On Windmills and Waterfalls, Dreaming and Doing

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we have to protect and feed our energy.

I love a morning moon. Recently I stood under a 5 a.m. waning gibbous, after the harvest moon. I’m not sure what planet glowed nearby but between the moon, the planet, the still bright stars, and a symphony of crickets, letting the dogs out that early was quite pleasant. It was good energy to begin the day on.

I’ve been thinking a lot about energy lately. My sister recently told me about a dream she had, involving the two of us and a windmill and a waterfall. I feel things churning toward change, as if I’m at some sort of turning point but I haven’t yet discerned what’s next or where exactly I am. I liked the symbols of energy and power she spoke of.

Photo by JACQUES BARBARY on Pexels.com

I’ve had strange dreams about energy as well. One was about electrical cords that were plugged in in strange places, like across the room instead of the nearest outlet, so I was always tripping over them. Another was about a horse. My kids and dogs and I were in the pen with him, and he was alternately restless and bucking, or nuzzling us. Finally, we realized he was hungry, and after we fed him, he was content. This beautiful creature was trying to tell me something simple and urgent, and was getting impatient that I couldn’t figure it out. These dreams left me feeling as though I should be doing something.

On another recent morning, I stood outside at dawn, and white clouds blanketed the sky. I couldn’t get a sense of the sun rising so much as the sky began to lighten every so gradually. And I thought, maybe some transitions are like that. Soft, quiet, and so subtle you don’t notice they’re happening. So unobtrusive you can’t tell where the light is coming from. They are not full of do-ing energy but with be-ing energy.

What is the right balance between energetically pursuing your dreams and patiently waiting for your efforts to pay off? When I look at where I am, what I’m doing, and what I want, it’s unclear where I should focus my energy. Sort of. I am pursuing my writing goals; I’m not yet it a position to pursue my dream of living by woods or water; I’m feeding my creative needs not only with writing but with pottery; I’m maintaining friendships, and trying to be a good dog guardian, and doing my best to be there for my kids to the extent that they still need me to be. But a question mark hovers in the relationship category.

For a long time, I thought if I experienced loneliness, then I was not doing the “being on my own” thing properly. As if I had to prove that solo was perfect and right for me by being fine all the time. But everyone gets lonely. That doesn’t mean I’m failing. Occasional loneliness is a normal thing for everyone, for people in relationships and for people not in relationships. There are going to be times when the feeling crests, but that doesn’t mean it has to swallow us up.

I was hiking this weekend, and while I often find a friend to go with, on this occasion, my usual hiking buddies were busy, so I went alone. I was excited to explore a different part of my usual trail. While doing so, a couple came up behind me. They were walking a bit faster than I was, and to avoid a prolonged period of stalking right at my heels, they said to one another, “want to do a little trot here?” and they jogged past me and got far enough ahead that I wouldn’t be encroaching on them.

When I thought of the ease they had with one another, and having heard snippets of their conversation, I felt a sudden piercing burst of loneliness that brought tears to my eyes. How beautiful to have a likeminded partner to share a hike with, to be so familiar with one another that the conversation flows, and you instinctively communicate with one another on the trail. I thought of my past relationships, and how little we actually had in common in terms of how we enjoyed spending our free time. It’s easy in a moment of loneliness to slide further and further into the past. But I also had the very conscious thought that I did not want to let this bitter pang to continue intruding on my current joy.

I remembered something—a tool to help ground you when you’re feeling anxiety or grief taking over. I knew I needed to firmly root myself into the present moment, the beautiful experience I was having out in the world, not the twists and turns inside my head and heart. I reached out, letting my fingertips skim the bark of a beech tree, and then the next tree, and the next. I took deep breaths of woodsy air, warm and humid on this September morning. I looked down. At my feet was a fallen yellow leaf, of a shape I couldn’t quite identify. It didn’t look like anything around it. I thought it was vaguely poplar shaped, but oddly asymmetrical. I carried it with me, rubbing it between my fingers as though it were a talisman helping me ward off evil.

Because it was. Not that our emotions themselves are evil. But here’s the thing. There’s a difference between noticing/feeling your emotions and having them bond with anxiety in that toxic way they sometimes do. Anxiety distorts our emotions, mutates them. It’s a bad combo. I saw that beautiful couple being awesome in the woods together, and the emotions came at me hard and fast. Grief, loneliness, the confusion of “have I ever had that?” I felt it all in an instant. But I knew anxiety was kicking in when I began to ask the “what if” questions. What if I never find it, etc. That’s when I reached out to the trees for help. We have to know when to reach out.

Funny that I found a little distorted leaf that looked like it didn’t belong anywhere since that’s exactly how I was feeling. It’s like the woods were saying, “you’re not alone.” And that’s also when I realized that feeling lonely doesn’t undermine any progress we’ve made with self-trust and healing. It is simply another emotion. We notice it, feel it, and it’s a good sign when we can prevent it from pairing up with anxiety.

I was pleased that I’d managed to hold onto the good energy, to nurture it. But what of the other energy, the dream energy that seemed to be urging me to do, to act. Was it relationship related? Am I ready to try again? Or is it better to simply be, be me, be open to possibility, to wait and see what happens?

So much of what we want in life, so many of our dreams, are not entirely within our control, so it’s no wonder that it’s confusing when we consider how much energy to put into something. I think we have to listen to what our dreams are pointing us to, but they can be hard to interpret. Maybe the doing my subconscious was hinting at was about simply protecting my own energy. Not wasting it. Feeding it. Maybe it was about reassurance, a reminder to keep tending and keep trusting.

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 Playfulness and Practice

By Catherine DiMercurio

In the days that have passed since I returned from the camping trip I wrote about in my last post, I have struggled with exactly what I feared would happen. When I was spending my days in the woods or on the beach, feeling my anxiety get up and take a long walk away from me, I wondered what would happen when I returned home to the things that typically trouble me. Would I be able to hang on to that feeling of being both weightless and grounded, or would I get pulled back under the worry? I wondered if my mindset on the trip meant that I had turned a corner, arrived at someplace new, someplace I could stay and set up camp, so to speak. Or was it temporary, just vacation brain, and nothing more?

While I believe I sort of “leveled up” in my thinking, in my ability to acknowledge my full self and to lean into self-trust in a way I haven’t been able to fully embrace for a painfully long time, I have also realized, in the days since my return, that living in that mindset takes practice. Now that I’ve been there and know how it feels and understand how I got there, I realize that it will take effort to find my way back to that way of thinking sometimes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about practice lately. With pottery, it is easy to understand the importance of practice. At any point you might have a day where it feels like you never learned a single thing. Once I began to be able to center my clay on the wheel consistently, for example, I thought I had reached a certain level. I had this, my muscles had developed the memory they needed to always be able to execute the task. But, I learned quickly that it doesn’t work that way, and that practice is as much about building muscle memory as it is about teaching yourself how to fail. How to not get thrown when you can’t throw. How to make practice feel like play. When my brain insists that I need to accomplish something right now, so that I can prove to my instructor, my classmates, or myself, that I’m learning, that I deserve to be here, that I am a potter, I get frustrated with myself. I create pressure and urgency that impacts my ability to throw the way I want to. I get embarrassed if anyone notices, or mentions that I seem stressed. Then the embarrassment (shame by another name) compounds that feeling of failure. It is difficult, but I am learning that I must practice changing my mindset before I reach that point of frustration. And I do know how to do this, even if I’m not always able to execute. When I haven’t created a sense of urgency for myself, I’m able to say, after messing something up, oh, well, it’s just practice. And I believe it.

A writing friend and I were talking about this recently too. I realized that playful practice is the point of the writing prompts we’re experimenting with. It’s about being open to creativity, and urging your brain to set aside the frustration. You just write without judgement. You are not writing for a deadline or a purpose other than exploration. It’s just play. And unless you are trying to win something that’s all practice needs to be.

The only reason why I have created pressure around the notion of practice is out of habit, out of a cultivated perfectionism predicated on a lot of wrong ideas about love and worth. The benefits of practice, in terms of progress toward your goal, are more easily evidenced in the absence of urgency. At least for me. As soon as there is the pressure of time—I need to learn this faster, be able to demonstrate progress sooner—whatever I’m practicing gets worse instead of better.

Do we practice to improve, or do we practice because we enjoy something, and improvement is a side benefit?  

And how does this relate to being able to maintain a healthy mindset and sense of identity like the one I found/embraced/earned when I was camping on the shores of Lake Michigan? Cultivating that mindset is something else that benefits from playful practice. It’s hard not to think about consequences. If I have a bad throwing day or write something that’s terrible, it does not matter at all. But if I fail to approach my mental health in the right way, the consequences are more serious. My anxiety starts to call the shots, and it changes who I am, how I want to be. If I don’t approach it with a light touch, all I can think of are the consequences, the what-ifs: what if I can’t get back there—to myself, to self-trust. What if I forgot how?

Here again, play is the answer. Play is the way back. Play is how I found myself. All I did after the “work” of setting up camp was to listen to myself and do what sounded fun. The challenging hike was something I was anxious about at first, but aside from the bear scare, it was an uplifting and joyful experience. So was waking up to the sunrise over the lake and listening to the waves. So were campfires, and games of solitaire in the tent while it rained, and reading book after book on the beach, and swimming, and rock hunting, and more woodland wandering.

Being playful is something I need to practice. So today, after a stressful week, I decided that nothing bad would happen if I didn’t sweep up the dog hair or clean the gutters, and I took myself to the beach. I read my book. I ate marshmallows and toasted almonds. I swam and waded and people-watched. i watched the clouds and the sea gulls.

Photo by Nick Nu00fau00f1ez on Pexels.com

I have spent so much time over the years doing “the work.” That is, trying to understand and to heal and to grow. I’ve had experiences that seemed like detours or roadblocks, but they were all part of the process, in their own way. But in all that time in my head, thinking and reconsidering and exploring new perspectives, it was easy to overlook the point of being playful. I try to be open to and observant of joy, but I don’t always make opportunities to welcome it, to seek it, grow it. I’ve always had a bit of a Cinderella mentality in that I usually feel like I don’t get to do something enjoyable unless I’ve finished my chores, been productive, done my work. But it is in play, in doing the things we find enjoyable, however silly or small, that we can get in touch with a safe and happy place within ourselves. And when we feel safe and happy, we trust ourselves, we are buoyant, relaxed. There is no anchor of anxiety pulling us down and holding us back, holding us under.

Who would have thought that you would have to practice being playful? Not everyone does, but if you’re learning or re-learning this too, I see you. Have fun! Your very own kind of fun.

Love, Cath

On Lake and Forest Magic, and Self-Reliance

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes, water and woods work magic on your soul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Loss and “Lost”

By Catherine DiMercurio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love, Cath

On Poison and Purpose

By Catherine DiMercurio

The notion of “supposed to” is a bit of a poison in our lives, but we seem to crave it like coffee. We say, “it wasn’t supposed to happen this way” and “what am I supposed to do with my life, what is my purpose” and “by this age I was supposed to have done that” or we ask, “is this how it’s supposed to be?”

We create these ideas for ourselves, and our world creates them for us, and we live with them, shackled to us, letting them morph us. I think of the way the wedding band I never took off (until I did) changed the shape of my ring finger. Our lives grow around the trellises of our expectations. We create structures and shape ourselves to them. This isn’t a bad thing—these are situations, goals, dreams, that we welcomed, loved—but when the structure is removed, here we are with altered shapes and no support, uncertain about which directions we should grow/go.

And without the support, we overlay the supposed to and the should have language, because it is easier to feel badly about a past that didn’t turn into the future we wanted than it is to be so very brave about swimming in this vast ocean of the unknown by ourselves. It is so easy to feel like we are drowning.

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I wake up on most days and wonder, “am I doing this right?” I think of everything I once wanted for myself and imagine the ways I can reshape it into something else. I think of all the things that are possible and all the things that are probable and wonder which dream I should throw my weight behind.

I won’t lie. I do think about how many things would be easier with a supportive partner. And then I think of how many things would be more challenging, and then I get confused about what to even hope for. So many of my friends are married/partnered/remarried/repartnered, that it is difficult to discuss such things. Not that they don’t understand. But it’s just . . . different.

When you don’t get much solitude, the tiny amounts you scrape together for yourself are cherished. What I am trying to do every day, as I have done since late August when my son moved out, two months after my last relationship ended, is to cherish this solitude as much as I would have in the old days, when I rarely had any. I’m trying to ignore the feast-or-famine thinking, the idea that before I never had any, and now I have too much.

I wish I would have tried this more in the past, to realize that what I had on any given day was just the right amount. Again, this doesn’t mean we don’t try to move toward what we want. If we are constantly taking care of other people’s needs and craving peace and quiet and space to think, we do need to fight for time to ourselves. If we long for a break in the quiet, and we are exhausted by only bumping up against ourselves, then we need to remind ourselves to reach out to the people in our lives.

But, in my daily push and pull of do I want this or do I want that, and if it’s that, then how do I get it, and if it’s this, then how do I round it out, make it everything I need, I can pause. I can tell myself that though I’m still figuring it all out, today, what I have and don’t have today, is okay. I have my worries, like everyone does. But today, I’m not in any kind of jeopardy. Though I’ve lived through times in my life where every day I woke up to a fresh iteration of an ongoing crisis, I am blissfully not in that place now. And if I can let go of all the supposed to and should have/should be thinking, I wonder what would happen. I wonder if this is what it means to get out of our own way.

Think about all the times you looked back on an earlier period in your life and said, “I wish I knew.” I wish I knew how much I’d miss that time, I wish I’d realized this or that. Maybe now, too, is one of those times. I don’t want to look back on this period of solitude and growth and discovery as anything less than it is, just because I’ve also felt lonely or confused or overwhelmed.

None of this is to say that if you are in a bad situation, you should find a way to cherish it. There are some things you should NOT try and make the best of, because it’s killing you. I know from personal experience that we stay in things that are unhealthy and damaging for much longer than other people think we should because we can’t find our way out, and that we do so until we simply can’t anymore.

At my lowest point in my life, I felt like I was being erased. The situation I was in was poison, and I remember standing in my garden in late April, an overgrown and soggy patch of ground that needed to be weeded and prepped for planting, and I had dirt on my hands. I stood up and thought, I don’t have to keep drinking the poison. I won’t say that everything changed after that because it took a long, long time for things to truly shift but that was my first step away from something that was destroying me and toward myself.

We remember such moments so clearly; they are etched and inked upon our souls. But so much of life filters through us with so much less awareness. I think this is how we are always amazed when we have those moments of realization about how much time has passed. We wonder, how it is already the end of February, or how did we through the last several years, or how can our little ones be graduating from college, or going off to kindergarten, and on and on. And even when we try to hold on to moments, or days, or years, they slip away from our memory like water washing over a river rock.

Maybe it’s because I’m now in my 50s that I don’t want so much to slip away so easily. I want to remember every breath, even the “boring” ones. I want to look back at this past winter, and instead of admonishing myself and saying things like, you shouldn’t have watched so much tv, I will say how wonderful that you had time to rest and regroup. The end of my relationship in June of 2021 hit me hard, and though I’m surprised at how much time I have needed to think about things and feel the hurt and wonder all the things you wonder when something ends, I love that for once, I was able to give myself the time to tend wounds, and to sort them out, to realize that some are fresh and some are far older than I thought. I have had time to simply sit and think through things, quietly, alone, in a way that I never have before. I will remember all this, when I look back, and I will remember cozy evenings with cocoa and my dogs and, yes, tv, but also books and phone calls with friends, and writing, and starting my pottery class.

What scares me sometimes is that there won’t be a next to look back from. I wonder, what if this is all there is? But then I remember, that’s not how it works, and that’s not how I am. If this situation starts to feel like a bad situation that I need to get out of, I will do it, just as I’ve done in the past, and I will know when it is time. I will know. And I will believe myself. I am learning to trust myself, and my judgement, though this is one of the hardest lessons to learn.

This morning, my anxious puppy stood in the back of the yard, barking back at another dog who was barking at him. I watched him, the way he kept turning to look toward the house, toward me, like he always does in these situations. My sense is that he is feeling uncertain, and in that uncertainty there is possible danger, so he’s out there standing his ground, not sure if he will need to protect himself or his territory. I always call to him when this happens. I want him to know he’s not alone, and he doesn’t have to handle everything; it’s fine, he’s safe. But typically, he still stands there barking, and I need to lure him with treats or the promise of a game. Hey, Zero! Where’s your pineapple?! He will rush in for that, find the pineapple toy, and wait for me to chase him. But today, when I called for him, he just turned away from the situation that was agitating him, and ran to me, without the promise of a treat or a game, just to me, as if he finally was trusting his safety to me.

I tell you this because I’m finally getting there, too, I think. Being able to trust my safety to me.

I’ll leave you with a tiny little poem I wrote recently:

just for today

let us sing for the little things

let us allow a tender moment to be the whole world

let it change us.

Love, Cath

A Brief Note on Surviving Pointless Worrying, and Loving Like a Dog

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you have to love like a dog does.

Most of us have been through enough to know that we have some thoughts that have a mind of their own. They mine our past for memories and our future for fears and merge them into narratives that seem like facts, like calculations, like ideas that will protect us somehow, from ever being blindsided by all the things life has to offer, all our lives once did offer.

In my own experience, periods of transition and uncertainty amplify this noise. If you ever have endured a sustained period of turmoil, the thing you keep craving long after is the reassurance that somehow everything is going to be okay. I want to hear it in the background, the way you hear the wind chimes on the porch when you’re almost home.

Recently, upon returning home from looking at a house (if you know me or have been reading this blog you know I’m on the verge of a move), I fell apart a little. I grew anxious about finances and location. And it all coalesced, all the fears about the future, and memories of past failures, into a guttural off-key chorus of always-never. It was a performance I desperately wanted not to hear but I couldn’t quite find the switch to flip to turn it off. I thought of the beautiful features that drew me to the house – the historic homes in the area, the beautiful brick, the graceful staircase, the wood floors, the leaded glass door in the foyer. I thought about the rest – the broken panes in that door, the plumbing and the windows and roof work that needed to be done. I thought about my budget. I what-iffed my way into tears of worry and frustration and self-censure, sitting in the spot in front of the large heating vent in my living room, where I had, in the past, gravitated to when things were bad. My thoughts, now thinking for themselves, decided that this was all somehow about what I deserved, or didn’t, thought this would be a good way to keep me realistic in terms of my expectations about the new house, and everything else. I cranked up the heat because I was so cold suddenly, and my big dog leaned into me, trying, in that way he does, to take some of it away.

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I gave myself fifteen minutes in this state. I may have taken a little longer, but I managed to throw myself with some deliberateness into the rest of my day. Looking back a few days later on those moments, I wish so much that instead of my thoughts having a mind of their own, the rest of my mind could just rally and be analytical and pick apart the faulty reasoning. It tries. But things don’t really turn around until my heart gets involved. Reminds me doggedly and wordlessly of what matters, what always matters, here, now. My heart thinks the way I imagine dog’s minds do – in images and smells and sounds, with no confusing web of language criss-crossing truth and lies until you can’t find your way out.

I suspect that anxiety is future-grief, worry and sorrow about what we haven’t lost yet. There is a steady, logical part of my brain that can say this is fruitless. There is another part of me that thinks this is a pretty good skill to have, thinks it can somehow protect me from being blindsided. My steady brain asks how it can matter; our hearts cannot really brace themselves for a punch the way other muscles can. If the world is going to hurt us, it will, whether we can see it coming or not. The thing that protects us is what we’re doing now, the thing that protects us is building a bank of heart-thoughts that we can dip into when we need to, that we can draw on to remind us: we are loved and loving, and we are strong because of it.

To those of you who are patient with me, who have spent a few minutes in conversation with me (or who have inched your foot toward mine during a late-night fit of worry, letting me know you are there for me), who reassure me with your steadiness and kindness and goodness and love, I thank you, and I hope I offer some measure of it in return. I am here for you, too.

Love, Cath

 

Transformation and the Nature of the Resist

By Catherine DiMercurio

Waking at 3 a.m. again, I think how sleep resists me in the middle of the night. I think about the pictures we made in elementary school. We drew with bright waxy crayons on paper, which we then painted over with blue-black watercolors. I made a night sky, my chunky yellow and red stars gleaming against the watery background of my night. The wax acts as a resist, I remember my teacher saying as she held up a crayon. I don’t remember which teacher it was, but I snagged on that word, on the magic of transformation, when the verb resist became a noun. A resist. Now my mind acted as a resist, sleep slipping off of it, unable to take hold.

Before I went to sleep, another night, I wrote in my journal, trying to corner trouble before it cornered me. I told myself: don’t worry, you aren’t trying too hard, or not enough. I’m not quite sure why those particular words spilled out at that time, but I thought about them again after I woke up. I slept better that night than the night before, and though I still arose before my alarm went off, it wasn’t hours before my alarm went off, so I felt pretty good. I warmed up some leftover coffee and sat down to write.

Messages, Mixed and Otherwise

But that line kept percolating back to the forefront. I think maybe we all fear getting in our own way by trying too hard in some ways or not doing enough in others. I imagine that there is some magical line to walk. On one side, there’s a sense of forging ahead when sometimes it’s only wheels spinning. On the other side, there’s a reliance on things taking care of themselves, there’s a sense of “letting go” in the hopes that things will happen the way they are “supposed to.”

The world gives us mixed messages. We have to go after what we want, follow our bliss. And at the same time we are told to relax, that if things are “meant to be” they will come to us when we least expect it. Provided of course that we have “done the work” we are supposed to do to improve ourselves.

It’s exhausting, mediating these messages, trying to measure the precise amount of effort that should go into something and hoping we get the timing right. I think of that British baking show in which one of the tasks is to bake a mystery dessert, which many of the contestants haven’t even heard of, with only the sketchiest of instructions provided. Somehow, some of the bakers manage to still create something that looks beautiful and tastes as it should, according to the judges. How do they do it?

Perhaps it comes down to having faith in your instincts. Maybe the “secret sauce” is the ability to do two things at once: tune out the noise and tune in to ourselves. We have to remember our strengths, and that we aren’t the sum of our weaknesses. All of this is easier said than done to be sure, which is probably why, as I sleepily wrote before bed that night, I encouraged myself toward self-trust. I honestly don’t think anyone can do that for us, no matter how many supportive people we have in our lives.

Timing and Taffy

Self-trust isn’t easy. Instincts get scrambled, or so we tell ourselves after an act of trust results in an open wound to the soul instead of the affirmation we hoped for. Pain makes our heart into a resist, joy slides off it and puddles along the edges. For the past six months or so, after that June break up I wrote about a while ago, I’ve been trying to live in two states of mind at the same time. I’ve tried to remain true to the open-hearted nature of the person I want to be, once was, and feel that at my core I still am, and I’ve also tried to exist in a state of perpetual self-protection. This isn’t an easy line to walk. Your heart feels like taffy, but for a time, it’s the only way forward, confusing and thinning as it may be.

Like many people, I sometimes do things until I can’t anymore, until it goes a step or several thousand beyond making sense. I hesitate before taking action until it feels like it’s already too late, or once I’m committed to a course of action, I remain too long, far past the expiration date.

So, one night recently, as I slipped into bed and hoped for a good night’s sleep, I had a moment where I understood that this taffy-hearted way of living was no good anymore—this stretching my heart till it thinned and slowly broke apart, this patiently putting it back together again and keeping it cooled off this time—all of this stopped feeling like the right way, like the only way forward. It had worked for a while, had been necessary even, but I wanted my hopeful, open-hearted way of being back. I wanted to stop protecting myself. I decided to commit to a course of action I’d been thinking about for many, many months.

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If you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning you’ll remember that last year, in January, I lost my sweet dog to cancer. His big brother, my almost-ten-year-old coonhound mix, Phineas, has been pretty lonely ever since, and I’ve thought for a long time about adopting another dog. I’ve begun the process of adopting once again, and Phineas and the kids and I will meet the new pup soon. I’m hopeful that they’ll get along well, and we’ll have him home with us before long. (I’ll keep you posted!)

I have a feeling that I’m ready for more, that my open-hearted embrace of my open-heartedness means that other new good things are on the horizon, that maybe I’ll do something about that crush, that maybe an idea I have for my next writing project opens itself up to me. But really, whether or not any of that happens, I simply feel happier having moved past that summer grief, happy to be growing and evolving, and happy to have respected the past six months as a necessary part of my journey.

Wishing you all a heart that blossoms in wonderful and unexpected ways in the coming year.

Love, Cath