On Emotional Economy, and Keyholes

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes listening is both our greatest strength and our biggest weakness.

I read the first half of a Clarice Lipsector story on the Paris Review website that made my heart ache. I’ve been thinking about halves, wondering if a person could have half a broken heart, or maybe it doesn’t work that way.

I realize I’m not entirely sure how to do things halfway, how to be half in and half out of something at the same time. Without perfecting this skill, one risks missing out on something, even half of something, by walking away too soon. On the flip side, possibly you can still be very much wounded by something you only intend to do by halves.

These lessons in emotional economy are always difficult ones. Whether one is nineteen or forty-nine there are bargains made between head and heart. If we sculpt the words differently, might we reduce the risk of getting hurt? If we think in terms of caring instead of loving, if we think of each moment as a whole universe–divorced from past and future–a now to be enjoyed, an adventure sought. Or, is it all a mash-up between a game of semantics and a game of chess?

As I move through life and relationships post-divorce I have come to understand this about myself: I typically see the best in people, regardless of what angle they are showing me. I seek out the earnestness that sighs in the space between their words, I listen to them speak around the things they care about, hear tenderness in silences. It is easy to connect this way. Some might say it is fiction, that I am creating stories that aren’t true because I want something to be that maybe isn’t.

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Photo by Lukasz Dziegel on Pexels.com

But I don’t buy that. What I often fail to recognize though is that other things are true at the same time. The earnestness and gentleness I see so clearly exist as concretely as guardedness, anxiety, pain. As I’m listening at keyholes, I’m not seeing closed doors. This is either a naïve act of will or one of sheer recklessness, or both. But it is a choice. And like any choice, it has consequences.

“Insist on yourself, never imitate,” instructs Ralph Waldo Emerson. Everyone choses the version of themselves they are going to be every day. I have often grappled with the question of whether we become more or less of who we truly are as we go through life. Sometimes I wonder what the through-line is. I think we all have one, an element of our character, perhaps our soul, that remains as constant as our heartbeat throughout our lives, though we may attempt to obscure or ignore it at times, and live by it religiously at others. Maybe my through-line is this way of seeing, this way of searching for space, for the ways people open up to one another instead of the things that close us off. Maybe that’s why I write. “There is a guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.” Another Emerson quote. Maybe my through-line is this guidance. It is just as likely that I’m wrong. But I am not a person of faith and one has to believe in something.

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My collection of Emerson’s essays was recently the object of my dog’s intense curiosity. The book survived, but needs attention. It was already aging, the pages brittle and fragile, the spine having been taped together more than once. It is now more or less broken in half, an apt metaphor for the discussion at hand, the words contained in the halves still a through-line. In every way, I’m reminded of what makes us strong and what makes us fragile, of the power of words and intentions, of the significance of keyholes, and doors, both opened and closed.

Love, Cath

 

Open Road, Open Heart, and Other Post-Divorce Discoveries

By Catherine DiMercurio

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Into one of the few cooler mornings of a hot, dry summer, a light drizzle fell. As I drove, the world felt grey and quiet, soft somehow. I tried to soak in some of that peacefulness the way the road unfolding in front of me soaked up the light rain.

I’d traveled this route before, from one metro Detroit suburb to another. But today, I wasn’t headed to the mall with my teenagers, or to that good Asian market with all the noodles. I wasn’t shopping for homecoming dresses or black slacks for orchestra or soccer cleats or cross-country spikes. I headed for the Barnes and Noble, but not for books. Well, not only for books. This particular location was roughly the halfway point between me and my first Match date. A morning bookstore coffee date seemed like the softest, easiest way for me to fall into this new world.

When the Journey Begins with Break Downs and Traffic Jams

At 46, I was a year and a half post-divorce. The rebound relationship was out of the way, though you never want to think about it like that when you are in it. I had done what lots of divorced people do. I looked up someone from my past. I knew it was too soon, and I knew we were probably different people now, but I didn’t want to miss my shot. It seemed better to take a chance when I was still raw and vulnerable from the ending of my marriage. I figured that later, I’d be bitter and closed off. And I was afraid of being stranded in the middle of nowhere by myself after twenty years of having someone at my side.

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Though I green-lighted the relationship, it went nowhere fast. It wasn’t the beautiful story I wanted it to be. Instead, it was an uncomfortable traffic jam of mismatched expectations and compatibilities. With a tremendous sense of relief, I extricated myself and settled into not being with anyone. And I liked it. I didn’t feel stranded. Being on this stretch of road with my daughter and son seemed like right where I was supposed to be. It had been healthy and good for me to choose to be alone, to close the door, and wave goodbye.

Several months into my being-alone-ness, I understood something: I could do this for the rest of my life. I luxuriated in not having to deal with anyone else. No baggage, no quirks, no personality differences to keep trying to make peace with. Around this time, a good friend encouraged me to try something like Match or eHarmony or one of those sites, just for fun. At first, I had no interest and dismissed the notion entirely. But I began to wonder if my hesitation was rooted in something deeper. Was I afraid of being with someone again? In the same way that other people are afraid of being alone? I didn’t come all this way to start being afraid of everything again. I also considered that while 46-year-old me was happy alone, would 56-year-old me want something different? Would 66-year-old me long for companionship? And so on.

When the Detour Becomes the New Route

My initial plan was to go on a couple of Match dates and check that off my list. Get un-rusty at meeting new people. I wanted to dabble with the idea of being with someone, but with lower stakes than that whole rekindling an old love thing.

With these expectations in place, I got on Match, and exchanged a few emails with a couple of people. At first, it was fun and exciting. But after a couple of weeks of liking photos and sending some emails here and there, the shine wore off. I didn’t really want to talk to the hot guy in Ann Arbor with baby twins who hoped to find someone to help him parent. I reached out to the yoga-loving vegetarian because here was someone with some common interests finally, but never heard back. I didn’t want to spend an hour having a drink with any of the men who only wanted to talk about their own travels, their fitness routines, or their favorite sports team. I considered letting my subscription run out without even meeting anyone in person. The online dating thing, it seemed, was an interesting part of my journey but I was ready to put it behind me. Maybe the whole thing had just been a detour and it was time to get back on my way.

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But then someone liked one of my photos. He invited me to chat with him on the app if I wanted to. I didn’t respond right away, but I found myself going back to his profile. He liked books and wasn’t into sports. Books! The last book he had read was a biography of Aldous Huxley. This intrigued me, and I finally emailed him and we went back and forth with long emails about books and our divorces and our families and he asked if I wanted to meet. I bought a little more time. A face-to-face meeting could bring all this hypothetical alignment and compatibility to an end. I had also never dated someone I didn’t already know. In college, relationships grew out of familiarity—living together, working together, knowing people as friends. I said okay. I said let’s meet.

Without realizing it, I had been developing a new pattern in the aftermath of my divorce. If something scared me—like pursuing an old relationship, ending a bad one, finding a new job—I paid attention to the fear but I didn’t let it stop me as I had in the past. I had begun to live differently. Not fearlessly, but more openly. I think I was too naïve and inexperienced to be specifically afraid of getting hurt by meeting this man, but I feared everything that was new about it, everything I didn’t know. And I was afraid of being too me. Too shy, too emotional, too nerdy and bookish, too much a single mom, too vegan, too unable to converse easily with new people about trivial things, too likely to talk too much about the wrong things. I wanted to cancel. I really wanted to get myself out of this situation. But I also didn’t.

So here I was, driving to the bookstore through the light drizzle on a Saturday morning in late July. I was early. I wandered around, listening to the Beatles play over the sound system. I finally bought a coffee and sat down, heart thumping like a flat tire on the highway. And he walked in.

There’s No GPS for This

Life shatters us sometimes. It looks different on everyone, the way we wear this pain. For me the big shattering was my divorce. I live in the aftermath of it. At times, we all find ourselves stranded in the places life dumps us when crises hit. It’s like being shoved from a moving vehicle and once you stop falling, and crashing, you assess your injuries. Then you have to pick yourself up and limp along the road. You don’t do it because you’re strong or fearless. You do it because even though you have no idea where you are going, you get simply grow tired of feeling stranded.

My perspective shIMG_5295ifted after life shoved me from the moving vehicle of my marriage. I used to live in a what-if mindset. What if something happens? But something always happens, and it’s rarely the thing you thought you prepared yourself for. Quite often the big thing that happens, the thing that shatters us, is precisely the one and only thing we didn’t think we needed to prepare ourselves for. After I stopped falling and crashing and nursing my wounds, I wanted to stop feeling as though another disaster would strike at any moment. As I started down the road, I soon grew weary from looking over my shoulder, waiting to see what was going to hit us next. That mindset is still a part of me, and it slips back in sometimes, but it drains so much energy. I want that energy for other things, for loving and laughing. I have to remind myself to be open to joy instead of looking for disaster, but it gets easier. I try to keep my eyes on where I am, where I’m going, and who is with me. Maybe the only thing to do is be vagabonds on this road together.

And that first Match date? He’s still on the road with me, at my side, holding my hand, almost two years later.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath