Pace, Breaks and the True Nature of Play

“Instead of trying to empty my mind, as one does in meditation, and letting my thoughts drift by like moving clouds, I followed my thoughts, but in an unhurried and liberated way.”
Alan Lightman

I was delighted to find—among other things at Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s country abode—a swing hanging from an old oak.

I made good use of it.

nature of play
A little afternoon play allows us to relax, excite and touch fleetingly that elusive thing: innocence. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Did he? Perhaps Winny and Clemmie (they called each other thus) ran out between London cables and Prime Minister’s Question Time. Did Churchill conceive his best thoughts when his rump hit the seat? “Push me, Clemmie. I must consider the Empire.”

No, they didn’t. The swings were installed post-Churchill. And I digress.

Back to “convergent thinking,” as physicist and humanist Alan Lightman calls the “logical and orderly step-by-step approach to a problem.”1 It is with convergent thinking that we make lists, order preferences, and run empires. It is with convergent thinking that we, leaden with purpose, get things done.

However, Lightman also makes a grand case for enabling a mind of play, what he labels “divergent thinking.” How? By inserting breaks in periods of convergent thinking.

American existential psychologist Rollo May, a most trusted oracle of the creative process, agrees. May extols the “necessity of alternating work and relaxation, with the insight often coming at the moment of the break between the two, or at least within the break.”2

A break is shrugging off the burden of purpose. Moreover, May recommends we actively initiate this break, and that we withdraw consciously from stimulation. We ignite the unconscious and coax creativity.

John Constable, Cloud Study, 1821. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

I grappled with “pace” the day I kept company with a snail. Pace is different from a break. Pace is slowing down. (Or speeding up, but is that an issue these days?) It is also about letting someone—something—else take charge. In my case, a determined little snail who led me around my apartment.

A break is the moment of change. Pace is letting someone else take over. But what about play? What is the nature of play?

When inveterate Londoner Peter Mayle moved to Provence, he found that fresh, local markets, wine, warm days, and bright smells invited different values of time and energy.3 His British friends asked whether he grew bored of the less-stimulating life, Mayle answered easily:

We didn’t. We didn’t have time. We found the everyday curiosities of French rural life amusing and interesting.”

To be amused and interested all day sounds like the nature of play to me.

Play is the swing. Freedom, wind at the face. Play is my most orderly mind cascading down a hill on a sled. Fast freefall and caring not. That is the nature of play.

For Lightman, play is exploration. He remembers the early play of childhood:

There were many creations. None of these projects were assigned in school. They were just things I did for fun in the long afternoon after school when I wasn’t wandering about. Many of the mixings and tinkerings didn’t lead to anything. They were merely explorations of the world and the hidden paths in my mind. I was at play.

When British comedian John Cleese recalls his best moments, those moments of “perfect, timeless happiness” they were far from any feelings of work.4 They included things like “sitting in a deckchair in the garden of my house in Holland Park, gazing at two Burmese kittens doing cabaret; looking at Vermeer’s painting of Delft in The Hague and allowing it to affect me […] .”

Cleese notes these moments had nothing to do with work or striving.

John Constable, Cloud Study, 1822. © The Tate Collection.

In play, we don’t strive. We let something else move us, take us… Down a winding path or vertical hill.

Led by his thoughts, Lightman writes, “I followed [them], but in an unhurried and liberated way.”

The details of pace, breaks, and play are different for each of us, but a few qualities abound. For example, how we approach time, control, ownership of thoughts, and even ownership of our lives.

I found these few lines from Thoreau and I think they perfectly capture the necessary qualities of break, rest and play. In 1849 Thoreau and his brother spent a week drifting up the Merrimack River. He wrote:5

There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature. […] While lying thus on our oars by the side of the stream, in the heat of the day, our boat held by an osier put through the staple in the prow […] .

Striving towards nothing, feeling amused, and being held or steered by something larger than ourselves. A hill, a tree, or our own thoughts.

(I wrote this post while striving towards nothing and following every possible cloud overhead.)

The Comfort and Companionship of Flowers

“The kindly search for growth, the gracious desire to exist of the flowers, my near ecstasy at existing among them.”
Allen Ginsberg

Has anything ever, during all of humankind, been initiated, occurred, occluded, endured, or laid to rest without the comforting company of flowers? Walk a mile and count the flowers. Walk five paces, you’ll see floral. Whether real, wild, planted, stitched on a jacket, or transposed onto a teapot, flowers abound. We have a decisive impulse for the companionship of flowers.

American poet Allen Ginsberg longed for a place among flowers, longed to be one with them. He too sought the sun. His poem “Transcription of Organ Music,” published in 1955, is an anthem of longing for understanding, for companionship, for a floral realm1:

The kindly search for growth, the gracious desire to exist of the flowers, my near ecstasy at existing among them. The privilege to witness my existence—you too must seek the sun…

We must seek the sun. We must exist among flowers. We must pull them near us, put them on us.

The flowers we keep next to our skin. Tana Lawn Floral Fabric, Liberty London. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

We turn to flowers in moments of profound uncertainty, pain, and fear. Manet spent his life capturing people, cities, social situations, but he painted flowers, only flowers, during the last months of his life. Matisse, likewise a critical painter of society, turned to flowers during World War II. Even Winston Churchill painted blooms following the Great War. America’s Founding Fathers planted gardens during both the Revolutionary War and the tumultuous creation of nationhood.

Of particular flowers, we each have our favorite. Wordsworth wrote that chrysanthemums appeared in his mind when he had a heart full of pleasure. Coleridge mused on the forget-me-not, Neruda on the gillyflower. George Washington planted flowering trees like peach and cherry (for their practicality), and Thomas Jefferson liked native plants like the flowering dogwood2. According to my gardening magazines, British gardeners prefer bright, bold pompom-like styles of dahlias and peonies.

For my own company, gather the stalks, those tall, leggy, asymmetrical glads, irises, lilies, and crocosmia. Reaching sunwards, bending towards earth. I keep them nearby, precious items of meaning and power.

Tana Lawn Floral Fabric, Liberty London. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Vincent Van Gogh, who never shied from painting blooms, especially his sun-turned sunflowers, wrote to his brother in 18773:

We passed the flower market on the way. How right it is to love flowers and the greenery of pines and ivy and hawthorn hedges: they have been with us from the very beginning.

Van Gogh wrote often of his deep love of nature and thought it was the way to understand art. He sought it out especially in cities. I wonder what he’d think of gardens today. Slowly, they are changing from being places to rest our eyes on colorful things to areas that engage our senses, overhauling them from tedious electronics and carpeted cement. Van Gogh would have loved the beckoning and humble landscape designs of fellow Dutchman Piet Oudolf, whose Lurie Gardens in Chicago and High Line in New York City do more than bring us flowers: they bring flowers, us.

Flowers bear witness to our life because flowers are life. Striving towards that sun. Abundant and thriving, satisfying our penchant for symmetry, efficiency, elegance, color. They are humble, gentle, and “open to receive.” It is fitting—like Manet, Matisse, Churchill—that we surround ourselves near death with abundant life.

Tana Lawn Floral Fabric, Liberty London. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Allen Ginsberg so beautifully, mournfully sought to exist among flowers. With a heart full of pleasure and sorrow, he finds the delight:

I had a moment of clarity, saw the feeling in the heart of things, walked out to the garden crying. Saw the red blossoms in the night light, sun’s gone, they had all grown, in a moment, and were waiting stopped in time for the day sun to come and give them…Flowers which as in a dream at sunset I watered faithfully not knowing how much I loved them. I am so lonely in my glory—except they too out there—I looked up—those red bush blossoms beckoning and peering in the window waiting in blind love, their leaves too have hope and are upturned top flat to the sky to receive—all creation open to receive—the flat earth itself.

Flowers, our greatest witness. If they spoke they’d say much, but only to passing pollinators. That we enjoy their company means little to a flower. Is that why we give them a language of their own?4

The Precious Things We Keep Nearby

“Her many belongings were precious but heavy with the weight of memory.”
Irving Yalom

In drawers and cupboards, on desktops and shelves, in pockets and purses, we keep precious items. Pencils, rocks, shells, boxes, pennies, bells, rings, and things—they are special and precious. Things we keep at home, and things we might not leave home without.

In Night, Elie Wiesel’s clear and horrifyingly true story of his evacuation from a Hungarian ghetto and imprisonment in Auschwitz, Wiesel remembers a prisoner playing a Beethoven sonata on the violin. “Never before had I heard such a beautiful sound. In such silence.”1

Someone kept a violin in Auschwitz? Grace has a sinister side. Amidst humans marching to gas chambers, a violin holds a note of humanity. It’s not the violin that’s incomprehensible. It’s that this man kept it close.

When we keep things close, they catch in our gravity, sit in our orbits. We share forces like power, identity, memory.

Above all memory. Little joggers of places, moments, and words that happened. Our past selves, other people.

I keep a small ceramic pot full of waxy orange stamp ink. It was my grandmother’s, bought it in China fifty years ago. When I was young I used to put my finger in it and touch things, spreading beautiful orange, enraging her to no end. Grandma died years ago, but the pot remained in Grandpa’s home. My grandfather died this year and I requested the pot. A childhood print was still in the ink. I keep it close.

Writer Dani Shapiro maneuvers us around her nearby precious things in her memoir Still Writing:2

My desk is covered with talismans: pieces of rose quartz, wishing stones from a favorite beach, essential oils with names like concentration and focus and inspiration—the kind I might have laughed at when I was younger… All that stuff is there to remind me to stay in the present.

Precious ceramics by Isobel Egan, James Oughtibridge and Yuta Segawa. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I keep a wide orbit of preciousness.
Pictures, stones, beads, an arrowhead, dried flowers, seeds, pine cones, small mirrors, elephant-shaped paperclips, tassels, things purple. When I moved into my first apartment, my mom packed my precious things in a box she labelled “Treasures.” The movers got a kick out of that.

Since moving to England, I’ve collected a few small ceramics. Hard, smooth, always cold with achingly tender widths. They give me comfort. Touch is critical to connecting.

Precious ceramics by Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

My husband keeps lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) in his closet. He touches it absently while choosing a tie. It calms him, the touch and the act of touching. Connecting.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks writes fondly of a rock collection. Not the talismans most of us gather but specific elements of the periodic table. Minerals, like a bottle of mercury.3

I have tended since early boyhood to deal with loss […] by turning to the nonhuman. […] Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.

These precious things we keep nearby hold our vast emotions with ease. They are vessels for the things we can’t carry and can’t abandon. And after we’re gone, they will speak of us.

James Oughtibridge’s ceramic maquettes. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In an emotional and empathetic exploration of the “human death anxiety,” psychiatrist Irvin Yalom urges connection as a way to overcome our fears of nothingness:4 “There is a biological fear that is hardwired into us. I know this fear is inchoate—I’ve experienced it too. It doesn’t have words. But every living creature wishes to persist in its own being.”

We are connected deeply to our precious things because they persist when we cannot. This is all perfectly healthy and natural and human. However, we must take care these connections don’t stand in for human connections.

When French travel writer Sylvain Tesson forwent civilization to spend six months in Siberia, he formed strong connections to things, because he was missing people?5

An object that has been with us through the ups and downs of life takes on substance and a special aura; the years give it a protective patina. To learn to love each one of our poor patrimony of objects, we have to spend a long time with them. […] As the nature of objects reveals itself, I seem to pierce the mysteries of their essence. I love you, bottle…

I love you, bottle… more than I love anyone else?

Precious ceramics by Yuta Segawa. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In drawers and cupboards, on desktops and shelves, in pockets and purses, precious things we keep nearby. Requiring nothing but place, they give us memory, calmness, comfort, and infinite, welcoming capacity.

They don’t, however, give us each other.

“Darling, I now have a butter dish shaped like a cow,” Leonard Cohen announces almost wistfully in his Book of Longing.6

I too have a cow-shaped crockery. A white ceramic creamer. One of the precious things I keep nearby, a memory of something. Like all ceramics, it’s always cold.