I have a deeply conflicted relationship with puppets.
I grew up watching Mister Roger’s Neighborhood and Sesame Street, two TV neighborhoods that were absolutely full of puppets. I seem to recall tolerating Mister Roger’s puppets, though some of them were undeniably creepy. See Lady Elaine Fairchilde:
I do not love Muppets. I do not love their strange fuzzy skin and their big flappy mouths. I do not love them.
I hate, *hate* marionettes. With their frozen faces and their animate limbs. Creepy dead-eyed wooden mimes. The worst.
So it is with some irony that I present to you a puppet show.
I bought my squirrel puppet and fox stuffed animal at a Goodwill a few years back. I sensed I would need them in the future. Confession: I’ve been mulling a variety show project inspired in large part by Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.
Did I mention that I love, love, *love* Mister Rogers? I wrote him a letter in high school (!) and received a reply (!!) Turns out Fred Rogers drafted a personal reply to every single fan letter. I told him about my first book, a piece of Mister Rogers fan-fiction that I wrote in first grade. It was about flying trolleys. It was very elaborate.
You can read the letter below, but I am most struck by what Mister Rogers wrote about imagination:
“Your imagination is such a wonderful gift that will help you in many ways throughout your life.”
I have found this to be true, so thank you, Mister Rogers.
I have a couple of photos of Mister Rogers in my apartment. I took one of those photos with me to my first psychedelic therapy session, as a good luck totem.
I think what keeps me coming back to Mister Rogers is that he is a rare example of a strong voice of compassion in American culture. For decades he tirelessly preached kindness, compassion, and understanding. He swam upstream in a medium—television—that has turned into a hellscape of reality TV, serial killer documentaries, and political bloodsport.
I often wish he was still alive so he could advocate for compassion during a time when compassion feels badly out of fashion. The hot new style is anger, vitriol, division, tribalism. Us versus them.
The coronavirus emergency highlights the enormous cost of our cultural obsession with tribalism, separateness, the self-made man, the lone American cowboy. Look how we fight amongst ourselves as other countries come together to fight this virus. Look how vulnerable we are when we are divided.
And so I look to Mister Rogers’ model for guidance: To use the media as a bullhorn for love. To use art and imagination and, yes, puppets, to inspire, to comfort, to spread compassion.
I call it The Squirrel Dialogues.
This is my tiny effort, in squirrel form, to carry on in the spirit of Fred Rogers. I cannot do what he did—he was a true genius at speaking to children. I am the most awkward with children. I’m waiting for my nephews to break into the double digits, when I can start talking to them about philosophy. Meanwhile I’m not in my element.
So my focus is adults, like me. I create my squirrel conversations by literally talking to myself. I do this while I’m hiking in the one park that remains open on Orcas.
I think about whatever is nagging at me most that day—loneliness, doubt, fear, and so on, and I ask Squirrel about it. And then Squirrel replies in his Boston—Brooklyn brogue.
Squirrel speaks in an East Coast accent because I have always loved a good dialect. I grew up in Maine and Germany and I miss strong accents. We have what approaches the standard American accent in the Pacific Northwest. Kind of boring for a lover of language.
Squirrel is also inspired by the Americans who popularized Eastern religious thought in the 1960s and 70s. By curious coincidence many of these people—Ram Dass, Tara Brach, Pema Chödrön, Jon Kabat-Zinn–were born in East Coast cities (and still carry their accents).
Squirrel speaks to everything I have learned thus far in life about how to cope with life. I draw on the words of some of the thinkers I’ve already mentioned, but also concepts from psychedelic therapy, nonviolent communication, and the works of Brené Brown, Don Miguel Ruiz, and many others.
Squirrel is my fuzzy little megaphone for compassion, compassion, compassion. In our culture we are much too fluent in the dialects of violence, tribalism, and judgement. Look at the stories we tell, look at the violence in your Netflix queue, or the top stories on your favorite news site.
I think art can help teach us new languages, more compassionate dialects. And with a new language we can tell a new story about us, one defined by love instead of fear.