Saturday, September 14, 2013

Why Say Goodbye?

There is an empty space that lies waiting at the end of a visit or phone call. We have set phrases for these times: see you soon; I’ll call you later; good bye. Half the time we may not even mean what we say. But this space is a vacuum; it pulls us forward with no respite: something must be said. 

Or must it?

What if we didn’t say anything? What if we just walked away or turned our heads when we took our leave? It feels rude when I imagine doing it or, when done to me, like the other didn’t care enough to acknowledge my parting. Then again, I think of conversations in the work place. We see our colleagues several times a day, heads nod, jokes are made, how-are-yous said. These social fragments tend to have little meaning in themselves but symbolically we are telling others we appreciate their presence. Whether it is because they just help us pass the day or that we truly like them is not overly important—it is the connection, however tenuous, that makes it special.  

But notice how these bits and pieces of dialogue tend to have no proscribed beginning or end. Unless you actually see your work mate walk in or leave at the end of the day, the conversation can be a continuation of what was said when you last saw them. In a way these verbal passages are more realistic than those with the more formal salutations of hello and goodbye. A more meaningful reflection, perhaps, of the life cycle: birth, growth, decay and rebirth; no beginning; no end.

I always say goodbye with an “I love you” attached to my father who I talk on the phone several times a week. With most of my friends I do the same and they with me. I have never queried them on this but in self-reflection perhaps some of it is based in fear. What if I never saw them again; what if something happens to either them or me? I don’t want to regret not saying what I feel when I had the chance. But do we really need to conclude so dramatically each time? What if we initiated conversations with the expectation that it never ends, that even in death, the dialogue continues?

Perhaps we should be more like those poets who shun punctuation. We could have pauses and line breaks, even multiple line breaks and still be considered a cohesive whole. Our lives a piece of poetic prose with no beginnings or ends but bookmarked within the pages of infinite time and space.

There Is No Word for Goodbye

Sokoya, I said, looking through
the net of wrinkles into
wise black pools
of her eyes.

What do you say in Athabascan
when you leave each other?
What is the word
for goodbye?

A shade of feeling rippled 
the wind-tanned skin.
Ah, nothing, she said,
watching the river flash.

She looked at me close.
We just say, Tlaa. That means,
See you.
We never leave each other.
When does your mouth
say goodbye to your heart?

She touched me light
as a bluebell.
You forget when you leave us;
you're so small then.
We don't use that word.

We always think you're coming back,
but if you don't,
we'll see you someplace else.
There is no word for goodbye.

From Mary TallMountain’s volume, The Light on the Wall. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.

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