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.
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.