William D. Waltz

from Free Play and the Last Sacred Act

Last summer my mother boxed up two rubber astronauts, their all-terrain moon buggy, my matching space helmet complete with amber goggles, flashing lights, and siren, Hot Wheels by the score, platoons of army men, balls of all colors and sizes, mitts, gloves, jump ropes, the die I tossed before and after catechism, odd rocks, arrowheads, baseball cards, a Viewmaster, and a train set—the miscellaneous debris of childhood that had somehow managed to occupy my room for all these years. My parents stuffed their trunk and headed this way. Twelve hours later, if there was any doubt, my childhood was officially over.

Shortly after they left, I unpacked the cardboard boxes and examined the contents, item by item, wiping off decades of dust with a rag. Each ball a relic uncovered from a tomb, every toy an artifact of an ancient civilization that was me. There wasn’t a metal car that didn’t possess a memory, a feeling, or even a personality accumulated over hours of play. I cleared off the kitchen table and set up a figure-eight, got the engine running, smoke gurgling out the stack and stationed the army men and the miniature cars around the infield. A stunning display, destined to impede the progress of everyday life, at least temporarily.

This childhood diorama delighted me as it would have years ago, when my life was all about play. I played hard; we play hard. By sheer willpower, an unordinary state of mind is conjured. This other state of mind invents words, languages, worlds. Not coincidentally the state of deep concentration generated by the play-mind is akin to the state of mind visited by artists while immersed in work or by anyone lucky enough to drift into creative reverie. The state where time passes unnoticed across the room like a shadow.

All across the country in clinics scattered amongst stripmalls, hundreds of workshops churn away. The enrollees hope to re-learn play, hope to tap back into this source of inspiration and joy. Only in a society obsessed with the efficient use of time can such an ability be lost. Play by definition is not practical and serves no immediate material purpose—yet it is quite necessary for the survival of the individual and the species. Play is not merely the opposite of work, for all work contains aspects of play and all play incorporates elements of solemnity, even sacredness. It’s this melange of purposes that makes play such an influence on human development, such an exquisite ritual.

Surely all young mammals galumph about, and surely this testifies to the existence of some wellspring of purity, some commonality between us. This condition known as play pre-dates humanity, placing it at the very foundation of culture. Without play-mind, our very evolution would be impossible. Within play’s magic circle, the arbitrary rules of ordinary life are amended, subverted, and suspended, and through this inefficient process the innovations that change our ordinary lives are developed.

A week ago Wednesday I tramped through the black March snow to the bowling alley. Midday, midweek, I expected the place to be desolate, but the VFW Men’s League occupied all but four lanes. The sight of such a cast of characters, men my father’s age, in various states of health, limp and shuffle, playing for no good reason at all made me smile. We were a pack of clumsy puppies, scrambling toward joy. Within the circle of play, all are invigorated and made divine, again and again.