Tuesday, March 03, 2020

A Freedom That Few Of Us Ever Experience

I was on the Woodland Park playground a couple summers ago, doing what I had taught myself to do, which was to find a shady spot to hang out, watching, until someone needed me. Summer is when we open our doors to all-comers and there are always a few children playing there who've not played there before.

This is significant because the playground is unlike anything most modern children outside of our community have ever experienced. We call it the "junkyard playground," and as the name suggests it was inspired by the vacant lots of yore, a place full of spare tires, planks of wood, crates, gutters, ropes, and all manner miscellany. It's a place where we don't so much use thing as finish using them. There are toys, in a way, but they only find their way out there once they've ostensibly outlived their "useful" life: dolls with missing arms, deflated balls, pieces of board games, and whatnot. I think of it as a way station on the journey to the dumpster, a place for a final hoorah.

As I sat there in my patch of shade, the boy I'd only just met approached me with the chassis of a vehicle. He pointed to where the wheels had been and said, simply, "Broken."

I agreed, "Yes," then added, "Everything out here is broken."

The boy smiled, thinking I was joking. Maybe I had been joking a little, but as we then set about the project of disproving my assertion, we both came to realize that I was right. We could find a crack or chip or other flaw in everything with picked up, including, we decided, the sticks which had broken from trees and the rocks that hand broken off other rocks. Only the plants in our vegetable garden could properly said to be whole, except that we would soon be breaking those as well as we harvested our tomatoes and blueberries.

Children have always played with a certain type of abandon on this playground. Over the years, dozens of parents have told me that despite the lack of traditional playground equipment like slides and climbers (although there are some swings), that it is the only playground with which their children don't eventually grow bored. And those broken things are always in use. I would regularly survey the place, picking up this or that decimated item, saying to children some version of, "Certainly, we can throw this away," to which they almost always replied, "Nope," before preceding to demonstrate that it still had plenty of play value.

As we hunted amongst the debris and junk, I mused on what it means that the children thrive in this place of cast off items, things that no one else wants, not even other kids. Indeed, we've never felt the need to pack things away at the end of the day under the assumption that no one would be interested in stealing what is clearly garbage. Actually, maybe people were stealing our stuff, who knows? We probably just didn't notice. Who keeps track of garbage? It's a place where nothing but the people are precious, a place where no one cares if you break something. And while this stuff fits the definition of "loose parts," I'm wary of using that term, worried that it implies the "parts" have value beyond what the children do with them. This is perhaps the only place in the children's lives where they aren't obliged to "be careful" with mere stuff, where they themselves get to declare its value, but only for a time, only until it's cast aside in favor of something else, that new thing now imbued with temporary worth. This is a type of freedom that few of us ever experience.

The late great Canadian songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen sang, "There is a crack, a crack, in everything. That's how the light gets in." The crack is what lets us see that these things we value so much are temporary, that indeed they are already broken, which is the destiny of everything that humans value. It's not property. It's junk, it's debris, and it belongs to no one and everyone. The crack is what allows us to finally just relax and take pleasure in all the broken things, to not worry, to exercise the fullness of our creativity, to see, by the light the crack lets in, the true nature of things. 

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