On Truces and Getting Back to True

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes life feels like a strange kind of algebra.

“Truce?” I say. I say this to myself one morning as I fill the kettle. Moments before, I had been staring into the bathroom mirror, questioning my decision to let my hair do as it likes, which is grow unruly streaks of silver. I also tried out different expressions, ones that tried to let my face look more like I remember. Big smile. No smile. Head tilted this way, that way. I gave up, made the coffee, begged myself for some peace.

I am knocking around in this unfamiliar place, in this almost-fifty-one year-old structure, which houses a self that often feels like it doesn’t belong to these bones. But I realized that morning, as I waved my white flag, that this was about more than physical aging. I was doing calculations, I was adding up what could be counted as victories in recent years, subtracting the things that feel like failures, taking into account the variables.

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There is the feeling I had in my algebra class long ago. I’d done the torturous calculations and felt uncertain but hopeful about my answer, and then checked the back of the book and realized that no, my answer wasn’t right after all. “I hate this,” I’d say. I even had the moxie to say it to my algebra teacher once. He was encouraging me to keep pursuing advanced mathematics courses, in high school, and later, in college. “No, you don’t,” he told me. “You can’t be this good at something and hate it.” It didn’t make sense to me. I was getting an A in the class, but it didn’t feel as if I was good at it. I was good at my English classes, and I knew I was good, because not only was I getting an A, but those classes were easy for me. And even when they weren’t easy, the hard work felt . . . right. I somehow knew I had the tools I needed to succeed. But algebra, physics, geometry, trigonometry – these were all different. I couldn’t be good at something that remained confusing even when the correct answer was achieved.

So, when I look at my life now, approaching another birthday, single again, physical appearance shifting, still reaching toward goals that aren’t being achieved at the pace I’d hoped, I feel at times that I’m at war with myself. There is a new clarity here, now, in writing that sentence, in voicing it aloud. Often, it feels as though I must be doing it incorrectly. Living. Aging. Being. Working. Right answers are supposed to feel certain, true. And even if you must work hard to get them, that work is supposed to make sense. When it doesn’t, everything feels like algebra.  

I wonder sometimes if I should write such things down and share them. But I have to believe, if we are being honest with ourselves, that everyone feels like this at various points in their life. And if we can be honest with ourselves, then we can be honest with each other, which allows us to communicate with one another in the same language. We can connect more truly and deeply with one another. And why else are we bumping around here on this rock floating in space, if not to try and understand each other?

Often, for me, when one element of my life has been thrown askew, everything seems off. I recently purchased a new bike and had been reading about the differences between disc brakes and rim brakes. I came across the phrase, “out of true.” As in, what happens with the braking when the wheel is out of true. The recent ending of my relationship surely has thrown my heart out of true, and I’m feeling the need to fine-tune the way I look at my whole self.

One thing that has helped this process has been reconnecting myself to a writing community, via a workshop I’ve recently become a part of. We met for the first time, over Zoom, and afterward, though we haven’t even shared any writing yet, I breathed deeply for the first time in weeks. I had a tremendous sense of relief that something was making sense once again. And lots of other feelings began to settle down. It is as if writing – and not only me writing alone in this room, but the act of cultivating my writing and my writing life and my writing friendships – is one of the tools I can use to fine tune everything that feels out of true.

As I’ve written in previous posts, writing is the surest, truest path for me to get back to me. We all have our own paths. What are yours? Do you think about them? What do you do, when you feel out of true?

Writing though, as magic as it is, isn’t a panacea. This feeling of being at war with myself calms when I’m exploring and discovering and creating with my writing, or when I’m focused on other things like gardening, but the work of peace-making with myself is complex. Writing can help me work through what needs to be considered and evaluated and re-conceptualized, but I suspect the process will be long, gradual, painful, and largely algebraic. It is a consideration of variables, of working with unknown values, of getting it wrong and then starting again. I have just realized, in writing that sentence, that writing involves the same things: variables, unknown values, failures, new attempts. Maybe this is how the war ends. Maybe reconciliation with self is simply the realization that things are as they are, that they take the work and the time and the patience and the love that they do. That realities don’t change. Whether I’m in algebra or English class, the problems are quite similar, and hard work is hard.

Maybe the trick is knowing which perspectives to shift into depending on what is going on in our lives at any particular time, just the way we shift gears to adapt to changes in the terrain beneath our wheels.

Here’s to getting back to true.

Love, Cath

On Want, Work, and Growth

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we will try many ways of looking before we can see.

Sometimes when we want something very badly, we will look at it from every angle, multiple times, even creating angles that are not there. Hope can do that – create prisms out of thin air. Shiny things that distract our minds and hearts from difficult truths. But at some point, the blinding brightness of the light is muted by a cloud – of anger, of fear, of sadness – and we are able to see things with a new clarity, and then, to move in the direction we need to go.

I told my sister recently that I’ve been gardening as if my life depended on it, and I wondered if it really did, in a way. Not the fact of my life itself, but the way I want it to unfold. I told her that when there is so much to do, you can hardly even tell I’ve done anything. A lot of the hard work we do can be like that. We wonder and worry about how our efforts will be perceived, though we know how we’ve endeavored.

When we say we want something “very badly” we mean this: we want it very much. Sometimes we are told that what we want is a bad thing to want. It is silly, it is pointless, it is too much, it is ill-defined, you won’t get it, the world doesn’t work that way, who do you think you are, to want such a thing? No one gets what they want. As if wanting the right thing for ourselves and our future is somehow the wrong thing to do. I suppose sometimes it is. I suppose, in some philosophies, the teaching is to eliminate wants, the way some people eliminate carbs. They are bad for us. Maybe that’s true. Or maybe we are all wired differently. Sometimes we simply must respect the differences.

We offer trellises to vines, thinking of future growth. There is planting and wanting and planning everywhere. There is growth in new directions. We are many things at once: the vine, the trellis, and the gardener who plants the vine and places the trellis. We are who we’ve been and who we want to be, as much as we are who we are in this moment. Multitudes, always.

My gardening has involved creating beds and pathways out of an overgrown, weedy, neglected area behind my garage. It was long abandoned when I arrived in this place, about a year ago, and for many reasons, I was not able to make it a top priority. Now, with more time available and some fraught and frenetic energy on hand, I got to it. Digging, planting, creating. It isn’t finished. Like everything good, it is a work-in-progress, something to always tend.

We need the work and the work needs us.

I planted a little baby of an Eastern white pine. I’d been longing to plant a pine tree for a while. I researched them. Realized many of the specimens I thought were pine trees were really spruces. Things often reveal themselves to be something other than what you thought they were.

I looked for trees months ago, but it was too early and none of the gardening or landscape stores had them yet. Then I looked too late, I thought, because I still was not finding what I was looking for. But yesterday, I found the white pine. I greeted this creature, as if knowing it already. There you are, hiding here in the back at this store I never come to. So, there’s hope I guess, buried in gardening metaphors, about timing and finding, maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard to see clearly sometimes. Remember?

My current state of mind is work- and growth-focused. Writing and gardening. Dig, prune. Wait for rain. Be patient. Blossom? Maybe. Sometimes it works out that way.

Love, Cath

On Dreams, and the Shape of Things

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the true shape of our dreams is not yet known.

Recently, I was asked to take a self-assessment for a professional development workshop. The questions were different than other personality assessments I’ve taken in the past, but the results were similar. Familiar descriptors floated to the surface: introspective, intuitive, creative, nurturing, etc. And I thought, I’ve known all this since before I had words to name these characteristics.

Some things have never been a mystery, not to me, about me.

The mystery lies elsewhere, as our known selves try to find ways to acclimate to the different environments in which they find themselves – to different homes, neighborhoods, jobs, relationships. All those always characteristics adapt into various ways of being, and we come to believe that those behaviors, those ways of expressing ourselves, are the same thing as self. But BEing and ways of being are distinct. At times, they are a close mirror of each other, and it feels as if everything is falling into its place. Then, we find a way to be in our current existence in a manner that is in near-perfect harmony with the self we have always known.

Some mornings, when it is quite early and I want to listen to the quiet in my brain, I warm up what is left of yesterday’s coffee and sit in the half-light of the living room. When there isn’t much coffee left, I add a generous pour of oat milk. It reminds me of the coffee that my mother permitted me to have as child. More milk than coffee, with a little sugar, it is not grownup coffee, and it lets my thoughts be childlike in their wanderings, without a need for order or progress. I remember that younger me having a distinct awareness of a blurriness of self, as if I knew that my consciousness resided in this body and in this existence, but could tell itself apart. I remember a particular moment, sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, looking out the window at the trees blurring past in the sunlight, telling myself I am me, I am me. I remember discomfort, as if it took some effort to hold within me an understanding of both unity and fracture. The depth of my love for this little thinker, my desire to protect her and that inner world, has never dissipated. When I say that my writing stems from a desire for connection, I do not mean only with others. I mean with myself, including that little girl contemplating matters for which she had no name.

Sometimes, when I’m mulling a tough problem and stumbling up against the self questions that cartwheel in front of me these days, I think of what the people who have known me the longest would say, and then I think of what the people who have only known me since my divorce would say. They are often very different things, which is unsurprising, but which does not help when I’m seeking the through-line. I sense instinctively that there is a truth that I can uncover, as if there is a way in which everything aligns.

We are told to be true to ourselves, but do we know what that means?

When I look at my childhood self I wonder if she is an accurate gauge by which to consider my own current authenticity. Does that put too much pressure on the past, on fallible memory, on a self that, because she is comprised of memories, is more myth than truth?

Our lives are fragmented. We move in between worlds, perpetually navigating different situations and environments and recalibrating ourselves as needed. It is easy to feel as though our understanding of self gets lost along the way. We too quickly become who we are seen as, rather than who we’ve always been.

Recently I have looked at my old watercolor paintings with a fresh eye. I’ve hung up some of my first attempts at apples, completed during a class at a community college when my daughter was a baby, and have judged them far less harshly than I once did. I’m not saying they are good. I’m saying that when I look at them, I feel a connection to the experience of being an anonymous and aspiring artist in a classroom full of unknown people. I barely remember the professor, and I certainly don’t remember any classmates. But I recall the feeling of being there and trying. And I see all my curiosity and earnestness in those paintings.

And curiosity and earnestness feel like links to the little girl in the back of the car contemplating her existence.

I think of how many times those words, curiosity and earnestness, have made an appearance in previous blogs. Those concepts catch with me, like the little burrs that stick to your socks when you hike through a field. I think, this is how I want to be. These qualities underpin one of the refrains that chorused through our household when my children were growing up: try your best. Among other things, it is about being open to learning, and being willing to work hard.

Perhaps this comes with a little too much pressure, pressure that I put that on myself. Often, I’m frustrated when the results do not seem to match the effort. I wonder – was that my best? Did I work hard enough? Did I not learn well? I am trying to be more process-oriented, and less results-oriented, but it is not an easy shift, and perhaps, it is not a necessary one. Perhaps working toward a specific result – a better apple, a published story – is a good and motivating thing for me, and maybe all I need to work on is not being overly discouraged by imperfect watercolor fruit and rejected fiction.

However, I wonder if all goals or dreams are well-served by this approach. Maybe some things won’t look the way we always wanted them to, and maybe that’s a wonderful thing. Pursuing a goal that we are only looking at from one angle may result in us giving up on the goal instead of swapping one perspective for another. Some dreams are more complex than we realize and have many facets; maybe when we focus on a singular component, we can’t truly understand the value of the whole.

There was a book I used to read to my children: The Important Book, by Margaret Wise Brown. Here’s an example of the way this book works:

“The important thing about an apple is that it is round. It is red. You bite it, and it is white inside, and the juice splashes in your face, and it tastes like an apple, and it falls off a tree. But the important thing about an apple is that it is round.”

Sometimes we need to clarify for ourselves what the important part about a particular goal or dream truly is. Possibly, and without knowing it, we do harm to our ability to achieve the dream because instead of focusing on the important part we are expending energy on something we mistakenly believe is the important part. Sometimes, we don’t want precisely what we think we want. When we try to know our own hearts, we have to look well beneath the surface. Our true dreams are often obscured, layered over by years of doubt, history, pain – our own, and that of other people, who, though well-meaning, might weigh in on how our own dreams should look and feel to us. It is no wonder we are often plagued by thoughts of, and fears about, loss and lost-ness. Others might try and tell us what should be important to us, and that can nudge us off course. Do you think the most important thing about an apple is that it is round? I do not. But who am I to say what should be important to someone else?

There is no getting around the fact that the process of making our own hearts known to us takes time, and careful examination. This is true for any dream, wish, or goal that we have for ourselves, whether it is concerned with our personal relationships, or our pursuit of our art, or our work, or something else entirely. I do not know the way to reveal that which I cannot yet see, though I’m certain that I must keep exploring my heart and all its sedimentary layers. This discovery process will involve more ambiguity than I am comfortable with, and that is a reality I reckon with daily.

As an example of all this, I can give you a peek into one of my dreams. My writing dream has always involved publication. Yet, I am beginning to explore the idea that instead of this being the most important facet of this dream, it is but one part of a writing life, which is perhaps more what I’m truly after. In truth, I’m not exactly sure what that means, nor am I certain of the path I need to take to get there. For now, I’m focusing more on what I need to say, and how best to say it. In the coming months, I will be immersing myself in a couple of workshop experiences with other writers, led by artists and mentors I trust. The time feels right for this approach, though the work will be challenging.

This is but one of the dreams I’m searching out the true shape of. Everyone has some. We carry pockets full of stones gathered from lakebeds and we don’t know why. We wish for the unknown to reveal itself. We throw pennies into fountains, wishing, wishing.

On the night of the lunar eclipse, I dreamed I was mending an unknown world with pink thread.

Dream on, friends.

Love, Cath

On Throat-Clearing, Self, and Voice

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we can almost find the melody.

I put a lot of effort into trying to make sense of things that don’t. In my writing, it feels like the practice of untangling knots that can’t be untied, though each story takes a fresh try at undoing. My brain attacks most present worries in the same way.

When I sit still, I sometimes feel both restless and exhausted. This state is a product of many things – pandemic year, new and old anxieties, writing frustrations, aging realities, leaving and moving and settling in.

In my writing, I begin to wonder about voice – what manner of expressing myself is unique to me, my fingerprint of creative expression. And voice, as in, mine, in this world. Lately I have revisited half-begun stories and can’t take them anywhere. I think of a top spinning at the end of its movement, the wobbly tilt and hobble where I find my creative practice these days. Tops get spun again; I don’t worry that I’m done, but wonder where to go from here, and how.

In a way, it feels as though this year of largely staying in place has been one of incubation. During this time, I focused on trying to make my new house feel like mine. I thought a lot about home. I also began to reckon more consciously and deliberately with the notion of aging. I periodically take photos of myself that I show to no one to document the progress of the incoming greys, and to acclimatize myself to the changing terrain of my face.  We have kept ourselves as hidden as possible from the hidden virus, and I have grown tired of hiding myself from myself. But I often don’t recognize me.

I heard somewhere recently that resilience is never losing your enthusiasm in the face of failure. This made me feel angry and a bit deflated, because I want to think of myself as resilient, but I always feel enthusiasm flag when faced with failure. I would counter that resiliency is never losing hope in the face of failure. You can feel defeated, but at the same time you keep fighting for what’s important to you. Enthusiasm feels like a bit too much pressure sometimes. Then again, it is possible that I am not actually resilient. But I am good at hope.

As I’ve noted before in this space, Clarice Lipsector wrote “It is also possible that even then the theme of my existence was irrational hope.” We all have themes, not only as artists but as humans, patterns we observe in our lives, values we attempt to adhere to, wishes we twirl around our hearts. Maybe none of us could extricate ourselves from the themes of our existence if we tried. Some things are as they are. I will find love stories everywhere. I will write them. I will be hopeful about everything and everyone I love. I wonder if all hope is irrational.

Everything I have ever written has turned into a love story. Love, loss, seeking, finding – these are the structural frameworks of most everything I compose. I wonder sometimes, when I feel defeated, and the rejections land solemnly in my in-box, if all I can build are dollhouses, while better writers are busy building cities, universes. But then I think that maybe the world needs dollhouses too. We all need different entry points into the art we interact with. Maybe someone is just waiting for the right-sized door. Maybe it’s all that Alice in Wonderland game of feeling too big or too small to get to where we want to go. But eventually, we find a way to connect.

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The themes we don’t stray from are, in a way, one path toward maintaining our connection with ourselves. I have a novel manuscript that has undergone more permutations than I care to number. I have left it unsubmitted for a long time and had nearly decided to abandon all hope (and enthusiasm).  But, I have dedicated myself to one more overhaul, and I’m now working with a trusted writer who is helping me take a fresh look at it. I feel hopeful once again, but daunted. Possibly I am not now, nor ever was, up to the task of doing what so many novelists do so well, which is, to do everything well – plot, character, pace, language, theme, subtext, and so on. Everything must be precisely fine-tuned for the work to sing. Currently there is a lack of harmony, there is a lot of out-of-tune warbling, and a fair amount of throat clearing. Sometimes I think the melody’s there though.

I listen for melody too in the world outside my door, but I’m finding it clunky to emerge from this pandemic isolation, as we receive our vaccinations and make plans once again. I see other vaccinated folk pursuing “normalcy” as if they hear a tune and feel compelled to follow it. I can almost hear it. And there are people I’m so looking forward to spending non-masked time with. I can’t wait to spend more than a few odd hours with my daughter, and to see her whole wonderful face the whole time. Yet, in general, I feel both excited and enormously anxious about jumping back into the world at large. Maybe I’m feeling as though I’m still incubating. As with many things, we grow when we learn to be empathetic with regard to the timetables of the people around us.  

When I think of empathy and growth, I think of the way growth often doesn’t always look like growth – it looks like incubation, it looks like cocooned pupae. And when I think of empathy, I remember that I often forget to have it for myself.

This weekend I did a little hiking. It felt good to be in the woods. My son took a picture of me at my request and I’ve looked at it many times since, trying to see what I wanted to see there. A recognizable person. She seemed familiar, me and not-me at the same time, but the setting seemed right and that helped. I don’t know why it feels so difficult so often to know and be at peace with myself. Maybe this year too much happened and too much didn’t happen, and it changed me more than I am consciously aware. Maybe the image in the photo is a reflection of reality and it is my ability to see it truly that has been altered by time and experience. Perhaps how we see changes more than what we see, and how we hear melodies differently from one another explains so many things. This is all the more reason for us to cultivate empathy toward one another and to build our reserves of resiliency and irrational hope, as we attempt to both listen and sing in this world.

Love, Cath

On Art, Home, and Haziness

By Catherine DiMercurio

A friend and I recently were writing to one another about why we write. That conversation yielded for me an understanding that why is a question awkwardly affixed to the relationship I have with writing, which is more akin to the relationship I have with my skin than anything else. In a broad sense, it is something I have, something I need, something that protects me.

On a practical level, yes, writing is also something I do. Sometimes it is an act of artistic creation and sometimes it is an involuntary function that happens automatically and silently, the way my brain tells my lungs to breathe. Things are unfolding all the time in my mind and I wish I could somehow capture more of it. Sometimes writing is my only hope for effectively communicating my heart to the world, (or to the more individual and larger universe of me and you).

Sometimes writing is a job and sometimes it is a wish, but it is always skin.

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years, weeks, days, minutes, always, trying to pinpoint such facets of my identity throughout the changing circumstances of my life. This intense scrutiny was kickstarted by my divorce, though I had long been focused on issues of identity in my writing, always trying to figure out if we become more of who we are as we age, or less.

As I enter my first spring in this new place, I sat down recently with my coffee and felt myself settling in, to here, to now, to me. And I thought, maybe I’ve been asking the wrong questions about identity and self-awareness. Maybe the most direct route to understanding who am now is this: what makes me feel at home within my own skin, no matter where I am?

The first thing I thought of was the coffee I was drinking, as I sat on my new-ish IKEA sofa in this still-new-to-me home. I then pictured myself at my boyfriend’s place, still new-ish to him. It is a curious thing: you find yourself in a life where none of the places in which you find yourself are ones in which you have much history. So where is home, then, except housed within us, and created anew, sitting next to this person who seems able to keep making space for you, and you for him. You put out the welcome mats for one another, sweeping them off or airing them out if there is ever difficult weather.

Photo by Nathan J Hilton on Pexels.com

It is a marvelous but strange thing to be aware of your own history-making. To contemplate the ways in which home and history are related, but not in the ways you once thought. I recommend keeping an eye out for it, for the art you are making of self, seemingly out of thin air, or from webby gossamer strands, every day.

As I walked around the yard with the dogs one morning, it smelled like summer. Recent rain on thirsty dirt, a damp promise of heat panting in the air. I thought of drinking camping coffee, sitting with the kids in the morning, outside the tent, feeling cozy. The memories collaged in my brain, out of order, but collective. This too is history and home and self. It remains, clean and bright and clear, even in the aftermath of events that left much of the past feeling sooty and smudged.

It may seem strange to utilize list-making and note-taking as paths to self-discovery. Such a process lacks the romance of the quintessential road trip motif. However, sometimes things don’t work that way. It is less a fun, crazy journey and more paying attention and hard work. Mostly, I crave simplicity. I want to create obvious paths to certain self-knowledge, so that I can quickly run toward what I know and like about myself. So I can gallop toward safety, when I’m feeling anxious, or filled with self-doubt, or self-criticism. It is so easy for the negative to overtake us sometimes. We need to have our escape routes planned. Sometimes you have to sit down with yourself and go through the checklist, the way in elementary school we had to ask our parents what the escape plan was if the house were on fire. You have to tell yourself, when dark thoughts begin to suck you in, that there are the paths back to yourself, that you know the way. It is too easy to get lost in the thick haze and smoke of anxiety, depression, fear, or grief.

I feel as though I’m often vacillating between extremes – between being overly candid or completely withdrawn, between whole-hearted enthusiasm and active detachment. I wonder how people find middle ground. I speculate that there is a place thought of as “normal” and most of us hover around the edges, not seeing each other, and the imaginary normal place is teeming with a healthy population of individuals that can communicate with one another with ease and confidence. But in reality, most of us fumble, we hurt and get hurt, we regroup, we take deep breaths and fall silent. We clear our throats, and our eyes, try to speak and see, and be seen once more. Sometimes we manage to get it right, to find a safe, strong hand in the haze, and so we practice the art of holding on to one another.

Love, Cath

On Multitudes and Surprise

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we have to listen to our multitudes, and each other’s.

Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself, “I am large, I contain multitudes” and I think of the crowd of people in my head and I nod at Whitman in solidarity. Yes, us too, I answer, for me and everyone clamoring. My body is a mouthpiece. The disparate voices wait for their turn to speak. In moments of synthesis, I think about I instead of we, but it isn’t always that way. Sometimes we don’t have a leader making sense of it all for us; sometimes we see each other clearly. It would be easy to call them facets of our persona, but at times they seem whole; they seem to have a mind of their own, and they have things they’d like to say.  

Sometimes I think about all the misshapen pears and moths I paint and how I despair over the forms I can’t get right. But maybe my hand with a mind of its own is getting this part right: in each asymmetrical moth wing, or that poorly postured pear, whose twisted shape is the result of growing in uneven sun, we see reflections of ourselves.

Sometimes I write we and I intend it to refer to a collective of individuals reading what I’ve written. I project outward; I imagine everyone else working hard to make sense of the world. Sometimes I write we and I feel as if the crowd in my head is cheering for the recognition. We contain multitudes.

This past weekend, my love and I found ourselves taking a bit of a work-related road trip. The beautiful thing about long drives with someone you love is that you and the multitudes in your head get to have unbroken stretches of time with him and his multitudes. I don’t know if that sounds strange or not, I don’t know how other people see themselves and the people close to them, but for me, opening into this truth of our mutual complexities is at once an act of love and an act of self-love. I cherish times like these, and I am in awe of the way being with him opens up pathways not only to know him better, but to know myself better.

I’ve been thinking about these multitudes a lot lately. Many blogs ago I talked about how I needed to listen to the other stories and voices within me, in terms of my writing. I think all writing is personal, and I think it is impossible to avoid privileging the I within us that synthesizes the multitude of voices clamoring to be heard. This morning I walked the dog after sleeping an unbelievable nine hours. I tried to shake off sluggishness and dream fragments as we trotted through the pale morning, looking for downed branches from yesterday’s windstorm. I was surprised by how few branches the sycamores had dropped. My dog was surprised by the break in our routine – morning walks are not the way we usually do things. My legs were surprised by the sudden brisk and sustained movement. I began to realize that surprise was what some of my recent writing was missing. There are voices in the crowd I haven’t listened much to, voices that long to be heard. And going into the dark winter months with a new perspective on my writing feels good. It is time to listen to the other voices and write new stories.

Maybe that’s what we all need a little bit of at this time of year. A nudge to listen to what is latent and waiting within us, new ways of thinking that have nothing to do with the disciplined focus we’ve sustained on current events. I get lost in my own head a lot. Many people do. Sometimes you have to get out of your head a bit, but sometimes, as long as you’re in there, maybe just wander around a bit. Listen for the quieter thoughts and let them lead you, rather than stomping down the well-worn paths of the usual anxieties. Sometimes it is difficult to feel creative and new in the cold dark months. It is easy to slip into a sort of mental hibernation as we fatigue sooner in the day with the early setting of the sun.

I know that I’m prone to romanticizing. My heart was built this way. But I can’t help thinking of those few hundred miles with my love at my side, and how the simple slipping away of the road beneath us, the cadence of it, underscored the easy rhythm of our interaction. How the surprise of the road trip, a somewhat unexpected turn in our Saturday morning, was something our mutual multitudes seemed to delight in.

In these short dark days, when so many of us fall helplessly into a slow sadness that is not easily eased, I’m pointing myself toward surprise, both in my creative work and in my life. My morning walk today helped propel me from the molasses-y state I woke into, and I know it will take work to keep finding ways to unstick myself as the dark cold months wear on. I’m thankful for whatever voice within me suggested the walk this morning. I’m grateful, too, to be with someone whose multitudes know how to speak to mine; I’m grateful for the surprise and delight of simple things like driving someplace unexpected together.

I feel as though I have an awareness now of what I’m going to need as November unfolds into December and as our Michigan winter extends unceasingly through March. Let us all remind each other of our multitudes, that there are other voices we can listen to besides the ones that speak the loudest to us, the ones that pull us toward our usual blues, our worn out but persistent anxieties. Let’s help each other to look for surprise, and to be delighted by it.

Love, Cath

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