On Waves, and Rain, and Corpses

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

big waves
Photo by Tatiana on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

 

 

 

 

Against Brokenness

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

red brick wall
Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On the Way We Move Through the World

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

ballet ballet shoes blur close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On a Revolutionary Way of Trusting

By Catherine DiMercurio

Maybe vulnerability and trust are not connected in the way we thought they were.

Being away from our usual routines often affords us new insights, but sometimes it isn’t until we return home that new ways of looking at things emerge. I recently travelled to the Vermont College of Fine Arts for a week-long writing retreat. While there, I attended a panel discussion with other writers, led by the retreat’s faculty members, on being vulnerable and what it means as a writer. Inevitably, in the days that followed, I considered what it meant to be vulnerable as a regular woman-person, not exclusively as a writer-person. Like many people, I have experienced the emotionally wrenching side effects of vulnerability. I don’t see much difference between allowing one’s self to be emotionally vulnerable and the notion of being open hearted. It is a deliberate choice, an act, to open ourselves to others.

As writers (in our relationship with our work and with our audience), and as “regular” people (in our relationships with the loved ones in our lives), the risks of vulnerability include pain, rejection, being misunderstood—in short, isolation. We expose ourselves in order to seek connection, and the risk we take is that the opposite effect will occur. And the more we’ve been hurt in our past, or misunderstood, or rejected, the greater the perceived risk of this exposure. We simultaneously want to protect ourselves and want to be open, to seek out all those things that make us feel good about being a person in this world.

Most of us want to understand and be understood, regardless of our perspectives as writers, artists, lovers, family members, friends. But I think it goes a bit deeper than this longing. In endeavoring to connect with one another, we seek to reveal not just what we think, but how our brains operate, not just that we love but how our hearts function. It is in the intricacies of these processes of thinking and loving that we truly engage with one another, and understanding them in ourselves and in others offers us pathways to the sought-after connection.

We want roadmaps as we wander through the mazes of each other’s heartscapes, and each of us in our own way wants to offer the same guidance to those we welcome into our worlds. It is not just why some people make art, it is why we all read it, see it, hear it, touch it, taste it.

aerial shot of maze
Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

Being vulnerable, or, opening our hearts to each other, is an act of trust. It is an act of relinquishing (perceived) control of outcomes. But when we extend and open ourselves in this way, we are often filled with self-doubt. Will isolation instead of connection be the result of our exposure? We can’t know. But we trust. In many ways, in all of the emotional interactions we seek out, we place our trust in the other party – whether it be a partner, a family member, a friend, or those who consume our art. We place our trust in them, hoping that what we offer will be accepted, that the roadmap will be decipherable, that the other person or people will willingly journey with us. We hope that in return, we may receive the reciprocal invitation to understand and connect. It is a seemingly simple conversation, an exchange, but beneath it exists a complex system of highways and byways, along which race countless thoughts and emotions as we try and gauge the success or failure of a particular act of vulnerability.

I think though what we often fail to realize is how unfair all that is, and the burden it places on those we care about. We delude ourselves into thinking we are entering into a pact and in doing so we are obligating others to behave in a certain way.

How freeing it would be to look at it another way, to consider that when we decide to be vulnerable, we are only making an agreement with ourselves, trusting that in opening ourselves in this way, we are welcoming whatever good may come of it. And if there is pain, or sorrow, or rejection, we welcome that too, not for the hurt itself, but for the growth that comes from it.

How kind it would be to those with whom we seek connection to let them off the hook, to not have any expectations of reciprocity.

How loving it would be to invite them into our worlds, offer them that roadmap, and then, simply be. Be there when they get there. Be understanding if they got lost along the way. Be joyful if they are delighted for the opportunity for connection and welcome us with open arms into their headspace and heartspace.

Maybe trust should not be about what we hope for from one another. Maybe it should be about what we are offering, and why.

We are never in control of outcomes that are tied to the emotional responses of others, and that is a beautiful thing. Maybe it is about trusting ourselves to know what is best for us, trusting ourselves to offer our world to those we love, to those we seek connection with. Our vulnerability lies in our willingness to do that, regardless of how we will be responded to.

Our lives are so full of uncertainty, in so many areas, professionally and personally. It is understandable that we want to control an outcome here or there, understandable to think that we actually can. At the novel retreat, participants were invited to read from their work to the other writers present, participants and faculty members alike. As a group, we discussed this as an act of vulnerability, this offering of our art in a public way, when we know all the ways it could be misunderstood, deemed unworthy, when we know that our physical performance too is under scrutiny. At the time, I looked at this endeavor under the dual lens of vulnerability and trust, and I told myself that it was my ability to trust this room of writers to be open to me that allowed me to be up at the podium reading my work. They did not let me down. They were kind and generous in their response to me and to my work. Yet, I could have entered into the reading in another way, trusting my desire to share my work, trusting that regardless of how it was received, this was what I wanted for myself. Audiences will receive us how they will.

It would be disingenuous of me to say that this way of looking at trust is anything but experimental. It feels sort of revolutionary to me to consider that trust perhaps has, or should have, little to do with the other party. But what right do we have to obligate others, however obliquely, to respond to us in a certain way? If I expose thoughts and emotions, my true self, to others in a vulnerable way, and I do so because I trust both my instinct and my willingness to accept the outcome of this particular exposure, it is a gift to bear witness to how this act of exposure is received. Consider too how miraculous are the gifts offered to us by others, when those we love are expressing themselves in a space free of demand, obligation, or expectation. Perhaps being vulnerable and being truly trusting work quite differently than we thought.

Love, Cath

On Vestigial Vigilance, Instinct, and Happiness

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes self-protective vigilance masks our instincts …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

On Curiosity and Bonsai Confidence

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you take a chance on curiosity and notice its unexpected rewards.

This weekend, as I was folding and putting away laundry, I found myself purging the closet. Spring is in the air, and all that, no great mystery as to why I felt compelled to tackle that task. Yet I have been feeling some heightened sense of purpose around such chores lately. My son has one more year of high school. I look at the house with an eye toward selling. I think about how open-ended my future is once both kids are in college. I wanted them to grow up in this place, wanted the stability of this home for them before, during, and after the divorce. This bungalow has served its purpose well. But the question of what comes after this address is one steeped in ambiguity. This is at once terrifying and thrilling.

Like Mud in March

One of the lessons I learn on a daily basis these days is that the ambiguity I thought was a temporary state in the immediate aftermath of my divorce is simply a feature of daily life. Just as the first of my alarms will go off at 5:05 a.m., and one or both of the dog will bark when someone walks by, I will be confronted with another lesson in ambiguity. It’s a fact of life I grew intensely cognizant of when what I thought were life’s big certainties had evaporated. It’s as sure as mud in March, and it can be just as aggravating if you let it.

In the past, I’ve tried to gird myself against the emotional perils of ambiguity with lists and plans. I made large cosmic if-then deals. In the hallway at work near the elevators is a sign that reads, “Confidence is success remembered.” I first began working there not long after my divorce, and during a particularly low period I noticed the sign and thought, “No wonder I have no confidence.” That’s when I began journaling about achievements, big or small – to remind myself of what I’d gotten through, what I had accomplished. It was a deliberate effort to grow and tend to confidence, the way one cultivates a bonsai.

selective focus photography of green leafed bonsai
Photo by Zulian Yuliansyah on Pexels.com

Erosion

I certainly feel a lot better about things than I did a few years ago, but I still get gut-punched with self-doubt on a fairly regular basis. Parenting, relationships, or work issues (the day job or the writing), can all trouble us enough that seeds of self-doubt catch hold and take root, quietly eroding us from the inside out, leaving us feeling crumbly and decidedly un-sturdy.

It is perilously easy to slide into that mindset and stay there, eroded and anxious. I’ve gotten better at looking for things to hold on to as a way of halting that descent. Recently, it was a mere word that caught me. The word curiosity has flitted through unrelated conversations recently. I read it in something a friend sent, spoke it aloud to another, and realized there was something going on that I needed to pay attention to.

When the Weather Shifts

As I started thinking about being curious, I considered the by-products of curiosity, the focused but open mindset one has, for example, when trying to solve a crossword clue, or when sussing out a solution to a problem. Urgency and anxiety shed themselves away, empty husks our hearts shed. They aren’t an efficient part of a problem-solving mindset. Curiosity finds us in other ways, too. Sometimes it isn’t about problem solving, but about joy. We happen upon a new interest, find ourselves excited about a new book, or the prospect of a new activity now that the weather is shifting. We find ourselves simply contemplating: What would happen if . . . or, I never thought about it that way . . . or I wonder what it would be like to . . ..

What I began to realize was that curiosity could be an effective shield against anxiety and self-doubt. A subtle and very conscious shift in perspective is involved, but approaching a problem or a worry with an open heart and from a slightly different angle can remove urgency and hurt or doubt from the equation. We might find ourselves thinking, I wonder how this is going to turn out, or what if I just watch and see how things unfold?

I have spent a lot of time speculating about what others might be thinking, and sometimes contort myself through a series of emotions, as if I’m preparing for different realities that may unfold. Curiosity gives me permission to wonder what someone might be thinking without having to land on an answer, or a series of answers, and somehow deal with each one as if it is imminently true. We don’t have to prepare our hearts to endure every possible disaster, though the self-protective mindsets we develop after life’s traumas often make us feel otherwise. We walk around with umbrellas against rain and wind that isn’t there much of the time. We miss the sun.

It is unexpectedly freeing to allow yourself to be curious instead of anxious. Self-confidence is either a by-product of this shift, or the source, I’m not sure which. Perhaps a little of both. But there seems to be a blossoming effect. I’m trying it out in different situations and the beautiful thing is that not only do things shift in me in delightful ways, but equally delightful things seem to happen externally, within the situation I’d previously been anxious about. Curiosity seems to provide this room for things to grow the way they will, the way they want to, without interference. Perhaps it is the absence of anxiety and the sabotage if often sparks that allows such unfurling.

I think again of the bonsai. My son has been tending a little bonsai tree, I don’t know what kind, for almost a year. I was surprised to learn that it didn’t need to be brought in the house for the winter. It lived outside like any other tree, just in a little ceramic dish on our porch. Not that he hasn’t tended to it. In the summer and fall, he moved it out of the rain when it seemed like it was getting too much water. In early winter, he moved it to the porch where it would be more sheltered. At some point, he trimmed branches and guided one in a particular direction with the aid of wire. An odd combination of attention and neglect has allowed this little thing to flourish. The recalibration of my thoughts from worry to curiosity feels similar, a conscious effort that yields growth in small but delightful ways.

Love, Cath

On Silence, Symphony, and Liminality

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes silence is symphony and in-between places are the world.

I’m not sure how I finally decided that I would go to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra instead of saying it’s something I should do, some day. Perhaps it was when I stumbled across the fact that a world-renowned violinist would be playing Henry Ford’s Stradivarius at an upcoming show. Though I’m not a musician, I’ve heard the lore of Stradivarius from a “civilian” perspective and have long been intrigued. Plus, the program also included a selection from West Side Story, which simply seemed like a whole lot of fun.

adult arch art band
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Atmosphere, Music, and Memory

I didn’t pay much attention to the other items on the program until my date and I were seated and I had a moment to flip through the hefty booklet featuring musician bios and programs for the whole series of shows this season. To be honest, I was a little star-struck by the building’s interior, so sophisticated and opulent I could barely focus on the glossy pages in my hand. The pale columns and tasteful Greek-looking embellishments contrasted in just the right way with the red velvet upholstery of the narrow seats. The whole affair seemed both extravagant and restrained. Up in the highest balcony, I felt almost dizzy. This could have been in part because we failed to leave ourselves enough time to eat before the 8 p.m. performance, and the peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich I’d had in my cubicle at 11:30 a.m. had worn off long off long before.

Sitting there, absorbing the atmosphere the same way I take in beach air. I felt taut and eager. I wondered if the musicians felt that way too, waiting to take the stage to tune up.

My children began playing in their school’s orchestra in the fourth grade; my daughter is a violinist, my son, a cellist. I do not play an instrument, I cannot read music. The reasons for this seem largely economic, and therefore, unfair, but much of life works out this way and you can’t really dwell on it too much. When I was very young, my grandmother had begun to teach me the piano. We had a piano in the basement of our home where I practiced. I don’t remember if I loved to practice or hated it. I remember the music books, and how friendly they seemed, eager to teach me how to plunk out the notes to “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” My family moved, though, to a smaller place and we did not take the piano with us. Later, in fifth grade, when band started in my middle school, I wanted to try out the instruments, maybe play the saxophone. But the financial difficulties my family was experiencing at the time made it impossible to acquire an instrument. In my adult life, I’ve tried to teach myself the piano again, with an inexpensive keyboard and a beginner’s book. My daughter also showed me some chords on the ukulele. I wanted to learn Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” but I could not figure out the way the chords, and a strumming pattern I was unable to grasp, worked together to create the song. I’ve often thought of taking piano lessons, but the cost combined with my previous failures have intertwined and amplified, creating what I know is only the illusion of an obstacle. But it still feels like an obstacle.

The Thrill of Anticipation

So when the musicians took the stage and began to warm up, the thrill I felt was that of an outsider peering into a secret, coveted world. And at the same time, I was here, with all of these other people, all feeling everything they had brought with them from the outside world into this space. We all waited together, a collective holding of breath that only gathered like a wave as the musicians tuned their instruments.

The combination of the knowledge and skill possessed by the musicians, along with the obvious communion among them, always leaves me feeling a sense of bittersweet love and longing. After a few words from conductor Leonard Slatkin, the first notes sounded, and I sighed. My right hand was taken by my date, a man I was thrilled to be sharing this experience with. I closed my eyes for a moment, to listen, to feel, with focus.

The program opened with a premiere of a new composition, Dune Acres, by Kristin Kuster. That the composer was a woman was something Slatkin observed was still a rarity, though things were changing, he told us hopefully. The piece was stunning. What I remember most was the second movement, where the deep, graceful notes of a harp seemed to form the backbone of the piece.

Sound and Silence

And then Slatkin introduced John Cage’s 4’33”. To this point, I was unfamiliar with the work of this experimental composer. Slatkin described what we were about to hear: four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. What? Slatkin didn’t speak extensively about Cage’s intent, but he described Cage’s interest in what happens in the space between the notes, where the reverberation ends and just before the next note sounds. He spoke of the interaction between the musicians and the audience, and he quipped about the sounds we might hear—most notably, from the previous night’s performance, people coughing.

It began without much fanfare, because, well, it’s silence. It is a peculiar thing, sitting in a room filled with hundreds of people doing their best to be completely silent. Well, some of them were. There were the whisperers behind us, who frustrated me. I wanted them to take it seriously. Cage’s piece didn’t have the feel of a colossal, sophisticated joke, although I supposed one could take it that way. But I think Cage was calling us to awareness, he was calling us to participation, to comraderie. In a way, I sensed that Cage perhaps intended with this piece to quietly erase the boundary that I had been feeling when I walked into Orchestra Hall, the boundary between musician and non-musician. We were all in this together. I listened to the gentle, relaxed breathing of the man at my side, felt him caress the inside of my wrist with the warm stroke of his fingers. There were moments where no one coughed or whispered, and traffic noises from outside intruded. The rustling of fabric as people fidgeted carefully seemed unobtrusive, a feathery component of this symphony of ambient noise. We had been offered the arguably rare opportunity to be completely present in this singular time and place, participating as individuals and as community. Slatkin had noted that the piece would seem longer than four and a half minutes, but to me, it went by quickly. It was a peaceful thrill of ebb and flow, this silence.

We were brought out of this trance with a few words from Slatkin. The violinist, Kimberly Kaloyanides Kennedy, took the stage with the famed Stradivarius. I don’t have the technical music vocabulary to describe her performance, only ordinary words poorly employed and applied to the sublime—breathtaking, exquisite, magnificent. Following this performance of Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14, was a brief intermission and a romp through the “symphonic dances” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.

In the aftermath of the evening though, I kept turning back to Cage’s piece, this hushed orchestration of the sounds around us. I thought about what Slatkin had noted about the spaces between the notes. I’ve considered this notion in the past in terms of spoken and written words, in terms of all that is implied within that liminal space, that expanse between syllables. We find ourselves often in such liminal spaces – the places in-between observed phases of our lives, of our relationships – and we often feel compelled to take note of them exclusively within the context of what came before, what was to follow, or what might come next. We see them as the end of beginnings, as the beginnings of ends.

How luxurious to be allowed the space to see them for what they are, symphonies in their own right.

Love, Cath

 

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.

antique close up door iron
Photo by Lukasz Dziegel on Pexels.com

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

 

On Thriving and Neglect

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes instead of pulling weeds, you focus on sunshine and water.

Most of us live in a world where resources—our time and our energy—are limited. Sometimes we feel a great sense of urgency to focus on areas of our lives or places in our hearts that have been neglected for too long. Currently there seems to be some huge collective urge to purge and simplify. Sometimes our homes need purging, sometimes our hearts do, sometimes we discover it is time to put away emotions or memories or thoughts we’ve held on to for long enough.

Being Open to Openness

I’m a firm believer in the idea that there is no “too long” with regard to the duration of time we take to work through emotions, ponder old wounds. Things take as long as they take. We react when we are damn good and ready. Sometimes if you have to ask whether or not something brings you joy, it is too soon to be considering the answer. I have learned to be patient with myself, to look for signs that I am ready to put something away, or rid myself of it. I’m learning how to recognize when I am ready to close doors, and to know when I’m truly open to opening them.

What is Thriving?

Sometimes, we have to step back to see what actually is already thriving. We need to recognize when to focus on the doors we’ve opened and those parts of our hearts that are pumping and churning in the background, rather than on the recently healed parts that we watch over protectively, or the wounded, hurting parts trying actively to unbreak. It’s harder to do, in a way, to focus on positivity and vitality. If something is working, even with marginal efficiency, the tendency can often be to let it hum along, doing its thing. Some things cry out for attention – messy rooms, old griefs, painful memories. It is easy to feel as though anxieties and worries have been quietly festering while we’ve been attending to the day-to-day business of life. So, we turn our attention to fixing things, we surge toward repair, toward improvement. This is important work, but it isn’t the only work. And it’s okay to back-burner it.

Knowing What to Neglect, and When

The good thing is that things like anxiety and worry do not thrive on neglect. They require our fevered, obsessed attention, which keeps them well-nourished enough to tangle and choke. Nothing of value thrives on neglect. Not happiness, joy, delight, peace, calm, gratefulness, compassion, empathy, love. They all need our careful, considered attention to flourish. It is easy to get caught up in the need to fix broken things, to clear away items no longer of use to us. But when we nurture healthy states of being, things like pain, trouble, and worry can, and do, get crowded out, like tomato plants in August refusing to give up ground to weeds.

pathway between tomato fruits
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Resistance and Happiness and Magic

I think of the way, when threading a needle, the more you try, the more the thread resists, shrugging and fraying. Somehow it takes an odd combination of focus and nonchalance to get it. I have licked the split end to a point, found the good light by the window, but I don’t care if the thread makes it through, I don’t much want this button secured anyway. It’s almost that way when tending to such things as happiness. I see you, you need me. But too much direct, obvious attention makes it somehow pale and ghostly, as if it’s about to evaporate, a wish made at the wrong time and place, without pennies or fountains or the first star at dusk.

There’s a magic to it, but not tricks. There is magic in the sensing and noticing and breathing life into happiness while at the same time not chasing it, not reducing it to formulas, to mathematical if/then equations. Magic doesn’t work that way and neither does happiness. Some things, good things, are arrived at obliquely.

This is all to say, don’t forget on the thriving things too, not just the neglected things. Don’t forget to focus, but focus as in, staring at something with half-closed eyes, blurring the object but heightening the experiential sensation of sight, in that hazy Christmas light manner. This is to say, be patient. Be patient with that thread, the element of chance and change chasing the constant of the needle.

Love, Cath

On Bravery and the Ineffable

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you let yourself careen optimistically toward the ineffable.

I’m thinking about bravery right now, for a variety of reasons, mostly for chances taken. Once I whispered to someone I loved very much, I’m afraid of everything. We both decided to agree it was true. But it wasn’t. That falsehood gave us a scapegoat, though, for the way things were ending. We fashioned a tacit compact: it was okay to tell ourselves this story, at least in that moment. In a way, it gave me something tangible to hold on to, this lie that, like all lies, held some whispers of truth. It was an answer, a way – a bad way – to make the inexplicable a little easier to stomach.

Eventually, though, I allowed myself to exist in the unfathomable. This was more from exhaustion than from any carefully cultivated skill set or some divine epiphany. Still, it felt brave, permitting myself to call the lie a lie. And consequently it became acceptable to not make sense of what happened. The thing about the unfathomable is that it expands. Don’t black holes do that? You begin to realize, at some point in post-divorce life, that a lot more things don’t make sense than do. You marvel at the things that bring people together, the things that keep them together, the things that pull them apart.

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Ferris Wheels and Deep Water

Like most other humans strolling through this existence, I am, indeed, afraid of things. Fear of heights is right up there at the top of the list. If the ground is under my feet it’s not so bad, unless there is a real threat of falling off. So, a mountain hike with not a lot of exposure? I can handle that. Ferris wheel, not so much, though I still love to see them light up at night. Public speaking? Most people aren’t a fan and neither am I. Plan: avoid when possible. But I can manage it when necessary. Swimming in deep water? Feels like I’m dangling over a cliff, and it doesn’t help that I’m not a great swimmer. But I can deal in small doses. And I love being in and near the water, so I have some incentive to tackle this one.

One of the things I’ve come to realize in recent years is that some people are quite comfortable with whatever quirks like these they carry around with them. And others feel they have to hide them; perhaps, some how, they fear it makes them less than to possess such a wide and varied array of human responses to the world. Still others feel they have to face down everything as part of their journey. Our attitudes about our fears change, too, over time, and depending on how people respond to them. That context is key.

The Joys of the B-Side

I prefer the ineffable to the unfathomable. It’s the often-underappreciated B-side. Both concepts hold mystery, but to me the ineffable is something that in addition to being incomprehensible is also full of wonder and beauty, even. Sometimes I want to slide things from one category to the other, to look at some idea I will never understand and instead regard it as something I’m okay with never understanding, because it is a deep and powerful part of the universe. There is bravery here, in shifting the context. It takes courage to loosen our grasp, to let go of the need to dissect the things that cause us pain, the fears – our own and those of others – that bully us into corners.

The ineffable shifts, cloud-like, around us. Doesn’t it? Or are we doing the shifting? Today I cannot fathom how I can take this next step, or that one. Tomorrow, I fall contentedly into the not knowing, into trusting, somehow, that it’s what I should be doing.

This is all to say, as I have been for the past several posts, that being open takes a combination of things. It’s head and heart, and a little bit of context, a little bit of the world trying to show us when it’s a good time to take a risk, a little bit of someone encouraging us. You’ve got this goes a long way. So does a random smile from a stranger or a less random but equally ineffable smile from someone you just met. You don’t have to know what it means; you just have to know it’s for you.

Enjoy the ineffable, wherever it finds you. Love, Cath