Catching the winged moment as it flies—to borrow an image from William Blake—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
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?