I have been reading about the concept of “deep play,” which author Diane Ackerman describes as “an ecstatic form of play. In its thrall, all the play elements are visible, but they’re taken to intense and transcendent heights.” In her book on the subject, Ackerman explains that deep play — whether experienced via athletics, gaming, gardening, breathwork, art, wood-working — invites “rapture” and “awakens the most creative, sentient, and joyful aspects of our inner selves.”
Deep play emerges us in activities that call to us over long periods of time, occasionally teaching us new things but often existing as a kind of pure and unavailing joy, consumed privately and without gain. There are no end goals, objectives, obvious material earnings from this kind of play. It is play for the sake of play.
Reading about this, I thought immediately of an indulgent, frivolous kind of “pre-writing” I have undertaken almost daily since I was eight or nine. When I am walking Tilly, or driving vacantly down the familiar routes of our daily life, or — especially — laying down to sleep at night, I will often enter this “pre-textual” space where I draw and re-draw the contours of a couple of frothy, shallow plot lines that center around a heroine falling in love. These stories have never made their way onto a page, and though elements remain the same, many of the details are overwritten over the course of months and months (turned years and years) of visitations. I also routinely dispense of the boring back stories and narrative buttresses that would be required of a story on paper, presented to an audience.
Now, I subscribe to the belief that, as a creator, I know nothing of the merit of my productions; those appraisals are the work of the audience. But, this writing — this pre-writing, at least — is, objectively, bad. The language I conjure is flat, unadorned, perfunctory. Sometimes the language is even underbaked, as I don’t always transliterate the cinema of the stories into words. Sometimes I’m just watching the story unfold in my mind’s eye. The stories themselves are imperceptive and puerile. It is the worst kind of romantic comedy. I think of it like paper tableware: cheap, disposable, void of craft. Used only to temporarily hold too-sweet or too-greasy party food.
But my God — is it fun. I have spent countless hours of my life in this liminal, pre-creative space, and I had never — not once — thought of it as anything but daydream. And don’t we all daydream? But, reflecting on the concepts of “deep play,” I realized these narrative re-workings represent a peculiar kind of imagining. My mind travels immediately to their familiar grooves, caressing and changing elements with godlike capriciousness–and yet I travel the same tracks each time. It is cinematic, and deeply indulgent. I don’t feel this kind of play takes me to “transcendent heights” or “awakens the most sentient aspect of my inner self,” but it does release me entirely from the practical and productive self I present to the world. And something about the sequestration of an unbridled version of myself is deeply fulfilling.
What about you?
If you are reading this through squinting, suspicious eyes, I guarantee you have your own form of deep play. I spent a few minutes thinking of every deeply-loved person in my life and easily identified at least one or two candidates apiece, even for the seemingly “serious” ones. I have friends and loved ones devoted to golf, video games, flower arranging, gardening, “cropping” (making collages/albums out of paper and photographs), biking, knitting, trumpet-playing, tennis, cooking, puzzles, drawing, crafting of various obscure varieties, bug-collecting (!), rock-climbing, skiing, swimming, meditation, painting, needlepoint, pickling, bread-making, wood-working, card solitaire —
The list could go on for a long time. Interestingly, many of us find these pastimes embarrassing — or at least find ourselves wont to minimize them. Few of us consider these avocations forms of meditation, but I think that’s exactly what they are. I invited my Magpies to share thoughts on their modes of “deep play” over Instagram last week and received a steady stream of lovely, insightful replies, including messages like: “As a long distance runner, after a certain point, everything comes into focus and my body responds with chills and even tears sometimes. It’s powerful.” Another Magpie wrote: “I knit, crochet, needlepoint. Love being productive with hands while I relax mind/body,” and still another: “Tennis! All of my brain is focused so I can’t think of anything else.” These bear all the markings of transcendence, emerging, dreamlike and wondrous, in the narrow and nearly mundane repetition of specific movements.
When Seamus Heaney won the Nobel prize for literature in 1995, he spoke about crediting poetry in words I return to yearly. It is an automatic intellectual pilgrimage: I must re-read it, and the Patti Smith essay on failure, at least once a year. I rarely re-read books, but these two reflections must be visited. Anyhow, at the crescendo of his gorgeous lecture, he asserts: “I credit poetry, in other words, both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference.” Poetry — language, really, and he was a master of capturing earthy, physical experience with it — was his deep play. Revisiting his words today, it strikes me that the “creation of a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference” describes any form of deep play. They are pathways to bind together the sensorial — the physical movements, the feel of clay in our hands, the rhythm of poetry — with our rich and always-hungry inner lives.
Ackerman mentions that, in deep play, “One enters into an alternate reality with its own rules, values, and expectations. One sheds much of one’s culture, with its countless technical and moral demands, as one draws on a wholly new and sense-ravishing way of life.” The language is a bit overblown, but don’t let that get in the way of her point: when you are knitting, or playing a video game, or pickling okra, you are out of the flow of your life as a productive adult, doing something only for yourself, that has no bearing on your livelihood, or your family, or your physical wellbeing. You are often tinkering. You make mistakes that no one will ever see. You may laugh at them, or re-do the botched stitch line, or throw away the jar of funky-tasting pickles, or hit the “re-start button.” You set the rules and choose how much you enforce them — if at all. The stakes are encouragingly low, or do not even register. If you ruin this batch of bread, you can make another, and yet you are still there, measuring the temperature and the flour with care, following all the steps, in your own joyful solipsism.
So, I’ll ask again: what deep play do you engage in?
+The photo above reminds me of my husband, who engages in multiple forms of deep play, but one is certainly cooking. I wrote awhile ago that his affinity for food/cooking reflects his “openness to joy,” one of my favorite parts about him.
+Also, his pasta amatriciana would be my final meal. (Recipe included in this post.)
+One reason I love sensory play for children is that — though children intuitively know how to play, it permits and invites physical, sensorial interaction with everyday materials. “Play with the everyday things in our house! It’s OK!”
+I shared this gorgeous Agua Bendita-esque botanical patterned dress from Boden last weekend, but wanted to mention they’ve released the pattern in tons of styles, including pants, espadrilles, swim! This skirt would be so epic with a white tank or button-down.
+The flat charging pad I use in my studio is currently on sale for 25% off with code SPRING25. It really is a handsome way to stow and charge your electronics. Comes in multiple sizes/colors and can be monogrammed, too.
+This eyelet ruffle bib blouse (30% off, bringing it down to $52!) is such a great buy for spring. Great with jeans, under joveralls, with a skirt! I’ve had this similar-ish style from Antik Batik on my radar, but the Loft would scratch the itch for less. Speaking o: Loft has a few great eyelet pieces, actually. This hot pink number sparks joy.
+Now, you KNOW these gingham Vibis are a big YES for me. Also love the color combo of pink and green on these. I own four pairs of Vibis at this point. Do I need a new summer/spring pair, too? Y/N. (Yes.) I love to pair with floaty maxi dresses. I always get questions on whether you can wear outside — yes. I’ve traipsed all over in them. Were they the best idea for traveling up and down Manhattan by foot and drippy Subway? No. But most places, they’re perfect.
+OO. The shape of this inexpensive dress reminds me a lot of Damaris Bailey.
+Woah, woah — this perforated leather jacket from Veronica Beard is MAJOR. Wow. An investment but it is beyond.
+NOT leather, but this knit cropped jacket offers an adjacent look/vibe for $129.
+Moms with one year olds: I found a small cache of Patagonia hi-loft hooded down jackets on sale for 30-40% off. Buy now for next winter. I find these jackets are THE BEST for toddlers. Really warm, hooded, last well, can be tossed in the laundry when inevitably smattered with yogurt. Check out the entire sale section there, because there are other great finds, like these Patagonia fleece layering longalls for underneath a snowsuit — 40% off.
+On the theme of deep play: these acrylic paint pens are sort of…calling to me.
+Isn’t this fruit bralette charming?! I am in love!
+Switching seasons entirely: Sunhouse Children just launched an adorable summer collection. I especially love their Bingley suits — the ruffles and patterns are just too cute on a little love. Mini wore hers all last summer. Mini also owns one of their Dashwood Sets, which are my kind of “loungewear.” The cutest patterns, the softest (silkiest!) pima cotton, but can be dressed up with cute sandals and a bow. I also just realized that one of my favorite suits on Hill last summer — this sweet floral — is on sale for only $22. I find this brand runs TTS.
+Love these striped (!) pull-on wide leg pants.
+These embroidered dish towels would be such a cute hostess gift.
+WOW this pintucked linen dress in the prettiest shade of shell pink. The neckline is giving Carolina Herrera.
+Sweet scalloped bookcase I discovered after publishing this post on books/shelving for kids.
+The cutest vanity chair for a little makeup nook in your bathroom/dressing area.
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8 thoughts on “On Deep Play.”
So interesting to read about your “pre-writing!” I do the same thing and have for years. Although often times the exercises in my head come out on my page, no matter how light and frothy 🙂
Love this!! You’re maaaaybe inspiring me to put some of them on paper. Would be interesting to see the shape they take.
OMG!!!! That perforated leather jacket! As jaw dropping as your gorgeous half fur jacket that I LOVE!
The perforated sweater is pretty too
Isn’t it beyond?! I’m swoooooning!
Great writing on deep play. I was out in the sun yesterday playing sports with my kids, jumping rope, enjoying being in the moment with them, thought of this post. Reminded me to do it more!
I love this!! So glad to hear that!
I do not need another pair of Vibis, I repeat I do not need another pair of Vibis. Why, why did I click on those links arghh
I knowwww. I’m sitting here in the same predicament. Five pairs feels…insane.