“What I’ve started I must finish. I’ve gone too far to turn back. Regardless of what may happen, I have to go forward.”
~ Michael Ende, The Neverending Story
I’ve been thinking recently about unfinished stories. I have a lot of them.
To me, an unfinished story is anything I set into motion and didn’t bring to an ending. I let it go. I drifted away. I forgot about it (or didn’t)—but the point is, I never made another move to finish it. I probably never even thought about whether, in an ideal world where I had as much time, money and inspiration as I wanted, I would choose to carry on with the story or just write an ending for it as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Not all of my stories are made of words, although some are. (I still have stories from middle school that I never finished, written in ink on lined paper, complete with my characteristic heavily blacked over cross outs.) Some of my stories are relationships that never came to a clean end. Some of my stories are projects I said I would take on, commitments I made to myself or others, desires to see something come to fruition—high hopes and dreams that never manifested. Some of my stories are monetary debt I still owe.
As a child I read the book The Neverending Story. I have always remembered the scene near the end where the main character, Bastian, is confronted with the consequences of having created many characters through his magical wishes and having sent them off on adventures whose endings we don’t see. About these adventures, we are only told: “But that is another story, and shall be told another time.” Now we see that far from having neatly-wrapped-up, out-of-sight-out-of-mind endings, all of these stories were suspended, waiting for Bastian to return and finish everything he started.
It seems an impossible and hopeless task, because at this point in the book, Bastian doesn’t have any wishing power left. He is just trying to get home. Luckily, his friend who has accompanied him on his adventures volunteers to finish the stories for him. Bastian is off the hook.
I don’t think I have such an easy way out.
In many ways, as The Neverending Story implies, it’s irresponsible to leave behind us a trail of unfinished stories.
Every time there is an unfinished story, I think a little bit of our energy stays behind to tend to the story, even if only to hold a (conscious or unconscious) placeholder there.
Every so often we remember. “I never said goodbye.” “I always meant to pay her back.” “I would have loved to have done that.” Part of us doesn’t let go, and so isn’t fully present in our lives now.
And yet, it is so human to leave unfinished stories. Sometimes things change when we weren’t expecting them to. Sometimes we begin with the best of intentions and then realize we didn’t know what we were getting into. Sometimes, we just lose it. Sometimes we are so different by the time we come back to what we left that we don’t know how to keep going with something created by a self we don’t inhabit anymore.
I am caught between wanting to be impeccable with my word, even if that word was only spoken to myself, and my nature to fall and rise and fall again, my deviation from the level, my continual transformations.
I want to take action to bring closure where possible: pay those debts, write to those I ignored and tell them I appreciate them even if we are not in each other’s lives in the ways we thought we would be, file away those things I am sure I will never touch again.
But what about those places where I find it hard to let go? What about those projects I find it hard to admit to myself I will never complete? What about the people who used to be in my life with whom I still feel unfinished, but with whom I lack even the wispiest thread of connection? How do I come into the present with those?
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in her book Women Who Run with the Wolves, offers a possible reconciliation:
“To make descansos means taking a look at your life and marking where the small deaths, las muertes chiquitas, and the big deaths, las muertes grandotas, have taken place. I like to make a time-line of a woman’s life on a big long sheet of white butcher paper, and to mark with a cross the places along the graph, starting with her infancy all the way to the present, where there are roads not taken, paths that were cut off, ambushes, betrayals and death. I put a little cross along the time-line at the places that should have been mourned, or still need to be mourned. And then I write in the background ‘forgotten’ for those things that the woman senses but which have not yet surfaced. I also write ‘forgiven’ over those things the woman has for the most part released.”
She’s writing for women, but her words can apply to anyone.
For those unfinished stories I still hold onto, the ones that represent a place of failure of commitment or failure of kindness or failure of awareness, the places in me I grieve as the “might-have-beens,” I can create little memorials.
I can leave what’s died symbolically in the place of the dead, just as if these projects and relationships had been people I’d known who died too soon.
It isn’t a perfect solution, but in lieu of a magical friend stepping in to finish all my unfinished stories, I need to take responsibility for the energy I have left in my past. I need to bring it into my present, and the sooner the better.
Like I’m not “Spiritual.” I just practice being a good person. on Facebook.
Ed: Bryonie Wise