Thursday, March 20, 2008

Dear Mister Rogers

Dear Mister Rogers,

My memory isn't the best, but one moment I'll never forget is meeting you.

It was September 4, 2001. I'd arrived on Nantucket just a few hours prior. I remember going for a run, then swimming in the bay at sunset. By the time you walked over from The Crooked House, there wasn't a trace of sunlight to be found; the sun had fallen below the waves. The stars had yet to come out. It was completely and perfectly dark.

I was standing on the back porch, beer in hand, when I heard your unmistakable voice inquire, "Has the birthday boy arrived?"

I don't remember what I said, or what happened next, but I remember exactly how I felt. For the first time in a long time, the increasing pressures of modern, accelerated adult life slipped away. For the first time in a long time, I felt like a little boy; wide-eyed, full of wonder, and 100% unique.

I couldn't have imagined then just how radically spending time with you that weekend would affect my path. Meeting you was a turning point, a moment where my existing values, interests and -- frankly, anxieties -- began to galvanize around a new mission.

I'd only just recently broken free from the haze of low-level but insidious drug addiction, and begun to address some of my own demons: the dual traumas of my parent's divorce, my broken jaw, and the resulting low self-esteem that accompanied both. Creatively, in my music, I was still wrestling with the tension between style and form. I was still -- metaphorically, at least -- dressing for a roll I thought I needed to play, not living in the clothes that fit and were comfortable.

I was, come to think of it, only beginning to find my voice. You helped me. You helped me settle into myself, and into the realization that I was good enough just the way I am. I stopped trying to be something or someone else, and began to just be me.

So much has changed since then: September 11, Afghanistan and Iraq, iPhones, The Long Tail, MySpace, integrated marketing and psychographic ad targeting. Everything feels darker, more self-absorbed, more disconnected, and less engaged than ever before. From cell phone video of Saddam Hussein's hanging to paparrazi snaps of Britney's meltdown, it seems like we're entertaining ourselves to death. Were you still here, I'm sure you would have some gentle, substantive advice for us all.

My hunch is that you would remind us that we're all more alike than dissimilar. You might encourage us to reflect a moment on something beautiful: a sunset, a flower, the memory of a loved one. And then you might have us simply turn to our neighbor and ask, "How can I help?"

In the absence of that calm, patient voice, though, and in the face of so many blustery and boisterous ones, I'm not sure who or what will remind us of those simple values: community, reflection, modesty. In the absence of you soothing presence, I'm not sure who or what will remind us to slow down, tune in and really listen to one another.

You know, Christofer and I visited your home town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a few months ago. We didn't go to your house, or your grave. Instead, we just drove around looking for the highest point from which to take it all in. Oddly enough, as the sun began to fall over the Western Pennsylvania town, we couldn't find a clear vantage point from which to see everything. We could only see what was immediately in front of us: a weather-beaten factory, a rusted out rail car, a chipped and faded duplex. You'll recall also that we had all but given up and were headed out of town when we spotted St. Vincent's Cathedral -- little more than a tiny, red-brick tower clear across the valley -- illuminated in the setting sun.

There is so much to say to you today, Mister Rogers, on the celebration of what would have been your 80th birthday. For now, though, just this: Thank You. Thank you for helping me find my own cathedral on the hill, something to stare at, reflect on, and believe in even when everything else seems completely and perfectly dark.

Love, Benjamin

1 comment:

[ s ] said...

This is beautiful.