Child, how happy you are sitting in the dust,
playing with a broken twig all the morning.
I smile at your play with that little bit of a broken twig.
I am busy with my accounts, adding up figures by the hour.
Perhaps you glance at me and think,
"What a stupid game to spoil your morning with!"
Child, I have forgotten the art of being absorbed in sticks and mud-pies.
I seek out costly playthings, and gather lumps of gold and silver.
With whatever you find you create your glad games,
I spend both my time and my strength over things I never can obtain.
In my frail canoe I struggle to cross the sea of desire,
and forget that I too am playing a game.
If I Had My Life to Live Over
If I Had My Life to Live Over
I'd dare to make more mistakes next time.
I'd relax. I would limber up.
I would be sillier than I have been this trip.
I would take fewer things seriously.
I would take more chances.
I would take more trips.
I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers.
I would eat more ice cream and less beans.
I would perhaps have more actual troubles but I'd
have fewer imaginary ones.
You see, I'm one of those people who live sensibly
and sanely hour after hour, day after day.
Oh, I've had my moments and if I had it to do over
again, I'd have more of them. In fact,
I'd try to have nothing else. Just moments.
One after another, instead of living so many
years ahead of each day.
I've been one of those people who never go anywhere
without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat
and a parachute.
If I had my life to live over, I would start barefoot
earlier in the spring and stay that way later in the fall.
If I had it to do again, I would travel lighter next time.
I would go to more dances.
I would ride more merry-go-rounds.
I would pick more daisies.
I returned home late Friday afternoon from a serious errand in a serious mood, ready to do some more serious work. As I entered the front gate at Unity, I ran into John, a handyman who is doing a variety of work for us. John was diligently cleaning up the paved area in front of Unity. He was using a pressure washer. He was serious too.
In case you’ve never experienced a pressure washer, it’s a machine that takes regular ordinary old water, cranks it up to high pressure, and shoots it out of the nozzle of a gun-like device in a roaring angry spray. Water, under that kind of pressure, does amazing things. It can obliterate dirt and grime and vanquish the ugly green slime that accumulates on concrete.
I saw that toy – I mean tool – and I tentatively asked John: “can I give it a try?” 30 minutes of blasting away at dirt and grime later, John was finally able to wrest the pressure washer away from me.
I was having fun. Lots of fun. Although I was actually accomplishing something useful, what I was doing felt like play! For a time, I was a child again delighting in the wonder of simple things. I was a six year old with a garden hose – making miniature rivers, giant puddles, and gooey mud pies. The delightful world of a child had opened up to me. A child can be absorbed in the awesome miracle of the small things of life. As author Walt Streightiff said, “There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million.” Play and the reckless abandon of silliness bring into focus a world alive with possibilities and wonders.
With the magical water tool removed from my hands, the fun was over and my window into childhood slammed shut. It took only a few seconds before my to-do list began to run again through my mind. Responsibilities! I returned to a more familiar mode… a more grown-up mode is how I see it. I began to feeling guilty about what I hadn’t got done and the time I had spent doing something fun – which was – to my mind at least – wasting time!
Toyohiko Kagawa wrote these words, entitled simply “a prayer”:
I want to be ever a child
I want to feel an eternal friendship
for the raindrops, the flowers,
the insects, the snowflakes.
I want to be keenly interested in everything,
with mind and muscle ever alert,
forgetting my troubles in the next moment.
The stars and the sea, the ponds and the trees,
the birds and the animals, are my comrades.
Though my muscles may stiffen, though my skin may
wrinkle, may I never find myself yawning at life.
If not yawning, I had returned to disregard life’s everyday wonders. No time for play and joy and fun, back to being, as Tagore writes “busy with my accounts, adding up figures by the hour.” In other words, I had returned to trying to act like a grown-up.
What is a grown-up?
When I was young, I saw my parents as serious, responsible people. They were never silly. They never sat in the dirt inspecting ants or digging holes or pulling earthworms out of the soil. They didn’t want to play make-believe games or squish the berries from the shrubs into a gooey red mess… They had more important things to do.
They knew things that amazed me. They somehow knew when it was going to rain and they knew how to drive a car. My father spent all day doing something mysterious at work and I knew that it was very important – very responsible and very serious… My parents had an air of maturity and sensibility about them. I can’t describe it better than to say they seemed “all grown up.” I imagined that some day, when I was all grown up, I would know the serious feeling of responsibility that I imagined they had. I would feel “grown-up.”
I don’t have that feeling of being all grown up now and I never have had. Do you? My grandmother, when she was 100 years old, told me that she still felt like a young girl inside. Is there a child somewhere inside you wishing to have a chance at play?
I have tried hard to be a grown-up. I take a lot of things very seriously. I take church seriously. I take justice seriously. I take Unitarianism seriously. I take studies seriously. I even take fun seriously - that is, I tend to find my entertainment in activities that are at least somewhat productive - something like really going wild at an extravagant meal but only eating the broccoli and spinach - because it’s good for you… Any other kind of fun leaves me feeling a bit guilty…
There is much in this world to take seriously. In many ways, the world is a sombre place and there is always something to put a damper on fun: Our climate is overheating. Terrorist can attack without warning. The global economy slips further and further every day toward a complete meltdown.
And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but each of us is going to die eventually. The ride we are on will eventually come to an end.
In 1978, when she wrote “If I had My Life to Live Over”, Nadine Strain, then 85 years old, proclaimed that “I would be sillier than I have been this trip.” I hope that she had that chance in the next ten years before she died at age 95. I like to think that Nadine began a strict diet of ice cream sundaes! I like to think of her barefoot with her hair long and wild behind her lying on the grass some fine spring day picking daisies and planning and worrying about absolutely nothing at all…
I’m going to assume that I’m not the only one intent on acting responsible… Why can’t I – why can’t we let ourselves get down in the mud and play? Why is it so hard to just let go and be whimsical and wild from time to time?
Is that childlike personality still there somewhere or has it simply dried up and blown away? I think the fact that so many of us feel uneasily like fraudulent copies of the grown-ups we expected to become suggests it has not completely disappeared.
Author Leo Rosten insisted that, at heart, we still have the spirit of the child. He writes:
“You can understand and relate to most people better if you look at them -- no matter
how old or impressive they may be -- as if they are children. For most of us never really
grow up or mature all that much -- we simply grow taller. O, to be sure, we laugh less
and play less and wear uncomfortable disguises like adults, but beneath the costume is
the child we always are, whose needs are simple, whose daily life is still best described
by fairy tales.”
One reason we might not be silly and playful and struck senseless by the undeserved wonder around us, is that we’d be embarrassed nearly to death if anyone else saw – we’d be exposed as frivolous. We might be thought mad! Well, yes, I might be a tiny bit sillier in the privacy of my own home, but not much. No – even then – I’m still working on my adultness.
I wonder if our seriousness is a sign that we think that there is something within us that needs to be controlled and hidden. If we adhered to a more conservative faith, that would make complete sense. Perhaps you’ll recall H.L Mencken’s definition of fundamentalism: “a terrible, pervasive fear that someone, somewhere, is having fun.” Fun, for some, is the dark side taking over. In some faith systems, we are taught that we are only in control of our basically sinful nature when we are sombre and suffering!
We Unitarians say that we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We claim to know that each of us is good and worthwhile at our core. Certainly, we aspire to believe this, but I’m not all that sure how strongly we actually do. If we did believe it, we might be a lot more willing to take chances and to let our childish selves out of the constraints we place around them.
Somehow, somewhere along the way, we get the message that we need to grow up and that growing up means being serious. It means being sensible, rational, reasonable, logical, intentional, and practical.
Our society is infected with a plague of seriousness. Many parents now begin preparing their children for a life of success before they can speak – sometimes even before they’re born. Before the poor unsuspecting baby knows what’s happening, childhood is over and lost in the frenzy of music lessons, intensive reading programmes, and foreign language study. Got to build that résumé if you’re going to get into a good preschool! It only gets worse from there.
Giacomo Leopardi said “Children find everything in nothing; men find nothing in everything.”
If we are to be grown-ups all the time, the mystery and wonder of the universe may be lost to us. Along with silliness and play, we lock away the wonder and awe that childhood grants.
We need to learn again to appreciate the commonplace, the ordinary, the plain.
We need to learn to be silly and be proud of it.
If you would, I’d like to invite you to turn to someone near you and, in the proudest way you can, tell them something silly you’ve done or are willing to do soon - something that is not at all grown-up.
In his poem, “Moon”, Billy Collins talks about introducing a child to the wonder of the night sky:
…carry some tiny creature outside
and introduce him to the moon.
And if your house has no child,
you can always gather into your arms
the sleeping infant of yourself,
as I have done tonight,
and carry him outdoors,
all limp in his tattered blanket…
You can lift him up into the sky,
your eyes nearly as wide as his,
as the moon climbs high into the night.
Play as if your life depended on it. See the world with the eyes of a child. Only then can we truly know the light of wonder that we call God.