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 at Chartwell. Play allows us to relax, excite and touch fleetingly that elusive thing: innocence. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Did he? Perhaps Winny and Clemmie 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 Germans.”

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.” 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, 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.”

A break is shrugging off the burden of purpose. (I imagine it resembles playing with pets). Moreover, May recommends we actively initiate this break, and that we withdraw consciously from stimulation. We ignite the unconscious and coax creativity, and collect creative moments of beginning.

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.

Slowing down to a halt could also be a measure of pace. In fact, travel writer Pico Iyer argues in his contemplative study of being quiet and still that existing in this state of “going Nowhere” is difficult yet critical.

The idea behind Nowhere – choosing to sit still long enough to turn inward – is at the heart a simple one. If your car is broken, you don’t try to find ways to repaint its chassis; most of our problems – and therefore our solutions, our peace of mind – lie within.

A break, unlike Iyer’s ‘going nowehere,’ 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. 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 he calls “perfect, timeless happiness” they were far from any feelings of work. 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 Henry David 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:

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. In the cityside or countryside. Whether real, wild, planted, stitched on a jacket, or transposed onto a teapot, flowers abound.

Humans have a decisive, endearing impulse for the companionship of flowers.

American Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg longed for a place among flowers, longed to be among them. His poem “Transcription of Organ Music,” published in 1955, is an anthem of longing for understanding and companionship idealized by a floral realm:

before, it
kindly stayed open waiting for me, its owner.

I began to feel my misery in pallet on floor, listening
to music, my misery, that’s why I want to sing.
The room closed down on me, I expected the presence
of the Creator, I saw my gray painted walls and
ceiling, they contained my room, they contained
as the sky contained my garden,
I opened my door

The rambler vine climbed up the cottage post,
the leaves in the night still where the day had placed
them, the animal heads of the flowers where they had
to think at the sun

Can I bring back the words? Will thought of
transcription haze my mental open eye?
The kindly search for growth, the gracious de-
sire to exist of the flowers, my near ecstasy at existing
among them
The privilege to witness my existence-you too
must seek the sun…

from “Transcription of Organ Music”

We too must seek the sun. We must exist among flowers. We must pull them near us, wrap them around 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. We ask them to witness our pain and speak of it in their own way.

Edouard Manet spent his life capturing the often-barren truth about people, cities, social situations, but he painted only flowers during the last months of his life. A grasp for life amidst death?

Henri Matisse likewise a critical painter of society, turned to flowers during World War II. Even Winston Churchill painted blooms in his country home, Chartwell House, following the Great War.

Similarly, America’s Founding Fathers planted gardens during both the Revolutionary War and the tumultuous creation of nationhood. Wrote General Washington:

I can truly say I had rather be at Mount Vernon than be attended at the Seat of Government by the Officers of State and the Representatives of every Power in Europe.

George Washington planted flowering trees like peach and cherry (for their practicality), and Thomas Jefferson liked native plants like the flowering dogwood.

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 paid homage to the gillyflower.1

According to my gardening magazines, British gardeners prefer bright, bold pompom-like styles of dahlias and peonies.2

For my own company, gather the stalks, those tall, leggy, asymmetrical glads, asphodels, lilies, and crocosmia. Reaching sunwards but beguiled by an unseen force to bend towards earth. I keep them nearby, precious items of meaning and power.

Is there any motif we so readily wear? Tana Lawn Floral Fabric, Liberty London. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Vincent Van Gogh, who never shied from painting blooms, especially his beloved sunflowers, wrote to his brother in 1877:3

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. I wonder what he’d think of gardens today.

I imagine Van Gogh would have adored 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 are a safe witness to our life because flowers are life. Striving towards that sun. Abundant and thriving, satisfying our penchant for symmetry, efficiency, elegance, color. As physicist Richard Feynman famously noted, understanding the beauty of a flower begins with understanding the flower itself.4

I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. I can imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty. Science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower.

Are you you wearing flowers? Looking at flowers? I bet you can see at least one. 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.

from “Transcription of Organ Music”

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?5

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.”

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. Things we cannot possibly abandon.

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. A witness of the past. I keep it close.

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

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.

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:1

“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. We might not know where we exist beyond death, but we know these things will persist on earth. 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. Simple, needless things that suddenly became crucial. Is this because he was missing people?

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.2

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.

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.