Mr. Rogers doesn’t live here anymore: storytelling & civil society

“There isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” — Mr. Rogers

Filmmaker Andrew Stanton mentioned that quotation in the TED Talk on storytelling that I wrote about yesterday. He said Fred Rogers, the iconic friendly guy in a cardigan, always carried with him a piece of paper with those words written on it.

Mr. Rogers shows viewers around the neighborhood
Publicity photo: Mr. Rogers & his neighborhood
Even as a kid, I found Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood a little too saccharine for my taste. But I do agree with Mr. Rogers’ saying. Or I used to.

Stories seem a remarkably tame weapon against the hatred being stoked by President Bannon the elected and un-elected officials currently running our government. The idea of swapping stories with these people is as ludicrous as sending Fred Rogers out into a firefight wearing his trademark sweater instead of a flak jacket.

Kindness only goes so far.

Storytelling remains the best way to connect with people. But only if those people are willing to hear. And…

Mr. Rogers gave me writer’s block

[one day later]

No, I don’t believe in writer’s block. And I don’t have writer’s block. But I’m having trouble making words come out of my fingers.

I guess you could say I have “writer’s hopelessness.”

I have been telling stories for as long as I can remember. Decades before I started doing it professionally.

I know stories have power. But…

[two days later]

Stories propelled the LGBT rights movement forward, as non-LGBT people learned we aren’t some strange breed from a glitter-filled planet. We’re their neighbors, friends, family. The person praying next to you in church. The teacher, the rabbi—and, yes, sometimes your hairdresser too.

In the 1960s, stories—aided by video and brave television correspondents—stoked the opposition to the Vietnam War. Stories and film of water cannons unleashed on defenseless schoolchildren ratcheted up support for civil rights.

Stories told by primly corseted middle-class women in 1800s America helped stoke the fires of Abolitionism. And stories told by enslaved people who’d escaped to freedom brought slavery’s evils into sharp focus in the parlors and assembly halls of the north.

Story-telling has a long history of helping “them” to understand “us”—whoever the oppressed us du jour may be. I know this.

Mr. Rogers, I surely want “them” to love me, us. But I am not at all sure I want to love them back.

I want to understand why they hate me—and hate so many others, even more marginalized than I am. But I am nowhere near ready to love them. Or even to “learn to love” them.

And that’s a terrible place to find myself in, both as a story-teller and as a Christian.

Enter Absurdity

I was about to type the cliché “The only way out is through.” But I decided to source it, so I turned to Sir Google and found it appears in contexts as diverse as Robert Frost, religious writing, Psychology Today, and—of course—the World of Warcraft video game. It seems to be the title of an episode, if that’s the right terminology: “Quest: The Only Way Out is Through.”

Wowpedia tells us that the rebel leader Thalyssra—who’s in serious need of an eyebrow wax

“…is caught up in a deadly race to save her people from their grievous error before she succumbs completely to the mindless state of a withered.”

Grievous error, mindless people: that sounds like the right analogy for us, doesn’t it?

So we don’t have a choice, do we?

Tell stories, listen to stories—as Mr. Rogers commands us. They’re our magic swords, or pointy eyebrows, or whatever weapons Thalyssra uses. Stories can bind us together in solidarity. They can move us to action. They may—and I do hope Mr. Rogers is right about this—even be able to help us understand each other. Let just hope they can work their magic before we succumb completely to the mindless state of a withered.


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Blizzard – of snow and of words

I’m not sure whether it was an official blizzard, but the storm that socked us this weekend left at least a foot of snow, with drifts around my car that easily topped 18 inches. Not to mention the two-foot bank of hard-packed snow the town’s plows kindly left at the end of my driveway.

I know far more about the snow than I had planned to. My yard guy was supposed to plow my driveway. But with the daylight fading, I decided I couldn’t wait for him any longer. So I had a choice to make yesterday:

  1. Shovel out my car
  2. Do my daily writing
blizzard in my backyard
At least I don’t have to shovel the backyard!

Yes, I have deposited a blizzard of words here on the interwebs in the last 257 days. Now that the streak has its own momentum I no longer write first thing in the morning, as I used to, though I do try to write before I leave the house. Today, I decided: shovel first, write second.

An hour later, I could barely lift my shaking arms.

Shoveling snow is hard work. But so is writing. Yes, it’s much less taxing on the arm muscles. But it does require a functioning brain—which I’m not quite sure I have right now.

So I’ll be filling in the rest of my daily 15 minutes with some deliberate practice: rewriting Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” as prose.

Take your favorite poem, set the timer for 15 minutes, and go.

Start your own blizzard

my blizzard of words: Writing for 258 days in a rowAnd now my streak stands at 258 days. It’s remarkable what repeated, deliberate practice can do for a skill.

If you’re ready to start a writing streak of your own, join the new 5×15 Writing Challenge—writing starts January 23rd. When you write for 15 minutes every day for five days in a row, I’ll donate your $15 registration fee to the global literacy nonprofit Room to Read. So you’ll be doing something good for yourself and for other people.

Join us!

End of the world: Frank Zappa vs. Robert Frost

While I was tracking down the Frank Zappa quote about the world ending in fire and ice, I came across this cheerful 1923 poem from Robert Frost.

Like Zappa, Frost was also contemplating the end of the world. But he came to a slightly different conclusion:

Fire & Ice
by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Readers in the U.S., please vote today. I don’t want to see how the world ends.