Sunday, May 9, 2010

Reading as Play

I've never understood the sentiment so many parents voice, that they are sad that their children are growing up so fast. This is as baffling to me as when certain very intense women have told me that the births of their children were the most spiritual experiences of their lives. Spiritual? The births of my own children were many amazing things, but "spiritual" isn't one of them. Never have I felt so grounded in the purely physical as when I gave birth. And not in a good way. The following 19 and 15 years have been MUCH better than the births that preceded them!

My daughters are teenagers now, and in one year one of them, already an official adult, will be 20. I look back at their childhoods with love and wonderment and a bit of wistfulness (oh my god, they were so adorable!) and also some satisfaction that we all made it through. It wasn't easy! My journals from the years of my young motherhood are filled with accounts of the sheer frustration, drudgery, and labor involved in parenting young humans. Children are so volatile, irrational, and (before the age of about 7) amoral. Teens, though challenging, are paragons of reason in comparison.

Growing up is exactly what our children are supposed to do - this seems to me a cause for celebration rather than that strange clutching desperation that many parents seem to feel. There's a moving scene in the movie Please Give in which a couple shopping at a neighborhood store unexpectedly come across their own 15-year-old daughter browsing in the cosmetics aisle, unaware of their presence. For a few moments they are able to watch her with unabashed pride and amazement - I imagine that they are seeing both the little child she once was and the woman she is becoming, and it is a magical moment.

My husband thinks I love children's books because I had a happy childhood that I'm able to relive through children's literature. That's not it, I'm pretty sure. I did have a fine childhood, mainly because I had - and have - wonderful parents. It's true that I was in no hurry to become a teen, suspecting - accurately, as it turned out - that I would be no good at it. But adulthood has lived up to its promise, and more. My husband told me when I was all of 25 that I was born to be old. He was referring to my penchant for Masterpiece Theater and cozy British mysteries, but he was right. Things keep getting better.

(I do wish I could shake off the shattering self-doubt and anguish that hits me on a regular basis. That must be a remnant of my teen years, curse them. I'd definitely rather be 8 years old at heart than 12, but I fear I'll always feel In Between - no longer one thing, but not yet another. Or perhaps that's just the human condition.)

One aspect of childhood that most people lose as they grow up is the capacity for Play. Sure, even grown-ups can have fun, can enjoy themselves, can play - I love spending time on the beach during the summer because it's a place where you can see folks of all ages frolicking like little kids in the waves. But I mean that unselfconscious ability to get completely lost in an imaginary game, either the sort during which you murmur to yourself as you move toy dinosaurs and California Raisins figurines and Weebles around or the sort that you play with others, each person playing an essential and vivid role. These games are so real, so important, that they become transcendent, whether the player is 2 years old or 10 years old. As a child I read Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Egypt Game and of course it resonated with me intensely. As an adult I read it again, and was astounded at my childhood feelings for the book. I couldn't imagine how it felt to feel so strongly about a game of pretend.

Rollercoasters are exhilarating, board games and cards still entertain me, hiking gives me intense joy, and riding my bike lazily down a wide, sunny street can still make me feel just like a kid again. But only reading captures the intensity I felt as a child while Playing. Only reading engages my imagination and my soul so completely. Surely this must explain the addiction to reading that so many people have. It's not escape - it's living life on an even more intense level for a while.

My mom, a librarian and passionate reader, read to me from the time I was tiny. I don't know what I would do without books and reading. And my soon-to-be-grown-up children are readers, too. Whatever may befall them, they will always have books.

Children grow up and no longer Play - but if they read, they've gained something even better. What a cause for rejoicing on this Mother's Day - my mother's 45th and my 19th!


  1. Ummhmmm...(in an agreeing way). I watch my youngest playing alone with his legos/dragons/whatevers, his voice murmuring a constant stream of story, and I am amazed at the intensity of his solitary imaginative experience. Same when they play together, although less remarkable. Although I have no desire to join them on the floor, I do feel a bit wistful that I don't have a place there anymore.

    And I am rather afraid of loosing them to Worlds of Warcraft when they are teenagers...

    And I would so much rather be eight too than twelve, which I am pretty sure I am a lot of the time...after almost five years, however, hanging out with the other mothers after school is becoming easier. For the first few years, it was seventh grade all over again, and (in my mind at least) I wasn't a. wearing the right clothes b. talking about the right things. SIGH!

  2. Charlotte, I always felt the same way around the other moms! My sincere wish is to gain more self-confidence and gravitas along with my gray hair and wrinkles. It's only fair...

  3. Beautifully and thoughtfully said Eva. Thanks for your oh-so-true insights. Wish more parents would enjoy the journey of their children to adulthood!

  4. I read once, in a source that I can no longer retrieve, about something called ludic reading, or reading as play. It's the kind of reading that I do a lot -- well-written mysteries mostly. You're reading, but only part of your brain is engaged. This isn't the intense experience of reading that Eva describes; this is different. It's more like reading as a process, for me a way to relax. It explains why I can pick up a paperback mystery and even read a few pages before I decide I haven't read this Elizabeth George, unlikely though that may be. Then I settle down and read a chapter and realize I HAVE read it.

  5. Beautiful essay! Thank you so much!

  6. Eva, thanks - I love this. What a wonderful/insightful way to think about reading!

    I think it may also apply to those of us who write. I love writing for children, in particular, because (when it's going well) I am as close as I will ever get to that intense unselfconsciousness that you describe. I adore my daughters just as they are (around the age of yours, I think), but it is still so fun to try getting back into the heads they had at 6, 7...

    A belated Happy Mother's Day to you!