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.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

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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.

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Photo by Artem Bali on Pexels.com

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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Photo by Christine Haeften on Pexels.com

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

Transformation and the Nature of the Resist

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

Messages, Mixed and Otherwise

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

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

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

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

Timing and Taffy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

A Restrained Post on Limits and Darlings

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the unsaid thing is the most important part of a conversation.

I wanted to write something eloquent, but it was like falling up the stairs. I’ve been thinking about limits, those we place on ourselves, and why. But I’ve struggled with siphoning the thoughts into something meaningful. I think the friction arose not because there was there was some opposition between what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, but because my thoughts opposed one another, and I was looking for a way to mediate.

As a writer searching for meaning and connection, I want to say all the things. And as me my instinct aches toward openness. Yet I draw the lines, we all do, careful about what we share, and when, and where. People are censured for “oversharing” and at the same time opinions bleed all over social media pages. The messages we give and get are mixed, and loud.

It all makes me restless, so I put some of what I want to say in stories and send them out and wait. It occurs to me, when I think of all the other people writing and submitting and waiting, that we are all doing the same thing. Our heads and hearts are full and aching and so we put it all into our stories. Everyone, writer or not, is trying to do the same thing—looking for an outlet while we try to mind the boundaries the world sets out, and that we establish for ourselves.

The romantic, independent, fierce parts of us scream to be limitless, to not be silenced or subdued. And sometimes we do it, we say it, we scream it, but still. Boundaries serve us, and they often serve us well. In the world of our daily conversations, or the things that pass for conversation on social media, it is difficult to swallow the unsaid things sometimes, especially when it seems that no one else is. Likewise, I’m challenged by stories that have galloped away from me, too many words all wanting to not remain unsaid, all wanting a stake in the end result. Yet some words—mine, yours—don’t actually serve the bigger picture. Writers are told to “kill your darlings,” a quote intending to acknowledge how difficult and necessary it is to eliminate beautiful prose from a work it really isn’t serving.* Maybe this advice isn’t just for the words of writers.

At the same time, I think we’ve forgotten how to listen to one another’s stories, and how to ponder in paragraphs and pages instead of snippets. I love listening to meandering trains of thought but I haven’t heard one in a while. There is a place for darlings, but we have to create it. Please let’s have dinner and let me listen to your words wander.

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Photo by Baptiste Valthier on Pexels.com

This is all to say, boundaries are not the same things as walls. Limits are not about “in” versus “out,” or spoken versus unspoken, or romantic/independent/fierce versus censured/subdued/timid. They are often about civility. They are about time and place. They can make a story better, keep a conversation going instead of shutting it down. They are about knowing your audience. Boundaries shift. We open ourselves up differently to different people, and they to us.

In “Spiritual Laws,” Ralph Waldo Emerson states, “There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.” This is taken out of context, and his meaning was more about the personal nature of our own sense of morality and ethics. Yet, in many circumstances we can be guided by “lowly listening.” We can come closer to knowing the words that need to be written, or excised, the things that need to be said, and when, and to whom. And when it is more fruitful to simply be silent, and listen.

Love, Cath

 

* The original quote is from Arthur Quiller-Couch, and it’s “murder your darlings.” It has often been attributed to William Faulkner and Stephen King, who popularized the phrase and altered it to the catchier “kill your darlings.” I’m a big fan of searching down the original source of quotations, particularly those that become memes. My son periodically hears me yelling at the computer screen, “Hemingway didn’t say that!” My favorite site for quote checking is quoteinvestigator.com, though they didn’t have any info on kill your darlings. But I did find a well-researched piece at slate.com (https://slate.com/culture/2013/10/kill-your-darlings-writing-advice-what-writer-really-said-to-murder-your-babies.html). The Emerson quote I looked up in an actual book (Emerson’s Essays, Harper and Row, 1926).

 

On Not Being Bullied by Time

By Catherine DiMercurio

I sat in a coffee and pastry shop on Saturday afternoon with my sister. Though we don’t live far from each other, it had been some time since we had seen each other. Outside the window, the street glowed with yellow and orange maple leaves, clouds of them still clinging to the trees, and somehow, an equal amount blanketing the sidewalks. It wasn’t one of those moments where you feel as though, even though you haven’t seen someone in a long while, no time had passed. Time had indeed passed. But still, though the contours of our connection had evolved, there is a constancy about that connection that my sister and I both cherish. I was glad that we both made time to spend together.

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Time is on my mind these days, as daylight savings comes to an end, and darkness swallows up our evenings. It’s easy to see what feels like the swift passage of time as an enemy. I saw a post recently on social media that said something about “The trouble is, you think you have time,” (wrongfully attributed to Buddha), as if to say, our time here is short. It’s in line with carpe diem messages. We are told we should seize the day because we aren’t guaranteed anything. We have the present, and that’s all we can truly lay claim to.

Time and Identity

We also think of our identity in time-bound ways. Who we are today may be very different from who we were as children, and who we might become as our experiences shape us. And time itself, or the passage of it, shapes us. Try as we may, we are powerless to evade the changes to our biology that occur as we age.

The beauty of it all is the power of our own mind to conceptualize such ephemeral notions as time and past and future. We may only truly have the present, we may only truly bea collection of cells and experiences, but we get to create ourselves everyday. How much do I want the experiences of the past to dictate who I am today and where I’m headed? Our past only controls our future as much as we grant it permission to. And we may grant it a lot of leeway. Acknowledging all the good woven through even a rocky history is a worthwhile endeavor.

Twin Bullies: Time, Shame

One of the reasons time, or the passage of it, is often regarded as an enemy is that shame is becomes intertwined with time. Shame that we “wasted” time, shame about what time has done to us. We are told that our time in this world, or in the lives of our loved ones, is a gift, that the act of not spending that time well is something we should feel ashamed of. But our actions have little to do with time. Treating the people in our lives well is not something we should do because our time with them is precious. It is something we should do because people are precious. This may be splitting hairs to some, but I think the distinction is important. If we focus on the people in our lives, our actions are focused on them, on treating well the people we love because we love them. If we focus on the idea that our time with them is some sort of a gift, our actions are focused on ourselves, on behaving in a certain way because of what we get out of it. A subtle shift in perspective can privilege the action of loving over the reward of not wasting time.

I didn’t have coffee with my sister thinking that my time with my sister is a gift. I don’t want to waste it. I want to make the most of it. Time is not the gift. Time just is. My sister is the gift. We wanted to share love and friendship and laughter and conversation so we decided to dedicate a portion of our time that day to each other. I think we should be clear about what we value. In this way our actions are more focused, and we elevate one another in this revaluation.

Time Is What You Believe It Is

The thing about time is that it functions independently, objectively, dispassionately—ticking away with each sunrise and sunset. It doesn’t care about us. Yet it remains very personal in the way it is recognized and attended to in our own lives. My time is mine. Yours is yours. Our relationship with time is almost spiritual in this way. If you believe you must make the most out of each and every moment because tomorrow is not promised and you live your life accordingly, so be it. Let it fill you up and give you joy. But avoid the trap of shame for not doing enough, for not seizing enough. Recognize what you value—the people you are seizing the day with, or the sunlight, or the trail, or the road. If I believe my future is filled with great things, and I’m making little plans every day to inch my way to where I want to be, so be it. I may regard the moments of today not as seconds to be seized but as a place to pause and catch my breath. A place to be, with my own thoughts, with my loved ones. And tomorrow, instead, I will seize each moment with gusto. But I will leave any shame behind, and place value where it belongs.

This is all to say, know your worth. Know the worth of those you love. Known the worth of your life. No one gets to tell you what is wasted.

Love, Cath

On Wanting, Writing, Sleep, and Geraniums

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

Compensation

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

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Sleep and Not-Sleep

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

Writing and Wanting

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

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

Greed and Goals and a Little Bit of Luck

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Empathy and Breath

By Catherine DiMercurio

I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately. I’ve noticed that empathy comes easily, almost involuntarily for some. For others, it seems to be a completely voluntary act, guided by their judgement or determination of worthiness. In these ways, empathy functions almost as a system within us, like the respiratory system, which can also be either voluntary or involuntary. We breathe whether we think about it or not, but we can also choose to control our breath – we can hold it, we can release it, we can slow it down or speed it up. Perhaps our empathic systems function in the same way. Maybe it’s not one of those “there are two kinds of people in the world” situations. Maybe there aren’t those of us who feel empathy for others almost uncontrollably and others who award their empathy at will. Perhaps, we can do both. Should we?

black and white photo of holding hands
Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

For highly empathic people, life can be a dizzying ride. We often find ourselves in-taking the emotions of those around us. It’s easy to say things like, I understand how you feel, because we find ourselves feeling it too. We are surrounded – in our minds – by our memories and our emotions about those memories all the time. It’s not difficult to draw on them, particularly when we see someone struggling with their own emotions, or in a challenging situation, or feeling misunderstood. Though dizzying, this way of walking through life is familiar, comfortable in its own powerful way.

On the other hand, I’ve had close relationships with people who are highly selective about the individuals they allow themselves to feel empathy for. It’s like a prize, a gift they offer, when they clearly convey a connection to how someone else feels. It can seem cold, and there’s often a set of factors at play that only they can see, factors that allow them to determine who is worthy of their empathy. What I understand of this way of being comes from my own experiences of being wounded enough by a person that I retreat, and I find myself shutting off that connection I once felt for them. It’s like holding my breath, a conscious decision to stop doing what comes naturally in order to protect my heart from further injury. This makes me wonder, are people who approach empathy this way – empathy awarders – also doing so as a way of protecting themselves? But from what, from whom? I suppose it is not difficult to understand that the world at large may seem threatening or unworthy. At the same time, when you approach people — strangers or acquaintances or anyone else — as individuals, I wonder if they seem as dangerous.

I understand needing to control our empathic breath on an individual basis. We all have people in our lives who form a clear and persistent danger to our soul health, and sometimes it’s best to maintain an emotional distance. It is difficult for me though to understand the withholding of empathy as a way of being, to understand those of us who refuse to even experiment with offering empathy for someone who may appear undeserving—say, someone who seemed rude while you waited in line to get your coffee, or someone with a different political ideology than you, or someone whose experiences – such as being poor, being discriminated against, or being sexually assaulted – are foreign to you. Practicing empathy, the way we might practice deep breathing exercises to combat anxiety, is the best tool we possess to combat our own biases.

Perhaps the hardest part of establishing and maintaining an empathy practice, of being cognizant of where our empathic energy flows, is letting it exist even for people whom we suspect might never have empathy for us. It’s challenging but I believe vital to the collective well-being of our selves, our communities, our world.

So, breathe. If empathy does not come naturally to you, experiment with it. If it does come naturally to you, but our current political climate has caused you shut off empathy channels you once left open, try again, breathe deeply once more, and try to remember how naturally it once came to you. Empathy breeds compassion and respect, and our world needs more of it.

Love, Cath

 

Walking the Line: Peacefulness versus Purpose

By Catherine DiMercurio

Does self-acceptance threaten our sense of purpose?

Since its inception, this blog has been intended two serve to purposes. I have wanted to share my post-divorce journey, and my corresponding intention to remain open hearted along the way, in the hopes that some reader out there might find a sense of connection, might feel slightly less alone on his or her own journey, post-divorce or as a parent, or simply as a fellow human having similar struggles. My other purpose, the one that operates so quietly in the background I sometimes don’t pay attention to it, has been much more personal. It is about trying to cultivate a sense of peace about where I am on each step of this journey. It’s about acceptance in a way. To be perfectly honest, the idea of self-acceptance scares me a little. If I’m too at peace with where I am now, will my goals evaporate? Will I stop caring about reaching them? It’s a tricky line to walk, and I think intention is at least one of the keys to walking it.

Running is a Metaphor for Everything

My son is a cross country runner. He developed a love of running long before he discovered cross country running as a sport. At his meet this past Saturday, I watched my son, along with hundreds of other people’s sons and daughters, run three miles. It is way more exciting than it may sound. And, as running often does, this meet put a few things in perspective for me.

It was a wonderful morning for a run, cool, in the upper 50s, a welcome break from temperatures in the upper 80s, which the kids have been running in. Perhaps the sun shone a bit brighter than some runners prefer (I like it a little overcast). A light but chilly breeze made us spectators snuggle into our sweaters or windbreakers. The course was quite flat. Everyone one the starting line came with a particular time goal, and I’m sure they all felt the additional pressure that favorable conditions—the flat course, the cool temperature—inspire. All of them wanted to be faster than the meet before, all of them wanted to achieve a PR (personal record). As the gun went off, I knew many of the runners, like all of us who run, would end the race frustrated. Sometimes, even when all the conditions are perfect, and you’ve been putting in all the hard work day after day, you still don’t achieve your goal.

It’s excruciating, when it feels like all the necessary components are present, but things still aren’t adding up. And this is something I relate to, as a fellow runner, as a human in her forties, as a writer. There are plenty of areas in my life where I feel like my efforts are not yielding the results I’m hoping to achieve. How do we find peace with that, but still keep striving to hit the mark we’ve been working toward?

I suspect it comes down to knowing yourself, knowing your heart. Not only do we need to be honest with ourselves about how hard we are working, we have to be willing to give ourselves some credit for what we’ve accomplished, for pushing through when the course isn’t flat, and the conditions aren’t favorable.

Like many of the kids on the course that day, my son did PR. And like many others, that pleased him, but only for a little while. He was faster than he was before, faster than his last race, faster than he’s run in a meet before. But it still isn’t where he wants to be.

Frenzy versus Focus

My personal tendency, if something isn’t falling into place, is to try and find a way to throw more energy at it. I begin to wonder if I can work harder than I thought I could, maybe I can sleep less so I can write or run more, for example. But this frenzied approach begins to feel counterproductive. I wonder if making some peace with where I am, despite not having reached my goals, might help me settle into a mindset where I can take more deliberate, focused action.

Frenzied action can often feel like hard work—after all, we’re expending a lot of energy—but often it produces frustrations that might actually be getting in our way. Think of how easy it is to get agitated while looking for missing car keys. You need to leave, the clock is ticking, but you can’t depart without the keys and the more frustrated you get, the more you are getting in your own way, the more you are not finding what you’ve misplaced. That energy you are frantically expending isn’t doing you any good until you calm down and take deliberate and focused action, such as retracing your steps.

So here we are, walking that line between acceptance and ambition, between where we are and were we want to be, whether it is with a fitness goal, a professional one, a parenting issue, or, how our lives are evolving in the aftermath of the loss of a partner through death or divorce. How do we get to where we want to be? Do we truly know what we want that to look like? And how do we not self-accept ourselves right into a state of complacency?

Here’s the thing: I crave a sense of peacefulness about who I am, and where I am in life, but I also don’t want the flame of urgency around my goals to be extinguished. How does one cultivate both serenity and purposefulness at the same time? I keep coming back to the image of a surging ocean wave; it captures the essence of what I’m after, but I don’t quite know how to emulate it.

photo of sea wave
Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Pexels.com

I wish I had the answer to this conundrum, but as I suggested above, my hunch is that intention is key. Perhaps we begin in a place of respect for our own work ethic. Maybe this is a component of that elusive self-acceptance, perhaps a good starting point. We can acknowledge our good intentions and our determined effort, and not view the lack of expected results as an indication that we’re somehow doing it wrong. Chances are, we are reaping other rewards that are less quantifiable, less obvious. Perhaps, from that solid starting point, we look at our path in a new way. Can we maintain our energy, our work ethic, but make subtle adjustments that gradually help us get to where we want to go, maybe just a little more slowly than we would like?

Perhaps, as in both running and writing, we must pause and assess our technique, our form. Is my stride too long or too short, are my arms pumping, am I focused on breathing efficiently? Am I choosing active verbs, am I falling too often into a passive voice, am I maintaining a meaningful daily habit?

For now, I suppose I’ll attempt to keep surging forward, and once in a while, I’ll look up from my course and make sure the direction I’m headed is still where I want to go. And maybe it’s enough sometimes to be able to recognize others trying to do the same thing.

Love, Cath