The world is a lot less funny today. It seems like only yesterday that I was watching a crazy man in a red jumpsuit wander in Milwaukee and get into a contest with Arthur Fonzarelli. Robin Williams was absolutely hilarious, and it was the beginning of an incredible love affair between Robin and the public. And his untimely death is a reminder to us all.
Robin was an incredible talent. While initially famous for his comedic abilities, he also was an amazing dramatic actor. For me, one of his most seminal films came in 1989, Dead Poets Society. His character was John Keating, an English professor at a private school, who taught his students not only to read poetry, but to live life. In his initial scene, he enters the room whistling Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. He takes his students into the hallway, and asks one of them to read Robert Herrick’s poem To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may; Old time is still a-flying: And this ame flower that smiles to-day; To-morrow will be dying.”
He has them look at pictures of former students from the nineteenth century. He points out that the one thing that all those students have in common is that they are now “food for worms.” He encourages his students with the words Carpe Diem (Seize the Day). He wants each of them to live an extraordinary life.
Nobody knows better than genealogists how fleeting life can be. Or what each of us lives with on a day to day basis. We take bits and pieces of information to put together a version of our ancestors’ lives, but often we are missing the significant details.
Many think that living an extraordinary life means that we must be rich or famous. This is not true. We, each of us, get to define what extraordinary means to us. But we all too often forget, and get caught up in the drift of life. As we move through the stages of life, we sometimes get complacent and lose track of what we really want. To have an extraordinary life, we simply need to look back on what we want, and work to get it (which is not to say we don’t modify our desires and goals along the way).
When Dead Poets Society was released, I was not long out of college and trying to determine what I wanted to be. I decided that it was time to try same crazy new things, so I quit my job and moved to the big city of Boston. Since then, I’ve marched for civil rights on the streets of Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. I’ve worked to get laws and other protections in place to prevent bullying and youth suicide. I’ve performed with incredibly talented people, across the country and around the world to audiences of up to hundreds of thousands of people. I even got to sing on stage at Carnegie Hall. I’ve visited almost every state, and sixteen countries on three continents. And I make my living by helping people find their family stories, to help them discover where they come from.
In the movie, Keating quotes Walt Whitman: “the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” He then turns to his students and asks “What will your verse be?” The movie ends with Keating leaving the school, and his students climbing onto their desks, promising to look at life from a different angle, and calling him “O, Captain, My Captain!). Robin Williams left not only a verse, but an entire musical arrangement. And now I ask you “What will YOUR verse be?” Whatever it is, write it down. Be certain that future generations know the things that were important to you, and what was not. Let them know what your extraordinary life was like for you.