Please, Let It End

The clouds slide away like a tugged cloth in an unveiling ceremony, and underneath/overhead the sky glitters with stars. That pale smear? Our galaxy, so well-named. It’s been years since I’ve seen stars like this, and part of me wants to lay here on the beach forever, face upwards, counting the uncountable and feeling profoundly distanced from all my worries…

A few hours later, the sky clots over with rainclouds, and they start draping rain across my face, like wet spiderwebs — just enough to wake me, forcing me to turn over, to pull the drawstrings of my bivvy-bag hood and make an overhang I can breathe through. I doze off again. When I wake at 6am; the rain is urgent, drumming on hi-tech fabric that is somehow still keeping me dry. The distant town is hidden by low cloud; everything is shades of filthy grey. I shiver my way through a change into my walking clothes, bundle my shelter into a sodden ball and stuff it into my equally soggy rucksack…

When travel adventures turn miserable, as they often do if you’re being adventurous enough, the lifeline for your sanity is that you know they’ll end. Endings are the great unsung heroes of travel experiences: without them, everything worsens. Self-inflicted suffering becomes intolerable, turning bravado into self-pity and whining. Novelty erodes into over-familiarity, foreshadowing contempt. Emotional returns diminish, senses get blunted, grass gets greener over every fence…

In short: experiences are denied the endings that make them worthwhile.

In 2011, Venkatesh Rao published “On Being An Illegible Person”, a widely-lauded essay on nomadism that argued:

When voluntarily chosen, nomadism is not a profession, lifestyle, or restless spiritual quest. It is a stable and restful state of mind where constant movement is simply a default chosen behavior that frames everything else. True nomads decide they like stable movement better than rootedness, and then decide to fill their lives with activities that go well with movement. How you are moving matters a lot more than where you are, were, or will be. Why you are moving is an ill-posed question.

For Rao, constant movement is a state of balance and continual fulfillment that many non-nomadic people fail to appreciate. They see people on the move, and they think they’re motivated by an unseen beginning or an ending — searching for something, running away from someone. We’re wired up to overlay these story elements on human behavior. We understand strangers by fitting them into narratives we can empathize with. Constant movement for movement’s sake…it’s a hard sell for the narrative-addled parts of our brains.

But when you open yourself up to movement, endings often snap into focus. Why am I doing this? What’s the point? Hitting the road is usually enough to shuffle your priorities into a new order, to awaken new desires and to clarify exactly what you don’t want to be doing — for example, trudging through hissing rain with a backpack of saturated camping-gear. Adventures are states of transition, and that’s why they’re worth doing — you start at A, you progress through B (which may be paradise or a living hell) and you get to C, which, however bittersweet it might be to arrive at, usually makes A and B worthwhile in retrospect.

In A Field Guide To Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes of the attraction of viewing a landmark so distant that the air between has tinged it blue. She writes:

We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the desire between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing.

Without a destination — without a There to differentiate from Here — that blue easily becomes too abstract to motivate, as endlessly unconquerable as the sky. There’s no challenge to pin our desires on, nothing we can hope to achieve. Tangible endings render everything on a human scale, including the desire to move. Perpetual nomads may have embraced lifecycles the more geographically settled among us may struggle to recognize, but they’re continually redefined by a very powerful end-point: leaving Here. It continually tugs them onwards, and gnaws at them when they’re stuck in one place.

The online world has a major problem with endings. Where are the edges of social media? How much is “enough” — or even “done” — when it comes to Facebook, Twitter and all the other sites that command so much attention? Where are blogs going? Audiences get invested in journeys if they’re told right, but especially when an ending is signposted. Breaking Bad is astonishingly adept at crafting its endings — at the foreshadowing, seasons in advance, of an unknown but presumably grim fate for Walter White, or teaser openers that show an ending that will only make sense by episode’s end. If we didn’t have a sense that everything was truly going somewhere, we wouldn’t care about the journey so much. Bloggers have a lot to learn from successful TV shows…

Five hours after leaving the beach, I’ve found my own ending: laid on the kitchen floor of my house, so exhausted from trudging through the rainstorm that my legs can’t hold me up, and my feet…well, I don’t want to look at my feet. But here’s the final gift of a good ending. I’m beyond exhausted and in a pathetic state, all the more because I’ve brought it all on myself — but I’m also ready for the next adventure. Preferably somewhere warm and sunny, perhaps being carried on a litter, but nevertheless, something else.

Endings are an essential part of momentum. They draw a line, allowing you to rally your efforts, reflect on them and begin anew, except better, faster, stronger. Author Evan Harris became so addicted to ending things that she wrote a book about it (you can hear her story on This American Life). Endings can be addictive. Startup junkees get as hooked on endings as they do on beginnings — perhaps because they know they’re the same thing, and they’re always a matter of choice.

We invent endings — which isn’t to say they’re arbitrary or meaningless. The real problems start when we don’t invent endings. In the words of Dennis Lehane:

The world does not have tidy endings. The world does not have neat connections. It is not filled with epiphanies that work perfectly at the moment that you need them.

And if that’s true, it’s up to us to decide where we’re going,and what it’ll look like when we get there.

Skip to the end, people.

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