Last week, I was grading a batch of final exams from one of my favorite classes. There had been a palpable energy, a genuine camaraderie, a profound connection of sorts between all of us in that class. They were my 'E-block family.' I sat reading the responses and I could picture each student in my head as I graded. I heard their voices. I saw their smiles and enthusiasm and their pure love of ideas. With each exam the feeling built until after a mere three of four I became overwhelmed. "I'm sorry, this is seriously insane... but this is too much for me," I told my boyfriend before excusing myself into the bedroom where I curled up on my bed and began to cry. I cried alone for a while, existing in the solitude of my own loss, before returning to the other room and my boyfriend's waiting open arms. He held me and reassured me... which helped, of course... but I couldn't shake the pain -- the deep pain of the soul that becomes physical -- that I might never see some of these students again.
What was my loss? Was it the loss of the connection? Was it the loss of the moments we could create only in that room with those people during this particular year? Was it the loss of what they saw in me? Was it the loss of laughter shared in a place that feels so safe that you can bare your soul?
There are so many cliches about endings. Every ending is a new beginning. When one door closes, another door opens. For me, endings have never been integrally connected to new beginnings. For me, they are separate entities. And "ending" is the wrong word... because I hold onto all past experiences. They never leave me. I never "end" them. I don't close their doors and enter new ones. Rather, I move down one long hallway, voices always echoing behind me... footsteps traced and still visible if I turn around... the scent of memory lingering and sometimes reawakened unexpectedly by some new encounter. What ends is never lost or forgotten. Not for me.
Authors deal with this subject all the time. Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one long meditation on how to deal with endings -- in this case, the marriage of large-scale trauma to personal loss. The pain of the overwhelmingly huge event hovers... holds above in the sky at a distance... becomes its own dark atmosphere... still isolates us from each other... and then sometimes can connect us. The threads of personal loss that isolate. The endings that come suddenly or even with anticipation and then make us more afraid then we ever were before.
"Three hours later, when I climbed into the hole, brushed away the dirt, and opened the lid, the renter opened the suitcases. They were filled with papers. I asked him what they were. He wrote, 'I lost a son.' 'You did?' He showed me his left palm. 'How did he die?' 'I lost him before he died.' 'How?' 'I went away.' 'Why?' He wrote, 'I was afraid.' 'Afraid of what?' 'Afraid of losing him.' 'Were you afraid of him dying?' 'I was afraid of him living.' 'Why?' He wrote, 'Life is scarier than death.'" (Extremely Loud, 322)What happens when the end hurts so much we cannot take it anymore? We must keep living. And living can be scary. Sometimes we protect ourselves so much that numbness becomes our state of being.
"I spent my life learning to feel less.It ends and everything becomes "closer and louder." Your boots get heavier. Every moment depends upon the ones before it and, vice versa, "[e]very moment before this one depends on this one." (EL, 232) We remake and shape our past into our present just as much as it shapes us the first time. And we want to tell them what we never said. And we want to say what we never knew how to say. And we want to say so much, so much more than if the moment never closed. The moment closes and the words fill our mouths and minds and hearts... and they are wordless words because we cannot find the way to articulate them... and so our bodies fill with the weight of letters and vowels and consonants and sounds that don't make any sense. And the weight makes our boots heavier still.
Every day I felt less.
Is that growing old? Or is it something worse?
You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness." (EL, 180)
"There won't be enough pages in this book for me to tell you what I need to tell you, I could write smaller, I could slice the pages down their edges to make two pages, I could write over my writing, but then what?" (EL, 276)And how does Oskar deal with his own ending, with the extremely loud and incredibly close loss of his father? With the inexplicability of endings? He takes advantage of the conditional tense, that verb formation of the always possible...
"The room was filled with conversations we weren't having." (278)
"... I sat on the bed and thought, I thought about you. What kind of food did you like, what was your favorite song, who was the first girl you kissed, and where, and how, I'm running out of room, I want an infinitely long blank book and forever, I don't know how much time passed, it didn't matter, I'd lost all of my reasons to keep track... I wanted to build walls around him, I wanted to separate inside from outside, I wanted to give him an infinitely long blank book and the rest of time... I wanted to touch him, to tell him that even if everyone left everyone, I would never leave him, he talked and talked, his words fell through him, trying to find the floor of his sadness." (280)
"Dad would've gone backward through the turnstile...He also manipulates images... reverses the pictures of a man falling so that he returns upwards back through the window into his office. Images of the impossible. Images of return from endings. So, he combines the possible with the impossible. He takes all that makes sense and all that doesn't and wraps it up together and remembers to say "I love you" to the ones he loves in the here and now.
He would've gotten up again at the end of the night before the worst day...
He would've walked backward to my room...
We would've looked at the stars on my ceiling, which would've pulled back their light from our eyes.
I'd have said 'Nothing' backward.
He'd have said 'Yeah, buddy?' backward.
I'd have said 'Dad?' backward, which would have sounded the same as 'Dad' forward.
He would have told me the story of the Sixth Borough, from the voice in the can at the end to the beginning, from 'I love you' to 'Once upon a time...'
We would have been safe." (EL, 326)
Sometimes an ending is a reworking. Sometimes an ending is accepting that there are no clues to lead us back to the beginning. There are no words to speak the closure that you desire to feel. Or fear to feel. Other times an ending is an about-face... a return to peer at the unknown, misunderstood self in the mirror... with the weight of guilt keeping the door to that past painfully open... as in James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room:
"The body in the mirror forces me to turn and face it. And I look at my body, which is under sentence of death. It is lean, hard, and cold, the incarnation of a mystery. And I do not know what moves in this body, what this body is searching. It is trapped in my mirror as it is trapped in time and it hurries toward revelation.Even a gentle breeze can pull the veil of the past back over our eyes, can envelop us in what is "over." The hope -- that optimistic movement into the future -- can itself become a weight. We are always dealing with endings and loss. The question is how to incorporate them successfully into your present and future. And how not to end the ones that will wrack us with guilt, will tear at our heartstrings, will echo down every hallway we ever choose becoming the aching walls of an imprisoned life... where every room we enter becomes the one from which we could never escape:
...The morning weights on my shoulders with the dreadful weight of hope and I take the blue envelope which Jacques has sent me and tear it slowly into many pieces, watching them dance in the wind, watching the wind carry them away. Yet, as I turn and begin walking toward the waiting people, the wind blows some of them back on me." (GR, 168-169)
"This is the room I have never been in.I leave my students, but I do not leave them. I cannot quit them. I hope they do not forget all of the words. I will remember theirs. I will be forever deeply moved by them. They are part of the bones of my life now, part of the me that is blood and sinew and beating heart... part of the me that moves into the future, carrying them always with me. The ending is but an ending only in the sense of what we now cannot create anew, but it is not an ending of meaning. With time, their meaning and value to me will only become greater. Just as love. That most beautiful of eternally everyday beginnings. And yes, without endings we "would be safe." Yes, we will never be safe. But safe is not the territory of loss. Nor is it the place of new beginnings... or of love. Safe is staying still. Everything else is about movement.
This is the room I could never breathe in." (Sylvia Plath, "Wintering")
"What ceremony of words can patch the havoc?" (Plath, "Conversation Among the Ruins")