Late on a Saturday evening, dozens of bleary-eyed travelers wait for a delayed airbus to arrive and transport them to their destination. As I walk down the mostly vacant corridor toward Gate A10, there is a small dark-haired boy, maybe 3 years old, intently focused on jumping from tile to tile. As he stomps into each square, his grandpa follows a few steps behind, giving the boy space to explore at his own pace. I can’t help grinning, charmed by his unadulterated, playful innocence. There is such freedom in just being. Now, I’m a childless 40-something woman who does not have oodles of experiences with kids. But I’m savvy enough to know when someone’s on to something. As I watch, Grandpa looks up. I smile broadly, and when he does, too, I say: “That kid’s got the right idea.”
Watching him, I’m reminded of a childhood memory, sprawled on our family room carpet in front of our 1970s orange velour couch with my Crayola box and coloring book, undoubtedly filled with horses or unicorns. I couldn’t have been more than 7 years old because Mom was still alive, but I was probably closer to 7. Although I was focused intently on what I was doing, I was not really being present with it. Instead, I was consciously beating myself up about my coloring escapades of the past, when I was “littler”—probably just days or weeks earlier—when I “failed” to stay inside the lines. How could you be so bad at coloring? You can do better than that! Five-year-old me berated myself, as if being carefree and childlike was intolerable and unacceptable.
And so, on that day, while working through the finer points of the unicorn before me, I made it my mission to keep my crayon strokes perfectly between the lines. That memory has stuck with me through the decades, resurfacing often as an indicator that my perfectionist tendency was hard-wired at an early age. Though it was honed and sharpened over time in an attempt to control the uncontrollable chaos of life, that trait instead succeeded as a primary defeater of creativity and joy.
As the boy continued to zig-zag jump his way down the tiled walkway, I take a seat in the departure lounge. I open my laptop to make a note of some lessons learned from the joy of a child’s carefree play. Pausing in contemplation, I look up and notice that across from me is a somber-looking guy who is watching me. I smile and quickly divert my gaze, suddenly both self-conscious and curiously confident. He’s attractive in a clean-cut, J. Crew sort of way. His eyes keep catching mine, but he does not smile as he takes out his own computer.
J. Crew guy looks exhausted. I wonder, can I get him to smile? Old me would have just let it go and played it safe, too timid to talk to a total stranger, for fear of somehow being rejected as a human being and, generally, feeling “less than.” My wandering imagination also considered the possibility that he could be Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman from the film American Psycho.
But right then and there, I decide to apply a lesson I just learned: Tap into my inner child and move outside the lines I had drawn for myself somewhere around 5. After all, the only truly enforceable rules that say we can’t play are the ones we self-impose.
We board the plane, and J. Crew is just a few rows ahead of me in seat 20C. I settle in as he loads his overhead bag. With my laptop in hand, we catch each other’s attention, and I joke about the pint-sized Frontier Airlines tray table that’s dwarfed by my computer: “I guess we have to be creative.” His face softens, and he smiles—YES!—and says, “Yep. Now have fun trying to find the seat recline button.” (There aren’t any. Frontier staff explain that the seats are “pre-reclined for passengers’ comfort”—in other words, to avoid legroom disputes.)
Such fun! Now, I’d like to brave more conversation. With plenty of open seating on this flight offering the opportunity to sit together and talk, does either one of us have that courage?
As the couple seated next to me discusses one of them moving to find more space, I volunteer to give them my seat and retreat to an empty row behind me, and they are grateful. So I decide to play some more. It suddenly occurs to me to tear off the bottom half of my boarding pass and write an old-fashioned, handwritten, grammar-school style note:
Flights, like life, are short… but so full of opportunities if you’re aware enough to notice them. From a fellow traveler, sending a smile and a hello. As simple as that.
(* recently upgraded to 25D-E-F)
As I write, 20C passes me on his way to the lavatory (which he later confessed was a ruse). On his return trip, he hesitates near my row and looks back. My inner child tells me: “Be brave! It’s harmless fun!” I wave to 20C, and he joins me. I introduce myself and my current life practice of being more brave, and I hand him the note.
I could have spent the duration of that evening reading, writing, or trying to sleep. All equally valid uses of time, but none particularly interesting or fun. Instead, I engaged with another being and had a nice time chatting most of the flight. We were simply two people on a journey, making a human connection for a moment, learning a few things about each other and perhaps gaining a bit more understanding of humanity in the process.
As an adult, playing outside the lines of your comfort zone can be incredibly rewarding. The more you practice it, the more you realize that your fears about what theoretically could happen by being you, having fun, and taking brave steps are far outweighed by the real possibilities of simple joy and human connection you might experience if you don’t let your fears paralyze you. There is also something wonderfully energizing about being spontaneous and doing things that remind you of what a younger version of yourself may have dared. What’s stopping you now?
So perhaps consider this recipe for playing outside your usual lines: 1. Drop the the story line of what you are or are not “supposed to” do in a given situation. Instead, sit and listen to your intuition, your heart, your inner child. Whatever name you call it, feel what speaks to you and what sparks something in you. Ask yourself: “What might bring me the possibility of simple joy?” 2. Then, be brave and do THAT—and have fun with it!