What Do We Leave Behind?

By Jonathan Silin

This summer after a reading from my new book about aging and the life cycle at Canio’s an audience member asked if I didn’t see the central task for older people as the search for a meaningful life. I was caught off guard by the question, surprised by my difficulty in responding. Surprised, for although a fundamental assumption of my research and writing over the last three and a half decades has been that we are all always struggling to make meaning of our experience, that no longer felt like a fruitful line of thought. 

I wanted to honor the question and I wanted to suggest how my thinking about legacy had led me in another direction, less concerned with finding meaning and more tolerant of the fragmentary, incoherent nature of experience.

Over the last 16 years I have been steward to the legacy of my first life partner, the American photographer Robert Giard, with whom I lived in Amagansett and who is best known for having photographed over 500 G.L.B.T.Q. writers before his death in 2002 (robertgiardfoundation.org). Much of that stewardship has involved the care and management of the work that he left. Until recently I have thought of legacy in largely material ways. 

Then, on a bleak, sunless day last February as I was selecting photographs in my East Hampton storage unit for a show of Bob’s work later in the spring, it occurred to me that I too might have a legacy to leave, albeit of a very different kind. After all I have published four books, numerous scholarly articles, and popular essays. Here on the East End I was a founding board member of the East End Gay Organization in the 1970s and in the 1980s and 1990s took an active role in AIDS education and fund-raising.

Looking back on that moment in the storage unit I wonder why I hadn’t thought about my own legacy before. Was it simply the preoccupation of caring for another’s work that kept me from thinking about it? Or is there something fundamentally fraught about the question of legacy, inflected as it is by our concerns about mortality, the meaningfulness of our life projects, and yes, ego. 

The discomfort elicited by the topic was confirmed for me when I took an informal survey of colleagues at an educational conference last spring. My queries were met with surprised silences as well as a range of responses from “I don’t think about it” to “My students are the legacy.” And while it’s commonplace among teachers and parents to see their influence as traveling across time embodied in the next generation, my curiosity about legacy was only further piqued.

It’s an especially problematic interest for early childhood educators like me who are supposed to be singularly focused on welcoming the new and unrehearsed into the world, rather than preserving the old and familiar. Traditionally women’s work, teachers were to be models of probity and selfless negation.

At the same time, life in the classroom turns us into temporal specialists. We know that children’s play can wreak havoc with linear chronologies and that the excited cry “Let’s pretend” signals that they are about to enter alternative realms of time and space. 

Observing children move between past and future, real and imagined, abruptly rewriting narratives midcourse — now I have superpowers because I am big and powerful, and now because I am small and agile; now I am a baby, and now I am the mom going to work. The children are 3 and 30, 6 and 60 all at once.

As adults we know the reverse; living in aging bodies, aware of our growing limitations, we continue to experience ourselves outside of clock time as child, adolescent, and young adult. We too are 4 and 40, 7 and 70. The unconscious knows nothing of time.

On that summer afternoon at Canio’s, I stumbled through my response to the question about seeking meaning in life, but with time would offer a more considered reply that includes an older commitment to existentialist ideas and recent interest in Buddhist perspectives.

In the face of the fundamental absurdity of the human condition, existentialists say we can make choices that define who we are and enable us to leave a mark on the world. In short, we try to ward off death by investing in children, institutions, art, scholarship, and religion. It’s a thoroughly Western perspective, and contemporary psychologists who study this process have given it a thoroughly Western label, “terror management theory.”

For Buddhists, on the other hand, life is transient, not only because it ends in death but also because it exists only as momentariness, a series of tiny, ordinary, imperceptible moments. From this perspective it is our attachments to things and people that cause suffering, and the core project of a life well lived is letting go. Considerations of legacy, of leaving a mark on the world, are less relevant because existence is constant change and nothing can be said to endure.

That nothing endures, at least as we intend it, is a familiar instruction to those of us who teach and write. Marking graduate student papers at the end of the semester, I wonder where the ideas have come from. Had this student actually read the texts on the carefully crafted syllabus, attended the well-structured classes, and listened to my thoughtful words? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes there is considered resistance, other times it is as if we had totally missed the mark.

I do not pose the existential and Buddhist perspectives as opposites because most of the time I find myself swimming between the two, finding temporary comfort on one shore or the other. 

This dynamic is captured in the Jewish tradition, where it is said that everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: I am but dust and ashes, and on the other: The world was created for me. From time to time we must reach into one pocket or the other. The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each.

No matter our ability to reach into the right pocket at the right time, legacy is both an elusive idea and an evocative reminder of human transience. I try to capture its meaning by searching dictionaries online and am struck by a site that offers “loss” as an antonym for legacy. I think of legacy not as the opposite of loss but as a trace within it. The gift of legacy, all that it offers us in material, spiritual, or intellectual benefit, is inevitably marked by who or what no longer remains. We welcome the gift and we grieve the loss it signals. 

If legacy is understood as both presence and absence, then, as my graduate students tell me, we have no control over what others take from our work. Where once I thought of legacy as a bounded set of artifacts, now I understand that it is a relational process that takes form in a future field of things and people, objects and desires. 

On the surface, my days working in the Giard archive of photographs are consumed with a material legacy. But when I stop for even a moment, I experience a more complicated dynamic, time oscillating between the now of the photographs before me folding into the past when they were made and future when I hope they will find new audiences.

Perhaps a scholar-activist legacy might also be understood as an assemblage, fragmentary and resisting definition, brought to life by those who follow.

Jose Munoz, a professor of performance studies, teaches us to read with queer eyes, to look for ephemera, “the things that are left, hanging in the air like a rumor.” Eschewing the tyranny of facts and evidence-based arguments, he urges us to attend to the queer gesture — the handshake, look, posture — that contains the past as well as a way forward. Might legacy be read in a similar manner? That is, not as a fixed set of objects or ideas to be protected, but as a series of gestures and traces offering possibilities for critiquing the present and reimagining the future. 

Legacy functions optimally not as a repetition of the past but as a phenomenon that directs us to the horizon.

Although the question of legacy has arisen later in life for me, I know this is not true for everyone. Here I recount my favorite rumor hanging in the air of queer history. 

The first part, going back to the 19th century, involves Oscar Wilde, age 28, on his first speaking tour in America, seeking out a meeting with Walt Whitman, then 63. Oscar revered Walt. Queer lore has it that the two got on famously and that Whitman, after much talk and some wine, suggested that they might repair to his upstairs bedroom where they could be on “thee and thou terms.” 

Apparently both were pleased with the outcome, Oscar boasting to a friend that “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips” and Walt reporting in a newspaper interview that they had had a “jolly good time.” 

Fast-forward 75 years, and Oscar, long gone, had himself become an object of admiration of another young writer, the tattoo artist and pornographer Samuel Steward. Steward sought to affirm his connection to Oscar by seducing the then-aging Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s former lover. 

In his diaries Steward records his success in creating this visceral link through the once notoriously beautiful Douglas, then a wizened and much older man, and his great hero, Oscar Wilde.

While I suspect that most of us might not choose the kinds of visceral connections sought by Wilde and Steward, we may still imagine ourselves bearing the memories of admired friends and mentors into the future. We strive to honor those who came before and stay true to particular traditions. We ponder the traces and gestures that others will extract from our own lives. For myself, I am trying to heed the Player King in “Hamlet,” who reminds us of the futility of such preoccupations: “Our thoughts are ours,” he opines, “their ends none of our own.”

Jonathan Silin lives in Amagansett and Toronto. His most recent book, “Early Childhood, Aging, and the Life Cycle: Mapping Common Ground,” was published by Palgrave Macmillian earlier this year.