Post 47: Bob Greenstein’s 40 Years of Service to America’s Poor

I have always attempted to keep this blog above politics and about others, not me; but I may be getting close to the edge on this one because it has to do with a small role I played in creating the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in the early eighties and what the Center has accomplished over the past four decades.

Some of you know that I was a Director of the Public Welfare Foundation for forty years (and Chair for ten).  From its very beginning, PWF was unlike most other foundations in that it  allowed its Directors (volunteer board members, not staff) to be actively involved in grant making and to bring new ideas to the attention of their fellow board members.

So in 1981, when my friend and mentor, Richard Boone, Executive Director of the Field Foundation in New York, told me of the efforts of a 33 -year- old advocate by the name of Robert Greenstein to create an organization to protect low income Americans, I was intrigued.  I presented Bob’s project to the board and, after several months of debate as to whether or not it was too “political,”  managed to get it approved.  Several years later Bob credited our foundation with helping “to transfer the Center from a mere idea to a thriving stable institution.”

As to any fears that Bob is one sided politically, please note that  “Republican help… was essential to past success “;  that Bob had an excellent working relationship with Senator Robert Dole and has worked closely with the Business Roundtable.

Bob Greenstein plans to retire at the end of this year.  At the end of 2019, E.J. Dionne took stock of what he and the Center had accomplished. Excerpts from the article, published in The Washington Post on December 30, are below:

Our nation’s capital has battalions of lobbyists who sneak innocent-looking provisions into bills that save corporations billions in taxes. And if you want to find statistics to prove whatever point you’re making, many experts will tell you exactly what you want to hear.

Then there’s Bob Greenstein, the antithesis of Washington cynicism.

Greenstein is the founder of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), established in 1981 with the goal of representing the interests of lower-income Americans across every arena in Washington.

This has meant working with Capitol Hill, the White House and federal agencies, of course. But its work also involved providing the city’s most reliable data. In policy skirmishes, numbers matter, and ersatz statistics can skew outcomes and cloud understanding. The CBPP’s facts are bulletproof. It never hides ideologically inconvenient findings.

But the day came this month that everyone who has been in the trenches for expanding health coverage, nutrition assistance, and help for children and pregnant women has been dreading: Greenstein announced that he was stepping down as president of the CBPP, the organization he built into one of the most powerful friends poor people have. It started with only four employees and now has 150, plus offshoots in 42 states.

…..

Although it is impossible to calculate, it’s fair to say that, over its lifetime, the center has pushed policy changes that shifted hundreds of billions of dollars, through benefits or lower taxes, to the country’s least advantaged people.

Sometimes, it did this simply by exposing the regressive effects of budget cuts. Greenstein got an early start on such work. In early 1981, when he was running a small policy start-up called the Project on Food Assistance and Poverty, he conducted a careful analysis that put the lie to the Reagan administration’s claims that it was protecting the “truly needy” in its budget cuts.

The study prompted a front-page New York Times article, an early signal of the power of good data. That success encouraged a group of foundations to put up money for creating the CBPP.

But Greenstein and his policy warriors often work behind the scenes, seeking not credit but better results. President Barack Obama’s team turned to the CBPP before he took office for advice on its massive emergency stimulus package. Greenstein estimates that about one-third of the package grew out of the CBPP’s proposals.

In the battle for the Affordable Care Act, Greenstein sought a change in its employer mandate so it wouldn’t inadvertently hurt low-income women with children. When told by the Obama administration it could not sign off on the change if the Business Roundtable opposed it, Greenstein’s team negotiated successfully with the Roundtable.

And he worked with the Clinton administration for a large increase of the earned income tax credit, but also brought pressure on the Clinton team to expand it further, an effort helped along when he ran into then-Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) in an ­elevator.

Greenstein has worries about the future. They include “extreme and increasing polarization” stopping Republicans from joining with Democrats to support initiatives for the needy. Republican help — Greenstein particularly admires former senator Bob Dole — was essential to past successes.

…. 

 [The CBPP] has produced real advances. A CBPP study last month showed that poverty had dropped from 26 percent in 1967 to 14.4 percent in 2017, thanks in large part to government action. “In 1967,” the study found, “economic security programs lifted above the poverty line just 4% of those who would otherwise be poor. By 2017, that figure had jumped to 43%.”

Politics often rewards those who preach the futility of public action. Greenstein has spent a lifetime proving them wrong.

Post 46: Human Kindness in Even the Darkest of Times

On New Year’s Day, Faith and I enjoyed a musical and emotional treat, attending a performance of “Come From Away” at the Kennedy Center. “Come from away” is an expression used in Canada’s Atlantic provinces for someone who has moved to the area from somewhere else. In this case, the area was the town was Gander, Newfoundland whose residents were visited unexpectedly by some 7000 stranded airline passengers forced to land there in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

“Come From Away” opened on Broadway in March of 2017 and was nominated for seven Tony awards, winning the one for “Best director for a Musical.”  The show is currently still  running on Broadway and in London and Melbourne, Australia as well as on tour in the U.S.  Beyond the pleasure of wonderful singing, dancing, and raucous good humor is the manner in which the show is “a cathartic reminder of the capacity for human kindness in even the darkest of times” (as Ben Brantley wrote in a review of the show’s opening on Broadway).

The best description I could find of what happened on that fateful day was in People.com in an article written by Dave Quinn on March 17, 2017.  He wrote:

The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, may not seem like the obvious inspiration for a feel-good musical — but the heartwarming true story behind the sold-out Broadway hit Come from Away is a tale of generosity and kindness that’s stayed largely under-the-radar for years.

….

The action takes place on the Canadian island of Newfoundland — thousands of miles away from New York City’s World Trade Center, Washington D.C.’s Pentagon, and Pennsylvania’s Somerset County.

With the Federal Aviation Agency immediately closing the United States’ airspace in the hours following the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history, Canadian air traffic control stepped in to help.

As part of Operation Yellow Ribbon, they landed 38 jumbo jets and four military flights bound for the United States at Newfoundland’s Gander International Airport — the nearest sizable airport on the continent.

As a result of the detour, 6,759 passengers and airline crew members — plus 9 cats, 11 dogs, and a pair of endangered apes — arrived in Gander, descending on the small northeastern town (and its nearby villages) and nearly doubling its population of 9,651.

Unable to see footage of the chaos that was unfolding in the U.S., the passengers were not allowed to leave their planes for the first 24 hours or so until customs and security could be put in place to assure no terrorists were on board — as Tom Brokaw explained in a popular 2010 documentary for NBC News. Nor could they find other transportation methods home once they were let out, like renting a car or charting a bus.

One might expect residents to feel overwhelmed by the onslaught heading their way. (After all, the sheer amount of people presented a startling logistics crisis — with challenges surrounding food, housing, transportation, supplies and translators.) But the Canadians lived up to their kind reputation and opened their doors to the American refugees — dropping everything to host and comfort them until the airspace reopened and all flights once again departed (roughly 5 days later).

Perfect strangers were invited into people’s homes – where meals, beds, and new clothes awaited them. Striking school bus drivers put down their picket signs and volunteered to transport people from their planes. Schools were converted into makeshift shelters. Restaurants and bakeries donated food, while pharmacies provided everything from diapers to medication to feminine products.

Group cookouts were planned. Phone and computer centers were set up. Walmart cashiers invited perfect strangers’ home for warm showers. An empty airline hangar was turned into an animal shelter, where the pets — many of which were traveling alone — could stretch and run.

“The people of Gander were just phenomenal,” American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass told The Dallas Morning News in 2011. “I can’t say enough nice things about them. They brought smoking patches to the airplane. They brought diapers of every size. They brought baby formula. They filled 2,000 prescriptions in the middle of the night.”

“When we got off, they had tables and tables set up,” she continued. “The people of Gander had cooked all night long. They made all kinds of sandwiches. They gave us a bag. It was kind of like Halloween. You went from table to table and just picked up what you want. They had fruit and brownies and pies and cakes — they had made everything.”

She added: “There were 6,565 passengers and crew that showed up within a three-hour period. They were fed three hot meals a day, every day we were there.”

Almost 30 hours after the terrorist attacks, footage of what happened was finally shown to “the plane people.” Some lost friends and family members in the attacks — like Bass, who knew Charles Burlingame, the pilot on American Airlines Flight 77 (which crashed into the Pentagon).

Long Island natives Hannah and Dennis O’Rourke lost their son Kevin — a New York City firefighter at Rescue Co. 2 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, who died in the Trade Center.

The residents of Gander were there to comfort them in their grief.

That time together during one of the world’s darkest moments formed tight relationships between the residents and the temporary refugees — ones that have lasted well beyond their stay.

When the travel ban was lifted on Sept. 14, all of the 6,759 “plane people” slowly returned to their aircrafts and flew back to their original destinations. But Gander surely never left them.

Post 45: The Amazing Grace of Aretha Franklin

Last week I shared a Christmas message about the uniqueness of “grace” in the Christian religion and about the great gift of persons whose hearts are not based on the “transactional” but on reaching out to others with love and mercy.  Today I would like to draw your attention to an article that appeared in The Washington Post last summer (August 8) by Michael Gerson on “Amazing Grace,” the Sydney Pollack movie about Aretha Franklin’s recording of the hymn. Gerson explains how the notion of grace and forgiveness became “a powerful force for change and justice in U.S. history.” 

After reading Michael Gerson’s moving account of the movie, I did as he recommended and streamed it at home.  The film serves as a wonderful introduction to gospel music and singing, as you partake in an actual two-part religious service and a live recording of, as Gerson points out, the best-selling live gospel album of all time.

From The Washington Post, August 8, 2019:

Over two days in 1972, director Sydney Pollack filmed Aretha Franklin as she was recording the best-selling live gospel album of all time. The setting was the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Franklin was joined by pastor and gospel star James Cleveland, backed by the Southern California Community Choir, and carried aloft by a demonstrative audience.

But it is Franklin who, while hardly speaking a word, dominates every frame of the film (now available in a variety of digital settings). At age 29, she was at the height of her powers, which means the limit of human capability. In the movie, she demonstrates both a supreme confidence in her instrument and an endearing emotional vulnerability. At some points, she is a cool professional with exacting standards. At others, the singing of the sacred songs of her youth (her father was a Baptist pastor) overwhelms her.

Witnessing Franklin, choir and congregation in the midst of a profound spiritual experience encourages something similar in the viewer. The film should come with a warning: contains contagious tears.

At the end of the first day of filming — about halfway through the movie — Franklin sings the hymn “Amazing Grace.” At first, her uplifted face shines with praise and gratitude. But as the phrase approaches, “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come,” both Cleveland and Franklin can no longer continue. She sits and cries for a few moments, as the choir takes over the tune. Was she thinking of some personal struggle? Or perhaps the dangers and toils of the civil rights movement, which had delivered the Civil Rights Act, then lost the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to racist violence?

Franklin eventually retakes the pulpit. Cleveland comes to her side and holds her hand, as though they can only bear the weight of the lyrics together. As the memory of peril gives way to forgiveness and, yes, grace, it is a moment as dramatic and meaningful as in any movie.

African Americans found that the religion of their oppressors actually took their side against oppression. And this insight became a powerful force for change and justice in U.S. history.

But perhaps the greatest appeal of Christianity is simpler. It takes seriously both the reality of sin and the possibility of redemption. This is what explains the enduring appeal of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” across every cultural and national boundary. The song was produced during the 1770s by a former slave trader, John Newton. Its lyrics testify to the fact that no one, of any background, is beyond or beneath redeeming grace.

So it is fitting that a song written by a man who had captained a slave ship should have been sung by Mahalia Jackson, who performed at many of King’s rallies and marches. And it is fitting that the hymn is the emotional centerpiece of Franklin’s gospel album, and of the movie about it.

See this film. Pollack’s cinema verité is especially good at revealing the raw emotion beneath familiar music. And it certainly helps when gospel songs are sung in a voice that makes angels jealous. But there is something more at work here: the firm knowledge that ’twas grace that brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.

Post 44: The Uncommon Power of Grace

We are two days beyond this year’s celebration of Christmas, a good opportunity to share an article that appeared on December 23rd of last year in The New York Times.  Its author was Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who served in the previous three Republican administrations and is a contributing opinion writer of the Times.  Wehner writes about grace, the “most unique characteristic” of the religion founded by the person whose birth we celebrated on Wednesday. The meaning of “grace” has been much debated among Christian denominations throughout the centuries, but Wehner’s treatment of it is a direct and simple one – grace is about love and mercy given to us beyond anything we deserve!

Wehner writes:

In his book “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” Philip Yancey describes a conference on comparative religions where experts from around the world debated which belief, if any, was unique to the Christian faith. C.S. Lewis happened to enter the room during the discussion. When he was told the topic was Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions, Lewis responded: “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

Lewis was right. No other religion places grace at its theological center. It was a revolutionary idea; as Mr. Yancey puts it, grace “seems to go against every instinct of humanity.” We are naturally drawn to covenants and karma, to cause and effect, to earning what we receive.

Grace is different. It is the unmerited favor of God, unconditional love given to the undeserving. It’s a difficult concept to understand because it isn’t entirely rational. “Grace defies reason and logic,” as Bono, the lead singer of U2, put it. “Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions.”

There’s a radical equality at the core of grace. None of us are deserving of God’s grace, so it’s not dependent on social status, wealth or intelligence. There is equality between kings and peasants, the prominent and the unheralded, rule followers and rule breakers.

If you find yourself in the company of people whose hearts have been captured by grace, count yourself lucky. They love us despite our messy lives, stay connected to us through our struggles, always holding out the hope of redemption. When relationships are broken, my wife Cindy told me, it’s grace that causes people not to give up, to extend the invitation to reconnect, to work through misunderstandings with sensitivity and transparency.

You don’t sense hard edges, dogmatism or self-righteous judgment from gracious people. There’s a tenderness about them that opens doors that had previously been bolted shut. People who have been transformed by grace have a special place in their hearts for those living in the shadows of society. They’re easily moved by stories of suffering and step into the breach to heal. And grace properly understood always produces gratitude.

Of course, grace can easily be exploited by people who don’t want to be held accountable for their misdeeds; the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to this as “cheap grace.” Nor is it easy to balance grace with the requirements of justice. We obviously can’t organize society entirely around the concept of grace. Yet the problem today is more the absence of grace than its presence.

It’s easy to understand why. Living a grace-filled life is hard. Most of us, when we feel wronged, want payback. Our first impulse, when hurt or offended, is to strike out, justifying our anger in the name of fairness. We forget the words of Edward Herbert (the poet George’s brother), “He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself,” and we forget that only grace can break the cycle of ancient hatreds among peoples. (It is notable that while I have regretted not granting grace to others, I’ve never once regretted extending it.)

When Mr. Yancey was young, he rejected the church for a time because he found so little grace there. There is a tendency among many people of faith to come across as holier than thou, more eager to judge than to forgive. Jesus encountered this throughout his ministry, which helps explain why he was more comfortable in the company of the unclean and reviled, the lowly and the outcast, than religious authorities. The odds are that you know people who have had scars of ungrace inflicted upon them by the Christian church. Yet when we see grace in action — whether in acts of extravagant, indiscriminate love, in radical self-giving, or in showing equanimity in the face of death — it can move us unlike anything else.

In 2014, Steve Hayner, my spiritual confidant, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Upon learning it had spread, Steve wrote, “In all probability, the remainder of my life on this earth is now to be counted in weeks and months.” (He died in January 2015.) Steve acknowledged that pain and death are reminders of the nature of our broken world. Yet he went on to say: “There is a much bigger story of which this is only a tiny part. And it is God’s story of love, hope, forgiveness, reconciliation, and joy. We went into this journey choosing to trust God and to offer our fears to God. We’ve been so grateful for the freedom from fear and the abundance of peace that we have experienced.” He added, “There are, of course, times of discouragement, grief, pain, and wonder. After all, there are a lot of unknowns ahead of us.”

I sent Steve’s reflections to my friend Jonathan Rauch, who responded, “It’s letters like this — the wisdom, the grace — that make me wish I weren’t an atheist.”

Post 43: Christmas in the Life and Writings of Charles Dickens

In 2012, the world celebrated the 200th anniversary birthday of Charles Dickens, author of “A Christmas Carol,” who is, in many ways, the “father of modern Christmas celebration.” Two books—Becoming Dickens by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst and Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin—were published leading up to this anniversary. Maureen Dowd, noted political columnist of The New York Times, drew from both books for her column on Christmas Eve 2011 to describe the fundamental role that Christmas played in Dickens’ life and in the writings of this, the greatest novelist of the Victorian era.

Literature’s answer to Santa Claus, as Robert Douglas-Fairhurst writes in “Becoming Dickens,” had always gravitated to the holiday.

“Christmas was always a time which in our home was looked forward to with eagerness and delight,” his daughter Mamie said.

Dickens would dance and play the conjurer. “My father was always at his best, a splendid host, bright and jolly as a boy and throwing his heart and soul into everything,” recalled his son Henry.

Douglas-Fairhurst wonders if this “inventor of Christmas” might have developed his “ruthless” determination to enjoy the day because of the traumatic year he spent as a child working in a rat-infested shoe-polish warehouse in London after his father went to prison for debts. Did England’s most famous novelist need “to recreate his childhood as it should have been rather than as it was?”

The biographer notes that Dickens, in his fiction, “rarely describes a family Christmas without showing how vulnerable it is to being broken apart by a more miserable alternative. In ‘Great Expectations’ it is the soldiers who burst into Pip’s home on Christmas Day, saving him from a dinner in which the only highlight is Joe slopping extra spoonfuls of gravy onto his plate. In ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood,’ the young hero goes missing on Christmas Eve, leaving behind several clues that he had been murdered by his uncle. Saddest of all, in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ Scrooge is forced by the Ghost of Christmas Past to observe his boyhood self- left behind at school, and weeps ‘to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.’ ”

Douglas-Fairhurst points out that Dickens’s fiction teems with ifs, just-supposes and alternative scenarios, “what might have been and what was not.” He even wrote two different endings for “Great Expectations,” one where Estella and Pip don’t end up together and one where they seem to.

“Pause you,” Pip says, “and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”

Dickens was rescued from the warehouse and sent back to school when his father got out of prison and wangled a Navy pension. But that year drove home to him how frighteningly random fate can be.

“I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond,” he once said.

His need to control his fate may have led to a mild case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. He routinely rearranged the furniture in hotel rooms, acknowledging that his “love of order” was “almost a disorder.”

Dickens — whose bicentenary will be celebrated on Feb. 7 — worked himself to death at 58, but he always feared obscurity was lurking.

In October 1843, he had the idea for “A Christmas Carol.” As Claire Tomalin writes in another new book, “Charles Dickens: A Life,” he told a friend “he had composed it in his head, weeping and laughing and weeping again” as he walked around London at night.

He had visited one of the “ragged schools,” set up in poor parts of London by volunteer teachers to educate homeless, starving and disabled pupils, and the novella, published that December, was his screed about the indifference of the rich toward those less fortunate.

Scrooge gets redeemed from an alternate life as a misanthrope, and Tiny Tim is saved from death. But two “wolfish” children, a boy named Ignorance and a girl named Want, are not rescued, but rather left to haunt readers’ consciences.

In his 1851 short story “What Christmas Is As We Grow Older,” Dickens makes the case that the holiday is the time to “bear witness” to our parallel lives, our “old aspirations,” “old projects” and “old loves.”

“Welcome, alike what has been, and what never was, and what we hope may be, to your shelter underneath the holly,” he wrote.

Maybe, he suggests, you end up better off without that “priceless pearl” who does not return your love. Maybe you don’t have to suppress the memory of deceased loved ones.

“Lost friend, lost child, lost parent, sister, brother, husband, wife, we will not so discard you!” he wrote. “You shall hold your cherished places in our Christmas hearts, and by our Christmas fires; and in the season of immortal hope, and on the birthday of immortal mercy, we will shut out Nothing!”

 

Post 42: Two More Christmas Movies Starring Jimmy Stewart

Jennifer Finney Boylan and I have two Jimmy Stewart Christmas movies to recommend to you in addition to “It’s A Wonderful Life.” My favorite is “Shop Around the Corner” and I watch it every year at this time, much to Faith’s chagrin! It stars Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as two employees in a leather goods store in Budapest at Christmastime who can barely stand one another but are involved in an amorous secret correspondence. Sound familiar? Well, it was remade as “You’ve Got Mail” in 1998 with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. “Shop” is listed as one of Time Magazine’s “All Time 100 Movies” and can be streamed on Amazon Prime now.

Jennifer Finney Boylan is a contributing opinion writer for The Times and is a professor of English at Barnard College. Her favorite Christmas movie is “Harvey” as she explains below. (“Harvey” is also available on Amazon Prime.)

From The New York Times, Dec. 12, 2017:

In my favorite Christmas movie, Jimmy Stewart says, “Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.”

No, it’s not “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a movie I have seen so many times now that I have begun to root for Mr. Potter. It’s “Harvey,” a movie that, on the surface at least, is not a Christmas movie at all but the story of a man whose best friend is a six-foot-tall invisible rabbit.

“Harvey” often leaves me in tears — but then I’m an easy cry, I guess…

Many of the tears these films make me shed are happy ones, and why not? I like a Christmas miracle as much as the next woman.

But sometimes I fear that my tears are the tears of loss. Christmas movies put me in mind of my parents, dead now many years, and my sister, whom I hardly ever get to see any more (she lives overseas). Basked in the blue glow of television light, I am a child again, safe in my parents’ house in Pennsylvania, all the trauma of our lives off in the distant future. How sweet it is, to be restored, fleetingly, to that world, and how bitter to be reminded of how long it has been gone. It’s a loss that can feel especially keen to me at Christmas.

Which is why I turn away from tears in December and instead embrace a giant rabbit.

“Years ago,” Mr. Stewart says at one point in the film, “my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood’ — she always called me Elwood — ‘you can be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”

“Harvey,” which premiered in 1950, is the story of Elwood P. Dowd, played by Mr. Stewart, and is based on Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Throughout the film, Elwood genially frustrates a series of plots to have him institutionalized. There are a number of complications involving the sanitarium (Chumley’s Rest) and Elwood’s long-suffering sister, Veta Louise (“I wouldn’t want to go on living if I thought it was all just eating and sleeping and taking my clothes off, I mean putting them on”).

Harvey, the rabbit, is invisible to most people, and why not — he’s a pooka (“a fairy spirit in animal form,” Mr. Stewart says, “always very large”). And yet Elwood, rabbit or no, brings grace to everything he encounters: “I always have a wonderful time, wherever I go, whoever I’m with,” he says. “I’m having a fine time, right here.”

It’s impossible to watch the film without something of Elwood P. Dowd rubbing off on you. I always like to watch it early in the holiday season; it makes my sorrows and exasperations with the world melt away, like snow on a warm mitten. Afterward, I walk around — for a little while, anyway — with a sense of wonder, looking at the world with the same eyes I had as a child, when I believed in all sorts of things that now seem impossible.

Speaking of the impossible, it’s Linus, in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” who steps onto the stage and recites from Luke 2:8-14: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’ ”

At a similar moment in “Harvey,” Elwood explains what happens when he goes into a bar with his giant invisible rabbit friend: “Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We’ve entered as strangers — soon we have friends. They tell us about the big terrible things they’ve done and the big wonderful things they’ll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey, and he’s bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed.”

“Isn’t there anyone,” laments Charlie Brown, “who can tell me what Christmas is all about?”

I’m no Linus. But if the holiday season means anything at all, it’s about believing in things that we cannot actually see. That virtues as shopworn as faith, hope and love can abide, even if others think you’re a crazy person for believing in them. That those we have lost — parents, friends, even our own younger selves — can live on, in us. That there really are spirits that can make us more than ourselves, that can turn our perilous, fallen lives into something sacred.

Late in “Harvey,” Elwood encounters the wife of his psychiatrist, and he tells her about his friend. “A pooka?” she asks. “Is that something new?”

“No,” Elwood responds with a smile. “No. As I understand it, that’s something very old.”

Post 41: Fred Rogers’ Design for a Christmastime Window Display in New York City

Fred Rogers seems to be on everyone’s mind these days – and rightly so.  A year or so ago there was the award-winning documentary on his life “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” which Faith and I found so enriching and enjoyable. Certainly Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Rogers in the current film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” – praised by one reviewer as “celebrating the virtues of patient listening, gentleness and honest expression of feeling” is on our “must see” films list.  I have my own happy memory of spending time with Rogers, many decades ago, at a luncheon hosted by the Shriver family and Special Olympics.

To add to our knowledge of this good man, Abrams Press has just published “The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers”  by Maxwell King.  One story in the book has a special meaning for us at Christmastime – a meaning drawn out by D.L. Maxwell in a recent column in the Washington Post.  She sees the anecdote not only as revealing Rogers central message that each child is unique and worthy of dignity and love but as a rejection of holiday consumerism as well.

D.L. Maxwell is a free lance writer who lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two small children.  Her thoughtful essays on race relations, Theology, refugees and other topics have earned numerous awards and accolades.  She describes herself in a way that is appropriate for this blog – as “trying very hard to be a good neighbor.”  On November 22, 2019 she writes:

We all know Fred Rogers was a saint. He is solidified in our collective cultural imagination: frozen in a cardigan and sneakers, his supernatural attunement to the emotional traumas of childhood, slow-talking puppets and subjects both whimsical and deep. We celebrate the Presbyterian minister for his kindness, when instead during his time he was known as a rather intense man with rigid standards and a bit of a social oddball.

“Fred was very controversial for most of his career,” said Basil Cox, the executive director of Rogers’s nonprofit, according to the biography “The Good Neighbor” by Maxwell King. “There were always a significant number of people who just didn’t believe him . . . thought it was an act. For the general world, he was the host of a kiddie television show, and that was it.”

….King’s biography includes a story that epitomizes Rogers’s inner motivation. Smack in the middle of when his show became a modest success on PBS in the early 1970s, Hallmark asked Rogers to collaborate in decorating its flagship store in midtown Manhattan for Christmastime.

Rogers and his friend and colleague Eliot Daley traveled from Pittsburgh to New York to check out the scene. Other celebrities and influencers had created garishly festive and over-the-top displays, but Rogers went a different route.

He went back to his home in Pittsburgh and concocted a design plan. His window display would be this: a Norfolk Island pine tree, the height of a three- or four-foot-tall child. No ornaments or decorations, just a simple green tree, planted in a clear glass Lucite cube so that onlookers could see the roots of the tree. And in front of it there was to be a plaque that simply said: “I like you just the way you are.”

To its credit, Hallmark went with Fred’s plan. His friend Daley remembers going to New York City to see the simple, yet powerful vision come to life — in the midst of all of the tinsel and lights, there was that little tree, all alone. He said it was perfect, and that he has no idea whether Rogers ever went to the city to see it on display.

……

I think about that little tree, and how differently the mind of a pastor and educator and psychologist (for Rogers was all three) works from those of marketers. At first blush it seems beautiful, because it is: centered on a child, a tree just their height, reinforcing the message Rogers most desperately wanted his young neighbors to hear. Working to combat shame, isolation, trauma; working to help build resilience in the lives of kids he could never hope to reach one by one. By creating a tree reminiscent of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” he reminds us that what is small is good, recognizing that even little trees need good roots to grow tall and strong.

The small bare tree in the Hallmark store window was a radical gesture designed to expose the hypocrisy of holidays intended to sell products while centering the emotional well-being of children who might catch a glimpse of his message. It was a rejection of holiday consumerism. It was a countercultural art project in a world of companies that exploited nostalgia for profit. And it was the refusal to accept a world that needed children to feel ashamed of themselves to buy more goods. It was typical of Fred Rogers: It was anger and love, all wrapped together, a Christmas gift I will never forget.