Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Making The End into Once upon a time . . .

This afternoon my husband Corey came home from law school early due to a power failure in the building (for a law student, discovering that there’s no viable internet connection tends to set off a slow descent into madness). I was doing some writing when he got home but we decided to take a quick break for lunch and started one of our reoccurring discussions about the afterlife. (I know—we’re weird.) This is a subject that, frankly, consumes me with worry. I am very unsure about what comes next, whereas my husband Corey is more sure that we go on to a bigger and better place where we get to reunite with our loved ones. I live in fear that that's not what really happens. In the course of our discussion Corey posited that in some way our souls must survive, maybe on a grand scale and maybe on a smaller one, there’s no way of knowing. He gave the example of perhaps existing as a blade of grass in the afterlife, his soul living on in the tiniest of ways, but still present and part of something much larger.

(I just hope my soul will live on in a ladybug so I can perch on him.)

I suppose I just want what awaits to be a gathering of all of my loved ones, some of whom I never even got to meet, the others those who sustain me in this life. And I wish for no suffering. It’s simple and it’s been stated before, but it’s still my ideal.

I know it’s seems strange to bring this existential stuff up, but I think that most of us do think about this kind of thing on a fairly regular basis. Some of us, like me, are unsure and afraid, others are sure and afraid, others still are unsure and unafraid. I’ve had some version of this discussion with nearly every person I’m close to and each person has a different theory on what's next, and they all sound like feasible possibilities to me.

These types of thoughts are always good starting points for my writing. Today it got me thinking about alternate endings. To me, the idea of letting things play out in different ways is a key element of thinking about writing. The whole idea of an ending is really sort of false when you think about it--our stories are always unfolding, our expectations faltering and leading us down paths we otherwise never would have known existed.

One of my favorite poems on earth is “Purgatory” by Maxine Kumin, which picks up where Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet left off. (If you don’t remember, they each kill themselves because life without the other seems pointless.) But Kumin lets them live. They do escape to Mantua (the Friar’s original plan for them) and this is what she imagines for them:

And suppose the darlings get to Mantua,
suppose they cheat the crypt, what next? Begin
with him, unshaven. Though not, I grant you, a
displeasing cockerel, there's egg yolk on his chin.
His seedy robe's aflap, he's got the rheum.
Poor dear, the cooking lard has smoked her eye.
Another Montague is in the womb
although the first babe's bottom's not yet dry.
She scrolls a weekly letter to her Nurse
who dares to send a smock through Balthasar,
and once a month, his father posts a purse.
News from Verona? Always news of war.
Such sour years it takes to right this wrong!
The fifth act runs unconscionably long.

In addition to just becoming another unhappy couple, the deadly fighting between the Montagues and the Capulets has continued (“News from Verona? Always news of war.”). Not only is the fate of R&J not exactly what they’d imagined, but they’ve also changed their role in the larger universe. Their tragic deaths did lead to something good. I love the "Begin" tacked on at the end of the second line, even thought it's the rhetorical beginning of the third line. It's as though she's simply saying: "Begin." And then the story unravels. The fifth act runs unconscionably long--oh what a perfect phrase for the cynicism in our lives! It's the way we imagine things, versus the way they play out. But perhaps the third part of this unfolding trilogy of the play and the poem is an answer to the question, do Romeo and Juliet find a way to be happy? Do they get old and sick, and fight and resent forever the hell of exile? Or do they rely on each other for what they might have gotten if they'd lived happily ever after in Verona? Does their love sustain them now as intensely as it captured them then? Or has their love simply become the quiet and strong kind--different from how it was in the beginning, but still there? Or did it evaporate with hardship and time?

With these questions in mind, my writing assignment for this evening (and maybe yours too if you’re so inclined) is to start at the end. I’m going to dig up some old stories of mine and also go through a few favorite novels and find an ending that I can begin from. The question guiding me will be: Now what?

Tomorrow I’ll post what I've got.

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