You do you.

It’s kind of a catchphrase now, said to indicate a desire for a friend to be herself or to hold that man at arm’s length when we don’t really approve or understand a particular choice.    Dead Poets Society

But here’s what I mean when I say, “You do you.”  I mean write what’s on your heart, write what aches inside you, write what fires up your tongue and causes you to ball your tender hands into fists.  Write the way your mother’s death rent you like a veil and you never saw the world the same way again. Write about how when your child falls down you catch your breath from fear and loss and all that you know life brings.  Write what only you know and see.

This week, I have been beyond blessed to talk with writers about projects – novels, and memoirs, and books that don’t really fit categories – and each time, I hear myself say it before I even think it – “Write your story.”  I suppose it’s another way of saying “write what you know,” but I don’t really mean it that way – because, well, because many of us – me included – don’t really know our stories. Or we don’t really know what our stories mean in the deep down cracks of our life.  For many of us, we find out how to be us – you do you – by writing, by finding just what we think and feel.

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.? Joan Didion

Today, I sit with these stories – so full of life, mystery, pain, beauty – these morsels people have whispered to me, and I treasure them like gift, and I lay them against the great loss of Robin Williams, a loss I cannot understand because I am not him, and I have not dwelt in that dark place, a loss I do not judge or condemn, a loss I just let myself feel – great and broad as the Golden Gate below his house where I used to sit and watch the waves on mornings when darkness sat close to my own heart.

I miss the man, though I never knew him.

***

When Dead Poets’ Society came out, I was just starting high school, a new school in a tiny place where my asymmetrical haircut and funky clothes were not cool, just foolish, odd . . . and in the way that clothes inform identity, I took those labels into myself like knives.

When Mr. Keating had those boys stand on that desk, I felt my heart swell and break open, and I grabbed hold of hope with both hands – I never said a thing, but that barbaric yawp has resonated in my chest since then.

That is my favorite film of all time – for that scene and for the soloiloquy that Puck gives, layered now with a foreshadowing of loss.  The film inspired me to be a teacher, to be a writer, to love boys’ schools, and education.  That film taught me to do me. And it taught me that even in the midst of great goodness and hope, there is often deep darkness.

***

When I lived in San Francisco, Robin Williams’ lived just down the street – maybe 4 blocks away – and I walked by his house every day as the sun rose.  He had HUGE rosemary bushes outside, gifted to him and to all of us by that foggy, temperate climate – and each morning, I broke a tiny sprig off and held it to my nose as I walked to the low wall that separated the roadway from the cliff below.  There, I sat and watched pelicans dive and rise.  I often wondered if he was standing behind me in an upstairs window looking out at the same thing.

I cannot know his grief, the way darkness gave him only one way toward light, but I do pray he has found it – all bright and honest and not at all acted.  I pray that now he feels peace and that every moment of every day someone says, “You do you, Robin. You do you.”

What would you be if you were all of yourself?  Would there be much darkness? Much light?  Whatever you feel, whoever you are, please know that I am here . . . with you.