“Let’s build ourselves a pleasant little mountain,” the vaguely familiar voice from the computer said. “We’ll start with a little bit of blue, crimson and black and pull the paint out as flat as you can get it,” the man encouraged.
Around the kitchen table, we hit pause and the three of us studied our color options and debated which one most represented crimson. Our options were limited to what we could find in the old art cabinet. “Okay, got it!” we said to my husband, and he hit play again as we blobbed crimson onto our canvases.
“Now, you make your first decision, where does your mountain want to live?” asked Bob Ross as he continued guiding us through painting an idyllic mountain scene complete with clouds that “float around and have a good time all day” to “happy little trees nestled in the glen.” My daughters and I laughed nervously as we tried to hustle and keep up but had to keep asking Jeff to pause the “Joy of Painting” as we covered our canvas in a smear of color that were intended to reflect the serene masterpiece Bob was creating on the screen. The kitchen table was covered with newspapers, tubes of paint and random paintbrushes we collected from long ago abandoned art projects.
This week was special. It was spring break and we were still in the initial throngs of covid – 2020. We’d canceled a trip abroad and decided to make the most of it by having a theme day every day and going all out with food and activities to match. It helped break up the boredom of days spent at home alone, the four of us isolated in suburbia. Painting along with Bob Ross, after enjoying another Barilla pasta dinner, was our attempt to connect to the museums of Italy we hoped to explore with the girls that year.
It was a fun week – we donned college t-shirts and toured an empty college campus nearby and then taught the girls how to play beer pong (with sweet tea instead of beer) in our backyard. We played a sandy game of Spikeball in a nearby abandoned volleyball pit and followed it up with fried shrimp and the movie “Jaws.” One evening we dressed like cowboys, played a game of cards, dined on biscuits and gravy and watched an old-fashioned western movie, something with John Wayne in it. We ended the week with a blindfolded Easter egg hunt and spiral cut ham.
This week of playing around was one of the highlights of Covid for our family. It was a chance to act like kids again and engage in something that took our mind off the fear of all the unknowns of the coronavirus and the loneliness of being home all the time. It connected us in ways that our daily life didn’t. Yes, it took a little work, but we all enjoyed the various elements of the week and the unexpected joy that it brought to us.
I think it taught an important lesson – no matter how old we are or how bleak the situation, there can be a lot of value found in the art of play. It’s easy to get caught up in routine tasks and tedious errands, not to mention work -- but a few hours of playing can help reinvigorate the soul and solidify connections. It’s a chance to show vulnerabilities and explore creativity, expose our competitive natures and bridge generational differences.
Nearly every Monday this year, my best friend has carved time into her busy academic schedule to spend time with me. She marked that time on Monday as sacred, and we’ve found a variety of ways to spend the days creatively playing even when I don’t have much energy. We’ve been to several museums and the local botanical garden to observe and see what we could apply in our own yards. One afternoon, after a trip to purchase a few more plants, we cooled off eating ice cream watching butterflies over the local university dairy. Another day, we shopped and cut fabric for baby quilts I want to make for potential grandkids (many years from now). Some days we sit by the local lake and write in our own journals imagining ourselves as poets or memoirists one day. The time we spend is a blend of working on hobbies and creatively playing, often based on how I feel. These shared experiences have made our relationship even stronger.
When I was recently at that awkward stage recovering from covid but still quarantined, I spent the day playing with half triangles in my sewing room. I had no pattern or expectations for what I was doing. I was playing with color and patterns as I flipped four inch red and white triangles back and forth to create a variety of patterns. Traditional or modern; big or small … Ultimately, I arranged 12 of the squares in a top for a pillow that matched a scrappy red, black and white quilt that I’ve slowly been working on over the last year.
It was a great way to spend the afternoon. The real value was not in the pillow sham but in the art of playing with fabric and pattern and trying something different that reflected who I am, or who I was, at that instant in time. It was refreshing to putter away at a creative task that allowed me to try new things and make decisions on-the-fly. I didn’t have to follow a pattern to know what to do, it was just instinct. I felt like a little kid playing and I was pleasantly surprised when I crawled into bed that evening how content I felt. I loved that it had nothing to do with my cancer.
Therapists often use play therapy with children. I think it’s the same for adults. Art projects like coloring and painting help process the emotions and fears onto a canvas. Spontaneous dance parties and games are fun ways to release stress and express emotions imaginatively, unlocking parts of ourselves that we might keep hidden in our everyday lives. I’ve found that even my journaling allows me to take on unique personas and explore different walks of life when I allow my pen to flex its creative muscle.
The paintings we made with Bob Ross that evening in 2020 were displayed in our house for months before we finally recycled them. It certainly wasn’t our art that was showcased but more our vulnerability to try something new and share this experience. As I plan this final summer before the girls leave for college, I’m looking for ways that we can play together. Whether it’s another family theme night or an old-fashioned board game, I find these opportunities pull us together and bond us in ways that watching sports or reality shows don’t. And, I need to continue to find ways to play by myself whether it’s in a journal, our garden or my sewing room – that time helps me process my emotions and grounds me.
Summer offers infinite ways to play and I’m looking forward to exploring many of them. I hope you will find the “Joy of Playing” this summer. If you need a good starting point, Bob Ross is only a click away with his serene meadows and regal mountains.
Ann Camden uses her 25 years of experience as a public relations executive to help raise her voice and those of others for the metastatic breast cancer community through blogging, speaking and publishing her work on various platforms. Ann is on the Patient Advocacy Board of the Lobular Breast Cancer Association, co-hosts a Hope at Home MBC room for Inheritance of Hope and helps managed the NC Casting for Recovery fishing retreats. She was diagnosed in 2009 with ductal cancer and in 2016 with a second primary metastatic lobular cancer diagnosis. She has been in active treatment ever since and is currently fighting leptomeningeal disease as well. She publishes her blog down-not-out.com on a monthly basis. Married to a fellow Boilermaker, Ann and her husband, Jeff, have twin 18-year-old daughters that are seniors in high school and keep her both inspired and exasperated. They live in Raleigh, NC.