What's your legacy?
What traces are you leaving in the world?
What traces do you want to leave in the world?
How do you need to live in order to leave those traces?
Do you believe in a particulate interpretation of legacy, or do you believe in a wave interpretation of legacy?
I had to think about the word for about a week before it occurred to me that legacy is not something you put in a box marked “not to be opened 'til I'm dead.” We are legacy snails. We burble through our lives, leaving a continual, fluid, shimmering rainbow trail of legacy behind us. For now, for here, forever. Even (perhaps “especially”) things that don't necessarily leave a physical trail, are out there, forever. A friend once said that every time you dance you leave the
energy of that dance in the universe, and I believe that is true. My house is full of the energy of everything that has ever happened in it; I feel it always evolving as more energy embeds itself in its wood. We are full of everything that has ever happened in ourselves, too. So is the air we breathe, and the water in a mountain stream in China that we might never personally see. Legacy leaves the snail as a rainbow trail, but over time diffuses itself like the ripples from a stone tossed in the water, moving out until the end of the ocean and bouncing back, always present.
The process of living, like any other artistic process, involves generating a lot of raw data, not all of which is necessarily your finest work. Not every drop of legacy is going to cause unalloyed delight and pride. This is why editing was invented.
Working on our lives is how we turn them into our life's work.
Our lives are our legacies. So we owe it to the present and the future (and presumably the past too, if we're thinking scientifically, because ripples from stones are concentric circles, not half-circles) to live the most beautiful lives we can. Because me living beautifully over here will make a difference to the life of a Tibetan yak forty years from now, or make a difference to my son's life five minutes ago, or even...make a difference to me, right now!
I remember when I first consciously saw the legacy of love. I was in grad school and the head of my program, Susan Hilferty (world famous costume designer), invited Athol Fugard (world famous playwright) to come speak with us. I knew nothing about Athol other than that I had read a bunch of his plays and he was much too clever, too culturally important, and too revered by thespians to really interest me. I filed into the room with my friends. I sat down, pre-emptively bored.
Susan filed in and sat down opposite us. Athol filed in and sat down in a chair about four feet away from her. And...whoa!
Have you ever fumigated your house with a flea bomb? It was like that. Only it was a love bomb.
Just by sitting there, these two made pink and red perfumed rose petals roll out of themselves and into the room, more and more and more and more, it was like Nero's famous feast where he crushed everyone with rose petals. I knew nothing about their personal history but I didn't need to know anything; I could see it, I could smell it, I could hear it! The room sang with the peaceful tone of two harmonic vibrations oscillating in synch with one another. My fur relaxed and got all soft. More peace, and more peace, and more and more.
I didn't hear one single word of the talk. All I could hear was, “here is a woman who loves this man. Here is a man who loves this woman.” That held my attention for an hour!
Afterward I couldn't stop talking to my friends about what I had noticed. And, to a person, they all said, “well, yeah, I mean, they were the most famous love story in Broadway history for, like, decades. Everybody knows that.”
Perhaps I should have paid more attention to my history books.
It didn't matter. That hour with Susan and Athol taught me that our legacies are, yes, the production-defining costumes we put on famous people's backs for blockbuster smash hit after blockbuster smash hit, and the important famous culturally-vital plays we write that then have to be studied by earnest young people who want the aura of intellectual elitism to rub off on themselves by association. And, our legacies are how we live by example, how we inspire, and how we reveal the beauty of the world to others simply by fully inhabiting it ourselves.
What's your legacy?