Here we are, heading into a new year with a word to guide us. In case you’re not familiar with the concept of having a word for the year, it’s to provide a focal point on which one contemplates throughout the year. Sometimes a word will come to you, or sometimes you will find that you are stuck on a word, and either way is fine. This isn’t something mandatory or rigid in the way that one thinks of sticking to resolutions. It’s more like expanding any given experience by thinking, “Now, what would (insert your word here) bring to this situation?”
My word for 2014 is frolic, although at first, I tried to scrape it off the way I’d clear the bottom of my shoe after stepping in something unpleasant.
Words that invoke happy images make me uncomfortable. Part of me believes that happiness is a crock. Happiness doesn’t truly exist, except in the form of joy, fickle and fleeting. So I was hoping for a better word, wishing for one to settle down on me, wave a flag in my face so I’d recognize it. Something I’m already comfortable with. Responsibility. Commitment. Family. A word that I could explore a little more deeply, but that wouldn’t demand that I expose myself.
Then, my friend Nils died on Christmas.
I met Nils in 2007 when he mentored me for a class called The Particularity of Play. He was eager to discuss his theories on play, and eager to press me into unexplored realms. He had a wicked sense of humor and sensed my discomfort. He said that in order to study play, I’d have to actually do it. Imagine that.
I’d have to do it in ways that weren’t comfortable or fun.
Like sit quietly for a minimum of thirty minutes a day and think.
Like sit for another thirty and not think.
Like write whatever came to mind without worrying if it made sense.
Like twirl. Dance. Get an imaginary friend.
Like making marks on paper and calling it art. Change the way I made my mark in the world.
Nils made a lot of marks, and many of his marks were nudes.
I made some attempts to draw marks on paper with charcoal and pencil. They were dreadful. I sent them to him because part of playing is admitting you did. Not caring about the outcome. He wrote back.
“Try erasing,” he said.
I laughed. Was erasing the way to improve bad art?
Nils was like that. He took some of his paintings that hadn’t sold and drug them along the ground behind his old truck or tractor till they were scraped up and ruined. He thought that improved them some.
“Don’t make your work precious,” he said.
He made pots and then threw mud at them. I brought him some mud from my lake for a pot. He threw it at paper instead, then painted, then threw more mud at it. I have one of those paintings. He called it Vaginal Discord. There’s a companion piece he titled Penile Glitch after his second wife Diane passed away. He was feeling lonely and sad. He was going to give it to me, but I didn’t make it over there this summer or fall because my husband was ill.
Nils rarely gave me his art. He always sold it to me for some pittance. The painting would be marked $600, $800, $1200 and he’d say, “For you, it’s $99.95.”
“Nils,” I’d say, “That’s ridiculous. If you’re going to sell it to me for that low, you could just give it to me.”
“I could,” he’d say, “but it’s more fun to make you pay a little.”
Nils published excerpts from my final paper in the textbook he used in his classes at Linfield, The Play Book. For the years I knew him, play was a cornerstone in Nils’ life and his work.
Diane Ackerman wrote: “There are moments on the brink, when you can give yourself to a lover, or not; give in to self-doubt, uncertainty, and admonishment, or not; dive into a different culture, or not; set sail for the unknown, or not; walk out onto a stage, or not. A moment only a few seconds long, when your future hangs in the balance, poised above a chasm, It is a crossroads.”
The cataclysmic possibilities for play exist at that crossroads. Our willingness to fully engage in openness, spontaneity, humor, and vulnerability despite the risk of danger and the seeming futility of hope, promises to be a source of transformation through adult play. That apocalypse may come in the deep look that offers ecstatic connection, the automatic response of muscle memory, affirmations of value, release of tension, or mastery of self.
Nils was the master of play. I miss him already.
In his honor, I embrace play’s cousin, Frolic. Nils would be amused.
Infuse some humor and play into your experience with your word this year, won’t you?
Betty McNamee Explore
Chris Lareau Unperturbable
Colleen Strom Attention
Dani Rexine Release
Deb Stone Frolic
Deb Johnson Nies Stretch
Debbie Meyer Accept
Emilie Finn Reach
Frankie Kennedy-Sordahl More
Giovanna Zivny Choose
Heather Misner Oster Be
Heather Whitlock Love
Jamie Malone Presence
Jen Kauppi Discard
Jessica Morrell Steadfast
Joe Koziol Honor
Lim Hale Live
Leigh Anne Jasheway Unflappable
Linda Mullen Lloyd Simplify
Lisa Cihlar Seed
Lisa Rymer Aware
Mark Beuger Turn
Mary Ward Create
M.K. Hobson Gratitude
Molly Haslebacher Connect
Molly Mandelberg Patience
Natasha Reck Fullmer Christ
Paige Hirt Less
Robert Holcomb Courage
Sable Jak Be
Susie Klein Wonder
Sunny Olsen Softer
Suzanne Shaw Precious
Toni Morgan Bloom
Vincent Bambini Inseparable
If you find your word, or your word finds you, feel free to post yours below. I’ll post occasionally to share how my word and I are getting along, and invite you to do the same.