By Catherine DiMercurio
Lately, I’ve been thinking about lessons, and the ways we learn and remember. Maybe it was because I had to spend some time thinking about whether I’d invest in another semester of pottery, or because I recently got to spend some time with my math teacher sister.
I was talking to my sister about one thing, and then suddenly, as we were driving home from a hike, I realized I was talking about something else, my old boyfriend. As I recounted an incident that underscored what had gone wrong in that relationship, I realized that I have become a student of my past. In so many ways, this has helped me to understand the way I respond to the world around me. Yet, there are some experiences I revisit without intending to. It is almost like reciting a memorized piece, a prayer, poem, or song, the way I chronicle the events and their consequences. It is as if part of me is determined to always have certain things known by heart, as if only the periodic reminder of what and how something hurt will prevent it from happening again.
Can we protect ourselves and still be open hearted? Is this a binary situation or do we flow between those poles? A Venn diagram maybe, and somewhere in the middle of two intersecting circles is a state where we’re both open eyed and open hearted.
Remember when we were children and we had to memorize multiplication tables and spelling words? I recited things back to myself over and over, even after pop quizzes and tests, worried that I’d forget something. A memory floats back to me of sitting in my parents’ car, a stick-shift van of some sort, in our driveway. My mother was in the driver’s seat; she hated to drive that car. We were talking about a word I’d gotten wrong on a spelling test. I must have been in first or second grade. The word was “ladder,” but I’d spelled it “latter.” I was so frustrated; I’d sounded it out and everything. I don’t remember exactly what my mother said, but the memory is suffused with her gentleness. She repeated both words, emphasizing the different letter sounds of the d’s and the t’s to help me hear the difference. I don’t know why I was so upset by one wrong word on a spelling test, but any kind of test always created a feeling of urgency. It must have been after this that I’d started memorizing everything.
Even then I was forming and performing the pattern of memorization as a means of avoiding the discomfort of “failure.” [I would later spell the word “oxidation” wrong in the spelling bee, thinking there must be a “y” like in “oxygen.” I would always stumble over 7 x 8 for some reason, and the 12s were always hard.]
Now, I instead of spelling words and multiplication tables, I play out remembered scenes in my head, conflict with past partners. To be clear, this study of the economics of emotional vulnerability was necessary work. In trying to understand why my willingness to be vulnerable and honest with a partner was not reciprocated, I realized that my response to what felt like rejection was to attempt to prove my worth through my ability to be accommodating. But, those equations didn’t add up. And now instead of trying to remember 12 x 9, I know by heart the way my emotional vulnerability and honesty does not equal a healthy relationship when multiplied by 0.
I tiptoed into one aspect of vulnerability again with a brief foray back into online dating. I had a small spark of hope and interest in someone for a little while, but the conversation revealed that I had good reason to keep my guard up a bit. I know that in a way, dating is just like submitting my fiction to literary journals, and that disappointment is common, and you can’t let it dissuade you. But my heart is on the line in a different way in the dating world and I find that I’m more reluctant to keep “putting myself out there” in the face of disappointment than I am with my writing. Maybe this is a lack of bravery, a fear of getting hurt, but it is also fatigue, and a growing sense that maybe it doesn’t matter that much anyway. It is hard to imagine that I will ever simply stop writing and seeking publication; it’s much easier to imagine that I’ll stop looking for the relationship that I once believed was just as important as my writing. Some people say that’s exactly when you find someone—when you stop looking. Other people say you’ll never find someone if you aren’t looking.
Right now, I think I’m going to have to trust that as I explore the boundaries of vulnerability and safety, I’ll be open to the possibility of meeting someone should the opportunity arise. And that in living my life and exploring my interests, I’m creating opportunities.
What I’d like to do in the meantime is let go of the feeling that lessons must be recited, memories re-dissected, in order for the learning to stick. Life isn’t spelling tests and multiplication tables. There is no pop quiz, but sometimes it feels like there is. Scrolling through a social media feed, I see pop psychologists informing me of the things I need to do to recover from the wounds of past relationships. It’s as if there’s a way to tabulate the self-knowledge gained and unless you can do a presentation for the class on your attachment style and inner child work, you’re not getting an “A” and graduating to “healed” and “ready.”
But I don’t want to do it that way. While I don’t want to miss out on guidance that might help me, I am also fatigued by input, from advice snippets on social media, from the few chapters of self-help books I’ve been able to get through, even from therapy, though that has been vital to me over the years. Do you ever have the sense that everything you need is right in front of you, but the more you listen to other people the harder it gets to put it all together?
Here’s something I haven’t really thought of before: maybe I will intuitively know when I need to seek help. That I can’t “miss out” on guidance that will help me because if I need it, I’ll go looking for it. I don’t have to leave the faucet on, letting a steady stream of help wash over me.
Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “There is a guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening, we shall hear the right word.” I think again of a Venn diagram, this time of our inner voice in one circle and the competing voices of every place and person we’ve turned to for advice, or that has offered it in some way. Maybe there is some amazing overlap at the center where we trust ourselves but also are doing some appreciative “lowly listening” to the outside world as well. I think it’s a little dangerous to think we have all the answers ourselves, but it’s just as harmful to think that we don’t have any, that our own intuition, experience, and introspection is less valuable than the flood of information pouring down round us.
I think, too, that sometimes we create our own noise. We’re reciting our lessons, the ones that are supposed to help us, the ones we can’t forget, and maybe that mumbling recitation becomes part of the static we hear. One of the hardest things about self-trust is believing that what we’ve learned stays with us, that it is a part of us, and will be accessible when we need it. Maybe the lesson learned about a past relationship won’t be quite at our fingertips the way we want it to be, in a new relationship, but we can pause. We can check our spelling and verify the math. Because even if we don’t remember the order of the letters, or can’t quite recall the equation, we do know when something sounds off. We ask ourselves, wait, is that right, is this adding up? The trick is to expand that moment, to slow down and take the time to check. And that might also be the right place to reach out if we need to—to a therapist, a friend, a family member—and go over what it is that’s troubling us.
Some days, I’m reveling in freedoms I couldn’t comprehend when I was tumbling from one relationship into the next. I feel at times like I’ve had the best and worst of three worlds. I know what it is like to love someone for years and years with every single cell of my being, and I know what it is like to be betrayed and devastated by them. I know what falling in love with a new person is like, and I have fully felt the pain of those endings, the dull, persistent ache of realizing that the hope of reshaping your life with someone isn’t going to work out, again. I know the giddy glow of finally getting to know and love myself, and I know how the loneliness swoops in at a rush, extinguishing the lights and leaving me low. And I know that it departs swiftly and mysteriously these days. The only thing I don’t know is what’s next. But I’m curious.