I’ve always struggled with endings. I can write a beginning and a middle, and even a climactic confrontation, but actual endings, of stories, poems, songs, and especially novels, have been hard for me. I can write myself into a corner, like all of the experts tell you to do, with the stakes at their highest, and no hope to speak of, but I can’t write my way back out again.
We rely on stories to give our lives a more satisfying shape. We can tolerate the stress and conflict necessary in storytelling, because we believe we know that there will be relief and success in the end. But that’s never been my life experience. The tension never really abates. It just ratchets up and up until I get used to the higher level of anxiety. I may look back, a year later, and realize that I’ve solved a problem or learned a lesson, but I don’t feel the relief while it’s happening.
I’m always looking ahead. I can’t help it. Even when I read a book or watch a movie, and the happy ending comes along, I start imagining how badly the next part of the story will go instead of reveling in the joy. I must have accomplished things, or finished things, in my life, but it never feels that way. When I graduated from high school or college or graduate school, I was focused on the abyss ahead of me, rather than any sense of accomplishment at finishing something important. I never felt like I was really closing a book, or even a chapter, unless it was a chapter with a cliff hanger.
I am most comfortable with middles – where it’s just about doing the work in front of me, and not thinking about where I have to go next. But I’m not supposed to just stick to middles. I have to graduate, and start new things, and struggle all over again to figure out what to do, or why to do it.
The plan for my own third act (or fifth? Or ninth?), has been social work school, leading to a career, at least part time, as a social worker. But my third act is turning into a whole drama of its own, with a thousand catastrophes to overcome, and I’m barely a third of the way through the program.
One of the possible endings for a story, instead of a happy ending, or a tragic (everybody dies) ending, is simply getting up the next day to try again; the whisper of a hope of a happy continuation. This is what I’ve tried to tell myself, almost daily, of late: that it’s enough if I can get up the next day and try again. But I don’t really believe that. I want the relief of a happy ending. I want the denouement, the unknotting of tension, that I’ve been promised.
The dogs are so much better at shaping their stories. It’s the naps. Their days are made up of a series of short stories, conveniently separated by restful and rejuvenating naps. Cricket wakes up because she has to pee (inciting incident). She jumps on her Mommy, and cries and scratches, until Mommy agrees to take her outside (Cricket is the heroine of her own story). Outside, she sniffs, and barks, and chases squirrels and random humans, until she is ready to go back inside. Once inside, she stares at her Mommy and the treat bag, until the treat is given (the final climax). Then she eats her treat (denouement), and takes a nap (resolution). This neat structure happens over and over again every day, to Cricket’s great satisfaction.
Butterfly hitches a ride on Cricket’s daily structure, but sometimes she gets to be the heroine of her own story: barking me awake, running free through the yard to finally relieve herself of her burdens. But she doesn’t mind being Cricket’s sidekick the rest of the time. There’s something satisfying in being part of someone else’s story, instead of always having to be the heroine of your own. But then again, it’s not like we have much of a choice. This is Cricket’s story and the rest of us are just her supporting characters. Just ask her.