“Evie set the bar low but Peckerwood just considered it a challenge. There seemed to be no expectation so low that Peckerwood couldn’t get beneath it. You know a man ain’t worth a wooden nickel when his own mother quits him.” – Barbara Thurman, Regrets A’Plenty
I’ve been thinking about endings a lot lately. It is that time of year, after all. By and large, we don’t talk much about endings and how to handle them. Truthfully, how many dinner conversations have you had about endings of any sort? Writers will wax on forever about how to get started on a book, how to keep going on a book, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a class or a conversation with other writers about the best way to end a book, or how to quit a character. I’ve had critics who didn’t like the way I ended a novel say as much but they rarely offer suggestions for what would have made a better ending.
Of course, Tim thinks the way I deal with endings is by killing everyone off. Those of you who have read my books know that is absolutely not true. I usually open books with people being killed but I don’t think I’ve ever ended a book that way.
Lately, my mailbox has been filled with advertisements for life-flight and cremation services. In case the life-flight doesn’t work out, I reckon. Truthfully, I was more occupied with my own ending when I had small children underfoot. I realize now that it is perfectly natural for parents of young children to worry about such endings.
With a global pandemic still underway – (Piss off you anti-vaxxers. Go on, move off to Idaho. Ask Hemingway and Lori Vallow how that worked out for them) – there has been a lot of talk about death but mostly in a political way. When we hear that millions have died globally as a result of a virus on a rampage, we process that information the same way we would process an announcement that we just won millions in the lottery: We can’t imagine what that means for us or how it affects our daily life.
The truth is most of are horribly ill-equipped to handle endings of any sort, so we live in a constant state of avoidance and intentional ignorance. We don’t want to turn the last page on a good book, so we read slower. We don’t want to admit that a cherished friendship has run its course, so we pretend that we are both just too busy to catch up with each other. We loathe the idea of leaving a job, even a job we loathe, which makes no sense really because if there is one thing we humans do long for, it’s a fresh start, a new beginning. But you know what they say: Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.
What kind of advice is that?
Why not have as little to do with devils as humanly possible? That’s my goal.
The only teachings I’ve ever received on endings have come via the church and was packaged in brimstone and lit afire. Evangelicals, fundamentalists, and para-military whackos like Flynn are obsessed with The Ending. It’s the jihadists version of Virgins Await. End Time literature is the Evangelical’s Erotica – the largest source of income for Conservative Christian publishing.
If you want to draw a crowd among the churched you either preach a message of prosperity or one of hellfire. Either one will gain you a significant following. Toss in a bit of presidential bashing and blatant misogyny and you will be on your way to mega-church stardom. Needless to say, End Times teachings is mostly pure rot and not helpful at all when dealing with endings in real life or in fiction, even.
Fiction may have been my best teacher about endings, although, as with most good teaching, I didn’t realize what I was absorbing at the time or how relevant such lessons would become with time. Consider this lesson from Oliver Twist, a book I found on the plywood shelves of the Bookmobile that visited our trailer park on the south side of Columbus, Georgia in the late 60s:
“My dear child,’ said the old gentleman, moved by the warmth of Oliver’s sudden appeal, ‘you need not be afraid of my deserting you, unless you give me cause.’
I never, never will, sir,’ interposed Oliver.
I hope not,’ rejoined the old gentleman; ‘I do not think you ever will. I have been deceived before, in the objects whom I have endeavoured to benefit; but I feel strongly disposed to trust you, nevertheless, and more strongly interested in your behalf than I can well account for, even to myself. The persons on whom I have bestowed my dearest love lie deep in their graves; but, although the happiness and delight of my life lie buried there too, I have not made a coffin of my heart, and sealed it up for ever on my best affections. Deep affliction has only made them stronger; it ought, I think, for it should refine our nature.”
The young girl that read those words felt a deep and abiding kinship with the orphan boy, Oliver. While I had never been to London, I certainly understood something of the loneliness that the death of a parent can evoke, and the temptation to make a coffin of one’s heart.
That’s the challenge of any ending we ever face isn’t it? To not shut our hearts off from others, but rather to do as Oliver did – nurture an earnest heart: “It is because I think so much of warm and sensitive hearts, that I would spare them from being wounded.”
As I reflect upon the bloodbath at Oxford High, where students were gunned down by an bitter-hearted classmate, or upon the continual barrage of hate spewed by Congressional members in pursuit of the biggest headline, and even the chaos of my own daily existence, I question what will become of the warm and sensitive hearts of those that I love, or even those I don’t know? How can I help spare those that I love and those I don’t know from being wounded?
And the truth is, I can’t.
I can’t spare anyone from the Marjorie Taylor Greenes, the Ethan Crumbleys or the Kyle Rittenhouses of the world. I can’t even protect my own children or grandchildren from harm. So then I am left to question how do I at least encourage them to not let their hearts become caskets, least they, too, become like those who have abandoned them, betrayed them, or hurt them in some fashion, and who may intentionally continue to do so?
And moreover, how do I not close off my own heart to the MTGs, the Ethan Crumbleys, the Kyle Rittenhouses, the Ted Cruzes, the Tom Cottons, the John Kennedys of the world?
How does one extend grace to those who intentionally betray the country so many have died to protect? How does one extend grace to those who seek only to elevate themselves and pursue their own selfish interests? How do can we keep our hearts open to those who make betrayal their life’s ambition?
I don’t know the ending to those questions yet. Perhaps I never will.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Christian Bend: A novel (Mercer University Press).