On Vestigial Vigilance, Instinct, and Happiness

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes self-protective vigilance masks our instincts …

Life has been busy. Good-busy, mostly. In the middle of it all, living, loving, and learning are all happening. Life unfolds in all directions the way fern fronds sprawl slowly out and askew in the spring, the silent and celebratory party favors of the season.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Yet, the part of me that maintains a hyperawareness, a vigilance about everything in this phase of my life is looking for trouble. It wants categories; it strains to sort. It wonders, are we now post-[post-divorce]? If so, do we need to call it something else? That vigilant consciousness is always on the lookout for chaos, ready to find a way to diffuse it. It feels like an anxious, hyperactive, working dog without a job to do is pacing inside my head, nervously chewing on shoes. But another part of me – maybe new, maybe long dormant and grizzly bear waking now – is wanting to learn the way to live differently. Without waiting for the other shoe to drop. Without needing to gnaw on something to feel busy and safe and purposeful.

Sometimes I wish we could extricate ourselves from the parts of our psyche we don’t need anymore. Perform surgery on a vestigial organ and bury it, entomb it, pharaoh-less, with no afterlife. I suppose, though, we worry that we might need it again someday. I suppose we maintain a sentimental attachment to it as a once-favorite thing. The vestigial and vigilant worrier warrior, the protector, was once more than a part of me. It was most of me. And though now I’d like to bury it or send it packing, sometimes it remains, fretting and pacing and making work where there isn’t any. Today I wonder if I can find another job for it to do. I wonder if it can be escorted off the premises, and if not, can it be given a makeover. It’s too bad I can’t simply assign it a different task. You don’t need to protect me anymore. I’m okay. Can you help me learn to play the piano instead? How are you at financial planning?

During tough, or worse, traumatic times, the vigilant worrier in all of us gets amplified, elevated to superhero status. It works overtime; it has to. When life calms, and chaos retreats, that part of us can be unwilling to relinquish its elevated status. Sometimes it seizes on any worry, no matter how big or small, and amplifies it, so the cloud of anxiety cloaks everything, things we didn’t even think we needed to worry about. The vigilance works against us. As if to say, you don’t recognize threats anymore; I need to remind you.

I think the worst part of this is two-fold. Though our psyche wants to protect us, it goes too far, and seeks to shield us from threats that aren’t there. But it makes it hard for the rational part of us to grow and get stronger and be able to see clearly. It also makes us question our gut. We wonder, what if all this anxiety, this worry, IS my gut. Is this what it looks like when it is trying to tell me something? Sometimes it is tough to know. But, if it is tough to know, then I suspect it isn’t your gut. Instinct doesn’t make us chase our tail or pace and fret at everything – experience does that. Instinct is a magnet that pushes us toward what’s good for us and repels us from what isn’t. It is strong and quiet and deep, not frantic.

For me the question has become, at this (post [post-divorce]) point in my life, how do I move past what my good-natured but often misguided vigilant worrier warrior is trying to do, and grow more in tune with my instincts? How do we move away from fretful what-if-ing and move toward calm, toward trust (both self-trust, and beyond)?

I think that answer is different for everyone. Sometimes I have to write my way to it, sometimes I have to pick at it, run toward it, run away from it and back again, talk through it over and over. Sometimes we wear ourselves out with worry and then, quiet and exhausted, we find our true way. I’d like to find the straight line there, the shortest-distance-between-two-points path rather then the endless circles I pace in first. But I suppose that’s part of the journey too.

All of this might sound a bit familiar, if you’ve been following this blog for a while. We tell ourselves the same stories in different ways, trying to make it all make sense. I also find that anxiety rises up most in periods of happiness, a pattern that is perhaps common to many of us. It’s easy to be wary, easy to wonder how will this be taken away (this time) or how will I mess this up (again)? Seeing others do this, I wholeheartedly want to reassure, to tell them, go easy on yourself, it’ll be okay, let yourself have this. It’s always more difficult to be generous and kind and loving with ourselves than it is to be with other people.

It’s a good time for all of us to try. Love, Cath

 

On Bargaining, Warmth, and Crickets

By Catherine DiMercurio

“March is a bargaining month. . . . How like happiness this is.”

Maybe it is because I live with dogs that I find myself, hound-like, snuggling well-loved ideas with familiar scents. I perpetually consider notions of happiness, transition, ambiguity, and identity—philosophical bones for these forty-something-year-old teeth to gnaw on. As March expires, I return to thoughts about negotiating with the past—and and the ghosts that hound us—in our pursuit of happiness.

Speaking of hounds, I look to mine for lessons, not really knowing what else to do with the half-wild thing I adopted a few months ago. We make tiny bits of progress and then leap back. I have written in other posts about his past, about how, during his most impressionable time he was kenneled, not learning, not bonding. I lecture myself about expectations and push away the feeling that I do not understand how to make this small plot of real estate a large enough home for this big-hearted, loud and loping beast. On my good days there is fresh resolve, an eager, well-meaning patience. On bad days, frustration boils, then quiets as I remind myself of his history, then simmers once again. I remind myself: past and present must some how find a way to live together.

We make bargains with the ghosts of our past. But often, we must learn to make them with ghosts and pasts of others, too.

I began writing this post a week ago and am returning to it on the last day of March. March is a bargaining month. I haggle with yard mud and slopped paws. Crocuses hem and haw, deciding when to take the risk. March begins a transition to spring that stretches through dreaded April snows. In Michigan, we do not fully believe it is spring until it is nearly summer. How like happiness this is.

It is easy to doubt that a joyful mood will live to see the light of the next day, and the next, until we realize finally that we’ve been happy all this time. How comfortable it is to doubt joy, given histories of endured loss. Sometimes, I decide to stop counting losses and try to only tally the wins—the joyful moments, the kitchen laughter, the soft morning kisses, the contented sighing of freshly walked dogs, the smell of spring rain, every sip of coffee, texts from teenage children checking in on me, on each other.

I decide to watch happy pile up around me. The losses will still come whether or not we are ready for them. Maybe, if we soak up enough sun we can take on the cold when it comes, take it on with a little more vigor and confidence. To always be steeling ourselves, waiting for the next trouble and trying to prepare for it, dilutes the joys we could be experiencing every day. Let the sun be the sun.

I know this: what today feels like a bump in the road would have felt like a steep and rocky mountain, nearly impassible, just a few years ago. Mostly. Sometimes obstacles still feel bigger than they are. Setbacks still sting—the broken appliance I can’t really afford to replace, another rejection from a literary journal, taxes, parenting stressors, the strange new noise the car is making—these are all still part of life, and can all gang up on me from time to time.

The practice of joy-tallying takes perspective, it takes meditative awareness, and is a conscious expenditure of psychic energy. And sometimes our zeal for it flags, and the cold seeps in even though the sun is shining. Sometimes we need to have another conversation with our ghosts. We need to make bargains about what we allow ourselves to remember, and to forget. In the end, it may be that what protects us the most from future pain is not, in fact, the memory of past pain. It may be that it is the willful act of forgetting that unthickens the skin and lets us feel the sun.

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Right now, hosts of crickets that have been wintering as eggs or nymphs (depending on whether or not they are fall field crickets or spring field crickets, apparently). They have been feeling the changes in soil temperature. Like all of us in Michigan, they are trapped between the end of the cold and the beginning of warmth. They wait to see when there have been enough consecutive warm days to call it spring. Then instinct kicks in, warmth is certain, emergence is imminent. Maybe we don’t have to wait as long as the crickets do, but sometimes we have to trust the instinct and seek the warmth. I suspect letting happiness soak in, one joy at a time, yields a stronger protection against the cold than developing too thick a skin.

Enjoy the warmth, whenever you find it. Love, Cath

(photo credit: Photo by Kal Visuals on Unsplash)

On Thriving and Neglect

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes instead of pulling weeds, you focus on sunshine and water.

Most of us live in a world where resources—our time and our energy—are limited. Sometimes we feel a great sense of urgency to focus on areas of our lives or places in our hearts that have been neglected for too long. Currently there seems to be some huge collective urge to purge and simplify. Sometimes our homes need purging, sometimes our hearts do, sometimes we discover it is time to put away emotions or memories or thoughts we’ve held on to for long enough.

Being Open to Openness

I’m a firm believer in the idea that there is no “too long” with regard to the duration of time we take to work through emotions, ponder old wounds. Things take as long as they take. We react when we are damn good and ready. Sometimes if you have to ask whether or not something brings you joy, it is too soon to be considering the answer. I have learned to be patient with myself, to look for signs that I am ready to put something away, or rid myself of it. I’m learning how to recognize when I am ready to close doors, and to know when I’m truly open to opening them.

What is Thriving?

Sometimes, we have to step back to see what actually is already thriving. We need to recognize when to focus on the doors we’ve opened and those parts of our hearts that are pumping and churning in the background, rather than on the recently healed parts that we watch over protectively, or the wounded, hurting parts trying actively to unbreak. It’s harder to do, in a way, to focus on positivity and vitality. If something is working, even with marginal efficiency, the tendency can often be to let it hum along, doing its thing. Some things cry out for attention – messy rooms, old griefs, painful memories. It is easy to feel as though anxieties and worries have been quietly festering while we’ve been attending to the day-to-day business of life. So, we turn our attention to fixing things, we surge toward repair, toward improvement. This is important work, but it isn’t the only work. And it’s okay to back-burner it.

Knowing What to Neglect, and When

The good thing is that things like anxiety and worry do not thrive on neglect. They require our fevered, obsessed attention, which keeps them well-nourished enough to tangle and choke. Nothing of value thrives on neglect. Not happiness, joy, delight, peace, calm, gratefulness, compassion, empathy, love. They all need our careful, considered attention to flourish. It is easy to get caught up in the need to fix broken things, to clear away items no longer of use to us. But when we nurture healthy states of being, things like pain, trouble, and worry can, and do, get crowded out, like tomato plants in August refusing to give up ground to weeds.

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Photo by Artem Bali on Pexels.com

Resistance and Happiness and Magic

I think of the way, when threading a needle, the more you try, the more the thread resists, shrugging and fraying. Somehow it takes an odd combination of focus and nonchalance to get it. I have licked the split end to a point, found the good light by the window, but I don’t care if the thread makes it through, I don’t much want this button secured anyway. It’s almost that way when tending to such things as happiness. I see you, you need me. But too much direct, obvious attention makes it somehow pale and ghostly, as if it’s about to evaporate, a wish made at the wrong time and place, without pennies or fountains or the first star at dusk.

There’s a magic to it, but not tricks. There is magic in the sensing and noticing and breathing life into happiness while at the same time not chasing it, not reducing it to formulas, to mathematical if/then equations. Magic doesn’t work that way and neither does happiness. Some things, good things, are arrived at obliquely.

This is all to say, don’t forget on the thriving things too, not just the neglected things. Don’t forget to focus, but focus as in, staring at something with half-closed eyes, blurring the object but heightening the experiential sensation of sight, in that hazy Christmas light manner. This is to say, be patient. Be patient with that thread, the element of chance and change chasing the constant of the needle.

Love, Cath

Shifting Gears: On Routines, Resetting, and Rediscovering

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we need to escape the safety net of our routines and go seeking.

For the past several years, I’ve written steadily—mostly daily—writing and revising and rewriting and re-revising my novel, writing short stories and flash fiction pieces, and creating posts for this blog. I’ve been submitting my fiction and hoping something finds a home someplace. I’ll keep pursuing publication for those pieces, and I’ll keep writing. But right now, I’m wondering, is it beneficial to take a little break? Or do I remain committed to my daily writing habit? How do we reset and revive a practice—whether it be running, writing, yoga, or any other behavior we pursue to energize us and keep us healthy and grounded?

I’ll be taking some time off from work for a vacation soon, so it seems like a natural point for some shift to occur. I typically don’t like breaking a routine, particularly one that I’ve worked so hard to build. I’m also the type of person who finds regular routines comforting. Of course, I need breaks, but after some of life’s hard knocks, the predictability of routines feels safe. I think it takes longer for a routine to feel dull to me than a similar routine might make other people feel.

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Photo by Jan Kroon on Pexels.com

The Open-Ended Possibilities of the Road Trip

My children and I will soon be road-tripping across the country, headed to see the redwoods in northern California. Days of travel followed by exploration and camping will be pretty far from the normal structure of my life—wake up, write, work out or run, go to work, come home, spend time with the family, maybe do some light housework or yard work, and sleep. During the school year, the routine gets a little crazier, but with my daughter headed off to college, my son and I will be finding new patterns, and making adjustments as we go along, trying, as they say, to find and establish a “new normal.” There is a lot of transitioning ahead for all of us, so this road trip is welcome, not just for the break it offers from work and routine, but for the opportunity it will provide us to enjoy each other’s company—without the stress of everyday life intruding—and to rediscover each other.

I’ve thought a lot about how I want to handle the disruption this trip will have on my writing practice. One option is to not write at all, to deliberately abstain and allow my experiences to soak in. On the other end of the spectrum is taking my laptop and continuing to write every day, fleshing out new ideas, working on the story that’s in progress, drafting new blog posts. The most likely scenario though is that I’ll take my new notebook. I’ll observe, jot down impressions and observations, journal a little. Nothing too ordered, but a conscious effort to capture what I’m feeling, what I’m seeing. Sometimes, a story will form under these conditions, sometimes a character will come to life, sometimes a few sentences will materialize full formed and become the heart of a new piece of fiction. I might not write every day, but I’ll watch and listen and absorb. My daily habit will be one of conscious noticing.

In Search Of . . .

Another aim I have for this trip, and one that will hopefully be aided by this conscious noticing, is to seek something that I’ve been missing: lightheartedness. Though I’ve always been a contemplative, sensitive, and serious person, I feel as though lightheartedness was not something that was merely accessible to me, but rather it was a part of me. It was simply there, within me, a characteristic of each heartbeat. My experiences of the past several years, it seems, have altered that part of me, have anchored me to something heavy and sore. And it’s time to shift gears, to cut myself loose from that weight.

I have had lighthearted moments, sometimes weeks and months in the past several years where it felt like something had been lifted. But there was something different about this fleeting lightheartedness compared to my previous way-of-being lightheartedness, sort of like the difference in density between store-bought, prepackaged cotton candy and the gauzy, spun-right-in-front-of-you, summer fair cotton candy.

“The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” — J. D. Salinger

Something about these differences reminds me of that line from a J. D. Salinger story (it is “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” in Nine Stories, if you are curious): “The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” Maybe the transitory, fleeting lightheartedness I periodically experienced was joy—moments of joy that washed away. But I don’t think the solid-state happiness Salinger references and the way-of-being lightheartedness I’m seeking are the same thing. And I’m certainly not the type of person who expects to be happy all the time. I do, however, long for the type of lightheartedness that once inhabited me in a very real, solid way to once again take up permanent residence in my heart.

So, I’ll be away for a bit from these Chronicles, seeking, and noticing. But when I return I hope to have fresh insights and perspectives and stories to share with you.

Enjoy the road. I will be! Love, Cath

On Work and Usefulness

by Catherine DiMercurio

It’s Sunday evening. We are gathered, the kids and I, in the living room, each with a blanket, a task, and a sense of wishing we’d had more time to do both things that needed doing and to relax together. I sip my decaf Earl Grey and look at my notes for this week’s blog. As the night wears on, we’ll all deal with small bouts of transition anxiety, each for different reasons, as we head into the week. For me, the strain of the workweek comes from stresses on the job, but mostly from pulling the weight of expectation and responsibility along with the heft of the monotony.

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Only a few short years ago did I became the primary earner, or as the IRS 1040 puts it, in all of its official elegance, the “head of household” – unmarried, earning more than half of household expenses, and with at least one child or dependent. The divorce necessitated I transition from freelance work to a regular full-time job with some haste. As I wrote about in earlier posts, I landed where I began, at the same company I started for in the early 1990s. I feel lucky to be there, as I’m not sure my years of freelancing prepared me particularly well for many other fields. At the same time, I do know people who seem to love what they do. When I graduated college, I hoped to find a job that allowed me time and energy to write, but I longed for meaningful work that engaged me, work that I looked forward to doing most of the time.

Pulling with Patience

So how do I make sense of the way things have played out? How to I reframe the narrative that sneaks up on me when a day on the job feels more like a toppling pile of tasks to manage rather than meaningful work to do? I understand the value and dignity of doing the work no matter what it is, of honoring my responsibility to earn, to be the head of the household. I think of a poem by Marge Piercy, “To be of Use.” She says, “I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart, / who pull like water buffalo, with passive patience, / who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward, / who do what has to be done, again and again.”

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Sometimes, in my quest for sense-making, I see success and reward and engagement in the work that is done in the margins of my employment/commuting life. In the margins is where I get to be a mom, where I write, where I spend time with my boyfriend, where I catch up with a friend over coffee or on a walk, where I snuggle my dog at the end of the day, where I try out a new recipe, or watch my kids’ games and competitions and performances. The margins are the places where life happens, but it is in the recognition of this too that things can seem out of balance.

As a society, we tell our kids that they can be anything they want if they work hard. It’s not that the message is bad, but it is an incomplete message. You can be things you want but you’ll give up other things to be them. You can be anything but you can’t be everything. You’ll be some things you want some of the time. You may work very hard and it might not seem like you achieved what you set out to do, but you achieved other things, in different ways. There is always more than one way to be happy, and not working at your dream job won’t be the end of the world. You may find yourself in a grey cubicle, sitting for too long under fluorescent lights looking at a screen and wishing your brain or your heart were engaged differently, more fully. But you’ll remember that you are doing the hard work of showing up every day, and earning the paycheck, and being responsible. Your job is as important as anyone else’s. You will shrug it off when someone says to you, “I could never do that. Sit at a desk all day.”

There is value in putting one foot in front of the other every day. There is honor and dignity in whether the paycheck is earned by intellectual, physical, or creative toil. On Sunday night as I write this draft, that is how I frame it, what I tell myself to remember. I don’t have to love each task to make it all feel worthwhile. Does it matter that this is not the job I went to school for or what I dreamed of as a child? Maybe. But does it matter more that the mortgage is paid and that my children’s lives are stable and secure enough that they can begin to imagine what they might want their adult lives to be like? Probably.

The Sunday Night Anxiety Club

The other thing that admits you to the Sunday Night Anxiety Club is the self-induced stress regarding balance. A friend once reminded me about that balance is about movement. Think of a yoga pose or simply standing on one foot. Muscles make micro adjustments to keep us stable. The act of balancing is more in the shifting than it is in some sort of state of perfect equilibrium. I used to think that balance meant that equal portions of my time every day or week were allotted to the categories I valued. And some days I still feel as though balance was achieved if I wrote, and went for a run, and after work had some quality, non-rushed time with the kids. But every day can’t be like that. And every Sunday night there are the reminders to myself that the week ahead will be filled with road blocks—hours at work where I try and figure out how to stay engaged and focused, a bad night of sleep that gets in the way of my writing the next morning, some issue of scheduling that disrupts the chance to work out. And balance will be about pivoting, and peace will be more about reframing than about the proper amount of calm every night before bed, though that is still something to reach for.

Right now, on Sunday night, the three of us are sitting here, making our concessions, our retroactive assessments of balance. Did we get enough done, did we honor our obligations, did we take time for each other? We stumble. Some days more than others. Some times I can’t help but wonder how the hell I’m supposed to juggle it all. It helps to remember the grander-scheme balancing act I’m trying to perform, that I’m trying to teach my son and my daughter that a good work ethic does not mean that you will be happy every moment of performing various tasks, but that you take pride in the fact that you worked earnestly and with the intention to do the job well. That living well is not truly an equation, where the moments of each day yield a result that always looks and feels like happiness. You should not feel as though you failed to live up to your youthful expectations of yourself, or society’s expectations of you, if you don’t go to bed feeling blissfully happy every night. Happiness is a strange alchemy of peace and joy and contentment. But there is wisdom in recognizing the richness of experiences that do not come to fruition in that way.

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Piercy’s poem ends with this revelation: “The pitcher cries for water to carry / and a person for work that is real.” Sometimes that work happens in the workplace and sometimes it happens in the margins. I think it is the great task of our lives, one of the most important parts of our journey, to learn what fills us up and to work at those things, whether it is the work we are paid for, the work of being a parent or a partner or a friend, something else entirely, or a combination of all of these.

I do need to step back sometimes, often on a Sunday night when the prospect of the week ahead seems daunting and out of balance, and reframe the conversations I have with myself about the work that I do in the workplace. I need to remind myself that it has a meaningful place within the context of the rest of the work I set my energy to in life. So as you embark upon the journey of your own week, I hope that even in moments of dread or drudgery, you are able to find the meaning there as well.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath