I have an hour. Nothing is planned or needs to be accomplished.
hang the snowflakes I made for Christmas decorations and didn’t get around to doing anything with.
think some things through.
An hour is so little time when you are hungry, tired, wanting to hang your belated Christmas decorations and have a lot on your mind to sort out.
It reminds me of Winnicott, who was convinced that people developed mental illnesses because they did not play enough. (That’s an oversimplification, but bear with me.)
How can you think about playing when there is so much to do? When you are hungry, tired, and just getting through the day takes everything you have?
I realized that after four days of playing. I don’t play—I haven’t played—because I had so many other pressing priorities. I was so deadly serious. I had to be.
And it gives my life a certain perspective. I am not a boring person, nor am I deadly serious by temperament. My life has been deadly serious.
“Work first. Play later,” I tell my students—who always want to play before working. I worked first. First, the work was staying alive. After that, the work was planning a way out for myself, so that the future would not simply be a continuation of the unbearable present. Finally, the work was addressing the remnants of the trauma so that managing my life could become a bit easier.
The work was done—enough work, anyway. I could play. It wasn’t difficult, although my cult upbringing didn’t help. (Something about always being alert, being ready, never frittering away your time, but keeping your mind on higher things. There’s no room for play in that. I had to deal with the anxiety of that, of wasting time. It wasn’t so bad. It was there, but not unbearable.)
I thought I couldn’t play because of some kind of personal deficit, or because I was too afraid to relax enough to play. And that was part of it. But mainly there was just too much to do. How could I think about playing when I had memory gaps? When I had phobias I couldn’t understand? When I seemed to be several different people?
“Work first.” There was too much work–decades of it. The “later” took a very long time to come. But I think it did come. There is still work. But not so much that I can’t also play.
And play is important. Play is when you can try new things, experiment, open the door to the unexpected and see what walks in. It allows you to discover new information—either about yourself or about the world—and it brings you joy. It is also the only way you can ever create anything worth reading or looking at or listening to. If you can’t play, you can’t create.
I have missed out on that for forty years. No longer.
So maybe you want to know how I played. There’s nothing spectacular to tell you. I did not go bungee jumping. I did not paint any masterpieces. (That would have been work in any case.)
I did not do anything on my “bucket list.” That would have turned my play into work: play is not intended to be on a to-do list.
I walked the dog. I walked Uncle #2. I made snowflakes out of painted newspapers. I spent the day in pyjamas when I wasn’t sick. I played computer games. I played card games with Nandhini. I disrupted my routine. I left off ironing my clothes. I drank kokum soda (which I liked) and ate mysore masala dosa (which I didn’t like).
Play is a state of mind. It is not a specific activity or even a specific set of activities, and it is distinct from mere recreation. What characterizes play is not the task itself but an approach to the task: an attitude of openness, of “let’s see what will happen.”
If I take the dog for walks, will I be able to leash-train him? (Yes, I did.) Will I like it? (Yes, I do. So does the dog.)
If I teach Nandhini to play Uno, will she like it? (Yes, she did.) Will it be fun? (It was.)
If I order something new at Vaishali, will I like it better? (Yes and no. But I did learn something.)
You need recreation as well. But recreation need not be play. Recreation can be familiar, predictable, routine. It need not involve the unexpected, an experiment, or anything new. You can keep watching the same TV show, making the same splurges, having a coffee at the same place.
The two are different. I didn’t know that either. I learned that only from playing.