Learning to Exit Well

At the end of this summer we will move from New England, where we’ve lived for ten years, to California.  Anticipating the departure, I’ve become preoccupied with leave-taking. Departures. Farewells. Exits.

It started, of course, with conversations with the friends we will leave behind. Their touching sadness over our departure and the natural observations that flow from there (will this be someone with whom I will stay in touch?  how close are we really?). Leave-taking from different organizations was the next thing on my radar – professional connections, our local Unitarian church, my book group, and the homeless shelter organization I’d worked with for the last five years. With these, the conversation was more complex – navigating a myriad of personal relations (all at different levels of intimacy) as well as obligations, projects, and plans left incomplete.

Exit, pursued by bear

Exit, pursued by bear

All of these farewells began to add up in a way that felt heavy and overwhelming. I found myself wishing that we could just get on with it and put the exit behind me…sort of like the famous Shakespeare stage direction in The Winter’s Tale….exit, pursued by bear – a marker that unfortunately presages one of the character’s off-stage death. I was definitely feeling put upon and began entertaining regrets.

Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot, a Harvard sociologist, recently published a book called “Exits” in which she puts forth the premise that we don’t pay sufficient attention to life’s exits; divorces, terminations, moves, immigrations…In our culture, these are all viewed as transitions to be gotten through as quickly as possible. Slinking off into the night, quietly departing, and moving onto the beginning that awaits you. In fact, says Lawrence, we seem to intentionally ignore our exits in favor of the hopeful beginnings with which we are so in love. Fresh start, new day, clean slate.

After reading Lawrence’s book, I came to realize that I needed to pay more attention and not rush through our exit. It would be wise to be more careful, more intentional about all of this. And, so, in that spirit, here are a few things I’m working on…

– To more fully anticipate our departure so that I can take my leave with some grace and, well,… ‘thoughtiness’. For me that’s meant not racing to the finish line, pausing to reflect, and making time for favorite last visits and venues.

– To think carefully about the way I explain our plans to people.  Since the decisions around one’s exit might not match the decisions of others, it feels important not to explain too much; to leave room for the paths that others are taking. A few years ago, I remember a colleague of mine, going on and on about how extremely glad he was to be leaving his position at the company we were all still working for.  How thrilled he was to finally get “out”! Nasty feeling, that.

– Express my gratitude to those who’ve been a support, a friend, an influence on me.  Just creating that list was helpful, and then reaching out to them and being specific about my gratitude has been a real eye opener.

– To add our leave-taking to my map as a necessary and preparatory key to progress on the path ahead.

– Give myself time to allow this transition to loan me new understanding.  It seems to me that the change afoot can be a lens through which I might come to a fuller understanding/appreciation of other aspects of my life story.

– Leave the door open for reconnection and continuation.

It sounds like a good list – and I’m buoyed by the act of just writing it here. But it’s hard work ahead.

"Leave-Taking" by August Macke

“Leave-Taking” by August Macke



Filed under Reflections

3 responses to “Learning to Exit Well

  1. Much to process and appreciate– people, places, and perspectives. Trick is to spend enough time in your own shoes as well as others.

  2. Robin,
    This was really helpful and deeply heartfelt. The advice I took was to not let the “bear” of urgency chase away the sweetness in the ritual of acknowledgment of what has been of value, of significance and now will of what will become memory.
    Your gratitude list making is an inspiration. The very thought of it changes my attitude about goodbyes and “closure”. Dan Ariely, and Dan Kahneman

    (http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_kahneman_the_riddle_of_experience_vs_memory.html 0

    have done great research on memory that proves the equivalent of “all’s well that ends well”. It shows that the final experiences of a person or group retroactively reframes the memory and evaluation of the whole journey of the relationship.

    As an Arizona resident I personally take this news of a move to California as boon and opportunity for a closer encounter!

    • rheyden

      Lovely to hear from you, as always, Molly. And leave it to you to continue the Shakespeare references! Thanks so much for the linke to Daniel Kahneman’s amazing TED talk (listening to that one again with new ears) and very happy indeed to be getting nearer to your geographical center.

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