The October of a Few Minutes Ago: On Time and Memory and Self

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes it’s impossible to not think of masks and the tricks of time.

Let’s talk about the October of a few minutes ago, the one that got away from us in a last late rush of wind and rain, and the way it feels quite suddenly that fall too has disappeared, a dog slipped free from his collar who is now halfway down the street.

I think about the shape of time and how we package it. Every so often we are hit with this sense that time is rushing along faster than it ever did. We like to say it plays tricks on us. Only when we are bored, or clutched by some physical or emotional pain, does it seem to slow. We box time into comprehensible components – seconds, weeks, years – or bundle it into memories. And in this way, it is intrinsically tied to who we are. So much of our identity is built this way, memory by memory, and maybe we are the shape of time, a physical manifestation, or a border anyway.

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Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

But how did this October slip by so quickly, and how is it that when we remember bad Octobers we know they went on forever, as if there were long empty stretches of weeks embedded between the days? But those were maybe just the nights I couldn’t sleep.

Though we remember pain and grief differently than the way we look back on joy and laughter, all the memories are components of our soul-DNA. If you stripped out this memory or that one, would I be the same person I am now? I suppose everyone has days in which they are not particularly fond of the person whose life they seem to be inhabiting, and maybe the experiment of selective memory stripping would be one they’d be willing to take on, but I think it would be a dangerous game.

What is perhaps under-sung is the notion of the ordinary moment, the seemingly mundane experiences we scarcely remember that are, in a way, the connective tissue of our days and our selves. The big memories, all the firsts and lasts, and ceremonies and delights and gutting griefs, they all are spotlight hogs. But what of all the minutes and hours and days in between?

In a way, we are collections of ordinary moments. We are pumping gas into empty tanks in older model Mercurys. We are grinding coffee beans. We are holding hands. We are standing in line, holding too many items because we thought we wouldn’t need a basket. We are holding too much sometimes. But sometimes it’s just enough to get us through the express lane and home to dinner.

I wonder sometimes what it would be like to be able to remember all the ordinary moments of a lifetime, or, perhaps more manageably, just of that October that so recently broke free and slipped away from us. Why would I want to forget that moment standing in line at the grocery store, juggling bread and almond milk and coffee beans and sugar, along with one yellow onion and a bag of apples? In that moment, maybe I thought of kissing my love, maybe I thought of what would happen next in the story I’m writing, maybe I noticed the way the baby in front of me smiled at her sibling, and maybe that made me think of my own children when they were that little. Maybe I just stood there and let my mind drain free of the workday, and it was pleasant to not think or do anything for an instant, with only the ache in my arm and the smell of apple and onion and coffee reminding me of my current reality.

I don’t always know why something suddenly feels important to me, why I must think now about the significance of the mundane minutes in our days, or why I’m compelled to poke around in the murkiness where time and identity mingle. I remember being ankle-deep in a wide puddle. I was a child in rubber rain boots, standing in the low part at the back of our corner lot, stick in hand, poking in puddles. I remember that I probably pretended that I was fishing, though I probably was too old to be pretending, and I remember the hot prickle of embarrassment when the neighbor boy, my age, road by on his bike and asked me if I had caught anything yet, as he laughed and pedaled away.

What am I doing poking around in here anyway? Have I caught anything? Is there any point to wondering who I might be, if I could simply not remember feeling so childish and silly and stupid for that collection of odd minutes when I was an odd child?

But this too is part of who I am. Our metacognition shapes us as much as anything, what we feel and think about what we feel and think. In a way, it is a through-line, spanning years, weaving through moments, good memories and bad. The way we consider ourselves, including our own thoughts and feelings, evolves slowly, and it reaches both backward, overlaying context onto the past, and forward, projecting different versions of ourselves into the future, as we wonder how it might be to be this type of self, or that one, in five years or ten.

Last night, as I sat on the porch with my son, I watched the last of the trick-or-treaters drift off toward the next puddle of porch light. How can we not think of time and memory and identity on such nights, when it all blurs together, the masks we wear, the identities we inhabit over time, discarded, taken up again, all of it mixed up into a dark October night with red and yellow leaves plastered by rain to the sidewalk like so many candy wrappers.

I want to say it was just one more ordinary moment, but I’m beginning to believe that none of the moments are ordinary, really, if you think about it.

Maybe, the way we think about the way we think about it all is the formula for shaping time and self differently, for urging the boundaries into new directions and possibilities. Maybe there is some sort of magic at work here, playing upon our brains as one month turns arbitrarily into the next and we turn our clocks back tomorrow and play with time some more. Maybe I simply like the idea of expanding time and not losing moments, not any of them, because I like it here, I like me here, and I like you here, and maybe looking around at all that is all we really need to do to sometimes.

Love, Cath

 

On Not Being Bullied by Time

By Catherine DiMercurio

I sat in a coffee and pastry shop on Saturday afternoon with my sister. Though we don’t live far from each other, it had been some time since we had seen each other. Outside the window, the street glowed with yellow and orange maple leaves, clouds of them still clinging to the trees, and somehow, an equal amount blanketing the sidewalks. It wasn’t one of those moments where you feel as though, even though you haven’t seen someone in a long while, no time had passed. Time had indeed passed. But still, though the contours of our connection had evolved, there is a constancy about that connection that my sister and I both cherish. I was glad that we both made time to spend together.

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Time is on my mind these days, as daylight savings comes to an end, and darkness swallows up our evenings. It’s easy to see what feels like the swift passage of time as an enemy. I saw a post recently on social media that said something about “The trouble is, you think you have time,” (wrongfully attributed to Buddha), as if to say, our time here is short. It’s in line with carpe diem messages. We are told we should seize the day because we aren’t guaranteed anything. We have the present, and that’s all we can truly lay claim to.

Time and Identity

We also think of our identity in time-bound ways. Who we are today may be very different from who we were as children, and who we might become as our experiences shape us. And time itself, or the passage of it, shapes us. Try as we may, we are powerless to evade the changes to our biology that occur as we age.

The beauty of it all is the power of our own mind to conceptualize such ephemeral notions as time and past and future. We may only truly have the present, we may only truly bea collection of cells and experiences, but we get to create ourselves everyday. How much do I want the experiences of the past to dictate who I am today and where I’m headed? Our past only controls our future as much as we grant it permission to. And we may grant it a lot of leeway. Acknowledging all the good woven through even a rocky history is a worthwhile endeavor.

Twin Bullies: Time, Shame

One of the reasons time, or the passage of it, is often regarded as an enemy is that shame is becomes intertwined with time. Shame that we “wasted” time, shame about what time has done to us. We are told that our time in this world, or in the lives of our loved ones, is a gift, that the act of not spending that time well is something we should feel ashamed of. But our actions have little to do with time. Treating the people in our lives well is not something we should do because our time with them is precious. It is something we should do because people are precious. This may be splitting hairs to some, but I think the distinction is important. If we focus on the people in our lives, our actions are focused on them, on treating well the people we love because we love them. If we focus on the idea that our time with them is some sort of a gift, our actions are focused on ourselves, on behaving in a certain way because of what we get out of it. A subtle shift in perspective can privilege the action of loving over the reward of not wasting time.

I didn’t have coffee with my sister thinking that my time with my sister is a gift. I don’t want to waste it. I want to make the most of it. Time is not the gift. Time just is. My sister is the gift. We wanted to share love and friendship and laughter and conversation so we decided to dedicate a portion of our time that day to each other. I think we should be clear about what we value. In this way our actions are more focused, and we elevate one another in this revaluation.

Time Is What You Believe It Is

The thing about time is that it functions independently, objectively, dispassionately—ticking away with each sunrise and sunset. It doesn’t care about us. Yet it remains very personal in the way it is recognized and attended to in our own lives. My time is mine. Yours is yours. Our relationship with time is almost spiritual in this way. If you believe you must make the most out of each and every moment because tomorrow is not promised and you live your life accordingly, so be it. Let it fill you up and give you joy. But avoid the trap of shame for not doing enough, for not seizing enough. Recognize what you value—the people you are seizing the day with, or the sunlight, or the trail, or the road. If I believe my future is filled with great things, and I’m making little plans every day to inch my way to where I want to be, so be it. I may regard the moments of today not as seconds to be seized but as a place to pause and catch my breath. A place to be, with my own thoughts, with my loved ones. And tomorrow, instead, I will seize each moment with gusto. But I will leave any shame behind, and place value where it belongs.

This is all to say, know your worth. Know the worth of those you love. Known the worth of your life. No one gets to tell you what is wasted.

Love, Cath

On Stress, Coping, and Identity

By Catherine DiMercurio

Identity is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves. Make it a good story.

When I lost my voice a few weeks ago, I never imagined it would turn into this ever-evolving, never-ending cold. I’ve talked to a number of people who have recently battled a similar respiratory virus in this prolonged fashion. But the first thing I find myself saying if someone asks how I’m doing or comments on my cough is, “I never get sick. I haven’t been sick for years.” I consider how much the stress at work has run me down, and how my immune system finally couldn’t keep up. I’ll admit it—I get really defensive about being sick for this long. Normally, I can shake something in a couple of days, and I’ve heard myself saying that too.

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The Stories We Tell

I think this defensiveness arises because I want to be thought of as strong, vibrant, and resilient. To be honest, I want to think of myself that way. It’s the story I tell myself about who I am, who I came to be after some difficult times. And certainly getting sick doesn’t change that, but when the illness is coupled with some major changes at work along with other stressors, the story starts to sound a little different, and the overwhelmed feeling takes on an outsized proportion to the things actually going on. The thought maybe I can’t handle all this quietly and persistently transforms itself, mutating like this cold, from a random sentiment to a refrain.

Find a Reprieve

I’ve been swimming in this state for a couple of weeks now knowing I have to find my way out of it, because it’s dangerous territory. My go-to coping mechanisms are usually exercise and being outside. I’ve felt too lousy to do much exercise lately and the weather is only just now starting to turn, but I’m trying to get back into my normal routines. A few evenings ago I spent some time doing yard work and my mood shifted considerably. I remember wishing I could hold on to that buoyancy, because I knew once I slipped into another workday, the feeling would ebb away. I decided, instead of looking at it as a feeling I knew I would lose, to view it as a reprieve from the stress.

Credit and Compassion

I also realized I had to start giving myself credit for my success and compassion for my setbacks. I even made a list of some of the big things I’ve accomplished, to remind myself that I can handle things and get through tough times. I thought about how I earned my MFA while going through my divorce and returning to fulltime work and raising my two children, who at the time were just entering middle school and high school. Though sometimes now I question the monetary cost of that degree in comparison to its value in terms of employment prospects, I know it yielded less tangible or obvious rewards. And regardless of cost or value, the achieving of it at that time in my life was significant. It reminds me that I can handle tough things. And I can do it again. This has to be part of my story, and I need to keep it at the forefront when I feel overwhelmed and begin to focus on frustrations, setbacks, and illness instead.

Seek Out Resources

I also purchased a book that looks at stress and brain chemistry and I’m hoping for some greater insights there. What I’ve learned so far is that sometimes our brain is over-responsive to stress, treating minor disruptions as dangerous threats. It sounded like a histamine response to me, the way our bodies treat nonthreatening bits of pollen as dangers so we start sneezing to protect ourselves. My brain and my body think they’re protecting me by a heightened response to stressors – when actually they are making me feel horrible.

In the past, when life has gotten more stressful than I feel I can handle, I have backed away and tried to find all the ways to reduce stress in my life. It is not a misguided strategy, but sometimes you get to a point where there is not much you can do to avoid certain stresses. I simply have to learn how to deal with stress better, and remember that I actually do know how to do this.

Openness and Connection

There is nothing elegant or profoundly meaningful in all of this, and as I write this post it feels to me that there are angles and contours that I’m missing. I haven’t anchored the writing to a time or place or event or interaction with a person. These thoughts and feelings are floating on the surface and it seems as though there is greater meaning somewhere deeper that I haven’t explored. At the same time, this is the fog I’ve floated through the past few weeks, groping my way through worry and illness, trying to pass through to the other side of it all. And I cringe at that thought—at any period of life being something to rush through and get past—because that’s life on fast-forward. That’s days and weeks becoming a blur and looking back and not knowing where the time went. It’s antithetical to the way I want to live and be.

My goal with this blog has been, a little selfishly, to share my writing. But it has always been about openness. Perhaps more than many of my posts so far, this has been a very simple, open, and honest look at something I know many people struggle with—how we handle stress and how it relates to the way we see ourselves. Sometimes I find it reassuring to know that I’m not alone, that other people are struggling with similar things. It’s why I read and why I write, and certainly, why I wrote this post the way I did.

Enjoy the road. Even the bumpy parts. Love, Cath