Geez, what great advice! Every time I read it, or hear it out of the mouth of some guru or life coach or psychic or healer I’ve hired, I think, “Yes! That’s what I have to do! That’s what I have to help my children do! We have to be ourselves!”
I once saw a plain white wall at an art show years ago across which were scrawled bold curved lines and simple faces and words like, “You be you!” and “Are you you?”
“Brilliant!” I thought, and immediately ran up to the young English artist and extolled my praise upon her. I followed up and she invited me to her studio. When I arrived in the tiny skylit white box, Shantell Martin was painting a pair of jeans white, creating a new canvas for her empowering message. There were slabs of white marble emblazoned with it as well. Black marker on white surfaces all around hammered it home: You be you!
I went to a yoga class at MoCada in Fort Greene where she painted her signature lines and images on the walls. I bought a tank top: Are you you?
When I wear it, I hope people notice and that it makes them think. I hope they wonder, like I do, most every minute of every day, “Who the hell am I? Am I being her?”
I guess the point of Miss Martin’s work — and the point for every brilliant thinker before (and after) her — is to push people to ponder this question. It isn’t an easy one. It isn’t some math problem with a clear solution and when you’re done with it you’re done. Nope. Unfortunately, the question of who we are, and how we can “be ourselves” is a lifetime one, applied over and over again as we make decision after decision.
It comes up for me in the fall in a new way, every year. Because I grew up starting school in September, and I grew up Jewish, where we celebrated the New Year and a week of pondering and atoning in September or October, this time of year always raises the question more seriously: Who do I want to be?
This year, I want to be that person who gets up early and goes to the gym. I want to come home and make herbal tea and make myself delicious fresh food—greens and proteins and fruits and yogurt. I want to take long walks with my dog. I want to write a book, and a play. I want to go to dinner and the movies, and the theater. I want to read. I want to be a good supportive friend to people inside and outside my family. I want to build meaningful workshops for kids and adults that help them get in tune with themselves and others around them. I want to record the fascinating conversations I have with the amazing artists and musicians I meet in this great insane city I live in, and share them with the world.
Phew. It is a lot. I am often overwhelmed and yet when I am not working toward these goals, I am angry at myself. I have this wrestling match in my mind and the “Me I Want to Be” gets pretty ticked off:
What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you being who you want to be? What’s going to have to happen to make you do it?
Often, my Other Self (the one that takes over when fear and laziness creep in) will stick up her middle finger. She’ll pick up a bottle of wine, or smoke something to take the edge off the panic that arises when the demon voices begin their naysaying chant: Who do you think you are? You can’t do those things.
But those voices are wrong. Of course I can do these things. I just have to decide. If my head is clear, if I’m not just trying to numb out the fear, then all that is needed is to make a realistic plan. And I need to stick to it, squashing all those ridiculous niggling little naysayers that pop up like those pesky bright-hued moles in Whack-a-Mole. I need a mallet.
Shantell had a plan. She grew up in the projects, one of six kids of a single mother. She went to art school, then took herself to Tokyo. then found her way to New York. Her art now graces Pumas and Converse, and Vogue writes about her. I am always amazed when I meet people who set and reach goals, especially people whose goals are to help other people achieve the seemingly Herculean task of being themselves.
We can indeed be who we want to be.
We just have to stare that person straight in the face and say, “Let’s do it!”