On Throat-Clearing, Self, and Voice

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we can almost find the melody.

I put a lot of effort into trying to make sense of things that don’t. In my writing, it feels like the practice of untangling knots that can’t be untied, though each story takes a fresh try at undoing. My brain attacks most present worries in the same way.

When I sit still, I sometimes feel both restless and exhausted. This state is a product of many things – pandemic year, new and old anxieties, writing frustrations, aging realities, leaving and moving and settling in.

In my writing, I begin to wonder about voice – what manner of expressing myself is unique to me, my fingerprint of creative expression. And voice, as in, mine, in this world. Lately I have revisited half-begun stories and can’t take them anywhere. I think of a top spinning at the end of its movement, the wobbly tilt and hobble where I find my creative practice these days. Tops get spun again; I don’t worry that I’m done, but wonder where to go from here, and how.

In a way, it feels as though this year of largely staying in place has been one of incubation. During this time, I focused on trying to make my new house feel like mine. I thought a lot about home. I also began to reckon more consciously and deliberately with the notion of aging. I periodically take photos of myself that I show to no one to document the progress of the incoming greys, and to acclimatize myself to the changing terrain of my face.  We have kept ourselves as hidden as possible from the hidden virus, and I have grown tired of hiding myself from myself. But I often don’t recognize me.

I heard somewhere recently that resilience is never losing your enthusiasm in the face of failure. This made me feel angry and a bit deflated, because I want to think of myself as resilient, but I always feel enthusiasm flag when faced with failure. I would counter that resiliency is never losing hope in the face of failure. You can feel defeated, but at the same time you keep fighting for what’s important to you. Enthusiasm feels like a bit too much pressure sometimes. Then again, it is possible that I am not actually resilient. But I am good at hope.

As I’ve noted before in this space, Clarice Lipsector wrote “It is also possible that even then the theme of my existence was irrational hope.” We all have themes, not only as artists but as humans, patterns we observe in our lives, values we attempt to adhere to, wishes we twirl around our hearts. Maybe none of us could extricate ourselves from the themes of our existence if we tried. Some things are as they are. I will find love stories everywhere. I will write them. I will be hopeful about everything and everyone I love. I wonder if all hope is irrational.

Everything I have ever written has turned into a love story. Love, loss, seeking, finding – these are the structural frameworks of most everything I compose. I wonder sometimes, when I feel defeated, and the rejections land solemnly in my in-box, if all I can build are dollhouses, while better writers are busy building cities, universes. But then I think that maybe the world needs dollhouses too. We all need different entry points into the art we interact with. Maybe someone is just waiting for the right-sized door. Maybe it’s all that Alice in Wonderland game of feeling too big or too small to get to where we want to go. But eventually, we find a way to connect.

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The themes we don’t stray from are, in a way, one path toward maintaining our connection with ourselves. I have a novel manuscript that has undergone more permutations than I care to number. I have left it unsubmitted for a long time and had nearly decided to abandon all hope (and enthusiasm).  But, I have dedicated myself to one more overhaul, and I’m now working with a trusted writer who is helping me take a fresh look at it. I feel hopeful once again, but daunted. Possibly I am not now, nor ever was, up to the task of doing what so many novelists do so well, which is, to do everything well – plot, character, pace, language, theme, subtext, and so on. Everything must be precisely fine-tuned for the work to sing. Currently there is a lack of harmony, there is a lot of out-of-tune warbling, and a fair amount of throat clearing. Sometimes I think the melody’s there though.

I listen for melody too in the world outside my door, but I’m finding it clunky to emerge from this pandemic isolation, as we receive our vaccinations and make plans once again. I see other vaccinated folk pursuing “normalcy” as if they hear a tune and feel compelled to follow it. I can almost hear it. And there are people I’m so looking forward to spending non-masked time with. I can’t wait to spend more than a few odd hours with my daughter, and to see her whole wonderful face the whole time. Yet, in general, I feel both excited and enormously anxious about jumping back into the world at large. Maybe I’m feeling as though I’m still incubating. As with many things, we grow when we learn to be empathetic with regard to the timetables of the people around us.  

When I think of empathy and growth, I think of the way growth often doesn’t always look like growth – it looks like incubation, it looks like cocooned pupae. And when I think of empathy, I remember that I often forget to have it for myself.

This weekend I did a little hiking. It felt good to be in the woods. My son took a picture of me at my request and I’ve looked at it many times since, trying to see what I wanted to see there. A recognizable person. She seemed familiar, me and not-me at the same time, but the setting seemed right and that helped. I don’t know why it feels so difficult so often to know and be at peace with myself. Maybe this year too much happened and too much didn’t happen, and it changed me more than I am consciously aware. Maybe the image in the photo is a reflection of reality and it is my ability to see it truly that has been altered by time and experience. Perhaps how we see changes more than what we see, and how we hear melodies differently from one another explains so many things. This is all the more reason for us to cultivate empathy toward one another and to build our reserves of resiliency and irrational hope, as we attempt to both listen and sing in this world.

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 Not Being Bullied by Time

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

Time and Identity

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

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

Twin Bullies: Time, Shame

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

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

Time Is What You Believe It Is

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

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

Love, Cath

The Age of Compromise: On Aging and Surrender

By Catherine DiMercurio

This is a moment of surrender. Or, at least, a movement toward that moment. This weekend, I sat in a high school classroom, listening to my children playing a duet—my son on the cello, my daughter on the violin. As a graduating senior, my daughter was performing at her last state solo and ensemble event. It was also the last time the two of them would be performing a duet together in this context. I often close my eyes when I listen to them play and for a moment, Beethoven’s Sonatina drifted through memories, picking up images that hung for a moment in the melody so I could see them, images of the two of them as children, playing together, kneeling in the grass, heads bent toward one another, communicating in the deeply familiar and private way siblings often have.

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Now, they sit on black chairs in this sunny room, communicating differently—with the interplay of cello and violin, trading the melody—heads still inclined toward one another, almost fully fledged and ready to fly. It is difficult to think about the journey of all those years, to think about how much my son and daughter have grown, without considering the impact of my own accumulation of years.

I have an uneasy relationship with the notion of aging. I’ll be 48 later this year. It isn’t the number itself that gives me any trouble, but rather, the undeniable signs that this is happening. It’s different for everyone, the collection of symptoms that pile up, that make you notice them not as individual random things but as parts of a pattern. At some point, it all adds up and you realize that getting older—which you were fine with—means you are actually getting old.

Distance and Pain

Did you notice what happened there? That slip from first person into second person? Writers sometimes do this with a first-person narrator as a hint that the topic is so difficult or painful for the speaker that they—consciously or not—slipped into speaking about it using the more distant, generalized “you.” It diffuses the pain. An example: Hemingway does this with his (autobiographical) narrator at the end of A Moveable Feast when he’s discussing the affair that ended his marriage to his first wife, Hadley. Hemingway describes the progression of the affair from something “stimulating and fun” to “truly wicked.” He speaks of the way “You lie and hate it and it destroys you.” He doesn’t say, “I lied and hated it and it destroyed me.”

So perhaps, it’s more accurate for me to say, “At some point it all adds up and I realize that getting older—which I was fine with—means I’m actually getting old.”

This progression from getting older to becoming an old person might be an easier journey if our society esteemed old age in any way. It doesn’t. The daily toil endured to be productive, tax-paying members of communities, the sacrifices made to raise children, the wisdom gained through the trial and error of living and loving and being human and making it to your 60s and 70s and beyond, are all frequently overlooked by our American society collectively, and by many of us individually on a day to day basis.

The Fine Art of Compromise

For me there are clear, outward facing indicators of my age I’m not comfortable with. I used to be regularly told that I looked younger than my age. I don’t hear that too much any more. For a period of time I read every article I could about the way stress—particularly some of the deep, long-lasting, chronic stress of divorce—ages a person rapidly on a cellular level. Though this idea was upsetting, it helped me accept some of the changes I was seeing and feeling. The grey hair, the bouts of insomnia. Sometimes it seems unfair, as if I thought I could cheat aging because I’ve focused on healthy eating for most of my adult life and tried to stay active since the kids were small. My lifestyle should at least yield healthy and productive later years, but I’m not naïve enough to believe there are any guarantees.

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I also find myself reading articles about the benefits of slow running. I ran two half marathons the year of my divorce. Running helped me purge a lot of the toxins I felt seeping into the tissues of my body. I felt like stress was devouring me breath by breath and I needed to burn it off the way fever kills infection. I’m not an efficient runner though and in the years since, long runs seem out of my reach. It’s hard to make peace with that. At the same time, I want to keep running. I’d rather do a few short runs, and some long walks, every week and be able to maintain that routine for the next twenty years rather than try and rack up mileage the way I used to and risk injuring myself to the point where I can’t run at all. My late 40s seem to be The Age of Compromise.

These are all small things. I feel good, really good, most of the time. I don’t wake up with aches and pains. The insomnia gets bad sometimes but I found that not eating after 7 pm really helps. The grey hair feels personal. I know it is a superficial thing. It is hard to find a vegan hair color that really does the job. I have researched articles on the best ways to go grey. I’ve pulled up pictures of Ann Bancroft in The Graduate and thought, maybe just let those streaks come in?

All of this research, these thoughts, these little allowances, are part of a movement toward surrender. Yet I remain unwilling to stop fighting the idea of growing older. I suspect that when I embrace it, a lot of things will fall into place. It’s worked out that way in other arenas. But right now I don’t even know what surrender and embrace look like. Is it when I decide to stop coloring my hair? Is it when I stop reacting so angrily to articles with headlines like “The 40 Things Women Over 40 Should Never, Ever Wear”? Maybe acceptance gets feathered in at the edges and you simply start noticing that you really don’t care about such things anymore. It’s possible that even thinking of it as embrace or surrender is to suggest I’m still fighting. Maybe it all happens organically, quietly in its own way, like when you remember that thing on the tip of your tongue finally, hours after you stopped trying so hard to catch it.

Whiplash: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

The flip side of all of this—of watching my children grow into adulthood, of making little deals with myself about how to shift the way I think about my age or changing my eating patterns—is that being honest with myself about aging means I also have to acknowledge that my parents are aging. I think now of that sonatina again and the memories shift. It’s my sisters and me—before my brother was even born and long before my baby sister was born. We are huddled in the fort made by the arching branches of forsythia bushes, speaking almost a private language, breathing in the delicately scented air under the first yellow blooms of spring.

Maybe my parents watched from the window. Maybe, as their little girls were graduating from high school, they thought about their own aging, and now, with their grandchildren graduating, they are simply living it. They are in their seventies. They deal with more doctor appointments than they used to, but they are active and happy and healthy. Like the good parents they have always been, they are modeling for me what aging can look like. They are simply living their lives, enjoying their journey, and dealing with obstacles along the way as they have always done and taught me to do.

So what am I so afraid of? Maybe it’s simply that the transitions in life are the hardest, and once we make our compromises, make our tweaks and our peace, we adapt and get on with it. It seems that every time I think this road is familiar and I know the way, the scenery changes and I get a little lost. Usually though, once the fear subsides I find I can relax and enjoy the adventure. I hope aging is like that.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath