IN SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT'S office at Harvard, the color purple is everywhere. The lavender rug and desk chair and the giant amethyst stone on her desk reveal a flair for the regal and dramatic, a flair taken up by the revered sociology professor herself, who sports long, dangling earrings, giant coral rings on each hand, and a bright, orange silk jacket.
The recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 1984, Lawrence-Lightfoot has been on the faculty of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education since 1972, and she will be the first African-American woman in Harvard’s history to have an endowed chair in her name — upon her retirement in four years.
Perhaps in anticipation of that moment, her most recent book, Exit: The Endings that Set Us Free, is an elegant examination of how our culture exalts beginnings at the expense of proper goodbyes.
It is a simple but profound idea — that an inadequate exit might leave us feeling bereft and alone. I did some deep thinking on the issue a few months ago when packing up the house in Santa Monica where my husband and I have lived for nearly 30 years. We lovingly built our California Craftsman–style home, and it was there that we raised our three children. Now we were preparing to drive across country and move back to Cambridge, Massachusetts, the place where we first met and fell in love. It seemed like a romantic idea, and freeing too — a new life in the New England foliage, far from the maddening traffic and Botox-loving moms of Los Angeles. This was an adventure I had chosen, but I found myself flooded with self-doubt and almost paralyzed at the prospect of saying goodbye to so many and so much.
Moving on invariably involves loss. Being able to say goodbye “with grace and gratitude,” says Lawrence-Lightfoot, might make it hurt less.
In Exit, Lawrence-Lightfoot reports that, as a culture, we end up saying more than our shares of goodbye. Demographers predict that young adults will have 10 careers, not jobs, in their lifetimes. It is critical that they develop a meaningful language for making exits, Lawrence-Lightfoot writes, because the smaller exits groom us for the bigger ones to come.
In thinking about exits, Lawrence-Lightfoot examines home, freedom, yearning, and grace. She presents portraits of a wide variety of Americans at different crossroads, all of them searching for “the generativity of exit.”
Joy Horowitz: You talk about the need to practice the smaller goodbyes in order to make the larger farewells meaningful. So how do we do that?
Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot: I think we, as a culture, do this poorly. I think there’s a way in which, everyday, we can learn to be attentive to entrances and departures. We can work on our awareness. We can make a habit of noticing those moments that become memorable because of something that happens afterwards or before. Developing respect, a kind of reverence even, for time and space, for coming together and parting — this can be taught in families. It can even be taught in classrooms.
To say goodbye is to live in the existential present. Nothing else can help us in quite the same way prepare for the life-altering exits, the ones that demand a kind of ritualized, deep attention in order for us to use that space as a generative mome...read more