Yesterday the kids were having a hard time getting into the car. I don't mean physically having a hard time getting in the car; they do that quite well. In fact, while I was trying to get their clothes and shoes on for a trip to Drumlin farm, they walked out the door shoe-less and hid from me inside the car. It's not that they didn't want to go to the farm, it's just that they had a very vivid imaginary game going on that I was interrupting. Whatever I wanted to do they did not want to do. They were trying to get away from me. I was the dragon.
Now look. I appreciate imaginative play and all, but we had friends to meet at Drumlin at nine oclock. And after packing all their snacks into the car, and the stroller and the birthday present and the diapers and the baby-carrier, and THEN having to find Zion's shoes and socks which he'd left on the living room floor, I was pretty peeved. I got into the car with a pretty big lecture. "Things are going to be different around here next time," I said. "We are NOT going to have another morning like this, do you hear me? I do not run myself around ragged just so you can meet your friends for fun outings. Next time you want to go to the farm YOU get your socks and shoes on, mister."
Rather than pouting or yelling back, Zion just smiled up at me. "You still the dragon!" he exclaimed.
Children's imaginative play serves a lot of functions for them. One of these functions is that, in a world where children have very little power or self-determination, imaginative play lets them process the million slights they receive daily. If we are hell-bent on putting them in their place, they will come up with ways to save face that do not strictly belong to our reality. It's almost genius.
As an adult I have outgrown explicit imagination games. But there are still lots of ways I play pretend.
Right now my favorite game is, "Let's pretend I'm dieting!" This is where I spend 99% of my time analyzing the nutritional/moral content of dozens of different food options, along axes of fat, calories, fiber, sugar, gluten, mouth feel, and availability to my kitchen. This game is very engaging, so much so that I can make it stretch juuuust until the power of hunger becomes so overwhelming that I run to the kitchen and throw into my mouth the nearest thing possible. For losing weight it works about as well as not dieting at all.
When I wake up, when I read to my kids, when I am driving in the car I am probably thinking about food. When I DO ANYTHING I am probably thinking about food. Except when I'm exercising or nursing. There is a magic state of calm that rests upon activities that I've labeled 'Calories Out.'
For someone who thinks about food nearly all my waking hours, I'm noticing how little I pay attention when I'm actually eating. How can this be? When I've taken an hour of hungry time, internally debating the merits of one sandwich filling versus another? Will greens detract from the experience more than they enhance the health of the final product? Which will make it feel more filling: a wrap, or two slices of bread (only 50 calories different)? Will the whole thing can hang together without mayo? With just a dab of mayo? After literally AN HOUR of doing other things, PRETENTING like I'm not obsessing about that sandwich, what happens when I'm finally sitting down actually eating the sandwich? I'm reading a magazine? I'm opening the computer? I'm looking for something to distract myself from the thing that distracts me from everything else.
Like Zion, I prefer to experience reality through the lens of my imagination. I don't want to focus on the actual sandwich. The hazy, changeable, imaginary sandwich was safer than the sandwich itself. Not just because I want to eat no calories, but because the real food is too wonderful and frightening in its every bit of REALNESS.
You see, when I force myself to focus on the sandwich, this happens:
First of all, I notice how GOOD the sandwich is. It's not only good, it's the BEST thing I've EVER eaten. Perhaps it's the best food ever created in the history of the world. When I put it in my mouth it explodes with salt and fat and melty bready goodness (I'm imagining a cheese sandwich here, but a chicken sandwich would work equally as well). As soon as I take a bite the complex carbohydrates shoot serotonin straight into my brain. The protein tells my mind it is alright to function again. The salt and the fat and the pepper tell my tastebuds: "here you go — you are no longer wanting." And all this happens in the same instant. The instant that I put food in my mouth, my body is transformed from outside in.
I am no longer just a brain, free-floating, imaging pleasures that may or may not come to pass. I am actually biting something and chewing it. That bite is an real interaction between the inside of my body and the outside world. What was external becomes internal. It's holy and crazy and amazing and baffling. It's the physical experience of God's creation, its taste and its fullness. It bursts at the seams with EXPERIENCE and LIFE!
At the same time, it's just a sandwich.
And if I really focus on it, I know no matter how GOOD it is, it's just a friggin sandwich. It's really good, don't get me wrong. But is this all that life has to offer? In its fullness? The whole wide world of possibilities? The outside world and me, connecting magically? A sandwich?
I mean, it's pretty good but then it's over. In a few hours I have to come up with another thing to eat.
If eating generates an existential crisis, then you could see how a magazine might help.
The thing about a sandwich, or a sunset, or holding your newborn baby on your chest, is that they are inescapably beautiful expressions of life, IN THAT as you enjoy them you are aware that they will soon be gone. Eating a sandwich only takes two minutes. The sunset maybe a few minutes more, depending on where you are in the season. A newborn baby takes hours upon hours and days upon days of holding, but when he is grown I will shed a tear and wonder, "How did the time go by so fast?"
The reality of this life is it is so painfully beautiful, but the beautiful bits we can't hold onto. This is the reality that faces me three times a day, or five counting snacks. Every time I open the fridge, I am up against nothing less than the realization of my own mortality.
Do you think maybe I need more of Jesus?
We were having a discussion in our church group about keeping our eyes on Jesus. When hard times come, just fix your eyes on Jesus. And I thought: I keep my eyes on Jesus like he is a sandwich I'm not eating. I am perfectly happy to think ABOUT Jesus. I think about him all the time in fact, either theologically, or how I'll explain him to my kids, or in relation to my friends who I'm trying to help. But when it actually comes to ENJOYING Jesus? I'm not so sure I know how to do that. I know how to get a quick little taste of Jesus, like a hundred-calorie-snack-pack, but then I'm running in the other direction chatting up everyone else: "Hey, have you heard about Jesus? You should really try him! He's so fulfilling!"
Maybe I don't believe Jesus really has time for me. Or maybe I'm scared that I've mostly made him up in my mind, that if I look at him, REALLY look at him, I'll say like the sandwich "Is that all there is?"
I know that's not true. I know it's really much worse. I'll meet the real Jesus, the one I didn't manufacture to be safe and portion-controlled and healthy. And I'll be so satisfied in a way I've never experienced before that I won't immediately launch into planning my next craving. And then what will I do with myself? How will I spend the next hour of housework? How will I face my life if I'm not so focused on imagining it away?