Why 2016 Didn’t Completely Suck, or

What Chicago & Hamilton Taught me about Mortality & Legacy

It was a Wednesday morning in September, and I was buying a plane ticket to Chicago. I had never been to Chicago, or bought a plane ticket within 10 minutes of deciding that I wanted to go somewhere. This little burst of spontaneity might have been one of the best decisions I have ever made.

I was excited yet nervous. I don’t do this kind of thing. I didn’t know what to expect or even what to do once I got to Chicago. Would the people there be kind to me? Would I be safe? Would I be okay?

It was a Wednesday morning in November, and I was trying to find a reason to get out of bed. To be precise, it was Wednesday, November 9th, the morning after the US presidential election. Like many others, I was shocked and devastated by the results. I cried a lot. I talked to my American friends and family, and we grieved and worried together. And I wondered just how life was going to be different now that this had happened.

And then I thought of work. I thought of how it is my job to advocate for and support the students who face marginalization and oppression. I thought of how important my job is, especially at a time like this.

And then I got out of bed, and got to work.

Well before these two Wednesdays, I was falling in love with Hamilton: An American Musical. The Hamilton soundtrack has helped me through really difficult and emotionally exhausting times this year. There were a lot of those times. As somebody who’s a sponge for emotion and energy (some would call me a Highly Sensitive Person), 2016 has been particularly draining individually and collectively, personally and politically. Hamilton somehow perfectly fuses these dichotomies and reflects on how creating life for ourselves and others can forever change the course of human history.

This musical is about narrative, legacy, and love — three things that 2016 has made me face over and over again. Like Eliza, I grappled with my desire for being a part of another person’s narrative, of painfully removing myself from stories that no longer served me, and of hoping that time will be kind to me and the people I love. Like Hamilton, I fought to keep my place in the room, to build something that would outlive me, and to make sense of the time that I have while I’m still here.

I had been struggling with these three things throughout the year and well into the fall. It was on another Wednesday morning when I began to finally make peace with my relationship with narrative, legacy, and love.

I left for Chicago with my friend and her mom on Wednesday, November 16th. I felt more prepared, less afraid, and incredibly grateful that I have the privilege and freedom to travel. But I still didn’t quite know what this city would have in store for me.

One of the immediate impressions I had after we landed was the kindness of people. Strangers would help us buy the right transit passes, navigate the system map, choose the best meal, and generally show us what their city had to offer. I already do my best to see the good in others, and Chicago thankfully affirmed this mentality.

It was actually on a Friday and Saturday, though, when I would experience the kind of quiet revelation that only museums can bring.

On Friday, my friend and I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art. I was a little hesitant to go, since my experiences of art museums haven’t been positive (read: I got bored). The MCA proved me wrong, thankfully. Contemporary art is more engaging in nature, because of the interplay of different media and disciplines. Andrew Yang’s exhibit featured one billion grains of sand, which is supposed to represent all of the stars in the universe. Alfredo Jaar’s The Sound of Silence featured an 8 minute story about Kevin Carter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist of the 1993 Sudan famine who died by suicide. These two were my favourites — they made me reflect on the fragility and vastness of life, on how narrative plays such a huge role in others’ perceptions, and how everybody is just trying to make sense of what they’ve been given.

1 billion grains of sand to represent the number of stars in the universe // Andrew Yang, A Beach (for Carl Sagan), 2016

On Saturday, I went on a solo trip to the Field Museum. I was the most excited for this one, having heard great things from friends. But again, I wasn’t fully prepared for what I was about to experience.

My intention was to spend the entire day here, to go to as many exhibits as possible — but there were some that gave pause and wonder. The Native American Hall, which included work by Chris Pappan and Rhonda Holy Bear, was one place where I was mindful of taking significant time and space to fully immerse myself in these works about resilience and legacy. The special exhibition on Qin Shihuang’s terracotta warriors showed the ridiculous lengths that humans will go to in order to preserve themselves. But it was Evolving Planet that truly made me hyper aware of my own mortality.

Reading about how we’ve evolved from microorganisms to different creatures, how these creatures became extinct, how life emerged from death and destruction, and how this cycle kept repeating yet creating such one-of-a-kind creatures that would only exist if not for the precise timing and combination of other factors… It made me marvel at how something that could seem so random could make so much sense. It made me think of the big questions: How did we get here? Why are we here? What does all of this mean?

I don’t fully understand what the answers to these questions would be, but that’s because I don’t think I fully understand life. Not quite. Not yet. But there were some truths that popped up during this Saturday:

We can assume that we know everything there is to know about life, people, places, and things, and be proven wrong again and again. And that’s a good thing.
We’re all just trying to survive and make sense of whatever chaos we are currently in. And when we start to make sense of this chaos, we try to thrive in it.
We’re going to be okay.

That last truth was especially poignant. I’m writing this after learning about Aleppo, Syria, and while my faith in this truth is wavering, I have to hold onto it. We’ve gone through so much this year that would make anybody harden, toughen up, closed off. But I’ve learned that doing this won’t make anything better.

Instead, I’ve learned to soften. To continue to believe in the best of people, to choose love and goodness no matter what. Because when it comes to it, I’m looking to build my own legacy, one that I’ve decided will be one of kindness and connection. A year ago, I would have outright refused that I’m anything like Eliza from Hamilton. I would have rejected my sensitivity and optimism, and believed that being tough means pushing aside feelings and one’s personal truth.

Not this time. 2016 has made me face my mortality in ways I never would have imagined, and I am glad that I got to make peace with who I really am. I’m thankful that the themes of narrative, legacy, and love appeared in unexpected places and spaces throughout the year — but especially in a musical and a city. Hamilton and Chicago have made me realize that not only is it such a miracle to be alive where and when I have been planted, but also that it is a responsibility to live my life as best as I can — to build my legacy and then leave the rest to time.

Whether I am able to create this kind of legacy remains to be seen. Because, what is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.

And that’s okay. We humans are cute in that we are never promised tomorrow, but we still dream and hope and create. How else can we live?

If you’re reading this, I hope you never stop dreaming, hoping, and creating. I hope you face your mortality and press on. And I wish you the best for 2017 and beyond.

Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now.
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