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