On Seedlings, Rip Currents, and New Things

By Catherine DiMercurio

Solitude is one of those gifts that doesn’t always feel like one. There is much delight in self-discovery, but the responsibility to make the most of this time can be troubling. Yet in the absence of other humans to react to and with on a daily basis there is a freedom to observe ourselves, to re-learn what makes us tick.

For me, this prolonged period of solitude has provided the opportunity to ask questions. What does being me look like when I am not in the mode of daily parenting or in a state of being partnered? In a way, being in solitude is like being the control group in an experiment about my own identity.

Here, I have the time and space to observe what affects my mood, my sense of well-being. What stressors alter the course of my day, how do I respond to them? How did I respond differently when I lived with my children, when I was with a partner? What do I like about the way that I live and think and feel, and what would I like to improve?

Here is something I’m learning about growth. Imagine one of those old, time-lapsed photography videos of a germinating seedling, the way it pushes through the dirt up to the warm sunlight and begins to unfurl. I wish my growth was like that, unconscious and inevitable, rooted in the instinct to move toward the light. When a human chooses to pursue growth—emotional, psychological, relational, etc.—they bump up against obstacles that can feel more troublesome than the soil a seedling faces. We must move through them somehow to get to where we want to go. It is not an instinctual movement with a clear direction. For many, growth requires confronting fears, and most fears stem from old wounds, from past relationships that reach all the way back through our childhoods. Our growth often requires that we dig down before we can inch up.

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One of the things I have learned about myself is about the way I pursue things, or avoid pursuing them. Sometimes I can’t sink my teeth into something that intimidates me until I have run out of all the excuses to avoid trying. Sometimes I can’t truly let go of someone—even after the relationship has ended—until I have exhausted myself trying to figure out why it didn’t work. Things take as long as they take. Especially because we have to live life at the same time we are doing this work.

We owe ourselves these searches, these explorations of wounds to be done grieving, of lessons to be learned. But it’s hard and we need to take breaks. And the work does not have an exclusive claim to our time. We have other things to do. I have a full-time job, writing goals, hobbies, dogs who are strangely like best friends half the time, and mysterious toddler-like creatures with a never-ending set of demands the other half.

Some people seem better equipped to live in the moment. I feel as though I’m almost ready for whatever moment I find myself in, I just have to think about a few more things first.

In having all this time to myself, I decided it was time to learn something new. I had two aims in mind: learn the new thing, and, to learn something about myself in the process. One of the reasons I wanted to learn the new thing is that I have begun to understand the extent to which I have lost myself in past relationships. So, I am exploring the lost self, the remaining self. Further, I have a duty to undertake this exploration openly and honestly, to side-step self-criticism, and to nurture myself through this process with as much care as I would treat anyone who is going through transition or transformation.

The new thing, if you’ve read any of my recent blog posts, is pottery. It is an artform rich in metaphor. It is an artform where proficiency is elusive. Developing even rudimentary skills is challenging, more so than I ever imagined. Instead of being able to feel relaxed, or excited, or joyful, or curious about learning this new thing, I have found with dismay that I’m often frustrated or anxious. It is a disappointing reaction. I try not to be disappointed. I try to dig. Anxiety tries to point us in certain directions. Just like pain is our body’s way of telling us something is wrong, our anxiety is a way of our brain telling us that something is off. Certainly, there is nothing much actually dangerous about pottery, so why was I reacting this way, with so much worry? Was it more than just wanting to do well and struggling to get there?

I was about to head to the pottery studio and my anxiety was jangling so loudly it felt like I could hear my teeth rattle. Instead of ignoring it, or trying to distract myself, or telling myself to knock it off, I decided to talk myself through it. I asked myself a series of questions that kept whittling down the issue to a couple of difficult past experiences (long past!) and the years of emotional residue they left. I let myself experience the emotions those memories brought with them.

Sometimes anxiety makes us feel as we are in current danger even though our brains are remembering something else. So, this time, I tried to be aware of what was remembered, and feel it, and understand it, and forgive myself and the people around me. Miraculously, the anxiety that had gripped me so tightly evaporated. I didn’t realize it at first. I just found myself packing my tools, and I sensed that I felt better, calmer. I went in and spent three hours making a lot of mistakes on the wheel and when I was finished, I didn’t feel terrible about the mistakes as I had done in the past. I thought, this is great; my hands are getting used to how the clay feels, how it behaves. I was able to enjoy the process of failure.

If you’ve ever swum in Lake Michigan you may have seen the signs posted about dangerous rip currents, and how they pull unsuspecting swimmers away from the shore. The signs instruct you, should you get caught in a rip current, to swim parallel to the beach, so that you can get out of the rip current, before heading back to shore. Though I have never experienced a rip current, this is what anxiety sometimes feels like. There is no current (immediate) danger, but there is current danger (danger of getting pulled under and away by the current). The moment when I started asking myself questions about the anxiety that I felt was key. I took it seriously and didn’t panic. I realized that while I was not in imminent danger physically, I was in danger of the anxiety taking over, pushing me under. My questions allowed me the opportunity to swim parallel to the shore. Arriving at the studio in a calm state was much better than having to fight the jangling the whole time.  

While pottery is the new thing I am using to try and learn about myself as I learn about the art itself, life is going to give us all other new things. I think it is important to try and understand ourselves so that when things come our way, we know what to do with them, how to handle them, what holds us back, what pushes us under, what moves us forward.

I have a Post-it note stuck to my computer monitor. It reads: curiosity. I’m trying to let that guide me. To be curious rather than skeptical about new things and to wander through this part of my life with the open-heartedness with which I started the blog in the first place. Happy wandering! May your next new thing be good to you.

Love, Cath

On Pottery, Pressure, and Place

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the pressure we feel is part of the process.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Clay and Conversation

By Catherine DiMercurio

So much of life depends on how you look at things.

I don’t mean seeing things from a different angle in order to guide yourself toward a more positive perspective. I mean new experiences sometimes hand you a metaphor and give you a way to contemplate something more deeply or fruitfully than you have before.

Recently, my daughter and I took a trial wheel-throwing pottery class. It was something we’d both wanted to try for a long time. I was nervous about investing time and money into a semester-long class without first having some idea about how I would feel about working with this medium, so the two-hour workshop format appealed to me.

On the drive over to the studio, I had a strange thought. I was feeling anxious and as I dug around in that feeling I realized part of it was because I did not want to disappoint the instructor, some person I’d never met before. Why on earth would I care about that? Maybe I didn’t want them to think that my inability to follow directions, or create “properly” meant that they were not doing their job well. I wanted to be a good student so they could feel like a good teacher. It was also part of my people-pleasing mentality. [The reasons people do this are varied and complex. Sometimes it is because we’ve lived with emotionally volatile people and we learn to not make waves. Sometimes it is because we need others to think well of ourselves since we have a hard time doing that on our own. This is often a result of us having internalized messages—religious, cultural, societal messages—in such a way that we feel it is necessary to prove that we are, in fact, good people.]

Still, I tried to shelve these ancient worries. I wanted to focus on having fun with my daughter and learning something new. I wanted to prove to myself that I could.

As it happened, my daughter and I were both feeling a little anxious, because it’s normal to feel that way when you’re trying out something you’ve never done before. But once we walked into the studio, met the owners and their dog, and toured the space, I began to feel more relaxed. Shelves of drying cups and bowls and vases, pale stoneware waiting to be glazed. Gorgeous curved and sumptuous shapes. Rows and rows of completed, glazed work, waiting for students to collect them. Oh, the glazes. I love glazes. I wish I had the vocabulary to describe them, understood their chemical composition. Reddish browns, honeyed golds, pale bronzy greens. It all washed over me. I felt both calm and exhilarated. I love that hard-to-come-by feeling.

I couldn’t wait to feel the clay beneath my fingers, to begin to see how it responded to the corresponding forces of my touch and the movement of the wheel. I’d watched enough of a British pottery competition program to imagine what it might be like but now I’d be getting my own hands dirty and trying it out.

One of the owners, Mike, sat down at the wheel and talked us through various processes and techniques. And then suddenly we were doing it. Mike helped when we weren’t sure if our clay was centered, or if a bowl was widening to the point of collapse. He was a good guide.

I wasn’t shockingly good at it for a beginner, though I really wanted to be! I may not have uncovered a hidden talent, but I also did not uncover the disaster I’d been fearing. This wasn’t gym class, and I wasn’t unbelievably horrible at it, as I was with most sports. Have you ever been so bad at something that people are embarrassed for you? Not fun. But here, in the studio, I did have fun, and so did my daughter.

There was some kind of perfect little relief in the newness of it all. A bliss in getting to believe in something else, a different kind of space, a different kind of making. I think my daughter and I both experienced that and it felt important to be able to share that with her.

In the days since the class, one of the things I’ve reflected on is the notion of conversation. Working with the clay, my hands had to be in conversation with one another. They didn’t simply work “together.” They worked in harmony and in response to one another. It is different than say, playing a musical instrument, where your hands are working together, but each is performing a separate task. In building a bowl on the wheel, my hands had to talk to each other, listen to each other, in order to create something together. It was impossible not to see this as a beautiful metaphor for what I hope to one day find in a relationship. If you are not working together, focused on the relationship you’re creating, it will not hold together, things will spin out of control. You must want the same thing. You might end up making something different than what you intended at the beginning, but you’re in on it together. And unless there is a cooperative, positive effort, it won’t be anything at all.

Because my brain works the way it does, I seized upon this metaphor and tried applying it retroactively to past relationships that did not turn into what I’d hoped they would. Maybe this was the way I could make sense of how things happened the way they did. The pottery metaphor provided an effective lens with which to view things and helped me to remind myself of why those things didn’t work out.  

I’ll be honest. Sometimes I need a new way to look at an old thing I’ve been turning around endlessly in my head. The ending of relationships is hard. Grief is real, full, and deep, no matter how much you believe that the ending was necessary. I often find myself reciting the stories and their endings back to myself, so I remember, so I don’t repeat past mistakes. So that, if I’m lucky enough to get a next time, I get to keep it. Grief takes up a lot of space in a heart. In a way, we remain in conversation with our grief, long after the loss that caused it.

Another thing about conversation is that in the past I’ve mistaken emotional or intellectual connection for emotional intimacy. It’s all about conversation, but they are not the same things. We have to look closely and see if what we are offering to our partner is what we are being offered in return. There were times that I was not actually having the conversation that I thought I was. Things take time to reveal themselves. People do. We all try to be the best versions of ourselves when we want something to work out. But we can’t keep that up indefinitely. And one person’s idea of something “working out” can be very different from another’s and in the absence of emotional intimacy it might take a while to figure that out. We may think we are building something with a partner, but unless we are in true conversation with one another, one hand might be trying to create a saucer while the other is trying to make a vase.

Another lesson here for me is about a new kind of open heartedness. It took a bit of pushing myself to decide to take this class. I must remember to do that sometimes, to nudge myself into action, into new ways of looking at things. I admire people who can jump into new things without the anxiety that sometimes holds me back. At the same time, I love that these experiences for me feel special, wonderous, even, given that it wasn’t easy for me to approach them.

We all come at the world and all it has to offer differently, but I don’t believe that there are methods that are superior to others. We go at our own pace and are rewarded in the ways that feel meaningful to us. And we learn the lessons we need to when we are ready for them.

After you make something at the wheel, it goes through many other steps. It air dries, then is trimmed, then dried in the kiln, and then glazed, and then fired once more. Or something like that. My daughter and I didn’t get to do those other steps—that is what the full class is for—but we did get to pick out glazes. I’m eagerly awaiting the call from the studio saying that our pieces are ready. Pottery, it seems, like everything else in my life, is trying to teach me patience.

I’m pretty sure I’m going to sign up for the full class, but the next session will begin in January, and meets for three hours on Monday nights. That’s a big commitment! But I think I’m intrigued enough to take it on.

Wishing you true conversation and a little bit of genuine bliss.

Love, Cath