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Issue 8-17

Teach Me to Play

I am at a major turning point in my six- (almost seven-) decades-old life, and as I put together the content for the 2009 sixth annual Hungry Souls 24-Hour Advent Retreat of Silence, I am aware that this will be the last Advent Retreat I plan. Hopefully, others will step forward to take up the responsibility of this lovely gift joyfully given to others, but if not, I am content to say, “We did a good job introducing many to their first taste of communal silence.”

My creative life is calling me; it hums in the night. I can see it in flashpoints during my days. The unborn works I have not brought to nativity wait patiently for me to give them birth.

How fortunate to have these days where I am still in good health and of sound mind. But the ubiquitous question—how long will they last?—always rises.

During the last session of the current cycle of Listening Groups (eight months of listening to each other), one of the women graciously extended words of appreciation to each member. When my turn came, she said this: “I have a friend who knows that I am in a Listening Group with Karen Mains. She loves your writing and asked me what you were like. I told her that you were an absolute free spirit!”

I was amazed. I used to be a free spirit (as Julie Andrews once sang as Maria, “Somewhere in my wicked childhood …”), but it has become painfully clear to me over the last three years that I have a play deprivation. Creativity oozes, and laughter, fortunately, has become a companion again—but a free spirit?—something must be showing without my knowing. I suspect my “free spirit” is always hedged about by my heightened sense of responsibility and peeks out at moments when I am not aware of it.

So for whatever of life is left to me, I want to dedicate that to learning how to play. In order to be content that I have lived well the life given to me, I am determined to go dancing, singing and scribing into heaven—with nothing undone that was meant to be done. I do not want to spend the last days of my life with an overwrought sense of obligation. I want to free the closet renegade within me and say, “Okay, your turn…”

Stuart Brown, M.D., in his fascinating book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, writes that humans are genetically programmed for play. Brown has spent his career conducting more than 6000 play histories with people from all walks of life; serial killers (who displayed one startling commonality—a childhood play-deprivation) to Nobel Prize winners, to celebrities, to public servants, and to those who represent the rest of us, the common folk.

Brown writes, “When we get play right, all areas of our lives go better. When we ignore play, we start having problems. When someone doesn’t keep an element of play in their life, their core being will not be light. Play gives us the irony to deal with paradox, ambiguity, and fatalism. Without that, we are like the Woody Allen character in Annie Hall, who says, “What’s the use? The sun’s going to blow up in five billion years anyway.”

Here is a list of what he recommends to restore play to the play-deprived.

1.  Take your play history.

For a long time I couldn’t remember how I played as a child, or what kind of toys I had, but this exercise helped me remember that I loved playing field hockey (high school and college); that my father’s exiled (to Des Moines, Iowa) Southern family loved family sing-fests; that as a grade-schooler I loved gardening with my father and canning with my mom and grandmother. Reading, reading, reading was always high on the list, and I remember the pleasure of riding a bicycle (purchased secondhand when I was in 4th grade). There’s a long way to go, I know—I’m a little deficient in the early-years play history—but it’s a start.

2.  Expose yourself to play.

My friend Natalie Lombard and I have been experimenting with painting with brooms in her heated garage. (It is good to have a playful friend with a heated garage.) I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to choose people for these last decades of my life who know how to play and who make a way for the free spirit dwelling within me that wants OUT! Natalie and I are building a living metaphor on the Prepare Ye! theme for the opening of this year’s Advent Retreat of Silence. We are becoming really good at spreading paint with a turkey baster—another painting tool—though I am amazed that working with the same consistency of watered-down pastels and the same turkey baster, our hands nevertheless produce totally different lines!

3.  Give yourself permission to be playful, to be a beginner.

OK. OK. I’m here already. I’m seeking out people whom life has not beaten into seriousness. In one conversation recently with the team of gals who are designing training for Retreat of Silence leaders, we discussed the importance of recapturing a sense of play. One woman mentioned her “fun dates.” Consequently, right now I am thinking about beginning establishing outrageously ridiculous Play Days once a month for the purpose of giving myself permission to be playful, to be a beginner and get this play thing down right.

For the rest of Stuart Brown’s list, I recommend you read the book and check out your own capacity for play.

For my whole life, I’ve visited Christ’s words, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3, NRSV). What did He mean?

David Steindl-Rast writes about the “child-like” concept, “The child within us stays alive. And the child within us never loses the talent to look with the eyes of the heart, to combine concentration with wonderment, and so to pray without ceasing. The more we allow the child within us to come into its own, the more we become mature in our prayer life. This is surely one meaning of the saying that we must ‘become like children.’ There is no childishness suggested here. … A truly mature person has not rejected childlikeness, but rather achieved it on a higher level. As we progress in that direction, everything in our daily life becomes prayer. The childlike heart divines springs of refreshing water at every turn.

What I want to concentrate on in the years left to me is not to let work overtake wonderment; indeed, I want to learn how to launch wonderment and let the work go hand in hand with it. I no longer need to develop the discipline of doing tasks I really don’t like or am not good at doing. That discipline has revealed that I’m pretty good at a lot of things—surprise! From now on, as much as possible, I want my work to become play.

Stuart Brown again: “Far from standing in opposition to each other, play and work are mutually supportive. They are not poles at opposite ends of our world. Work and play are more like the timbers that keep our house from collapsing down on top of us. Though we have been taught that play and work are each the other’s enemy, what I have found is that neither one can thrive without the other. We need the newness of play, its sense of flow, and being in the moment. We need the sense of discovery and liveliness that it provides. We also need the purpose of work, the economic stability it offers, the sense that we are doing service for others, that we are needed and integrated into our world.”

So here are the questions I’m beginning to ask of myself:

1.  How am I incorporating play into my week—each week?
2.  What outrageously ridiculous Play Day am I going to orchestrate this month?
3.  Who are the people who know how to laugh and play, and how can I make them my friends?
4.  How will I take this sense of wonder and marry it to the work I choose to do?
5.  How am I going to find joy in the effort of simply being a little kid in God’s Presence—running toward the Kingdom of Heaven on happy feet (you saw the film Happy Feet, didn’t you? Yep, that’s exactly what I mean).

So, I hope to see you at this year’s 6th annual Advent Retreat of Silence. Let us meet each other in the silence and listen together to see what God has to teach us about being prepared. I am bringing my painting brooms and my turkey baster.

Karen Mains


One of the reasons we give a discount is to encourage retreatants who know they are coming to sign up early. This way we have some feel as to whether there will be funds to provide scholarships for those who want to come but just can’t swing it financially. If you know you are coming but still haven’t registered, please do so soon. That will be a help to us as we seek to include others. Note that the date for final registration is November 25.

We also will have a table with the Global Bag Project African-made kanga-cloth bags. They are gorgeous! Think about these for Christmas gifts.

Wannabe (Better) Writers:
Teleconference Opportunity

Karen Mains is offering an eight-month, twice-monthly teleconference training for people who have always wanted to write, have written before but are now stalled. We will begin in February 2010 and go through October. The conference calls will be one hour long. This will be a personal mentoring opportunity with no more than 12 people per training team.

During these eight months, Karen will walk Wannabe (Better) Writers through the principles of writing personal memoirs—this is a form that Karen’s writing has taken in many of her articles, blogs, e-newsletters, and in some of her 24 published books. The cost will be $40 a month ($20 per conference call) or $320 for the eight months (16 sessions) of coaching.

For an e-mail copy of the prerequisites required to attend this course, the goal of the telementoring process, the curriculum for the 16 conference calls, and more details about payments, e-mail Karen at:

(Karen ran a test teleconference session last year, was amazed by the process, and is jazzed by sharing her learning and experience as a published writer with people who are serious about their work.)

Global Bag Project Report

Since October we have been testing how the kanga-cloth bags sell in small presentations. So far, the parties have been successful beyond our estimations. Here are some initial reports:

Winnetka Covenant Church Women’s Bible Study Breakfast
40 women present. Donations worth $840 in bag sales; $680 for sewing machines.

Home Bag-Party in Lake Villa, IL
28 women present. Donations worth $2400 in bag sales.

Home Bag-Party in Green Bay, WI
18 people present. Donations worth $1800 in bag sales and $680 for sewing machines.

Home Bag-Party in Winfield, IL
8 people present. Donations worth $740 in bag sales.

As you can see, this obviously is worth the time and effort. Consequently, we are putting together a “BAG PARTY IN A BOX” concept so we can ship bags to hosts and hostesses across the country. The parties only take an hour and 15 minutes! People are greeted, a light supper or simple refreshments are served, the video is shown, people choose and make donations for bags, and folks are happily out the door without having spent a whole afternoon or evening of their precious time. We have five more Bag Parties before Christmas, two corporate presentations, one church Christmas fair and then we’re going to take a little time to reconnoiter.

But if you are in the Chicago area and want to sign up for a Home Bag-Party for next year 2010, let us know at 
. If you are out of the Chicago area and will be a willing participant to test the “BAG PARTY IN A BOX” concept and give us feedback, also contact us at the above e-mail address.


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Karen Mains

Karen Mains

"The child within us never loses the talent to look with the eyes of the heart, to combine concentration with wonderment, and so to pray without ceasing. The more we allow the child within us to come into its own, the more we become mature in our prayer life. This is surely one meaning of the saying that we must ‘become like children."
— David Steindl-Rast

Book Corner


Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul
By Stuart Brown, M.D.

Summary from Publishers Weekly:

Brown, a physician, psychiatrist, clinical researcher and the founder of the National Institute for Play, has made a career of studying the effects of play on people and animals. His conclusion is that play is no less important than oxygen, and that it's a powerful force in nature that helps determine the likelihood of the very survival of the human race. Having studied thousands of people's play histories, from murderers to Nobel Prize winners, Brown reveals that play is an essential way humans learn to socialize. Beginning with the very first play interactions between mother and child, and working up to adult relationships between couples and co-workers, Brown describes how play helps brain development and promotes fairness, justice and empathy. Work and play are mutually supportive, he argues, noting that play increases efficiency and productivity (playful folks, he claims, are also healthier). Sprinkled with anecdotes demonstrating the play habits of subjects as diverse as polar bears and corporate CEOs, Brown and co-writer Vaughan (The Promise of Sleep) present a compelling case for promoting play at every age. The authors include helpful tips for bringing play back into grownup lives, including being active, spending time with others who are playful and rethinking the misguided notion that adult play is silly or undignified.

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