December 8, 2015
All of a sudden, this semester has one week of finals remaining. Of course, it’s the same week as the MLB winter meetings, and that means my six hours spent at the library today really consisted of two hours of studying and four hours of sifting through rumors about Jason Heyward. Pretty much, if the Cubs nab Heyward from the Cardinals, I won’t be able to function for about a week. My finals won’t go ideally and the Cardinals will have chosen to regress and conceded the division to the Cubs for the next five years. But this stress isn’t my main concern right now (although I’ll certainly have plenty of words here soon no matter where Heyward signs). Nor are my finals.
In our final class of Marriage and Christian Vocation yesterday, Dr. Finucane presented his “final word” on the key to a successful marriage: Play. It’s a concept that seems so simple, yet as we discussed the nature of play, I realized how much harder it becomes to play for most of us as we age. What do kids need to play, Dr. Finucane asked. Our responses harkened back to my days in the Gauvains’ basement building forts every summer day out of blankets and benches, the late nights at Bently’s house when the 3 B’s would stay up until sunrise writing stories involving nearly all of our 45 classmates at Clark Elementary, soccer and baseball tournaments and their accompanying hotel hijinks, chasing Webster Groves’s mythical Wolfbane around my neighborhood with Spencer. More than material objects, kids simply need a good imagination to play and, often, a friend or a few to help accompany their adventure. Rugrats earned its classic status and syndication at 2 am on Nickelodeon because it captured this loose structure with such powerful nostalgia and grace; Nostalgia because we can’t go back to the age and adventures of Tommy, Chuckie, Phil, and Lil. Grace because it so effectively blended reality with the gang’s imaginations.
At some point, our imaginations unfortunately trail off in favor of reality. Dark basements are no longer caves, and open pastures are no longer all The Field of Dreams. The lava in our homes cools to become a boring and stained carpet, and tall fences are no longer automatically called “The Green Monster” to make an impromptu home run derby feel more authentic. Tommy Pickle accepts that he’s at a Renaissance Fair with his grandfather, not the son of a European knight centuries ago.
Alongside imagination, maybe even in conjunction with it, our idea of what to do with free time becomes increasingly impaired. Well, at least, that’s how it’s become for me.
In my first week back home from Ireland, I reflected with Jack McAtee on the part of studying abroad that no one tells you about: copious, even uncomfortable, amounts of free time. Coming from somewhere like SLU where it’s difficult NOT to be busy 16 hours a day, a scenario in which my only obligation was eight hours of class for 12 of the 18 weeks I was there drove me so far out of my comfort zone. I’m the kind of person who thrives on pressure, deadlines, and being perpetually busy. When time is given freely to me, I regrettably spend it far less productively than when it is restricted.
My junior-year English teacher at SLUH and Prep News moderator Steve Missey supposed that kids are losing their ability to be bored. Three years ago, I scoffed at him. Being bored was the worst part of childhood, I countered. What kind of kid would prefer a puzzle to an iPad? Now, though, having experienced true boredom intermittently over the past year, I understand his argument. Boredom inevitably comes in waves, both throughout the day and over the course of one’s life. When we become overwhelmed with boredom or mindlessly kill time instead of working to embrace it, our failure to deal with being bored becomes clearer. No one likes being bored, but there’s something admirable about facing boredom and being well equipped to counter that boredom by creating something productive with free time. Managing structured time is nothing compared to organizing unstructured time and creating something worthwhile with it.
Which brings me back to children and play. As a young kid, I never had enough unstructured time. I asked 20 times an evening for one extra throw from my dad when we played catch before dinner. I practiced Edgar Renteria’s batting stance until I could replicate perfectly his slight crouch and quick bat twirl, a product of his wrists rolling smoothly as they rested near his back ear, long beyond the time my mom ever set aside and having no regard for her patience. I ran around and cuddled with my dog Buddy on Saturday mornings from the time I awoke at 6 am until my dad emerged from his room at 8 am to take Paul and me to our weekly Saturday morning breakfast. I always needed more time.
Now, I oddly find myself anxious about the three-plus weeks of Christmas break looming. This phenomenon began my freshman year at SLU when I was watching How I Met Your Mother on my bed three days into Christmas break and wanted nothing more than to be back at school. My imagination is unfortunately not as childish as it once was, and opportunities for new experiences are not always easy to come by, especially in St. Louis, and even more so in the winter. In Europe I could travel to a new country on a whim; here, options are far more limited. When time is unlimited, those restrictions become a problem. Ideally I could regain that imagination children posses so much more readily than adults—I still remember John Webb challenging all of us on the Prep News to make the paper more exciting by channeling our inner kindergartener because he’d read a study suggesting that five-year-olds have significantly more active and creative imaginations than eighteen-year-olds. But if imagination is more fleeting, then I at least wish I had more opportunities to travel and explore in my free time. It helps that I’ll be going to Sam’s lake house in Perryville, picking up Devin and visiting friends in Chicago with Connor, and spending a week at Disney World before break ends, but I’m ready to again go places I’ve never been. I want to see the American West, the Canadian Rockies, the Central American jungles.
These wishes will hopefully come true in the future, especially as I prioritize exploring the United States outside of the Midwest in the coming years. Hell, maybe such experiences might even enhance my imagination and creativity. But for now, I have one week left at SLU this semester before break comes.
I don’t know where this semester went; each subsequent one at SLU goes faster than the last. Last week I wondered where October and November had gone, feeling as if September was the last time I’d stopped to gather myself. But while abroad, in those moments that crept along and left me longing to escape my boredom and anxiety, I learned that although I want to prolong time to make the good things last, frozen time is toxic. Instead, it’s better to look down at your phone while out with friends and expect to see 12:32 am on your screen but learn that it’s somehow 2:23 am and you won’t be going to bed for another hour and a half. Living so fully in October and November that your mind blends 61 days into six is far better than waiting in bed for break to end in three weeks.
This break, my goal is to avoid being stagnant, to reconnect with the rugrat somewhere inside me. Yes, I’d so prefer that my friends and I all stay at SLUH for those 27 days of break. But as long as that’s no option, I owe both everyone I’ve ever complained to about being bored and myself to actually do something to see new places and do new things. Time over break can drag if I make it, or it can fly by to be a new kind of stretch away from SLU. Dr. Finucane applied play to a successful marriage, but I think that it can be applied so much more broadly to encompass our overall attitudes. When we play, we might finally free ourselves to enjoy a bit more the free time that we begged for as children. Now that we’ve received it, it’s time to play again.
“I mark the hours, every one. Nor have I yet outrun the sun. My use and value, unto you, Are gauged by what you have to do.” – JK Rowling (inscription on Hermione’s time-turner from the Prisoner of Azkaban)
(Seriously, sign Jason Heyward, Cardinals)