On Creation, Waiting, and Time

By Catherine DiMercurio

I don’t have a record player but periodically I think of getting one and it seems every time I do, it’s after I heard a Tom Petty song. I recently listened to a snippet of an interview with him in which he was talking about the process by which he wrote “The Waiting.” You know that one. The waiting is the hardest part. Every day you get one more yard. You take it on faith, you take it to the heart.

He was talking about how a bit of the melody came to him and he played it over and over again for weeks, and then the chorus, same thing. He just played the same thing over and over. The snippet cut off after he talked about somebody knocking on the other side of the wall telling him not to play it anymore but presumably the rest of the song came to him this way, in pieces, over time.

I wish I could speed up processes sometimes, creative processes, learning processes, healing processes. It’s like I’m always waiting for my ability to catch up with my creative energy. My results don’t often match the vision I had in my head and I’m chasing the kind of book I want to write or piece of pottery I want to create. Or, the life I’m trying to build.

I look around at the things that seem to come easily for people and long for something like that for myself. I feel wildly impatient with my slow pace in nearly all things. Sometimes I feel as though I have the mentality of a perfectionist but not the talent, or results, to show for it. I am not meticulous. I am a messy learner with almost no eye for detail. I am full of earnest trying but am frequently wanting something more to show for the effort than what I was actually able to produce. I wake up too early and agonize over glazes I applied too thickly despite my best efforts in pottery class or fret over stories I’ve been submitting for years that keep getting rejected. I wonder, when is it going to all come together, and, what have I missed?

And then, things come together a little bit, all at once. Last year, I did get two pieces of writing accepted at literary journals and they finally were published this past week, within twenty-four hours of one another. And the glazes I’d been so worried about turned out fine, and I threw well that night at pottery class. I enjoyed it thoroughly, that moment where things coalesced in a brief way, knowing that such moments never promises anything. Any future success in either art form will be just as hard-earned and the waiting in getting there will continue to be the hardest part.

I look at all my impatience and I wonder where it’s all coming from and why it percolates everywhere for me. For all my striving toward self-acceptance, this feels out of place. When I step back, I can see that it isn’t there all the time, but it comes back to me, maybe when I’m feeling low about other things. I am trying to pause and consider why it matters so much that I learn faster, glaze better sooner, write and publish more now, etc. I think a lot comes down to validation.

If I’m producing “good” work in a visible way it’s proof, right? I mean, that’s how external validation works. We believe that if others can see something of our “goodness” or “value” then maybe it’s easier for us to believe in ourselves. Alternatively, it simply is enjoyable to feel seen, to have someone else confirm what we’ve been cultivating in ourselves, i.e., a sense of our own worth. For so long, I thought the goal was to not need external validation, that there was something wrong with wanting it. So, I worked diligently on trying to find where this need arose from in my past, how it came to be that I felt unable to sense my own worth. I work at rebuilding my sense of self in the same way that I create, revise, and re-create art in the mediums I’m working in now: clay and words. I’m continually learning how to be me in the same way, with the same habits of working and trying and reshaping and revising. I hum the same bars over and over for weeks. Still, I’m coming to understand that it doesn’t all have to be internal. We must feel safe and good and loved within our own skin, but it also feels good to have someone tell us good things. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying that.

Many people struggle with feelings of not being “enough” or “good enough,” and all for different reasons. I’ve dug into my own reasons, determined to understand them better, because I have found that the only way for me to cultivate healthy self-perspectives and habits is to use precise and loving language in my internal thought processes, language that responds specifically to the lessons and events of my life that wired my brain for self-criticism and an extreme response to anything that feels like rejection.

I am impatient with all this, but I think one of the reasons it takes so long to recover yourself from various types of wounds is that you often can’t face it all at once. It’s too much. It was too much for me to heal in a smooth and linear way and all at once from a twenty-year marriage ending in the storm brought on by my then-husband’s alcoholism and infidelity. Some wounds feel as though they change us at our core, forever, and after bearing the initial brunt of that pain, we begin to understand that the only way to survive it is to take breaks from it. We turn away, we look to others for help. Then we go back to it when we’re strong enough and rested enough.  

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

What I need is to believe that I have time. That I can keep conquering what I need to, that I can keep writing and learning, that there’s no need to rush. But we live in an urgent world that is always proving that nothing is promised, certainly not how much time any of us have left. But I need to believe that I have time, anyway. That my own pace for healing and nurturing my sense of self, for building my writing self into who she is becoming, for learning all I can in an artform as elusive and slippery as wet clay, is all sufficient. I need to believe that because whenever I try to rush things, something is sacrificed. Whenever I grow too impatient, I wind up falling into a dark place and my energy is then focused on pulling myself out of that instead of all the other things I’d rather be doing.

In a way, that’s my own version of blind faith: that I have time, that we all do. To keep creating the person I want to be, the life I want to have. My pace is neither fast nor slow, just mine, is what I tell myself. The waiting for it all to come together will always be the hardest part, because that’s where all the living is, in the waiting. The moments when things coalesce are fleeting, and the rest is creative energy at work. There is so much beauty and art in the waiting, even if it is the hardest part sometimes.

Love, Cath

On Rage and Other Big Things We Don’t Like to Talk About

By Catherine DiMercurio

I took my rage for a walk the other day because the only thing that made sense was tiring it out. I wondered if it was more like a toddler in tantrum or like a puppy full of energy to spend. But the rage—my rage—was unlike either of those things. It wasn’t innocent frustration opposing the structure of its world and it wasn’t joyful and bored and antsy. It was more sophisticated and self-aware, and I couldn’t think of it in a way that made it seem cute and small and not very dangerous. It was not cute, and it felt volatile and intimidating.

On my drive out to the woods, the rage quieted. Simmered. Waited. I was tired of trying to talk myself out of it, just because I didn’t know where it came from. I was tired of trying to figure out all the reasons I felt so full of this surging and unpredictable reactive energy. But I did it anyway. Was it because of the world at large and all the ways it is hateful and crumbling? Was it frustration with life and how there’s no way off this treadmill of working to pay for a roof over your head and having little time or resources to ever do much else? Was it this new and uncontrollable bristling I feel when I encounter inauthenticity? Or was it the powerlessness I feel when I witness people abandoning themselves the way I once did, in service of people or situations that were hurting them? Or was it simply grief’s companion, still flailing over all the things that still hurt?

I don’t know that I learned how to properly self-soothe as a child. People tell you to calm down but they don’t tell you how. I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out what to do with myself when emotions feel too big for my body. When my kids were young, I would tell them to not do anything with their hands when they were angry because we’re so much stronger when were mad. Mostly this was to keep them for hurting each other when they were upset. We talked about different things they could do when they felt that way. Scream into or punch a pillow. Jump up and down. Take deep breaths. But we probably didn’t talk often enough about all this. I was still learning myself, but I suppose a lot of parenting is like that.

Now, as I began walking a trail covered in snow, several inches deep but packed down by other feet and frozen into other shoe shapes, my own boots slipped and slid. I had decided by then to just let myself be angry instead of trying to figure out why it had appeared out of the blue without an obvious trigger. I tried to not be resentful this time. Fine, be mad, I sometimes told myself, all the while feeling a meta-anger, that sense that I was mad about being mad.

This time, I tried to be agreeable about it all. Okay. Today we’re going to be mad, I guess. It’s okay to be mad. I tell myself this now. Because it is, even though I don’t like how it feels inside my body. And I did try to impart this to my kids, too, that it’s okay to be mad but it’s not okay to take it out on other people. But whenever I tried to apply this lesson to myself, I kept trying to talk myself out of my feelings. Maybe I was told too many times that I didn’t have anything to be mad about.

I have this idea that as an adult I’m supposed to be calm and in control of my emotions all the time. I have a habit of judging myself for the “negative” emotions that take me over. In a way, trying to figure out all the reasons I might be mad felt like an attempt to justify, to counter the “you don’t have anything to be mad about” charge, like part of me was yelling, yes I do! It’s as if I’ve been seeking permission from myself to be angry. I have embraced sorrow. When it visits, I let it stay as long as it needs to. I feel it, I talk to it, I cry. I let it have its say, and that seems to matter. But I’ve been afraid of doing this with rage. It feels too big, unstable, uncontrollable.

As I hiked through the snow, I turned on the path that leads to a loop through a big, open, hilly field. It’s a less popular trail and the snow was fresher here, less hard-packed by the few hikers who had passed this way before me. It was deeper to trudge through, and it felt good, pushing through the snow. I checked in on my rage and it felt like it was diffusing a bit. By the time I’d finished five miles, I felt tired and refreshed. The rage had loosened its hold on me, glad perhaps that I didn’t try to tell it to go away, that it didn’t have a right to be here.

On the other side of rage, it is sometimes easier to see that it’s often about fear and things we have no control over. I always want to understand it because I’m afraid I’ll miss something. People say that you should listen to your anger because it’s trying to tell you something, point you in the direction of something that needs healing.

But the tricky part about healing is that it doesn’t mean something stops hurting. At least, not so far.  Sometimes we’re pointed in the direction of our pain and all we can do is recognize and honor it, just like we do with the emotions that brought us there. We self-soothe as best we can. We cry, take a hot shower, go for a snowy hike, scream into a pillow, ask for help or a hug, snuggle the dog. Sometimes we simply must take a deep breath and get on with our day.

Maybe healing is simply showing up for yourself, again and again, without judgement. Without criticizing yourself for having grief, or rage. I think all of us are all the time trying to heal, from big psychic wounds that we never saw coming and stay with us for decades, and from all the little things that gouge at us more recently.

For a week I was not able to pinpoint what it was that had made my insides churn with a rage that seemingly had nothing to do with my life at the moment. Everything had been relatively calm in the days preceding and then I woke up and the rage just hit me. I’ve spent the week thinking about it, and telling myself to stop thinking about it, that the why doesn’t matter. That I did the right thing in finding a way to let myself feel it safely. Anger is a big emotion and it made sense to enlist the woods and the solitude and snow to help absorb it, and that worked.

Photo by Kris Lucas on Pexels.com

But it still bothered me that I couldn’t pin it down. This morning, a week to the day, I woke up, and as my amorphous thoughts gathered into language like raindrops on a windowpane melting into one another, I thought, I’m mad at myself for still feeling grief. I don’t want to feel this way. I don’t think I should. But I do. As I walked myself back through the previous week I realize it all started with a dream. I’d woken up, been frustrated that my subconscious was still nursing old wounds, but I didn’t give it another thought. Then as the morning wore on I realized this rage had seeped in from someplace, seemingly all of the sudden. My dream had been forgotten. And I didn’t put it all together until now.

Our minds and hearts operate in strange ways. In the calm and safe world I’ve built for myself, my brain works on things while I sleep, in ways I do not understand, but in waking life, I’m left to process it all along with the residual emotions. I suppose it is all happening the way it should. The part of me that has waited for me to be ready to do this part of the work is nudging me. But sometimes it feels like a war between two voices inside me, one saying you don’t get to be mad at yourself because things still hurt, and one saying, just watch me.

Maybe it’s my job to be the peacemaker. To tell myself that my anger is a valid response, especially since, if I pick it apart, I can see that it isn’t solely anger at myself for still hurting, it’s anger at the people who hurt me, and anger at myself for “letting” them. In peacemaking, I can allow safe spaces for the anger to exist and expend itself, to rise up when it needs to, just like I’ve learned to allow with the grief. Maybe my anger just needs some time alone with me, away from grief.

I don’t know if it will ever all dissipate, or if all these disparate parts of myself will peacefully coalesce, like those raindrops on a windowpane. For now, though, there’s not much I can really do except keep listening, and making space when the big emotions show up and demand attention. Maybe healing is simply showing up for yourself, again and again, without judgement. Maybe life is.

Love, Cath

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

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Miguel on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Lanterns, Looking, and Home

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Burak The Weekender on Pexels.com

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Music, Muscle Memory, and Mattering

By Catherine DiMercurio

One of my earliest memories is of sitting next to my maternal grandmother, my Busia, on the bench in front of her shiny, black piano. She was a beautiful pianist and she was teaching me to play. I don’t remember much about how I felt about the music, but I loved being next to her. I felt safe and good. With her soft, dry hands she would position my fingers over the keys.

Photo by Bryan Geraldo on Pexels.com

The essay I thought I wanted to write came to me all at once, and it began there, on my grandmother’s piano bench. It was about the way the ensuing lack of music education in my life shaped me, the way some absences do. And while this version of my history is not wholly untrue, something felt . . . out of tune.

At home, we had a piano in the basement, and I remember not wanting to go down there because it was cold and I didn’t like being by myself in the basement, but that’s where I had to practice. I plunked away at “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” But it wasn’t the same, sitting there by myself. And then, we moved to a small apartment, and we couldn’t take the piano. We still saw my grandparents frequently, but somehow the piano lessons drifted away.

Later, I wanted to get into the school band program. At my school, fifth grade was when students could select an instrument and join the program. My sisters before me had elected to do so, with one on the clarinet, and the other on the trumpet, but they didn’t continue for very long. I longed to play the saxophone. Instruments were, and are, expensive and my sisters’ instruments were used. M y family suffered a financial setback, and buying another instrument, for me, wasn’t in the cards. (My younger brother would go on to play the saxophone, and my baby sister, born after I was in college, would excel at the flute.) Somewhere along the line, I turned to writing. Cost was not a factor here. I began with a diary and a journal full of poetry.

I think, in that almost-essay, I was looking for my “origin story,” as a writer, and believed I had found it once I began excavating these memories of my desire to pursue music and how I turned to writing. But the fact is, I didn’t find writing because of a thwarted musical pursuit. I think if I had connected with music more, I would have gone after it again and again and again, which is what I did with my writing.

As an adult, I have periodically tried to teach myself piano, with the help of a keyboard my ex-husband and I bought for the kids one year. No one played it much, the kids gravitating toward stringed instruments and excelling in their middle and high school orchestras on the violin and cello. Trying to teach myself piano was a struggle. So many things are easier to learn when you are young. Still, I sing around the house, old songs that get stuck in my head, little songs I make up on dog walks. I sing in the shower and in the car. It isn’t as if music-making is completely absent from my life.

But all this thinking about the way music wasn’t a part of me the way it might have been underscored something else that I’ve been feeling lately. It’s as if I’m caught between two things: wanting my existence right now to have been imbued with a history that it wasn’t, and trying to figure out how to make the future what I want it to be. I wonder which dreams it’s too late for, and which are the ones to pursue.

There is a poem by W. S. Merwin, “Separation,” that reads: “Your absence has gone through me / Like thread through a needle. / Everything I do is stitched with its color.”

I read that and I thought about several things at once. One was music. I romanticized the absence of it in my life. And though I have truly felt that absence as a pervasive presence in my life, I think I was using the music thing as a cover. Was I actually feeling the pain of a different absence? I thought about my past romantic relationships. I don’t feel the way Merwin describes in his poem about any of men from my past. When my marriage ended, I did feel that way, but not about who my ex-husband was at the time. I was mourning who he used to be, what we’d once been to each other, and that’s what stitched its way through everything that I did for some time. Still, that feeling has dissipated to a faint echo over time.

But I wonder now if the reason that poem resonated so much with me is because I gave so much of myself away for so long. To the world, when I wanted to be accepted, to the men in my life, when I wanted to feel as fully loved as I was loving them. Maybe the true absence that has threaded its way through everything was me, the me that was loving everyone else so fiercely because I never even knew that you were supposed to love yourself. And by the time I learned how important that was, I had no muscle memory for it, just like I have no muscle memory for piano. A few piano lessons when I was very young did not etch themselves within me, nor did any innate self-love I possessed survive what the rest of my life was teaching me, that selflessness was a virtue, that pride was a sin, arrogance unattractive. Many women of my generation had a similar experience, where we heard mixed messages: you can be anything you want, but also, cultural and religious messages told us not to be too bossy or smart or sexual or strange or confident. Reveling in one’s self-ness was selfish.

An old friend and I were talking recently about enough-ness, about a self-identity not constructed out of purpose and mattering. There are [rare] times when I believe with my whole being that regardless of anything that I’m pursuing or achieving, I am enough. That be-ing is enough purpose in my life. But more often than not, I feel compelled to demonstrate worth, to feel like I’ve accomplished something, to have a larger purpose. To matter. But isn’t it enough to be the central thread stitched through my own story?

It’s no wonder then, that something in me wanted to push toward an origin story, to shine a light on something that underscores who I am, and what I want to continue to be. There is a type of coming of age story, a subcategory for coming of age as an artist: Künstlerroman. I wanted that story. I’ve talked to other writers who identified music as an artform they pursued before they found writing. They mention ways in which a serious musical pursuit was thwarted for them, so writing both filled that artistic need and opened new doors for them. Maybe I wanted a little bit of that, something like an artist’s journey, as if my sitting in my bedroom with a little grass green notebook—which I still have—penciling in poetry was not the beginning of a story that mattered.

Yesterday I took the day off work. I was feeling myself spinning out and away like a loose spool of thread, coming all undone. I made sourdough pancakes and listened to BBC world news while I ate breakfast. I stared out of the window at leaves I have no intention of raking anytime soon. I hoped the dogs would continue to sleep quietly and not need anything from me so I could just be. Self-love can be as difficult to learn as the piano, but I have learned enough to know when I need to regroup. I’m trying to hold on to being over mattering, to enough-ness. I’m focusing on being a bright thread stitching its way through everything, instead of letting my own absence weave its way through my story. Maybe one day I’ll develop more muscle memory for it, and my heart will know how to do it as effortlessly as my fingers can fly over this keyboard, typing out these essays, which are really just a kind of love letter, from me to you, and me to me.

Love, Cath

On Lake and Forest Magic, and Self-Reliance

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes, water and woods work magic on your soul.

I planned the vacation I could afford. Camping, no hotel room. Driving far, but not so far that gas prices made it unfeasible. Wonderful family and friends to watch the dogs, so I didn’t have to double the vacation price by paying for dog sitters too. I have traveled alone but this was my first time vacationing alone. I have camped before, but this was the first time I camped alone. I have hiked alone before, but this was the first time I was navigating unfamiliar territory alone. This is all to say that as I headed out for the trip, I had some concerns. My anxiety was stacked up inside me like the clothes in my slightly overpacked duffel.

After a seven-ish-hour drive that included some stretches of blinding rain, I set up camp at a Michigan campground in the Upper Peninsula on Green Bay, where I was about thirty minutes from Wisconsin, in a different time zone, and perfectly situated to watch the sun rise over Lake Michigan. As I set up, not long after a downpour and just before a light sprinkle, I felt deliberate, focused. Later, I would recall what was absent from my mind at the time: reminiscences about past trips, those I had taken with my kids, and before that, those we three had taken with their father, before the divorce.

Those memories did bubble to the surface, but they were more like documentary images and less like melancholy stories. There were certainly moments throughout the trip where I fondly recalled other trips the kids and I had taken, moments where I did miss them. But even these moments were drained of longing and rumination. My brain had begun to work differently than usual. I guess that’s why it’s important to break out of our routines and habits sometimes.

For the first couple of days, I found that relaxing was different when I pursued it and chose it, instead of crashing into at the end of a workday when it feels like I can’t do anything else. I chose activities that I was drawn to in childhood summers—like reading big stacks of library books, and playing solitaire; I chose activities that I knew I liked but associated with a past relationship and that I wanted to reclaim as mine—like doing crossword puzzles; and I chose things that I’ve enjoyed for as long as I can remember—like hanging out at the beach, swimming, looking for rocks, lazing in the sun, and going on rambling woodland hikes. I ate when I was hungry, I slept when I was sleepy.

I was, however, anxious about the longer hike I was planning. Navigating the trails at the campground, despite some confusing signage, was relatively easy, as it was situated between Lake Michigan and M35, the state highway. It was always easy to know where you were in relation to those things. But the state forest campground was different. The Cedar River equestrian campground consists of a handful of rustic sites with paddocks and a small network of trails through the state forest. On the third day of camping, I  followed a dirt road to the gravel lot at the entrance to camp/trail area, and found the parking lot empty. I checked that I had what I needed in my pack and set out, having studied the trail map one more time. There was a gravel road into the campsites, and beyond the camping area, the woodland trails began. It was on that roughly ½-mile stretch that led from the parking lot that I noticed what I thought to be bear scat. I had read a bit about what to do in the event that you see a bear, and I had read that encounters were rare. A little prickle of panic ran through me. I had stuffed my keys, which I carry on a lanyard, into my pack, but at this point I pulled them out to wear around my neck, hoping that the jangling noise would alert the bear, if there was one, that I was around, and keep him or her away from the path.

My noisy rambling did startle some deer, who crossed the path in front of me. It had recently rained and their footprints were everywhere. And some horse poop here and there. The trails didn’t look like they got frequent use, but they had had recent use.

As I came upon each trail marker, I snapped a picture of the marker and took a screenshot of the time. The trail map indicated mileage, so I had a rough estimate of how long it should take me to make it from one point to another, so I figured that would be a useful gauge if I ever started to feel like I had taken the wrong path. This was largely unnecessary, but it was a precaution that comforted me. Unlike some of the well-used nature areas I hike closer to home, these trails were not intersected by numerous side paths that typically make me wonder if I’m on the right one. Nor were the markers so spread out that I ever felt as though I’d taken a wrong turn. In that regard, it was good, confidence-building foray into solo hiking. The only part that gave me pause was when I reached the section of the trail that extended into a large grassy area. The grasses were long and the trail very hard to make out, as they had been mostly grown over. I also didn’t love the idea of traipsing through knee-high grass and possibly having to deal with a crazy tick situation. It was quite warm and sunny that day and the cool shady forest seemed much more appealing than the broad, exposed grassy plain. I turned and backtracked, and tacked on a couple of the interior loops instead.

I was feeling a lot of things at this point, all of them good. The anxiety I’d had about the hike had melted. I felt strong and capable, peaceful and curious. The Cedar River itself was dark and still. The pines and cedars produced such a clean, sweet scent. I could not identify the birds by their calls, but there were plenty of them, some singing and chirping, some squawking. Eventually, as I made my way out of the woods, I once again passed what I was now sure was bear scat. I’d seen enough of the horse poop in the woods to confirm what I’d suspected from the beginning. A few minutes later, I heard a loud crash in the trees. I had seen no other people on the trail or in the camp, and it was not a windy day when a branch might have fallen, and deer don’t make that much noise. I froze and looked carefully around me but did not see any movement in the woods. I remembered reading that if you do encounter a bear, you shouldn’t run, nor should you turn your back on it. All I could really do was pick up my pace and try to make a lot of noise as I headed out of there.

At the car, I kept an eye on the woods and changed out of my hiking boots into a pair of comfortable sandals. The black flies had come out so I didn’t linger long at the car. As I drove away, I had the sensation of something heavy inching itself off of my chest and slinking away. Something heavy that had been there for a long, long time. Deep breaths felt different. More expansive. Sweeter, as if I was still inhaling what the trees had exhaled. I know that compared to what a lot of people do, this six-mile hike alone in the woods was no big thing. But for me, it was about facing a collection of fears, and I had done it successfully. I felt at once elated and grounded. It is a feeling that I’ve had in the past, but only with other people, typically with men I’d once been in love with, when I experienced a feeling both of being safe and exhilarated. Being able to cultivate this feeling on my own, to give this gift to myself, was significant, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt that way by myself. The whole trip made me feel this way, but it ignited on this hike.

We all experience challenges in our lives differently, so I’m not sure how relatable this experience might be. But because of some of the events of my past, I have over the years developed such self-doubt and self-criticism that life has been very confusing and painful at times, both in relationships and out of them. I’ve worked so hard to dissect it all. To understand all the reasons this came to be, and to try and untangle these knots. To have this experience of feeling safe within my own skin, comfortable and pleased with myself, happy, eager, curious, and calm in my headspace, my heart . . . I wasn’t sure if it was possible for me. Long ago, I read Emerson’s Self-Reliance, in which he says, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Is this what it felt like? How long had it been since I’ve had this feeling? I couldn’t remember. This wasn’t just about trusting your gut, this was about trusting who you are.

And as the trip continued, my brain continued to empty itself of anxiety. It pulled away from me the way the waves crashing against the rocks near my campsite were pulled back into the lake. At the beach, the water was clear and cold, and I had the sensation of it taking something from me that I didn’t need or want anymore. The lake was big enough to hold it without hurting anyone, this prickly darkness I’ve carried. I felt both the warm water near the surface and the colder, deeper water that came from far away.

I’m not a great swimmer and deep water is at once fascinating and scary. I like to be near it but not too immersed in it. At this beach, and all public beaches on Lake Michigan, and the other Great Lakes as well, there are signs about dangerous currents. This beach had a flag system so that the safety, or lack thereof, could be communicated to potential swimmers by someone reading the conditions. There was another sign about the fatalities that had occurred. In short, I did not take the risks lightly. Maybe it was for these reasons, though we only had green flag days, that the beach was often deserted. Maybe it was because the temperatures were a little cooler than most people like for beach days. But I reveled in the lake, grateful the waves were calm enough that the beach remained open. I would hike a mile and half from my rustic tent site, past the modern campground, to the swimming beach most days of the trip, and hang out for hours, reading my library books, doing crossword puzzles, and jumping into the water whenever the sun warmed me too much.

The lake is magic. I felt like a creature with dormant or depleted powers who was close enough to the source to have them rejuvenate. I know that sounds crazy and I’ve been reading too many books about witches and fables. But I haven’t felt that myself in so, so long. When I took pictures of myself, I could see it in my face, the recognition, as if I had returned after a long, blurry journey. It was as if I’d happened upon an old, familiar friend I hadn’t seen in a while.

I don’t recall if I’ve ever spent a birthday alone before, but I turned 52 on a sunny Sunday morning sitting on a rock, gazing at the lake, and enjoying the sun. I felt good. I made decadent birthday pancakes for lunch, after spending the morning at the beach. I chocked them full of chocolate chunks, leftover from chocolate bars I hadn’t used for s’mores. I topped them with vegan butter and maple syrup and cherry jam.

This trip was a meditation, in a way, or, how I imagine mediation should be. I want to say it was effortless, and it was, after a few days. But at first, I had to work at it, just like when I sit down on my yoga mat and try to let my thoughts drift by, acknowledging them but not attending to them. Most of the time it feels so effortful, and often ineffective. I had to keep asking myself what I wanted to do next, keep checking in. A hike? Sit by the water? Read? Eat? As the week progressed, I soon found myself moving toward one activity or another, or no activity, and having fewer conscious thoughts about what I was going to do. I found my rhythm. Things felt natural. Familiar.

So much has changed in my life since my divorce, has kept changing. I’ve had major shifts and false starts, and trying over, and over. And so often, in the course of adapting and readapting, my circumstances felt so unfamiliar, and I felt so unfamiliar. I’d remain in relationships flawed in all the wrong ways for far too long, hoping that at some point we’d arrive at the place where it felt familiar. Safe. I kept looking for myself in the face of other people.

I’ve learned that that which is familiar is not always healthy or safe. I also realize now how vital it is to continue this journey toward feeling familiar and safe to myself. To be the source of that. I’ve always tried to provide that in relationships and always expected it in return, never realizing the impact its absence was having within me. I don’t know if I’m there, because everything shifts and changes so rapidly, and progress gets eroded. But I feel as though I’m closer than I have been in a long, long time.

Love, Cath

On Slow Dancing and Wet Sand

By Catherine DiMercurio

Yes, but are you happy? is a question that we chase each other with. We want it for our loved ones, maybe more than we even want it for ourselves. It certainly means something different for each person. I have long wondered, is the “point” of life to be happy? Is it to have purpose, to make the world a better place? To simply survive it? Is it something else? This of course leads down a philosophical road. Depending on your larger belief systems about how we got here and what happens after, the question of the “point” of it all is going to be answered differently. But certainly happiness is something we all want.

Recently, after a period of feeling quite good for a long stretch, a collection of troublesome things happened and I found myself slipping toward the edges of the dark mental space that it can be hard to climb out of. Is happiness real if it goes away when life gets tough? Why does it feel so ephemeral for some of us, and others seem to find it wherever they go?

I used to think that happiness meant spending time with the people you love, but when the people you love exit your life, or they live far away, or the people are your adult children, building their own separate lives, you realize that if your happiness depends on time spent with anyone but yourself, you’ll never be happy.

So, then, is happiness doing the things you enjoy? Pursuing what you love? This seems obvious. Of course, we are happy when we are doing the things we enjoy, but how do we retain that sense of happiness when we are done doing the thing, when the hike has ended, the garden planted and weeded, the sunset on the beach viewed? How do we retain it when we are making dentist appointments or paying for expensive car repairs?

I am not saying that I expect or even want to be happy all the time. There are times when other emotions can and should be foremost in our hearts. I’m talking about happiness in terms of a calm, centered peace that we can hang on to when life gets bumpy, that we can find the path back to once we’ve dealt with some of the more serious things that life throws at us.

If happiness is that peaceful, centered state, is it accurate to say it is a reprieve from anxiety/fear/doubt? And how do we cultivate that? How does anyone, if daily there are battles with physical or mental health, or with financial woes, or any number of things that rattle the calm, that busy us and keep us buzzing and unable to be still and settled?

And some days, sadness feels like thick wet sand, cold, gritty, clinging.

I’m trying to learn how to process heavy emotions. To slow dance with them and listen to what they are trying to tell me.

Photo by Mathias Reding on Pexels.com

The trick is to know when to stop. My old habit when I’m feeling that deep down tug of sadness like there’s an anchor inside, is to sink, stay with it, fall into myself. Here in the dark, I can see that the enemy of happiness is not exactly sorrow, but fear of future sorrow. It is the thought that maybe everything won’t be okay after all.

I think of how future-focused I’ve always been. Not in a sensible way like retirement planning. But, I’ve always had the same question thrumming through me, for as long as I can remember: “But everything is going to be okay, right?” I suppose it is time I start asking myself what I meant by “everything” and “okay.”

This blog has been largely about my path forward since my divorce, the ups and downs of it all, single parenting, relationships. And since ups and downs are universal, I hoped that by writing about mine, you could think about yours, and we could connect that way, cultivate contemplation, and in so doing, co-create a more deliberate way of moving through this world and coping with its challenges and celebrating its joys. Help each other to feel less alone, which is certainly another kind of happiness.  And I have written here about the aftermath of marriage but I rarely talk about my marriage itself. I can tell you this: when I was married, whenever I asked that question to myself, “is everything going to be okay?”, I knew the answer. I knew everything would be okay because I was with the person I wanted to spend my life with.

Before I was divorced, I didn’t think too much about what it meant for people. It was something that happened to other people. So, when it happened to me, and in all the ways it happened—and it happens differently for everyone—one of the biggest inversions to my world view and sense of self was this idea that the future as I had imagined it was erased. And somehow, I felt erased, too. Everything would not be okay, at least, not in the ways I had imagined and hoped.

This past year, since my most recent breakup, I have realized that this part of my journey is trying to get that “everything’s going to be okay” feeling on my own. To take time to slow dance with that. Feeling like everything is going to be okay means that you have an absence of fear about future sorrow, or, more accurately, you have confidence that you will handle the future sorrow and make everything okay, in time. One of the things I’m trying to remember is that no matter how badly I want to figure out if future-me is going to be okay, there are things I can’t know, can’t predict. And the only way that future version of myself is going to be okay with whatever life throws at her is if I figure out how to be okay now. Because if I can do it now, then I can do it then. And what I fail to do so regularly is to realize that I have done it. I am doing it.

Sometimes I feel like the world gets meaner every day and I’m no match for it. Just me and my hokey dreams trying to feel like I’ve got things figured out enough to feel “okay.” But the more we talk about these things, the more we can help each other find paths to “okay” and “happy.” Maybe we can slow dance with the light emotions too, not just the heavy ones, slow dance with joy, slow dance with each other, feel the cool comfort of wet sand instead of a dark pull. And maybe we can create a ripple effect and gradually wash away some of the meanness and be a match for this cruel world together.

Love, Cath

On Elemental Lessons, Love, and Good-Messy

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the most basic lessons are the hardest to learn.

Sometimes I think the best in the shower. In my soul, I’m a water person, though this body can’t swim very well. But whenever I’m around water, I’m calmer. Recently, in the shower, it occurred to me that it is almost the one-year anniversary of the ending of a relationship. It was a relationship that was hard to let go of, in spite of the fact that it needed to end, and I got to thinking that I seem to have more anniversaries of things that ended than things that began. Not long ago, that thought would have sunk me, at least for a few days. I would have ruminated, and found ways to feel increasingly worse about myself. But standing there in the water, after a year of becoming more in tune with myself, my next thought was this (and yes, I do address myself in the second person sometimes): Wait. Are you really saying that you think you have more to mourn than to celebrate?

My immediate answer to myself was no, but part of me still wanted to tally, to dig into hurt and remember it. We get used to making ourselves feel terrible sometimes. For a lot of reasons. But I have spent the last year looking at those reasons, my past, my deeper past, and learning. And in this moment, I understood that it is natural for me to have a lot of emotions around this time of year about the ending of that relationship, and that having those feelings did not have to translate into a trip down the rabbit hole. That’s progress.

Some of that progress can be attributed to the pottery studio. I feel as though I’ve been on an incredible journey when I think of the first several classes back in January. I pushed myself way out of my comfort zone, not only in trying something new, but in hauling myself out of my cozy house in deep dark winter for a 7 to 10 p.m. class with strangers. I am definitely a morning person, so I knew one of my obstacles was going to be my own fatigue at this point in the day. Optimal learning and creative time for me happens much earlier in the day. And there were a lot of other obstacles, one being that physically, I am not very coordinated, and hand-eye coordination is pretty important when you are wheel-throwing.

I was not prepared for how challenging the experience would be, for how frustrated I would feel. I have no poker face, and even when I’m trying to have a neutral outward demeanor, it is plain for the world to see when I am struggling. Though the class was different from any that I’d ever taken, my brain slipped into student-mode where the usual process was: work hard, study, succeed. In the past, doing well in school meant that the people around me were happy (teachers, parents), and it allowed me the opportunity to excel at something, since it wasn’t going to be in the realm of sports, or anything social.

But, I struggled. Class after class, I felt clumsy and awkward and self-conscious. I had almost no control over what the clay was doing and trying to understand the relationship between the movement of the wheel and how my hands were interacting with the clay seemed like a mystery that I couldn’t unravel. There were too many factors—the wheel speed, the moisture level of the clay, the pressure, placement, and movement of each and every finger on both hands, my posture. I was certain the other new people were already better than me. I thought about quitting. A lot. I even bought a cheap-ish pottery wheel so I could practice at home. It is easier to fail without anyone watching. I wanted only to get a little better between classes so when I sat down in the studio it would be evident that I was making progress. I wanted so badly to be perceived as someone who worked hard, and if my work did not show evidence of that, how would anyone know?

And I did make progress, in my own epically slow way. But I was doing so out of some sort of ancient ache to prove myself, to insist on some kind of worthiness I wanted others to recognize in me even when I routinely overlooked it in myself. Part of my pottery journey has been to trace this powerful need, which has shaped (malformed) so many relationships, back to its roots. This work is not done, as the work of truly understanding ourselves and making peace with it all never is.

Even though I felt like I wasn’t progressing fast enough, my instructor was so good at underscoring how difficult it is to learn any new art form. I remember getting frustrated at the wheel, trying to accomplish something that wasn’t working out. I had a poorly centered lump of clay in front of me that I’d been able to open up enough to begin to pull up the walls. She was standing near, talking me through it, and I said something like, “I just can’t. . . .” I was unable to finish the sentence, because I felt like none of it was working. I couldn’t do any of it. And she replied, “And it’s what? Your third class?” She taught me to embrace wherever it was that I was in this journey. If something turned out wonky, and I could get it off the wheel, I could still practice trimming and glazing. It was all part of the process.

Photo by Regiane Tosatti on Pexels.com

That was kind of a turning point for me. After that, some fresh ideas began to make themselves known in my brain. Couldn’t I just learn and play and grow? Trying to force progress wasn’t working. And feeling tense internally was something that found its way into the clay. Everything was going to happen on my own timeline. And there was no grade. There was no metric by which to measure failure or success, only those that I imposed upon myself. Doors and windows flew open inside me. Soon, I began to feel energized and creative and good-messy, and suddenly, when I thought of all there was to learn, I saw the future blossoming in front of me, whereas only weeks before, when I thought of how much I didn’t know, I’d felt overwhelmed.

The whole experience thus far has reshaped the way I look at myself. It is shocking to me that learning how to throw and work with clay is revealing so much that has nothing to do with clay. I think because I was already doing some of this work, the experience simply shoved open doors whose locks I’d spent some time jimmying open.

To some friends and family, I’ve tentatively equated my evolving feelings about pottery to falling in love. I say tentatively because it seems a strange thing to admit. But what I’m beginning to comprehend is that what is happening is that I’m falling in love with myself. Sometimes it takes us so, so long to learn elemental lessons. And sometimes it takes the elements—earth, water, air, fire—to teach us.

Love, Cath

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.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Kat Smith on Pexels.com

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