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 Waves, and Rain, and Corpses

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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Photo by Tatiana on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

 

 

 

 

Slowing Down and Breathing Deeply: On Time and Inflating the Ordinary Moment

By Catherine DiMercurio

There are times in our life where we are keenly aware of how swiftly time passes and we wonder, how can I slow things down?

I have had numerous conversations with friends about how, as our children get older, life increasingly seems to be on fast-forward. I feel hyper aware of time. When my children were babies, I wasn’t cognizant of how quickly their first year went by until it was over. Though I was waking up several times a night to breastfeed, I tried to be present during the daytime, aware of how quickly the children moved from one stage to the next. But, I was simply exhausted and a lot of those memories are fairly hazy. It is only in the looking back that I perceive how quickly that time flew by. But day by day, within that time, it didn’t seem as though I’d ever get to place were we were all sleeping through the night. Now, I have an awareness even while I’m living through this time that moments are disappearing before I’m through with them. They are footprints in wet sand, washed away before I’ve finished taking the next step.

Tick Marks on the Timeline

The easiest things to remember are obviously things that stand out as atypical, as outside of the normal routine and pace of life—vacations, events, illnesses, and griefs. Recalling the things we’ve deliberately denoted as significant is also a relatively straightforward endeavor. Parents do this all the time—first Christmas, first day of school, etc. All the other days, those that seem to be undifferentiated from one another, are forgettable time. They are the spaces in between the tick marks on a timeline. Yet those moments and days and years filling in the gaps between the firsts and the vacations and the tragedies are where most of our living happens and where much of our memory fades. The passage of that time is what makes it seem as though life is going by so quickly. It’s because there is nothing to grab on to. The current of time rushes along, and without any specific memory to fix upon, we rush past, and remark on how quickly that year went by.

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So, I’ve been wondering how to shake free of this mindset, of this feeling that I’m caught in a current. I want to somehow fill in all the spaces on the timeline, to deliberately draw a line and exist in each moment, each day, as though it matters as much as a birthday, or the death of our dog, or a trip to the beach, or the first day of kindergarten, or one of our camping trips. Because, doesn’t it? Doesn’t each moment matter?

Maybe it depends on how we define mattering. I’ve heard people say that it is in how we handle tragedy and crisis that defines who we are. Perhaps, though, it is in how we manage the mundane that shapes us more. How do we respond to all that is dull in a day, in the weeks and months and years that we work and save, trying to earn enough to take that vacation and “make some memories”? If we can’t find something to savor in all that we’ve deemed unworthy of memory-making, then how much our lives are we relegating to those empty spaces on the timeline?

Yoga Breathing and the Value of the Dull Day

When the kids were in elementary school and I worked at home as a freelance writer, I’d take time during the late mornings to watch a yoga program on tv that guided me through a daily practice. This particular program incorporated some philosophy throughout and a few ideas have stuck with me. One is that our lives are not measured in moments, but in breaths, so we should breathe mindfully, deliberately, and deeply.

I’m trying to combine these notions of living and measuring. I want to be aware of moments, of days that seem undifferentiated and somehow, to differentiate them. I want to expand moments, to fill them up the way my breath fills my lungs. I think, how can I make this ordinary day different, or memorable, or significant? If I park in a different lot at work, or take a break and go outside for a moment, will it make a difference? If I watch and listen for a new idea or notice a sparrow or hear someone laughing or sit with the morning sun on my face before I walk into my building, will it matter?

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Will I be able to remember this day as a specific part of my life? It might be easy to brush this idea off and say, why would you want to? Maybe some days aren’t worth remembering. Is there any value to marking just another workday? I’m not sure yet. I hope so. I hope that in a month, I’ll be able to look back and not feel like it went by so fast. I don’t want to rush through even the dull days. Even though on the surface it might seem as though I’m experiencing an unremarkable day of work and returning home to make an unremarkable dinner, it is another collection of breaths I get to have on this earth, another meal I get to share with my children. And perhaps if I’m seeking opportunities to find the remarkable within the ordinary, I’ll find something unexpected.

Soaking It All In

This past weekend, my children and I, needing some warmth in this frigid Michigan April, drove to the Belle Isle Conservatory in Detroit. This being something that is outside of the realm of our usual routine automatically makes the event something we’ll all be more likely to remember in the future. But I tried with more intention and deliberateness than usual to notice the details of the day, the blue of the sky beyond the greenhouse windows, the way the sunlight illuminated the large green leaves of a tropical plant, the shape of leaf shadows on the leaves below. I took time to appreciate the details my children commented on—the worm wriggling through the dirt that my son pointed out, the tiny gauzy white cactus sporting an even tinier magenta flower my daughter saw. We sat on a bench together and I closed my eyes and felt the sun on my face. I wanted to soak the moment in, to draw another tick mark on the timeline.

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If our lives here are a journey, maybe each mile of the road trip is worthy of our attention. Notice the song on the radio, the sun through the window, the people with you. Get out and stretch your legs. Breathe deeply. Inflate the ordinary moment.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath

Learning from Memory: The Parable of the Kite

By Catherine DiMercurio

As a mother, I find myself coming back to the lessons my own parents taught me. Rarely though do these lessons filter through my consciousness in verbal form. Rather, some memories return repeatedly enough that I wonder, why this, why now?

A Father-Daughter Moment

Sometimes the memories are so strong and come from so far back in my childhood I feel as though I made them up, and they take on the power of parable in my mind. One of my earliest memories is of flying a kite with my father. I always thought that one of the reasons this memory was so striking was that it was just the two of us. I have two older sisters, a younger brother, and a younger sister, so most of my childhood memories involve some combination of siblings. My mother features prominently as well in most of those memories. She was more involved in the particulars of our day-to-day lives than my father was and it is easy to recall things like the day we went strawberry picking and had strawberry shortcake for dinner, or the time my sisters and I all had chicken pox and we got to eat on t.v. trays in our beds. There are lessons in here as well about the different ways we nurture one another. But, the memory of kite flying with my father stands out, in part, because it is an anomaly. We simply didn’t have many one-on-one moments.

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Running with the Wind

I remember standing in a muddy field on a grey day. I can see big clumps of soil and puddled rainwater. I don’t know if it was spring or fall but certainly it was chilly and damp. I was running along side my father, who gripped the white kite string, waiting for the kite to catch on the wind. He slowed, and handed me the spool of string, and showed me how to hold it. I remember my father telling me, “Cath, don’t let go!” I kept running. The wind slacked and the kite dipped. “Keep going,” he shouted. And I ran. I felt the tug of the kite at the end of the string as the wind buoyed it once again and my heart lurched with joy. And somehow, I let go. My father sprinted after the string, splashing through mud, trying to catch it. That’s where the memory ends for me. I never knew if he caught it. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to ask my dad about this sooner. Maybe I was afraid he wouldn’t remember, or that it never even happened and it was really only a dream. But this past Sunday, I asked him. And he remembered. He recalled the same details, the muddy field, and me letting go. As it turns out, he caught the runaway kite, though given that I never retained that portion of the memory, clearly it wasn’t the important part for me. He seemed pleased, remembering. He told me it was in the field behind our house, where we lived when I was about five.

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The Meaning of the Memory

Years later, I find myself drawn in my writing to kite metaphors. In a scene in which a thirteen-year-old girl experiences her first kiss and is developing feelings for a boy for the first time, I wrote: “Nora thought of the way Ben’s fingers curved around hers, wondered what her fingers thought as they leaned against his knobby knuckles. It was a relief to be here, connected to Ben. She felt like a kite on a string, and she felt like the string, too, safe within his grasp, yet soaring above him. At home, she drifted around everyone, but never felt anchored.”

For years, I thought that this was the ideal, to feel as though we are both kite and string, to feel both grounded and free. I think I’ve looked for this in my adult relationships, never realizing until now that I’ve been trying to replicate that feeling I had as a child, of being both safe and buoyantly free, the string securely held, the kite catching in the wind. And in the past few days, maybe simply because I talked with my father about the memory, I’ve realized something else: As a parent, this is what I’ve tried to create for my children—a sense that they are secure and safe and taken care of, and at the same time, that they are free to be who they are, to explore what are always becoming, that there is always possibility and joy, hope and freedom. It was what my parents tried to do for me and for my siblings. And because there was such a foundational sense of peace in that upbringing, not only did I try and create it for my own children, I also sought it elsewhere, perhaps where I didn’t need to. Perhaps even, where I shouldn’t have, that is, I looked everywhere else but within myself.

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I realize now that it is something I needed to be cultivating within myself all along. Perhaps it was only after my marriage ended, and after I tried to resurrect a relationship from the past, that I was able to finally begin to seek that sense of peace within myself. And in many ways, I have found it. Some days I might have to look harder than others, but now I know what I’m looking for. I know how to be the kite. I know how to be the string. Though I might feel untethered at times, I know the way back to myself. Though some days I can’t find the breeze, and can’t feel that joyful buoyant freedom, on other days I know I can get there. I know how to wait and when to run and how let joy take hold.

Listening and Learning

Perhaps learning this lesson is one of the reasons that the relationship I’m in now feels so stable and calm and exhilarating. It isn’t because I found someone who makes me feel like kite and string. It is because I am not looking for him to do that. I am free of the expectation that someone else will make me feel the way I want to feel. I entered into the relationship with a greater sense of wholeness than I ever had before, and with the knowledge that I am already enough. I can run fast enough and hold on securely enough to usually keep the kite in the air. And if I trip, or the wind dies down, I know how to fly, and that I can try again, in another moment or another day. Because he is in the same place, we are able to enjoy security and freedom, stability and joy, together, side by side.

The best part of all this is that we intuit these lessons even when we can’t always articulate what we’ve learned. I don’t think my father had a list of things he wanted to make sure he taught me before I left home. He and my mother were guided by their own experiences and did the best they could, as we all do. Sometimes, as we are running along, trying to hold on to the string and keep the kite in the air, we simply have to listen, to pay attention to the memories that bubble up within us and ask, why this, why now?

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath