John Lewis’ letter published in The New York Times got me thinking about the deep desire human beings have for the last word.
Written before his death, the letter highlights his thoughts about civil rights, the hope he saw in the Black Lives Matter Movement and his now famous appeal to make “good and necessary trouble.”
You might think that a man like Lewis, who devoted the bulk of his 80 years to making other lives better, wouldn’t need to say another word. Don’t his deeds do the speaking for him?
Yes. But. He was still compelled to put thoughts to the page.
His legacy, by letter.
Having our say, in our own words, no matter how famous we may or may not be, is uniquely human. It reflects the pull to express feelings or thoughts or memories in our own way. No matter what the form, writing offers the possibility of discovery, healing, entertainment or legacy.
Even a way to prepare for our death.
Later this month, Jews will be asked to take stock by way of prayer, fasting and asking forgiveness on Yom Kippur. Every year this brings Rabbi Berger’s “Five Minutes to Live” sermon to mind. It was September of 1986, nine months after the Challenger rocket went down, when the rabbi compared the task of his congregation to the crew who knew that their death was imminent. He asked them to imagine what might go through their minds in those five minutes. Just three years later, Rabbi Berger found himself on a plane from Denver to Chicago returning from a family vacation when the plane’s tail exploded. One hundred and twelve souls were killed when the plane hit the ground, including Rabbi Berger and his wife. The sermon he shared became even more cherished by anyone who read it, especially for his two surviving daughters.
To write what matters most is to accept an invitation, an opportunity to return to scenes from our life to ask questions and find some answers. Those answers may lead us to something valuable that we, in turn, can give to the people we love or to the world before we go. So that we leave a little piece of ourselves behind.
Though we know it’s inevitable, death isn’t a topic we like to dwell on. Yet how could we resist reading the thoughts left by a loved or admired one?
What if you thought about it as a prompt to reflect on what makes a life well lived? Couldn’t you find a few things to say? Doing so can take a multitude of forms. It can be a letter, like Lewis’s, addressed to the world at large, to specific family members or friends, or however one imagines the divine. It might be a story from life that feels like it wants, or needs, to be shared. Perhaps a secret wants to be revealed, a philosophy of life feels important to articulate or there’s a yearning to provide advice for the generations to come.
As he was heading for a concert tour in the late 1970s, a friend bet singer-songwriter Graham Nash that he couldn’t write a song in the time he had before boarding the plane. “Just a Song Before I Go” was written in 20 minutes and became one of the band’s top charting hit.
It may take you a bit longer, but imagine the sound of your words – your own kind of music – left, like a gift, before you go.
Want to explore this topic further? Join me via Zoom on Wednesday, September 23 when I offer a free, one-hour presentation on writing for legacy.
5-6 pm (CST). It’s free!
Click here for more information and registration.
Coming this Fall!
“Setting the Pace” Single-session seminar about pace in creative nonfiction. Monday, November 16, 6:30-8:30 pm. StoryStudio Chicago.