The Sense of an Ending

Writing and life: where nothing is tidy

Growing up, I read a lot of mysteries. I cut my sleuthing teeth on Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, but eventually moved on to Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Patricia Cornwell, Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Maj Showall and Per Waloo, Ngaio Marsh, and British TV series such as “Inspector Morse,” “Prime Suspect,” “Vera,” “Sherlock,” “Broadchurch,” and “Shetland.” Now when I walk, clean, cook, or garden, I listen to mystery-thrillers.

Mysteries are inherently satisfying. A crime is solved, a criminal apprehended, and order is restored to a family, a village, a country. I liked this tidy resolution that restored my belief in good triumphing over evil.

I was into my twenties before I stopped flipping to the last pages of a mystery I was reading. I couldn’t wait to find out “who done it” and why. Then I would go back and read to the end as I was supposed to, all the while knowing exactly where the story was headed. The element of surprise was gone, but I liked to think that I noticed clues I might have otherwise missed.

Who doesn’t like happy endings?

Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, stars of the “Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” were my favorite secret agents in the 1960s. Like James Bond, they always resolved some international situation. The book Boys in the Boat tells the story of a group of rowers whose homegrown grit and teamwork lead them to Olympic victory. In Educated, Tara Westover finally escapes a suffocating life. Easter is the happy ending to Lent, when Christians say, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

I’ve been working on the ending to my manuscript. For awhile. At times I’ve thought I could just tie all the themes up neatly, cinch the bow on top, and declare, “Done!” But a thought—more a correction to my thinking—keeps surfacing. There is nothing tidy about life. And what is literary nonfiction but a person’s experience artfully told? To be true and real, that experience must include all the messiness and pain that come with life—relationships, parenting, aging, a diagnosis, dreams derailed, and, waiting for all of us, death.

IMG_1198.jpgWhen I shared my struggle in writing my final chapter, a friend suggested I look more closely at the endings of other memoirs I admire. What a good suggestion that was! Revisiting what we think we know nearly always yields something new.

“[W]e never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder creatures . . . the pain is what yields the solution” (Gail Caldwell, Let’s Take the Long Way Home).

“If we are to live ourselves, we must relinquish the dead” (Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking).

“I opened the door to the rest of my life, this new life without a living link to the old world” (Patricia Hampl, The Florist’s Daughter).

With these rich examples steeping in me, I appealed to my writing coach. “I’m spinning my wheels,” I wrote to her, “wondering if what I have to say has value, uncertain as to how to land, questioning my faith, even revisiting the story’s heartbeat. No wonder I’m stuck!” At least I didn’t add, “hoping to run a marathon this weekend without training.”

With her help and my perseverance, I will find the elusive ending. But it will require patience, instinct, the gentle wisdom of others, and trust in the process itself. In the midst of my writing block are loved ones, activities of purpose, a good poem, a good meal, nature—all sources of inspiration and hope.

Surviving the Siege

When the usual tricks aren’t working

I thought getting through January was enough. I’d avoided making any resolutions I would not follow through on. I’d read and listened to several books, finished a podcast series on race, painted a room.

Then, the Siege.

Arctic air some of us haven’t experienced before or can’t recall, it’s been so long since temperatures here registered lower than Antarctica. (So cold that the previous sentence doesn’t have a verb.)

What to do when we are in virtual lockdown in our own homes?

The usual tricks weren’t working. I finished a book but couldn’t get out of my chair to fetch another. My office is begging to be decluttered but I can’t seem to see the piles all around. I dare not take a walk, not after listening to the dire warnings on MPR of exposure, frostbite, hypothermia, death. Frightful stories on the scale of news from Washington that were followed by a story of the Arrowhead 135, an annual endurance race of that number of miles across northern Minnesota that 146 people who need a challenge started yesterday.

“If you get a warm year,” one regular participant said, “it’s almost like you got cheated.”

Ha.

This morning I was at my desk, as usual, feeling just a little cheated that I wouldn’t be walking outdoors today, as is my habit. Even through the shades, the room had begun to brighten. It was time to open them, I decided, calculating that the overall effect of sun in (not to mention the lift it brings me) was greater than the draft that would come with it. This is what I saw:

 

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Maybe it’s a matter of perspective, this Siege.

I’d worry about my mental health if I was stuck indoors long-term, but for now, I’m embracing it. Last night I spent an hour in the basement, trowel in hand, planting canna and elephant ear bulbs. Today, a jigsaw puzzle. I won’t ever attempt the Arrowhead 135, but I can see why some people do. There’s something about not doing the usual.

Things could be a lot worse, I tell myself, still in my chair, staring out the frosted window. I could be married to Donald Trump.

Paid in Full

When a house becomes a home

Thirty-three years ago, Chris and I bought our house. We were to be married in July 1985 and spent that spring looking at houses in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood—about 100, as I recall. (Was it a coincidence that our realtor, ever gracious and helpful through to closing, retired shortly afterwards?)

Homes were going fast, often for over the asking price. We’d already been outbid on 2. So when the realtor called me at work to describe this house, which was to be listed the next day, I headed over immediately. Before I finished seeing the main floor, I called Chris. It didn’t take long for us to agree that this was the house. Within an hour we were writing up a purchase agreement.

We moved into our 1917 Craftsman-style house on June 1, arguably the hottest, most humid day of the summer. The A/C was welcome relief as my Aunt Bea and I organized the kitchen while Chris and Uncle Andy set up the beds.

Here was where Chris and I raised our children and had 3 dogs. We added a fireplace, a bathroom, and converted a porch into year-round living space—all without changing the house’s footprint. That had been our intention from the beginning, to preserve the integrity of a modest, well-built house.

A neighbor told us that there had been tires in the front at one time, and that the house itself had been neglected. The yard was a blank canvas. Over the years, Chris put in a patio, regraded the back yard, grew vegetables, and was a mostly willing partner when I wanted to add one more flower garden.

The only addition we made that likely won’t increase the value for the future owner was a growth chart on the door frame by the back entryway. In pencil, Chris marked our children’s height over the years. I forget it’s there, only to notice it on occasion, coming and going.

Doorframe

My heart fluttered recently when I logged on to my Wells Fargo account and saw those long-awaited words: “Paid in Full” next to the mortgage balance. The house was finally mine! I thought.

But hadn’t it always been ours? The moment we were given title to the property, this house became the epicenter of our lives. A child was born here, a husband died. Birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries were celebrated indoors and out. We entertained friends and read books in front of a fire. We puttered at our hobbies. We teased each other. We discussed politics and our  nonprofit work. We planned vacations. We faced health challenges and celebrated new jobs.      We saw the kids off to elementary school, then high school, college, and the world.

Some days the house feels too big, the upkeep too much. Some days I’m ready to move. But the echoes in every room and the accumulation of memories far outweigh the effort that goes with owning a home. Besides, is a house an effort when it holds the history of a family, a history that is important to claim?

My house is paid for in full. Better, it has paid for itself countless times over as a home, a haven, a loving embrace.