Who are your influences?” It’s a common question in movies about musicians and artists. A journalist asks the artist to name the people who influenced them so the audience can have a frame of reference for their art, style, or sound. If, for example, a classical musician was asked that question, they might respond that their influences are Vladimir Horowitz, Itzhak Perlman, or Maria Calais – each a virtuoso and an inspiration to classical musicians around the world. But what if this same artist also cited Lou Reed, Pussy Riot, and Tupac Shakur as influences? The unexpected answers suggest a different sensibility and give new context to the artist’s work.
For those of us who are not artistically inclined, the question “Who raised you?” is akin to “Who are your influences?” It’s a question that helps the person asking get a sense of your backstory. Most of us will answer in relation to who fed us and housed us when we were young and leave it at that.
But the people who do the functional care and up-brining of a child are not the whole story – not by a long shot. Friends, teachers, teams, clubs, neighbors, art, and stories raise us, too.
Back to the Beginning
Over the last several months I’ve been shuttling back and forth between my home in Massachusetts and my homeland in Michigan. Because of the pandemic, I’m sharing a house with my mom in the town I grew-up in. I’m just three short hours from my dad and my stepmom, too (In the Midwest three hours is basically the same as dashing to the grocery store in Boston).
Being back in Michigan has reconnected me to the people who raised me and my influences. I was raised by my parents, yes. They influenced my general disposition and values. They are compassionate, intelligent, emotionally engaged people, so I feel like I struck gold in that department. But I was also raised by my neighbors. The neighborhood I grew up in was wonderful: all the parents watching out for all the kids, all the kids watching out for each other, a tangle of people who shared a community of friendship and support. Each of those parents and kids helped raise me. They provided kindness and safety, creativity and love, education and structure, food and play. They made sure that I was included and known as a part of the tribe. I helped do the same for them.
The people who raised me are also friends from grade school and high school. They are my mentors and colleagues from my working life. Each of them informed my style and my sense of humor, my ethos and my interests and helped me discover which values were mine and which values were not.
The Things We ARE Like
And there are the less tangible elements: those often dismissed as things we like rather than things we are like. I can honestly say that Katharine Hepburn, Diego Rivera, Rosalind Russell, and Kay Thompson influenced my values and choices as much as some of the “real” people in my life did. That’s because the core elements of their art – the characters they created – hummed with qualities of character that are inspired by the truth and joy of human spirit. Whether those qualities were courage, playfulness, tenacity, intelligence, poise, or self-reliance, the character traits I saw in their art made those qualities easier to identify in the people around me. They were sparks of inspiration that helped me shape my own manner of navigating the world.
The individuals and ideas that influence us help us do the complex work of becoming grown people. Whether your list is reverent and familiar or quirky and surprising, the elements that influence your choices and values are the things that shape your character. They are worth remembering and can keep you steady if you feel like you’ve lost your way. They are the nudges and winks that help you recollect the things you love about each day. And they are the inspiration that help us raise others.
So, tell me, who are your influences?