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 Owls, Cranes, Practice, and Purpose

By Catherine DiMercurio

In the late afternoon, before the light began to fade, I stretched on my purple yoga mat in my bedroom. The puppy, (now two years old), is always at my side and it is no different when I’m standing on my head or sinking into shavansana, corpse pose. He’s right there, at least one paw on the mat, connected to me. When I finished, I found myself thinking that as I go into the new year, one of the things I’d like to move toward is a daily yoga practice. Right now, I do a couple of half hour sessions a week, but I remain stiff in some poses, can’t do some of the things I used to be able to do. So, I’m deciding that I will try to do at least 15 minutes a day. I have other goals for daily exercise, ranging from dog walks to long hikes, and I’ll still do longer, deeper yoga sessions a couple of days each week, but 15 minutes on the other days seems like a reasonable goal, and something I know will benefit me both mentally and physically, particularly as I try to get through these long, cold, dark months. I realized, as I sat on my mat, petting my dog, that my goal did not need to be about getting back to where I was with my yoga when I was younger, or reaching a certain point of mastery over a pose. It is simply this: I feel good when I do yoga. I feel like me and I want more of that.

As I continued to think about how setting this type of goal differed from the ways I set goals in the past, I realized that what I’m after is a practice that is more about habit and effort, rather than outcome. And I began to reflect on how this type of goal setting might be helpful in other areas of my life. Too often I set goals that are achievement-based. I want to be able to do this type of pose perfectly, or get this number of pieces of short fiction published. Then, I further encumber such goals with a timeline. Life teaches us to do this. Self-help books, social media posts, and professional development materials, all often insist that goals need to be measurable and time bound. I even remember reading someplace that goals without a timeline are just wishes.

But I am curious about this: what naturally evolves from a habit-based practice versus achievement-based effort? If I practice yoga for 15 minutes every day and observe my body and my mind, what benefits might I notice? This is different than saying, I am going to do yoga for 15 minutes every day so that I can do a back bend by the end of February.

Likewise, if one of my writing goals is to submit two short stories to literary journals every month, what could grow from that practice of writing and submitting? And how might that practice differ than if I aim for getting, say, three acceptances in the coming year?

My point is that there is so much we are not in control over. And what discourages us, depresses us, keeps us in a sluggish instead of vibrant mental state is that feeling of failure, of letting ourselves or others down, of comparing ourselves to others and not measuring up, because we haven’t gotten to where they are, and shouldn’t we, by now?

Yet, I have little control over whether or not something gets published. I can keep writing, and choose what to submit and to whom, and after that it is out of my hands. We can, to some extent, choose how to spend our time, though we all have responsibilities that can make even this challenging. Still, we can control our own efforts, shape our own habits. What we can’t do is force the world to react to any of that in a certain way.

My writing practice, my yoga practice, my pottery practice—these are more important to me, the doing of them, than the achievement markers that indicate to the world that I’m successful at them. But I get hung up on the proof sometimes. I try to avoid the trap of external validation, though, like most people, I enjoy it. So I want to point to publication as proof of my writing effort; I want to show up in a yoga class and prove I belong because I can keep up; I want to throw a large piece or create something exquisitely artful as evidence that my hard work and practice has paid off. But, what am I really trying to prove, and to whom? Is my desire to demonstrate effort a performance for an audience? Does someone else saying that’s good or I can see you tried really hard matter more than me saying those things to myself?  I don’t think that it is wrong to envision what we might accomplish, to want those things, to work toward them. But I’m starting to wonder if practicing with achievement-based goals at the forefront of our effort is the healthy way to go. Maybe, we could let achievement be the by-product of effort, of habit. And if our effort does not produce those tangible markers, then so be it. If we are working with our own satisfaction, enjoyment, thrill of discovery, etc., foremost in our hearts, rather than what we hope to prove to ourselves or others, wouldn’t the habit itself be more delightful to cultivate?

This is not news to everyone, this idea of practicing the things you love, that are important to you, for the sake of the practice itself rather than what you can show for it or get out of it. It’s not even news to me, but sometimes we lose our way a little. The world teaches us to be goal-oriented, our professional lives hammer home messages of efficiency, productivity, success. But I’m finding there is little living happening in that way of doing things. There is striving and measuring, but not breath, pleasure, joy, satisfaction.

While I am often resentful of the notion that I should make New Year’s resolutions, I have always found that it is a good time to reflect. But in reality, I’ve been doing so since the solstice. The time frame between solstice and the new year has been, continues to be, a rich one for contemplating what I’m learning, what makes sense, what doesn’t. In the coming year, I want to stretch as if I’m waking up from all that has kept me asleep, and still, and sad. I want to “relax into the pose,” as my very first yoga teacher taught me.

As the new year approaches, I’m going to continue to reflect on what other habits I’d like to cultivate with a heart focused on the habit itself, rather than what it produces, or how efficiently. This coming year, I want to relax: into poses, practice, purpose. To unfold, to deconstruct the beliefs that have led me to approach goals as rigid, structured things measured by success and failure, beliefs that have led me to view myself in the same way, like an origami crane made of glass, something that can be easily broken, instead of something sturdy yet flexible, something that can be unfolded, smoothed out, and remade.

Photo by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz on Pexels.com

After my yoga practice, just after dusk, I heard a great horned owl. Across the street, behind a row of brick ranch houses, is a creek and little woodland strip that separates this subdivision from the next. It is the home for a lot of wildlife—deer, opossums, groundhogs, skunks, hawks, and owls, among others. I don’t know that I can ever hear an owl without thinking of some kind of sparkling magic happening just outside my door. I want more of my life to feel that way, infused with the everyday magic of living things being themselves. I want to be part of that, be completely and unselfconsciously myself, making and unmaking myself as needed, as easily as my owl friend hoots in the settling of night over the woods, as soft as moonlight on feathers. I think our habits and practices can lead us there. Don’t you?

Love, Cath

On Incongruity and Metaphor (Or, On Not Giving Up on Yourself)

By Catherine DiMercurio

If you follow this blog, you know my approach: I write about things that are going on with me—in my head, and in my heart, and in my life—in the hopes that it reaches someone who might be going through something similar. Someone who is thinking/feeling the same thing and feeling crazy or isolated or scared because of it. I try to say quietly and loudly and slantwise and head-on, you are not alone, you are not alone, you are not alone. Because it is so easy to feel that way. To think that. To be trapped in the thought patterns that keep us feeling like we have no one who can relate to us. Writers are often told to write the book they want to read or that they feel is missing from the world. While I do keep trying to do that with my fiction, I’m also trying to do that here: write the words that I feel should be out in the world.

This may or may not be true, but I imagine there are plenty of people in the world who have long felt secure in themselves, who aren’t troubled by anxiety or depression, who might stumble on my blogs and wonder what is wrong with that person or geez, another one about self-trust? Or, why isn’t she over some of this stuff already?

But I’m writing for the people who feel things deeply, who have maybe have given too much of themselves away and in doing so, created on their heart a soft surface where blows leave marks that last a long time.  

I do feel like a broken record sometimes though. I wonder if I’m ruminating too much. I’m weighing all the advice about feeling your feelings and processing things and trying to make sense of it all and figuring out what is next, and when, and how, and why. It’s a lot, isn’t it? Life is a lot, for everyone.

This week was full of difficult anniversaries of things and a terrible dentist appointment and if it hadn’t been for a couple of texts, messages, and phone calls, along with an enormously satisfying throwing session in pottery, I would have struggled a lot more than I did. Though, the week did not end without tears.

I realize sometimes that I almost let pottery slip through my fingers. It would have been easy in the beginning to do the thing I used to do: not try, or not follow through on something that I knew I was not going to be good at right away, or at all. I was very discouraged that initial semester.

I think if I had started pottery even just two years ago, I might have given up in those early months. Might have powered miserably through the first semester and never taken another class. Might have told myself “You’re never going to get the hang of this. You’re too uncoordinated. It’s too hard.”

When I was feeling frustrated and like I wasn’t learning fast enough during that first semester, I bought a wheel, a cheap model I ordered online. I practiced at home. I reduced the amount of time I was “failing” publicly. In a way, I outsmarted myself. I knew the biggest obstacles to continuing with pottery were the feelings that everyone was better at this (and many were; there were a lot of returning students) and the huge—though needless—embarrassment I felt that I was slow to acquire skills and techniques everyone seemed to possess already. Even the other new people seemed to learn faster than me. But practicing at home, privately messing up and starting over and over, was what enabled me to get more comfortable with the clay, and with myself. In a way, I was battling a lot in myself. There was a part of me who desperately wanted to keep doing this, keep trying, get better. Keep playing. And there was the uncomfortable, anxious, critical part of me who fought back. That part is vulnerable and self-protective, and I have been working so hard to heal it. I couldn’t tell myself to just toughen up and push through, though. Pottery—or, a deep longing to explore this medium—both encouraged and enabled me to have these two disparate parts of myself start working together.

First, I had to stop telling myself never. I stopped saying, “you’ll never figure this out; you’ll never be good at this.” Instead, I’d ask people how long they’d been doing pottery. I’d gauge how long it might take me to feel more proficient, and I introduced the term yet into the way I talked to myself about my efforts. I haven’t learned that yet. I haven’t mastered that yet.

So what was the difference? How was I finally able to get to a point of mediating between these two competing parts of myself, both very childlike, one wounded and wary, one playful and enthusiastic? How did I not fall into the usual trap of avoiding something I couldn’t excel at quickly? It’s hard to pin it down, but I think one reason this lesson finally “took”—after years of similar internal battles—was because of the things I’d been learning about myself after my last breakup. I told myself a lot of things in that relationship that did not serve me. One of them being that I had to make it work because I was 50. I had reached the cutoff point I’d given myself. I didn’t want to start over with someone new. I tried so hard to mold myself into who I needed to be to make that relationship work, except, that person was a shadow-me. That person couldn’t, or wouldn’t express what she needed, and felt like she ought to not need anything at all, since needy was bad, right? But when it began to feel all too incongruous with who I was, I talked myself into changing course. I talked with my partner about what I needed and hoped for, and it soon became clear that we weren’t good fit after all.

One of the lessons I learned from that experience, the one that helped me stay in pottery, was to stop saying things to myself that make things worse. Just as I needed to stop telling myself to “make it work” in that relationship, I also need to stop telling myself that I’d never be able to center the clay or pull up walls or make a cylinder. I needed to stop saying that I’d never be able to do it or never be good enough.

At the end of the relationship, the incongruous feeling I was having centered around the me I knew I was, and the me I was telling myself I needed to be to make the relationship work. By the time I was taking that first semester of pottery class, I was starting to get more and more comfortable with listening to myself, to watching out for what made me feel less like myself (whether it was my own words or someone else’s). What was incongruous that first semester was the part of me saying give up. Most of me didn’t want to give up. But I had to have a long, difficult talk with that other part of myself who kept saying I should.

[Disclaimer: there are obviously times when it makes sense to try with everything you’ve got to make a relationship work! There are plenty of relationships worth fighting for. The ones that are worth that effort are those in which you do not have to be someone you aren’t for it to work. Yes, both parties should be willing to compromise, but you compromise about preferences, choices, behaviors, not who you are, and not the essentials of what you need. Some key questions (among many) to ask yourself: Is it safe to be myself? Am I becoming less of who I am in this relationship? And are my efforts to improve the relationship being matched and reciprocated? No relationship is worth disappearing over, and both people should be giving it everything they’ve got.]

Sometimes in my current pottery class, I still get overwhelmed with how much I don’t know. Sometimes it feels like beautiful, endless, possibility and other times I feel small and uncreative and like I can’t tap into whatever it is I need to in order to grow, to feel like I’m as much of an artist as the other people in the studio. I still feel like I’m learning rudimentary skills. But after a great throwing day, where I pushed myself and made some larger pieces, I took a look at everything I threw and thought, I’m a potter. I’ve said it before, even put it in a dating profile, but this was the first time I’d thought it and felt it. It took eleven months to get to that point, and it has been worth the effort.

I love it when a metaphor presents itself to me. I used to say that running is a metaphor for everything, and it is. So is pottery. The world is full of metaphors rushing to in to help you understand the meaning of effort and beauty and reward and . . . self. How we return to ourselves is one of the most important journeys we can ever embark on. Wishing you peace and insight as you find your journey, and the metaphors that become your maps.

Love, Cath

On Stories, Journeys, Maps, and Signs

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes, all we want is a sign.

Recently, I wrote a short story with a happy ending. Or, more accurately, I finally wrote the happy ending to a story I thought I was done with. I write a lot about broken relationships and wounded people who are trying to find their way toward new versions of themselves or new love. I write about them in various stages of this process. I’ve imagined people in their 20s and people in their 80s struggling with different versions of this same journey. The stories end not hopelessly, but with some acknowledgment that the journey is long, and not over.

I’d been revising this particular story, taking a fresh look at it the beginning of it for a workshop. As I worked deeper into the story, I suddenly began to see a richer ending taking shape, one that moved the characters past the moment of not being able to connect with one another. As I read the last scene I’d written, I sensed what was supposed to happen next, able now to imagine these two people drawing on the bravery they both possessed in order to be emotionally honest with one another and finally move toward one another. Maybe it’s less artful now, with its happy ending. So many short stories end in ways that leave you thinking and wondering, and maybe I still won’t be able to place it with a literary journal. It’s too soon to tell. But, either way, I feel as though I achieved something with this story.

I was not capable of writing that ending to the story before now. I could not have written it one year ago, and I certainly couldn’t have written it eight years ago. It’s not that I couldn’t envision such an ending, but I felt stuck in a way, or, unable to unstick the words from my throat. Confused about how to unravel the fibers, comprehend them, and knit them back together into meaningful sentences, though I felt all the fine threads in my hands. There were insights that eluded me, and that I didn’t know were eluding me. How often do we feel that way, that everything is right in front of us but we can’t see what we need to? So often, we make do with what we can. We show up with everything we’ve been able to make sense of and everything we haven’t, because, what else can we do?

Journeys take a long time, and often long stretches happen in the dark. It’s no wonder we want to look for signs that tell us we are on the right path, that things are coming together, that we are getting unstuck. It is easy to notice things that we hope are signs, once we are looking.

(A yellow butterfly crosses your path while a meaningful song is playing. You once again happen to glance at the clock and the time is your birthday. As passcode for a two-factor verification comes up as 123456. A moth patiently waits for you to save it from death by lightbulb and you do. On a dating app, you see a picture of a man with a crow behind him on a fencepost. You see this picture just after you’ve finished writing a story with a happy ending, a story that happens to prominently feature a crow. [Yes, I commented on his crow picture. No, he did not message me back.])

Photo by Alfonso Ramirez on Pexels.com

Often, I find myself believing that there is no “right” path. And if that’s the case, what need have I of signs to verify that I’m on it? There is no timeline, nor a single trajectory that you follow to get from one point to another, from the point of hurt to healed, over it, better. Still, sometimes we feel a sort of peace settling in over scars, like gold dust or starlight, and we feel soothed, sometimes even shining and spectacular. We can notice that things feel aligned, or balanced, or magical, if only for a moment. We can take all of this as validation that we are doing something well, even if there is no right path, no one way to go.

This bears repeating. I find my self craving answers sometimes to specific questions: should I do this thing or that? Is it the right time to take this step? And though I agonize over the details of these questions in my head, when my heart raises its voice through all that clatter it asks am I doing this right? Is this okay? Am I on the right path? Deep down, essentially, all I really want is to know what I already know. I’ve got this. I’m doing this right. Everything is going to be okay. And the feeling I get when I see the things that feel like signs to me is one of peace. The voice I hear is one telling me you’re doing well. I think I’m not actually looking for a sign that I should get back on Bumble or whatever. I simply want to know that the decisions I make – about anything – are well-fashioned out of awareness, and contemplation, and self-trust. Sometimes, what we really seek is the validation that we are doing/living/being well, and that this path or that, while not inconsequential, matters less than trusting ourselves to do what feels true and good for us.

The way forward after the low points in our lives is a blue-veined map across the surface of our souls. We follow paths that make sense at the time, and find our way back to our heart, and we leave again, replenished but uncertain about where we’re supposed to go next.

Autumn is a good season to pause, consider your surroundings. The days are getting shorter but for the moment, there is a pleasant balance between activity and restfulness, at least for a little while. When you think about the next steps you want to take, consider whether you need some time to get to know your own heart again. Take a visit back, refresh yourself. Consider too, if you’re heading out once more, that there’s no one right way. You don’t have to pursue whatever it is the world has told you should have by now. You get to do it your way, and if you find yourself looking for signs maybe it’s because you already know whatever it is you’re trying to validate.

But it’s okay to want the sign. It’s okay to crave the sight of crows settling in trees at dusk, or cardinals leading the way on your morning walk, or days when your favorite number keeps popping up everywhere. Dreams of pets who have passed, or the same old song turning up on different radio stations multiple times a day, the butterfly that lands on your shoulder or the cricket that has hitched a ride in your car. Whatever it is that strikes you as special, unusual, take in these signs and cherish them. Then figure out what it is that your heart already knows. Maybe it’s just waiting for the rest of you to catch up.

Love, Cath

On Love Letters and Pancakes

By Catherine DiMercurio

Pancakes are love letters I write to myself on weekend mornings. Yesterday’s were slathered in vegan butter and a syrup made from mixed berries and turbinado sugar, since, shockingly, I was out of maple syrup. I have a long history with pancake-as-love-letter. I used to make them for my family when the kids were little. It was a favorite treat. Every once in a while, if I was up early, I’d make them on a school morning and the kids would be surprised and delighted to have a break from their usual school morning fare of toast and tofu, cereal, frozen hashbrown patties hastily heated, smoothies, or whatever else we threw together. When we’d have neighbor kids over for a sleepover, I could easily be cajoled into making chocolate chip pancakes. All of this was a way for me to say, let me do this for you, make you feel welcome and delighted and full-bellied. Comforted and loved.

Messy but tasty.

Once, when my marriage was building toward its demise, and it seemed like my husband had gradually evolved into someone I didn’t know, who didn’t know me, I made pancakes on a Saturday morning and called the family to the table for breakfast. He sat down, reluctantly, in front of the steaming plate of love letters I’d placed in front of him. “I don’t really like pancakes,” he said. He didn’t even say “anymore,” as I recall. It was as if he was telling me that all along, he’d never liked them, and all along, he’d let me labor under the delusion of my delight in feeding him this treat. All along, what I knew and what I thought I knew were different things. Some seemingly mundane moments like this etch themselves into your soul and you try and talk yourself out of letting them mean too much, but later you are able to understand why it hurt so much more than it “should” have.

Later, after the divorce, after the rebound boyfriend summoned from my college days (for whom I made gluten-free pancakes), my first real new boyfriend spent the night for the first time while the kids were away. I made him pancakes in the morning. I delighted in how much he enjoyed them, how pleased he seemed to be in my space, sitting at the dining room table with me over pancakes and my syrupy love notes. I fell in love easily then, though that relationship did not last long, nor did the one that followed. I have a pancake story for that one too, but like most of the love notes I offered then, the reception was lukewarm.

Now I make pancakes for myself and it still feels like a special treat. Yesterday, I needed to feel taken care of, so I made myself the aforementioned pancakes. It started out just as something that sounded good but as I began mixing the batter, I thought of how satisfied I felt whenever I bothered to make myself a good meal instead of just scraping something together because it’s “just me.” So I completed the task with more deliberateness, thinking about why I was feeling the need for care in this moment, and also being grateful for being tuned in to what I needed. Even just months ago, it was challenging for me to consider both what I needed and figure out a way to get it. It was no easy task to make myself feel loved. To allow myself to feel loved. By the people in my life, by myself. Being partnerless felt burdensome, heavy, huge. It felt like an enormous cloud that shadowed my life. I felt that, theoretically, I loved myself, but I sort of waved away the notion that such knowledge could do anything to assuage my grief or loneliness. Now, I’m able to enact that love in different ways, to sit with emotions that need attention, to take comfort in a thoughtfully made meal, to pull myself away from the damaging loop of anxiety-thoughts by going for a walk or heading to the pottery studio or playing with the dogs.

It’s taken me so long to learn how to connect all these dots. For most of my life the messaging around me was that there was something wrong with prioritizing oneself. We don’t really learn how to do it. I didn’t. Or that we can, or should. For me, it has been so much easier to do now that I haven’t been in a relationship for a while. A year ago, I would not have imagined that I would come to think of the ending of my relationship as a gift. At the time, I felt I was making a healthy decision for myself but it was still a painful process and a grieved ending. It has taken me these many months to get to the point where, beyond knowing what I want in the next relationship (when/if that happens for me), I know myself so much better. Further, I know myself better for the sake of myself, not for the sake of any past, present, or future relationship. In the years since my divorce, I’ve been doing this work, but having this time entirely to myself for the past year has allowed me to further those efforts, to be more conscious, aware, and deliberate about my wants, needs, choices, preferences, and so on. To be clearer about my motivations and my triggers.  

Obviously, as a human, I still desire external validation, connection, conversation, etc. I’m learning what it means to feel wholeness and peace and at the same time desire connection and community. They aren’t mutually exclusive. I also have bad days where nothing seems to help. I’m still a work-in-progress. We all are, and there is so much beauty in that. The people I’m most drawn to are those who possess that same awareness. 

Pancakes are not the only love letters I write to myself. When I look around my space and see houseplants in every room and jars of found objects—pinecones, driftwood, rocks—I see all the ways in which I bring nature inside so that it is all around me, because it calms me and centers me. Every little stone I’ve ever pocketed or tucked inside my beach bag was a way of me saying to myself, trust me, you’re going to need this later.

So, if you’re reading this, take a moment amidst all the loud clatter and chaos that seem to be the norm of the world around us most of the time, and think about what little love note you could give yourself today. Is it cooking a comforting meal, writing an actual note, going for a walk, picking up a lucky penny? Maybe it is pouring coffee into your favorite mug, and stepping away from work for 15 minutes outside. What are the ways you’ve expressed love for others in the past that you can offer yourself now, like me and my pancakes? It’s worth thinking about. You’re worth it. I am.  

Love, Cath

On Weeds and Water and Honeycomb Hearts

By Catherine DiMercurio

When I started this blog, I described it this way: “This is the chronicle of a journey many of us find ourselves on — the search for meaning in all the things that break our hearts and all the things that make them whole again.”

All my life, I’ve had this sense that searching for meaning and purpose was something I needed to do. Something I did do, whether or not I wanted to. It just happened. Just like some brains are intrinsically focused on the mechanics of how things work, mine is and was focused on what things mean. Not just what do they mean for me, but what do they mean cosmically. As in, why is the world this way instead of that way, or what does this particular detail mean within the larger context of the world, the universe.

The grasping toward our understanding of our place in the universe necessarily encompasses a grasping toward an understanding of the universe itself. I am ill-equipped to do this, save for a couple of philosophy courses in college.

Helpfully (?), the world we have built as humans is focused on goals and milestones, so that my perpetual and at times frantic efforts to understand the cosmos were redirected toward practical things like education, marriage, parenthood. I poured my search for larger meaning into finding granular meaning in my choices and pursuits. When I became a mother, though, I felt as though these two separate, higher- and lower-level searches had merged. Everything clicked, in a way. I felt cosmically connected to these two souls, and also, in a very real way, I was responsible for their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. Motherhood was rarely easy, and I remember being surprised and disappointed that it didn’t come more naturally to me. I thought I would understand intrinsically how to soothe a crying baby, or make peace with a frustrated toddler, or advise an angsty teen. But the work, as challenging as it was, felt hugely important. I never regarded the children themselves as mine but they were in my care; the work was mine; the honor of raising them was mine.

I was writing too, during these years, and got a novel published when the kids were six and four. I felt like this was it. Life was what it was supposed to be. I was doing it: pursuing a meaningful creative/professional goal and being a good mom and a good wife.

Later, after I became a single mom, the way I parented changed, but what hadn’t changed was that the kids were my number one focus. They were fourteen and twelve at the time of the divorce. There was a lot of parenting left to do. But last summer was the last time the last child lived at home. The day he left, my frantic search for meaning ignited again. It just happened. I knew that I was still needed by and connected to my kids as their mother, but everything was different now. And we all knew it.

I’ve spent the past year trying to better understand who I am now, and who I was, and who I want to be. I’ve tried to fashion that into my purpose. I’ve focused on my writing, I’ve focused on dog training, I’ve focused on learning a new skill/art with my pottery. All of these are good things, and I’ve grown and I will continue to pursue them.

But at the same time, all these things feel more like places to channel my energy but less like the sense of purpose I possessed when mothering was a daily activity.  

I am trying to be patient with myself.

I know that now that the twenty years of nitty gritty parenting are over, I tend to suffuse that time with a certain glow. Still, I haven’t forgotten all the difficult parts: when I felt like a horrible mother and that I was ruining everything for everyone; when I just wanted to leave for a little while because it was too hard and I never got a chance to even finish a thought or have three seconds to breathe alone; days when I was quite certain that one or both of the kids hated me and always would; times when I didn’t know how any of us would ever feel healed and whole again, and the terrifying realization that we could all drown if I could not figure out how to inflate the raft with my exhausted, heart-broken breaths. No one has forgotten how hard it was.

But still, looking back, I see how the sense of deep purpose I always felt—that strange, alchemical comingling of love and purpose, duty and wonder—helped get us through. I say helped because I did not do it alone. I had friends and family I began to learn to lean on. And my kids are stronger and more resilient than I’ll ever be. I’m proud of them and all the work that they’ve done. And I’m proud of myself, and as a person who has struggled with self-confidence and self-trust, that is a huge thing for me to believe, to voice.

And now in this moment, there is a freedom here, and it is taking up a larger space than I expected it to. It isn’t just about time, as in, now I have more time for writing, or for exploring new things. It’s different, multi-dimensional, so unfamiliar and so full of something, power? that I feel uneasy stepping into it. Within, I imagine, is all the me-ness that there wasn’t much time or energy for before.

I’ve been trying to think of the best way to describe this new sensation, this freedom that seems to be taking up more space than I thought was available. The way large, leafy weeds don’t just take up the space allowed by the crack in the driveway pavement, they expand the space. But it feels more like my heart is a honeycomb that keeps being added on to by something busy inside me, and the result is I keep recognizing myself in different places. Do you ever have that feeling where you look at a photo of yourself and it doesn’t look like all the other curated images you or someone else has taken? You look at it and think there I am. Or, do you ever that moment, upon arriving at a location where something clicks into place, and you are suddenly relaxed and energized all at once, and you think this. I needed this. For me that photo was the one I took of myself at the pottery studio. And that place is usually by large body of water.

Photo by David Hablu00fctzel on Pexels.com

Lately I’m experiencing all of that, more and more. It feels akin to the existential wandering my soul did when I was a child. I have a very distinct memory (which I’ve written about, here) of trying to understand my self-ness within this existence, as if part of me could comprehend I was something larger and freer than what my current body was containing, and I wanted to have both, the knowledge of who I was in this time and place, and the knowledge of the larger self that was struggling to understand its physical containment in this vessel, this me. It’s like that now. It’s like I’m close to getting it. I am trying to relax and let it all align.

I used to think that maybe I had to let go of one thing—a past version of myself—before I could step into the next iteration. But maybe that’s not the case. Maybe we get closer and closer to being able to hold all the versions of ourselves in place at a time. Maybe we are the honeycombs, and the bees, and the honey all at once.

Love, Cath

On Safe Spaces and Swimming

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we undervalue the gift of safe spaces.

Sometimes I think the only thing I did right as a single parent was to offer a safe space for my kids to raise themselves. That is, of course, an exaggeration on a couple of levels. But it speaks to what I told my eldest upon their graduation from college this past weekend. Kids have good instincts, and they seek and need agency. Sometimes trusting our children and getting out of their way is the only way. Obviously it isn’t always the answer. But in they years after my divorce, a lot of things happened to me, and one of them was that anxiety created a sense of hypervigilance. It led me to think about emotional safety a lot, especially about how to provide it to my kids during a difficult transition to our new family structure. With my child’s recent graduation from college, I witnessed, reflected on, and admired who they are and how they have grown and become more and more themselves over these last few years. I hope, at the very least, that I played a role in helping them feel safe and loved and cared for along their journey.

As parents, we work toward where I find myself now—being ancillary in our children’s lives. On a day-to-day basis, our presence is not needed for our older children to function and flourish in the world. It isn’t that they don’t turn to us, and it isn’t that they don’t feel emotionally connected to us, but their lives are their own. When problems arise, they may or may not ask us for advice, they may or may not even tell us there is a problem. They are simply living and handling things. This self-sufficiency is what we have striven for as parents. I’ve always had a sense since my children were very little that everything I did was in preparation for them to leave me. Yet, living on this side of it is a strange and emotional time.

When your child graduates from college it is inevitable that you reflect on your parenting. It is impossible to not recall the first day of preschool and kindergarten, all the ups and downs of middle school and high school. The day you helped them get the dorm room set up is etched on your heart, the way you drove away and left them there, thinking, as you did when you dropped them off at preschool, is this right? This is what people do? We walk away now?

For divorced families, when you think about your child’s upbringing, there is a Before and After. Inevitably you will wonder if you got things right, on either side of that line. Each situation is different. For me, as a single parent I felt as though I was constantly trying to figure out how to make what had been fractured feel whole and safe and enough again.

It occurs to me that after years trying to make my children’s lives feel that way, I am now trying to make my own life feel that way. Whole and safe and enough. With each milestone the kids achieve, with each further step they take into their own lives and futures, I am left with increasingly stark reminders of what I need to do for myself.

My own childhood was populated with a crowd of siblings and two parents who are still together. College was full of roommates, boyfriends. Not long after, I was married and soon after, having children. After the divorce I tried soothing the loneliness of single parenting with relationships that ultimately could not be parlayed into something long-term. Each time something ended, as hard as it was, as disappointing as it was that it didn’t “work out” the way I had hoped, parenting, in many ways, was easier. Flying solo, I was able to try and tune in more effectively to what my kids needed.

But now, I have the time and space to focus wholeheartedly on myself. Yet I have had very little practice trying to figure out how to make that whole and safe and enough scenario happen by myself and for myself.

I’m getting closer, but I’m still not there. And I wonder, too, are we ever truly there? I haven’t even been able to articulate it as a goal until recently. Since I’m always thinking about the future, worrying about it, I imagine scenarios. If I decide I’m okay, if I’m whole and safe and enough on my own, does that mean I’m closing the door on a future with someone? Or is that mindset what actually opens the door to the “right” relationship? I’m thankful to friends who help me consider these ideas, who remind me to spend some time in right now instead of always trying to fill in the blanks ahead.

Sometimes I mentally catalogue when I felt the most whole and safe and enough so I can try and recreate it. There was usually someone by my side. Can I not remember feeling that way when I was alone, or did it never happen? It is easier to remember the times I did not feel that way, far easier to remember the events that left me feeling fractured and unsafe and inadequate. I have spent a long time trying to stop feeling hobbled by heartbreaks. This is precisely what this time is for, this time I have to myself right now. It is a time not only to heal from all the past hurts but a time to reassess how I look at myself.

When was the last time you looked at yourself in a way that freed you from context? How do we see ourselves when we remove all the filters of what we do, who we’re related to, who we live with, who and what we’ve lost?

Photo by Ellie Burgin on Pexels.com

Of course those things are all huge parts of who we are but there’s a self in there who is the one doing all the adapting to all the things that happen to us. I wrote a poem once, called “Minnows.” It opens like this:

Do we learn to love

The way fish learn to swim

Or the way we learn to fish?

There are things we begin to teach ourselves out of instinct, about how to know and love ourselves. These ideas are soon enhanced and/or undercut by other external lessons. Sometimes I think the more we know of the world, the less we know of ourselves.

Sometimes, we are in relationships that are collaborative and supportive and allow us the space and care to help us to know ourselves better. These might be romantic relationships, familial ones, or friendships. And sometimes, we are in relationships that take us further and further away from ourselves. Usually when we’re in them we are not thinking about them in such terms but when we’re out, it all becomes clearer. And of course, some relationships morph from the former to the latter, and it’s hard to tell what’s happening. I wish I’d understood the importance of this distinction sooner. But I’m learning. The more I learn about myself, the more I understand how hollowing it is to be in relationships where I am becoming less of who I am instead of more. It is this knowledge that soothes loneliness when it strikes: at least that isn’t happening.

I often think of this chapter as a rebuilding one, as if I’m putting myself back together, reconstructing, improving. But maybe it is one more characterized by paring down, unwinding, unlearning. Maybe it is just remembering how to be a sleek little minnow learning how to swim.

Love, Cath

On Voice, Moment, and Movement

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes moments are motion, and our voice guides us through, if we listen.

Spring weather here can be a strange mix, with warm sun shining down while a frigid wind blows. Moment by moment you are alternately completely comfortable, basking in the sun that soaks into your skin, and then suddenly freezing and wishing you had a hat and gloves. This weekend my emotions played out similarly.

With my son home for a visit, relieving the solitude of my day-to-day life, I alternately felt happy, comfortable, and relaxed, and then suddenly sad and anxious, as if I existed in the moment and the ones just before and just after all at the same time.

In the course of running some errands, we stopped at the pottery studio where I take my class. I picked up a couple of glazed pieces that hadn’t turned out as I’d hoped, then we headed to the nearby gardening center. As we wandered the greenhouses, my emotions were all ebb and flow. There were layers washing over one another: the disappointment over my pottery was softened by plans for how I could improve next time; the excitement over what plants I might buy to spruce up the yard wilted as I worried about costs; but mostly, the joy at having my son home and spending time together was being washed over at the edges with the sadness of knowing we only had a short time together, and with the ache of wishing my daughter could have been with us too.

People say, live in the moment. In that moment, I was giving myself the same instruction. Do not focus on disappointment or sadness; be here with your son and the beautiful plants the smell of hyacinth and this adorable cat who wandered up to greet you. It isn’t as if I ignored joy and dwelled only in the darker thoughts. But sometimes, you have to hold it all at the same time. Sometimes the moment pushes and pulls you as though you are standing chest deep in a big lake and the waves make stillness impossible.

In navigating the movement of the moment, I often feel as though I’m straining to hear a voice over the distraction of ambient sound. I am trying to coax this voice to greater volume. The voice of instinct, of guidance, can be so quiet in me sometimes, but I have begun to understand why.

In my writer’s workshop, we’ve been talking about voice, and the way any novel opening can work if the voice is effective. When I’m writing a novel it takes a while to find that voice. Until recently, I hadn’t realized that the issue of voice in my writing and the strong clear voice of instinct that I have been listening for within me were one and the same.

There are many reasons why it is hard to hear and trust that voice within us, nudging us toward good things, warning us away from trouble. I think it can be difficult to hear your own voice if ever you were told that you were too sensitive or too needy. In response, you might have found yourself voicing feelings and needs less frequently and more quietly. You began to observe, trying to determine what emotions are allowed to be expressed, and when, and by whom. Over time, the weight of what you haven’t expressed makes you empathic. You are in-tune to the deep feeling of others because it is so heavy in you. You might have become a servant to other people’s emotions, knowing how it feels to have things unattended to. Sadly, in this way, we teach ourselves to listen more closely to others than we do to ourselves.

Well-meaning people tried to protect you from a mean world but didn’t understand that your openness and sensitivity were strengths, not liabilities. You didn’t need a thicker skin, you needed understanding, maybe some tools to help you cope. Later, less well-meaning people were able to spot your vulnerability, told you to trust them and not yourself, and that was easy to do, because your own voice had grown so quiet.

This voice is how we navigate everything, so when it is quiet, we are filled with self-doubt. And even when we train ourselves to listen for it again, it is easy to discount it.

I’ve recently tried to start running again, and I’m still incorporating a lot of walking into my running because in the past I’ve made the mistake of trying to ramp up too quickly, and I get injured, and then I can’t run at all for a while. I used to think that I “failed” at a run if I needed to stop at walk. The mindset I’m trying to cultivate now is that a successful run is the one I’ve begun. It is the one in which I listen to my body and walk when I need to.

I used to think that I failed if a story got rejected, if I never heard back from an agent, if the guy from the dating app who was messaging me disappeared. But I’m realizing now that every time I begin again, I succeed. Every time I listen to my instincts and chose hope, resilience, and perseverance, it matters. Of course, we need to rest, to pause and listen to that voice within us, to keep recalibrating our efforts to our purpose.

Do we ever get it right, the balance between when to push ourselves and when to pull back? Or does getting it “right” mean that we cultivate the awareness that balance is achieved through this movement? Sometimes it seems that balance is more about living in midst of that ebb and flow, the push and pull, than it is about a finding that briefest moment of stillness somewhere in the middle of it all. My comfort zone is in that middle space, and I’d love to learn how to expand it, but so much of life happens in the waves pushing and pulling me away from it.

Whether it is learning how to exist in a moment that is filled with the fluidity of past, present, and future all at once, or existing in the process of working through “failure” toward what we value and what we want, being able to accept the movement of the moment, of all that is pushing us and pulling us as we try to keep our footing, relies on us hearing our own voice and letting it guide us. This is our work.

I have learned that I only experience peace in the midst of all these processes when I am able to hold it all at once, when I can embrace a moment and the movement around it. It is the cat in the warm greenhouse, and the cold wind, and the peppering of disappointment and worry, and the scent of hyacinth, and my son with me now, and his imminent leaving, and missing my daughter, and the sunny joy of love, and all of it all at once.

I hope you find peace in the process and can always hear your voice.

Love, Cath

On Messiness, Moodiness, and Harmony

By Catherine DiMercurio

I usually am craving spring by March. This year, I am stunned to discover that I am not, at least, I’m not consistently yearning for it the way I usually am this time of year. I am no fan of prolonged winters and I’m not as cold tolerant as a lifelong Michigander should be, yet with the promise of long days ahead I have the sense that I’m still in some sort of cozy, dark cocoon I’m not ready to come out of. I think much of this is due to the largely self-imposed idea that the longer the day, the more productive I should be. Yet, no one is policing me. And I do love finally feeling the sun and digging in the dirt. I’m sure, when the time comes, I will be ready.

But, the time change often makes the transition to spring feel forced, unnatural. In general, I have found that most transitions are difficult for me. It takes me longer than I expect, always longer, to recalibrate my brain and heart. Changes take time to get used to, even if we are ready for them.

This has been a time of noticing for me. I have spoken here often of the abrupt shift to solitude I experienced when my son moved out at the end of the summer, and this experience coming on the heels of other endings. In the months that have elapsed, I have taken care to notice things about myself that previously only fluttered to the surface of my perception, when my attention was more keenly attuned to the other people inhabiting my daily life. Despite periods of loneliness, it has been a gift to become reacquainted with my own natural rhythms, my own seasons.

Sometimes I wake to the feeling that I am in my own little bubble floating on the periphery. I don’t mean this in a covid way, though surely the isolation of the past two years has contributed to this feeling for many people, myself included. I think this shift must be common to many empty nesters, particularly single parents. One day you are the safe and solid center of a little family’s busy hum of activity. And then . . . you sense you are still that, but in a way that is fractured and more theoretical. It is normal, natural, abrupt, and jarring all at once. Though you always knew your children were universes unto themselves, not simply a part of yours, when you cohabitate all the universes merge and overlap and interact. And then, they do not, not in the same way.

Everyone’s life has changed dramatically in the past two years. We are still in the process of molding what things are supposed to look like now as a society, while individually we are integrating covid adaptations into our lives along with all the other changes that naturally happen to a person and a family over the course of two years. We simultaneously feel an urgency to play catch-up and to re-evaluate.

It is so messy. I find that the chaos of Michigan weather in early March mirrors my headspace at this time of year. When I began writing this earlier this week, it was about to snow and 19 degrees out. In a few days, the temperature is supposed to be almost 70 degrees. When I woke too early recently, I turned on the light, tried to write, got sleepy, tried to fall back asleep. Maybe I did for a few moments. I rose and warmed up yesterday’s coffee, let one dog out and in, greeted the other still half-asleep dog, and as I walked down the hall back to my bedroom, coffee in hand, I felt as though my mood changed with each step. I was angsty over beginning the workday on not enough sleep, worried and despondent about the collection of things that currently trouble me, overwhelmed by all the house and yard stuff that is going to need to be tackled soon. And as I reached the end of the hallway rug and my right foot hit the hardwood floor, I smiled. I smiled because of the dogs. I smiled at the glimpse of my bedroom, with its pretty blue walls and embroidered curtains. I snuggled back in bed to write, pleased to be in my own space, and that I still had time to write before I had to turn to the rest of the morning and all its business and busyness.

Photo by Ravi Kant on Pexels.com

One of the things about where I am now is that I have time and space to have mood shifts that don’t need to be explained or mediated. It is much easier for me now to experience difficult feelings and move through them in an organic way rather than to have to compartmentalize as I’ve done in the past. I have been the type of partner who has moved my own mood out of the way when it seemed like the simplest path toward what I perceived to be harmony. I made things disharmonious within myself to try and cultivate and preserve harmony in the relationship. I’m not certain I will ever know to what extent I did this because of internal or external expectations. Most likely, it was both. I like to imagine a future relationship in which this type of behavior will not be expected of me by my partner or myself, and in which I will keep the lessons I am learning about myself now at the forefront. In which my compulsion to make things easier for someone else will not supersede my ability to voice and address my own needs. It isn’t that we shouldn’t have empathy toward our partner, but we must have equal empathy for ourselves. No one should have to feel like they are somehow in someone else’s way.

March is a messy, muddled month. But it churns with energy, and we mirror its moods. We are sunny, it is raining, it is snowing, we are tired, hope sprouts beneath the dead leaves that protected it in the long cold months. It is windy, we are moody, look, here’s the sun again. It can be difficult to find harmony in this season of change. But if we cultivate a practice of noticing, of observing the fluctuations in our mood and states of minds, and states of hearts, if we let it all move through us, jangling and cacophonous like a windchime in a March storm, maybe it will be harmony that finds us in the aftermath.

Love, Cath

On Spinning, Wobbling, and Stillness

By Catherine DiMercurio

For a long time, I was sleeping okay, and then that little fragile peace in me eroded. Though the far-too-early-morning wakefulness startled me with the way it insisted on itself night after night, I am not surprised. Too many things have churned together to create a new storm of worry that percolates at the edges of my consciousness even when I’m not actively focused on it.

On a macro level, the world is perpetually upside down. Though it seems the pandemic is abating somewhat, we are on the edge of our seat waiting to see if it is true, if there won’t be some new variant, if this will be a collective dream we get to wake from. Added to this hazy fog of uncertainty we have the war in Ukraine, the stunning, unprovoked invasion by Russia that has shocked the world. Though we are un-shocked at the same time; we have been watching Putin’s machinations all along and in a way, there is nothing surprising at all about his actions. We stare at the images of people fleeing their homes or taking up arms, of children and pets huddled in subways, and our problems seem small. Then we turn off the news and remember that we are still trying to cope with our own troubles and though the scope of them is not as dire, everyone has either a small collection of large troubles, or a large collection of small ones, and we are tired. Our feelings and experiences don’t cease to exist when placed within the context of global tragedies. I am learning this. We do not need to obligate ourselves to feel guilty about our own griefs and troubles because someone else is dealing with something bigger. Acknowledging our own pain and struggles does not exclude us from feeling grateful for all that we have, or from feeling compassion and empathy for others. These things can all exist together.

At 4 a.m., my own collection of troubles doubles in size and intensity, because that is 4 a.m.’s particular magic—expanding, elongating, and distorting trouble. It doesn’t matter that I can unpack this suitcase. That I can name each thing that is suddenly on my mind and concerning me. That I can recognize that none of the worries should be overgrown and hungry right now. Things gnaw at us anyway.

I spent several nights sleeping in the guest room after my daughter vacated it following a brief but lovely visit. For one night, both son and daughter were under my roof with me, and there was a powerful sense of safety and familiarity, despite the foreignness that still clings to this new house. Now that they are both in back at school, something in me shifts. I scramble for a metaphor, as if being able to visualize myself moving from one way of being to another will ease the transition. I think of a spinning top wobbling toward stillness. Wobbly. Still. Is that how it feels to return to solitude? I am more familiar with my mother-self than my solitary-self, so the shift from one to the other still feels clumsy.

Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

Yet, have I ever not felt clumsy? And all transitions feel awkward, don’t they?

The past eight months have been a long transition for me, following the ending of a relationship. After break-ups in the past, I have thought of myself as being in-between relationships. I had a sense that I would find someone else, and I would know when the time is right to do so. Since the last one though, my frame of mind has been different. As I have worked to understand where I have come from, how past relationships have impacted me, and what self that has remained, the certainty that a new relationship is on the horizon has evaporated, while my comfort level with that uncertainty is growing.

I wonder if this is the part where I start to feel less clumsy in my own skin. That is tough to imagine: a me who moves through the world confidently. I think of all the experiences throughout my life that have bricked into place my sense of anxiety and my awkwardness, knowing the way each incident was built on those that came before. As a view of ourselves begins to take shape when we are young, we begin to believe in it. We believe in our perception of the way others see us. And because we are young and do not know that what these beliefs are creating is a construct that can be dismantled, the construct becomes our identity. It shapes us, and our relationships, and when we finally begin to see it for what it is, the façade is so intricate and finely formed it is hard to see it as anything separate from us.

I have always placed a high value on knowing myself. And though it is easy to lose oneself in a relationship, it is often in relationship to an intimate other where we can understand aspects of ourselves that remain elusive when we are alone. We learn about ourselves in those small moments where we compare ourselves with our partners. Preferences and needs rise to the surface. We consider what matters and what does not. On our own, we must find other methods. The work is uncomfortable at times as we excavate, uncover our identities through a slow, sifting process.

Sometimes I tell myself this work will make me a better partner one day, but I realize I am no longer doing it in order to make myself better for someone else. I believed for so long that this is what I needed to do, that this was why things in the past haven’t worked out: because there was something in me that I needed to make better in order for someone to love me. And if by some miracle they loved me even before I was better, then I should consider myself lucky to be loved when I still had so much work to do. It has not been easy, dismantling these damaged notions of self-worth and value. We all have these experiences, incidents that trigger feelings of not being enough. For me, it has been helpful to trace this feeling to its roots, to feel the collection of griefs I learned to bury along the way, to understand finally, so that I do not have to continue to re-create this pattern. It has been a clunky and awkward process but one that has allowed new perspectives to blossom.

This work feels important to me, and I have discovered that I feel a sense of peace and purpose in pursuing a certain harmony within myself. It has the power to leave me feeling at home whether I am spinning or still. I think one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves is cultivate the self-awareness that allows us tune in to what leaves us feeling at home within ourselves.

Love, Cath