On Patterns, Perspectives, and Puzzles

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes context helps us puzzle things out and find the substance behind the charm.

On the last day before taking my daughter back to college, after her short holiday visit home, we sat at the dining room table, she and my son and I, putting together a puzzle. It was a 500-piece nature scene, quite beautiful and moderately complex, and we laughed and chatted and worked silently, falling into a peace so easily we forgot about the various things we’d bickered about here and there. Tucked away, too, were the few weightier conversations we’d had, and the brief but powerful emotional storms that sweep through a household sometimes, when new transitions are on everyone’s horizons.

In the course of those few hours that we worked, on and off, we found ourselves each selecting a favorite puzzle piece. I was particularly drawn to one of the few which contained a recognizable image, a little vignette, or so it seemed to me. I liked it. It seemed to make sense on its own, independent of the bigger picture it was a part of. So little of life is like that; it so often doesn’t bother to make sense at all.

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Speaking of bigger pictures, I often get the impression that my understanding of the “bigger picture” is flawed or misguided or not fully formed. But maybe, the problem is with the very notion of the bigger picture.

We blame our perception, our perspective, we question how our shortcomings keep us from seeing things clearly sometimes, keep us from understanding our lives, our place in the world. But maybe understanding is muddied because the thing we are trying to understand is a shifting, muddy thing itself.

It’s no wonder that we sometimes flounder, that we can’t grasp how all the pieces fit together, that we are at once puzzled, and puzzle.

The afternoon of the puzzle, I found it utterly impossible to snap puzzle pieces into place without becoming overwhelmed by metaphor and wonder. Sometimes I stared at pieces blankly while my brain scrambled up ideas about identity and purpose and meaning and connection and context. Sometimes I was amazed that we were able to fit any of the pieces together, particularly the ones that were part of a uniform background, the starry dawn sky, the rush of water over rocks. We hunted for pieces, each in our own way, seeking patterns in the shapes. I wondered what it would have been like to try and work that puzzle without the picture on the box as a map.

Life is built piece by piece without context, without a map. Instead, we fashion ideas of what it is supposed to look like, in general, and for us. We look for patterns, we seek partners. We create context. We are thirsty for shape, meaning, structure.

I think all of our endeavoring, this trying to see what fits together, is what connects us and binds us in a shifting world.

We create constants, foundations we hope will withstand the shifting muddiness.

When I look at the photo I took of that puzzle piece, I’m struck by how I romanticized the image. It’s a treetop. It appears to me now less like a self-contained scene, a story within a story, as it sits isolated against a dark background. Only in proximity to a sea of other puzzle pieces does the poetry of the little piece begin to hang together. You have to see it within the context of chaos to understand its clarity.

Throughout all of this reflection, which is so unlike an unmade puzzle itself, some things manage to become clear to me. I am growing comfortable with my tendency toward romanticizing things. It no longer seems a silly or naïve trait, now that I understand it within the larger context of myself. It used to be so much a part of me that I was unaware of it as a distinct characteristic but now, because I can usually see it, I can understand it is a part of me, but not so much so a part of me that I’m blind to its effects. That is to say, I do like to be charmed. I enjoy being able to see idealized versions of things, people. In a way, it is a gift. But, gradually, I have learned to see reality and substance more clearly, too. I have learned to see beyond and around charm more clearly now than I have been able to in the past, can more readily recognize, and subsequently respect, that which we call substance. This is not to say that I’ve perfected this move. Even a practiced self-awareness takes time to become a habit. But still.

When we begin to know ourselves more fully, the way the parts are related to the whole, it can be easier to make sense of things, and not just puzzle pieces.

For example, I recently began looking at houses, as I get ready to sell a house, buy a house, to move. I have been a bit afraid that my tendency toward romanticizing things, to be seduced by charm, would run amok. That my love of original glass doorknobs and built-ins and pretty little details would prevent me from seeing the enormous inconvenience of a too-small kitchen or cracks in a foundation. Happily though, while I did feel that swoonful delight in vintage details, I also witnessed myself being able to see the place as a whole – clearly – and to know it wasn’t right for me. (Happily, too, I find myself lovingly supported on this journey by someone who is not only charming – he has the best smile – but who is full of substance, and who is very much looking out for me. Thank you.)

To put it another way, that little puzzle piece, and my affection for it, make more sense when the piece is viewed not in isolation but within the context of the jumble of the unmade puzzle. Looking at it as a separate thing, I’ve wondered, why did it seem so significant? Sometimes trying to remember the sense we’ve made of something is as challenging as trying to remember song lyrics that we misheard the first time anyway.

But we can gain a new understanding of ourselves, and maybe even one another, through this effort of sense-seeking, even when the context is initially unclear. We recreate context when we return to the effort of the puzzle. And we can do the same in terms of our understanding of ourselves, of each other, of what connects us to one another.

It takes sustained effort, but we can and should create and recreate and build and strengthen the connections and foundations to withstand the muddiness of an ever-changing big picture. There is substance there, in that context and in those connections, and we should seek it, regardless of how dazzled we are by the charm in a detail — whether it be a puzzle piece, a vintage doorknob, or a warm smile.

Love, Cath

 

 

On Emotional Economy, and Keyholes

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Lukasz Dziegel on Pexels.com

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

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

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

Love, Cath

 

Thirteen Ways of Looking: On Finding Clarity, Not Conclusions

By Catherine DiMercurio

Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” has been running through my head like an 80s pop song. I had to stop and listen.

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Photo by Freddie Ramm on Pexels.com

It’s not even that I know all the words, but there is something about it that keeps surfacing for me. The title of the poem will pop into my head, or a couple of lines, or the general mood of it. The poem contains lines like this:

     I do not know which to prefer,

     The beauty of inflections

     Or the beauty of innuendoes,

     The blackbird whistling

     Or just after.

I’ve learned that when something pushes at me like this, I should stop and listen. I think our minds are vast universes connected to deeper things, that since energy cannot be created or destroyed, there is timeless, transcendent energy in us that sometimes knows better than our conscious, thinking brain. And I think that part of us is what people talk about when they talk about gut or faith or intuition. And that part of me has lead me repeatedly to this poem in the past few weeks. And I think I now know why.

If you’ve read the last few posts here, you’ll know I’ve been thinking a lot about the way things end. Sometimes I wonder if I’m overthinking, fruitlessly trying to make logical sense of illogical things, dutifully trying to learn what I can from failures so as to avoid mistakes, prevent future regret or unhappiness. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” has given me some comfort, not only from its content, in beautiful words yoked together to convey deep, simple, elegant truths, but in its very form. “Thirteen Ways” is about looking at things from different angles. It isn’t about making sense of something or coming to a conclusion, but it is about keen observations rooted in both fact and feeling. It is about fullness and richness of understanding.

Contours, Not Conclusions

In a way, the poem offers both permission for and insight into the tasks my mind and heart have been performing as they looked at one ending—the terminal point in one relationship. My examination of the ending itself expanded into a postmortem of the past two years. I saw patterns that had hidden themselves from me before. The innuendoes, the beauty in the aftermath of the blackbird’s whistling, have settled in, and I have been able to see angles and contours of things in a way I hadn’t before. I’m becoming aware that sometimes these contours matter more than conclusions. Understanding and fullness of knowledge and experience are different things entirely than an argument or statement summarized. Life is not a five-paragraph essay with a thesis stated, a case made, a conclusion drawn.

What I’ve learned about myself through this process of allowing myself to retrace my steps, to study the relationship from beginning to end, is invaluable. There are insights I would not have gained had I simply tried to force myself to move on, get over it, or stop dwelling on it. Recognizing that this is my process, too, is freeing. When any relationship ends or changes—as they so often do in life—permitting yourself to explore it from all sides may be the necessary path for you in order to accept the transition, to gain greater insights about yourself, to change course, to grieve. There is no right way, no one answer, and you don’t have to land on a conclusion, whether or not anyone else expects one from you.

Buried Truths and New Circles

This process, let’s call it the “Thirteen Ways of Looking” approach, is a way to manage the ambiguity I discussed in an earlier post. It is a way to begin to make sense of seemingly incomprehensible things, not to discover answers, but to recover truths we lost sight of or buried. Truths get buried regularly I think, like bones, dog-buried, or lost to rock and centuries.

I dreamed last night of blackbirds. They were pulling at my shoulders, picking me up and flying me away. When I looked down I saw that I had been standing on an island that was suddenly engulfed in flames. I don’t know where the blackbirds will take me but I think I’ll be okay. I’ll leave you today with Stevens’s ninth way of looking at a blackbird: “When the blackbird flew out of sight, / It marked the edge / Of one of many circles.”

Love, Cath