The Finish Line
Friends on social media joke about the two wolves living inside them. The soft yet sharply-fanged animals unleashed to love what they love, to bend a phrase from St. Mary Oliver. The only issue? Their loves forever sit in conflict.
I encountered one of my wolves—the dominant creature—a couple months ago during the newest standup special by a comic I grew up watching on screens big and small. (Names will be withheld to protect the relatively famous.) Several shorter bits paid dividends; the rest of the hour struck me as unnecessary.
The comic majored in true tall tales built from experience. But decades after scraping starry skies, these stories felt out-of-touch. Minor inconveniences and strange encounters from the lush life blown beyond proportion. This disconnect overlaid the comic’s topical humor as well, with pandemic jokes and digs at relevance sounding off-key.
Still, I watched the entire hour, from first to final applause, with only passing thoughts of quitting. Certainly, my relationship with the standup told me to hang on, hope for more. But something else kept me tuned in. Sitting there, not laughing, I nodded toward an animal instinct I wish to bury.
I have to finish everything.
Why do I keep going down with ships poorly fashioned out of sentence and song?
Rarely will I blink first to break up my staring contests with subpar TV shows. My fingers flip pages of mediocre fiction until I reach The End; my eyes trace the contours of ill-fitted poetry, searching for something. Forever committed to the album as an art form, my ears hold out till the last silence, even when preceding notes fail to strike a compelling chord.
Noticing the teeth marks left by my particular wolf, I turned over variations on the same question. Why do I keep going down with ships poorly fashioned out of sentence and song?
Perhaps I place outsized faith in my own good taste. Believe me when I swear to you: nine times out of 10, I choose art I end up enjoying. Even when sifting titles from unfamiliar artists or authors. Some deep gold or green makes a promise within the cover design; the name of a particular drummer pops from the liner notes; on the back of the book, a soulful phrase sweeps lonely landscapes or hints at transcendence. And I just know.
So when I happen upon that one in ten, my heart strains to believe in the best possible outcome. Setting out like Jesus, I’m ready to throw my arms around a stray sheep, returning it to the fold.
My struggle to draw an early finish line, somewhere before end pages and last strains, reflects a deeper tension—between the limits of this world and my dreams for the next. My brain knows how to do the math; so many books and records, only 40 years left if I’m lucky. Why not shelve what’s so-so to seek out the truly radiant?
The same heart chamber which harbors my hope of heaven believes in an eternity full of libraries.
The same heart chamber which harbors my hope of heaven believes in an eternity full of libraries. If we carry our best work into life everlasting, then the promised land holds titles by Toni Morrison and Langston Hughes, Cormac McCarthy and Jane Kenyon. And a redeemed imagination requires no heavenly censorship. My pet doctrine tells me these books will retain all their original sex and violence; we will simply read these passages with clear eyes—seeing them for what they are, knowing how the debts they describe get paid.
If I hope for 10,000 years searching these stacks, what’s another 40 trying—sometimes failing—to unearth a diamond from the deepest rough?
These thoughts inch close to the heart of the matter. But something else guides the wolf.
A kind presence named Sarah responds when I think aloud on Twitter. Describing a similarly frustrating impulse in herself, she says finishing a work seems “honoring to the author.” This both is and isn’t my experience.
Like Sarah, I want to pay my respect—to hear an artist out, taking their work on its own terms rather than conditions I set. To keep the conversation going just like I would if I were with you. But a sort of self-preservation leads me further.
We each absorb a thousand little hurts daily. I fancy myself something of a collector, gathering verses and choruses like salves for my pockmarks and puncture wounds. We live in a world that will never exhaust the wonder orbiting each moment like a satellite. I want to know every bit of it.
So I don’t mind sticking with a second-rate record if a chord change cracks open grace-giving seeds. I will run my eyes over uninspired pages if just one passage changes the way I understand rain or see the color blue. My groaning at obvious dialogue fades out if one line appears, helping me love my neighbor as myself.
So often I fail to end the conversation with a piece of art because I want the conversation to yield something else. Something like connection or understanding, something to squeeze me through the day
So often I fail to end the conversation with a piece of art because I want the conversation to yield something else. Something like connection or understanding, something to squeeze me through the day.
Here I stop to notice a few holes in my idealism. Experience reminds me how often I linger too long at the bar; in the name of letting conversation take its natural course, I miss its end, only to sit through every misfire between myself and someone else. Memories rush back—pictures of friendships I gripped too tight, unaware these relationships held me back from making room for someone with my good at heart.
The second wolf poked its head out a few weeks ago. I wrestled with my commitment to a one-in-ten novel; the prose was fine, well-crafted even, but left me cold. Considering its initial pull, I gazed at a cover and a title which spoke to my affection for stars braving gray night skies, my hope that eleventh hours teach us who we really are.
Necessity broke my habit. A pile of other novels within reach, I pushed it away in favor of metaphysical mysteries and coming-of-age stories. Hindsight says I made the right choice, even if confidence keeps failing me.
In this, I saw how two wolves might coexist. One carries the greater weight, nosing for too-well-hidden glories; the other stays small but sharp, eking out something like balance between wish-dreams and the real nature of how we create and how often we connect.