On Plans, and Doubts, and Dandelions

By Catherine DiMercurio

I awoke on a recent summery May morning to a cool breeze sighing through the open window and the smell of someone’s backyard woodfire still clinging to the air. It felt peaceful, but despite this fine context my first thoughts of the day were despairing ones. They were emotion-thoughts more than word-thoughts. I anticipated the coming day and recalled the previous one, wondering vaguely what I added to the world that had value. Thoughts like these result in anxiety and restlessness for me, and managing those emotions means I have to pep talk myself about what I contribute, what matters, what I’m grateful for, etc. It seemed a bit early in the morning for an existential crisis, but truth be told, I’ve been thinking about such things as long as I can remember. What is the point of all this, I wonder, often. Not just why am I here, but why are any of us? But given that we are, what should we be doing?

We live in a capitalist society in which many of us have internalized the notion that value and worth are tied to what we produce, and what we accumulate. To counter that, a whole culture has grown up around the idea that our personal value is tied not to those material things, but what we’ve done to make the world a better place.

Another way of looking at our personal worth centers on the love we’ve created in the world. Who we love, who loves us. For a while, this perspective really worked for me, but children grow up and move away, relationships dissolve, and there are plenty of people who haven’t felt loved, or haven’t had the opportunities to find and create love, and it doesn’t seem fair to tie personal worth to things that are often beyond our control.

Some people don’t question these things much because they have found answers in their faith. I was raised Catholic and my thoughts on why I’m not anymore could fill a book, which I likely will never write. A lot of people these days say they are spiritual but not religious and that means different things, depending on who you ask. It’s hard to say if it applies to me. I consider myself agnostic, meaning that for me, if there is anything divine in this universe, which I’m not sure of, the nature of it is unknowable. I do believe that energy cannot be created or destroyed, and this scientific principle seems more divine than anything else I’ve encountered. But the point of all this is to say, that I don’t believe there is a consciousness at the helm of all this, and certainly not one that has a plan for me, or anyone else. People also say things like “the universe is trying to teach you this or that.” It’s pleasant and nontheistic to think that, in a way, but that statement is not different from the “it’s all part of God’s plan” line of thinking and I’m not convinced the universe works that way. If the universe thinks I’m supposed to learn things, then it must be because there is a path it thinks I should be on. The whole notion of a plan—God’s or the universe’s—boils down to the centuries-old debate about free will versus determinism, and if theologians and philosophers have been playing this game for hundreds of years, I’m certainly not going to figure it out.

It makes me think of the University of Michigan football stadium at full capacity, with half the stadium yelling “Go” and the other half yelling “Blue.” It’s a battle of who can be louder, but it is also about the harmony of the message. Similarly, we seem to need to believe in both free will and fate. We want to believe we have choices, that it isn’t all preordained, but at the same time, we want to believe there’s a plan. When things happen that we don’t understand, people say it’s all part of God’s plan. Or when we are not where we expect to be in life, or have a setback, we are told it is because there are things we haven’t learned yet, and the universe will find different ways of sending the same lesson until we get it, and then somehow things will get better, or make sense. On any given day people believe what gives them the most comfort. On any given day, I see both chaos and order in the universe and I don’t know where I fit.

Everyone has advice. Find your purpose. Chase your dreams. Do what you love. Don’t overthink it. Others tell me that we are here to simply enjoy ourselves as best we can.

I think of all the philosophies I’ve embraced and either discarded or incorporated some parts of. I have sought clarity, but sometimes it accumulates as clutter. I often forget that moments can feel longer than they are, and time is like pulled taffy. Getting lost in ruminations about purpose, value, and identity is something my mind does every so often. But in other moments, I’m living less inside my brain, and I’m doing things I love, or just muddling through, and it all somehow makes enough sense. I don’t know if I’m on the verge of figuring things out for myself, and all the other things are a distraction from the work my brain wants to do, or if all the ruminations are the distraction, and real life and real meaning is in all the rest of it.

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Both, I realize in flashes of insight. It’s both. It’s the harmony between thinking and feeling, between doing and being, between contemplation and action. I do know that in all the advice I’ve internalized over the years, the phrase “be yourself” continues to ring true. This is the way my brain works, always has. But I think truly embracing the notion of being who I am might be the north star that I’m looking for. Maybe it is the way to recalibrate when I feel lost. Maybe it is the only way to understand our place in this mysterious universe. I just read something online about the dandelion, and how useful all its components are, and how resilient it is. A dandelion succeeds as an individual plant and has succeeded as a species for centuries because all of its parts work together to insure it thrives. It supports the lives of pollinators—it does good in the world—but it doesn’t exist in order to do so. It just is. It doesn’t need a plan, it just maximizes its resources: the sun, the rain, the wind that disperses its seeds (or the human making a wish).

I am this collection of cells and memories and have lived and evolved right up until this moment. I have a hard time believing there is a Plan beyond that, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make squishy, flexible plans for what I might want in the future. And letting go of things I had once planned for my future—things that I imagined were solid and fixed, things that will never come to be—that is some of the hardest and most necessary work I’ve done. But for now, it makes sense to be. Be myself. Maybe be a little like a dandelion.

Love, Cath

On Loss and “Lost”

By Catherine DiMercurio

On a recent damp and drizzly hike with my sister, I got us lost. Inconveniently lost, not dangerously lost. We were deep in conversation, and I missed one of the markers that would have helped me know where I was along this path that I’d hiked once before. We backtracked and figured it out. I tried not to let it bother me, this feeling that I should not have let that happen, but it did. It bothered me in a big way at first, as though I’d let us both down, and by the end of the hike, it only bothered me a little, like a small stone in my shoe. Yet for a while, this thinking also spiraled forward to a solo camping trip I’ll be taking in the summer. What if I get lost in unfamiliar woods when I’m hiking alone?

As we walked back to the car, I tried to return my awareness to the current moment. We’d hiked longer than we intended, but we were enjoying one another’s company and were never in any danger. She didn’t care, didn’t judge me. So, I managed to shake it off.

But, it did make me realize how easy it is for a moment of anxiety to amplify itself, reverberating into the past and into the future. How did I let that happen, and what if it happens again? Sometimes we exist in all the moments at once, as if time ceased its habit of being linear. In this instance, the sensation didn’t last long, but depending on the circumstances, we can get lost in these spirals. The experience reminded me of how connected lost and loss are.

Sometimes, the losses we’ve experienced in life unroot themselves from their context. We can’t pinpoint precisely why we are feeling a certain way, but this loss is wandering around inside us, untethered from memory. We feel confused about our sadness, our fuzziness, about the despondency that leaves us inexplicably tired. It as if the loss itself is lost within us.

Have you ever gone looking for your sense of worry when you actually feel fine? You have that sense that something is missing, and you aren’t sure what, so you search for it. Now what was it that I was so worried about? The worry needs a home, so you attach it to a dentist appointment, a financial concern, a work meeting, or larger and less-specific things, like the rest of your life. I think this is what we do when we have a big loss lost within us. There are some things we might never be done grieving, and the loss sometimes shows up as worry and needs to be taken by the hand escorted back to its context, its memories.

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The trouble is, then we must confront those memories again. And we don’t want to. Who does? It hurts. Good memories can hurt more than bad memories, too. But when they are calling to us, it is better to give them some time and hug rather than ignore them. Otherwise, they will keep wandering away again and turning up in strange ways. Does all this mean, that despite our efforts to heal, to take time for grief, and go to therapy and journal and talk, and all the things we’ve tried to do to move forward, does it mean that none of it has worked?

Of course not. It means it IS working. Being able to recognize what is happening when feelings take us by surprise, when big anxiety comes at us for little reasons, is a sign that we are evolving. When we can pause and say: Oh, yes, I see. This old pain still hurts sometimes and wants to be felt as now-pain and is showing up in this weird way so it doesn’t get ignored, even though it doesn’t have much to do with the dentist appointment or my future goals or the fact that I accidentally got a little lost in the woods. Sometimes it takes a few days or longer to unpack a response, to look at a recent event and decode why our feelings felt outsized for what was happening.

I am not good at compartmentalizing anymore. I did it a lot when I had to, when I would not have been able to function otherwise. It is difficult now for me to say I shouldn’t feel this way about this situation, so I won’t. I need to know why. I want to understand the connections my brain is automatically making (you are nervous, here is danger, avoid this), so I can intervene and try to rewire (you are nervous, and it is normal to feel that way in this situation, but it reminds you of real danger and that was scary, but you don’t have to avoid this, and it is okay to feel uncomfortable).

Being able to decode and rewire allows growth. It allows the unexpected. It allows me to open doors I have been too tired or too anxious to open, and in doing so, I discover new loves. I have fallen in love with pottery, this mysterious thing I’m learning, this vast muddy sea of things to discover. I have fallen in love with the new novel I am writing, with the process of getting to know new people on the page, their desires, their flaws, their histories.

Sometimes you are ready for a new story, and you didn’t know how much until you start writing it.

I fall hard for moments sometimes too. I fall for the quiet writing hours I cobble together in the dark mornings, listening to the birds wake, to wind and rain, to the dogs snoring away nearby. I am often overcome by how happy this makes me, this simple gift of my favorite part of the day.

I know none of this is the same as falling in love with person, which I hope is still a possibility. But being able to embrace my life and my self and everything that I’m discovering is not a consolation prize, and that has surprised me. It startles me what wholeness can feel like, and sometimes it even scares me in ways that I’m still articulating for myself.

Sometimes I’m intimidated by all there is to learn about myself, where I’ve been and where I’m going and how to get there, and other times I think it is all in the palm of my hand already, or at my fingertips. Many of the realizations I’ve written about here grew out of a scene I was writing in my novel. I guess I must keep learning to trust myself, and when I write those words, I can see that this is the through-line, my wobbly dance with self-trust. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” I remember reading those words in college, sitting at a desk in a classroom with pale green walls, and having an overwhelming sense that this mattered in ways I didn’t fully understand. It seemed unfathomable, as impossible as someone telling me to run a four-minute mile or jump out of a plane, things that other people could do, but I’d never be able to. It is no wonder that the ability to follow that advice has taken me my entire lifetime. But, here we are, trying. It’s all we can do.

Love, Cath

On Obstacles, Works-in-Progress, and Works of Art

By Catherine DiMercurio

This week, I’m thinking a lot about work. How we look at work and reward impacts so many areas of our lives.

If we do creative work, focusing on what many define as success or reward will leave us feeling defeated and discouraged. If success is selling the product of your effort, then unless you are both extremely lucky and wildly talented, you will be discouraged over and over again. It is just the nature of trying to smoosh creativity and capitalism together. The world is full of creative folk trying to get their work “out there,” and monetizing it is tricky business. But for many creative people, the joy is in the process, in learning your craft and practicing it, and in being a part of a community of like-minded people, in sharing our work in ways that have little to do with recognition or gain. We shape words or pigment or clay or musical notes in an effort to capture truth, beauty. And even if no one is buying we are still making, because we have to.

When I was growing up, I gradually came to understand a couple of things about work and reward. At school, working hard yielded good grades, which seemed to matter a lot to my teachers and parents and I felt happier when no one was grumpy with me. And I didn’t have to work that hard most of the time. At home, I observed my parents working hard to provide for us, so I assumed that this was a given in life. Work is necessary, and if you’re going to do it, you may as well do it well was another message I got. If you’re going to do something, don’t do it half-assed, my father would say.

Yet, the work-reward model left me to conclude that not achieving a hoped-for reward meant that you didn’t work hard enough or you didn’t work long enough, or both. Those conclusions don’t always lend themselves to a healthy way of looking at ourselves. Work tends to feel futile, or washed over with something the color of failure. It took me a long time to understand that some rewards remain elusive no matter how long and hard you work, to understand that in pursuing difficult-to-achieve rewards, I was benefitting in ways I hadn’t expected.

I have had to reexamine the way I look at work and reward since my divorce. This life-changing experience, also washed over with something the color of failure, makes you look at a lot of things differently. The work of relationships is one of them. Good relationships don’t just happen, and good relationships take more work than bad ones.

I don’t know of any relationship that doesn’t take effort to maintain. Certainly, some are easier than others, but how people relate to us and us to them in any given moment is influenced by everything that has brought us each to that moment. My past has created me, in everything I learned from it and everything I didn’t, just like yours has.  

People talk a lot about “baggage,” especially when you’re dating in your 50s. I don’t think anyone’s so-called baggage is the sum of every bad thing that has happened to them. I do think we carry the weight of everything we haven’t learned from those experiences. That is why there is always work to do. With each person we interact with, our past experiences reveal themselves in new ways. We may believe we have worked through and healed from difficult events or difficult people, but we cannot foresee all the ways something will impact us. We are forever works-in-progress. That is a beautiful thing, or can be, if we turn ourselves again and again to the work that we our called to do. If we lovingly embrace that we are living, breathing works of art.

Many of the things I considered to be challenging aspects of past relationships were pointing to things I needed to learn from myself and for myself about myself. But that learning could benefit the relationship as well. For example, if a partner and I fought because I responded strongly to their avoiding communicating about their feelings, it was a chance for both of us ask why. Understanding why a person withholding their feelings triggered such a deep anxiety in me helped to pinpoint what I needed to work on, and allowed me to explain my response to my partner and ask for support. But I could only do my part. A partner unwilling to ask himself why he avoided communicating about his feelings meant that not only could he not give me the support I needed, but that he could also not ask me for the support he needed. So the issue continued to sow conflict. Instead of two people working in partnership to improve the relationship, two people suffered individually with not getting their needs met.

Not everyone sees value in this work, and not everyone is ready to do it. I think we are all able, capable of such introspection and responding to it. It is uncomfortable, but why wouldn’t we be willing to do this work for ourselves and each other? Isn’t this growth what makes us better partners, better parents, better friends, better people?

It is difficult to accept that someone can look at you, see the value in what you bring to the table, understand that there is unattended work in themselves that would present obstacles in a relationship, and choose to embrace the obstacles instead of you. They equate the obstacles, which are often learned behaviors, with their identity.

The say this is how I am.

But obstacles aren’t identity. Yes, our past gives us things to stumble over. But we are not the boulders in our way.

We are the way.

We are as much the path behind us as the path in front of us. But we are not our experiences. We are not the coping behaviors we adapted ourselves to. We are neither our joys nor our traumas. We are everything we told ourselves in response to those experiences. We are what we tell ourselves we are.

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The beautiful thing is that as we grow and become increasingly self-aware, our responses to our experiences feel more like choices (because they are), instead of reactions that just happen.

So often people insist that they won’t change for anyone, can’t change. What do we have a right to expect of others? What should we expect of ourselves? How do we sort out what is a (maladaptive) behavior or response that we have learned from a painful experience and what is truly part of our identity? Perhaps trying to find the difference between those things only matters if there is something you wish to change about yourself, only matters if you see value in, and the need for, self-improvement. We can love ourselves for who we are at the same time that we seek growth. Those are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Perhaps it is a question of risk and reward rather than work and reward. If the journey toward self-discovery and growth could lead you toward a relationship with the potential to either be the beautiful bond you’ve dreamt of or another possible heartbreak, maybe it is a self-protective mechanism to insist that change is impossible, that this is how I am, take it or leave it, accept me as I am or walk away.

How often I have been told just that, and remained in the relationship, still pursuing my growth while trying to see how that fit in with a partner who proclaimed they would not or could not change. For me, it hasn’t worked, and I am learning to be as willing to love myself as I am to love other people.

For me, that has meant walking away, and continuing to do my own work, while I look for someone who understands that growth is a non-terminal journey. That each day gives us the opportunity be in the present in a new way, with a new understanding of what has brought us here together.

Our brains are designed to adapt to new circumstances and to one another. We have evolved to be in community with one another. We can accept who we are, and what has happened to us, and that we are flawed individuals. That is normal. That is human. But so too is taking stock of all that, and wondering how we can build on it, learn and grow from it. Is that not part of what binds us to those we love, the desire and sense of duty to learn to love one another better? And like all things, this journey begins with ourselves.

Remember, they don’t call it a “work of art” for nothing. We work hard and in that work, we are breathless, we are breathtaking.

Love, Cath

On Fallowness and Mud

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes a word grabs me and won’t let go. Yesterday morning, walking the dogs in the strange warmth of February sun, it was “fallow.” Fallow as in, plowed and unsown earth; as in, quietly replenishing after having been depleted.

The recent warmish weather and the thawing of a frozen winter’s worth of snow has got me thinking of what it means to be fallow and waiting. Maybe these thoughts took root at least in part because of the Rilke quote I came across recently: “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.” (Ranier Maria Rilke, from “Letters to a Young Poet.”)

Like anything that I consider to be a strength, patience, that deep cosmic kind I think Rilke is talking about, plays hide and seek with me. I must peek in corners to catch a glimpse of it, or chase it down, often unsuccessfully, when I need it. I think I do possess it, somewhere, but it is elusive. And there is plenty about myself that feels unsolved, plenty that resists my current capacity to understand. How like fallowness it is, this kind of patience, and how hopeful to imagine there is a latent richness that will produce a surprising yield at some unknown time.

This way of thinking stands in sharp contrast to the restlessness I often feel, to my urgency to know what is going to happen next, in the coming weeks, and years. Often, this anxiety about the future is rooted in past experiences; for me this is true. Many, maybe most, people endure events at some point in their lives that change every version of the future they had envisioned for themselves, and have an awareness as it is happening that this is what is occurring, this loss playing out in full vibrant color all around you. You see the future erasing before your eyes, you see yourself vanishing too, in a way, in all the ways. New things, good things, begin to coalesce and emerge, though. They begin to form themselves into solid figures here and now, and you start to feel healthy and strong in ways you didn’t imagine possible before. Even so, there remains a fog up ahead in which you fear you will lose your footing, or everything.

I would like to think this long, cold, pandemic winter, this period of vigilant caution, of staying put, of worry and fatigue, is all part of a prolonged fallowness, a period of forced patience. Maybe like the soil under a bed of leaves lying beneath melting snow and ice, we are in a process of becoming enriched, we are readying ourselves for understanding what we cannot yet comprehend, truths about selfness and strength. Maybe after the period of fallowness is over, we will understand something we currently do not about the way expectations can vanish, but selves do not.

Still, it is difficult to wait. It is difficult to pursue goals – whether they be artistic, personal, professional, relationship-related – and not see the results we hope for. We wonder, why will this not look the way I thought it would? We wonder if we’re doing it wrong, or if we are simply looking at it from the wrong perspective. Maybe everything is falling into place exactly the way it should, and we have not yet reached the point where we can make sense of it. Maybe it is all still fallow-ing and when we are ready, we will grow – into our selves, and our lives, into our own big hearts and dreams, into the worlds we’ve been constructing for ourselves almost without knowing it. We are tiny lives in iris bulbs building our selves in the rich hidden worlds in the soil all winter long.

So many things do not look the way we thought we wanted them to. I think of my veneration of soil here and wonder how I can be so anxious to get my hands in dirt and plant things, when at the same time, the melted snow and the pounding dog feet have made a mud pit of my little plot of suburban soil. It is all the same substance but when acted upon by external forces, it changes form. We are not so different. Our little selves in iris bulbs transform to stem and leaves with the application of sunlight over a certain number of hours each day. We are all acted upon by time and by the weather of our lives. Even so, we are comprised of the same elements we always were.

Perhaps it is the same with everything we do not yet understand about ourselves. Truths waiting to be seen from another angle. Us, waiting to be acted upon by this force or that until we are ready. But for now, we must be patient, learn to love the mud and the questions, wait for the sun and rich soil, wait for the answers, knowing it is all the same stuff anyway. Maybe in this way we get closer to knowing and loving what we are made of, here, now.

Love, Cath

On Wishing and Light and Shadow

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes wishes are better than goals.

Fear does crazy things to our brains and our hearts. I don’t mean that fun kind of crazy like in a road trip movie where the unexpected detour leads to laughs and adventure. I mean crazy as in dangerous and suffocating. In the past two weeks the world has given us much to be fearful about, and for many of us, the looming specter of fear out there in the world serves as a reminder to our body’s chemistry that threats are imminent, that we could lose all the things we are most afraid to lose, even if the reality of that threat is a bit illogical.

For the past two weeks I have felt exhausted by the leapfrog game fear and anxiety and anticipatory grief have played with my soul.

I had some relief on a recent walk I took at dusk with my dog. The pale pink and grey sky, the fading light, the deepening purple shadows, they all allowed something to loosen. And I could breathe a little again and I thought about the constricting grip big emotions have had around my throat. I took a moment to inhale and exhale the January air, and as oxygen and relief flooded me, a thought popped into my fatigued mind: my only goal for 2021 is to have no goals.

I decided I am not not even going to “try and be a better person.” I think I’d like to take a shot at being this person as she is now and see how I feel about her. This is not to say I’ll ignore the things I’ve decided it is important to work on. I know that cultivating patience will benefit me and the people around me, and I’ll continue to do that work. I have a hunch that if I remove the time-bound constraints that I have been taught distinguish wishes from goals, the work will be easier, and the results more fulsome.

I am learning a beautiful lesson, but not easily, and not quickly. You know that idea that someone can be mad at you and still love you? The one we’re supposed to learn as children? I think it got lost somewhere along the way, and I’m trying to rediscover it. I’m also endeavoring to apply it to myself, to remind myself that I can be angry and frustrated by my flaws and shortcomings and still love who I am. I can be patient with myself for not having everything figured out yet.  

I have looked at every past relationship through a lens clouded with the smudges of what did I do wrong and how can I avoid those mistakes again. As if I was always supposed to intrinsically know the right thing to do. As if in any situation, I was somehow the only one of us who had work to do.

In the aftermath of my divorce, my thinking initially was that if I was to ever be happy again, I had a lot of work to do, and that if I didn’t do it properly, and soon, then failure – in love, in life – was imminent. I constructed this scenario out of the same goal-oriented mindset that had gotten me through life thus far. I was to study hard, get good grades, get a job, and get married.

But sometimes you work hard with good intentions toward goals you were taught to value and then it all doesn’t add up the way you thought it was supposed to. Then what? I was taught: messes are for cleaning up. Good people work hard at that, and they get what they deserve. Unspoken but implied was the message, if you didn’t get what you thought you deserved, either you did not deserve it, or you didn’t really work hard enough.

But maybe what we call a mess is something else entirely. Maybe that place where we embrace whatever the opposite of if-then thinking is, that beautiful place where we become something new instead of accepting that we are something damaged/failed/broken because the if-then construct failed us, maybe that is the place where we let ourselves live and breathe and love.

The whole world tells us that there is an order to which you do things, and a timeline. I lost count of the times people told me over the years since my divorce: how long grief should last; what the steps of recovery should look like; how long it takes to move past something; how many relationships you need to go through to learn x, y, and z, about yourself before you get to the next part; how long you should wait before you say I love you; and on and on.

I long to arrive at a place in my thinking – my heart thinking and my brain thinking – where wishing and creation are all that is needed. When do we learn that being gentle with ourselves is acceptable? When do we learn to trust ourselves to be firm when we need to be, to push ourselves toward the wishes we’d like to actualize, and to be soft and sweet with ourselves when we need it?

We are snails – sometimes we are as tough as our shells, and sometimes we are the tender organisms housed within. How is it that we so easily forget to keep inching toward ourselves? How is it that we watch the play of light and shadow on the living room floor as the day rolls along only so that we know when it is time to make dinner, instead of just reveling in the joy and beauty of light and shadow? Sometimes my son reminds me to take a deep breath. I wish it wasn’t so easy to forget that.

Love, Cath

On Aging, Magic, and Waterfowl

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you look for magic, or it finds you, and it gets you through.

I don’t think I have ever stopped looking for magic, not since I read the Chronicles of Narnia as a child. The thrill of wonder that overtakes me at times connects me to my childhood self, but also, to something else, something I have a difficult time shaping with words into a recognizable form.

A few afternoons ago, I was out walking with my son and our dog. We live near some wooded areas, a golf course, a creek. On a few occasions, at dusk or dawn, I’ve been lucky enough to catch glimpses of deer in the neighborhood. I’ve seen a couple of fawns, and recently, a buck. There always seems to be some magic to it, somehow, though I know it isn’t an uncommon thing. I suppose it is the juxtaposition between wildness and domesticity that moves me. When we were walking, we came upon a scattering of deer scat right on the sidewalk. My son and my dog barely gave it a second a glance, but I stopped in my tracks in wonder. He was here! I thought, thinking it was the same buck I’d seen previously.

I am not a person who easily identifies things to love about myself, but I’ll admit, being able to feel the sense of wonder and magic that I felt when gazing at deer poop is one of them.

Moments like these stand in sharp contrast to those times when I walk by a mirror and find the face looking back to be somewhat unrecognizable. There is some other force working here, one absent delight and wonder, one that instead offers confusion and dismay.

Time and experience mark us in different ways. Periods of intense stress seem to accelerate the aging process, but even in the spaces in between, a process that seems slow and gradual in your thirties begins to pick up steam in your forties. And now I am fifty and keenly aware of all that time and the world have wrought in my life. When I look in the mirror I have the distinct sense of looking at someone who seems familiar, in a way, but whose face I can’t quite place.

Obviously, aging brings with it a host of physical issues, and mental ones, too. I have not reached a way of looking at all these changes that I’m comfortable with yet. I’m torn between resignation and resistance. I hate that aging frightens me, and I have yet to dissect all the reasons that this is true. At the same time, I admit to a certain sense of shame that I haven’t embraced gracefully where I am in life. That I stumble still in trying to figure out how to inhabit myself.

I think of the ugly “duckling,” who eventually grew up to be not a duck but a swan. When I was little, I thought the point of this story was that one should be relieved to grow up beautiful, and that if you feel ugly, don’t worry, it might work out for you if you happen to be a swan. Or, baby ducks are cuter than baby geese, but grown up swans are more beautiful than grown up ducks. It wasn’t lost on me that the story was about belonging, but it was also about very much about beauty. What a tricky story to tell a child. The cygnet felt out of place in a duck’s world, but only because the ducks were so cruel about his appearance. And then he grew up and became what he was, and he felt better about himself, which was easy to do once he realized he was a beautiful swan. So often, particularly as we age and notice our appearance changing rapidly, we feel like we can’t quite find that sense of comfort or confidence in our own skin, or feathers. It’s a mirror image of adolescence, but what is on the other side of this transition is different. Aging brings us closer to our own sense of mortality, so it is tempting to not make peace with the process. It is much easier to not think about such things at all. But our faces and bodies refuse to let that denial happen.

Other people seem to know themselves better as they age. I look at how many times I’ve written about the idea of multiplicity of selves and consider that while I’m making a greater effort to understand myself than I have before, the effort is more complex than I imagined it would be. Perhaps I’m overthinking it. Perhaps that’s precisely how it’s done.

Sometimes, I cast myself out into the future and look for myself there, wondering what that person will be like. Will she have settled into herself finally? How long will it take? I wonder if it is unfair to rush the process. Maybe I’m not supposed to un-confuse myself about myself quite yet, maybe this is part of the journey. Nothing else can be rushed, so why should this be any different? And haven’t I been trying to learn patience all my life?

It is easy to regard aging as an accumulation of losses, though intrinsically I know the fallacies embedded in this way of thinking. As uncomfortable as it is to have an awareness of all that I do not know about myself, there is a freedom, too, in the understanding of all there is to discover, all there is to create.

For a moment, imagine the beauty and mystery of a found feather. Image imagining what type of bird it came from, imagine imagining yourself that way, as a beautiful bird in flight, leaving clues for someone to discover, to discover themselves.

Imagine the power of creating a story about yourself, not the one in which you have parsed each and every failure, mapped each and every wrinkle and scar, but the one in which you take flight, and recognize your reflection in the water beneath you as you soar, and recognize yourself as beautiful and strong.

I’m currently writing a story about a woman, who, enduring a grief, looks to magic for solace. I think maybe it isn’t in the mirror where we should look for a familiar face, because that face is going to keep changing. Maybe the trick of it is to find the through lines, the magic that has always made you feel like yourself. Maybe the way to keep learning who we are now is to keep in touch with who we’ve always been. Of course time and experience change us, change our faces, change our hearts. But I think that there is always something elemental within us, something it takes a little magic to access, something that eludes definition or description.

These days are difficult ones for many of us, for many reasons. On the other side of this, we will all be older, we will all look into the mirror and see an altered self. The way we look at the world will also be changed. We must hold close the things that keep us feeling connected to each other and to ourselves. Wishing everyone reading this love, self-love, and of course, magic.

Love, Cath

On Distraction, Obstacle, Winter Malaise, or, the Squawk of Self

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes, it seems we are too loud.

On a Sunday afternoon I find myself once again futilely facing what needs doing. On a Wednesday evening, I come home from work feeling utterly spent and frustrated. In so many areas of our lives, we sometimes find ourselves bogged down, unable to find the productivity we seek, unable to move through the day without feeling overwhelmed.

Certainly the watery winter light, devoid of warmth or brightness, failing in duration, doesn’t help. It is easy to feel unfocused, to have that sense that we couldn’t see the shore if we tried. We drift. We wonder, when was the last time we even saw a bird.

We all have tasks that seem impossible to tackle. Or, collections of tasks. Or, work in general. It feels as though we are encountering things that are somehow, simply un-doable. We can’t fathom how to get through this chore, this day, this week.

All my life, I’ve been told that I take things too personally, I’m too sensitive. I wonder how people can or should respond to such “observations.” Shame and defensiveness? Frustration with one’s own reactiveness? Perhaps dismay that passion is often regarded as anger or negativity. It all becomes part of a web, tangling movement, thwarting focus, dulling energy.

If we have become habituated to negatively regarding our own response to the world at large, it is easy – so easy – to negatively regard our own response to our own world.

In such a state, how can we get out of our own way? How can we look at a task that needs doing in our lives and divorce it from our personal response to both task and self?

It can be exhausting to cut through it all. The problem with accomplishing goals, large or small, rarely has to do with the goal as a thing, but rather, with how we feel about it, and how we feel about ourselves.

I don’t have any answers but I do know this: we can’t stop feeling. What I mean is not: we shouldn’t stop feeling, as in, the world needs this, we need it. What I mean is: we can’t. We are unable to stop. We aren’t wired that way. We will be reactive and sensitive and thinky and overthinky.

At the same time, we do get in our own ways sometimes. So, if we can’t change that we react/think/feel/overthink/overfeel, all we can do is try and keep trying to change what we think and feel, about task, about others, about self.

This is the part where I realize there is nothing new to say.

This is the part where I think back on so many other blog posts about self and identity and perspective. About how the story we tell ourselves about ourselves matters.

By way of example, let’s circle back to my Sunday afternoon and the task at hand that day, basement purging (which is by now familiar, if you’ve been reading this blog). It is easy to now see that facing this challenge isn’t as simple as divorcing “task” from “emotion about the task.” This challenge doesn’t simply pertain to the fact that cleaning out the basement is hard because I’m attached to the memories in the boxes I need to purge. I’m actually okay with looking at those memories, happy and sad. I’m looking forward to moving, and I don’t feel a melancholic pull rooting me to this place; I’m ready to leave. The challenge is this: the basement needs so much work because of what I’ve neglected. Thinking about what I’ve neglected and why leads me to re-litigating my attitude about my past self, and how I navigated the aftermath of divorce and the competing demands of single motherhood and work life and life-life, and the priorities I chose, and those I didn’t.

The thing is, for each and every task at hand, the ones we pull away from are those with the strong potential for self-censure – of current self, of past self. Our resistance usually has very little to do with one discreet chore, with the work itself, and very much to do with our larger set of views about ourselves and about a larger collection of tasks.

This is to say, we have a lot of unpacking to do before we can actually begin the process of task-tackling. We have to remember that it may seem that a box is just a box, a chore is just a chore, but because we are multiple selves, it is not so easy.

nature animal cute sitting

We are our past, and our present, and our future, and we all have ideas about what should have been done, what needs to be done, what will need to be done. It’s loud and distracting. It’s a nest full of hungry birds. We swoop back but we never have enough to feed them all, all our selves, all our squawking selves.

Maybe all we can do to quiet things is admit that we tried our best, or we thought we did, and that really amounts to the same thing. What we thought was our best, was, in fact, our best, so let’s let ourselves off the hook a little on that. And that is all we can do now. Our best. Whatever we think it is.

Love, Cath

On Tenderness, Torrents, and Tortoises

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we are very close to understanding self and other. And then…

I want to write a tender letter to myself about acceptance, but it’s really to us; we are multiplicities. We are many selves. When I woke this morning, the predicted rain was just beginning. It began as a torrent, rather than slow sprinkles that built to something larger. I thought about how happy could exist, like a bright vanilla cake as large as the sun, right along side the sludgy worry sluicing away near my ankles. And I thought it was because we are many things, all at the same time, we are contained by a cell membrane, unique units all operating within the same space, together and separate. How else can biology and baking and weather all make so much sense to me within the space of a paragraph.

With some sense of delight, I realize this perspective helps me understand other things, other people. With some sense of dread, I realize this perspective helps me understand. There are things I don’t want to understand. But I will try to look at it as beautiful, now that I’m here.

I’ve warmed up some of yesterday’s coffee and sit in front of the heater, the coziest place in the house and my mind drifts to other days, long past, of sitting there, chilled to my core, and I think how ready I am for a new place. I will be looking at two houses today, though it’s a bit too soon, really, but it keeps me motivated to take on the tasks of basement purging and kitchen painting. It’s not the first time in the past few days that I’ve been possessed by an awareness of how far I’ve traveled in the five years since my divorce. Sometimes I’m certain it’s not much, it doesn’t look like much from the outside, but when you think about the journey our hearts take it really is something. It’s like being the tortoise and the hare all at the same time, rushing and plodding all at once.

This year I will be fifty and by the time I hit what our society has deemed a milestone, I will most likely be living in a new house, with two kids in college, and I’ll be settling into a new reality, my many selves exploring a new space. It’s been four years since I got my MFA and I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words since, and only a tiny percentage of them have been read by anyone else, despite my best efforts to publish them. I recently received another really good rejection, at once enormously encouraging, and infinitely demoralizing. Hare yells to Tortoise, come ON, what’s taking you so long. Tortoise to Hare: working on it! We refuse to consider any of it failing; all of us rally behind resiliency and journey.

brass needle through red cloth button
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I think of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, language I’ve only glimpsed but never studied and just now vow to do so, this year, because I cannot get the phrase out of my head today. I think of purpose, and binding self to self, in that gentle way only buttons can do, and I hear myself say you will know me then, and I don’t know what I mean. I wonder if my whole life I’ve been meeting other selves within my selves and all the while taking in others as if each person is some sort of solitary singular unified being. How foolish to have spent so little time considering the cells and suns that make up everyone else. To have not considered all that they understand and don’t want to understand about cell and self. I think sometimes I was getting there, arriving at more complex appreciations, but the world slips away from us sometimes, people do, selves do, and I think one of the saddest and loneliest parts of human existence is that sense of waking from a dream and not being able to remember it.

Sometimes I feel as though I exist as full torrent, that is to say, not in the punishing way of a hard rain, but as if I have come into this moment all at once, rather than gradually, as if I’ve always known how to be all of my selves all at once. Other times I see the gradual gathering, the building drop by drop, history by history, a coming into being that has taken all of my cells centuries. Each version, the torrent and the drop, begs for forgiveness and acceptance. I’m sorry I’m too much. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long. I do wonder sometimes if I think about Being so much because I don’t know how to do it or because I do, because we all do.

Even now, I feel as though I’m moving away from understanding something important, I’m having that sense of waking from a dream and at the same time relishing the dream that can barely, wait—no, not at all—be remembered, which calls to mind one of the stanzas from “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (by Wallace Stevens):

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.

For now, I’ll just have to enjoy the just-after moment of the blackbird whistling, and keep trying.

Love, Cath

 

 

On the Way We Move Through the World

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the way we see ourselves helps, sometimes it hurts.

When I found out I was pregnant with my first-born, my daughter, I developed a vision of myself, of the way I would move through my pregnancy. I imagined all that good, earthy, powerful woman-hood stuff and wanted to be infused with a grace and a centeredness that I hadn’t possessed before. I wanted to be transformed. Of course, I was transformed, but not the way I imagined. As my body changed, I grew to be clumsier and more awkward than ever. As much as I wanted to bond with my unborn infant, I often felt attacked by an unknown entity that was devouring me, making me feel fatigued, nauseous. I usually did not feel beautiful and earthy. Looking back, everything I felt was entirely normal. Of course all my experiences felt foreign and confusing; I’d never been pregnant before. And in all the ungainly heft of it, there were moments, hours that sometimes stretched into days, where I did feel somewhat miraculous. And the first time I felt a little nudge from my kiddo, elbow or foot, I’m not sure which, I did feel a crazy inexplicable bond begin to grow. I could call this entity in me a person, but a living creature gestating inside of you doesn’t always feel like a future someone in your life the first time around. So the bond I’m speaking of isn’t like the bond you feel with a human walking around outside your body. When my daughter was born and was placed in my arms, that which had long been other but part of me became something else. Her. Whole. I remember my first thought: Oh! If I had only known it was you. . . .

She was a universe unto herself. One that would depend on me and her father for everything. Of course, the entire time that she was incubating in me, I was developing a range of ideas about what kind of mother I would be. And I felt just as ungainly and confused learning how to parent as I did learning how to be pregnant. I didn’t have any sort of instinctual gift. I questioned every single instinct I did have. I never gained a sustained confidence in my abilities as a caregiver, moral instructor, spiritual advisor, shaper of another human’s psyche. And it didn’t become any clearer once my son was born. The territory shifted. There were two of them. And any ideas I had of myself as a mother once again were turned on their head, because this other little person needed a different me than the first one did in many ways. Once again my expectations of how I would walk through motherhood, of how to parent this little brood, butted up against the realities of doing the job. To be honest, they still do. Everything changes, all the time, and every skill you possess as a person and parent is called upon as your children change and as the world changes and as their world changes and you cannot keep up, not ever, but you simply have to keep trying to make sense of it. I am still not the mother I imagined I would be. To be honest, I’m still not the mother I hoped I’d be. She’s still out there, a version of me who will know and say and do the right things at the right time, and sometimes she and I inhabit the same space and we do okay.

ballet ballet shoes blur close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Our ideas about who we are and who we want to be are perpetually shifting as the terrain shifts beneath our feet, as people exit our lives, or enter. As we gain new experiences. As we leave pasts behind and enter new spaces. We envision ourselves in a certain, idealized way. In every vision I’ve had of how I want to be, how I expected to exist in the world, I always see this version of myself as graceful. I’ve always wanted to possess physical grace. As a child I desperately wanted to take ballet lessons. One Halloween I got to dress up like a ballerina and I was ecstatic. Being an actual ballerina was not in the cards, but that idea of confidence, poise, grace – it stayed with me, and I always wondered how it would have changed me. Would what seems like natural clumsiness have evaporated in a ballet studio? Would I be less likely to run into furniture, trip on sidewalk cracks, stub toes, tumble into garden mishaps that involve crucifixion via rose thorns through my palm?

I’ve imagined what it might look like to walk through my life with poise and confidence. I still envision myself in a manner I haven’t inhabited. I do not feel possessed by a sense of calm, by accumulated wisdom, by a carefully curated and fully-realized perspective, as I had hoped to be at this point in my life. Not every day. Not most moments. But sometimes. Sometimes we inhabit the same space, she and I, and we do okay.

I don’t know if it is good or bad, to have this vision of how we’d like to be. Are we setting ourselves up for failure? Or have we given ourselves realistic ideas of self to aim for? I guess it depends on our vision. Maybe grace and wisdom are out of reach most days, but who knows?

Love, Cath

Walking the Line: Peacefulness versus Purpose

By Catherine DiMercurio

Does self-acceptance threaten our sense of purpose?

Since its inception, this blog has been intended two serve to purposes. I have wanted to share my post-divorce journey, and my corresponding intention to remain open hearted along the way, in the hopes that some reader out there might find a sense of connection, might feel slightly less alone on his or her own journey, post-divorce or as a parent, or simply as a fellow human having similar struggles. My other purpose, the one that operates so quietly in the background I sometimes don’t pay attention to it, has been much more personal. It is about trying to cultivate a sense of peace about where I am on each step of this journey. It’s about acceptance in a way. To be perfectly honest, the idea of self-acceptance scares me a little. If I’m too at peace with where I am now, will my goals evaporate? Will I stop caring about reaching them? It’s a tricky line to walk, and I think intention is at least one of the keys to walking it.

Running is a Metaphor for Everything

My son is a cross country runner. He developed a love of running long before he discovered cross country running as a sport. At his meet this past Saturday, I watched my son, along with hundreds of other people’s sons and daughters, run three miles. It is way more exciting than it may sound. And, as running often does, this meet put a few things in perspective for me.

It was a wonderful morning for a run, cool, in the upper 50s, a welcome break from temperatures in the upper 80s, which the kids have been running in. Perhaps the sun shone a bit brighter than some runners prefer (I like it a little overcast). A light but chilly breeze made us spectators snuggle into our sweaters or windbreakers. The course was quite flat. Everyone one the starting line came with a particular time goal, and I’m sure they all felt the additional pressure that favorable conditions—the flat course, the cool temperature—inspire. All of them wanted to be faster than the meet before, all of them wanted to achieve a PR (personal record). As the gun went off, I knew many of the runners, like all of us who run, would end the race frustrated. Sometimes, even when all the conditions are perfect, and you’ve been putting in all the hard work day after day, you still don’t achieve your goal.

It’s excruciating, when it feels like all the necessary components are present, but things still aren’t adding up. And this is something I relate to, as a fellow runner, as a human in her forties, as a writer. There are plenty of areas in my life where I feel like my efforts are not yielding the results I’m hoping to achieve. How do we find peace with that, but still keep striving to hit the mark we’ve been working toward?

I suspect it comes down to knowing yourself, knowing your heart. Not only do we need to be honest with ourselves about how hard we are working, we have to be willing to give ourselves some credit for what we’ve accomplished, for pushing through when the course isn’t flat, and the conditions aren’t favorable.

Like many of the kids on the course that day, my son did PR. And like many others, that pleased him, but only for a little while. He was faster than he was before, faster than his last race, faster than he’s run in a meet before. But it still isn’t where he wants to be.

Frenzy versus Focus

My personal tendency, if something isn’t falling into place, is to try and find a way to throw more energy at it. I begin to wonder if I can work harder than I thought I could, maybe I can sleep less so I can write or run more, for example. But this frenzied approach begins to feel counterproductive. I wonder if making some peace with where I am, despite not having reached my goals, might help me settle into a mindset where I can take more deliberate, focused action.

Frenzied action can often feel like hard work—after all, we’re expending a lot of energy—but often it produces frustrations that might actually be getting in our way. Think of how easy it is to get agitated while looking for missing car keys. You need to leave, the clock is ticking, but you can’t depart without the keys and the more frustrated you get, the more you are getting in your own way, the more you are not finding what you’ve misplaced. That energy you are frantically expending isn’t doing you any good until you calm down and take deliberate and focused action, such as retracing your steps.

So here we are, walking that line between acceptance and ambition, between where we are and were we want to be, whether it is with a fitness goal, a professional one, a parenting issue, or, how our lives are evolving in the aftermath of the loss of a partner through death or divorce. How do we get to where we want to be? Do we truly know what we want that to look like? And how do we not self-accept ourselves right into a state of complacency?

Here’s the thing: I crave a sense of peacefulness about who I am, and where I am in life, but I also don’t want the flame of urgency around my goals to be extinguished. How does one cultivate both serenity and purposefulness at the same time? I keep coming back to the image of a surging ocean wave; it captures the essence of what I’m after, but I don’t quite know how to emulate it.

photo of sea wave
Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Pexels.com

I wish I had the answer to this conundrum, but as I suggested above, my hunch is that intention is key. Perhaps we begin in a place of respect for our own work ethic. Maybe this is a component of that elusive self-acceptance, perhaps a good starting point. We can acknowledge our good intentions and our determined effort, and not view the lack of expected results as an indication that we’re somehow doing it wrong. Chances are, we are reaping other rewards that are less quantifiable, less obvious. Perhaps, from that solid starting point, we look at our path in a new way. Can we maintain our energy, our work ethic, but make subtle adjustments that gradually help us get to where we want to go, maybe just a little more slowly than we would like?

Perhaps, as in both running and writing, we must pause and assess our technique, our form. Is my stride too long or too short, are my arms pumping, am I focused on breathing efficiently? Am I choosing active verbs, am I falling too often into a passive voice, am I maintaining a meaningful daily habit?

For now, I suppose I’ll attempt to keep surging forward, and once in a while, I’ll look up from my course and make sure the direction I’m headed is still where I want to go. And maybe it’s enough sometimes to be able to recognize others trying to do the same thing.

Love, Cath