Living the Playful Life

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I spent a weekend in the north Georgia mountains where I read slightly racy mystery novels, napped when I felt like it, and ate whatever sounded good at the moment.  For the first time in years, I allowed my mind to let go of planning future projects, preparing for the next thing, analyzing, and thinking deeply. I didn’t even plan or pack the food for the trip. My daughter did it all, even the navigating. On the way home, when we stopped to buy gas, she asked me if I could drive for a while, and I had to pause before answering. My brain was so relaxed and just open to what was going on around me that I wasn’t sure if I could refocus enough to drive. I got behind the wheel and had to reorient and take a deep breath before starting the car. That weekend got me thinking about what play means to me now as a semi-retired adult.

I’ve always been a somewhat serious person. Even as a child, my mom said I wanted to familiarize myself with my surroundings before abandoning caution and just playing. Tricycles had to be pushed around for a bit before riding them. I had to observe the other children for a few minutes, I think to take on the group dynamic, before joining in a game of make-believe “house.” I enjoyed those types of activities but was perfectly happy to spend hours reading a book and living in the world I saw in my head.

Somewhere along the line, I forgot how to play. Maybe it was when I was working full time and going to school at night. I had something to prove and no time to spare. I remember being afraid that if I were to let go of keeping on top of everything, even for a little while, I might not be able to pick up all the pieces again. My mom’s habit of list making became important to relieve some of the anxiety of too many things to hold in my head. I was a workaholic who couldn’t just sit and watch a tv show without looking at a magazine simultaneously (that was before the days of scrolling on smart phones or tablets).

After returning home from our mountain weekend, I kept thinking about what play could look like as an adult and got out the dictionary. Unfortunately, the definitions only referred to children’s activities, so I decided to substitute “individual” for “child”.  Here’s how the definition of play would read:

Activities performed for self-amusement that have behavioral, social, and psychomotor rewards. It is self-directed, and the rewards come from within the individual; it is enjoyable and spontaneous.

  • Self-directed
  • Self-amusement
  • Provides rewards
  • Enjoyable
  • Spontaneous

I want more of those things in my life. Maybe I just need to think about play a little differently. Is play more about how you feel when you’re doing something instead of a pre-defined list of activities?

I have the self-directed part covered. It’s part of my personality. I had to think a bit about what it means to amuse myself, though. The synonyms I found were delight, diversion, enjoyment, hilarity, laughter, pleasure. It seems to imply an activity that brings on a smile or feeling of happiness, not just an absence of pain or presence of contentment. For me, simple things like noticing the flash of a bird when I’m taking a walk or watching the cat playing solo hockey with a toy all around the kitchen would seem to qualify.

Play also provides behavioral, social, and psychomotor rewards. I really had to think about this aspect of play for a while. I can see how playing a sport could qualify as playing with all the “good job” and high fives as social rewards if you’re good at it. I’m not good at it, so sports are not on my list of favorite play dates. But enjoying having lunch with an old friend after so many months of staying at home because of the pandemic seems to fit the bill. Eating food that someone else cooks and brings to you, and you don’t have to wash the dishes! A great conversation as you catch up on everything that has been going on in their life. Lots of behavioral, social, and psychomotor rewards from those activities. And it also qualifies as enjoyable.

The most difficult part of play for me is spontaneous, which means free, unstructured, and instinctive. Does it count when I set aside time in my calendar for “doing whatever I want?” As I’m reminded of the Buddhist value of non-attachment, I think the answer is yes.

Buddhism teaches that joy and happiness arise from letting go.

Thich Nhat Hanh

I think some of my happiest moments as an adult have occurred in times like our weekend in the mountains. Periods of time clearly labeled on my calendar but only loosely planned. I can leave behind the to-do lists and only a loose itinerary. Space opens to become curious and interested in what is right in front of me, and there is freedom to follow that curiosity to see where it will take you.

I think that’s why I’m attracted to road trips. You never know what you will find when you decide to take a left instead of a right turn along the way. I’m intrigued by the variety of houses of worship I come across and frequently pull into parking lots or turn around to get a photo. The architecture, grounds, and cemeteries speak to me as a unique expression of a particular group of people in a specific place attempting to worship their personal version of God.

As you pass towns, houses, and yards, it’s like looking through a Viewmaster (remember those?), seeing snapshots of life. That family has a dog. This farm has horses. The next house has goats in the yard. I notice the broad span of a hawk’s wings as it circles above the road, and I wonder what it sees. The spectrum of green spread across the trees on a mountain reminds me of a Pantone chart, sun and shadow creating lighter and darker tones.

Photo by Girl with Red Hat on Unsplash

I’ve been trying to apply this idea of not getting too attached to any particular outcome as I move through each day. It’s not always easy, even though I know that I can’t control so many things in life. But when I open space in my heart and mind, the magic happens. Life becomes more like a road trip. A playful adventure full of fascinating people, places and possibilities.

Header Photo by Dan Counsell on Unsplash

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