Legacy. What is a legacy?
My desk is situated so that it faces out the window, over the park across the street. No matter which room my desk happens to be in (right now, it's downstairs in the living/dining room), it faces the windows. Part of the reason we moved into this apartment was so my writing desk could face trees.
Most of my writing time consists of staring out at the little park owned by the high rise across the street, watching as seasons and weather change. This week, the rattling branches attempted, briefly, to bud, and the joints gently rounded as the warm air brought life to them, at least for a few days. These same trees struggled over the dry summer, and I had some concern that they might not last the winter because of it. They've made it through January, though, so barring a major ice storm in March, I think they'll get through. I'm glad. I've always had a fondness for trees; various groves of oaks and maples have always been the places that felt most sacred to me, even as a very young child. My dad taught me to love the outdoors, and there's something about trees that always feels like heritage.
The latest episode of On Being featured the poet Marilyn Nelson, and in it, they discuss one of her ancestors, a white man in Kentucky whose relationship with her foremother was, at least according to family lore, a true romance. All the same, this was a man who participated in white supremacist politics, was friends with Nathan Bedford Forrest, and who we have every reason to believe was probably not a hope-y change-y kind of guy. In investigating this ancestor of hers, Nelson discovered that although the man did have other (white) children, they all died without issue, leaving this man's entire genetic legacy in the hands of his black heirs.
Looking at the branches of the trees across the street as I listened to her story, I wondered: What do we do when the blood of hatred runs in our veins? Our families entrust us with the world they leave behind; quite literally with the energy that made them and their lives. Some of us, a lucky few, are also entrusted with material inheritances, but each and every one of us has been given a genetic trust. It is the combined legacy of blood and bone, of strengths and weaknesses, of vestigial wisdom teeth and the palmarus longus. Layer on layer, down and down, they leave us the worlds they've built. It's likely, no matter where you live, that somewhere in the combined hope chests and dowries of your lineage, there's some nasty stuff.
I've been pondering this week on the idea of restorative legacies; of ways to subvert the traditional narratives of family honor by dismantling the things they've built instead of reinforcing them. Even those of us from families we respect have our rebellions, large and small, and perhaps these, as much as our agreements, bring our families honor. We do them justice by behaving justly where they did not. As with any trust, when you've reached an age of making your own decisions, it is yours to do with as you will; once granted, a trust cannot be rescinded. If the things we inherit are built on the backs of people we've harmed, we may choose to redistribute those gifts. We then honor our forebears not by flying their flags, but by taking the energy and strengths they have passed down to us and righting their wrongs.
I do believe that most people make the choices that they feel will best protect them and their families. I also recognize that people quite regularly do so in ways that are dangerous and harmful and hateful, but I hold onto the belief that most hatred and harm is borne of fear, and the things we fear change pretty regularly. We fear things we don't understand. We fear loss. We fear an uncertain future. We will, all of us, pass down the consequences of our fearful actions, either in our blood or in our culture or both. I, for one, hope that none of those who come after me are so dedicated to the idea of their ideological past that they won't use what we've given them to make all possible reparations. I hope they honor me by succeeding where my generation and those that came before me have failed. I hope the children of my family take whatever I can leave them and use it to repay some of the Canadian-American debts they'll also inherit. I hope they, like me, choose to always do what they can to be kind, even and perhaps especially when they know it's not what their parents would have done.
A newsletter on life, current events, media & culture, and living in wonder amidst it all.