Love Letter on Play
I’m riding an early morning train. We’re heading into Manhattan. Passengers are mostly middle aged men scrolling their phones or reading the paper. The sun is bright and the day is young. Beautiful day, already. Inside, everything is ordered and neat, tightly bound.
This is a train ride. This is how you behave on a train ride. No spontaneous play. No chit chat. No jumping on seats and turning the cushions into a jungle gym. No wandering out loud what your neighbours’ lives are like, or daring to find out. And definitely no vulnerability. No being as you are if it doesn’t fit in.
I crane my neck and see more men in cheap polyester-mix suits, dozing. One has thick rimmed glasses. Black framed. Bronx passing us by. Another soft snores through his thin lips. His purrs hum with the train track squeal.
I turn back around and face forward. Check out my bomb-ass nails. I wonder as the train pulls into the station, what do we lose in being grown? In the performance of adulthood and its sloughing off of play? Whatever happens to all that restless and alive sense of energy inside? Is it burned up entirely by sex? Money-worries? Numbing hours of screen time or boos? When is play’s messy and boundless spontaneity replaced by performative manners?
Brings to mind the tension in Jamaica Kincaid’s short story Girl. There is a disciplinarian mother trying to prepare her child for known dangers and the wild unknowns. And then there is the girl herself—wide eyes and lanky legs hungry for the world. Open to possibility. Curious and unfettered by what it might mean to be fast, to “sing benna in Sunday school” or “walk like the slut (she’s) so bent on becoming.” Maybe even cool with being the ultimate insult to her mother, the “kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread.”
In Kincaid’s admonishment, there is also an irresistible temptation. To play. To go ahead and be that girl. Yes, the fast kind with all the sexual innuendo, but maybe also the playful kind, the small seven, nine or twelve year old listening to her mother and tugging on her tail, wishing she could just go off and play.
We dismiss play, but that shit is serious business. Think about the week the U.S. Women’s soccer team just had. Think about Cori Gauff and what it meant seeing her and Venus Williams play the most important tennis tournament on equal footing. Two black women. One a child, really. The other the first of her kind allowed to play. Think too of equal pay, and what that could mean to the business of play. At the World Cup level, we’re talking about $30M up for grabs in the women’s division versus the $400M FIFA most recently ponied up for the men.
Play can unleash power. It can give us the gift of our other selves. Or help us shake off society’s shoulds. I’ve banished that word from my vocab. The only should I’ll obey is why shouldn’t I go out and play?