On the Dwindled Familiar

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you are out of step and looking for something familiar within yourself.

Lately and often, I’ve been considering the impact of erosion, the way events and transitions and life can lead to a dwindling of the sense of familiarity between ourselves and the world around us, and/or between ourselves and ourselves.

For most people in this chaotic, viral year, familiar routines and habits have evaporated. In the midst of it, as I’ve been writing about here, I’ve moved to a new home, and my son is preparing to leave for college, where he’ll join my daughter on campus, and I’ve been trying to acclimate to it all.

A couple of days ago, my son and I visited my daughter. She’s moved back in with her housemates and is also awaiting the new school year. The three of us walked through the collection of small buildings that form the dorm complex where my son will live. We drove to the river, watched the swans prune, the ducks play, and the geese eat and eat. After ordering some takeout bibimbop, we sat on my daughter’s porch, quietly devouring our spicy rice and vegetables and tofu. We talked about ways to be safe.

two person hold hands
Photo by NEOSiAM 2020 on Pexels.com

I sat on the porch swing, close to my daughter and I held her hand, as if she were my five-year-old once more, and I missed her suddenly and intensely now that we were together again. I listened to the two of them talk to one another about their class schedules, their futures.

It is not that I’ve been oblivious to how much of their life now unfolds without me in it on a regular basis, but sometimes it just hits you.

This part is over. Has been over, actually.

I was slow to realize.

With my daughter, even though she’s beginning her junior year and talking about what faraway things come next for her after she graduates, it still almost felt like I had time for everyday moments. Even though, despite a brief pandemic-induced period where she moved back home, I haven’t lived with her for some time. Maybe it is because my son is about to leave too that the truth of it all is clarifying for me. Whatever privileged status I may hold in their lives as their mother will not necessarily translate into daily relevance.

At home, at this home-in-the-making, I walk through the house in the morning, letting the dog out, making the coffee, making the bed, and none of it has quite coalesced as familiar. Sometimes, I only feel as at home here as I would in any place where I like the décor. Those books. That pottery vase. The pink tile in the bathroom. The way the light moves through the house throughout the day is pleasing. And we have begun building memories here, a birthday, morning coffee on the back porch, a wide sweep of conversation. Tears and laughter, sleep and restlessness. Meals prepared and eaten together. At the same time, the notion of familiarity can feel elusive.

I am only slowly realizing that familiar does not always have to do with what the things I thought it did – time, memory, history, objects.

I have new possessions and old ones here in this new place, but the old things have the same hum as the new, though I know them better. Possibly I’m confusing the notion of familiarity with something else.

And then suddenly sometimes it all shifts into place with a soft sigh. I am not always half a step off from the general flow of things, but with all the churn and shove of these transitions, I can be a beat behind. I’m noticing too that people notice what I haven’t, like how long I pause sometimes before I’m able to catch up. I tried explaining this recently to my son but I don’t think I was able to make much sense of it.

At times, I feel at once melancholy and joyous, as if both of these are simultaneously my natural states, and I am perpetually tugged in one direction or the other, and the unease I feel within my own skin sometimes is a side effect of the journey from one state to the other.

This is all to say that sometimes our world and the miniscule and the enormous upheavals therein cause us to feel unfamiliar to ourselves, as we try to respond to all the things we need to. Sometimes we try and fail. Sometimes we try and are slow to realize that we aren’t failing. We are in a state of trying. We are earnest. We are tugged between versions of ourselves. We are tugged in and out of the flow that everyone else seems to keep pace with.

Perhaps the most centering power, the thing that consistently brings me back to myself, is the act of looking into the eyes of those people I love, and being recognized. The warm brown eyes of my son, kind and astute, grounded and curious. My daughter’s sea gaze, all grey and green, passion and power and depth. The blue sky eyes of my love, a soar of melody and truth, wisdom and sweetness.

We are all moving through our own states, and sometimes we are trying to catch up to ourselves and to each other and to the world. We owe ourselves and each other recognition and respect, patience and compassion.

Love, Cath

On Belonging, Nests, and Popsicle Sticks

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we find new ways to belong to ourselves.

I read recently that where we belong is not always the same as where we are used to.

That juxtaposition between belonging and familiarity is a curious one. I am in a prolonged state of transition. I have not yet moved into my new house, but have been steadily at work, along with my son, my boyfriend, and his son, to make some fairly dramatic changes there. My old house, which I’m simply occupying at this point, is in a state of disarray as I prepare to move. The yard is getting overgrown. We can only do so much to maintain both places. I have work responsibilities. I am tired.

When I think about belonging and familiarity I think of people, not places, now, which is a fine thing. I do look forward, though, to having the sense that I belong in my new space, to making memories there, building the familiar piece by piece like the log cabins my sisters and I used to make from popsicle sticks we’d collect throughout the summer. Belonging and familiarity aren’t always at odds.

The house I am leaving feels like a collection of homes, four walls filled with debris of different versions of home, good, bad, and otherwise. Here the familiar has a long history, sometimes sweet and wonderous, like bringing babies home from the hospital after they were born. The ensuing, often sleepless years, unfolding moment by moment. The familiar had its run of trouble here too and that’s ground I’ve covered before. The house is filled with discarded nests. It is all twigs and straw and popsicle sticks. There are things I don’t want to forget, and things I don’t want to remember. If I swept it all into a pile, I wonder what would be recognizable, what would still seem familiar. I wonder what to take with me.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Belonging is a funny thing. This house was mine because my name was on the deed and the mortgage, and now different pieces of paper bear that scrawl. Signing all the documents to transfer ownership for both houses, I remember looking at my signature and the way it changed from one document to the next. By the time you have signed your name fifteen times you begin to doubt that you know how to do it anymore.

[Side note on signatures and belonging: I think of the poetry of a name, the way the script mirrors mood, the way when I pen a note with the three letters of your name at the top and the roughly four and half of mine at the bottom, I attempt to corral with the shape of words the way I feel, and it feels like creating art together. It is the words as I write them and the sound of them in your head or on your lips when you read them, and what a beautiful thing it is, to make art with you.]

But despite the documentation and transfer of ownership of what I have called “mine,” what I now call “mine” doesn’t belong to me, because homes have the histories of other families and maybe in a way, the way we reshape a home to our personalities, the way we nest and re-nest over the years, is also a beautiful piece of enacted art, one that we make in collaboration with our own histories, along with those who have inhabited the space before us.

In many stories, place functions very much as a character, a real force the characters interact with, rather than simply a backdrop. Fiction that effectively executes this (Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love comes to mind readily as an example, but there are many others) is easy to immerse oneself in, because it feels like truth. We are products of our environment, acted upon by place, as much as we interact with it.

Belonging is a funny thing. I wonder if you can feel at peace with yourself and not in harmony with your personal setting, or does that peace create the sense of harmony no matter where you are?

I have the strong sense that feeling internally at peace but out of step with your environment is common, and is perhaps what propels us to look at our surroundings perhaps as a place where we do not belong, or no longer belong.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that tucked away within both the concept of belonging and in the word itself is longing. There is an ache within us to fit. I think of the two baby robins snugged in the nest at the new house. It sits securely in the crook of the downspout behind the garage. I think of how we long to feel safe, at least somewhere.

I wonder how it is built, our sense of belonging to one another? How much is instantaneous, how much constructed. I consider what that infrastructure comprised of.

And what does it mean to belong to ourselves? I was told that by the time I reached almost-fifty, I would not care what others thought of me; I would be wise; I would settle into myself. Yet I don’t settle in. I still often feel awkward in my own skin, in my own brain, though at times I have allowed myself to be at peace with that part of me.

The sparrow in the backyard at my old house pinched a beakful of just-brushed dog-fur-fluff. My dog has the softest fur, and I thought, well-chosen! What a happy, cozy little nest that will be to settle into.

And sometimes I think maybe I can settle into myself after all.

Love, Cath

On Hermit Crabs and Habits

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we seek ourselves in our habits.

A few days ago, as I was out walking, I decided to see how running felt again. It had been a while, and when I was a little younger it was easy to start again after a lull. I’ve noticed in the past few years that getting back up to speed has taken longer, been a little more clunky. So, I took it slow. I interspersed some running into the walk and it felt like maybe I’d do it again. I ordered new shoes the next day. At the same time, I know how easy it is for me to fall out of the habit when life gets busy, and I wonder, if I loved it so much why does that happen? And I wonder, is wanting to try again more of an effort to connect the current me to a past version of me? Perhaps I am seeking running again, because it makes me feel strong, and I need evidence of strength right now.

With all the transition happening related to moving, which I’ve been writing about here for some time, I am feeling very vulnerable in many ways. I was sitting at my desk trying to work and I kept thinking of hermit crabs, and what I remembered of them from the Eric Carle story about the hermit crab, a children’s book I had read to my children long ago. They live in discarded shells from other sea creatures. When they outgrow one shell, they must leave it behind and find another more suitable one. I’ve been ruminating about this period of exposure, the seeking, the being in-between places. I think of this current house not so much as something I’ve outgrown, but as something with a shape better suited for another family. I’ve evolved differently, and it has been fitting awkwardly these days, as familiar as it is. Maybe that’s why I’m in search of some external marker of strength, as I’m moving between shells and the exposure is getting to me.

crab macro hermit hermit crab
Photo by William LeMond on Pexels.com

Sometimes I feel that we are evaluated in the same way that we explore a prospective new space. It is a relief to be recognized as something having both potential and current value, even when all our flaws are on display, as they especially are when the stress of transition exposes us.

I think too of the way humans in general move into someone else’s former shelter and make it their own. Some people do build houses specifically to suit their own tastes, but in general we search for something that will do the job. We fit ourselves into a space and are constrained by external factors like cost and availability, yet within such parameters we try to find something that suits our personality and our needs. We seek out something that mostly fits and we adapt.

I suspect many of us feel like hermit crabs right now, tucked away in a home that might be starting to feel too small, even if the fit seemed just fine early in March. Inside our homes we make attempts at keeping up habits that feel good, discarding some, taking on new ones. I try to keep writing, keep up with that habit. I’m revisiting the running habit. I imagine what these activities will look like in my new house, which I now can visualize. It’s there waiting for me, pending paperwork. Or any other disaster that a worrier like me can easily imagine.

Our habits are a huge part of our ability to adapt to new circumstances. We talk a lot these days about “normal” and “new normal.” But I don’t think we participate in various habits because they make our lives feel normal. I think we do them because they make us feel like ourselves. Washing the dishes in my new house will help acclimatize me to the new space, the performance of a routine domestic activity that says life goes on, here in this space now, instead of there and then. But the things that will help me to truly adapt will be cooking for people I love, writing, gardening, exploring the new neighborhood on walks and runs. We have habits that are integral to who we are, for better or worse, and our personal evolution is tied to which ones we hold on to and which ones we let go of. And we all have some we wish to let go of. I find it very easy to lose myself in an anxiety loop and I don’t know how much of that is a conscious embrace of a habit, or a chemical stress response I don’t have much control over. I think it is both – first one, then the other, so I continue to work on what I can control, I work on letting go of the habit, and I look forward to seeing if it’s easier to do in a new environment.

All this leads me to consider how much our homes make us who we are. Do they? Or are they reflections of who we are? Perhaps the answer is both, first one, then the other, but I don’t know which comes first. Perhaps this is another way we are like the hermit crab. We are this version of ourselves in one space.

We are what we inhabit.

And then we inch toward something else, changing either something about our home to better suit us, or finding a new space all together. We inch forward, we adapt, we inhabit a new version of ourselves, here and now.

Love, Cath

On Home, Magic, Memory

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes home is not what you think it is.

For a few of the many moments that I’m curled up in my bed but unable to sleep, I cast my thoughts outward, trying to capture as much of the world as my heart can hold in a breath, for that is all that I can handle of the chaos sometimes. It feels selfish not to try. I feel so immersed in layers of details involved in home buying and selling that I struggle to focus on life beyond those decisions. But in that effort of casting my awareness out beyond my experience, I suddenly remember fishing with my father when I was young, standing on the bank, watching the ease with which his line sang out over the river. I pull back, clumsy as ever, unable to mimic the grace it takes. I long to be bigger and better than myself sometimes.

time lapse photography of lake
Photo by Baskin Creative Studios on Pexels.com

We are told not to take for granted the things and people that make our lives feel full, rich, happy. I think about how often I say I love you and I wonder if I’m saying it as much to express the truth of it as I am to prove it to a cruel universe, as if a demonstration of love and gratitude can create a protective gloss around me and mine. I love you becomes an incantation to keep us safe and connected.

I started writing this post a couple of weeks ago when my arms were sore from painting. I moved from my desk, where I hunched and scrambled toward deadlines, to the basement where I poured white paint to neutralize my home for potential buyers. I thought I wouldn’t like it, but I do. It reminds me of that summer cottage I’ve always wanted, the white paint. I spend so much time scrolling through pictures of homes in another town, hoping one will feel a little bit like it could be mine, hoping that somehow in this world of wait and restriction and necessary cautions, I will be able to complete the necessary series of business transactions. A series of business transactions that, in a way, is the transfer of ownership of a thing from person to person, but is really the worldly calculus that frames the magical endowing of home to family. (It is a strange arrangement, but if you are lucky, as I am, you get to work with people who have an understanding of not just the business but the business of magic.)

I spent night after night in April falling asleep trying to write before bed. It was all fits and starts, no sense making, clumsy constructions of sentiments in random drafts. Sometimes my best work is the simple I love you, sung across rooms, tucked in a note of freshly folded laundry to be discovered later. Sometimes I feel as though I’m trying to inscribe home into every letter of a scrawled I love you.

I’ve been thinking about what home means, and now more than ever it is who, not where, and on the verge of moving I want my children to know that fact, more than ever. I want them to feel at home within themselves, I want them to know that all our lives we have to remake our ability to remake home. I want them to learn it so that it comes as readily and blindly as tying shoes. I want it to be easier for them. That is the first and most important layer of home.

The next is about the people you feel at home with, and about evolving into the idea that sometimes this will mean your family and sometimes it won’t. And that’s okay. Your idea of family expands and contracts, like a lung full of breath. But like a lung full of breath it has a rhythm, a cadence you can always find if you tune yourself in to it.

But it would be stubbornly naïve to pretend that home also wasn’t a physical place, and it’s okay to have a multitude of feelings about that place, feelings that might not always get on harmoniously with one another, just like family members sometimes don’t. It’s also okay for there to be an apparent dearth of feeling about a place. Sometimes we’ve spent them all, sometimes we will feel them later.

Sometimes years, decades, will pass, and we will suddenly remember standing on a riverbank with our father and we will remember an odd sense of home we forgot we had forgotten. Old magic. And we will realize again that what we thought was about a place really isn’t so much.

I think, too, of the brief vulnerabilities we allow ourselves when we are trying to be strong. I think of what being strong feels like, and how sometimes it doesn’t feel like trying, until we stop for a moment. Anxiety sneaks up sometimes like a soft rage of sorrow when I let my guard down. And sometimes it feels as though it is always there, like a soft flutter wings in the eves when you are lying in bed and hearing a bird take a little morning bath outside the window. It’s just there, letting you know the worrying is happening, but telling you don’t worry about it, it’s for a good cause. Learning to be at home with myself means trying to understand this.

Today definitely feels like spring, and with that sigh of air through the window, warm and a little damp and heavy with the scent of green, it’s a little easier today to feel hopeful and even content within the milieu of this moment.

Remember to protect yourself with whatever magic you can find, a memory, a feeling of home, an I love you.

Love, Cath

 

Love, Cath

On Waves, and Rain, and Corpses

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the new perspective you’ve been seeking is all wrong.

On a sunny Sunday, I drive through an unfamiliar neighborhood, trying to imagine what it would be like to live there. One hand on the steering wheel, one clutching a coffee cup, I imagine kitchens. I take a deep breath, but that underwater feeling is seeping in and I shiver for a moment. I turn off the AC and unroll the window and let in the July heat and humidity. I can’t picture the kitchen. I don’t see myself puttering around in this yard, or that one, and I drive on, overwhelmed and sinking.

I have written often here about different types of transitions I’ve experienced in recent weeks, months, years, and just when I feel I’ve ridden the wave of one, another arrives. I used to think “normal life” happened in the calm space between the waves. It was that place where you could float a while, regroup, catch your breath. And maybe life is like that sometimes. But right now, normal life is as much the waves as the calm, and there is not much time in the in-between place. I’ve been looking for a new way of looking at transitions, something to grab on to so that I can keep my head above water, but maybe what I really need to do is realize that transitions aren’t so much sometimes-things in life, they are what it means to be living.

big waves
Photo by Tatiana on Pexels.com

I have often thought that there are multiple “coming of age” processes in adult life that mirror what we experience in our adolescent years, coming into early adulthood. Major shifts occur for all of us that we somehow readjust to, or we do so on a surface level such that onlookers can note that we’ve done it, but inwardly it feels like a transformation eons in the making, as if we are remaking the landscape of our own psyche.

But there are other processes more subtle, barely noticeable by the outside observer, that occur within us as the atmosphere of our lives shifts around us. They are the internal changes wrought by wave after wave of transition. Those close to us might notice we are especially moody, or sullen, maybe nervous, maybe quieter than normal, or just the opposite as we try and mask what’s going on under the surface. And internally, we are not shifting cooling lava into mountains but rather turning the same small stone over and over, examining the heft of it, the shape, the color, seeking answers to scarcely formed questions. We find ourselves inching in this fashion toward perspectives that will help us make sense of the way our place in our own life is morphing.

In a year I’ll be sending off my youngest for his freshman year of college, and my oldest will be starting her junior year, and I’ll be in some stage of the selling my house and moving and remaking home someplace else. It is difficult to know what the constants will be. And I love constants. I adore certainty. We crave what’s scarce.

I’ve spent some afternoons the past few weekends driving around different neighborhoods, trying to get a sense of where I might land when I sell my house. Sometimes it feels exciting, but it is daunting. Sometimes it is downright scary. It’s often lonely. The phrase I don’t know what I’m doing bubbles through my consciousness and I practice the tools I am supposed to use to keep my anxiety at bay. I think of successes, I think of the times I thought I didn’t know what I was doing but still got through the challenge. I’ll figure it out, I say. I’ll ask for help, I have people. I imagine what it will be like to be putting dishes away in a cute kitchen someplace else, and looking out the back window, my back window, and considering where I’ll plant a garden. But, still.

I drive back home, the brick and mortar analog to flesh and blood. It is almost a person, a character who’s been in my life for twenty years. It’s the place where most of my marriage happened, where it ended, the first and only place the kids called home. It’s walls and paint and memory and it is okay to be sentimental about it and when I think about leaving it I don’t feel a sense of loss or grief, but I do have a tremendous amount of respect for it as place and shelter. I am connected to it as a constant, a sure thing. Let’s go home. I know what that means. I know how it feels, and how hard I worked to have this address, these walls, be a constant for my children, for me, when times were uncertain, and that lost-at-sea feeling, treading water, was my every moment. But I learned to float, to swim, to find things to hold on to. I learned it here, in the time and place that this aging structure represents.

I’ve noticed, too, the way anxiety pools, the way unrelated worries dribble into one another like raindrops on a window. You can’t tell them apart anymore and all of them seem amplified beyond reasonableness. Because they have joined forces it becomes harder and harder to address them individually. You feel a little crazy. People start to notice. You make an effort to separate the puddle back into raindrops. The stress of preparing to sell a house, preparing for the senior year of the youngest child and his looming departure for college, these weighty changes muddy thinking on simpler things, because they are always there, dribbling into everything.

Sometimes it feels as though histories likewise pool into a present moment, as if an entire universe exists in the space of a breath. I notice, and wonder which of the raindrops are real, and which are fictions I created out of water molecules, histories and futures I’ve simply concocted while waves crashed over my head and I couldn’t see clearly. Sometimes all you can do is shake your head and try and clear it, shake off water the way a dog does.

Thinking of history, of memory this way, reminds me of something Ralph Waldo Emerson says in “Self-Reliance.” “But why,” as Emerson asks, “should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this monstrous corpse of your memory? . . . It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, scarcely even in the acts of pure memory, but bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day. Trust your emotion.”

This “monstrous corpse” of our memory often appears as another wave hits, another transition demands to be managed, navigated, understood. The monstrous corpse floats next to us and whispers stories about how we failed, about how we once did trust our emotion, our instincts, and we were wrong. How did you not know, not see?, our memory echoes. We may believe the purpose of memory is to teach us, and sometimes it can, and sometimes, it does. And sometimes it tricks us. We must be careful to not fall into the trap of the binary, and see the lessons of our personal histories as good/bad, pain/not-pain. It isn’t all “if I’d only listened to my head” or “if I’d only trusted my heart.”

Maybe the only way for memory to be instructive is to do what Emerson suggests, and bring into the “thousand-eyed present” for judgment. Let’s see it from all angles before we let it chart a new course. He exhorts us to trust our emotion, and maybe that would be easier to do if we let ourselves see that it exists already in the “thousand-eyed present.” It is not a dark, wild, unknown thing. It is a living part of us, created of us, by us, and for us. We are often suspicious of our current instinct, trusting instead fallible, dead memories to guide us through this wave, and the next. But we have better ways. We have instinct, and knowledge, and strength, and we have people to reach out to, though often we feel like we shouldn’t need to reach out. We have an understanding that they are navigating their own waves and it would be rude to mention that we are drowning a little. But maybe we can buoy each other.

Love, Cath