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.