On Ambiguity

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

Life and Algebra

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

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

Clarity and Answers Are Not the Same Things

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

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

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

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Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

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

Love, Cath

Labors of Love

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

Confluence and Connotation

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

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

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Photo by NMQ on Pexels.com

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

Mistake Making

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

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

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

Love, Cath

 

On Mothering and Metabolism

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Pok Rie on Pexels.com

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

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

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

Mine

The moon tugs oceans of grief.

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

What isn’t.

In between history and anguish, my failures imprint themselves.

When I say this is my daughter,

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

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

When I say this is my son,

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

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

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

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

Or the gaps were too big

Or the stuffing shook loose anyway.

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

Still I broke apart

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

Still I grasped us back to safety.

Nothing makes them mine.

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

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

for a moment, a breath, and one more.

Please.

 

Love, Cath

Coming of Age: The Crisis vs. The Chrysalis

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

Roles, Expectations, Responses

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

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

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

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

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The Gruesome Details

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

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

It Isn’t a Crisis It’s a Chrysalis

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

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

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Power In Perspective

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

Enjoy your chrysalis. Love, Cath

On Stress, Coping, and Identity

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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The Stories We Tell

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

Find a Reprieve

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

Credit and Compassion

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

Seek Out Resources

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

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

Openness and Connection

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

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

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

On Appearances and Optimism

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes things are not what they seem. And that can be a good thing.

My kids and I hiked this past weekend, seeking the loons we had learned were migrating through the area. The path took us through the woods, and stretches of it ran next to the lake. Spring is slow in arriving this year. All around us were shades of brown and grey, broken only by a few red leaf buds in the dirt, scattered like confetti. The deer and sandhill cranes we spotted blended into this backdrop, though the blush of red on the cranes’ heads allowed us to notice them roosting on their nests. We found the loons too, thanks to their glossy white chests, though they were also difficult to see in the distance, unless they were swimming toward us. Along the path as the woods opened to fields, I noticed a milkweed pod. The cottony insides had long since been carried off by the wind, but the husk that remained bore a striking resemblance to a bird. I had to look twice to be sure. The image stayed with me, reminding me that things that have the shape and appearance of one thing can actually be something else quite different.

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For a long time, throughout the divorce year and in the aftermath, I tended to take a pessimistic view of this idea. As in, be wary and suspicious because things are not what they seem. Proceed with caution: people you care deeply for may look like someone you know but have somehow turned into different someones. I felt as if the world was waiting to trip me up and trick me, and that I perpetually needed to be looking over my shoulder to see what was sneaking up behind me and at the same time casting my gaze far ahead to see what might be coming at me next as I tried to escape what was behind me. I wore this pessimism like a cloak. I put it on and hid myself, but it wasn’t really my true nature.

Optimism versus Pessimism

As time has gone on and the urgency of caution has ebbed, as stability has returned to my life, I find myself becoming me again, the one who can see the flip side to the aphorism that things are not always what they seem. I can recognize once again that something that appears to be a normal, everyday thing, or even something potentially threatening, can actually turn out to be an amazing, wonderful thing. I discovered being alone wasn’t lonely, and later, that a random date with a stranger can turn into something unexpectedly perfect. Life can be delightful that way, when expectations are turned upside down and you discover something new.

Still, it has taken me a long time to move from pessimism back to optimism as a general mindset. Initially, it exhausted me to hear people say don’t worry, everything will be okay. I felt like nothing would be okay again, not ever. That way of looking at the world gradually evolved into to a different mindset. Everything might be okay. But only because I am working my hardest to make it that way. And what if I can’t? Things got better, in part, because I made them that way. But that effort built some much needed confidence and a sense of self-reliance. This was another unexpected gift of the ending of one life and the beginning of another, as the divorce year transitioned into a new year, and a new way of being. I began to trust in my ability to work through things, to handle situations I used to fear. Sometimes it’s still hard to tell the difference though, between fatigue and fear. Sometimes you get tired of handling things, but that doesn’t mean you can’t handle them.

I like to believe though, that one of the things that got me through the toughest of times was the awareness that the pessimism was something I could take off and cast aside when I was ready. I wanted to believe in my own positivity and sometimes wanting to believe is enough. It is a bridge that gets you to the next step.

Irrational Hope

In the course of my MFA work I was introduced to the writing of Clarice Lipsector, and I stumbled across this line: “It is possible that even then the theme of my existence was irrational hope.” This stuck with me, and I latched on to that idea of irrational hope, hope that even in the darkest of days, things will get better. Sometimes optimism gets a little suffocated by circumstances, but it is still there waiting for you, and I think this sense of hope is what kept me going, and continues to inspire me in good times and bad.

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It takes a conscious, mindful effort to see things this way at times. It’s easy to put the cloak back on when life gets stressful. It’s so simple to fall back into the trap of pessimism, so simple it seems like a relief. In a way, it’s familiar and safe, even though it’s a dark place to be. Stress—sometimes little, lowercase stress and sometimes all caps STRESS—can yank me back powerfully into a time where I felt like things kept falling apart, the world was out to get me, and I had no control over anything. The comfort in that, the reason it is so easy for anyone to fall into, is that in that space, there is permission to stop trying to make things better. But when stress sinks into me, I consciously remind myself, this is not that; I’m not back where I was, hiding under the cloak. We have to talk ourselves down from the ledge of panic sometimes. It might be only a panicky moment, or maybe we feel ourselves falling back into a habit of anxiety and worry. But then you go for a walk and see a milkweed pod shaped like a bird and it lifts you, it allows you to reprogram your thoughts and emotional responses. It allows you to remember who you really are.

Enjoy the path that you find yourself on today. Love, Cath

 

 

On Waiting and Letting Go

By Catherine DiMercurio

I woke on Sunday morning to the sound of raindrops pelting the window and the scrape of an ice-laden tree branch on the roof above my bedroom. All I wanted to do was pull the covers back over my head and ignore the worries about falling branches and icy roads. I braced myself for what was coming next—the assessment of whether it would be safe for my daughter to make the trip to Ann Arbor that she had planned for the day. And I knew that I had to let her decide for herself.

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My son woke up not long after I did. We drank our coffee and darted from window to window, noting the way the cars, fences, and tree branches were slicked with a layer of ice. The temperature hovered just about the freezing mark and it was unclear whether the pouring rain hitting the ice was building up another layer, or was melting it. The roads looked wet. A couple of limbs creaked free from tree trunks and crashed to the ground, the fine coating of ice shattering from the smaller branches, studded with leaf buds.

Risk Assessment

When my daughter woke up and I asked if I was still going to let her go, I avoided the question. I watched her retrace my steps window to window, taking in the same factors I had. On our phones we sought reports on social media from people who might have braved the roads already. We listened to the weatherman say that despite the rain, the roads could still by icy. My daughter suggests that she head out anyway, saying if things seem bad, she’ll turn around and come home. I know from experience that sometimes things don’t seem bad until you are already on the highway and the conditions are fine until they aren’t and you have to decide which is safer—proceeding to your destination or heading back the way you came.

I can’t decide if this is high-stakes parenting or not. Is her life at risk any more than any other time she gets behind the wheel, any more than mine is each time I brave a morning commute? Maybe it’s fine. Maybe it won’t get icier the closer she gets to Ann Arbor. Maybe some spots will be bad and doesn’t she have to learn to negotiate the conditions anyway?

It isn’t a stand-off we have at the front door with her making a plea to go and me deciding in that heartbeat whether to allow or forbid. We’ve had those before and this isn’t like that. I’m looking at an eighteen-year-old young woman who claims her readiness to handle changing conditions, and she’s looking at someone with a little more experience and some reasonable concerns about her safety. Significantly, I can tell she sees and respects this. “Be careful. Text me when you get there,” I say.

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Knowing that she made it there and back safely, that she was fine, in a way makes me feel that my heightened worrying was unnecessary. But I know the significance of the moment at the doorway, when we weren’t really sure how bad the conditions were, when she wondered if I would to forbid her to go, and when I didn’t.

As I waited for her text, I had the sense that I’d probably done the right thing. I had to let her make the decision on her own, when the consequences could be significant—I see in my head the car accident on the icy highway, the one that doesn’t happen, the semi unable to stop—because she’s going to have to make decisions like that again and again when she leaves home in the fall to attend college. I know all the decision-making we’d negotiated to this point, whether through careful conversations or door-slamming shouting matches, all brought us to this point. And I know this hasn’t been the first high-stakes moment.

Self-Aware Parenting

The difference this time is that I’m aware, in the moment, that I’m surrendering the decision-making, that it is a conscious, willful act of love and trust. As parents our entire existence is predicated on the notion that we are preparing our children to not need us. It’s all part of the longest goodbye ever, from the moment they begin to crawl.

Just the day before, I’d been in the car with my son, who will be sixteen in a month. He’s trying to get enough hours in to take the second segment of driver’s ed. It’ll be a few months before he gets his permit. It’s raining and he’s doing great, though visibility at times is lousy. Does he see that stop sign? Do I point it out? The micro decision-making is just as hard as the macro decision-making. It’s parenting inch by inch, breath by breath. Sometimes it feels like I’m falling off a cliff, waiting for a moment, an hour, or years, to see if the decision I made was the right one.

Go, Go, Go. Stop.

It sounds like I don’t give them enough credit. They are bright kids, possessing common sense along with intellectual and emotional intelligence. I do trust that. It is what allows me to say go and what keeps me from saying stop. It is the comfort I take in the waiting. At the same time, I know what the stakes are, large and small.

I’ve always erred on the side of being overprotective. It’s the way I’m wired. It takes intentional self-awareness to step out of this habit sometimes. My thinking is that I want the kids to leave our home having known what it feels like to be nurtured and cared for, but also having learned how to nurture and care for themselves. I’ll always wonder if I’ve gotten the balance right, and I’ll probably wait years to find the answer. It can be confusing, parenting during transitions like these, as your kids enter adulthood. It’s like being caught between seasons, a tree in full bud suddenly coated in April ice.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

 

 

Slowing Down and Breathing Deeply: On Time and Inflating the Ordinary Moment

By Catherine DiMercurio

There are times in our life where we are keenly aware of how swiftly time passes and we wonder, how can I slow things down?

I have had numerous conversations with friends about how, as our children get older, life increasingly seems to be on fast-forward. I feel hyper aware of time. When my children were babies, I wasn’t cognizant of how quickly their first year went by until it was over. Though I was waking up several times a night to breastfeed, I tried to be present during the daytime, aware of how quickly the children moved from one stage to the next. But, I was simply exhausted and a lot of those memories are fairly hazy. It is only in the looking back that I perceive how quickly that time flew by. But day by day, within that time, it didn’t seem as though I’d ever get to place were we were all sleeping through the night. Now, I have an awareness even while I’m living through this time that moments are disappearing before I’m through with them. They are footprints in wet sand, washed away before I’ve finished taking the next step.

Tick Marks on the Timeline

The easiest things to remember are obviously things that stand out as atypical, as outside of the normal routine and pace of life—vacations, events, illnesses, and griefs. Recalling the things we’ve deliberately denoted as significant is also a relatively straightforward endeavor. Parents do this all the time—first Christmas, first day of school, etc. All the other days, those that seem to be undifferentiated from one another, are forgettable time. They are the spaces in between the tick marks on a timeline. Yet those moments and days and years filling in the gaps between the firsts and the vacations and the tragedies are where most of our living happens and where much of our memory fades. The passage of that time is what makes it seem as though life is going by so quickly. It’s because there is nothing to grab on to. The current of time rushes along, and without any specific memory to fix upon, we rush past, and remark on how quickly that year went by.

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So, I’ve been wondering how to shake free of this mindset, of this feeling that I’m caught in a current. I want to somehow fill in all the spaces on the timeline, to deliberately draw a line and exist in each moment, each day, as though it matters as much as a birthday, or the death of our dog, or a trip to the beach, or the first day of kindergarten, or one of our camping trips. Because, doesn’t it? Doesn’t each moment matter?

Maybe it depends on how we define mattering. I’ve heard people say that it is in how we handle tragedy and crisis that defines who we are. Perhaps, though, it is in how we manage the mundane that shapes us more. How do we respond to all that is dull in a day, in the weeks and months and years that we work and save, trying to earn enough to take that vacation and “make some memories”? If we can’t find something to savor in all that we’ve deemed unworthy of memory-making, then how much our lives are we relegating to those empty spaces on the timeline?

Yoga Breathing and the Value of the Dull Day

When the kids were in elementary school and I worked at home as a freelance writer, I’d take time during the late mornings to watch a yoga program on tv that guided me through a daily practice. This particular program incorporated some philosophy throughout and a few ideas have stuck with me. One is that our lives are not measured in moments, but in breaths, so we should breathe mindfully, deliberately, and deeply.

I’m trying to combine these notions of living and measuring. I want to be aware of moments, of days that seem undifferentiated and somehow, to differentiate them. I want to expand moments, to fill them up the way my breath fills my lungs. I think, how can I make this ordinary day different, or memorable, or significant? If I park in a different lot at work, or take a break and go outside for a moment, will it make a difference? If I watch and listen for a new idea or notice a sparrow or hear someone laughing or sit with the morning sun on my face before I walk into my building, will it matter?

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Will I be able to remember this day as a specific part of my life? It might be easy to brush this idea off and say, why would you want to? Maybe some days aren’t worth remembering. Is there any value to marking just another workday? I’m not sure yet. I hope so. I hope that in a month, I’ll be able to look back and not feel like it went by so fast. I don’t want to rush through even the dull days. Even though on the surface it might seem as though I’m experiencing an unremarkable day of work and returning home to make an unremarkable dinner, it is another collection of breaths I get to have on this earth, another meal I get to share with my children. And perhaps if I’m seeking opportunities to find the remarkable within the ordinary, I’ll find something unexpected.

Soaking It All In

This past weekend, my children and I, needing some warmth in this frigid Michigan April, drove to the Belle Isle Conservatory in Detroit. This being something that is outside of the realm of our usual routine automatically makes the event something we’ll all be more likely to remember in the future. But I tried with more intention and deliberateness than usual to notice the details of the day, the blue of the sky beyond the greenhouse windows, the way the sunlight illuminated the large green leaves of a tropical plant, the shape of leaf shadows on the leaves below. I took time to appreciate the details my children commented on—the worm wriggling through the dirt that my son pointed out, the tiny gauzy white cactus sporting an even tinier magenta flower my daughter saw. We sat on a bench together and I closed my eyes and felt the sun on my face. I wanted to soak the moment in, to draw another tick mark on the timeline.

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If our lives here are a journey, maybe each mile of the road trip is worthy of our attention. Notice the song on the radio, the sun through the window, the people with you. Get out and stretch your legs. Breathe deeply. Inflate the ordinary moment.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

Learning from Memory: The Parable of the Kite

By Catherine DiMercurio

As a mother, I find myself coming back to the lessons my own parents taught me. Rarely though do these lessons filter through my consciousness in verbal form. Rather, some memories return repeatedly enough that I wonder, why this, why now?

A Father-Daughter Moment

Sometimes the memories are so strong and come from so far back in my childhood I feel as though I made them up, and they take on the power of parable in my mind. One of my earliest memories is of flying a kite with my father. I always thought that one of the reasons this memory was so striking was that it was just the two of us. I have two older sisters, a younger brother, and a younger sister, so most of my childhood memories involve some combination of siblings. My mother features prominently as well in most of those memories. She was more involved in the particulars of our day-to-day lives than my father was and it is easy to recall things like the day we went strawberry picking and had strawberry shortcake for dinner, or the time my sisters and I all had chicken pox and we got to eat on t.v. trays in our beds. There are lessons in here as well about the different ways we nurture one another. But, the memory of kite flying with my father stands out, in part, because it is an anomaly. We simply didn’t have many one-on-one moments.

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Running with the Wind

I remember standing in a muddy field on a grey day. I can see big clumps of soil and puddled rainwater. I don’t know if it was spring or fall but certainly it was chilly and damp. I was running along side my father, who gripped the white kite string, waiting for the kite to catch on the wind. He slowed, and handed me the spool of string, and showed me how to hold it. I remember my father telling me, “Cath, don’t let go!” I kept running. The wind slacked and the kite dipped. “Keep going,” he shouted. And I ran. I felt the tug of the kite at the end of the string as the wind buoyed it once again and my heart lurched with joy. And somehow, I let go. My father sprinted after the string, splashing through mud, trying to catch it. That’s where the memory ends for me. I never knew if he caught it. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to ask my dad about this sooner. Maybe I was afraid he wouldn’t remember, or that it never even happened and it was really only a dream. But this past Sunday, I asked him. And he remembered. He recalled the same details, the muddy field, and me letting go. As it turns out, he caught the runaway kite, though given that I never retained that portion of the memory, clearly it wasn’t the important part for me. He seemed pleased, remembering. He told me it was in the field behind our house, where we lived when I was about five.

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The Meaning of the Memory

Years later, I find myself drawn in my writing to kite metaphors. In a scene in which a thirteen-year-old girl experiences her first kiss and is developing feelings for a boy for the first time, I wrote: “Nora thought of the way Ben’s fingers curved around hers, wondered what her fingers thought as they leaned against his knobby knuckles. It was a relief to be here, connected to Ben. She felt like a kite on a string, and she felt like the string, too, safe within his grasp, yet soaring above him. At home, she drifted around everyone, but never felt anchored.”

For years, I thought that this was the ideal, to feel as though we are both kite and string, to feel both grounded and free. I think I’ve looked for this in my adult relationships, never realizing until now that I’ve been trying to replicate that feeling I had as a child, of being both safe and buoyantly free, the string securely held, the kite catching in the wind. And in the past few days, maybe simply because I talked with my father about the memory, I’ve realized something else: As a parent, this is what I’ve tried to create for my children—a sense that they are secure and safe and taken care of, and at the same time, that they are free to be who they are, to explore what are always becoming, that there is always possibility and joy, hope and freedom. It was what my parents tried to do for me and for my siblings. And because there was such a foundational sense of peace in that upbringing, not only did I try and create it for my own children, I also sought it elsewhere, perhaps where I didn’t need to. Perhaps even, where I shouldn’t have, that is, I looked everywhere else but within myself.

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I realize now that it is something I needed to be cultivating within myself all along. Perhaps it was only after my marriage ended, and after I tried to resurrect a relationship from the past, that I was able to finally begin to seek that sense of peace within myself. And in many ways, I have found it. Some days I might have to look harder than others, but now I know what I’m looking for. I know how to be the kite. I know how to be the string. Though I might feel untethered at times, I know the way back to myself. Though some days I can’t find the breeze, and can’t feel that joyful buoyant freedom, on other days I know I can get there. I know how to wait and when to run and how let joy take hold.

Listening and Learning

Perhaps learning this lesson is one of the reasons that the relationship I’m in now feels so stable and calm and exhilarating. It isn’t because I found someone who makes me feel like kite and string. It is because I am not looking for him to do that. I am free of the expectation that someone else will make me feel the way I want to feel. I entered into the relationship with a greater sense of wholeness than I ever had before, and with the knowledge that I am already enough. I can run fast enough and hold on securely enough to usually keep the kite in the air. And if I trip, or the wind dies down, I know how to fly, and that I can try again, in another moment or another day. Because he is in the same place, we are able to enjoy security and freedom, stability and joy, together, side by side.

The best part of all this is that we intuit these lessons even when we can’t always articulate what we’ve learned. I don’t think my father had a list of things he wanted to make sure he taught me before I left home. He and my mother were guided by their own experiences and did the best they could, as we all do. Sometimes, as we are running along, trying to hold on to the string and keep the kite in the air, we simply have to listen, to pay attention to the memories that bubble up within us and ask, why this, why now?

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

 

 

 

On Work and Usefulness

by Catherine DiMercurio

It’s Sunday evening. We are gathered, the kids and I, in the living room, each with a blanket, a task, and a sense of wishing we’d had more time to do both things that needed doing and to relax together. I sip my decaf Earl Grey and look at my notes for this week’s blog. As the night wears on, we’ll all deal with small bouts of transition anxiety, each for different reasons, as we head into the week. For me, the strain of the workweek comes from stresses on the job, but mostly from pulling the weight of expectation and responsibility along with the heft of the monotony.

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Only a few short years ago did I became the primary earner, or as the IRS 1040 puts it, in all of its official elegance, the “head of household” – unmarried, earning more than half of household expenses, and with at least one child or dependent. The divorce necessitated I transition from freelance work to a regular full-time job with some haste. As I wrote about in earlier posts, I landed where I began, at the same company I started for in the early 1990s. I feel lucky to be there, as I’m not sure my years of freelancing prepared me particularly well for many other fields. At the same time, I do know people who seem to love what they do. When I graduated college, I hoped to find a job that allowed me time and energy to write, but I longed for meaningful work that engaged me, work that I looked forward to doing most of the time.

Pulling with Patience

So how do I make sense of the way things have played out? How to I reframe the narrative that sneaks up on me when a day on the job feels more like a toppling pile of tasks to manage rather than meaningful work to do? I understand the value and dignity of doing the work no matter what it is, of honoring my responsibility to earn, to be the head of the household. I think of a poem by Marge Piercy, “To be of Use.” She says, “I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart, / who pull like water buffalo, with passive patience, / who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward, / who do what has to be done, again and again.”

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Sometimes, in my quest for sense-making, I see success and reward and engagement in the work that is done in the margins of my employment/commuting life. In the margins is where I get to be a mom, where I write, where I spend time with my boyfriend, where I catch up with a friend over coffee or on a walk, where I snuggle my dog at the end of the day, where I try out a new recipe, or watch my kids’ games and competitions and performances. The margins are the places where life happens, but it is in the recognition of this too that things can seem out of balance.

As a society, we tell our kids that they can be anything they want if they work hard. It’s not that the message is bad, but it is an incomplete message. You can be things you want but you’ll give up other things to be them. You can be anything but you can’t be everything. You’ll be some things you want some of the time. You may work very hard and it might not seem like you achieved what you set out to do, but you achieved other things, in different ways. There is always more than one way to be happy, and not working at your dream job won’t be the end of the world. You may find yourself in a grey cubicle, sitting for too long under fluorescent lights looking at a screen and wishing your brain or your heart were engaged differently, more fully. But you’ll remember that you are doing the hard work of showing up every day, and earning the paycheck, and being responsible. Your job is as important as anyone else’s. You will shrug it off when someone says to you, “I could never do that. Sit at a desk all day.”

There is value in putting one foot in front of the other every day. There is honor and dignity in whether the paycheck is earned by intellectual, physical, or creative toil. On Sunday night as I write this draft, that is how I frame it, what I tell myself to remember. I don’t have to love each task to make it all feel worthwhile. Does it matter that this is not the job I went to school for or what I dreamed of as a child? Maybe. But does it matter more that the mortgage is paid and that my children’s lives are stable and secure enough that they can begin to imagine what they might want their adult lives to be like? Probably.

The Sunday Night Anxiety Club

The other thing that admits you to the Sunday Night Anxiety Club is the self-induced stress regarding balance. A friend once reminded me about that balance is about movement. Think of a yoga pose or simply standing on one foot. Muscles make micro adjustments to keep us stable. The act of balancing is more in the shifting than it is in some sort of state of perfect equilibrium. I used to think that balance meant that equal portions of my time every day or week were allotted to the categories I valued. And some days I still feel as though balance was achieved if I wrote, and went for a run, and after work had some quality, non-rushed time with the kids. But every day can’t be like that. And every Sunday night there are the reminders to myself that the week ahead will be filled with road blocks—hours at work where I try and figure out how to stay engaged and focused, a bad night of sleep that gets in the way of my writing the next morning, some issue of scheduling that disrupts the chance to work out. And balance will be about pivoting, and peace will be more about reframing than about the proper amount of calm every night before bed, though that is still something to reach for.

Right now, on Sunday night, the three of us are sitting here, making our concessions, our retroactive assessments of balance. Did we get enough done, did we honor our obligations, did we take time for each other? We stumble. Some days more than others. Some times I can’t help but wonder how the hell I’m supposed to juggle it all. It helps to remember the grander-scheme balancing act I’m trying to perform, that I’m trying to teach my son and my daughter that a good work ethic does not mean that you will be happy every moment of performing various tasks, but that you take pride in the fact that you worked earnestly and with the intention to do the job well. That living well is not truly an equation, where the moments of each day yield a result that always looks and feels like happiness. You should not feel as though you failed to live up to your youthful expectations of yourself, or society’s expectations of you, if you don’t go to bed feeling blissfully happy every night. Happiness is a strange alchemy of peace and joy and contentment. But there is wisdom in recognizing the richness of experiences that do not come to fruition in that way.

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Piercy’s poem ends with this revelation: “The pitcher cries for water to carry / and a person for work that is real.” Sometimes that work happens in the workplace and sometimes it happens in the margins. I think it is the great task of our lives, one of the most important parts of our journey, to learn what fills us up and to work at those things, whether it is the work we are paid for, the work of being a parent or a partner or a friend, something else entirely, or a combination of all of these.

I do need to step back sometimes, often on a Sunday night when the prospect of the week ahead seems daunting and out of balance, and reframe the conversations I have with myself about the work that I do in the workplace. I need to remind myself that it has a meaningful place within the context of the rest of the work I set my energy to in life. So as you embark upon the journey of your own week, I hope that even in moments of dread or drudgery, you are able to find the meaning there as well.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath