Welcome to week five: So far, we’ve talked about wonder as delight and wonder as curiosity. This week I’ll focus on wonder as play. It’s deeply connected to delight and curiosity, but I think it deserves its own week.
What do I mean by play? Here’s a definition of play and playfulness from the feminist philosopher Maria Lugones that I first encountered in graduate school almost 25 years ago:
We are by the river bank. The river is very low. Almost dry. Bits of water here and there. Little pools with a few trout hiding under the rocks. But mostly wet stones, grey on the outside. We walk on the stones for awhile, You pick up a stone and crash it onto the others. As it breaks it is quite wet inside and it is very colorful, very pretty. I pick up a stone and break it and run toward the pieces to see the colors. They are beautiful. I laugh and bring the pieces back to you and you are doing the same with your pieces. We keep on crashing stones for hours, anxious to see the beautiful new colors. We are playing. The playfulness of our activity does not presuppose that there is something like “crashing stones” that is a particular form of play with its own rules. Rather the attitude that carries us through the activity, a playful attitude, turns the activity into play. Our activity has no rules, though it is certainly intentional activity and we both understand what we are doing. The playfulness that gives meaning to our activity includes uncertainty, but in this case the uncertainty is an openness to surprise. This is a particular metaphysical attitude that does not expect the world to be neatly packaged, ruly. Rules may fail to explain what we are doing. We are not self-important, we are not fixed in particular constructions of ourselves, which is part of saying that we are open to self-construction. We may not have rules, and when we do have rules, there are no rules that are to us sacred. We are not worried about competence. We are not wedded to a particular way of doing things. While playful we have not abandoned ourselves to, nor are we stuck in, any particular “world,” We are there creatively. We are not passive.
Playfulness is, in part, an openness to being a fool, which is a combination of not worrying about competencies, not being self-important, not taking norms as sacred and finding ambiguity and double edges a source of delight.“Playfulness, “World-Traveling,’ and Loving Perception/ Maria Lugones
With Lugones’ words in mind, here’s a few key elements in my understanding of play:
It has no set rules, or very minimal and “loose” rules.
It has no specific goals or expectations at the outset.
It fosters an openness to surprise, to seeing what could happen, to possibility and transformation, and an openness to uncertainty, unruliness, and being a fool/doing things wrong or badly.
It is not fixed in one way of being or doing.
It involves not taking yourself too seriously.
It is an attitude — playfulness— an approach, what Kelli Russell Agodon describes in her Beauty + Play interview (posted in Additional Resources), as an orientation that can turn any activity into play.
Finally, and something Lugones doesn’t mention but many of the others writers we’ve read in this class do, it is about reconnecting with your kid-self. Approaching the world like many of us did when we were kids: open to everything, a beginner with no or few preconceptions, unbridled enthusiasm.
In the readings for this week, I’ve included passages from poets, philosophers, and scientists about how they related to the natural world when they were kids: Irish poet/philosopher John O’Donohue on curiosity and imagination, Runner/writer George Sheehan on returning to a time before we were taught not to be open to the world, Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer on plants as companions, Ornithologist J Drew Lanham on birds as best friends, and poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil on patience and tenderness.
Your Inner Child
In MPR’s winter play series, the explorer Anne Bancroft says “to love winter, you need to inhabit your inner child — the one without inhibitions and preconceptions about the cold.”
Who is your inner child, and how might you inhabit them? One of the biggest inspirations for my running and writing project is me as a young kid. I call her, Sara age 8. Strong, sturdy, not certain but sure-footed, curious, and most importantly, physically open to everything, exuberant, willing to take in (and on) the world. Sara age 8 is exemplified in one of my favorite pictures of me from 1982 in Hickory, North Carolina, before a soccer game. Standing under a tree in my soccer uniform with shin guards and cleats, hands on my hips, smiling and looking happy and full of life — and I was!
question: Who is your inner child, and how might you inhabit them?
It’s one thing to say we want to inhabit our inner child, another to be able to do it. Here are a few suggestions from some writers that especially speak to the idea of being open to the strange, to not taking yourself too seriously, to being willing to be a fool:
First, Mary Oliver: pause to attend to a ridiculous performance
Invitation / Mary Oliver
Oh do you have time
for just a while
out of your busy
and important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles
for a musical battle
to see who can sing
the highest note
or the lowest,
or the most expressive of mirth
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air
as they strive
not for your sake
and not for mine
and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude-
believe us, they say
it is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in this broken world.
I beg of you,
do not walk by
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.
It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.
Second, Dorothea Tanning and waving to trees:
Woman Waving to Trees/ Dorothea Tanning
Not that anyone would
notice it at first.
I have taken to marveling
at the trees in our park.
One thing I can tell you:
they are beautiful
and they know it.
They are also tired,
hundreds of years
stuck in one spot—
When I am under them,
they feel my gaze,
watch me wave my foolish
hand, and envy the joy
of being a moving target.
Loungers on the benches
begin to notice.
One to another,
“Well, you see all kinds…”
Most of them sit looking
down at nothing as if there
was truly nothing else to
look at until there is
that woman waving up
to the branching boughs
of these old trees. Raise your
heads, pals, look high,
you may see more than
you ever thought possible,
up where something might
be waving back, to tell her
she has seen the marvelous.
Third and finally, Kelli Russell Agodon and her weird walks:
Go for a walk and look for something weird. It can be anything strange. A weird sign in a neighbor’s window, a painted rock, a sock, a bird. You just look for something that makes the walk special. You can do it anywhere — outside, in a store.
I love looking for the strange, the unusual, the ridiculous. In my log I’ve identified these as my daily delights, or surprises, or ridiculous performances. Sometimes I look for them, and sometimes they just find me.
A variation on the weird walk: do (or be) the weird, ridiculous thing that someone else notices. Lean back and stare up then wave at the trees. Lose your shit with glee over a fast-moving turkey. Greet the Welcoming Oaks. Crack the creme bruleed icy top of the puddle and watch the water squish beneath it. Compose and speak a poem into your phone as you hike up a steep hill.
Translating Attention and Wonder into Words, part 6: make it strange
Like parts 4 and 5, part 6 is about wordplay. Instead of condensing with syllable/word/letter limitations or finding new ways in with the alphabet, it’s about making words and their meanings strange with anagrams and acronyms.
Why strange? It’s fun and encourages you to be ridiculous, to stretch your imagination, to find new ways to think about words and meaning and what you’re writing about. It can make the mundane magical. And, it can allow you to shift words away from meanings that shut you down, close you up, make you worry. Take away their power over you.
I started using acronyms and anagrams in my log when I struggled with injury and the limits of my body as it moved through outdoor space. Early on, I was deeply anxious that my wonderful new practice of moving and noticing would be taken away if I got injured. I felt like even mentioning an injury word might conjure that injury into existence. Later, when I did experience some injuries, I worried about how they would prevent me from moving. So I decided to play around with the words that scared me the most.
When even reading the words patellar femoral pain syndrome made my knee ache in anticipation, I rearranged the letters for patellar femoral to describe a different sort of syndrome:
For All Leap to Me Syndrome
Alter All of Poem Syndrome
Fall to Leap More Syndrome
When searching Dr. Google for an explanation as to why I was struggling to walk and couldn’t lift my right leg off the ground and learning about the dreaded straight leg raise test, I rearranged the letters to imagine some different actions. Not a straight leg raise, but:
Rise, starlight age!
Arise, great slight!
I light a grass tree.
I right a glass tree.
And when my IT band began acting up then kept acting up, I turned I.T. into a list of free band names that included I and T words. I called the list, Free (IT) Band Names:
Imperious Tina and the Intolerable Treaties
The Intrepid Toddlers
Intelligent Tom and the Incubating Theories
The Iambic Torsos
In my wordplay, I focused on scary injury words, but you could use any words related to your moving outside and noticing.
For creating acronyms, find an acronym that you’d like to derange. Write the letters at the top of a page. Make a list of other things those letters could stand for.
In addition to I.T., I’ve used E.R., M.R.I., and R.I.C.E. Here are 2 non-injury related acronyms to try: F.M.R. (Friends of the Mississippi River) or D.N.R. (Dept. of Natural Resources — although it could also mean Do Not Resuscitate).
And here are 3 options for creating anagrams:
One: Write it in large letters across the top of a page. Stare at it, then create a new phrase out of the letters that you write below the original phrase. As you use a letter, cross it out on the original. Keep repeating until you have a phrase that you like or the original phrase has lost its negative meaning.
Two: Type it in a big font across the top of a word document. Copy and paste it 8-10 times below the original, leaving space after each one. Stare at it, then create a new phrase out of the letters that you type below the original phrase. As you use a letter, delete it from the original. Repeat until you run out of original phrases or you feel better.
Three: Cut up a piece of paper into little squares. Write each letter of the phrase on one of the squares of paper. Spread the letters out on a table or the floor. Play around with arranging the letters into a new phrase. Repeat until you find your favorite phrase.
note: Do not use a random anagram generator. The slow and difficult process of trying to make new sense (or nonsense) out of these letters is the main point of this exercise. The strange and surprising phrases you create are just a bonus.
Winter Wonder 3: Layers
My third winter wonder is layers. Layers of clothing, of sound, of leaves/debris/grit/snow/ice. More layers, less layers. Discarded layers, layers of meaning, inner and outer layers, layers of doubt, anxiety, happiness, gratitude. Jamie Quatro’s 3 layers of the runner’s high. Rock layers. Layers we look through, that protect us, envelop us, isolate us. The layers between us. Layers we can never lose. The aftermath of a snow-blower: snow sliced like a layered cake. Layers that accumulate, thicken, harden. That fall away, then return.
The adding and removing of layers: winter clothes
In winter, the first way I think and write about layers is in terms of clothes and the extra ones I need to wear as I’m moving outside. Many of my winter entries include a list of descriptions of the layers I wore. Sometimes I keep the list basic, and sometimes I add color, how many years I’ve been wearing it, a story connected to the garment, if it’s from my mom who died in 2009. I also like to notice and write about what other people are wearing — the colors of their clothes, the number of layers they have on, if I see someone wearing shorts when it’s 20 degrees. (It’s always a man).
Sometimes I describe my unlayering process as my body warms up from my movement: partially unzipping a jacket, pushing up sleeves, taking the gloves off (which is a great title for a poem!).
Here’s an example from Jan 23, 2019: I suppose 17, feels like 10 is cold but I was warm. Sweating. Less than a mile in, most of me was almost too warm. Except for my fingers, which always take the longest. Pushed my sleeves up after the lake street bridge. Then shifted my buff from my head to my neck. By mile 2, I wished I had worn a different hat–maybe a baseball cap instead of the thick teal stocking cap I had on. At the end of the run, I unzipped my jacket and took off my gloves. How cold does it need to be before I’m not hot at the end of a run?
One day while running, I suddenly wondered: why is it that just as I’m adding more layers, the trees are taking theirs off?
Winter Trees/ William Carlos Williams
All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.
I like noticing the clothes that other runners have left by the side of the trail — a jacket draped over the split rail fence, a hat on the ground, a glove shoved onto the the tip of a branch. I imagine these runners are molting, their left behind layers are old skins. I am comforted by noticing the evidence of others everywhere.
Over the years of paying attention to these discarded layers, I’ve noticed that the glove left behind is almost always black. Why? In my log, I’ve often wondered about this lone black glove:
On March 20, 2017 I wrote: Just ran by a single black glove in the middle of the path. Wondering who it belongs to and what the story behind it is.
On March 15, 2019 I posted the first draft of a poem I wrote about a black glove:
for the past month
every time I run south
on the river road I greet
one black glove
fitted over a branch
upright and open
where did the runner go
who left this here?
don’t they miss it? and
why not leave the pair
together to keep each other company?
maybe the glove isn’t saying hello
but pleading with me to stop
to listen to its lament
to look for its partner.
someday I’d like to find the trail
with the right one—
the one that isn’t left
on the path I run regularly—
and rescue it
reuniting it with its twin.
Then I wrote: I’d like to do more with this idea of abandoned gloves and other items of clothing on the trail. What might they be doing when we’re not looking?
On March 22, 2019 I wrote: I almost forgot about the black glove I saw lying on the edge of the path looking forgotten. Why is it always black? How long has it been there–was it buried under the snow or lost today? Is it missed? Was it dropped right on the spot where I saw it or had it traveled from somewhere else, carried by the snow? Did a runner lose it? A walker? At night? In the morning? During a snowstorm? So many questions!
And, on December 1, 2020, I wrote: Running down 32nd towards the river, I noticed a lone black glove on the sidewalk. Saw some people across the street and almost called out to them, “excuse me! did you drop a glove?” I didn’t. Why is the lone glove I see on the sidewalk always black? Do I just notice the black ones, or are most gloves that color? Have I ever seen any other color of glove left behind? I don’t think so. When (and if) I do, I will make a ridiculously big deal about it on this log, which makes me happy that I have been able to find delight and joy in such small things. Finding a blue (or red or pink) glove when I usually find a black one is enough for me.
Weird Walk Suggestion: Look for the discarded layers of clothing on the edge of the path or in the trees. Find one to focus on, or make a list of as many as you can notice.
The lack of layers: bare branches
Perhaps some of my favorite images of winter are the beautiful, wise, unruly bare branches. Knotted and gnarled during the day, casting sprawling shadows. Softly dissolving into the purplish-gray sky at twilight. I love the winter branches!
Winter Branches/Margaret Widdemer
Clear-cut and certain they rise, with summer past,
For all that trees can ever learn they know now, at last;
Slim and black and wonderful, with all unrest gone by,
The stripped tree-boughs comfort me, drawn clear against the sky.
I like how winter branches look, but I also like what they allow me to see. With no thick thatch of leaves, so much more is visible: the river, the floodplain forest, the gorge, the other side. Squirrel’s nests, sewer pipes. trails winding down the bluff, the cracks in the limestone where moisture seeps out. Across the ravine. The paved trail on the east side that I never knew was there.
question: What mysteries are revealed when the layers are lifted?
The Layers We Look Through: Windows
Sometimes it’s too cold or icy or the snow has trapped you in your house. There’s always windows — a layer between you and the world, something to frame your view, a place to sit and stare and be warm in your wonder.
question: What windows did you look through today? What and how did you see?
Windows I watched the world through and what I watched (feb 2, 2019):
the writing desk in my bedroom/the snow-covered branch of the tree in my front yard living room/snowy back yard
car window/river road, minnehaha parkway, south Minneapolis
the 3 story huge picture windows at Minneapolis Institute of Arts/Stevens Square Park
So much to delight in and wonder about with windows! Windows you look out of, windows you look into —
My favorite window to look out of and my favorite view:
A few years ago, I moved my writing desk into our front room, which used to be a porch, but is now a fully insulated, enclosed space. My desk is positioned in the south west corner of the house under 4 big windows. My desk has a glass top and often, as I’m working, I will see the reflections of birds flying in the glass. Usually geese.
My favorite window to look into and my favorite view:
There is a neighbor a few blocks away who has a giant front window. Every few months, they pick a new poem and stick it to the window. On my runs, I make sure my route passes by this house at least once a month to check. In March of 2020, while running by, I read an excerpt from Mary Oliver’s wonderful collection, The Leaf and the Cloud.
Wendell Berry’s Window:
from Windows/ Wendell Berry
The window has forty
panes, forty clarities
variously wrinkled, streaked
with dried rain, smudged,
dusted. The frame
is a black grid
beyond which the world
flings up the wild
graph of its growth,
tree branches, river,
slope of land,
the river passing
downward, the clouds blowing,
usually, from the west,
the opposite way.
The window is a form
of consciousness, pattern
of formed sense
through which to look
into the wild
that is a pattern too,
but dark and flowing,
bearing along the little
shapes of the mind
as the river bears
a sash of some blinded house.
This windy day
on one of the panes
a blown seed, caught
in cobweb, beats and beats.
Something to think about as you move:
For his January 10, 2012 entry in Poverty Creek Journal, Thomas Gardner writes:
Six miles, rain, 41 degrees. Water everywhere—a dark layer over the top of the ice, no real light to speak of. Dropping down from the ridge and into the woods, I exchange a dark morning for the night before. I’m hardly aware of myself, my edges grown fluid and indistinct. No real speed. No thinking. What would it take to enter this dream, to let it take me completely?
question: As you move outside, noticing the different layers or things that are strange, what dream could you enter?