On Rituals and Running and Fog

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you need five more minutes.

It’s a school morning and I wake up early to my wind-chime alarm and put the kettle on, grind the coffee beans, add them to the freshly rinsed French press pot. At six, I slip into my son’s room. “Do you want five more minutes?” He grumbles assent. I close the door.

This is a ritual, a habit, but it’s largely unnecessary. He wakes up just fine on his own. At the same time, we measure time differently now that he is a year away from leaving home for college. Less than a year, I remind myself. The days and minutes and seconds tick away in an almost palpable manner during this last school year. So, I respect the ritual.

Do you want five more minutes? Yes, I do.

I pocket this particular heartache and will tap it absentmindedly throughout the day, like a lost tooth I’ve placed close to my heart for safe-keeping.

The kettle whistles, I add a little water to the press pot, wait a minute for the grounds to “bloom,” add the rest of the water, stir, watch the clock for about four minutes, and compress the plunger and pour the first cup of Sumatra. I add a little turbinado sugar and some almond milk. I think of other people, making their coffee, and I think of their rituals, and what we absorb from the people we love. I think of the way we bloom.

After my son’s car rumbles toward school, I slip into my running gear, enjoying the ritual and familiarity of that, too, but I’m unable to stop the voice in my head chiding me that the two miles I’ll run today are nothing compared to what I used to do. Still, I lace up, and head out. It’s mid-September and the air holds both summer and fall in it. It’s humid and cool and I try to pay attention to my form, my knees, my breath. I run down streets I’ve run down for twenty years, knowing that in a year, the streets will be different, the neighborhood unfamiliar. I notice my arms doing that T-Rex thing and I focus on form again.

I see three different women walking their dogs, and I nod to each human and greet the dogs alternately with “Hi, baby,” “Hey, honey,” and “Hello, puppy.” I notice the change in the flowers as I pass by. The magenta zinnias are a bit ragged and a little fallen now, the yellow and burgundy mums in people’s yards look store-bought. Golden dahlias and those urgently pink ones remain vibrant. I finish the two-mile run on a sprint, feeling that it was a pretty good run, even though it wasn’t that fast, or that long. I feel strong, and the morning is lovely.

Sometimes I can’t quite untangle whether I’m running because I ought to, health-wise, or simply because the ritual of it brings me some kind of peace, a bit of enjoying-the-journey satisfaction that is hungry to be noticed amid complaints of too slow, and not far enough.

Sometimes there’s a lot to untangle. We want to move through life in a clear-sighted way, but we have stress and memory and obligation and politics and time and change intruding on vision and joy and love and laughter and dreams.

I’ve been disappointed about my lack of progress with my writing lately and I’ve noted it here, sometimes, feeling a bit exposed, but talking about it anyway, because we all have failures and disappointments and we may as well be honest about it. It’s hard to avoid seeing the parallels between my writing and running. I feel like the effort is there, the consistency, the focus, if not the amount of time I’d prefer to devote. But progress is elusive. I remind myself, as I kick off my shoes, they are different things, running and writing. Also, I’m trying to measure writing progress with publication success and those, too, are different things. Isn’t the progress in the consistency, effort, and perseverance? I remind myself of form, of focus, having learned over the years that being my own cheerleader – or practicing cognitive reconditioning, if you prefer – does pay off.

What we tell ourselves about ourselves matters.

I remind myself too, of those people in my life who love me, and even those who just like me a bit, who have encouraged me in my writing, or otherwise have demonstrated support or kindness when I’ve expressed a need for it, or even when I haven’t. It matters.

dirt road between trees
Photo by Lucas Pezeta on Pexels.com

Sometimes it seems we are running through the same fog we have found ourselves navigating over and over again, a haze comprised largely of absence, or need – for validation, respect, nurturing, who knows, it’s different for everyone – but likely, whatever it is, it’s a void that feels like a thing. It keeps us looking over shoulders, peeking around corners, it keeps us waiting, keeps us up at night, keeps us guarded and uncertain, but in truth, this thing is not a thing at all. If it is a void, it is an empty place, it is no thing at all, and so, let’s call it what is. It’s nothing, which means it doesn’t really have any power. I mean, it could. But we don’t have to let it. We don’t have to give it thing-ness, body, form, shape, substance. We can let it dissolve into nothingness. We can remind ourselves of the solid things that do exist, of what others offer us, of what we offer ourselves.

So maybe let’s be on the journey with open eyes, and run as slowly as we need to, and as far as we want to, and take it all in, the neighbor, the dog, the street, the zinnia and mum and dahlia.

Let’s give ourselves five more minutes.

Let’s enjoy the rituals of coffee-making and running and writing and kissing, and holding hands, and quiet moments next to each other, and creating beautiful things and useful things, and doing the work that gives us joy and tasting toast with homemade jam. Let a void be a void. Let the things we give substance and shape to only be the things we want to hold on to.

Love, Cath

A Restrained Post on Limits and Darlings

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the unsaid thing is the most important part of a conversation.

I wanted to write something eloquent, but it was like falling up the stairs. I’ve been thinking about limits, those we place on ourselves, and why. But I’ve struggled with siphoning the thoughts into something meaningful. I think the friction arose not because there was there was some opposition between what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, but because my thoughts opposed one another, and I was looking for a way to mediate.

As a writer searching for meaning and connection, I want to say all the things. And as me my instinct aches toward openness. Yet I draw the lines, we all do, careful about what we share, and when, and where. People are censured for “oversharing” and at the same time opinions bleed all over social media pages. The messages we give and get are mixed, and loud.

It all makes me restless, so I put some of what I want to say in stories and send them out and wait. It occurs to me, when I think of all the other people writing and submitting and waiting, that we are all doing the same thing. Our heads and hearts are full and aching and so we put it all into our stories. Everyone, writer or not, is trying to do the same thing—looking for an outlet while we try to mind the boundaries the world sets out, and that we establish for ourselves.

The romantic, independent, fierce parts of us scream to be limitless, to not be silenced or subdued. And sometimes we do it, we say it, we scream it, but still. Boundaries serve us, and they often serve us well. In the world of our daily conversations, or the things that pass for conversation on social media, it is difficult to swallow the unsaid things sometimes, especially when it seems that no one else is. Likewise, I’m challenged by stories that have galloped away from me, too many words all wanting to not remain unsaid, all wanting a stake in the end result. Yet some words—mine, yours—don’t actually serve the bigger picture. Writers are told to “kill your darlings,” a quote intending to acknowledge how difficult and necessary it is to eliminate beautiful prose from a work it really isn’t serving.* Maybe this advice isn’t just for the words of writers.

At the same time, I think we’ve forgotten how to listen to one another’s stories, and how to ponder in paragraphs and pages instead of snippets. I love listening to meandering trains of thought but I haven’t heard one in a while. There is a place for darlings, but we have to create it. Please let’s have dinner and let me listen to your words wander.

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Photo by Baptiste Valthier on Pexels.com

This is all to say, boundaries are not the same things as walls. Limits are not about “in” versus “out,” or spoken versus unspoken, or romantic/independent/fierce versus censured/subdued/timid. They are often about civility. They are about time and place. They can make a story better, keep a conversation going instead of shutting it down. They are about knowing your audience. Boundaries shift. We open ourselves up differently to different people, and they to us.

In “Spiritual Laws,” Ralph Waldo Emerson states, “There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.” This is taken out of context, and his meaning was more about the personal nature of our own sense of morality and ethics. Yet, in many circumstances we can be guided by “lowly listening.” We can come closer to knowing the words that need to be written, or excised, the things that need to be said, and when, and to whom. And when it is more fruitful to simply be silent, and listen.

Love, Cath

 

* The original quote is from Arthur Quiller-Couch, and it’s “murder your darlings.” It has often been attributed to William Faulkner and Stephen King, who popularized the phrase and altered it to the catchier “kill your darlings.” I’m a big fan of searching down the original source of quotations, particularly those that become memes. My son periodically hears me yelling at the computer screen, “Hemingway didn’t say that!” My favorite site for quote checking is quoteinvestigator.com, though they didn’t have any info on kill your darlings. But I did find a well-researched piece at slate.com (https://slate.com/culture/2013/10/kill-your-darlings-writing-advice-what-writer-really-said-to-murder-your-babies.html). The Emerson quote I looked up in an actual book (Emerson’s Essays, Harper and Row, 1926).

 

On Wanting, Writing, Sleep, and Geraniums

By Catherine DiMercurio

Usually, a blog post finds me, I don’t have to go looking for it. It’s like a little floaty seed pod, a dandelion fluff, that drifts my way and takes root. But I realized it has been a while since my last post, and nothing had declares itself. I thought about the geraniums I brought in from the porch when the temperature suddenly dipped. Everything was still in bloom, the early week had surprised us with 80-degree temperatures, and then, it was suddenly and consistently going to be below freezing at night. So I brought in eight plants. I rearranged the living room, the dining room, and made places for the terra cotta pots near the windows. I’ve never brought in impatiens before, but they were still blooming, so I will experiment. I’ve watched them for almost a week now, as they begin the expected transition. Leaves yellow and fall away. They get scraggly. I water often as they get used to the indoor temperature that fluctuates only a little. I worry they won’t get enough light.

Compensation

When this house was purchased we didn’t think about the way that porch I loved so much would prevent the light to pour into the living room from the southern-facing windows. I think about trade-offs, about transitions, about the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote about compensation, something about loss and gain, I will look it up later, I tell myself. As always, I seek a metaphor to make meaning, this time in the geraniums.

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Sleep and Not-Sleep

When I suffer from a few weeks of troubled sleep, I recall the cycles of the past. It won’t last, I tell myself. It’s stress, hormone fluctuations, it’s normal, be patient, try this or that. I try. I look for the gain that comes with this loss – I finished a book at 3:30 a.m., I thought some interesting thoughts as I let my mind wander. In the mornings, I talk to my son, always tired, with five classes of AP homework and cross country practice. Our morning conversations always involve how did you sleep. We report out. I tell him I can’t find a metaphor about insomnia, something that will make it matter, make meaning, and he says stop looking. He says the lack of the metaphor is a metaphor. I have to turn this over in my head many times. But I keep looking. There must be something here.

Writing and Wanting

It’s not that I haven’t been writing. While I waited for interesting blog post ideas to find me, and I said things like – I can’t go on road trips to California all the time and have I said all I wanted to say? – I’ve been working on a story. I told myself, when I began, it would probably be a flash piece of under 1,000 words. But as I wrote, it shaped itself into something more and I’m at a place where I decide, is it, in it’s almost-6,000-word current state, a part of something larger, or is a regular-sized short story hiding in there waiting to be found and pruned? I like this place, of possibility and growth and richness. Sometimes I’m sad that my job doesn’t make me feel this way. I wonder, could it? Am I looking at it wrong? And I wonder, should it? Am I being greedy? I have my writing. I have my mothering.

“For every thing you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Compensation”

Greed and Goals and a Little Bit of Luck

It’s hard to say. When I was in high school, it was common for many people not to go to college, and if they did, to not go away to school. My parents didn’t go to college, and not a lot of people in their extended families had either. I didn’t know any college people, but I figured I should. I didn’t know anything about how. I didn’t know about wanting it. I remember my guidance counselor talking to me about where I could go, with my grades. He talked about how it was possible, with financial aid and scholarships. He cracked a door open I hadn’t thought about too much as if to say this is for you, not just other people. He helped me to want something for myself I didn’t know was available for wanting. Sometimes I wonder if I don’t dream big enough but when I do, I wonder, is it being greedy? To want that, too? And I wonder, who cares, but I don’t wonder that often enough.

When I think about how to tie all of this together, I think of the way you can trick geraniums into blossoming all winter. They get confused for a bit, when it’s suddenly about 67 degrees all the time. It’s almost as if they can’t believe their luck, and maybe it’s not real, it probably isn’t, and there goes another leaf, we probably aren’t going to make it. But I’ve been bringing the geraniums in every fall for more than ten years and I’ve only had one not make it.

Maybe it’s greedy, wanting the geraniums to bloom through the winter. It’s probably not that hard, and I’m sure lots of people do this all the time and don’t consider it greedy or a miracle or anything, it’s just what you do with geraniums.

Love, Cath

Walking the Line: Peacefulness versus Purpose

By Catherine DiMercurio

Does self-acceptance threaten our sense of purpose?

Since its inception, this blog has been intended two serve to purposes. I have wanted to share my post-divorce journey, and my corresponding intention to remain open hearted along the way, in the hopes that some reader out there might find a sense of connection, might feel slightly less alone on his or her own journey, post-divorce or as a parent, or simply as a fellow human having similar struggles. My other purpose, the one that operates so quietly in the background I sometimes don’t pay attention to it, has been much more personal. It is about trying to cultivate a sense of peace about where I am on each step of this journey. It’s about acceptance in a way. To be perfectly honest, the idea of self-acceptance scares me a little. If I’m too at peace with where I am now, will my goals evaporate? Will I stop caring about reaching them? It’s a tricky line to walk, and I think intention is at least one of the keys to walking it.

Running is a Metaphor for Everything

My son is a cross country runner. He developed a love of running long before he discovered cross country running as a sport. At his meet this past Saturday, I watched my son, along with hundreds of other people’s sons and daughters, run three miles. It is way more exciting than it may sound. And, as running often does, this meet put a few things in perspective for me.

It was a wonderful morning for a run, cool, in the upper 50s, a welcome break from temperatures in the upper 80s, which the kids have been running in. Perhaps the sun shone a bit brighter than some runners prefer (I like it a little overcast). A light but chilly breeze made us spectators snuggle into our sweaters or windbreakers. The course was quite flat. Everyone one the starting line came with a particular time goal, and I’m sure they all felt the additional pressure that favorable conditions—the flat course, the cool temperature—inspire. All of them wanted to be faster than the meet before, all of them wanted to achieve a PR (personal record). As the gun went off, I knew many of the runners, like all of us who run, would end the race frustrated. Sometimes, even when all the conditions are perfect, and you’ve been putting in all the hard work day after day, you still don’t achieve your goal.

It’s excruciating, when it feels like all the necessary components are present, but things still aren’t adding up. And this is something I relate to, as a fellow runner, as a human in her forties, as a writer. There are plenty of areas in my life where I feel like my efforts are not yielding the results I’m hoping to achieve. How do we find peace with that, but still keep striving to hit the mark we’ve been working toward?

I suspect it comes down to knowing yourself, knowing your heart. Not only do we need to be honest with ourselves about how hard we are working, we have to be willing to give ourselves some credit for what we’ve accomplished, for pushing through when the course isn’t flat, and the conditions aren’t favorable.

Like many of the kids on the course that day, my son did PR. And like many others, that pleased him, but only for a little while. He was faster than he was before, faster than his last race, faster than he’s run in a meet before. But it still isn’t where he wants to be.

Frenzy versus Focus

My personal tendency, if something isn’t falling into place, is to try and find a way to throw more energy at it. I begin to wonder if I can work harder than I thought I could, maybe I can sleep less so I can write or run more, for example. But this frenzied approach begins to feel counterproductive. I wonder if making some peace with where I am, despite not having reached my goals, might help me settle into a mindset where I can take more deliberate, focused action.

Frenzied action can often feel like hard work—after all, we’re expending a lot of energy—but often it produces frustrations that might actually be getting in our way. Think of how easy it is to get agitated while looking for missing car keys. You need to leave, the clock is ticking, but you can’t depart without the keys and the more frustrated you get, the more you are getting in your own way, the more you are not finding what you’ve misplaced. That energy you are frantically expending isn’t doing you any good until you calm down and take deliberate and focused action, such as retracing your steps.

So here we are, walking that line between acceptance and ambition, between where we are and were we want to be, whether it is with a fitness goal, a professional one, a parenting issue, or, how our lives are evolving in the aftermath of the loss of a partner through death or divorce. How do we get to where we want to be? Do we truly know what we want that to look like? And how do we not self-accept ourselves right into a state of complacency?

Here’s the thing: I crave a sense of peacefulness about who I am, and where I am in life, but I also don’t want the flame of urgency around my goals to be extinguished. How does one cultivate both serenity and purposefulness at the same time? I keep coming back to the image of a surging ocean wave; it captures the essence of what I’m after, but I don’t quite know how to emulate it.

photo of sea wave
Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Pexels.com

I wish I had the answer to this conundrum, but as I suggested above, my hunch is that intention is key. Perhaps we begin in a place of respect for our own work ethic. Maybe this is a component of that elusive self-acceptance, perhaps a good starting point. We can acknowledge our good intentions and our determined effort, and not view the lack of expected results as an indication that we’re somehow doing it wrong. Chances are, we are reaping other rewards that are less quantifiable, less obvious. Perhaps, from that solid starting point, we look at our path in a new way. Can we maintain our energy, our work ethic, but make subtle adjustments that gradually help us get to where we want to go, maybe just a little more slowly than we would like?

Perhaps, as in both running and writing, we must pause and assess our technique, our form. Is my stride too long or too short, are my arms pumping, am I focused on breathing efficiently? Am I choosing active verbs, am I falling too often into a passive voice, am I maintaining a meaningful daily habit?

For now, I suppose I’ll attempt to keep surging forward, and once in a while, I’ll look up from my course and make sure the direction I’m headed is still where I want to go. And maybe it’s enough sometimes to be able to recognize others trying to do the same thing.

Love, Cath

 

 

Shifting Gears: On Routines, Resetting, and Rediscovering

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we need to escape the safety net of our routines and go seeking.

For the past several years, I’ve written steadily—mostly daily—writing and revising and rewriting and re-revising my novel, writing short stories and flash fiction pieces, and creating posts for this blog. I’ve been submitting my fiction and hoping something finds a home someplace. I’ll keep pursuing publication for those pieces, and I’ll keep writing. But right now, I’m wondering, is it beneficial to take a little break? Or do I remain committed to my daily writing habit? How do we reset and revive a practice—whether it be running, writing, yoga, or any other behavior we pursue to energize us and keep us healthy and grounded?

I’ll be taking some time off from work for a vacation soon, so it seems like a natural point for some shift to occur. I typically don’t like breaking a routine, particularly one that I’ve worked so hard to build. I’m also the type of person who finds regular routines comforting. Of course, I need breaks, but after some of life’s hard knocks, the predictability of routines feels safe. I think it takes longer for a routine to feel dull to me than a similar routine might make other people feel.

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Photo by Jan Kroon on Pexels.com

The Open-Ended Possibilities of the Road Trip

My children and I will soon be road-tripping across the country, headed to see the redwoods in northern California. Days of travel followed by exploration and camping will be pretty far from the normal structure of my life—wake up, write, work out or run, go to work, come home, spend time with the family, maybe do some light housework or yard work, and sleep. During the school year, the routine gets a little crazier, but with my daughter headed off to college, my son and I will be finding new patterns, and making adjustments as we go along, trying, as they say, to find and establish a “new normal.” There is a lot of transitioning ahead for all of us, so this road trip is welcome, not just for the break it offers from work and routine, but for the opportunity it will provide us to enjoy each other’s company—without the stress of everyday life intruding—and to rediscover each other.

I’ve thought a lot about how I want to handle the disruption this trip will have on my writing practice. One option is to not write at all, to deliberately abstain and allow my experiences to soak in. On the other end of the spectrum is taking my laptop and continuing to write every day, fleshing out new ideas, working on the story that’s in progress, drafting new blog posts. The most likely scenario though is that I’ll take my new notebook. I’ll observe, jot down impressions and observations, journal a little. Nothing too ordered, but a conscious effort to capture what I’m feeling, what I’m seeing. Sometimes, a story will form under these conditions, sometimes a character will come to life, sometimes a few sentences will materialize full formed and become the heart of a new piece of fiction. I might not write every day, but I’ll watch and listen and absorb. My daily habit will be one of conscious noticing.

In Search Of . . .

Another aim I have for this trip, and one that will hopefully be aided by this conscious noticing, is to seek something that I’ve been missing: lightheartedness. Though I’ve always been a contemplative, sensitive, and serious person, I feel as though lightheartedness was not something that was merely accessible to me, but rather it was a part of me. It was simply there, within me, a characteristic of each heartbeat. My experiences of the past several years, it seems, have altered that part of me, have anchored me to something heavy and sore. And it’s time to shift gears, to cut myself loose from that weight.

I have had lighthearted moments, sometimes weeks and months in the past several years where it felt like something had been lifted. But there was something different about this fleeting lightheartedness compared to my previous way-of-being lightheartedness, sort of like the difference in density between store-bought, prepackaged cotton candy and the gauzy, spun-right-in-front-of-you, summer fair cotton candy.

“The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” — J. D. Salinger

Something about these differences reminds me of that line from a J. D. Salinger story (it is “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” in Nine Stories, if you are curious): “The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” Maybe the transitory, fleeting lightheartedness I periodically experienced was joy—moments of joy that washed away. But I don’t think the solid-state happiness Salinger references and the way-of-being lightheartedness I’m seeking are the same thing. And I’m certainly not the type of person who expects to be happy all the time. I do, however, long for the type of lightheartedness that once inhabited me in a very real, solid way to once again take up permanent residence in my heart.

So, I’ll be away for a bit from these Chronicles, seeking, and noticing. But when I return I hope to have fresh insights and perspectives and stories to share with you.

Enjoy the road. I will be! Love, Cath

Labors of Love

By Catherine DiMercurio

I’ve been away for a bit, working on novel revisions and searching for places to submit my manuscript. The phrase “labor of love” comes to mind, and “labor” surfaces for me in the context of both birthing and work. Writers often speak of their work in this way, as if the piece they have written is offspring, a living, breathing thing that they have given birth and breath to, nurtured from a tiny kernel of an idea into maturity. It is easy to do, even as a parent of an actual living, breathing thing that I have nurtured from a tiny kernel of an idea (“let’s have a baby!”) into maturity, maturity as in, she has turned eighteen and is about to graduate from high school, about to leave this home and make a new one. These various notions of labor, and the fruit it bears, are joined right now in my mind.

Confluence and Connotation

Because of this intertwining, the coming together of my emotions about my daughter graduating at the same time I was nurturing into maturity the novel, early drafts of this post centered on the notion of confluence. I was specifically thinking about the way emotionally weighted or significant things seem to happen at the same time in our lives. I considered the way sorrows pool, floods of grief crash together, or odd jumbles of joy seem to happen all at once and you wonder when is it going to all fall apart because life has taught you that it often does. But something about this felt off to me and I spent some time thinking about “confluence.” Though it originally entered into my brain in terms of the way things come together, I hadn’t really been thinking of the geographic imagery and understanding of the word. The most common usage focuses on the flowing together of two or more bodies of water at a certain point to form a single channel. I realized I had the right word but had originally latched on to the wrong connotation.

So now I am thinking about the power of confluence, the force of these two strong rivers flowing together. Sometimes you can see it happening, this coming together of powerful things in your life, but you don’t know what to do about it. You sense the importance but haven’t yet found a way to inhabit it. I see myself with my hand outstretched. I’m reaching for the next part, my next part (in terms of writing and also, whatever else life becomes after my home no longer includes my children living in it). At the same time, I’m holding on ferociously to those two children, wanting to keep them with me, safe and sound (the illusion being that I have the power to protect them), and wanting also to be strong enough to open my arms and let them go. And they, too, are both holding on and reaching forward. I wonder sometimes if the best thing to do is enter the current and see where it takes me, because I can’t yet see how I can harness the power of the emotions that this transition, this confluence, is churning up, and I also feel that I can’t hold on at the shore much longer, the current is already sweeping us up in these changes and inevitably we will be swept up and away and forward.

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Photo by NMQ on Pexels.com

I wonder, too, how do I keep myself as a safe place on the shore when they need refuge from the churn of their own lives as they get older? How do I maintain that space and at the same time see where life takes me?

Mistake Making

In a way, this post is about mistakes and false starts, as I try to harness language, sometimes the wrong language, sometimes the right language in the wrong way, to convey the bewildering array of emotions and thoughts that gather around me and inhabit me in the midst of this transition. Metaphor feels like the only tool to make sense of it all but it merely hints at the real, attempts to show with linguistic equations how the heart and mind heave and ache and reach in currents of memories, fears, joys, wishes.

But life is mistakes and false starts. It is memory and wish, it’s reaching back and vaulting forward, storm and sanctuary, river and shore, and maybe all I’m trying to do here is tell my daughter as she graduates and prepares for the next phase in her life, that life will be this way. Life might be a clear day after the rain or it might be the rain but no matter what it is, no matter what metaphors are used to make sense of it, the safe place I’ve built for her is always there, in every memory made together, every penny-tossed fountain wish she and I have cast, side by side. We’ve built it already and it isn’t going anywhere.

Wishing you safety in storms, laughter in rain, and the wisdom to appreciate the sun on your face every time the clouds part.

Love, Cath

 

Failure, Rejection, and the Road to Nowhere

by Catherine DiMercurio

This is the blog post I keep running away from. The reason? I can’t find perspective. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about it, what insights to draw from it, because, to be candid, my writing life is filled with frequent rejections and persistent failure. My relationship with my writing is messy in a way that I learn to live with every day but don’t fully comprehend.

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I have written since I was about ten, when I began composing angsty tween poems, before being a “tween” was a thing. You were just ten, or eleven, or twelve. Then you were a teenager.

I often say that I love writing, which is true, but as with most loves, there exists a complex array of emotions for which the word is merely a cipher. The things we truly love cannot be separated from who we are.

Trying to Avoid the Pull of the Road

This identity-centric love happens to be a thing that many people have been able to monetize. Many people have found channels with which to share their work with others. It becomes expected that if you write, you do something with it. When I began my freshman year at U of M, I was interested in genetics. After I took my first science class though, and received the first C I’d ever gotten in my life, I wondered if maybe there were other career paths more suited to my strengths. I didn’t know what those were, however. I knew I liked to read, and I liked to write, but the whole point of college was to prepare myself for an actual job and I knew I didn’t want to teach. I’m sure if I’d had a little more confidence in myself I could have successfully pursued the career in genetic counseling I thought I wanted. Later, I would get a C in a poetry class and it didn’t slow me down one bit. In the end though, I sat with an advisor in a little room in Angell Hall. It was time to declare a major. He did the best he could with one more unfocused liberal arts student and told me I should do what I loved, because that was the most important thing, and things would fall into place. I’m still not sure if this advice was sound, but the idea was reinforced throughout the years after I graduated. I feel like for a decade or so the message many Gen Xers received, a message amplified by talk show hosts and self-help books, was do what you love.

Embracing the Longest Road Trip Ever

I declared as an English major that day. Still, I was afraid to take a creative writing class. I focused on literature, and I loved writing about it. A friend pointed me to a creative nonfiction class my senior year, and I was so engaged by it, I began seeking out the professor at her office hours to talk about writing. She encouraged me to write a story and submit it for the Hopwood award, a prestigious writing award at the University of Michigan. I did write. I did submit. I did not win. But the act of writing that story was a beginning for me. Something in me unlocked.

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After graduation, I landed a job as an assistant editor with a reference publishing company, hoping for two things: one, that the job would allow me time to keep writing, and two, that maybe it could lead to some publishing connections.

In a way, though it would take many years, it did both. I was only able to finish a novel after I left the company. I began freelancing, and with the power to structure my schedule differently, I was finally able to focus the way I wanted to. I wrote a novel and sent out dozens of query letters. The rejections piled up and the message I internalized was that the work simply wasn’t good enough. Perhaps all I needed to do was send out hundreds instead of dozens of letters. Perhaps I needed to get better. Later, still freelancing, and now raising two children, I tried again with another novel, and sent out query after query. The company I freelanced for had purchased a fiction imprint, and I was able to acquire the name of an actual person at the imprint to whom I could submit my query. Amazing Disgrace came out in 2006. The print run was small, but my foot was now in the door. I’d even contacted my former professor, who was still teaching. She came to one of my book signings and invited me to her class to speak. I couldn’t believe it; I finally had some momentum.

That momentum slowed and dissipated, a little ripple dying in the wet sand at the water’s edge. I wrote another novel. I revised that third novel over and over again and kept sending it out. Eventually I put it aside and focused on my freelance work, which now involved a lot of writing. Writing about literature. I was good at it, and I had a lot of jobs coming in. But, the work started to dwindle. At the same time, my marriage began to unravel. In the middle of it all, I applied to some MFA programs, thinking that maybe the reason I wasn’t getting published was because I needed to learn how to write better. It was a victory to be accepted into the Vermont College of Fine Arts creative writing MFA program. I felt like I belonged. I even did a post-grad semester so I could continue to work on my next novel.

When Things Don’t Add Up

All of the writing, the submitting, the rejections—each act is a lesson in vulnerability, in open heartedness, in loving the work rather than the reward. It would be a lie to say that the rejections don’t break my heart. They do. I imagine myself as a starfish, able to regenerate the necessary body parts to keep functioning. For the starfish, limbs; for me, my heart.

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Here I am now, two years post-MFA. I’m working full-time again at the same reference publishing company, squeezing in my writing time in the hours before or after work. In a way, I’m back to where I started. Currently, I have two short stories I’m submitting at various literary journals. They are getting rejected. But many of the rejection letters are detailed, positive notes that praise the work. I feel like I’m close, that soon maybe I’ll find the right person at the right time at the right journal. I also have several queries out for what is technically my fourth novel, and I’ve begun work on a new short story.

I wonder every day if the work is good enough, and if I’m trying hard enough. I’ve failed a lot and have seen so few successes. I lose sleep so I can write. I’ll be paying back student loans for the MFA for a long, long time. I have asked myself if it is worth it and all I know is that it doesn’t seem to matter. Converting the experience into tangible value in order to deem it a sound investment is like saying 2 + circle = purple. It doesn’t add up. I seem to be on a road that meanders in no discernable direction, and I’ve paid to be on it. So where do I go from here? Maybe onward is the only answer.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath