On Bargaining, Warmth, and Crickets

By Catherine DiMercurio

“March is a bargaining month. . . . How like happiness this is.”

Maybe it is because I live with dogs that I find myself, hound-like, snuggling well-loved ideas with familiar scents. I perpetually consider notions of happiness, transition, ambiguity, and identity—philosophical bones for these forty-something-year-old teeth to gnaw on. As March expires, I return to thoughts about negotiating with the past—and and the ghosts that hound us—in our pursuit of happiness.

Speaking of hounds, I look to mine for lessons, not really knowing what else to do with the half-wild thing I adopted a few months ago. We make tiny bits of progress and then leap back. I have written in other posts about his past, about how, during his most impressionable time he was kenneled, not learning, not bonding. I lecture myself about expectations and push away the feeling that I do not understand how to make this small plot of real estate a large enough home for this big-hearted, loud and loping beast. On my good days there is fresh resolve, an eager, well-meaning patience. On bad days, frustration boils, then quiets as I remind myself of his history, then simmers once again. I remind myself: past and present must some how find a way to live together.

We make bargains with the ghosts of our past. But often, we must learn to make them with ghosts and pasts of others, too.

I began writing this post a week ago and am returning to it on the last day of March. March is a bargaining month. I haggle with yard mud and slopped paws. Crocuses hem and haw, deciding when to take the risk. March begins a transition to spring that stretches through dreaded April snows. In Michigan, we do not fully believe it is spring until it is nearly summer. How like happiness this is.

It is easy to doubt that a joyful mood will live to see the light of the next day, and the next, until we realize finally that we’ve been happy all this time. How comfortable it is to doubt joy, given histories of endured loss. Sometimes, I decide to stop counting losses and try to only tally the wins—the joyful moments, the kitchen laughter, the soft morning kisses, the contented sighing of freshly walked dogs, the smell of spring rain, every sip of coffee, texts from teenage children checking in on me, on each other.

I decide to watch happy pile up around me. The losses will still come whether or not we are ready for them. Maybe, if we soak up enough sun we can take on the cold when it comes, take it on with a little more vigor and confidence. To always be steeling ourselves, waiting for the next trouble and trying to prepare for it, dilutes the joys we could be experiencing every day. Let the sun be the sun.

I know this: what today feels like a bump in the road would have felt like a steep and rocky mountain, nearly impassible, just a few years ago. Mostly. Sometimes obstacles still feel bigger than they are. Setbacks still sting—the broken appliance I can’t really afford to replace, another rejection from a literary journal, taxes, parenting stressors, the strange new noise the car is making—these are all still part of life, and can all gang up on me from time to time.

The practice of joy-tallying takes perspective, it takes meditative awareness, and is a conscious expenditure of psychic energy. And sometimes our zeal for it flags, and the cold seeps in even though the sun is shining. Sometimes we need to have another conversation with our ghosts. We need to make bargains about what we allow ourselves to remember, and to forget. In the end, it may be that what protects us the most from future pain is not, in fact, the memory of past pain. It may be that it is the willful act of forgetting that unthickens the skin and lets us feel the sun.

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Right now, hosts of crickets that have been wintering as eggs or nymphs (depending on whether or not they are fall field crickets or spring field crickets, apparently). They have been feeling the changes in soil temperature. Like all of us in Michigan, they are trapped between the end of the cold and the beginning of warmth. They wait to see when there have been enough consecutive warm days to call it spring. Then instinct kicks in, warmth is certain, emergence is imminent. Maybe we don’t have to wait as long as the crickets do, but sometimes we have to trust the instinct and seek the warmth. I suspect letting happiness soak in, one joy at a time, yields a stronger protection against the cold than developing too thick a skin.

Enjoy the warmth, whenever you find it. Love, Cath

(photo credit: Photo by Kal Visuals on Unsplash)

On Appearances and Optimism

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes things are not what they seem. And that can be a good thing.

My kids and I hiked this past weekend, seeking the loons we had learned were migrating through the area. The path took us through the woods, and stretches of it ran next to the lake. Spring is slow in arriving this year. All around us were shades of brown and grey, broken only by a few red leaf buds in the dirt, scattered like confetti. The deer and sandhill cranes we spotted blended into this backdrop, though the blush of red on the cranes’ heads allowed us to notice them roosting on their nests. We found the loons too, thanks to their glossy white chests, though they were also difficult to see in the distance, unless they were swimming toward us. Along the path as the woods opened to fields, I noticed a milkweed pod. The cottony insides had long since been carried off by the wind, but the husk that remained bore a striking resemblance to a bird. I had to look twice to be sure. The image stayed with me, reminding me that things that have the shape and appearance of one thing can actually be something else quite different.

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For a long time, throughout the divorce year and in the aftermath, I tended to take a pessimistic view of this idea. As in, be wary and suspicious because things are not what they seem. Proceed with caution: people you care deeply for may look like someone you know but have somehow turned into different someones. I felt as if the world was waiting to trip me up and trick me, and that I perpetually needed to be looking over my shoulder to see what was sneaking up behind me and at the same time casting my gaze far ahead to see what might be coming at me next as I tried to escape what was behind me. I wore this pessimism like a cloak. I put it on and hid myself, but it wasn’t really my true nature.

Optimism versus Pessimism

As time has gone on and the urgency of caution has ebbed, as stability has returned to my life, I find myself becoming me again, the one who can see the flip side to the aphorism that things are not always what they seem. I can recognize once again that something that appears to be a normal, everyday thing, or even something potentially threatening, can actually turn out to be an amazing, wonderful thing. I discovered being alone wasn’t lonely, and later, that a random date with a stranger can turn into something unexpectedly perfect. Life can be delightful that way, when expectations are turned upside down and you discover something new.

Still, it has taken me a long time to move from pessimism back to optimism as a general mindset. Initially, it exhausted me to hear people say don’t worry, everything will be okay. I felt like nothing would be okay again, not ever. That way of looking at the world gradually evolved into to a different mindset. Everything might be okay. But only because I am working my hardest to make it that way. And what if I can’t? Things got better, in part, because I made them that way. But that effort built some much needed confidence and a sense of self-reliance. This was another unexpected gift of the ending of one life and the beginning of another, as the divorce year transitioned into a new year, and a new way of being. I began to trust in my ability to work through things, to handle situations I used to fear. Sometimes it’s still hard to tell the difference though, between fatigue and fear. Sometimes you get tired of handling things, but that doesn’t mean you can’t handle them.

I like to believe though, that one of the things that got me through the toughest of times was the awareness that the pessimism was something I could take off and cast aside when I was ready. I wanted to believe in my own positivity and sometimes wanting to believe is enough. It is a bridge that gets you to the next step.

Irrational Hope

In the course of my MFA work I was introduced to the writing of Clarice Lipsector, and I stumbled across this line: “It is possible that even then the theme of my existence was irrational hope.” This stuck with me, and I latched on to that idea of irrational hope, hope that even in the darkest of days, things will get better. Sometimes optimism gets a little suffocated by circumstances, but it is still there waiting for you, and I think this sense of hope is what kept me going, and continues to inspire me in good times and bad.

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It takes a conscious, mindful effort to see things this way at times. It’s easy to put the cloak back on when life gets stressful. It’s so simple to fall back into the trap of pessimism, so simple it seems like a relief. In a way, it’s familiar and safe, even though it’s a dark place to be. Stress—sometimes little, lowercase stress and sometimes all caps STRESS—can yank me back powerfully into a time where I felt like things kept falling apart, the world was out to get me, and I had no control over anything. The comfort in that, the reason it is so easy for anyone to fall into, is that in that space, there is permission to stop trying to make things better. But when stress sinks into me, I consciously remind myself, this is not that; I’m not back where I was, hiding under the cloak. We have to talk ourselves down from the ledge of panic sometimes. It might be only a panicky moment, or maybe we feel ourselves falling back into a habit of anxiety and worry. But then you go for a walk and see a milkweed pod shaped like a bird and it lifts you, it allows you to reprogram your thoughts and emotional responses. It allows you to remember who you really are.

Enjoy the path that you find yourself on today. Love, Cath