On leaving

I left a place. I drew a thing. I wrote a speech.

Leaving-Rangitoto

In “How To Tell A True War Story” Tim O’Brien says you can tell a true war story by how it never seems to end. I am sure many of you feel the same about leaving speeches. No one says “I’ll keep this brief” in a leaving speech and means it. We all become Polonius – caricatures of the right thing to do. Buffoonish. Moralistic. Liable to narrate our own deaths. “Oh, I am slain.” Leaving speeches never end, not just in the pejorative sense of them going on in their Tolkienesque way – “You thought that was it? Oh no, we still have the scouring of The Shire, baby” –  or feeling fraught with the violence of experience but also they also never end because they stay with you. That last experience stands in for your whole experience. If you’ve never seen them before, it IS your whole experience of them.

This makes endings important. They are how we shape our understanding of characters and people. People become characters to us. Endings give them an outline. Endings, oddly, make people whole. They pull them into relief. They highlight the pertinent and mundane. They equalise. Endings defy the unceasing soap-opera of our daily existence, our work that is never finished, our feelings of scarcity. In the nothing of the ending, in absence, we can see what we have. We can be full. I can get drunk on the emotion, the authenticity, the intensity of a severed connection.

And they connect with our own endings, whether they are good or bad. Because, they are a time for reflection. Because, if you are like me, you may be writing your own leaving speech right now. I have 9 and a half years of writing leaving speeches. It doesn’t matter that I have not wanted to leave, that I have known this place to be a great place to work. Despite this, while our beloved colleagues and friends have been up here, doing this, standing here, year after year, while they were fearfully, tearfully, formally putting a fullstop on their time here, I may have sometimes let my attention wander. I may have been writing my own exit.

Obviously the construction of the ending is something that English teachers cannot ignore. It can come up in the exam. And if we weren’t already preoccupied with the richness of doom and gloom, as if meaning was only found in unhappiness, we would still need to teach it. It’s hard to end well. When Charlie Kaufman’s character comes to screenwriter theorist Robert McKee in Adaptation about his inability to finish his film, he is told: “Wow them in the end. Wow them in the end and you’ve got a hit”. There’s a bizarre hubris to applying this to a leaving speech, to my own end. As if I could make myself a hit. As if anyone has that power. And yet, this is the closest I’ll ever get to giving an acceptance speech. And what’s the prize, anyway? Calling a leaving gift a prize would be a mistake. I’m going to propose that my prize is your attention – or the illusion of it since you are in your own heads trying to work out how you go. I get to control my end. I don’t go with a whimper, but with a bang – and can defy the hollowness of an exit unseen.

Ironically, all my imagined endings, my leaving speeches, have been all beginnings. It’s hard to think about endings without noting the beginning.  Mary Ruefle points out in Madness Rack and Honey that in life the number of beginnings are equal to the number of endings but in poetry we never end. Poetry continues off the page. It is never finished.  Leaving speeches defy the poetry of life. One of my favourite endings in literature does this. Vonnegut begins Slaughterhouse-five with the end. “So it goes”. It is inevitable. He recognises that we know where we are going. The question becomes not, “What will happen?” but “How will it happen?”  Perhaps I like it because this conception of the end opposes McKee’s flashy idea of the end that ‘wows’. It takes the pressure off. The narrative attempts to exist all at once.

I never finish these speeches. They are delicately confined to the time limit of other people’s swansongs. I’m interested by the term swansong –  the idea that the end is transformational – the point of becoming – the point of beauty.

These speeches have reflected my mood. I could fill a speech with lists of insightful things students have said – Like the time Joon Im described conflict as the clash of competing desires, or Grace Foot proposed that tragedy was exquisite or the time Rosie Luo said the crisis she’d had while writing her Hamlet essay had been one of consciousness because existential did not seem to fit.

Sometimes these unwritten speeches are anecdotes of my own humiliation – Like the time I showed a colleague a boob by accident or when I explained to some Geography students that, if they thought Rangitoto Island looked like a nipple, they clearly hadn’t seen any nipples or realising, when David Hodge said to me at the meet-the-principal thing at teacher’s training college that “Oh, you’re that Long Bay girl”, that perhaps putting my high school certificates into a CV may not be the done thing.

More often than not these unwritten speeches are odes to colleagues, treatises on the value of teachers. Endings, in this way, are about thanks. You all deserve to have speeches made about you, to blush with the understanding of your worth and then to generously feel that someone else deserved that praise more because you are better people than me. This would take more than the 10 minutes I have allotted me. Actually, the thing in front of you took roughly 10 hours **gestures at picture**. If you want to read what has gone off the edge, I have given the originals to Patrick Gale, who I feel is a good steward. I got a bit over-zealous. I forgot the limitations of the photocopier. But there many of you are, held in a snapshot – still, unchanging. Held at my end.

Freud said that the pleasure principle is actually a desire for the ultimate stasis – the end. I’m not necessarily a fan of Freud, but what Peter Brooks does with this idea when applying this to story, is point out that narrative endings give us something we never let as individuals –  the chance to see our lives as complete. This makes leaving speeches even more important. They give us a celebration of ourselves that we never get. This is the weight that the ending must bear. It must hold everything together. It not only must wow, but contains the burden of completion.

There’s a morbidity to this idea, of course. And when you don’t know the person, it’s like you skipped to the back of the book or are at a funeral for someone you don’t know. The intimacy bridles and prickles you and you shift about, feeling lost in an absence of context or possibility. You become aware of the people you cannot and never will know. That they are people with inner lives, and they were here, parallel to you, and now they are going. There’s a word for it, perhaps invented, – sonder – but it is heightened in this context as you become aware of them only at the point of leaving. They were closer to knowable than the strangers you sit alongside on the motorway or queue with in the supermarket and perhaps you feel you missed out. I often do.

I will apologise for removing this speech to the sphere of the meta, not in the modern sense, but in the Greek sense. I will not ask for forgiveness; I will give you an explanation. Metaphor originally meant to carry. To carry meaning from one thing to another. The meta speech, then, must attempt to hold all of the others. The meta is a greedy and loving act. It is my way of pulling all of the other speeches, unfinished or otherwise, yours and mine, past and present, inside and making them part of me. I can remove myself and stay apart of it.

A Kate Camp poem, “The biology of loneliness”, notes that ‘it is a mistake to come to the end of ourselves’. And yet, that is what I have to do. I have to come to the end of myself in this place. I’d like this to be more like the Maori proverb of walking backwards into the future than a proper ending. I’d like it to be an ending where we are are all part of the wharenui, the living story. This end is the crest of a backwards wave of time, which, in this moment I can see as complete but, in time, I will push out and out until I cannot see the shore line anymore. I will leave my end with you.

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