LET GO AND LISTEN
I used to have this postcard, framed, and hanging on my wall. It’s an early 20th-century black and white photo with a bunch of kids rejoicing at the arrival of snow. They have a palpable sense of abandon, their faces and movement sparkling with the snowflakes. This image is intoxicating to most who see it, including me. I can’t help but gaze at it spellbound, a faraway smile of memory. There’s a pang of longing there, too: playing, whatever form it takes, seems so distant these days, especially within the confines of adulthood responsibilities, the ceaseless pace of things, the state of the world, and human affairs. But maybe that longing is not such a bad thing. Perhaps it is a signal from within.
- Let go, if only for a moment.
- Soak in what comes.
I’d like to practice listening to that voice. Want to join me?
MAKE TIME FOR PLAY
I am not sure about how most people would react to this idea of play, but I can definitively say that my response on most days would be a sarcastic laugh—“I have so much (expletive) to do!” The thought of “playing,” comes with more thoughts of planning or scheduling, which on our worst days can elicit a sense of overwhelm. In reality, though, playing need not be so cumbersome; it can be bite-sized. The only requirement for us seems to be the simple—but maybe not easy—task of abandon.
The sense of abandon seems to be the common thread in each of the instances of play I can think of. My memory defaults to dollhouses, Lincoln Logs, and forts. Searching deeper, play begins to look like other things, too. It can be the “quick writes” I gave my old students, kids who were academically far below grade level and whose confidence for reading and writing was thwarted.
Step 1: After you choose a topic from your list, I will set the timer for ten minutes.
Step 2: Write…don’t let the pencil stop moving! Let it pour out, and forget about what makes you hold back: don’t give a rip what other people will think of your ideas, words, or spelling. Go!
The pride and satisfaction with which these students shared their completed work is something I will never forget. Nor will I forget the beauty and creativity of their work. I think it helped them, and I know that process still helps me, too. Or, even a yoga pose like tree. One of the most lasting practices has been to abandon the need to balance or achieve the perfect pose and breath.
THE ABANDON OFFERS A SPACE FOR CURIOSITY
- What happens in my feet, legs, and belly when I practice that pose in a given moment?
- What happens if I engage something, or shift my shoulder blades just so?
In this vein, play can manifest itself in a thousand tiny moments—from cooking with Sam Sifton’s “no-recipe recipes” in the NY Times (try it!) to painting a flower in watercolor—and carries the potential for a sense of freedom and connection.
PLAY LEADS TO JOY
That momentary sense of freedom that play gives us—that is joy. When the joyful moment has lapsed, it is not gone. In its place is an indelible mark on the spirit, whether it be a memory, a growth, or a creation. It’s grounding, sustaining: joy is arguably a form of nourishment as necessary as the food we put into our bodies. Science agrees—serotonin! dopamine! neuroplasticity!—but does that really matter? It feels good, and that good feeling, although fleeting, leaves a lasting imprint. Angela Williams Gorrell writes that joy “taps into our deepest sense of meaning,” which necessitates connection to others in addition to “beauty and goodness in the analog world.” She also writes that just as we need to acknowledge emotions like sadness, anger, and fear, we need to grant ourselves and others permission to experience joy.
PLAY TO COPE WITH HARDSHIP
I’d like to permit myself to release, to play. I’ll go for some joy. I’ll try it in the ups or downs that life inevitably brings. Because thinking on it, joy does not turn its back sorrow or anything like it. Rather, it seems to quite reasonably—and lovingly—ask us not to wallow, to inch back towards the middle a bit. Gorrell is right: death, inequity, heartache, and hardship is not everything that needs to be faced; there is room for other feelings, including joy. Death is real; even so, there’s something greater than it. Inequity exists painfully; yet it’s not the close of the book. Heartache is debilitating, and real; with room, though, it gives way to reclamation. Hardship is real, too; in spite of that, it cannot efface beauty. Loosening the strictures of modern life, even for a little, helps us to get back to the middle. And here, there’s room for play. Let’s take it: how else will we be not be annihilated by some of the tough times that come with living?
READY, SET, GO!
Play can sustain our belonging in an otherwise difficult world to live in, a portal toward joy, and an open window toward what else is Out There. And that joy, however brief, is necessary, especially now. We long to be those kids in that postcard, faces tipped toward the sky, if only for a moment.
That inner call might seem far away but it is not far-fetched: will you try it with me?
We can loosen the grip of the mind, shake out of the rules, the “shoulds.”
We’ll give our hearts, our breath some room.