On Truces and Getting Back to True

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes life feels like a strange kind of algebra.

“Truce?” I say. I say this to myself one morning as I fill the kettle. Moments before, I had been staring into the bathroom mirror, questioning my decision to let my hair do as it likes, which is grow unruly streaks of silver. I also tried out different expressions, ones that tried to let my face look more like I remember. Big smile. No smile. Head tilted this way, that way. I gave up, made the coffee, begged myself for some peace.

I am knocking around in this unfamiliar place, in this almost-fifty-one year-old structure, which houses a self that often feels like it doesn’t belong to these bones. But I realized that morning, as I waved my white flag, that this was about more than physical aging. I was doing calculations, I was adding up what could be counted as victories in recent years, subtracting the things that feel like failures, taking into account the variables.

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There is the feeling I had in my algebra class long ago. I’d done the torturous calculations and felt uncertain but hopeful about my answer, and then checked the back of the book and realized that no, my answer wasn’t right after all. “I hate this,” I’d say. I even had the moxie to say it to my algebra teacher once. He was encouraging me to keep pursuing advanced mathematics courses, in high school, and later, in college. “No, you don’t,” he told me. “You can’t be this good at something and hate it.” It didn’t make sense to me. I was getting an A in the class, but it didn’t feel as if I was good at it. I was good at my English classes, and I knew I was good, because not only was I getting an A, but those classes were easy for me. And even when they weren’t easy, the hard work felt . . . right. I somehow knew I had the tools I needed to succeed. But algebra, physics, geometry, trigonometry – these were all different. I couldn’t be good at something that remained confusing even when the correct answer was achieved.

So, when I look at my life now, approaching another birthday, single again, physical appearance shifting, still reaching toward goals that aren’t being achieved at the pace I’d hoped, I feel at times that I’m at war with myself. There is a new clarity here, now, in writing that sentence, in voicing it aloud. Often, it feels as though I must be doing it incorrectly. Living. Aging. Being. Working. Right answers are supposed to feel certain, true. And even if you must work hard to get them, that work is supposed to make sense. When it doesn’t, everything feels like algebra.  

I wonder sometimes if I should write such things down and share them. But I have to believe, if we are being honest with ourselves, that everyone feels like this at various points in their life. And if we can be honest with ourselves, then we can be honest with each other, which allows us to communicate with one another in the same language. We can connect more truly and deeply with one another. And why else are we bumping around here on this rock floating in space, if not to try and understand each other?

Often, for me, when one element of my life has been thrown askew, everything seems off. I recently purchased a new bike and had been reading about the differences between disc brakes and rim brakes. I came across the phrase, “out of true.” As in, what happens with the braking when the wheel is out of true. The recent ending of my relationship surely has thrown my heart out of true, and I’m feeling the need to fine-tune the way I look at my whole self.

One thing that has helped this process has been reconnecting myself to a writing community, via a workshop I’ve recently become a part of. We met for the first time, over Zoom, and afterward, though we haven’t even shared any writing yet, I breathed deeply for the first time in weeks. I had a tremendous sense of relief that something was making sense once again. And lots of other feelings began to settle down. It is as if writing – and not only me writing alone in this room, but the act of cultivating my writing and my writing life and my writing friendships – is one of the tools I can use to fine tune everything that feels out of true.

As I’ve written in previous posts, writing is the surest, truest path for me to get back to me. We all have our own paths. What are yours? Do you think about them? What do you do, when you feel out of true?

Writing though, as magic as it is, isn’t a panacea. This feeling of being at war with myself calms when I’m exploring and discovering and creating with my writing, or when I’m focused on other things like gardening, but the work of peace-making with myself is complex. Writing can help me work through what needs to be considered and evaluated and re-conceptualized, but I suspect the process will be long, gradual, painful, and largely algebraic. It is a consideration of variables, of working with unknown values, of getting it wrong and then starting again. I have just realized, in writing that sentence, that writing involves the same things: variables, unknown values, failures, new attempts. Maybe this is how the war ends. Maybe reconciliation with self is simply the realization that things are as they are, that they take the work and the time and the patience and the love that they do. That realities don’t change. Whether I’m in algebra or English class, the problems are quite similar, and hard work is hard.

Maybe the trick is knowing which perspectives to shift into depending on what is going on in our lives at any particular time, just the way we shift gears to adapt to changes in the terrain beneath our wheels.

Here’s to getting back to true.

Love, Cath

A Restrained Post on Limits and Darlings

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the unsaid thing is the most important part of a conversation.

I wanted to write something eloquent, but it was like falling up the stairs. I’ve been thinking about limits, those we place on ourselves, and why. But I’ve struggled with siphoning the thoughts into something meaningful. I think the friction arose not because there was there was some opposition between what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, but because my thoughts opposed one another, and I was looking for a way to mediate.

As a writer searching for meaning and connection, I want to say all the things. And as me my instinct aches toward openness. Yet I draw the lines, we all do, careful about what we share, and when, and where. People are censured for “oversharing” and at the same time opinions bleed all over social media pages. The messages we give and get are mixed, and loud.

It all makes me restless, so I put some of what I want to say in stories and send them out and wait. It occurs to me, when I think of all the other people writing and submitting and waiting, that we are all doing the same thing. Our heads and hearts are full and aching and so we put it all into our stories. Everyone, writer or not, is trying to do the same thing—looking for an outlet while we try to mind the boundaries the world sets out, and that we establish for ourselves.

The romantic, independent, fierce parts of us scream to be limitless, to not be silenced or subdued. And sometimes we do it, we say it, we scream it, but still. Boundaries serve us, and they often serve us well. In the world of our daily conversations, or the things that pass for conversation on social media, it is difficult to swallow the unsaid things sometimes, especially when it seems that no one else is. Likewise, I’m challenged by stories that have galloped away from me, too many words all wanting to not remain unsaid, all wanting a stake in the end result. Yet some words—mine, yours—don’t actually serve the bigger picture. Writers are told to “kill your darlings,” a quote intending to acknowledge how difficult and necessary it is to eliminate beautiful prose from a work it really isn’t serving.* Maybe this advice isn’t just for the words of writers.

At the same time, I think we’ve forgotten how to listen to one another’s stories, and how to ponder in paragraphs and pages instead of snippets. I love listening to meandering trains of thought but I haven’t heard one in a while. There is a place for darlings, but we have to create it. Please let’s have dinner and let me listen to your words wander.

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Photo by Baptiste Valthier on Pexels.com

This is all to say, boundaries are not the same things as walls. Limits are not about “in” versus “out,” or spoken versus unspoken, or romantic/independent/fierce versus censured/subdued/timid. They are often about civility. They are about time and place. They can make a story better, keep a conversation going instead of shutting it down. They are about knowing your audience. Boundaries shift. We open ourselves up differently to different people, and they to us.

In “Spiritual Laws,” Ralph Waldo Emerson states, “There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.” This is taken out of context, and his meaning was more about the personal nature of our own sense of morality and ethics. Yet, in many circumstances we can be guided by “lowly listening.” We can come closer to knowing the words that need to be written, or excised, the things that need to be said, and when, and to whom. And when it is more fruitful to simply be silent, and listen.

Love, Cath

 

* The original quote is from Arthur Quiller-Couch, and it’s “murder your darlings.” It has often been attributed to William Faulkner and Stephen King, who popularized the phrase and altered it to the catchier “kill your darlings.” I’m a big fan of searching down the original source of quotations, particularly those that become memes. My son periodically hears me yelling at the computer screen, “Hemingway didn’t say that!” My favorite site for quote checking is quoteinvestigator.com, though they didn’t have any info on kill your darlings. But I did find a well-researched piece at slate.com (https://slate.com/culture/2013/10/kill-your-darlings-writing-advice-what-writer-really-said-to-murder-your-babies.html). The Emerson quote I looked up in an actual book (Emerson’s Essays, Harper and Row, 1926).

 

On Stress, Coping, and Identity

By Catherine DiMercurio

Identity is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves. Make it a good story.

When I lost my voice a few weeks ago, I never imagined it would turn into this ever-evolving, never-ending cold. I’ve talked to a number of people who have recently battled a similar respiratory virus in this prolonged fashion. But the first thing I find myself saying if someone asks how I’m doing or comments on my cough is, “I never get sick. I haven’t been sick for years.” I consider how much the stress at work has run me down, and how my immune system finally couldn’t keep up. I’ll admit it—I get really defensive about being sick for this long. Normally, I can shake something in a couple of days, and I’ve heard myself saying that too.

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The Stories We Tell

I think this defensiveness arises because I want to be thought of as strong, vibrant, and resilient. To be honest, I want to think of myself that way. It’s the story I tell myself about who I am, who I came to be after some difficult times. And certainly getting sick doesn’t change that, but when the illness is coupled with some major changes at work along with other stressors, the story starts to sound a little different, and the overwhelmed feeling takes on an outsized proportion to the things actually going on. The thought maybe I can’t handle all this quietly and persistently transforms itself, mutating like this cold, from a random sentiment to a refrain.

Find a Reprieve

I’ve been swimming in this state for a couple of weeks now knowing I have to find my way out of it, because it’s dangerous territory. My go-to coping mechanisms are usually exercise and being outside. I’ve felt too lousy to do much exercise lately and the weather is only just now starting to turn, but I’m trying to get back into my normal routines. A few evenings ago I spent some time doing yard work and my mood shifted considerably. I remember wishing I could hold on to that buoyancy, because I knew once I slipped into another workday, the feeling would ebb away. I decided, instead of looking at it as a feeling I knew I would lose, to view it as a reprieve from the stress.

Credit and Compassion

I also realized I had to start giving myself credit for my success and compassion for my setbacks. I even made a list of some of the big things I’ve accomplished, to remind myself that I can handle things and get through tough times. I thought about how I earned my MFA while going through my divorce and returning to fulltime work and raising my two children, who at the time were just entering middle school and high school. Though sometimes now I question the monetary cost of that degree in comparison to its value in terms of employment prospects, I know it yielded less tangible or obvious rewards. And regardless of cost or value, the achieving of it at that time in my life was significant. It reminds me that I can handle tough things. And I can do it again. This has to be part of my story, and I need to keep it at the forefront when I feel overwhelmed and begin to focus on frustrations, setbacks, and illness instead.

Seek Out Resources

I also purchased a book that looks at stress and brain chemistry and I’m hoping for some greater insights there. What I’ve learned so far is that sometimes our brain is over-responsive to stress, treating minor disruptions as dangerous threats. It sounded like a histamine response to me, the way our bodies treat nonthreatening bits of pollen as dangers so we start sneezing to protect ourselves. My brain and my body think they’re protecting me by a heightened response to stressors – when actually they are making me feel horrible.

In the past, when life has gotten more stressful than I feel I can handle, I have backed away and tried to find all the ways to reduce stress in my life. It is not a misguided strategy, but sometimes you get to a point where there is not much you can do to avoid certain stresses. I simply have to learn how to deal with stress better, and remember that I actually do know how to do this.

Openness and Connection

There is nothing elegant or profoundly meaningful in all of this, and as I write this post it feels to me that there are angles and contours that I’m missing. I haven’t anchored the writing to a time or place or event or interaction with a person. These thoughts and feelings are floating on the surface and it seems as though there is greater meaning somewhere deeper that I haven’t explored. At the same time, this is the fog I’ve floated through the past few weeks, groping my way through worry and illness, trying to pass through to the other side of it all. And I cringe at that thought—at any period of life being something to rush through and get past—because that’s life on fast-forward. That’s days and weeks becoming a blur and looking back and not knowing where the time went. It’s antithetical to the way I want to live and be.

My goal with this blog has been, a little selfishly, to share my writing. But it has always been about openness. Perhaps more than many of my posts so far, this has been a very simple, open, and honest look at something I know many people struggle with—how we handle stress and how it relates to the way we see ourselves. Sometimes I find it reassuring to know that I’m not alone, that other people are struggling with similar things. It’s why I read and why I write, and certainly, why I wrote this post the way I did.

Enjoy the road. Even the bumpy parts. Love, Cath