In the first few weeks at his new school, the Critter sometimes cried as I was about to leave. “Why is he crying?” asked one of the other children.
“He’s crying because he’s sad,” I said. “It’s OK to cry when you’re sad.”
“Why is he sad?” asked the girl.
“He’s sad because he misses me when I’m not around. I’m sad, too, because I miss him when he’s not around. Plus, I’m not going to be doing anything all that fun. I have to work.”
As soon as I said it, I realized that this statement probably didn’t make much sense to the girl I was talking to. Indeed, she did look puzzled. Why wouldn’t my work be fun? “Play is the work of the child,” Maria Montessori famously said, and so the children at the Critter’s Montessori school work all day. They work with trains. They work with paints and crayons. They work with each other.
My initial impulse was to resist this way of looking at children’s play. What a dreary lot we adults must be if we are unable to take play seriously unless we label it with that dreary word, work.
But who said that work had to be dreary? (OK, probably everyone seems to agree that it is. But why?) What if I were to approach my work with the same energy, imagination, and joy as the Critter does his play? (Honestly, the very idea of doing so exhausts me. But why?) And, if I’m unable to do so, what does it say about me? (Where is my mind at this very moment?) What does it say about the kind of work I am taking up? (Is it for this that I spent all those years in school?)
Another quotation that often comes to mind, from Zen master Eihei Dogen’s “Guidelines for Studying the Way”: “If you find one thing wearisome, you will find everything wearisome.” Don’t I know it. What if everything instead were play?