Lessons from the Playa

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Photo by Jessica “The Hun” Reeder under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Burning Man, the intentional community event that happens each year in the Nevada desert, just concluded this past weekend.  As I’ve seen photos from this year’s event crop up in my social media feeds, I’m reflecting on what I learned from my adventures there ~15 years ago (yes, we’re talking Y2K!)  And no, it doesn’t have to do with nudity, illicit substances or lots of dust (though there’s plenty of that).  The lessons I took away from my time on the playa these many, many moons ago as a carefree, single 20-something are ones I find myself calling on now and adapting, as an almost 40-something parent in the next chapter of career and life:

The importance of play. I’ve been reminded of this as a parent more recently, but being in an atmosphere where throngs of adults were playing and creating for the sake of play and creativity felt new and nothing less than magical.  I remember wandering into a group of people launching watermelons with a trebuchet and pitching in….because…why not?

And very much linked to this idea:

The necessity of creating open, unstructured time. Spontaneity, adventure, reflecting, being — all of these need space and freedom to occur.  As a parent living in a busy, scheduled world, I feel I often have to defend creating this open space and time for my family and for me.  We had one of the best family days the other weekend when we did just that.

The role of community.  Community is crucial when you’re in the middle of the Black Rock Desert and someone gives you water after yours runs out. It’s also just more fun, like when someone invites you to jump on the giant trampoline they lugged out and set up.  

Destruction is part of creation.  The final night at Burning Man involves burning the enormous art installation that required endless time and energy to create. Sometimes you gotta Let it Go in order to move forward. This isn’t easy.  Watching my son struggle with destroying a Lego creation to build another one feels a little reminiscent of my own struggles to let go of a professional identity I carried with me for a long time.

Finally, on a lighter, yet no less important note, once you get playa dust in your tent zipper, that tent will never be the same. Similarly, once your kids’ cracker-infested car seats have lived in your car, your car will never be the same, no matter how much cleaning you do.

I’ve been struggling these past few months, and it has taken me awhile to figure out why.  There’s not an obvious culprit; my family is healthy, our kids are generally happy and thriving, things are going well career-wise.  I shouldn’t feel like I’m struggling.  But, after sitting with this for awhile, I’ve gradually realized that I’ve been going through my own (relatively unacknowledged) transformation.  Over the past 2+ years, I’ve gone from working full-time to a brief stint of not working, and gradually have been transitioning back to working almost full-time. I think I’m pretty good at noticing the developments and stages my kids go through, but I often forget that I’m still growing and going through my own transitions.

Meanwhile during this time, our kids have grown from babies/toddlers to little kids.  And in light of all these changes, my husband and I are figuring out how to organize our lives to respond to our changing lives and selves.  That’s translated to figuring out what to farm out and how to cut corners on (i.e. quick dinners, dinner delivery, online grocery shopping, being ok with giant piles of laundry cluttering the house, etc).  For him, that’s meant leaning in more to family and childcare responsibilities, and for me, it’s meant some Letting Go (Thanks again, Queen Elsa). It’s not always easy and graceful, and there have been plenty of bumps in the road (i.e. rushed mornings, grouchy evenings, forgotten class projects, etc.) But being clear about what’s important and top priority to us as individuals and as a family makes the process easier and helps me live with (embrace?) the chaos and fullness of our lives and well…enjoy life and parenting more.

So, this post-Burning Man season (which for me these days is really back-to-school season), I’m trying to remember that like my kids, I’m ever-changing, too, and that change is hard. And we’re all changing together, as a family, constantly.  Change requires patience, persistence and self-kindness.  As Ann Betz and Karen Kimsey-House write in their lovely new book, Integration: The Power of Being Co-active in Work and Life: “Change is uncomfortable and often uncertain and yet, nothing evolves – not a person, a relationship, an organization or the entire human race – without the development of new patterns, new neural pathways.”

And I’m dusting off these lessons gathered from Burning Man, most important, making time to play (again, echoed in Brigid Schulze’s meticulously-researched, brilliant book Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time). So, if I’m not blogging as regularly in the months to come, that might mean I’m working more, or maybe I’m off playing with my kids, or just playing by myself, or perhaps, helping a bunch of people launch a watermelon.

Let’s go play.

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3 Comments on “Lessons from the Playa”

  1. Candy Puterbaugh
    September 11, 2015 at 9:09 pm #

    My dad used to ask me now and then, “Did you pick up any pearls today?” I did from reading your blog. I admire your openness. My almost-2-year-old granddaughter, when she sees her parents on the cell phone, says, “Off! Play!” And I think, like you, they try to listen. I agree that we are ever-changing. I used to joke that my two kids were always in a phase, some easier than others. I guess it’s the same with adults. The good thing is that you are always growing and moving forward. It may not feel like it but you are. Your kids are lucky to have such perceptive parents!

    • hlspain
      September 13, 2015 at 8:00 pm #

      I love that! Well, you took his advice to heart, AC. You are a role model for picking up and treasuring those pearls. Thanks for sharing that lesson with me. xo

  2. Eric Earle
    July 20, 2016 at 2:37 pm #

    I love this!

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