A few months ago, my mother gave me a wonderful book for my birthday, “Creative Gatherings: Meeting Places of Modernism” by Mary Ann Dawes. As a creative life who thrives on the moment and letting the muse take me where her wind blows — after many decades of “working the list” and being known for my special love of time planners — I’m currently enjoying a creative ritual that brings me great meaning. It’s one that emerged organically through the inspiration of the muse back at the end of March when I started reading the book.
The ritual is this: The mornings that I make pour-over coffee at home, I accompany the pour-over process with reading the book. It sounds so simple, but its effect is profound.
A voraciously fast reader, this ritual has created a structure of a slower, more mindful pace of tasting just that much of the book that can be read in the 10 minutes it takes to make the coffee. As I’ve proceeded through the book, I’ve come to sometimes extend the pleasure of the ritual by drinking that cup of coffee to the current chapter’s accompaniment as well.
The chapters are many and bite-sized, so the ritual has been a delightful synchronicity of suitability.
Dawes’ book has been so miraculously suited to where I am in my life and creative exploration — my mother’s Spidey sense in gift-giving is one of her superpowers — and the nature of the book’s form made the conception and realization of the ritual feel essentially inevitable, like it was guiding and nudging me into the delight of reading to the beat of one cup of coffee at a time.
Yesterday, as I came to the penultimate chapter and realized I was almost done, I felt wistful with an impending sense of the loss of this impeccable duet with this particular book.
But today, I feel a sense of irrational optimism. With this day’s coffee came a quote from Josef Albers in the chapter on the Black Mountain College gathering place in North Carolina: “To experiment is at first more valuable than to produce, free play in the beginning develops courage.”
The coming together of a symphony of unexpectedness that seems foreordained is where I experience evidence of magic in the world. And a theme that has emerged over this last very unusual year is the importance of free play. As the world moves toward ever more data-fication, which is invaluable and miracle-making, the environment has continued to broadcast the absolute necessity of the space for free play: from my mentoring collaborator at King Street Center marveling at how our crew of kids thrived in a space of no mistakes during our weekly poetry nature walks in contrast to much of their days filled with rules and schedules; from my sister who works with learning-differenced kids surprising me by countering my perception that I needed to develop more structured curriculum with her observation that the kids already had plenty of structure, and what they really need is exactly the kind of organic discovery that is where my heart’s delight lies; and from Josef Albers across the span of almost 100 years confirming so articulately that experimental play, in fact, is a mother and act of courage.
My irrational optimism is exuberant. As one humanity, we’ve been living through a massive experiment this past year, and it’s been a bumpy ride. Through the second half of the year, a sort of lassitude set in where it has been hard to find much zest across days that have felt the same.
As a person whose worldview is shaped by the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with family members escaped the authoritarian handwriting on the wall in Eastern Europe in the late 1940s, these days have been dark, and my heart has often ached in heaviness for witnessing what feels like the death of our humanity — that care for the well-being and inalienable dignity of all others.
The arts and art connect dots when the levers of power are doing the work of dividing. In this lies my exuberant optimism, however irrational. They are the antithesis to the Pandora’s box of hatred flung open by the leader of a country still looked toward as the bellwether of democracy and decency in the world.
They are the sword to the seething serpent of submerged fears. They are the lance to the boil that has finally and necessarily erupted. For how do we clear the cancer of colonizing impact if the darkness remains buried in the shadowed corners of the basement?
So as activists and change-makers, carers and thinkers, business leaders and policymakers, scientists and technologists, medical professionals and all the heroic essential workers whose names we don’t know do their good work, it is a great honor to discover that there is value, purpose and meaningful contribution in being an ambassador of play.
It’s a hard work of swimming against the tide, but we need those strong swimmers. While the technocrats and meritocrats who steward an educational and professional system of which I am a product often dismiss play as pointless, frivolous or unquantifiable in terms of producing productive workers as consumers, it has become unshakably evident during this year through the feedback of the environment and through my own living experience that, indeed, free play fosters courage.
As the value of this particular courage emerges into form for our current moment, I am taken into the childhood memory of my mother plunging into the 50-degree summer ocean waters of Maine and transforming into a sleek Selkie of power, strength and joy whose courage knew no bounds.
JC Wayne is a Vermont-based poet, visual artist, creativity mentor and founder of The Poartry Project. Contact her at poartry.org.