As I was out walking this morning, I contemplated what I assumed to know about play. The sun had just risen. It was a fresh clear day.
As an aside, waking up with the Sunrise is a tough practice at first. At the same time, I’ve found that this is my sweet spot. Any later and I feel the day has gone by too much for it to matter when I get up. A feeling I hate. Any earlier, and I feel like I’m about to catch a cheap flight too far away for me to care about. So as I said, 5am is the sweet spot. My experience of waking up is then characterised by space and freedom. Tempered with my disciplines, prayer, meditation and writing etc., brings with it a sense of fulfillment that spreads out across my day. Making hay, you might call it. I eat my breakfast and marvel at the veins in walnuts; the phytochemicals which pigment the blueberry, the sugary crystalline structure of a banana. The thought of how we farm and are farmed by our food strikes me.
Strangely I couldn’t find my trainers. That was odd. A reminder that I am not always present – I forget things – I put on my boots trundled out anyways.
Contemplating the virtue of Play, or the Play Drive, or whatever you want to call it, I don’t mind. I mean, hey, some might not think of play as a virtue or a drive. ‘Too childish’, they might say, ‘it lacks application’. And perhaps they are right. After all, what do I know about play? What do I know about anything?
But, I have decided that throughout my time here on this planet I am here to be educated. Lessoned in reality. Taught right. In honesty, despite what I wrote yesterday, play is a mystery to me. I keep asking myself walking the path winding through hornbeams and beech trees and the restless blue tits: ‘What’s this game about? Is it a game at all? What is it to play?’ Richard Feynman suggests in his lectures on The Character of Physical Law that perhaps the rules of the Universe are akin to a huge game of chess. Except that the board is just so large and deep we haven’t figured out where or what most of it is yet. So by analogy, birdsong is to reckon as – a move; a play – in the mysterious game of being a bird. To take a different view of the same phenomenon, my father, along with a rather senior monk at the illustrious Amaravati Monastery (whom I won’t name), are both fond of the idea that birdsong is a purely territorial function. I recall, after I gestured to the birds and remarked on the beautiful sounds they, he said ‘No, no, you see, this is where you’re wrong – what they are actually articulating is: Fuck off out of my mating zone.’ As I grow older I appreciate my fathers turn of phrase more and more. It’s dramatic in a way a monks is often not and he usually screws his face hard and forward as he says this. The effect is pretty funny. So blunt and unequivocal. On the other hand, the Adjan, or monk, was more gentle, but still held up birdsong as an act of territorial posture: imbuing it with a sense of a menace and hostility.
Now, maybe what they say is true. Perhaps I am ignorant. What framework can we use to figure out the truth? Firstly, we would need to observe. Or perhaps someone already has and we could read scientific papers and journals, instead of sitting and observing the birds for a long time, meticulously plotting their motions and speculating at the cause and patterns in their behaviours – as Tycho Brahe did with the stars.
Tycho was a rich man, he had lots of time. Astronomy for him was play. He had so much time and money that he had large concentric brass rings installed on an island he owned. And then sat there night after night recording the motions of the heavens. Many a rich man might think this madness. But it’s the same as round after round of golf, no? And the result was the raw data, the almanac, with which Kepler derived his laws, and from which Newton formulated calculus and the Law of Gravity, which then led Einstein to conceive General Relativity and so on…
But what I am getting at is the same everywhere, these laws are always descriptions of how, and never why. And most of our profound knowledge seems to come from repeating seemingly crazy or pointless activities. Why look and measure the stars? But it’s activities such as this which give us the grounds to understand the fabric of reality itself. And leads to profound questions, such as why did atoms form together in the first place? Why do fundamental laws operate in the first place? What game are they at? Where is the reason that drives them? Is it the buzz, the sheer joy? Is it beyond our knowing? Is something playing with us?
Why am I telling you this? What does it have to do with your time on Earth in the first place? Well, if I’m honest I’m not certain. I guess I was merely playing with what came to me sitting down to write on this lovely May morning of the year two thousand and seventeen. And I am glad that line about Tycho got me out of having to watch birds for the rest of my life, or research scientific papers and argue the toss about birdsong. As much as birdsong brings me joy. And in the end, how different is it from homosapiens with their walls and houses?
Has play always a purpose? Does it accrue by serendipity of trial and error into knowledge? Let’s examine this body of writing I’ve created here, playing. Did it add to your sense of majesty and wonder about the universe and humankind? I hope so. But I don’t know so. Though deep down we must recognise that play and requisite variety form essential features of life’s relationship with creation and entropy.
I would like us to consider for a moment this poem:
When I die, they will put my body in a box
And dispose of it in the cold ground.
And in all the million ages to come,
I will never breathe or laugh or twitch again.
The Universe has given us this moment.
So won’t you run and play with me awhile amongst
The teeming mass of our humanity?
This poem is from the seminal, far-seeing and inspired – Alpha Centauri by Firaxis. Revisit that line again:
When I die, they will put me in a box…
and I will never breath or laugh or twitch again….
Visceral. Never twitch again. That line always gets me. I reread this poem more now that I am considering play for this week. It reminds me that we are all, essentially, naked to the power of death. Clothes, homes, cars, titles, all this protection we wear as a strong physiological armor, but it cannot keep out death. Death permeates reality. It’s just beyond the moment, every day, everywhere. And that thought reminds me that our time is limited. It’s precious.
And in all the million ages to come
This line. While your atoms may form again into a new life or a million new lives, you will never be as you are again. An eternity is a long time my friend. Are you playing much these days?
So won’t you run and play with me awhile amongst
The teeming mass of our humanity?
What a request… How could I say no?
When you contemplate death, life and it’s finite nature, with any kind of honesty, much of who you think you are, or ought to be, or where you ought to be, has a tendency to fall away. So allow me to play awhile with you now and indulge in a reading of poetry.
The vulnerability of this poem always struck me. Something about it used to turn me off. I imagine someone reaching out to me with open hands. And, judge this part for yourselves, I am always wearing a suit. However, as time goes on in my life and I study the world around me, observe the children play out the puzzles here, or lead them climbing on the wall. Or when I watch, or interact with a team myself, I realise more and more, that skillful vulnerability is what keeps our kind from killing each other. Without it we simply bicker and squabble. It’s a necessary mechanism of bonding, mutuality and trust. And without trust, nothing productive or good gets done.
Now what of play and vulnerability? How does all this come full circle?
Well, I’m not sure at this stage. But I believe that within play is an inescapable risk, and definitive vulnerability. And I’ll say that what I’m learning about today play is that I don’t know enough about it.
As a child, I would play with lego endlessly. Endlessly creating narratives of space arks, inspired by Gundam Wing, Star Wars and all manner of epic sagas. And these still inspire me. I don’t watch the news, for example. I take the long view on world events, if I get caught up in a great crisis, I know whose side I’m on, I don’t need any colours for that. Yet as a child alive in an adult realm I am training myself to took out to adventure and human in each experience of time: sometimes with friends; often alone.
‘Our nature is in what will play with as a child. Search for the patterns,’ a voice commands.
It is the same with art:
Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
– Pablo Picasso
As I’ve discovered today I know so little about play, I will hold here some questions. As the present and the future offer itself to us both. To my own imagination, I ask; what will you do? What will you create? What do fully absorbs you with a sense of wonder and fascination?
And remember to friends, to play awhile, for a while life is all you truly have, being able to play is not a given.