On Magic, Work and Worry, and Joy Like a Canary

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes magic finds us; sometimes we have to go looking for it to get through the day.

Part 1. In Which Magic Infiltrates the Everyday

I find myself thinking about magic lately. I think about peeking in wardrobes, and the half-expectation of seeing a snowy landscape and a lamppost on the other side. To be clear, I’m not talking about actually expecting to walk into another world – Narnia, or anywhere else. I’m talking about a spark of feeling that is at once wonder, hope, joy, and something else I’m not sure I’ve been able to pinpoint.

Sometimes, life is all alarm clock and schedule and commute and cubicle. But one recent morning I walked my dog at dawn. The sky blushed, nudging away grey remnants of night, and the chill in the air had no pinch in it. My almost-eleven-year-old-galoot trotted and pulled in his undignified way, lurching toward the joy of the day, of scents and fresh air and movement and company. Rounding a corner as we headed downtown, I saw that the little city tree branches had already been strewn with holiday lights. The glow of the bulbs, set against the peaches and pinks of the dawn, that companionable contrast, made me grin out loud; there was more magic in that moment than I had expected from a Tuesday pre-work walk. Maybe the magic was in how long it stayed with me.

defocused image of illuminated christmas lights
Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on Pexels.com

And for the rest of the day, my wandering thoughts strayed Narnian. I thought of all the other things that work their magic on us day by day, though it can be easy not to notice.

I want to notice, and I want to remember the noticing.

I get a little lift when squeezing dish soap into the sink and a stray bubble floats toward the ceiling. It reminds me of my sweet brown dog who died before he should have had to, and how delighted bubbles seemed to make him. He always stayed with me in the kitchen when I did the dishes. And something about that dish soap bubble does more than make me think of him. In that moment the melancholic pull of missing him evaporates, and in its place is that moment of inexplicable delight and peace and . . . something else.

[I think, too, of the way my heart lurches when a certain text tone chimes, pulling all of me along with it, toward joy, as if my heart is the dog on the walk and the rest of me is leash.]

We move through our day, through ordinary moments, walking the dog, doing the dishes, sending and receiving texts. If we are observant, we might find ways to layer joy onto the bones of the moments in our days.

I look at this as some sort of everyday magic. I think that it is in fact miraculous that there is an emotion that lives near joy, hope, wonder, peace, love, delight, all these things, that I cannot name. What a gift that is, especially when you look at the spectrum of nameable emotions, and how familiar we are with the names of all of them, even and maybe especially the less pleasant ones.

Part 2. In Which the Magic is Too Easily Overcome

A couple of mornings ago, I went for a run for the first time in a while. I’ve been avoiding the cold. I used to like running in the cold. I reminded myself of that. I reminded myself that it wasn’t snowy or icy, and that the temperature, though below freezing, was above 0. It was 20 degrees out. Throughout the run, I thought of being done with the run. I thought about how I should have warmed up, and how I was forcing my muscles to do what I often force my brain to do – figure things out as I go. I didn’t have time for a warm-up. Finding my cold weather layers, that was pretty much my warm-up. I thought about metaphors and I thought about my knee and about little crystalline ice formations in my lungs.

I tried to pretend to be some kind of bad-ass when I got home, because I ran a couple of miles in the cold. The dog was not impressed. I tried to hold on to the post-run lift, to hold on to all the things that made me smile throughout the week. I was marginally successfully. But it got to be too much work when costly car troubles and other normal life stresses combined with holiday stresses began to pile up.

Stress and worry seem to weigh so much more when gathered up than all the moments of peace and happy and magic I’ve been storing up weigh. Or, I notice them more than when the stresses dribble in one at a time. But then life happens and the stresses pool together. They somehow increase in density and seep heavily into everything, groaning in a deep bass tone at the base of my skull that their totality is greater than the sum of their parts.

Part 3. In Which Overthinking Leads to Perspective and Turns Out to be Just the Right Amount of Thinking

It is easy to sink, hard to pull myself back into equilibrium. I have to be on both sides of the leash to lurch myself back into what feels like a more natural state sometimes.

Does it sound selfish, this gluttonous desire for joy and love and peace and peace of mind and hope? Why can’t we though, why can’t we want that, why can’t we throw the weight of our selves and seeking behind such pursuits?

I think how upside down the world is, of how much time we spend fighting for the things we care about and how little is left for the caring. Sometimes I feel the panicked pull of it all and I just want reprieve, and when I find it, it is in the presence of the people I care about and I’m reminded that the reprieve is actually the world, and everything else is the noise and clutter. The reprieve is the place where we can’t be hurt and fatigued and wearied by everything outside the door. And sometimes we find it in the quiet place within us, in solitude, though like anything, there can be too much of that.

I wish I could un-upside-down the world, and make the reprieve take up slightly more time than the clutter, noise, work and worry. I’m not good at rationing, though and who knows what balance looks like. I’m trying to be better about savoring, enjoying to the fullest all the moments of reprieve that I can collect throughout a day, a week. I try to not be resentful that the pile of bills or the cubicle or repairs to home and car whittle away at it all, thin it out in the middle.

It takes work, sometimes, keeping ourselves living in the mindset we want to maintain. I like my goofy optimism, I like try-your-best, look-for-magic thinking. I get resentful of the way life eats at that. I think we all do. It’s hard to not take it personally sometimes.

I think that all the art I’ve ever loved in some way captures the joy that exists within a world designed to see it fail, joy like the proverbial canary, like a doorway at the back of a wardrobe that only sometimes opens to a fantastic place, and you can’t always find it anyway. And I suppose that’s why we seek art, because it makes us feel understood, whether it be a painting, film, image, song, or collection of words. Maybe it’s just the art we compose every day, in the way we frame the world the way we want it to be, seeing the way a tree-lit night ebbs into an apricot-colored dawn.

We make art, we make joy, we make love, we make reprieve, we make magic. Because we have to.

Love, Cath

On Circles, Themes, Acceptance

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you have to accept your themes.

It’s cold. I want to write something beautiful. I want to sleep better, more. I’ve started and stopped and started this post over and over. I find the ideas of sleep and dreams floating to the surface. But at the same time, my thoughts are scattered, a little murky. I think of the pond in the nature area where my kids and I sometimes walked, and the lily pads, and the weeds, and the rocks where the turtles sun, and how much my thoughts feel like that sometimes, all a part of an ecosystem, but appearing at any given moment to be quite disparate. Over there floats a blog post about earnestness, there’s one about sleeplessness, and still another about the things we imagine about our future selves. Sometimes it all comes together into a cohesive thread, as I write about it, and I can finally see the themes that have woven themselves into my consciousness for the past days. Other times, things will not coalesce.

photo white water lily flower on body of water surrounded by leaves
Photo by Jacoby Clarke on Pexels.com

Currently, continuity feels elusive, and I wonder if that’s the point of things right now. That sometimes it doesn’t all fit together, and we can’t find the meaning. This week hasn’t been the first time my son has chided me about my desire to figure out the meaning or lesson in something. Like anyone, he has a collection of anxieties he carries with him, but he also possesses a calm, almost Taoist sort of perspective, that things just are. [I should note here too that my understanding of Taoism derives largely from Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh.] It’s a view that makes my little mental quests seem frantic and unnecessary sometimes. But, if things just are, then, too, this is just the way am, so sometimes I have to accept the fact that my desire for synthesis and understanding will sometimes reward, and may just as often thwart and frustrate.

We get stuck in loops sometimes. In various ways, we are taught to look for patterns, in our lives, in our work, in art, music, architecture, politics. Everywhere repeated motifs call out to be recognized. We swoop, circling understanding. I don’t think this effort is without value. We emphasize lessons to and for ourselves. We find new ways to look at the same things we’ve studied for years, how to love, how to grow, how to be brave, how to be vulnerable. We study what things are worth.

At the same time, we can only pay attention to so many things at a time. What’s in our peripheral vision, and what do we fail to notice? I think sometimes of the way we laugh when we see a dog chasing his tail, but I maybe it’s not so funny for him. We catch glimpses of a threat out of the corner of our eye. There’s not much to do once it’s caught. It’s untenable to keep holding on – it is, after all, our own tail – but letting go feels dangerous, because, what if it isn’t? What if it’s something bigger than us? And so we are caught, circling. We are dizzied, we exhaust ourselves, we hold on unreasonably to things that keep us spinning instead of letting go and letting ourselves move differently, forward, playfully, peacefully.

I think of how many times I have written on the same themes, trying to see them from new perspectives. We don’t always know why things feel important to us; or, we don’t know if they should feel as important to us as they do; we don’t know if we should fight impulses, or explore them. Yet, things are as they are; you are, I am. You have your themes, I have mine. Maybe it’s best to not question our themes too much, maybe we should simply acknowledge them as part of us. Does the dog let go once he realizes it’s his own tail? Even so, it’s still his tail. The perceived threat may dissipate, but the thing itself is still a part of him.

This is all to say, fine, then. Let me expend mental energy thinking about time and identity and transitions. Let me think about what it means to be a mother, and ponder “home” as an emotional construct. These are the themes of the hour, or year, of my mind right now. They are not chasing me, demanding my attention; they are part of me, and as such, they simply will infuse what I think, feel, do, and write. I wonder, if the act of such acceptance is what opens the space for new ideas. Once the dog is not so focused on the threat or wonder posed by his tail, is he able to take part in a new activity? Run to a loved one, find a sunny place to nap, discover a treat in his food dish? Who doesn’t love love and sun and naps and treats?

Some things are part of us, whether or not we want them to be, and they remain so whether or not we focus our attention on them. Maybe, sometimes, at the very least, it is okay to take a break from them for a little while. To notice what/who is there in our peripheral vision.

This is not beautiful, not this metaphor, not this idea, not this prose. But some things just are and maybe it is for someone else to apply descriptors. Maybe nothing bad will happen if we stop for a moment, stop trying to figure it all out, though this can seem like an alarming concept, particularly if life has given us the message that unless we pay attention, bad things will happen. So we chase our tails, worried about the proximity of threat, unable to distinguish self from trouble. When the whirl and whine of it become too much and we collapse, exhausted, it is often only to sleep, then to take up the chase again the next day, without pause, without fail, but often full of failure, failure to think other thoughts, to break out of patterns that keep us focused and working hard, but often to no end.

Sometimes it takes only a gentle nudge from someone nearby, a simple, “hey,” to point us in a new direction, to help us, as Ralph Waldo Emerson says, to “draw a new circle.” Sometimes it takes sheer force of will. Sometimes the work we do is unclenching our jaw, letting go, and simply noticing.

Love, Cath

On Vestigial Vigilance, Instinct, and Happiness

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes self-protective vigilance masks our instincts …

Life has been busy. Good-busy, mostly. In the middle of it all, living, loving, and learning are all happening. Life unfolds in all directions the way fern fronds sprawl slowly out and askew in the spring, the silent and celebratory party favors of the season.

closeup photography of green fern palnt
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Yet, the part of me that maintains a hyperawareness, a vigilance about everything in this phase of my life is looking for trouble. It wants categories; it strains to sort. It wonders, are we now post-[post-divorce]? If so, do we need to call it something else? That vigilant consciousness is always on the lookout for chaos, ready to find a way to diffuse it. It feels like an anxious, hyperactive, working dog without a job to do is pacing inside my head, nervously chewing on shoes. But another part of me – maybe new, maybe long dormant and grizzly bear waking now – is wanting to learn the way to live differently. Without waiting for the other shoe to drop. Without needing to gnaw on something to feel busy and safe and purposeful.

Sometimes I wish we could extricate ourselves from the parts of our psyche we don’t need anymore. Perform surgery on a vestigial organ and bury it, entomb it, pharaoh-less, with no afterlife. I suppose, though, we worry that we might need it again someday. I suppose we maintain a sentimental attachment to it as a once-favorite thing. The vestigial and vigilant worrier warrior, the protector, was once more than a part of me. It was most of me. And though now I’d like to bury it or send it packing, sometimes it remains, fretting and pacing and making work where there isn’t any. Today I wonder if I can find another job for it to do. I wonder if it can be escorted off the premises, and if not, can it be given a makeover. It’s too bad I can’t simply assign it a different task. You don’t need to protect me anymore. I’m okay. Can you help me learn to play the piano instead? How are you at financial planning?

During tough, or worse, traumatic times, the vigilant worrier in all of us gets amplified, elevated to superhero status. It works overtime; it has to. When life calms, and chaos retreats, that part of us can be unwilling to relinquish its elevated status. Sometimes it seizes on any worry, no matter how big or small, and amplifies it, so the cloud of anxiety cloaks everything, things we didn’t even think we needed to worry about. The vigilance works against us. As if to say, you don’t recognize threats anymore; I need to remind you.

I think the worst part of this is two-fold. Though our psyche wants to protect us, it goes too far, and seeks to shield us from threats that aren’t there. But it makes it hard for the rational part of us to grow and get stronger and be able to see clearly. It also makes us question our gut. We wonder, what if all this anxiety, this worry, IS my gut. Is this what it looks like when it is trying to tell me something? Sometimes it is tough to know. But, if it is tough to know, then I suspect it isn’t your gut. Instinct doesn’t make us chase our tail or pace and fret at everything – experience does that. Instinct is a magnet that pushes us toward what’s good for us and repels us from what isn’t. It is strong and quiet and deep, not frantic.

For me the question has become, at this (post [post-divorce]) point in my life, how do I move past what my good-natured but often misguided vigilant worrier warrior is trying to do, and grow more in tune with my instincts? How do we move away from fretful what-if-ing and move toward calm, toward trust (both self-trust, and beyond)?

I think that answer is different for everyone. Sometimes I have to write my way to it, sometimes I have to pick at it, run toward it, run away from it and back again, talk through it over and over. Sometimes we wear ourselves out with worry and then, quiet and exhausted, we find our true way. I’d like to find the straight line there, the shortest-distance-between-two-points path rather then the endless circles I pace in first. But I suppose that’s part of the journey too.

All of this might sound a bit familiar, if you’ve been following this blog for a while. We tell ourselves the same stories in different ways, trying to make it all make sense. I also find that anxiety rises up most in periods of happiness, a pattern that is perhaps common to many of us. It’s easy to be wary, easy to wonder how will this be taken away (this time) or how will I mess this up (again)? Seeing others do this, I wholeheartedly want to reassure, to tell them, go easy on yourself, it’ll be okay, let yourself have this. It’s always more difficult to be generous and kind and loving with ourselves than it is to be with other people.

It’s a good time for all of us to try. Love, Cath

 

On Curiosity and Bonsai Confidence

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you take a chance on curiosity and notice its unexpected rewards.

This weekend, as I was folding and putting away laundry, I found myself purging the closet. Spring is in the air, and all that, no great mystery as to why I felt compelled to tackle that task. Yet I have been feeling some heightened sense of purpose around such chores lately. My son has one more year of high school. I look at the house with an eye toward selling. I think about how open-ended my future is once both kids are in college. I wanted them to grow up in this place, wanted the stability of this home for them before, during, and after the divorce. This bungalow has served its purpose well. But the question of what comes after this address is one steeped in ambiguity. This is at once terrifying and thrilling.

Like Mud in March

One of the lessons I learn on a daily basis these days is that the ambiguity I thought was a temporary state in the immediate aftermath of my divorce is simply a feature of daily life. Just as the first of my alarms will go off at 5:05 a.m., and one or both of the dog will bark when someone walks by, I will be confronted with another lesson in ambiguity. It’s a fact of life I grew intensely cognizant of when what I thought were life’s big certainties had evaporated. It’s as sure as mud in March, and it can be just as aggravating if you let it.

In the past, I’ve tried to gird myself against the emotional perils of ambiguity with lists and plans. I made large cosmic if-then deals. In the hallway at work near the elevators is a sign that reads, “Confidence is success remembered.” I first began working there not long after my divorce, and during a particularly low period I noticed the sign and thought, “No wonder I have no confidence.” That’s when I began journaling about achievements, big or small – to remind myself of what I’d gotten through, what I had accomplished. It was a deliberate effort to grow and tend to confidence, the way one cultivates a bonsai.

selective focus photography of green leafed bonsai
Photo by Zulian Yuliansyah on Pexels.com

Erosion

I certainly feel a lot better about things than I did a few years ago, but I still get gut-punched with self-doubt on a fairly regular basis. Parenting, relationships, or work issues (the day job or the writing), can all trouble us enough that seeds of self-doubt catch hold and take root, quietly eroding us from the inside out, leaving us feeling crumbly and decidedly un-sturdy.

It is perilously easy to slide into that mindset and stay there, eroded and anxious. I’ve gotten better at looking for things to hold on to as a way of halting that descent. Recently, it was a mere word that caught me. The word curiosity has flitted through unrelated conversations recently. I read it in something a friend sent, spoke it aloud to another, and realized there was something going on that I needed to pay attention to.

When the Weather Shifts

As I started thinking about being curious, I considered the by-products of curiosity, the focused but open mindset one has, for example, when trying to solve a crossword clue, or when sussing out a solution to a problem. Urgency and anxiety shed themselves away, empty husks our hearts shed. They aren’t an efficient part of a problem-solving mindset. Curiosity finds us in other ways, too. Sometimes it isn’t about problem solving, but about joy. We happen upon a new interest, find ourselves excited about a new book, or the prospect of a new activity now that the weather is shifting. We find ourselves simply contemplating: What would happen if . . . or, I never thought about it that way . . . or I wonder what it would be like to . . ..

What I began to realize was that curiosity could be an effective shield against anxiety and self-doubt. A subtle and very conscious shift in perspective is involved, but approaching a problem or a worry with an open heart and from a slightly different angle can remove urgency and hurt or doubt from the equation. We might find ourselves thinking, I wonder how this is going to turn out, or what if I just watch and see how things unfold?

I have spent a lot of time speculating about what others might be thinking, and sometimes contort myself through a series of emotions, as if I’m preparing for different realities that may unfold. Curiosity gives me permission to wonder what someone might be thinking without having to land on an answer, or a series of answers, and somehow deal with each one as if it is imminently true. We don’t have to prepare our hearts to endure every possible disaster, though the self-protective mindsets we develop after life’s traumas often make us feel otherwise. We walk around with umbrellas against rain and wind that isn’t there much of the time. We miss the sun.

It is unexpectedly freeing to allow yourself to be curious instead of anxious. Self-confidence is either a by-product of this shift, or the source, I’m not sure which. Perhaps a little of both. But there seems to be a blossoming effect. I’m trying it out in different situations and the beautiful thing is that not only do things shift in me in delightful ways, but equally delightful things seem to happen externally, within the situation I’d previously been anxious about. Curiosity seems to provide this room for things to grow the way they will, the way they want to, without interference. Perhaps it is the absence of anxiety and the sabotage if often sparks that allows such unfurling.

I think again of the bonsai. My son has been tending a little bonsai tree, I don’t know what kind, for almost a year. I was surprised to learn that it didn’t need to be brought in the house for the winter. It lived outside like any other tree, just in a little ceramic dish on our porch. Not that he hasn’t tended to it. In the summer and fall, he moved it out of the rain when it seemed like it was getting too much water. In early winter, he moved it to the porch where it would be more sheltered. At some point, he trimmed branches and guided one in a particular direction with the aid of wire. An odd combination of attention and neglect has allowed this little thing to flourish. The recalibration of my thoughts from worry to curiosity feels similar, a conscious effort that yields growth in small but delightful ways.

Love, Cath

On Thriving and Neglect

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes instead of pulling weeds, you focus on sunshine and water.

Most of us live in a world where resources—our time and our energy—are limited. Sometimes we feel a great sense of urgency to focus on areas of our lives or places in our hearts that have been neglected for too long. Currently there seems to be some huge collective urge to purge and simplify. Sometimes our homes need purging, sometimes our hearts do, sometimes we discover it is time to put away emotions or memories or thoughts we’ve held on to for long enough.

Being Open to Openness

I’m a firm believer in the idea that there is no “too long” with regard to the duration of time we take to work through emotions, ponder old wounds. Things take as long as they take. We react when we are damn good and ready. Sometimes if you have to ask whether or not something brings you joy, it is too soon to be considering the answer. I have learned to be patient with myself, to look for signs that I am ready to put something away, or rid myself of it. I’m learning how to recognize when I am ready to close doors, and to know when I’m truly open to opening them.

What is Thriving?

Sometimes, we have to step back to see what actually is already thriving. We need to recognize when to focus on the doors we’ve opened and those parts of our hearts that are pumping and churning in the background, rather than on the recently healed parts that we watch over protectively, or the wounded, hurting parts trying actively to unbreak. It’s harder to do, in a way, to focus on positivity and vitality. If something is working, even with marginal efficiency, the tendency can often be to let it hum along, doing its thing. Some things cry out for attention – messy rooms, old griefs, painful memories. It is easy to feel as though anxieties and worries have been quietly festering while we’ve been attending to the day-to-day business of life. So, we turn our attention to fixing things, we surge toward repair, toward improvement. This is important work, but it isn’t the only work. And it’s okay to back-burner it.

Knowing What to Neglect, and When

The good thing is that things like anxiety and worry do not thrive on neglect. They require our fevered, obsessed attention, which keeps them well-nourished enough to tangle and choke. Nothing of value thrives on neglect. Not happiness, joy, delight, peace, calm, gratefulness, compassion, empathy, love. They all need our careful, considered attention to flourish. It is easy to get caught up in the need to fix broken things, to clear away items no longer of use to us. But when we nurture healthy states of being, things like pain, trouble, and worry can, and do, get crowded out, like tomato plants in August refusing to give up ground to weeds.

pathway between tomato fruits
Photo by Artem Bali on Pexels.com

Resistance and Happiness and Magic

I think of the way, when threading a needle, the more you try, the more the thread resists, shrugging and fraying. Somehow it takes an odd combination of focus and nonchalance to get it. I have licked the split end to a point, found the good light by the window, but I don’t care if the thread makes it through, I don’t much want this button secured anyway. It’s almost that way when tending to such things as happiness. I see you, you need me. But too much direct, obvious attention makes it somehow pale and ghostly, as if it’s about to evaporate, a wish made at the wrong time and place, without pennies or fountains or the first star at dusk.

There’s a magic to it, but not tricks. There is magic in the sensing and noticing and breathing life into happiness while at the same time not chasing it, not reducing it to formulas, to mathematical if/then equations. Magic doesn’t work that way and neither does happiness. Some things, good things, are arrived at obliquely.

This is all to say, don’t forget on the thriving things too, not just the neglected things. Don’t forget to focus, but focus as in, staring at something with half-closed eyes, blurring the object but heightening the experiential sensation of sight, in that hazy Christmas light manner. This is to say, be patient. Be patient with that thread, the element of chance and change chasing the constant of the needle.

Love, Cath