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Thursday, August 12, 2004

My nephew has become besotted with Mr. Rogers lately. Andy told me about this the other day on the phone. Apparently, they showed Elliott his first episode, and he sat there, transfixed. Immediately, he started referring to the experience as “Frogers.” Where did he pick up the F? We don’t know. He must have heard someone refer to Mr. Rogers as Fred on one tape. All it takes is once, with this kid. Now, Andy and Dana don’t want Little Guy to watch a lot of tv, but Mr. Rogers is okay.

So one morning, Andy was feeding Elliott in his high chair. Andy was talking about the day’s possibilities. Maybe we’ll go to the park. Maybe we’ll dance. We’ll read books. And maybe we’ll watch Mr. Rogers.

At this point, apparently, Elliott became all attention. Fast, almost frantically, he waved his hands back and forth in front of him, the sign for All Done. All DONE! And then he started saying, over and over again, “Frogers! Frogers!”

I love that.

So on Friday, when I went to Vashon to spend my birthday with Mr. Baby, and then again yesterday, when I spent the afternoon playing with him, we watched Mr. Rogers. And damned if I haven’t become besotted with Mr. Rogers too. All over again.

I vaguely remember loving Mr. Rogers when I was a kid, but in the way that you vaguely remember breathing. I loved him, sat transfixed before his show, and then eventually outgrew him. When I was a big kid, he seemed kind of geeky, hopelessly corny. After all, I was trying to be cool. What was with that sweater? And of course, Eddie Murphy’s satire on Saturday Night Live is more clear in my mind than the actual show was.

As I grew older, I softened. I’d catch glimpses of Mr. Rogers in the media, or run across a show in one of my idle channel-flipping moods, and I’d go, Ahhh. He’s such a sweet man. You have to give him that.

Two years ago, when Mr. Rogers died, I felt unexpectedly, genuinely in grieving. I cried when I listened to NPR. I read all the eulogies and stories. All the geeky, gawky teenager of me gone, I no longer worried if I was cool. (I’m not. I’ll never be. And what a relief.) I just knew that this man with the soft voice and kind eyes was one of the truest beings I had ever met. And I felt like a friend had died.

But he hasn’t. Because now Elliott, who is not even a year and a half old, has made friends with Mr. Rogers. He watches, agog, when Frogers shines a large flashlight on the refrigerator, and shows how different it looks when he flashes it on the brick wall. And you know what? It is cool. Because watching it with Elliott, I see how exquisitely Mr. Rogers understood the way children see the world, what pace they need to walk. How, once in a while, he will look at the camera, instead of the goings-on, and smile wide, just so the kids know he is participating in this with them. And they are there. Elliott may not understand everything that’s being said--although I wouldn’t put it past this one--but he knows that he trusts Mr. Rogers. He never takes his eyes off the screen. And he’s actively watching, almost quivering with attention.

(Here’s how clear Mr. Rogers is. Dana’s congenitally easily addled mother, who is visiting them this week, didn’t have to ask a single question after watching Mr. Rogers!)

So on my birthday, we watched an episode called Learning is Everywhere. (It’s true!) Yesterday, we saw an episode about stringed instrument. Mr. Rogers showed a film about how bass violins are made. I thought of Kristin Korb, and her sturdy bass, once in pieces in the hands of some unknown maker, and now making gorgeous music. And I started to grow a little agog myself, watching how they come together. And then Mr. Rogers went to the music store to meet Yo-Yo Ma, who talked about how the cello allowed him to express his feelings. When he played the cello, Mr. Rogers sat quietly, his hands in his lap, his mouth open, a look of utter joy on his face. And I saw that Elliott’s eyes were open wide, his left hand tapping out the rhythm of the music on his chest, as he leaned back against me. And my mouth was open in awe at it all.

And later, I realized, that’s what so magic about Mr. Rogers. He’s in a constant state of astonishment. Constantly astonished. And it looks silly to adults, who like to be jaded and feel they are above it all. But really, what are you gaining by doing that? Because little kids are constantly astonished. Elliott is constantly astonished. Every time I hold him in my arms, and he turns my cheek with his hands to look at my ears, and he grabs the dangling green glass from my lobe, he says, every time, “Earring.” (Or a close approximation of it, in baby language.) And every time, there’s this sweet little lilt of awe in his voice. And now I sense he’s just astonished that he knows the word for it. Because that is an enormous power, to be able to name the objects in life. To name your feelings. (All these words? They’re just a more prolific version of “Earring! Ball! Flower!”) And now, by knowing Elliott, and seeing the world a little like he sees it, I’m continuously moved by it.

And after the car accident, I’m constantly astonished by life. Constantly astonished.

Just this evening, I was astonished by:

--the sight of two little girls in long blue tutus, bouncing up and down on the trampoline in their front yard, giggling as I drove by.

--the bowl of sky above the blue Olympic mountains to the left of the Aurora Bridge, pink streams of clouds twirling

--listening to My Sharona on the mystery mix cd I’d found in the car, the song a total surprise, and suddenly hearing it again like I did when I was 14, all that sex and power a possibility

--walking up to Andi (one of my favorite former-student-now-friends) at the Greenlake community center, and seeing immediately the easy confidence with which she commanded that place

--opening her birthday present in the parking lot, and gasping at the quantity of kindness. A tin of cards, one for every month for the next year, to be read on the first of each month. Plus, a mix cd to accompany each one. My god, the kindness in the world, and how easy it is to make people’s evenings.

--walking around Greenlake with her in the dark, talking and waving our hands in the near darkness, feeling close and laughing. Then, turning the corner and seeing, unexpectedly ahead of us, an ice cream truck. Walking away laughing, and sucking on Big Sticks.

--writing this. Always.

That’s the thing--astonishment is always there for us, if we want it. We’re just the ones who choose to put the scrim of expectation and disappointment on top of all the moments of our life. Remove them and every moment is sparkling new.

And along with this, it’s Mr. Rogers’ gentleness that moves me so deeply, that probably keeps Elliott still in my arms as he watches.

After all, this is the man who sang, at the end of one episode: “I like what’s inside of you. Your toys? They’re just what’s beside you. It’s you I like.” And you know he did. Truly. Do you know how much gentleness it requires to like everyone?

Yesterday afternoon, Elliott was having a hard time going down for his nap. Unusual for him--he’s a naturally sweet-tempered kid. But there were new people in the house, his mom was working again, and it was hot. So he struggled and he cried. And my brother walked him around, gently, in the bedroom, talking to him. “I know. It’s hard to be Baby. But it’s okay to have these feelings, Elliott.” And sitting in the next room, checking my email (I have to stay out of the way, or Elliott would never go to sleep), I could hear Mr. Rogers in Andy’s voice. He’s an amazing dad, my brother. Really. But in the week since Elliott started saying “Frogers,” Andy has become even gentler.

Elliott finally went to sleep. But he woke up too soon. And after his nap, he was clearly feeling a little tender and fragile. Quiet and contemplative. He wasn’t the giggly baby I know so well. That’s okay. He just wanted to dance with Andy, be held close and know that someone was willing to move around the living room with him in fluid grace. And Andy moved his feet nimbly, as they do every day, several times a day, moving through Rosemary Clooney songs and the Cucuracha cha-cha and the mambo. Elliott wanted this to go on forever.

But, after awhile, exhausted from all the dancing, Andy put on another episode of Mr. Rogers. Where he goes to the circus. And we learn that some people, like Daniel Tiger, are afraid of clowns, because “...I don’t know what’s going to happen with them.” (I know what you mean, Daniel Tiger. Some people are like that for me, and they don’t have to be wearing big pink wigs.) And Mr. Rogers sat, his mouth open in amazement, at the men and women on the trapeze. (And I whispered in Elliott’s ear: “I was on that once, Elliott. It’s hard, it hurts your ams. But it feels a little like flying, Elliott. Like the birds in the park today, how you noticed they were flying.”) And he patted the elephants’ trunks with wonderful kindness. And he turned to Betty and said, “You know? I think I’ve seen enough of the circus. It’s not necessary to see all of it. I can always come back.” See? He understands kids’ attention spans. (And mine, at that point. It was kind of a lame circus.)

And by the end of the episode, Elliott was fully awake, dancing to the music, and giggling as his dad and I planted kisses and raspberries on his belly and chin. Mr. Rogers had brought him out of his fragile mood, into the world again.

My god, I love this man.

At the end of that program, Mr. Rogers said to his television neighbors: "Do you know how special you are? Just for being you. I know I tell you that often, but it's important to me that you know this. That just by being you, you are special to me." Damned if I didn't have tears in my eyes after he said it. Again.

Because with this astonishment, always, always comes gratitude. Gratitude at how much is offered, all the time, if only we will open our eyes to see it, open our hands to receive it. I’m grateful for all of this.

Since the car accident, astonishment, gentleness, and gratitude are my only religion. I’m astonished at how much I love my nephew, how fiercely and deeply and playfully he has changed my life. I’m aware of just how gently I breathe or approach people or talk changes the air around me. And I’m grateful, so damn grateful to be here to experience all of this.

Frogers, I'm so happy you're my friend.

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