On Voice, Moment, and Movement

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes moments are motion, and our voice guides us through, if we listen.

Spring weather here can be a strange mix, with warm sun shining down while a frigid wind blows. Moment by moment you are alternately completely comfortable, basking in the sun that soaks into your skin, and then suddenly freezing and wishing you had a hat and gloves. This weekend my emotions played out similarly.

With my son home for a visit, relieving the solitude of my day-to-day life, I alternately felt happy, comfortable, and relaxed, and then suddenly sad and anxious, as if I existed in the moment and the ones just before and just after all at the same time.

In the course of running some errands, we stopped at the pottery studio where I take my class. I picked up a couple of glazed pieces that hadn’t turned out as I’d hoped, then we headed to the nearby gardening center. As we wandered the greenhouses, my emotions were all ebb and flow. There were layers washing over one another: the disappointment over my pottery was softened by plans for how I could improve next time; the excitement over what plants I might buy to spruce up the yard wilted as I worried about costs; but mostly, the joy at having my son home and spending time together was being washed over at the edges with the sadness of knowing we only had a short time together, and with the ache of wishing my daughter could have been with us too.

People say, live in the moment. In that moment, I was giving myself the same instruction. Do not focus on disappointment or sadness; be here with your son and the beautiful plants the smell of hyacinth and this adorable cat who wandered up to greet you. It isn’t as if I ignored joy and dwelled only in the darker thoughts. But sometimes, you have to hold it all at the same time. Sometimes the moment pushes and pulls you as though you are standing chest deep in a big lake and the waves make stillness impossible.

In navigating the movement of the moment, I often feel as though I’m straining to hear a voice over the distraction of ambient sound. I am trying to coax this voice to greater volume. The voice of instinct, of guidance, can be so quiet in me sometimes, but I have begun to understand why.

In my writer’s workshop, we’ve been talking about voice, and the way any novel opening can work if the voice is effective. When I’m writing a novel it takes a while to find that voice. Until recently, I hadn’t realized that the issue of voice in my writing and the strong clear voice of instinct that I have been listening for within me were one and the same.

There are many reasons why it is hard to hear and trust that voice within us, nudging us toward good things, warning us away from trouble. I think it can be difficult to hear your own voice if ever you were told that you were too sensitive or too needy. In response, you might have found yourself voicing feelings and needs less frequently and more quietly. You began to observe, trying to determine what emotions are allowed to be expressed, and when, and by whom. Over time, the weight of what you haven’t expressed makes you empathic. You are in-tune to the deep feeling of others because it is so heavy in you. You might have become a servant to other people’s emotions, knowing how it feels to have things unattended to. Sadly, in this way, we teach ourselves to listen more closely to others than we do to ourselves.

Well-meaning people tried to protect you from a mean world but didn’t understand that your openness and sensitivity were strengths, not liabilities. You didn’t need a thicker skin, you needed understanding, maybe some tools to help you cope. Later, less well-meaning people were able to spot your vulnerability, told you to trust them and not yourself, and that was easy to do, because your own voice had grown so quiet.

This voice is how we navigate everything, so when it is quiet, we are filled with self-doubt. And even when we train ourselves to listen for it again, it is easy to discount it.

I’ve recently tried to start running again, and I’m still incorporating a lot of walking into my running because in the past I’ve made the mistake of trying to ramp up too quickly, and I get injured, and then I can’t run at all for a while. I used to think that I “failed” at a run if I needed to stop at walk. The mindset I’m trying to cultivate now is that a successful run is the one I’ve begun. It is the one in which I listen to my body and walk when I need to.

I used to think that I failed if a story got rejected, if I never heard back from an agent, if the guy from the dating app who was messaging me disappeared. But I’m realizing now that every time I begin again, I succeed. Every time I listen to my instincts and chose hope, resilience, and perseverance, it matters. Of course, we need to rest, to pause and listen to that voice within us, to keep recalibrating our efforts to our purpose.

Do we ever get it right, the balance between when to push ourselves and when to pull back? Or does getting it “right” mean that we cultivate the awareness that balance is achieved through this movement? Sometimes it seems that balance is more about living in midst of that ebb and flow, the push and pull, than it is about a finding that briefest moment of stillness somewhere in the middle of it all. My comfort zone is in that middle space, and I’d love to learn how to expand it, but so much of life happens in the waves pushing and pulling me away from it.

Whether it is learning how to exist in a moment that is filled with the fluidity of past, present, and future all at once, or existing in the process of working through “failure” toward what we value and what we want, being able to accept the movement of the moment, of all that is pushing us and pulling us as we try to keep our footing, relies on us hearing our own voice and letting it guide us. This is our work.

I have learned that I only experience peace in the midst of all these processes when I am able to hold it all at once, when I can embrace a moment and the movement around it. It is the cat in the warm greenhouse, and the cold wind, and the peppering of disappointment and worry, and the scent of hyacinth, and my son with me now, and his imminent leaving, and missing my daughter, and the sunny joy of love, and all of it all at once.

I hope you find peace in the process and can always hear your voice.

Love, Cath

On Spinning, Wobbling, and Stillness

By Catherine DiMercurio

For a long time, I was sleeping okay, and then that little fragile peace in me eroded. Though the far-too-early-morning wakefulness startled me with the way it insisted on itself night after night, I am not surprised. Too many things have churned together to create a new storm of worry that percolates at the edges of my consciousness even when I’m not actively focused on it.

On a macro level, the world is perpetually upside down. Though it seems the pandemic is abating somewhat, we are on the edge of our seat waiting to see if it is true, if there won’t be some new variant, if this will be a collective dream we get to wake from. Added to this hazy fog of uncertainty we have the war in Ukraine, the stunning, unprovoked invasion by Russia that has shocked the world. Though we are un-shocked at the same time; we have been watching Putin’s machinations all along and in a way, there is nothing surprising at all about his actions. We stare at the images of people fleeing their homes or taking up arms, of children and pets huddled in subways, and our problems seem small. Then we turn off the news and remember that we are still trying to cope with our own troubles and though the scope of them is not as dire, everyone has either a small collection of large troubles, or a large collection of small ones, and we are tired. Our feelings and experiences don’t cease to exist when placed within the context of global tragedies. I am learning this. We do not need to obligate ourselves to feel guilty about our own griefs and troubles because someone else is dealing with something bigger. Acknowledging our own pain and struggles does not exclude us from feeling grateful for all that we have, or from feeling compassion and empathy for others. These things can all exist together.

At 4 a.m., my own collection of troubles doubles in size and intensity, because that is 4 a.m.’s particular magic—expanding, elongating, and distorting trouble. It doesn’t matter that I can unpack this suitcase. That I can name each thing that is suddenly on my mind and concerning me. That I can recognize that none of the worries should be overgrown and hungry right now. Things gnaw at us anyway.

I spent several nights sleeping in the guest room after my daughter vacated it following a brief but lovely visit. For one night, both son and daughter were under my roof with me, and there was a powerful sense of safety and familiarity, despite the foreignness that still clings to this new house. Now that they are both in back at school, something in me shifts. I scramble for a metaphor, as if being able to visualize myself moving from one way of being to another will ease the transition. I think of a spinning top wobbling toward stillness. Wobbly. Still. Is that how it feels to return to solitude? I am more familiar with my mother-self than my solitary-self, so the shift from one to the other still feels clumsy.

Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

Yet, have I ever not felt clumsy? And all transitions feel awkward, don’t they?

The past eight months have been a long transition for me, following the ending of a relationship. After break-ups in the past, I have thought of myself as being in-between relationships. I had a sense that I would find someone else, and I would know when the time is right to do so. Since the last one though, my frame of mind has been different. As I have worked to understand where I have come from, how past relationships have impacted me, and what self that has remained, the certainty that a new relationship is on the horizon has evaporated, while my comfort level with that uncertainty is growing.

I wonder if this is the part where I start to feel less clumsy in my own skin. That is tough to imagine: a me who moves through the world confidently. I think of all the experiences throughout my life that have bricked into place my sense of anxiety and my awkwardness, knowing the way each incident was built on those that came before. As a view of ourselves begins to take shape when we are young, we begin to believe in it. We believe in our perception of the way others see us. And because we are young and do not know that what these beliefs are creating is a construct that can be dismantled, the construct becomes our identity. It shapes us, and our relationships, and when we finally begin to see it for what it is, the façade is so intricate and finely formed it is hard to see it as anything separate from us.

I have always placed a high value on knowing myself. And though it is easy to lose oneself in a relationship, it is often in relationship to an intimate other where we can understand aspects of ourselves that remain elusive when we are alone. We learn about ourselves in those small moments where we compare ourselves with our partners. Preferences and needs rise to the surface. We consider what matters and what does not. On our own, we must find other methods. The work is uncomfortable at times as we excavate, uncover our identities through a slow, sifting process.

Sometimes I tell myself this work will make me a better partner one day, but I realize I am no longer doing it in order to make myself better for someone else. I believed for so long that this is what I needed to do, that this was why things in the past haven’t worked out: because there was something in me that I needed to make better in order for someone to love me. And if by some miracle they loved me even before I was better, then I should consider myself lucky to be loved when I still had so much work to do. It has not been easy, dismantling these damaged notions of self-worth and value. We all have these experiences, incidents that trigger feelings of not being enough. For me, it has been helpful to trace this feeling to its roots, to feel the collection of griefs I learned to bury along the way, to understand finally, so that I do not have to continue to re-create this pattern. It has been a clunky and awkward process but one that has allowed new perspectives to blossom.

This work feels important to me, and I have discovered that I feel a sense of peace and purpose in pursuing a certain harmony within myself. It has the power to leave me feeling at home whether I am spinning or still. I think one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves is cultivate the self-awareness that allows us tune in to what leaves us feeling at home within ourselves.

Love, Cath

On Obstacles, Works-in-Progress, and Works of Art

By Catherine DiMercurio

This week, I’m thinking a lot about work. How we look at work and reward impacts so many areas of our lives.

If we do creative work, focusing on what many define as success or reward will leave us feeling defeated and discouraged. If success is selling the product of your effort, then unless you are both extremely lucky and wildly talented, you will be discouraged over and over again. It is just the nature of trying to smoosh creativity and capitalism together. The world is full of creative folk trying to get their work “out there,” and monetizing it is tricky business. But for many creative people, the joy is in the process, in learning your craft and practicing it, and in being a part of a community of like-minded people, in sharing our work in ways that have little to do with recognition or gain. We shape words or pigment or clay or musical notes in an effort to capture truth, beauty. And even if no one is buying we are still making, because we have to.

When I was growing up, I gradually came to understand a couple of things about work and reward. At school, working hard yielded good grades, which seemed to matter a lot to my teachers and parents and I felt happier when no one was grumpy with me. And I didn’t have to work that hard most of the time. At home, I observed my parents working hard to provide for us, so I assumed that this was a given in life. Work is necessary, and if you’re going to do it, you may as well do it well was another message I got. If you’re going to do something, don’t do it half-assed, my father would say.

Yet, the work-reward model left me to conclude that not achieving a hoped-for reward meant that you didn’t work hard enough or you didn’t work long enough, or both. Those conclusions don’t always lend themselves to a healthy way of looking at ourselves. Work tends to feel futile, or washed over with something the color of failure. It took me a long time to understand that some rewards remain elusive no matter how long and hard you work, to understand that in pursuing difficult-to-achieve rewards, I was benefitting in ways I hadn’t expected.

I have had to reexamine the way I look at work and reward since my divorce. This life-changing experience, also washed over with something the color of failure, makes you look at a lot of things differently. The work of relationships is one of them. Good relationships don’t just happen, and good relationships take more work than bad ones.

I don’t know of any relationship that doesn’t take effort to maintain. Certainly, some are easier than others, but how people relate to us and us to them in any given moment is influenced by everything that has brought us each to that moment. My past has created me, in everything I learned from it and everything I didn’t, just like yours has.  

People talk a lot about “baggage,” especially when you’re dating in your 50s. I don’t think anyone’s so-called baggage is the sum of every bad thing that has happened to them. I do think we carry the weight of everything we haven’t learned from those experiences. That is why there is always work to do. With each person we interact with, our past experiences reveal themselves in new ways. We may believe we have worked through and healed from difficult events or difficult people, but we cannot foresee all the ways something will impact us. We are forever works-in-progress. That is a beautiful thing, or can be, if we turn ourselves again and again to the work that we our called to do. If we lovingly embrace that we are living, breathing works of art.

Many of the things I considered to be challenging aspects of past relationships were pointing to things I needed to learn from myself and for myself about myself. But that learning could benefit the relationship as well. For example, if a partner and I fought because I responded strongly to their avoiding communicating about their feelings, it was a chance for both of us ask why. Understanding why a person withholding their feelings triggered such a deep anxiety in me helped to pinpoint what I needed to work on, and allowed me to explain my response to my partner and ask for support. But I could only do my part. A partner unwilling to ask himself why he avoided communicating about his feelings meant that not only could he not give me the support I needed, but that he could also not ask me for the support he needed. So the issue continued to sow conflict. Instead of two people working in partnership to improve the relationship, two people suffered individually with not getting their needs met.

Not everyone sees value in this work, and not everyone is ready to do it. I think we are all able, capable of such introspection and responding to it. It is uncomfortable, but why wouldn’t we be willing to do this work for ourselves and each other? Isn’t this growth what makes us better partners, better parents, better friends, better people?

It is difficult to accept that someone can look at you, see the value in what you bring to the table, understand that there is unattended work in themselves that would present obstacles in a relationship, and choose to embrace the obstacles instead of you. They equate the obstacles, which are often learned behaviors, with their identity.

The say this is how I am.

But obstacles aren’t identity. Yes, our past gives us things to stumble over. But we are not the boulders in our way.

We are the way.

We are as much the path behind us as the path in front of us. But we are not our experiences. We are not the coping behaviors we adapted ourselves to. We are neither our joys nor our traumas. We are everything we told ourselves in response to those experiences. We are what we tell ourselves we are.

Photo by Jim Richter on Pexels.com

The beautiful thing is that as we grow and become increasingly self-aware, our responses to our experiences feel more like choices (because they are), instead of reactions that just happen.

So often people insist that they won’t change for anyone, can’t change. What do we have a right to expect of others? What should we expect of ourselves? How do we sort out what is a (maladaptive) behavior or response that we have learned from a painful experience and what is truly part of our identity? Perhaps trying to find the difference between those things only matters if there is something you wish to change about yourself, only matters if you see value in, and the need for, self-improvement. We can love ourselves for who we are at the same time that we seek growth. Those are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Perhaps it is a question of risk and reward rather than work and reward. If the journey toward self-discovery and growth could lead you toward a relationship with the potential to either be the beautiful bond you’ve dreamt of or another possible heartbreak, maybe it is a self-protective mechanism to insist that change is impossible, that this is how I am, take it or leave it, accept me as I am or walk away.

How often I have been told just that, and remained in the relationship, still pursuing my growth while trying to see how that fit in with a partner who proclaimed they would not or could not change. For me, it hasn’t worked, and I am learning to be as willing to love myself as I am to love other people.

For me, that has meant walking away, and continuing to do my own work, while I look for someone who understands that growth is a non-terminal journey. That each day gives us the opportunity be in the present in a new way, with a new understanding of what has brought us here together.

Our brains are designed to adapt to new circumstances and to one another. We have evolved to be in community with one another. We can accept who we are, and what has happened to us, and that we are flawed individuals. That is normal. That is human. But so too is taking stock of all that, and wondering how we can build on it, learn and grow from it. Is that not part of what binds us to those we love, the desire and sense of duty to learn to love one another better? And like all things, this journey begins with ourselves.

Remember, they don’t call it a “work of art” for nothing. We work hard and in that work, we are breathless, we are breathtaking.

Love, Cath

On Seedlings, Rip Currents, and New Things

By Catherine DiMercurio

Solitude is one of those gifts that doesn’t always feel like one. There is much delight in self-discovery, but the responsibility to make the most of this time can be troubling. Yet in the absence of other humans to react to and with on a daily basis there is a freedom to observe ourselves, to re-learn what makes us tick.

For me, this prolonged period of solitude has provided the opportunity to ask questions. What does being me look like when I am not in the mode of daily parenting or in a state of being partnered? In a way, being in solitude is like being the control group in an experiment about my own identity.

Here, I have the time and space to observe what affects my mood, my sense of well-being. What stressors alter the course of my day, how do I respond to them? How did I respond differently when I lived with my children, when I was with a partner? What do I like about the way that I live and think and feel, and what would I like to improve?

Here is something I’m learning about growth. Imagine one of those old, time-lapsed photography videos of a germinating seedling, the way it pushes through the dirt up to the warm sunlight and begins to unfurl. I wish my growth was like that, unconscious and inevitable, rooted in the instinct to move toward the light. When a human chooses to pursue growth—emotional, psychological, relational, etc.—they bump up against obstacles that can feel more troublesome than the soil a seedling faces. We must move through them somehow to get to where we want to go. It is not an instinctual movement with a clear direction. For many, growth requires confronting fears, and most fears stem from old wounds, from past relationships that reach all the way back through our childhoods. Our growth often requires that we dig down before we can inch up.

Photo by Gelgas Airlangga on Pexels.com

One of the things I have learned about myself is about the way I pursue things, or avoid pursuing them. Sometimes I can’t sink my teeth into something that intimidates me until I have run out of all the excuses to avoid trying. Sometimes I can’t truly let go of someone—even after the relationship has ended—until I have exhausted myself trying to figure out why it didn’t work. Things take as long as they take. Especially because we have to live life at the same time we are doing this work.

We owe ourselves these searches, these explorations of wounds to be done grieving, of lessons to be learned. But it’s hard and we need to take breaks. And the work does not have an exclusive claim to our time. We have other things to do. I have a full-time job, writing goals, hobbies, dogs who are strangely like best friends half the time, and mysterious toddler-like creatures with a never-ending set of demands the other half.

Some people seem better equipped to live in the moment. I feel as though I’m almost ready for whatever moment I find myself in, I just have to think about a few more things first.

In having all this time to myself, I decided it was time to learn something new. I had two aims in mind: learn the new thing, and, to learn something about myself in the process. One of the reasons I wanted to learn the new thing is that I have begun to understand the extent to which I have lost myself in past relationships. So, I am exploring the lost self, the remaining self. Further, I have a duty to undertake this exploration openly and honestly, to side-step self-criticism, and to nurture myself through this process with as much care as I would treat anyone who is going through transition or transformation.

The new thing, if you’ve read any of my recent blog posts, is pottery. It is an artform rich in metaphor. It is an artform where proficiency is elusive. Developing even rudimentary skills is challenging, more so than I ever imagined. Instead of being able to feel relaxed, or excited, or joyful, or curious about learning this new thing, I have found with dismay that I’m often frustrated or anxious. It is a disappointing reaction. I try not to be disappointed. I try to dig. Anxiety tries to point us in certain directions. Just like pain is our body’s way of telling us something is wrong, our anxiety is a way of our brain telling us that something is off. Certainly, there is nothing much actually dangerous about pottery, so why was I reacting this way, with so much worry? Was it more than just wanting to do well and struggling to get there?

I was about to head to the pottery studio and my anxiety was jangling so loudly it felt like I could hear my teeth rattle. Instead of ignoring it, or trying to distract myself, or telling myself to knock it off, I decided to talk myself through it. I asked myself a series of questions that kept whittling down the issue to a couple of difficult past experiences (long past!) and the years of emotional residue they left. I let myself experience the emotions those memories brought with them.

Sometimes anxiety makes us feel as we are in current danger even though our brains are remembering something else. So, this time, I tried to be aware of what was remembered, and feel it, and understand it, and forgive myself and the people around me. Miraculously, the anxiety that had gripped me so tightly evaporated. I didn’t realize it at first. I just found myself packing my tools, and I sensed that I felt better, calmer. I went in and spent three hours making a lot of mistakes on the wheel and when I was finished, I didn’t feel terrible about the mistakes as I had done in the past. I thought, this is great; my hands are getting used to how the clay feels, how it behaves. I was able to enjoy the process of failure.

If you’ve ever swum in Lake Michigan you may have seen the signs posted about dangerous rip currents, and how they pull unsuspecting swimmers away from the shore. The signs instruct you, should you get caught in a rip current, to swim parallel to the beach, so that you can get out of the rip current, before heading back to shore. Though I have never experienced a rip current, this is what anxiety sometimes feels like. There is no current (immediate) danger, but there is current danger (danger of getting pulled under and away by the current). The moment when I started asking myself questions about the anxiety that I felt was key. I took it seriously and didn’t panic. I realized that while I was not in imminent danger physically, I was in danger of the anxiety taking over, pushing me under. My questions allowed me the opportunity to swim parallel to the shore. Arriving at the studio in a calm state was much better than having to fight the jangling the whole time.  

While pottery is the new thing I am using to try and learn about myself as I learn about the art itself, life is going to give us all other new things. I think it is important to try and understand ourselves so that when things come our way, we know what to do with them, how to handle them, what holds us back, what pushes us under, what moves us forward.

I have a Post-it note stuck to my computer monitor. It reads: curiosity. I’m trying to let that guide me. To be curious rather than skeptical about new things and to wander through this part of my life with the open-heartedness with which I started the blog in the first place. Happy wandering! May your next new thing be good to you.

Love, Cath

On December Moments & a Moon, on Resolve & Routines

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you look at yourself in a new light.

I try not to make New Year’s resolutions. It feels so contrived. At the same time, contrived or not, I have always felt a kind of magic at the stroke of midnight. With a tick of a hand on the clock, we suddenly turn a page. These are just numbers, arbitrary ways of marking time conceived of long ago by men who needed to do so to efficiently wage war.

This is not an accurate account of the history of time. I have a vague memory of learning about Julius Caesar creating the calendar roughly as we know it, and I imagine him doing so in order to plan empire-building attacks. And “civilized” society grew on such foundations and now we are able to not only war more precisely, but we learned to mark out work weeks. I think I would have preferred just partnering my movements with those of the sun and the seasons.

But, here we are. Everything we do is pushed through the sieve of the clock.

So as this year is ending, I keep thinking of things I want to prioritize in the coming year. Things that have fallen away that I want to get back to, new things to explore.

I always have writing goals, but as I wait for the publishing world to make decisions on my submissions, I feel like I need a new way of looking at success. Is success, or the lack thereof, related to the fact that a tiny fraction of a percent of what I have written has been published? Or is success deliberately cultivating a writing life? Writing every day, learning about writing, finding ways to be parts of different writing communities, reading. There is no new story here. I want to see success as the journey, not the goal, since the goal is elusive and I’m working very hard and want the work to mean something. I imagine there are two types of people who do this: people who have not achieved the goals they hoped to, and people who have, and understand that achieving a goal is not as brilliant as you think it is going to be. You hold it for a moment and then it slips away, and in its place, we fix another goal/hurdle. The fact is, the world is going to define success however it wants to. And the only path to sanity (and one’s ability to remain motivated), is for each of us to decide for ourselves what success means. What if it is that simple?

On the morning of the solstice, I walked with my dog beneath a waning gibbous moon. I paused to notice its particular shape and glow, and decided in that moment that this was my favorite moon phase. Waning gibbous. [Later I will think of the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” when I consider why the waning gibbous is my favorite: “I do not know which to prefer / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendos, / The blackbird whistling / Or just after.” I love the settling calm after the full moon, like a bird’s ruffled feathers hushing back into place.]

A flutter of movement caught my eye, pulled my awareness fully from the moon and toward a young stag, on its way back to the little strip of wood between the golf course and the houses that abut the creek. We looked at each other. My dog was quiet, alert. The three of us paused this way, for several lovely moments. I always hope when something like this happens, on the rare occasions that it does, that it means something. That I’m on the right path.

Photo by Diego Madrigal on Pexels.com

A few days later, on Christmas morning, I awoke to the knowledge that my children once again slept in rooms a few feet from mine, snuggling with the dogs. We haven’t woken up together on Christmas Day in this house before. The knowledge left me with the feeling of peace and anticipation, like opening a letter from someone you missed and hadn’t seen for some time.

Some mornings, my first thoughts upon waking are about what is missing instead of what is present. I imagine someone kissing my shoulder, making us coffee, beginning our day together. Other mornings it is easier to unfold into my own day, rather than my imaginary one, to make the coffee and write and walk the dogs.

I have come to cherish this routine, my routine: waking in the darkness, finding words and purpose, then getting outside. I shake my sleepy head the way the dogs do and see what lands on the page—strange new ideas, one gorgeous metaphor to wrap a sentence around, or sometimes, thoughts I can’t quite string together or make sense of. And then, as the sky begins to lighten, I walk the puppy, who is jumpy still around anything unexpected—a car backing out of a driveway, a dog barking across the street. We move into the world before the world is moving, a short brisk walk where we sometimes dart from smell to smell as he investigates. And then, we return home, and I switch dogs. My senior pup’s walks are long and purposeful. Ahead, ahead, let’s go. Sometimes he stops to sniff but he is about movement, and I watch the way his stiff joints seem to loosen and ease. The joy he takes in his morning walks is spectacular. And even if I’m frustrated from the writing, or how much the puppy pulled or lunged, by the end of this second walk something in me usually loosens and eases as well.

I recall how difficult maintaining this routine was in my last relationship and I’m disappointed that I sacrificed so much of myself to a situation where little was offered in return. But this is how we learn. This past year I have learned so much about what I truly value. About what I like. Not only what I enjoy doing, or what pleases me about my life. I am learning what I like about myself. This is good territory. I’ve been here before but have not inhabited this space. I’ve dropped in for visits but only as a tourist. I’m becoming a local now. I didn’t know you could do that. That I could. If such things are taught some place, I missed the lessons. I feel as if it never occurred to me before to develop a more conscious understanding of myself in this manner. I think deeply and often about my feelings and my past and my flaws, but I have spent so little time in this other region of selfness. I keep returning to this thought: I didn’t know it was okay to want to.

Even as we are dealing with so many stressors and responsibilities, we somehow must learn to be our own guidance counselors, and to put ideas in front of ourselves to consider. For me, it was: have you given any thought to what you like about yourself? One of the benefits of pursuing this line of thinking is that there is so much less time and energy to pursue the endless ruminating on what relationships failed and why. I have ruthlessly covered every inch of that ground, dragging myself through the dark woods over and over again. What did I miss, could another path have been taken, what went wrong, what went right, you better learn from this so it doesn’t happen again. To spend time instead exploring the other worlds inside my heart is a gift. I could chastise myself for not getting here sooner, but I think we’ve covered the ground of self-recrimination in several ways at this point.

So instead, let’s explore lightness and joy. Instead, let’s allow that we have learned and re-learned old lessons, we have dissected mistakes, grief, loss, and failures. Let us now resolve to learn and re-learn what success means to us, what joy does, what self does.

Love, Cath

On Safe Havens

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we figure out what we need.

Some transitions take longer than others; or, I am slow to acclimate to change. I think about where I belong and where I don’t and have not come to any conclusions except that sometimes it feels like nowhere, or at least, not here.

A few weeks before my house began a revolt with its perpetually problematic furnace, I finally got out of it for a couple of days. I’d booked a cabin in the woods in a state park not too far from home. I’d painstakingly arranged for care for the dogs, though I worried about my absence being difficult for them. My plan was to go away to write in solitude, but when one of my sisters, who was in need of some solitude herself, asked to join me, I was happy to say yes. She volunteered to take care of all the food, and let me write, and when I needed breaks we’d be able to enjoy each other’s long-missed company, and walk in the woods. Few things are ever exactly what you need, but this was. It felt soft and safe. It felt like the childhood safety and freedom from worry she and I had enjoyed together. It was laughter and peace. And I did get a fair bit of writing done. And we rambled through the woods in the late-September sun.

Back at home, I tried to hold on to that sense of peace and security, but I was also faced with what I had left—living in a house and in a town that I’m still acclimating to after a year, a place that resists feeling like home. Part of it is that in addition to my son leaving for college, the relationship I thought I’d be cultivating here had ended and I have found it difficult to create a sense of belonging to a place that did not have my people in it. For decades, home had been about family. Adjusting to a lack of a human population within these walls has been a bumpy ride.  

It’s a strange thing to make peace with an object as big as a house, and one that at times has seemed like it has wanted to eject me. Look, I say. We just have to make this work. Yet, you are not what you pretended to be. Things I loved about you when we first met all need to be repaired or replaced. Other things I loved about you that no longer matter: you kept me close to someone who mattered.

You were supposed to be a safe haven. But then I remember, that’s my job, not yours.

Safety, in all its forms, is both complex and simple. So easy to lose, so hard to get back. I think many of us experience this loss of a sense of safety at various points in our lives, whether it be in the aftermath of trauma large or, smaller but chronic, or an ongoing familial or financial crises that takes its toll.  We look back and try to remember what it was like to feel safe. Maybe it was so long ago you can hardly remember, or maybe it was a recent loss, sudden or gradual. Or a combination of all these things.

I believe it is also true that many people who feel anxiety or stress are unable to identify its true source as the absence of a sense of personal safety. It is difficult to pinpoint the source of trouble within ourselves, and it is easy to write off a deep, unsettled feeling as “stress.” But I have been wondering if it is actually stress that is the source of the anxiety I often struggle with, or something deeper.

In the course of these past couple of months of adaptation—to the loss of a relationship, to my newly emptied nest, to solitude that wears a different face every day—I have tried to explore troubled feelings when they arise. One of the things I’ve come to recognize is that a chain reaction of harm is occurring, and it is eroding my ability to be what we all need to be for ourselves: unassailable safe haven.

When I have a setback—expensive home repairs, a rejection of a writing submission I was really hopeful about, the text that erases the budding hope for a new potential relationship—my first thoughts are not those that self-soothe and comfort. They are those that self-criticize. Worse, they sometimes wound even deeper, mirroring the act of shaming that others have done to me in the past. What’s wrong with you? How could you let this happen?

How can we ever feel safe with someone who is makes us feel less than, who prods us about things we should have known or done, or belittles us for “bad” decisions, or for outcomes beyond our control? If we told a friend that someone we cared about was treating us this way, they might say, “that’s awful, that person does not love you.” What might our response be? Would we defend? Insist that they are only trying to protect us? What do you do when the person hurting you and tearing you down is yourself?  

There is undoubtedly a part of us that thinks it can protect us by pointing out things we could have done differently, things that didn’t work out well before, in order to try and keep us safe from further harm. There is a part of us that wants us to do better, be better. This critical voice pushes us because it loves us, and when we have pushed ourselves before, when we have tried harder and achieved, it may have seemed that this did make other people love us more. We may have told ourselves that. That people love us better when we can demonstrate that we have achieved certain external success. And that means a lot when we have been unable to create that love and safety within ourselves.

Did we even know we were supposed to? I’m not sure I even knew that as a concrete thing, that it wasn’t going to be enough to let my sense of safety be housed within my relationships instead of myself.

Sometimes we learn too well from all those who have been critical in the past, individuals and institutions that have used shame as a tool to control us. And when we use the same tools on ourselves the result is anxiety and self-doubt and depression. But how can we self-soothe, how can we turn inward for comfort when times are tough, if we have cultivated an inner critic whose voice is louder and meaner than anything else inside us?

For some of us, this all results in a situation in which we feel more at peace with a partner than on our own, because in solitude we have not been able to create a space in which we feel completely safe. This has been true for me. Yet I felt entirely comfortable providing that safety that I withhold from myself to someone else. When it works, when it is mutual, it can beautiful, and some healing can happen there, to feel that your heart is being cared for so tenderly by someone else. You might even begin to learn how to do this for yourself. But if such care is withheld, what often kicks in is not an instinct to self-nurture. Rather, it is the voice that tells us that we were never worth it to begin with.

I think all this is why writing feels so important to me—I can transcribe not just the darkness and hurt, but also the light and the balm, and I can create, in an imaginary world, things that I struggle to create internally. I try to teach it to myself, by showing what works and what doesn’t. This, not that, please.

It is also why rejection in all forms is so difficult. When connection feels like safety, then being told we aren’t someone’s cup of tea, or our creative work is not a good fit, or good enough, can be demoralizing. There is no magic to feeling okay with any of that. However, practicing and learning how to be a source of connection and safety within and for ourselves is the key, and not just to handling rejection. It is the path to being able to cope effectively with all that life throws at us.

We must be able to believe ourselves when we say I am safe. We must be able to give that gift to ourselves. I must. I’m working on it, now that I have finally figured out that this is what I should be doing. If this is your work too, I wish you love and luck.

Love, Cath

On Feathers and Full Moons, Equinox Rain and Wheel Barrows

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we find lost things and lose sleep.

On a recent early, early morning when I couldn’t sleep, I pulled out a notepad to try and capture the things that were making me anxious and unsettled. I often can’t sleep around the time of a full moon. When I return to such notes, I’m often saddened and alarmed at how amplified my worries can be at this dark hour, how they reach and seep, inky and dark. For me, so many of the things that keep me awake at night hinge on the notion of self, on what I believe I am and am not capable of.

I think of the line from the William Carlos Williams poem: “So much depends / upon a red wheel / barrow.” So much depends on how I view myself, so much depends on the idea that I can be depended upon. On the longing to depend on myself, and the fears of falling short. So much depends upon the notion that I must be useful, effective, sturdy as a wheel barrow waiting to carry the weight and do the work.

How quickly when something isn’t going well my brain shifts all its patterns to shame. Many of us worry that we will be perceived as weak, unable to handle this or that. Not worthy of the work, not useful, not effective. Why is it, when we acknowledge that we struggle, that we are compelled to feel shame or embarrassment? I see how readily people judge one another on social media, how prevalent the notion of shame is in our society, a hungry mouth fed by religion and class or other similarly contrived ideas about worth.

I often wonder how to let go of expectation – mine and yours. Is it an act of will or fatigue?

What I wrote on that sleepless notepad was this: If hope is the thing with feathers (as Emily Dickinson suggested) then I must be doing it wrong, because there is no downy softness, no lightness, no promise of flight. And I have felt it leaving me sometimes, like a lover in the early morning. I have wondered if hope is more thorn than feather, but maybe I’m getting it mixed up with something else. Expectation, maybe.

Sometimes I try and think about what connects us all, and I think about love and loss. We have all loved and lost in so many ways, yet we get stuck in our own heads. I do. I get stuck. It’s easy to do, isn’t it? So much of life is pulling oneself out of the muck. For some of us, it takes a lot of endeavoring to cleave to the higher ground, to keep our perspective focused on what moves us forward instead of what is wrong, what has gone wrong, what might go wrong. Our accumulated griefs are heavy and they conspire against us in the form of fear of future pain. We anguish over the possible fading of strength and loss of will to do heavy work, to carry and pull our weight.

Photo by Sourav Mishra on Pexels.com

The persistent rain outside my window has erased the steamy summer days that preceded it. It is an equinox rain and you can feel autumn in the space between the rain drops. I have set things in motion to look forward to this fall – a writing weekend away, a pottery workshop, a pile of books that I vow to turn to instead of collapsing in front of the television at the end of a workday. I know that when I feel as though I’m falling, I have to throw myself a rope here and there in the near future. Maybe that can be another thing that connects us.

A few moments ago, I heard a bird singing in this downpour. I thought it strange, wanted it to seek shelter. But also, I considered the rest of Dickinson’s opening stanza:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

And then some magic drew me into its circle again. It is often like this for me when the changing season corresponds to a personal transition. Things feel weighty and moods shift in pendulum parabolas. It is a time of deep thinking, of reflection on where I’ve been and where I’m going. This is my way. I’m not sure I truly was cognizant of it before now, the way sleeplessness coincides with full moons, and a deep sense of reckoning coincides with changing seasons.

This is what writing does for me. It crystalizes things, translates and distills it all, so I know what to focus on. Some people find this through nature, prayer, meditation, physical exertion, this clarity. But I think we all seek it, each in our own ways, which is another thing that perhaps connects us.

This rumination begins in the middle of a stream of thought and seems to go nowhere when I read it through, but at the same time, it is doing what I need it to do. It pins down a moment, arrests a thought in flight long enough to view it a little more closely. And it reflects where I am and where I suspect a lot of us are in these turbulent times. We are uncertain, not confident, wondering what we are made of and what we will be when we grow up and into the next part of our lives. We are at once in the middle and at the end and at the beginning again, waking from a hazy dream during a full moon in the middle of the night. We are listening to a few notes of birdsong in equinox rainfall.

Wishing you wisdom and clarity.

Love, Cath

On Want, Work, and Growth

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we will try many ways of looking before we can see.

Sometimes when we want something very badly, we will look at it from every angle, multiple times, even creating angles that are not there. Hope can do that – create prisms out of thin air. Shiny things that distract our minds and hearts from difficult truths. But at some point, the blinding brightness of the light is muted by a cloud – of anger, of fear, of sadness – and we are able to see things with a new clarity, and then, to move in the direction we need to go.

I told my sister recently that I’ve been gardening as if my life depended on it, and I wondered if it really did, in a way. Not the fact of my life itself, but the way I want it to unfold. I told her that when there is so much to do, you can hardly even tell I’ve done anything. A lot of the hard work we do can be like that. We wonder and worry about how our efforts will be perceived, though we know how we’ve endeavored.

When we say we want something “very badly” we mean this: we want it very much. Sometimes we are told that what we want is a bad thing to want. It is silly, it is pointless, it is too much, it is ill-defined, you won’t get it, the world doesn’t work that way, who do you think you are, to want such a thing? No one gets what they want. As if wanting the right thing for ourselves and our future is somehow the wrong thing to do. I suppose sometimes it is. I suppose, in some philosophies, the teaching is to eliminate wants, the way some people eliminate carbs. They are bad for us. Maybe that’s true. Or maybe we are all wired differently. Sometimes we simply must respect the differences.

We offer trellises to vines, thinking of future growth. There is planting and wanting and planning everywhere. There is growth in new directions. We are many things at once: the vine, the trellis, and the gardener who plants the vine and places the trellis. We are who we’ve been and who we want to be, as much as we are who we are in this moment. Multitudes, always.

My gardening has involved creating beds and pathways out of an overgrown, weedy, neglected area behind my garage. It was long abandoned when I arrived in this place, about a year ago, and for many reasons, I was not able to make it a top priority. Now, with more time available and some fraught and frenetic energy on hand, I got to it. Digging, planting, creating. It isn’t finished. Like everything good, it is a work-in-progress, something to always tend.

We need the work and the work needs us.

I planted a little baby of an Eastern white pine. I’d been longing to plant a pine tree for a while. I researched them. Realized many of the specimens I thought were pine trees were really spruces. Things often reveal themselves to be something other than what you thought they were.

I looked for trees months ago, but it was too early and none of the gardening or landscape stores had them yet. Then I looked too late, I thought, because I still was not finding what I was looking for. But yesterday, I found the white pine. I greeted this creature, as if knowing it already. There you are, hiding here in the back at this store I never come to. So, there’s hope I guess, buried in gardening metaphors, about timing and finding, maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard to see clearly sometimes. Remember?

My current state of mind is work- and growth-focused. Writing and gardening. Dig, prune. Wait for rain. Be patient. Blossom? Maybe. Sometimes it works out that way.

Love, Cath

On Art, Home, and Haziness

By Catherine DiMercurio

A friend and I recently were writing to one another about why we write. That conversation yielded for me an understanding that why is a question awkwardly affixed to the relationship I have with writing, which is more akin to the relationship I have with my skin than anything else. In a broad sense, it is something I have, something I need, something that protects me.

On a practical level, yes, writing is also something I do. Sometimes it is an act of artistic creation and sometimes it is an involuntary function that happens automatically and silently, the way my brain tells my lungs to breathe. Things are unfolding all the time in my mind and I wish I could somehow capture more of it. Sometimes writing is my only hope for effectively communicating my heart to the world, (or to the more individual and larger universe of me and you).

Sometimes writing is a job and sometimes it is a wish, but it is always skin.

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years, weeks, days, minutes, always, trying to pinpoint such facets of my identity throughout the changing circumstances of my life. This intense scrutiny was kickstarted by my divorce, though I had long been focused on issues of identity in my writing, always trying to figure out if we become more of who we are as we age, or less.

As I enter my first spring in this new place, I sat down recently with my coffee and felt myself settling in, to here, to now, to me. And I thought, maybe I’ve been asking the wrong questions about identity and self-awareness. Maybe the most direct route to understanding who am now is this: what makes me feel at home within my own skin, no matter where I am?

The first thing I thought of was the coffee I was drinking, as I sat on my new-ish IKEA sofa in this still-new-to-me home. I then pictured myself at my boyfriend’s place, still new-ish to him. It is a curious thing: you find yourself in a life where none of the places in which you find yourself are ones in which you have much history. So where is home, then, except housed within us, and created anew, sitting next to this person who seems able to keep making space for you, and you for him. You put out the welcome mats for one another, sweeping them off or airing them out if there is ever difficult weather.

Photo by Nathan J Hilton on Pexels.com

It is a marvelous but strange thing to be aware of your own history-making. To contemplate the ways in which home and history are related, but not in the ways you once thought. I recommend keeping an eye out for it, for the art you are making of self, seemingly out of thin air, or from webby gossamer strands, every day.

As I walked around the yard with the dogs one morning, it smelled like summer. Recent rain on thirsty dirt, a damp promise of heat panting in the air. I thought of drinking camping coffee, sitting with the kids in the morning, outside the tent, feeling cozy. The memories collaged in my brain, out of order, but collective. This too is history and home and self. It remains, clean and bright and clear, even in the aftermath of events that left much of the past feeling sooty and smudged.

It may seem strange to utilize list-making and note-taking as paths to self-discovery. Such a process lacks the romance of the quintessential road trip motif. However, sometimes things don’t work that way. It is less a fun, crazy journey and more paying attention and hard work. Mostly, I crave simplicity. I want to create obvious paths to certain self-knowledge, so that I can quickly run toward what I know and like about myself. So I can gallop toward safety, when I’m feeling anxious, or filled with self-doubt, or self-criticism. It is so easy for the negative to overtake us sometimes. We need to have our escape routes planned. Sometimes you have to sit down with yourself and go through the checklist, the way in elementary school we had to ask our parents what the escape plan was if the house were on fire. You have to tell yourself, when dark thoughts begin to suck you in, that there are the paths back to yourself, that you know the way. It is too easy to get lost in the thick haze and smoke of anxiety, depression, fear, or grief.

I feel as though I’m often vacillating between extremes – between being overly candid or completely withdrawn, between whole-hearted enthusiasm and active detachment. I wonder how people find middle ground. I speculate that there is a place thought of as “normal” and most of us hover around the edges, not seeing each other, and the imaginary normal place is teeming with a healthy population of individuals that can communicate with one another with ease and confidence. But in reality, most of us fumble, we hurt and get hurt, we regroup, we take deep breaths and fall silent. We clear our throats, and our eyes, try to speak and see, and be seen once more. Sometimes we manage to get it right, to find a safe, strong hand in the haze, and so we practice the art of holding on to one another.

Love, Cath

On Companionship and Work

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes being part of the pack means doing your share of the work.

With a head full of the fog of disrupted and insufficient sleep, I listen gratefully to the peaceful snoring of two dogs. I have two dogs again. In truth, I hadn’t been contemplating getting another dog for very long. Until recently, I’d still been discovering the new rhythm to the days after my son moved home from college. My son and I get along quite well, but when it was time for him to move into the dorm in the fall, he was ready for the next part, as was I. I admit that single parenting since the kids were eleven and thirteen had in many ways exhausted me. It was a beautiful, joyful, painful, bittersweet collection of years, and the three of us grew in strange and fascinating directions during that time. It felt as though we were always finding our footing, but we kept finding a way to make it work. Still, when my son left for college, as trepidatious as I was, for him and for me, I was looking forward to it.

He moved home before Thanksgiving, as the university was announcing that next semester would be exclusively remote for most students. What was supposed to be several weeks home for the end of the term and winter break began to unfold differently. It was now the beginning of something longer: the end of term, and then the break, and then the next semester, and then summer. We tried once more to find our footing, unsure of what the balance between independence and family time should look like, now. Other things were happening, too. My eleven-and-a-half-year-old dog, Phin, had begun to visibly pine for the companionship of the husky that lives behind us. As I worked in the yard, Phin would position himself by the fence and stare at Apollo’s back door, waiting for the moment when the dog would bound toward the fence and play chase along the fence line. And at the same time, a friend was fostering a pregnant dog who had just given birth to a litter of eight. Daily, my boyfriend and I watched the progress of the puppies on Facebook. We began to consider the reality of what it might be like to adopt one. We pondered the logistics. And when I contemplated one obstacle or another, I thought of Phin, staring through the fence at the neighbor’s backdoor, waiting for the companionship of one of his own. Isn’t that what we all crave? I kept thinking, we’ll figure it out. We’ll just figure it all out.

Zero is the puppy we adopted. Phin was overjoyed when we brought him home, though the excitement has been tempered by reality. We knew it was going to be a lot of work; Phin did not. The work has begun in earnest. For now, the focus is on potty training and redirecting the natural puppy inclination to chew on everything that moves and everything that doesn’t. Phin is playful and patient, and sometimes, too tired to be either of those things, but the relationship shows every indication of being the type of canine friendship I’ve long wanted for Phin, and the kind that Zero clearly wants too, particularly in the absence of his seven siblings.

Consequently, I’ve been thinking a lot about companionship, and the work it entails. About the relationship I’m cultivating with my boyfriend. About the ever-changing relationships I have with my children, each tended differently, but earnestly. I think of the friendships I try to maintain, and those that have been difficult to keep up with. Like Phin, most of us seek the companionship of our own kind. In my boyfriend, I see a sensitive, artistic, empathetic thinker, a fellow introvert who often looks at the world the same way I do. We are not like-minded in everything, but to me, it seems as if his heart and brain are filled with as many curious twists and turns as mine. From the time I met him, I sensed he was one of my kind. Being near him, I feel both at ease and exhilarated. I lean in, like one big dog greeting another.

This post has been written in fits and starts. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve let the puppy outside, or redirected his chewing. Yet, it is my job to teach him. It is my responsibility to help him grow into his friendship with Phin, to help him become a good companion for our whole family. Growth and learning are funny things, at once organic and structured. A balance must be struck between intentional guidance and wild abandon. I think of my own growth and learning in a similar way, characterized by focused attention on the things I struggle with and the permission to be unabashedly joyful. Throughout the course of this year, I’ve tried to monitor my own ups and downs, my growth and my continued struggles. I don’t imagine I’m always the best companion for the people around me. None of us can be at our best all the time, and it has been a bizarre and challenging year. However, working with Zero is reminding me that I am responsible for continuing to learn how be the person I want to be. When my anxiety spikes, regardless of the nothing or something that triggers it, I witness myself as if from a distance, reactive and fearful. Anxiety is a specter that has haunted me for many years, and sometimes I tire of the work it takes to feel in control of it. It nips at me sharply and persistently, and leaves me feeling harried and hounded. It hampers the way I handle stress and conflict; I become defensive and prickly, though what I want is to be open and sensitive, confidently able to do the work of working through things that come up.

We all have our own work to do, and this is mine, this taming. We keep finding our footing, we keep figuring it out, and we keep supporting our pack in the process.

Love, Cath