November 19, 2016
It’s been a few days since my last post. I’ve missed you. I apologize for allowing myself to get so distracted that I didn’t take a few minutes at least to write something. I don’t really have a good excuse, but my not-so-good one goes like this: I’ve been so busy at work and then with trying to sell off my belongings at home and Netflix. I’ve accomplished quite little that I had hoped to. I tell myself “tomorrow”, but then I’m still tired and hungry and unmotivated when I get home from work.
This morning I got all busy and motivated. After dropping my roommate off at the train station so she wouldn’t be late for her new job, I went and hung flyers in all of the buildings in my apartment complex, even though I wasn’t supposed to, according to management. Then I returned home to continue organizing my sale and putting out new items. My living room looks like a consignment store. And I’ve had not one single person call or stop by in the three hours that I’ve been “open” today. Somewhat discouraging, but I still have faith.
One of the containers that I was dreading going through was the one that held all of my documents. I don’t have an organized filing system, so I end up tossing check stubs, insurance papers, tax returns, etc. in the plastic bin. I started the onerous task of going through the stacks of papers and envelopes, throwing most of it in a bag to be safely disposed of, meaning I’m going to throw it directly in the back of a garbage truck that comes to my work after it collects the foul-smelling trash of local restaurants and a candy manufacturer. I figure that if anyone is ambitious enough to crawl through a landfill looking for my information, they’ll probably be way behind the slightly-less ambitious person who hacked into the IRS for my details. Nobody is safe.
Of course, I had other items in the container. Pictures from long ago. Of my kids and me. Of places I’ve visited. Ticket stubs from shows I’ve gone to. Postcards that I never filled out and mailed. I came across my parents’ wills. I have them because I am listed as executor. A job that I never want to do.
I found copies of a five-page letter that I wrote to a former girlfriend explaining to her why I decided to stay with my wife and how I had prayed to God for forgiveness and that she should do the same. (Okay, that is a very simplistic description of the letter, but you really don’t have time for the whole story) I don’t know why I have held onto that letter for over a decade. I’ve since gotten a divorce and moved on. I don’t retain any feelings for that girl, though it took me a very long time to get over her. I read the letter again today, looked at the pictures from various family vacations, little scraps of evidence from trips that I took on my own. I don’t feel particularly sentimental about these things, but I hesitate to throw them out, because they provide interesting snapshots of my life over the years. I’m probably the only person who even knows or cares what the artifacts are.
I’m hit with the enormity of what I am about to do- quitting my life here and moving halfway around the planet with barely anything of my old existence in tow. I guess it’s different from those who two centuries ago boarded ships and left their home shores bound for another land with zero hope of ever having contact with the ones they left behind. Today we have cell phones and internet and Skype and modern air travel that easily keep us connected with our friends and family. And that’s comforting. But still, there are things about us as individuals that only we remember, at least in detail. And we don’t even remember them without prompts, such as photographs or some type of tangible evidence that causes the synapses in our brains to recall that awesome day at the lake with Alexis, tossing a Frisbee and watching the sun sink into the water in the evening. That play that we went to see with that person whom we don’t keep in contact with any longer. The time we went to that restaurant and ate a 40oz (1134 grams) prime rib dinner because someone told us how amazing it was and that we couldn’t finish it. (It was, and I did) Pictures, playbills, menus…all bits of information that make up the time capsule of our lives. If I owned a piece of property, I think that I would bury a small chest filled with documentation of my existence. Because isn’t that what’s important to us? Leaving a trace?
Some men and women leave monuments. In Chicago, Marshall Field left his legacy with an endowment for a museum and the department store he built on State Street. (Yeah, so Macy’s bought out Marshall Field’s a few years back, but they suck and it’s still Marshall Field’s to any proper Chicagoan) Jane Addams left Hull House, and has a portion of a major expressway named after her.
Yet the majority of us live our lives without having a recognized impact on society at large. Of course, we affect the lives of our families and friends. We hopefully do our part by raising our children (if we have them) to be productive and positive members of society. And by doing this, we collectively help to make civilization better. But not many of us are remembered past three generations or so. I could possibly tell you the names of my great-grandparents if I really reached back in my memory, but nothing much about them. I remember vaguely Gigi Nana, with the large mole on her cheek. (And it strikes me for the very first time in my life that G.G. probably stood for “Great Grandmother”) Bits of memory playing ball in the back yard with my Papa (grandfather) and his father who was in his eighties. Beyond that, I really know nothing. Except for Adolph, who was my great-great-great?-grandfather and who built a large foundry in Grand Rapids, Michigan that still bears the family name. I guess that’s his monument. The company was sold ages ago to someone else, and no longer belongs to the family (though there is an offshoot of the family that has a century-old metal castings company in south Chicago, and it’s still in family hands). Several years ago, I stopped into the Leitelt Iron Works to see what information I could dig up on my ancestors. The general manager kindly sat down with me for almost an hour and showed me pictures of the old factory, some pictures of Adolph (who looked almost the spitting image of one of my brothers) and some newspaper articles written about him. I guess he was kind of a big-shot in early Grand Rapids politics, or he thought he was. I was told where his grave marker was, and that it was in a state of disrepair. The company had reached out to some of the family to see if they wanted to restore the marker, but I guess nothing came of it. I didn’t go visit.
What will I leave behind? My children are on their own. Only one will carry on the family name if he chooses to. Perhaps my grandchildren, if any, will get to meet me and remember. But beyond that, what trace of my life will there be? I don’t foresee leaving an edifice or monument to my fame. If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around to hear, does it make a sound? If a man or woman lives and dies, and there is no one after a while to remember them, did they exist? I totally understand why many people have such a strong desire to believe in an afterlife. I don’t any longer. At least not one that is Heaven or Hell or living forever on a cleaned-up, perfected Earth. So without that option, what is there? I have no desire to be put in the ground underneath a granite block announcing my name and two dates. In fact, my wish is to be cremated. It really doesn’t matter where my ashes are scattered. I won’t know or care. I really will be just dust in the wind. (Thank you, Kansas) If someone would like to plant a tree or an orchard in my name, that would be appreciated.
What we do during our lives, how we benefit society, how we impact the people around us in our day-to-day contact with them, is really more important than our name on a building. Maybe they won’t compose epics about us. But, we’ll know what we did.