Remembering How to Play

June/July Theme: Play

by Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones

“Across the globe, many of the etymological roots of the word ‘play’ locate it in the visceral: ludere in Latin refers to leaping fishes and fluttering birds. The Anglo-Saxon lâcan means to move like a ship on the waves, or to tremble like a flame. The Sanskrit kridati also, as in Germanic languages, describes the movement of wind. In play, we are rarely immobile. We’re alive.”

This description of the roots of the word play in different languages and cultures comes from an article called “The Play Cure,” by Susanna Crossman, published online at The full url where you can find this essay includes the subtitle: “Play is cathartic allowing people to sit with their shadows.”

This makes me want to play with the collection of words I’ve just laid out across my screen. How the first paragraph speaks of play as movement, and the subtitle allows us to sit still. Hooray for inclusivity! How the etymologies remind my heart of leaping, fluttering, sailing, trembling, and blowing like a breeze or like a tempest. Can I recognize all of these conditions of my heart as play?

In 2012, I roared through a book titled Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, by Stuart Brown with Christopher Vaughan. When I find it on my bookshelf now, it’s in the usual condition of my favorite books: Every other page is dog-eared. Meaningful passages are underlined with straight or—when it’s really good—squiggly lines. Scribbles in the margins instruct me to “quote” or respond “yep” or catalogue how I was feeling at the time as I reflected on my marriage that had just ended. I bet I preached on this book back in 2012, but I won’t stop the fluttering tap-tap-tap of my fingers to go find that old sermon now.

Then, on page 174, I find a paragraph that closes the chapter called “Playing Together.” I have underlined this passage, and then, for extra emphasis, I’ve drawn a vertical line along its edge and added three large sailing stars. “Quote,” I’ve written at the top of the paragraph. So here it is:

“Play allows us to embrace and even sculpt the contours of our fates with an ironic humor and a sense of sharing in our common humanity. The lifelong player remembers this and can feel it even in the moments of grief, loss, and suffering. This view of life gives us a strength and courage in the face of the suffering and unfairness of the world. If we can continue to play together we will always be able to find emotional closeness, always be able to find novelty and make discoveries not only about those we love, but also about ourselves.”

Even in our moments of grief and loss, we can still connect with a marvelous ironic sense of humor: “What now? This too?” And instead of that irony constricting a closed and embittered heart, it can open us up to each other. We recognize the glint in each other’s eye. We send a nonverbal message across the space between us, whether we are intimates or strangers: “Yes, indeedy, this too! And you know what? We’ll make it through … because we’re in this together.”

All of us who have lived through this pandemic (or pandemics plural, given the racial reckonings and the plague of gun violence that have continued to course through these 15 months like additional resistant viruses), we may need to learn how to play all over again. And when we do, play can develop in us the strength and courage—the defiance and resilience, too—to face the shadows and to accept, cherish, and shape our lives. To Make Love Visible, even here, even now.

Underneath this last paragraph on page 174, back in those days of my grief, I wrote “the whole point,” and arced a helpful arrow toward its closing words. I drew two dots and a smile, as though the paragraph, the chapter, have renewed my own faith in our creative capacity to thrive, all in this together.

It makes me smile—unironically—to see it now. It makes my heart leap a little.
I hope you’ll join us at FUCSJ this month as we remember how to play.


With joyful, hopeful love,

Rev. Nancy


P.S. You can find “The Play Cure” at Play is cathartic, allowing people to sit with their shadows | Aeon Essays.