Life Lived From the Middle

I bristled when I received a message from an editor at a publishing house asking if I was working on any projects.

“I can’t write a book now,” I thought. “I’m still living in this messy space of transition between Asia and America, between old dreams dying and not yet discovering the new. Standing on this shifting ground, what advice can I offer a reader?”  

As I debated my merits as a writer, I listened to a podcast in which poet Zach Savich taught about what he called “memoir from the middle of things,” writing about events that are still unfolding. He talked about living in moments that aren’t tied up neatly with a bow and writing from that place of unknowing.

I realized all I had been seeing was my own uncertain path as my husband and I struggle to know what starting over looks like. We moved around the world and back again and found ourselves unemployed, uncertain, and feeling terribly alone. But then I looked outwards and I saw it—unfinished stories, life lived from the middle, everywhere I looked.

I saw the friend who has been walking through chronic illness for years and is trying yet another medicine, the last known treatment for her disease. She wakes up every day not knowing if she will have the energy to get out of bed.

There is my entire immediate family facing a future that is one step into the darkness ahead at a time. Major medical issues of one we love have changed all our lives forever.

I see the friend who is returning to work after years at home with her kids, unsure if she’s making the right move but unable to justify living on one income anymore.

Another loved one finishing up college isn’t sure which path to take, at the frightening intersection of childhood and all that is beyond it.

Some I know who have recently retired (or are now financially unable to retire) are facing down issues they never imagined and seeing their dreams for the second half of life evaporate before their eyes.

I suddenly saw that we all living in these liminal spaces, in between one place and the next. Transition doesn’t have a timeline or an age limit. Thresholds appear again and again in our lives and often when we least expect them.

“The old has fallen away and the new hasn’t yet emerged. Thresholds are sacred places in the Celtic imagination where the veil between heaven and earth is considered thin,” explains Christine Valters Paintner who runs the online monastic community Abbey of the Arts. “The poet Antonio Machado says that “the way is made by walking.” We put one foot in front of the other and the next step is revealed only as we are in movement. This demands a great deal of trust and listening for the whispers of the divine along the way.”

This shaky ground can knock us off balance and into depths of despair; it can also thrust us onto holy ground. I have approached these middle places in my life with two opposing attitudes, sometimes vacillating between the two outlooks on the very same day.

I’ve chosen the path of avoidance often. I freeze, refuse to face reality by living in the past or not facing the deep spiritual upheaval that these thin places churn up inside of us. I am a child folding her arms across her chest and pouting, “Daddy, I won’t go!”

My Father never forces me on where I am not ready to tread, though. When I am able to take a breath and steady myself I find him there waiting to take my hand and walk with me. It’s in this place where the path can only be revealed by moving on that we find the sacred.

It’s in the depth of these vulnerable spaces in our lives and souls that we find an invitation to the faith we are invited to in Hebrews 11.1 (The Message): “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.”

These moments of mystery call us to pay attention. In many faith traditions, there is an awareness of stepping over a threshold into a sacred space. At the abbey church I visit several times a year, I stop at the tiny marble bowl nestled outside the door and dip my fingers in the cool water. Droplets cling to my forehead after I make the sign of the cross, reminding me of that moment of entry into a holy place. I watch the faithful enter and bow toward the altar before taking their seats.

I close my eyes and think also of the haphazard pile of shoes outside the door of my South Asian church, where everyone stopped to mark their transition into the Presence of God, walking barefoot onto holy ground.

In stopping to notice, we invite God to enter these middle places. We hold out our hands and say, “here I am, ready to journey with you.” We don’t know what lies beyond this place of unknowing but we bid God to help us live right in the middle of our unfinished stories.

I don’t have any bows to tie my story up in today; it may be a long time before I do. But from right here in the middle with you I offer the only advice I can: walk on. You don’t walk alone.

Nicole T. Walters
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