Moving People

I spent my first year out of college serving with AmeriCorps, a program whose potential is severely undervalued (another post), in the great state of Washington, which is three-quarters wheat fields and wineries and one quarter crazy hippies with a cloudy sky problem. Over on the cloudy side of things, I spent four days a week serving as an in-class and after-school tutor while every Friday was spent either doing community service projects or professional development training.

About a month or so before the end of the school year, we had a session specifically on saying farewells, on making a good goodbye, as it were. We’d spent a year impacting (and being impacted by) our students, only to leave them at the end; those relationships deserved the dignity of proper closure. I ended up writing a note to every student in almost every class I’d helped in, and though as with all such projects it saw me working into the wee hours of the morning to finish, I felt good about the project, and about the goodbyes.

Not that everything went perfectly, of course. One of the students whom I really wanted to make sure got my note ended up not showing up to the last day of class, so I had to give it to her friend and hope that she got it. And then there were the students to whom I said goodbye, only to awkwardly see them again a few days later while running a summer program at the school. There were students I thought I’d get to see again who never showed. There was the last day of my summer program, when one of my students who wanted to keep in touch forgot to give me her address and vice versa. (Turns out I simultaneously haven’t thought of that in a year and still have an undercurrent of guilt running through me about it.)

The point I’m trying to make is perhaps that goodbyes are hard, and even when you prepare for them and try to make sure everyone knows they’re coming, you’ll still miss people, or run into them after you’ve already said farewell. But it’s worth the effort of trying to make good ones—that was the lesson I was taught, to acknowledge the change and confront it, to say I’ll miss you, but goodbye rather than trying to pretend that everything will be the same.

And of course everything is still the same, even after you go; little things will change, but one of the hardest parts of saying goodbye is realizing that life carries on in the place you’ve left, regardless of whether or not you’re there. There’s that moment where you look at the calendar of events and can mark precisely where your participation ends, but the calendar keeps going, and so do the people. You are not so indispensable that the world stops turning after you’re gone. Maybe it’s made all the harder by the fact that in the face of that ongoing stability you are now drifting, now trying to find a new space for yourself in a new place, trying to find your new homes, up in the air and still a ways away from landing.And of course the spaces exist, and I think I’ve gotten fairly good at finding them (a skill I owe in large part to my parents), but the meantime is still—hard.

This is not to say that you didn’t make a difference while you were there. One of the things I’ve learned upon returning places I’ve been is that people do remember you. One of the things people (or is it just me?) tend to do to themselves is wonder if they matter, if other people remember them, if they’ve ever made an impression anywhere—stop worrying; you have. They do. Just because their world kept turning after you left doesn’t mean you didn’t affect the tilt of their axis. Or the speed of their rotation. Or the timing of their tides?

Corollary: it’s just as important to say goodbye to your Starbucks barista or your Chick-fil-A cashier as it is to say goodbye to your coworkers. The coworkers at least know where you’re going; your barista is just going to wonder if you’re okay. (Case in point: the Subway manage who knew my husband’s unit had deployed, but didn’t know that he’d gotten married and started going home for lunch, and was worried he hadn’t made it back.) Closure matters.

With all that in mind we did our best in saying goodbye to our old home, even managing to squeeze in a last-day lunch at a restaurant my husband had promised to take me to…before we got married. And of course there were people we missed, and the whole process was that much more complicated by the number of times we went back and forth between old home and new, dragging out the sense that we were neither here nor there. There were late nights spent finishing a farewell present (more on that in a few posts) and awkward “we have said goodbye three times already but keep running into you” moments, and even now it still doesn’t quite feel like we’ve really closed the book on our old post—and we haven’t, as we’re going back for a squadron function soon (which undermined all of my husband’s attempts to say goodbye).

This constant coming and going only reinforces the lesson that a clean break is the best kind, that we owe it not only to others but also to ourselves to let the old things go to make way for the new. Not everything ends—Facebook, at the very least, makes sure of that (for better or for worse, and that I think ought to be a best friend guest post)—but it does all change, and we have to embrace that change, and give it—and ourselves—the chance to do it with dignity.

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2 thoughts on “Moving People

  1. This is really timely for me, in light of a new job and leaving people I’ve worked with for a few years. And I always love how thoughtful and insightful your writing is.

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