A Brief Note on Surviving Pointless Worrying, and Loving Like a Dog

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you have to love like a dog does.

Most of us have been through enough to know that we have some thoughts that have a mind of their own. They mine our past for memories and our future for fears and merge them into narratives that seem like facts, like calculations, like ideas that will protect us somehow, from ever being blindsided by all the things life has to offer, all our lives once did offer.

In my own experience, periods of transition and uncertainty amplify this noise. If you ever have endured a sustained period of turmoil, the thing you keep craving long after is the reassurance that somehow everything is going to be okay. I want to hear it in the background, the way you hear the wind chimes on the porch when you’re almost home.

Recently, upon returning home from looking at a house (if you know me or have been reading this blog you know I’m on the verge of a move), I fell apart a little. I grew anxious about finances and location. And it all coalesced, all the fears about the future, and memories of past failures, into a guttural off-key chorus of always-never. It was a performance I desperately wanted not to hear but I couldn’t quite find the switch to flip to turn it off. I thought of the beautiful features that drew me to the house – the historic homes in the area, the beautiful brick, the graceful staircase, the wood floors, the leaded glass door in the foyer. I thought about the rest – the broken panes in that door, the plumbing and the windows and roof work that needed to be done. I thought about my budget. I what-iffed my way into tears of worry and frustration and self-censure, sitting in the spot in front of the large heating vent in my living room, where I had, in the past, gravitated to when things were bad. My thoughts, now thinking for themselves, decided that this was all somehow about what I deserved, or didn’t, thought this would be a good way to keep me realistic in terms of my expectations about the new house, and everything else. I cranked up the heat because I was so cold suddenly, and my big dog leaned into me, trying, in that way he does, to take some of it away.

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I gave myself fifteen minutes in this state. I may have taken a little longer, but I managed to throw myself with some deliberateness into the rest of my day. Looking back a few days later on those moments, I wish so much that instead of my thoughts having a mind of their own, the rest of my mind could just rally and be analytical and pick apart the faulty reasoning. It tries. But things don’t really turn around until my heart gets involved. Reminds me doggedly and wordlessly of what matters, what always matters, here, now. My heart thinks the way I imagine dog’s minds do – in images and smells and sounds, with no confusing web of language criss-crossing truth and lies until you can’t find your way out.

I suspect that anxiety is future-grief, worry and sorrow about what we haven’t lost yet. There is a steady, logical part of my brain that can say this is fruitless. There is another part of me that thinks this is a pretty good skill to have, thinks it can somehow protect me from being blindsided. My steady brain asks how it can matter; our hearts cannot really brace themselves for a punch the way other muscles can. If the world is going to hurt us, it will, whether we can see it coming or not. The thing that protects us is what we’re doing now, the thing that protects us is building a bank of heart-thoughts that we can dip into when we need to, that we can draw on to remind us: we are loved and loving, and we are strong because of it.

To those of you who are patient with me, who have spent a few minutes in conversation with me (or who have inched your foot toward mine during a late-night fit of worry, letting me know you are there for me), who reassure me with your steadiness and kindness and goodness and love, I thank you, and I hope I offer some measure of it in return. I am here for you, too.

Love, Cath

 

Watercolor Pears and Other Journeys

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we let love remind us we’re okay.

As I hug my daughter, I want to steal back the moments I let go of maybe too easily. I tried to cherish everything I could. But when our children are ready to leave, our becoming ready to let them go gets messy. We let anger, or distance grow, because there is an illusion that it makes the leaving easier. It makes readiness appear to be something finished and beautiful, a little masterpiece of growth, and in a way, it is. But it is also green and new, for us as parents and for them as children.

My daughter left for college a year and a half ago. This weekend, visiting, I wondered, how is it that you do not live in my house anymore. How is it that we so often misunderstand and misuse time, and each other, even when we are telling ourselves different truths. I am not taking this for granted. I appreciate this moment, and that one. The easy ones, the tough ones, the laughter and tedium in between. The fact is, it isn’t possible to appreciate them all, not in the moment. But, possibly, I don’t comprehend the universes contained in each moment. The way that when mother and daughter yelled across the threshold of her pre-slammed door, the instant was a multitude, was everything that brought us there, was everything it would launch us into.

All of what I understand about living and loving could fit in a thimble. If I were a fruit fly, I would swim in it like a swan at sunrise.

At the same time maybe I knew more than I thought I did, and I let go enough and held on enough, and it is only now, with the absence of my daughter in my home a daily reminder of how life tumbles forward, that I feel as though I want to sweep it all back into my embrace for just another minute, every breath we breathed under the same roof. At the same time, it’s now, and she’s doing okay, more than okay.

The dog has found a spot near my feet. Sometimes I think he understands living and loving better than anyone, but maybe he has never quite adjusted to my daughter leaving. He attached himself differently to my son next. But soon, my son will also be gone and my dog will look at me and not understand why love has come to this. Why I, with all my insufficiencies, am the one he is left with. He will think of his girl and his boy and sigh and wish for them every day and I will come home from work and he will resign himself to loving me as best as he can. Possibly, though, he simply loves me.

I think of how many ways there are to love and how each one of them tries to break our hearts even as it expands them. Because it expands them.

I think too of the love we find – after time and heartbreak have suggested, perhaps urged, maybe you’ve had enough. I think of the way I ran toward it, us, anyway. How we sat over coffee cups, hearing each other’s voices for the first time, not really knowing what to expect of self, other, this. How learning the shape of this is a gift.

Years ago, I took a watercolor class. I learned a little, most of which I’ve forgotten. The instructor mentioned that I’d benefit from a drawing class, advice I never took. But I learned that I loved this medium, and that it calms me even if my work is simplistic and flawed, and to call it amateurish would be a compliment.

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I love seeing pencil sketch lines beneath pale washes, the way the layers build and you can see both the cumulative effect and the process at the same time. It’s like witnessing journey and arrival in the same moment, even if the arrival is not at the intended destination. No, that is not the way I thought this painting of a pear would turn out. But, still. The beautiful thing is, both “good” and “bad” paintings can be witnessed and appreciated in this same way.

How luxurious it is to appreciate and be appreciated not because we’ve made it to an expected or anticipated destination, but simply as journeyers who have arrived, here, now. In this multitude of a moment. And we’re okay. More than okay.

How new and beautiful it can be to love (ourselves) this way.

Love, Cath

 

Transformation and the Nature of the Resist

By Catherine DiMercurio

Waking at 3 a.m. again, I think how sleep resists me in the middle of the night. I think about the pictures we made in elementary school. We drew with bright waxy crayons on paper, which we then painted over with blue-black watercolors. I made a night sky, my chunky yellow and red stars gleaming against the watery background of my night. The wax acts as a resist, I remember my teacher saying as she held up a crayon. I don’t remember which teacher it was, but I snagged on that word, on the magic of transformation, when the verb resist became a noun. A resist. Now my mind acted as a resist, sleep slipping off of it, unable to take hold.

Before I went to sleep, another night, I wrote in my journal, trying to corner trouble before it cornered me. I told myself: don’t worry, you aren’t trying too hard, or not enough. I’m not quite sure why those particular words spilled out at that time, but I thought about them again after I woke up. I slept better that night than the night before, and though I still arose before my alarm went off, it wasn’t hours before my alarm went off, so I felt pretty good. I warmed up some leftover coffee and sat down to write.

Messages, Mixed and Otherwise

But that line kept percolating back to the forefront. I think maybe we all fear getting in our own way by trying too hard in some ways or not doing enough in others. I imagine that there is some magical line to walk. On one side, there’s a sense of forging ahead when sometimes it’s only wheels spinning. On the other side, there’s a reliance on things taking care of themselves, there’s a sense of “letting go” in the hopes that things will happen the way they are “supposed to.”

The world gives us mixed messages. We have to go after what we want, follow our bliss. And at the same time we are told to relax, that if things are “meant to be” they will come to us when we least expect it. Provided of course that we have “done the work” we are supposed to do to improve ourselves.

It’s exhausting, mediating these messages, trying to measure the precise amount of effort that should go into something and hoping we get the timing right. I think of that British baking show in which one of the tasks is to bake a mystery dessert, which many of the contestants haven’t even heard of, with only the sketchiest of instructions provided. Somehow, some of the bakers manage to still create something that looks beautiful and tastes as it should, according to the judges. How do they do it?

Perhaps it comes down to having faith in your instincts. Maybe the “secret sauce” is the ability to do two things at once: tune out the noise and tune in to ourselves. We have to remember our strengths, and that we aren’t the sum of our weaknesses. All of this is easier said than done to be sure, which is probably why, as I sleepily wrote before bed that night, I encouraged myself toward self-trust. I honestly don’t think anyone can do that for us, no matter how many supportive people we have in our lives.

Timing and Taffy

Self-trust isn’t easy. Instincts get scrambled, or so we tell ourselves after an act of trust results in an open wound to the soul instead of the affirmation we hoped for. Pain makes our heart into a resist, joy slides off it and puddles along the edges. For the past six months or so, after that June break up I wrote about a while ago, I’ve been trying to live in two states of mind at the same time. I’ve tried to remain true to the open-hearted nature of the person I want to be, once was, and feel that at my core I still am, and I’ve also tried to exist in a state of perpetual self-protection. This isn’t an easy line to walk. Your heart feels like taffy, but for a time, it’s the only way forward, confusing and thinning as it may be.

Like many people, I sometimes do things until I can’t anymore, until it goes a step or several thousand beyond making sense. I hesitate before taking action until it feels like it’s already too late, or once I’m committed to a course of action, I remain too long, far past the expiration date.

So, one night recently, as I slipped into bed and hoped for a good night’s sleep, I had a moment where I understood that this taffy-hearted way of living was no good anymore—this stretching my heart till it thinned and slowly broke apart, this patiently putting it back together again and keeping it cooled off this time—all of this stopped feeling like the right way, like the only way forward. It had worked for a while, had been necessary even, but I wanted my hopeful, open-hearted way of being back. I wanted to stop protecting myself. I decided to commit to a course of action I’d been thinking about for many, many months.

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If you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning you’ll remember that last year, in January, I lost my sweet dog to cancer. His big brother, my almost-ten-year-old coonhound mix, Phineas, has been pretty lonely ever since, and I’ve thought for a long time about adopting another dog. I’ve begun the process of adopting once again, and Phineas and the kids and I will meet the new pup soon. I’m hopeful that they’ll get along well, and we’ll have him home with us before long. (I’ll keep you posted!)

I have a feeling that I’m ready for more, that my open-hearted embrace of my open-heartedness means that other new good things are on the horizon, that maybe I’ll do something about that crush, that maybe an idea I have for my next writing project opens itself up to me. But really, whether or not any of that happens, I simply feel happier having moved past that summer grief, happy to be growing and evolving, and happy to have respected the past six months as a necessary part of my journey.

Wishing you all a heart that blossoms in wonderful and unexpected ways in the coming year.

Love, Cath

Dog Days and Heart Breaks

By Catherine DiMercurio

When my dog Oslo was first diagnosed with cancer, I developed the notion that it was my fault. His diagnosis came about a year after my divorce was final: lingual malignant melanoma. The timing did not escape me. I knew somehow that Oslo had, on a cellular level, absorbed all the malignancies of my heart—all my grief, all my rage, all my fear. He had been at my side, as always, but especially during that really bad year when I cowered in a heap after the children left for school. I sobbed into his smooth brown fur and when I was exhausted and tried to rest, he curled up next to me, pressing the curve of his spine into the backs of my knees. That was the kind of support I needed during the divorce year, and Oslo knew just what to do.

Puppy Love

He was five at the time of the diagnosis. We got him when he was a smooth-bellied puppy, about five months old, according to the estimates of the shelter. They say he was a beagle-lab mix, but he did not look like his siblings, who were all beagle-sized but with the coats of black Labs and yellow Labs. Oslo was bigger. His brown fur was flecked with black, and the tip of his tail was black. His face had a sweet, beagle expression and he possessed the strong wide chest of a stout, muscular dog, most likely a pit bull, though no one wanted to write that on any official record of his.

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Just before the diagnosis, he had become excessively drooly and his mouth smelled foul. I presumed he had some sort of tooth decay, so I scheduled him for a cleaning. I assumed they’d have to remove a tooth. When Oslo’s long tongue hung from the side of his mouth as he panted anxiously during the examination, the vet discovered a walnut-sized tumor on the back of Oslo’s tongue. The results of the biopsy came back positive, and the vet recommended an oncologist so that we could discuss his prognosis and options. My vet tried to be optimistic, but he did tell me how aggressive this cancer was. I didn’t even know there were oncologists for dogs. At the appointment with the oncologist, they x-rayed his lungs, which were clear still, somehow. But that was pretty much the only good news. There was more—talk about the tumor that was removed, and margins, and lymph nodes. Basically I was told he had 30 to 60 days. DAYS.

Beating the Odds

But Oslo kept being fine. He was happy and eating and playing with the children and with our other dog, Phineas. For almost another two years, he was his sweet, normal, loving, devoted self. In that time, life around our house improved considerably. The initial trauma of the divorce and all of the life changes that came with it had evened out. Everyday life was different now for me, my daughter and son, and our two dogs. It was calm and predictable once again. Once your life isn’t being shaken up like a snow globe, the simplest things fill you with joy. Completing a task like getting your oil changed or going to your job and coming home, or being able to call the dentist to make an appointment and attend parent-teacher conferences on the same day was cause for celebration. I did two things! In addition to going to work! It sounds silly maybe, but after turmoil, there is such unbelievable delight in normalcy. And Oslo loved normalcy as much as I do. I think that kept him going. And maybe he needed to make sure we were going to be okay.

Meanwhile, the cancer was all still spreading within him, seeping from cell to cell and turning his body against him. An x-ray in this past fall confirmed it had spread to his lungs. His lymph nodes became enlarged. His eye began to swell with the pressure and became infected. He started to slow down. Once his breathing began to sound labored I knew we didn’t have much time, and the morning after a sleepless night for both of us was the morning I knew we didn’t have any time left at all.

My children are eighteen and almost sixteen. We’d talked very openly about all of this during the past two years, about everything that might happen and when it might happen, so they were as prepared as anyone could be, and none of us wanted him to struggle. In a way, then, we were ready. But, it really isn’t like that at all when you walk into the building with your family and realize that not all of you are walking out.

Goodbyes

There were lots of hugs and tears in that room that Sunday morning. A nice comfy, clean dog bed took up a considerable amount of floor space, but Oslo refused to get on it. So we all sat on the cold, tiled floor around him. He wouldn’t lie down, but finally at least he sat. The image that keeps returning to my brain is how he slid to the floor after he was administered the heavy sedation, known by anyone who has been through the process of witnessing a pet being euthanized as “the first shot.” The second shot is the one with the lethal medication that stops the heart. After the first shot, as Oslo slid to the floor in a deep, heavy sleep, I had the sense of time slowing. I keep seeing that long, slow slide and I remember trying to hold him and gently easy him down. In that prolonged moment Oslo was still with us, but not. We all had our hands on him, all three of us weeping with as much restraint as we could muster until the vet left the room. You can feel it happen, life leaving a body. You can feel your sweet, loving friend leave this world.

My missing of him is aggressive and sharp, like the taste of very burnt sugar in my mouth. It eases sometimes and I’ve stopped expecting to see him walking into the room. Mostly. Some days I still try to put his food in his bowl before I realize his bowl is no longer there.

Crying to a friend about losing Oslo, I extolled his virtues. I talked about how devoted to me he was, and how he followed me around the house, needing always to be wherever I was, and how he was always there for me. She reminded me of something else: I was always there for him. Even though I mourned the fact that I should have done more with him—more walks, more dog park, more treats, more attention—she said his life was better than it would have been because I adopted him and not someone else. I hadn’t thought of it that way before. I hope it’s true.

Doing Things That Break Your Heart

When I originally envisioned this blog, I thought of it as a series of “Twelve Things That Will Break Your Heart and Why You Should Do Them Anyway.” I didn’t know how to work that in but I knew it was in this context that I would be writing about Oslo. Loving a dog—adopting from a shelter, taking in a dog that someone needs to “rehome,” fostering, volunteering at a shelter—it doesn’t matter how you come at it. But it is one of those relationships that our language does not have the right words for. I didn’t mother Oslo in the way I mother my children, and I didn’t own him the way I own a pair of shoes, and I didn’t care for him in the way that I care for my friends. The way dogs and their people love each other doesn’t fall into any of the people-people or people-object categories. We don’t have useful, loving, warm words for interspecies companionship. For some of the most important relationships in our lives, language truly fails us.

Last week, I talked about being on the road, of recognizing and appreciating where you are and whom you are with. I hope your company includes someone like Oslo.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath