Flipping the switch

I don’t know when it happened, exactly. Whether I flipped a switch, or the lighting changed more gradually, as if a dimmer had slowly illuminated a new space. But I recognize that it happened some time ago, and it feels like a natural process – inhabiting this territory where the focus is off my experience lived intensely, and outside of myself, more diffusely.

It’s not that I don’t want new experiences, or to live intensely any longer. That’s not the case.

But I’m not walled in by the confines of my memories, or my once-upon-a-time ambitions. By an image of what life should be like. It’s as though I scaled those walls and I’m somewhere else, beyond myself. Much of the time, anyway. In a place where I’m concerned with tangible contribution. With legacy.

Do we all reach a stage where our experiences take a back seat to something bigger – or at the very least – share equal footing?

That contribution may be to family, or a specific community, or a cause.

  • Is it tied to becoming a parent?
  • To some event in which you confront your mortality?
  • Is it a common side effect of moving into midlife?

Parenting beyond our children

For many mothers, as soon as we sense that we’re pregnant, we realize we’re part of something more complex than ourselves. We feel it before any home test or doctor confirms what our bodies already announce: we are responsible for another life.

Father or mother – in our parenting pandemonium, we come to understand that our former preoccupations are not as important as we thought – being on time, looking dapper, getting that promotion. Whether we like it or not, we’re forced beyond the singular. We become less selfish, aware of the dependence that others have on our decision making and our actions.

And we begin to worry about the sort of world we’ll leave to our children.

But I don’t think the need to contribute, to do more than make a buck or upgrade the dining room furniture only occurs when parenthood hits. Some of us are late to parenting and feel this need long before. Some of us never take the parental plunge at all. Yet we want more. We want to give, differently. Something flips that switch – an event, a birthday, a realization – or a slow process of lights coming on that we can’t quite pinpoint.

If I had three wishes. . .

We’ve all played that game, haven’t we? And its variations – “If I had a million dollars…” or “If I won the lottery…”

I never dreamed of being wealthy, though I hoped to make enough money to not worry about paying my bills. And write. Always, to write. I dreamed of writing and making art, of traveling and loving, and pouring that back into my writing.

I made art for a time as a child and teen, but writing was the stronger pull, so I guess it’s fitting that for a few years I made my living writing about art.

And all my life, I’ve written – all sorts of things – following my passion to do so, incorporating it into every job I’ve ever had, whether it was the job or not.

Long before becoming a mother, I thought about what I would do if I had millions. And yes, there would be money in the bank, a few incredible paintings on my walls, a small flat in Paris, and that freedom to write and not worry about the bills. But I wanted to give away the rest. My friends would laugh. My husband shook his head. I had no interest in the big house, the flashy car, the fingers weighed down by diamonds. I need my fingers light – quick on the keyboard, free to hold a pencil, a pen, anything – so I may write.

History, volunteerism, philanthropy

My great grandparents were immigrants to this country like millions of others. They were merchants and musicians, passing through Ellis Island somewhere around 1905, part of the vast wave of families seeking a better life in America.

I still recall my great grandfather – a formidable man with a shock of white hair – who dispensed silver dollars to each of his great grandchildren at the holidays. He had come to this country with his wife, raised a family of eight children (to the best of my recollection), built himself a number of businesses, and considerable wealth. Part of his legacy was his family, and part of his legacy was philanthropy – a foundation bearing his name, and doing good work.

When my children were little I donated money to their public school, like many other parents. I gave for programs in the arts, specifically, as the budget was much too small, and both musical instruments and art supplies were insufficient. I also cleared it with my employer to have ample time to volunteer – generally running art projects. I did it for my sons, and I did it for me. My need to see those faces, excited and learning, and the pleasure they took in creating. It felt incredible. What the kids got out of it other than a few hours of fun, I’ll never know. What I got out of it was enormous satisfaction.

Real world changes

I am no longer in a position to give my time, or money. My world changed significantly some years back. The lights dimmed.

Yet I will not say that they have been switched off. And certainly not when it comes to leaving my mark. A legacy, however small and whatever that may mean. Raising two good men – and I’m not quite done yet – that’s a contribution, and one I take pride in. But I want more. I sense there’s more to do.

Perhaps writing will be involved. I don’t know. But that switch that was flipped on – whenever and however that happened – it seems to be on to stay. At least, for now.

Do you think about your legacy? Do you focus on contributions beyond your immediate family? Do you worry about the world we’ll leave to our children, and if so, what do you do about it?

© D A Wolf