By Catherine DiMercurio
In the days that have passed since I returned from the camping trip I wrote about in my last post, I have struggled with exactly what I feared would happen. When I was spending my days in the woods or on the beach, feeling my anxiety get up and take a long walk away from me, I wondered what would happen when I returned home to the things that typically trouble me. Would I be able to hang on to that feeling of being both weightless and grounded, or would I get pulled back under the worry? I wondered if my mindset on the trip meant that I had turned a corner, arrived at someplace new, someplace I could stay and set up camp, so to speak. Or was it temporary, just vacation brain, and nothing more?
While I believe I sort of “leveled up” in my thinking, in my ability to acknowledge my full self and to lean into self-trust in a way I haven’t been able to fully embrace for a painfully long time, I have also realized, in the days since my return, that living in that mindset takes practice. Now that I’ve been there and know how it feels and understand how I got there, I realize that it will take effort to find my way back to that way of thinking sometimes.
I’ve been thinking a lot about practice lately. With pottery, it is easy to understand the importance of practice. At any point you might have a day where it feels like you never learned a single thing. Once I began to be able to center my clay on the wheel consistently, for example, I thought I had reached a certain level. I had this, my muscles had developed the memory they needed to always be able to execute the task. But, I learned quickly that it doesn’t work that way, and that practice is as much about building muscle memory as it is about teaching yourself how to fail. How to not get thrown when you can’t throw. How to make practice feel like play. When my brain insists that I need to accomplish something right now, so that I can prove to my instructor, my classmates, or myself, that I’m learning, that I deserve to be here, that I am a potter, I get frustrated with myself. I create pressure and urgency that impacts my ability to throw the way I want to. I get embarrassed if anyone notices, or mentions that I seem stressed. Then the embarrassment (shame by another name) compounds that feeling of failure. It is difficult, but I am learning that I must practice changing my mindset before I reach that point of frustration. And I do know how to do this, even if I’m not always able to execute. When I haven’t created a sense of urgency for myself, I’m able to say, after messing something up, oh, well, it’s just practice. And I believe it.
A writing friend and I were talking about this recently too. I realized that playful practice is the point of the writing prompts we’re experimenting with. It’s about being open to creativity, and urging your brain to set aside the frustration. You just write without judgement. You are not writing for a deadline or a purpose other than exploration. It’s just play. And unless you are trying to win something that’s all practice needs to be.
The only reason why I have created pressure around the notion of practice is out of habit, out of a cultivated perfectionism predicated on a lot of wrong ideas about love and worth. The benefits of practice, in terms of progress toward your goal, are more easily evidenced in the absence of urgency. At least for me. As soon as there is the pressure of time—I need to learn this faster, be able to demonstrate progress sooner—whatever I’m practicing gets worse instead of better.
Do we practice to improve, or do we practice because we enjoy something, and improvement is a side benefit?
And how does this relate to being able to maintain a healthy mindset and sense of identity like the one I found/embraced/earned when I was camping on the shores of Lake Michigan? Cultivating that mindset is something else that benefits from playful practice. It’s hard not to think about consequences. If I have a bad throwing day or write something that’s terrible, it does not matter at all. But if I fail to approach my mental health in the right way, the consequences are more serious. My anxiety starts to call the shots, and it changes who I am, how I want to be. If I don’t approach it with a light touch, all I can think of are the consequences, the what-ifs: what if I can’t get back there—to myself, to self-trust. What if I forgot how?
Here again, play is the answer. Play is the way back. Play is how I found myself. All I did after the “work” of setting up camp was to listen to myself and do what sounded fun. The challenging hike was something I was anxious about at first, but aside from the bear scare, it was an uplifting and joyful experience. So was waking up to the sunrise over the lake and listening to the waves. So were campfires, and games of solitaire in the tent while it rained, and reading book after book on the beach, and swimming, and rock hunting, and more woodland wandering.
Being playful is something I need to practice. So today, after a stressful week, I decided that nothing bad would happen if I didn’t sweep up the dog hair or clean the gutters, and I took myself to the beach. I read my book. I ate marshmallows and toasted almonds. I swam and waded and people-watched. i watched the clouds and the sea gulls.
I have spent so much time over the years doing “the work.” That is, trying to understand and to heal and to grow. I’ve had experiences that seemed like detours or roadblocks, but they were all part of the process, in their own way. But in all that time in my head, thinking and reconsidering and exploring new perspectives, it was easy to overlook the point of being playful. I try to be open to and observant of joy, but I don’t always make opportunities to welcome it, to seek it, grow it. I’ve always had a bit of a Cinderella mentality in that I usually feel like I don’t get to do something enjoyable unless I’ve finished my chores, been productive, done my work. But it is in play, in doing the things we find enjoyable, however silly or small, that we can get in touch with a safe and happy place within ourselves. And when we feel safe and happy, we trust ourselves, we are buoyant, relaxed. There is no anchor of anxiety pulling us down and holding us back, holding us under.
Who would have thought that you would have to practice being playful? Not everyone does, but if you’re learning or re-learning this too, I see you. Have fun! Your very own kind of fun.