Winter is getting to me. So many weeks of below freezing temperatures, weeks of smog and fog and gray, gray, gray. Everything gray. It’s as if the world has been drained of color by this winter. Last night we had a freezing rain, something I’ve never before experienced. Nothing wet, everything ice. If it had a surface, it was covered in the clearest, thinnest, most slippery ice I’ve ever seen. As in, I couldn’t get up my driveway today and yet nothing looks slick. Underground, city water lines are freezing all over the place. City water lines to many homes have frozen, and now the pipes to one of the buildings at the Junior High are frozen as well. Everywhere I drive, it seems I see city workers trying to thaw underground water meters. It is COLD.
Yesterday when I was looking around at most of our furniture piled into two rooms for carpet cleaning I wanted to cry. My children were loving it, climbing, jumping, chasing, playing on all the upturned everything as if we’d just discovered a new playground. I, on the other hand, felt frustrated. It was supposed to be done at 9 a.m, but a machine broke so it was done at 7 pm instead, causing me to cancel plans and generally cringe at everything on the verge of breaking.
And then it hit me.
“This is the middle.”
I’m in the middle of a lot of things, things much bigger than a delayed carpet cleaning. I’m in the middle of raising my family. All our 8 beautiful beginnings are now treasured memories and we’re in this crazy, cluttered, loud MIDDLE with all of them. I’m in the middle of cleaning my pantry, something that was paused for this carpet cleaning and which now stares at me when I walk past it. I’m forever in the middle of laundry, in the middle of cleaning, in the middle of driving and dropping off and picking up. My projects all feel like “middles” right now, coming together more slowly than I hoped. Yesterday I texted my sister, “Do you ever feel like if you go another day without really finishing something you’ll go crazy? That’s how I’ve felt all week.” I’m also feeling like I’m in the middle of my own life experience, a feeling I’m not at peace with. At that moment I wanted desperately to snap my fingers and have all the middles disappear.
My experience with middles is that they aren’t very pretty. There was certainly nothing pretty about my house yesterday, and there’s nothing pretty about this mid-winter blah that makes me want to scream. Middles are ugly, often broken, pieces everywhere, slow, like cleaning out a closet. Beginnings are so clear, so full of obvious potential; endings are absolute. Middles are a different story. There’s no guarantee, often no road map, and they usually obscure the view of all that was so obvious at the beginning.
I’m not fond of middles, and yet I’m also learning that there’s no way around them. Some of them are shorter than others, but the things that matter most in life, those things that have the greatest potential, seem to have the longest middles.
In the middle of my carpet cleaning frustrations yesterday another thought came. “Jennifer, this day is as much a gift as any other. What you do with your middle is up to you.”
So I started studying middles.
I watched my children jumping on upturned furniture and realized that you make memories in the middle. Oh, the beginnings and endings have memories of their own, but so much of joy and substance comes in the middle.
I looked at my unfinished lone star quilt block, at the quilt tops hanging until I learn free motion quilting, at the squares waiting to be pieced together and I realized you learn skills in the middle.
I looked at all my responsibilities as a mother, which at the moment felt so much larger than I am. And I thought, you walk by faith in the middle. You pray for grace in the middle.
I looked in the mirror and saw a woman who wishes lots of things were different, but who gets up every day and does her best. And I realized, you become someone real in the middle.
I looked at my pantry, 2/3 organized, with a shelf section still a mess because I have to decide how to use it to better meet our needs right now. I thought, you make decisions in the middle.
This afternoon I played a few games of Memory with my daughters. They enjoyed setting it up at the beginning and counting their pieces at the end. But when we kept turning over the same piece 20 times in a row without finding a match for it, we laughed. My five year old laughed so hard she gave herself the hiccups and her eyes were watery. And I thought, you laugh in the middle. Not the “oh that was great” kind of laughter but the laughter that releases tension and gives you a toehold on joy.
And because of all these things, because of the laughter and the prayers, the decisions you weigh and sometimes agonize over, the skills you have to learn to move forward, the memories you make and the laughter you share, the middle usually slows down. It’s part of life. But just like we didn’t quit in the middle of our carpet cleaning, you don’t quit in the middle, either. I wanted the clean carpet, I just didn’t like the prolonged middle. I didn’t like having it become complicated. Yet it worked out.
Last night my sister sent me a picture of a beautiful quilt and asked if I might know the source of the pattern. I typed out the words. “No, I don’t. But it’s beautiful.” Just before I hit send, I looked at it again and realized that the photography looked very Denyse Schmidt in style. And then I wondered, “Wait, is it in her new book? (The one you bought but never really read)” Sure enough, there it was. I sent the information on, but kept the book out. After putting the children to bed I decided to slow down and read it, which turned out to be a wonderful experience. In this new book, Modern Quilts Traditional Inspiration, Denyse talks about the reality that quilts take time, especially many of the more traditional patterns. After indicting myself earlier over my lack of finished projects, I appreciated this statement:
“While some projects in this book can be made relatively quickly, this is not a book of ‘fast and easy’ projects you can create in an evening or two. Quilts are big! They are labors of love, and require a fairly serious investment of time. A book of traditional quilt patterns – some of which require cutting out thousands of tiny pieces – seems to go against the grain of most crafting books these days, and is antithetical to our culture which demands instant gratification and ever-faster results. I hope you can embrace the idea of quilting as a ‘slow craft,’ and enjoy the opportunity to engage in a satisfying, contemplative pastime that offers rewards relative to your efforts.” (p. 13)
She’s talking about middles! About those thousands of tiny pieces that eventually make a quilt just as thousands of tiny pieces make a life. It’s ok when projects, like mothering – particularly when you’re trying to instill traditional values in your children, become a “slow craft.” And I love the end of Denyse’s invitation to “enjoy the opportunity to engage in a satisfying, contemplative pastime that offers rewards relative to your efforts.” (emphasis added) A satisfying, contemplative life will surely offer the same return on investment regardless of how slow the middles were.
I know a man who passed away this week. He was a good, decent, optimistic man who lived longer than doctors thought he would. For his family, that long, slow middle of life just became acutely precious because their mortal time with him is gone. The middle seems slow to me because I’m looking forward, expecting it to last, but when you look at it from the finish line, it’s fleeting. Middles, therefore, are largely a matter of perspective.
I was right, today is as much a gift as any other. It’s up to me to do something with it. It’s up to me to fill my middle with stories, with lessons learned, hugs given, joy felt.
The carpets look better and the couches are back in their places. The day ended and I felt more humble and also more awake to the fabric of life. Although quilting and other projects are a diversion from my mothering middle, I’m going to relax when they’re on a “slow craft” setting and remind myself to enjoy the process. And as for the thousand broken pieces of life that I bump into all too often, well, they’re the material for piecing together a happy middle. Like the scrap quilts I always love looking at, I can trust my slow middles to come together at last in a pattern far more beautiful than anything I pictured in the beginning.