It might have been amongst the nicest things my brother has said to me. He had sent me an article about ‘Karens’. If you haven’t come across this cultural phenomenon, there has been a series of memes about middle aged women who complain and demand their rights and who are critical of everyone outside their circle. They are generically called ‘Karens’ (whatever their real names happen to be). What my brother said was, ‘it’s the opposite of who you are,’ a not-Karen Karen.
I found that reassuring because, to be honest, because at mid-life and in the circumstance of semi-lockdown and working from home, my sense of who I am has sometimes felt a bit pixelated and distorted in recent months. I feel a bit sorry for ‘Karens’ but I don’t want to be associated with them.
There are temptations to be a ‘Karen’ all the time; like this week, when a company delivered (much later than they promised) 8 desk legs and no actual desk. How do I let them know, remembering that I will have to sign the name ‘Karen’ at the end of the email?
We finally watched A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood last week and I have been thinking about it and the article associated with it ever since. The film is based on the true story of a children’s TV presenter who profoundly impacts the life of a cynical and hurting reporter who comes to interview him. (I realise that this may not sound like the basis for great night’s entertainment.)
Those of you who didn’t grow up in the States may not have had to the opportunity to develop a screen relationship with Mr Rogers and his puppets and guests. A staple of my own childhood TV- viewing, Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood began in 1968 and continued for 30 years, hardly changing at all. What children see is a calming programme, with a repetitive format, that pays a lot of attention to feelings. If you didn’t grow up with it, you might find it hard to believe that something so simple and same-y lasted all that time. If you didn’t know more about the man behind it, you might think him a bit strange.
Here are a few things that I didn’t know: Fred Rogers woke up at 5.30 every morning to pray for the people who asked him to (there were a lot) and read the Bible. He also went swimming every morning, which was in part to help him process his thoughts and his feelings. These practices (amongst others) helped him to be truly present to others, especially children, to exude joy in the simple things and to be a trusted listener. He had to do a lot of work with himself behind the scenes in order to be Mr Rogers in public.
These words from the Esquire article on which the film story is based have stayed in my mind all week, describing a moment when Mr Rogers prays with the journalist:
What is grace? I’m not certain; all I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella. I had never prayed like that before, ever. I had always been a great prayer, a powerful one, but only fitfully, only out of guilt, only when fear and desperation drove me to it…and it hit me, right then, with my eyes closed…Once upon a time, you see, I lost something, and prayed to get it back, but when I lost it the second time, I didn’t, and now this was it, the missing word, the unuttered promise, the prayer I’d been waiting to say a very long time. “Thank you, God,” Mister Rogers said.
Mr Rogers still has things to teach me. He’s reminded me that it takes discipline to be in a place where you can be at peace and love others and that remembering our belovedness is central to being happy ‘just the way you are’. Trying to be a not-Karen Karen takes both work and rest, but ‘his banner over me is love’.