What Time Is It?

Acres of asphalt baking under the afternoon sun releases a kind of sweet petro-chemical perfume that stirs animal desire more surely than any product made by Louis Viton, Chanel, or Versace.  At least that’s how it was for my fellow classroom captives and me at Little Flower Grade School in the 1970’s.  Before the days of air conditioned classrooms, open windows were the only respite from stale, humid air.  Through those portholes, in would waft the aroma of playground asphalt, stirring up hoop dreams, as well as distraction from reading, writing, and arithmatic.  With a knit brow, I would channel all my kinetic super-powers to spin the minute hand toward afternoon recess, somehow proving to myself, once more time, that a watched clock moves slower.  Unlike lunch recess, that was governed by the fixed laws of an all-school schedule, afternoon recess started when Mr. Bergner said it started.  The capriciousness of this arrangement only served to heighten the anticipation.  Every day, the tension would build until the benevolent dictator deigned to give the thumbs up.  At that moment, the door would fling open, spilling liberated boys and girls into games of basketball, kickball, hopscotch, rope jumping, and the exchange of scintillating gossip about the latest in Little Flower liaisons’.  “Recess, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways…I love thee freely…purely…I love thee with passion.” 

Well yesterday, after a year, and four months of building anticipation, it was recess again!  The doors flung open.  After a COVID year away, an event called, “Food Trucks in the Park” returned to Saint Louis’ venerable old Tower Grove Park.  There was music, street food, Solo cups with Saint Louis micro-brew.  Children were throwing Frisbees and playing catch.  A cover band sang Chicago’s “Saturday in the Park.”  I felt like that sailor in the iconic picture snapped on “VJ Day” kissing a nurse in Time’s square.  I wanted to pet every dog.  Every stranger felt like a best friend.  I never felt so glad to wait in an hour long food line!  It was magic.

The Saturday before, something similar happened.  My friend Walt, and his cover band played an outdoor venue with a food truck and a multigenerational audience.  Dr. Tom could not sit still.  I was turned down so many times, but occasionally, I would cajole until someone’s mom or grandma would get up and dance with me.  I can’t speak for my very tolerant wife, but I was in heaven…even better…I was in recess!

 In the week between these moments, I interviewed an Internal Medicine physician who worked on a busy COVID hospital ward during the greatest surge of cases Saint Louis suffered.  This was the first of many interviews where I hoped to capture the resilience stories of frontline healthcare workers to see what the rest of us can learn about resilience from their insider stories.  As we talked, it was clear that his experience of the pandemic, and mine were in no way comparable.  Among other inconveniences, he was forced to completely isolate from his wife and three young children for a full consecutive month.  Even when not working on the COVID ward, occasional non PPE-protected contact with a patient (whom would later show up with COVID-suspicious symptoms) required more isolation from his family.  Clearly, the challenges presented by this illness were not experienced evenly by all of us. 

Nevertheless, as I listened, what I noticed, over the shoulder of my interview subject, was the context where our conversation was taking place.  He was at his lake cabin with his extended family of wife, children, and for the first time in one and a half years, his mom and dad from out-of-town.  My research subject was having recess!

It seems to me that one piece of data to be culled from this interview, is the life-sustaining value of taking time to waste time in play.  Resilient people know that there is a time to heal, and a time to mourn.  But they also know that there is a time to laugh, and a time to dance (Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8).  Two signature artistic works of the 1960’s, Fiddler on the Roof, and Zorba the Greek, featured main characters who knew hardship.  Nevertheless, when offered the opportunity, they always responded.  They let go of themselves.  They gave themselves over to non-self-conscious, whole-hearted reverie!  Where does recess beckon for you?  Where in the next week, month, or two months can you spill out of your locked doors and give yourself over to non-self-conscious play?  So many have worked so hard for so long to provide this unique moment.  It’s time for recess!  Lechaim!

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