Friday, April 15, 2011

On Finishing

Finish. To finish. Finishing. The more I type and say this word, the more I think of a Finnish man pulling a large trout out of the water, which is an immensely gross and biased interpretation of what Finnish men (or women) actually do. (Please feel free to enlighten me, any Finnish readers!)

But the word is now rumbling around in my brain since I just put the last touches on a manuscript and sent it off to Teachers College Press. A Call to Creativity: Writing, Reading, and Growing with Students in an Age of Standardization (working title) is a manuscript whose pages are filled with all that my students taught me, and so many of the goofy, silly, meaningful, growing, and (yes) weird experiences we forged through together.

And in finishing (at least until the major revisions come back from the editor), there is a certain feeling of lightness, of hope, of belief that maybe something in the book will connect with other teachers who will then use the material with their own students (who will hopefully connect with something, who will then...). In a stage like this--where a manuscript is semi-finished and nothing more can be done until revisions arrive--the room for hope and possibility is large.

It's like arriving at a buffet and looking at the massive table of food while feeling one's tummy groan in gleeful anticipation. Or it's like looking out at a large field before you decide to run wildly across it, pretending first to be an ogre, second to be a superhero, and third to be yourself, strangest of all. Or it's like drinking a very tall glass of water and then putting the glass down on the table in front of you and watching the tiny drops that fall back down the sides.

Finishing feels good. Certainly.

But the learning curve I'm on lately admonishes me to not focus too much on finishing. The character arc in which I find myself in this chapter of life has me headed towards: Focus on delighting in the present, in the journey of the work, the play, the complexity, the hope, the possiblity rather than the finishing of something.

And this is especially difficult for me because I absolutely love finishing. I love getting to the end of something and embraces that feeling of satisfaction that arrives. (Cut to scene: Satisfaction and I run towards one another on a beach, lit by the setting sun, while a powerful yet not too intense instrumental piece comes on background; a lone seagull shoots across the wavering waves of sun-heat; Satisfaction and I embrace.)

But I am seeing more and more that Satisfaction doesn't often linger long. Even though I try to persuade Satisfaction to hang out longer, offering him a cup of coffee, some green seedless grapes, or some yellow construction paper, he always makes some excuse and says he must be on his way.

And then finishing doesn't feel so good. Then, finishing feels more like leaving the buffet, feeling far too full and wondering why you went up for that last plate of green Jell-O. Or it feels like tripping over an unseen mound of dirt hidden by the tall grass of the field through which you were so movie-esquely running. Or it feels like inquenchable thirst even after that tall glass of water.

Once Satisfaction departs, the old longing to finish something else arrives. That inexhaustable voice of What Now?

So into this realm of finishing-related-emotions-and-thoughts, I was deeply grateful for the interruption of Dallas Willard. Not the writer himself, of course (though that would indeed be fantastically cool to receive a call from a great writer who began our phone conversation by uttering, "Hey, Luke, I just thought of calling you because I wondered if one of my ideas might offer you some food for thought in this character arc of your current journey...").

But Willard spoke nonetheless thorugh his volume, Revolution of Character. In an insightful chapter entitled, "Educating Our Emotions," Willard offers the insight that pleasure is fleeting; satusfaction arrives and is connected only to specific events, actions, or circumstances. As soon as those circumstances change, said pleasure and satisfaction changes, too. (Read: finishing!)

However, Willard continues, joy is something much more definite, much more associated with perception and permanency than with circumstances and situations. Joy is characterized as the choice to see the good. To see the good. Love, then, becomes the decision to act for the good of another outside yourself. (Whoa! I'm just trying to get beyond the circumstantial satisfaction of finishing, and here you are bringing up LOVE?!)

Joy doesn't fluctuate. Its life is more like the trunk of the tree than its leaves. Seasons come and go, but that stable body looks the same no matter how much snow or sun surrounds it.

When I watch my son Tyler, I see something of joy in him. Beyond the momentary and characteristic toddler tantrums (which, I am learning are indeed an important part of human-being growth, thank you to Mike Dunn!), Tyler displays an uncaany abillity to not care in the least about finishing something.

If Tyler is digging in the soil, he doesn't remark how good it will feel when all of the soil is finally dug up and he can go inside and sit at the kitchen table with a nice, cool drink.

If Tyler is cutting paper (as Jen has so expertly taught him to do), he doesn't discuss how wonderful it will be to finally cut all of the paper stocked in our entire home so that he can finally be done cutting paper and instead sit down and kick up his feet.

Finishing means nothing to my toddler. Not a thing. (Including such items as Finish your dinner! and Let's finish changing your poopie diaper before you jump on the bed!)

So, as I sit here having sent off my manuscript to the press, I'll conscientiously work to not feel too good about simply finishing it. Instead, I'll be trying to see this state as a step along the journey towards seeing what is good. A step in the journey of joy. And, God willing, this is how I'll respond tonight should Tyler wake up at two a.m. screaming because of a nightmare, or gas pains, or growing pains, or any number of other indecipherable reasons why a toddler wakes at two in the morning.

But I'm not finished with my need to work on re-defining finishing. Not by a long shot.

And hey, maybe that's a good thing after all.