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The Power of Play: Shirley’s Story

I’ve just finished reading Richard Reeves’ great blog post on Playfulness, and it’s inspired me in turn to write.

There’s an an old saying “We don’t stop playing because we get old – we get old because we stop playing“.  It’s certainly true that as folk get older they can tend to forget how to play with the mindfulness, sponteneity and joyfulness of children.

It’s perhaps ironic that ‘fun’ has become an engineered thing in some organisations – a kind of forced group activity that lacks the very spirit of play it’s intended to engender.

Play – genuine, spontaneous, and heartfelt play – is definitely a source of strength, resilience, creativity and inspiration. But it can’t be engineered – only encouraged. It’s a mindset, not a map. And it needs to be a philosopy of life, not some kind of mandated policy.

Girl PlayingSpending time with children is always a great reminder of the power of play – it’s almost impossible to remain unplayful in their presence. But there are also grown-ups who’ve not forgotten the magic.

I remember Shirley, a wonderful woman and the mother of a friend of mine, who always brought the light of play into her own and others’ lives until she passed away at 60+ years young. She’d not forgotten her six-year-old self, and she helped others re-discover their own capacity for play.

And at those times she and those around her would become ‘lost in the unfolding’ as Richard so eloquently expressed it.

As I read Richard’s post I found my head filled with memories of Shirley. And I also remember the playfulness she brought to much more serious things. She contracted cancer that proved incurable, so the last year of her life was a time you wouldn’t think would lend itself to playing.

But Shirley’s indomitable spirit meant she created fun even as she fought a losing battle with her illness.

Silly HatShe made herself crazy hats to wear as she lost her hair through chemotherapy, and also made a game of this with friends and family who gave her gifts of ever-crazier hats.

Shirley wore them all, returning to the gift-givers her own gifts of love and laughter.

She even had fun ‘playing’ with arranging her own funeral. Dickering over details with various funeral parlours. laughing over the stuffiness of some, and being as cheekily provocative as only Shirley could be until she found one she liked.

On the day of Shirley’s funeral, there was standing room only for the last folk to arrive. The chapel was packed. Family members and friends spoke of the difference Shirley had made in their lives – and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room.

But at the end of the service, as we were about to leave, the song Shirley had chosen to end the service rang through the chapel. It was Always Look on the Bright Side of Death from the Monty Python Life of Brian movie!

It was Shirley’s last playful gift to us all. And we found ourselves smiling through our tears.

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The Colour of Days

Ever thought of using colours to describe your day? I’ve been playing with the idea and I’ve realised there’s a huge palette of shades from which to choose and every colour has at least two faces.

BLUE days can be sad days – when I’m ‘feeling blue’. But they can also be days that reach as high as the bluest of skies, in which I’m flying after my dreams.

RED days can sometimes be like huge, red STOP signs. Days when warning signals in my body or frazzled brain tell me I’m overstretched and need to take time out.  But they can also be days when I’m alight with red hot passion to change the world and the ‘fire in my belly’ is well and truly ignited!

What about BLACK days? Some of those are full of ‘grrrrr’ moments and dark thoughts. It doesn’t have to be a day of major disasters. Even a string of small frustrations can certainly add a charcoal tinge! But some ‘black days’ can be like the velvety blackness of a silent, moonless night. Those are days when the hustle and bustle of the world has faded away and I find time and quiet space for reflection.Color of Your Day

Not only these three, but many more colours of the spectrum are woven into life’s rich tapestry. And each colour also has its ‘upbeat’ and ‘downbeat’ aspects.

As I think about that, I realise both faces of every colour are equally important and often interdependent.  The bright blue of my dreams can sometimes be tinged with the more sombre hue of sadness or disappointment. A period of passionate, ‘changing-the-world’ days can take so much energy, that I’m brought up short by one of those warning stop signs and need time to rest and recover.

Athough it’s sometimes hard at the time to appreciate the darker days – to see the gifts they bring – they are also a blessing.

As Kahlil Gibran once said:

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.

So I need those darker days too, if my heart is to ‘stand in the sun’.

Perhaps with the colour of my days I can paint the picture of my life. But I need all those subtle differences in shading – from light to dark – to give the whole picture dimension and depth.

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Fence Sitting

Why is it that ‘sitting on the fence‘ is so often considered a bad thing? When people talk about someone who is doing so, they often speak with a curl of the lip, a raised eyebrow, a roll of the eyes or a sigh of resignation.

It seems we’re always supposed to draw a conclusion, reach a decision, take a stand or choose a side.

But let’s face it, from the top of a fence you can see the horizon in all directions. You get a good overview of all the fields or gardens within viewing distance. Jump off that fence, and part of your view is obscured.

One of my favourite poems is by Michael Leunig:

Come sit down beside me, I said to myself.
And although it doesn’t make sense,
I held my own hand as a small sign of trust
And together I sat on the fence.

To me, this speaks volumes about the inner confusion and division that can happen when we’re trying to resolve two (or more) ways of seeing or being in the world. But it also speaks about a need to trust the process.

Not everything has to be an either/or issue and we don’t always have to resolve every division. It’s ok to ‘hold our own hands as a small sign of trust’ and stay right where we are – sitting on the fence. It’s a great spot from which to scan the horizon for those elusive both/and ideas.

So if there’s an issue for you in which the jury is still out, come and join me on the fence.

The view’s pretty good from up here! :)

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On Time and Tesseracts

time_and_tesseractsRecently, thanks to Daniel Brenton, I was reminded again of Madeleine L’Engle‘s book for children, A Wrinkle in Time – one that intrigued me as a child. Daniel also wrote a wonderful piece on Madeleine L’Engle and A Wrinkle in Time on his blog.

The title of the book refers to the ability to travel through space and time by means of a ‘tesseract’. This is described as a ‘fold’ in the space-time continuum – as if a piece of cloth were folded so two segments usually some distance from one another are adjoined.

The idea of being able “to tesseract” (for some reason the concept stayed with me as a verb) has continued to fascinate me.

As a child, I thought wistfully of the tesseract on many a weary walk home from school. Even as an adult, it’s jumped into my mind when there when there have been far too many things to do in too short a time. The idea of being able to complete different tasks synchronously within parallel universes definitely holds great appeal!

For the curious who are unfamiliar with L’Engle’s books … the dictionary definition of a tesseract is the generalisation of a cube to four dimensions – a hypercube. It comes from Greek – tésseres meaning four and aktís meaning ray.

A web search for “tesseract” produces a large number of maths and science websites, amongst others, as it is primarily a mathematical concept.

However I discovered it is also the name of a progressive rock band from the San Francisco Bay area, currently on ice, and of an Australian company called Tesseract Research Laboratories which was an artistic collaboration exploring electronica + visual media within environments and performance, from 1997 until 2004.

Amazing! I’m sure you’ll be as fascinated as I was by that that information. :)

But for me, under the influence of L’Engle’s books, the whole concept of the tesseract remained as a way of being in two places at once – of exploring parallel universes in space and time.

I find myself reflecting that perhaps the fantastical and magical sense I had about the tesseract as a child has been transferred in adulthood to discovering magical parallel universes in different people and places. That fascinating experience of both similarity and “otherness”. And who knows, maybe web travelling is also a kind of tesseract into a parallel universe? :)

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The Uncultured Project

Here’s an inspiring story to remind us there IS hope for the world. :-)

It’s one young man’s “journey to help the poorest of the poor“.  In his own words …

I’m Shawn – a 27 year old Canadian from Toronto. Before starting this project, I was a graduate student on scholarship at Notre Dame University. My life took a turn after I met Dr. Jeffrey Sachs (author of the book “The End of Poverty”) when he came to give a speech at Notre Dame. That speech inspired me to withdraw from grad school, liquidate my savings, and begin this journey to try and make the world a better place – one meaningful difference at a time.

The “Uncultured Project” is the funny name for my unemployed, unpaid, and inexperienced (or “uncultured”) journey to help the poorest of the poor.

You can learn much more about the project on the Uncultured Project website, where you can also find links to connect with Shawn and the project itself through Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites.

This story is not only a testament to Shawn’s passion, commitment and dream of a better world, but it has also been an inspiration to many other people as well  – as you’ll see if you visit  Uncultured TV on You Tube.  Here is one of the first videos Shawn made in 2006, which shows how his journey started: