I am at a major turning point in my six- (almost seven-) decades-old life, and as I put together the content for the 2009 sixth annual Hungry Souls 24-Hour Advent Retreat of Silence, I am aware that this will be the last Advent Retreat I plan. Hopefully, others will step forward to take up the responsibility of this lovely gift joyfully given to others, but if not, I am content to say, “We did a good job introducing many to their first taste of communal silence.”
My creative life is calling me; it hums in the night. I can see it in flashpoints during my days. The unborn works I have not brought to nativity wait patiently for me to give them birth.
How fortunate to have these days where I am still in good health and of sound mind. But the ubiquitous question—how long will they last?—always rises.
During the last session of the current cycle of Listening Groups (eight months of listening to each other), one of the women graciously extended words of appreciation to each member. When my turn came, she said this: “I have a friend who knows that I am in a Listening Group with Karen Mains. She loves your writing and asked me what you were like. I told her that you were an absolute free spirit!”
I was amazed. I used to be a free spirit (as Julie Andrews once sang as Maria, “Somewhere in my wicked childhood …”), but it has become painfully clear to me over the last three years that I have a play deprivation. Creativity oozes, and laughter, fortunately, has become a companion again—but a free spirit?—something must be showing without my knowing. I suspect my “free spirit” is always hedged about by my heightened sense of responsibility and peeks out at moments when I am not aware of it.
So for whatever of life is left to me, I want to dedicate that to learning how to play. In order to be content that I have lived well the life given to me, I am determined to go dancing, singing and scribing into heaven—with nothing undone that was meant to be done. I do not want to spend the last days of my life with an overwrought sense of obligation. I want to free the closet renegade within me and say, “Okay, your turn…”
Stuart Brown, M.D., in his fascinating book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, writes that humans are genetically programmed for play. Brown has spent his career conducting more than 6000 play histories with people from all walks of life; serial killers (who displayed one startling commonality—a childhood play-deprivation) to Nobel Prize winners, to celebrities, to public servants, and to those who represent the rest of us, the common folk.
Brown writes, “When we get play right, all areas of our lives go better. When we ignore play, we start having problems. When someone doesn’t keep an element of play in their life, their core being will not be light. Play gives us the irony to deal with paradox, ambiguity, and fatalism. Without that, we are like the Woody Allen character in Annie Hall, who says, “What’s the use? The sun’s going to blow up in five billion years anyway.”
Here is a list of what he recommends to restore play to the play-deprived.
1. Take your play history.
For a long time I couldn’t remember how I played as a child, or what kind of toys I had, but this exercise helped me remember that I loved playing field hockey (high school and college); that my father’s exiled (to Des Moines, Iowa) Southern family loved family sing-fests; that as a grade-schooler I loved gardening with my father and canning with my mom and grandmother. Reading, reading, reading was always high on the list, and I remember the pleasure of riding a bicycle (purchased secondhand when I was in 4th grade). There’s a long way to go, I know—I’m a little deficient in the early-years play history—but it’s a start.
2. Expose yourself to play.
My friend Natalie Lombard and I have been experimenting with painting with brooms in her heated garage. (It is good to have a playful friend with a heated garage.) I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to choose people for these last decades of my life who know how to play and who make a way for the free spirit dwelling within me that wants OUT! Natalie and I are building a living metaphor on the Prepare Ye! theme for the opening of this year’s Advent Retreat of Silence. We are becoming really good at spreading paint with a turkey baster—another painting tool—though I am amazed that working with the same consistency of watered-down pastels and the same turkey baster, our hands nevertheless produce totally different lines!
3. Give yourself permission to be playful, to be a beginner.
OK. OK. I’m here already. I’m seeking out people whom life has not beaten into seriousness. In one conversation recently with the team of gals who are designing training for Retreat of Silence leaders, we discussed the importance of recapturing a sense of play. One woman mentioned her “fun dates.” Consequently, right now I am thinking about beginning establishing outrageously ridiculous Play Days once a month for the purpose of giving myself permission to be playful, to be a beginner and get this play thing down right.
For the rest of Stuart Brown’s list, I recommend you read the book and check out your own capacity for play.
For my whole life, I’ve visited Christ’s words, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3, NRSV). What did He mean?
David Steindl-Rast writes about the “child-like” concept, “The child within us stays alive. And the child within us never loses the talent to look with the eyes of the heart, to combine concentration with wonderment, and so to pray without ceasing. The more we allow the child within us to come into its own, the more we become mature in our prayer life. This is surely one meaning of the saying that we must ‘become like children.’ There is no childishness suggested here. … A truly mature person has not rejected childlikeness, but rather achieved it on a higher level. As we progress in that direction, everything in our daily life becomes prayer. The childlike heart divines springs of refreshing water at every turn.
What I want to concentrate on in the years left to me is not to let work overtake wonderment; indeed, I want to learn how to launch wonderment and let the work go hand in hand with it. I no longer need to develop the discipline of doing tasks I really don’t like or am not good at doing. That discipline has revealed that I’m pretty good at a lot of things—surprise! From now on, as much as possible, I want my work to become play.
Stuart Brown again: “Far from standing in opposition to each other, play and work are mutually supportive. They are not poles at opposite ends of our world. Work and play are more like the timbers that keep our house from collapsing down on top of us. Though we have been taught that play and work are each the other’s enemy, what I have found is that neither one can thrive without the other. We need the newness of play, its sense of flow, and being in the moment. We need the sense of discovery and liveliness that it provides. We also need the purpose of work, the economic stability it offers, the sense that we are doing service for others, that we are needed and integrated into our world.”
So here are the questions I’m beginning to ask of myself:
1. How am I incorporating play into my week—each week?
2. What outrageously ridiculous Play Day am I going to orchestrate this month?
3. Who are the people who know how to laugh and play, and how can I make them my friends?
4. How will I take this sense of wonder and marry it to the work I choose to do?
5. How am I going to find joy in the effort of simply being a little kid in God’s Presence—running toward the Kingdom of Heaven on happy feet (you saw the film Happy Feet, didn’t you? Yep, that’s exactly what I mean).
So, I hope to see you at this year’s 6th annual Advent Retreat of Silence. Let us meet each other in the silence and listen together to see what God has to teach us about being prepared. I am bringing my painting brooms and my turkey baster.