The Game: Why We Play or Not

Laurelhurst people, mansion, blue top 020

Games, a good thing, right?

A thought keeps circling my mind: to be (and play) alone, or be with others, or with others yet remain alone…and what really defines “alone” in our often virtually designed, tech-impacted world?  Is it a positive thing to be alone–or not? Why is solitariness often abandoned in favor of disposable distraction?

More researchers are stating that engagement with others helps us live better and longer, enlarges our perspectives and guarantees more happiness. It is said we engage less real in community gatherings yet we are not so at ease in solitude. To be solitary is not that desirable, it seems, at least not as manifested in the twenty-first century. Alone time can be toxic to health at worst or unfulfilling at best.

How does a person manage an experience of hanging out with her/his singular self? Increasingly, it means reaching for an electronic device. It is so common, most likely don’t take note of what they are doing: it is now automatic. And as they text, for example, they don’t have to worry about how they look, the way they speak, what their emotions reveal. They can avoid or make things up. Alter the truth if needed with an emoji.

This has been on my mind since I visited my daughter in South Carolina. I watched in a confused state while we strolled about a pleasant riverside park. There were a dozen or more others wandering around with noses to cell phones, their movements goal-driven, quick and mostly silent. I kept waiting for someone to talk, to interact with one another. The relative silence was spooky. It was like watching random groupings of robots clothed in human flesh and clothes. They did not seem to notice one another or surroundings. But they were sharing some sort of experience in a parallel manner.

Looking for a reference point that I might comprehend, I flashed back (no pun intended…) on the late sixties and early seventies parties where the participants dropped acid or used other hallucinogenic drugs to then enter individual kaleidoscopic, madcap adventures of the brain chemistry: together yet separate in their altered states. But they certainly emitted various sounds, even discernible language. There was music in the back ground or someone was inspired to make it on a guitar or a flute or a big drum–on pots and pans or one’s own voice would do. There were physical and emotional exchanges, for good or ill. Discussions that ran in labyrinthine circles. I can’t say such gatherings were the best times of our (hippie) lives, but we did interact in all sorts of interesting ways.

But this was not like that–it was something foreign to me. I felt almost disoriented just watching. Then my daughter got me up to speed. They were playing Pokémon Go. I had never heard of it, so she briefly explained and we walked on. But I kept looking over my shoulder or noticing more of these young adults and no-so-young ones following visual cures or directives given by their phones.

Their phones. I just didn’t get the point, but clearly they  found it entertaining and interesting enough to spend a sunny afternoon doing.  Since then I’ve read a bit about Pokémon Go and have seen my grandson play as well as plenty of strangers. But technology and what it creates–and what the companies market—is the issue.

There are two attitudes circulating about the effects of electronic gadgetry–i.e., tablets, e-readers, video games, cell phones, personal computers, televisions and any others I have left out due to my ignorance. One espouses the multitudinous wonders, the vistas we now can explore,  altered and perfected realities we can enter into with a click, flick and swipe. This view espouses an interesting “benefit” of the latest manifestation of Pokémon, insisting the game will rouse indoor-inhabiting, computer-attached children and friends and deposit them in an outdoor setting. They can wander about together capturing wild and tiny critters that dwell within the augmented reality. This is a sort of socializing, I gather, an enhanced by electronica fraternizing. And one of the motivations for development of this game was to encourage people to get off their couches and get out to the parks or anywhere else they want to engage in said playing among other human beings. And hopefully, they will watch where they are going and no one gets hurt.

Which brings me to the other viewpoint, namely that people are already becoming more isolated–often seemingly by choice–due to keen interested in entertainment that has nothing to do with direct (read: three dimensional) contact with people. I glanced at an article with a photo depicting a man and woman using their laptops side by side at bedtime, No physical contact, no verbal interaction going on. The question posed: is this your relationship? In other words, was technology becoming the interloper?  Well, of course it is. And how many people find this rather perverse, that manufactured devices–can separate one from the other while captivating each? That the express purpose of said devices is to entertain and purportedly inform the operator of the object and quickly? (This is not about what computers can do to help compile and order data for business and other organizational needs.)

Sometimes it appears to be another fancier variation of the ole “divide and conquer.” And yet people are mesmerized. (Alright, I am now writing on my laptop. My last electric typewriter is packed away in a closet–and the effect was the same when I used that keyboard and paper: I wrote alone. But corrections were perhaps harder and more trees were used up, okay.) I think spellbound is an accurate word for what can happen when we turn on that magic screen which does fascinating and weird things the moment it lights up. We lose touch with other matters and persons because it is all-encompassing, corralling our minds and deluging our senses with input that dazzles or mollifies.

But I have digressed. This topic is so big, and like its actual manifestations it can nab a person and stir up realms that I only peripherally imagined thirty or forty years ago. I find myself wondering what George Orwell would think, what Frank Herbert would say, how Ray Bradbury would respond to this present state of tech affairs. Would they be horrified or flummoxed or gratified?

I think of our national health concerns–obesity with its serious complications, heart disease, cancer, depression and anxiety for starters–which are connected at least in part with contemporary lifestyle choices. Are computers and their cousins part of a trend to cop out and opt out? Can they usurp our power to take charge and accomplish more and better in some essential ways? Surely becoming inert for hours before a screen, our eyes unblinking, our trunks in stasis, can be detrimental to our well being. And yet these habits and requirements are so integrated into our lives that we don’t know how to take issue with it or even if we seriously ought to do so. How to live with and without the distractions and aids that technology provides?

 

It may or may not have been simpler fifty years ago. But back when my friends and I were trying hard to study Kierkegaard and de Beauvoir, Camus and Sartre, it was the newly coined “existential anxiety” we worried about, spiritual and philosophical matters that triggered heated debates. Authentic Identity and principled ideology were major topics and we plunged ahead despite having more energy than wisdom. The responsibilities of our power of human choice, as well as awareness of one’s ultimately solitary existence, were plenty angst-ridden. What would far greater technology bring to the fore? We imagined, we read, we mulled it over and went forward with our lives the best we could. I can’t say my generation entirely embraced the immense changes we suspected were on the way. Some of us hid out, some tried and failed to make social change happen and some triumphed even while bobbing along with the cultural currents.

Later, in retrospect, it seems my own family had lived and toiled in a world more apart from others’. My parents certainly thought a television was unnecessary. We didn’t have one until 1963 (I was 13 then) and it was not much regarded with either respect or enthusiasm. We rarely watched it. We already had radio and the stereo. But mostly we were too busy. I won’t drive the details into the ground as I’ve written of this  many times. But our lives were chock-full of academics, friends, outings and camps and lessons, the arts, sports for fun and competition, church, neighborhood social occasions. I didn’t feel we lived differently from others–my friends had similar schedules, endeavors and commitments. If there was time for sheer entertainment, there were always more arts activities. Or reading for pleasure. Playing outdoors. Doing nothing on the front porch–or counting makes and numbers of cars that passed– or hanging out in the big backyard maple were options. I do not recall worrying about being either alone or with others. I got both–and less alone time. I was rarely bored.

There was not a headline-provoking, cultural review of whether or not we had enough time together or apart from our fellow Americans. There was work; there was family; there were friends and the greater community and world. There were activities galore from which to choose, many of them free of charge. But we either relied on one another or we relied on ourselves for engagement in life–not a major attention-consuming gadget.

These things have changed, that is for certain. Is it for the greater well being of human life? Or is it to our detriment? Both, it has been noted. It seems too complex at times to tackle–so much information is required and that even changes fast. I move back and forth over data and consider opposing  possibilities. Technology expands our understanding and reach of so much; it can provide solutions that are critical. Previously unknown options that may lead to illumination on many levels. But it also intrudes and confounds, diverts and can–I’m just going to say it–numb the human mind and heart. Puts us into a zone that is at moments indistinguishable from an eccentric, hybridized robotic mode.

Can we truly not bear just being with ourselves, living our ordinary, daily lives? Do we require ever more stimulation–the sort that is devised for us– to stay awake in this world, to feel what we think is actually better? A world that is altered beyond recognition? I suspect the question reverberates among human beings as all countries are provided more intriguing devices and diversions. These may be quick fixes to transform the moment–why not? Pick up the almighty phone, turn on televisions (one in every room) or laptops. The marketing and publicity budgets for these products must be monstrous.

But the questions lose personal meaning for me even as I note them. I don’t crave relief or distraction of that sort. I do not want artificial or superficial company. I’m not a purist; I have a phone, a laptop. I inherited an older Samsung tablet when my husband got bored with it and occasionally I watch a series I like. I just don’t long for quick fixes, not unless I count dark chocolate– useful for a few minutes of elevated serotonin as well an taste bud heaven. For one thing, the fixes don’t work that well. When you turn off a device, there you are, your worries and longings still swirling about. Sooner or later, they need to be welcomed or sorted or will nag you like a host of gnats.

Not that I am beyond a day of unhappiness, a spurt of anxiety or even thunderbolt of raw dread. But I find it better to sit with feelings, let them come and go. Or call another human being. Let myself just be present with a searching mind and soul. Once, at fifteen, at twenty-five, at even thirty-five, I could have answered: yes, my life is woven with this flood of damnable anguish and I want it dissipated by something, anything. Obliterated, even. I tried drugs and alcohol awhile to corral trauma and the demons that trailed it, but they were not powerful enough to change my life in ways I most wanted. For that, I had to take my own action under guidance of the Creator’s wisdom and Light. And reach for helping hands.

Though I do enjoy people–sharing activities, meals and conversations, prayer, creative expression and work– I profoundly appreciate being alone. No live wire technology. Just thorough quietness and emptier space, my own breath to breathe in, then out. It gives me opportunity to turn inward and outward, to scrutinize what is inside or probe the greater world about me. I don’t want or need any ultra sensations most of the time. I can be taken beyond myself with a mysterious poem, a forest walk, a song that offers truth or majesty or plain good rhythm. My own senses do a fine job even after all this time on the  planet. After all, that’s why we’re born with them, to be provided with a rich human experience, gather and file information in our remarkable minds, enjoy bounties of earth and wonders of each other as we go forth.

There is this life to live each day as I will. I enjoy many freedoms of choice. For this I am grateful beyond measure. I do not desire a constant barrage of ideas, data and entertainment that someone else devised to woo my attention day in and day out. I like that “off” button almost more that the “on” one. I embrace the natural reality within human experience–flawed as it can be.

My son–a pro skater, residential/commercial painter, seeker of adventure–and I were talking yesterday about crickets and nature.

He said, “I could stand in my vegetable garden and listen to crickets for hours. I can’t get enough of them. Or even a chance to just meditate, to experience what is right here. To feel the mystery, you know?”

Yes, I know.

Last night as my husband and I were half-watching the Summer Olympics, I suddenly heard loud crickets outside our windows. It was if they had waited, then noted the same cue and began in full voice. It is not a usual spot for them to cluster. We turned off the television and leaned against the screens, then went outside and listened. A veritable symphony of naturally synchronized cricket music. It was a small rapture to be their audience. On our walks we are often treated with different performances on each block.

So I would ask the tech moguls to rein in that greed impulse, to not utterly take over the unfettered landscape. Please do not alter these daily amazements, so much complex beauty. Can you imagine life with crickets that are virtual? I would rather not. Rather, let us always savor the soft darkness, the hosting trees and bushes, the crickets hiding shyly while their singing fills the air.

No enhancements needed. No augmentation of reality required.

So, anybody up for a game of Scrabble or Balderdash, a pick-up game of basketball or a hike in the mountains? We can throw in a virtual game along the way if absolutely necessary, I suppose. If I am thought to be antiquated, I’m alright with that. Computers and their ilk are a social norm now and can be enriching; they have a place in my life. But we all still inhabit actual human bodies and this remains our planetary domain– if we are fortunate. And wise.

This Rain of Solitude

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The subtly greyed and matted clouds release fat drops and with it, its brief burden. Vast tangles of plants drink up, leaves dancing. The earth is an ancient darkened sponge, its green and multicolored varietals like personal attendants caring for its wellness. I want to disturb nothing, be only welcomed. Each stone and seed and bit of dirt, every worm and insect has been waiting for another rain and I, with them.

Sunshine presses against the drear; the day won’t let it in, or only so the air is gauzy with its brief pearlescence. Distant chimes vocalize in the sodden breeze as if heralding this gathering of moisture. Fragrances are released around my feet as I pause on a woodland pathway. My chest opens to inhale the primeval perfume of Noble firs. The damp expands in my lungs, courses to my face and fills my eyes with tears that detour to lodge in my throat. The rain covers me lightly and I am released into its favor.

I cannot walk far. The hard boot on my foot protects a broken toe and hinders exploration, but I persist. September’s argent air is transformed by an alchemy of ribbon of golden light; witnesses include myself and birds making note. Their voices are ebullient, soon half-tamed by more seepage from the sky. My hood goes up and I plod on.

The sturdiness of the day is apparent. I see it in the faces of those who pass with eager dogs in hand, children chortling as they play “catch and be caught” with a parent. But for me an almost tender solitude awakens inside the ashen quiet. It pulls me further into the woods as if we, too, play some devious game, pursued and pursuant. The air is a soft jostle on my skin. Trees whisper incantations only they can interpret though I listen deeply. I want to see what they see from their green glistening crowns but cannot scurry there.

Once, as a child, I did. Not here but elsewhere. Desire for another place and time folds me into a thousand paper cranes. What wish can be granted? Nostalgia makes me pull my jacket closer as rain seeks skin. But wishes are not real and my prayers are for something else. For stamina. For the gratitude and care that will keep it afloat. At this thought, my sister’s face somehow finds me, the one who passed in spring. My eyes close. Is this solitude made of a sheaf of tenderness, of grief, or foolish yearning? How alone we are, yes, unto loneliness when we do not suspect it.

A phantom–not my sister, no; something never bodied yet recognizable–is shadowing me. It wraps itself around my shoulders like a comfortable but holey shawl, one that’s woven with losses and longings. More, a spectral thing that has no voice but those found inside dreaming and imagining, no words but those uttered without sound. It’s name is melancholy.

It is an old companion. It will not desert me even now when nearer the denouement of my adventures rather than beginnings. There may be reasons why it comes upon me in this rain-blessed wood or any other moment but they matter less and less. A knowledge of sadness arrives with us as we exit the refuge of our mothers. Humans are made to manage its shifting weight alongside lightness of elation. It’s counterbalance, acceptance. At times I hold this sadness close like a lost thing, its vulnerable ache a plea not refusable.

I am seized by a restless longing and the desire to weep. I cannot run with foot impaired and so I wait.

The power of the trees, bold and tall amid the drenching rain, is the power of time, of being tested and found mighty, so now remaining. They incorporate a mystery we cannot know enough with mind but with our blood, in the dormant spheres of soul. In the gleaming, darkening wood there is this reminder: at the heart of sorrow is a beauty; in the center of beauty is infinite renewal.

I breathe in the piney air, let my being rest.

Melancholia is a remembering and a forgetting. It lets me see backwards to all the times I knew what love was, and all the times I did not. It takes me to innocence and slow shredding of it. It hears the keening of the world and gathers in my small voice. But it urges me to believe in something finer than all that has been misplaced or traded or lost. For my heart to be offered to the world as if it was indestructible.

The touch of all this is enough to hurl me right back to God. I ask how does one person make a difference but the woods are silent and watchful of my species. Kind, yes, the grand old firs, but unwilling to tell me more than what they already have. It must be enough. And I, as well, within this lonliness. And so I leave.

Melancholia plunges me into deeper waters of place and people, of body and soul. And so the rain today has carried me along. I have learned that to surge against its movement will result in a price I do not want to pay. I heed this and give in. It is one more feeling only, another bit of evidence that reveals that I am alive upon this earth.

At home again, I am listening to Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 30, “Romantic”. It takes me to that part of life where music has ever spoken to me with vivid promises. Where sweetness evolves from sour, good blooms from maligned or discarded seed.

As a teen during too brief a season in my life–those ectstatic youthful times–the one in which I was making music daily, I found treasures that stay with me. Though impetuous I was kept moving forward with ongoing lessons in self-discipline, gaining strength for the years to come. I thrived on nourishment of my innermost being and could not imagine otherwise.

I recall one summer, perhaps age fourteen. I would stand apart from other arts campers, shoulders back, spine so straight then (that age giving me a glimpse of sensual perfection) as forest breath mingled with mine. I surveyed the wide indigo lake nestled between black-green northern pines and knew it was going to be alright, all of it, Hurts and yearnings. Tenuous hope and intense, mind-boggling wonder. Knew that there would never be any other choice but to give way to a passionate devotion to life, come what may. I felt it as God’s presence, mysterious and potent. There was a true point of balance within reach if I released my fears. In reality it became so, later. But a tinge of sadness–that what we adore can be taken from us and this includes everything– remained like a secret, buried deep, indelible as the color of my eyes.

I am writing in the midst of a softer, quieter September afternoon, as if the rainfall has removed brittleness from the last vestiges of summer. As if the land is made fecund with different bounties. Wet winds have ceased to sweep across the city while throngs of clouds float by, their vaporous innards aglimmer with autumn light. There is a richness stirring within me. I stay very still.

The Solitude Which Longs for Me and I, It…

Last week-end, I did  something wonderful that I so often do: I took to nature and filled up. I was hungry for the smallest mundane and stunning wonders. It has always been vital to move within a canopy of trees and meditate by running or still waters. To lay my head upon flower-jeweled grasses or lay my hand atop the chill, ancient bulk of rocks that line a trail.

Sometimes it is more crucial than others.

All the work-week long I sit in small rooms and attend to people who bring me eruptions of tears; stories that unravel like epic histories with no beginning or end; silences that throb with such swirled feelings and accompanying consternation that all they can do is… wait… for more language to tame the rawness of the telling.

Grief they carry in on their backs and then hold it tightly as though afraid it will vanish and leave them lonely. Invisible murderous things done by word and hand. Gaping voids where love once lived and then was misplaced or forgotten or ruined.  They seek healing, small stitches over wounds that feel good instead of bad, like fine, strong embroidery that will hold for a lifetime and eave no more scars. They hope for magic, the one key that will make the doors spring open and reveal the reward for the suffered moments of lives derailed.

And I am only one woman sitting in a chair by the window, the light falling across folded hands, my eyes seeking theirs, my heart by turns breaking for them and beating strong. I can honor their tellings with respect and attention. I can assist them with escape from lifelong addiction into new freedom from slavery. I can lay compassion before them and hope it is discovered, caught, taken home at the end of the hour. But I am only an ordinary woman sitting by a window, the delicate spring light falling across my shoulders, illuminating their bewildered faces. I listen because that is what I choose to do. I do not flinch, unless you count the closing of my eyes when the pain requires a prayer for mercy. Anyone knows I cannot save lives, unlike the EMTs or surgeons and others fitted with skills and tools I do not have. The only answer my clients receive is that they can and will learn to save themselves. Or will not, as they ultimately decide. I can and will stand watch over them. Steady them when they allow me close. Tell them: risk this step.

I wait to see who braves the 0bstacles in order to move toward a richer life. And who does not. The suspense keeps me alert, drives the quiet detective work. It keeps me awake some nights, revisiting clues, the storylines of these wandering souls: Let me be a good, sturdy signpost, I pray.

And so when the weekly work days are done, I go to the woods or the marshland; the hills and mountains; the coastal spaces. When I call out from my center, the waters answer, mountains echo, and  creatures like salamanders, crickets or redtail hawks, deer and coyotes take note but continue their work. I am coming for cleansing, for replenishment and to learn, a pilgrim on my own journey. They see me arrive before I see them; they hear me as I slow to interpret flowers and currents. My breathing quiets. Their noses test the drift of air and find me there.

And I am welcomed.

I  finally can stop thinking and begin to emulate a mossy hillock or a luminescent stone caught in seafoam. My ragged life rises and falls with my steps, gets stronger, brightens with refocused vision. It slips along the edge of a pond and stretches in the sun beside snake and snail. It is put on pause by orange starfish clinging to a basalt wall. Yet, too, my life becomes blissfully smaller, is condensed and rolled about so that it changes. I can feel it. The dirt, ferns, bees let me pass over trails. The brush of wind against arm and cheek lifts my spirit above treetops. My feet familiarize themselves with sudden ruts, delight in empty shells or broken branches; they greet valleys or agate-strewn beaches. A banana slug ignores my dance around its path. The birds offer a lyrical call and response and it is as though God, yes, God actually breathes Breath into emerald-hued air.

As I move through shadow and light, all that I brought here, all that is compressed by sorrow, distorted by anger–all that makes humans haunt each other and themselves–has been left to the ether. It has abandoned me to the deep solace of an earthly refuge. I am anonymous, unimportant, yet held close as though I belong just as spider and trillium. And as in that other life–the one that is full of people who create both good and ill will–my intent is to do no harm, to meld with the design.

A  moment longer by a river. The water tells me: Do not let the thorny banks encroach. Let life open, soften, deepen you. Bring your thirst, fill up, for there is enough for all. This holy solitude longs for you as you for it. Rest. Then be fearless in love.

The music of the gentling waters comes to me like a symphony and I reach within to a still, small point. Vanish in plain sight.

Then through the lattice of branches and leaves flow many voices: children making their way and laughing, grown people finding their footing. Locating beauty and being amazed. I move quietly and disappear into the sun-dappled sanctuary, taking with me the pleasure and sanctity of many living things, and peace renewed. Reluctantly, I turn to go. As the world returns to my consciousness with all its transformative, difficult knowledge, I am ready. Until I seek the embrace of solitude once more.