A week ago, I thought leaving would be relatively easy, but that was before a week of goodbyes. Goodbyes to friends, favorite coffeeshops, streets, goodbye to my morning commute, goodbye to walking into my classroom each morning, goodbye to dear colleagues, goodbye to my gray desk beside the window. Goodbye to, essentially, the entirety of my life. I was a fool to think that, just because I’m ready, this would be easy. Ready or not, goodbye is rarely easy, even when warranted or needed. Whether or not I wanted it, over the past five years my toes have sunk into the dirt here, and they’ve needed a little ripping free.
But I think goodbye can also be humbling, and certainly heart-and-mind-altering. As in: I wish I’d seen her more. I wish I’d gone to that park more. I wish I’d felt that way less. Also: pay more attention. To Everything. It’s a difficult but purposeful reset: wherever I go next, I’ll remember what leaving this place taught me.
I like to imagine I can hold things together. I so easily fall apart in the face of my absurd phobias that I’m often determined to remain stoic in situations where people commonly lose it. But yesterday when my principal announced to the staff that I was leaving, I quietly lost it. Everything assembled before me like some sort of massive sculpture, memories in various classrooms with various students and teachers, the love and pain of it all–but her words cut right through it, and I watched the pieces fall. My life, everything I’d built, students I cared about, colleagues I enjoyed and respected, all tumbling away. I was grateful for two things: the music teacher sitting beside me, whose presence was so attentive I did not feel quite so alone as I faced my departure. And: the sadness itself. To have left without saying goodbye would have certainly been easier and less painful, but it would have provided no closure. No period. No empty space that follows, leading to the next paragraph.
This city is not just a place that frustrated me and made me feel like an alien. It also taught me a lot about who I am, and who I am not. It introduced me to people and ideas and information that have changed me forever. It became a part of me, and I it. Sometimes I actually feel like I’ve been here forever, and then I remember: wait! I’ve only known her for three years! I’ve only loved this park for four years!
The greatest challenge thus far was the seemingly simple act of leaving my classroom. I sat for so long beside the window, staring out of it, letting the breeze settle over me as it swam in through the metal grating. Leaving my desk was not just leaving my desk. It was not even just leaving my school. It was leaving five years of teaching, it was leaving three schools. It was leaving all of the love, loss, success and failure, the intense and unexpected learning and growth. I will, of course, continue teaching art. But it will never be like it was these first five years. I felt, honestly, like I was like saying goodbye to the 1,000+ students I’ve met and taught and learned from since 2012.
I went out the back door to say goodbye to a colleague. As I walked toward her car the wind blew across the field, through the parking lot, past the aging sycamore, lifting my hair lightly and briefly at its roots. Its movement across my face felt material, like fabric, like it had a shape, or perhaps a message.
I knew then, there were a few students I had to say goodbye to. It was painful, of course, but helpful, I think, for me, and for them, to know I’m not returning next year, and why. The worst part was when I drove away from one house, and I saw my student standing at the end of her driveway, watching me disappear. She stayed there until I did. It is always my hope that my students know how much I care–how important they are to me, how much they teach me, how much they give me. I hope she knows.
Leaving this place is a big deal, even though I like to try to convince myself that it’s not. I came back here five years ago with the idea that I’d stay forever. Leaving was never a part of the plan. I loved and still love Rochester–but I’ve recently likened leaving this place to leaving a troubled relationship. You don’t always leave a relationship because you don’t love the person–sometimes you leave, in love, because it isn’t working… and eventually, you’re done trying to make it work. I suppose that’s why leaving my desk behind yesterday was such a big deal: the only part of my life here that has ever really “worked” was, well, work.
I still don’t know where I’m moving to, for sure. I’ve been applying to jobs in a few different areas and I’ve felt myself leaning toward Atlanta, but there are also a lot of opportunities in a few other cities. At present, my mind and heart don’t feel capable of making such a huge decision. I suppose I knew what I doing back in April when I bought airline tickets to Guatemala–perhaps some part of me anticipated that I still would not “know” where to next, that I’d need a little escape and reset in order to make sense of all of the millions of things I want to do and be in my life. I love teaching–but it can be all-consuming, making it incredibly difficult to make personal decisions or changes. I’m hopeful that my month away, writing and drawing in a treehouse near Lake Atitlán, will provide sufficient space and time for me to figure enough of this out.
For some time now it seems that life keeps throwing me into situations where I not only have to accept the unknown, but embrace it, perhaps even learn to love it. Until now, I’ve largely failed. I’ve fought the gray areas and I’ve aimed to categorize, classify, label, and figure out. In many ways, I love the unknown–but I realize now I only love it when the stakes are relatively low. This is an opportunity for me to change that; I can accept that I have limited funds, limited time, and a whole field of unanswered questions…but I can also continue moving forward despite the challenges, limitations, and unknowns. I can learn to trust myself, to trust my life and those around me, and persist despite the heavy fog and sometimes-frightening conditions.
I do know a few things things, though: I must continue teaching art. I must draw and write more than I have been. I must keep doing and learning about yoga. I must spend more time outside. I must be in close proximity to nature. I must find a community of creatives and intellectuals who share many of my values. I must never be too far from my family for too long. And: I was put here to help make this world a more connected, beautiful, and just place; through both the teaching of art, and also my creation of it.
Tuesday, I leave for Guatemala and will write about my adventures on this here website. Until then, as the Arabic script says (I think; I chose it because it was the most beautiful translation of ‘goodbye’ I could find) in the subject line above:
Peace be upon you.