As I sighed a pile of plastic organizer tubs onto the checkout counter at the hardware store, the man working the register turned to me and smiled. “Looks like you’re doing a whole lot of organizing. Daughter going to college?”
I shook my head and laughed awkwardly, mumbling. “No, just owned a house too long without moving. Too much stuff sitting out.” In that moment, I felt a weird wash of emotions. The thought of having a daughter is terrifying. I’m grateful I have a nice home, I feel my privilege and the guilt that whips with it. I’m grateful that I never had kids at a young age, and that my life turned out how it did.
I wonder if the hardware guy could read any of this on my face.
If you know me, you know I like to say “no regrets!” And that’s usually true. Regrets are just mistakes you learn from and move forward. Live your life how you want. Yet there’s certainly that wondering feeling that floats in, where you think about how things could have been different. I don’t want to live in that feeling, but since I’m old enough now to have high-school friends whose kids are going off to college, I do wonder what it could have been like. Chaos. Kids. A different kind of life.
And that weird vertigo is just a symptom of a pattern I’ve had, lately. I have been thinking quite a bit about halfway points. The place we call “here” or “now” that you find yourself at, midway between the beginning and the end. The place you started, the halfway point here, and the end that seems too close or too far.
The real start I don’t even remember. Here is the start of middle age, with my body creaking and whining. There, both close and far, is death; eventual, marching, the black release of the unknown.
Another start is buying a house with someone I loved, until I found out how I and others can fail so badly. Here is owning half of that house, alone, splitting the debt with an abstract bank. Here, still, still, still, learning to love and fail. There at the end is owning the whole house, having lived in a town I love for so long. What will life be like then? How can I even guess?
Yet another start is living in a cult-like basement in Salt Lake City, and returning to Madison, desperate for a job. In the halfway point, I’ve worked here (at one single job) for longer than I was alive before. There, at a different kind of end, is me trying to imagine a different career. The kind of end that is also a beginning. Helping to understand humans better, instead of grinding away at the gears of the government that currently fails us. Over, and over, and over.
The start was a shy nerd, awash with apathy, trying to find my place on this plane. Now, here is being simple and weird. Crying and laughing. Creating and encouraging. Attempting to make things better on a small scale. And selfishly focusing on my own world too much.
But there? There I stand too far away, like an imagined portrait hanging on a post in the middle of a lake, taken with a camera that can’t quite focus on the future.
The start is a painful time of a relationship falling apart, when I decided I would try to write a story every week for a year. Battling through the pain of finding out a new way you fail. Where I find myself, here and now, is over halfway through that year, still writing. Recover, uncover, recreate, approximate, discover anew.
And finally, the end of that particular writing race is Over There, where I stand at the end of the year. It’s not really that far away; it can be measured in months. But I still see myself off in that middle distance like a blurry ghost; as if I don’t know what shape my body will take then. Future amorphous ghost me is holding at least 52 pieces of writing, that he sees mostly as trash. Trash he will have to dig through for gems. There’s a smile on my shapeless face, but there’s also exhaustion. And I can tell that end is bittersweet on the ghostly tongue: a flavor that ghosts can only barely taste but that we humans know all too well.
That particular end doesn’t have to be an end, though; the bitterness can sink into the soil and become new herbs, and the sweetness can soak out into the fruits. I can keep picking up things I enjoy, mold them into habits, and when I choose, turn them into a process that in turn shapes me.
Anyone can do that. We just like to lie to ourselves that we don’t have what it takes. We picture ourselves past the HERE, beyond the halfway point, and therefore any effort is doomed. Or we see ourselves as unable to get past the start, to take that first step up the hill.
We’re missing some crucial bit. We like to say we’re just not motivated, too tired, too perfectionist, too this or too that. What if the there might be closer, if you want it to be? Or it might be still further away than you think it is, if you are scared of the blackness that blinds you. There might be many interesting points halfway through that journey. How do you even know how far there is to go, when we can’t even guess where the real halfway point is?
What with all this writing, I’ve been thinking a lot about character arcs. Tense climaxes, satisfying endings, tricky denouements. Apocalypses and ways to write satisfying narratives that don’t revolve around an explosion. Characters who change and grow, shrink inward or become something new, sliding into a different archetypal skin.
But nothing is quite so neat as all that in real life. Most of us don’t get the chance to wrap everything up with a big ol’ majestic bow, or manage to magically leave a satisfying, sensible arc behind us. Life really is tricky, in it’s own way, and one of the tricks it plays can be to our advantage: The halfway point that I think of as HERE changes, depending on where I measure the start and the end from.
We’re not characters in someone’s book. There’s not one single arc we have to follow. Easy to write that down, but hard to remember it. So keep going. Find new measures. If you’re bored, add a new arc. If you’re tired, get some sleep.
I’ll see you where my ghost is giving your ghost a high five, somewhere down that murky, confusing path. Let’s not be afraid of the start, the end… or all the points halfway between here and there.