My two-part reflection on The Muppet Movie, and how it changed my life, was originally published at Good Letters, the blog hosted by Image.

Those posts are republished here with permission.

Part One


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 Two.

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.

Part Two

In my last post I remembered how The Muppet Movie begins. Kermit the Frog leaves the swamp to follow his dream.

As American dreams go, Kermit’s is unselfish. He hopes for singing, dancing, creativity, laughter in order to bring people happiness.

He welcomes a parade of colorful, kindred spirits: A bear who fancies himself a comedian. A pig who believes she’s glamorous. A Gonzo (whatever that is) who thinks he’s indestructible. And more.

Pursued by villainous businessmen who want to exploit Kermit’s talent, the Muppets hurry past all-American distractions like amusement parks and beauty pageants.

One evening, on a long stretch of highway, their station wagon overheats. And that’s that…or it seems to be. They’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, unable to help themselves.

As they kindle a campfire, the flames of Kermit’s confidence turn to ashes. He wanders into the dark.

Was he a fool to follow rainbows in search of a promised land? Has he brought these dreamers into the wilderness for nothing?

Decades ago, “The Rainbow Connection” was my theme song as I filled pages with stories that I hoped to share with the world. But today, Kermit’s sense of despair resonates as well. I fear all my hard work will fade quickly away and be forgotten. Family members, teachers, mentors, and friends who invested in my dream will be disappointed.

At church, an acquaintance quips, “It must be so exciting to have become what you wanted to be.”

Is this what I wanted to be? Was this the dream?

You can try to stir the writer’s life and the self-marketer’s life together, but they’re oil and water. Publishers sent me a guide detailing what “successful” authors do: Build websites about themselves. Create their own fan clubs on Facebook. Pursue their own endorsements. Volunteer to blog on “influential” websites. Organize readings, book-signings, and giveaways.

Following instructions, I feel I’m standing on a street corner wearing a sandwich board with my picture on it and shouting, “I’m awesome! Go tell everyone I’m awesome!”

Later, coughing dust across blank pages, I fail to find any sparks of inspiration. Do I even want to try again? How can anyone find inspiration in the midst of so much striving and pressure? I careen between embarrassment and an egomaniacal fever that comes from self-promotion. On a good day, I read nice notes from readers. On a bad day, I feel like a fraud.

Kermit walks into the darkness, torn in two. One side laments his failures. The other reminds him that this was never about achieving success. It was about inspiration: a rainbow that inspired a song. Opportunity was not obtained—it knocked unexpectedly because it found him singing, and he reached out to grab it.

My opportunity knocked thirty years into my writing endeavors. Like Bernie the Agent in his canoe, it came out of nowhere, without any smart strategizing on my part. After a magazine published one of my film reviews (I practically gave it away), a flight attendant read it. She asked to meet me for lunch to discuss my writing. I showed her a piece of fiction. She encouraged me, and we parted ways.

What happened next—well, remember when Kermit entered the office of Hollywood’s emperor (played by Orson Welles)? Remember how he was offered a contract, inexplicably, no strings attached? Ludicrous, right?

But the morning after I met the flight attendant, my telephone rang. It was her good friend—the head of a division at Random House—calling out of curiosity. Later, he’d find me three book contracts within a two-week span.

Remembering this, I feel amazed and unworthy. I know writers who have labored for decades, making all the right moves—but there I was with a golden ticket that fell from the sky. I remain embarrassed by this grace, and burdened with a sense of responsibility.

Since The Muppet Movie foretold my journey’s unlikely beginnings, I’m revisiting it now, fast-forwarding to the chapter where Kermit and I break down on the road and wonder if we have what it takes for success.

That state of unhurried, unselfconscious imagination I once knew—it’s as blurry as a fading Polaroid of my childhood home. I’m nervous that if I go looking for the place, I’ll find it’s gone. But I miss the days when happiness meant a pencil and an empty notebook.

There’s an old Sufi saying: “New organs of perception come into being as a result of necessity. Therefore, O Man, increase your necessity, so that you may increase your perception.”

Maybe the Muppets’ vehicular breakdown was necessary. They needed the darkness. As their eyes adjusted, they’d recover their vision beneath the stars, and remember what the heavens declare.

There, in the quiet night, Kermit hears that familiar voice whispering what he is supposed to be.

There, Kermit’s friend Gonzo star-gazes and sighs, “You could get lost in a sky like that.” He wishes for a bundle of helium balloons to lift him up. And he sings,

Sun rises, night falls,
Sometimes the sky calls.
Is that a song there?
And do I belong there?
I’ve never been there,
But I know the way…
I’m going to go back there someday.

Comparison, competition, ambition…the thieves of joy tear our attention away from inspiration. But when I raise my eyes to beauty, I know the way home.

In a dog-eared Muppet Movie storybook, Kermit confronts his enemy with words that aren’t in the film: “Did you ever see a rainbow, Doc? You can’t buy it, or kidnap it, or put it in a cage, or have it stuffed, because it’s there for everybody and nobody can own it.” Kermit has regained the proper posture at last. His eyes are on the source of his inspiration. He’s ready to catch and reflect light.

Perhaps it’s time for a road trip.

Would you be willing to loan me an untrustworthy station wagon?