Today, I flew my kite – for the first time in far too long.
We’d driven out to Frinton-on-Sea, on the Essex coast. Behind the beach and promenade is a wide, open area of grassland known as the greensward – perfect for flying kites in the sea breeze.
My kite is an “easy flyer” – it’s very simple to get into the air and doesn’t do anything spectacular – just hangs there, dancing to the wind’s rhythms.
Nonetheless, quite a few people noticed the kite, looked to the sky and watched awhile – children, of course, but adults too. One man came up to me to chat about it.
Kite flying must be one of the most purely playful of pastimes, with no purpose other than the simple pleasure of raising the kite into the sky and keeping it there.
And it occurred to me…
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our lives too caused others to raise their eyes heavenward, even momentarily?
Not because of anything ‘spectacular’ we’ve done, but simply through us dancing to the rhythms of the wind of the Spirit.
The photo is of my kite today. It is a Skydog 48″ Rainbow Best Flier which I bought from Kiteworld (other kite suppliers are available!) They don’t seem to stock this particular kite any more, but they do have the almost identical Skydog 48″ Tie Dye Best Flier. If you don’t have a kite that you fly already, why not find one you like the look of and give it a go?!
In case you don’t know about parkrun, it is a 5km (3.1 mile) timed running event, held each week in hundreds of parks across the UK and beyond. It is entirely free to take part, and is open to runners (and, indeed, walkers) of all abilities.
Last Saturday was the 3rd birthday of my local parkrun, held in the beautiful surroundings of Raphael Park, close to the centre of Romford on the outskirts of London. One of the joys of parkrun for me is seeing the park change with the seasons each Saturday morning throughout the year.
Last week there were 314 participants, from ages 10 to 80+, with times ranging from just over 17 minutes to just under 53 minutes – and everything in between.
As these times illustrate, it really doesn’t matter whether you’re an elite runner or a slowish walker – everyone is welcome, and everyone receives encouragement from the other runners and brilliant team of volunteers (without whom no parkrun would take place).
Indeed, one of the things that I love the most about parkrun is the ‘tailwalker’ – a volunteer who stays right at the back to accompany and encourage the slowest participants. However slow you think you are, you will never be last!
Perhaps the best recommendation I can give is that I – who had not run in the 30+ years since school, and who still doesn’t run at any other time – have now clocked up 83 parkruns! If someone like me can get so enthusiastic about running, it just goes to show what a great event parkrun is!
So, having recently written about work, rest & play – and the need for a better balance in our lives – where does parkrun fit in?
Well, to be brutally honest, it certainly feels like bloomin’ hard work! And staggering around the course is hardly restful!
Yet parkrunning is ‘work’ that I choose to do, not that I am obliged to do – and, however hard I find it, that choice makes parkrun feel much less like work and much more like play. And whilst certainly not ‘rest’, participating in parkrun has one of the benefits of rest, in that it helps to restore me from the rigours of a week’s work.
True, parkrun could be more playful if I didn’t add the self-imposed ‘obligation’ to finish in the best time I can – if I were happy just to trot round slowly, chatting with the other runners and enjoying the surroundings. And perhaps I should do this once in a while.
But there’s nothing wrong with a bit of hard work – especially if we’ve chosen to do it. I enjoy the challenge of ‘completing against myself’ and against the clock (though not necessarily whilst actually running!) And I enjoy it particularly because I’m doing so not on my own, but with others who have the same love of parkrunning.
So, if you’ve never experienced this yourself, why not give it a go? Simply find your local pakrun, register online, print out your barcode – and then enjoy the run! You won’t regret it!
Thank you for reading this. Please do share with others, and let me know what you think – and especially if it encourages you to do parkrun! Thank you!
Those of us of a certain age (and who grew up in the UK) will doubtless remember this advertising slogan:
A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play.
Sadly the slogan is no more, presumably consigned to history by more rigorous advertising standards.
But – it seems to me – ‘work, rest and play’ is a pretty good summary for the whole of life.
Everything we do is either work or rest or play – and a balanced life will allow a good amount of time for all three.
So, it’s instructive to consider just how much time we do give to work and rest and play.
Because I suspect that most of us are living unbalanced lives, overly dominated by work, with rest and play squeezed into the margins.
And when I say ‘work’ I don’t mean only paid (or, indeed, unpaid) employment – the increasingly inappropriately named ‘nine-to-five’.
By ‘work’ I mean anything that we are obliged to do – or feel obliged to do – or which has some ‘goal’ or ‘purpose’ beyond the satisfaction and pleasure of the activity itself.
Put another way, ‘rest’ is when we are ‘busy doing nothing’ (to quote Bing Crosby), ‘play’ is when we a busy doing something to no purpose (see What is Play?) and ‘work’ is everything else.
Of course, few activities will be pure work or rest or play, but thinking in these terms can help us to recognise just how unbalanced our lives have become.
Please understand, I am not saying that work is a bad thing. There are many things that rightly need to be done. Work can be satisfying, enjoyable and fulfilling But, in the long run, too much work is not good for us.
So why not take some time the look back on the past day, the past week, the past month, the past year? Just how much of your time is spent striving to fulfil some obligation or another?
Well, if an ‘unplayful’ commute is about getting from A to B as quickly as possible, then a playful commute could involve a more circuitous route and a little more time (by design, rather than the vagaries of the transport system!)
We could, for example:
Make a detour from our usual bee-line. Drive down a back road or walk down a side street. See somewhere different.
Use an alternate form of transport, if available. Here in London we are spoilt for choice: train, tube, tram, bus, river bus – even cable car!
Walk or cycle, where possible – exercise, feel good, and avoid the undoubted aggravation & potential delays of ‘rush hour’.
Walk slowly, and give ourselves time to truly observe all that is around us.
Stop off along the way – to enjoy a coffee, read a book, or simply watch the world go by.
I’m not suggesting we do this every day. It’s probably not possible, and could become an obligation (and, hence, ‘work’) in itself.
But it might be good to give ourselves a bit more time, and mix things up, every now and then.
And if we can make our daily commute feel a bit more playful, then surely there’s hope for the rest of our lives?!
Thank you for reading this. Please do share with others, and let me know what you think. Thank you!
In my previous post I suggested that play has no purpose – and encouraged us to make all of life more playful by incorporating more things that have no purpose at all!
But, of course, the reality is that life is full of things that ‘have to be done’. I was going to enumerate some of them here – but, quite frankly, you hardly need me to remind you of all your obligations and the nagging demands on your time!
(Often these ‘obligations’ are ones that we impose on ourselves. No one is demanding that I write this blog post – and no one would care if I didn’t – but just at the moment the struggle to articulate my thoughts feels much more like work than play!)
More positively, much of what we do should have a purpose. In the words of Sir Marcus Browning, MP (comic creation of Rowan Atkinson):
Purpose is what we’re striving for. We must have purpose. We mustn’t be purposeless. We mustn’t exhibit purposnessless. We must be purposelessnessless.
It is is right that we don’t waste all the gifts we’ve been given – metaphorically burying them in the ground like the servant in Jesus’ parable of the talents – but rather use them to make a difference for good. To be the agents of change in the world, wherever and however we can.
Indeed, more than simply dull, but dulled, diminished, reduced: less than the person we were created to be.
Yes, we need to work – to do things with a purpose, an aim, a goal – but we need to play too!
I don’t subscribe to the idea of a ‘purpose driven life’. I don’t believe our lives should be ‘driven’. We are meant to be childlike, playful people.
But how to be playful when there seems to be little enough time for work, let alone play?
Firstly, choose to take time to play. To do something for no other reason than the sheer joy and pleasure of doing so. And we do have that choice. Not all of the time; perhaps not much of the time; but certainly some of the time. It’s simply a matter of priorities – of whether we believe that play is important (HINT: Yes, it is! Very!)
Secondly, given that we spend much of our time working, make work more playful. By ‘work’ I mean, of course, more than paid (or, indeed, unpaid) employment – I mean anything we do in order to achieve something; anything we do for some reason other than the sheer joy and pleasure of doing so.
And how do we do this? By incorporating into our work elements that have no purpose; things that are quite superfluous and unnecessary, and which play no part in the achievement of our goal – but which add a little joy and pleasure.
What might this look like in practice? I’ve got some ideas for an example – but that’s for another day!
Thank you for reading this. Please do share with others, and let me know what you think. Thank you!
Obviously I’m being deliberately provocative here, but I do mean what I say: play, at its purest, does not set out to achieve anything.
The more any activity has a goal to attain, an outcome to achieve, the less like play it becomes.
For example, which is more playful: an Olympic athlete, training and striving for a medal; or a little child, running and spinning and leaping, wherever and however the mood takes them?
This is why it is so hard for our work to feel playful – because, by definition, work has a goal, whereas play does not. We ‘work towards’ something, we don’t ‘play towards’ it.
Of course, much real play does have a ‘goal’ of its own – to build a sandcastle, or complete a puzzle, or finish (and perhaps win) a game. So the distinction between work and play is primarily one of external goals – work is a means to an end, whereas play is an end in itself.
(Having said this, I do think that perhaps the purest, most playful play is play that has no goal at all, just a joy in the activity of the present moment – such as the running, spinning, leaping child mentioned above.)
For example, cooking can be playful if we are trying out new recipes, but rather less so when we just need to put food on the table.
Of course, play does have numerous benefits – but these cannot be our reason to play.
C S Lewis – author of the Narnia books, and much else besides – wrote this:
You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.
This principle can be seen right across all aspects of our lives, but concerning play and playfulness it could be rewritten like this:
You can’t get the benefits of play by making these the purpose of play; you can get the benefits of play only by being playful for it’s own sake.
In other words, the more we seek the benefits of play, the less like play it becomes; and the less like play it becomes, the more we’ll miss out on the very benefits of play that we seek.
But if, on the other hand, we simply give ourselves over to playfulness, then we’ll find that in the purity of our play, we get the benefits of play ‘thrown in for free’.
So, what does this all mean in practice? I hope, perhaps, to explore this a bit further in future posts (although, judging by my previous record, this might be something of a vain hope on my part!) For now, I’ll leave us with two simple takeaways:
On the up escalator
You’re on the up escalator
But you’re living in an upside down world
Up Escalator by Love and Money
From the album Strange Kind of Love
Love and Money are, to my mind, one of the most underrated and neglected bands of the late 80s and early 90s.
A rock/soul/funk band formed in 1985 in Glasgow, Scotland … in their initial nine years together they recorded four moderately successful albums … and had six chart hits in the United Kingdom. (Wikipedia)
I have been a fan of their music ever since I first heard the superb single Halleluiah Man on my car radio sometime in 1988 – I couldn’t get myself out of the car till the song finished, and then couldn’t get it out of my head.
I have two of the four albums – Strange Kind of Love (1988) and Dogs in Traffic (1991) – and listening to the former recently I was struck for the first time (in nearly 30 years!) by the lines quoted earlier:
On the up escalator
You’re on the up escalator
But you’re living in an upside down world
The songs protagonist is climbing their way to worldly “success”, crushing anyone who steps in their way. But their climb to success is actually a descent to the depths, because they’ve got their priorities all wrong – they’re “living in an upside down world”.
What struck me was the fact that we are all of us living in an upside down world. Because ultimately this world is God’s kingdom, an upside-down kingdom, a topsy-turvy kingdom, in which:
the first are last and the last are first;
the one who rules is like the one who serves;
those who seem to be weaker are indispensable;
those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted;
the greatest is a little child
Hence, in order to go up in this upside down world, we need to go down in the eyes of the world. To humble ourselves as Jesus did. Seeking not to become Something or Someone, but rather seeking to serve, as one of the least and the last.
Willing to walk the way of littleness, to greatness in God’s kingdom.
Certainly it’s true that children embrace Advent and Christmas in a way that few adults are able to do. And little wonder, when there’s so much for them to get excited about!
There’s the timeless story of the Nativity, with the shepherds and the angels, the wise men and the star, Mary & Joseph journeying to Bethlehem and finding ‘no room in the inn’, the stable with its animals, and the baby Jesus, laying in a manger.
There’s Father Christmas, in his workshop in the frozen north, with the elves preparing the presents that Santa will deliver on his magic sleigh, pulled through the air by a team of reindeer, guided by red-nosed Rudolph.
There are all the Christmas decorations, the trees and the tinsel, the baubles and the lights, strung across streets, hung from the houses, winking from the windows.
There are Advent calendars to count down the days, with windows to open revealing pictures or chocolates, each open window a sign that Christmas is getting closer.
There are cards to make and to send & receive, perhaps via a post box in the school foyer (does this happen anymore?!) There are carols to sing and perhaps a play to perform (be that a traditional Nativity or something more ‘unusual’!)
There are treats and sweets and good things to eat, and of course there’s the anticipation of Christmas morning, with the thrill of presents to unwrap (recognising that, sadly, not every child is so fortunate).
So yes, Christmas is for the children. But must it be only for the children? Couldn’t it be for us adults too – for the child within us all?
Because we need ‘the spirit of Christmas’ just as much as the children do – and arguably more so.
It’s all too easy to become weighed down by the inevitable cares and concerns of adulthood – to become jaded and hardened and cynical.
How much more do we need the things that Advent and Christmas offer us: the anticipation and the excitement, the wonder and the awe, the joy and the laughter, the mystery and the magic?
Now, some might contend that the Christmas celebrations far too commercialised, that they ignore ‘the true meaning of Christmas’, that what they offer is artificial and superficial, rather than true mystery and magic and joy.
And perhaps there is some truth in this. But as adults are can become so closed to such childlike things that we need something to open us up again.
The ‘artificial and superficial’ of Advent and Christmas can help to change our minds and soften our hearts, and so make us more receptive to the real thing,
Of course, you cannot pretend to a childhood naivety that you no longer possess. You cannot truly see Christmas as a child.
But perhaps you could start by recalling your childhood, and remembering what you found special about Advent and Christmas?
Perhaps you could revive some Christmas traditions – or create some new ones?
Perhaps you could allow the children themselves to show you this season afresh, through a child’s eyes?
Whatever you do, try to set aside your adult reservations and scepticism, open yourself to the ‘spirit of Christmas’ and seek out opportunities to enter into all the good and childlike things this season has to offer.
Prompted by Tanya Marlow’s Advent Resources 2016 post, I thought I’d share some of the things I read and watch and listen to during Advent and Christmas. Even if none strike a particular chord, perhaps you could consider what might help you journey intentionally through the coming season?
Each Advent since 2013 I have signed up for Brian Draper’s Advent 20 email series. The daily reflections and suggested responses inspire and gently challenge, and help me to keep my focus amidst all the busyness. The series is shaped by the replies Brian encourages and receives, and which he shares with those taking part. In this way there is very much a sense of us as an online community, travelling through Advent together. I’m looking forward to this year’s journey – why not join us?
For the past couple of years I have appreciated the daily poems and reflections of Haphazard by Starlight by Janet Morely, but this year I am looking forward to Malcolm Guite’s Waiting on the Word (both books mentioned by Tanya). I wish I had the time and head-space and heart-space for both!
I don’t think there’s been a year when I haven’t had an Advent calendar (and I’m almost 52!) As well as taking me back to the excitement of childhood, it’s good to notice and mark the days’ passing. I like a calendar with a traditional nativity scene (as my mum got me when I was a child) ideally with images from the Christmas story hidden behind the windows, and certainly no chocolate!
We also have an Advent candle, which we try to remember to light each day – and to extinguish before it burns down too far!
I aim to watch the BBC mini-series The Nativity in weekly parts throughout Advent (although, if I remember correctly, I did once end up watching it all at once on Christmas Eve!) Some might argue with the way the tale is told (particularly, perhaps, Joseph’s reaction) but for me it brings the various (sometimes conflicting) strands together in a way that emphasises the reality of it all – even if it didn’t happen exactly the way it’s depicted.
Nativity!, Elf (of course!) and Arthur Christmas have also become family traditions – and each, in its own way, reflects something of the spirit of the season (as well as being great fun!)