And that is why I thought to begin in the middle.
“I wonder which I am,” she tendered.
I tendered back, “Which do you want to be?”
She is in a middle place, having already lived something to this point (in her case, perhaps the life of a writer). But she is not sure what she has lived, and her question is very much a middle question: here I am, having begun, but where do I fit and where do I prefer to end?
My question, in return, is also a middle question. It assumes she has some experience, some basis from which to process the question, and it asks her to decide on an ending she still has the power to choose.
Middle places can be unsettling. I wrote a whole novella I now look upon as a “middle” book. I wrote it at the same time I was fiddling with beginnings. And, oddly enough, I started the novella with the words, “The End.”
The End is a logical place to begin when you are middling. I asked a dear friend once — a person whose life I did not comprehend at the time — “How are you?” She was standing in the hallway with her spouse, and her face was tight and sad. “Fair to middling,” she said. What a fascinating phrase, and I wish I had been more understanding, regarding the end she must have been considering.
It is the rare person, I think, who is comfortable with another person’s middling. We are taught to celebrate the excitement of beginnings. To a lesser degree, we are taught to handle the nature of endings (though, in our culture, we probably more often skip the opportunity for closure by eclipsing our experience and simply choosing a new, distracting beginning).
I was angered the other day when my father sent me a book about some woman whose life he clearly admires (she is apparently a kind of missionary). At first, I had paged through the text with mild interest. Not my kind of book, but it didn’t matter. I was pleased he had thought of me, had taken the time to pack the book and send it along, until I saw the inscription, which included: “You have lived inside yourself long enough. [Insert his solution here.]”
I threw the book away.
My father does not really listen to, nor seek to understand me, though at some level we surely love each other. I can’t even imagine what he had in mind by saying what he said, especially since he lives at a distance and does not see the life that is mine day to day. I have learned that to ask is to invite more non-listening—good as his intentions to communicate seem to be. I will live without knowing precisely his meaning.
Midlife crisis once seemed to be myth, to me. Then I entered midlife. In midlife we have some basis from which to process any number of questions—from relational to professional to lifestyle and so on. We made beginnings in the past, which we are now living with, and maybe we start to ask, “I wonder which I am?” Which spouse, standing in the hallway. Which word person (writer or recreational word-play). Which parent, which friend, which gardener. And which do I want to be.
Of course this is simplification—of the concepts of beginnings and middles and ends. Life is not that easy to break down and categorize, and even our beginnings and middles and ends have myriad subsections of…beginnings and middles and ends. Still, I find it useful to consider the concept of middling.
If my father is right in any way, that would be okay. If I have lived inside myself, if I have stood emotionally plastered to the wall, saying to passersby, “Fair to middling. Fair to middling,” (while I created some space I needed), that would be okay.
What is not okay to me anymore is: “insert his solution here.” Call it a choice with a certain end in mind. Call it a bid to “middle” in peace and not be compelled to live in crisis because of someone else’s view. Call it an undeniable need to be.
To begin this piece of writing in the middle was (and is) to affirm that the middle is an important place to exist for a while. It does not mean we leave each other uncaringly alone. It might mean gently asking questions that don’t contain our proposed answers for each other, regardless of how right our answers ultimately may prove. Silence could be in order. While we let the other person be, and come to be.