“You know, before you got a PlayStation as a teenager, we couldn’t stare our fun away,” I joked to my brother as we power-walked up the steeper part of the trail. “Remember all the games we used to make up?”
For the first time in ages, he actually seemed to be considering my words without attempting to argue with them. He looked around, and it dawned on him that we’d just spent an entire day doing a family friendly activity that required nothing but creativity and a willingness to try something different.
By the end of the day, we all agreed that every future birthday/anniversary/special occasion would be spent doing something adventurous, active or creative as opposed to something conventional, sedentary and superficial.
The jury is still out on how long this mindset will last–everybody loves shiny, Instagrammable things–but it got me thinking…
When I was still in the single digit ages, we lived in a township with my grandmother. Our house was about a five minute walk from a malfunctioning power plant. Our street was so narrow it barely let more than a single car pass, so you had to park outside someone’s door if there was oncoming traffic and wait your turn. There was a…field, let’s call it a field…just a street over that had a huge, hulking hill of what I sincerely hope was stone. All of us (four grandchildren and some neighbour’s kids) would use this backdrop to stage the most epic, long-winded, convoluted adventures known to mankind.
Nothing I’ve written since has ever matched the pathos of our Power Rangers story lines, which involved extended scenes of my being crouched behind some boulders atop the hill, squinting in the direction of the setting sun, an old wire clothes-hanger clutched to my side as a makeshift bow and arrow (I was the yellow ranger, obviously) waiting to discover if our leader had crossed over to the enemy camp…
When we lived with my Uncle during a really rough economic stretch, we would often be left alone at home until it was quite dark out. Sometimes the power would be cut. Blindman’s Bluff became a staple in our home. It was more mysterious and risky than simple Hide-and-go-Seek and we had the added advantage of being able to scream like maniacs in attempts to throw each other off-track in the dark.
Days were seldom boring. We filled them with laughter, running, hiding, play-fighting (WWE, formerly known as WWF, you are to blame!), singing our favourite songs and then making up new ones to document the fun we were having.
We formed a silly little Pop group where we rapped and sang and did choreographed little routines (judge not!) that our parents tolerated with perfectly-feigned enthusiasm. Bless them.
We read. We were voracious about it. If anyone wanted to buy us something, at least half of us opted for books we’d been eyeing. We always asked for books that existed as part of a series or trilogy. Nobody wanted to buy a ten year old only the first part of a ten part series. It bordered on cruelty.
I wrote an important primary school speech on the roof of an outhouse behind my grandmother’s house. I could see the whole township stretched out below me, and it inspired me to write something I’d been anxiety-procrastinating until I only had an afternoon left. The wind felt different up there, and everything looked so small and insignificant in context. That was the first time I realised how much being alone to create calmed me, especially after chunks of fun and fast-paced interaction with friends and family.
Then somebody got my brother that PlayStation.
It’s probably tainted hindsight that identifies this as the turning point, but it’s as good a reference as any. Suddenly, creativity became redundant. Why create your own adventure, when the screen could create one for you? Why run around and do stuff, when the teeny little character could do cooler stuff instead?
It was the beginning of the end.
Money became less tight, just in time for DSTV to become a national phenomenon . What was initially a luxury became a necessity. Any time we couldn’t afford the subscription, people would lose their minds. Silence in the house equated to unbearable boredom. Maybe we were too old to play certain games, but did that mean we were too old to entertain ourselves? Cellphones followed shortly after for the kids. We barely spoke to one another after that. We barely existed to each other. Every problem, every open stretch of time, we scrambled to fill with the newest innovation, the newest distraction. Holidays became excuses to whine about all the things we didn’t have that would make the time off school or work more enjoyable…
Where had the creative, innovative, intelligent people gone?
The strelitzia in our garden are dying. I noted this the moment I got home, but it was easier to convince everyone while we were standing in an open field bordered by the hardy, indigenous plants. The ones around us were flourishing, the ones at home were not.
Counterintuitive perhaps? Nobody was running around watering and fertilizing and grooming the “wilder” versions before us. They just grew where they grew and nature did what it did. Yet they were vibrant and sturdy, not a single stem bowing or wilting. Simplicity was their strength. Freedom was their fanciness.
Once upon a time, we needed little to live large. My happiest memories have nothing to do with something bought or paraded–my happiest memories are pure, easygoing times with the people I love doing the things we love. I don’t have many fond memories of playing Tomb Raider video games–but I smile every time I think of the lot of us dissolving into a heap of laughter whenever we barreled back into my grandmother’s kitchen after an afternoon of narrowly escaping the latest figment of our collective imaginations.
There’s something beautiful about having a source of joy that nobody can take away from you without the entire world collapsing first. Although I’m no longer a child–and haven’t been in a really long time–I think these are object lessons that will apply no matter how grey and steeped I become. Should I ever have children, I hope to give them the opportunity to expand their own creativity, fill their own voids, chart their own paths…but I don’t need to wait for that day. I’m here now. We’re all here now.
How much fulfillment are we missing out on because we are waiting to have the stuff that is supposed to make life better? How much more could we contribute to the lives of those we love by simply embracing the simplicity of not waiting for someday to start living fuller, richer lives ourselves? What would it be like to simply lead a more natural existence–not in the never bathe, never groom sense, but in the sense of letting ourselves work through hardships, use our brains to solve problems, using our innate aptitudes/talents/abilities to find joy and entertainment instead of simply throwing money at everything?
We weren’t millionaires growing up, but we were probably richer for it.
The best things in life are, undoubtedly, free.