WANT TO PLAY?

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What parts of nature engage in play? North of my home there are bluffs along the coast perfect for walking along—wide open bluffs and wide open sky; the raging Pacific below the cliffs. I particularly like to walk through the ice plant there that in late fall turns about a hundred shades of orange making the place feel otherworldly. Recently, three vultures flew above me, but they weren’t hunting. Other times that I’ve seen vultures they’ve been circling above their next meal; I’ve watched them land on a dead animal to enjoy a feast together. This recent flight behavior was different; they weren’t zeroing in on something; there didn’t appear to be a goal to their maneuvers. One bird would catch a draft of air and ride it, suspended, letting herself be taken by the wind. Then she’d pull out of it and fly toward another vulture and they’d circle together, drift apart. It looked like they were having fun. Were the vultures playing? Oh, vultures play, too!

Lots of animals do! Though hardly a kitten, my Stella cat certainly does. She’ll hide behind the bedroom curtain, wait for me to come in calling my familiar tune, “Oh, Stella, where are youououou?” She hides exactly like a young child would, not moving a muscle till she can stand it no longer! The American psychiatrist, Stuart Brown, said, “Play energizes us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens. It renews our natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities.” It’s a part of childhood; it’s a part of nature; and it’s an essential aspect of art-making. Studies have shown that children who play outside are healthier and happier. When we engage in play, we take ourselves less seriously and this allows us to arrive at ideas, images, stories, and conclusions, to ask questions we might hold ourselves back from otherwise.

The mind of a play gives us a chance to be foolish, to step outside of typical ways of being. In the way-way-olden-days it was the fool, the jester, who could tell the queens and kings what they wouldn’t listen to coming from their otherwise most esteemed advisors. The jester might walk in wearing bright colors and a pointy hat, bells on the tips of his shoes and tell the king, “Your people don’t want you to kill the dragon,” and the king might consider this and not say, “Off with his head,” because it was recognized that jester’s character had access to knowledge that the more serious folks didn’t. A pointy hat, anyone?

Here’s to a few jars of finger paint and a large sheet of unblemished paper or a pair of sharp scissors and a stack of magazines, possibly a recorder, a harmonica, a drum. See what happens. Might we play as the wind flutters? Or joust as two young elephants or a pair of wolf cubs? As the painter Richard Diebenkorn said in his “rules” for art-making, “Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion…Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for… Tolerate chaos.” Play is a time in which we tend to more easily tolerate chaos. How about we play with it?