On Dreams, and the Shape of Things

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the true shape of our dreams is not yet known.

Recently, I was asked to take a self-assessment for a professional development workshop. The questions were different than other personality assessments I’ve taken in the past, but the results were similar. Familiar descriptors floated to the surface: introspective, intuitive, creative, nurturing, etc. And I thought, I’ve known all this since before I had words to name these characteristics.

Some things have never been a mystery, not to me, about me.

The mystery lies elsewhere, as our known selves try to find ways to acclimate to the different environments in which they find themselves – to different homes, neighborhoods, jobs, relationships. All those always characteristics adapt into various ways of being, and we come to believe that those behaviors, those ways of expressing ourselves, are the same thing as self. But BEing and ways of being are distinct. At times, they are a close mirror of each other, and it feels as if everything is falling into its place. Then, we find a way to be in our current existence in a manner that is in near-perfect harmony with the self we have always known.

Some mornings, when it is quite early and I want to listen to the quiet in my brain, I warm up what is left of yesterday’s coffee and sit in the half-light of the living room. When there isn’t much coffee left, I add a generous pour of oat milk. It reminds me of the coffee that my mother permitted me to have as child. More milk than coffee, with a little sugar, it is not grownup coffee, and it lets my thoughts be childlike in their wanderings, without a need for order or progress. I remember that younger me having a distinct awareness of a blurriness of self, as if I knew that my consciousness resided in this body and in this existence, but could tell itself apart. I remember a particular moment, sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, looking out the window at the trees blurring past in the sunlight, telling myself I am me, I am me. I remember discomfort, as if it took some effort to hold within me an understanding of both unity and fracture. The depth of my love for this little thinker, my desire to protect her and that inner world, has never dissipated. When I say that my writing stems from a desire for connection, I do not mean only with others. I mean with myself, including that little girl contemplating matters for which she had no name.

Sometimes, when I’m mulling a tough problem and stumbling up against the self questions that cartwheel in front of me these days, I think of what the people who have known me the longest would say, and then I think of what the people who have only known me since my divorce would say. They are often very different things, which is unsurprising, but which does not help when I’m seeking the through-line. I sense instinctively that there is a truth that I can uncover, as if there is a way in which everything aligns.

We are told to be true to ourselves, but do we know what that means?

When I look at my childhood self I wonder if she is an accurate gauge by which to consider my own current authenticity. Does that put too much pressure on the past, on fallible memory, on a self that, because she is comprised of memories, is more myth than truth?

Our lives are fragmented. We move in between worlds, perpetually navigating different situations and environments and recalibrating ourselves as needed. It is easy to feel as though our understanding of self gets lost along the way. We too quickly become who we are seen as, rather than who we’ve always been.

Recently I have looked at my old watercolor paintings with a fresh eye. I’ve hung up some of my first attempts at apples, completed during a class at a community college when my daughter was a baby, and have judged them far less harshly than I once did. I’m not saying they are good. I’m saying that when I look at them, I feel a connection to the experience of being an anonymous and aspiring artist in a classroom full of unknown people. I barely remember the professor, and I certainly don’t remember any classmates. But I recall the feeling of being there and trying. And I see all my curiosity and earnestness in those paintings.

And curiosity and earnestness feel like links to the little girl in the back of the car contemplating her existence.

I think of how many times those words, curiosity and earnestness, have made an appearance in previous blogs. Those concepts catch with me, like the little burrs that stick to your socks when you hike through a field. I think, this is how I want to be. These qualities underpin one of the refrains that chorused through our household when my children were growing up: try your best. Among other things, it is about being open to learning, and being willing to work hard.

Perhaps this comes with a little too much pressure, pressure that I put that on myself. Often, I’m frustrated when the results do not seem to match the effort. I wonder – was that my best? Did I work hard enough? Did I not learn well? I am trying to be more process-oriented, and less results-oriented, but it is not an easy shift, and perhaps, it is not a necessary one. Perhaps working toward a specific result – a better apple, a published story – is a good and motivating thing for me, and maybe all I need to work on is not being overly discouraged by imperfect watercolor fruit and rejected fiction.

However, I wonder if all goals or dreams are well-served by this approach. Maybe some things won’t look the way we always wanted them to, and maybe that’s a wonderful thing. Pursuing a goal that we are only looking at from one angle may result in us giving up on the goal instead of swapping one perspective for another. Some dreams are more complex than we realize and have many facets; maybe when we focus on a singular component, we can’t truly understand the value of the whole.

There was a book I used to read to my children: The Important Book, by Margaret Wise Brown. Here’s an example of the way this book works:

“The important thing about an apple is that it is round. It is red. You bite it, and it is white inside, and the juice splashes in your face, and it tastes like an apple, and it falls off a tree. But the important thing about an apple is that it is round.”

Sometimes we need to clarify for ourselves what the important part about a particular goal or dream truly is. Possibly, and without knowing it, we do harm to our ability to achieve the dream because instead of focusing on the important part we are expending energy on something we mistakenly believe is the important part. Sometimes, we don’t want precisely what we think we want. When we try to know our own hearts, we have to look well beneath the surface. Our true dreams are often obscured, layered over by years of doubt, history, pain – our own, and that of other people, who, though well-meaning, might weigh in on how our own dreams should look and feel to us. It is no wonder we are often plagued by thoughts of, and fears about, loss and lost-ness. Others might try and tell us what should be important to us, and that can nudge us off course. Do you think the most important thing about an apple is that it is round? I do not. But who am I to say what should be important to someone else?

There is no getting around the fact that the process of making our own hearts known to us takes time, and careful examination. This is true for any dream, wish, or goal that we have for ourselves, whether it is concerned with our personal relationships, or our pursuit of our art, or our work, or something else entirely. I do not know the way to reveal that which I cannot yet see, though I’m certain that I must keep exploring my heart and all its sedimentary layers. This discovery process will involve more ambiguity than I am comfortable with, and that is a reality I reckon with daily.

As an example of all this, I can give you a peek into one of my dreams. My writing dream has always involved publication. Yet, I am beginning to explore the idea that instead of this being the most important facet of this dream, it is but one part of a writing life, which is perhaps more what I’m truly after. In truth, I’m not exactly sure what that means, nor am I certain of the path I need to take to get there. For now, I’m focusing more on what I need to say, and how best to say it. In the coming months, I will be immersing myself in a couple of workshop experiences with other writers, led by artists and mentors I trust. The time feels right for this approach, though the work will be challenging.

This is but one of the dreams I’m searching out the true shape of. Everyone has some. We carry pockets full of stones gathered from lakebeds and we don’t know why. We wish for the unknown to reveal itself. We throw pennies into fountains, wishing, wishing.

On the night of the lunar eclipse, I dreamed I was mending an unknown world with pink thread.

Dream on, friends.

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 Wanting, Writing, Sleep, and Geraniums

By Catherine DiMercurio

Usually, a blog post finds me, I don’t have to go looking for it. It’s like a little floaty seed pod, a dandelion fluff, that drifts my way and takes root. But I realized it has been a while since my last post, and nothing had declares itself. I thought about the geraniums I brought in from the porch when the temperature suddenly dipped. Everything was still in bloom, the early week had surprised us with 80-degree temperatures, and then, it was suddenly and consistently going to be below freezing at night. So I brought in eight plants. I rearranged the living room, the dining room, and made places for the terra cotta pots near the windows. I’ve never brought in impatiens before, but they were still blooming, so I will experiment. I’ve watched them for almost a week now, as they begin the expected transition. Leaves yellow and fall away. They get scraggly. I water often as they get used to the indoor temperature that fluctuates only a little. I worry they won’t get enough light.

Compensation

When this house was purchased we didn’t think about the way that porch I loved so much would prevent the light to pour into the living room from the southern-facing windows. I think about trade-offs, about transitions, about the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote about compensation, something about loss and gain, I will look it up later, I tell myself. As always, I seek a metaphor to make meaning, this time in the geraniums.

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Sleep and Not-Sleep

When I suffer from a few weeks of troubled sleep, I recall the cycles of the past. It won’t last, I tell myself. It’s stress, hormone fluctuations, it’s normal, be patient, try this or that. I try. I look for the gain that comes with this loss – I finished a book at 3:30 a.m., I thought some interesting thoughts as I let my mind wander. In the mornings, I talk to my son, always tired, with five classes of AP homework and cross country practice. Our morning conversations always involve how did you sleep. We report out. I tell him I can’t find a metaphor about insomnia, something that will make it matter, make meaning, and he says stop looking. He says the lack of the metaphor is a metaphor. I have to turn this over in my head many times. But I keep looking. There must be something here.

Writing and Wanting

It’s not that I haven’t been writing. While I waited for interesting blog post ideas to find me, and I said things like – I can’t go on road trips to California all the time and have I said all I wanted to say? – I’ve been working on a story. I told myself, when I began, it would probably be a flash piece of under 1,000 words. But as I wrote, it shaped itself into something more and I’m at a place where I decide, is it, in it’s almost-6,000-word current state, a part of something larger, or is a regular-sized short story hiding in there waiting to be found and pruned? I like this place, of possibility and growth and richness. Sometimes I’m sad that my job doesn’t make me feel this way. I wonder, could it? Am I looking at it wrong? And I wonder, should it? Am I being greedy? I have my writing. I have my mothering.

“For every thing you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Compensation”

Greed and Goals and a Little Bit of Luck

It’s hard to say. When I was in high school, it was common for many people not to go to college, and if they did, to not go away to school. My parents didn’t go to college, and not a lot of people in their extended families had either. I didn’t know any college people, but I figured I should. I didn’t know anything about how. I didn’t know about wanting it. I remember my guidance counselor talking to me about where I could go, with my grades. He talked about how it was possible, with financial aid and scholarships. He cracked a door open I hadn’t thought about too much as if to say this is for you, not just other people. He helped me to want something for myself I didn’t know was available for wanting. Sometimes I wonder if I don’t dream big enough but when I do, I wonder, is it being greedy? To want that, too? And I wonder, who cares, but I don’t wonder that often enough.

When I think about how to tie all of this together, I think of the way you can trick geraniums into blossoming all winter. They get confused for a bit, when it’s suddenly about 67 degrees all the time. It’s almost as if they can’t believe their luck, and maybe it’s not real, it probably isn’t, and there goes another leaf, we probably aren’t going to make it. But I’ve been bringing the geraniums in every fall for more than ten years and I’ve only had one not make it.

Maybe it’s greedy, wanting the geraniums to bloom through the winter. It’s probably not that hard, and I’m sure lots of people do this all the time and don’t consider it greedy or a miracle or anything, it’s just what you do with geraniums.

Love, Cath

On Future-Planning, Free Will, and Fate

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes life forces you to think about it in a very philosophical, free-will-versus-fate sort of way.

When you get divorced, one of the most dislocating, wrenching things you go through is watching the future you had imagined for yourself with your partner being erased. You try to make new plans, but things still seem hazy, at least for a while. You do begin to get your world back in order little by little, though, and you start to think about what life might look like after the children leave for college. And if you date, and if a few dates turn into a relationship, you cautiously begin to imagine your future with someone else. But sometimes these plans too go awry, and the relationship reveals itself to be something other than what you thought it was.

sun rays through the tree leaves and mist
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

When the Future is Foggy

This is where I find myself. The future – however tentatively imagined – once again gradually evaporating like fog as the day warms up and the sun burns it off. At least that is how I have been feeling for the past couple of weeks. But as I sit here watching the fog burn off, I am slowly starting to realize that it wasn’t the future, it was a future, one of many possible futures that could have been made reality. I suppose it all comes down to that philosophical fate versus free will debate. Is our future already written, and all the things we do, the relationships we have, are simply events leading us to a future that was “meant to be,” either in a faith-based sense or in a fairy-tale way?

It seems to me the designation “meant to be,” or the converse construct, “not meant to be,” is where we land at the end of a series of decisions whose consequences we can’t make sense of in any other way. But I’m not buying it.

I think we have a little more control and responsibility than that. In a way, the idea of control is an illusion. You can’t control much of what happens to you in life—the economy, natural disasters, the choices that other people in your life make, etc.—you can only control how you respond to all these things. But we do have control over our own choices, and a responsibility—our mission, should we choose to accept it—to be conscious of those choices, and to learn and grow in response to the consequences of those choices.

And though we have little or no control over the choices of others or random events that wreak havoc in our lives, we can plan for the future. We can decide what we want to see there after the fog lifts. I sort of have to. I’ve learned that I need goals and dreams, something to work toward and something to look forward to, whether or not someone is sharing that journey with me. Whether the events that have led me to this point are random or willed by cosmic forces, whether I have a little control or even less than that, I still find myself searching through the fog, looking for the constants within me, knowing that everything else is an external variable that can and will change.

Searching for the Constants in the Midst of Change

For me one of those constants is, in a way, a variable—it is growth, a desire for growth and openness that yields a range of constantly varying results. And encapsulated in this reaching outward is a search for connection. It is why I write—it is not only about my search for connection, but it is also an offering, a hope that others may similarly locate something that feels like a balm to the isolation that so many of us often experience. And I know that in the future, that is always the direction I want to be moving in, toward connection, and finding familiar, common ground with others. I have other, more concrete dreams for the future as well, like someday owning a cottage up north, and I think having something like that to work toward is as important, though maybe not as important as knowing who I am, and learning more about myself as life and love and years work their magic and shape me.

Micro Choices and Micro Changes

This might be all the sense I can make of things today, all the sorting through sadness and choices and consequences I can do for right now. But I’ll leave you with these final thoughts on choice and control. People often speak of changing the world, of what they can do to make it better, and many have noble, lofty goals in this regard, which are admirable and inspiring. I tend to think of things on a micro level, rather than a macro level. We all change the world in our own way, every day, whether we are conscious of it or not. It is in how we handle conflict with people we love—do we act on an instinct to rage or an inclination to resolve? It is in how we speak to the stranger standing across from us ringing up our groceries. It is in how we handle interactions with coworkers, with friends, with strangers, with animals. It is in the thousands of choices we make every day. My aim is to be conscious of as many of these choices as I can, of the way word and manner and energy and action impact the world, and shape it, hopefully for the better, little by little.

Love, Cath