Mix a little foolishness with your serious plans. It is lovely to be silly at the right moment. -Horace
I laugh so hard that tears begin to slide down my cheeks. My inability to control my laughter makes my sister all the more unable to control hers. Laughter is contagious in this way. Neither one of us can stop! I hang up the phone and realize I can’t remember the last time I laughed that hard. I’m unable to recall a recent memory involving this kind of laughter—the kind that unfolds so deep within your soul it causes tears to spill. When did silliness begin to fade? At what point did it crawl into the grave?
Lately, I’ve been attempting to make a little bit more room for silly in my life because, honestly, I don’t have enough energy left to be serious. So when my friend Liz asked if I wanted to assist her in throwing a Halloween party, and to join her family in dressing up as characters from The Wizard of Oz, I said yes without hesitation. Another thing I can’t remember: the last time I dressed up for Halloween.
This led to a drive to Michigan where I spent an afternoon hanging jack o’ lanterns and staging the cookie decorating station. Liz and I requested her husband relocate the microwave to the basement because it was disrupting “the flow” of the walking taco line. I wove strands of lights through bowls of chips and around pots of coffee, cider and tea. We combined makeup supplies and took turns painting our costume faces in between oven timers and sugar cookie cooling rotations.
The easy thing to do would have been to cancel the party. We’d stayed up too late talking the night before and we were both tired. Five pounds of ground beef was a whole lot to cook, and ghost-shaped sugar cookies are tedious to bake. When we’d said goodbye to the last guest, we collapsed onto the couch wishing someone would clean up the giant, sparkly mess that was….everywhere. And yet, I was so glad we’d said yes. We laughed and ate and made a mess and celebrated what was right in front of us: her three boys, autumn in Michigan, both new and old friendships, and that I now live within driving distance!
G.K. Chesterton, writes that “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” It’s a popular quote that is often used out of context. Chesterton is not providing us with an excuse for poor results, unfortunately. Rather, he is challenging us to push past our perfectionistic tendencies and to simply start, right now, wherever we are. Liz and I forgot to buy cookie cutters while running errands. We also broke several cookies in the baking process and feared we might not have enough. If you look closely you’ll notice Dorothy’s dress is more plaid than gingham and that the lion totally lost his tail. Alas.
I think making room for silly might mean saying yes even when it would be easier to say no, even when you know your feet will hurt, even when you have to drive five hours, and even when you feel a little unsure about how your costume will come together. I’m not good at being silly because silly doesn’t tolerate my need to control. It doesn’t allow room for my fears about the future. Liz and I stayed up late talking about how our lives feel layered with learning curves and transitions and unanswered questions right now. Dressing up for Halloween demanded we press pause on all of that. Not easy, but possible. Being silly when life is hard still feels irresponsible to me. But there’s a presence that comes with being silly that I think can be a light for us in those hard places—a presence that I am still learning. It’s hard to be silly when you’re with a friend who is waiting for test results. It’s difficult to laugh when you can’t seem to find a job. It’s hard to see the small beautiful things woven amidst the busyness that leaves us foggy and tired. I can’t be silly when I’m paralyzed by fear. I can’t laugh when I’m grasping to hold things together. I find it strange that the dictionary defines silly as something weak and/or foolish. I find silly to be quite the opposite. I think it’s brave to be present wherever you find yourself, in the midst of whatever chaos you cannot control, to say yes when saying no is easier, and to make a little bit of space for silly.
The subject of play is attracting attention from neuroscientists. While things like emotion and language can generally be attributed to a certain part of the brain, laughter cannot be contained to a specific region. A brain study in humor research reported that four-tenths of a second, right before we laugh, a wave of electricity “carpets” our entire cerebral cortex! Silliness is magical in this way—it engages our whole self and engulfs us in the present. Silly is powerful. More powerful perhaps than we’ve yet to understand.
My favorite definition of “play” I’ve found thus far was penned by Anthony Pellegrini, an education psychologist who writes: “What play is—and this is a crucial distinction, especially when you get to adults—is an a orientation where the means are more important than the ends, where you’re much more concerned with the process than the result.” The Boston Globe notes the paradoxical nature of practicing play, saying: “ There is an obvious irony hanging over the entire field, and one its researchers are aware of. The minute you identify “play” as something that matters because it’s useful, it stops being play.”
Even though I’m not that great at being silly, and even though it’s incredibly difficult to allow play to flourish without naming it as such, I made room for it this Halloween. Silliness, and the act of creating space for it, is, perhaps ironically, leading me to a place of deep gratitude. This October, I’m grateful for neon sprinkles, green eyeshadow, glittery shoes, jack o’ lanterns, walking tacos, witches hats and fresh apple cider—small things that almost went unnoticed. I’m grateful for friends who consider me family, whose boys call me “Aunt Sarah.” I’m grateful for the kind of laughter that can cross cities and time zones and make my abs hurt and my eyes water. I’m especially thankful for late-night conversations over “bat brew.” with a friend who showed me how to Halloween again.
Is silliness worth doing, even if poorly at first? I think so.