The Gifts of Inheritance

“What do we inherit, and how, and why?”
Dani Shapiro

One of my favorite concepts is called “two-handed giving.” Leaving no hand open for receiving. The height of altruism.

Gifts of inheritance are more like heavy parcels that abseil from the sky. They knock us over, and we’re forced to claim them, carry them. Are they appreciated? It remains to be seen. They are definitely nonreturnable.

Vladimir Nabokov believed that memory—or more specifically, “the act of vividly recalling a patch of the past”—was a hereditary trait.

British novelist Graham Greene claimed he inherited a fear of bats and birds from his mother, while Penelope Lively surmised her love of gardening was an inherited trait passed through the female line.

Roald Dahl credited his love of nature to his father’s overwhelming need to take his pregnant wife for “glorious walks” in the woods, hoping an in vitro experience of beauty would take hold.

What are gifts of inheritance? How do they affect us? Do they make us who we are?

Wedding dress. Featured in "The Gifts of Inheritance."
My wedding dress. Something mothers traditionally to pass on to daughters. Photograph by Chris Cook.

you look just like your mother
I guess I do carry her tenderness well…

Rupi Kaur, “Inheritance”

Genetics, snapshots, keepsakes, spaces. The physical things we inherit, keep, claim, and pass on.

But what about nonphysical items?

What we really inherit is consciousness. A sense of who we are.

This inheritance anchors us. It is so fundamental to our sense of self and our connection to who we imagine as our “kin” that we fail to see it as its own thing—like a mirror that shows everything but itself.

Until, like a mirror, it shatters.

When a genetic test proved beyond doubt that writer Dani Shapiro was not related to the father who raised her, she undergoes a disintegration of identity, an investigation of truth and a reconstruction of self.

“If my father wasn’t my father, who was my father? If my father wasn’t my father, who was I?” Shapiro demands and tries to answer.

I woke up one morning and life was as I had always known it to be. There were certain things I thought I could count on. I looked at my hand, for example, and I knew it was my hand. My foot was my foot. My face, my face. My history, my history. After all, it’s impossible to know the future, but we can be reasonably sure about the past.

By the time I went to bed that night, my entire history—the life I had lived—had crumbled beneath me, like the buried ruins of an ancient forgotten city.

Shapiro’s sense of self becomes so fractured that she feels physical detachment. “My body wasn’t my body,” she mourns. As she reassembles her new self, piecing together what happened, and what it means, Shapiro tries to make sense of what her parents knew, especially her father. She ultimately finds empathy towards herself by extending it to someone else first.

Did she learn that empathy from her father?

Photos of booties. Featured in "The Gifts of Inheritance."
Crocheted booties worn by my mother-in-law and my daughter. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Where did you get those big eyes?
My mother.
And where did you get those lips?
My mother.
And the loneliness?
My mother.
And that broken heart?
My mother.
And the absence, where did you get that?
My father.

Warsan Shire, “Inheritance”

For most of us, inheritance is more than genes; it’s the steadfast progression of what others—our caregivers, teachers, relatives—want for us.

Principles. Boundaries. Morals. Direction. Happiness.

No wonder people have so much fidelity and pride in family, nationality, and heritage. Through these links we extend ourselves beyond corporal limitations into infinity.

In his radiant memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, American essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates chronicles a young life shaped by a father: “An intellectual, born as it happened among people who could not see a college campus as an outcome.”

Young Coates was molded by his dad’s pressing need for his son to awaken and embrace a full measure of self.

This is all my father wanted—for the long struggle to wake us up to be present in class as it was at home. The struggle infused all his dealings with me. Whenever he could, he violated my weekends with his latest pet lesson.

Coates gained consciousness of the plight of the young black man; he became aware of the systematic silencing of black voices and awake to the reality of a repressed future.

I believed in the intellectual of all of us, that mine was the legacy that aligned pyramids and spotted the rings of distant planets with only the naked eye. That was my greatest inheritance. But I turned this good news to bad ends, and ran with the sort of crew that surveyed all these new teachers, and picked out the ones who would never understanding.

From his father, Coates also inherited a deep desire to give that consciousness to others so that we too might feel enlightened.

Somewhere, somehow, on this road to our self-formation, we claim personhood. We say “I am.” A fierce act of independence that breaks us from our kin and from our parents as I am me is often followed by I am not you.

Footprints. Featured in "The Gifts of Inheritance."
My daughter’s footprints at birth. She has my high arches, her father’s straight toes. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Look, my eyes are not your eyes. You move through me like rain heard from another country.

Ocean Vuong, from “For my Father/For my Son”

“My eyes are not your eyes,” writes Vietnamese poet Ocean Vuong in his collection of odes to identity, fathers, and personhood.

The majority of me came from my parents. But my parents do not contain all of me. I didn’t see this as significant until I had my daughter.

My daughter is bold and charming and has a searing temper—much, much more than me and my husband and all our kin combined. And if she is more than me, that means there is still a part of me that is not her.

Personhood is our complete concept of self. Expandable, contractible, but with boundaries, definitions. I am this.

I worried when I became a mom that I’d lose the “I am this.” That the “I” would disappear, and the “this” would blur.

Your eyes are not my eyes, nor do we see the same thing. But we are still, as kin, connected. Vuong’s poem continues: “This means I am touching you—this means you are not alone.”

Maya Angelou wrote that she inherited/learned anger from her mother. I learned anger from my father. But I learned how to manage that anger from my husband. And a lifetime of work. I’ll show my daughter how.

We are more than what we inherit. A lifetime of more. We are more than what we give our offspring.

I think of the poet Keats. John Keats inherited the family disease, tuberculosis. He knew he was going to die. And he did die. Young, like his mother. But Keats, glorious, lustrous Keats also wrote incomparable poetry that ballasts the holds of heaven.

Where did the poetry come from?

Can Knowledge be Gained Through Feelings?

“Ours is not to know but to understand.”
Elie Wiesel

What are the limits of knowledge and how do we transcend those limits? Can knowledge be gained through feelings? Can we trust that knowledge?

For years, I’ve stirred a bit over the rather classic supposition by Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman that science enhances our knowledge and, thus, our appreciation of it. Feynman refutes aesthetic knowledge as the only way to process beauty. This is certainly fine. It’s the lengths to which he takes that supposition that stirs me.1

I have a friend who’s an artist and he sometimes takes a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, ‘Look how beautiful it is,’ and I’ll agree, I think. And he says, ‘You see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take all this apart and it becomes a dull thing.’ And I think that he’s kind of nutty…. At the same time, I see so much more of the flower than he sees.

I see so much more of the flower than he sees.

Does that mean without the scientific knowledge our understanding of something is sorely limited? Does that mean any knowledge without science is valueless?

I’d like to make a case for emotional knowledge in its own right.

Canterbury Cathedral. The oldest, most exquisite cathedrals of Europe are monumental expressions of the power of emotions. The size, the use of light and shade, the boundless stretches of seemingly impossible architecture, they bore into our hearts. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“Science isn’t the only avenue to arrive at knowledge,” wrote physicist Alan Lightman in his own search for certainty within the unknown of the universe. But what knowledge is outside science? Can we trust that knowledge?

Feynman championed science in the appreciation of a flower. He argued that one need be a mathematician to appreciate the universe and its contents. Stars for example…

And yet, there is Emerson. Glorious Emerson.

“If one be alone, he has only look to the stars,” wrote Emerson in his early work, Nature. “The rays that come from these heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches.”

Emerson believed the stars provided some level of knowledge. What Emerson alluded to was an interconnectedness of humans—what I feel when I see stars is similar to what you might feel. What all humans feel.

This kind of intelligence has a modern name. With his 1995 publication of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, science journalist Daniel Goleman changed how we think about intelligence. Goleman argued for a harmony between our rational and emotional minds and coined the term emotional intelligence.

These two fundamentally different ways of knowing interact to construct our mental life. One, the rational mind, is the mode of comprehension we are typically conscious of: more prominent in awareness, thoughtful, able to ponder and reflect. But alongside that there is another system of knowing impulsive and powerful, if sometimes illogical—the emotional mind.

Like Lightman, Goleman argues there is more than one and perhaps incomparable means to arrive at knowledge. Even without understanding the functionality of our brains our feelings of fear, anger, sadness, and happiness mean something.

Il Duomo, Florence. For centuries cathedrals catered to the illiterate and uneducated, bringing community and meaning into lives. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Up against Feynman’s weighty appreciation of science, I proffer beloved film critic Roger Ebert, a man who was the quintessential guide to the emotional core of movies for more than fifty years.

Although Ebert understood technical aspects of film, even he admitted that when he didn’t understand a film, he wrote about how it made him feel.

Applying this advice early in his career to films like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ebert developed the ability to connect even the most frustratingly complex films to our most human natures.2

Opposite the critic is the artist, and indeed many artists want their work to be interpreted emotionally. Primarily and sometimes exclusively.

Francis Bacon desired that his work would affect people’s nervous systems directly, while British modern sculptor Barbara Hepworth sought to express in sculpture what was beyond words.

Would Bacon’s paintings mean more if we knew what his studio looked like? Or the exact nature of blue light?

Perhaps. Scientific context certainly embellishes.

But regardless art means something to even the most uninformed viewers. I defy anyone to view Bacon’s work and not feel the artist’s pain. Pain in general.

Rouen Cathedral, France. The grandeur of these places sought to communicate the grandeur of the Divine. Is that the same as knowledge? Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Feeling might not be the same as knowledge, but it is some form of understanding.

Understanding of our feelings leads to understand of others’ feelings. This, argues Goleman, is the nature of empathy and the root of our human connection.

When the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was built in Berlin, there was controversy that it did not say enough. Few doubted the emotional impact, but the knowledge it was supposed to present – who died and how and why – was inadequate.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin featured in post "Carrying the Burden of Witness."
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“Ours is not to know but to understand.” wrote Elie Wiesel in Night, a singular story of the limits of humanity.

Wiesel addresses the issue of collective memory. How do we ensure future generations remember something they never experienced? The purpose of memorials.

Wiesel knew he couldn’t. But what he could do was make people care for him and, thus, for everyone who had been affected by the Holocaust. The emotions one feels when reading Night—and the emotions one feels at the Memorial — create empathy and understanding for things we did not experience and people we will never know.

That feeling becomes our new truth. We become witnesses of those feelings.

Feelings are the binding sinews of humanity and the means by which we “know” one another.

We cannot compel people to listen, to understand and certainly not to care. But we can push our society to allow feelings to mean something. To acknowledge our emotions and find ways to make sense of them.

Feelings are not the end of the knowledge, but they are a critical beginning.

The Elegance of Decay

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
T. S. Eliot

The falling apart. The breaking down. The return to elements. Out of the realm of recognition to simply matter. And then, to not matter at all.

Everywhere, there is a slow constancy of decay. Decay is what happens when time throws itself in full gale against matter. Against nature.1

elegance of decay
The breaking down of London. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

We exist in time and space. What we lack in space we try to regain in time. Stretching our body’s elasticity. Death happens when matter fails to keep pace with time.2

But stretch as we try, even our time dimension is minuscule compared to tortoises’. To trees’. To oceans’. To stars’.

Notwithstanding tortoises, in the end, all of these—all of us—entangle with decay. And we lose.

That impulse to withstand decay is—at its extreme—one of the creepiest aspects of humanity. It’s the impulse to embalm Lenin. Literally. Vladimir Lenin has avoided decay since his death in 1924. An embalming process that renders the former leader a waxen figure with the appearance of one who has been honey-glazed. I saw him fifteen years ago. Lenin is still lying in Moscow, honey-glazed, and I’ve most certainly begun to decay. Is there comfort in Lenin still being Lenin? (Is Lenin still Lenin?)

Decay is so horrible. We revel in its absence and revile its presence.

elegance of decay
The signs of decay are everywhere. Visible to any curious eye. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

There is a curiosity in Guanajuato, Mexico, where the bodies buried after a 1833 cholera outbreak have been oddly preserved by wrappings and clay soil. Now, they are oddly preserved in a museum. I saw them twenty years ago. They are still there, having changed less than I have. Is there comfort in their consistency?

Not unlike the peoples of Pompeii who were covered instantly with ash and entombed in 79 AD. I saw these remnants maybe ten years ago at the Boston Museum of Science with my mother.

Neither of us were sure if we were supposed to be proud, transgressed, empathetic, or merely in awe of science. Both of us have changed immensely since then. I fear her decay outpaces my own. At a certain age, it happens. I suspect the Pompeiians have not changed.

We think we avoid decay. But there is no such thing. We’ve just pushed it out of our lifespan. (And beyond for those who opt for cremation.)

As I write this, it is the hottest day ever recorded in the United Kingdom, and we have a new Prime Minister. Things are breaking down. The air is cloyingly thick and fecund with rampant atoms and elements. Things returning from whence they came. Time is ravaging everything. Will Nature surrender?

Almost a century ago, American-born British poet T.S. Eliot witnessed and lamented a similar feeling:

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins

Eliot wrote this most famous poem, “The Waste Land,” in the hollowed aftermath of his failed first marriage and the First World War. In this mindset, he held “fear in a handful of dust.” What would he have written today?

elegance of decay
As things decay, the materials rebound in vibrant new colors and patterns. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Although the heat of today is novel, the decay is not. Not in Britain. The disintegration of the once-great British Empire has been a headline feature of the 20th century. A political-scientist friend confessed recently, all this country has going for it is nostalgia.3

George Mikes’s humorous, truthful, and timeless guide, How To Be a Brit, has an interesting chapter on the British penchant for decline.

The greatest days of Rome were its days of decline: The most splendid period of the Bourbon monarchy was the period before the Revolution. It is more elegant wise and stylish to decay than to flourish; better to decline than to pant, rush around, sweat and get hoarse in vulgar bargaining.

Mikes was a Hungarian immigrant to Britain who, like all of us immigrants, adapted to the country best he could and then supposed it would be appropriate to reflect on the British using their own humor against them. Mikes achieved this better than most, which is why this 1946 book is still in print. That being said, except for the quality of writing, it is almost imperceptible from modern accounts.

I agree with the British about this; I too prefer constructive decay to futile progress. But one has to know how to decay; one must learn how to be decadent. You must desire to decay, yet your inborn excellence, your splendid human qualities, your shining character may keep you on the top. Or else, you might overdo it and decay a shade too speedily.

Look carefully: Britain shows us how to decay. Keep calm and carry on (decaying). Elegance.

(Well, it did before Brexit.)

The world, the universe, every single thing we know and don’t know would not work without decay. Its agents (worms and bacteria), its byproducts (cheese and dirt), its sufferers (the entire human race), our beloved pets, empires, old oak timbers, and, with an exceedingly enormous allowance of time, our ever-constant stars.

As Nature tries her best to specialize, to make trees, stars, coral, a human brain (and then those specializations aggregate to make other specializations—we make forests, empires, reefs), Time shakes its head. “I will allow you, Nature, some coral and human brain but only for so long. This is not the state of things.” “What about the stars?” responds Nature. “In the stars you have put your very soul,” answers Time. “They can last longer.”

Sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, known for his great (permanent) wall, cairn, and arch installations, also makes up to two “ephemeral works” a day.

These works are made for a particular place and may last anything from a few minutes to a few days. They are an exploration of the land, often made without knowing what the result will be. They are intuitive responses to light, material, time, weather. They need to make mistakes, and sometimes to produce bad works is part of the process. I have far more failures than successes.

Wetting leaves on river stones, threading grass through branches, standing ice sheets on end—all ephemeral works. The sharpened teeth of decay waiting in the wings to tear apart this human invention. But its brief existence meant something. Goldsworthy simply makes more, better.

Nature does the same. More complexity, more ingenuity each time, fed with the decay of the old. She has learned how to use decay as part of the process.

elegance of decay
If you look beyond the context of decay, beyond the utility of form, beyond what the item was, you can see the intrinsic value of the materials. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Albeit tyrannical, decay isn’t greedy. It isn’t deceitful. Nothing is present that isn’t needed, and nothing is needed that isn’t present. It is the most tidy of henchmen. It is elegant. To push against it is inelegant.

It is, moreover, its own reward. A beauteous simplicity, suggests philosopher Hannah Arendt:

Although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things “suffer a sea-change” and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living.

Our contemplation of decay is complex because it is a contemplation of mortality. As I’ve written elsewhere, you cannot always exist. But you will always have existed.

I would hitch up these fragments against my ruins, hold them fast. I would find myself in a forest, under an oak, pressed into coal. Waiting for that drill bit. My atoms released into fires and furnaces, then somehow cleaned, into the air and part of all things.

If you change your notion of being, you will always be. Decay is elegance. There is comfort in that. Much more so than a glazed, petrified Lenin.