Love is why I came here in the first place.
Love is now the reason I must go.
[John Denver, “Seasons of the Heart“]
Arriving and Leaving: People enter and leave our lives: sometimes by their choice, sometimes by ours, often by circumstance. The arrival and departure of people who are significant to us is an important kind of beginning and ending.
Holding On and Letting Go: There are times for holding on. The child is not born ready to leave home. The parent may be too young and healthy to die. The young man who does not go after the young woman who has just walked away in anger may regret it for the remainder of his life.
There are times for letting go. The child reaches a point at which he not only can go but should go. The parent’s time to die comes. Some people make better friends than lovers.
Our narratives are full of stories of holding on and especially letting go. Few things touch the heart more poignantly.
Stimulating and Letting Alone: Most of us have a lazy streak and can use some encouragement from time to time. Practically all of us have times when we seem to have to jump-start ourselves.
- However, there are times when people are best left alone. The ability to know the difference is an important attribute, one that can save a relationship.
Before dawn they came to take me back to my den. I drew aside the window curtain, to take a last look of my child. The moonlight shone on her face, and I bent over her, as I had done years before, that wretched night when I ran away. I hugged her close to my throbbing heart; and tears, too sad for such young eyes to shed, flowed down her cheeks, as she gave her last kiss, and whispered in my ear, "Mother, I will never tell." And she never did.
When I got back to my den, I threw myself on the bed and wept there alone in the darkness. It seemed as if my heart would burst. When the time for Ellen's departure drew nigh, I could hear neighbors and friends saying to her, "Good by, Ellen. I hope your poor mother will find you out. Won't you be glad to see her!" She replied, "Yes, ma'am;" and they little dreamed of the weighty secret that weighed down her young heart. She was an affectionate child, but naturally very reserved, except with those she loved, and I felt secure that my secret would be safe with her. I heard the gate close after her, with such feelings as only a slave mother can experience. [Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Chapter XXVII, New Distination for the Children.]
- Meghan O’Rourke, The Long Goodbye: A Memoir (Riverhead Books, 2011), beginning with her mother’s illness and death, it is an “anguished, beautifully written chronicle of that passage, from the innocence of a relatively privileged life to the wider and more desolate country that great loss imposes.”
- Jane Gross, A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents – and Ourselves (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011): review.
- Roger Rosenblatt, Making Toast: A Family Story (Ecco, 2010):on the author’s coming to terms with grief over his daughter’s death.
- Roger Rosenblatt, Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats (Ecco, 2012): Rosenblatt’s follow-up two years later.
- Ayelet Tsabari, The Art of Leaving: A Memoir (Random House, 2019): “‘The Art of Leaving’ documents the decades of Tsabari’s life when she has been unable to stay in one place. Raised in Israel — in the minority, as a Yemeni woman among the fair-skinned Ashkenazi — she has always been an outsider. Loss and isolation are central to her identity.”
- Dohra Ahmad, ed., The Penguin Book of Migration Literature: Departures, Arrivals, Generations, Returns (Penguin, 2019): “It’s the story of movement; of migration, its trauma or license, its challenge to one’s premises and moral coordinates, life and livelihood.”
Documentary and Educational Films
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Jessica Lahey, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed (Harper/HarperCollins Publishers, 2015): “When I was learning to drive, my mother sat in the passenger seat pressing her foot on an imaginary brake, gripping the door handle for dear life. She couldn’t do it for me; she could only watch. It wasn’t pretty, but I did learn.”
A spruce tree stands alone
In the Northland on an bald peak
It reposes, shrouded in white
Surrounded by ice and snow.
It dreams of a palm tree
Which in the far away orient,
Mourns in silence and solitude
On the rim of a burning cliff.
I loved you, and I probably still do,
And for a while the feeling may remain...
But let my love no longer trouble you,
I do not wish to cause you any pain.
I loved you; and the hopelessness I knew,
The jealousy, the shyness - though in vain -
Made up a love so tender and so true
As may God grant you to be loved again.
[Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, “I Loved You”]
ARRIVING – LEAVING
Love, we're going home now, / Where the vines clamber over the trellis: / Even before you, the summer will arrive, / On its honeysuckle feet, in your bedroom.
Our nomadic kisses wandered over all the world: / Armenia, dollop of disinterred honey: / Ceylon, green dove: and the YangTse with its old / Old patience, dividing the day from the night.
And now, dearest, we return, across the crackling sea / Like two blind birds to their wall, / To their nest in a distant spring:
Because love cannot always fly without resting, / Our lives return to the wall, to the rocks of the sea: / Our kisses head back home where they belong.
[Pablo Neruda, “Love, We’re Going Home Now”]
Other poems on arriving and leaving:
- Tree Daye, Cardinal (Copper Canyon 2020: “A slim collection of beautiful poems about moving (leaving, returning, remembering) . . .”
HOLDING ON – LETTING GO
I was angry with my friend; / I told my wrath, my wrath did end. / I was angry with my foe: / I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I waterd it in fears, / Night & morning with my tears: / And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles. / And it grew both day and night. / Till it bore an apple bright. / And my foe beheld it shine, / And he knew that it was mine.
And into my garden stole, / When the night had veild the pole; / In the morning glad I see; / My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
[William Blake, “A Poison Tree”]
Other poems on holding on and letting go:
- Robert Frost, “A Boundless Moment”
- Mary Cassatt, Mother Playing With Her Child (c. 1897)
- Vincent van Gogh, Morning, Going to Work (1890)
- Vincent van Gogh, Peasant Man and Woman Planting Potatoes (1885)
- Ivan Aivazofsky, Morning at Sea (1849)
- Salvador Dali, Departure (Homage to the Noticiario Fox) (1926)
- Giorgio de Chirico, Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure) (1914)
- Umberto Boccioni, States of Mind II, The Farewells (1911)
- Wassily Kandinsky, Farewell (1903)
- Max Beckman, Departure (1932-33)
- Fernand Léger, Adieu, New York (1946)
- Joseph Mallord William Turner, Decline of the Carthaginian Empire (1817)
- Norman Rockwell, Breaking Home Ties (1954)
Poor old Jean Valjean certainly did not love Cosette otherwise than as a father; but we have already remarked, above, that into this paternity the widowhood of his life had introduced all the shades of love; he loved Cosette as his daughter, and he loved her as his mother, and he loved her as his sister; and, as he had never had either a woman to love or a wife, as nature is a creditor who accepts no protest, that sentiment also, the most impossible to lose, was mingled with the rest, vague, ignorant, pure with the purity of blindness, unconscious, celestial, angelic, divine; less like a sentiment than like an instinct, less like an instinct than like an imperceptible and invisible but real attraction; and love, properly speaking, was, in his immense tenderness for Cosette, like the thread of gold in the mountain, concealed and virgin. Let the reader recall the situation of heart which we have already indicated. No marriage was possible between them; not even that of souls; and yet, it is certain that their destinies were wedded. With the exception of Cosette, that is to say, with the exception of a childhood, Jean Valjean had never, in the whole of his long life, known anything of that which may be loved. The passions and loves which succeed each other had not produced in him those successive green growths, tender green or dark green, which can be seen in foliage which passes through the winter and in men who pass fifty. In short, and we have insisted on it more than once, all this interior fusion, all this whole, of which the sum total was a lofty virtue, ended in rendering Jean Valjean a father to Cosette. A strange father, forged from the grandfather, the son, the brother, and the husband, that existed in Jean Valjean; a father in whom there was included even a mother; a father who loved Cosette and adored her, and who held that child as his light, his home, his family, his country, his paradise. Thus when he saw that the end had absolutely come, that she was escaping from him, that she was slipping from his hands, that she was gliding from him, like a cloud, like water, when he had before his eyes this crushing proof: "another is the goal of her heart, another is the wish of her life; there is a dearest one, I am no longer anything but her father, I no longer exist"; when he could no longer doubt, when he said to himself: "She is going away from me!" the grief which he felt surpassed the bounds of possibility. To have done all that he had done for the purpose of ending like this! And the very idea of being nothing! Then, as we have just said, a quiver of revolt ran through him from head to foot. He felt, even in the very roots of his hair, the immense reawakening of egotism, and the _I_ in this man's abyss howled. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume IV – Saint-Denis; Book Fifteenth – The Rue de L’Homme Armé, Chapter I, A Drinker Is a Babbler.]
The main theme of Colm Tóibín's fiction seems to be regret. Though regret is not our ideal, it is a prominent part of our thoughts and therefore of our story.
- Colm Tóibín, The Empty Family: Stories (Scribner, 2011).
- Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn: A Novel (Scribner, 2009).
- Colm Tóibín, Mothers and Sons (McClelland & Stewart, 2007).
- Colm Tóibín, The Master: A Novel (Scribner, 2004).
- Colm Tóibín, The Blackwater Lightship: A Novel (Scribner, 2000).
Other works on letting go:
- Andrew Ridker, The Altruists: A Novel (Viking, 2019): “Even if it’s true that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, it seems pretty clear that many have the same dilemmas and woes. One that frequently pops up in life and literature is an inability or unwillingness to let go of the past and its generations-spanning mistakes, disappointments and resentments.”
- Karen Hesse's Phoenix Rising (Henry Holt and Co., 1994) takes its title from an ancient myth about a bird that never dies.
Music: songs and other short pieces
The number of popular songs that strike this chord attest to how common the pain of leaving is in our culture.
- Bob Dylan, Girl from the North Country
- Bob Dylan, Red River Shore (lyrics)
- Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, sung by Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley, and Vince Gill
- John Denver, Seasons of the Heart
- The Platters, Harbor Lights
Film and Stage
- Red River, a American Western that warns of the importance of being able to let go emotionally of a lost love
- The Rider: The rodeo life was all that gave a young man a sense of purpose and meaning; then he could no longer live that life.
- Late Spring: a father in post-war Japan pretends that he is about to be married, hoping to encourage his daughter to leave the nest
- Life of Pi, about letting go, moving on and trying to figure out what was real
- Since Otar Left: an elderly woman uses a fiction to let go of her deceased son, her granddaughter lets go of a dysfunctional relationship with her mother, and the mother – the elderly woman’s daughter - cannot let go
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
- Korngold, Die tote stadt (The Dead City) a man cannot let go of his deceased wife’s memory (performances conducted by Hollreiser, Lano and Leinsdorf)
- Puccini, La Rondine: a woman leaves a man for his own sake (performances conducted by Bellezza, Maazel and Pappano).
- Abraham, Viktoria und ihr Husar (Victoria and Her Hussar): thinking her first love has died, a woman marries an American legate. When her first love appears alive, her husband releases her to follow her heart.
- Haydn, Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp Minor, I:45, "Abschieds" (Farewell) (1772)
- Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major, Op. 81a, “Les Adieux” (1810)
- LeClair, Scylla et Glaucus (1746): in this tragic opera, possessiveness is masqueraded as love (performance conducted by Gardiner).
- Carter, String Quartet No. 5 (1995): Written in the twilight of Carter’s long life, this was his farewell to the string quartet.
- Jordi Savall’s compilation of music on his album entitled “Carlos V: Mille Regretz: La Canción del Emperador” pays homage to Carlos V, who abdicated his throne when he could not bring peace to his people. He gave a moving statement about his wishes for the people and his inability to bring those wishes into being.