Saturday, December 31, 2016

Uncertain Beginnings and Messy Middles

To make an end is to make a beginning . . . and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. --T.S. Eliot "Little Gidding"

The new year is a time for beginnings and endings. I think that's one reason I like the new year so much--it symbolizes fresh starts, closure, and it's a wonderfully-fascinating shared space for both beginnings and ends.

But as much as it is a time for the bookends of old and new, start and finish, beginning and end, it's also a time for middles (and I don't just mean our expanding ones after weeks of rich holiday treats).

We don't really like to talk about the middle of the story too much--it's certainly not as exciting as the beginning or as poignant or romantic as the end. We certainly don't like them when they are messy. That messy middle is hard. It can be a tangled mess of whys, what ifs, and what-in-the-world-is-going-on-right-nows. The middle is a time for growing pains, regrets, and questions. Sometimes, in the midst of the messy middle, it seems like we will never reach a happy ending--or even an unhappy one.

Is all of life a messy middle? Perhaps, in some ways, it is, as lives are made up of an infinite number of beginnings, middles, and ends.

Beginnings, middles, ends. Ends, beginnings, middles. After awhile, they all start to look the same.

It's not an easy idea for a girl who loves tidy endings. But when was life ever tidy?

Last summer, I took a trip across Eastern Europe with my friend Briana. It was a whirlwind adventure and--to be honest--some days we chewed off a bit more than we could manage. We had places to see and travel to almost every day of our trip, and with each destination, we made plans to see as much as we could.

When we got to Budapest, both Briana and I had things and people we wanted to see. One of the things I really wanted to see was the Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial. It's an incredible moving memorial, dedicated to Budapest Jews and others who were killed during the fascist regime in Hungary during WWII. Those who were killed were ordered to take off their shoes, and then shot into the Danube River.

[Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial]

I was determined to see it. But there were other things to do in Budapest, too, and I didn't know if we would find it. Also, although I loved our time in Budapest, it was also one of the most exhausting days of our trip. I was running on three hours of sleep after a very weird overnight train journey, we were hungry, we couldn't read the Hungarian signs, we were sweaty and disgusting, and we were sunburned (after living in England for ten months, we forgot that the sun actually can burn you). 

[This is a very accurate depiction of the state of affairs in Budapest. Smiling on the outside, screaming on the inside.]

So, in short, we were right-smack-dab in the middle of a very long Eastern European adventure, far from our final destination, far from home, and kinda wondering what madness had possessed us to come this far in the first place. 

We did eventually find the memorial towards the end of our day, and when we found the memorial, it was very poignant and very beautiful. But at the same time, there were a thousand other things on my mind. I had made it to the place where I wanted to be, but it wasn't the end of our journey. Not by a long shot. How would we get to the airport? Should we take the Metro or a taxi? Did we have enough Hungarian forints to pay for a decent meal or would we be surviving on chocolate? What if we didn't make our next flight? 

I sat by the Danube while Briana went off to the side to make a phone call to her family back home. 

While she talked, I thought about the memorial, about my practical worries for the trip (and some abstract ones about my life), about how far we had come, and how much farther we had to go. 

And as I watched the water lap the bank, I realized that perhaps I was focusing too much on the ending. Or what I thought needed to be the ending. 

Because sitting on the Danube's bank was an ending. It was an ending I had looked forward to all day, but I forgot about it when it turned into a middle instead of an end. I was cursing the middle, while forgetting that the middle is full of beginnings and endings which need acknowledgment and celebration. I thought of all the mini-endings of the day--getting food, washing my face, finally crossing that bridge from Pest to Buda. 

And now I was here, sitting on the bank of Danube, tired and sunburned, remembering those who had gone before, and preparing for the rest of the journey. 

It was a quiet realization, and in many ways, just for me. But it was necessary and helped me savor more moments on the trip. 

Some middles are messier than others. Travel worries are one thing. But when we or those we love are stuck in the throes of health problems, loneliness, or any number of never-ending stories, that middle can be particularly nasty and challenging. One reason the middle is so hard is because it's so uncertain. We don't know how the end will be . . . or if there will ever be an end. Not knowing is so hard.

What's also hard is when what we think is going to be a happy ending turns to be a very messy middle instead.

Some of my ancestors were Mormon pioneers. I grew up hearing stories about their trek across the Great American Plains. They were exiles, and they traveled towards the place they believed "God for [them] prepared, far away in the West."

It wasn't an easy journey. But it helped to have a dream in mind--in this case, what they believed would be their own Land of Canaan in the Rocky Mountains.

I imagine them crossing the windy hills of Nebraska and the barren plains of Wyoming, holding onto a hope that their Promised Land would be green and beautiful--a land flowing with milk and honey . . .

And then they got Utah.

Now, I know Utah is a beautiful state. It has this rugged, mountainous beauty, and out of all the skies I've seen in this world, I still think that Utah sunsets with the sun setting behind the Oquirrh Mountains are the most beautiful.

But this rugged beauty wasn't particuarly beautiful to farmers and settlers in the 1840s who had traveled over a thousand miles to a new home. They didn't want rock climbing adventures. They wanted to grow crops and actually drink the water of their new home. Instead, they found a desert with no ski resorts, no temples, and little water except a giant, undrinkable lake of salt.

In the words of one of my great-grandmothers (and I am not paraphrasing here):

"I left England for THIS?"

I left England for this? 

I think most--if not all--of us have said similar things about our expected happy endings that turn out to be very messy middles:

Is this REALLY all there is after graduation? 

Why did we ever move here? 

I felt right about taking this job/starting/ending this relationship/fill-in-the-blank. Why are things so hard then? 

I left England . . . for this?

What we thought would be our Promised Land suddenly isn't. We haven't found the ease and prosperity we hoped for.

But perhaps the end goal was never meant to be ease and prosperity.

Perhaps the end goal is to learn how to embrace that messy middle. To learn that we have to fight for our happiness. And that means getting dirty. It means making mistakes. It means loving others deeply.

Life isn't found on shiny pedestals.

Rather, it's found on the banks of the Danube River, sunburned and exhausted.

It's found in the brown, barren deserts of Utah.

It's found in raspberry patches with sticky faces and scratched-up hands.

It's found when we choose to live life deliberately.

Yes, life is full of messy middles, but it is those middles which make our stories rich, deep, and full . . . if we let them. When we wait for the middle to end, it never does end and we miss the beauty of connections, growth, and experiences that are so unique to the middle of the story.

If we let it, the messy middle teaches us to take the joy with gratitude and the sorrow without resentment.

And so, in the spirit of New Year's, I wish all of you happy endings and beautiful beginnings . . . but I also hope that you find meaning in the middle, no matter how messy it gets.

(And in the spirit of the finest of babushka blessings, I wish all of you health, wealth, success, beautiful families, and all the best you could ever ask for.)

Here's to 2017.


  1. That is one of my favorite quotes. But remember what she goes on to say.
    " I left England for this? But it is worth it to be in Zion and with those who believe as I do."
    She was so happy to be away from persecution and able to practice her religion. And she stayed true to that faith (as has my granddaughter.)"
    Love you so much.

  2. Thanks for completing the quote, Grandma! That is so important to remember. I love you, too. :)