On Friday I attended the funeral of a family member of my spouse. Even thought I am an anthropologist and before that an actor so I tend not to "pre-judge" religious beliefs I am almost always at odds with the performances of Catholic rituals. But I think that stems more from a type of mask that is used in the formal performance of the ritual.
There is personal loss but that is not what this entry is about - this is about acts of play or references to play as I encounter them or struggle with them. And in this case it might be performance of the construction of whiteness.
My spouse and I met with a professor of mine during the mourning rituals and we stayed up far too late - part of the exchange was story-telling and my spouse likes to tell a story about my culture shock with one of the first "viewings" I attended - I encouraged him to tell this story because he comes from a storytelling culture, and because the people who were with us were people who deserved a story where I was not at my best and could be laughed at. It is, in the face of sudden loss a funny story.
This is the play thing. Most of the time with this professor, in this class I am playing with ideas - I am batting them around like a ballon waiting to see if they pop- or I am trying to pop them by sitting on them and they refuse to unmake themselves or explode. It is one of the few places where I do not have to temper or hide myself in order to engage in the act of exploration.
I am not uncomfortable with using the word "playing" with ideas here; I dress them in costumes and make them dance and play ping pong with them and it is mostly joy even when it's very, very serious. Ideas in this class are the things I play with in the manner closest to childhood play.
There is a catch, while I am doing this and am actually unselfconscious - I am "vulnerable" in the sense that I am known, and freely able to admit when I know nothing or am wrong, but I am powerful in the fact that I have command over all the things I am playing with, I am equal to the people who are playing with me. And if you play with that kind of whole self that you played with as a child but with grown things -it looks like a lot of power which on me - I have been told can be intimidating.
So the offer of a story I do not tell about myself where I am the source of the humor ( partially because of my powerlessness) becomes a form of offering or intimacy - My spouse then gets to play and spin out the story and my playmates (classmates/professor) get to share that intimacy from a place of exchange outside of me.
This idea that play is dangerous like sex is dangerous to the state or to society may be embedded in this post-viewing sharing. This is how we defied death that night and braced for the funeral the next morning. There was no one sitting at the table sharing stories that was completely "native" to white American culture underneath my spouse's responses and acts the veneer of Catholic ritual is very, very thin. You can feel that it's like a kind of constraint or power sink to keep the rest of the culture his family came from at bay. He himself is not Catholic. Neither am I.
So that was the play after the viewing.
I will not share the story he told - it's power partially lies in the fact that it's his to tell - however the next morning was the funeral itself - this is the other form of spaces and masks where I never know what to do or say because it feels both ritualized and like a ritual unraveling that was "fixed" for American protestant infused discomfort with large feelings. Unlike my own cultures' mourning rituals which are pragmatic and detached while also leaving spaces inside the ritual for extravagant emotions, this ritual is often about quiet.
And the act of showing the body in forms that mimic it's live state with none of the cultural embellishments that acknowledged the liminal absurdity that the body is there and the person is not. They types of wake that the family would have had before they acculturated are discussed. The kind of wake they would have had for the departed but didn't and what would have happened at it is played out in a kind of whispered remnant of defiance - it quietly performs the acts that the full wakes would have done loudly - where you remember and honor the life spirit and the spirit of play.
They try but there is still the focus on the "accomplishments" in this case, in this funeral the woman is praised for her wifeness, her motherness. The actual woman is shared in asides between family members and cousins telling stories of trying to find sanitized photos, of the priest whose homily is borderline offensive telling a story of her as a "good mom" because she waited online overnight for tickets to her daughter's favorite band.
The acts of the religion do not fully fit the families' needs past making sure that respect and honor is performed. It feels truncated not simply compared to my own culture, but to its own.
It is during the homily that seems exactly the opposite of the comfort that has been claimed for that religion for this specific circumstance that I focused on the presence of the single small child approximately age 3 at play in this very serious space, where this relatively young woman was being mourned.
She had with her two items that were used in play - a clear plastic crystal flattened egg item that acted as a wand, a key, a steering wheel, a playmate and a sandwich.
There was also a purple stuffed animal that resembled an elephant of some sort - that toy acted more as either a source of comfort or a pillow. The child did not get moderated for speaking to the stuffed animal, but in her play when the crystal was embodied her voice pitched high and she was quite talkative.
The two adults monitoring her would not do much more than poke at her and tell her to shush but did very little to keep her movement low, they did not try to get her to be serious, there was only one kneeling prayer where they encouraged her to participate. The service, and the discomfiting homily went on for an hour. The adults were getting more concerned about the presence of an exuberant child as the people around them were getting more emotionally laden and the poking and shushing increased until the child started poking back.
The child playing is completely unaware of the nature of the event she is at, the adults around her- both those responsible for her and those simply nearby and related protected the circle of her emotional being as not related to the surrounding space within the space.
Later at an extended familial gathering that was also formal in a way I wasn't expecting (also because I wasn't expecting that gathering at all ) we sat with the child at the same seated table. The adults were all pleased that she had done so well. No one begrudged her presence or her play. The day was a long one and the free play expressed in the church did not present itself at the table where she was interact with.
In my culture the funeral happens within 24 hours - its not unusual for close family to not be able to get to the burial before it is done. We have a month of family ritual and a week of public being invited into private space. The form of interaction with age, play, family literally could not happen there. When we as adults think of play or use the words of play they are defined almost always as "not work"
But the thing I do in that class is work, and the thing the child at the funeral did in church has no relation to work unless that relationship is lovingly and elaborately constructed by academics trying to convince adults that it has "eventual value"
Is my idea-play - which in that class is "free play" and this child's free play in constrained space a similar play?