Tonight we watched the documentary entitled "Won't You Be My Neighbor," about Fred Rogers, his ministry, his life's work. And it reminded me of an essay I'd written right after his death in 2003....which seems like centuries ago. I couldn't find it electronically, but my mom and dad saved a hard copy of just about any email I ever sent to them...and so I have it printed in a binder. (Let all of that sink in. I love parents. I love technology. :) )
So I typed it back in...because I want it forever.
Here's what I wrote 16 years ago...right about now:
I like to consider myself cool and contemporary, hip and liberated….a resourceful parent and recovering professional who is independent, idealist and just plain spunky.
With that out of the way, I confess that I shed tears over the passing of Mr. Rogers. I’ve actually spent a lot of time since his death pondering why I care so much.
After some soul searching, I’ve accepted something very important. I needed Mr. Rogers as a kid. I need him even more today as a parent. Thank God there are nearly 1000 episodes of his show in the PBS vaults to keep his memory and his message alive for at least another generation.
“Won’t you please, please won’t you be…please won’t you be my neighbor?”
My memory might be skewed by the passing years, but I remember as a child meeting Mr. Rogers in our living room almost every weekday morning, often over a lunch of grilled cheese sandwich quarters and tomato soup served on the wooden ottoman that doubled as my TV tray. Like many of my contemporaries, I could mimic every gesture and nuance of his entrance, from the moment he turned the door handle through the last tug on his deck shoe laces. I knew every word to every song. I could even toss my own shoes in the air like that and catch them.
In the course of the thirty minutes that followed, I felt understood, accepted and unconditionally loved. I felt embraced and celebrated as a child and as a person.
It was always a beautiful day in his neighborhood, and that always made my neighborhood a little brighter.
I learned how childhood staples like crayons and applesauce were mass produced thanks go Picture-Picture. I was always a bit awed by the technology of that mysterious device. I wished our framed oil paintings could reveal such mysteries. Of course, we thought film strips were high tech and a real treat back then, too. Picture-Picture silently unveiled the mysteries of the world to me.
In the Neighborhood of Make Believe, I safely watched beloved friends confront their fears, disagree in safe ways, and achieve dizzying feats because they believed that they could fail safely among friends. It was always safe to say what you felt in the Neighborhood of Make Believe. And someone always understood. Prince Tuesday could talk to his neighbors about feeling misunderstood by adults…and more specifically, his parents. Henrietta Pussycat could be so upset that you couldn’t understand a word she was saying (unless you were well versed in the language of cats). In spite of Lady Elaine’s knack for causing trouble, her neighbors loved her just the way she was.
Back in Mr. Rogers’ “real” neighborhood, other friendly neighbors shared their jobs, their feelings and their special talents or abilities. They brought the big grown-up world to my small feet in a way that I could embrace, and they often even gave me ways to experiment with my own place in the world. Could I be a deep sea diver? A baker? A storyteller? A dancer? I especially loved visitors that sat at the kitchen table and played with Mr. Rogers, joining him on a trip to the Neighborhood of Make Believe. It was so intriguing to watch adults play. It made adults approachable.
“I’m proud of you. I’m proud of you. I hope that you’re as proud as I am proud of you…”
Years passed and I became a jaded adolescent. Like my entire generation, a world of mass media unfolded before me…computers, music, television, magazines all bombarding me. I watched Eddie Murphy waltz on to the set of Saturday Night Live spoofing Mr. Rogers, oozing overdone charm, mocking the zipped up cardigan, omnipresent smile and sugary tone of voice. I laughed as he made fun of Mr. Rogers’ simplified view of the world. I joined my peers, rolling my eyes and reports about Mr. Rogers’ waning popularity. I chuckled at the inevitable jokes that circulated. …And then somewhere along the way, I really just forgot Mr. Rogers. I forgot the Neighborhood of Make Believe and Mr. McFeely. They evaporated as I stretched my wings and tried to become an adults, self-sufficient and empowered. But they must have lingered with me…just out of sight.
“I like to take my time I mean, I just don’t like to do a thing. I like to take my time and do it right…”
Fred Rogers reentered the landscape of my life after my own children were born. I suppose each of the three have taken their turn in his neighborhood. But recently, Fred Rogers became a part of the daily ritual of my newfound career as a stay-at-home mom. Paige is in an afternoon Pre-K program, and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood airs at 11:30, her pre-departure lunchtime. As I am rushing to get her out the door, she frequently pleads, “...just until Mr. Rogers is done.”
Now that I’m an adult and parent, I think Mr. Rogers would invite me to call him Fred…sort of a rite of passage in the neighborhood. I now revisit Mr. Rogers through Paige’s eager eyes. At the same time, I have the pleasure of discovering Fred Rogers through my own eyes all over again…this time as a parent who desperately wants to follow in Fred Rogers’ footsteps by doing the right thing…for my kids, for my neighborhood and for the world around me.
I think I know why I’ve spent so many moments mourning Fred Rogers. It’s because in recent months, he has spoken to me as a parent and as an adult as clearly as he spoke to me as a child. The messages are the same, but in the complexity of the current world, they have even greater impact on my everyday life. Today, I think Fred Rogers would wan the parent and adult in all of us to know that:
…the world is sometimes a scary place. It’s ok to be scared. We all play tough some of the time, but we all have fears. It helps to tell someone how you feel. They might be scared too, and it will help to listen to their fears.
…it pays to take the time to do it right. That goes for laundry, homework and budgeting. But it also goes for family relationships, careers and world diplomacy.
…we could all benefit from some role playing in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood…a place where we are safe to express our feelings to others, to test their reactions and to apologize for our mistakes or gracefully accept their apologies. Imagine taking the time before a tough encounter with a co-worker to slip into the Neighborhood of Make Believe and to work it out with Lady Aberline, Lady Elaine or Daniel Tiger.
…we all want to be heard. To be heard, we must listen, too. We must listen to ourselves, to our spouses, to our kids, to our neighbors, our co-workers and the world community around us.
…kids and parents both have feelings. So do bosses and employees. So do pastors and congregations. So do teachers and students. So do world superpowers and third world nations. Authority is not an excuse for failing to listen and respect those feelings.
“I’ll be back when the day is through, and I’ll have more ideas for you. And you’ll have things you want to talk about. I will too.”
I’ll never get to meet Fred Rogers in person. I’ll never be able to thank him for reaching me as a child and perhaps more importantly as an adult. My kids will know his shows thanks to technology and with any hope, they too will grow up feeling capable and strong. They will learn to listen to the world around them. They’ll care about their neighborhood. And they’ll raise children with the same basic values.
There’s always a lot of hope in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, and that makes my neighborhood seem more hopeful, too. For that, Mr. Rogers, I thank you.