My dad likes to tell the story of an evening we spent together when I was not quite 2. We were playing with blocks - old-fashioned, wooden, numbered and lettered blocks. Dad would set them up in towers or pyramids and I could barely wait for him to finish the construction so I could haul off and knock the whole thing over. My favorite method was to waddle-run at it and then swing one leg with abandon. Each gleeful destruction was accompanied by peals of laughter, over and over, the way young children love to do things. Build it up, knock it down, laugh.
As an adult, I haven’t been nearly that good at playing. I like lists and calendars and I’m good at seeing the big picture, looking ahead to the next project, organizing. Whether at work or home, my habit is to check the things off my to-do list before I play.
But just this summer, I am becoming a potter.
The first night of class, I completely lost track of time. “Lost track” makes it sound like I was trying to remember the time. I wasn’t trying to do anything but center the clay on the wheel and follow the sequences and hope it ended up looking like a bowl. I was utterly engulfed in the process. And completely amazed when I stood up to stretch, walked into the other room and saw a clock that said two and a half hours had passed. I can’t remember the last time I was that unaware of and unconcerned with the time.
It was like a bath for my soul. I was absorbed and focused and completely in the moment.
It took me a while to recognize this, but I used to think that not working was the same thing as playing, that the absence of work necessarily equated play, rest, rejuvenation. Then I started noticing what my “days off” looked like: laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning, oil changes, bills. More work of the unpaid variety. And for someone who really likes schedules, it is odd that I never scheduled in true play time.
Jan Richardson wrote recently of “the way you ration your delights.” That’s me, a rationer. What a strange thing for creatures like us, made in the image of the playful, creating God, to ration delight. What a strange and unnatural thing to restrict our joy and distort ourselves into unplayful, unappreciative worker automatons. What a strange thing to decline delight and to postpone playing.
For years I’ve been marking through whole days on my calendar with a large X. This is my signal to my scheduling self not to plan things then, especially work-related things. The X days are gloriously blank, other than the X, and I have come to appreciate and savor the unplanned day, the one that unfolds as it goes along. In busy or stressful times, just flipping by one of those X pages brings a sigh, space for breath to enter into the breathless times. Scheduling (making room for the obligations and workload and ministry events and for the X days) is both necessity and downfall for me - a downfall because, trained as I am by the lists and times on the schedule, an X day can also leave me in a mild panic. What, exactly, am I supposed to do?
A recurring childhood image is that moment when I heard my mom’s voice calling us in for dinner. We played in the backyard for hours when I was a kid. We were engulfed in those worlds of play and her voice pulled us out and back in to the rest of life, to dinner. Like my first night at pottery class, those playful days were timeless, eternal - out of and beyond time. They were a completely necessary part of my growing up and maturing, those days absorbed in worlds of our own creation.
They are still necessary. It’s just taken me a few decades to realize it. It seems that part of my anxiety over X days is about permission. I’ve given myself permission not to work, but I sometimes haven’t quite managed the permission to play. It’s unproductive, frivolous, wasted time in a busy life - right? Wrong.
As I become a potter, playing in the mud each week, I have noticed that play is not merely the absence of work. It is also the presence of focus and attention. Sometimes after a long day or a long week, all I want to do is zone out and watch something entertaining on TV. That’s OK, but it’s not playing. And, while it may indeed be relaxing, I’m not sure going to the spa or having a massage is play either. There is a difference between receiving comfort or entertainment and participating in play. True play is absorbing. It requires all we have at that moment, not merely the presence of our bodies while our minds are absent. True play is about engaging in a creative, delightful way with the people and elements at hand. It’s about pushing ourselves to try on new skills (throwing on the wheel, trying a new recipe, training for a race, learning Italian, balancing on one foot, throwing a Frisbee) or relationships (assuming a character in charades, acting in a play, negotiating a win-win in Monopoly).
Maybe the most revolutionary and playful thing we can do is to play unapologetically, to give ourselves permission and to stop seeking it from anyone else. Play is revolutionary. It is a faithful and theological act. Being one who plays says to our busy, self-important selves and to the world: God holds it all whether I stop or not. And God wants me to stop. God made me for pleasure and delight. Yes, God gives me work to do, but not all the time. I am made in the image of God, the same fun-loving God who created the platypus (if that’s not playful, what is?) and who devoted an entire day to rest and delight in creation.
So now I’m wondering about a rhythm that makes room for work and play (and Sabbath), that gives each its time and then moves on. Focus, let go. So that, when we play, we give ourselves over to it, indulging in it and delighting in it, running full tilt and swinging one leg with abandon.
Unapologetically. No list, no schedule, no agenda. Nowhere to get to but where I am.
I want more of that.
Deborah Lewis is a United Methodist campus minister and lives with her husband and stepson in Virginia. A longer version of this piece originally appeared in Catapult Magazine.
(Photo by Josh Larsen.)