Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Summer's Gone: A Quick Story About Disappointment And Empathy

I was searching for a Mister Rogers quote just now when I traipsed across this one:

    When I was in college, I went to New York to talk to a songwriter I admired very much. I took him four or five songs I'd written and thought he'd introduce me to Tin Pan Alley and it would be the beginning of my career. After I played him my songs, he said, "You have very nice songs. Come back when you have a barrelfull."
    A barrelfull of songs! That would mean hundreds of songs. I can still remember the disappointment I felt as I traveled all that way back to college. Nevertheless, that man's counsel was more inspired than I'd realized. It took me years to understand that. And so, after the initial disappointment, I got to work; and through the years, one by one, I have written a barrelfull.

    In fact, the barrel's overflowing now, and I can tell you, the more I wrote, the better the songs became, and the more those songs revealed what was in me.
First, I love the image of Fred Rogers in college. It is often difficult to imagine him as anything less than fully-formed, or fully self-actualized.

Second, I never knew he dreamt of being an honest-to-goodness songwriter. I love that. I mean, I obviously know we shared music in common. That's why, on that first afternoon we spent together in Nantucket, I brought my guitar (which is in my hands in my favorite photo of us).

I played him "Summer's Gone," which was a new song of mine then, and is kind of a sad thing to play ("Summer's gone away / Everything left to decay / There is nothing you can say / To make it last") on Labor Day Weekend for a man who'd recently retired and (as it would end up) would be gone (physically, anyway) in a year and a half.

Later, in his study overlooking Madaket Sound, he played "It's A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood," then sang "Happy Birthday" to me.

Still, I never knew Mister Rogers aspired to Tin Pan Alley, much as I moved to New York dreaming of a record deal. And I never knew he'd suffered any sort of disappointment (of course he did, but you know what I mean). I love that -- in retrospect -- his life's work seemed charted in advance. In the moment, though, he suffered the same uncertainty and discovery as we all do.

Moreover, though, I appreciate the empathy inherent to his story. Empathy -- the capacity to understand, be aware, and sensitive to the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another person without having the feelings, thoughts -- isn't in easy to come by in our culture. Nor is it easy to learn. Mister Rogers had it in spades. By sharing his own disappointment here, he demonstrates that he understands ours. I admire that. And aspire to it.

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