I spent part of yesterday cleaning and ran across a photo album containing a couple pictures from high school and then many from college. I decided I should probably scan them all and upload them to my Amazon Prime account to make sure nothing happens to them. It ended up being an emotional task for me. I ran across photos I had forgotten were taken. Joy, sadness, love, and heartache… These are the things that remain frozen in our neuronal patterns decades after events transpire. The specifics of the events become cloudy, ill-defined. And yet the emotion often lives on crystal clear, albeit diminished.
Within that liminal period of my life spent in college, I became friends with a group of young men and women who grabbed on to me tighter than any friends ever had before. We had in common that we were enthralled with poetry and music. The Dead Poets Society and Swing Kids were our movie anthems. In other words, we were typical, intellectual college students in the early 90s. Or maybe not. It was a foregone conclusion that we would soon start our own version of a dead poets society. Usually we would hold our meetings late at night, past curfew (our college had one), out in the woods in a little clearing we found. We dragged over some logs, found a tiny plastic table to put candles on (which caught on fire eventually), and added an incense burning tray. And then we would read our poetry. Sometimes it was poetry written by “real poets” that we found personally meaningful. Other times we read our own. We wrote poems about our lives and thoughts to share, and then sometimes poems to and in honor of each other to show that we cared. Luckily, one of our members happened to have possession of a duplicate of the master key to the college. That key came in handy after curfew, particularly when it rained. We found an attic entrance in a classroom building that we could get up into. Inside were all sorts of detritus left from decades gone by. It was a wonderfully musty, dark, and mysterious area that certainly didn’t warrant the name of “room”. And so, the poetry could continue through the storms.
Another part of our society was the hatching of various corny pranks to play on the college, protesting various rules we didn’t agree with. We would create some sort of symbolic display somewhere on campus after midnight and leave ridiculous poems behind explaining what we meant. My favorite was when we turned back the clocks in the school to protest a curfew. That caused quite a commotion. That master key was very handy… Some of the college officials got quite miffed over those pranks…
But the most important thing our secretive society did was to consciously work to befriend any students at the college who appeared to not have any friends. We hunted for the lonely outcasts of the school and made our plans out in the woods, or up in the attic, to reach out to them. We purposefully did what we could to hold on to them when no one else would. Back then I didn’t fully understand mental illness, although given my early history one would think that I should have. But looking back on it now, I experientially know what they were often struggling with and am grateful I had the opportunity to be a part of that.
In addition to the secret society was another overlapping circle of experience. I guess it was also inescapable that those of us in the group who were musicians would form an alternative rock band as well. Really, what else were we supposed to do? Wasn’t every musically inclined, emotional college student in a band back in the early 90s? The world was in desperate need of more angst-ridden garage bands at that time (actual talent not required). We had to do our part, of course. I wrote the songs, played guitar and harmonica, and eventually sang. From that I learned to be comfortable with a microphone on stage, where before I had suffered from terrible fears of public speaking and musical performance throughout my teenage years. Having a guitar around your neck, feeding a virtual wall of sonic distortion into your ears, does wonders as a safety blanket, even if it is at the price of your hearing. The other band members shifted over the years, particularly as college came to an end. I was eventually the only original member left as I began my teaching career. That side of my life didn’t last more than a couple years after I fully got into my career. There was simply no time, or energy, to hunt down new members as the current ones had to move on. Choices must always be made whether you want to make them or not. Thankfully, the ever increasing worrisome ringing in my ears subsided eventually as I left the loud music (either created or listened to) behind. But to this day I seem to have far more tolerance for general noise than many fellow educators. The noise in the cafeteria has never bothered me...
And so, life moved on. Marriage, meanderings through a long career, my children (the greatest thing to happen in my life by far), serious battles with mental health, losing my religion, divorce, and some form of personal reconstruction all happened as decades went by. Two of those friends have stuck with me over the years and continue to be important parts of who I am as an individual. On the other hand, most of the cells in our bodies replace themselves quite often, and so, very little of the physical remains in me of that time long ago, besides some brain cells (which are constantly reconfiguring themselves) and a few cells in the middle eye. I find that a stunning thought. At the core of our existence, we are nothing but a thread of memories woven into a pattern through successive generations of cells. It is the continuity that defines who we are, not our bodies, or some sort of immaterial soul operating the material levers of our brains like an overworked homunculus. We are Story and Poetry continuously incarnating themselves within the Music of unseen vibrating strings. At least we are metaphorically, if String Theory is correct. And I really hope it is…
But looking back on that time, I now see it though the lens of Huizinga. Story, Poetry, and Music are born from Play. And what we did back then was most assuredly Play, in its most elemental form. We drew a magic circle around ourselves that encompassed the woods, the attic, and the stage, and invented rules to live by while within that circle. We were secretive and set apart by what we did. It gave us an identity which remains with us to some extent to this day, decades later. And yet, ever present in the backs of our minds was the knowledge that we were "only pretending."
In the words of Huizinga:
This is for us, not for the “others”. What the “others” do “outside” is no concern of ours at the moment. Inside the circle of the game the laws and customs of ordinary life no longer count. We are different and do things differently.
Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not serious”, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.
Huizinga told us that all of what we hold most precious about human civilization is based upon Play. He raised Play to the defining feature of our humanity. We are not "only playing." Within Play, we humans live, breathe, and find our meaning. And this is certainly true of myself I find. Huizinga's magic circle defines the most important parts of my life. This circle of Play that existed within my college years definately helps make me who I am today. There have been long stretches of time within the decades since college when I have been unable to play. Those times make me shudder as I look back on them. But then I find that even the lack of Play during those times reaches forward to today and exerts a binding influence on who I am now. And so, we must not misunderstand Huizinga's statement that no profit can be gained by Play. Huizinga was speaking of material profit only within his definition. The things which are most meaningful to us humans are those things which are immaterial. And those things not only profit by Play, but are inextricably bound up with Play. They cannot escape from Play. Play affects those precious realities even by its absence.
Here is our playful pledge, with some modifications made in italics to ensure anonymity, which all members over the years had to swear to:
I hereby pledge allegiance to the society and to all its rules, which are as follows:
I shall not alert any nonmember by action or word to the existence of said group, except in the case of danger to the members of the group.
I shall not participate in the spreading of gossip at our college.
I shall not support a certain plan implemented by the college administration which would eventually damage the college.
I shall work to befriend all known student outcasts from school society
In conclusion, I will faithfully work to make our school a better school by supporting any other plans implemented by the society for said purposes.
I sincerely hope Huizinga would have laughed with delight to see us Play had he been alive at the time...