Yesterday I drove from Pittsburgh to New York City in a rainstorm. People aren’t supposed to live like this, I thought to myself as I watched the rain beat down on my windshield. Somehow the slow-as-molasses trip felt like a reflection of my heart after spending ten days in my hometown: moving slow, churning endlessly, and dangerously close to losing control. People aren’t made for saying goodbye.
I thought about history, and how until recently, the human race has lived for the most part in isolated communities, staying put. The difficulty of travel contributed to a smaller world—people were born, lived, loved, and died in their cities and towns. Except for a few wanderers, people dug themselves into the soil and tried to minimize their goodbyes. And as I drove alone in the rain, I envied my ancestors. They seemed to know something our world has forgotten. They were smart to guard their hearts from any goodbye but the inevitable goodbye of death.
We all know the ultimate goodbye hurts the most, of course. Even while I was in Pittsburgh for ten short days, my church experienced two deaths, and I was reminded how transient life is. Especially in light of this reminder, saying goodbye to dear friends and family felt like a micro death to me, yesterday. In a much smaller way, each time I leave those I love, I feel the unnaturalness of goodbye. I say goodbye, at the very least, to the moment I was in: to those faces, in that order, at that time. I can’t get the moment back, and when I see those people again, they will have changed and aged, as will I.
Even before my trip to Pittsburgh, I’d been considering goodbyes quite a bit. As I prepare to move to Boston, I am gearing up to say another goodbye not just to my friends here in NYC, but to this time of life—to the streets I walk and the moment I am living in. Before taking the job in Boston, I remember saying, “I’d like to move back to a city I’ve already lived in. I already have so many people I love, I don’t really want to go find more people to love.”
This sentiment held me, yesterday in my car. I asked myself why on earth, when I had so many people I loved so dearly, I wouldn’t want to be near them. Why am I not seeking to spend as much time as possible with my family, or my closest friends? Why am I following a career, instead of relationships? Why am I persisting in this modern idea of individuality, instead of taking a page from my forbears’ books?
And the answer, of course, is complicated. I wrestled with myself as I drove, allowing myself to feel the feelings I was experiencing (something I’ve been learning to do more and more.) It came to me piecemeal. Of course, there is the obvious fact that my sister and brother-in-law live in Boston, so I am actually moving closer to two of the people I love most. Yet the answer is deeper than that. My ancestors may have had it right, contenting themselves largely to stay put where they were, but like a prick to my ribs, the song Painting Pictures of Egypt by Sara Groves came on as I drove.
The past is so tangible—I know it by heart
Familiar things are never easy to discard
I was dying for some freedom, but now I hesitate to go
I am caught between the promise and the things I know
I cried again as the song played, but for a different reason. As much as it is important to settle down, to find where one is used and useful and fed and to commit to that place, there are no limits to the number of people the human heart can love. I will not love the people I already love any less for the people I find to love in Boston. I do not love my family in Pittsburgh any less for the kindred souls I met while in Chicago, nor do I love those dear ones less for the beautiful friends I have made while in NYC. And if God has been faithful to bring love and loved ones into my life in all these cities, why should I doubt that he will do it in Boston, or that I will in any way regret giving them my heart as I have given these others my heart?
I do not want to be flighty with my love, but I certainly do not need to be selfish with it. And I also do not need to pretend that there is no pain in love, just as there is joy. The more I love, the more the goodbye hurts—with both people and place. But I know I must not be afraid, either. Part of the pain of a goodbye is the fear of loss—the fear that whatever is coming cannot possibly be as good as what I’ve had. C.S. Lewis wrote (talking about the death of a loved one, but as I said, I think moving away from a loved one can be equated to the same emotions on a much smaller scale):
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
As usual, Lewis hit the nail on the head. We keep on swallowing. Life is a winding path, leading around twists and turns in the road that no one can anticipate. I have spent a long time longing for it to be a stroll through an English garden, with well cultivated pathways and a map in my hand. But I am beginning to know that wanting life to follow this ideal is not only foolish, and will lead me to frustration, it is also selling life short. I go where the path takes me—where God takes me. I go with threads trailing behind me, tying me to people and places that will always pull on my heart. I go knowing that pain is before me, but there is also joy. To know both is—at least for the present—to be human.
~ Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, ND Wilson
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard
~ On the Incarnation, Athanasius of Alexandria