Against Epiphanies, Literary and Otherwise

By Catherine DiMercurio

If you’ve been following this blog, you know I’ve been talking about transitions a lot lately. One kid is off at her first year of college. One kid has a freshly minted driver’s license, beginning his junior year of high school, and driving himself to school, work, cross country practice. I’m entering my fourth post-break-up month and watching how fast it’s all going by, imagining the day in the not-far-off future when I drop my son off at college and return to an empty house. It has been an angsty summer, and some of the freshness of fall has similarly been curdled by anxiety. So much is changing, so quickly. The children are strong, adaptable, but also not impervious the stress of these new circumstances either. As their mom, I long to make it easier somehow, but I know there’s nothing I can really do. The hardest part is, they know it.

Some days, I have the sense, that I’m close, that I’m on to something. I’ll turn a corner and gain a new understanding that allows me to put a difficult past into perspective, to synthesize. I’ll be able to embrace the new normal, stop caring what people think. Soon, I tell myself, I’ll be truly moving forward, not in this halting, breathless, slowpoke, dizzying way I’ve been doing. Soon, I’ll be one of those wise, forgiving women full of light and kind words, good humored, emotionally supple. I keep feeling that I’m close to having a transformative realization, an epiphany that allows me to step gracefully into the next phase.

Against Epiphanies: Lessons from Fiction

When I was in grad school I read a series of essays on writing by Charles Baxter, a favorite author of mine (please read his novel, The Feast of Love, if you haven’t, and please read it again if you have). One of the essays came to mind as I thought about this feeling of being within reach of something—an epiphany—that I could not quite grasp.

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In “Against Epiphanies,” Baxter writes, “I can say with some certainty that most of my own large-scale insights have turned out to be completely false. They have arrived with a powerful, soul-altering force; and they have all been dead wrong.” I underlined this and wrote some questioning notes in the margins of this page, Baxter’s comments having ushered in a sense of discomfort I couldn’t pin down. Later, he goes on to say, “I must confess a prejudice here, which is probably already apparent. I don’t believe that a character’s experiences in a story have to be validated by a conclusive insight or a brilliant visionary stop-time moment. Stories can arrive somewhere interesting without claiming any wisdom or clarification, without, really, claiming much of anything beyond their wish to follow a train of interesting events to a conclusion.”

Sometimes Things Just Happen

I think this is one of the qualities I like most about reading Baxter’s fiction, the realness of the fact that life serves up precious few epiphanies. At the same time, I found it tough medicine to swallow as a writer. There is an urge to distill, to make meaning, to have everything lead somewhere. But sometimes, often, everything doesn’t lead somewhere, or even, anywhere. Perhaps, too, it is what I’m struggling with as a human. Experiences don’t necessarily lead us to brilliant conclusions, a life-altering insight: “it was then that I realized that everything had led me to this point.” Because what if it didn’t, it hadn’t? Does this leave us in some existential morass? Or do some experiences shape us, but not necessarily in an obvious, it-taught-me-a-lesson sort of way? Even though everything doesn’t lead us to something, we still have a journey, and we still find ourselves in various places along the way.

My son and I recently had a conversation about this very thing. We’d headed out to a local lake to do some kayaking on one of the few days we both didn’t have any other obligations. My daughter was already away at school. Some car trouble though threatened to end our fun before it began. In the end, we sorted through it and were still able to enjoy a little time on the water together. As we drove home, I wondered aloud what lesson I was supposed to learn from this. Maybe it was about resiliency or something. My son’s response to my line of questioning was, “Maybe it’s not a lesson. Maybe it’s just a thing that happened.”

Validation and the Role of Trauma

I think Baxter and my son were essentially saying the same thing—experiences don’t have to be validated by insight. At least not all of them. It’s not as if we never learn anything from our experiences. But an experience isn’t rendered valueless if we haven’t translated it into a discrete life lesson.

I think the tricky part is being able to tell the difference between when we do have something to learn, and understanding when an event is simply a thing that happened. When a person has been through a trauma, it can be difficult in the aftermath to not have every stressor feel exactly the same as the trauma itself. It takes a while before our stress response can calm down, before an argument with a loved one or a traffic jam that makes us late for work feel different from the worst parts of the trauma. Maybe being able to tell the difference between experiences from which we can draw meaningful insights and experiences that are simply happenings is a skill that takes time to develop, or an instinct we have to train ourselves to trust. I’m certain trauma plays dark tricks here too, making us believe that if we don’t learn something meaningful from every experience something bad will happen, again.

I’m certain trauma plays dark tricks here too, making us believe that if we don’t learn something meaningful from every experience something bad will happen, again.

I like insights. They are comforting. And they are important. But the big life-changing ones are few and far between, and maybe, like Baxter points out, they are often dead wrong. I wonder if the reason such powerful epiphanies turn out to be dead wrong is that we gave them so much power. We smother them with expectations. Perhaps accumulating smaller insights, making minute course corrections as we go without expecting them to change our lives is, in fact, how we change our lives. Perhaps the perspective we seek, or the life we’re after, will be achieved forty-seven small insights from now, rather than in one big epiphany.

Love, Cath

 

A Cross-Country Road Trip with Teens, Part One: The Trip West

By Catherine DiMercurio

I recently returned from an eleven-day road trip with my teenagers. Though I knew I’d be taking a break from writing during that time, I set a goal for myself to consciously notice. I wanted to cultivate a deliberate awareness of what I was experiencing—from new landscapes and people, to the way the trip impacted each of us as it unfolded. I wrote down some of these observations, but for the most part, I tried to simply take things in. In a way, I wanted to get out of my head for a while, to be looking outward instead of inward. I tried to absorb as much as I could without filtering it through conscious thoughts about how I felt about this or that. I found, though, that after three 12+ hour days of driving, my endurance for this way of looking at the world was reaching its limit. And that’s not a bad thing.

The Route

We departed early on a Tuesday morning, having loaded up the vehicle the night before. We drove across Michigan, through Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, and entered Nebraska on the evening of the first day. We camped for the night just west of Lincoln, on a beautiful little lake that we had almost to ourselves. The next morning, we hit the road at sunrise and drove across Nebraska and through most of Wyoming, spending the night at a hotel in Green River, and treating ourselves to Chinese takeout for a late dinner after a dip in the pool. In the morning, we left Wyoming and headed into Utah, where we navigated the tangle of highway around Salt Lake City and then drove through the salt flats, which astounded us as much as the gorgeous red rock, Martian-like terrain we experienced entering Utah. Not long after the salt flats, we left the interstate and navigated some through some of the loneliest land I’d ever experienced, through northern Nevada and southeastern Oregon. We camped again, in Oregon, at a little RV park situated on a vast cattle ranch. Perhaps it was an odd choice for a family of vegans, but we didn’t know it until after we checked in, and we always like to see cows (and we hoped they would somehow escape their fate). We had decided that, on the fourth day, instead of proceeding to our destination, we’d make a northerly detour to Crater Lake, which was absolutely astonishing. We drove south and west once more, through thick wildfire smoke, and finally into California, greeting the ocean in Crescent City and then setting up camp at Del Norte Mill Creek campground.

The trip out was roughly 2,500 miles, and though I’ve sketched out our route, this doesn’t begin to tell the tale of the journey. If you know me and/or have been reading this blog for a while, you know that my daughter is about to start college in a few weeks. This trip was her graduation gift. Part of my practice of conscious noticing involved my awareness of my children as individuals and as siblings and as offspring. I wanted to observe our identities and relationships in the same way I was observing the landscapes we were passing through, with curiosity and respect. It’s so much easier to do that on a trip like this than it is in daily life, but it is a worthwhile approach. More on this later.

When the Past Crashes the Party

As we journeyed west, the three of us laughed easily, relaxing more and more with each mile. We problem-solved as a group, our little expedition team working off each other to navigate unfamiliar territory and situations. It wasn’t really until the third day of driving, after the Midwest was behind us, that things got more challenging. For me, the moment came as we entered Utah, and I found myself driving up and down steep and winding roads hemmed in by semis. The heights, the narrowness of the roads, the speeds at which cars and semis were taking the mountain curves all combined to make a fairly stressful driving situation. Later in the day, with the salt flats behind us, we entered into the desolation of the desert. We gassed up the car and braced ourselves, not knowing what to expect. After hours of driving through sagebrush and barren mountains in the distance and little else we crossed the border into Oregon and experienced more of the same. There was one terrifying descent down a mountainside, with a huge drop off and no guardrail. I’d been dreading this type of driving and on that day, it never seemed to end. I relaxed by the time we finally set up camp that night, but as we began the fourth day of driving, I felt myself sort of shutting down.

For a couple of hours on the way up to Crater Lake, a stress response kicked in that left me frozen, detached. I felt as empty as the desert we had passed through the day before. I felt depleted and somehow vulnerable to the past in a way I didn’t fully understand.

Some context: I didn’t grow up traveling or camping. My children grew up camping, like their father. As the kids got older, their father encouraged us all to take on a little more adventure. We eventually climbed three mountains out East. My fear of heights stopped me in my tracks on some of these trips, but it was often incredible to push through that. At the time of these trips, I felt supported through my fearful moments. But later, at the end of the marriage, I realized we both had different memories and perceptions about such things. After the divorce, the kids and I still camped, but it wasn’t until a trip two years to the Badlands in South Dakota that I’d taken on a more adventuresome trip as a solo parent. And this trip out to California felt huge to me. To captain a trip of this magnitude on my own was challenging and meaningful, and not without emotional pitfalls.

On that fourth day, this past, these memories, caught up to me. I collapsed inward a little and I didn’t know how long it would last. The voices of the past had entered into the void created by vulnerability. I questioned what I was doing here, why we had set out on such an ambitious journey, how I would be able to handle some of the challenges that we would undoubtedly face. I didn’t feel fun enough, or brave enough, or competent enough. I didn’t feel enough of anything in that moment, though even swimming in this self-doubt I recognized that not all of these words weren’t my own. But as we experienced the magnificence of Crater Lake I felt this negativity, and the power of the past, ebb away. As I navigated the mountain roads, I tried to explain some of this to the kids. They’d been worried about the shift in my demeanor and it was with some relief that they recognized I’d come out of whatever spell I’d been under.

Fresh Air, Fresh Thinking

I began to understand that the stress of the long drive and coping with my fears had opened a little gateway to the past, and the griefs and failures that I’d experienced in the collection of years immediately before and after the divorce had flooded in. What brought me safely through it was a combination of fresh thinking and fresh air. Part of me was able to recognize what was happening and to name it, and in doing so, I was able to put all the pieces backed where they belonged and to close the gate. Getting out of the car and breathing the mountain air and watching my children take in the lake and the sky allowed me to do the same, to take it in and to return out of the past, the grief, and into the moment, into this part of the journey, the now. I also had the sense that my conscious noticing, that my goal of observing with curiosity and respect needed to encompass myself.

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Once we arrived at the Pacific Ocean, at a stretch of beach in Crescent City, California, I thought about what had happened, grateful to the journey to bringing me to that point so that I could move beyond it. I recognized too the way we are shaped by our interactions with their environment, and as I sat on a rock looking out at the water, I allowed myself to be shaped by the ocean, smoothed and calmed by the waves. My son and daughter were peering into tide pools and laughing and exploring. We stretched out into new versions of ourselves, having pioneered, in our way, across prairie and desert and mountain to the ocean.

On this trip, I moved back and forth through speechless awe and wonder, and trails and eddies of introspection. It will take some time and thinking and writing to sort through, so bear with me. I hope you will enjoy this part of the journey with me.

Love, Cath

 

On Waiting and Letting Go

By Catherine DiMercurio

I woke on Sunday morning to the sound of raindrops pelting the window and the scrape of an ice-laden tree branch on the roof above my bedroom. All I wanted to do was pull the covers back over my head and ignore the worries about falling branches and icy roads. I braced myself for what was coming next—the assessment of whether it would be safe for my daughter to make the trip to Ann Arbor that she had planned for the day. And I knew that I had to let her decide for herself.

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My son woke up not long after I did. We drank our coffee and darted from window to window, noting the way the cars, fences, and tree branches were slicked with a layer of ice. The temperature hovered just about the freezing mark and it was unclear whether the pouring rain hitting the ice was building up another layer, or was melting it. The roads looked wet. A couple of limbs creaked free from tree trunks and crashed to the ground, the fine coating of ice shattering from the smaller branches, studded with leaf buds.

Risk Assessment

When my daughter woke up and I asked if I was still going to let her go, I avoided the question. I watched her retrace my steps window to window, taking in the same factors I had. On our phones we sought reports on social media from people who might have braved the roads already. We listened to the weatherman say that despite the rain, the roads could still by icy. My daughter suggests that she head out anyway, saying if things seem bad, she’ll turn around and come home. I know from experience that sometimes things don’t seem bad until you are already on the highway and the conditions are fine until they aren’t and you have to decide which is safer—proceeding to your destination or heading back the way you came.

I can’t decide if this is high-stakes parenting or not. Is her life at risk any more than any other time she gets behind the wheel, any more than mine is each time I brave a morning commute? Maybe it’s fine. Maybe it won’t get icier the closer she gets to Ann Arbor. Maybe some spots will be bad and doesn’t she have to learn to negotiate the conditions anyway?

It isn’t a stand-off we have at the front door with her making a plea to go and me deciding in that heartbeat whether to allow or forbid. We’ve had those before and this isn’t like that. I’m looking at an eighteen-year-old young woman who claims her readiness to handle changing conditions, and she’s looking at someone with a little more experience and some reasonable concerns about her safety. Significantly, I can tell she sees and respects this. “Be careful. Text me when you get there,” I say.

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Knowing that she made it there and back safely, that she was fine, in a way makes me feel that my heightened worrying was unnecessary. But I know the significance of the moment at the doorway, when we weren’t really sure how bad the conditions were, when she wondered if I would to forbid her to go, and when I didn’t.

As I waited for her text, I had the sense that I’d probably done the right thing. I had to let her make the decision on her own, when the consequences could be significant—I see in my head the car accident on the icy highway, the one that doesn’t happen, the semi unable to stop—because she’s going to have to make decisions like that again and again when she leaves home in the fall to attend college. I know all the decision-making we’d negotiated to this point, whether through careful conversations or door-slamming shouting matches, all brought us to this point. And I know this hasn’t been the first high-stakes moment.

Self-Aware Parenting

The difference this time is that I’m aware, in the moment, that I’m surrendering the decision-making, that it is a conscious, willful act of love and trust. As parents our entire existence is predicated on the notion that we are preparing our children to not need us. It’s all part of the longest goodbye ever, from the moment they begin to crawl.

Just the day before, I’d been in the car with my son, who will be sixteen in a month. He’s trying to get enough hours in to take the second segment of driver’s ed. It’ll be a few months before he gets his permit. It’s raining and he’s doing great, though visibility at times is lousy. Does he see that stop sign? Do I point it out? The micro decision-making is just as hard as the macro decision-making. It’s parenting inch by inch, breath by breath. Sometimes it feels like I’m falling off a cliff, waiting for a moment, an hour, or years, to see if the decision I made was the right one.

Go, Go, Go. Stop.

It sounds like I don’t give them enough credit. They are bright kids, possessing common sense along with intellectual and emotional intelligence. I do trust that. It is what allows me to say go and what keeps me from saying stop. It is the comfort I take in the waiting. At the same time, I know what the stakes are, large and small.

I’ve always erred on the side of being overprotective. It’s the way I’m wired. It takes intentional self-awareness to step out of this habit sometimes. My thinking is that I want the kids to leave our home having known what it feels like to be nurtured and cared for, but also having learned how to nurture and care for themselves. I’ll always wonder if I’ve gotten the balance right, and I’ll probably wait years to find the answer. It can be confusing, parenting during transitions like these, as your kids enter adulthood. It’s like being caught between seasons, a tree in full bud suddenly coated in April ice.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath