While stationed in the SF Bay Area, I did some construction work for my brother, building a sliding barn door for his shed. I also did some construction work to upgrade the Snugcraft, adding a sink and shower system, custom shelves and new curtains. Time spent in the neighborhood where I grew up and working on these projects got me to think and reflect on the challenges of staying in touch with our creativity while aging.
Since middle school, I've always enjoyed building and constructing physical things. While other kids played sports or was in the school band, I participated in a creative program called Odyssey of the Mind, which encourages students to think "outside the box." Teams and students are recognized and awarded the Ranatra Fusca Award for outstanding creativity. I took home a couple of this coveted prize. It was for building a dragon that delivered tennis balls to a target 20 feet away. While other teams limit the size of their delivery systems, usually to a small vehicle or a throwing contraption, I built a 20 foot crane, dressed up as a dragon, that swung over the divide and dropped off the tennis balls in its target. It never worked like it was intended to, always stopping a couple of feet short, but I still was recognized for my creativity in solving the problem.
It has been almost 30 years since I participated in Odyssey of the Mind, but my mind and heart always come back to these magical years. There is an immense joy and sense of empowerment to make something that you see in your imagination come to life, especially when you are an adolescent. I remembered saying to myself I can live my whole life just doing Odyssey of the Mind.
30 years later, I feel like I've never really grown up, perpetually stuck on play mode. For the past 9 years, I have been exercising my creative expressions at Burning Man, the ultimate play ground for any ages. My current project is building a tiny house in the back of my truck and driving around the country showing it off.
I just turned 43 years old, and I have a baby due in October. At what point do we grow up? I see no specific age at which time we are considered grown up, other than technically being able to vote at 18 and drink at 21 (in the United States). I've seen 12 year olds assumed adult roles, taking care of their younger siblings while their parents are out working or partying. I've seen 50 year old adults rediscovering their lost inner child through the magic of dance. I've seen a 70 year old having emotional tantums like a 2 year old. I feel like it's an arbitrary psychological barrier that we set up ourselves.
For a child, the "grown up" place is one where no one tells you what to do, where you know all there is to know and you can do what you want. It's the place where most kids want to get to as soon as possible. As an adult, we understand this is not true. We don't know everything, and there is always someone telling us what to do, whether it be a spouse, a boss or public opinion.
When an adult tells a child or another adult to grow up, it's usually done with a tone of seriousness. There is a sense of giving up to the inevitable loss of innocence, an exit from the realm of play into the real world of consequences and work. We leave behind the magic and mystery of Santa and dragons and imaginary friends. Of course this is another projected story of what adulthood is, from the other perspective.
For me, the "grown up" place is self induced stagnation, which I loath to enter with every fiber of my being. It is the moment when we succumb to "inside the box" thinking and accepts the institutional blue prints (giving to us by religion, school, work, society, etc.) as guidelines on how we live, work and play. Some people say it is hard to leave childhood behind and grow up. I believe it is the other way around. It is easy to be given and to follow a set of rules already manufactured for you. It's safe and you don't have the burden of defining and redefining yourself in relations to the changing world around you.
The connection to the inner child is not about being stuck in an impractical world. I find the opposite is true. The "grown up" place is impractical. There is no more room for improvements as you have accepted the end of your potential. Thus there is no need to practice, no need to play. It is where there is repetitive movement but without moving anywhere. You have essentially given yourself up to be the cog in the machine, the pawn on the chess board, a tool to be used.
The world of the child is all about potentials and thus it requires her to constantly practice to know what she is capable of. She is always prodding and testing the world around her to understand where she is in relation to it. To practice and play is to allow oneself to see what's outside the box, the place where imagination lives. It is the exploration of your potentials that have not yet manifested, and it exists at every age. To stay in touch with our creativity is to be in tuned with our inner child and allowing it to come out to play. We have to understand that there is no point at which we stop growing. Our bodies may stop aging but our energies and consciousness we put out into the world expand indefinitely.
As I enter the next chapter of my life of becoming a parent, I hear the worries and apprehensions of friends and acquaintances about the challenges ahead. I sense their projected story of lost childhood and the dreaded "grown up" place I'm to enter. Yet for me, there is an overwhelming excitement of undiscovered potentials of fatherhood. It bubbles and boils underneath begging to surface, unfettered from other people's expectations and limited only by my own imagination.
I believe that it's more important than ever that I stay in tune with my inner child as I transition into a role of caretaker and guide for the new being. In the rapidly changing world of technological advancements, we cannot hold our children to the same old stories of the past. They will not grow up to be doctors or engineers but instead into something beyond our vision and current understanding. To successfully raise children in the new century will require us to access our imagination and see "outside" the box. How we interact with our child will require radical creativity as we enter an age where work and career are insufficient to define a human's worth.