Thinking about Robin Williams. If there was ever someone who embodied wonder and awe it was him. I have also been startled into homesickness several times since hearing of his death by glimpses of artists’ versions of the iconic mountain of Marin County, the place I shared my high school years with someone I never knew personally. There is a connection we all have in living on this planet. Nonetheless, some of us share particulars that connect us less tenuously than others. Growing up in Marin in the ’60’s was a bonding experience.
Even though Robin reportedly lived in Woodacre, he attended Redwood High School rather than the school other Woodacre residents attended, Sir Francis Drake HS. Had he gone to his “home” school, maybe I would have known him in the drama club. Instead of being a Drake Pirate, he went to the school where the “better off” kids went, our arch rival, the “Redwood Giants”!
The idea of “better off” and the “privilege of wealth” also got me thinking about choices, in light of other news this week. Freedom of choice is on a continuum. Learning to choose is a skill that must be practiced just like any other acquired ability, it is not an innate trait. Those who have the least have the least choice in their lives. Each apparent choice presents opportunity for options, or necessities. The necessities must be met and the other options may not really be such or not open to bonafide decision making.
Hence, those with little also have less opportunity to learn how to make good choices, unless they have adults who conscientiously teach them about how to choose among competing options. At the other end of the spectrum, those who have plenty of everything and anything and “want for nothing”, also have little opportunity to learn about making choices, unless someone intentionally trains them in that art. If you can have anything you want and someone willing to give you whatever you ask for, what does that imbue in the way of finding out what really matters?
In the middle, between the two extremes of having nothing and not getting basic material needs met, and having all material needs met and any other wants as well, there are those who have enough and may make choices about which kind of basics and what “extras” are most important based on options that clarify personal preferences. I feel most fortunate to fall into that middle ground.
My parents may have scraped by at the end of some months when the cupboards became a little bare. We may have made do with one pair of shoes each school year, but we did have sturdy shoes, at least until spring, when, if we outgrew those shoes, we got a jump start on summer with a pair of “zories” (aka “go-aheads”) to get us through the school year until we went without even those for a barefoot summer. I do remember my parents making an intentional choice between either a television set or a stereo. We could afford one or the other but not both. They opted out on the TV and went with the Hi-fi stereo and an ever expanding collection of intentionally chosen record albums.
Anyway, reading between the lines about Robin Williams, I assume he would have been closer to the far end of the “anything you want” end of the spectrum. Also, looking at the timeline of his childhood before he landed in Marin, there was a divorce and a maid who raised him for some of the time after that as well as a brother who apparently stayed with his mother while he moved to the opposite coast with his father. While I did not know Robin, I have known others who had childhoods of similar circumstances. My sense of them was that they were forever seeking a sense of value, what they were worth, and never felt truly happy, no matter how many possessions or friends they had.
Seeking some sort of insight, and wondering about how Robin may have shared some of what I experienced of the magic of Marin. Besides the crazy teen times in proximity to the mecca of hippies, he was also a runner and I like to think he was exposed to the incredible wildness that was right out our back doors growing up there. Without sources for that sort of information, I went to the other source readily available: YouTube archives of comedy shows of Robin Williams’ early days.
He was the funniest. He possessed the brilliant ability to play and creatively interact with whatever was thrown his way. The moment that really stuck with me though came at the very end of “An Evening with Robin Williams” recorded in 1982 in San Francisco, that playground of the late ’60’s that kept calling him back.
At the very end, (at an hour and fifteen minutes) in the final encore and then after it all appears to be over, he gets into something more sensitive and maybe revealing of his core self than all the other silliness. In his alter ego as a newsboy, he shares a special autograph he got from Albert Einstein. He shushes “Mr. Williams”, then goes on in a quiet, serious voice, “He once said ‘my sense of god is my sense of wonder about the universe.’ … Look at his eyes. There’s a guy you see the lights are on and everybody’s home. … you got a bun in the oven (referring to Zak, his first son who he mentioned earlier in the act) … when your child is born you pass it on to your kid; that way they see somebody that does, you know, see the light.”
Then as he is leaving the empty theater, he encounters the newsboy he played at the beginning, addressing him, “Is that you, Pops?”
“Pops” reminds him of “the old days” when he “saw something in your eyes” he says, speaking to the stand-up Robin Williams who has dropped the stage swagger and is just himself. The “newsboy” pulls out a framed A. Einstein autograph from under his jacket saying “you just need a little taste of reality.”
“Very special man wasn’t he Mr. Williams?” and gives it to him as the “keeper of the flame.” to give to his little one, adding, “When they grow up they give it to someone special, that way he keeps goin’ on.”
As they go out the door together, the newsboy turns and adds, “You know Mr. Williams, What’s right is what’s left after you do everything else wrong.”
A foreshadow of a little of his legacy?
All I can say is that what is left of Mr. Williams is all the “right” he left to the rest of us. And a lot of that was a sense of wonder about the universe. Yes, Robin, I do believe you and Einstein did have something in common and you got dealt a different set of choices.
I can’t choose to wish Robin to rest in peace, I would rather wish that he play in pure wonder and joy with no more fear of whether he would ever be good enough. May you get the lights back on and welcome everybody home, Mr. Williams.