How to Say Goodbye

How to Say Goodbye

It never occurred to me how long I’d have to stay at Yale. On the steps of my new suite in the late August heat, all I could do was draw upon seven years of goodbyes to say the one that really mattered; for the first time in my life, I was staying instead of leaving. Just like the first time I’d left life at home for the open road—age eleven, a summertime going away party on our porch in the Colorado mountains—I did not yet understand the crucial transition this marked. I lived how I always have, constantly eying finality in the face of inevitable departure. But this particular goodbye was not just to my parents — the usual farewell said on the first day of college — but to departure, and to the road; a goodbye to goodbyes.

I review the bullet points in my notebook of goodbyes, a hand-scribbled collection of sheets detailing what I’ve learned about the art of farewell since I was eleven years old and my parents decided to sell everything we owned, buy a boat, and take me traveling. From that point forward, we stayed few places longer than a week. The first goodbye I remember was in April of that year, following a rare few weeks of traveling with fellow boat kids, who’d (in the pattern of those constantly on the road) become my best friends by nature of proximity and shared experience. We left them for our next port (hundreds of miles away) in the wee hours of the morning, and I remember that it was an altogether new feeling: sitting in the dark, watching the lights of their boats fade into the sky, suddenly indistinguishable from stars. It was the same week that Whitney Houston died, which is irrelevant except for the fact that “I Will Always Love You” played over the VHF all morning, and continued in my head that night—decidedly melodramatic, but not altogether inaccurate. Some of them we saw years down the line, and remain friends with today. Some of them we’ll occasionally hear on the radio as we pass in the night, too far to talk. Others of them‚ as is rarely but tragically the case with those who choose to live off the grid, sailed into storms, and were never seen again (for these, we still raise a parting glass).  But regardless of all that came later, that moment was goodbye, and I wrote it down by the light of our GPS, counting up the miles from old friends.

The scribbles in these “goodbye notebooks” range from the melodramatic: “Don’t tell anyone you’re leaving—it’s better to disappear,” to the practical: “Always remember your tupperware and headphones and bobby-pins—no one remembers a dramatic goodbye where you pop your head back in to grab your toothbrush.” The helpful: “Have a song! Always have a song for a place, that way you can go back whenever you please.” The cautionary: “Wrap things up with a neat little bow, otherwise they’ll haunt you forever (think, G.S., T.E., N.G.).” The necessary (this one, stolen from John Green): “She knows the secret of leaving, the secret I have only just now learned; leaving feels good and pure only when you leave something important, something that mattered to you. Pulling life out by the roots. But you can’t do that until your life has grown roots.”        

Difficult as it may be to grow roots when you stay nowhere more than a week, it is not impossible. The key for travelers is to start with the end in mind, to exist with the intention to leave. For some, I suppose, to travel is to merely observe, but I’ve found you can’t fully experience a place until you’ve shattered a bit of yourself into the ground. Even at eleven, the world is new, and so are you; everything becomes a lesson, and so in every place, you seem to find a piece of yourself. You do what some have lifetimes for in only days and weeks—make a home, create a life, except on fast forward. You fall in love with ten people before breakfast, then have your heart broken by dinner; you find the best latte you’ve ever had and the best bar you’ve ever been to, and declare them so (and you believe that, until the next town); you become best friends with the first people you meet and confess yourself irrevocably changed by their company, before resigning yourself to never seeing them again. Place is inextricably linked with person. If all you waved farewell to were buildings on a receding shoreline, there’d never be a proper ripping up (indeed, there are ports like this, but I remember very few of them). Leaving somewhere is inevitably about leaving someone.

It is difficult to describe, how quickly you convince yourself that this is the one place you’d like to call home should you ever stop moving. I have had dozens—hundreds—of homes, and in each, I thought I might like to stay. But as happens, places get crowded, and people take on the more human qualities you ignored in the hours of hello; you see disappointment where there was once only possibility.

I can feel when it’s time to say goodbye, usually about the time I begin navigating around certain street corners (or, alternatively, haunting them) in order to either avoid or “serendipitously meet” someone; it’s when the coffee tastes a little bittersweet, or you can’t drive down a certain road without hearing a certain song on repeat (Friday Harbor, Don’t Be Scared; Georgetown, Vanilla Twilight; Toyon Bay, Atlas Hands). I once called this emotional saturation, when the ground becomes too full of memories to support functional existence. At this point, one must run to the vagabond’s cathedrals: airports, train stations, marinas—my favorite places on Earth, because they are the nowhere in particular; the reminiscence of what came before, and the promise of somewhere else, filled with people whispering final words (doesn’t everyone think, in a small way, that this might be the last time they see whoever they’re bidding farewell?), and redolent of that final cup of coffee.

Goodbye is an art, the fundamental element being that that it must never get easy. The consistency with which I have said farewell gives some the impression that I am “good” at goodbyes, a fundamental misunderstanding of the most important thing I’ve learned: you can not, should not, get good at goodbyes. As soon as they become easy, that’s when a traveler loses all that made the ripping up important in the first place—goodbyes’ all-consuming truthfulness lies in their imperfection. I believe in epic farewells—receding coastlines! lovers waving handkerchiefs! hurried last kisses!— a fact pointed out to me by confused college friends, who didn’t quite understand my need to declare our friendship eternal whenever we parted for class. But I never had luxuries such as a certain “next time” or “tomorrow” with any, given person, so I got used to closure, to tying things up in neat little bows, to leaving nothing unsaid. When people leave, everyone has a sudden propensity for the truth—if you want someone’s honest-to-God feelings, say goodbye. There is nothing to lose (after all, when will you see this person again?).

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These are the main ingredients for a proper farewell: make it epic, and tell the truth (there is perfect closure in ensuring you’ve said all you must; thankfully, I never stuck around long enough to hear what those I burdened with the truth said in return). The other essential component of farewell is a soundtrack; I began mine at twelve—that first time I felt a profound “ripping up,” or tearing away from all that made a place important—and added to it every time we left a  port. After a while, music is the only thing that can take you back, and you will need it for your toolkit of farewells, which may also include a handful of quotes, a collection of unwritten postcards, and a bottle of scotch that’s emptier than when you arrived.

Armed with all this, you say goodbye—the moment of singularity. Watching someone get smaller as you ride off into the sunset is the quintessence of travel, for it encapsulates all the we-saws, we-wents, we-dids; but more than that, it encapsulates all the what-ifs, never-hads, and roads ahead. It is everything, ever, in one moment, and it is goodbye. And yet, it contains a hidden danger: all the well-timed running and scientifically formulated farewells in the world cannot remedy the fact that using goodbyes to escape the messiness and ultimate detachment of human emotion is dangerous. Seamlessly, leaving became my talent, to the point that I developed a somewhat paradoxical obsession with farewell. My only constant was reinvention.

I grew dependent upon that moment of departure, the addictive feeling of walking through the train station, throwing off the bowlines, flinging the doors open and not looking back. This is my moment—“other people get boring, but I will be remembered (remembered, because I am gone)” I wrote. It was the best of all worlds; I needn’t deal with the emotional saturation of ground, the sticky situations or the messiness of human interaction, or the boredom of drinking the same coffee with the same person every morning. I could arrive a mystery, and depart a legend—it was up to me, who I would be in any given place, and it was intoxicating. But, as I realized my first year at Yale, that is a very dangerous way to live—you lose yourself in the aftermath, in the story you’ll tell and not in the person you’ll be. After a while, you’re running only because you know the person you have become is unsustainable, and she must disintegrate the moment you leave the shore.

After three months at Yale, I started to feel it, the inability to walk down a certain street at 2:30 on Tuesday afternoons. In a panic, I did the only thing I knew how: I got on a train, because I am good at saying goodbye, I am good at leaving (even though I had to return, a strange feeling to which I am wholly unaccustomed and can’t yet say whether or not I like). What I was never good at—what I never had a chance to be good at—is what happens if you stay. What happens if, instead of leaving, you sift through the emotional saturation and forbidden street corners to a mysterious sense of home? I am incapable of articulating what this looks like, for I imagine one lives differently if a place is thought of in terms of long, slow time—there’s no need to fall in love immediately, to have closure at the end of every lunch break, to instantly understand the full potential of one thing. I have never lived like this, and so, I lived Yale in exactly the way I lived everywhere else—only this time, I won’t be leaving. As it turns out, paradoxically yet likely for the best, the only thing left for me to learn about goodbyes his how to stop saying them.

These days, when my roommates ask where I’ve been over the weekend, or why I disappeared one Thursday, they are usually not surprised to learn that I jumped a mid-afternoon train to New York, or drove I-91 North to a town not on the maps. They usually ask, then, what was wrong — was it a broken heart, or a bad grade?; the internship you didn’t get, or what happened last Wednesday night? Whatever it was that made me leave, I’m always better when I come back. I have found, in a year-and-a-half at this Yale-home, that leaving is still the ultimate catharsis and that the miracle of trains stations and open roads is how easily they cleanse. But I have also learned that, sometimes, you can’t just buy a ticket to escape the uncomfortable and unfamiliar and heartbreaking; that sometimes, when you stay, the things that are worthwhile but hidden emerge with a transcendent clarity you’d never find if the answer was always to say goodbye.