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

On Fear and Shelter, Reckoning and Work

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you offer shelter, sometimes you seek it, sometime it is the same thing.

“I’m making hash browns. Do you want some?” My son asked me this morning. He is a good roommate. I think back to a time when I didn’t have any roommates. It has been a couple of decades and it wasn’t for long. At times, I’m wistful, at times excited. I know my son and I are both ready for the next part, his moving, though we will surely miss one another.

I hesitate to embrace summer’s waning. I want to stay here a bit, getting settled into the new house and enjoying my son’s company before he leaves for college. But many of my actions are guided by the coming change of season. I work in the yard, envisioning the space as it might look in the future. I try to prune and nurture what I inherited with the purchase of the house, and gently guide growth into a slightly different direction. There is much work to do indoors, but it can wait. Focusing on the outside tasks when the weather is good is what calls to me right now.

The summer-to-fall transition does not come gently when school years factor in. The late August move-in date for my son is insisting on itself as a turning point. We have gone from feeling as if there is so much time left to understanding that everything held within the current balance is about to shift.

We were running some errands recently, and as we drove, our conversation took a serious turn, as our talks lately do. We discussed fears and anxieties, his and mine. I recalled a stumbled-upon observation stored in my memory from long ago: we create what we fear.

Though I acknowledge the power of fear to shape reality, I don’t always know what to do about it. We wondered, my son and I, how do you simply stop being afraid of something? We ran through the most obvious options: you face it, or you remind yourselves of the times you’ve faced something similar before and triumphed, or at least, survived.

But what does facing something really mean, and, what if, having faced something and overcome it, you find yourself just as afraid as you were before, because it was every bit as painful or as challenging as you imagined it would be? We both talked about the ways you keep working and trying, because, what else can you do. Without much of a segue, we turned our conversation to dinner options.

I love that he and I can talk about such things. I wish I had better, or any, guidance for him. Or me. Still, I take comfort in the fact that conversations like these exist, if nothing else, as shelter.

brown wooden cottage at the field during day
Photo by Simon Matzinger on Pexels.com

Sometimes though, I wonder if I have had the reckoning with myself that I should. How often do we look squarely at ourselves and admit our shortcomings? I do not mean to suggest that the fears my son and I were discussing are flaws. We all have fears; it is a part of being human and it would be cruel and unnecessary to fault ourselves for what rises up within us intrinsically and sometimes irrationally.

But I do think that the way we respond to our fears can impact other people in negative ways. Our individual fear-response has the power to alter the shape of our interactions. Sometimes, without us even noticing, it transforms us into different iterations of ourselves. We may grow anxious and panicked; paranoid and judgmental; withdrawn; distant; angry. We may also quietly retreat and keep up a façade of normalcy and hope no one notices, though they often do. The work of it all, for so many of us, is learning how to stop such reactions – regardless of whether they are a chain reaction of thoughts or brain chemistry or both – and respond consciously and positively and calmly to ourselves instead.

This is easier said than done, in my experience, however worthwhile the endeavor may be. Quite honestly, the only effective strategy I have found is a combination of attentiveness to, and patience with, myself. And oh, how grateful I am for the patience, as well as empathy, that is extended to me by those who love me, who understand me, who are similarly introspective and cognizant and earnestly endeavoring. I’ve written about this here before, and I’ll do so again. Never underestimate the power of giving and receiving the gifts of patience and empathy. Talk about shelter!

[Let us pause here a moment and acknowledge some truth. Let us note that there are very few people in this world who are willing and able to not only meet us where we are, but who likewise open up space and allow us to do the same for them. Let us candidly and generously say thank you to those with whom we are able to build the shelters that inspire us to simultaneously feel safe and to grow. Thank you, Ian.]

Still, for some of us, it remains difficult to be empathetic with ourselves. It is easy to be critical, to wish we were different, to witness the way others seem to gracefully move through life and to long for a more peaceful inner world, one that naturally exists that way, rather than one that must be vigilantly attended to. It is like having a house plant whose precise need for light and water can’t be discerned. Maybe it’s better near that window, does it like long drinks once a week, or a little bit of water every other day, is it dying, is that a new leaf?

Sometimes I marvel at how much stumbling is involved in growth, at how much journeying is accomplished between steps. I don’t truly know if feeling well and growing is harder now than it used to be, or if it is simply the case that I’m working at it more earnestly or paying closer attention to the process.

I remind myself that we are like those perennials that flower repeatedly through the summer, rather than those that are all show and glory once and then are done.

How delighted I am by impatiens and their habitual blossoming, how understood I feel by a plant whose name reminds me of one of my least wonderful traits.

Love, Cath

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