Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Foundational Work

Legacy is a tricky thing.

When we think about the common understanding of the word "legacy", we often consider it to be a summation of output. There's a finality to the word. Financial advisors speak to their retirement clients about "legacy planning", which translates roughly into "what do you want to leave behind when you die?"

Really? The only time we contemplate our past is when we're coming to the end of the road?

That's not only morbid, but a waste of opportunity. 

Santayana famously warned that "those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it". Implied in that statement is the corollary that history has things to teach us for today. And to whose history have we had a unique front row seat? Our own.

I've been spending some time lately thinking about a podcast from Strategic Coach's Dan Sullivan and Shannon Waller called "Recognize The Value Of Your Past For Business Success And A Bigger Future". Sullivan posits that your past has unique value because no one else owns it. Others can look at it and attempt to ascribe descriptions or context to it, but those descriptions and context only mean anything if you allow them to mean something. Your past is 100% yours, and your story is what you say it is. Because you own your past, you're free to use your past as the history that guides your present and your future using your own personal lessons from your previous experiences and observations.

The conversation reminded me of the lessons I learned reading Man's Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl, a book listed in a 1991 Library of Congress survey as one of the Ten Most Influential Books in the United States, and that Tim Ferriss revealed in 2021 as the most frequent answer when he asks his guests for book recommendations. Frankl was the founder of logotherapy (Greek for "healing through meaning"), and argued that the search for meaning was the central human motivational force. A significant portion of the book details Frankl's time in Nazi concentration camps. One of the book's most cited passages is Frankl's realization during a particularly bleak episode:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Today, I happened to read a new Rolling Stone interview with Billy Corgan from Smashing Pumpkins. I was deeply involved with music in the '90's, and the Pumpkins hold a special place for me. During one particular personal valley when I was at my most down and out, living in New York City (or perhaps more accurately surviving), I scraped together enough money to buy an album as soon as it came out: Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadeness. That album was one of a handful that I would listen to repeatedly, either on my Walkman or in my car, and feel better about my existence.

Corgan has become quite candid over the last few years. He was seen as hostile in the '90's and '00's, and there was a time when his career was largely seen as finished (with many in the press seeing that end as a result of Corgan's own faults and failings). This new interview, however, underlines Frankl's themes and the podcast's point: no one really knew what was going on but Billy. No one saw the whole story but him. And once he started looking at where he had been, what had happened, and what he wanted, he used the past and it's lessons as both a foundation for his creative work and (I would argue) as fuel to sustain him through the creative process and the inevitable comparisons and reminders from his past. And now he's happy. And quite successful on his own terms. As he states in the interview:

"Here’s what I would say. If you haven’t graduated at this point, then you become one of those Sunset Boulevard characters that’s holding onto something that’s really far in the rearview mirror."

It's not merely enough to own your past. You've got to understand it, grow from it, and move forward. 

I'm currently coming out of what has been a personally turbulent period. One of the things that leads me to be optimistic about where I am and where I'm headed is a good hard clear-eyed look at my past. I own my mistakes. I own my successes. And I own my history; what I've done, what's been done to me, and what I've witnessed. I own my legacy, but it's far from complete. It's the foundation upon which I'll build whatever comes next. It's been examined, inspected, and to an extent, shored up where needed. And with that, as a great man once said, "Onward and upward."

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Letting Go (Life and Death and Life, Pt. 2)

(Meandering long post below. Either settle in or come back to it. - jrr)

 It's New Year's Eve, 2022. We're fast approaching 2023, which means that a noticeable segment of many media channels will be filled with self-proclaimed pundits bemoaning the past year based on their politics, aesthetics, social life, financial situation, or what have you. But I'm okay with giving 2022 all the time it needs.

My mother died this year. 

This was an unexpected turn. My mother's side of the family has been blessed with longevity for generations, particularly its women. I fully expected that Mom would live long enough to see her potential great-grandchildren. At least another ten years, with fifteen seeming utter reasonable.

Then she started having a pain in her side. It's important to note that my mother had quite an extensive medical history, and hearing about various maladies was just part of the territory. I don't want that to sound cold or insensitive (although maybe it is; I'm still working through that), but merely that a doctor's visit wasn't a particularly big deal on its face. And then suddenly it was...kind of.

Her examination revealed a mass by her liver as the source of her pain. Even then, I still wasn't particularly worried as they scheduled a biopsy. This would be another in a history of problems that weren't as big as they could have been. Life would continue.

The diagnosis said otherwise. It was bile duct cancer, stage four. Google it. It's not good.

How bad? The best case scenario at her age was chemo and radiation, with a fifty per cent chance she would be around an extra six months. But six months from when. Her oncologist said it would be a coin flip on whether she would see Christmas.

We received this news in July. She didn't see Halloween.

I wrote a post in September about the act of burial. Obviously, my mother's remaining time was weighing heavily on my mind, and I wrote that piece with a plan to follow it up here. QED.

Today is my mother's memorial service. I will eulogize my mother, as I did my father. I may or may not bury my mother. She donated her body to science, and my sister and I haven't fully decided yet whether to intern or scatter her remains when they're returned to us. So I can't really extend the burial discussion I opened in my September post, at least not yet.

I have a bias toward profundity. Words mean things. They have always meant things even before they were a meme or a slogan or t-shirt or coffee mug. I grew up with an acute understanding of this concept. My father reinforced this concept throughout my childhood. That's probably another post worth of material at least. I say this to emphasize the effort and precision with which I choose my words, and to underscore the personal importance I place on communicating in a very deliberate manner. Particulary when I perceive the stakes as high. Like now.

The remembrance I wrote for my mother has to serve a number of purposes. It's intended to honor her, and celebrate her as a person. But there's more going on. It's meant to comfort, and explain, and contextualize, and clarify, and synopsize. And then get delivered both in written and oral form. For audiences who both knew her and never met her. It's meant to be sufficiently respectful, considerate, honest, and reverent. It should hold the interest of the audience, but shouldn't be self-serving.

People use words for lots of reasons. They use them for attention, for release, for reward. They use them to encourage, to harm, to incite, to calm, to explain, to obfuscate. They use them to record, to entertain, to agitate, to heal.

I wrote my mother's eulogy to say goodbye. And I failed. Because there was no way I could succeed.

Time marches on, whether we participate or not. I can't keep 2022 around anymore than I could accomplish any other feat of futility. And I can't have my mother alive anymore than I can have my father or the other friends and family I've lost back.

But I can say the things I'm saying for all the reasons I've stated. And as a testament to a point in time.

I want to have just a little more time in 2022. A little more time with Mom. A little more time before goodbye. 

But goodbyes are inevitable, just like time. And I'd rather say goodbye than miss the opportunity to do so.

I was lucky to actually say goodbye to my mother. Some people don't get that chance. If you're one of those people, my heart goes out to you. That's a wound that's hard to close. I know. But as time continues apace, we need to close those wounds. We need to apply balms and ointments and bandages, and heal. We have to prepare ourselves to bring joy and happiness and love and mercy to the other people who are still here, who need us, who deserve smiles and hugs and laughter. And that has to start somewhere. 

And what better time than New Year's Eve?

May your day be full of celebration and reflection. May you lay down old hurts, and reach out for new joys. May you be filled with gratitude, and released from regret. I'll join you in the effort. Tomorrow. 

For today, I still have to let go.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Micro Graces

 Friday afternoon, and I’m on my way to do something I’m conflicted about doing (that will be another post). In a moment of weakness, I stop at a convenience store and grab a soda.

I’ve largely cut out soda from my daily life. I was once a mass consumer of Diet Coke, but I stopped (mostly). Partially out of health concerns; partially because of the cost; and partially because I lost my taste for it.

However, when we’re under stress, we’re often prone to falling back into old habits (at least I am, more often than I care to admit). One soda won’t kill me, I reason. And if it gets me motivated to accomplish the task before me, so much the better.

Inside the store, I make my way back to the fountain. As is often the case, the Diet Coke is coming out oddly. I try it, and the mix is off. I go to the counter, apologize for the ask because they’re a little busy, and ask if they can change out the syrup. One of the clerks heads to the storeroom.

While I’m waiting, a lady is struggling to get lids on her drinks. She makes a comment about the universe working against her. I thought she was perhaps using the wrong size lid, and suggested a different one. When she tried the new lid, it wasn’t the right size, which then sparked her to fit the original lid on her cup. “See?”, I responded. “The Universe just needed me to come make a mistake so it could take you back into it’s good graces.” We laughed, and wished each other a good day.

A few moments later, she came back and handed me two dollars. “Your drink is on me. Have a blessed day.” 

Now ordinarily I would protest something like this. But I’ve learned over the years that if someone wants to give you something, the motivation is often more about them than it is about you. So I said thank you and accepted the gift, because I didn’t want to rob her of the desired context for her act.

I hung out for a bit and got my soda. It was still off, but the problem was likely the nozzle instead of the soda itself and I told the clerk so. I then went to the counter to pay. Behind was someone with several items. I paid for my soda with my phone and then gave the clerk the two dollars. I asked her to put it on the person’s bill behind me, and left the store.

What did the person behind me do? I have no idea. Did they need the money, or even acknowledge it? Again, don’t know and not the point.

I went my vehicle with my soda.

This was really not a big deal, but it made me consider what if we all intentionally tried to train ourselves to do and say little positive things. What if it were natural for us to do nice things, not because of what we get but because of what it might do?

You could argue that I’m extrapolating too much out of this event, and you might be right. However, I’m less concerned with my unwanted task. I feel pretty sure that the person who gave me those two dollars left in a better mood than when I encountered, and I’m thankful for that. And I’m not kicking myself over a soda.