Sunday, May 06, 2018

on saying good bye

by J J Cohen

I keep attempting to craft an elegant and  poignant blog post about saying good-bye -- or rather how terrible I am at saying good-bye, because good-byes are impossible to execute well. And so it seems are blog posts about them: I have spent a month creating and deleting them. Instead then I am writing this public memo today to record that I am not going to write that elegant and moving post now or at any time in the future.

There, I've let it go.

And now, a short and inelegant and non-poignant blog post about good-byes that will in no way capture the utter complexity and ambivalence of taking leave of places and of people. It will at least record some short and scattered thoughts.

A good-bye can be painful, unpleasant, bitter. A good-bye can be a relief. Yet sometimes a good-bye arrives naturally because an arc has culminated or important work is clearly accomplished or omens simply indicate that it is time to seek the new. After ten years I realized that even if I had stayed at GW I have achieved most everything I wanted as director of MEMSI, for example, and was in danger of starting simply to replicate the familiar rather than attempt collaboratively the future of the past. It is someone else's turn to lead -- and I have excellent colleagues for that role, should they choose it. I also knew that after two decades as a GW English Department member I had done what I wanted to do, and now younger career faculty members are making their own changes and I do not want to be in the way. Had ASU not offered me a chance to reinvent what I do, I was contemplating a move that would have brought me more deeply and explicitly into the environmental humanities and comparative literature, an intensification more than a change. But I am moving to Phoenix: on Friday we will we have a house in that city, and in the near future we will relocate. After a long time in a selective private institution the chance to work within an access-oriented public university appeals to me deeply -- and yes, I know I am giving up a very comfortable and in some ways near perfect job in DC but I believe that what I am about to do is actually more important. Some good-byes seem right. Careers have life cycles, and ending some obligations and investments of time has already opened up a space for others (just wait until you see the CFP for ASLE 2019, and the Noah book I'm writing with Julian Yates for U Minn Press is a constant source of joy).

To say good-bye is also to decide what to distance and what to hold close, either as memory or in an embrace towards future community. GW MEMSI will live on in new forms, I have no doubt. Many of those who gathered under its auspices are friends now forever: they are companions on a boat named Friendship, as a thoughtful gift masterminded by Lowell Duckert, Steve Mentz and Jonathan Hsy at the GW MEMSI Ten Year Celebration made clear to me. At that event Dorothy Kim asked me to speak about closure, because so many things that have been important to me and many others kind of seem to be ending ... but really they are just in new hands, and their fates are open to reinvention.

Our family sold our house but its place in the heart remains. Over the twenty years we owned it we reconfigured the structure so much that I doubt its original 1940 owners would recognize it. We made the house ours by breaking down walls and rendering its spaces more capacious, easier to access. We have welcomed hundreds of people through its doors in the time we lived here, and we hope they departed with a little bit of the warmth and happiness that this house shelters. Washington DC will forever be the city which most feels like home.

And this blog will forever seem a virtual home. I'm not leaving In the Middle, not at the moment, but I imagine that if I continue to blog here what I offer will be less frequent and rather different in content. My wonderful co-bloggers have the chance to reinvent what this site is and does; nothing would make me happier. That, to me, is the best kind of good-bye: one in which space opens for others to thrive. A well built home endures for a long time, even if at some point it no longer resembles what it once was.


Steve Mentz said...

A lovely post, undoing its own pre-emptive disclaimers. I'm moved to comment on the blog, even though no one comments on blogs anymore. Onward to fresh woods and pastures new! One minor footnote: I'm pretty sure Jonathan Hsy named the ark "Friend-ship."

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Genesis of the ship has been updated. Thank you Steve -- for everything!