Happy Ending: There’s A Story Behind All Good Play

I’ll never forget how they came raffishly crashing out of the woods—bits of sticks and leaves poking out of their hair. My sister all wild-eyed and flushed. My little brother trailing dutifully behind.

“We found a man!” Chris said, eyes darting from my face to the hills behind me as if said man would appear at any moment.

“What?” I asked, not fully understanding. I had only just come outside, curious as to what my siblings were up to. My stomach twisted in disappointment at the thought of missing out on their obvious adventure. These were the things lost to me when I spent my mornings with my nose buried in a book.

My sister and brother proceeded to tell about an old hermit they stumbled upon in the woods. He lived in a giant oak tree just beyond the border of the woods, they said. Chris had talked to him for a while and the man told her his name was Hermrette. He said he didn’t much care for people; that’s why he lived in the woods—trying to get away from the prying eyes of others.

“What did he look like?” I asked her.

He was old, she said. With a long white beard. An image of Rip Van Wrinkle floated around in my mind. “Did you talk to him?” I asked my little brother. Benji suddenly looked shifty. “I just saw a little bit of him,” he said, avoiding my eyes. “I was across the creek when Chris found him.”

“But you saw him, right?” My sister prodded.

“Yeah, I think so,” Benji responded, smiling convincingly at both of his big sisters.

We were in elementary school when this grand adventure unfolded, the precise ages now fuzzy in my mind. But we’re all two years apart, so it’s likely we were five, seven, and nine. Or maybe six, eight, and ten. Who knows? We were young enough to practice expansion of belief—to open our minds wide enough to allow the possibility of the story to take root in our hearts. The story is the thing that sticks. We had our very own wood hermit, and though none of the rest of us ever saw him, he was as real to us as the trees. Many follow-up expeditions ensued, with my sister trying to retrace her steps back to Hermrette’s tree-house.

We never found him again, of course, and our young minds surmised he had moved on to another tree—chagrined at being discovered. To this day my siblings and I smile in warm remembrance of that elusive recluse.

::

When I was young I found my greatest adventures in books. I couldn’t string two words together without tripping over them in conversation, but I grew up hiding behind the words of others. Tucked under the pages of books, I felt safe. Maybe this was one reason why—when I was 12 and my parents divorced— for a little while I carried my Bible with me everywhere I went. My world was falling apart, but I would cling to this: the One Thing I knew would not change. It was the first time I would read those words cover to cover—not understanding much of them, but clinging, breathing in their life. They were real. Concrete. Stories to live by.

Children know intuitively that stories help us make sense of the world. Stories have a way of opening us up to deeper truths hidden in our experiences. Children always weave a narrative around their play—whether inner or outer. It might be the tale of a wood hermit, or the girl who wants to be known as the fastest bicyclist ever, or the boy who finally scores more points than his big brother. Children use stories to name themselves; they use stories to learn about their world—to work through complex questions that are so deeply buried in their unconscious they cannot articulate them.

Isn’t this still true in our grown-up lives? Don’t we still weave our living around stories? It’s the running dialogue in our heads, the words that lead the moving toward the big goal, the idea of the happily ever after…We live out the stories we tell ourselves. This is what I tell my patients every day I see them: It matters what we say to ourselves. My field of psychology has a technique called cognitive restructuring in which we teach people to identify maladaptive thoughts and restructure them into more beneficial ones. We teach them to rewrite their internal narrative—their story.

Why is that internal narrative so important?

In an article called The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains, Leo Widrich says, “A story can put our whole brain to work.” He says:

If we listen to a powerpoint presentation with boring bullet points, a certain part in the brain gets activated. Scientists call this Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And that’s it, nothing else happens.

But when a story is added, everything changes.

“Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.” (Widrich, 2012)

Chip and Dan Heath, those writing-partner brothers, call this “a kind of geographic simulation of the stories we hear.”

[W]e cannot simply visualize the story on a movie screen in our heads; we must somehow simulate it, complete with some analogue (however loose) to the spatial relationships described in the story … studies suggest there’s no such thing as a passive audience. When we hear a story, our minds move from room to room. When we hear a story, we simulate it … (Heath, 2008)

This simulation in our minds gets us ready for action. When more of our brain is drawn into the story, it reaches beyond an intellectual level…it reaches the heart. If you feel skeptical as you read this, go spend some time with the kids. The unselfconscious way they immerse themselves in pretend play will open your eyes. Stories have a way of engaging the whole self.

This reminds me of an ancient Jewish teaching story that I read in Annette Simmons’ book The Story Factor. It goes like this:

Truth, naked and cold, had been turned away from every door in the village. Her nakedness frightened the people. When Parable found her she was huddled in a corner, shivering and hungry. Taking pity on her, Parable gathered her up and took her home. There, she dressed Truth in story, warmed her and sent her out again. Clothed in story, Truth knocked again at the villagers’ doors and was readily welcomed into the people’s houses. They invited her to eat at their table and warm herself by their fire. (Simmons, 2001)

Story is a thin place. Writer Mary DeMuth says this about such a place:

The Celts define a thin place as a place where heaven and the physical world collide, one of those serendipitous territories where eternity and the mundane meet. Thin describes the membrane between the two worlds, like a piece of vellum, where we see a holy glimpse of the eternal—not in digital clarity, but clear enough to discern what lies beyond. (DeMuth, 2010)

When we hear a good story—one that reveals Truth with a capital “T”, the holy comes close. You’ve felt that, haven’t you? After reading a good book, seeing a movie that makes you cry, or watching someone you know live a courageous story. It touches a place deep inside. And God is there.

 

The above is a modified excerpt from my book, Playdates with God: Having a Childlike Faith in a Grown-up World, copyright 2014. Used with permission from Leafwood Publishers, an imprint of Abilene Christian University Press. All rights reserved. In the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some thoughts on play and featuring excerpts from my book in honor of Play it Forward, the workshop Laura Brown and I will be teaching this spring and summer. If you want to rev up your creative life, play is one tool that works! Read more about our workshop here, and feel free to ask me any questions you might have. 

Garden Notes: Rough Drafts

Every spring when time comes to weed my flower beds, the good work of it nearly kills me. And every spring, in response to my complaints about the honest work of garden tending, my husband threatens to sow grass over all my lovely blooms. I believe him just enough to find the inner fortitude required to finish the job.

I have stirred ant armies, awakened the curled grub in her buried bed, inadvertently found the source of the poison ivy, and pried the roots of wild violets from beneath my butterfly bush. Yesterday, I killed a Black Widow spider I found clinging to a daylily stalk. Every year, after bug bites, skin rashes, suffering amazingly obscure aches and pains, and consuming copious amounts of ibuprofen, I survey the work of my hands and dream a better way. I imagine planting miraculous ground covers to choke out the weeds, eye-catching perennials that require little attention, or even evergreens to lend a simpler style. Trouble is, I usually only get around to implementing a small portion of these dream-plantings, and they never quite work out as I hoped.  Come the next spring, things are a little better, but—you guessed it—I’m still on my hands and knees far longer than this aging body should be.

But when the blooms unfold one-by-one and the garden becomes a thing of beauty? I know all that time and diligence and love for the soil was worth it.

I try to fertilize the garden of my writing through careful reading and recently, I read this:

 As you start out in rough drafts, writing down stories as clearly as you can, there begins to burble up onto the page what’s exclusively yours both as a writer and a human being. If you trust the truth enough to keep unveiling yourself on the page—no matter how shameful those revelations may as first seem—the book will naturally structure itself to maximize what you’re best at. You’re best at it because it sits at the core of your passions.” ~Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir

Certain things can immobilize me in an instant: a glimpse of a red-bellied woodpecker on the trunk of my Maple tree, sunlight rippling on water, a solitary cloud rolling across crystal blue, and a phrase that ambushes me with apt precision.

Mary Karr’s words seemed to breathe a deep exhale in my soul: “…there begins to burble up on the page what’s exclusively yours both as a writer and as a human being.”

Those words, stark and black against the white of the page, fell heavy over me and I realized how life mirrors this statement. With each passing year we hammer out rough drafts of this life we craft—meticulously honing in on what is best to keep and what must be cast aside, letting what is “exclusively” ours “burple up” from the moments. And just as my garden takes shape over the long stretch of years, none of these seasons we sift through are ever perfected—it’s a constantly shifting landscape. But if we are true to the draft-writing—or draft living, in this case—we keep what is best and let go of the rest. The next season may be a little better for the pruning, but chances are, it will still have its fair share of  bending and tending to  push through.

I’ve never written a memoir, though the world of blogging bestows plenty of opportunity to offer up bits of my life for the perusal of others. This kind of voyeurism can leave one feeling vulnerable and small at times. Isn’t each life worthy of memoir? When we live through each the days, don’t the moments tell a story? What if I could think of each season of life as a rough draft, trusting in the truth enough to keep unveiling myself, to keep growing and learning and reaching for more? Letting time and diligence and love shape something that becomes more beautiful with each passing year.

Play it Forward: A Workshop to Improve Your Writing through Play

Mama always said I was an old soul.

“You were always so serious,” she said. “Even when you were a baby.”

When I was six months old her mother—my maternal grandmother—was diagnosed with breast cancer. And she had to wean me from her breast for the struggle of it—the hard work of balancing the care of a newborn and that of her dying mother.

This is the world I was born to: one of hunger, poverty, addiction, complicated parent-love. Play was always a serious business for little girl me. I went inside the world of imagination to escape the reality of life. It was a solitary task, a quiet thing. Something in my makeup resisted the kind of play lived out loud.

It’s taken me almost fifty years to understand that this is okay. Yes, this is okay, but there is so much more to play. And I have only just begun.

Play looks different for different kinds of people. When we understand this and accept this, it opens us to new ways. New ways of playing, new ways of seeing, new avenues of creativity, new ways of being.

Play is a powerful thing.

Will you come along on a play journey with me? Sometimes these things are best undertaken with a guide. How about two guides? My friend (and fellow writer) Laura Brown and I are embarking upon an exploration of all things play. Over the course of eight or twelve weeks (you choose), we will lead an adventurous few through an odyssey of play—sampling different ways of play that might enliven our creative lives, enrich our writing and hopefully, add beauty to our everyday living.

Read more about it over at TSPoetry. It’s going to be a grand adventure. It may be just the thing to breathe new life into your writing practice. It may be just the thing to awaken the old soul in you to a fresh view of this tired world. After all, writing is a form of play—a way of seeing. To write well requires opening the eyes in new and different ways. We’re going to have so much fun finding playful ways to achieve this.

Photo by Samuel David Rinehart, Creative Commons, via Flickr.

Witness: Why It’s Okay To Go Wild

 

On the way home from work I stop at the florist to pick up a bouquet. I cradle the damp tissue paper in my arms gently, like the precious thing it is, and hold it in my lap all the way home. The table needs some color, my heart needs to hold a piece of spring. Lately, I only want to be outside—to breathe in all that sighs and groans. I want to wake with the sun and sleep under the stars, dew and scent of lilac on my skin. Somewhere, deep in the woods, the doe beds down on a moss-covered thicket; the wood thrush sings her flutelike song. Do such things require a witness?

We made it through another “first” on Sunday. There was an empty chair at our table and love scootched in to fill the gap. Easter is all about the resurrection and I looked around at the people I love and was astonished at how life rises out of ashes. Wild. That’s how this makes me feel. Like I want to thrash out and rip and bite at the neatness of it all, to yell and scream and let the world know it’s not okay. It’s not okay to keep going as if everything is the same. I feel angry. Angry at the doctors who failed us in so many ways; angry at myself for missing too many moments; angry at this broken, fallen world because of the sting of death. I know this is not the way of grace but grief must have its own way.

It has not yet been a year since Ted passed away and I feel like I’m still waking up to his absence.

After Easter dinner was over and the family had all gone home and the dishes were still in the sink—after all that, we sat out on the deck and let birdsong soothe away the noise of an empty house. There were just the three of us, Teddy couldn’t come home this year—the first time ever in his twenty years he didn’t open his eyes on Easter morning under our roof. Jeffrey sat with his mom and dad and shared an Easter memory, a memory of sitting with his Papa in the living room while everyone else picked at dessert and sipped coffee in the dining room. “Papa was my refuge,” he said. And he smiled a little when he said it and it made my heart cry a little.

On Easter we remember, one day things will be different. This isn’t how it is supposed to be. The stone in our own hearts will be rolled away and grief will turn to joy. And all that wild inside me will bloom and go to seed and blow with the wind and color our world with love. One day.

I found a vase for the flowers. It’s a simple clear glass—leftover from some Valentine’s roses or Mother’s Day arrangement or some other celebration. And why not? Isn’t this a celebration too? Jesus doesn’t want us to wait for one day. He left the throne and entered our world—entered all this brokenness, all this mess. He is wild with love for us, wild unto death, wild unto defeating death. Wild. For me. For you.

He stands right beside us, he holds us in his arms and he whispers, You go wild, girl. You’re not too much for me.

This is the beauty of an Easter people: how we can feel joy and sorrow at the same time. How we hold onto a promise and feel a hope inside of us. How the wild in this world can be a thing of beauty—a stand that says, I know it isn’t supposed to be this way.

I think of all these things as I trim the stems of daisies and asters—white petals trailing in my wake. I dip the stems in the watered vase and shift around yellows and blues a little bit. Every little moment requires a witness. I cradle the memories in my mind gently, like the precious things they are.

Holy Saturday: Shadows

Last night we watched The Passion of the Christ and I cried and cried. It was a good thing to do on Good Friday—a hard thing, but good. All day I carried the passion inside of me. Our church does not hold a Good Friday vigil, but the readings from our Maundy Thursday service were still fresh in my mind. We observed a Tenebrae service, as is the tradition during the latter parts of Holy Week. Tenebrae is Latin for shadows, and during the readings and singing of the Psalms, the light is gradually extinguished in the sanctuary. We leave the church in silence and darkness, contemplating. Shadows.

Lent has a way of casting my shadow-self in clear relief. I am aware of all the ways I have failed in my promises to our Lord, all the ways my fickle heart betrays. In Jungian psychology, to truly know yourself, you must not only become acquainted with the shadow-self, you must accept it as a part of the whole of you. Understanding your shadow-self will help you understand and love the shadows in others.

So there is this: admitting my failures allows me to more completely love. As I ponder Christ’s last days, last moments, last breath … I am aware of the many falsehoods in my life that lead me to live in the shadow realm. There is nothing more true than a love that leads to sacrifice, and yet, so many days I resist giving up my own will.

I cannot stop thinking of his body behind the stone. And yet I know the stone will be rolled away.

The whole of life feels like the waiting. Sealed in this tomb, locked in darkness. Light is the stuff of legends, flits across the mind the way a bird lights on a tree limb. Scripture tells us, “For all creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” (Romans 8:19) I feel the sharp intake of breath, the stiffening of awaited release.

Resurrection Day is the already-here-but-yet-to-come day; the day we search our hearts for every bit of light that is hope. The work of the cross is done but still working within us.

If the God who revealed life to us, and whose only desire is to bring us to life, loved us so much that he wanted to experience with us the total absurdity of death, then—yes, then there must be hope; then there must be something more than death; then there must be a promise that is not fulfilled inour short existence in this world; then leaving behind the ones you love, the flowers and the trees, the mountains and the oceans, the beauty of art and music, and all the exuberant gifts of life cannot be just the destruction and cruel end of all things; then indeed we have to wait for the third day.”~ Henri Nouwen

There must be hope. Even among the shadows. Especially there. And so we wait.