Let me introduce you to Mister Rogers and Mister Dressup. Perhaps they need no introduction, especially if you are from my generation. Or perhaps you have heard stories from your parents. In my day, these two shows were a much slower counterpart to the fast-paced Sesame Street and Electric Company. At the time, Mister Rogers was even a bit too slow for me, as I impatiently waited for the train whistle to blow and the part where things really got exciting – the Neighbourhood of Make-Believe, where people and hand-puppets interacted and stories were enacted. 

Only now, as an adult turned child developmentalist, am I able to look back and see the intention of it all. And only in watching documentaries on Mister Rogers life and legacy am I able to see the courage required to put on a show that talked about the importance of feelings and relationships, in an era where entertainment was valued. The courage to advocate for something radical and to resist the Hollywood pressure to give people what they wanted, an escape from their everyday life. Mister Rogers did deliver an escape into an imaginary world, but in this world there was room for connections with people and the processing of hard stuff – all one step removed in the realm of Make-Believe. He knew what was needed and was determined to make an impact in children’s lives. Mister Rogers created room and a gentle invitation to explore difficult experiences and the emotions that were stirred up as a result.

Mister Dressup had a similar demeanor. I found him to be more playful and engaging, and I loved his side-kicks, puppets Casey and Finnegan, and their quirky sense of humour. I can still hear their voices now as I remember back. The beautiful gift that Mister Dressup gave us was the “tickle trunk” – a magical trunk that always had endless things to dress up in, to try on, to act out. I don’t recall specifics, just the spirit of the trunk and the feel of expansiveness and possibility when he opened that chest. His stories always sparked some kind of emergent energy in me. I was inspired to try things on myself, play out the stories, and try to make things, even if they didn’t look the same. Somehow, even though I normally carried with me an awareness of evaluation and judgment, this was suspended in Mister Dressup’s presence. I experienced grace and permission. Mister Dressup created a space for children like me to explore and imagine and express.

We all need this kind of space, even as adults. We need a gentle invitation to explore what is stirring inside. We need permission to not have to perform or get things right. To not be evaluated by a grade or a gold star, but to express for the sake of expression. To try things on, and find tangible space for parts of ourselves that maybe were not ever welcomed in our formative relationships. Or maybe we just imagined it so. For whatever reason, we may have had no safe place for all of the inside stuff to come out, so we stuffed it in and tried to keep it there for safe keeping. (Or at least our brains did that for us because our brain is good at protecting us – sometimes too good. It reads what is too much to handle, or what will be too much for our people to handle, and it waits for a safer day.)

For me, I had lost my playfulness especially when it came to art and to music. Somewhere along the way I learned, as many of us did, how things were supposed to look and supposed to sound, and I felt the acuteness of where I fell short. So I stopped trying. 

Enter Ish, by Peter Reynolds. Several decades later, it was time to bring back the spirit of my childhood mentors Mister Rogers and Mister Dressup. 

It’s funny how a story can have a magical way of sneaking past your defenses and traveling straight to your heart. Ish was one such story for me. Let me give you a synopsis in case you haven’t read it yet (but I do encourage you to read it yourself as the illustrations are beautiful and I am only sharing a sketch):

Boy freely draws his world as a way to express himself (“anything, any place, anywhere”).
Enter boy’s brother, who he feels judged by and laughed at.
Boy becomes self-conscious and eventually gives up drawing altogether.
In a last frustrated gesture, boy scrumples up a piece of paper and throws it on the floor.
Enter younger sister, who picks up the paper and runs away.
Boy runs after her and stops as he sees her bedroom walls filled with his crumpled drawings.
Sister points to her favourite and he says that it was supposed to be a vase but it doesn’t look like one.
She says: it looks “vase-ish” and the light bulb moment arrives.
Now the boy sees everything around him as “ish”.
Boy starts to draw again as he is now freed up from needing to make things just so.
Boy even writes a poem; he doesn’t know if it’s an actual poem, but it’s poem-ish.
Boy lives ishfully ever after.

Freedom from judgment. Not about outcome or performance. This is what Mister Dressup and Mister Rogers were aiming for back in the 70’s, and it sure is a message we need to hear today. So thank you Peter Reynolds, for bringing “ish” into my life and the lives of our children. We need this message more than ever, and we need the spaces in our lives where there is room to express whatever it is that is looking to come out. Be it through art, music, writing, drama or dance.

But this expression can be so shy. It needs coaxing and a gentle invitation from us. It needs to feel safe.

For me, I want to continue in the footsteps of these gentle giants. I want to create the kind of safety that makes room for the spirit of expression, without getting strangled by obsession with form. To be able to play with one’s voice or a musical instrument without being overly cautious about getting the notes right. To be in good company as we bumble our way to getting stuff out in a way that doesn’t hurt our loved ones. The art might be messy, the music a bit wild sounding, the writing a bit dark at times, but “better out than in.” 

I think Shrek was on to something. 


Editor’s Note: 

In the spirit of ish, Tamara and friends are offering a five-day family-style camp for expressive arts, with a focus on creating space for connection, story, music, messy art, movement and more. Bring your family or a friend and come play with them on Vancouver Island this summer!

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