Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free

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9780374151195: Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free
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From a renowned sociologist, the wisdom of saying goodbye

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot is enthralled by exits: long farewells, quick goodbyes, sudden endings, the ordinary and the extraordinary. There's a relationship, she attests, between small goodbyes and our ability "to master and mark the larger farewells."

In Exit, her tenth book, she explores the ways we leave one thing and move on to the next; how we anticipate, define, and reflect on our departures; our epiphanies that something is over and done with.
Lawrence-Lightfoot, a sociologist and a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has interviewed more than a dozen women and men in states of major change, and she paints their portraits with sympathy and insight: a gay man who finds home and wholeness after coming out; a sixteen-year-old boy forced to leave Iran in the midst of the violent civil war; a Catholic priest who leaves the church he has always been devoted to, he life he has loved, and the work that has been deeply fulfilling; an anthropologist who carefully stages her departure from he "field" after four years of research; and many more.

Too often, Lawrence-Lightfoot believes, we exalt new beginnings t the expense of learning from our goodbyes. Exit finds isdom and perspective in the possibility of moving on and marks the start of a new conversation, to help us discover how we might make our exits with purpose and dignity.

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About the Author:

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a MacArthur prize-winning sociologist, is the Emily Hargroves Fisher Professor of Education at Harvard University, where, since 1972, she has studied the culture of families, communities, and schools, and the relationships between human development and social change. She is the author of ten books, including The Third Chapter, Respect, The Essential Conversation, and Balm in Gilead, which won the 1988 Christopher Award for "literary merit and humanitarian achievement." In 1993, she was awarded Harvard's George Ledlie Prize for research that makes "the most valuable contribution to science" and is to "the benefit of mankind." She is the recipient of twenty-eight honorary degrees and is the first African-American woman in Harvard's history to have an endowed professorship named in her honor.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

One
 
HOME
 
 
When most of us think about home, we picture a physical place: the house where we grew up, the address we learned by heart in case we got lost, the room we painted hot pink when we turned eight and our parents allowed us to choose the color, the crack in the third flagstone step leading to the front door, the way no one used the front door anyway, since everyone came in through the back door right off the kitchen. Or our vision of home might be of the house where we now live with our children, where we make the mortgage payments each month and pay the electricity and oil bills, where we have set up a basketball hoop in the driveway for the kids to practice for the big games on Friday night up at the school, where we have barbeques for the neighbors on hot summer evenings, where the traffic and chaos of kids and dogs and busy schedules and homework are both comforting and exhausting. Our vision of home, whether it is the home of our childhood or the home we are creating as adults, has a location, an address, a mark on the map. It is a physical, tangible place. We have photo albums that chronicle our growing family over the years, everyone lined up on the front steps in the same pyramid arrangement—parents on top, kids on the bottom—with smiles that stay the same even as the bodies get bigger and bulkier.
Home is also the place where life is most familiar, where we fall into old patterns, where our roles become scripted and predictable, where there is a fine line between the bonds that bind and constrain. It is also a place where we live by secret codes and allusions that outsiders—even intimate outsiders—don’t understand or appreciate. In her beautiful essay “On Going Home” (1961), Joan Didion speaks about the power and pull of home.
I am home for my daughter’s first birthday. By “home” I do not mean the house in Los Angeles where my husband and I and the baby live, but the place where my family is, in the Central Valley of California. It is a vital though troublesome distinction. My husband likes my family but is uneasy in their house, because once there I fall into their ways which are difficult, oblique, deliberately inarticulate, not my husband’s ways. We live in dusty houses (“D-U-S-T,” he once wrote with his finger on the surfaces all over the house, but no one noticed it) filled with mementos quite without value to him (what could the Canton dessert plates mean to him? How could he have known about the assay scales, why should he care if he did know?) ...1
Home, here, is defined as much by those who are outsiders—who have no real clue of what is going on, where signals seem opaque and oblique—as by those who have the inside track, who know the secrets and shadows, the habits and artifacts, the history of the family that lives in this house. Home is made more vivid by the contrasts that get drawn between the outsider’s discomfort and cluelessness and the insider’s ancient and intuitive understandings.
In his biography of the poet Wallace Stevens (1968), Robert Pack echoes Didion’s portrayal of going home, drawing the connection between the intimacy and belonging that home represents and the intimacy with his readers that Stevens achieves through his poetry. Stevens translates the language, rhythm, and cadence from his childhood home into his verse, capturing the themes of family and the feelings of familiarity with which we can all identify. Writes Pack:
Home is the place where one understands the routine, knows the secret rhythms of family activity and communication, and feels the fullness of the presence of the familiar objects. It is this sense of intimacy that Stevens seeks with the world, and it is this sense of order a poet achieves that makes this intimacy possible.2
Here we get a sense of home as the place where we learn to interpret the noises and the silences, the texts and the subtexts of our lives, where the layers and subtleties of our communication are inscribed in our hearts and minds, our bones and bodies, eventually turning up—at least in Stevens’s and Didion’s case—in the form and texture of their art.
The novelist Paule Marshall takes us a step further into the auditory dimensions and cadences of home. In her autobiographical novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, she offers an evocative and searing portrait of an immigrant family transplanted from Barbados to Brooklyn, and she speaks about home as the sound of the language of the Bajan women as they sit talking in the kitchen.3 It is a language that Marshall herself heard as a child as she sat on the edges of the women’s circle soaking up the gossip, the stories, savoring the rhythms and poetry of their words. In “From the Poets in the Kitchen,” a short essay published in The New York Times, Marshall speaks about the language of home—particularly the talk among the women in the kitchen—that carried with it beauty, wisdom, poetry, and culture, that survived the transplantation from the blue-green sea and open horizons of Barbados to the city streets and brownstones of Brooklyn.
I grew up among poets—whatever that breed is supposed to look like. Nothing about them suggested that poetry was their calling. They were just a group of ordinary housewives and mothers, my mother included, who dressed in a way (shapeless housedresses, dowdy felt hats, dark, solemn coats) that made it impossible for me to imagine they had ever been young.4
So whether we envision home as a place, a physical location on the map that we can now google for directions; whether we feel it in the familiarity, obliqueness, and intimacy of family; or whether we hear it in the language and poetry of our mothers, home is the place we return to. It is the place that forms us, that embraces and inhibits us, that shapes our identity. It is a place where our arrival is awaited.
The tales of exit found in this chapter reframe and transfigure the meaning of home. The two stories—of a teenage Iranian boy escaping the political strife and violence in his war-torn country to come to America, and of a middle-aged gay man reflecting on his long and brave exit from the closet—shape a view of home that is earned and discovered after the protagonists have traveled far away, literally and figuratively, from their family’s place of origin, far away from the cultures and communities that nourished and raised them. The lens of exit in both narratives points to the emotional and spiritual construction of home as a hard-won place of comfort, safety, belonging, and love. Finding home requires leaving and searching, trials and tribulations, and many exits along the way.
HUNGRY FOR HOME
“I’ll go.”
It did not hit him that he was actually leaving—his family, his country, his life—until he arrived at the airport in Tehran, surrounded by his parents and siblings and a huge crowd of aunts and uncles, some of whom had traveled hundreds of miles to say goodbye. He was carrying one small cardboard suitcase, and his mother had sewn a zippered pouch into his underwear to hide the $3,000 he was taking with him. His father had had to sell a plot of land, use all of the family’s savings, and borrow from his uncles in order to come up with the money that Bijan Jalili needed to travel to the United States.
Suddenly the fear swept over him, and he froze. How could he have said—in a moment of weakness—that he would go to school in America? How could he have committed to something that now seemed so scary and wrong? How could he leave all those he loved and the life he knew? This was unbearable. “Just then it hit me ... What have I done! But it was too late to back out,” says Bijan, his whole body shivering as he must have done on that fateful day. “I couldn’t stomach it ... my belly was burning. I was scared out of my gourd ... I was like a child afraid of the dark ... I felt like I was lost in the jungle, being swallowed up by dangerous creatures.”
Bijan looked over at his father, whose head was bowed in prayer, his face washed in tears, a picture of agony and faith. His mother couldn’t stop crying—huge, sobbing wails that echoed through the airport lounge—as she clung to him for dear life. Finally his plane was announced and the waiting was over. Bijan hugged everyone hard and kissed them each on both cheeks before beginning the long march down the ramp to the plane. “Leaving my parents behind was unbearable. My feet were like Jell-O. I could hardly move them. I thought that I would just collapse.” Bijan had never even seen an airport before, never been on a plane. He stowed his suitcase and climbed into the window seat. “The fear was overwhelming as I looked down after takeoff and saw Tehran disappear behind me.” I look across the table and see the sixteen-year-old scared boy. It is thirty years later, and Bijan’s face is contorted in a grimace. He looks down to wipe away the tears with the back of his hand.
The plane touched down at Kennedy Airport at 8:00 p.m. As he heard the screech of the landing gear, Bijan’s fear took over his body and he started to shake. He looked out the window and saw the city stretched out below, “an ocean of light.” “I was new to electricity,” says Bijan as he remembers the strange sensation of seeing a whole city of twinkling lights that seemed to form the shape of “a fiery dragon.” His only thought was that he wanted desperately for the plane to turn around so he could go home. “I wanted to go back to my mom, to bury my head in her bosom ... to have her hold me again.”
Once he was off of the plane, the scene was shocking. “I thought to myself, Everything in New York looks so big! I had never seen people over six feet tall ... and there...

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