Seeing the Good In Goodbyes

All too often, we can't find the words to say goodbye. Can we stand to gaze into the heart of our loss, the preciousness of what we are losing, and not look away?
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

When my sun was nearer noon, my days were all too easily obscured by the endless rush of days coming after it. There was a whole life left to live, with the best surely still to come. So many moments were left unrecognized for what they were -- my life streaming in and over me in the shape of the only sensations I would ever know at the time, irreplaceable.

Especially when those sensations were painful, pregnant with sorrow and loss, it was all too tempting to move on to the next thing, the next person, the next event. In the name of detachment, that old Buddhist virtue, I might have said; though in reality I was only trying to protect myself from the feeling of hurt. Joy, and love of course, can invite the opposite reaction to pain -- the urge to hold on, not wanting to let the precious feeling go.

Now that I am well into my afternoon here, I have finally begun to realize that, whether I am holding on to my experience or pushing it away, the fullness of life escapes me either way. At the heart of love -- which is surely what we are here for -- is openness, it seems to me now. An unfettered openness of heart and spirit, I believe, is what intimacy -- with another and with all life -- really means. That openness is what I now see true detachment to be.

We let everything in and through, willing to feel more rather than less, even if it rocks our very foundations. Easy to say, not so easy to do. But we have a lifetime to practice, and it's never too late. I know now to catch the winged moment as it flies, to paraphrase William Blake. Better to feel the fullness of the experience even as it is leaving, which it always must, rather than nurture regrets for months, perhaps years afterward for what could have been said, or felt, but was not.

Catching the winged moment as it flies is, I believe, a true hello and goodbye all in one -- a wholehearted embrace of the way life is showing up for us now, even as we acknowledge and yes, even wave at its leaving. And because I do not always live like this, caught as I sometimes am in the holding on or the pushing away, I turn to poetry to help me in the moments of my need. Poetry reminds me of what I know and often forget. Poetry speaks for me what my own tongue sometimes cannot say. Poetry can coax from the shadows of my heart those feelings whose existence I may even have been afraid to admit to. This is why we shudder with recognition when we hear the right poem at the right time.

I have felt that shudder myself more than once in these last few years. I have attended my mother's funeral, lost a dear friend, ended a marriage, left a city -- New York -- that I had grown to love, and a couple of years ago, said goodbye to an intimate relationship with someone on another continent.

All too often, we can't find the words to say goodbye. So when my marriage ended, I turned to The God Abandons Anthony, the astonishing poem by the Greek poet, Cavafy, and read it to my wife. Anthony and Cleopatra are about to lose the city of Alexandria to the Roman army. Anthony is also losing the protection of Dionysius, god of music and wine. He stands on a balcony as a procession of musicians walks by. The poet urges him not to turn away from the beauty of the music, but to turn toward it; to take in the full impact of the loss he is going to sustain; to be willing to listen

to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are leaving.

Can we stand to gaze into the heart of our loss, the preciousness of what we are losing, and not look away? This is the challenge that Cavafy offered me. His poem gave me the words with which to say goodbye to my marriage and, even as it was dissolving, the courage to feel the value it had served in my life for a period of time. In capturing our innermost wishes and feelings, a poem can be the gift that we give to another and also to ourselves in a moment of parting.

I have learned that a goodbye is an opportunity for kindness, for forgiveness, for intimacy, and ultimately for love and a deepening acceptance of life as it is instead of what it was or what we may have wanted it to be. Goodbyes can be poignant, sorrowful, sometimes a relief, and now and then, an occasion for joy. They are always transition moments which, when embraced, can be the door to a new life both for ourselves and for others.

To say goodbye with all our heart is to turn a parting into a blessing. God be with you, goodbye means. A blessing is the offering of one heart to another; to another person, to a situation, to life itself. Isn't that what we are here for? To bless the savor of this precious moment even as it slips through our fingers? To allow its sorrow, its joy, its silence or laughter to enter our life stream and add a measure to who we are? This is the spirit and the hope of my book, Ten Poems to Say Goodbye, which will be published by Harmony in February.