An elderly man passed away not long ago, and left for his family and friends an interesting last wish. A well-traveled man in life, whose work took him around the world several times, he instructed that his cremated remains be scattered in 28 of his favorite places on Earth.
The story, which I heard third hand, leaves out details like whether this was an equally well traveled group of friends and relatives in the first place, whether or not most of them thought this was as interesting an idea as I did, or if, instead, it was perceived as an onerous and unaffordable burden, some posthumous grandstanding. I rather doubt the latter. The one part of the journey of his ashes that I heard concerned a grandson of the man, who was in my daughter’s semester abroad program in London.
The grandfather, it seemed, loved William Butler Yeats’ short poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
The poem so moved the grandfather, that throughout his life he lived in a small cabin, and kept nine bean rows and a bee hive . When he died , the grandson and a cousin were tasked with taking their portion his last wish to the Isle of Innisfree in Ireland, the one place in the world, it turned out, that the grandfather had never actually gotten to see during his travels. It became the last place for his ashes to be spread.
Part of the reason the young man took the semester abroad option was to fulfill his grandfather’s wish, and complete his journey. He and his cousin also made it a point to get the Isle of Innisfree as his grandfather had always traveled, by guess and by gosh, by making friends with locals, by hitchhiking, and walking.
It turned out to be a more challenging project than the student expected. The Isle of Innisfree is a tiny inland speck, nestled among 20 or so other islands, in a lake called Lough Gill,
in Ireland, a good ten to eleven hours from London. While the island – or at least a view of it – is a popular destination for Yeats fans, and birders, there’s no regular transportation to it. However, the student told his story to locals, who arranged for a special boat trip out to the island where he was, in fact, able to scatter his grandfather’s ashes as he’d wished, and share the story with classmates upon his return.
But was that really his grandfather’s wish – to have his dusty remains sprinkled on an obscure and remote little island in western Ireland? Or were his ashes just a vehicle for the man’s real wish, to share with his grandson, and others in his family, the gift of purpose and perspective that had guided his own life? This young man, along with 27 other friends and family, were sent on around the world journeys, in any way they could manage, guided to places that had mattered the most to the man, places that had mattered so deeply to him, that had impressed and affected him and shaped his world view, and his world, so much that he wanted to share the gifts the world had given him with those who mattered most to him.
What a legacy!
And that got me to thinking about the things that I’ve most valued in my life so far – the places, people and ideas that I’d like those I leave behind, those who come after me, to get some glimpse of. Where would I want to take them? What would I want them to see of my life? What would I hope for them to take from their glimpses of my life?
What a wonderful exercise! Think about it – there are places and times in all our lives that move us, shape us, drive us, inspire us, and change us. We’re obviously not all world travelers like the globe-trotting grandfather, but it’s not the destination, really. It’s the journey. It’s the story behind the destination, both yours and the person you share it with, that is the real point, and the true opportunity – to build on aspects of a shared journey and make it your own.
The young man didn’t experience the island he visited like his grandfather might have always imagined it. He saw it in a way specific to his own journey. His grandfather just gave him a reason to go there. But clearly, the grandfather thought hard about the 28 destinations he selected before committing them to paper, reflecting on the experiences of his life. And that was his gift to himself, considering the things that made his life most worth living, and most worth sharing with those most loved.
When I think about the places that have most shaped me so far , that have stirred my heart, or fired my mind, they’re not necessarily the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen; many are rather humble locations, and may not look at all today as they did when I first experienced them, and some are not really destinations at all – more ideas of destinations. But they warm me still when I think of them.
English Creek, NJ , which doesn’t even bear that beautiful name today, called instead, Egg Harbor Township; somewhere along Lee’s Lane, or by the old Asbury Methodist Church cemetery, where generations of my family lie buried. Along those back roads and country lanes, by the mill on the creek, past corn and blueberry fields, where I rode my bike or walked the mossy wooded trails from aunts’ homes to great-grandfather’s, to wonderful Mrs. Hart’s place, full of all the wild animals she healed and released and which stayed near her home making it some enchanted fairy tale place in the forest; where I knew everybody and everybody knew me, where I felt more loved and cared for than a child could ever hope to be, a place that taught me to love my children as I had been so loved.
I’d send them to Venice Beach, just south of Sarasota, where, as a teenager, I spent spring breaks with my grandmother, shelling and looking for fossil shark teeth, an excuse, really, for just walking the beach with someone who didn’t always know any other way to show she loved me, but whose beachside companionship showed me how deeply she did. It was there, along the beaches of Englewood and Venice, that I learned that it was okay to have nothing to say, to be in silence with those you love and that time with nothing much to do but watch the waves and the birds and feel the sand beneath your feet can be time well spent.
I’d point them towards Islamorada, in the Florida Keys, where I spent summers fishing with my father, on a tiny boat motoring out of sight of land, where I learned what it was like to live with boundless horizons, with no frame of reference beyond myself, a floating spec above a depthless sea, fragile, mortal, and infinitely alive. At some point, everyone should be alone, or mostly alone, in a small boat on the sea, with no land in sight. It’s deeply perspective setting (especially if the motor won’t start right away!).
I’d urge them skyward, above the Everglades in a small airplane – either piloting it alone, or with just one other person, preferably someone well loved. I never finished getting my pilot’s license, but I remember a solo flight over the Everglades, burbling across the sky, a droning little bird, alone in the air. Like being adrift in a horizonless sea, being alone in the air, high above the everyday world, blurs the terrestrial boundaries we ordinarily set for ourselves.
I’d send my loved ones to Florida International University, in Miami, the Rat maybe, or the grassy quad, if it’s still there. So that those who come after me will understand not only the value I placed on education, but on the gift of self-discovery it offers, I’d have a loved one track down Professor Peterson, if he was still around, and shake his hand for me, or find his children or grandchildren, and tell them how he rocked my world with his History of World Religions class and made me question everything I’d ever believed in that I’d previously believed in unquestioningly.
Actually, I’d ask that the letters I wrote but never gave him, letters where I deconstructed my beliefs based on the new knowledge I gained from his class, pages and pages of philosophical and religious reflections that resulted in my finally removing a crucifix I’d worn since childhood, putting it away and being made unburdened for the first time – finally be given to him or his family, so they’d know how he influenced and freed into the world, at least one of his students.
Sprinkle me over Temple Street in Palm Bay, where my husband and I built our first home, and where I learned what it was like to have a family of my very own, where the real foundations of my marriage strengthened and deepened and I marveled daily as our babies grew into remarkable young people, who taught me so much about beauty, imagination and the fantastic, multifaceted complexities of love.
Save a few pieces of me, I’d tell my friends and family, for the Indian River, down the road from our old place, where the kids and I spent hours fishing, exploring, talking and watching the dolphins raise rooster tails of water in their wake as they corralled mullet. And along Turkey Creek, where we volunteered at the nature center, and endlessly walked the creek side trails where I shared my love of the outdoors – the love of nature I learned from my father and grandmother and aunts and uncles – with my children, who in turn showed me new ways to love being outside.
There are many more places, of course, and if I were nearing the end, I’d have to sit down and do some serious winnowing. Muir Woods north of San Francisco where I lay under a redwood tree and tried to get my mind around the magnificence of time that created such a thing? The stunning red rocks of Sedona, AZ, where I learned that the real “vortex” of energy indicated by the little piles of rocks there, was the energy of simple natural beauty?
You get the idea. When you think about who you are, think, too, about how you got here and what’s most important to you. What of your life do you want your loved ones to know about, to experience, to some degree, to hear or see or think about? What part of your journey do you want to share with them? How have you carved meaning from your time on earth.
Since poetry inspired this grand journey of reflection, perhaps it’s only fitting to come full circle with Walt Whitman.
In “O Me! O Life!,” Whitman observes that life is filled with “the endless trains of the faithless, of cities filled with the foolish, …of eyes that vainly crave the light , of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renewed, of the poor results of all, of the plodding sordid crowds I see around me, of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest of me intertwined.”
The question, he asks, “ So sad, recurring – What good amid these, O me, O life?”
And he answers his own question thusly: That you are here. That life exists and identity, That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
The meaning of life, Whitman suggests, is simply being, and that in being here, you contribute a bit to the living play of which you are a part. For those who come after us to know what their role is, what the next lines might be, they need to be able to not only read, but understand, the verses we’ve added.
If we view our lives, and the living of our lives, as our truest legacy, perhaps we can live more thoughtfully, and handle the treasure of each day like the valuable gift it is, for us, and hopefully, in some measure, for those who come after us, so that the powerful play goes on.