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.

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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. 

An Excerpt from Playdates with God

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I’m excited to share an excerpt of my book, Playdates with God: Having a Childlike Faith in a Grown-up World at Cherished Magazine this month. Below are the first couple paragraphs of one of my favorite stories from the book, the trampoline story. If you’d like to read the rest, click this link to sign up for a free subscription to January’s entire issue. All you have to do is enter the coupon code “LAURAGIFT” in the registration form.

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It all started with the trampoline.

The day was white with February dawning and I stepped out into it—thick wet flakes falling one by one from a thin gray heaven and pooling on my skin, wetting my hair and making me blink. It was the in-between time, with the holidays well behind us and spring still six weeks away.

Walking in the snow has always been cause for celebration, but this day? Winter was tired. Icy fingers stroked my bones and when the season’s melancholy seemed to reach its deepest ebb…I heard them. Children’s voices calling through the snow. Their laughter echoed—sliding between those big wet flakes through the neighborhood streets until it found a home in my waiting ear. I followed the echo through the yard, across the street, and found its source at the house behind. I peeked. Two boys—soaked to their skin, jumping on a trampoline. As I watched those boys frolic and giggle and slide onto their backs on that trampoline in the snow, something moved inside of me.

To read the rest, click here and enter the coupon code “LAURAGIFT” when you register for your free issue of Cherished Magazine.

Playdates with God: Spirited Away

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I drove six hours on Friday to meet my friend Kelly and help lead a retreat she planned in her community. We would be meditating on and exploring this idea of coming to God as a little child, but I really had no idea what God had in store for us—for me.

The weekend was a living, breathing object lesson, as I moved back and forth between the grown-up world and the world with Kelly’s four children. It’s been a long time since my boys were small and God was reminding me how beautiful and messy life is when young ones are around. But also, he reminded me how different children are from one another and how the good parent recognizes this and foster’s each child’s individual gifts. So many times during the course of the weekend I felt like an observer, watching as Kelly and her husband did the hard work of parenting with grace. These moments (of feeling like an observer) didn’t last long, though, because the twins (who are four) were constantly courting me, excited about the new playmate in their house. I think my favorite moment was standing in a little closet in the dark with Kelly, Isaiah, Levi, and Solomon so we could see the glow-in-the-dark pieces on the puzzle I brought for the kids. That is, until right after when Solomon fell down the stairs and the house was filled with his pain-filled cries. He gave us a scare but it all turned out ok.

It was a gift to stand on the outside looking in, to notice how—with children—each moment is full and alive. The young ones have no trouble staying in the present, getting the most out of the right-here-right-now.

At the retreat, we talked about how play is part of God’s design for us—how our bodies and our brains work better when we have a rich play life. The women who came shared their beautiful hearts so openly; I was honored by their trust. Once again, I was struck by how unique we all are, how God longs to honor the qualities in each one of us that make us who we are. The ways that we play, the ways that we meet with God—these are as varied as our fingerprints. And that’s ok. One thing we discovered is that as grown women, we often feel guilty about playing. We seek permission, excuses, reasons to play. But when we make play a regular part of our life, our hearts are fed and we are able to live as those invited to the feast. Everyone around us benefits.

There were so many beautiful moments this weekend. I met some new sisters and felt embraced and cared for. I’m still processing all the ways God spoke. I hope to share more soon. For now, I feel like Philip, after he baptized the Ethiopian eunuch. Remember? The scripture says, “When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.” Philip reappeared in a place called Azotus. I have no idea how far Azotus is from where Philip met the Ethiopian eunuch, but I wonder if it might be about a six-hour drive.

Every Monday I share one of my Playdates with God. I would love to hear about yours. It can be anything: outside, quiet time. Maybe it’s solitary. Maybe it’s loud and crowded. Just find God and know joy. Click on the button below to add your link. I try to visit a few of your stories every week, so if you are a new visitor, be sure to let me know in the comments so I can welcome you. Grab my button at the bottom of the page and join us.

Laura Boggess

Playdates with God: Like a Child

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As we say goodbye to summer and step into fall, I am also saying goodbye to my role as editor for The High Calling. I’ve decided to share some of the posts I wrote over there as a way through this long goodbye. This post was edited by Ann Kroeker and was part of the theme The Work of Play and really is a tiny glimpse of the ideas in my book. I hope you enjoy it.

When I was small, I would run as fast as I could with arms outstretched, letting the wind collect under makeshift wings. I was an airplane, a bird, or a dragon, flying over vast kingdoms. When the moon peeked through the dark at night, these wings would take me from my bed up into the sky, through stardust and past fiery comets—the curtains of the heavens opening wide to receive me. And I would meet with God—fly straight into his arms and let him rock me to sleep in his great lap.

As I grew up, I learned the limits of our natural world. The world grew smaller, and God seemed light years away. I came to understood that faith is being certain of what we do not see (Heb. 11:1), and my childhood nighttime meetings with an unseen God faded to a sweet memory. More and more, my knowledge increased and my faith grew; yet, more and more, I longed for that close communion of long ago.

A few years ago, I went walking with my two young sons on a snowy evening. I remember how they ran ahead, lost in the tumbling play that only brothers know, leaving me in a wake of laughter. I stood alone under that white sky and looked up. Was it true that I once flew through these same heavens; cheeks flushed and eyes pools of starlight?

When did I stop believing that with God all things are possible? Or, rather, when did my imagination become so small that I stopped expecting the seemingly impossible? When did my feet become so rooted to the crust of the earth that I let gravity weigh down my idea of who God is?

It could have been when I turned seven or eight years old. At least, that’s what Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development would suggest. He claimed that the preoperational stage of thinking, which spans approximately ages 2-7, is characterized by the development of symbolic thinking, memory and imagination—all of which allow engagement in rich make-believe play.

This thinking, based on intuition instead of logic, makes it difficult to grasp cause and effect, time, and comparison. Experts view this as a limitation, but my dictionary defines intuition as an insight into truth that is not perceived by the conscious mind. That sounds to me like the place where the Holy Spirit touches my consciousness—steering me this way or that. The world may view that as a limitation, but I wonder…

When our brains reach that stage when they are capable of logic, do the wonder structures in our brains have to shrink to make room? If so, how can we expand them again? How can we grown-ups, long past Piaget’s preoperational stage, recover the wild joy of wonder? How can I revisit that place where the Holy Spirit begins to touch my conscious and steer me again, offering his intuition and insight?

Jesus tells us in Matthew 18 that unless we become like little children we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, he said. What might that look like? How do I come to Jesus like a child?

One answer came that cold day in February—lifted with laughter on the snow.

Play.

But what would play look like in my grown-up world? In his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Dr. Stuart Brown says when we engage in true play, our sense of self-consciousness diminishes and we lose track of time. Play allows us to live fully in each moment.

I start to practice play, losing myself completely standing at the window, watching a goldfinch peel a sunflower seed. Hours spent pulling weeds in the vegetable garden pass like seconds—the scent of the tomato plant leaves intoxicates. And when the sun shines on water, leaving a rosy trail behind her, I’m drawn into the passage of light through water.

Play reminds me how it feels to be a child—innocent, everything new. God is inviting me to play each time he points my heart to beauty.

That evening in the snow, my sons’ laughter echoing through the streets, I felt the internal prompting. I felt the invitation. Once again, I lifted my arms up to my sides—stretched out my wings. This forty-ish mama let herself glide in circles, let the wind collect under makeshift wings.

And I flew. Straight into the arms of God.

This post originally appeared at The High Calling and is reprinted here under a Creative Commons license.

Every Monday I share one of my Playdates with God. I would love to hear about yours. It can be anything: outside, quiet time. Maybe it’s solitary. Maybe it’s loud and crowded. Just find God and know joy. Click on the button below to add your link. I try to visit a few of your stories every week, so if you are a new visitor, be sure to let me know in the comments so I can welcome you. Grab my button at the bottom of the page and join us.

Laura Boggess

Playdates with God: Bread of Life

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My mother always told me I am an old soul.

“You were always so serious,” she says. “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.

So maybe it’s not so strange that my first memory is that of hunger. I was three years old, watching mother try to feed four children with flour and water and a loaf of homemade bread. It was all she had. I still remember the acrid smell of scorched flour that permeated the kitchen as she made a pasty gravy to bind pieces of bread to our stomachs, glue to hold down the hunger pangs.

The hunger remained like a soft ache when the bread was gone. All these years later, after two children of my own and a life well lived into, the hunger still remains. It seems I carry a yearning with me always.  The hunger keeps me serious, keeps me tethered to the old soul inside of me.

But this hunger that I was founded upon? When it stirs deep within me? It also keeps me tethered to Jesus. This season of new life—living into Easter—it reminds me that he is the Bread of Life.

We go to Jesus to be fed. To the Bread of Life, to the Christ; isn’t this where I must let my yearning lead me? Do I dare to embrace this hunger as invitation? And when I trust the Bread of Life to feed me, do I trust enough to let go of worry about that gaping hole inside of me? Do I trust enough to make room for joy?

Jesus tells us that unless we come to him like a little child we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. For me, that means letting go of the way I have always been, letting my old soul become unfettered and free. It means inviting play into my time with God. My grown-up play looks different than the play I engaged in as a child. Some days I invite God to come with me to an art museum, or a concert, a hike in a local state forest. Some days, we simply sit together and read. But I have resolved to make this a regular practice: once a week, I plan a playdate with God.

And the years are beginning to peel back as this old soul learns what it means to have the faith of a child.

My playdates with God? They have become a way to set the table and feed this hunger inside of me. This the only way that hunger can fill. When I let it awaken me to the moments of completeness in this aching, yearning world—to the joy of Christ breaking into this life again and again.

This is how hunger feeds. This is how hunger makes a very good beginning.

Every Monday I share one of my Playdates with God. I would love to hear about yours. It can be anything: outside, quiet time. Maybe it’s solitary. Maybe it’s loud and crowded. Just find God and know joy. I try to visit a few of your stories every week, so if you are a new visitor, be sure to let me know in the comments so I can welcome you. Grab my button at the bottom of the page and join us.We are trying a new linky widget, friends. I pray this one might eliminate unwanted links. Again, please forgive me for last week’s extra visitors.

Laura Boggess