On Windmills and Waterfalls, Dreaming and Doing

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we have to protect and feed our energy.

I love a morning moon. Recently I stood under a 5 a.m. waning gibbous, after the harvest moon. I’m not sure what planet glowed nearby but between the moon, the planet, the still bright stars, and a symphony of crickets, letting the dogs out that early was quite pleasant. It was good energy to begin the day on.

I’ve been thinking a lot about energy lately. My sister recently told me about a dream she had, involving the two of us and a windmill and a waterfall. I feel things churning toward change, as if I’m at some sort of turning point but I haven’t yet discerned what’s next or where exactly I am. I liked the symbols of energy and power she spoke of.

Photo by JACQUES BARBARY on Pexels.com

I’ve had strange dreams about energy as well. One was about electrical cords that were plugged in in strange places, like across the room instead of the nearest outlet, so I was always tripping over them. Another was about a horse. My kids and dogs and I were in the pen with him, and he was alternately restless and bucking, or nuzzling us. Finally, we realized he was hungry, and after we fed him, he was content. This beautiful creature was trying to tell me something simple and urgent, and was getting impatient that I couldn’t figure it out. These dreams left me feeling as though I should be doing something.

On another recent morning, I stood outside at dawn, and white clouds blanketed the sky. I couldn’t get a sense of the sun rising so much as the sky began to lighten every so gradually. And I thought, maybe some transitions are like that. Soft, quiet, and so subtle you don’t notice they’re happening. So unobtrusive you can’t tell where the light is coming from. They are not full of do-ing energy but with be-ing energy.

What is the right balance between energetically pursuing your dreams and patiently waiting for your efforts to pay off? When I look at where I am, what I’m doing, and what I want, it’s unclear where I should focus my energy. Sort of. I am pursuing my writing goals; I’m not yet it a position to pursue my dream of living by woods or water; I’m feeding my creative needs not only with writing but with pottery; I’m maintaining friendships, and trying to be a good dog guardian, and doing my best to be there for my kids to the extent that they still need me to be. But a question mark hovers in the relationship category.

For a long time, I thought if I experienced loneliness, then I was not doing the “being on my own” thing properly. As if I had to prove that solo was perfect and right for me by being fine all the time. But everyone gets lonely. That doesn’t mean I’m failing. Occasional loneliness is a normal thing for everyone, for people in relationships and for people not in relationships. There are going to be times when the feeling crests, but that doesn’t mean it has to swallow us up.

I was hiking this weekend, and while I often find a friend to go with, on this occasion, my usual hiking buddies were busy, so I went alone. I was excited to explore a different part of my usual trail. While doing so, a couple came up behind me. They were walking a bit faster than I was, and to avoid a prolonged period of stalking right at my heels, they said to one another, “want to do a little trot here?” and they jogged past me and got far enough ahead that I wouldn’t be encroaching on them.

When I thought of the ease they had with one another, and having heard snippets of their conversation, I felt a sudden piercing burst of loneliness that brought tears to my eyes. How beautiful to have a likeminded partner to share a hike with, to be so familiar with one another that the conversation flows, and you instinctively communicate with one another on the trail. I thought of my past relationships, and how little we actually had in common in terms of how we enjoyed spending our free time. It’s easy in a moment of loneliness to slide further and further into the past. But I also had the very conscious thought that I did not want to let this bitter pang to continue intruding on my current joy.

I remembered something—a tool to help ground you when you’re feeling anxiety or grief taking over. I knew I needed to firmly root myself into the present moment, the beautiful experience I was having out in the world, not the twists and turns inside my head and heart. I reached out, letting my fingertips skim the bark of a beech tree, and then the next tree, and the next. I took deep breaths of woodsy air, warm and humid on this September morning. I looked down. At my feet was a fallen yellow leaf, of a shape I couldn’t quite identify. It didn’t look like anything around it. I thought it was vaguely poplar shaped, but oddly asymmetrical. I carried it with me, rubbing it between my fingers as though it were a talisman helping me ward off evil.

Because it was. Not that our emotions themselves are evil. But here’s the thing. There’s a difference between noticing/feeling your emotions and having them bond with anxiety in that toxic way they sometimes do. Anxiety distorts our emotions, mutates them. It’s a bad combo. I saw that beautiful couple being awesome in the woods together, and the emotions came at me hard and fast. Grief, loneliness, the confusion of “have I ever had that?” I felt it all in an instant. But I knew anxiety was kicking in when I began to ask the “what if” questions. What if I never find it, etc. That’s when I reached out to the trees for help. We have to know when to reach out.

Funny that I found a little distorted leaf that looked like it didn’t belong anywhere since that’s exactly how I was feeling. It’s like the woods were saying, “you’re not alone.” And that’s also when I realized that feeling lonely doesn’t undermine any progress we’ve made with self-trust and healing. It is simply another emotion. We notice it, feel it, and it’s a good sign when we can prevent it from pairing up with anxiety.

I was pleased that I’d managed to hold onto the good energy, to nurture it. But what of the other energy, the dream energy that seemed to be urging me to do, to act. Was it relationship related? Am I ready to try again? Or is it better to simply be, be me, be open to possibility, to wait and see what happens?

So much of what we want in life, so many of our dreams, are not entirely within our control, so it’s no wonder that it’s confusing when we consider how much energy to put into something. I think we have to listen to what our dreams are pointing us to, but they can be hard to interpret. Maybe the doing my subconscious was hinting at was about simply protecting my own energy. Not wasting it. Feeding it. Maybe it was about reassurance, a reminder to keep tending and keep trusting.

Love, Cath

On Love Letters and Pancakes

By Catherine DiMercurio

Pancakes are love letters I write to myself on weekend mornings. Yesterday’s were slathered in vegan butter and a syrup made from mixed berries and turbinado sugar, since, shockingly, I was out of maple syrup. I have a long history with pancake-as-love-letter. I used to make them for my family when the kids were little. It was a favorite treat. Every once in a while, if I was up early, I’d make them on a school morning and the kids would be surprised and delighted to have a break from their usual school morning fare of toast and tofu, cereal, frozen hashbrown patties hastily heated, smoothies, or whatever else we threw together. When we’d have neighbor kids over for a sleepover, I could easily be cajoled into making chocolate chip pancakes. All of this was a way for me to say, let me do this for you, make you feel welcome and delighted and full-bellied. Comforted and loved.

Messy but tasty.

Once, when my marriage was building toward its demise, and it seemed like my husband had gradually evolved into someone I didn’t know, who didn’t know me, I made pancakes on a Saturday morning and called the family to the table for breakfast. He sat down, reluctantly, in front of the steaming plate of love letters I’d placed in front of him. “I don’t really like pancakes,” he said. He didn’t even say “anymore,” as I recall. It was as if he was telling me that all along, he’d never liked them, and all along, he’d let me labor under the delusion of my delight in feeding him this treat. All along, what I knew and what I thought I knew were different things. Some seemingly mundane moments like this etch themselves into your soul and you try and talk yourself out of letting them mean too much, but later you are able to understand why it hurt so much more than it “should” have.

Later, after the divorce, after the rebound boyfriend summoned from my college days (for whom I made gluten-free pancakes), my first real new boyfriend spent the night for the first time while the kids were away. I made him pancakes in the morning. I delighted in how much he enjoyed them, how pleased he seemed to be in my space, sitting at the dining room table with me over pancakes and my syrupy love notes. I fell in love easily then, though that relationship did not last long, nor did the one that followed. I have a pancake story for that one too, but like most of the love notes I offered then, the reception was lukewarm.

Now I make pancakes for myself and it still feels like a special treat. Yesterday, I needed to feel taken care of, so I made myself the aforementioned pancakes. It started out just as something that sounded good but as I began mixing the batter, I thought of how satisfied I felt whenever I bothered to make myself a good meal instead of just scraping something together because it’s “just me.” So I completed the task with more deliberateness, thinking about why I was feeling the need for care in this moment, and also being grateful for being tuned in to what I needed. Even just months ago, it was challenging for me to consider both what I needed and figure out a way to get it. It was no easy task to make myself feel loved. To allow myself to feel loved. By the people in my life, by myself. Being partnerless felt burdensome, heavy, huge. It felt like an enormous cloud that shadowed my life. I felt that, theoretically, I loved myself, but I sort of waved away the notion that such knowledge could do anything to assuage my grief or loneliness. Now, I’m able to enact that love in different ways, to sit with emotions that need attention, to take comfort in a thoughtfully made meal, to pull myself away from the damaging loop of anxiety-thoughts by going for a walk or heading to the pottery studio or playing with the dogs.

It’s taken me so long to learn how to connect all these dots. For most of my life the messaging around me was that there was something wrong with prioritizing oneself. We don’t really learn how to do it. I didn’t. Or that we can, or should. For me, it has been so much easier to do now that I haven’t been in a relationship for a while. A year ago, I would not have imagined that I would come to think of the ending of my relationship as a gift. At the time, I felt I was making a healthy decision for myself but it was still a painful process and a grieved ending. It has taken me these many months to get to the point where, beyond knowing what I want in the next relationship (when/if that happens for me), I know myself so much better. Further, I know myself better for the sake of myself, not for the sake of any past, present, or future relationship. In the years since my divorce, I’ve been doing this work, but having this time entirely to myself for the past year has allowed me to further those efforts, to be more conscious, aware, and deliberate about my wants, needs, choices, preferences, and so on. To be clearer about my motivations and my triggers.  

Obviously, as a human, I still desire external validation, connection, conversation, etc. I’m learning what it means to feel wholeness and peace and at the same time desire connection and community. They aren’t mutually exclusive. I also have bad days where nothing seems to help. I’m still a work-in-progress. We all are, and there is so much beauty in that. The people I’m most drawn to are those who possess that same awareness. 

Pancakes are not the only love letters I write to myself. When I look around my space and see houseplants in every room and jars of found objects—pinecones, driftwood, rocks—I see all the ways in which I bring nature inside so that it is all around me, because it calms me and centers me. Every little stone I’ve ever pocketed or tucked inside my beach bag was a way of me saying to myself, trust me, you’re going to need this later.

So, if you’re reading this, take a moment amidst all the loud clatter and chaos that seem to be the norm of the world around us most of the time, and think about what little love note you could give yourself today. Is it cooking a comforting meal, writing an actual note, going for a walk, picking up a lucky penny? Maybe it is pouring coffee into your favorite mug, and stepping away from work for 15 minutes outside. What are the ways you’ve expressed love for others in the past that you can offer yourself now, like me and my pancakes? It’s worth thinking about. You’re worth it. I am.  

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 Safe Havens

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we figure out what we need.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Lake Magic and Collaboration

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we must collaborate to find magic and peace.

You think you’re doing okay. You are. You’re handling all the things this life has thrown at you. You open new little doors and through them you step into huge worlds of strength and resilience. Some nights you don’t sleep, some nights you do. You worry about what will come next and then you are in it, being what is next, and you reassure yourself. This is what life is, this is what it looks like for me, here, now. But everything takes its toll and you feel stress accumulating like mud in your cells. Your thinking and the way you move through the world feels muddy, though you know you have to keep doing it anyway. And then you manage, almost by accident, to find your way to a great big lake that lets itself feel like the edge of everything, and the instant your toes are greeted by the first big wave crashing then lapping up to meet you, you begin to cry. Is this relief? Release? Something seems to wash away, weight seems to fall away from your tired shoulders. It is as if your lungs have filled fully for the first time in who knows.

Sometimes it is like that. Sometimes we fall into a moment where we can, at long last, regroup and breathe deeply.

I have always known that being near a body of water calms me. When I say that, it doesn’t feel like it truly conveys what I need it to. It’s not simply that I was feeling a little stressed and can relax now. It feels more like an elemental return to self. Most people who know me have heard me say something about how it has long been my dream to live in a little cottage on a lake. I do hope one day I can figure out how to make that happen. Until then, I know that I must create more opportunities to wind my way toward water.

Lake Michigan works magic well, but it wasn’t just the lake. It was spending time with my sister. It was both of us and both of our families figuring out how to let us place on hold all the other things that require our attention, and all of us letting us have this.

It was us a collaborative effort to build open space.

I’m tuned in to this notion of collaboration lately. When I think about dating again, about trying once more to find someone with whom I’m compatible and who also wants the same thing for the future that I do, I realize that I want a collaborator. Someone who wants to build what we have and where we are going, together, as equal partners with different strengths and weaknesses.

I realize, too, the extent to which the various parts of myself need to collaborate with each other in order to pursue dreams, to calm anxiety, to find rest when it is needed, or motivation when it is time to roll up sleeves and get to work.

Part of that process involves making peace with myself for all the things that Weren’t Supposed to Be This Way. For all the reshaping I tried to do that ended up collapsing in on itself anyway, like a carefully built sand castle eroded by waves.

Letting go of things we need to be free of is as difficult as it is necessary. But, there is no magical process. One of the reasons it is so hard to let go of past griefs and experiences is that as much as we want to forget, there is a fear that if we do forget, we might repeat mistakes. Our mammalian minds and bodies know that a remembered pain can trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response that can, theoretically, protect us. That sometimes does protect us. And so, moved by the tremendous force of instinct, we hang on to what hurts. We need to override this sometimes, and it takes conscious effort. It takes learning about ourselves layer by layer.

One way to override this instinctual response within us is to understand that a lot of the anxiety we shoulder on a day-to-day basis is a companion of this pain, because it is fear of future pain. For me, addressing this requires me to remind myself of what I’ve handled, of what I’m capable of. It makes the prospect of future pain less frightening. We have to work together, collaborate, the part of me that doubts myself and the part of me that knows better. No one is handing out gold stars for the millions of things we have taken care of and continue to manage. We just do it, and sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s messy.

Only after layers of lessons have accumulated can you see the beauty in what you created out of trouble and tears. You become able to acknowledge what you were willing and able to do for yourself, in honor of yourself, in service of yourself.

If you’ve ever harbored a secret notion to be delivered from what you’re struggling with, take a moment now to look at what you’ve accomplished. Take a moment to breathe deeply and see yourself with fresh sight, to see the beauty in your strength, in the variegated patina of your experience.

So often, we push through things that we never give ourselves credit for. And because we don’t, we have not cultivated an accurate understanding of ourselves, our worth, our strength. If we take the time to do that every so often, we can find a bit of peace, we can let go of the anxiety that spools through us, binding us tighter and tighter to fear and pain. We can do this because we do know what we can handle.

In a few days, I’m going to have to handle a new transition, my son moving off to college (again). We did this before, last fall, knowing he would be home for the summer. But the dorms closed and he moved back home at Thanksgiving. He’s a good roomie, I’m going to miss him. He’s ready for the next part. I mostly am, but this time is different. After he moves, he likely won’t live at home again. And when I return home, it won’t be like last year, when I was cultivating a relationship. This year, I’ll be empty nesting without a partner. There is much to look forward to, but I know the transition is likely to be bumpy at times. I will be cultivating and collaborating, but in a different direction.

Whatever your next transition is, I wish you peace and strength. I hope you are able to collaborate with self, and with your people, to create space for relief and growth. And I’m wishing us all a little lake magic, too.

Love, Cath

On Swarming and Signifying

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes a swarm has something to say.

A recent rain brought down a bald-faced hornets’ nest that had hung high on a branch of my neighbor’s silver maple. The nest was active last summer but its papery cavities, in the cold months, were excavated by birds for sustenance, or so my son has informed me. The silver maple branch of my neighbor’s tree juts across my back yard, so that the nest hung squarely above my yard, until last week. We discovered the nest at dusk, and in the fading light, it reminded me so much of a giant human heart, misshapen after the fall. When I took the dogs out in the middle of the night, they stood near its eerie mass, not indicating a threat so much as something I should take notice of. This, they seemed to say. In the morning, we studied the nest’s construction, the intricate cavities; we marveled at the engineering. I thought how wonderful it was that the hornets’ well-made home allowed them the safety and security necessary to live out a full life cycle, even if we, their human neighbors, occasionally needed to dodge them in the summer.

When I was little, we had a cluster of forsythia shrubs in the yard. Their long, arching branches wove together at the top, forming a little airy atrium. My two older sisters and I would spread a blanket on the dirt floor of this chamber, and spend many a spring afternoon escaping, planning and plotting, adventuring, and resting there. Sometimes now I would like to ask them: do you remember staring up at the crisscrossing branches above us, looking at all the yellow stars blooming, and feeling safe? And have you ever felt so safe in your lives since? Our baby brother was napping away the spring afternoon, our mother worked in the house, our father was gone to his job, his life away from the house mostly a mystery to us, except when he let us come to the grocery story on Sundays when it was closed, and we’d help him by turning all the cans so their bright labels neatly faced the aisles. It was years before our other sister was born, though sometimes I imagine she was there too, somehow. I think this is the safest I’ve ever felt, long before the sting of any loss, before we tumbled into our adult selves. Nestled in our flowering nest, there was no understanding of anything that couldn’t easily be made better.

Sometimes we are lucky, and we can recognize happiness when it comes along, feel the solid pressure of it aching in our ribs, patiently, until we notice it and name it. It is in these moments of recognition, where, feeling both solid and buoyed, I find myself most vulnerable. Where the mere whisper of a threat to what I’ve so carefully constructed feels like a storm of wind and rain, ready to send it all crashing to the earth. Everyone feels vulnerable to loss. I think when you have very specific memories and a set of circumstances that surround a past, significant loss, part of you becomes hyper aware of what you can lose, and how it will feel. Part of you becomes an ever-vigilant swarm of hornets, swirling in a confused haze around the nest, looking for threats. People talk about “angry” hornets, or wasps, or bees. They are not angry – they are instinctively protecting their collective heart, the nest, or hive. Yet it is easy to wonder, if our perceived-threat response is hornet swarm, how can we ever feel soothed, and what will it take to feel capable of being happy without feeling overwhelmed by the corresponding fear of its loss? I think back to the forsythia days, and how that was the magical quality. There was no fear of loss; we didn’t know what it was. Happiness and love existed like air and sunshine.

I have spent years trying to teach myself to live in the moment, to not what if my life away, to not swoop and swarm when I fear the world could give way beneath me. In no way have I mastered this. But in some ways, I’m managing to navigate, sometimes. In some ways, it is only the swarm of words that can calm the other swarm. I talk my way through, I write my way through, and I talk some more. I wish it were easier. And I’m ever thankful for being loved in returned, and listened to, with empathy. I’ve also considered that there is another way to think of the swarm that tries to protect me from losing what I love. Rather than thinking of the swarm as the dark shape of past fear protecting me against future loss, it can be viewed as a signifier, one that underscores that this love I have is something worth protecting. Like the dogs in the yard hovering over the nest, and the forsythia blossoms hovering over three little sisters, the swarm says simply, This.

Love, Cath

On Fallowness and Mud

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes a word grabs me and won’t let go. Yesterday morning, walking the dogs in the strange warmth of February sun, it was “fallow.” Fallow as in, plowed and unsown earth; as in, quietly replenishing after having been depleted.

The recent warmish weather and the thawing of a frozen winter’s worth of snow has got me thinking of what it means to be fallow and waiting. Maybe these thoughts took root at least in part because of the Rilke quote I came across recently: “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.” (Ranier Maria Rilke, from “Letters to a Young Poet.”)

Like anything that I consider to be a strength, patience, that deep cosmic kind I think Rilke is talking about, plays hide and seek with me. I must peek in corners to catch a glimpse of it, or chase it down, often unsuccessfully, when I need it. I think I do possess it, somewhere, but it is elusive. And there is plenty about myself that feels unsolved, plenty that resists my current capacity to understand. How like fallowness it is, this kind of patience, and how hopeful to imagine there is a latent richness that will produce a surprising yield at some unknown time.

This way of thinking stands in sharp contrast to the restlessness I often feel, to my urgency to know what is going to happen next, in the coming weeks, and years. Often, this anxiety about the future is rooted in past experiences; for me this is true. Many, maybe most, people endure events at some point in their lives that change every version of the future they had envisioned for themselves, and have an awareness as it is happening that this is what is occurring, this loss playing out in full vibrant color all around you. You see the future erasing before your eyes, you see yourself vanishing too, in a way, in all the ways. New things, good things, begin to coalesce and emerge, though. They begin to form themselves into solid figures here and now, and you start to feel healthy and strong in ways you didn’t imagine possible before. Even so, there remains a fog up ahead in which you fear you will lose your footing, or everything.

I would like to think this long, cold, pandemic winter, this period of vigilant caution, of staying put, of worry and fatigue, is all part of a prolonged fallowness, a period of forced patience. Maybe like the soil under a bed of leaves lying beneath melting snow and ice, we are in a process of becoming enriched, we are readying ourselves for understanding what we cannot yet comprehend, truths about selfness and strength. Maybe after the period of fallowness is over, we will understand something we currently do not about the way expectations can vanish, but selves do not.

Still, it is difficult to wait. It is difficult to pursue goals – whether they be artistic, personal, professional, relationship-related – and not see the results we hope for. We wonder, why will this not look the way I thought it would? We wonder if we’re doing it wrong, or if we are simply looking at it from the wrong perspective. Maybe everything is falling into place exactly the way it should, and we have not yet reached the point where we can make sense of it. Maybe it is all still fallow-ing and when we are ready, we will grow – into our selves, and our lives, into our own big hearts and dreams, into the worlds we’ve been constructing for ourselves almost without knowing it. We are tiny lives in iris bulbs building our selves in the rich hidden worlds in the soil all winter long.

So many things do not look the way we thought we wanted them to. I think of my veneration of soil here and wonder how I can be so anxious to get my hands in dirt and plant things, when at the same time, the melted snow and the pounding dog feet have made a mud pit of my little plot of suburban soil. It is all the same substance but when acted upon by external forces, it changes form. We are not so different. Our little selves in iris bulbs transform to stem and leaves with the application of sunlight over a certain number of hours each day. We are all acted upon by time and by the weather of our lives. Even so, we are comprised of the same elements we always were.

Perhaps it is the same with everything we do not yet understand about ourselves. Truths waiting to be seen from another angle. Us, waiting to be acted upon by this force or that until we are ready. But for now, we must be patient, learn to love the mud and the questions, wait for the sun and rich soil, wait for the answers, knowing it is all the same stuff anyway. Maybe in this way we get closer to knowing and loving what we are made of, here, now.

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