On Plans, and Doubts, and Dandelions

By Catherine DiMercurio

I awoke on a recent summery May morning to a cool breeze sighing through the open window and the smell of someone’s backyard woodfire still clinging to the air. It felt peaceful, but despite this fine context my first thoughts of the day were despairing ones. They were emotion-thoughts more than word-thoughts. I anticipated the coming day and recalled the previous one, wondering vaguely what I added to the world that had value. Thoughts like these result in anxiety and restlessness for me, and managing those emotions means I have to pep talk myself about what I contribute, what matters, what I’m grateful for, etc. It seemed a bit early in the morning for an existential crisis, but truth be told, I’ve been thinking about such things as long as I can remember. What is the point of all this, I wonder, often. Not just why am I here, but why are any of us? But given that we are, what should we be doing?

We live in a capitalist society in which many of us have internalized the notion that value and worth are tied to what we produce, and what we accumulate. To counter that, a whole culture has grown up around the idea that our personal value is tied not to those material things, but what we’ve done to make the world a better place.

Another way of looking at our personal worth centers on the love we’ve created in the world. Who we love, who loves us. For a while, this perspective really worked for me, but children grow up and move away, relationships dissolve, and there are plenty of people who haven’t felt loved, or haven’t had the opportunities to find and create love, and it doesn’t seem fair to tie personal worth to things that are often beyond our control.

Some people don’t question these things much because they have found answers in their faith. I was raised Catholic and my thoughts on why I’m not anymore could fill a book, which I likely will never write. A lot of people these days say they are spiritual but not religious and that means different things, depending on who you ask. It’s hard to say if it applies to me. I consider myself agnostic, meaning that for me, if there is anything divine in this universe, which I’m not sure of, the nature of it is unknowable. I do believe that energy cannot be created or destroyed, and this scientific principle seems more divine than anything else I’ve encountered. But the point of all this is to say, that I don’t believe there is a consciousness at the helm of all this, and certainly not one that has a plan for me, or anyone else. People also say things like “the universe is trying to teach you this or that.” It’s pleasant and nontheistic to think that, in a way, but that statement is not different from the “it’s all part of God’s plan” line of thinking and I’m not convinced the universe works that way. If the universe thinks I’m supposed to learn things, then it must be because there is a path it thinks I should be on. The whole notion of a plan—God’s or the universe’s—boils down to the centuries-old debate about free will versus determinism, and if theologians and philosophers have been playing this game for hundreds of years, I’m certainly not going to figure it out.

It makes me think of the University of Michigan football stadium at full capacity, with half the stadium yelling “Go” and the other half yelling “Blue.” It’s a battle of who can be louder, but it is also about the harmony of the message. Similarly, we seem to need to believe in both free will and fate. We want to believe we have choices, that it isn’t all preordained, but at the same time, we want to believe there’s a plan. When things happen that we don’t understand, people say it’s all part of God’s plan. Or when we are not where we expect to be in life, or have a setback, we are told it is because there are things we haven’t learned yet, and the universe will find different ways of sending the same lesson until we get it, and then somehow things will get better, or make sense. On any given day people believe what gives them the most comfort. On any given day, I see both chaos and order in the universe and I don’t know where I fit.

Everyone has advice. Find your purpose. Chase your dreams. Do what you love. Don’t overthink it. Others tell me that we are here to simply enjoy ourselves as best we can.

I think of all the philosophies I’ve embraced and either discarded or incorporated some parts of. I have sought clarity, but sometimes it accumulates as clutter. I often forget that moments can feel longer than they are, and time is like pulled taffy. Getting lost in ruminations about purpose, value, and identity is something my mind does every so often. But in other moments, I’m living less inside my brain, and I’m doing things I love, or just muddling through, and it all somehow makes enough sense. I don’t know if I’m on the verge of figuring things out for myself, and all the other things are a distraction from the work my brain wants to do, or if all the ruminations are the distraction, and real life and real meaning is in all the rest of it.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Both, I realize in flashes of insight. It’s both. It’s the harmony between thinking and feeling, between doing and being, between contemplation and action. I do know that in all the advice I’ve internalized over the years, the phrase “be yourself” continues to ring true. This is the way my brain works, always has. But I think truly embracing the notion of being who I am might be the north star that I’m looking for. Maybe it is the way to recalibrate when I feel lost. Maybe it is the only way to understand our place in this mysterious universe. I just read something online about the dandelion, and how useful all its components are, and how resilient it is. A dandelion succeeds as an individual plant and has succeeded as a species for centuries because all of its parts work together to insure it thrives. It supports the lives of pollinators—it does good in the world—but it doesn’t exist in order to do so. It just is. It doesn’t need a plan, it just maximizes its resources: the sun, the rain, the wind that disperses its seeds (or the human making a wish).

I am this collection of cells and memories and have lived and evolved right up until this moment. I have a hard time believing there is a Plan beyond that, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make squishy, flexible plans for what I might want in the future. And letting go of things I had once planned for my future—things that I imagined were solid and fixed, things that will never come to be—that is some of the hardest and most necessary work I’ve done. But for now, it makes sense to be. Be myself. Maybe be a little like a dandelion.

Love, Cath

On Safe Spaces and Swimming

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we undervalue the gift of safe spaces.

Sometimes I think the only thing I did right as a single parent was to offer a safe space for my kids to raise themselves. That is, of course, an exaggeration on a couple of levels. But it speaks to what I told my eldest upon their graduation from college this past weekend. Kids have good instincts, and they seek and need agency. Sometimes trusting our children and getting out of their way is the only way. Obviously it isn’t always the answer. But in they years after my divorce, a lot of things happened to me, and one of them was that anxiety created a sense of hypervigilance. It led me to think about emotional safety a lot, especially about how to provide it to my kids during a difficult transition to our new family structure. With my child’s recent graduation from college, I witnessed, reflected on, and admired who they are and how they have grown and become more and more themselves over these last few years. I hope, at the very least, that I played a role in helping them feel safe and loved and cared for along their journey.

As parents, we work toward where I find myself now—being ancillary in our children’s lives. On a day-to-day basis, our presence is not needed for our older children to function and flourish in the world. It isn’t that they don’t turn to us, and it isn’t that they don’t feel emotionally connected to us, but their lives are their own. When problems arise, they may or may not ask us for advice, they may or may not even tell us there is a problem. They are simply living and handling things. This self-sufficiency is what we have striven for as parents. I’ve always had a sense since my children were very little that everything I did was in preparation for them to leave me. Yet, living on this side of it is a strange and emotional time.

When your child graduates from college it is inevitable that you reflect on your parenting. It is impossible to not recall the first day of preschool and kindergarten, all the ups and downs of middle school and high school. The day you helped them get the dorm room set up is etched on your heart, the way you drove away and left them there, thinking, as you did when you dropped them off at preschool, is this right? This is what people do? We walk away now?

For divorced families, when you think about your child’s upbringing, there is a Before and After. Inevitably you will wonder if you got things right, on either side of that line. Each situation is different. For me, as a single parent I felt as though I was constantly trying to figure out how to make what had been fractured feel whole and safe and enough again.

It occurs to me that after years trying to make my children’s lives feel that way, I am now trying to make my own life feel that way. Whole and safe and enough. With each milestone the kids achieve, with each further step they take into their own lives and futures, I am left with increasingly stark reminders of what I need to do for myself.

My own childhood was populated with a crowd of siblings and two parents who are still together. College was full of roommates, boyfriends. Not long after, I was married and soon after, having children. After the divorce I tried soothing the loneliness of single parenting with relationships that ultimately could not be parlayed into something long-term. Each time something ended, as hard as it was, as disappointing as it was that it didn’t “work out” the way I had hoped, parenting, in many ways, was easier. Flying solo, I was able to try and tune in more effectively to what my kids needed.

But now, I have the time and space to focus wholeheartedly on myself. Yet I have had very little practice trying to figure out how to make that whole and safe and enough scenario happen by myself and for myself.

I’m getting closer, but I’m still not there. And I wonder, too, are we ever truly there? I haven’t even been able to articulate it as a goal until recently. Since I’m always thinking about the future, worrying about it, I imagine scenarios. If I decide I’m okay, if I’m whole and safe and enough on my own, does that mean I’m closing the door on a future with someone? Or is that mindset what actually opens the door to the “right” relationship? I’m thankful to friends who help me consider these ideas, who remind me to spend some time in right now instead of always trying to fill in the blanks ahead.

Sometimes I mentally catalogue when I felt the most whole and safe and enough so I can try and recreate it. There was usually someone by my side. Can I not remember feeling that way when I was alone, or did it never happen? It is easier to remember the times I did not feel that way, far easier to remember the events that left me feeling fractured and unsafe and inadequate. I have spent a long time trying to stop feeling hobbled by heartbreaks. This is precisely what this time is for, this time I have to myself right now. It is a time not only to heal from all the past hurts but a time to reassess how I look at myself.

When was the last time you looked at yourself in a way that freed you from context? How do we see ourselves when we remove all the filters of what we do, who we’re related to, who we live with, who and what we’ve lost?

Photo by Ellie Burgin on Pexels.com

Of course those things are all huge parts of who we are but there’s a self in there who is the one doing all the adapting to all the things that happen to us. I wrote a poem once, called “Minnows.” It opens like this:

Do we learn to love

The way fish learn to swim

Or the way we learn to fish?

There are things we begin to teach ourselves out of instinct, about how to know and love ourselves. These ideas are soon enhanced and/or undercut by other external lessons. Sometimes I think the more we know of the world, the less we know of ourselves.

Sometimes, we are in relationships that are collaborative and supportive and allow us the space and care to help us to know ourselves better. These might be romantic relationships, familial ones, or friendships. And sometimes, we are in relationships that take us further and further away from ourselves. Usually when we’re in them we are not thinking about them in such terms but when we’re out, it all becomes clearer. And of course, some relationships morph from the former to the latter, and it’s hard to tell what’s happening. I wish I’d understood the importance of this distinction sooner. But I’m learning. The more I learn about myself, the more I understand how hollowing it is to be in relationships where I am becoming less of who I am instead of more. It is this knowledge that soothes loneliness when it strikes: at least that isn’t happening.

I often think of this chapter as a rebuilding one, as if I’m putting myself back together, reconstructing, improving. But maybe it is one more characterized by paring down, unwinding, unlearning. Maybe it is just remembering how to be a sleek little minnow learning how to swim.

Love, Cath

On Spinning, Wobbling, and Stillness

By Catherine DiMercurio

For a long time, I was sleeping okay, and then that little fragile peace in me eroded. Though the far-too-early-morning wakefulness startled me with the way it insisted on itself night after night, I am not surprised. Too many things have churned together to create a new storm of worry that percolates at the edges of my consciousness even when I’m not actively focused on it.

On a macro level, the world is perpetually upside down. Though it seems the pandemic is abating somewhat, we are on the edge of our seat waiting to see if it is true, if there won’t be some new variant, if this will be a collective dream we get to wake from. Added to this hazy fog of uncertainty we have the war in Ukraine, the stunning, unprovoked invasion by Russia that has shocked the world. Though we are un-shocked at the same time; we have been watching Putin’s machinations all along and in a way, there is nothing surprising at all about his actions. We stare at the images of people fleeing their homes or taking up arms, of children and pets huddled in subways, and our problems seem small. Then we turn off the news and remember that we are still trying to cope with our own troubles and though the scope of them is not as dire, everyone has either a small collection of large troubles, or a large collection of small ones, and we are tired. Our feelings and experiences don’t cease to exist when placed within the context of global tragedies. I am learning this. We do not need to obligate ourselves to feel guilty about our own griefs and troubles because someone else is dealing with something bigger. Acknowledging our own pain and struggles does not exclude us from feeling grateful for all that we have, or from feeling compassion and empathy for others. These things can all exist together.

At 4 a.m., my own collection of troubles doubles in size and intensity, because that is 4 a.m.’s particular magic—expanding, elongating, and distorting trouble. It doesn’t matter that I can unpack this suitcase. That I can name each thing that is suddenly on my mind and concerning me. That I can recognize that none of the worries should be overgrown and hungry right now. Things gnaw at us anyway.

I spent several nights sleeping in the guest room after my daughter vacated it following a brief but lovely visit. For one night, both son and daughter were under my roof with me, and there was a powerful sense of safety and familiarity, despite the foreignness that still clings to this new house. Now that they are both in back at school, something in me shifts. I scramble for a metaphor, as if being able to visualize myself moving from one way of being to another will ease the transition. I think of a spinning top wobbling toward stillness. Wobbly. Still. Is that how it feels to return to solitude? I am more familiar with my mother-self than my solitary-self, so the shift from one to the other still feels clumsy.

Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

Yet, have I ever not felt clumsy? And all transitions feel awkward, don’t they?

The past eight months have been a long transition for me, following the ending of a relationship. After break-ups in the past, I have thought of myself as being in-between relationships. I had a sense that I would find someone else, and I would know when the time is right to do so. Since the last one though, my frame of mind has been different. As I have worked to understand where I have come from, how past relationships have impacted me, and what self that has remained, the certainty that a new relationship is on the horizon has evaporated, while my comfort level with that uncertainty is growing.

I wonder if this is the part where I start to feel less clumsy in my own skin. That is tough to imagine: a me who moves through the world confidently. I think of all the experiences throughout my life that have bricked into place my sense of anxiety and my awkwardness, knowing the way each incident was built on those that came before. As a view of ourselves begins to take shape when we are young, we begin to believe in it. We believe in our perception of the way others see us. And because we are young and do not know that what these beliefs are creating is a construct that can be dismantled, the construct becomes our identity. It shapes us, and our relationships, and when we finally begin to see it for what it is, the façade is so intricate and finely formed it is hard to see it as anything separate from us.

I have always placed a high value on knowing myself. And though it is easy to lose oneself in a relationship, it is often in relationship to an intimate other where we can understand aspects of ourselves that remain elusive when we are alone. We learn about ourselves in those small moments where we compare ourselves with our partners. Preferences and needs rise to the surface. We consider what matters and what does not. On our own, we must find other methods. The work is uncomfortable at times as we excavate, uncover our identities through a slow, sifting process.

Sometimes I tell myself this work will make me a better partner one day, but I realize I am no longer doing it in order to make myself better for someone else. I believed for so long that this is what I needed to do, that this was why things in the past haven’t worked out: because there was something in me that I needed to make better in order for someone to love me. And if by some miracle they loved me even before I was better, then I should consider myself lucky to be loved when I still had so much work to do. It has not been easy, dismantling these damaged notions of self-worth and value. We all have these experiences, incidents that trigger feelings of not being enough. For me, it has been helpful to trace this feeling to its roots, to feel the collection of griefs I learned to bury along the way, to understand finally, so that I do not have to continue to re-create this pattern. It has been a clunky and awkward process but one that has allowed new perspectives to blossom.

This work feels important to me, and I have discovered that I feel a sense of peace and purpose in pursuing a certain harmony within myself. It has the power to leave me feeling at home whether I am spinning or still. I think one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves is cultivate the self-awareness that allows us tune in to what leaves us feeling at home within ourselves.

Love, Cath

On Obstacles, Works-in-Progress, and Works of Art

By Catherine DiMercurio

This week, I’m thinking a lot about work. How we look at work and reward impacts so many areas of our lives.

If we do creative work, focusing on what many define as success or reward will leave us feeling defeated and discouraged. If success is selling the product of your effort, then unless you are both extremely lucky and wildly talented, you will be discouraged over and over again. It is just the nature of trying to smoosh creativity and capitalism together. The world is full of creative folk trying to get their work “out there,” and monetizing it is tricky business. But for many creative people, the joy is in the process, in learning your craft and practicing it, and in being a part of a community of like-minded people, in sharing our work in ways that have little to do with recognition or gain. We shape words or pigment or clay or musical notes in an effort to capture truth, beauty. And even if no one is buying we are still making, because we have to.

When I was growing up, I gradually came to understand a couple of things about work and reward. At school, working hard yielded good grades, which seemed to matter a lot to my teachers and parents and I felt happier when no one was grumpy with me. And I didn’t have to work that hard most of the time. At home, I observed my parents working hard to provide for us, so I assumed that this was a given in life. Work is necessary, and if you’re going to do it, you may as well do it well was another message I got. If you’re going to do something, don’t do it half-assed, my father would say.

Yet, the work-reward model left me to conclude that not achieving a hoped-for reward meant that you didn’t work hard enough or you didn’t work long enough, or both. Those conclusions don’t always lend themselves to a healthy way of looking at ourselves. Work tends to feel futile, or washed over with something the color of failure. It took me a long time to understand that some rewards remain elusive no matter how long and hard you work, to understand that in pursuing difficult-to-achieve rewards, I was benefitting in ways I hadn’t expected.

I have had to reexamine the way I look at work and reward since my divorce. This life-changing experience, also washed over with something the color of failure, makes you look at a lot of things differently. The work of relationships is one of them. Good relationships don’t just happen, and good relationships take more work than bad ones.

I don’t know of any relationship that doesn’t take effort to maintain. Certainly, some are easier than others, but how people relate to us and us to them in any given moment is influenced by everything that has brought us each to that moment. My past has created me, in everything I learned from it and everything I didn’t, just like yours has.  

People talk a lot about “baggage,” especially when you’re dating in your 50s. I don’t think anyone’s so-called baggage is the sum of every bad thing that has happened to them. I do think we carry the weight of everything we haven’t learned from those experiences. That is why there is always work to do. With each person we interact with, our past experiences reveal themselves in new ways. We may believe we have worked through and healed from difficult events or difficult people, but we cannot foresee all the ways something will impact us. We are forever works-in-progress. That is a beautiful thing, or can be, if we turn ourselves again and again to the work that we our called to do. If we lovingly embrace that we are living, breathing works of art.

Many of the things I considered to be challenging aspects of past relationships were pointing to things I needed to learn from myself and for myself about myself. But that learning could benefit the relationship as well. For example, if a partner and I fought because I responded strongly to their avoiding communicating about their feelings, it was a chance for both of us ask why. Understanding why a person withholding their feelings triggered such a deep anxiety in me helped to pinpoint what I needed to work on, and allowed me to explain my response to my partner and ask for support. But I could only do my part. A partner unwilling to ask himself why he avoided communicating about his feelings meant that not only could he not give me the support I needed, but that he could also not ask me for the support he needed. So the issue continued to sow conflict. Instead of two people working in partnership to improve the relationship, two people suffered individually with not getting their needs met.

Not everyone sees value in this work, and not everyone is ready to do it. I think we are all able, capable of such introspection and responding to it. It is uncomfortable, but why wouldn’t we be willing to do this work for ourselves and each other? Isn’t this growth what makes us better partners, better parents, better friends, better people?

It is difficult to accept that someone can look at you, see the value in what you bring to the table, understand that there is unattended work in themselves that would present obstacles in a relationship, and choose to embrace the obstacles instead of you. They equate the obstacles, which are often learned behaviors, with their identity.

The say this is how I am.

But obstacles aren’t identity. Yes, our past gives us things to stumble over. But we are not the boulders in our way.

We are the way.

We are as much the path behind us as the path in front of us. But we are not our experiences. We are not the coping behaviors we adapted ourselves to. We are neither our joys nor our traumas. We are everything we told ourselves in response to those experiences. We are what we tell ourselves we are.

Photo by Jim Richter on Pexels.com

The beautiful thing is that as we grow and become increasingly self-aware, our responses to our experiences feel more like choices (because they are), instead of reactions that just happen.

So often people insist that they won’t change for anyone, can’t change. What do we have a right to expect of others? What should we expect of ourselves? How do we sort out what is a (maladaptive) behavior or response that we have learned from a painful experience and what is truly part of our identity? Perhaps trying to find the difference between those things only matters if there is something you wish to change about yourself, only matters if you see value in, and the need for, self-improvement. We can love ourselves for who we are at the same time that we seek growth. Those are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Perhaps it is a question of risk and reward rather than work and reward. If the journey toward self-discovery and growth could lead you toward a relationship with the potential to either be the beautiful bond you’ve dreamt of or another possible heartbreak, maybe it is a self-protective mechanism to insist that change is impossible, that this is how I am, take it or leave it, accept me as I am or walk away.

How often I have been told just that, and remained in the relationship, still pursuing my growth while trying to see how that fit in with a partner who proclaimed they would not or could not change. For me, it hasn’t worked, and I am learning to be as willing to love myself as I am to love other people.

For me, that has meant walking away, and continuing to do my own work, while I look for someone who understands that growth is a non-terminal journey. That each day gives us the opportunity be in the present in a new way, with a new understanding of what has brought us here together.

Our brains are designed to adapt to new circumstances and to one another. We have evolved to be in community with one another. We can accept who we are, and what has happened to us, and that we are flawed individuals. That is normal. That is human. But so too is taking stock of all that, and wondering how we can build on it, learn and grow from it. Is that not part of what binds us to those we love, the desire and sense of duty to learn to love one another better? And like all things, this journey begins with ourselves.

Remember, they don’t call it a “work of art” for nothing. We work hard and in that work, we are breathless, we are breathtaking.

Love, Cath

On Pottery, Pressure, and Place

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the pressure we feel is part of the process.

I was driving home alone after dropping my son off at college after the winter break. We stopped by my daughter’s place for a hug and a quick conversation about everyone’s covid concerns about going back to school and work, as well as some recent car trouble and how we would coordinate getting the vehicle repaired. It was a Monday, and I’d taken a couple hours off and would be jumping back into work after a week off as soon as I got home. That evening, I would have my first pottery class, and I was having some anxiety about that.

Somewhere along the line, my excitement about the upcoming class had turned into a not-unexpected collection of worries. I was experiencing my own classroom covid concerns, along with my usual social anxiety, as well as a lot of uneasiness about the learning something new in a public, exposed way.

As I drove home with all these worries tumbling in my brain, I turned the radio on, scanning randomly, and “Under Pressure” came on, by Queen and David Bowie. It all just hit me, on so many levels, how much pressure everyone is experiencing, and I cried and sang, moved by music in a way I hadn’t been in a while.

Oddly, I heard the song again on my way home from pottery class that night. Did I mention that along with all the other ways the class is out of my comfort zone, it also runs from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., which is a huge breach in my usual routine. So, it was very late for me to be out and driving on a winter Monday night, and I was overwhelmed and intimidated by the class, frustrated with not being able to master the thing you must master before you can really make anything—centering the clay on the wheel—when I heard “Under Pressure” again. I didn’t cry this time, but I felt it deeply. Again, it wasn’t just about me and the pressure I was feeling personally. It was impossible to listen to the song and not thing about what everyone has been dealing with the past couple of years. The song has been in my head all week.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

At one point when all I could think about before trying to fall asleep was clay, it occurred to me that so much of the struggle of centering is about pressure, which hand is applying pressure on the clay and where and how.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about for a while is place. I’ve been doing some soul searching and trying to figure out what that word means to me, and where I might belong, and how do I get there. But over the past couple of days, I’ve also been thinking about it in terms of where people are from. Some folks are fiercely from a place. Though I’ve lived about a half mile from Detroit for more than 20 years, I never say that I’m from Detroit, because people who are actually from Detroit really hate that, and though I love it, it isn’t my city. It didn’t shape me the way it shaped folks who grew up there, or who have made their life there in a meaningful way over the years. I get it. I don’t get to claim that.

I usually tell people I from Saginaw, which isn’t strictly true either. I grew up in Carrollton Township, a little working-class suburb of Saginaw. That’s what shaped me. There was a sense of community there, largely focused on the school, which I didn’t fully appreciate until many years later. Being from a suburb is kind of a strange thing in that it does not feel distinctive at all. Precisely because it is neither rural nor urban, a suburban upbringing can feel blurry, though suburbs are as different from one another as they are from rural towns or from cities. It is perhaps thought of as the middle ground between extremes, between the clear this or that of the rural or the urban. In fact, it is its own place.

There is much more to be said, and much more for me to explore personally, but it is fair to say that growing up where I did and how I did, the appropriate response to all the pressure I’ve been feeling would be an acknowledging shrug. Yup. That’s just how it is. (Parenting is hard. Everyone has car troubles.) The work ethic would kick in along with an accompanying sense of duty. You made a commitment, so you have a responsibility to stick with it and do your best. (You signed up for this class, so see it through and just keep trying.) The strong sense of community never leaves you, either. We have to help our neighbors when they need it. (We’re all tired—so tired—but it is important to keep protecting ourselves and each other with masks, vaccines, boosters, and common sense.)

In many ways, I have also been feeling a different kind of blurriness, this sense that I am in an in-between place, a mythical suburb of the soul. Maybe it is okay that it feels neither here nor there. Perhaps it, too, is its own place, and this it what it means to learn to belong to yourself.

In C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, there is a place known as the Wood between the Worlds, where some characters travel on their way between Earth and Narnia. Maybe we all have access to an in-between place like that. Perhaps at times we believe we are in the Wood between the Worlds, when in fact, we have moved through that place into a new world, a new version of self. And perhaps we pass through the Wood more times than we realize in our journey toward self. I have also speculated that it is only in the Wood between the Worlds—in the in-between place we sometimes find ourselves—in which we are truly ourselves, and that journeying there is necessary in order to both forget and to remember our selves, before we move on to the next chapter of our lives.

I think that sometimes the pressure that we experience is the discomfort of transition, of the shaping and reshaping of ourselves that is both natural and difficult. Maybe this centering of self gets easier though. Maybe that’s just how it is.

Love, Cath

On December Moments & a Moon, on Resolve & Routines

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you look at yourself in a new light.

I try not to make New Year’s resolutions. It feels so contrived. At the same time, contrived or not, I have always felt a kind of magic at the stroke of midnight. With a tick of a hand on the clock, we suddenly turn a page. These are just numbers, arbitrary ways of marking time conceived of long ago by men who needed to do so to efficiently wage war.

This is not an accurate account of the history of time. I have a vague memory of learning about Julius Caesar creating the calendar roughly as we know it, and I imagine him doing so in order to plan empire-building attacks. And “civilized” society grew on such foundations and now we are able to not only war more precisely, but we learned to mark out work weeks. I think I would have preferred just partnering my movements with those of the sun and the seasons.

But, here we are. Everything we do is pushed through the sieve of the clock.

So as this year is ending, I keep thinking of things I want to prioritize in the coming year. Things that have fallen away that I want to get back to, new things to explore.

I always have writing goals, but as I wait for the publishing world to make decisions on my submissions, I feel like I need a new way of looking at success. Is success, or the lack thereof, related to the fact that a tiny fraction of a percent of what I have written has been published? Or is success deliberately cultivating a writing life? Writing every day, learning about writing, finding ways to be parts of different writing communities, reading. There is no new story here. I want to see success as the journey, not the goal, since the goal is elusive and I’m working very hard and want the work to mean something. I imagine there are two types of people who do this: people who have not achieved the goals they hoped to, and people who have, and understand that achieving a goal is not as brilliant as you think it is going to be. You hold it for a moment and then it slips away, and in its place, we fix another goal/hurdle. The fact is, the world is going to define success however it wants to. And the only path to sanity (and one’s ability to remain motivated), is for each of us to decide for ourselves what success means. What if it is that simple?

On the morning of the solstice, I walked with my dog beneath a waning gibbous moon. I paused to notice its particular shape and glow, and decided in that moment that this was my favorite moon phase. Waning gibbous. [Later I will think of the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” when I consider why the waning gibbous is my favorite: “I do not know which to prefer / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendos, / The blackbird whistling / Or just after.” I love the settling calm after the full moon, like a bird’s ruffled feathers hushing back into place.]

A flutter of movement caught my eye, pulled my awareness fully from the moon and toward a young stag, on its way back to the little strip of wood between the golf course and the houses that abut the creek. We looked at each other. My dog was quiet, alert. The three of us paused this way, for several lovely moments. I always hope when something like this happens, on the rare occasions that it does, that it means something. That I’m on the right path.

Photo by Diego Madrigal on Pexels.com

A few days later, on Christmas morning, I awoke to the knowledge that my children once again slept in rooms a few feet from mine, snuggling with the dogs. We haven’t woken up together on Christmas Day in this house before. The knowledge left me with the feeling of peace and anticipation, like opening a letter from someone you missed and hadn’t seen for some time.

Some mornings, my first thoughts upon waking are about what is missing instead of what is present. I imagine someone kissing my shoulder, making us coffee, beginning our day together. Other mornings it is easier to unfold into my own day, rather than my imaginary one, to make the coffee and write and walk the dogs.

I have come to cherish this routine, my routine: waking in the darkness, finding words and purpose, then getting outside. I shake my sleepy head the way the dogs do and see what lands on the page—strange new ideas, one gorgeous metaphor to wrap a sentence around, or sometimes, thoughts I can’t quite string together or make sense of. And then, as the sky begins to lighten, I walk the puppy, who is jumpy still around anything unexpected—a car backing out of a driveway, a dog barking across the street. We move into the world before the world is moving, a short brisk walk where we sometimes dart from smell to smell as he investigates. And then, we return home, and I switch dogs. My senior pup’s walks are long and purposeful. Ahead, ahead, let’s go. Sometimes he stops to sniff but he is about movement, and I watch the way his stiff joints seem to loosen and ease. The joy he takes in his morning walks is spectacular. And even if I’m frustrated from the writing, or how much the puppy pulled or lunged, by the end of this second walk something in me usually loosens and eases as well.

I recall how difficult maintaining this routine was in my last relationship and I’m disappointed that I sacrificed so much of myself to a situation where little was offered in return. But this is how we learn. This past year I have learned so much about what I truly value. About what I like. Not only what I enjoy doing, or what pleases me about my life. I am learning what I like about myself. This is good territory. I’ve been here before but have not inhabited this space. I’ve dropped in for visits but only as a tourist. I’m becoming a local now. I didn’t know you could do that. That I could. If such things are taught some place, I missed the lessons. I feel as if it never occurred to me before to develop a more conscious understanding of myself in this manner. I think deeply and often about my feelings and my past and my flaws, but I have spent so little time in this other region of selfness. I keep returning to this thought: I didn’t know it was okay to want to.

Even as we are dealing with so many stressors and responsibilities, we somehow must learn to be our own guidance counselors, and to put ideas in front of ourselves to consider. For me, it was: have you given any thought to what you like about yourself? One of the benefits of pursuing this line of thinking is that there is so much less time and energy to pursue the endless ruminating on what relationships failed and why. I have ruthlessly covered every inch of that ground, dragging myself through the dark woods over and over again. What did I miss, could another path have been taken, what went wrong, what went right, you better learn from this so it doesn’t happen again. To spend time instead exploring the other worlds inside my heart is a gift. I could chastise myself for not getting here sooner, but I think we’ve covered the ground of self-recrimination in several ways at this point.

So instead, let’s explore lightness and joy. Instead, let’s allow that we have learned and re-learned old lessons, we have dissected mistakes, grief, loss, and failures. Let us now resolve to learn and re-learn what success means to us, what joy does, what self does.

Love, Cath

On Baking Bread, and Meditating, and Un-Failing

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves what failing is not.

I have forgotten how to meditate. I once utilized meditation techniques as tools for cultivating calmness, and then, when I needed peace the most, could not summon the energy necessary to pursuit it. There was only the exhaustion of surviving and rebuilding.

Life feels fairly well rebuilt now, but even so, there are snags. Everyone gets tripped up sometimes. Do you ever feel that life was once so chaotic and overwhelming, it now only takes a few small stressors piling up to make you feel exactly the same way? I sometimes think: Why does it feel like everything looms and threatens? These are little things, everything is okay. But sometimes things feel bigger than they are, because they once were bigger and more dangerous, and every cell in our bodies remembers the past.

At my calmest and most generous, I see myself as capable of peace and growth, capable of mastering the pain of the past, along with the anxiety such pain has been reborn as in my current life.

I remember this from meditation: you do not try to avoid the stray thoughts that creep in; rather, you acknowledge them and let them float by, and away. I imagine mastering pain and anxiety in this way. I see you but you will not infiltrate my peace. What I don’t remember is what it is I am supposed to actually focus on. My breathing? A blank page? An image?

Perhaps this is the difficulty I have now: I am more focused on what to do with all that intrudes than I am on what remains. What are we, in the absence of the intrusions of past grief and present worry about future troubles? And, what self is not composed at least in part by these molecules?

Yesterday, I once again tried to bake bread. I approached this activity the way I approach the rest of my baking: Here is a recipe. I have most of these ingredients. I could swap that. All I need are general proportions and an understanding of process. This works for most things I attempt: cookies, cakes, pies. It has not, thus far, worked very well, if at all, for bread. I have discovered that this process is also how I approach any creative endeavor: writing, watercolor painting, crocheting. I learn enough to get started and then I wing it. There have been times I attempted greater discipline. I took a watercolor class. I read crocheting patterns and occasionally actually follow a recipe for a cake. My successful pursuit of an MFA in creative writing was a defiant attempt against my own nature to be disciplined about craft. I wish I could do it again. To force myself with a financial and temporal commitment to learn how to be a better writer.

All things considered, though, I like the way I bake, even if things don’t always turn out. It feels like art to me, more of a creative exploration than the experience of following instructions. I realize you need both for things to be successful, some instruction and some creativity. I worry that in too many areas of life, I rely too heavily on figuring it out as I go rather than following instructions or sticking to a plan.

I liked school, so I’m not sure where this resistance to instruction comes from. I do remember, as a child, possessing a strong dislike for anything I would not be competent at from the beginning. (This, along with the lack of any natural ability, accounts for my failure at any and all sports-related activities.)

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

About the bread. It didn’t turn out very well. I was asking a lot of my ingredients, did not have enough of the right kind of flours. I used a recipe for guidance but tried to make it work with what I had. It is easy to think of it as a failure, as far as bread goes. Most people would.

There used to be a corporate buzz phrase going around the office for a while: fail fast. In grad school, we used to say, fail better. I understand the ideas, mostly, but really what the phrases point to is that we all struggle to find a way to make failure mean something, as if by talking about failure in the right way we can make success somehow more achievable.

I wish we could call “failure” something else. It probably does not matter what we call our process. It is never going to feel spectacular to have something not work out as we hoped. It is always going to feel as though we wasted some resource, our time, our money, our energy. In the end, we all know that the only thing we can do is give it another go. This is true for every aspect of our lives, for our careers and relationships and interests and artistic endeavors.

That being said, the bread isn’t a disaster. It has a pleasant flavor, and the texture is not as bad as I originally thought, now that it has cooled. It does not reflect mastery, but it was intentional effort.

That being said, what else do we think of as failure that is really far from it, that is the opposite, that is un-failing?

We cannot clutch our past failures so tightly to our hearts that we allow them to become prophesies of the future.

We cannot allow ourselves to hold on this way because soon, or eventually, we will get to the why even bother part of this thinking. It is entirely likely we will want to give up before we achieve success, if we regard every effort as failure instead of another step in the journey.

What I keep coming back to in so many blog posts, is this: like many people, I am in the process of figuring out what I am all about now. For me, the now markers are fifty-years old, half a dozen years post-divorce. It is clear that I’d like to feel less anxious, more peaceful. To do that, I’ll need to be tuned in to the weird lessons my life reveals every day, in little things, like baking imperfect bread. To look at the idea of “failure” as a only a word, and one that my life is rigorously attempting to empty of meaning and power. And, I like this process, this figuring out self in this deliberate way, where I’m making a conscious effort to be awake to what I’m doing and why.

I wish you happy baking, endeavoring, figuring, and un-failing.  

Love, Cath

On Calm, and Quirks, and Being

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes I don’t want to calm down, because I’m not sure what to do once I get there. I wonder if I know how to do more than visit. I’m so used to allowing my anxiety as much space as it needs that it feels more like home somehow, to be worried. To be in the void, the one at the center of calm, to be without the fluster and fear, means dealing with a situation instead of reacting to it. In a way, there is safety in not-calm. It shields us from work we haven’t learned how to do, or that we were forgot we were competent at. Or, from work that needs doing, but sometimes we are so very tired of doing it.

Photo by Evie Shaffer on Pexels.com

Recently, I was startled by the sudden and violent death of a mourning dove who’d been grazing on the snowy ground at the base of the bird feeder in the back yard. We first noticed the large hawk, hunched over something. It dawned on us then that he must have killed something. After he flew off, carrying the body, we traipsed through the snow and viewed what remained. A scatter of grey and cream colored feathers surrounded a circle of blood-stained snow. Surmising it must have been one of the mourning doves we had noticed earlier, we cleaned up what we could. As I used a plastic grocery bag to gather up feathers and bloody snow in shaky fistfuls, I thought, abstractly, “the dogs,” not able to articulate my worry over them examining the scene. It simply seemed bad to allow them to investigate and possibly consume anything left of the bird. And then I was startled by a sudden grief for the mourning dove I’d invited to the feeder.

When I was attending my graduate school residencies, I heard a lot of talk about “liminal spaces.” The term liminal wasn’t part of my usual vernacular. This notion of in-between-ness felt writerly. It was a lofty concept, an emotionally self-aware and intellectual way of looking at things, and I liked it. Wanted to inhabit a me whose boundaries encompassed the use of such words. I remember thinking about how much living existed in the space between our words. I found myself fully invested in exploring this concept, probably because I was in such an in-between place myself, in between versions of myself, headed away from a married me, and becoming a divorced me, but not really knowing what it was supposed to look like, who I wanted her to be. The liminal eventually became a meaningless concept for me because I felt as though I would be perpetually unable to leave behind one existence and inhabit the next. I felt trapped in an existential game of Twister, limbs tangled and reaching back and forward and everywhere at the same time, grasping urgently for a sense of self. I thought, rather than arriving at the next iteration of myself, I would succumb to becoming a not-me. As if I was nothing more than this tangle of selves, rather than someone who insisted on her own certain form. A scatter of feathers and blood. No longer bird, but still evidence of bird.

In a way, calm itself is liminal. It is an in-between space, the place that exists between anxiety and the next part, work. The work of undoing or repairing or rebuilding whatever sent you falling in the first place. I think of the place in between bird and not-bird and realize it is a very different thing than transitioning from one state of mind to the next, from anxiety to calm to work. It is final. Full stop. Though moving oneself from a state of anxiety to a state of calm can inspire dread and more fear, we always know it is a journey we have to make. But, it takes time. Sometimes we need help, sometimes we need solitude to regroup. Yet it is always characterized, eventually, by movement, not by stopping.

I think about the little movements, like a flutter of breath once we realize we’ve been holding it, that invite us toward calm. The half-formed thought that suggests the difference between the instincts we trust and the hazy, malformed notions that are more remembered grief than the deeper knowledge that points us to what we need, when we need it. Admittedly, it can be hard to tell the difference sometimes. It is even harder to tell the difference when our state is not calm.

I wonder sometimes if it is healthy to spend so much energy considering such abstract things as anxiety and fear and states of mind and states of being. But I also don’t know how to exist, how to be me, without also considering my whole self and my place within the larger world. I think too that such considerations play a vital role in allowing us to grow together and harmoniously with those close to us.

We must keep sharing our real selves with our people, and encouraging them to do the same.

How lucky we are when they allow us to do so without out judgement. I consider myself to be an open, heart-on-your sleeve person. But at the same time, I carry around a certain level of shame and embarrassment about the things I don’t love about myself, like my easily triggered anxiety, or certain weather-related phobias, or the panic my periodic insomnia induces. I admit, I hoped to downplay these qualities to my boyfriend, worried about how he would perceive them. But who we are simply and without fail reveals itself. And, I’ve happily discovered that I am with a person who seems able to accept everything about me, even when my quirks seem unexpected or incomprehensible. We have been together two years now, and it is beautiful to be able to offer one another this grace, this space to be who we truly are with one another.

I’m wishing you all calm today, and am supporting you in being who you are, who you are becoming. If you have a chance, take a moment to hug or thank the people who are happy to let you do that.

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

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.

autumn leaf board colors dark
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