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 Poison and Purpose

By Catherine DiMercurio

The notion of “supposed to” is a bit of a poison in our lives, but we seem to crave it like coffee. We say, “it wasn’t supposed to happen this way” and “what am I supposed to do with my life, what is my purpose” and “by this age I was supposed to have done that” or we ask, “is this how it’s supposed to be?”

We create these ideas for ourselves, and our world creates them for us, and we live with them, shackled to us, letting them morph us. I think of the way the wedding band I never took off (until I did) changed the shape of my ring finger. Our lives grow around the trellises of our expectations. We create structures and shape ourselves to them. This isn’t a bad thing—these are situations, goals, dreams, that we welcomed, loved—but when the structure is removed, here we are with altered shapes and no support, uncertain about which directions we should grow/go.

And without the support, we overlay the supposed to and the should have language, because it is easier to feel badly about a past that didn’t turn into the future we wanted than it is to be so very brave about swimming in this vast ocean of the unknown by ourselves. It is so easy to feel like we are drowning.

Photo by Matt Hardy on Pexels.com

I wake up on most days and wonder, “am I doing this right?” I think of everything I once wanted for myself and imagine the ways I can reshape it into something else. I think of all the things that are possible and all the things that are probable and wonder which dream I should throw my weight behind.

I won’t lie. I do think about how many things would be easier with a supportive partner. And then I think of how many things would be more challenging, and then I get confused about what to even hope for. So many of my friends are married/partnered/remarried/repartnered, that it is difficult to discuss such things. Not that they don’t understand. But it’s just . . . different.

When you don’t get much solitude, the tiny amounts you scrape together for yourself are cherished. What I am trying to do every day, as I have done since late August when my son moved out, two months after my last relationship ended, is to cherish this solitude as much as I would have in the old days, when I rarely had any. I’m trying to ignore the feast-or-famine thinking, the idea that before I never had any, and now I have too much.

I wish I would have tried this more in the past, to realize that what I had on any given day was just the right amount. Again, this doesn’t mean we don’t try to move toward what we want. If we are constantly taking care of other people’s needs and craving peace and quiet and space to think, we do need to fight for time to ourselves. If we long for a break in the quiet, and we are exhausted by only bumping up against ourselves, then we need to remind ourselves to reach out to the people in our lives.

But, in my daily push and pull of do I want this or do I want that, and if it’s that, then how do I get it, and if it’s this, then how do I round it out, make it everything I need, I can pause. I can tell myself that though I’m still figuring it all out, today, what I have and don’t have today, is okay. I have my worries, like everyone does. But today, I’m not in any kind of jeopardy. Though I’ve lived through times in my life where every day I woke up to a fresh iteration of an ongoing crisis, I am blissfully not in that place now. And if I can let go of all the supposed to and should have/should be thinking, I wonder what would happen. I wonder if this is what it means to get out of our own way.

Think about all the times you looked back on an earlier period in your life and said, “I wish I knew.” I wish I knew how much I’d miss that time, I wish I’d realized this or that. Maybe now, too, is one of those times. I don’t want to look back on this period of solitude and growth and discovery as anything less than it is, just because I’ve also felt lonely or confused or overwhelmed.

None of this is to say that if you are in a bad situation, you should find a way to cherish it. There are some things you should NOT try and make the best of, because it’s killing you. I know from personal experience that we stay in things that are unhealthy and damaging for much longer than other people think we should because we can’t find our way out, and that we do so until we simply can’t anymore.

At my lowest point in my life, I felt like I was being erased. The situation I was in was poison, and I remember standing in my garden in late April, an overgrown and soggy patch of ground that needed to be weeded and prepped for planting, and I had dirt on my hands. I stood up and thought, I don’t have to keep drinking the poison. I won’t say that everything changed after that because it took a long, long time for things to truly shift but that was my first step away from something that was destroying me and toward myself.

We remember such moments so clearly; they are etched and inked upon our souls. But so much of life filters through us with so much less awareness. I think this is how we are always amazed when we have those moments of realization about how much time has passed. We wonder, how it is already the end of February, or how did we through the last several years, or how can our little ones be graduating from college, or going off to kindergarten, and on and on. And even when we try to hold on to moments, or days, or years, they slip away from our memory like water washing over a river rock.

Maybe it’s because I’m now in my 50s that I don’t want so much to slip away so easily. I want to remember every breath, even the “boring” ones. I want to look back at this past winter, and instead of admonishing myself and saying things like, you shouldn’t have watched so much tv, I will say how wonderful that you had time to rest and regroup. The end of my relationship in June of 2021 hit me hard, and though I’m surprised at how much time I have needed to think about things and feel the hurt and wonder all the things you wonder when something ends, I love that for once, I was able to give myself the time to tend wounds, and to sort them out, to realize that some are fresh and some are far older than I thought. I have had time to simply sit and think through things, quietly, alone, in a way that I never have before. I will remember all this, when I look back, and I will remember cozy evenings with cocoa and my dogs and, yes, tv, but also books and phone calls with friends, and writing, and starting my pottery class.

What scares me sometimes is that there won’t be a next to look back from. I wonder, what if this is all there is? But then I remember, that’s not how it works, and that’s not how I am. If this situation starts to feel like a bad situation that I need to get out of, I will do it, just as I’ve done in the past, and I will know when it is time. I will know. And I will believe myself. I am learning to trust myself, and my judgement, though this is one of the hardest lessons to learn.

This morning, my anxious puppy stood in the back of the yard, barking back at another dog who was barking at him. I watched him, the way he kept turning to look toward the house, toward me, like he always does in these situations. My sense is that he is feeling uncertain, and in that uncertainty there is possible danger, so he’s out there standing his ground, not sure if he will need to protect himself or his territory. I always call to him when this happens. I want him to know he’s not alone, and he doesn’t have to handle everything; it’s fine, he’s safe. But typically, he still stands there barking, and I need to lure him with treats or the promise of a game. Hey, Zero! Where’s your pineapple?! He will rush in for that, find the pineapple toy, and wait for me to chase him. But today, when I called for him, he just turned away from the situation that was agitating him, and ran to me, without the promise of a treat or a game, just to me, as if he finally was trusting his safety to me.

I tell you this because I’m finally getting there, too, I think. Being able to trust my safety to me.

I’ll leave you with a tiny little poem I wrote recently:

just for today

let us sing for the little things

let us allow a tender moment to be the whole world

let it change us.

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 Pottery, Pressure, and Place

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the pressure we feel is part of the process.

I was driving home alone after dropping my son off at college after the winter break. We stopped by my daughter’s place for a hug and a quick conversation about everyone’s covid concerns about going back to school and work, as well as some recent car trouble and how we would coordinate getting the vehicle repaired. It was a Monday, and I’d taken a couple hours off and would be jumping back into work after a week off as soon as I got home. That evening, I would have my first pottery class, and I was having some anxiety about that.

Somewhere along the line, my excitement about the upcoming class had turned into a not-unexpected collection of worries. I was experiencing my own classroom covid concerns, along with my usual social anxiety, as well as a lot of uneasiness about the learning something new in a public, exposed way.

As I drove home with all these worries tumbling in my brain, I turned the radio on, scanning randomly, and “Under Pressure” came on, by Queen and David Bowie. It all just hit me, on so many levels, how much pressure everyone is experiencing, and I cried and sang, moved by music in a way I hadn’t been in a while.

Oddly, I heard the song again on my way home from pottery class that night. Did I mention that along with all the other ways the class is out of my comfort zone, it also runs from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., which is a huge breach in my usual routine. So, it was very late for me to be out and driving on a winter Monday night, and I was overwhelmed and intimidated by the class, frustrated with not being able to master the thing you must master before you can really make anything—centering the clay on the wheel—when I heard “Under Pressure” again. I didn’t cry this time, but I felt it deeply. Again, it wasn’t just about me and the pressure I was feeling personally. It was impossible to listen to the song and not thing about what everyone has been dealing with the past couple of years. The song has been in my head all week.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

At one point when all I could think about before trying to fall asleep was clay, it occurred to me that so much of the struggle of centering is about pressure, which hand is applying pressure on the clay and where and how.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about for a while is place. I’ve been doing some soul searching and trying to figure out what that word means to me, and where I might belong, and how do I get there. But over the past couple of days, I’ve also been thinking about it in terms of where people are from. Some folks are fiercely from a place. Though I’ve lived about a half mile from Detroit for more than 20 years, I never say that I’m from Detroit, because people who are actually from Detroit really hate that, and though I love it, it isn’t my city. It didn’t shape me the way it shaped folks who grew up there, or who have made their life there in a meaningful way over the years. I get it. I don’t get to claim that.

I usually tell people I from Saginaw, which isn’t strictly true either. I grew up in Carrollton Township, a little working-class suburb of Saginaw. That’s what shaped me. There was a sense of community there, largely focused on the school, which I didn’t fully appreciate until many years later. Being from a suburb is kind of a strange thing in that it does not feel distinctive at all. Precisely because it is neither rural nor urban, a suburban upbringing can feel blurry, though suburbs are as different from one another as they are from rural towns or from cities. It is perhaps thought of as the middle ground between extremes, between the clear this or that of the rural or the urban. In fact, it is its own place.

There is much more to be said, and much more for me to explore personally, but it is fair to say that growing up where I did and how I did, the appropriate response to all the pressure I’ve been feeling would be an acknowledging shrug. Yup. That’s just how it is. (Parenting is hard. Everyone has car troubles.) The work ethic would kick in along with an accompanying sense of duty. You made a commitment, so you have a responsibility to stick with it and do your best. (You signed up for this class, so see it through and just keep trying.) The strong sense of community never leaves you, either. We have to help our neighbors when they need it. (We’re all tired—so tired—but it is important to keep protecting ourselves and each other with masks, vaccines, boosters, and common sense.)

In many ways, I have also been feeling a different kind of blurriness, this sense that I am in an in-between place, a mythical suburb of the soul. Maybe it is okay that it feels neither here nor there. Perhaps it, too, is its own place, and this it what it means to learn to belong to yourself.

In C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, there is a place known as the Wood between the Worlds, where some characters travel on their way between Earth and Narnia. Maybe we all have access to an in-between place like that. Perhaps at times we believe we are in the Wood between the Worlds, when in fact, we have moved through that place into a new world, a new version of self. And perhaps we pass through the Wood more times than we realize in our journey toward self. I have also speculated that it is only in the Wood between the Worlds—in the in-between place we sometimes find ourselves—in which we are truly ourselves, and that journeying there is necessary in order to both forget and to remember our selves, before we move on to the next chapter of our lives.

I think that sometimes the pressure that we experience is the discomfort of transition, of the shaping and reshaping of ourselves that is both natural and difficult. Maybe this centering of self gets easier though. Maybe that’s just how it is.

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 Communities, Solitude, and Situational Goals

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes belonging is complicated.

During a terrible storm this weekend, the thunder woke me. The dogs were restless. I was awake for hours and I went through the list of things that might go wrong because of the weather, and the logical part of my brain reminded me I could handle it, and the anxious part suggested otherwise. In the middle of traversing this terrain of highs and lows, I found myself returning to the same plateau where I told myself: You don’t belong here.

Sometimes anxiety amplifies a message we don’t want to hear. And sometimes it confuses it. We can’t always tell the difference.

I worried from the beginning that I wouldn’t belong in this house, in this town, but there were compelling reasons to be here. There was a need to jump off of one path and onto another. It wasn’t a big move; I didn’t move across the country. But I left the familiar and headed in the risky direction my heart hoped was the right one.

I never considered myself the type of person to take things for granted. When I was married, I had a deep sense of gratitude for my family, for the life we’d built. But I also felt that my relationship was immune to the troubles other people experienced. That it was unassailable.

Since my divorce and everything that followed, through my recent move, I have taken for granted the notion of community. I knew I was leaving a tight-knit community, but because so much of my community-history was woven together with my marriage-history, I longed, in some ways, to be in a place that had no such history. Besides, I was moving to a house where I’d be closer to my boyfriend, so it seemed that this would balance out the loss of proximity to my neighborhood friends, with whom I vowed to stay connected with.

But when that relationship ended, I began to feel stranded. I work hard to maintain connections to friends from the old neighborhood, but busyness and the lack of proximity is a challenge on both sides. Building a sense of community with my new neighborhood has been an effort compromised by the pandemic. There is a tiny bit of progress. Yet, it isn’t the same.

My writing community is another story. Being part of a low-residency MFA program meant that I’d be making friends I wouldn’t see in person all too often. It was baked into the system. I’ve been lucky enough to keep in close contact with a few of those friends over the years, and to have a lifeline to opportunities like the workshop I’m now a part of. And lifeline is not a hyperbolic description. Through my writing community I have been able to embrace a part of my identity that for a long time struggled to breathe: I am an artist. I sought out this community once I could no longer shush the part of me that had been standing around clearing her throat, hoping to get noticed. I sacrificed a lot to pursue it and now I don’t know what I would do without it.

What I’m learning from my experience with my writing to community is that all community must be pursued and developed, right down to the micro-communities of our families. Now that I am single and living alone, I am realizing how much I benefited from ready-made communities I was a part of when my children were growing up. It was all right there, in my living room, in the halls of my kids’ school, in the walk to the grocery store, in the Memorial Day parade. People I knew and cared about were always gathering, and I could dip into that whenever I needed to.

Now, I am learning so much about myself and I am grateful for that. Yet I had not anticipated that everything that feels like connection was going to involve focused effort on my part to pursue. It isn’t as if I’m the only one making the effort, but the majority of people I’m trying to maintain connection and community with have other humans in their physical orbit on a daily basis. But I have not been within hugging distance of anyone since Thanksgiving. (It did not seem appropriate to hug other the repairman or the grocery clerk.)

I also have some things that a lot of people who live in a busy household have told me that they envy: peace, solitude, time to think, freedom from anyone else’s schedules. And I treasure these things. I have wondered if the pleasure I take in such things means that I don’t even want to find a relationship anymore. I used to think it had to be one thing or the other. Now I see that goals can be situational. If I am single, I want it to look this way; if I am in a relationship, I want this kind. Sometimes I’m actively seeking, sometimes I take a step back.

And it isn’t any different with communities. Sometimes we feel we belong and sometimes we have to keep looking for new places to belong. It’s okay to need multiple communities. Someone once told me, “there is no right way to do this.” There is not even one right way to do this for me.

In a few weeks, I’ll get a new community, my pottery community. Again, a community which I sought out, sacrificed time and money to be a part of. But one that I anticipate will be very valuable to me. It takes work as an adult to find new connections. Belonging within a community is one of the things I thought would be easier.

Yesterday, I was supposed to hike with a friend from my old neighborhood, but she was unable to make it. I tried to find someone else to go with at the last minute, since I was already bundled up against the December chill, but nothing panned out. I almost didn’t go. I have an intense fear of getting lost and tend toward well-marked trails with a friend. But I got in the car before I could change my mind. Drove to the state park where my friend and I had hiked once before, several months ago. I walked with a careful eye on my surroundings and the trail markers, noticing the way my walking, when I’m unsure of the way, mirrors my handwriting when I’m unsure of my thoughts. There is a tidy deliberateness to my movement that is absent when I’m feeling sure of myself or lost in my imagination.

I didn’t get lost, and my return path was brisk, comfortable. This was a baby step, a decently marked path in a well-traveled wood. It struck me again, the trade-offs between solitude and community. I missed my friend. I miss being face-to-face with humans I care about, who care about me. I miss hugs. At the same time, this solo hike did me some good, too.

I am surprised by so many things these days. Realizations that come to me in the middle of the night. My task is accepting the things that didn’t work out, and pouring my energies into a new relationship with myself and into appreciation of communities, old and new.

Love, Cath

On the End of the Line, and Catching Your Breath

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes it is hard to trust your instincts.

Sometimes, it takes us years to process something terrible that happened to us, that changed our lives, changed who we were. Are. Those years are spent trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, trying to metabolize pain before it metabolizes us.

And when it involves someone you trusted, trying to understand why and how feels like the most urgent and important thing in the world. It feels possible, but elusive.

If I stopped trying to understand, what would happen? It doesn’t mean I haven’t learned anything. It doesn’t mean that the journey has been a waste of time. To the contrary, the endeavoring was part of my healing process.

But it is also the part that has no where left to go.

I imagine it this way:  I have been moving forward carrying a large ball of twine that has been unwinding with each step. For years, it was always there, no matter how many steps I took in any direction. But now I find myself holding the end of it, and behind me, it winds all the way back to what happened, and it charts all the ways I tried to see it from all the angles. It’s not a straight line and it is wrapped around memories and snagged here and there so that as I hold it now, it’s taut. There’s no where left to go. To take the next step forward, I have to let go. Maybe I’ve been standing still longer than I realize, holding that last bit of twine, waiting for it all to make sense. It won’t. It can’t. Maybe I know, too, all the ways it connects me to more than just pain. It connects me to things that that were possible that aren’t anymore. Maybe that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out all along. How possibility, at least one thread of it, is cut short.

Photo by Jess Bailey Designs on Pexels.com

For years I held on tight to what hurt. I thought that if I could understand it, it would hurt less, or, it would offer some protection against future suffering. But I don’t think it works that way.

It wasn’t as if I wasn’t living and loving during this time. Hearts do complicated work while performing their function. It isn’t as if my endeavor to understand what happened insisted on being the only story, the whole story. But it was a through line. Life is a complicated interweaving of past and present and pain and love and you just keep going even as you keep working. Even if clumsy, we walk and chew gum. We love, we pursue dreams, we fall into old grief masquerading as new grief, we dig, we think, we learn, we move, we stand still and catch our breath.

Sometimes too, it seems silly almost, that I would have spent so many hours and thoughts and heartbeats and breaths and tears trying to get to a place where I could say, oh, yes, I see. That makes sense, especially when I see others going through different, bigger, harder traumas. But, I can’t change that this is how things felt to me, and this is how long it has taken me to get here. Sometimes things just are how they are. They take the time they need to and that has everything to do with us but nothing to do with choice.

So, what does it mean to open my hand and heart and take the next step without what has become a comfort, my tie to past hurt, my journey to understand it, that umbilical cord feeding me stories of how it used to be and never will be? What is like to move from but, it wasn’t supposed to be this way, to whatever is next? I don’t know yet. I don’t know what is beyond the reach of my tether. I’m still catching my breath. I’m still loosening my grip on that last bit of twine. But I think I’m close. Something in me, some instinct I can finally hear, is saying it’s time.

Peace to you all, wherever you are on whatever part of the journey you find yourself.

Love, Cath

On Clay and Conversation

By Catherine DiMercurio

So much of life depends on how you look at things.

I don’t mean seeing things from a different angle in order to guide yourself toward a more positive perspective. I mean new experiences sometimes hand you a metaphor and give you a way to contemplate something more deeply or fruitfully than you have before.

Recently, my daughter and I took a trial wheel-throwing pottery class. It was something we’d both wanted to try for a long time. I was nervous about investing time and money into a semester-long class without first having some idea about how I would feel about working with this medium, so the two-hour workshop format appealed to me.

On the drive over to the studio, I had a strange thought. I was feeling anxious and as I dug around in that feeling I realized part of it was because I did not want to disappoint the instructor, some person I’d never met before. Why on earth would I care about that? Maybe I didn’t want them to think that my inability to follow directions, or create “properly” meant that they were not doing their job well. I wanted to be a good student so they could feel like a good teacher. It was also part of my people-pleasing mentality. [The reasons people do this are varied and complex. Sometimes it is because we’ve lived with emotionally volatile people and we learn to not make waves. Sometimes it is because we need others to think well of ourselves since we have a hard time doing that on our own. This is often a result of us having internalized messages—religious, cultural, societal messages—in such a way that we feel it is necessary to prove that we are, in fact, good people.]

Still, I tried to shelve these ancient worries. I wanted to focus on having fun with my daughter and learning something new. I wanted to prove to myself that I could.

As it happened, my daughter and I were both feeling a little anxious, because it’s normal to feel that way when you’re trying out something you’ve never done before. But once we walked into the studio, met the owners and their dog, and toured the space, I began to feel more relaxed. Shelves of drying cups and bowls and vases, pale stoneware waiting to be glazed. Gorgeous curved and sumptuous shapes. Rows and rows of completed, glazed work, waiting for students to collect them. Oh, the glazes. I love glazes. I wish I had the vocabulary to describe them, understood their chemical composition. Reddish browns, honeyed golds, pale bronzy greens. It all washed over me. I felt both calm and exhilarated. I love that hard-to-come-by feeling.

I couldn’t wait to feel the clay beneath my fingers, to begin to see how it responded to the corresponding forces of my touch and the movement of the wheel. I’d watched enough of a British pottery competition program to imagine what it might be like but now I’d be getting my own hands dirty and trying it out.

One of the owners, Mike, sat down at the wheel and talked us through various processes and techniques. And then suddenly we were doing it. Mike helped when we weren’t sure if our clay was centered, or if a bowl was widening to the point of collapse. He was a good guide.

I wasn’t shockingly good at it for a beginner, though I really wanted to be! I may not have uncovered a hidden talent, but I also did not uncover the disaster I’d been fearing. This wasn’t gym class, and I wasn’t unbelievably horrible at it, as I was with most sports. Have you ever been so bad at something that people are embarrassed for you? Not fun. But here, in the studio, I did have fun, and so did my daughter.

There was some kind of perfect little relief in the newness of it all. A bliss in getting to believe in something else, a different kind of space, a different kind of making. I think my daughter and I both experienced that and it felt important to be able to share that with her.

In the days since the class, one of the things I’ve reflected on is the notion of conversation. Working with the clay, my hands had to be in conversation with one another. They didn’t simply work “together.” They worked in harmony and in response to one another. It is different than say, playing a musical instrument, where your hands are working together, but each is performing a separate task. In building a bowl on the wheel, my hands had to talk to each other, listen to each other, in order to create something together. It was impossible not to see this as a beautiful metaphor for what I hope to one day find in a relationship. If you are not working together, focused on the relationship you’re creating, it will not hold together, things will spin out of control. You must want the same thing. You might end up making something different than what you intended at the beginning, but you’re in on it together. And unless there is a cooperative, positive effort, it won’t be anything at all.

Because my brain works the way it does, I seized upon this metaphor and tried applying it retroactively to past relationships that did not turn into what I’d hoped they would. Maybe this was the way I could make sense of how things happened the way they did. The pottery metaphor provided an effective lens with which to view things and helped me to remind myself of why those things didn’t work out.  

I’ll be honest. Sometimes I need a new way to look at an old thing I’ve been turning around endlessly in my head. The ending of relationships is hard. Grief is real, full, and deep, no matter how much you believe that the ending was necessary. I often find myself reciting the stories and their endings back to myself, so I remember, so I don’t repeat past mistakes. So that, if I’m lucky enough to get a next time, I get to keep it. Grief takes up a lot of space in a heart. In a way, we remain in conversation with our grief, long after the loss that caused it.

Another thing about conversation is that in the past I’ve mistaken emotional or intellectual connection for emotional intimacy. It’s all about conversation, but they are not the same things. We have to look closely and see if what we are offering to our partner is what we are being offered in return. There were times that I was not actually having the conversation that I thought I was. Things take time to reveal themselves. People do. We all try to be the best versions of ourselves when we want something to work out. But we can’t keep that up indefinitely. And one person’s idea of something “working out” can be very different from another’s and in the absence of emotional intimacy it might take a while to figure that out. We may think we are building something with a partner, but unless we are in true conversation with one another, one hand might be trying to create a saucer while the other is trying to make a vase.

Another lesson here for me is about a new kind of open heartedness. It took a bit of pushing myself to decide to take this class. I must remember to do that sometimes, to nudge myself into action, into new ways of looking at things. I admire people who can jump into new things without the anxiety that sometimes holds me back. At the same time, I love that these experiences for me feel special, wonderous, even, given that it wasn’t easy for me to approach them.

We all come at the world and all it has to offer differently, but I don’t believe that there are methods that are superior to others. We go at our own pace and are rewarded in the ways that feel meaningful to us. And we learn the lessons we need to when we are ready for them.

After you make something at the wheel, it goes through many other steps. It air dries, then is trimmed, then dried in the kiln, and then glazed, and then fired once more. Or something like that. My daughter and I didn’t get to do those other steps—that is what the full class is for—but we did get to pick out glazes. I’m eagerly awaiting the call from the studio saying that our pieces are ready. Pottery, it seems, like everything else in my life, is trying to teach me patience.

I’m pretty sure I’m going to sign up for the full class, but the next session will begin in January, and meets for three hours on Monday nights. That’s a big commitment! But I think I’m intrigued enough to take it on.

Wishing you true conversation and a little bit of genuine bliss.

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