Fred Rogers and the Year That Had No Beat

“Fred Rogers and the Year That Had No Beat”
Helen Rivers
Presented for Westside UU Church & UU Church of Tallahassee
December 27, 2020

Chalice Lighting – “There is a Love” by Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker
There is a love holding us.
There is a love holding all that we love.
There is a love holding all.
We rest in this love.

Reading – “The World Has Changed” by Alice Walker

In her poem The World Has Changed, poet Alice Walker references “dancing through the years that had no beat.”

This year had no beat, y’all, and I am not here to try and make sense or rhythm of it or to try and find a silver lining. This year was hard, and I think there’s something powerful about simply honoring that without trying to justify it.

This is our last Sunday together of 2020, and I am struck by how many big questions this year has brought up. My four-year-old, Henry, has asked some good ones this year. They asked me, why don’t circles have sides? They asked, why did Rumi, our cat, scratch me? (It was because they pulled her tail.) In the last month or so, they have started asking me, when we read stories or watch TV, why the characters are not wearing masks. They have asked me more times than I can count when the “germ monster” will be over so we can go home to Tennessee to go visit their Granny and our friends.

I wish I had answers for them. While we have a bit of a clearer picture now, even more is becoming unclear. Why is a lifesaving vaccine being politicized? Why were masks politicized? Why has caring for our neighbors been politicized?

Beloved children’s television creator Fred Rogers said, “In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”

In this year that had no beat and offers few answers for plenty of questions, I find comfort in that. Rogers died in 2003, but I wonder what he might be saying about this year if he were still earthside.

So, if you’re not familiar, Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister and educator before he created the long-cherished children’s series Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. He was beloved by generations of children for his kind words, gentle demeanor, and ability to speak to children in a way that was simultaneously developmentally appropriate, engaging, and true. This way of communication has been lovingly dubbed Fred-ish, and it abides by some simple rules. By using these rules as guidelines, I think we can get a pretty close guess as to what Mr. Rogers might say to us if he were here today.

To do this, we start with a simple statement, such as, “This was a hard year.”

Next, the statement should be rephrased in a positive manner, such as, “We survived a really hard year, and that’s something to be proud of, even though it was difficult.”

The rephrasing and clarifying process of Fred-ish repeats itself a few times, seeking more inclusion and simplicity and becoming more developmentally appropriate for children every time. Eventually, the goal is to end up with a statement that is clear, validating, and frames the information with positivity and support, even when the content itself isn’t especially positive.

So, “this was a hard year” might eventually turn into, “Many of us learned so much about ourselves this year, and so much about our neighbors and neighborhoods. It was difficult, and we did our best. It is important to remember that our best is different when we are in a new or difficult situation, and this one was both. I am so proud of you for managing it. I hope you know that.”

I don’t know about you all, but that is exactly the kind of thing I needed to hear this year.

While Rogers’ legacy continues in a new children’s series called Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and countless other ways, many of us who grew up with Fred-ish on our TVs and in our hearts are now adults. And while we now exist in grown up bodies with seemingly more complex lives, we may feel far removed from the children who needed so much to hear, “Look for the helpers,” “I am so proud of you,” and “I like you just the way you are,” – but perhaps we are not so far removed as we think.

Because you see, those children are still a part of us, and we may even be seeing them a little more than usual these days. It is a perfectly natural and anticipated response to trauma, including ongoing, large-scale traumas, such as the pandemic, to regress or retreat into ourselves. Maybe this situation makes us feel powerless in a way we might have felt when we were children, or simply makes us feel small or vulnerable. But just the same way that we can return to that child-like fear, we can also return to our childlike wonder.

My child, Henry, who had some very big questions this year, also imparted some incredible wisdom and compassion on the world. Often, especially when I am in a hurry, they make a point to stop and talk to the trees and plants we pass in our daily travels. They marvel at every dog we see and remind me to ask the herbs I grow for permission before I cut them. In an embodiment of pure wisdom, their solution for most problems – from boo boos to grumpy mornings – is, “give it some love!”

I am incredibly proud of their huge heart and beautiful soul, and I know that this childlike wonder is precious – and I also know that it is not exclusive to childhood. We adults must simply be willing to return to it.

I said I would not try to make a silver lining of this year, and I stand by that, but perhaps there are just some glimmers of hope. Maybe you got to witness something beautiful – an especially lovely sunset, a moving piece of music, a poem or book that made you appreciate the beauty of this life. Maybe you were delighted by something this year – maybe a surprise, such as a kind word you weren’t expecting, or like mysterious baked goods in your mailbox (Henry and I had great fun with what we named “the mysterious muffin ministry” towards the beginning of the pandemic.) Maybe, just maybe, this year was hard, and the child in you can still be deeply in touch with the wonder of the world we live in.

I invite you to connect with that child now. Call them to mind or take a moment to remember what it feels like to be a child, and ask them what they might need to hear after this year. In my wondering and mulling over what Mr. Rogers might say about 2020, and I think above all, he would say, as he so often did to the children watching his show, “I am so proud of you.”

So, if no one has told you today, or if no one has told you in this year that has no beat: I am so proud of you.

Yes, you. You, who organized in your community, who sent cards to far-away community members, who wrote postcards to voters, who voted yourself, who donned your mask to protest and to brave the grocery store, who engaged in the holy disruption of education and of demanding justice. You, who worked essential jobs, who learned how to work and learn from home, who took on the challenge of learning new technology and the pressure to act like everything is ok when it is so obviously not ok. You, who took on this new normal with as much grace as you could muster, even when that was none at all.

I am so proud of you, who stayed home when it felt like you were the last one still trying, when you saw endless images on the news and on your news feed of those who didn’t care – you, who continued to care.

And if nothing else, I am so proud of you for surviving this year. I am so proud of you for making it through the things that would have been difficult in a normal year and this year, seemed impossible. I know it wasn’t easy. I know you did your best, and it is hard when our best is still not what we expected. I know that you may not have heard that as much as you needed to. I am so proud of you.

One of my favorite things that we do in-person at Westside is hold hands for the benediction. My every prayer is that we will be able to do it again sometime next year. In the meantime, I invite you to place one hand over your heart, and one facing your screen, so that you might give and receive the loving energy of our beloved community, just like we do when we hold hands.

There is, even in times of great uncertainty, a love holding us. It is in our every footstep and in the brilliant wisdom that we all knew as children – the same wisdom that we are all invited to return to at any time. As we travel into another week of social distancing, of mask wearing, of worrying and wondering, may we also travel into ourselves. May we travel to the places where we most need to hear “I am so proud of you” and rest assured that we are doing a wonderful job in the face of great big questions, even when we do not have the answers. May we remember to listen with our ears and our hearts, and may we remember that we are held by the unconditional love of our beloved community – even at a distance, and even through the years that have no beat. May it be so.

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