Run past the finish line, I was told. Endings are better than beginnings, a wise man said. Finish well, the old saying goes.
Problem is, beginnings come much easier to me. Maybe to all of us.
When watching actors audition, there is a moment I wait for, look for, anticipate with great hope. It’s the moment after their last word. The last moment of exchange with the unseen other character. There is something about that suspension of time and space and imagination that has the ability to send me to a special place of life and hope. Why? I have no idea. Perhaps it’s like those writers that finish their day mid-sentence, letting it hang expectantly through the night, so that when they begin next morning, they find themselves picking up a thread already launched and in full motion.
Deadlines help me. But sometimes they are tyrants, too muscular, too frightening, so that the work under them strains to simply please. Deadlines can become labor bosses not interested in the actual work or worker, but lorders of achievement, past failure, and pride. But still, as my friend Avery commented yesterday, progress must be made and measured, or what results? Nothing much, and that’s the point.
Who can say what or where the end is? The end of one thing is the beginning of another. My nephew heroically completed an aerospace engineering degree after five brutal years of school, and today begins his next phase, a life as an officer in the USAF. My daughter ended her time in one New York apartment, and a couple of days ago began her new life a little further uptown. Daniel is nine days away from boyhood being over, the adulthood of “21” coming at him, another life beginning. Lives gradually waning, lives gradually ramping up, like runners in a relay, stages and seasons constantly hand off the baton, and the race and the running go on.
I read the beginning of the thing this morning. I would love Genesis 1-3 even if I didn’t believe a word of it. A beautiful, elegant story fraught with love and care and creation. Set-ups everywhere that will deliver pay-offs thousands of years later. Seeds of fatal flaws sewn at the very outset. Brilliantly conceived, brilliantly delivered. Yes, beginnings full of enthusiasm, excitement, and hope of a million possible outcomes, all of them to celebrate leaping and shouting.
But the middle…oh, the long crazy middle. The desert middle, where the monsters are. Quicksand, temptresses, sorcerers, tribes of hostile “others”, and the raging war of doubt, self-accusation, and “I give up.” The voices of yesteryear, of the ones who spoke into your life without care, without love, without understanding, and, if you were really unlucky, that spoke with malice, vindictiveness, and contempt. Apathy and cruelty are both destroyers, and their agents lurk in both the seen and the unseen crevasses of the middle regions.
One foot in front of the other. One more, and one more. There is where faith matters, and lots of folks bail out. It doesn’t feel right, they say. My heart’s not in it anymore, and the way the heart feels is the important thing. To honor my heart, I’ll abandon this path, find a different desert, a different middle, a different hardness, and if it doesn’t work, well, the hell with it.
One foot in front of the other. Memory of beginnings helps, and memory of the moments that are all along the way, the moments when faith became sight, and the object of your faith showed up, made a difference, perhaps mundanely, perhaps miraculously, but nonetheless, He showed up. Doesn’t seem like He’s here just now, but thirsty, you press on. Hungry, you press on. This is the long, dark middle. For the writer, one more story event well nuanced. One more word. One more rewrite. One more submission. After one more failure, one more beginning.
In 19th Century America, there was a thing known as a “Good Death.” Family gathered round, quiet space, everyone listening to the final breaths of the loved one. Faith, confessions, perhaps an utterance of the curtain being drawn back, and a glance of heaven. And then, the final words, recorded carefully for posterity and memory. This was one of the great tragedies of the Civil War. There was no good death to be had when you died alone on the battlefield.
For the artist, hold the energy to the end. Pay attention to the end. The last stroke, the last touch, the last word, the last breath. And who knows, perhaps it sneaks up on us, much as in life itself. Some endings have dates, like graduations, but others, like the ends of heart-beating, marriages, and dreams, come on us unannounced. We always knew it would end, we just didn’t know it would be today.
In my own life, I’ve done this well at times, and at times, I’ve fallen short and utterly failed.
But it’s not over. There are more hand-offs to make, more finishes coming.
Lord, be with us in all our endings. May they be all grace, all beauty, all life, and life-giving.
“I will be with you always, even to the end…”