I was looking out the kitchen window the other morning, watching the birds at the feeder. As I sat a beautiful goldfinch flew in for a meal. At the same time a large grey squirrel charged up the pole, deftly stepping around the super-impenetrable squirrel blocking device I had painstakingly crafted and chased the current diners from their perch. The finch sort of hopped up into the air about a foot or two above the feeder, fluttered momentarily to get its bearings, and landed on the tip of an Astilbe frond. If you don't know Astilbe, it's a delicate, fern-like plant with pretty white or purple-ish flowers in summer. Its kind of a garden nuisance around here, but that's a different story. Astilbe is a featherweight plant, and I was surprised at how easily the finch was able to light itself upon the tip of that tender little stem and not even bend it. It sat patiently awaiting intervention on its behalf while the squirrel was busy gnawing a larger access hole in the feeder's tough plastic shell. I shooed the squirrel with a thump on the window. The goldfinch sat, unperturbed by it all, left its astilbe perch and set back down, this time at the smaller thistle feeder. It stayed only a minute ate a few seeds, and was gone.
The faint scenario played out by the finch was in such great contrast to the clumsy, blunt approach to living that the squirrel embraced, it was impossible, even for me, to miss. Squirrels leave little question as to their presence. Their loud chatter, copious litter, their damage to trees, eaves, and bird feeders alike, are an inherent part of squirrel-ness. Meanwhile the goldfinch, adorned in its fading lemon yellow, black and white raiment, floats in on the wind, sings a light and happy song, takes his seed, and is gone. The contrariety seems so profound. The squirrel, for better or worse, is not purposefully injurious but its actions are consequential in an immediate sense. The goldfinch in contrast leaves no echo of its actions. It touches lightly and refers the memory of its cheery song and beautiful plumage as the only lasting legacy of its visit.
The lessons of the squirrel and goldfinch
Events in the last week have put me in mind of considering legacy. When all is gone but for the memory, by what gauge are we measured? I am much closer to the end of my teaching career than I am to even the middle. As such I am become more aware of what comes after, or more precisely, what remains. When I walk out of my classroom for the final time it will be without regret of any kind. Though teaching was never something I aspired to do initially, I embraced it and it nourished me. Teaching gave me a new life, a beautiful wife, some prestige, and a living wage. When my teaching days are through my legacy will likely not be found in the room or building in which I taught, but more likely in the students that I taught.They are what remains. If I were to choose how I am remembered it would be fostering a love of learning, with laughter and fraternity, and random moments of inspiration. A Legacy would be that some of my students carry a love of art still, and make art, and teach others about art. It would be be that I cared enough to try, and tried enough to make some positive impact. It would be that I gave better than I got.
But that choice is not mine to make. Nor should it be. Because a legacy is defined by those who come after, by those who remain. Because while I look at the big grey squirrel and see only its littersome trace, others see a legacy of food left for smaller less robust animals to eat, and seeds cast for new trees to grow from, and nuts buried and long forgotten, feeding the soil and its creepy-crawly cast. Squirrel as provider. I see only my deconstructed feeder, and not the marvelous curiosity and tenacious persistence that this animal possess as it asks only to survive another day in the chilling fall air.
And therefore if my legacy decided is that I was a good teacher, or a good husband or friend, and doesn't extend beyond that -that's okay. And any memory of me need be nothing more than the faint tickle of a light touch or the echo of a laugh. In the interim I continue to be who I am, to do what I do.
And what remains, remains to be seen.
peace, and love to all