On Not Knowing, or, (Not) Navigating Deep Water

By Catherine DiMercurio

I’m not sure why, but part of me still clings to this idea that the clarity I look for as I navigate some of the things I’m struggling with is something that will reveal itself to me as a shout, as a brand new beginning, the shiny other side of the coin, freshly tossed. I want to cross over along the timeline, from one side of a vertical line to the next. To say, definitively, I am here now.

But what the world has tried to teach me over and over is that everything is non-linear. Even a circle would be a welcome, familiar shape, but my life is not that either. Despite the continuity of my days, my carefully cultivated habits and routines, my inner world zig zags, soars and dives, as much as the chaos of the world outside my door.

I began writing this several days ago, firmly convinced I understood my mindset on a particular issue. I had decided I was Done, yes, with a capital D, with dating apps, Done searching for a partner, Done with the false (?, hopefully false) urgency of a timeline. Done with that feeling that I would somehow run out of chances or will or heart if I didn’t meet someone in a certain number of months or heartbeats. I don’t think there is a biological clock to this part. Though, I suppose future-me might wake up one day and wish I had tried harder sooner. But we do what we can, when we can. Don’t we? Don’t I? I mean, it is already too late for some of the dreams I once had. I have run out of time to ever celebrate a 61-year anniversary with someone, as a friend’s post about her parents celebrating their anniversary reminded me. I once had dreams of celebrating those types of anniversaries, but I’m aging out of that possibility. Letting go of that, as I’ve tried to do for some time now, means there really isn’t a clock ticking in that sense anymore. If I do meet someone, I’ll likely wish we’d had more time together, whether I met him tomorrow or in five or ten years.

So, I had let myself be Done. For now. For as long as it feels good to be doing the kind of growing and listening to myself as I’m doing now. Until I know how to do that no matter what. Until it’s like breathing, and something that won’t be abandoned like an ill-conceived New Year’s resolution the second I’m dating again.

Because I don’t want to go back to that way of loving, and I’m scared that I will. I wonder, was the reason it felt so good to be completely consumed by a relationship that I had little knowledge of or respect for myself? Did I enjoy losing myself because myself was such a flimsy concept, easy to let go of, so much so that I didn’t realize that she was lost?

Before I decided to be Done, I had grown more careful, deliberate, about who I entered into conversation with on those apps. I didn’t want to enter into anything nonchalantly. If I was going to expend my limited social capital, it had to be on someone I thought there was a chance with. I didn’t want a collection of first dates with men I didn’t plan on seeing again; I wanted to meet someone who was also looking for something long term, not just gathering with me out of sense of gathering loneliness.

I’m not lonely, which comes as a surprise to me. I have periodic moments or hours, maybe even a day or two at the most, of deep, sharp loneliness. But it is something that happens to me and falls away. It isn’t what I am.

I’ve leaned into that. What does it mean, then, to not be pursuing a relationship? I have always been in a relationship, or in between relationships. Being single but open to something happening still felt for a long time like many things: expectation, hope, wish. The natural order of things had been, for so long, that I was partnered. I always thought that I was a better me with someone else, but I didn’t have much to compare it to. If my time alone were drops of water, they would have filled a few drinking glasses, whereas my time with a partner over the years, between my marriage and my post-divorce relationships, filled up bathtubs. A swimming pool maybe. But, on my own, I am something else entirely. Something that can’t be measured by way of shallow, domestic containers. On my good days I feel like a lake, carved fathoms-deep by ancient glaciers. I have always been this same person, even when in relationships, but I didn’t know her yet. And if I didn’t, neither did the men I was with. How could they?

Photo by Miguel on Pexels.com

I often feel slow to understand things. My comprehension feels impaired by an onslaught of input. I’ve regarded myself as deep-thinking, but not quick-witted. Brains work differently. Mine is full of images and words, teeming with them. I can only handle so much external input at a time. So when I look back at what it was like to be in relationships where I prioritized the needs of my partner over my own (and unpacking that tendency is a whole different series of essays) it is no wonder that I have been slow to know myself. Think of all that additional input! Not that you can’t learn anything about yourself in a relationship. I can and did. But because of the way I was going about being in a relationship, there were things that I couldn’t learn about myself until I was on my own.

But for some reason I felt as though I needed to commit to the idea of being Done. To say, I am here now, on this side of that line. I felt as though I had to say, I know exactly what I want and it is this. That way, I know what to do, or not to do, next. When I had a tug of longing to be with someone, I then wondered, did I commit to the wrong idea, the wrong game plan? Do I still want to find someone?

The bottom line is, I don’t know, and I’m not comfortable not knowing what I want. It feels like failure. It feels like lack of insight, not knowing my gut. It feels wrong, and as if it must be remedied. It feels like wasted time. If I knew what I wanted, I could pursue it, and get on to the next part that much faster. It feels like something I ought to be ashamed of and I’m not sure why. Maybe it is because by now I should have this part figured out?

How can I not know what I want? I feel like I was always supposed to know. What do you want to be when you grow up, where do you see yourself in five years, etc. We’re supposed to be able to visualize it so we can manifest it, right?

I think one of the reasons I don’t know what I want in terms of a partner is that I’m figuring out what I want in other areas of my life. I know that I want to continue to pursue both writing and pottery, and I know that I can’t do either of those things without my “real” job that keeps a roof over three heads, mine and the two dogs. And I want a big enough roof so that when my kids come home to visit everyone has a place. And I want to nurture relationships with family and friends, connections that mean so much to me, that have on and off over the years been largely neglected when I was busy being totally consumed by romantic relationships that I let swallow me up. All of this adds up to a fullness I didn’t realize was possible. Sometimes I can’t imagine where a partner would fit into all that, possibly because I’ve never had a partnership where the fullness of both people’s lives was respected and nurtured in a healthy way.

I think the most important thing for me right now is the idea of embracing the mindset of not knowing, instead of fearing it, or, embracing it and the fear. It’s a little like swimming in deep water with no shore in sight. Yet, when I think about it, when we struggle with understanding ourselves, we are, in a way, both the swimmer and the deep water. We can keep ourselves afloat, or we can pull ourselves under. We are vast and deep, not easily navigated, and there is no shame in that. Oddly, what I am finding, is that a person can be true to themselves without having it all figured out. 

Love, Cath

On Lanterns, Looking, and Home

By Catherine DiMercurio

Many people have been inspired by the line Emily Dickinson wrote to a friend, “I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.” It struck me today too, as I came across it again.

Recently, I was texting with my firstborn, about various things, but the conversation turned to the idea of home. Several months ago, I helped them and their partner move from the house they’d been living in with too many college housemates into their own place, one of those quirky Ann Arbor apartments comprised of a collection of rooms in an older house. It is cozy and suits them. My child was telling me that they finally have a place that feels like a home that is their own. This delights me: my child feels safe and happy, in their own place, in a healthy relationship.

Less recently, though it still feels like yesterday to me, I moved out of the house I’d lived in for twenty years, raised my kids in, lived the best and worst years of my marriage in, into this little ranch house in a different suburb, not far away but very far away from where I used to be. And I only feel that my new house is home some of the time. I do love what I’ve built here, that this house is a reflection of my personality, filled with books, watercolors, pottery, artwork from friends, and dogs. It is cozy and it suits me. But sometimes, it doesn’t feel quite exactly right. It’s like a newish shirt you mostly love but when you put it on you remember that the tag is itchy. Sometimes. Other times, like now, everything feels safe and good, happy and peaceful. It’s early morning and I’m drinking coffee from a mug I threw and glazed myself. I’m snug under a blanket I crocheted years ago. The puppy is cuddled up next to me. I’ve decorated a small tree—my solstice/Christmas/winter magic tree—and strung up some colorful lights. I feel lucky. I have created peace and stability for myself in a way that several years ago I wouldn’t have ever thought possible.

When I feel restless, or have that what am I doing here feeling, I know where it comes from now. When loneliness hits, it is usually from two directions. One is from the past, from the part of my life where I woke up in the same house as my children for the first 18 years of their lives. I don’t think it matters how full your life is as an empty nester; part of you is always aware that the loss you know was coming is happening. That empty space takes up space. The other direction loneliness attacks from is from the future. We all have points in our lives, after the loss of a meaningful relationship, where it feels as though the future we had anticipated is being erased, like an Etch-a-Sketch turned upside down and vigorously shaken. As new relationships unfold, we wonder, is this the future, beginning to take shape? When those dissolve too, it feels like starting all over, with the future blank again.

I also keep forgetting that “the future” is not a single fixed point. It is hard to embrace the idea that nothing is really fixed, as in, a single unchanging point in time, and fixed, as in finally and fully repaired. Everything is in perpetual motion, our healing, and where we’re headed. What happens next is the same thing as how am I continuing to grow, and it appears in my mind like night, with a sky full of stars, and I’m out wandering, with my lanterns.

Photo by Burak The Weekender on Pexels.com

And all of this is tied into the idea of home for me. The house I currently live in blinks on and off, in a way. It feels like home, and then it flickers, and the feeling fades, and then it’s back on, steady as ever. What I’m beginning to realize is that it is less about this house and how long I’ve been in it, and whether or not my kids have lived here, and more about me being at home with myself. This feeling is getting stronger and stronger with me, after years of faltering, and looking for home in someone else. I didn’t even know that feeling that way about myself was possible, or important, until recently. It’s beautiful to think of home as either where you were raised, or, being with the people who love you regardless of your physical location or place of residence. But feeling at home with yourself, knowing that you are the safe place and you are the someone who loves you, that is something else entirely. I love that this is happening for me, that I finally thought to look for it, and that the feeling is becoming fuller and steadier.

Sometimes when I’m out with those lanterns, I’m not really looking for myself anymore. Sometimes I’m feeling found, and I’m just enjoying a starry walk with myself. But I do know that everything changes, especially selves, and that I am no more a fixed point than anything in future. So, to some degree, I’ll have to be out looking with some regularity. Sometimes that’s a scary thought and sometimes I’m just tired, but it feels important and necessary.

I keep returning to these same ideas over and over but sometimes we need to keep hearing the same message, whether from ourselves or from outside sources, multiple times as we learn and grow and acclimate ourselves to new ways of looking at things. For me, this is part of being open hearted. To grow, I need to be patient with myself, with the way I learn and the pace at which I learn. So I’ll be out there with lanterns, as usual. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Love, Cath

On Incongruity and Metaphor (Or, On Not Giving Up on Yourself)

By Catherine DiMercurio

If you follow this blog, you know my approach: I write about things that are going on with me—in my head, and in my heart, and in my life—in the hopes that it reaches someone who might be going through something similar. Someone who is thinking/feeling the same thing and feeling crazy or isolated or scared because of it. I try to say quietly and loudly and slantwise and head-on, you are not alone, you are not alone, you are not alone. Because it is so easy to feel that way. To think that. To be trapped in the thought patterns that keep us feeling like we have no one who can relate to us. Writers are often told to write the book they want to read or that they feel is missing from the world. While I do keep trying to do that with my fiction, I’m also trying to do that here: write the words that I feel should be out in the world.

This may or may not be true, but I imagine there are plenty of people in the world who have long felt secure in themselves, who aren’t troubled by anxiety or depression, who might stumble on my blogs and wonder what is wrong with that person or geez, another one about self-trust? Or, why isn’t she over some of this stuff already?

But I’m writing for the people who feel things deeply, who have maybe have given too much of themselves away and in doing so, created on their heart a soft surface where blows leave marks that last a long time.  

I do feel like a broken record sometimes though. I wonder if I’m ruminating too much. I’m weighing all the advice about feeling your feelings and processing things and trying to make sense of it all and figuring out what is next, and when, and how, and why. It’s a lot, isn’t it? Life is a lot, for everyone.

This week was full of difficult anniversaries of things and a terrible dentist appointment and if it hadn’t been for a couple of texts, messages, and phone calls, along with an enormously satisfying throwing session in pottery, I would have struggled a lot more than I did. Though, the week did not end without tears.

I realize sometimes that I almost let pottery slip through my fingers. It would have been easy in the beginning to do the thing I used to do: not try, or not follow through on something that I knew I was not going to be good at right away, or at all. I was very discouraged that initial semester.

I think if I had started pottery even just two years ago, I might have given up in those early months. Might have powered miserably through the first semester and never taken another class. Might have told myself “You’re never going to get the hang of this. You’re too uncoordinated. It’s too hard.”

When I was feeling frustrated and like I wasn’t learning fast enough during that first semester, I bought a wheel, a cheap model I ordered online. I practiced at home. I reduced the amount of time I was “failing” publicly. In a way, I outsmarted myself. I knew the biggest obstacles to continuing with pottery were the feelings that everyone was better at this (and many were; there were a lot of returning students) and the huge—though needless—embarrassment I felt that I was slow to acquire skills and techniques everyone seemed to possess already. Even the other new people seemed to learn faster than me. But practicing at home, privately messing up and starting over and over, was what enabled me to get more comfortable with the clay, and with myself. In a way, I was battling a lot in myself. There was a part of me who desperately wanted to keep doing this, keep trying, get better. Keep playing. And there was the uncomfortable, anxious, critical part of me who fought back. That part is vulnerable and self-protective, and I have been working so hard to heal it. I couldn’t tell myself to just toughen up and push through, though. Pottery—or, a deep longing to explore this medium—both encouraged and enabled me to have these two disparate parts of myself start working together.

First, I had to stop telling myself never. I stopped saying, “you’ll never figure this out; you’ll never be good at this.” Instead, I’d ask people how long they’d been doing pottery. I’d gauge how long it might take me to feel more proficient, and I introduced the term yet into the way I talked to myself about my efforts. I haven’t learned that yet. I haven’t mastered that yet.

So what was the difference? How was I finally able to get to a point of mediating between these two competing parts of myself, both very childlike, one wounded and wary, one playful and enthusiastic? How did I not fall into the usual trap of avoiding something I couldn’t excel at quickly? It’s hard to pin it down, but I think one reason this lesson finally “took”—after years of similar internal battles—was because of the things I’d been learning about myself after my last breakup. I told myself a lot of things in that relationship that did not serve me. One of them being that I had to make it work because I was 50. I had reached the cutoff point I’d given myself. I didn’t want to start over with someone new. I tried so hard to mold myself into who I needed to be to make that relationship work, except, that person was a shadow-me. That person couldn’t, or wouldn’t express what she needed, and felt like she ought to not need anything at all, since needy was bad, right? But when it began to feel all too incongruous with who I was, I talked myself into changing course. I talked with my partner about what I needed and hoped for, and it soon became clear that we weren’t good fit after all.

One of the lessons I learned from that experience, the one that helped me stay in pottery, was to stop saying things to myself that make things worse. Just as I needed to stop telling myself to “make it work” in that relationship, I also need to stop telling myself that I’d never be able to center the clay or pull up walls or make a cylinder. I needed to stop saying that I’d never be able to do it or never be good enough.

At the end of the relationship, the incongruous feeling I was having centered around the me I knew I was, and the me I was telling myself I needed to be to make the relationship work. By the time I was taking that first semester of pottery class, I was starting to get more and more comfortable with listening to myself, to watching out for what made me feel less like myself (whether it was my own words or someone else’s). What was incongruous that first semester was the part of me saying give up. Most of me didn’t want to give up. But I had to have a long, difficult talk with that other part of myself who kept saying I should.

[Disclaimer: there are obviously times when it makes sense to try with everything you’ve got to make a relationship work! There are plenty of relationships worth fighting for. The ones that are worth that effort are those in which you do not have to be someone you aren’t for it to work. Yes, both parties should be willing to compromise, but you compromise about preferences, choices, behaviors, not who you are, and not the essentials of what you need. Some key questions (among many) to ask yourself: Is it safe to be myself? Am I becoming less of who I am in this relationship? And are my efforts to improve the relationship being matched and reciprocated? No relationship is worth disappearing over, and both people should be giving it everything they’ve got.]

Sometimes in my current pottery class, I still get overwhelmed with how much I don’t know. Sometimes it feels like beautiful, endless, possibility and other times I feel small and uncreative and like I can’t tap into whatever it is I need to in order to grow, to feel like I’m as much of an artist as the other people in the studio. I still feel like I’m learning rudimentary skills. But after a great throwing day, where I pushed myself and made some larger pieces, I took a look at everything I threw and thought, I’m a potter. I’ve said it before, even put it in a dating profile, but this was the first time I’d thought it and felt it. It took eleven months to get to that point, and it has been worth the effort.

I love it when a metaphor presents itself to me. I used to say that running is a metaphor for everything, and it is. So is pottery. The world is full of metaphors rushing to in to help you understand the meaning of effort and beauty and reward and . . . self. How we return to ourselves is one of the most important journeys we can ever embark on. Wishing you peace and insight as you find your journey, and the metaphors that become your maps.

Love, Cath

On Weeds and Water and Honeycomb Hearts

By Catherine DiMercurio

When I started this blog, I described it this way: “This is the chronicle of a journey many of us find ourselves on — the search for meaning in all the things that break our hearts and all the things that make them whole again.”

All my life, I’ve had this sense that searching for meaning and purpose was something I needed to do. Something I did do, whether or not I wanted to. It just happened. Just like some brains are intrinsically focused on the mechanics of how things work, mine is and was focused on what things mean. Not just what do they mean for me, but what do they mean cosmically. As in, why is the world this way instead of that way, or what does this particular detail mean within the larger context of the world, the universe.

The grasping toward our understanding of our place in the universe necessarily encompasses a grasping toward an understanding of the universe itself. I am ill-equipped to do this, save for a couple of philosophy courses in college.

Helpfully (?), the world we have built as humans is focused on goals and milestones, so that my perpetual and at times frantic efforts to understand the cosmos were redirected toward practical things like education, marriage, parenthood. I poured my search for larger meaning into finding granular meaning in my choices and pursuits. When I became a mother, though, I felt as though these two separate, higher- and lower-level searches had merged. Everything clicked, in a way. I felt cosmically connected to these two souls, and also, in a very real way, I was responsible for their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. Motherhood was rarely easy, and I remember being surprised and disappointed that it didn’t come more naturally to me. I thought I would understand intrinsically how to soothe a crying baby, or make peace with a frustrated toddler, or advise an angsty teen. But the work, as challenging as it was, felt hugely important. I never regarded the children themselves as mine but they were in my care; the work was mine; the honor of raising them was mine.

I was writing too, during these years, and got a novel published when the kids were six and four. I felt like this was it. Life was what it was supposed to be. I was doing it: pursuing a meaningful creative/professional goal and being a good mom and a good wife.

Later, after I became a single mom, the way I parented changed, but what hadn’t changed was that the kids were my number one focus. They were fourteen and twelve at the time of the divorce. There was a lot of parenting left to do. But last summer was the last time the last child lived at home. The day he left, my frantic search for meaning ignited again. It just happened. I knew that I was still needed by and connected to my kids as their mother, but everything was different now. And we all knew it.

I’ve spent the past year trying to better understand who I am now, and who I was, and who I want to be. I’ve tried to fashion that into my purpose. I’ve focused on my writing, I’ve focused on dog training, I’ve focused on learning a new skill/art with my pottery. All of these are good things, and I’ve grown and I will continue to pursue them.

But at the same time, all these things feel more like places to channel my energy but less like the sense of purpose I possessed when mothering was a daily activity.  

I am trying to be patient with myself.

I know that now that the twenty years of nitty gritty parenting are over, I tend to suffuse that time with a certain glow. Still, I haven’t forgotten all the difficult parts: when I felt like a horrible mother and that I was ruining everything for everyone; when I just wanted to leave for a little while because it was too hard and I never got a chance to even finish a thought or have three seconds to breathe alone; days when I was quite certain that one or both of the kids hated me and always would; times when I didn’t know how any of us would ever feel healed and whole again, and the terrifying realization that we could all drown if I could not figure out how to inflate the raft with my exhausted, heart-broken breaths. No one has forgotten how hard it was.

But still, looking back, I see how the sense of deep purpose I always felt—that strange, alchemical comingling of love and purpose, duty and wonder—helped get us through. I say helped because I did not do it alone. I had friends and family I began to learn to lean on. And my kids are stronger and more resilient than I’ll ever be. I’m proud of them and all the work that they’ve done. And I’m proud of myself, and as a person who has struggled with self-confidence and self-trust, that is a huge thing for me to believe, to voice.

And now in this moment, there is a freedom here, and it is taking up a larger space than I expected it to. It isn’t just about time, as in, now I have more time for writing, or for exploring new things. It’s different, multi-dimensional, so unfamiliar and so full of something, power? that I feel uneasy stepping into it. Within, I imagine, is all the me-ness that there wasn’t much time or energy for before.

I’ve been trying to think of the best way to describe this new sensation, this freedom that seems to be taking up more space than I thought was available. The way large, leafy weeds don’t just take up the space allowed by the crack in the driveway pavement, they expand the space. But it feels more like my heart is a honeycomb that keeps being added on to by something busy inside me, and the result is I keep recognizing myself in different places. Do you ever have that feeling where you look at a photo of yourself and it doesn’t look like all the other curated images you or someone else has taken? You look at it and think there I am. Or, do you ever that moment, upon arriving at a location where something clicks into place, and you are suddenly relaxed and energized all at once, and you think this. I needed this. For me that photo was the one I took of myself at the pottery studio. And that place is usually by large body of water.

Photo by David Hablu00fctzel on Pexels.com

Lately I’m experiencing all of that, more and more. It feels akin to the existential wandering my soul did when I was a child. I have a very distinct memory (which I’ve written about, here) of trying to understand my self-ness within this existence, as if part of me could comprehend I was something larger and freer than what my current body was containing, and I wanted to have both, the knowledge of who I was in this time and place, and the knowledge of the larger self that was struggling to understand its physical containment in this vessel, this me. It’s like that now. It’s like I’m close to getting it. I am trying to relax and let it all align.

I used to think that maybe I had to let go of one thing—a past version of myself—before I could step into the next iteration. But maybe that’s not the case. Maybe we get closer and closer to being able to hold all the versions of ourselves in place at a time. Maybe we are the honeycombs, and the bees, and the honey all at once.

Love, Cath

On Clumsiness and Singing Loudly and Off-Key

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes, I wonder if these posts are too small, too personal, when one considers the chaos in the world right now. And, they very well might be. But in the middle of the chaos we are also navigating our own lives, our own ups and downs, and I don’t know if we can help each other or not, but I feel as though we should try and compare notes, share maps and routes, even though the interior world I’m trying to understand is a different one than yours. So, perhaps it is more about strategies and empathy.

It was a difficult week. I have felt more reactive than usual, less calm. We all have old wounds from the past that sometimes find a way of reopening when we don’t expect them to. I’ve written before about the way some wounds are always with us and we have to keep trying to find ways to live with them, especially after we’ve put in years of work trying to heal them only to find out how easily they sometimes make themselves felt again.

A few days ago, I was walking to the auto shop to pick up my car after having the radiator replaced. The sun was shining cheerfully in that early autumn way it does when they air is just starting to get chilly. I noted this, more as a scientific observation than a sensation or experience that brought me joy, as it usually does. I was having a bad day, battling fears that, in truth, had no reason for existing. But sometimes, they exist anyway. Sometimes, a conversation or situation reminds you just enough, even if only by a sliver, of something from long ago, and the dormant fear sees that sliver as an opening to get a foothold again, and you spend time and energy trying to demuddle past and present, fear and not-fear.

As I was walking my feet itched and I had the urge to run and I felt so cold despite that cheerful sun and I thought about how tired I was. I thought about how some fear-pain responses are not things that you can run away from, nor are they things you can hide from; you just have to keep staring them down whenever they rise up, and I remembered again my fatigue. And how it all made me feel like I didn’t know what to do, though there was nothing to do. But it felt like something in me was readying me to fight, filling me with anxiety and adrenaline.

And then, there is no place to put it, because there is nothing to fight now.

And then, to be completely inelegant, what remains is only this greasy fat blob of emotional sludge to deal with. And that takes time.

And we wonder, how long will the people we love be patient, and can they keep loving us the next time we find ourselves ready for a battle that doesn’t exist? And we wonder, how can we wonder that? That’s not how love works. But we also remember, it did work that way once, when we called it love but it was really something different.

I made it to the auto shop and paid my six hundred sixty-two dollars and drove home. I tried to look at the emotional stumbles of the week like a messy room that will never be completely ordered. It would be easy to close the door and pretend it didn’t exist. But it does. Sometimes we have to be calm and brave enough to walk by and glance in, and keep walking. And sometimes we have to be even braver and walk in, and sort through the messes for a little while, even though the window we decided to leave open because we need fresh air allows in the gusts of wind that leave everything strewn like scattered leaves again.

Photo by Simon Matzinger on Pexels.com

My messy day progressed, and I still tripped and stumbled through the messiness. Until I didn’t. I found scraps of normal, and I found empathy, and I found that the feeling of ringing-in-my-ears-except-not-my-ears finally quieted.

It is easy to feel too small, too tired, too messy. I remind myself to be loud, but sometimes it comes out wrong. I remind myself that strong and loud are different, that I am not composed of the detritus cluttering the messy room.

The past creates such noisy whispers. Maybe sometimes I’m just trying to be louder than that. Sometimes we believe in completely fictional versions of ourselves written by everyone except us.

What drowns out whispers and erases fictions?  Maybe it’s just me, singing loudly and off-key.

At the same time, singing through it only gets us so far. It helps us be brave sometimes, or distracted enough to not be bothered. But we also have to face that the things that snag us impact our relationships, with our families, friends, our partner. And even if we allow that a particular wound within us is easily reopened, and no amount of trying to “fix” ourselves changes that, it doesn’t mean we get to leave the wound unadministered to. It means we have to stop sometimes, and talk ourselves through things, or, that we have to have uneasy conversations with others when talking ourselves through isn’t enough.

I’ve always been clumsy and always been told to pay attention. I am, to so many things. Sometimes we trip anyway, and there will always be skinned knees and hearts to tend to.

Sometimes, we simply must treat our wounds, again, and there is no reason we cannot treat ourselves with kindness and patience in the process, rather than judgment or resentment or anger. There is a softness maybe that we can let in, with acceptance. Maybe, when we feel something hurting that doesn’t seem like it should be, we can just say, oh, this again, sometimes this hurts, I need to lie down for a little while, I need a hug, a cup of tea, a walk. Maybe if we don’t feel compelled to judge the pain for existing it will have a little less control over our emotions and we can move forward with a little more grace. It’s okay, we can tell ourselves, each other. Everything’s going to be okay.

And it is, and it will be.

Love, Cath

On Fear and Shelter, Reckoning and Work

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you offer shelter, sometimes you seek it, sometime it is the same thing.

“I’m making hash browns. Do you want some?” My son asked me this morning. He is a good roommate. I think back to a time when I didn’t have any roommates. It has been a couple of decades and it wasn’t for long. At times, I’m wistful, at times excited. I know my son and I are both ready for the next part, his moving, though we will surely miss one another.

I hesitate to embrace summer’s waning. I want to stay here a bit, getting settled into the new house and enjoying my son’s company before he leaves for college. But many of my actions are guided by the coming change of season. I work in the yard, envisioning the space as it might look in the future. I try to prune and nurture what I inherited with the purchase of the house, and gently guide growth into a slightly different direction. There is much work to do indoors, but it can wait. Focusing on the outside tasks when the weather is good is what calls to me right now.

The summer-to-fall transition does not come gently when school years factor in. The late August move-in date for my son is insisting on itself as a turning point. We have gone from feeling as if there is so much time left to understanding that everything held within the current balance is about to shift.

We were running some errands recently, and as we drove, our conversation took a serious turn, as our talks lately do. We discussed fears and anxieties, his and mine. I recalled a stumbled-upon observation stored in my memory from long ago: we create what we fear.

Though I acknowledge the power of fear to shape reality, I don’t always know what to do about it. We wondered, my son and I, how do you simply stop being afraid of something? We ran through the most obvious options: you face it, or you remind yourselves of the times you’ve faced something similar before and triumphed, or at least, survived.

But what does facing something really mean, and, what if, having faced something and overcome it, you find yourself just as afraid as you were before, because it was every bit as painful or as challenging as you imagined it would be? We both talked about the ways you keep working and trying, because, what else can you do. Without much of a segue, we turned our conversation to dinner options.

I love that he and I can talk about such things. I wish I had better, or any, guidance for him. Or me. Still, I take comfort in the fact that conversations like these exist, if nothing else, as shelter.

brown wooden cottage at the field during day
Photo by Simon Matzinger on Pexels.com

Sometimes though, I wonder if I have had the reckoning with myself that I should. How often do we look squarely at ourselves and admit our shortcomings? I do not mean to suggest that the fears my son and I were discussing are flaws. We all have fears; it is a part of being human and it would be cruel and unnecessary to fault ourselves for what rises up within us intrinsically and sometimes irrationally.

But I do think that the way we respond to our fears can impact other people in negative ways. Our individual fear-response has the power to alter the shape of our interactions. Sometimes, without us even noticing, it transforms us into different iterations of ourselves. We may grow anxious and panicked; paranoid and judgmental; withdrawn; distant; angry. We may also quietly retreat and keep up a façade of normalcy and hope no one notices, though they often do. The work of it all, for so many of us, is learning how to stop such reactions – regardless of whether they are a chain reaction of thoughts or brain chemistry or both – and respond consciously and positively and calmly to ourselves instead.

This is easier said than done, in my experience, however worthwhile the endeavor may be. Quite honestly, the only effective strategy I have found is a combination of attentiveness to, and patience with, myself. And oh, how grateful I am for the patience, as well as empathy, that is extended to me by those who love me, who understand me, who are similarly introspective and cognizant and earnestly endeavoring. I’ve written about this here before, and I’ll do so again. Never underestimate the power of giving and receiving the gifts of patience and empathy. Talk about shelter!

[Let us pause here a moment and acknowledge some truth. Let us note that there are very few people in this world who are willing and able to not only meet us where we are, but who likewise open up space and allow us to do the same for them. Let us candidly and generously say thank you to those with whom we are able to build the shelters that inspire us to simultaneously feel safe and to grow. Thank you, Ian.]

Still, for some of us, it remains difficult to be empathetic with ourselves. It is easy to be critical, to wish we were different, to witness the way others seem to gracefully move through life and to long for a more peaceful inner world, one that naturally exists that way, rather than one that must be vigilantly attended to. It is like having a house plant whose precise need for light and water can’t be discerned. Maybe it’s better near that window, does it like long drinks once a week, or a little bit of water every other day, is it dying, is that a new leaf?

Sometimes I marvel at how much stumbling is involved in growth, at how much journeying is accomplished between steps. I don’t truly know if feeling well and growing is harder now than it used to be, or if it is simply the case that I’m working at it more earnestly or paying closer attention to the process.

I remind myself that we are like those perennials that flower repeatedly through the summer, rather than those that are all show and glory once and then are done.

How delighted I am by impatiens and their habitual blossoming, how understood I feel by a plant whose name reminds me of one of my least wonderful traits.

Love, Cath

On Works-in-Progress

By Catherine DiMercurio

For most of my life, home has looked like backyards sutured together with chain link. Neighborhoods comprised of various parts, various wholes, my yard, shared fence, our block. As I was growing up, summertime smelled like charcoal smoldering on grills. We stuck our toes into the gooey tar that mended fissures in the street in front of our house.

gray metal chain link fence close up photo
Photo by Kendall Hoopes on Pexels.com

One of the days I was working at the new house, before I moved, I smelled a neighbor’s charcoal grill and thought of my dad, tending ours when I was little, and I had the sense of returning, as if I’d just peddled home as fast as I could because the street lights were coming on and I heard my father’s distinctive get your asses home now whistle. I’ve chatted with new neighbors across old fencing, and have had thought about how easy it is to feel both at home and out of place amidst the almost familiar.

This morning I arose after waking too early and trying futilely to get back to sleep. There are still boxes to unpack, things I can’t find. At times, when fatigued or overwhelmed, I get unreasonably melancholy. I fret over the fact that I cannot fix things to their proper places here so far. Is this where the coffee cups should go? Why is it so difficult to buy a couch? The kitchen table seems right though, so that’s a beginning.

Sometimes, though I’ve only just begun sleeping here several nights ago, it feels as though I’m only borrowing the place for a little while, though we have put in so many hours and dollars to make it feel new, mine. I hope she likes it when she gets here.

I sort of thought the house would let me know what it wanted somehow. But it’s still making me do all of the work.

This sense of almost being home is perhaps exacerbated by that looming birthday, though I don’t place a lot of stock in fifty as a milestone, despite the countless ways the world says I should. I’m expected to know by now exactly if I’m going to keep coloring my greys or not, and I’m supposed to know why. I’m supposed to not care what people think, and know precisely what I think about this or that or everything. I’m supposed to know more, know me, or, I’m supposed to know how much I don’t know and embrace that.

Perhaps I’m as much almost home as I am almost me.

I do know a few things. I know that possibly I might never stop being at least a little afraid that the good things will slip away if I don’t pay close enough attention. Vigilance and worry aren’t the same as spells of protection, but I whisper incantations nonetheless. Things weren’t always so, and though I can pinpoint the exact moment when this circuit in my brain was tripped, it doesn’t seem to mean that I can access an easy remedy for it. It does mean that there is work to do, and that’s okay. Everyone has their own work to do, and it changes as we go, and as with homes, the work is never quite done, and timelines are a bit unnecessary and perhaps even unhelpful. We must be both patient and diligent, with ourselves and with each other.

I know also how the extent to which love makes so much of this so much easier, possible, fulfilling. Though I sometimes struggle with my shortcomings, though we all do, having those we love supporting us, while we offer the same loving support in return, is what stitches together our little communities of you, me, us. So much of the world around us is mended and bound together and I love the way we mend each other and bind ourselves to one another through kindness and gestures, glances, kisses, effort, words, all of it, all of us.

I don’t always know the best way to tackle the work that needs to be done, and it seems all too easy sometimes to see task after task piling up, to get overwhelmed and undone about it all. I’m trying, in this new almost-home place to give myself the space to figure it out, to get closer to where and how I want to be, to have a little more patience with myself with regard to work in progress. It’s the kindest thing we can do for ourselves, and each other.

Love, Cath

A Brief Note on the Liminal and Limitless

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you have to take a moment to float.

When I woke this morning after the first decent night of sleep in over a week, I had a moment of being amazed that it can get so cool at night during this intense heat wave. It was like a breath of clarity in the midst of confusion and chaos. Life has been confusing and chaotic lately. My one-month furlough began several days ago, and it has been a month since I closed on my new house. In that time there has been a tremendous amount of intense effort and endeavoring to ready the new house to be lived in, and I’ve been both guided by and partnered with my love, who can see things that I cannot, who can sense what can be, what shouldn’t be, what might be. Walls have been removed and every surface cared for. We’re getting there.

white clouds and blue sky
Photo by Swapnil Sharma on Pexels.com

I’ve always told myself I’m bad at transitions. From the simplest goodbye, see you later, to the larger-scale move from city to city. Liminal spaces, no matter how big or how small are filled with unknowns, and while unknowns are not necessarily frightening in and of themselves, I’ve always been keenly aware of them. Of their numbers, of their depths. I can feel myself searching sometimes, the way your toes reach for the sandy bottom of the lake bed when swimming. I am awestruck by the limitless, by everything that seems without boundary or border, the night sky, love, deep water, work, forests, fire, joy. It is not fear that strikes me when I contemplate the unknown, though I fear it is taken as such. It is the unbounded nature of the possibilities – good, bad, or otherwise – that yawn open upon a kiss goodbye, the soft thump of the screen door, the boxing up of books and dishes, the zipping of a backpack. It is simply that there is so much.

There is an unbounded universe of next and sometimes I feel as though I am somehow trying to take it all in at once, like a vista glimpsed too quickly from a moving car, like breathing in the ocean, like seeing what the clouds taste like. I like the hug that lingers, that offers me one more breath of this, of now, of known.

As I plot out the next few days of work at the house, and packing at the old, and consider all that is enjambed within those phrases, I take a moment to float in this morning of transition, instead of reaching toward the sandy bottom. To appreciate how thoughtfully and thoroughly I’ve been buoyed by love through all of this.

There is more to say, and/but much work to do. Taste the clouds and/but enjoy that hug for one breath longer.

Love, Cath

On Hermit Crabs and Habits

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we seek ourselves in our habits.

A few days ago, as I was out walking, I decided to see how running felt again. It had been a while, and when I was a little younger it was easy to start again after a lull. I’ve noticed in the past few years that getting back up to speed has taken longer, been a little more clunky. So, I took it slow. I interspersed some running into the walk and it felt like maybe I’d do it again. I ordered new shoes the next day. At the same time, I know how easy it is for me to fall out of the habit when life gets busy, and I wonder, if I loved it so much why does that happen? And I wonder, is wanting to try again more of an effort to connect the current me to a past version of me? Perhaps I am seeking running again, because it makes me feel strong, and I need evidence of strength right now.

With all the transition happening related to moving, which I’ve been writing about here for some time, I am feeling very vulnerable in many ways. I was sitting at my desk trying to work and I kept thinking of hermit crabs, and what I remembered of them from the Eric Carle story about the hermit crab, a children’s book I had read to my children long ago. They live in discarded shells from other sea creatures. When they outgrow one shell, they must leave it behind and find another more suitable one. I’ve been ruminating about this period of exposure, the seeking, the being in-between places. I think of this current house not so much as something I’ve outgrown, but as something with a shape better suited for another family. I’ve evolved differently, and it has been fitting awkwardly these days, as familiar as it is. Maybe that’s why I’m in search of some external marker of strength, as I’m moving between shells and the exposure is getting to me.

crab macro hermit hermit crab
Photo by William LeMond on Pexels.com

Sometimes I feel that we are evaluated in the same way that we explore a prospective new space. It is a relief to be recognized as something having both potential and current value, even when all our flaws are on display, as they especially are when the stress of transition exposes us.

I think too of the way humans in general move into someone else’s former shelter and make it their own. Some people do build houses specifically to suit their own tastes, but in general we search for something that will do the job. We fit ourselves into a space and are constrained by external factors like cost and availability, yet within such parameters we try to find something that suits our personality and our needs. We seek out something that mostly fits and we adapt.

I suspect many of us feel like hermit crabs right now, tucked away in a home that might be starting to feel too small, even if the fit seemed just fine early in March. Inside our homes we make attempts at keeping up habits that feel good, discarding some, taking on new ones. I try to keep writing, keep up with that habit. I’m revisiting the running habit. I imagine what these activities will look like in my new house, which I now can visualize. It’s there waiting for me, pending paperwork. Or any other disaster that a worrier like me can easily imagine.

Our habits are a huge part of our ability to adapt to new circumstances. We talk a lot these days about “normal” and “new normal.” But I don’t think we participate in various habits because they make our lives feel normal. I think we do them because they make us feel like ourselves. Washing the dishes in my new house will help acclimatize me to the new space, the performance of a routine domestic activity that says life goes on, here in this space now, instead of there and then. But the things that will help me to truly adapt will be cooking for people I love, writing, gardening, exploring the new neighborhood on walks and runs. We have habits that are integral to who we are, for better or worse, and our personal evolution is tied to which ones we hold on to and which ones we let go of. And we all have some we wish to let go of. I find it very easy to lose myself in an anxiety loop and I don’t know how much of that is a conscious embrace of a habit, or a chemical stress response I don’t have much control over. I think it is both – first one, then the other, so I continue to work on what I can control, I work on letting go of the habit, and I look forward to seeing if it’s easier to do in a new environment.

All this leads me to consider how much our homes make us who we are. Do they? Or are they reflections of who we are? Perhaps the answer is both, first one, then the other, but I don’t know which comes first. Perhaps this is another way we are like the hermit crab. We are this version of ourselves in one space.

We are what we inhabit.

And then we inch toward something else, changing either something about our home to better suit us, or finding a new space all together. We inch forward, we adapt, we inhabit a new version of ourselves, here and now.

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.

big waves
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