On Monday, August 11th, the world stopped and held its breath as we heard of the death of Robin Williams. Many of us took to social media to collectively share our grief in what we hoped was some sick joke. In disbelief we stared at our computers, smart phones, and t.v. screens as the details emerged of his suicide. I sat with Facebook open on one device, while Twitter was open on the other, watching collective grief unfold. I myself couldn’t type a status update for hours, because I simply couldn’t find the words. I don’t think anything I could say here on this blog could match the brilliant and touching words spoken by many others around the world, but just like everyone else, I have spent the week trying to make sense of a death that made no sense and here is what I discovered during this moment of reflection.
Somewhere between the years of childhood innocence and middle age, every person, every single person, whether they like it or not, finds that the world as it was explained in fairy tales and Disney movies was a lie. We start to find that the magic of marriage, the romance of babies, the patriotism of the American citizen, the honesty of religion, and the heart of man, is not what “they” said it was and once we grew up and realized that Santa wasn’t real, we realized that life; the world we live in, was a constant puzzle to unravel until the day we die.
It takes a moment like August 11th to shake us to our core, to wake us up to a reality we don’t want to see. As children of the 80’s, we saw nothing but sunshine and roses. The Gen Xers grew up in a time where money flowed freely to the middle class and war was a conversation our parents had about a time we knew nothing about. Our grandparents had Pearl Harbor and the Great Depression and our parents had hippies, Kennedy, and Vietnam. Nothing defined us. I can actually remember sitting with my friend Chris on top of the elevator of the music building, late at night on the campus of the University of Tennessee campus asking each other if we would be the forgotten generation of history. We didn’t realize then, that our longing for “big life moments” would come to us in waves as the world kept getting scarier and scarier.
I have found that in life, the moments that define us are the ones that shake us to our core. As a nation; as a world, those moments are rare, but when they do happen it takes us sometimes from cradle to grave to truly understand. In the world we live in today, the moments I’m referring to are becoming more frequent. I remember the first national core shaker in my lifetime was Columbine. I was 29. After April 20, 1999, we no longer lived in a world where children went to school safe. I was at work when it happened and watched as teenagers ran from the school and we all wondered, “What type of world are we living in?” Then came 9/11. Then came Katrina. By the time Katrina happened, Columbine seemed a distant memory of something we were just used to. Then came the first black President. Then, with all levels of horror, disbelief, and grief I can write, came December 14th, 2012. I remember watching the news flashes come across my computer at work and I couldn’t breathe. We were now living in a world where elementary school children were shot to death as they colored and learned their ABC’s. I stood with my co-workers in the break room watching the news and cried with them. The world would never be the same. We would separate our lives using the phrase, “Pre Sandy Hook and Post Sandy Hook.” The concept of childhood innocence was gone. The world was truly frightening.
As time passes, many of us are realizing that these moments are coming to quickly. They are happening too often. The world is at war with itself and it makes Vietnam look like a party. We have a government that is bought and sold to the highest bidder and a nation that rears the head of hatred and bigotry more than we ever believed existed. As a guard director and judge, I have found that the activity shields me from the horrors of the world. Walking into the gym to teach a round of drop spins or sitting with friends to design the “next big thing” allows me to escape from the nonsense the world brings us. I have found that I can go through an entire winter season and never engage with the horrors of life. And if we are all honest with ourselves, we will admit that a side benefit to the pageantry arts is the disconnect to real life. Maybe, that’s why so many hide in it for as long as they do.
When I heard of the suicide of Robin Williams I was devastated. I couldn’t however, place my finger on the reason why. I mean, I never knew him. Never met him in my life. Hollywood gives us these brilliant artists often, just so we can watch as they die early. You would think after Marilyn Monroe, Janice Joplin, and Elvis, we would all be use to it by now. I remember the first actor’s death I was truly disturbed by. It was Heath Ledger. Oh my God was he brilliant and I was stunned.
“How can someone of that level of talent die? We need him,” I remember thinking.
Then, on February 2, 2014, we lost Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Another side of brilliance. I think I’ve seen everything he’s ever done. I remember watching him in the movie, Copote, engrossed in the fact that I was watching art come to life. After thinking about it, I realized that when we lose such levels of talent, we feel like art dies. It’s a part of us dying. We wonder if life is worth living, because in a world that practices violence and hate so blatantly wanton, it takes the death of an artist to wake us up to the beauty of life. Robin Williams, whether we realized it or not, helped us forget that we live in a world where people kill other people. He played characters that personified the human condition and those characters helped us heal. His movies helped bring us from whatever hell we were living and gave us something to smile about. After Sandy Hook, I remember watching the movie, Hook. I needed to see it. I needed to see a movie about childhood and the adventures of the human imagination. Twenty children lay dead and I needed to know that there was still good in the world. Coincidentally, Hook was the first marching band show I ever taught and designed.
When thinking about how I would write this, I knew I wanted to pay tribute to the things in my little corner of the world that has helped me heal over the years. In our activity called the marching arts, I have had many. We all have. Those shows were of pure brilliance and was a brief reminder that life was good. They had beauty that we seek with all our hearts to find, whether we realize it or not. I remember watching Blessed Sac change life as we all knew it, when we saw a block of white flags enter from the back leaving an arena full of people breathless. There was Emerald Marquis dancing an Irish jig. There was Escapade presenting R.E.M. There was Pride bringing Alcatraz to life. There was the Blue Devils performing to Summertime. There was also however, San Jose Raiders presenting their tribute to the movie, Good Morning Vietnam. It was 1992 and it changed the activity.
If you didn’t see San Jose in 1992 live, then you didn’t really see it. I sat in awe, watching a movie come to life, hearing Robin Williams voice wake an arena.
“The Mississippi River broke through a protective dike today. What is a protective dike? Is it a large woman that says “Don’t go near there! But Betty- Don’t go near there! Don’t go down by the river!”… No, we can’t say “dyke” on the air, we can’t even say “lesbian” anymore, it’s “women in comfortable shoes. “
I went to the bar with friends repeating the phrase, “Women in comfortable shoes.” It was Robin Williams voice speaking to an arena full of people in Ohio, making a bunch of silly guard people feel happy. It’s something I bet he never knew existed, but I would do anything now to tell him how he made us all feel.
We are so lucky in this activity of ours. We have the ability to create art. We can analyze it, critique it. debate it, and emulate it. Art is pure and when performers bring it to life, it takes us to a place that is uniquely genuine. It is the reason we live. To feel passion through art is rare, but a rarity we must always strive for. It shows us that the human soul is truly good.
To Robin Williams, you were the embodiment of art. You touched our souls and it was pure. You could make us laugh and cry all within one movie. When we left the theater after watching one of your movies, we left a better human being. We left a human being that felt human again. When San Jose ended their show, they ended with the song, “What A Wonderful World,” by Louis Armstrong. When I think of you Mr. Williams, I will think of that song, because it is a wonderful world and you helped us feel that.
Thank you for helping us see the world in color and helping us dream and if I may quote you, “Only in their dreams can man be truly free. ‘Twas always thus, and always thus will be.”