“Child, how happy you are sitting in the dust, playing with a broken twig all the morning.” -Rabindranath Tagore, “Playthings”
I remember when I was eight or nine, and I was getting into the car with my dad for a seven hour trip. I complained I didn’t have anything to play with while we drove. He picked up a piece of bent tar from the road. “What about that?” he said. It didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t see any possibility, any play in the twisted shape.
In a recent conversation about what we’re doing when we’re playing, my friend brought up fishing. The “play” in the line is the way the fishing line can wobble back and forth as you pull on it. My friend said, “I’m not sure that’s related to what we’re talking about,” but I find it really useful. For me playing is often an exploring, a testing side to side, a wobble that goes off from the beaten line of what I meant. When I’m playing my senses glimmer out in directions—movement on the swings, water on my fingers, grass on my toes. When I’m playing the sensations suggest new possibilities: we could swing on the swing together, or swing upside down, or try to walk across the swings, stepping from seat to seat as we hang on the chains. On my desk I still have nine chestnuts I picked up in a field. I roll them around sometimes. Arrange them. Hold them. Play with the patterns they make, the sound they tap against my desk. Playing wobbles out from the thin line of what I meant, ripples across the surface, and as the ripples expand they suggest new directions.
I think I could have played with the twist of tar. I’m not sure why I didn’t. I’ve written out five or six different explanations, and deleted them, and now instead I’m thinking of the bolt I picked up from the road on a recent walk. I didn’t want some passing car to get a flat tire. But I carried the bolt a little while. Played my thumb across its threads. Shifted it in my hand, feeling its smoothness, its weight. Then I balanced it upside down on a fire hydrant. I didn’t mean to, or at least, I didn’t mean to until I was already doing it. Until I was unfolding that this, yes, was what I was doing. I was playing in the dust.