I write this post on Sunday afternoon, starting less than twenty minutes after returning home from a friend’s memorial service. This post is not to detail what was said by whom and how, nor is it to eulogize a man the vast majority of you never met, but it is to talk about two elements brought up in this service.
To do this right, I have to sit you next to me. There, in bleached yellow church, in the old cherry pew, on a burgundy cushion that’s likely been in place since the Nixon administration, though it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that the cushion was somehow responsible for the Croatoan mystery. We sit here in a large room of stale air, where the stuffiness reminds you of old people’s living rooms just after they invite you in, and the atmosphere fills every gap and space with a kind of foamy quiet. And we listen.
We listen to people speak, and people grieve, and we’ll go past that, because really what else can we do as writers, our minds forever swirling away with how these moments of our raw lives might be mined later with either delicacy or vulgarity, everything influencing us, intentional or otherwise. We’ll sit and listen and dissect. Not on the merits of the speaking, not their technique, but the undercurrent. There, in those favorite quotes they pick, and in the memories they share.
In so much of this pomp and circumstance, we grab onto the sadness. We wad up tissues, we stifle sobs, we feel the emotions like blades carving us apart. We hurt. Our pain fades over time, our ache morphs into not a raw wound with ragged edges, but a dull weight that takes hold in some part of our being. It’s there, in between all the happy times and funny memories, and those weird quirks that you start to see mirrored elsewhere and then take them as a sign from elsewhere that the person is with you.
But today I saw the legacy of a person. And that is sadly only something truly appreciable in their absence. So let’s talk about legacy and identity today. Who we are, who we were, who we effort every day to be and become, this is the path to legacy.
Will we be known by our pretense? By our attention seeking? By our victimization? By our faults? By our incomplete lists? By our successes? By our ambition?
It’s easy to forget that we have a great deal of control over what we provide the world as to how they can remember us. I, for instance, assume I am forgotten easily, that I am unremarkable, just a guy who writes and talks to people, punctuating the rants about grammar and technique with complaints of ill health or mention of food and video games.
I have an appalling sense of how I am remembered, and a worse one still of how I am regarded. In every glance, in every person moving out of the way without seeing me, I read disgust or shame. That I am contemptible in some contexts by some people is irrefutable, because I make no attempt to hide that I spent many years being a rotten little shit of a person, and only recently have I begun to climb my way from the slag heap and cesspit to hopefully scratch out at least a tolerable sort of pleasantry usually reserved for that aunt you only see every third holiday. At least my eyebrows are natural, and not carved into leathery flesh with a sharpie and dime store hope.
Identity is not the fact that I prefer a t-shirt to a suit, or John to Mr. Adamus, or cold soda to fancy wine lists. Identity is not my physical or mental health, my abilities or disabilities, my vices or virtues. What I broadcast as my identity is not bound in my heterosexuality, my gender, my age, my hair color, my astigmatism, or even my education. These these do not define me alone, and I routinely snarl at the forces and people who look to say that because of them I can be so easily categorized.
And you should too. It shouldn’t matter who or what you are, and it is, I tell you, very likely that the reason it matters is because you’ve brought it up like it’s a sticking point rather than a simple fact like you enjoy a certain food, or prefer your sandwich served a certain way. Creativity transcends all these labels, who you are informs what you make, but does not, should not, and cannot limit it.
Your art doesn’t suffer because you’re a woman. Or because you’re genderfluid. Or because you’re in a wheelchair. Or _________ (that’s where you fill in the blank with whatever element you like). You can and should still go make art. And it won’t be like anyone else’s art, because it’s yours. Your identity is within the art, it’s not separate from it.
And when you keep making art, when you stay true to your identity, not the politics of it, but the substance of it, so that you can do away with the ephemeral nature of buzzwords, that becomes your legacy.
What you leave behind, who you leave behind, that’s all going to get judged, and there’s a big pile of nothing you can do about it. People will try and slap labels to you, try to make you posthumously conform to their narratives, even when you spent all your life trying to establish your own.
Let the art do the talking when your own words can’t. That partnership, let that be the reference for people when they try to affix some label on you.
Build that identity in your art. This is what you make, to the best of your ability, no matter who gives it one or five stars, who buys it or pans it, who calls it ruinous or sings it praises.
But beware, there’s an edge to this, that you become only identified by what you create. That you forget the other elements of identity, the things not found in what you make. Your love of trout. The way you like sunrises. How you feel about conversations with someone through a closed bathroom door. Or whatever.
You are more than your creations, you are more than the things you don’t get around to, you are more than the things you’re still working on. You are a person who creates. And your life extends past the easel, the keyboard, the legal pad, the potter’s wheel.
Bring that life into your creativity, and your creativity into life. It’s not something to hide, or keep tucked in the back of the cupboard until everyone’s fast asleep and only then are you permitted to indulge. It doesn’t need to be some secret. It’s creativity, not the technologies we acquired from the lizard people who live among us and wait for the day of their uprising when their leader is elected on the Republican nomination, after all.
We can spend so much time looking forward to our legacy that we forget we’re still standing in the present. These are our opportunities, right here, one word at a time. We may draft them in our heads during the lulls of a memorial service, but we give them a half-life when we put them out into the world for consumption.
Let your words and worlds and whirls live. They carry with them the silhouettes and fingerprints of who you are. They matter, just as much as you do.
I’ll see you Wednesday when we dive back into the inbox.