What We Leave Behind
A meditation on legacy & a prompt from Joy Juliet Bullen
During my first stay in the bone marrow transplant unit, now nearly a decade ago, I had a pen with glow-in-the dark ink that someone had given me. One day I decided it would be cool to leave a message for the next transplant patient, so I got down on the floor of my room and started scrawling a little note on the wall. It was a simple, almost juvenile impulse, but I look back on it and it seems so resonant. I see a young woman, only half-formed, so desperate to leave a mark.
And it’s true that at the time, what I wanted more than anything was to leave behind a literal byline—not out of some careerist impulse, but so the world would know I had existed, even if it was a small group of people who read those words in that hospital room. I wanted to leave more than I had taken.
This time, the experience is so different. I don’t yearn for accomplishments, professional or otherwise. I don’t think, “Oh, but I just want to write another book, meet more people, see more things.” What I want is time. I want to look back on this year and remember all the shapeless days, where I wasn’t looking at my phone, wasn’t working, where I was truly present with my friends and family. The hours I spent painting these strange, sort of dark but mostly joy- and love-filled paintings. The time spent in my garden, which was planted with hundreds of bulbs last winter and will burst into bloom in the spring. Whatever it is I leave behind, I want it to reflect a respect for time.
Today we have a gorgeous prompt on the question of what we leave behind—on love, loss, and legacy. It’s from the writer Joy Juliet Bullen, who in the wake of a divorce has started her own hundred-day project. (By the way, I’m planning to begin a new hundred-day project on April 1. I’d love for you all to join me—more on that next week!) May Joy’s poignant meditation help reveal hidden threads. May it link your present and your past. May it echo into your future.
P.S. We have news about the Hatch, our virtual writing hour! Carmen posted Notes from the the last time: On Character and The Great Gatsby, and we scheduled our next meeting too. Our next Hatch is happening Sunday, March 20, from 1-2pm ET. Become a paid subscriber to join!
P.P.S. In preparing for today’s prompt, we were reminded of a Studio Visit from the archives: On Excavating Memory with Dani Shapiro. In it, she talks brilliantly about uncovering family secrets, how journaling figures into her life, and writing memoir. If you haven’t yet, you can watch it here.
The Isolation Journals is my newsletter for people seeking to transform life's interruptions into creative grist. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. The best way to support my work is with a paid subscription, where you get added benefits like access to my advice column Dear Susu, an archive of interviews with amazing artists, behind-the-scenes tidbits from me, our virtual writing hour the Hatch, and other opportunities for creative community.
185. What’s Left Behind by Joy Juliet Bullen
After my husband and I separated, I sorted through my things to choose what to take and what to leave behind. In the back of my closet, I found a shoebox full of old photos—all the ones that weren’t good enough to frame or terrible enough to throw away. I picked up a 3x5 from the pile.
In the photo, I’m about three. The same age as my youngest son, I thought, as I pulled it closer. I’m riding on my father’s shoulders, and my neck is craned. I am looking back towards a silver ocean and dull gray sky. My hands graze my dad’s ears, as if to steady myself. I can almost feel the tickle of my chubby fingers against his skin. My dad wears an old purple t-shirt with cracked white letters. His arms are leaner than I remember. His hair is beginning to recede in two gentle hills on either side of his head, but he is not as bald as he will be. What strikes me is his expression. He looks pained.
My father died when I was just on the cusp of adulthood. My grown-up self never had a chance to know him, and he never had a chance to know the grown-up me. And so I search for clues about who he was–about who I could become. People say my sister looks the most like him, but in this picture I see myself. Recently, when scrolling through my phone, I saw a photograph of myself that I’d never seen before. My older son must have taken it when I wasn’t looking. My face is frozen in the same haunted expression–the look of someone who senses that something is missing but can’t figure out what it is.
My mom probably took the picture of us on the beach. And I was probably turning my head to watch my brother carve lines in the sand with a seashell or try to outrun the waves. But my father is somewhere else.
Where was he at that moment, if not with us?
I’ll never know the answer to that question, or thousands of others I’d like to ask. But when I moved into my new house, I propped this photo up on the windowsill behind my desk. That’s where it sits now, one snapshot in time against a backdrop of changing sky.
Your prompt for the week:
Pick a physical item that someone has left behind. It could be a photograph, a note, or a piece of clothing. It could be a cold cup of coffee left on the kitchen counter, or an empty wallet found on the street. Examine the object for clues about the person who left it and what may have been happening in a moment. Write about all of it—and how it connects to your own life now.
If you’d like, you can post your response in the comments below, in our Facebook group, or on Instagram by tagging @theisolationjournals.
Joy Juliet Bullen lives in Portland, Oregon, with her two sons. More of her writing about grief, divorce, and parenting can be found in the New York Times' Modern Love column, New Limestone Review, and Parent.co. She is currently working on a memoir.
A whimsical, stuffed red apple remains on the closet floor. Not something my mother would have taken on the weekend trip. Also, not something she would have intended to leave. Truly, not a thing with any intended purpose. Like so many things in the home - whimsy, out of use, out of date - but holding, teasing her with some tangible leader line to a pinprick of light in the depth of memory. A tiny scene that will otherwise never play out again, never surface for brief, sparkling, warming recollection.
My cat is set down in her closet, safe from the resident dogs. And this apple is right there, among the otherwise organized shoes, sweaters, scarves, and a stashed bottle of The Good Stuff. At first, I give it no mind. But each time I pass through, to see how the cat is faring, I see the apple, and I think more on that than the cat. What was a stuffed calico apple meant for, before? What size dog, what size cat?
I think my mother's answer is not about the why. Her answer, for so many beautiful silly useless things, is about the who, the where, the when. This apple is the doorknob, granting access to her collection of lives lived that threaten forgetting if we discard all of the things they left behind.
I look up to the paper quite infrequently these days while I’m lying in our bed. I can’t really say that you left it behind either. After all, you did not write it. You did not tape it to the ceiling. You did not really even follow the instructions… like… ever. You were only a shell of your whole (real) self at that point too. Why do I keep it taped there? The lines of the lined paper have faded with time and sun. My memories are fading with time and sun.
Maybe for me it is a reminder of how far you went. Your skeleton lying in that bed. Your body trying to abandon your soul, and starting to take your mind with it. You, Alex, staring at the ceiling, finding shapes -and friends- in the paint splotches. A squirrel (of course… though I still can’t find it). Your last PT exercises written down, I taped them on the ceiling for your entertainment. No. I taped them on the ceiling in the hopes that you would be inspired to perform. That your body would somehow find the strength to lift its knees and roll itself over if only you could read the instructions.
The shapes you could find in the letters. The amusement from reading a few words in a sentence with different inflections. Days of entertainment. Of course you could no longer make the movement of a straight leg raise, or do ‘disco with a band’ for some shoulder movement. But your imagination was still as wild as ever, and you could make stories from an X and the shapes in someone else’s handwriting.
How long should I leave it taped there on the ceiling above our bed?