back to safety.

Nothing makes them mine.

But when they trot in through the back door I always leave open

They snuggle me in a big heap on the floor and we get to belong to each other at least

for a moment, a breath, and one more.

Please.

 

Love, Cath

Coming of Age: The Crisis vs. The Chrysalis

By Catherine DiMercurio

Who doesn’t love a good coming-of-age story? What if it’s your own, part two? What does it mean to be coming of age in middle age?

We all have a favorite story about a young person’s journey from adolescence into adulthood, from innocence to experience. In some stories, this time frame is condensed and the author focuses more on a coming-of-age experience, an episode, rather than a full transition from childhood to adulthood. The progenitor of the modern coming-of-age novel is the European bildungsroman, a novel of development or formation. The classic bildungsroman, such as Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861), D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913), Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark (1915), or W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915), typically takes this longer view. More modern coming-of-age stories, including J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999), several of John Green’s novels, or the 2007 screenplay Juno by Diablo Cody, frequently examine a shorter time frame within the protagonist’s life. (Incidentally, my favorites from this list would be Lawrence, Cather, Salinger, and Cody—and there are so many more examples!)

I’m perpetually drawn to these types of novels (and films), and what I’ve noticed for a while are the parallels between coming-of-age stories and life in one’s 40s. The novel manuscript I’m currently revising was originally conceived as a mother-daughter story in which I wanted to explore this idea that we go through a second coming of age at this time in our lives, and that parenting teens while going through our own new evolution is a challenge not for the timid. While the novel itself metamorphosized into something else, the original idea has stayed with me. It has fluttered about several recent conversations I’ve had and is demanding to be seen and considered in more detail. I will certainly do that with more deliberateness in a new piece of fiction, but I wanted to give it a nod here as well.

Roles, Expectations, Responses

Like the characters in the works noted above, many of us in our 40s and 50s have the sense that we are outgrowing this current iteration of ourselves. Certainly our roles are shifting. Though the focus of our parenting has always been to nurture independence, the lessons now have a sense of urgency, because soon, those lessons will be put to the test. I find myself at times feeling like I’ve done a pretty good job, but then I suddenly only seeing what I think I left out.

I see my children transforming from youngsters to young adults, surprising me with their maturity one minute, or reminding me, in moments of fear or anxiety about their own journeys, that they are still children. They are still learning how to cope with a new set of rules. They now look like adults and are entering points in their lives where they will be increasingly independent, but at the same time, they are aware that everything is about to change. The safety net they’ve long enjoyed won’t be as readily available. The training wheels, as they say, are coming off.

And I’m in a similar position in terms of change. Parenting will look different after my kids leave home, but regardless of my role as a mother, I, like many people around this age, find myself thinking less about what I’ve achieved, and more about what’s been left undone, and what there might still be time to do. There are empty places within all of us that we thought would be filled by achievements, which, as it happens, maybe failed to materialize. Priorities shift. Gifts and talents we thought we possessed or have been honing haven’t exactly produced the results we expected, and we begin to wonder if we simply aren’t the person we thought we were. Sometimes too, the road we travel has unexpected twists or tragedies in store for us.

Consequently, just as instinctually as a caterpillar stops eating and anchors itself in order to spin a cocoon (if it’s a moth) or molts into a chrysalis (if it’s a butterfly), we start looking around us and looking ahead. What do we have to anchor ourselves to? And do we have time to do the undone things or to pivot and head out in a new direction? Complicating matters, at least for me, is the fact that I thought it would be different, that some of this should have come together by now, that there wouldn’t be so many unknowns at this point.

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The Gruesome Details

And consider this: inside the cocoon or chrysalis, the caterpillar actually digests itself. The process of transformation is a fairly vicious one. And so it is for anyone, regardless of age. While some life transitions are more obvious and easily recognized as a time of drastic evolution, any time in our lives can yield a new sort of coming-of-age experience. It’s never easy, and sometimes it looks as messy from the outside as all the metaphorical digesting of ourselves that’s happening on the inside. We hear the term midlife crisis often enough to make a joke of it, and think of a guy having a difficult time getting older and so he compensates with a sports car.

On a darker and often more realistic note though, we also often witness various forms of self-destruction or self-sabotage (substance abuse, walking out on a job or a marriage, or infidelity). In many ways all these behaviors are yoked to some instinctual desire to transform. But when you can’t see what’s happening, or feel you don’t have ways to cope, or the weight of a lifetime of accumulated expectation is too much, the vicious, painful transformation is itself transformed from a personal journey into one that pulls other people into its wake. This harm to the people around us is what truly makes it a crisis.

It Isn’t a Crisis It’s a Chrysalis

But the transformation on its own does not have to be a crisis, if what we are feeling can be recognized and named, respected and understood. It can instead be simply part of the life cycle, painful but necessary and normal, and beautiful both in process and result. If the permission to transform was a given, and we didn’t have to associate shame or a sense of failure with aging and adapting and responding to where we’ve been and where we’d like to go, fewer midlife crises would happen. We could simply embark on the next chrysalis stage in our lives.

The battle against expectations—self-imposed or otherwise—is equally pervasive at other points in our lives. I thought by now I’d find a job, be married, have kids, have a better job, be happier, etc., etc. I don’t strictly believe in the notion that coming of age happens once or twice in our lives. Circumstances—loss, death, divorce, illness, injuries, unexpectedly becoming a parent—all create a need to evolve, to imagine a new way of being in order to respond to how life has changed. Other developments in life are more decision-based (marriage, planning to be come a parent, seeking out a new job, etc.), and are prompted by a sense of readiness for the next phase. Despite this readiness, the transformation is still a process with its own challenges.

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Power In Perspective

Like most of my posts, this presents simply another way of looking at experiences many of us have. I think there is tremendous power in perspective. Looking at a natural need to transform and regarding it as a positive process instead of a crisis provides opportunity instead of generating anxiety, shame, or despair. If we can prepare ourselves in time, if we can be open to what is happening, we can enter into these processes and transformations with an open heart. We can talk about it with the people in our lives, discuss hopes and fears and expectations, and through honest conversation, mitigate the negative repercussions for the people around us as we move from one state of being to the next. It is natural for some to turn inward and want to handle things privately but if you shut out the people around you, they might not recognize you when you emerge once again.

Enjoy your chrysalis. Love, Cath

On Stress, Coping, and Identity

By Catherine DiMercurio

Identity is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves. Make it a good story.

When I lost my voice a few weeks ago, I never imagined it would turn into this ever-evolving, never-ending cold. I’ve talked to a number of people who have recently battled a similar respiratory virus in this prolonged fashion. But the first thing I find myself saying if someone asks how I’m doing or comments on my cough is, “I never get sick. I haven’t been sick for years.” I consider how much the stress at work has run me down, and how my immune system finally couldn’t keep up. I’ll admit it—I get really defensive about being sick for this long. Normally, I can shake something in a couple of days, and I’ve heard myself saying that too.

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The Stories We Tell

I think this defensiveness arises because I want to be thought of as strong, vibrant, and resilient. To be honest, I want to think of myself that way. It’s the story I tell myself about who I am, who I came to be after some difficult times. And certainly getting sick doesn’t change that, but when the illness is coupled with some major changes at work along with other stressors, the story starts to sound a little different, and the overwhelmed feeling takes on an outsized proportion to the things actually going on. The thought maybe I can’t handle all this quietly and persistently transforms itself, mutating like this cold, from a random sentiment to a refrain.

Find a Reprieve

I’ve been swimming in this state for a couple of weeks now knowing I have to find my way out of it, because it’s dangerous territory. My go-to coping mechanisms are usually exercise and being outside. I’ve felt too lousy to do much exercise lately and the weather is only just now starting to turn, but I’m trying to get back into my normal routines. A few evenings ago I spent some time doing yard work and my mood shifted considerably. I remember wishing I could hold on to that buoyancy, because I knew once I slipped into another workday, the feeling would ebb away. I decided, instead of looking at it as a feeling I knew I would lose, to view it as a reprieve from the stress.

Credit and Compassion

I also realized I had to start giving myself credit for my success and compassion for my setbacks. I even made a list of some of the big things I’ve accomplished, to remind myself that I can handle things and get through tough times. I thought about how I earned my MFA while going through my divorce and returning to fulltime work and raising my two children, who at the time were just entering middle school and high school. Though sometimes now I question the monetary cost of that degree in comparison to its value in terms of employment prospects, I know it yielded less tangible or obvious rewards. And regardless of cost or value, the achieving of it at that time in my life was significant. It reminds me that I can handle tough things. And I can do it again. This has to be part of my story, and I need to keep it at the forefront when I feel overwhelmed and begin to focus on frustrations, setbacks, and illness instead.

Seek Out Resources

I also purchased a book that looks at stress and brain chemistry and I’m hoping for some greater insights there. What I’ve learned so far is that sometimes our brain is over-responsive to stress, treating minor disruptions as dangerous threats. It sounded like a histamine response to me, the way our bodies treat nonthreatening bits of pollen as dangers so we start sneezing to protect ourselves. My brain and my body think they’re protecting me by a heightened response to stressors – when actually they are making me feel horrible.

In the past, when life has gotten more stressful than I feel I can handle, I have backed away and tried to find all the ways to reduce stress in my life. It is not a misguided strategy, but sometimes you get to a point where there is not much you can do to avoid certain stresses. I simply have to learn how to deal with stress better, and remember that I actually do know how to do this.

Openness and Connection

There is nothing elegant or profoundly meaningful in all of this, and as I write this post it feels to me that there are angles and contours that I’m missing. I haven’t anchored the writing to a time or place or event or interaction with a person. These thoughts and feelings are floating on the surface and it seems as though there is greater meaning somewhere deeper that I haven’t explored. At the same time, this is the fog I’ve floated through the past few weeks, groping my way through worry and illness, trying to pass through to the other side of it all. And I cringe at that thought—at any period of life being something to rush through and get past—because that’s life on fast-forward. That’s days and weeks becoming a blur and looking back and not knowing where the time went. It’s antithetical to the way I want to live and be.

My goal with this blog has been, a little selfishly, to share my writing. But it has always been about openness. Perhaps more than many of my posts so far, this has been a very simple, open, and honest look at something I know many people struggle with—how we handle stress and how it relates to the way we see ourselves. Sometimes I find it reassuring to know that I’m not alone, that other people are struggling with similar things. It’s why I read and why I write, and certainly, why I wrote this post the way I did.

Enjoy the road. Even the bumpy parts. Love, Cath