On Throat-Clearing, Self, and Voice

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we can almost find the melody.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Art, Home, and Haziness

By Catherine DiMercurio

A friend and I recently were writing to one another about why we write. That conversation yielded for me an understanding that why is a question awkwardly affixed to the relationship I have with writing, which is more akin to the relationship I have with my skin than anything else. In a broad sense, it is something I have, something I need, something that protects me.

On a practical level, yes, writing is also something I do. Sometimes it is an act of artistic creation and sometimes it is an involuntary function that happens automatically and silently, the way my brain tells my lungs to breathe. Things are unfolding all the time in my mind and I wish I could somehow capture more of it. Sometimes writing is my only hope for effectively communicating my heart to the world, (or to the more individual and larger universe of me and you).

Sometimes writing is a job and sometimes it is a wish, but it is always skin.

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years, weeks, days, minutes, always, trying to pinpoint such facets of my identity throughout the changing circumstances of my life. This intense scrutiny was kickstarted by my divorce, though I had long been focused on issues of identity in my writing, always trying to figure out if we become more of who we are as we age, or less.

As I enter my first spring in this new place, I sat down recently with my coffee and felt myself settling in, to here, to now, to me. And I thought, maybe I’ve been asking the wrong questions about identity and self-awareness. Maybe the most direct route to understanding who am now is this: what makes me feel at home within my own skin, no matter where I am?

The first thing I thought of was the coffee I was drinking, as I sat on my new-ish IKEA sofa in this still-new-to-me home. I then pictured myself at my boyfriend’s place, still new-ish to him. It is a curious thing: you find yourself in a life where none of the places in which you find yourself are ones in which you have much history. So where is home, then, except housed within us, and created anew, sitting next to this person who seems able to keep making space for you, and you for him. You put out the welcome mats for one another, sweeping them off or airing them out if there is ever difficult weather.

Photo by Nathan J Hilton on Pexels.com

It is a marvelous but strange thing to be aware of your own history-making. To contemplate the ways in which home and history are related, but not in the ways you once thought. I recommend keeping an eye out for it, for the art you are making of self, seemingly out of thin air, or from webby gossamer strands, every day.

As I walked around the yard with the dogs one morning, it smelled like summer. Recent rain on thirsty dirt, a damp promise of heat panting in the air. I thought of drinking camping coffee, sitting with the kids in the morning, outside the tent, feeling cozy. The memories collaged in my brain, out of order, but collective. This too is history and home and self. It remains, clean and bright and clear, even in the aftermath of events that left much of the past feeling sooty and smudged.

It may seem strange to utilize list-making and note-taking as paths to self-discovery. Such a process lacks the romance of the quintessential road trip motif. However, sometimes things don’t work that way. It is less a fun, crazy journey and more paying attention and hard work. Mostly, I crave simplicity. I want to create obvious paths to certain self-knowledge, so that I can quickly run toward what I know and like about myself. So I can gallop toward safety, when I’m feeling anxious, or filled with self-doubt, or self-criticism. It is so easy for the negative to overtake us sometimes. We need to have our escape routes planned. Sometimes you have to sit down with yourself and go through the checklist, the way in elementary school we had to ask our parents what the escape plan was if the house were on fire. You have to tell yourself, when dark thoughts begin to suck you in, that there are the paths back to yourself, that you know the way. It is too easy to get lost in the thick haze and smoke of anxiety, depression, fear, or grief.

I feel as though I’m often vacillating between extremes – between being overly candid or completely withdrawn, between whole-hearted enthusiasm and active detachment. I wonder how people find middle ground. I speculate that there is a place thought of as “normal” and most of us hover around the edges, not seeing each other, and the imaginary normal place is teeming with a healthy population of individuals that can communicate with one another with ease and confidence. But in reality, most of us fumble, we hurt and get hurt, we regroup, we take deep breaths and fall silent. We clear our throats, and our eyes, try to speak and see, and be seen once more. Sometimes we manage to get it right, to find a safe, strong hand in the haze, and so we practice the art of holding on to one another.

Love, Cath

On a Revolutionary Way of Trusting

By Catherine DiMercurio

Maybe vulnerability and trust are not connected in the way we thought they were.

Being away from our usual routines often affords us new insights, but sometimes it isn’t until we return home that new ways of looking at things emerge. I recently travelled to the Vermont College of Fine Arts for a week-long writing retreat. While there, I attended a panel discussion with other writers, led by the retreat’s faculty members, on being vulnerable and what it means as a writer. Inevitably, in the days that followed, I considered what it meant to be vulnerable as a regular woman-person, not exclusively as a writer-person. Like many people, I have experienced the emotionally wrenching side effects of vulnerability. I don’t see much difference between allowing one’s self to be emotionally vulnerable and the notion of being open hearted. It is a deliberate choice, an act, to open ourselves to others.

As writers (in our relationship with our work and with our audience), and as “regular” people (in our relationships with the loved ones in our lives), the risks of vulnerability include pain, rejection, being misunderstood—in short, isolation. We expose ourselves in order to seek connection, and the risk we take is that the opposite effect will occur. And the more we’ve been hurt in our past, or misunderstood, or rejected, the greater the perceived risk of this exposure. We simultaneously want to protect ourselves and want to be open, to seek out all those things that make us feel good about being a person in this world.

Most of us want to understand and be understood, regardless of our perspectives as writers, artists, lovers, family members, friends. But I think it goes a bit deeper than this longing. In endeavoring to connect with one another, we seek to reveal not just what we think, but how our brains operate, not just that we love but how our hearts function. It is in the intricacies of these processes of thinking and loving that we truly engage with one another, and understanding them in ourselves and in others offers us pathways to the sought-after connection.

We want roadmaps as we wander through the mazes of each other’s heartscapes, and each of us in our own way wants to offer the same guidance to those we welcome into our worlds. It is not just why some people make art, it is why we all read it, see it, hear it, touch it, taste it.

aerial shot of maze
Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

Being vulnerable, or, opening our hearts to each other, is an act of trust. It is an act of relinquishing (perceived) control of outcomes. But when we extend and open ourselves in this way, we are often filled with self-doubt. Will isolation instead of connection be the result of our exposure? We can’t know. But we trust. In many ways, in all of the emotional interactions we seek out, we place our trust in the other party – whether it be a partner, a family member, a friend, or those who consume our art. We place our trust in them, hoping that what we offer will be accepted, that the roadmap will be decipherable, that the other person or people will willingly journey with us. We hope that in return, we may receive the reciprocal invitation to understand and connect. It is a seemingly simple conversation, an exchange, but beneath it exists a complex system of highways and byways, along which race countless thoughts and emotions as we try and gauge the success or failure of a particular act of vulnerability.

I think though what we often fail to realize is how unfair all that is, and the burden it places on those we care about. We delude ourselves into thinking we are entering into a pact and in doing so we are obligating others to behave in a certain way.

How freeing it would be to look at it another way, to consider that when we decide to be vulnerable, we are only making an agreement with ourselves, trusting that in opening ourselves in this way, we are welcoming whatever good may come of it. And if there is pain, or sorrow, or rejection, we welcome that too, not for the hurt itself, but for the growth that comes from it.

How kind it would be to those with whom we seek connection to let them off the hook, to not have any expectations of reciprocity.

How loving it would be to invite them into our worlds, offer them that roadmap, and then, simply be. Be there when they get there. Be understanding if they got lost along the way. Be joyful if they are delighted for the opportunity for connection and welcome us with open arms into their headspace and heartspace.

Maybe trust should not be about what we hope for from one another. Maybe it should be about what we are offering, and why.

We are never in control of outcomes that are tied to the emotional responses of others, and that is a beautiful thing. Maybe it is about trusting ourselves to know what is best for us, trusting ourselves to offer our world to those we love, to those we seek connection with. Our vulnerability lies in our willingness to do that, regardless of how we will be responded to.

Our lives are so full of uncertainty, in so many areas, professionally and personally. It is understandable that we want to control an outcome here or there, understandable to think that we actually can. At the novel retreat, participants were invited to read from their work to the other writers present, participants and faculty members alike. As a group, we discussed this as an act of vulnerability, this offering of our art in a public way, when we know all the ways it could be misunderstood, deemed unworthy, when we know that our physical performance too is under scrutiny. At the time, I looked at this endeavor under the dual lens of vulnerability and trust, and I told myself that it was my ability to trust this room of writers to be open to me that allowed me to be up at the podium reading my work. They did not let me down. They were kind and generous in their response to me and to my work. Yet, I could have entered into the reading in another way, trusting my desire to share my work, trusting that regardless of how it was received, this was what I wanted for myself. Audiences will receive us how they will.

It would be disingenuous of me to say that this way of looking at trust is anything but experimental. It feels sort of revolutionary to me to consider that trust perhaps has, or should have, little to do with the other party. But what right do we have to obligate others, however obliquely, to respond to us in a certain way? If I expose thoughts and emotions, my true self, to others in a vulnerable way, and I do so because I trust both my instinct and my willingness to accept the outcome of this particular exposure, it is a gift to bear witness to how this act of exposure is received. Consider too how miraculous are the gifts offered to us by others, when those we love are expressing themselves in a space free of demand, obligation, or expectation. Perhaps being vulnerable and being truly trusting work quite differently than we thought.

Love, Cath