I recently learned I have high cholesterol, which comes as a shock to my youngest-child-always-surprised-at-aging self. In response to the news, I’ve stepped up my walking program. I even walk the treadmill at the YMCA when the temperature dips down—something I’m loathe to do, since I’d rather be outside moving from one place to another, enjoying the scenery. The treadmill became tolerable only after I realized I could read a book and walk at the same time!
I’m not a great exerciser and have never been athletic. But I love it when exercise is the by-product of something, not the point. I’d rather get my heart pumping from vigorous indoor or outdoor work, or lose myself in an activity that’s fun but also good for my body. However, like many of us, part of my vocation requires me to spend long hours in a chair, so I’m trying, one day at a time, to incorporate movement into my days. But rather than work at my play, I want to enjoy it.
I love swimming and for the last two summers faithfully swam laps at the Y. If you have to exercise and love being in water, it’s a good way to go. But what I really love is swimming. Just swimming. Not in a lane, not counting laps, and with no agenda other than the sheer pleasure of moving through water.
The house where I grew up in California in the 1960s and 70s had a built-in swimming pool. It was rectangular, five feet at the deep end, with no steps. The pool was primitive and at the end of every summer my parents emptied the water with a pump, then covered the empty hole with a giant piece of black plastic held in place by large rocks. When spring came, our yearly ritual was pulling off the plastic and scrubbing the winter’s growth of green muck from the pool walls and floor. We then gave it the annual coat of blue paint and filled it with fresh water for a new season.
I spent years of happy hours in that pool. I was not a child in possession of a charmed life, but in that water I was glad and free. My friend Joanne and I spent whole afternoons swimming underwater, legs together and feet pointed out like mermaid fins. We played leapfrog, swam races, and toasted each other, pinkies up, with imaginary cups of underwater tea.
In the evenings my mother called to me through the sliding screen door to come in for dinner. “Okay Mom, I’m coming.” Fifteen minutes later, “Be there in just a minute.” Ten minutes later. “I promise, I’m getting out, just one more second.” On and on until I’d squeezed every possible moment of water time out of the day and drove my mother to exasperation.
As an adult, swimming still has that wonderful power over me, but now I find it hard to let the water have its way. Even while I’m on vacation at the beach, I experience a tug of war between my duty-driven self and my playful self. Within half an hour of swimming in the ocean I usually feel an invisible pull to get out. Several times I start towards dry land, only to ask myself, Why? Then I fall back in the water and swim into the deep again. It’s so hard to untie from the habit of schedules and agendas. But if I give in, the water calls forth something in me that’s young and unburdened.
A number of years ago I flew from Tennessee to California to help my sister settle into a new house. It was a good move for her, though born out of difficult circumstances and full of mixed emotions. On Sunday, we took a day for fun and rest. The weather was hot and she remembered that her fitness club had an outdoor pool. We spent the entire afternoon swimming, talking, remembering, laughing, and jumping up and down in the water. I saw something in the face of my sister that I rarely saw in those days—relaxation, pleasure, and enjoyment. Tension and anxiety took a momentary vacation, leaving us both playful and carefree.
These days, when my husband and I visit our extended family in California, bike riding nurtures us. The terrain is flat and there are bike lanes everywhere. Three and four times a day we hop on our single-speed cruisers, basking in the warm sun on our skin. Within minutes of riding we feel the weight of the world dropping off our shoulders and breathe out grateful sighs of Thank you, Lord. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Play is an essential, but often forgotten aspect of life. We leave it behind when we enter the serious business of adulthood and too often forget to pick it up again. We go for long stretches of time, working hard and persevering with one thing and another—projects and people. In particularly weary and anxious seasons, I often recognize in myself a longing to experience something completely other. It begins to well up inside until I feel I could burst from the need for a change.
Chuck and I are not very good at making play and rest a regular part of life. A few years ago we were at Laity Lodge in the hill country of Texas, listening to Marva Dawn speak on a “Sabbath way of life.” We were profoundly moved by her teaching, both of us leaking tears all the way through, and knew we were at a crossroads concerning how we lived. We could go back home and continue on with a life that rarely made room for one day out of seven to be different, or we could, with God’s help, learn what it means to honour him by setting apart one day a week to cease our work and our worry, trusting that all would be well if we did. We truly wanted the latter.
So we went home and continued the conversation we’d started while floating on an inner tube down the Frio River. We made plans for the times when travel, family needs, or houseguests indicated choosing a day other than Sunday for a Sabbath. We wrote down practical ideas gleaned from Marva’s talks to aid in ceasing our worry and work. Keeping our laptops closed for the day was one of them. With one slip of the lid and a look at email, we can easily be led off into the concerns from which we’re trying to rest.
One of the big ideas Marva communicated was that in trusting God for a Sabbath day, we intentionally practice ceasing from our messiah complex—the deeply embedded thinking that the world can’t get on without us for twenty-four hours. She also writes in her book, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting, that “the very process of ceasing from work uncorks our spontaneity and frees our childlike ability to play.”
I wish I could say that since our time in Texas we’ve gotten the whole Sabbath thing down, but we haven’t. We began in earnest and had some good weeks, but gradually we lost our rhythm. Hospitality is a central factor in our life and work, and that more than anything makes the regularity of Sabbath keeping difficult. But it doesn’t exempt us from obedience to God in the matter of Sabbath, nor does it take away our human need for re-creation. Without it, our welcome only becomes unwelcoming.
Two weeks ago we were back at Laity Lodge for another retreat and God was prodding us again. In the Great Hall of the lodge, Chuck and I held each other and prayed. We prayed for “more of this and less of that”—more times of refreshing, more trust, more joy, and less self-inflicted pressure and stress.
One of the gifts of the weekend was to meet the inspiring poet-writer-editor Luci Shaw. At 81, she continues to work hard and play hard, even bungee jumping in New Zealand a few years ago! I am not adventurous enough to have any bungee jumping desires of my own, but I am asking God to give me some of what Luci has—her vibrancy, her curiosity, and her zest for life.
I want to become a woman wise enough to delight in the amazing gift of being human. I don’t want the brightness to slowly leak out of me because I settled for the dulling effects of a life without play. For as long as I’m able I want to swim like a fish, ride my bike, read poetry and novels, and walk in the beauty of God’s creation. I want to play board games and dance with my grandchildren under the disco ball. I’m fifty-four now, but when I’m older, I hope I’ll be able to say along with the poet Mary Oliver, “Though I’m not twenty and won’t be again but ah! seventy. And still in love with life. And still full of beans.”