As I write this September post, August still surrounds me—a humming time. Cicadas drone during the day; katydids chirr after dark. And in the morning, if I move very quietly outside by the Rose-of-Sharons and hollyhocks, a hummingbird will eventually whip past me to dive in and out of the flowers for their nectar, treading air with rapid wings that make a wonderful whir.
My kids’ voices join the late-summer chorus, an under-the-breath murmuring as they add narratives to their play. In the basement, tense Star Wars crises accompany the Lego building. In the living room, plastic ponies, colorful and sweet-faced, argue viciously, make up, then go on journeys to the ocean of the couch or the desert of the coffee table.
But my house will sound empty soon.
School is around the corner. My kids dread it, the sitting for hours, the tests, tests, tests—math tests, social studies exams, spelling quizzes, the horrible looming specter of the state assessments, and the daily trials that come with human interactions. And then there’s homework, that hard-consonant-ending word, punitive and harsh. Oh, how they despise all homework—or think they do.
The fact is, even in the summer when they get to stay in their pjs all day, the kids are never not working. Their play is homework, just work of their own choosing. They’re building, defending, escaping, figuring out (with, significantly, figurines in hand) how to navigate rocky relationships, rehearsing bravery in times of trouble, and practicing independence with imagined travels—trips pointedly never chaperoned by adults.
Of course, the kids like that kind of homework. “That work is fun,” they’d tell me.
My work is fun, too. Over the last ten years, I’ve come to understand that when I’m writing, throwing a pot on the wheel in my studio, cooking, or digging in the flowerbeds—in other words, “working”—I’m really, for the most part, just playing. More recently, I’ve realized that these activities, from making a teapot to composing a story, though they look like unrelated industries, somehow feel the same. They affect me in similar fashions.
They invite me to burrow so deeply into my imagination that, paradoxically, I’m transported, plucked out of the present, removed from myself. In the case of writing, this loss of self-consciousness happens because I’m dwelling in the characters I’ve created. Take Molly Knack, for instance: a freshman in high school and the protagonist of my current project. Every morning by five o’clock, when I return to my work-in-progress, I share that girl’s joys, face her challenges, fear her fears. I become her. I might continue to think about Molly Knack as I cook and garden. Or I might not think at all. Sometimes mindlessness accompanies this transported state—this loss of self-awareness. Pottery definitely does this to me: puts me in that zoned-out zone.
These different activities also overlap in how they rob time of its time-iness. When I’m in the thick of a story—writing or reading it—or fully engaged in another creative activity, I don’t notice the minutes or even the hours flying by. Play exists outside of time, stretches murkily and deeply like a dream, covers a spell that is under a spell, the enchantment of eternity. We may not know we’re in the grips of play until we are made to quit…until someone appears and says, “Oh, my gosh, it’s eight o’clock. We have to go.” What a lovely feeling, losing track of time, existing apart from everyone and everything, being a universe unto oneself. The first stage of throwing a pot—centering—captures this out-of-time quality: it involves bringing the mound so perfectly to the middle of the wheel-head that the spinning clay takes on a startling quality of stillness. A frozen lull in a frantic storm. Static, electric. Controlled but not trapped. Not merely bound. Spellbound.
My favorite activities also share a quality of solitariness that is anything but lonely. While my family sleeps, I sit by myself in the office, during the early-morning quiet, and type away. But I’m not alone. For that period of time, I exist in the world of my characters. Writing, as a whole, is a private endeavor with a very public intention. Writers long for readers. We want to share our stories, entertain, connect. My other hobbies follow a similar inward to outward trajectory. I like to make pots with people in mind, grow flowers so I can pick bouquets to give away, and cook meals that satisfy my family’s and friends’ cravings. These activities that start with me by myself eventually bring me closer to others, give me ways to show gratitude, become vehicles for love.
Finally, every single one of these activities makes me happy. Not that there aren’t bad days—gloomy, uninspired, just-staring-at-the-computer-screen days; hectic, only-making-this-set-of-bowls-because-I-need-the-money days. But usually, when things click and the work, well…works, I’m filled with joy.
I hope my kids find ways to be happy at school this year. I hope they have earnest, sometimes-silly, nurturing, wise teachers. I hope my children make good friends. I hope school doesn’t become an antonym for play. I hope they don’t plod through their lessons afraid, stressed, overwhelmed, wondering anxiously, Will this be on the test? Will I pass the test?
I hope they just do their best and believe me when I tell them that education isn’t—and shouldn’t be—about tests. It’s about learning: growing the mind, staying curious, fueling the imagination, widening notions of what is acceptable, questioning their understanding of what is normal and conceivable, embracing differences, celebrating similarities, remembering to grow gratitude in the heart, expressing that gratitude in words and deeds, and trying. Trying to be kind. Trying to try, to experiment, to not give up.
Learning is the ultimate play. And I hope at least some of their school hours feel like play. Like joy.