On Baking Bread, and Meditating, and Un-Failing

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves what failing is not.

I have forgotten how to meditate. I once utilized meditation techniques as tools for cultivating calmness, and then, when I needed peace the most, could not summon the energy necessary to pursuit it. There was only the exhaustion of surviving and rebuilding.

Life feels fairly well rebuilt now, but even so, there are snags. Everyone gets tripped up sometimes. Do you ever feel that life was once so chaotic and overwhelming, it now only takes a few small stressors piling up to make you feel exactly the same way? I sometimes think: Why does it feel like everything looms and threatens? These are little things, everything is okay. But sometimes things feel bigger than they are, because they once were bigger and more dangerous, and every cell in our bodies remembers the past.

At my calmest and most generous, I see myself as capable of peace and growth, capable of mastering the pain of the past, along with the anxiety such pain has been reborn as in my current life.

I remember this from meditation: you do not try to avoid the stray thoughts that creep in; rather, you acknowledge them and let them float by, and away. I imagine mastering pain and anxiety in this way. I see you but you will not infiltrate my peace. What I don’t remember is what it is I am supposed to actually focus on. My breathing? A blank page? An image?

Perhaps this is the difficulty I have now: I am more focused on what to do with all that intrudes than I am on what remains. What are we, in the absence of the intrusions of past grief and present worry about future troubles? And, what self is not composed at least in part by these molecules?

Yesterday, I once again tried to bake bread. I approached this activity the way I approach the rest of my baking: Here is a recipe. I have most of these ingredients. I could swap that. All I need are general proportions and an understanding of process. This works for most things I attempt: cookies, cakes, pies. It has not, thus far, worked very well, if at all, for bread. I have discovered that this process is also how I approach any creative endeavor: writing, watercolor painting, crocheting. I learn enough to get started and then I wing it. There have been times I attempted greater discipline. I took a watercolor class. I read crocheting patterns and occasionally actually follow a recipe for a cake. My successful pursuit of an MFA in creative writing was a defiant attempt against my own nature to be disciplined about craft. I wish I could do it again. To force myself with a financial and temporal commitment to learn how to be a better writer.

All things considered, though, I like the way I bake, even if things don’t always turn out. It feels like art to me, more of a creative exploration than the experience of following instructions. I realize you need both for things to be successful, some instruction and some creativity. I worry that in too many areas of life, I rely too heavily on figuring it out as I go rather than following instructions or sticking to a plan.

I liked school, so I’m not sure where this resistance to instruction comes from. I do remember, as a child, possessing a strong dislike for anything I would not be competent at from the beginning. (This, along with the lack of any natural ability, accounts for my failure at any and all sports-related activities.)

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

About the bread. It didn’t turn out very well. I was asking a lot of my ingredients, did not have enough of the right kind of flours. I used a recipe for guidance but tried to make it work with what I had. It is easy to think of it as a failure, as far as bread goes. Most people would.

There used to be a corporate buzz phrase going around the office for a while: fail fast. In grad school, we used to say, fail better. I understand the ideas, mostly, but really what the phrases point to is that we all struggle to find a way to make failure mean something, as if by talking about failure in the right way we can make success somehow more achievable.

I wish we could call “failure” something else. It probably does not matter what we call our process. It is never going to feel spectacular to have something not work out as we hoped. It is always going to feel as though we wasted some resource, our time, our money, our energy. In the end, we all know that the only thing we can do is give it another go. This is true for every aspect of our lives, for our careers and relationships and interests and artistic endeavors.

That being said, the bread isn’t a disaster. It has a pleasant flavor, and the texture is not as bad as I originally thought, now that it has cooled. It does not reflect mastery, but it was intentional effort.

That being said, what else do we think of as failure that is really far from it, that is the opposite, that is un-failing?

We cannot clutch our past failures so tightly to our hearts that we allow them to become prophesies of the future.

We cannot allow ourselves to hold on this way because soon, or eventually, we will get to the why even bother part of this thinking. It is entirely likely we will want to give up before we achieve success, if we regard every effort as failure instead of another step in the journey.

What I keep coming back to in so many blog posts, is this: like many people, I am in the process of figuring out what I am all about now. For me, the now markers are fifty-years old, half a dozen years post-divorce. It is clear that I’d like to feel less anxious, more peaceful. To do that, I’ll need to be tuned in to the weird lessons my life reveals every day, in little things, like baking imperfect bread. To look at the idea of “failure” as a only a word, and one that my life is rigorously attempting to empty of meaning and power. And, I like this process, this figuring out self in this deliberate way, where I’m making a conscious effort to be awake to what I’m doing and why.

I wish you happy baking, endeavoring, figuring, and un-failing.  

Love, Cath

On Calm, and Quirks, and Being

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes I don’t want to calm down, because I’m not sure what to do once I get there. I wonder if I know how to do more than visit. I’m so used to allowing my anxiety as much space as it needs that it feels more like home somehow, to be worried. To be in the void, the one at the center of calm, to be without the fluster and fear, means dealing with a situation instead of reacting to it. In a way, there is safety in not-calm. It shields us from work we haven’t learned how to do, or that we were forgot we were competent at. Or, from work that needs doing, but sometimes we are so very tired of doing it.

Photo by Evie Shaffer on Pexels.com

Recently, I was startled by the sudden and violent death of a mourning dove who’d been grazing on the snowy ground at the base of the bird feeder in the back yard. We first noticed the large hawk, hunched over something. It dawned on us then that he must have killed something. After he flew off, carrying the body, we traipsed through the snow and viewed what remained. A scatter of grey and cream colored feathers surrounded a circle of blood-stained snow. Surmising it must have been one of the mourning doves we had noticed earlier, we cleaned up what we could. As I used a plastic grocery bag to gather up feathers and bloody snow in shaky fistfuls, I thought, abstractly, “the dogs,” not able to articulate my worry over them examining the scene. It simply seemed bad to allow them to investigate and possibly consume anything left of the bird. And then I was startled by a sudden grief for the mourning dove I’d invited to the feeder.

When I was attending my graduate school residencies, I heard a lot of talk about “liminal spaces.” The term liminal wasn’t part of my usual vernacular. This notion of in-between-ness felt writerly. It was a lofty concept, an emotionally self-aware and intellectual way of looking at things, and I liked it. Wanted to inhabit a me whose boundaries encompassed the use of such words. I remember thinking about how much living existed in the space between our words. I found myself fully invested in exploring this concept, probably because I was in such an in-between place myself, in between versions of myself, headed away from a married me, and becoming a divorced me, but not really knowing what it was supposed to look like, who I wanted her to be. The liminal eventually became a meaningless concept for me because I felt as though I would be perpetually unable to leave behind one existence and inhabit the next. I felt trapped in an existential game of Twister, limbs tangled and reaching back and forward and everywhere at the same time, grasping urgently for a sense of self. I thought, rather than arriving at the next iteration of myself, I would succumb to becoming a not-me. As if I was nothing more than this tangle of selves, rather than someone who insisted on her own certain form. A scatter of feathers and blood. No longer bird, but still evidence of bird.

In a way, calm itself is liminal. It is an in-between space, the place that exists between anxiety and the next part, work. The work of undoing or repairing or rebuilding whatever sent you falling in the first place. I think of the place in between bird and not-bird and realize it is a very different thing than transitioning from one state of mind to the next, from anxiety to calm to work. It is final. Full stop. Though moving oneself from a state of anxiety to a state of calm can inspire dread and more fear, we always know it is a journey we have to make. But, it takes time. Sometimes we need help, sometimes we need solitude to regroup. Yet it is always characterized, eventually, by movement, not by stopping.

I think about the little movements, like a flutter of breath once we realize we’ve been holding it, that invite us toward calm. The half-formed thought that suggests the difference between the instincts we trust and the hazy, malformed notions that are more remembered grief than the deeper knowledge that points us to what we need, when we need it. Admittedly, it can be hard to tell the difference sometimes. It is even harder to tell the difference when our state is not calm.

I wonder sometimes if it is healthy to spend so much energy considering such abstract things as anxiety and fear and states of mind and states of being. But I also don’t know how to exist, how to be me, without also considering my whole self and my place within the larger world. I think too that such considerations play a vital role in allowing us to grow together and harmoniously with those close to us.

We must keep sharing our real selves with our people, and encouraging them to do the same.

How lucky we are when they allow us to do so without out judgement. I consider myself to be an open, heart-on-your sleeve person. But at the same time, I carry around a certain level of shame and embarrassment about the things I don’t love about myself, like my easily triggered anxiety, or certain weather-related phobias, or the panic my periodic insomnia induces. I admit, I hoped to downplay these qualities to my boyfriend, worried about how he would perceive them. But who we are simply and without fail reveals itself. And, I’ve happily discovered that I am with a person who seems able to accept everything about me, even when my quirks seem unexpected or incomprehensible. We have been together two years now, and it is beautiful to be able to offer one another this grace, this space to be who we truly are with one another.

I’m wishing you all calm today, and am supporting you in being who you are, who you are becoming. If you have a chance, take a moment to hug or thank the people who are happy to let you do that.

Love, Cath

On Wishing and Light and Shadow

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes wishes are better than goals.

Fear does crazy things to our brains and our hearts. I don’t mean that fun kind of crazy like in a road trip movie where the unexpected detour leads to laughs and adventure. I mean crazy as in dangerous and suffocating. In the past two weeks the world has given us much to be fearful about, and for many of us, the looming specter of fear out there in the world serves as a reminder to our body’s chemistry that threats are imminent, that we could lose all the things we are most afraid to lose, even if the reality of that threat is a bit illogical.

For the past two weeks I have felt exhausted by the leapfrog game fear and anxiety and anticipatory grief have played with my soul.

I had some relief on a recent walk I took at dusk with my dog. The pale pink and grey sky, the fading light, the deepening purple shadows, they all allowed something to loosen. And I could breathe a little again and I thought about the constricting grip big emotions have had around my throat. I took a moment to inhale and exhale the January air, and as oxygen and relief flooded me, a thought popped into my fatigued mind: my only goal for 2021 is to have no goals.

I decided I am not not even going to “try and be a better person.” I think I’d like to take a shot at being this person as she is now and see how I feel about her. This is not to say I’ll ignore the things I’ve decided it is important to work on. I know that cultivating patience will benefit me and the people around me, and I’ll continue to do that work. I have a hunch that if I remove the time-bound constraints that I have been taught distinguish wishes from goals, the work will be easier, and the results more fulsome.

I am learning a beautiful lesson, but not easily, and not quickly. You know that idea that someone can be mad at you and still love you? The one we’re supposed to learn as children? I think it got lost somewhere along the way, and I’m trying to rediscover it. I’m also endeavoring to apply it to myself, to remind myself that I can be angry and frustrated by my flaws and shortcomings and still love who I am. I can be patient with myself for not having everything figured out yet.  

I have looked at every past relationship through a lens clouded with the smudges of what did I do wrong and how can I avoid those mistakes again. As if I was always supposed to intrinsically know the right thing to do. As if in any situation, I was somehow the only one of us who had work to do.

In the aftermath of my divorce, my thinking initially was that if I was to ever be happy again, I had a lot of work to do, and that if I didn’t do it properly, and soon, then failure – in love, in life – was imminent. I constructed this scenario out of the same goal-oriented mindset that had gotten me through life thus far. I was to study hard, get good grades, get a job, and get married.

But sometimes you work hard with good intentions toward goals you were taught to value and then it all doesn’t add up the way you thought it was supposed to. Then what? I was taught: messes are for cleaning up. Good people work hard at that, and they get what they deserve. Unspoken but implied was the message, if you didn’t get what you thought you deserved, either you did not deserve it, or you didn’t really work hard enough.

But maybe what we call a mess is something else entirely. Maybe that place where we embrace whatever the opposite of if-then thinking is, that beautiful place where we become something new instead of accepting that we are something damaged/failed/broken because the if-then construct failed us, maybe that is the place where we let ourselves live and breathe and love.

The whole world tells us that there is an order to which you do things, and a timeline. I lost count of the times people told me over the years since my divorce: how long grief should last; what the steps of recovery should look like; how long it takes to move past something; how many relationships you need to go through to learn x, y, and z, about yourself before you get to the next part; how long you should wait before you say I love you; and on and on.

I long to arrive at a place in my thinking – my heart thinking and my brain thinking – where wishing and creation are all that is needed. When do we learn that being gentle with ourselves is acceptable? When do we learn to trust ourselves to be firm when we need to be, to push ourselves toward the wishes we’d like to actualize, and to be soft and sweet with ourselves when we need it?

We are snails – sometimes we are as tough as our shells, and sometimes we are the tender organisms housed within. How is it that we so easily forget to keep inching toward ourselves? How is it that we watch the play of light and shadow on the living room floor as the day rolls along only so that we know when it is time to make dinner, instead of just reveling in the joy and beauty of light and shadow? Sometimes my son reminds me to take a deep breath. I wish it wasn’t so easy to forget that.

Love, Cath

On Companionship and Work

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Aging, Magic, and Waterfowl

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you look for magic, or it finds you, and it gets you through.

I don’t think I have ever stopped looking for magic, not since I read the Chronicles of Narnia as a child. The thrill of wonder that overtakes me at times connects me to my childhood self, but also, to something else, something I have a difficult time shaping with words into a recognizable form.

A few afternoons ago, I was out walking with my son and our dog. We live near some wooded areas, a golf course, a creek. On a few occasions, at dusk or dawn, I’ve been lucky enough to catch glimpses of deer in the neighborhood. I’ve seen a couple of fawns, and recently, a buck. There always seems to be some magic to it, somehow, though I know it isn’t an uncommon thing. I suppose it is the juxtaposition between wildness and domesticity that moves me. When we were walking, we came upon a scattering of deer scat right on the sidewalk. My son and my dog barely gave it a second a glance, but I stopped in my tracks in wonder. He was here! I thought, thinking it was the same buck I’d seen previously.

I am not a person who easily identifies things to love about myself, but I’ll admit, being able to feel the sense of wonder and magic that I felt when gazing at deer poop is one of them.

Moments like these stand in sharp contrast to those times when I walk by a mirror and find the face looking back to be somewhat unrecognizable. There is some other force working here, one absent delight and wonder, one that instead offers confusion and dismay.

Time and experience mark us in different ways. Periods of intense stress seem to accelerate the aging process, but even in the spaces in between, a process that seems slow and gradual in your thirties begins to pick up steam in your forties. And now I am fifty and keenly aware of all that time and the world have wrought in my life. When I look in the mirror I have the distinct sense of looking at someone who seems familiar, in a way, but whose face I can’t quite place.

Obviously, aging brings with it a host of physical issues, and mental ones, too. I have not reached a way of looking at all these changes that I’m comfortable with yet. I’m torn between resignation and resistance. I hate that aging frightens me, and I have yet to dissect all the reasons that this is true. At the same time, I admit to a certain sense of shame that I haven’t embraced gracefully where I am in life. That I stumble still in trying to figure out how to inhabit myself.

I think of the ugly “duckling,” who eventually grew up to be not a duck but a swan. When I was little, I thought the point of this story was that one should be relieved to grow up beautiful, and that if you feel ugly, don’t worry, it might work out for you if you happen to be a swan. Or, baby ducks are cuter than baby geese, but grown up swans are more beautiful than grown up ducks. It wasn’t lost on me that the story was about belonging, but it was also about very much about beauty. What a tricky story to tell a child. The cygnet felt out of place in a duck’s world, but only because the ducks were so cruel about his appearance. And then he grew up and became what he was, and he felt better about himself, which was easy to do once he realized he was a beautiful swan. So often, particularly as we age and notice our appearance changing rapidly, we feel like we can’t quite find that sense of comfort or confidence in our own skin, or feathers. It’s a mirror image of adolescence, but what is on the other side of this transition is different. Aging brings us closer to our own sense of mortality, so it is tempting to not make peace with the process. It is much easier to not think about such things at all. But our faces and bodies refuse to let that denial happen.

Other people seem to know themselves better as they age. I look at how many times I’ve written about the idea of multiplicity of selves and consider that while I’m making a greater effort to understand myself than I have before, the effort is more complex than I imagined it would be. Perhaps I’m overthinking it. Perhaps that’s precisely how it’s done.

Sometimes, I cast myself out into the future and look for myself there, wondering what that person will be like. Will she have settled into herself finally? How long will it take? I wonder if it is unfair to rush the process. Maybe I’m not supposed to un-confuse myself about myself quite yet, maybe this is part of the journey. Nothing else can be rushed, so why should this be any different? And haven’t I been trying to learn patience all my life?

It is easy to regard aging as an accumulation of losses, though intrinsically I know the fallacies embedded in this way of thinking. As uncomfortable as it is to have an awareness of all that I do not know about myself, there is a freedom, too, in the understanding of all there is to discover, all there is to create.

For a moment, imagine the beauty and mystery of a found feather. Image imagining what type of bird it came from, imagine imagining yourself that way, as a beautiful bird in flight, leaving clues for someone to discover, to discover themselves.

Imagine the power of creating a story about yourself, not the one in which you have parsed each and every failure, mapped each and every wrinkle and scar, but the one in which you take flight, and recognize your reflection in the water beneath you as you soar, and recognize yourself as beautiful and strong.

I’m currently writing a story about a woman, who, enduring a grief, looks to magic for solace. I think maybe it isn’t in the mirror where we should look for a familiar face, because that face is going to keep changing. Maybe the trick of it is to find the through lines, the magic that has always made you feel like yourself. Maybe the way to keep learning who we are now is to keep in touch with who we’ve always been. Of course time and experience change us, change our faces, change our hearts. But I think that there is always something elemental within us, something it takes a little magic to access, something that eludes definition or description.

These days are difficult ones for many of us, for many reasons. On the other side of this, we will all be older, we will all look into the mirror and see an altered self. The way we look at the world will also be changed. We must hold close the things that keep us feeling connected to each other and to ourselves. Wishing everyone reading this love, self-love, and of course, magic.

Love, Cath

On Multitudes and Surprise

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we have to listen to our multitudes, and each other’s.

Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself, “I am large, I contain multitudes” and I think of the crowd of people in my head and I nod at Whitman in solidarity. Yes, us too, I answer, for me and everyone clamoring. My body is a mouthpiece. The disparate voices wait for their turn to speak. In moments of synthesis, I think about I instead of we, but it isn’t always that way. Sometimes we don’t have a leader making sense of it all for us; sometimes we see each other clearly. It would be easy to call them facets of our persona, but at times they seem whole; they seem to have a mind of their own, and they have things they’d like to say.  

Sometimes I think about all the misshapen pears and moths I paint and how I despair over the forms I can’t get right. But maybe my hand with a mind of its own is getting this part right: in each asymmetrical moth wing, or that poorly postured pear, whose twisted shape is the result of growing in uneven sun, we see reflections of ourselves.

Sometimes I write we and I intend it to refer to a collective of individuals reading what I’ve written. I project outward; I imagine everyone else working hard to make sense of the world. Sometimes I write we and I feel as if the crowd in my head is cheering for the recognition. We contain multitudes.

This past weekend, my love and I found ourselves taking a bit of a work-related road trip. The beautiful thing about long drives with someone you love is that you and the multitudes in your head get to have unbroken stretches of time with him and his multitudes. I don’t know if that sounds strange or not, I don’t know how other people see themselves and the people close to them, but for me, opening into this truth of our mutual complexities is at once an act of love and an act of self-love. I cherish times like these, and I am in awe of the way being with him opens up pathways not only to know him better, but to know myself better.

I’ve been thinking about these multitudes a lot lately. Many blogs ago I talked about how I needed to listen to the other stories and voices within me, in terms of my writing. I think all writing is personal, and I think it is impossible to avoid privileging the I within us that synthesizes the multitude of voices clamoring to be heard. This morning I walked the dog after sleeping an unbelievable nine hours. I tried to shake off sluggishness and dream fragments as we trotted through the pale morning, looking for downed branches from yesterday’s windstorm. I was surprised by how few branches the sycamores had dropped. My dog was surprised by the break in our routine – morning walks are not the way we usually do things. My legs were surprised by the sudden brisk and sustained movement. I began to realize that surprise was what some of my recent writing was missing. There are voices in the crowd I haven’t listened much to, voices that long to be heard. And going into the dark winter months with a new perspective on my writing feels good. It is time to listen to the other voices and write new stories.

Maybe that’s what we all need a little bit of at this time of year. A nudge to listen to what is latent and waiting within us, new ways of thinking that have nothing to do with the disciplined focus we’ve sustained on current events. I get lost in my own head a lot. Many people do. Sometimes you have to get out of your head a bit, but sometimes, as long as you’re in there, maybe just wander around a bit. Listen for the quieter thoughts and let them lead you, rather than stomping down the well-worn paths of the usual anxieties. Sometimes it is difficult to feel creative and new in the cold dark months. It is easy to slip into a sort of mental hibernation as we fatigue sooner in the day with the early setting of the sun.

I know that I’m prone to romanticizing. My heart was built this way. But I can’t help thinking of those few hundred miles with my love at my side, and how the simple slipping away of the road beneath us, the cadence of it, underscored the easy rhythm of our interaction. How the surprise of the road trip, a somewhat unexpected turn in our Saturday morning, was something our mutual multitudes seemed to delight in.

In these short dark days, when so many of us fall helplessly into a slow sadness that is not easily eased, I’m pointing myself toward surprise, both in my creative work and in my life. My morning walk today helped propel me from the molasses-y state I woke into, and I know it will take work to keep finding ways to unstick myself as the dark cold months wear on. I’m thankful for whatever voice within me suggested the walk this morning. I’m grateful, too, to be with someone whose multitudes know how to speak to mine; I’m grateful for the surprise and delight of simple things like driving someplace unexpected together.

I feel as though I have an awareness now of what I’m going to need as November unfolds into December and as our Michigan winter extends unceasingly through March. Let us all remind each other of our multitudes, that there are other voices we can listen to besides the ones that speak the loudest to us, the ones that pull us toward our usual blues, our worn out but persistent anxieties. Let’s help each other to look for surprise, and to be delighted by it.

Love, Cath

On Water, Identity, and Focus

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes I’m very much aware of how much water I’m comprised of.

When I began this post, it was raining again, and I had an odd sense of inexplicable relief. I had spent the previous night painting malformed moths with watercolors, struggling with the shapes, but delighting in the relationship between pigment, water, pulp. Last week I dipped my feet into Lake Erie, the biggest water I could get to quickly. And this weekend, my Love and I greeted the sun rising over Lake Huron. I have been so drawn to water in these recent days I have become almost overwhelmed by it.

When we think of what it means to be human, we must also think of what it means to be water.

I think of the Great Lakes, their depth, churning toward shores without really knowing how or why. I think of what I used to know about being human, years ago, when I thought I understood my history, and when I was naively confident that I knew the general shape of my future. Then suddenly, these understandings and beliefs dissolved. I think of the paper crane in a puddle, that image from a story, maybe one that I wrote, and the way water returned it to pulp, and then nothing.

Sometimes our past is not what we thought was, and we have no easy path back that allows us to remember what we were before. And sometimes the future we thought we were building simply dissipates, revealing that it was never really a constructed thing, it was only vapor, which has now evaporated.

Life does that sometimes, reminds us that we are water, and we are churning, and we don’t really know where we came from or where we are going but we are going nonetheless, toward shore, toward sky, moon, toward ourselves, maybe.

I’ve stumbled across a lot of incidental philosophy that instructs on the moment, the now, being all that we have, all that we can be sure of. My reaction to this concept is always a dual one: I feel simultaneously the logical truth of it, and I feel a hint of dread. I have always wanted to know the future, its contours, and always used to feel that I understood how the past has shaped me. Now, though, I see the present, less like a moment and more like a vast lake. We churn with the waves, toward somewhere, and from somewhere.

And despite all the mysteries of past and future, the water knows itself anyway. Molecule by molecule, it understands its selfness.

I forget sometimes, forget the understanding of self that I possessed before I was conscious of experience or memory, forget the identity I already lived when emerging into this world. Maybe that is why I’m so drawn to water, despite being a poor swimmer. I’m not seeking sport, but self. Sometimes it feels like I’m always trying to remember that me, the one emerging from water into air, a whole self, even though this world had not yet imprinted me with experience. We are always whole, always were. Why is it so difficult to remember that sometimes?

Our true self has nothing to do with anything that ever happened to us or anything we ever knew or anything we have ever hoped for. How ridiculously easy it is to wrap that being in thing-ish notions that feel real, the things we tell ourselves about ourselves. I am this quality or that, how many times do we listen to ourselves, watch our words forming apology shapes as we admit our perceived flaws. Why do we let ourselves conform to those notions? I believe it is because we have an understanding, however misshapen it may be, of what the world expects. How presumptuous to assume that the world knows better than we do how to be ourselves. What if in our efforts to fit, to appear less alien, we appear more so? Worse, what if, in our efforts to fit, we become less of who we are? I am not sure if it is possible to lose that sense of our true self entirely, but I do believe it is far too easy to drift further and further away and make it harder and harder for ourselves to return.

Maybe the trick is learning to know water in all its forms. Maybe if I hold my breath and dive below, I can see who and how I was long ago, and not so long ago. Maybe, surfacing, I can hold my focus long enough and see a little of the future. Not all of it, all at once, in grand cloud formations, but glimpses, in the water droplets captured and rising in the air when I splash with joy in the pink sunrise.

As for the present, we live in a world of uncertainty. I know that many introspective folk like myself consider their understanding of their own identity, their relationship to past and future versions of themselves. Personal transitions lend urgency toward such explorations, and journeying toward self in this way during the times we live in can feel chaotic and confusing. So, embrace and thank and love those people in your life who have the ability see the self you are seeking, even when you cannot. [Thank you, as always, my Love]. And let us also allow ourselves to be embraced for the same reason. Our clarity of vision can be as much of a boon to others as theirs is to us.

Be open to and available for the love that is being presented to you. Let us focus and see through each other’s endeavors to mimic what the world expects, and instead see the people in our lives truly. Let us give and receive that gift, and be thankful, and bold, and authentic.

Love, Cath

On Sycamore Selves and Unknown Things

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we are unsolved selves.

I walk a lot in my new neighborhood and have been watching the leaves begin to change, and I have been talking to trees.

Several streets here are lined with sycamores, and they often stand in some proximity to birches, silver maples, and the like. It would be easy, at this time of year, to take greater notice of the fiercely crimson and orange maples, or the cheerful yellow hues of the birch leaves. But, a mature sycamore is casually elegant. There is some kind of exuded wisdom you get a whiff of, along with a heady scent that reminds me of honey and hops. The bark of the trunk peels off in strips or patches, leaving behind swaths of varying shades, a silver-grey-green-brown palette that is beautiful, and charming, and comforting. The branches perform unique twists and turns, and the bark on these smaller limbs has an almost swirled coloration, again the silvery greys and browns along with a breath of green. The fallen leaves are yellow or brown, and have their own kind of vibrancy, green and amber heartbeat.

We are learning a lot about each other, these sycamores and I. Fallen branches provide new opportunities to understand the mysteries of how they grow, what they look like up close, up there.

You are strong and mysterious, I say to the sycamore out front, whom I call Henry, for now. I imagine he has observed my own somewhat strange behavior, the jumbled and overwrought moods I sometimes leave the house in when I walk the dog. The calm that often leads me home. Perhaps he thinks I’m strange, too, perhaps he worries about how much I worry. He says, maybe, why do you not see how strong you are?  

Today as I get ready for my walk, I decide I will leave my hair unbrushed and wild from sleep, so that I can be more like Henry. I look out the window at him and he tells me that’s not what makes you wild. Sometimes I imagine I’m part witch and that my friendship with Henry is a real and normal thing, and that my humanized translation of our conversation is an ability my coven was known for long ago and part of it still lives in me. And I tell myself I’m crazy and that I should write a short story about it instead of this little essay, which might make people worry about me, and Henry just shakes his leaves a little. I wonder if I’m actually part tree, not part witch.

Sometimes, I get the sense that I’m part me as well, which is a relief.

[It is worth noting that my Love has a special intuitiveness with plants and animals, and he seems to have good instincts about Henry, too. He and Henry had a nice moment together recently one golden autumn morning, and I get the sense that Henry approves of him.]

On my walk today I pocketed pinecones and leaves that caught my eye and was reminded of how often I did so with my children when they were little. I’ve had such a strong instinct to gather these treasures lately that I’ve been tempted to start bringing a bucket with me like I did with the kids so long ago. Shiny chestnuts freed from spiky green shells, leaves, cones, sticks, stones, blades of pretty grass, dandelions.

Sometimes we want to gather close to our hearts all the things that make us feel solid and safe, all the things that bring us back to ourselves when random fears, anxieties, and stresses all make us feel like we’ve been scattered. Too far. Too wide.

On today’s walk I noticed that the dry, fallen leaves from the sycamore trees are louder than all the others when they skitter on sidewalks. The sycamore voice is similarly strong when the wind blows through its leaves.

It makes me smile, thinking that Henry doesn’t really whisper any better than my daughter, which is fine with me, because I’ve never had much use for secrets.

Sometimes, it is difficult for me to tell the difference between a secret and an unknown thing, between a truth deliberately kept hidden and a thing that has not yet made itself known. There is uncertainty in both, and uncertainty can be especially frightening if you’ve ever lost more than you ever thought you would. We try to protect ourselves, once we are strong again, but we don’t really know how. We are clumsy with our defenses because the enemy is a vague and foggy thing – usually the unknown itself. We don’t know its intentions and our instinct is to shield ourselves. Sometimes, too, we are the unsolved thing, which can feel too wild. Maybe this is what Henry meant. Maybe, when life has been full of transitions, it seems as though we need to answer questions, solve for x, know the future, listen for whispers, listen through them.

Sometimes Henry seems so heroic to me. He doesn’t need to fathom the nature of the things that might threaten him, and he doesn’t waste time on false senses of security that might be gained through defense mechanisms, because he doesn’t really have any, except for being what he is. If he loses a branch to weather or to a tall truck passing by, he lets go, and keeps growing. He keeps being his sycamore self because it is the only thing a sycamore can do. I tell him how beautiful this is. And somehow, I know he’s rooting for me, hoping I settle into my sycamore self, or whatever kind of tree, or witch, or me, I am.

Love, Cath

On Clumsiness and Singing Loudly and Off-Key

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes, I wonder if these posts are too small, too personal, when one considers the chaos in the world right now. And, they very well might be. But in the middle of the chaos we are also navigating our own lives, our own ups and downs, and I don’t know if we can help each other or not, but I feel as though we should try and compare notes, share maps and routes, even though the interior world I’m trying to understand is a different one than yours. So, perhaps it is more about strategies and empathy.

It was a difficult week. I have felt more reactive than usual, less calm. We all have old wounds from the past that sometimes find a way of reopening when we don’t expect them to. I’ve written before about the way some wounds are always with us and we have to keep trying to find ways to live with them, especially after we’ve put in years of work trying to heal them only to find out how easily they sometimes make themselves felt again.

A few days ago, I was walking to the auto shop to pick up my car after having the radiator replaced. The sun was shining cheerfully in that early autumn way it does when they air is just starting to get chilly. I noted this, more as a scientific observation than a sensation or experience that brought me joy, as it usually does. I was having a bad day, battling fears that, in truth, had no reason for existing. But sometimes, they exist anyway. Sometimes, a conversation or situation reminds you just enough, even if only by a sliver, of something from long ago, and the dormant fear sees that sliver as an opening to get a foothold again, and you spend time and energy trying to demuddle past and present, fear and not-fear.

As I was walking my feet itched and I had the urge to run and I felt so cold despite that cheerful sun and I thought about how tired I was. I thought about how some fear-pain responses are not things that you can run away from, nor are they things you can hide from; you just have to keep staring them down whenever they rise up, and I remembered again my fatigue. And how it all made me feel like I didn’t know what to do, though there was nothing to do. But it felt like something in me was readying me to fight, filling me with anxiety and adrenaline.

And then, there is no place to put it, because there is nothing to fight now.

And then, to be completely inelegant, what remains is only this greasy fat blob of emotional sludge to deal with. And that takes time.

And we wonder, how long will the people we love be patient, and can they keep loving us the next time we find ourselves ready for a battle that doesn’t exist? And we wonder, how can we wonder that? That’s not how love works. But we also remember, it did work that way once, when we called it love but it was really something different.

I made it to the auto shop and paid my six hundred sixty-two dollars and drove home. I tried to look at the emotional stumbles of the week like a messy room that will never be completely ordered. It would be easy to close the door and pretend it didn’t exist. But it does. Sometimes we have to be calm and brave enough to walk by and glance in, and keep walking. And sometimes we have to be even braver and walk in, and sort through the messes for a little while, even though the window we decided to leave open because we need fresh air allows in the gusts of wind that leave everything strewn like scattered leaves again.

Photo by Simon Matzinger on Pexels.com

My messy day progressed, and I still tripped and stumbled through the messiness. Until I didn’t. I found scraps of normal, and I found empathy, and I found that the feeling of ringing-in-my-ears-except-not-my-ears finally quieted.

It is easy to feel too small, too tired, too messy. I remind myself to be loud, but sometimes it comes out wrong. I remind myself that strong and loud are different, that I am not composed of the detritus cluttering the messy room.

The past creates such noisy whispers. Maybe sometimes I’m just trying to be louder than that. Sometimes we believe in completely fictional versions of ourselves written by everyone except us.

What drowns out whispers and erases fictions?  Maybe it’s just me, singing loudly and off-key.

At the same time, singing through it only gets us so far. It helps us be brave sometimes, or distracted enough to not be bothered. But we also have to face that the things that snag us impact our relationships, with our families, friends, our partner. And even if we allow that a particular wound within us is easily reopened, and no amount of trying to “fix” ourselves changes that, it doesn’t mean we get to leave the wound unadministered to. It means we have to stop sometimes, and talk ourselves through things, or, that we have to have uneasy conversations with others when talking ourselves through isn’t enough.

I’ve always been clumsy and always been told to pay attention. I am, to so many things. Sometimes we trip anyway, and there will always be skinned knees and hearts to tend to.

Sometimes, we simply must treat our wounds, again, and there is no reason we cannot treat ourselves with kindness and patience in the process, rather than judgment or resentment or anger. There is a softness maybe that we can let in, with acceptance. Maybe, when we feel something hurting that doesn’t seem like it should be, we can just say, oh, this again, sometimes this hurts, I need to lie down for a little while, I need a hug, a cup of tea, a walk. Maybe if we don’t feel compelled to judge the pain for existing it will have a little less control over our emotions and we can move forward with a little more grace. It’s okay, we can tell ourselves, each other. Everything’s going to be okay.

And it is, and it will be.

Love, Cath

On the Utility of Failed Metaphors, Or the Clock, the Iron, and the Buckthorn

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the failure of language points us toward wonder.

Over the course of the long weekend, metaphors arrived at my feet, floated to me like wishes made on dandelion puffs. They arranged themselves into a series of vignettes and waited for me to make sense of them.

First, there was the clock. I sometimes watch a show about antique and vintage items being repaired by a hodgepodge collection of craftspeople in England. In one episode, a woman brought in a badly damaged clock which had fallen from its perch on a side table. The clock had been made in the 1800s, and as the horologist began to take apart and clean and repair the time piece, he discovered that on the hour wheel within its mechanism, there was a date wheel, yet, there was no corresponding place on the clock’s face to indicate a date. He explained that this oddity was indicative that a repair was made at some point with this additional foreign part. He noted, “That’s not a terrible thing, it’s just part of the clock’s life.”

I was struck by this. The idea that we are comprised of things not native to ourselves; life adds functioning parts to our brains and hearts that we were not born with. And we keep on, we keep time, we move forward. It isn’t good or bad to be acted upon, intruded upon in this way; it is simply the way of things. At first, it seemed beautiful, this idea that we incorporate into ourselves these non-native mechanisms, ways of functioning we might not have considered before. At the same time, I recalled the painful ways people have attempted to repair within me what they believed was broken. Too much this, not enough that, here let me help you. I once had a boyfriend who, when he believed I was not understanding his perspective, because I was not agreeing with it, would insist he was trying to help me. In these moments he would say my name over and over, so much so that I grew to loathe the syllables.

Well-intentioned repair can nevertheless leave us feeling altered, worse off than we were before; transformed in a way we didn’t chose. The clock metaphor becomes muddled, I turn it over and over in my mind, the tick-tocking heartbeat of it hiccups, starts, stops. I set aside for now.

Second, there was the iron table, my love’s, a treasured piece from his past. We considered its making. Weighed the notions of cast versus wrought.

Cast – poured into a mold; wrought – shaped by tools. I had never thought about the distinction before.

Later, as I walked the dog, I wondered whether love could be considered this way, as either cast or wrought.

I think of the molds we create throughout our lives, the way we shape ideas about what love is supposed to be, then pour our experiences into this fixed space. We expect everything to fit, our love to hold the shape we’ve told ourselves it should take. Alternatively, if or when we are wiser, we may fashion the shape of it as we go. We hone, engaging in an act of perpetual creation, knowing better now what any skillful craftsman knows: we must diligently attend to what we are making.

Still, I keep reconsidering these ideas and starting over, because the metaphor seems at once to have some truth, but feels a little flawed, maybe forced. It seems to want me to land on a conclusion, to go from an if to a then, to state something about strength or craftsmanship, but perhaps love is wilder and more organic than iron, whether cast or wrought. [Though, it is worth noting, that according to a quick bit of research, wrought iron is stronger than cast iron, and at least in this way, the metaphor comes together.]

Third, there was the buckthorn. Little buckthorn shoots are benign things, proliferate, but just another weed to pull out. Wait a week, and they develop enough root that a simple tug will not loosen them easily from the earth. Wait a few summer weeks, and they are saplings with trunks about one and a half inches in diameter, fully mature with berries, and possessing the thorns that give them their name, thorns as long as the trunk is thick, nearly.

IMG_0763

I woke this morning with a mysterious weepy red scratch between my thumb and forefinger. The mark sprouted like a little branch off of my life line, which is one of the few things I know of palmistry. Playing back my yesterday, I recalled my discovery of the thorns on the mature buckthorns. I remembered that when I was cutting up the saplings my love had felled in the little wayward woods at the back of the yard, I’d been snagged by a particularly determined thorn. This morning, I was struck by the placement of the wound it created, the scratch joining perfectly with the life line.

Of course, I cannot help but see metaphor here. My mind wends through possible meanings, maybe about the stubborn insistence of wildness to be in our lives, to shape us, to mark us. Maybe it is about how eagerly love thrives when the conditions are right, how quickly and sturdily it can grow. Again though, as a metaphor, it is faulty. To shape it to my purposes I must focus on the buckthorn’s heartiness and resilience, and little else.

So, as I wondered about this trio of metaphors throughout the day, I stumbled, often and roughly. What to do with it all? Why did I return to these ideas so adamantly – the clock, the iron, the buckthorn?

At the end of the day, what has made itself plain to me is this: there is a richness to life that offers itself up to us when we are of a mind to see it. I am happy to consider various ways of looking at a clock mechanism, the prettily wrought iron table leg, the buckthorn and its sturdiness and its thorns. It is a delight to contemplate deeper meanings, to cherish the beauty in the way objects and words wish to position themselves in proximity to each other, even if in the end, we determine these couplings to be inadequate ciphers for understanding the complexities of love.

My perspective this weekend revealed a world honeyed with meaning. I may not grasp it all, not all at once, but there is power in what we can glimpse of ourselves and each other and our connections in these little moments, in everyday objects and occurrences, when we allow ourselves the space to notice. Keep noticing. Enjoy the metaphors, even if they fall apart a little when scrutinized. Look at what the world nudges you toward and enjoy the wonder of it all.

Love, Cath