Playfulness is good for you.
So many sources have delivered this message to me over the years that I’ve lost count. Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, mindfulness teachers ranging from the Dalai Lama to Andy Puddicomb, and, more recently, the TED Radio Hour, which compiled neuroscience research showing how “all forms of amusement—from throwing a ball to playing video games—can make us smarter, saner, and more collaborative.” (Click here to listen to the full episode.)
It was easier for me to be playful when my kids were little. But over the years, public playfulness became very uncool in their eyes. Even at home, my playfulness skills were pretty weak. I’m not very fun to have at a board game, since I lack any strong interest in winning. And though I hide it well, I am an introvert at heart, recharging my batteries alone rather than through being the center of attention in a crowd. I love cheering others on in their playful endeavors, but my own playfulness muscles could use some toning.
Putting Playfulness Theory into Practice
When I learned that the theme of our town’s Halloween parade this year was “The Great Outdoors,” and that the Vienna Business Association (VBA) was hosting a pre-parade mixer, I knew I had the perfect outfit. My son Jacob had made an awesome tree costume years ago, which I had protected from my husband’s multiple attempts to throw out due to its bulky size. My favorite detail of the costume is the chipmunk stuffed animal he glue gunned onto the trunk.
I am a brand new member of the VBA, which I joined primarily to spread the word about my mindfulness-inspired wall art. When I say brand new, I mean this would be my very first VBA event. A few of my women business owner friends would be there, but it was unclear if anyone else was dressing up.
The annual Vienna Halloween Parade, 71 years strong, is a very big deal, with people staking out their spots with blankets and soccer chairs a day in advance. Parking is always challenging, so I was grateful when I saw a couple waving cars into a church parking lot about a quarter mile away from the mixer venue, which would allow me to avoid much of the parade traffic on my way home.
I pulled into the lot, turned off the ignition, and sat in my car for a few minutes, going back and forth about whether I should wear the costume occupying most of the back seat of the minivan. The TED Talk neuroscientists played in my mind’s eye, their charts and brain scans and evidence-based research telling me to take my medicine and wear the costume. My mindfulness teachers encouraged me to just say no to my ego-based fearfulness.
And with a few months under my belt as an empty nester, I didn’t have the worry of embarrassing my kids in public. My wings as a “free bird” (as one friend refers to this new chapter) had dried enough for me to feel actual liberation in this instance.
I got out of the car and put the costume on. Then my husband called, who had reached the mixer venue already. “Not many people here with costumes on,” he reported. I froze.
“GREAT costume!” someone said. It was one of the nice parking lot greeters. I stared blankly for a minute then told him my predicament. Could I show up to a VBA event wearing this?
“Go for it!” he said. “I’ve been a member for years.” He gave me the courage I needed. So I made my way, all alone in my tree costume, through town.
“Cool costume! Are you in the parade or just dressing up for fun?” someone asked. At that moment I didn’t feel like I fit into either category.
But as I continued on, I noticed the smiles—genuine, joyful smiles of everyone I passed. And my costume was the source. The faces of adults and kids alike lit up as I walked by. Their joy brought ME joy. The more I smiled, the more they smiled.
Playfulness was paying off.
Finally I arrived at the VBA event. And it was true, hardly anyone was dressed up, except for a few people who would be on floats or cars in the parade. But I didn’t care. As an introvert who hides in corners at cocktail parties to avoid small talk, the costume was like a magic bubble. All I needed to do was pose for pictures with people who wanted a photo with “The Tree.”
Did I do what one is supposed to do at a business owner mixer? No.
I don’t think I mentioned my business name once. A few times I went so far as to mention my last name when pressed. A savvy business owner would have said, “I’m Martha Brettschneider, founder of Damselwings, LLC. My mission is to inspire people to live more mindfully, including by bringing my fine art nature photography into their home and office spaces as a reminder to pause, take a breath, and notice the beauty in our midst. I’m also an author, speaker, blogger, and workshop facilitator who helps busy people establish their own meditation habit. Here’s my card.”
Nope. None of that. It was pretty much, “Hi, I’m Martha.” It didn’t matter, because my playfulness was doing the work for me.
After the mixer my inspiring friend Joann, owner of Grass Roots Fitness and the first person to ever get me to dress up in a silly costume for a race, said “Let’s walk IN the parade!” So she, my husband (coming straight from work in his blue blazer and khakis), and I joined the costumed kids and made our way down the parade route.
“Tree! Tree!” Tiny tree huggers rushed up with their embraces, almost tipping me with my branch-laden top-heaviness. Shouts for high fives called me over to the sidelines of spectators. Casting aside worries of what germs I might be collecting, I slapped palms with lines of kids parked along the curbside. Playfulness seemed to be working some sort of magic.
“Are you branching out?” someone called?
Yes, I am indeed branching out. And playfulness is helping in a big way.
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