It may be the simplest pop-song hook I’ve ever heard.
I can hum Bach concertos, Beethoven anthems, and every melody Bono ever sang. I recognize almost any hook the Beatles and the Stones ever threw down. But that little string of banjo notes is the most evocative line of music I know.
Plunk-ah PLUNK-AH PLUNK-AH Plunk-ah PLUNG! … Plunk-ah PLUNK-AH PLUNK-AH Plunk-ah PLUNG!
And then a voice, humble and sincere, sings:
Why are there so many songs about rainbows?
And what’s on the other side?
Sentimental? Sure. Childlike, too. Whatever you might think of “The Rainbow Connection,” it sticks with you.
During two different lectures about “storytelling and the power of play” last year, I sang a few lines from that song. Both audiences joined in and kept the song going. The first time I was stunned. The second time I held out the microphone to their spirited chorus, and when they had finished I said, “Now I know how Bono feels.”
If you grew up watching Jim Henson’s imagination at work, you probably know the song too.
I heard it first in 1979. My family saw The Muppet Movie in a Portland, Oregon shopping mall movie theater. Deep in a swampy woods, Kermit the Frog plucked a banjo and sang his questions. (You can see that scene here.)
I didn’t have any epiphanies there, but the odyssey that unfolded after the song was a journey with some uncanny resemblances to my own.
Do you have a film like that? Did a movie or a storybook make an impression on you in childhood that has gone on inspiring you in adulthood?
As a ten year-old living in a Northeast Portland neighborhood, where I knew almost no one and very little ever happened, I found my friends in books, children’s television, and occasional parent-approved movies. And while I envied characters who lived in colorful and interesting communities—Winnie the Pooh, Encyclopedia Brown, Henry Huggins—I was inspired most by sheltered characters who dared to step into the great beyond. Reluctantly or with courage, they left their comfortable homes for a wider, wilder world.
Luke Skywalker left his desert-planet farm, answering the call to become a Jedi Knight. He ended up saving the galaxy—not only with swordplay, but with humility and grace. Gandalf persuaded Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit living in cozy Bag End, to leave home on an adventure that would eventually make the salvation of Middle-earth possible.
But Kermit the Frog…he was different than any other childhood hero. He didn’t aim to fight dragons or Dark Lords. He just wanted to “make millions of people happy.” Instead of a sword, he had a song. In stead of a mission statement, he had a question:
What’s so amazing that keeps us star-gazing
And what do we think we might see?
As the last notes of his song faded…shazam! A desperate Dom Deluise rowed a canoe into view. He identified himself as “Bernie the Agent.”
Do agents just show up out of the blue offering to help poor, insecure, nobodies? Of course not. That’s not how the world works. At least, that’s what I told myself. But stay tuned. I’ll come back to this point in Part 2.
Bernie asked Kermit for directions, and during that conference he recognized Kermit’s gift. “You got talent, kid,” he said, and encouraged him to go to Hollywood. A few moments later, the audience gasped as Kermit appeared riding a bicycle across the screen. Impossible! A hand puppet riding a bike? Where’s the Muppeteer?
In the episodes that followed, Kermit’s adventure was both formulaic and subversive. Sure, Americans love rags to riches stories, and tales of dreams come true. But Kermit’s way of pursuing his dream, and the success he eventually won, were not typical. This wasn’t a story about what we want. It’s a story of what we need.
You’ve probably read Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation: “Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” That’s a good way to describe Kermit’s calling. But I think this Buechner passage from Growing Up is even more applicable:
Children that we are, even you and I, who have given up so little, know in our hearts not only that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but that it is also more fun—the kind of holy fun that wells up like tears in the eyes of saints, the kind of blessed fun in which we lose ourselves and at the same time begin to find ourselves, to grow up into the selves we were created to become.
Kermit’s journey was about giving from the beginning. In his humility, he could “lose himself” in his mission. His ego did not prevent him from sharing his vision with whoever found it inspiring. He invited everybody—amateurs and experts—to contribute their voices and talents on the way to realizing a vision of “singing and dancing and making people happy.”
He steered away from shortcuts baited with money, fame, and fortune. Instead of aiming for quick stardom and success, Kermit’s goal was about giving—giving what he knew he could do well, in order to bless as many as he could.
What did he have to offer? Questions. Questions that restore our sense of wonder, that help us regain a vision of a world pregnant with mystery. He asked us to remember that still, small voice calling us to be what we were meant to be.
I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it…
It’s something that I’m supposed to be.
Someday we’ll find it….
Note, he says “we” will find it. This isn’t about one sock puppet’s search to be all that he can be. It’s about a community combining their talents to bring joy to the world. So they follow mysterious signs. They answer a call.
Read Part Two.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Jeffrey Overstreet
Jeffrey Overstreet has been recognized for his writing on cinema in The New Yorker, Time, The Seattle Times, and Image, and spent an award-winning decade as film reviewer for Christianity Today. Overstreet writes fiction, memoir, reviews, and arts journalism. He is an international public speaker and teacher of creative writing, film studies, and cultural engagement for people of faith, including a term as Writer-in-Residence at Covenant College in Georgia. Random House’s WaterBrook Press has published four of his novels including Auralia’s Colors. Through a Screen Darkly, his “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” is available from Baker Books. He lives in Seattle with his wife, the poet Anne M. Doe Overstreet, and serves as contributing editor to Response magazine at Seattle Pacific University (SPU), where he works as a Communications Specialist. He is currently writing two novels, a book about film, and is enrolled in SPU’s MFA in Creative Writing program. He blogs at Looking Closer.