From Dissection to Healing to Magic

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes it takes science and fairy tales to get there.

Sometimes I feel as though I cannot get out of my own head, and that this is a blessing and a curse. When I think of the events of the past year, around the globe and in our country, is it any wonder that a person would want to escape? At the same time, seated at the shiny black lab table in my brain, dissecting the minutiae of what is working and what isn’t, on a less global, more personal level, thinking of what was, and what could be, and what won’t be, is exhausting.

I remember my advanced biology class, the eviscerated fetal pig in front of me – a tough memory for a vegan, no doubt – and labeling a diagram. I remember the smell of formaldehyde. Who could forget the sour chemical pungency of that smell? Near the end of the semester, late May, perhaps, I sat in Mrs. Fitzgerald’s class, and the windows were open, and the air was warm and heavy. The faint breeze that huffed in through the window did little to dissipate the odors in the room. The paper in front of me, next to my tray of pig, was limp from humidity, and I can see myself sitting there with a scalpel in my hand.

I think, how like that I sometimes feel now, attempting to take an objective scientific look at myself, my brain, my heart. Everything in front me.

Thinking analytically about self is no easy task. It is one part of what we talk about when we say we are doing the work. When I say we here, I mean the people I talk to who are also endeavoring through intentionality to figure out their lives and relationships. Rolling up our sleeves and doing the tough thinking about who we are, who we were, who we want to be. Where are we going and how we get there. The other part of this endeavor is messier. It is the grieving that happens when we follow certain lines of thinking, tracing the paths of arteries back to the heart.

Lately, I’ve been doing this analytical work, and following all the emotions that accompany it. It is painstaking work that involves patience, which I’ve never been very good at, and also why I would have made a poor scientist.

The universe insists on patience, whether or not we are good at it, whether or not we are overcome by a sense of urgency.

There are many ways people talk about what they carry and what they are working through. Sometimes we use terms like weight, or wounds or scars. What I’m beginning to understand is that maybe, though we are focused on this work, though we tend what needs attention with a sense of urgency, frustration, and impatience, we also must focus on the rest of us.

What I mean is this: When we are injured, we care for the wound, but also know that we need our bodies to be strong and healthy in order to heal, so we make sure we are eating the right foods, getting enough sleep, etc. When we meet people, if the injury is obvious, involving a cast, or bandages or crutches, that is likely going to be the first thing they notice about us. We, and they, are rightly focused on this Big Thing that has happened and is now a part of our lives.

Similarly, when we are heart-sore and soul-wounded from large-scale psychic pain and grief, it is just as obvious to the world around us as a broken leg in a cast. But over time, those injuries that may still cause us pain become less apparent to the world at large, just as a once-broken bone may always cause us an ache that no one else can see.

What I’m learning is this: there is a point in our healing process where our focus is able to shift from the wound, the scar, the weight, to the rest of us, to the whole self. And when we are ready, we will let it. We will welcome it.

A holistic view of self neither privileges nor ignores injury. Likewise, it does not privilege or ignore what is healthy and healed.

It is said that some people lead with their hearts, some with their heads. And by lead, I mean, lead themselves, through life. I think, when a heart has been busy healing from new bruising upon old trauma, a person tends to lead with that, with the weight, the wounds. It’s hard not to, when that’s what you’ve been focused on for so long, in an effort to transcend the past.

But, think of this: in a garden, you water the healthy plants and the sick ones. In a writing workshop, you focus both on what’s working and what isn’t. Some of us, perfectionists or people who have otherwise developed a strong compulsion toward proving themselves, can only seem to focus on what needs improving, and do so in a way that presents itself as hyper-self-criticism. We look at this intense attention to what needs to be done as necessary and good, but if we spend too much time and too much energy on that endeavor, we are effectively abandoning the rest of ourselves.

People say, know your worth, and if you’ve been in the process of recovering and healing, it isn’t as if you don’t, but it certainly hasn’t been your area of focus.

We are told that if we do not heal past traumas, we are doomed to repeat destructive patterns. Yet, the notion of healing is a blurry one. We dissect, we study, we grieve, and we do this over and over, trying with each attempt to understand our whole heart and mind more fully.

There are always going to be moments where we shift our attention once again to those old, troubling wounds, but if you have been focusing primarily on that, with an urgent desire to heal, this might be the time and place to say, enough. We might imagine a doctor hovering over healed sutures saying, well, you’re always going to have that scar, but you’re pretty much good to go.

We might imagine ourselves hovering over that poor dissected creature in front of us, saying I’ve learned everything I could from you. Thank you for your sacrifice. Place the scalpel on the table and walk away.

We turn our attention to self as a whole organism and instead of cataloging the injuries that have cried out for healing, we count them as tended to. The analytical part of us can now assess the new being that we now are, scars and all. If we are list makers, we begin a new one. We start small. We think of praise that we received as a child, what we were we good at. We cobble together a collection of our accomplishments, our strengths, big and small.

Photo by Klaus Nielsen on Pexels.com

We soon realize that we are doing more than cobbling. We are cracking something open, like a fairytale egg, and what’s inside is something we’ve been hoarding without knowing it – all of the good things, the joyful things, the brilliant unwounded, indestructible, infinite parts of ourselves gifted from the cosmos. We sigh, pleased with our magic, and think, there you are, and are reunited with ourselves.  

Love, Cath

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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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.

black and white bird
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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