Americans love a legacy. We love telling the stories of the things that have stayed with us over the years - the stories we hope outlive our memories. We pass down valuable heirlooms and priceless trinkets. We love thinking about what we leave behind when we go, we tell the hero myths of our country’s founding, scribble our names on school desks, church walls, and new buildings. Running through Kansas City, I noticed the stamps in the sidewalks - 1986 - the year I was born. I was running on a sidewalk as old as I was. I was running on someone’s legacy. It reminded me of a bridge in southern Illinois. I loved that bridge, seeing it in the distance, the bumps serving as a metronome, the cables flashing by in time. There was a melodic thrill to that bridge, and along with my siblings I always held my breath as we drove to the safety of the other side. I liked all bridges as a kid, but I loved this one. I loved it because my Dad helped build it. I was awestruck thinking about how the same hands that would toss me a baseball or brush my hair were capable of building such a marvel. That bridge was the most majestic and enduring thing my young eyes had ever seen, and it was a legacy.
As I often do on these runs, I thought of the first people to ford the engorged rivers with no support drivers, no google maps, and no way to call for help if needed. I thought of their legacies of exploration, resourcefulness, daring, and resilience. I thought of the legacies of discovering a new place, of moving through it or choosing to make it your home.
Running through the Missouri fields I thought of the famers who have worked that land, passed it down through generations. I thought of the family homesteads that year after year plow, seed, and eventually harvest their crops, the generations of men and women who birth, grow, and slaughter their livestock. There’s a romantic triad to farming, a harmony of unvaried indissolubility, certain routine, and unpredictable chaos. There’s the steady permanence of the land and the constant yearly cycles, both subject to the whims of the weather. Through crop rotation and new technology, the land is their legacy.
As I struggled through another mile under the unrelenting Midwestern sun, I thought alot about my body as my legacy. I’ll never be a fitness model with a six pack or cellulite free thighs, but I could use my body to create something lasting. I thought about the women I know who have used their bodies to grow life, eventually creating an independent life beyond herself, a legacy of love, and I couldn’t help but to think of the political turmoil surrounding women’s bodies. As another dog snarled and bolted towards my path, or another man whistled/honked/or revved his engine at me, I couldn’t help to think how vulnerable my own body is. As the police officer, without a hint of levity, warned me that “folks here take their property very seriously,” I thought about how some folks seem to value the safety of their property over the safety of my body. I thought about how no matter how strong nature and hard work had made my body, there were others capable and willing to threaten it, to harm it, or even break it.
Our bodies can’t be our legacy, they’re too transient, even sidewalks and bridges crumble or are rebuilt, and we can never truly own land.
So maybe our legacies aren’t so tangible, aren’t so direct, maybe if we do it right, they become so diffuse that they can no longer even be called our own. Maybe our legacies are our actions, the choices we make and service we give others.
Our actions are seemingly the most fleeting, but they are how we reflect ourselves in our world. Who you think you are means very little to the world. When talking about legacies - that’s what matters, not what you want to leave behind, but what others carry on. The daily kindnesses and mundane routines. The seemingly meaningless stories we tell our children or random trivial texts we send an old friend. Maybe those are the things that endure, that morph and shift and are reborn by the next generation. Maybe those are more lasting and more valuable than any plot of land or steel bridge.
Or maybe not. Maybe these actions are as ephemeral as they seem. Maybe they exist only in the moment they happen, held in the minds of just a few people for a few seconds.
But maybe that’s enough.