Knowing when to leave

Knowing when to leave…

Burt Bacharach wrote it, Dionne Warwick and many others sang it …

Go while the going is good. Knowing when to leave may be the smartest thing anyone can learn. Go!

Barbra Streisand has her own version of the same idea in “Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?”

I wanted the music to play on forever
Have I stayed too long at the fair?
I wanted the clown to be constantly clever
Have I stayed too long at the fair?

Knowing when to leave takes many forms. I think our neighbor and dear friend Jack Snow, a few weeks short of being 93, knew when to leave. He was due here for a lobster supper Saturday night and, uncharacteristically, was running a half hour late. I called his house, got his grandson, got the news that he’d died two days earlier. We’ve lost some very good people from our road over the last two years, but Jack was the patriarch, the local historian, the consistently good and generous man, descended from Snows who founded this town in the 1600s. We were solid friends. He had talked to me before about leaving. He was ready, at peace with his God. But, for reasons that are challenging for me articulate, his place setting at our table for Saturday night supper remains intact. Knife, fork, lobster crackers and doohickeys still untouched on his placemat.

DSC_0370smallJack Snow’s place at the table. It’ll be cleared away one of these days.

Two nights before that, we had a reunion of several old friends from hither and yon. One of them I hadn’t seen in over forty years – a kind and gentle-spirited guy who’d endured a decades-long train wreck of a marriage to a truly unpleasant woman. He finally left her in June, much to the relief of his friends, and suddenly felt both liberated and not a little bit lost. We think, but do not judge: too long at the fair? It was his call – not ours.

Almost all of us leave – a town, a job, a relationship, a lover, a party where we could easily stay too long, a circle of friends, and even family. Sometimes it’s as simple as standing by the back door of an auditorium or hall, where people are giving speeches, and you have one foot either out the door or on the threshold, ready to bolt at the first hint of tedium. Or sitting near the exits during some live performance that may become mildly intolerable. Or in an aisle seat at a movie theater where the film, at some point, becomes nearly insufferable.


Not quite knowing when to leave…

For me, leaving a place is as emotionally rich and poignant as any other kind of departure. Most of my moves have been deeply felt with joy, excitement and anticipation – leaving the Northeast for the Southwest, leaving Georgia for Maine, leaving Olympia for Atlanta — all exciting, all good, all precisely within the “knowing when to leave” sweet spot, all featuring the previous state disappearing in the rear view mirror with a celebratory honk of the horn as we cross yet another state line.

But leaving Taos, New Mexico for Decatur, Georgia in 2001 wasn’t quite so easy. My wife had just been offered an excellent job at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta (actually, right on the Atlanta-Decatur city line) so it was a “job move.” Great opportunity for her so there was little choice in the matter.

It wasn’t easy because New Mexico had gotten under my skin. My wife and I had become familiar with nearly the entire state, and fully assimilated it as “the Land of Enchantment,” magnificent and quirky, mysterious and bewildering.  I lived in four different houses in and around Taos, all offering startlingly long views of distant mountains, the twinkling of the town’s lights like a necklace of shining pearls at night, thousands of stars overhead close and clear enough to reach out and pluck from the sky. The landscape was not just a pretty view, it was sustenance. More than once I heard locals describe that wide outdoor world as something akin to their religion. We traveled through it, hiked, walked for miles where, we were certain, we were the first non-Natives to do so.

TaosPanorama2 copy 2Good to see this big – click on it. Taos Valley – or Taos Mesa, take your pick – with the Rio Grande slicing down the middle some 600 feet deep. (my pic)

But our part of northern New Mexico had its dark holes. Insane levels of drug abuse and alcoholism, tri-cultural strife (Hispanic-Native-Anglo), domestic violence, crime, and far too much murder. Many Anglos in Taos came there “because they were called,” to heal or be healed, to look for “the vortex,” to commune with Spirit, to become light-workers and such. I wasn’t one of them – I went there to write (I had a two-year gig then) and keep my wits about me in spite of the persistent temptation to keep being “healed.” Taos Time prevailed too often – a kind of Anglo version of manana – with print shops and computer repair people needing just another few days to get the job done or screw it up entirely. Taos Time also meant showing up an hour late for dinner, or not at all. Solipsism ruled the roost: it’s all about me. If it’s personally enriching for me to be late to your dinner party, then I’ll be late.

But the time came when we had to go. We were delayed a while when our mechanic, after flushing the cooling system in “Duke,” our Honda Accord, was too drunk to remember to replace the coolant, and a friend of ours borrowed the car and ran it until the engine seized, but in time we got the engine going again through the good offices of a sober mechanic and started to head out, eastward, in the Honda and my badly misbehaving 1972 Jeep Commando whose automatic transmission linkage would occasionally fail and lock into first gear. (Solution? Crawl under the car with a hammer, locate the weak linkage, and bang some little nubbin back into its slot. Voila! Three gears again.)

NM4-1The old Commando and yours truly, west of Taos, c. 2001. The car made it all the way to Atlanta. Somehow. I still have this car – in much better shape now than it ever was.

So leaving New Mexico wasn’t as heart-wrenching as it could have been – not if I kept up a steady flow of controlled rage at my drunken mechanic or the computer repair guy who decided to erase my entire hard drive in order to save it (with no backup!) or the ongoing parade of narcissistic seekers moving in to explore whatever pharmaceutical adventure would give them the biggest buzz and burst of etheric enlightenment they could find. Or the time I almost got mugged in Santa Fe. Or the several times restaurants padded their bills. Yada yada. As it was often said out there, Taos is not for amateurs. Beautiful town. Tough town.

They also quipped: “How do you make a million in Taos?” Answer: “Move there with two million.”


We hit the road late July 2001, and at last, it came into view…


… and on into Texas and points east. Hasta la Vista. Baby.


But we’ve missed it, and we’ve returned – several times. I miss the mystique and the nuttiness, or the great tutoring experience I had with a Pueblo (Tewa) kid, Esteban, who had a magnificent brain and heart, or the unbeatable southwest cooking, sopapillas with syrup, chimichangas overlooking Taos Plaza, the lilting Spanish voices, the towering Douglas fir, the smell of sagebrush after a rain or snow. Hasta la Vista – but with it a huge, deep sigh – of relief, and longing.


Both Place and String Theories owe much to my “New Mexico brain” and many adventures there. Hope you’ll have a look.

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Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.