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While preparing to go home after nearly five months in various hospitals and rehabilitation centers, I received a missive from Sr. Joan Chittister, who spoke of the value of playing.
It dawned on me the most difficult part of the healing process was to embrace that idea. Instead of battling the pain, I needed to play with it.
I needed to give myself the time and space needed to do nothing important. Lots of folks offered to send me material to read and I didn’t have the courage to tell them that light, “beach” reading would be great.
I needed to keep in mind a reality that Chittister made clear: “Play washes ambition out of the soul. Instead, it is about doing something simply for the pure joy of doing it. For one brief moment in the midst of striving to stay alive, there is no product to be produced, no personal gain to be sought, nothing to prove. That may be why childhood is so largely devoted to play, to the exhilaration of aimlessness. It is the one period in life when we are allowed to wallow in the understanding that just being alive is enough for us. No money or medals needed. No evaluations expected. No better or worse implied.”
It sounds so simple one might wonder why all of us are not players in the world. Instead, play quickly becomes a measurable quantity where professionalism is required. Children’s innocent imaginings have been changed to planned activities.
By contrast, I can remember long years, into my early teens, of playtime. Mid-morning and mid-afternoon recesses at school were totally playtime, an hour given as a relaxer between courses. After school time, was spent riding a bicycle or a scooter, not motorized! Other times we played cops and robbers or army or cowboys and Indians. The hours sped by without our noticing, until we heard our mothers call us into the house for dinner.
Summer evenings at the shore were given to softball. Everyone, old and young, played until darkness descended. Then we switched to hide and seek, made visible by streetlight.
There was no competition involved, just a gathering of neighborhood children and onlooker parents. Grandparents pushed strollers occupied by toddlers who were being lulled into a night’s sleep.
When I was older and married with children, I remember my mother taking my eldest for a tour of the territory. Whenever they moved to the far side of the road to avoid traffic, she’d coo, “Here comes another one, Sweetie Pie.” My son would mimic, however erroneously, “Do one, Pie.” Forever after, his grandmother would be called Pie, a term of serious endearment.
All of these instances cause me to wonder what has happened to our world, our society, our culture. When did we lose the awesomeness of a playful youth with all of its memories? What have we gained in the process?
I suspect that loss far surpasses gain. We have lost, or drastically diminished, our ability to imagine a universe unseen to any but ourselves. We become upset with tomes such as the “Harry Potter” series, finding evil in the imaginings of young people.
I learned the power of play while doing physical therapy. At first, all was a challenge. I had made myself an opponent. Everything was a challenge to meet and survive or an obstacle to remove. Then, one day, the therapist suggested I go outside and play a ladder game.
It involved me standing and throwing tethered tennis balls at a polyurethane ladder. I became so involved with the play I never noticed I was standing on my own, something I’d feared would never happen.
I still maintained a degree of “self-competition” but mostly I was having fun. I forgot the challenges of dealing with an iliostomy and weakened limbs. It was almost like a summer evening of my youth.
Upon reflection, I came to understand the old motto, “The family that prays together stays together,” was equally challenged by the need to play together.
Prayer, at its best, is playtime, playing with God and ourselves. True prayer seeks nothing but presence. Even intercessory prayer is rooted in relationship with God. Jesus, in his agonized prayer uttered before he trod the path to his death, grounded his request that this chalice of pain be removed in the words offered to his father, “not my will but yours be done.”
With that attitude, hardships are bearable. What is more important, the little things life offers become precious gifts. A baby’s smile, a friendly dog’s wagging tail, an unexpected visit with a friend are all signposts of life’s playtime. They are the adult version of my youthful bicycling, scooter riding, imaginary games, and easy read books. They are the playtimes that found themselves lost in the recesses of my mind.
I remember the time when Hubby Dear and I were newly married at the ripe, young ages of 47 and 55. We were strolling through the mall in Raleigh when my alter ego, Sally, emerged. She noticed a kiosk advertising J. C. Penney’s offer of their department store’s credit card, complete with a complimentary gift. I loudly called out, “Dad, I want that pen with the clock in it.”
One can only imagine Hubby Dear’s chagrin and surprise. He countered with a comment on my inability to keep track of my belongings. I persisted, with a little girl voice that pierced the air, to state my desire. Lest others might not understand, he gave in. Playtime won. I got my pen with the clock. And, we had fun!
Joan Chittister reminds me, as I remind you, “play releases the mind to think beyond the boundaries of both the self and the society that shapes us. It teaches us the joy of freedom and gives us the right to break all the rules: we can dirty our shoes, laugh out loud, slide in the grass and blow bubbles to nowhere and no one will care. It enables us to stop taking ourselves too seriously, an insight of eternal importance if we are to live well with others and be able to bear our own failures later when being able to fail becomes our greatest success in life.”
Want to come and play with me?