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In Our Element: when work is play

As I plunged into the cool blue water for the first swim of this pool season, I caught myself smiling through sealed lips and thinking… Ha, if this doesn’t prove we humans emerged from a primordial soup, I don’t know what does. I was in my element. Gliding along effortlessly, or so it felt, churning the water and propelling myself along stroke by stroke.

These strokes, long-practiced in childhood, are something I will never forget. Because I don’t think about them; I just know them, as if handed down from generations past. They come naturally in the wonderfully watery environment which always makes me feel at home, as if its been waiting its whole life for me to come. It welcomes me as one of its own. My friend. My comfort zone. My Zen. My element.

{This, of course, is not so of folks who did not get an early introduction to the water. They are likely less than enthusiastic about jumping in. Primordial soup, I guarantee you, never crosses their minds. Their element is elsewhere.}

But very soon, okay on my second lap, when my arms grow heavy, my breathing becomes labored and my feet start to cramp up from kicking, I begin to wonder about this element. This venue I used to own. What used to be second nature to me is now an effort to sustain. How out of shape I am. How long it has been. How I have let myself go.

And this gives me pause. Mind you, I’m not beating myself up about this, but it does get the attention of my responsible self which realizes that those in-your-element moments don’t happen by themselves. One prepares for them. While there is perhaps a hint of DNA-delivered know-how, for the most part they are a product of a lot of practice. After all…

  • The chef learns the chemistry of cooking, the blending of tastes and flavors, and the enhancements of spices, before his creation of a culinary masterpiece puts him in his element.
  • The lawyer studies the law in careful detail, does her research, prepares her briefs, and tries many cases before she is in her element standing before the jury for closing argument.
  • The golfer only hits it straight and true after many hours of doing otherwise. On rare days when she is in her element, she hardly feels the club strike the ball when she launches it on target.
  • The teacher must master his field and the management of his classroom before he can supply description and explanation which has his students nodding in understanding when he is in his element.

We learn, we practice and we sharpen the tools of our trade for that elemental moment when it feels like no effort at all. Yet it is full: full of preparation, trial-and-error, draft and re-draft, all hidden yet on display.

Could it be that this is what our earthly lifetime is for? to seek and to experience precious in-our-element moments. That through our work, we achieve play.

Children are so good at this because they don’t yet bear the burdens of age: expectation, peer pressure, performance-anxiety, patterned behaviors and responses, worn-out joints and inflexibilities. They bring childhood exuberance and endless energy, rubbery joints and not far to fall. Lacking the experience of “that won’t work,” they give everything a try. They are as delighted with knocking things down as building things up. They do for the sake of doing. It’s not about product, it’s about process.

What a gift it is that as adults we can re-discover this in our elemental times. When our prepped minds and bodies allow our spirits to take over and we can release ourselves into the work prepared for us to do; work that feels nothing at all like work. And very much like play.

It is not effortless but rather on purpose. We initiate it and then let it loose. We don’t push it. Don’t try to better it. Don’t compete it. Don’t compare it. It’s not a sprint to the finish, rather, more like the flip turn our body somehow knows how to do. We … duck/twist/tumble/slap/push/glide/stroke/stroke/breathe….

And time falls away. This is me, surely, but also something else entirely. A glimpse. Of thee, in me, and me in thee.

How delightful life would be if every day we gifted ourselves just a moment of this.

The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it

The light shines in the darkness,
    and the darkness can never extinguish it. ~John 1:5 NLT

Three angels perched on our lawn. They were all a little forward leaning, tethered by rope and peg against the grade of the hillside which tugged them and threatened to topple them. But they stood sturdy and stalwart, against rain, snow, sleet and high wind. As the world waited for the Christ child, they stood their ground. Halo’s aloft, they each held fast to an item and presented it before them. Two of them held books — hymnals or Bibles, we could never be sure — while the middle one held the light, a special candle with a flickering bulb.

Each angel we inscribed with a name, specifically, one of the names of our three daughters. Not to proclaim that they were angels, but rather to designate which wings went with which body when we pieced them together each year and made ready to place them on the lawn. Our two oldest daughters held the books while our youngest was singled out to hold the light. This responsibility she took to heart. The light she held shone in the darkness all night until the rays of the morning quenched it.

Until one year, upon returning from the Christmas Eve service, we noticed that the little angel’s light was not lit. On closer examination we discovered that the bulb had not gone out: it was missing. Someone had stolen the angel’s light. Big tears rolled down our little girl’s cheeks. Yes, because an unkindness had been done and a theft had been committed, but most of all because the little angel, her little angel, could not present the light of Christ.

In this tiny, earth-shattering moment our small daughter saw that the forces of darkness in this world are real and they are on a mission to extinguish the light. Her world would never be the same. As I hugged my teary child, searching for words of explanation as comfort, her dad knew just what to do. He raced into the house and emerged a moment later holding a small box with a replacement bulb. We held our breath as he screwed it back into place and the light was restored. Our daughter beamed with joy.

The light shone in the darkness; darkness did not extinguish it.

Can I tell you a secret?

“Can I tell you a secret?” I whispered to the little boy.
The very little boy
who told me he was two
as he climbed across the table
after dumping the entire contents of the bag of blocks
onto the floor
after emptying the cart full of plastic food
into the plastic sink and
trying unsuccessfully to shove the
plastic dish-drainer into the oven
in a way that would allow the door to actually close.

Oh, but he knew how to operate the microwave,
deftly punching its buttons to activate
its pretend revolving tray
then sifting through several plastic plates
searching for the round yellow ones that
were the right size for what he was preparing,
discarding all others in self-selected directions.

The chair I pulled up to this kitchen table
accommodated only part of my backside,
so I plunked myself onto the floor
and drew my glasses onto the bridge of my nose
that I might see the story of the day,
left open to the page where today’s lesson was featured.

“Can I tell you a secret?” I whispered to the little boy
who earlier I had snagged,
wrapping him with one arm as he sprinted
in attempted escape from his grandmother
who held fast to his little brother.

Mr Potato head w glassesNow, there is a pause in the kitchen preparations
as the little boy takes Mr. Potato Head glasses
previously perched on his head and affixes them
upside down across the bridge of his nose,
their pliable arms reaching out to grab his temples
well short of the ears they would not have looped.

Spectacle to spectacle, we gaze at each other,
this little boy and I, he on home turf
and me very far from mine.

“Can I tell you a secret?” I whisper to the little boy
who now draws very close
because secrets are meant to be shared, quietly,
ear to ear.
Co-conspirators we are now.
“Yes,” the little boy whispers
as he comes near.
We look together for a moment at the page
of faces that don’t look like his,
of people not dressed like him
of words that have no meaning to him.

“This is the secret.” I say, “Are you ready?”
He is ready.
“Jesus is alive,” I whisper.
“Jesus is alive,” he whispers,
smiling,
because secrets are for telling
when you’re two.
But you must whisper.

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