The old-fashioned neighborhood warning sign says, “Children at Play.” The new signs say, “Children Playing.” Need I state my preference?
Prepositions are tough to translate; from one language to the next it is nearly impossible to find an exact match. This is because even in one language what a preposition means is not a simple thing. To be “at play,” for instance, is different than to be “at the Green Giant Coffee Shop.” The Green Giant Coffee Shop is a place you can be at; play is a mode of being you can be involved with. You can be at a place and you can be at an activity.
These reflections were spurred by a sign, recently sighted in Phoenix: “Children and Pets at Play.” The sign stirs mixed emotions. One is glad to see the old “at play” still, well, at play in the sign-making world. Yet at the same time a new question arises. Can pets play? To the contrary, one might think, pets don’t do anything except play.
Your cat (if you have a cat, and if you do, my sympathy) helps keep down the rodent population in your home. It may catch a bird or a bunny and leave the remains on your doorstep as a present. But in its bird-catching, bunny-cornering, and mouse-pouncing activities your cat is not working. It is just being a cat. These are the sorts of things that cats do.
But maybe it’s also true of humans. I hate to venture any human-cat analogy, of course, but nonetheless—might it be true of everything? Perhaps to be at play is just to be acting as you act when you are most yourself. In that case, play would not be a separate activity from work—or at least it would not need to be.
It is a thought full of wonder: for us to be “at play” is for us to be fully engaged people, people who are “at one” with what we are doing. From there it is just a small step to say that when we are “at play” we are “in play”—like a live ball in a baseball game—that is to say, when we are at play we are fully alive in the human world of God’s good creating.
Back to the warning sign. If we had to put out signs to warn when people are “in play,” those signs would be everywhere. Traffic would slow to a near-halt.
Which might not be a totally bad thing.
Out & About. The Good Books & Good Talk seminar will discuss three books this fall; you are welcome to join any or all of the discussions. Sept. 18: J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Oct. 16: Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Nov. 27: Charles Darwin’s A Christmas Carol, in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. Each seminar is on a Sunday evening, from 5 to 6:30 p.m., and meeting at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas.
On the Web. Through 8/9, a 20% discount on all paperbacks at Wipf & Stock, with code AUG22. Besides A Post-Covid Catechesis, they have many volumes in the Pro Ecclesia series that might be of interest (e.g., What’s the Good of Humanity?): wipfandstock.com