On Emotional Economy, and Keyholes

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes listening is both our greatest strength and our biggest weakness.

I read the first half of a Clarice Lipsector story on the Paris Review website that made my heart ache. I’ve been thinking about halves, wondering if a person could have half a broken heart, or maybe it doesn’t work that way.

I realize I’m not entirely sure how to do things halfway, how to be half in and half out of something at the same time. Without perfecting this skill, one risks missing out on something, even half of something, by walking away too soon. On the flip side, possibly you can still be very much wounded by something you only intend to do by halves.

These lessons in emotional economy are always difficult ones. Whether one is nineteen or forty-nine there are bargains made between head and heart. If we sculpt the words differently, might we reduce the risk of getting hurt? If we think in terms of caring instead of loving, if we think of each moment as a whole universe–divorced from past and future–a now to be enjoyed, an adventure sought. Or, is it all a mash-up between a game of semantics and a game of chess?

As I move through life and relationships post-divorce I have come to understand this about myself: I typically see the best in people, regardless of what angle they are showing me. I seek out the earnestness that sighs in the space between their words, I listen to them speak around the things they care about, hear tenderness in silences. It is easy to connect this way. Some might say it is fiction, that I am creating stories that aren’t true because I want something to be that maybe isn’t.

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Photo by Lukasz Dziegel on Pexels.com

But I don’t buy that. What I often fail to recognize though is that other things are true at the same time. The earnestness and gentleness I see so clearly exist as concretely as guardedness, anxiety, pain. As I’m listening at keyholes, I’m not seeing closed doors. This is either a naïve act of will or one of sheer recklessness, or both. But it is a choice. And like any choice, it has consequences.

“Insist on yourself, never imitate,” instructs Ralph Waldo Emerson. Everyone choses the version of themselves they are going to be every day. I have often grappled with the question of whether we become more or less of who we truly are as we go through life. Sometimes I wonder what the through-line is. I think we all have one, an element of our character, perhaps our soul, that remains as constant as our heartbeat throughout our lives, though we may attempt to obscure or ignore it at times, and live by it religiously at others. Maybe my through-line is this way of seeing, this way of searching for space, for the ways people open up to one another instead of the things that close us off. Maybe that’s why I write. “There is a guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.” Another Emerson quote. Maybe my through-line is this guidance. It is just as likely that I’m wrong. But I am not a person of faith and one has to believe in something.

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My collection of Emerson’s essays was recently the object of my dog’s intense curiosity. The book survived, but needs attention. It was already aging, the pages brittle and fragile, the spine having been taped together more than once. It is now more or less broken in half, an apt metaphor for the discussion at hand, the words contained in the halves still a through-line. In every way, I’m reminded of what makes us strong and what makes us fragile, of the power of words and intentions, of the significance of keyholes, and doors, both opened and closed.

Love, Cath

 

Lessons for the New Year: On Patience, Love, Effort, and Squirrels

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we have to follow our hearts the way a hound follows a scent.

As the first hours of 2019 unfold, I’m thinking about patience, and promises. On Christmas Day, we welcomed into our home a new family member, a rescue dog named Dodger. We had already introduced him to our almost-ten-year-old hound mix Phineas at a boarding/training facility. The dogs got along well, so Christmas Day began our “trial period.” Dodger is tall and goofy. He is sweet-natured, but stubborn in the way hounds tend to be. His long ears drape far past his face, and his feet are enormous. We fell in love, the kids and I, with his big heart. When my daughter and I went to the adoption event a week later to officially adopt him, we learned a little more about his past from the woman who fostered him when he was a puppy.

He and his five litter mates, all males, went right into foster care after they were born. The mother was a hound from “the country.” Dodger was adopted when he was four months old, but the owners returned him. At that point, he was boarded at a kennel, which is where he has spent much of the last seven months. He’ll be a year old in mid-January.

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My original thoughts about the family who returned him were angry ones, because, who does that? Provides a home then takes it away. Dodger no longer had an available foster when he was surrendered. I don’t know the reason his owners gave up on him, except that the family had younger children, and perhaps he was too much of a high energy pup for them. They essentially sentenced a four-month-old puppy to growing up without a home, without much, if any, training, love, or daily affection. I can only imagine how an attention-starved, growing-bigger-every-day hound puppy came off to potential adopters. Dodger was not getting any smaller, more well-behaved, or adoptable while living in the kennel. But he was, I can only imagine, getting lonely, desperate, anxious, and stressed both physically and emotionally.

I saw his sweet face on the rescue’s Facebook page and I watched posts about him for a couple of weeks before I finally decided to act. He’s been with us for a week, now. When I begin to feel impatient with his puppy-like behavior—the way he pulls on the leash, or chews things he shouldn’t—I remind myself of his story, try and keep things in perspective. But also, I know my limitations. I’m one of those people that loves just about every dog I meet, but I don’t have that thing that some people have, that inner authoritative calm that dogs respond to. I’m not sure where the line is between being patient as an action and having a calm presence as a state of being. Maybe the former cultivates the latter.

Often, Dodger makes it easy. Despite his past, there is nothing in him that seems wary or slow to trust. He came at our family with a big open heart, ready to love us, which has made it easy to love him back just as enthusiastically. He is playful, and cuddly.

I want to say that the rest will fall into place, the way things do, acted upon both by time and effort. I’ll research different ways to work with dogs on various behaviors. I will try to not take it personally if Dodger once again snatches my reading glasses while I’m warming up my coffee and chews them past the point of rescue. I will be better about not leaving my reading glasses within reach. I remind myself that he is the first dog I adopted as a single person, my post-divorce rescue dog. A commitment.

At the same time, working with a rescue dog, particularly one of this size, is going to be challenging. The rewards are huge, but so is the effort. Dodger has hardly ever been on a leash. We’ve lost the months when Dodger would have been of the manageable size and the impressionable age where better habits are more easily learned. We have a large, full-grown dog who grew up in a kennel. Still. Worth it is an easy concept.

I’m left holding two truths in my heart at the same time, those related to love and to responsibility. I love this dog. And, raising him, working with him, training him—none of that is going to be easy. The loving comes to me as naturally as breathing, as naturally as this hound of mine trees a squirrel. The rising to the occasion and bearing the full weight of the responsibility for caring for him and teaching him can be daunting. I sometimes think, is this more than I can handle? But the heart answers the questions the head can’t help but ask. No, it isn’t too much. Do it. Handle it. Figure it out.

That was a bad walk we had this morning. No squirrel went unhounded, no scent unheeded. Dodger pulled constantly, with his full weight, while I (mostly futilely) tried different tactics to keep him focused on moving forward. Next walk, new tactics, I think, after we return home. In other ways, it was a good walk, too. We expended energy, and I exercised patience, only crying out, “Dodger, no!” in utter despair once or twice. And, I got some ideas. I’ll have a pocket full of treats next time, good ones. We’ll work on shorter, more focused walks. We’ll get the hang of this. Dodger might be a hound, but I’m a DiMercurio. We don’t give up easily either, though we might stomp our feet impatiently from time to time.

I’m not the first to be reminded by an animal I’ve welcomed into my life of a long-standing to-do list that has more to do with my work than his. Cultivate calm. Embrace patience. Understand your history, but don’t let it obstruct your future. These aren’t new lessons but sometimes someone enters your life who reminds you that certain things need attention, again, still.

Looking at Dodger’s face online before I rescued him reminded me of who I want to be, just as this blog does. Someone with a heart like a wide open door, embracing life with open arms. Having him in my home reminds me I’ve always been that person, but like anything worth being, it comes with effort.

I hope you enjoy where the road takes you this new year. Love, Cath

 

Labors of Love

By Catherine DiMercurio

I’ve been away for a bit, working on novel revisions and searching for places to submit my manuscript. The phrase “labor of love” comes to mind, and “labor” surfaces for me in the context of both birthing and work. Writers often speak of their work in this way, as if the piece they have written is offspring, a living, breathing thing that they have given birth and breath to, nurtured from a tiny kernel of an idea into maturity. It is easy to do, even as a parent of an actual living, breathing thing that I have nurtured from a tiny kernel of an idea (“let’s have a baby!”) into maturity, maturity as in, she has turned eighteen and is about to graduate from high school, about to leave this home and make a new one. These various notions of labor, and the fruit it bears, are joined right now in my mind.

Confluence and Connotation

Because of this intertwining, the coming together of my emotions about my daughter graduating at the same time I was nurturing into maturity the novel, early drafts of this post centered on the notion of confluence. I was specifically thinking about the way emotionally weighted or significant things seem to happen at the same time in our lives. I considered the way sorrows pool, floods of grief crash together, or odd jumbles of joy seem to happen all at once and you wonder when is it going to all fall apart because life has taught you that it often does. But something about this felt off to me and I spent some time thinking about “confluence.” Though it originally entered into my brain in terms of the way things come together, I hadn’t really been thinking of the geographic imagery and understanding of the word. The most common usage focuses on the flowing together of two or more bodies of water at a certain point to form a single channel. I realized I had the right word but had originally latched on to the wrong connotation.

So now I am thinking about the power of confluence, the force of these two strong rivers flowing together. Sometimes you can see it happening, this coming together of powerful things in your life, but you don’t know what to do about it. You sense the importance but haven’t yet found a way to inhabit it. I see myself with my hand outstretched. I’m reaching for the next part, my next part (in terms of writing and also, whatever else life becomes after my home no longer includes my children living in it). At the same time, I’m holding on ferociously to those two children, wanting to keep them with me, safe and sound (the illusion being that I have the power to protect them), and wanting also to be strong enough to open my arms and let them go. And they, too, are both holding on and reaching forward. I wonder sometimes if the best thing to do is enter the current and see where it takes me, because I can’t yet see how I can harness the power of the emotions that this transition, this confluence, is churning up, and I also feel that I can’t hold on at the shore much longer, the current is already sweeping us up in these changes and inevitably we will be swept up and away and forward.

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Photo by NMQ on Pexels.com

I wonder, too, how do I keep myself as a safe place on the shore when they need refuge from the churn of their own lives as they get older? How do I maintain that space and at the same time see where life takes me?

Mistake Making

In a way, this post is about mistakes and false starts, as I try to harness language, sometimes the wrong language, sometimes the right language in the wrong way, to convey the bewildering array of emotions and thoughts that gather around me and inhabit me in the midst of this transition. Metaphor feels like the only tool to make sense of it all but it merely hints at the real, attempts to show with linguistic equations how the heart and mind heave and ache and reach in currents of memories, fears, joys, wishes.

But life is mistakes and false starts. It is memory and wish, it’s reaching back and vaulting forward, storm and sanctuary, river and shore, and maybe all I’m trying to do here is tell my daughter as she graduates and prepares for the next phase in her life, that life will be this way. Life might be a clear day after the rain or it might be the rain but no matter what it is, no matter what metaphors are used to make sense of it, the safe place I’ve built for her is always there, in every memory made together, every penny-tossed fountain wish she and I have cast, side by side. We’ve built it already and it isn’t going anywhere.

Wishing you safety in storms, laughter in rain, and the wisdom to appreciate the sun on your face every time the clouds part.

Love, Cath