On Finding the Good in Goodbye | Mary Oliver

On this warm December morning, I decided to sort through the posts that I never got to complete and publish on RUOT.

We are on another lockdown with nation-wide curfews during the weekends so what better way to spend a Sunday, I thought.

As I was sifting through a long list of incomplete posts, my unfinished draft on “Finding the Good in Goodbye” caught my attention.

I had started to write this post when I was getting ready to leave Columbia, my residence for five years, and the United States, the place where I called home for a decade. My upcoming move made me excited about a new beginning, but it also made my heart heavy. Moving away from the country where I lived for ten years also meant leaving my neighbors, friends, and colleagues, tacky diners, Cafe Berlin- my favorite breakfast place-, Christmas lights in December, my tiny sports car a friend sold to me for $300, my favorite coffee shops, the local bookstores where I bought my books, and, well, the list goes on.

To say the least, it was painful to write this post. I didn’t quite know what to say on finding the good in goodbye. And I still don’t. Yes, each time we say goodbye, chances are, we have learnt and grown and have collected memories and people who render it tough to say goodbye. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened”–But I’m still not sure what to make of the good in goodbye.

Instead, I find the wonderful poet Mary Oliver‘s words comforting. In her poem “In Blackwater Woods,” she writes:

“to live in this world

you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go”

Perhaps, it becomes a bit easier to find the good in goodbye as we learn to let go, which in itself is an arduous process. Well, I certainly don’t have anything insightful to say about letting go, since I’m still learning. I’d love to hear any insights you’d like to share. But if you’ve come this far, I hope you will enjoy some of my favorite Mary Oliver poems– and thanks for reading this post–which is by no means fully-formed and will probably never be.

In Blackwater Woods”

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

“In Blackwater Woods” from American Primitive. in New and Selected Poems, Boston: Beacon Press, 1992, p. 178.

This stanza is from the poem “Dogfish” published in Dream Work (1986):

“I wanted the past to go away, I wanted
to leave it, like another country; I wanted
my life to close, and open
like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of the song
where it falls
down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery;
I wanted
to hurry into the work of my life; I wanted to know,

whoever I was, I was

for a little while.” 

From “On Losing a House”


The bumble bees

know where their home is.

They have memorized

every stalk and leaf

of the field.

They fall from the air at


the right place,

they crawl

under the soft grasses,

they enter

the darkness



Don’t tell us

how to love, don’t tell us

how to grieve, or what 

to grieve for, or how loss

shouldn’t sit down like a gray

bundle of dust in the deepest

pockets of our energy, don’t laugh at our belief

that money isn’t

everything, don’t tell us

how to behave in

anger, in longing, in loss, in home-

sickness, don’t tell us, 

dear friends.


Where will we go

with our table and chairs,

our bed,

our nine thousand books,

our TV, PC, VCR,

our cat

who is sixteen years old?

Where will we put down

our dishes and our blue carpets,

where will we put up

our rose-colored,




Goodbye, house.

Goodbye, sweet and beautiful house,

we shouted, and it shouted back,

goodbye to you, and lifted itself

down from the town, and set off

like a packet of clouds across

the harbor’s blue ring,

the tossing bell, the sandy point-and turned

lightly, wordlessly,

into the keep of the wind

where it floats still-

where it plunges and rises still

on the black and dreamy sea.

Mary Oliver, “On Losing a House,” Volume XLIssue 1Reimagining Place, Winter 2001.

4 thoughts on “On Finding the Good in Goodbye | Mary Oliver

  1. You’ve chosen wonderful poems that enhance the question you pose. I couldn’t help thinking of Frost’s ‘I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.’ Perhaps that’s the good in goodbye, as leaving the familiar is the only way we can embark on that road less travelled.


    1. Thank you for the note! And this is such a great way of reading Frost’s poem. Going for and accepting the unfamiliar is challenging and extremely difficult, but it can me all the difference, indeed.


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