The things we leave behind

The smell of humidity and rot was strong in the air. But it was a pleasant smelling rot – the gentle softening and giving way of enormous trees to a million tiny insects and bacteria. Butterflies sliced zigzags through the air and landed on sun-warmed rocks to splay out their saffron wings. Branches strewn out on the path suddenly lifted their serpentine heads and lazily slithered into the brush.

What my Dad wanted for his 60th birthday was to go hiking with me. I’m not sure, as a daughter, what feels better than that. So, Dad and I went hiking. We crossed an icy river, our feet tingling from the cold and slipping on moss-covered rocks. We waved away the little flies that buzzed persistently behind our sunglasses.

The old stone chimney was hiding just off the path, amongst over-grown vines and fallen trees. It was all that remained of a cabin. When the Shenandoah National Park was formed in the 1930s, most of the residents left the area – but the man who lived here decided to spend his final days in his cabin. After he died, the cabin was destroyed. Only the chimney remains.


It got me thinking about the things we leave behind. I’ve always been pretty aware of my own mortality and physical limits. Maybe because one of my early acting jobs involved being shot and killed in a restaurant when I was 6. Maybe because I broke my back when I was 11. Maybe because my dearest friend died of lupus when we were 19.

I’ve never felt invincible.

The wonderful and terrible thing about movies is that they last a really, really long time. I find that disconcerting for many reasons. One reason is that there is footage out there of me singing – which is a total atrocity. But also, in many ways, it feels like what remains of me is a lie. It’s frame after frame of me wearing things I didn’t pick and saying words I didn’t choose. It’s me pretending to be someone I’m not.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I write – so that I leave something lasting. Something that is truly me, not simply the shell of me, acting like someone else. I think it’s natural to want to create something meaningful that endures beyond yourself. Andrew Carnegie called it the desire to “do real and permanent good.”

Personally, I’ve never felt the desire to have children and pass on my DNA, so I need to find another way to leave my mark on the world. It doesn’t need to be perfect or spectacular. I don’t think I’m going to cure Alzheimer’s or rid the world of bigotry. It doesn’t have to be bigger or better or more impressive than what other people have done.

It just has to be a true reflection of me. It has to be my best effort. My passion. The thing that my heart feels is right, the thing that refuses to be defeated by my relentless worries and insecurities. It’s what happens when I finally get out of my own way and do the work I was meant to do.

That’s what our mountain man in the Shenandoah National Park did. He found a way to live and die in his little place in the woods. That was his legacy. His passion. And what remains is that chimney he built. Strong, solid, proud.

The forest will come and claim the chimney at some point, just as eventually everything changes into something else. Nothing remains static forever. Even the movies and words will fade and become obsolete. That’s just the nature of impermanence.

But for at least a little while longer, it will all mean something. It will mean passion and persistence and it will reflect the inherent beauty of creating the life you truly want to live.

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10 Replies to “The things we leave behind”

  1. I don’t believe that this world will ever be fully rid of evil, but keeping in mind what we can do to make it better is always a good goal. If more people kept that mindset, perhaps evil would eventually be eradicated, but I don’t see it happening in my lifetime.
    I do like driving down the interstate (I’m in Iowa), and seeing old barns and farmhouses that are falling apart, but it makes me think about the lives of the people that built it and used it. There are tons on the road from Omaha, NE to Kansas City, MO.

    1. I agree with you – especially because there is no consensus on what counts as evil. But this is one of my favorite quotes:

      I am only one,
      But still I am one.
      I cannot do everything,
      But still I can do something;
      And because I cannot do everything,
      I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
      -Edward Everett Hale

      Iowa sounds lovely. Thanks for reading!

  2. Ancestors of mine helped lead the first settlers into the Shenandoah, looking for their own life they wanted I suppose. Sometimes you have to create it. One of them use to order books from London because books were impossible to find along the ‘wilderness’.

    Sometimes I ditch things I own, or better yet stop myself from buying an item, because I realize there is no permanence to them. I often speculate the best legacy we’ll leave behind are the intangibles in our life.

    Good post!

    1. Wow – that’s really cool. Over the last few years I have simplified a lot – got rid of about 1/2 my possessions and I rarely shop anymore. I had this major shift of perspective where suddenly that physical stuff just seemed pointless. (Okay, except for books, which your ancestors seemed to understand.)
      Thanks for reading!

  3. Hi Lisa, This is my favourite post so far! Very thought evoking. I’ve recently been pondering about life and death an awful lot after losing my mother in law to cancer and it was the first time as an adult i’ve had to deal with death head on. It struck me at her funeral that on that day we were absorbed and focussed on the funeral, life continued busily around us. People going about their day to day lives, cars passing by, children going to school, life around us didn’t stop just because it felt like it did for us on that day. It made me think that even when I am gone, these roads I travel on everyday to get to work will still be here, those large trees in the fields will still be standing…I just need to decide how to make my mark!

  4. I am laughing. I stumbled across you as I read “stuff” people said about the death of robin Williams and sctuall looked for what people who worked with him said. My thought as a civilian is where we’re all you “stars” while the man was clearly depressed??? Talk about a lonely road when you have it all and there is no more “now what” I have everything I’m stinking rich and famous. Michael Jackson. Whitney Houston the actor that just overdosed in New York. I read your comment about how you decided being another forgotten childhood actress fallen to drugs and alcohol seemed real enough to me. River Phoenix …. The tv kids from different a strokes… So many more. Anyway it was nice to read some of your personal information. Funny how people like me say things like what would life be if I had money, how happy would I be if I was famous and we are jealous and always wishing to be on the other side. Why right? These famously rich people have the same if not more issues than the average me!

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