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I was the kid who didn’t quite know how to play.
Sure, I slapped double-dutch ropes against the schoolyard blacktop and took my turn skip-hopping in the middle. I turned shoeboxes into doll cottages and furnished their interiors with scraps of velveteen. My best friend and I draped a quilt over the chasm between my twin beds and hunkered in the gloam beneath, eating stale Halloween candy and whispering secrets.
But I often felt there was something missing: an element of abandon, a volcanic goofiness I observed with curiosity in my cousins and friends. Was there a remedial course on play? Was I congenitally ill-suited for extemporaneous, explosive fun?
Playing it cool
I asked that question for more than 40 years—mostly to myself, occasionally to my partner. A few weeks before my 58th birthday, I posed it to a friend.
It was Blursday in the month of Maybe, a grim pandemic slog during which my college-aged daughter boomeranged home from campus, our housemates’ 10-year relationship imploded, my teaching gigs were scotched, and I barely left my zip code.
Across the country, Covid-19 rates climbed and fell and climbed again. Streets seethed with rage following the murder of George Floyd. Nervous shopkeepers boarded the windows of their stores. Donald Trump was still—god help me—president.
“What do you want in the next 12 months?” my friend asked.
“I want to be more playful. I want delight. I want more joy.”
“You say that every year.”
That stung, but she was right; each September, I vowed to invite more whimsy to my life, and each year, I somehow missed the mark. Sobriety—the temperamental kind, not the teetotaling kind—seemed to be my default mode. Maybe it was callow to seek delight in the midst of so much grief. Or maybe I was just too old to change.
You’re not, my friend assured. Then she invited 50 pals, local and far-flung, to send me playful prompts for the coming year. I could choose one each week, then do it. No postponements. No excuses.
Being more prompt
Which is how I found myself, last fall, standing in the aisle of Trader Joe’s, composing a clumsy aria about the dearth of toilet paper. The prompt: “Take a scene from your life and narrate it as if you are in an opera.”
The next week, I arranged plastic dinosaurs into a tea-party tableau in my front yard. “Delight passing-by children by creating a small fairy village next to your fence,” Alexis had suggested. I added a popsicle-stick placard, a wink to any adults who might also be passing by. It read, “Climate Change Is Real.” I watched out my window as whole families stopped to smile.
Meantime, my stash kept yielding ways to play: Find a few smooth rocks and paint them. Learn a joke in Yiddish. Rock out with YouTube dance duo Allison and tWitch. Go upstairs using your hands as well as your feet.
One brother-in-law, who lives in a lush valley on Oahu, instructed me to spend 15 minutes calmly observing a single tree. Another brother-in-law suggested I go outside each night for a week to gaze at the moon and stars.
Other prompts required interaction: L and I played the A-to-Z game with vegetables—“arugula…beet…cauliflower…um, dandelion greens?”—on the way to a periodontal appointment. At Jessica’s behest, I cranked up Stevie Wonder for an impromptu household dance party.
The months crawled by; I think we had winter somewhere in there, sandwiched between claims of a stolen election and the chaotic roll-out of Covid vaccines. Did February even happen? Was there snow?
The complicated art of fun
There must have been because at some point the dinosaur tea party vanished under a heap of leaves and grimy frost. Neighborhood children trudged by with their masked, distracted parents, leaving little boot-prints in the slush.
And then, one day, the ground softened, the tulips stood up tall, and for a brief, delicious stretch in April and May, the world seemed to open up again.
I checked the yard: winter had knocked T-Rex to his reptilian knees. The tea dishes were scattered, smeared with dirt. I brought the whole entourage inside and washed each piece in the kitchen sink, re-glued the CD tabletop to its tuna-can base and made a new sign: “All Are Welcome Here.”
Was I having fun yet?
The world still seethes. The jury is still out. What I’m learning is that my notions of play may have been all wrong. Turns out, the way I play is the way I live: more reflective than raucous, more about exploring than erupting. Subtle. Subversive. Play is a muscle; I’m discovering new ways to use it.
This summer, I pulled a long note from the play-prompt envelope: Peter, a colleague and poet, suggested that I learn to juggle. Every morning since then, I have stood at the foot of our bed to toss one, two, then three bean bags into the air.
One day, I manage four consecutive catches; the next, I’m scrambling under the bed for wayward throws. Maybe it’s all a meta-lesson: On the way to learning something—hear that, world?—we’re gonna drop a lot of balls. In the midst of a pandemic, play is relational, varied, necessary. It calls us to remember who we were pre-Covid—and even further back, pre-calendars, when we didn’t know what day it was and didn’t care, because there were dinosaurs having tea, plastic jaws agape over their teeny dishes, in front of the house next door.
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