The Legacy We Leave

My father died fourteen years ago. He was 52 years old and died of a sudden, massive heart attack. Because he threw himself into both sensual and self-destructive pursuits with abandon, I had known that he wasn’t going to be the next Methusela. But still, his death caught me off guard and, if I’m being honest, angered me. He wasn’t going to get to be a grandfather; he wasn’t going to be able to take advantage of the opportunity life was giving him to redeem himself as a parent to my half-sister; he wasn’t going to be around for us to enjoy each other’s company–and he brought it on himself (or so I said, inwardly). And, because I was pregnant with my second child when he died, I had no room for the grief that comes with losing a parent.

Grief is a sneaky bastard, though, and I’ve been thinking about my dad a lot recently. This might be because I’m in this entirely new phase of my life as an adult and find I have the emotional time and energy to think about him and who he was and what that meant for my life as a young person and what it might mean now. I know he was a magician as a salesman. He could sell you anything; I hated selling Girl Scout cookies! Now, I’m building a business where I am marketing and selling services I love and I often think how interesting it would be to talk to him about marketing and building relationships in the age of social media. He charmed every room he entered, yet struggled mightily with depression and self-sabotage on a grand scale. I had always wished for a mellow old age for him and am heartbroken that he didn’t get one. And, because he was a sporadic presence in my life, there is a lot I didn’t know about my dad–so recently, I went looking.

I spent a week with my dad’s sister and my cousins at the beginning of this month. I asked questions and heard stories and connected with people who knew him differently than I did. I learned and felt so much, it has been a lot to process. The trip itself was unlike any trip I’ve taken in ages: no kids with me, no spouse, no academic work, no agenda beyond talking and seeing pictures. I sensed that I would learn what I needed to if I went and, as I have been doing more and more in the last couple of years, I trusted my intuition and got on the plane. And, because we do tend to get what we expect, I am pretty sure I got what I needed. I wanted a more complete picture, a more fleshed-out story, of my dad than the one I cobbled together from my memories of him. Spending time with my aunt wove me into my dad’s life in a new way; spending time with her and my cousins was, in and of itself, a way to grasp my father. Now I feel better equipped to grieve properly, to make sense of my relationship with my dad, to make sense of him and how things turned out the way they did.

I can be very confident when I state that the thought of leaving a legacy to his daughters was one that never once crossed my dad’s mind. And yet, he did. We all do. Once you get past paying the bills and mowing the lawn and going to work and taking out the garbage–once you get past the quotidian, or maybe while you amass the quotidian–you leave your nearest and dearest with a legacy. The feelings they have when they hear your name or see your picture is part of your legacy as much as the class ring and the box of rattlesnake skins (now THERE’s a story). (As Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”)

They should have behaved better.

My tangled up feelings about my dad and his sub-par performance in the role of “father” have complicated my ability to grieve, as well as my ability to understand my own childhood and where I come from. Spending time with my memories and the various new threads of narrative I’ve uncovered will, I hope, put me in a better place to confront and even honour the legacy my father left me. But, because the universe really does give us what we need, even when we DON’T ask for it, thinking about one set of tangled feelings and narratives about one person who failed me got me thinking about how I see the university as a system and its failures, as well. I repeat: They should have behaved better. They should behave better.

I have lots and lots of thoughts and feelings about where and how academia is failing its own. Where and how they should behave better. As I watch the decline of tenure and rise of adjunctification, the explosion of the administrative strata in higher ed, the growing roster of anonymous reports of sexual harassment and abuse in the academy, and the gutting of the liberal arts, my feelings about how the academy fails its own can get in the way of any clarity I might reach about my academic legacy or the promise that an academic career holds for those who wish to leave a legacy.

I know I’m not alone. Cynicism and bitterness are the symptoms, I think, of many people’s disappointment in their academic institutions as “alma maters” or as employers and intellectual communities. It is so much easier to make derisive comments about administrators, to bemoan the bean counting, to commiserate with others about how busy we are, or how the quality of student work is declining, or about how a department of six is now doing more work than it was ever expected to when it was a department of twelve. Budgets, Institutional Review, quality assurance, accreditation, teaching load, research leave—how many of those things get in the way of and complicate YOUR sense of what you want your academic legacy to be? (This is not to say that you don’t have every justification for bemoaning the state of affairs!)

I believe that clarity about how you feel about those quotidian, business aspects of the university–the bean counting and administrative burden–can complicate your ability to feel joy in your work, to pursue your passion, and to pass on your legacy. It is difficult, I think, to forge ahead with enthusiasm and vigour when we are unclear about the overall whys and wherefores of our story. How do you achieve a little distance from the day-to-day running of the university and focus on your agency and your capacity to create a lasting legacy? Because you will leave one, guaranteed.

I know that my clients who develop a vision for their career–who establish goals around their own academic legacy–are better placed to approach their academic work with enthusiasm and to take advantage of their room for agency where they have it, so that the legacy they leave is one they actively choose.

If you need to get clarity on your big WHY; if you need to re-connect with the goals and ambitions and joys that propelled you to the academy in the first place, now is the perfect time to think about working with a coach. What are you doing to create your academic or personal legacy? What is getting in your way? If you want 2018 to be the year you become the person who is positioned to leave that legacy, talk to me! Go to my scheduling page and book a super low-cost introductory coaching session. There’s no obligation and I promise you’ll be the wiser for it.

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