I have spent the last couple of days waiting for news about an old friend who was severely injured and is in ICU; beyond that, the details are not mine to share. Our friendship goes back about twenty-five years, I think; it seems tonight that we have always known each other. My sadness has let memories seep in, taking me back to youth camp days together. In those days, Billy Crockett used to sing a blues song called “The Bottom of Life,” which began with
I’ve got a question, Mr. Jesus, tell me what’s at the bottom of life?
As the song played in my mind today, I found myself rewriting the lyric to ask, what’s in the middle of life? We talk of bottoms and tops, looking to the edges of existence, to the boundaries, and yet most of life gets lived in the middles. We are on the way, a work in progress; other than the days that mark our birth and death, life gets lived in the middles. Growing up, I learned A. A. Milne’s poem, “Halfway Down the Stairs.” (The Muppets — or someone — turned it into a song, but I learned it as spoken verse.
Halfway down the stairs
is a stair
where i sit.
there isn’t any
I’m not at the bottom,
I’m not at the top;
so this is the stair
Halfway up the stairs
And it isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery,
It isn’t in town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head.
It isn’t really
It’s somewhere else
Life, I suppose, is more escalator than stairs, when it comes to metaphor: even the stairs are moving. We are not sitting still. The ground on which we stand is spinning on its axis, revolving around the sun, and swirling in the galaxy. Nothing stays in place for long. As I was talking about last night, the middle makes it hard to find a sense of perspective. You can gain your bearings at sea once you sight the shore, but out in the middle is another story.
The middle is not the center. Life doesn’t explain itself with that kind of geography. We’re in the middle, as in middle of the night, or middle of a thought, or “I’m in the middle of something.” We live in the tension of the now and the not yet, between here and gone, between (as Madeleine L’Engle says) “the two errors either of regarding ourselves as unforgivable or as not needing forgiveness” (233). A few pages earlier, she talked about what and how we learn from life, how the middles add up to a life:
Think about driving a car: only the beginning driver thinks as he performs each action; the seasoned driver’s body works kinesthetically; steering wheel, brake, accelerator – if you have to think about using each one of these you won’t dare drvie on a major highway. A driver prevents an accident because of his conditioned reflexes; hands and feet respond more quickly than thought.
I’m convinced the same thing is true in all other kinds of crisis, too. We react to our conditioning built up of every single decision we’ve made all our lives; who we have used as our mentors; as our points of reference. (222)
For most of maritime history, sailors out in the middle of the ocean used the stars to find their way; they chose to see themselves in the middle of the constants – the stars in the sky — rather than lost in the vastness of the unpredictable sea. However endless the water appeared, they knew how to find their way home. Even in the midst of stormy seas, the stars held true. When I learned of my friend’s accident, my response was to do what I have done over and over: to call the circle of friends we share, that we might find each other in the dark and find our way together in the middle of these days.
I know, Mr. Jesus, what’s in the middle of life.