On Seedlings, Rip Currents, and New Things

By Catherine DiMercurio

Solitude is one of those gifts that doesn’t always feel like one. There is much delight in self-discovery, but the responsibility to make the most of this time can be troubling. Yet in the absence of other humans to react to and with on a daily basis there is a freedom to observe ourselves, to re-learn what makes us tick.

For me, this prolonged period of solitude has provided the opportunity to ask questions. What does being me look like when I am not in the mode of daily parenting or in a state of being partnered? In a way, being in solitude is like being the control group in an experiment about my own identity.

Here, I have the time and space to observe what affects my mood, my sense of well-being. What stressors alter the course of my day, how do I respond to them? How did I respond differently when I lived with my children, when I was with a partner? What do I like about the way that I live and think and feel, and what would I like to improve?

Here is something I’m learning about growth. Imagine one of those old, time-lapsed photography videos of a germinating seedling, the way it pushes through the dirt up to the warm sunlight and begins to unfurl. I wish my growth was like that, unconscious and inevitable, rooted in the instinct to move toward the light. When a human chooses to pursue growth—emotional, psychological, relational, etc.—they bump up against obstacles that can feel more troublesome than the soil a seedling faces. We must move through them somehow to get to where we want to go. It is not an instinctual movement with a clear direction. For many, growth requires confronting fears, and most fears stem from old wounds, from past relationships that reach all the way back through our childhoods. Our growth often requires that we dig down before we can inch up.

Photo by Gelgas Airlangga on Pexels.com

One of the things I have learned about myself is about the way I pursue things, or avoid pursuing them. Sometimes I can’t sink my teeth into something that intimidates me until I have run out of all the excuses to avoid trying. Sometimes I can’t truly let go of someone—even after the relationship has ended—until I have exhausted myself trying to figure out why it didn’t work. Things take as long as they take. Especially because we have to live life at the same time we are doing this work.

We owe ourselves these searches, these explorations of wounds to be done grieving, of lessons to be learned. But it’s hard and we need to take breaks. And the work does not have an exclusive claim to our time. We have other things to do. I have a full-time job, writing goals, hobbies, dogs who are strangely like best friends half the time, and mysterious toddler-like creatures with a never-ending set of demands the other half.

Some people seem better equipped to live in the moment. I feel as though I’m almost ready for whatever moment I find myself in, I just have to think about a few more things first.

In having all this time to myself, I decided it was time to learn something new. I had two aims in mind: learn the new thing, and, to learn something about myself in the process. One of the reasons I wanted to learn the new thing is that I have begun to understand the extent to which I have lost myself in past relationships. So, I am exploring the lost self, the remaining self. Further, I have a duty to undertake this exploration openly and honestly, to side-step self-criticism, and to nurture myself through this process with as much care as I would treat anyone who is going through transition or transformation.

The new thing, if you’ve read any of my recent blog posts, is pottery. It is an artform rich in metaphor. It is an artform where proficiency is elusive. Developing even rudimentary skills is challenging, more so than I ever imagined. Instead of being able to feel relaxed, or excited, or joyful, or curious about learning this new thing, I have found with dismay that I’m often frustrated or anxious. It is a disappointing reaction. I try not to be disappointed. I try to dig. Anxiety tries to point us in certain directions. Just like pain is our body’s way of telling us something is wrong, our anxiety is a way of our brain telling us that something is off. Certainly, there is nothing much actually dangerous about pottery, so why was I reacting this way, with so much worry? Was it more than just wanting to do well and struggling to get there?

I was about to head to the pottery studio and my anxiety was jangling so loudly it felt like I could hear my teeth rattle. Instead of ignoring it, or trying to distract myself, or telling myself to knock it off, I decided to talk myself through it. I asked myself a series of questions that kept whittling down the issue to a couple of difficult past experiences (long past!) and the years of emotional residue they left. I let myself experience the emotions those memories brought with them.

Sometimes anxiety makes us feel as we are in current danger even though our brains are remembering something else. So, this time, I tried to be aware of what was remembered, and feel it, and understand it, and forgive myself and the people around me. Miraculously, the anxiety that had gripped me so tightly evaporated. I didn’t realize it at first. I just found myself packing my tools, and I sensed that I felt better, calmer. I went in and spent three hours making a lot of mistakes on the wheel and when I was finished, I didn’t feel terrible about the mistakes as I had done in the past. I thought, this is great; my hands are getting used to how the clay feels, how it behaves. I was able to enjoy the process of failure.

If you’ve ever swum in Lake Michigan you may have seen the signs posted about dangerous rip currents, and how they pull unsuspecting swimmers away from the shore. The signs instruct you, should you get caught in a rip current, to swim parallel to the beach, so that you can get out of the rip current, before heading back to shore. Though I have never experienced a rip current, this is what anxiety sometimes feels like. There is no current (immediate) danger, but there is current danger (danger of getting pulled under and away by the current). The moment when I started asking myself questions about the anxiety that I felt was key. I took it seriously and didn’t panic. I realized that while I was not in imminent danger physically, I was in danger of the anxiety taking over, pushing me under. My questions allowed me the opportunity to swim parallel to the shore. Arriving at the studio in a calm state was much better than having to fight the jangling the whole time.  

While pottery is the new thing I am using to try and learn about myself as I learn about the art itself, life is going to give us all other new things. I think it is important to try and understand ourselves so that when things come our way, we know what to do with them, how to handle them, what holds us back, what pushes us under, what moves us forward.

I have a Post-it note stuck to my computer monitor. It reads: curiosity. I’m trying to let that guide me. To be curious rather than skeptical about new things and to wander through this part of my life with the open-heartedness with which I started the blog in the first place. Happy wandering! May your next new thing be good to you.

Love, Cath

On Pottery, Pressure, and Place

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the pressure we feel is part of the process.

I was driving home alone after dropping my son off at college after the winter break. We stopped by my daughter’s place for a hug and a quick conversation about everyone’s covid concerns about going back to school and work, as well as some recent car trouble and how we would coordinate getting the vehicle repaired. It was a Monday, and I’d taken a couple hours off and would be jumping back into work after a week off as soon as I got home. That evening, I would have my first pottery class, and I was having some anxiety about that.

Somewhere along the line, my excitement about the upcoming class had turned into a not-unexpected collection of worries. I was experiencing my own classroom covid concerns, along with my usual social anxiety, as well as a lot of uneasiness about the learning something new in a public, exposed way.

As I drove home with all these worries tumbling in my brain, I turned the radio on, scanning randomly, and “Under Pressure” came on, by Queen and David Bowie. It all just hit me, on so many levels, how much pressure everyone is experiencing, and I cried and sang, moved by music in a way I hadn’t been in a while.

Oddly, I heard the song again on my way home from pottery class that night. Did I mention that along with all the other ways the class is out of my comfort zone, it also runs from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., which is a huge breach in my usual routine. So, it was very late for me to be out and driving on a winter Monday night, and I was overwhelmed and intimidated by the class, frustrated with not being able to master the thing you must master before you can really make anything—centering the clay on the wheel—when I heard “Under Pressure” again. I didn’t cry this time, but I felt it deeply. Again, it wasn’t just about me and the pressure I was feeling personally. It was impossible to listen to the song and not thing about what everyone has been dealing with the past couple of years. The song has been in my head all week.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

At one point when all I could think about before trying to fall asleep was clay, it occurred to me that so much of the struggle of centering is about pressure, which hand is applying pressure on the clay and where and how.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about for a while is place. I’ve been doing some soul searching and trying to figure out what that word means to me, and where I might belong, and how do I get there. But over the past couple of days, I’ve also been thinking about it in terms of where people are from. Some folks are fiercely from a place. Though I’ve lived about a half mile from Detroit for more than 20 years, I never say that I’m from Detroit, because people who are actually from Detroit really hate that, and though I love it, it isn’t my city. It didn’t shape me the way it shaped folks who grew up there, or who have made their life there in a meaningful way over the years. I get it. I don’t get to claim that.

I usually tell people I from Saginaw, which isn’t strictly true either. I grew up in Carrollton Township, a little working-class suburb of Saginaw. That’s what shaped me. There was a sense of community there, largely focused on the school, which I didn’t fully appreciate until many years later. Being from a suburb is kind of a strange thing in that it does not feel distinctive at all. Precisely because it is neither rural nor urban, a suburban upbringing can feel blurry, though suburbs are as different from one another as they are from rural towns or from cities. It is perhaps thought of as the middle ground between extremes, between the clear this or that of the rural or the urban. In fact, it is its own place.

There is much more to be said, and much more for me to explore personally, but it is fair to say that growing up where I did and how I did, the appropriate response to all the pressure I’ve been feeling would be an acknowledging shrug. Yup. That’s just how it is. (Parenting is hard. Everyone has car troubles.) The work ethic would kick in along with an accompanying sense of duty. You made a commitment, so you have a responsibility to stick with it and do your best. (You signed up for this class, so see it through and just keep trying.) The strong sense of community never leaves you, either. We have to help our neighbors when they need it. (We’re all tired—so tired—but it is important to keep protecting ourselves and each other with masks, vaccines, boosters, and common sense.)

In many ways, I have also been feeling a different kind of blurriness, this sense that I am in an in-between place, a mythical suburb of the soul. Maybe it is okay that it feels neither here nor there. Perhaps it, too, is its own place, and this it what it means to learn to belong to yourself.

In C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, there is a place known as the Wood between the Worlds, where some characters travel on their way between Earth and Narnia. Maybe we all have access to an in-between place like that. Perhaps at times we believe we are in the Wood between the Worlds, when in fact, we have moved through that place into a new world, a new version of self. And perhaps we pass through the Wood more times than we realize in our journey toward self. I have also speculated that it is only in the Wood between the Worlds—in the in-between place we sometimes find ourselves—in which we are truly ourselves, and that journeying there is necessary in order to both forget and to remember our selves, before we move on to the next chapter of our lives.

I think that sometimes the pressure that we experience is the discomfort of transition, of the shaping and reshaping of ourselves that is both natural and difficult. Maybe this centering of self gets easier though. Maybe that’s just how it is.

Love, Cath

On Wildishness: Brambleberries, Books, and the Blue Path

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes no paths are marked, but we keep finding our way.

Last week:

Outside it is glowing green. The heavy cloud cover is too much for the early morning sun to shine through much, but there is a strange brightness to the world. The sycamore branches hang low, forming an enchanted canopy over the front yard. The lawn, more clover than grass, needs mowing, but I don’t know if the respite from the rain will last long enough. I can see, through this big window, the plants I inherited, and those I lovingly introduced into my own little ecoscape. I can see in my efforts several themes: a disregard for research, for the details of what will thrive where; a passion for the hues and textures I love, the pinks of the cosmos, the fuzzy white surface of angel’s wing leaf; two competing desires – to create order from chaos, and to let things be at least half-wild.

It has rained so continually and with such force in recent days that many people have experienced flooding. I am lucky. For me, only this: the yard is puddled, the dogs’ paws are perpetually muddy, the firepit is full of rainwater, and the pages of my library book are noticeably limp from the humidity.

I look for a place to shelve my heartache. It has no call number, like the library book on the sofa next to me. There’s no order for it, no alpha, by author, though that is an intriguing thought if you follow it.

A Few Days Ago:

The weather has turned blisteringly hot again, and the humidity is ever-present. The AC is still broken, but I have finally scheduled the repair. Sometimes such mundane tasks seem overwhelming.

At times, I feel heaved, in the way that land masses heave in an earthquake. Emotions upend one another, and I list, unbalanced. And I make a list: what I want. I don’t know how to make the next list: how to get there. I do not know how to map the new topography. Each time I find myself alone, unpartnered, the landscape looks different. I am different, changed.

The puppy is eight months old now, and over 62 pounds, and wants to eat constantly. I have 30 minutes to write. I have walked both dogs, separately. I need to begin work soon. I give myself 30 minutes, but the puppy begins to bark at the food cupboard. His empty stomach and growing body will not wait. I think of all the things in me that are growing, that feel snarled and surly, and which also do not want to wait. I feed the dogs. I make sure no one fights over food. The clock ticks.

Last night at dusk I picked the wildish berries growing in the yard. I call them brambleberries, my sister told me they were black caps. The setting sun lit up a giant fluff of cloud till it glowed pink, and I tried to capture it all and save it, this simple moment that offered a spark of joy. I try to collect them, such joyful moments, like the fireflies the puppy chases, like a handful of brambleberries.

My thoughts are everywhere lately, in the past, the present, the future, everywhere at once it feels, as though the hourglass has become a snow globe, and all the seconds are all happening at once. I wait for things to slow, and to settle.

Today:

Today I am making a blueberry crisp. I have walked the dogs. The puppy lunged at every robin and sparrow that he saw. When I woke this morning, I felt as though things were relatively manageable. It is a feeling I don’t have every day. It sometimes doesn’t last through the morning.

I think of how many times in one’s life everything cries out to be reassessed, usually at an ending, before the next beginning. I try the trick of looking at it all from different angles, seeing opportunities to grow, and I wonder, have I grown in the right directions? Maybe it is always the right direction if you can look back and realize what you have learned about yourself, when an offshoot took you down an unexpected path. Maybe.

A Couple of Weeks Ago:

My son and I went for a hike in some local woods where we’d previously had a difficult time navigating. We were determined to be observant, to stay on the path marked in blue on the map at the entrance, the path marked crudely in blue spray paint on trees and markers in the woods. It felt impossible. The trail doubled back on itself multiple times. We’d approach a crossroads, and there would be blue everywhere, in each new direction. At one point we theorized that vandals had spray painted random blue markers to be mischievous, to get people lost.

You never know when the mischievous universe will let you think you’re on the right path. Unless, there is no mischief, and it is all the blue path, and you are always going where you need to, and it isn’t always out of the woods. Though, I do believe there is always some mischief at work in the universe.

Today:

There is no place to shelve anything, none of the difficult feelings. There are no shelves, just piles of books, a wildish, half-ordered forest of them, and we find pathways through. We’ve follow our noses, our guts, or our hearts, and if we’ve learned anything it is that the only way is the way we are going.

On Dreams, and the Shape of Things

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the true shape of our dreams is not yet known.

Recently, I was asked to take a self-assessment for a professional development workshop. The questions were different than other personality assessments I’ve taken in the past, but the results were similar. Familiar descriptors floated to the surface: introspective, intuitive, creative, nurturing, etc. And I thought, I’ve known all this since before I had words to name these characteristics.

Some things have never been a mystery, not to me, about me.

The mystery lies elsewhere, as our known selves try to find ways to acclimate to the different environments in which they find themselves – to different homes, neighborhoods, jobs, relationships. All those always characteristics adapt into various ways of being, and we come to believe that those behaviors, those ways of expressing ourselves, are the same thing as self. But BEing and ways of being are distinct. At times, they are a close mirror of each other, and it feels as if everything is falling into its place. Then, we find a way to be in our current existence in a manner that is in near-perfect harmony with the self we have always known.

Some mornings, when it is quite early and I want to listen to the quiet in my brain, I warm up what is left of yesterday’s coffee and sit in the half-light of the living room. When there isn’t much coffee left, I add a generous pour of oat milk. It reminds me of the coffee that my mother permitted me to have as child. More milk than coffee, with a little sugar, it is not grownup coffee, and it lets my thoughts be childlike in their wanderings, without a need for order or progress. I remember that younger me having a distinct awareness of a blurriness of self, as if I knew that my consciousness resided in this body and in this existence, but could tell itself apart. I remember a particular moment, sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, looking out the window at the trees blurring past in the sunlight, telling myself I am me, I am me. I remember discomfort, as if it took some effort to hold within me an understanding of both unity and fracture. The depth of my love for this little thinker, my desire to protect her and that inner world, has never dissipated. When I say that my writing stems from a desire for connection, I do not mean only with others. I mean with myself, including that little girl contemplating matters for which she had no name.

Sometimes, when I’m mulling a tough problem and stumbling up against the self questions that cartwheel in front of me these days, I think of what the people who have known me the longest would say, and then I think of what the people who have only known me since my divorce would say. They are often very different things, which is unsurprising, but which does not help when I’m seeking the through-line. I sense instinctively that there is a truth that I can uncover, as if there is a way in which everything aligns.

We are told to be true to ourselves, but do we know what that means?

When I look at my childhood self I wonder if she is an accurate gauge by which to consider my own current authenticity. Does that put too much pressure on the past, on fallible memory, on a self that, because she is comprised of memories, is more myth than truth?

Our lives are fragmented. We move in between worlds, perpetually navigating different situations and environments and recalibrating ourselves as needed. It is easy to feel as though our understanding of self gets lost along the way. We too quickly become who we are seen as, rather than who we’ve always been.

Recently I have looked at my old watercolor paintings with a fresh eye. I’ve hung up some of my first attempts at apples, completed during a class at a community college when my daughter was a baby, and have judged them far less harshly than I once did. I’m not saying they are good. I’m saying that when I look at them, I feel a connection to the experience of being an anonymous and aspiring artist in a classroom full of unknown people. I barely remember the professor, and I certainly don’t remember any classmates. But I recall the feeling of being there and trying. And I see all my curiosity and earnestness in those paintings.

And curiosity and earnestness feel like links to the little girl in the back of the car contemplating her existence.

I think of how many times those words, curiosity and earnestness, have made an appearance in previous blogs. Those concepts catch with me, like the little burrs that stick to your socks when you hike through a field. I think, this is how I want to be. These qualities underpin one of the refrains that chorused through our household when my children were growing up: try your best. Among other things, it is about being open to learning, and being willing to work hard.

Perhaps this comes with a little too much pressure, pressure that I put that on myself. Often, I’m frustrated when the results do not seem to match the effort. I wonder – was that my best? Did I work hard enough? Did I not learn well? I am trying to be more process-oriented, and less results-oriented, but it is not an easy shift, and perhaps, it is not a necessary one. Perhaps working toward a specific result – a better apple, a published story – is a good and motivating thing for me, and maybe all I need to work on is not being overly discouraged by imperfect watercolor fruit and rejected fiction.

However, I wonder if all goals or dreams are well-served by this approach. Maybe some things won’t look the way we always wanted them to, and maybe that’s a wonderful thing. Pursuing a goal that we are only looking at from one angle may result in us giving up on the goal instead of swapping one perspective for another. Some dreams are more complex than we realize and have many facets; maybe when we focus on a singular component, we can’t truly understand the value of the whole.

There was a book I used to read to my children: The Important Book, by Margaret Wise Brown. Here’s an example of the way this book works:

“The important thing about an apple is that it is round. It is red. You bite it, and it is white inside, and the juice splashes in your face, and it tastes like an apple, and it falls off a tree. But the important thing about an apple is that it is round.”

Sometimes we need to clarify for ourselves what the important part about a particular goal or dream truly is. Possibly, and without knowing it, we do harm to our ability to achieve the dream because instead of focusing on the important part we are expending energy on something we mistakenly believe is the important part. Sometimes, we don’t want precisely what we think we want. When we try to know our own hearts, we have to look well beneath the surface. Our true dreams are often obscured, layered over by years of doubt, history, pain – our own, and that of other people, who, though well-meaning, might weigh in on how our own dreams should look and feel to us. It is no wonder we are often plagued by thoughts of, and fears about, loss and lost-ness. Others might try and tell us what should be important to us, and that can nudge us off course. Do you think the most important thing about an apple is that it is round? I do not. But who am I to say what should be important to someone else?

There is no getting around the fact that the process of making our own hearts known to us takes time, and careful examination. This is true for any dream, wish, or goal that we have for ourselves, whether it is concerned with our personal relationships, or our pursuit of our art, or our work, or something else entirely. I do not know the way to reveal that which I cannot yet see, though I’m certain that I must keep exploring my heart and all its sedimentary layers. This discovery process will involve more ambiguity than I am comfortable with, and that is a reality I reckon with daily.

As an example of all this, I can give you a peek into one of my dreams. My writing dream has always involved publication. Yet, I am beginning to explore the idea that instead of this being the most important facet of this dream, it is but one part of a writing life, which is perhaps more what I’m truly after. In truth, I’m not exactly sure what that means, nor am I certain of the path I need to take to get there. For now, I’m focusing more on what I need to say, and how best to say it. In the coming months, I will be immersing myself in a couple of workshop experiences with other writers, led by artists and mentors I trust. The time feels right for this approach, though the work will be challenging.

This is but one of the dreams I’m searching out the true shape of. Everyone has some. We carry pockets full of stones gathered from lakebeds and we don’t know why. We wish for the unknown to reveal itself. We throw pennies into fountains, wishing, wishing.

On the night of the lunar eclipse, I dreamed I was mending an unknown world with pink thread.

Dream on, friends.

Love, Cath

On Art, Home, and Haziness

By Catherine DiMercurio

A friend and I recently were writing to one another about why we write. That conversation yielded for me an understanding that why is a question awkwardly affixed to the relationship I have with writing, which is more akin to the relationship I have with my skin than anything else. In a broad sense, it is something I have, something I need, something that protects me.

On a practical level, yes, writing is also something I do. Sometimes it is an act of artistic creation and sometimes it is an involuntary function that happens automatically and silently, the way my brain tells my lungs to breathe. Things are unfolding all the time in my mind and I wish I could somehow capture more of it. Sometimes writing is my only hope for effectively communicating my heart to the world, (or to the more individual and larger universe of me and you).

Sometimes writing is a job and sometimes it is a wish, but it is always skin.

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years, weeks, days, minutes, always, trying to pinpoint such facets of my identity throughout the changing circumstances of my life. This intense scrutiny was kickstarted by my divorce, though I had long been focused on issues of identity in my writing, always trying to figure out if we become more of who we are as we age, or less.

As I enter my first spring in this new place, I sat down recently with my coffee and felt myself settling in, to here, to now, to me. And I thought, maybe I’ve been asking the wrong questions about identity and self-awareness. Maybe the most direct route to understanding who am now is this: what makes me feel at home within my own skin, no matter where I am?

The first thing I thought of was the coffee I was drinking, as I sat on my new-ish IKEA sofa in this still-new-to-me home. I then pictured myself at my boyfriend’s place, still new-ish to him. It is a curious thing: you find yourself in a life where none of the places in which you find yourself are ones in which you have much history. So where is home, then, except housed within us, and created anew, sitting next to this person who seems able to keep making space for you, and you for him. You put out the welcome mats for one another, sweeping them off or airing them out if there is ever difficult weather.

Photo by Nathan J Hilton on Pexels.com

It is a marvelous but strange thing to be aware of your own history-making. To contemplate the ways in which home and history are related, but not in the ways you once thought. I recommend keeping an eye out for it, for the art you are making of self, seemingly out of thin air, or from webby gossamer strands, every day.

As I walked around the yard with the dogs one morning, it smelled like summer. Recent rain on thirsty dirt, a damp promise of heat panting in the air. I thought of drinking camping coffee, sitting with the kids in the morning, outside the tent, feeling cozy. The memories collaged in my brain, out of order, but collective. This too is history and home and self. It remains, clean and bright and clear, even in the aftermath of events that left much of the past feeling sooty and smudged.

It may seem strange to utilize list-making and note-taking as paths to self-discovery. Such a process lacks the romance of the quintessential road trip motif. However, sometimes things don’t work that way. It is less a fun, crazy journey and more paying attention and hard work. Mostly, I crave simplicity. I want to create obvious paths to certain self-knowledge, so that I can quickly run toward what I know and like about myself. So I can gallop toward safety, when I’m feeling anxious, or filled with self-doubt, or self-criticism. It is so easy for the negative to overtake us sometimes. We need to have our escape routes planned. Sometimes you have to sit down with yourself and go through the checklist, the way in elementary school we had to ask our parents what the escape plan was if the house were on fire. You have to tell yourself, when dark thoughts begin to suck you in, that there are the paths back to yourself, that you know the way. It is too easy to get lost in the thick haze and smoke of anxiety, depression, fear, or grief.

I feel as though I’m often vacillating between extremes – between being overly candid or completely withdrawn, between whole-hearted enthusiasm and active detachment. I wonder how people find middle ground. I speculate that there is a place thought of as “normal” and most of us hover around the edges, not seeing each other, and the imaginary normal place is teeming with a healthy population of individuals that can communicate with one another with ease and confidence. But in reality, most of us fumble, we hurt and get hurt, we regroup, we take deep breaths and fall silent. We clear our throats, and our eyes, try to speak and see, and be seen once more. Sometimes we manage to get it right, to find a safe, strong hand in the haze, and so we practice the art of holding on to one another.

Love, Cath

On Baking Bread, and Meditating, and Un-Failing

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves what failing is not.

I have forgotten how to meditate. I once utilized meditation techniques as tools for cultivating calmness, and then, when I needed peace the most, could not summon the energy necessary to pursuit it. There was only the exhaustion of surviving and rebuilding.

Life feels fairly well rebuilt now, but even so, there are snags. Everyone gets tripped up sometimes. Do you ever feel that life was once so chaotic and overwhelming, it now only takes a few small stressors piling up to make you feel exactly the same way? I sometimes think: Why does it feel like everything looms and threatens? These are little things, everything is okay. But sometimes things feel bigger than they are, because they once were bigger and more dangerous, and every cell in our bodies remembers the past.

At my calmest and most generous, I see myself as capable of peace and growth, capable of mastering the pain of the past, along with the anxiety such pain has been reborn as in my current life.

I remember this from meditation: you do not try to avoid the stray thoughts that creep in; rather, you acknowledge them and let them float by, and away. I imagine mastering pain and anxiety in this way. I see you but you will not infiltrate my peace. What I don’t remember is what it is I am supposed to actually focus on. My breathing? A blank page? An image?

Perhaps this is the difficulty I have now: I am more focused on what to do with all that intrudes than I am on what remains. What are we, in the absence of the intrusions of past grief and present worry about future troubles? And, what self is not composed at least in part by these molecules?

Yesterday, I once again tried to bake bread. I approached this activity the way I approach the rest of my baking: Here is a recipe. I have most of these ingredients. I could swap that. All I need are general proportions and an understanding of process. This works for most things I attempt: cookies, cakes, pies. It has not, thus far, worked very well, if at all, for bread. I have discovered that this process is also how I approach any creative endeavor: writing, watercolor painting, crocheting. I learn enough to get started and then I wing it. There have been times I attempted greater discipline. I took a watercolor class. I read crocheting patterns and occasionally actually follow a recipe for a cake. My successful pursuit of an MFA in creative writing was a defiant attempt against my own nature to be disciplined about craft. I wish I could do it again. To force myself with a financial and temporal commitment to learn how to be a better writer.

All things considered, though, I like the way I bake, even if things don’t always turn out. It feels like art to me, more of a creative exploration than the experience of following instructions. I realize you need both for things to be successful, some instruction and some creativity. I worry that in too many areas of life, I rely too heavily on figuring it out as I go rather than following instructions or sticking to a plan.

I liked school, so I’m not sure where this resistance to instruction comes from. I do remember, as a child, possessing a strong dislike for anything I would not be competent at from the beginning. (This, along with the lack of any natural ability, accounts for my failure at any and all sports-related activities.)

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About the bread. It didn’t turn out very well. I was asking a lot of my ingredients, did not have enough of the right kind of flours. I used a recipe for guidance but tried to make it work with what I had. It is easy to think of it as a failure, as far as bread goes. Most people would.

There used to be a corporate buzz phrase going around the office for a while: fail fast. In grad school, we used to say, fail better. I understand the ideas, mostly, but really what the phrases point to is that we all struggle to find a way to make failure mean something, as if by talking about failure in the right way we can make success somehow more achievable.

I wish we could call “failure” something else. It probably does not matter what we call our process. It is never going to feel spectacular to have something not work out as we hoped. It is always going to feel as though we wasted some resource, our time, our money, our energy. In the end, we all know that the only thing we can do is give it another go. This is true for every aspect of our lives, for our careers and relationships and interests and artistic endeavors.

That being said, the bread isn’t a disaster. It has a pleasant flavor, and the texture is not as bad as I originally thought, now that it has cooled. It does not reflect mastery, but it was intentional effort.

That being said, what else do we think of as failure that is really far from it, that is the opposite, that is un-failing?

We cannot clutch our past failures so tightly to our hearts that we allow them to become prophesies of the future.

We cannot allow ourselves to hold on this way because soon, or eventually, we will get to the why even bother part of this thinking. It is entirely likely we will want to give up before we achieve success, if we regard every effort as failure instead of another step in the journey.

What I keep coming back to in so many blog posts, is this: like many people, I am in the process of figuring out what I am all about now. For me, the now markers are fifty-years old, half a dozen years post-divorce. It is clear that I’d like to feel less anxious, more peaceful. To do that, I’ll need to be tuned in to the weird lessons my life reveals every day, in little things, like baking imperfect bread. To look at the idea of “failure” as a only a word, and one that my life is rigorously attempting to empty of meaning and power. And, I like this process, this figuring out self in this deliberate way, where I’m making a conscious effort to be awake to what I’m doing and why.

I wish you happy baking, endeavoring, figuring, and un-failing.  

Love, Cath

On Tenderness, Torrents, and Tortoises

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.

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

Love, Cath

 

 

The October of a Few Minutes Ago: On Time and Memory and Self

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes it’s impossible to not think of masks and the tricks of time.

Let’s talk about the October of a few minutes ago, the one that got away from us in a last late rush of wind and rain, and the way it feels quite suddenly that fall too has disappeared, a dog slipped free from his collar who is now halfway down the street.

I think about the shape of time and how we package it. Every so often we are hit with this sense that time is rushing along faster than it ever did. We like to say it plays tricks on us. Only when we are bored, or clutched by some physical or emotional pain, does it seem to slow. We box time into comprehensible components – seconds, weeks, years – or bundle it into memories. And in this way, it is intrinsically tied to who we are. So much of our identity is built this way, memory by memory, and maybe we are the shape of time, a physical manifestation, or a border anyway.

autumn leaf board colors dark
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But how did this October slip by so quickly, and how is it that when we remember bad Octobers we know they went on forever, as if there were long empty stretches of weeks embedded between the days? But those were maybe just the nights I couldn’t sleep.

Though we remember pain and grief differently than the way we look back on joy and laughter, all the memories are components of our soul-DNA. If you stripped out this memory or that one, would I be the same person I am now? I suppose everyone has days in which they are not particularly fond of the person whose life they seem to be inhabiting, and maybe the experiment of selective memory stripping would be one they’d be willing to take on, but I think it would be a dangerous game.

What is perhaps under-sung is the notion of the ordinary moment, the seemingly mundane experiences we scarcely remember that are, in a way, the connective tissue of our days and our selves. The big memories, all the firsts and lasts, and ceremonies and delights and gutting griefs, they all are spotlight hogs. But what of all the minutes and hours and days in between?

In a way, we are collections of ordinary moments. We are pumping gas into empty tanks in older model Mercurys. We are grinding coffee beans. We are holding hands. We are standing in line, holding too many items because we thought we wouldn’t need a basket. We are holding too much sometimes. But sometimes it’s just enough to get us through the express lane and home to dinner.

I wonder sometimes what it would be like to be able to remember all the ordinary moments of a lifetime, or, perhaps more manageably, just of that October that so recently broke free and slipped away from us. Why would I want to forget that moment standing in line at the grocery store, juggling bread and almond milk and coffee beans and sugar, along with one yellow onion and a bag of apples? In that moment, maybe I thought of kissing my love, maybe I thought of what would happen next in the story I’m writing, maybe I noticed the way the baby in front of me smiled at her sibling, and maybe that made me think of my own children when they were that little. Maybe I just stood there and let my mind drain free of the workday, and it was pleasant to not think or do anything for an instant, with only the ache in my arm and the smell of apple and onion and coffee reminding me of my current reality.

I don’t always know why something suddenly feels important to me, why I must think now about the significance of the mundane minutes in our days, or why I’m compelled to poke around in the murkiness where time and identity mingle. I remember being ankle-deep in a wide puddle. I was a child in rubber rain boots, standing in the low part at the back of our corner lot, stick in hand, poking in puddles. I remember that I probably pretended that I was fishing, though I probably was too old to be pretending, and I remember the hot prickle of embarrassment when the neighbor boy, my age, road by on his bike and asked me if I had caught anything yet, as he laughed and pedaled away.

What am I doing poking around in here anyway? Have I caught anything? Is there any point to wondering who I might be, if I could simply not remember feeling so childish and silly and stupid for that collection of odd minutes when I was an odd child?

But this too is part of who I am. Our metacognition shapes us as much as anything, what we feel and think about what we feel and think. In a way, it is a through-line, spanning years, weaving through moments, good memories and bad. The way we consider ourselves, including our own thoughts and feelings, evolves slowly, and it reaches both backward, overlaying context onto the past, and forward, projecting different versions of ourselves into the future, as we wonder how it might be to be this type of self, or that one, in five years or ten.

Last night, as I sat on the porch with my son, I watched the last of the trick-or-treaters drift off toward the next puddle of porch light. How can we not think of time and memory and identity on such nights, when it all blurs together, the masks we wear, the identities we inhabit over time, discarded, taken up again, all of it mixed up into a dark October night with red and yellow leaves plastered by rain to the sidewalk like so many candy wrappers.

I want to say it was just one more ordinary moment, but I’m beginning to believe that none of the moments are ordinary, really, if you think about it.

Maybe, the way we think about the way we think about it all is the formula for shaping time and self differently, for urging the boundaries into new directions and possibilities. Maybe there is some sort of magic at work here, playing upon our brains as one month turns arbitrarily into the next and we turn our clocks back tomorrow and play with time some more. Maybe I simply like the idea of expanding time and not losing moments, not any of them, because I like it here, I like me here, and I like you here, and maybe looking around at all that is all we really need to do to sometimes.

Love, Cath

 

On Cranes and Kites, Work and Wishes

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we feel fragmented, abstract; we are connected.

I keep unfolding this origami shape, trying to make a kite.

What’s the right way to look at the work we do? Does anyone notice the difference between folding and flight?

We are told to do the work, and we want to, and it comes as easily to us as flight does to a thousand paper cranes.

paper cranes
Photo by David Yu on Pexels.com

It is easy to believe we are doing it wrong. It is easy to believe that there is a dull ache, there are sore muscles, even when we are doing it right.

And everything is right.

Everything is all right.

I’m not not spelling it out in order to obfuscate; I wouldn’t do that to either of us. I’m not spelling it out because the test is wrong, and I know the answers, but not to these questions. We know everything, and we have never known any single thing.

I know this: I draw hearts in Douglas fir sawdust with my fingertip, believing always in yes, now, this.

We whisper wishes into night, day, storm, sun. We whisper gusts. We keep the kites aloft.

Some days I don’t know where to begin. I think of how hard our psyche rushes in the background, trying to escape remembered danger or pain that isn’t anything now, isn’t more than paper in a puddle, but we wake up exhausted anyway.

Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that the way we work is in a straight line, as if we don’t loop back around again, as if we won’t need to. And I think of the way a kite stays up, and the way when I was little, I ran in circles trying to catch the wind in the muddy field with my father. My feet in boots navigating slippery clumps of soil, heavy grey clouds churning above his head as he ran for the string that slipped through my fingers.

And I think of catching and holding, and running, and waiting for the wind, and fighting it, and those few moments in between when it’s all just grace and flight and lift and it feels like it’s no work at all.

Let’s give each other the space and grace to navigate, to slip sometimes, to falter. I’ll give chase for you.

Sometimes work is a four-letter word, the way we put ourselves back together every day, for ourselves, for each other. Do we privilege one audience over another, and why do we feel maligned for doing either, or both?

I’ve been gripped for the past several days by a certain melancholy I can’t quite source. Touching base with a number of people in my life, I hear they also feel marked in this way. I think about the things that we sense collectively, the cold heaviness of a loud, mean world. I think of the way it makes us feel separate, though we are feeling the same thing, each in our own way.

I think of this: sometimes the kite string doesn’t simply slip from our grasp because the wind was strong or because we slid in the mud. Admit it. Sometimes we let it go. Sometimes we woke up exhausted. And I think, I’ll chase that for you today. Will you help me start again, tomorrow? I think of the way I was given paper. The way I watched you transform a thousand origami cranes into kite, the way I managed to let the wind take mine again, though getting into the air in that day was a feat, and you said so.

Sometimes I try and take the view of the kite, and look down on the field, on all the endeavoring, and I’m struck by the earnestness of it all, by the web of string, the kaleidoscopic pattern of arms outstretched, by the chasing we are willing to do, for ourselves, for one another, even though you can only see it from this vantage point.

Love, Cath

 

 

 

 

On Maps and Moonlight: Navigating

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we make a path both known and possible by drawing it.

When I was a child, one of the most delightful and satisfying experiences I knew was that of opening a fantasy novel and discovering a map in the opening pages. Whether it was Narnia, Middle Earth, Earthsea, or a lesser-known place such as Hed being depicted, I was captivated. Sometimes, I was inspired enough to sketch out my own maps, too, of places that had no stories or characters, but that I envisioned nonetheless. I penciled in borders, mountains, seas, rivers, and cities, making it up as I went along, happy that the only right way was the way I was drawing it.

beige analog gauge
Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

I’ve been thinking a lot about those maps lately. Remembering the crackling sound of worn library binding, the smell of freshly mown grass. An old cotton blanket spread beneath a tree, half in and half out of the shade. Reading for hours during summer vacation, when it seemed to span far longer than a couple of months.

Looking back now, I can see more clearly what I loved about those maps, but would never have been able to articulate back then. They were an achievement in the realm of the impossible, a carving out of a something from nothing, from mystery, from void. They sketched out meaning and shape and form in line and letter from the unfathomable. How beautiful is that? To map out a place that doesn’t exist and give it to someone else and through the words you place around it, make them believe, or half-believe, that it is a landscape that could be traversed, at least by someone.

I think of half-believing, and what a gift it is.

I think of unmappable, shapeless places, the paths traversed between past and now, now and future, peaks and valleys of emotion, the roads and streams of memory and want that form through-lines through the course of our days. The longing to map it, to give it shape, is not so much about understanding where to go. It is more about acknowledging how little we really know of ourselves, the kingdoms of brain, heart, dream, past, ache, love, fear. What is the truth of our own personal terrain, what level of consciousness do we actually possess about why we do what we do and think what we think and feel what we feel?

I wonder sometimes how many neurological processes are involved in deciding which coffee cup to use, if I should say this now, will this sweater be warm enough, is this the right time for this action, or that. Theoretically, I suppose, one could map the firing of synapses, a decision in the brain to move the hand to reach for this cup or that sweater, but can any of the rest of it be traced? The way the memory of wearing that sweater the morning I sat next to you drinking coffee made me want to wear it today? It won’t be warm enough because it is a light sweater, but it will be warm enough because I will think of you all day.

I think we want to know which path to take and what obstacles might be faced on the way but we also want to know if knowing matters. I wonder if I’m on a quest at all, like the adventurers in the stories of my childhood, or am I free to discover as I go?

I wonder if we create urgency around time and destination because we feel we ought to, because everyone else is, and is there a way we get left behind if we don’t figure this out?

I think of mapping this hidden terrain because I suspect it’s more beautiful than I can imagine if taken in as a whole and I’d like to see it that way, if only for a moment. Would it be like standing in a clearing in the woods in the dead of night, waiting for that one moment when the moon slips free of the clouds?

What is (to be) lost and what is (to be) found?

Thinking back on those maps of fantasy worlds from childhood books, it is impossible, really to separate them from the stories that go with them, the characters who journeyed through these worlds, sometimes alone, sometimes with an unlikely band of adventurers. There was usually a seemingly impossible quest. Protagonists often were lead to discover that they couldn’t do it alone, and, just as often, that there were some things that they could only do alone. I get that now.

I wonder sometimes, if we’ve all been mapping out the same place, but each of us, from our own perspective. I wonder about the way we journey alone and together, and how easy it is to confuse the two.

I think about how difficult it is sometimes to admit there’s no map, though wouldn’t it be nice to know that as long as we kept the river on our left and continued north we’d be okay? I think about the clearing in the woods, and the waiting for the moon. When there’s enough light to see by, should we look at the map, or look around us?

The thing about maps is that they often lead us to believe there are right answers, best routes, clear paths, known quantities. And maps of fictional places always imbued in me a half-belief that anything could be charted, made known, ordered. In fact, we can barely map where we’ve already been, let alone where we currently are, even if the moon is out and shining on our clearing.

But, that doesn’t mean we can’t navigate. That doesn’t mean we can’t reach out a hand in the dark and lead one another. It doesn’t mean we can’t compare notes, learn from each other, see the way our paths are intertwined, because they are. We can cheer each other on the solo parts of our journeys, we can be cheered on, we can let ourselves be buoyed by cheers. We can lean on one another, in the dark or in the moonlight or as the day breaks.

And as far as maps go, the only right way is the way we are drawing it, and we make pathways possible when we imagine them and we can at least half-believe in that, because it is the same as believing anyway.

Love, Cath