Sometimes we are so immersed in the details our personal mythology that our own worldview and story structures become invisible to us, much as a flighted bird doesn’t for a moment consider the air that it moves through. But our personal stories do not evolve in isolation – we are always in the context of the grander scheme, the larger lives of the groups we belong to. Today’s prompt asks us to step back out of ourselves for a while, to notice and to honor the things that we have inherited from those who have gone before us.
We are all gifted. That is our inheritance. – Ethel Waters
Following on the heels of the element of earth prompt, the word “inheritance” likely conjures up the idea of material goods, physical objects inherited (usually) from the estate of a close relative. The possessions, land and titles from family are passed on to us: your mother’s pearl earrings, your father’s house, your great-aunt’s bible, your uncle’s Cadillac.
Biologically, we inherit the color of our skin, our eyes, our hair, our predisposition to certain diseases, even when these things skip several generations. We are all made of the physical stuff of our ancestors, with a few points of mutation thrown in just to keep the species healthy. Recent science is proving (often to our discomfort) that we can also inherit traits of temperament and personality.
We are also passed on a culture of ideas, tradition, values, religions, stories and philosophies, whether or not we accept them. One way of looking at “inheritance,” then, is certainly in terms of bounty, generosity and wealth. At their best, the things we inherit provide us with things of beauty, structure, personal meaning, a sense of belonging and continuity that are important to our physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. These things are solidly and forever part of our personal mythology.
Inheritance also conjures the concept of “tax,” which raises all the different ways in which we pay, sometimes dearly, for what we inherit. Just as we are can be financially taxed for inheriting land, we can also accumulate bigotry, dogmatism and neuroses along with the values and traditions of our elders.
It gets even more complex. Carl Jung said that parents pass on to their children all the life which they themselves might have lived, but in some substitute form – that they drive their children in directions that are meant to compensate for everything that was unfulfilled in their own lives. For example, in this way overly moral parents may end up with an “unmoral” son, or an irresponsible parent might find their daughter driven by an unhealthy excess of ambition.
Think of what you’ve inherited – even limiting this line of inquiry to just your parents can yield results you might not have expected. A quick survey of my own reveals the following, and a contradiction I hadn’t considered until I wrote this prompt today:
From my father, I have inherited a love of foreign cultures and ideas, a fascination for the glass and metal of camera lenses, my musical sensibility, the shape of my mouth, the tiny mole on the side of my nose and a lean, compact build. Also a tendency to hold other people to rules when the rules are there for a damn reason.
From my mother, I have inherited a way with animals, an experimental streak in the kitchen, the ability to read and comprehend quickly, the impulse to a writing life, a near fetish for rosary-style beads and naturally blonde hair. Also a bit of a temper, and a certainty that when I am right, everyone else following the damn rules is dead wrong.
For pleasures past I do not grieve, nor perils gathering near / My greatest grief is that I leave nothing that claims a tear. – George Byron, 6th Baron Byron
Write today’s poem along one of the following lines, or take your own stance on something you have inherited or passed on.
* Describe an item that has passed down through your family.
* What do you wish you’d inherited, but haven’t?
* What inheritances have you rejected?
* Describe a family tradition that you have introduced, or how you have added your own touch to an existing tradition.
* Make a poem out of a recipe or other family secret that’s been handed down to you.
* What will you leave behind when you are gone?
* Describe an inheritance that skipped your generation.
* What do you regret having handed down?
* What have you inherited that makes you feel strong, happy, secure?
* Does inheritance always pass “down?” What have you passed upwards?