I am at the dog park with Maisie and we are waiting for her friend Buttons to arrive. Or more accurately, I am waiting for Buttons to arrive. Maisie is taking turns barking first at Cash, a Border Collie considerably bigger than she is but not quite as fast, and a Shih Tzu-Yorkie (a Yorkzu? a Shihtzie?) named Kiwi who is about her size but does not share her love of vocalizing. Maisie, of course, is the only one barking. Will, our trainer, gently let me know a few weeks ago that, yes, Maisie is a bit pushy. He has also let me know that she will always be a vocal dog. He is kind, but clear, with his words and assessment of her.
While I am waiting for Buttons to arrive, I am trying to distract Maisie with the tennis ball, but she is more interested in hearing her own voice. She seems to have forgotten that she has already met and worked out her issues with Cash. She also met Kiwi several weeks ago, but with whom, if I recall correctly, she may not have worked out her issues. I know everything will be okay if we — meaning the humans — stay calm and let them work out their dog communication, but I’m always just a little nervous when she is meeting other dogs. Today is a good day, though; neither the humans nor the canines seem too bothered by any of it, and the arrival of Buttons eventually distracts all of them, as they run over to welcome her to the party.
At some point during their play time, just when it appears they may be all played out, Maisie suddenly takes off, like a bottle rocket on the 4th of July, and the three other dogs leap up to pursue chase. They form a perfect canine train, Cash close on her heels followed by Kiwi and then Buttons, winding and whipping through the park, all following on some invisible track only they seem to be able to see. Sometimes she leads them to the small shelter by the gate, where we are all standing watching them. They stop for a quick second, panting in near unison, tails still wagging and tongues hanging out, before she takes off again, her little legs stretched to their fullest, her body long and lean and looking far more like a greyhound than the little Corgi-Spaniel she is. It is such rambunctious beauty, dogs running for all they are worth, tongues and tails and paws and every last muscle engaged, and it is pure joy to watch. I am profoundly grateful for their display; for the October sunshine and crisp, autumn air; for other dogs and for other humans who really, truly get just how great being a dog owner is.
Maisie’s love of play was the basis for last week’s post, a post that I had intended to be short and sweet and an exploration of play in our lives. But as I wrote, I found that play was sorely lacking in my day-to-day existence, and so I decided to do a two-part post, to explore this void in my life. I suspect I am not completely alone in this one, suspect that many of us could use a lot more play in our lives — well, except for that one friend who posts an ongoing photo stream of skiing and kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding and, yes, hiking with her well-behaved, off-leash dogs, the lovely friend who generally appears to have a very rich life and towards whom I try not to have unkind thoughts.
Since coming to this conclusion — that my life was not nearly as bountiful in play as I somehow thought it was — I have been taking inventory, writing my Brief History of Play. The good news is that this dearth of play has not always been the dominant state of affairs in my life; the bad news is that, for nearly the past decade, it pretty much has defined the state of affairs in my life. I’m sure there are many reasons behind why play has slipped away from me, but for now, I’m more interested in what life once looked like. And while writing your own history of play may not seem like the most pressing thing on your to-do list, it can be a very revealing little exercise.
What I found writing my own Brief History of Play was this: I played music, all the time: at Irish sessions in pubs or with songwriting friends around a backyard fire pit until way beyond the midnight hours — gatherings that most likely involved not only music, but philosophizing and ranting about the state of the world and a little too much whiskey. I played at open mics all over Seattle, like the one at which I met my husband, and, before that, at late-night bluegrass festival jams, near frozen fingers tumbling across the strings of my fiddle, high in the mountains of Colorado. And long, long before that, before the classical music degree and the competitions and the pursuit of perfection that damn near destroyed me, back in suburban New Jersey, where the neighborhood pack formed countless bands, inspired, of course, by the Partridge Family (because everybody who watched t.v. must have had the same dreams about touring around in a 1957 Mondrian-look-alike school bus). Music was always there, always played a role as something fun to do. Which is far different than something that carries the weight of “how to pay my bills”.
What I also found writing my Brief History of Play was this: I played outside, all the time. Back in that same suburban development in New Jersey, I explored the woods and the creeks, which were not that easy to find, trust me on that one, but which I sought out nonetheless, imagining them to be far larger and more wild than they actually were. I swung on the swing set my father built for us — and repaired for us, multiple times, after vandals cut the rope swings. I learned to ski down the small hill in our backyard, and I ice-skated, wearing tiny black hockey skates (probably not long after I learned to walk) on the rink my father made by shoveling the snow and flooding the backyard with the garden hose every few hours in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter.
And my bike — I rode my bike everywhere. In New England, I explored the trails surrounding the town reservoir well into high school, riding through the woods on thin, road bike tires, so happy to be alone with the trees, colorful dry leaves crackling under my tires in the fall, canopies of deep green shading me in the summer. Long before mountain biking had become a thing and the trails became overrun with spandex-clad, Camelbak-wearing riders, I was riding around in the woods. I still have one of my first bikes, a beautiful blue Raleigh cruiser. It is hanging in my garage in Iowa, far too small for me to ride anymore, but far too perfect to give away.
While living in England in my mid-20s I rediscovered my love of bicycles, having bought a pretty red one, complete with baskets for groceries and wine bottles, a 3-speed bike with only one speed working, a bike I bought for the princely sum of 10 quid and used exclusively for transportation. When I returned home to the automobile-happy states, I knew I had to have a bike again, and so I bought my first mountain bike and joined the spandex-wearing club, eventually letting it take me to southwest Colorado. I fell in love with being outside all over again and for five years I spent my free days mountain biking and skiing and rock-climbing (to conquer my fear of heights, which worked) and hiking and kayaking (to conquer my fear of drowning, which did not work). And yes, playing music with my friends, too, most of whom were also potential poster children for Outside Magazine.
What I also found writing my Brief History of Play was this: I played games. We had massive neighborhood games of Mother May I and kickball, of Capture the Flag and Cowboys and Indians. And I played cards: Crazy Eights and Old Maid and Concentration and Go Fish, but my favorite was Spit. I was a champion Spit player and almost no one could beat me. I can still feel how my heart would pound when I was throwing down those cards, my mind and hands racing as equal partners in my quest for victory.
Finally, what I found was this: in quieter, more introspective moments, I sketched and drew and read and wrote. I wrote stories and poems, made little illustrated books with contact paper covered cardboard backs that my parents still have. I wrote about living on a farm in the country away from the madness of the world and about domestic cats who could talk finding themselves lost in Central Park, about riding to Nova Scotia on my bicycle and about young Greek slaves named Elena running away to freedom. Really, I wrote a lot of stories involving things about which I knew virtually nothing. But what I wrote about is not nearly as important as the fact that I wrote: that my imagination was vividly, if not accurately, engaged and that I didn’t worry about who would read it or what they would think.
Writing this post has been hard. Yes, there was a lot of joy accessed by framing my own history around play, taking a tour of what it was I loved to do, how I spent my days when I wasn’t so world-weary. But along with that joy was the discovery that, somehow, I’ve forgotten how to play. And actually, that’s not really true. The real truth of the matter is that I’ve grown afraid to play. Afraid I won’t be good at whatever it is, afraid I won’t measure up, afraid of failure, even when I’m playing. And if I’m really honest, I would admit that even all those years when I was playing, I was plagued by those never-good-enough doubts.
Maisie has a dismal catch rate when I throw the tennis ball to her. Sometimes she jumps, following its bounce, dog and ball mirroring each other in perfect unison — and still she does not catch it. Sometimes she just chases it, the ball bouncing off her nose like a pinball, again and again, her darting after it until finally it stops, or at least slows enough so she can pick it up. Sometimes she completely miscalculates where the ball is and she wipes out, falling hard on the ground, paws and tail and nose a jumbled heap in the dirt. But she never stops to think about looking foolish or not being good at it or wondering why the other dogs don’t have this much trouble catching the goddamn ball. She never stops going after it and it never stops being fun for her. And yes, sometimes she even catches it, briefly soaring in the air to meet the ball with her jaw in a perfect display of agility and grace. I’m working on finding my own agility and grace. It helps to know there is a little dog there for me whether I catch the ball or not.
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So dear readers, are you like my friend whose world is a wide-open playground, or is your life a little more fenced in? What do you learn from watching your animals play? I love to hear from you, so please feel free to share in the comments section below.