Life as play

In fencing class, the coach is working with me on my parrying and (more) riposting. What she keeps repeating, in various ways, is that I need to go more lightly, move more like I’m threading a needle and less like I’m … well less like however it is I’m moving, which is something I’m having something seeing quite clearly.

“When you write,” she says, “you tap the keys, you don’t pound on them right?”

But I do pound on them, actually. I’m harder on keyboards than anyone I know. People comment on how loud I am, when they hear me working. I’ve always worked too hard, put in too much effort, taken things a little too seriously to go lightly. I wear things out a little too quickly. I walk and run with a heavy tread, too.

Yet for a moment, I do manage to move my blade with less effort, rather than more. Suddenly the foil feels less heavy and my arm feels less tired than a moment ago.

Going heavily and taking things seriously–pounding on the keys, so to speak–has its advantages, I know, coupled as it is with a strong dose of enthusiasm and a certain stubbornness that’s been enough to keep me writing through a career that included a ten year gap between books. It has disadvantages, too, though–that tendency to take things too seriously, to treat everything as a fight to the death.

Fast forward to another fencing class. We’re playing a conditioning game involving a soccer ball and a couple fencing masks (really!) I throw the ball to a teammate more enthusiastically and with less focus than needed. As it bounces of the ceiling (and misses my teammate utterly), I hear the coach cry “watch out for the lights!”

I miss the lights. But even so I think, I’m still doing it. Still putting too much force into each move, when less would be so much more effective.

Later this class, I’m fencing to ten touches with a classmate. I find myself experimenting–testing whether it’s better to rush forward, or to let my opponent come to me; how much energy to put in; how much to hold back. It’s a sort of play, and I don’t find any one right answer–any technique has potential, and nothing works all the time.

Later still, we’re shooting baskets. This is something I know how to do. Gently, I gauge the distance, send the ball swishing into the net, four times out of five. Sometimes I know how not to push too hard. I don’t always take things too seriously.

On the way home, my thoughts bounce around a bit, and then I find myself thinking: Life is play. This seems terribly important suddenly, so I let the thoughts continue bouncing around.

I find myself thinking that enthusiasm and effort are good things, but if I put everything you have into the thing you’re doing, I don’t have anything left over to enjoy it with, to remember that it’s play. But if I pull back just a little–laugh at myself a little, remember that while on one level maybe everything is deadly serious, on another level nothing is all that serious really–if I keep something in reserve with which to play–that just might give me the space I need to go lightly, and to connect with the target.

Life is play–even when it’s hard work, and not only when one is playing with toy swords.

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