The Murky Middle

Learning to enjoy the space between where we were and where we’re going

Holidays usually mean celebrations, and in Laguna Beach, where I live, the town is a party on New Year’s Eve. But for several years now, we’ve skipped the festivities and walked down to the ocean.

It’s an event, even without confetti and noisemakers. The night air is always colder than you expect as you step away from the picket fence and the porch light. Christmas lights twinkle for the first few blocks, and you can smell the wood burning in the neighbors’ fireplaces.

It’s cozy until the dark takes over. Then, sidewalk revelry gives way to sand and crashing waves. Eventually, there’s nothing but the vast, black Pacific, the heave and hurl of midnight water. You feel far from home, transported to the edge of something, and the thrill is both breathtaking and unsettling.

The first year we took that walk, it was 2005, maybe. The nation’s assorted bubbles had yet to burst. When you’re secure, you want to be unsettled, and I remember relishing the walk’s stirring end points—the disparity between our reassuring front door and the wild, unknowable ocean.

The last couple of years, though, the wild and unknowable have worn out their welcome, and everything, even home, has lost some of its old security. And a strange thing has happened on our walks into the new year: We’ve found ourselves preoccupied less by the destinations than by the hills and valleys, the sounds of our footsteps, the landscape of the in-between.

It’s an underappreciated space, I think, that space in the middle, and many of us have become acquainted with it recently. Workers between jobs. Families between houses. Business owners who can’t afford to hire and can’t afford not to. Employees caught between the threat of layoffs and the prospect of having to work forever. Breadwinners awake in the night, running the household numbers by the light of a desk lamp. Wounded soldiers no longer at war who can’t be at peace.

One couple we know has lived for three years in a soon-to-be-repossessed McMansion, unable to sell and unable to make a house payment. Another can’t divorce because their biggest asset is their remodeled home, which they can’t sell. If you drive by at night, you can see them in separate rooms, pacing, framed by their new double-paned windows.

The recession may have ended, but recovery eludes us, and everyone, rich or poor, now understands the sense of being suspended between safe harbor and the Darwinian unknown.

It’s not for the faint of heart, this in-between-ness. It leaves you with nothing to cling to but your inner self. Jobs, houses, points of reference—these give lives definition. Without them, landscapes must be redefined, identities re-created. Maybe that’s why the Great Recession hit many of us with special malice. Our draw—our promise—has been the comfort of no surprises. The uniform houses, the well-stocked stores, the balanced checkbooks. The lit porch lights.

I think that’s the most unforgivable transgression by those who sucked all the prosperity out of our system—the way their opportunism swept up so many good people who just wanted a little order. Now we feel some days like a lost tribe, marching, marching, keeping our heads down, watching our steps.

So the middle becomes its own horizon. No confetti, no noisemakers. Still, interesting things can happen in between. You can remember how little of life actually takes place at the destinations. Or notice how skilled you have become at just putting one foot in front of the other.

Here’s what I’m telling myself this New Year: There is much more to time than the past and the future. There is this uphill stretch, but we’ve been up it before. There are the words on this page, but also the white space between them. There is more to a journey than where we are going, or where we have been.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue.

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