Leaving a Trace

Emma Goldberg
January 30, 2013
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Last year 22-year-old Marina Keegan died in a car crash days after graduating from Yale. Known on campus for her writings, within days of her death her essays were being circulated throughout the web, republished on sites like The New Yorker, U.S. News, the L.A. Times, and more. An essay she had written titled “The Opposite of Loneliness” gained instant fame as readers who never knew her joined with her closest friends to memorialize Keegan’s life with online tributes.

The Internet has revolutionized the way ordinary people leave their marks on the world. Anyone can post a poem on Tumblr, a photo on Pinterest, a deeply personal memoir on a blog that might be read by absolutely no one, or by millions worldwide. More than ever before, our legacies are works in progress. They shift constantly as our words leap far beyond our own small worlds, circulating the globe and reaching audiences we’ll likely never have the chance to meet. Whether we like it or not, our online activity leaves an indelible trace.

In her years at Yale, Keegan worried that she’d never be successful enough to leave an impact on the world. In an op-ed she published titled “Song for the Special” she wrote of jealousy for her classmates who might one day star in a movie, or run for president. “Laughable jealousies,” she called them. “Jealousies of everyone who might get a chance to speak from the dead.” Ironically, those words have lived on beyond Keegan’s death. “Song for the Special” has been regblogged by millions. Without even realizing it, she left a worldwide trace with her words.

There’s something unsettling about how quickly our legacies can shift. An essay published online will far outlive its writer. Perceptions of the dead shift because their words live online and continue to be reread, reinterpreted, cried over and picked apart by total strangers.

“I want tiny permanents,” Keegan wrote. ”I want gigantic permanents! I want what I think and who I am captured in an anthology of indulgence I can comfortingly tuck into a shelf in some labrynthine library.” But who really achieves permanence? Who can settle on a single legacy and expect it to remain untouched?

There’s something childishly safe about permanence, about definitive statements. Like when adults ask kids “what do you want to be when you’re older?” and kids are expected to give one-word answers like “doctor” or “artist.” As though anyone could grow up to become a single statement rather than a complex mess of words, works, and self-images that all contradict.

It’s scary sometimes to embrace the temporary. It’s frustrating to realize we can spend our whole lives deciding how we want to be remembered, carefully crafting our images, only to have our legacies explode and reshape themselves long after we die. We are works in progress, potentially never to be completed.

The Jewish community, I suppose, is lucky to have rituals that give us practice in embracing works unfinished. Our Torah studies are a strong example. It used to frustrate me that every year when my synagogue congregation finished the last Torah portion, we celebrated by beginning the book all over again. Simchat Torah drove me crazy. How could my family enjoy singing and dancing about a project we finished that we’re starting all over again? Our learnings, like our self-images, can never be declared totally done. The parshiot of the Torah have new meanings each year we read them. The words we let out into the world form legacies that shift and grow new nuances and layers, even once we’ve passed away.

Like the text of the Torah, our words make us immortal—so powerful, and yet so fragile. We shift, we cycle, we contain multitudes.

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Emma Goldberg is a student at Yale University, passionate about using creativity to mobilize social change in the Jewish community. She has developed innovative social media projects for The Great Schlep, a Jewish pro-Obama Super PAC, and also participated in a Theater and Social Justice apprenticeship with the advocacy institute Ma’yan. She is currently serving as the Northeast Regional Organizer for the anti-genocide organization STAND. Emma was named to the NY Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” list and was given Auburn Theological Seminary’s Lives of Commitment award.

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