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As children, we make friends easily. We hold out a toy as a way to invite others to play.

When my children were small, they could play enthusiastically for hours in a park with strangers, creating complex rules to games only they understood. Afterward, I’d discover they didn’t even know each other’s names. They’d excitedly talk about their playtime with these strangers, referring to them by what they were wearing: “That blue boy” or “The hat girl”.  Names didn’t matter. Only how well they played, how receptive they were to each other in the moment. All that mattered was their mutual generosity. This was a lesson we seem to inherently know as children, but often forget as we grow older.

A kernel of that same truth, that instinct to connect and play, exists in us as we grow, but is obscured by our insecurity, fear, impatience, judgment.

As adults, when we meet someone we’d like to get to know better, we share bits of information about ourselves so they can know who we are, how we play, what we love. We might text links to artwork or music so the other person can share our toys.

Sometimes we lose sight of why we are sharing.
‘Will they love what we love?’ doesn’t mean they must become us. More likely, these gestures mean ‘Will they like who we truly are, when they can see what we hold dear?’
We are not seeking to mold or make them different. We’re hoping to invite them closer. We’re looking to include them in our play. We’d like them to love what we love.
These playmates might graciously accept our offerings and romp for a time, or they may respond to our toys in a way that leaves us feeling judged, abruptly ending any future playtime.

Sometimes we’ve been hurt by playmates. This pain can make us fear further injury, causing us to become crusty as a way of self-protecting; or oversoft, too agreeable for fear of further abandonment.
Rejecting. Attaching. Aversion or absorption.
We risk pushing away or grabbing on too hard.
This fear can play out in two ways:
We become rigid, holding on so tightly to our identities that we fail to allow others to contribute to the game; we fear anything new and need them to do it our way. Those playmates who don’t conform aren’t worth our time (‘I’m taking my ball and going home’).
Or, our fear makes us too quick to absorb their toys as our own, molding ourselves in what we think is their image, so they won’t leave. We make chameleon-like shifts in our personality, morphing so thoroughly into what we believe our playmates desire, even our own mothers wouldn’t recognize us.

Our task is to remain open to learning through play.  Our challenge is to remain aware of the pitfalls we risk (create) when we open our hearts.  But play is imperative; connection so necessary.

We learn more about who we are and what we like, through interactions with others. When we stay open, we discover new toys. Or old toys become new when we watch others play in ways we never considered.

As adults, the toys we share are not always tangible. They’re ideas, poetry, film, music, dance.

As a young woman, when I danced, I was concerned that I do it right, working to mimic others’ moves so I wouldn’t ‘look bad’.  Like me, my playmates were all self-conscious; we were young and insecure.
I forgot that dancing is a means of communication and play.
I got older and wanted to dance just to feel the music in my body, whether alone, or in the company of others. But my longtime playmate refused to dance with me, and I allowed this rejection to end my desire. I’d made the assumption that if he wouldn’t dance with me, I wouldn’t be able to dance at all.  His rejection shaped how I saw myself and how I expected others to respond.
It took a long time, but I eventually learned I needed to stop playing with him.

This weekend, I danced.

First, with a new playmate, alone. I discovered I felt far more comfortable with my own body than I’d feared. The music was beautiful and my friend was accepting, happy to play. I was able lose myself in the dance rather than be absorbed by the insecure chattering of my own self-judgmental mind.

Later, I danced with friends. It was joyful and freeing, sweaty and fun. We jumped and touched and giggled, making faces and moving our bodies without holding to rigid expectations of appearance.  I realized I was free of that old concern I used to carry about ‘doing it right’.

I learned I like to dance.

I hope to keep playing.

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*photo credit: Girl’s World by Gina Waga, published in National Geographic 2014