My reading time is generally split between fiction, non-fiction, and plays…typically in that order. I enjoy occasionally spending time with poetry, though…I just don’t read as much poetry because it is just that: time-consuming. The time required to unpack the meaning of a few lines of carefully crafted verse can be daunting.
I (like most Americans) wasn’t familiar with the Danish poet Inger Christensen who passed away on January 2nd, even though she was frequently a contender for the Nobel Prize. This afternoon I listened to some of her work read, both in its original language and in translation. I had a much better feel for this person after listening to her work, and reading a few lines as reproduced in the New York Times obit.
We’re hard-wired with a desire to leave a legacy, a work that immortalizes a piece of ourselves in the material world, that leaves a snapshot of our soul for those who continue in life after our crossing over. For someone published as prominently as Christensen, this is obvious to see: her poetry, as well as her other written works, are her legacy. By reading the verse she crafted, we are privy to the thoughts and musings she experienced at the time, to her vision of the world she shared with us, even if at a distance. In short, we know Christensen at some level by engaging in the work she left behind. She lives with us still through her words.
I have a great deal of creative impulse in my family. In most cases, it took the form of artisans and craftsmanship: my father, for example, is a sculptor of wood, an artist in his own right when sitting in front of his power tools. For my recently deceased grandmother, the creative channel was quilting.
Quilting, an all-but-lost art existing primarily (in my experience) through various parts of the Appalachians, is an exercise in visual creativity and specific craftsmanship combined with a cultural heritage all its own. The time required to meld patterns together into a unique creation is astounding, and the precise care required for each stitch (all of which would be identical in my grandmother’s quilts) was a labor of love. Throughout my childhood, I recall her sitting in front of a quilt suspended on wooden saw-horse-shaped supports, needle and thread in hand, a singular focus on her face. Each quilt produced from her hands was a unique combination of pattern and design, not dissimilar to the way I later used composition, color and depth to design shows for the stage. Quilts were of enormous value to my grandmother, and were the most valued thing she could leave behind. I received more than one customized quilt through my childhood. Karen and I discovered after her funeral last week that she had sewn a baby quilt in anticipation of our future family. A quilt was my grandmother’s way of giving a part of herself to someone. She loved through her quilts. She connected through them.
Karen had not known my grandmother well prior to her death, having only met her a few times. Yet, as she remarked this week as were returning home from the funeral proceedings, she felt as though she grew to know my grandmother more after encountering her quilts as we sorted through personal affects early in the week. My grandmother had left a legacy, and Karen had experienced it. Similar to Christensen, and the connection I felt to her vision in reading and hearing her work, Karen began to experience the world from my grandmother’s perspective after seeing and touching quilts that had been born of my grandmother’s hands.
Perhaps our desire to leave a legacy is one of desperation, a desperation to be known by succeeding generations that may otherwise forget us. Perhaps it is a way for us to keep storytelling alive, to pass on to those who follow us. Perhaps it is a cry in the wilderness to make our perspectives known. Whatever motivates this inherent drive, it is easier to recognize in the artist, perhaps. My legacy will be the words others read, and the stories I have brought to life on stage. More than anything else, that will be what others use to discover who I was as they peer back from the future.
To say that the longing for legacy is limited to the artist, however, is shorting everyone else. Regardless of our inclinations or occupations, we long to leave a work that will be a lens through which others can view us retrospectively. Whatever our trade, whatever the avenues we explore and in which we thrive, we are all nearly desperate to craft the masterpiece of our lives for which we will be known, the defining work that reflects who we truly are.
This week I was struck by how critical it is to identify and achieve this in our lives.
I wish you the best as you discover and pursue yours.