Playing Alone

Sand is an amassment of earth fragments; bits and pieces of volcanoes, coral reefs, mollusks and quartz. I like sand. I grew up in a beach town, and I’ve been lucky enough to walk on the shores of three of the world’s five oceans. I’ve only seen one sea, but rivers have banks, and lakes have beaches too. Wet black sand, dry orange sand, brown, red, powdered and gritty sands, I’ve tread on them all. Apart from naked feet in cold water, plunging your toes into virgin sand is as about as sensual an experience as one can have out in the elements— that is why there are sand and water tables in most kindergarten classrooms and sandboxes in playgrounds; these two resources are proven to get the synapses firing.

I never went to kindergarten or nursery school, so I lack a thorough education in sandbox politics— who plays in the middle and who plays on the edges, who is in charge of the sand toys and who decides what to build? My youth was spent building castles on the shores of the Indian Ocean with my family. We used the red bucket for the walls and the yellow turreted bucket to build the fancy bits. And there was always a moat. Our sand never came out of a box, nor was it contained in one. We had kilometres of beach to work with, and if the beaches got a little crowded, we moved our towels down a bit and started building again on the fresh, untouched shore. We used all of it: the dry powdery sand, the damp modelling clay and the sodden, heavy earth that was covered over and over again by the waves. Everything was fair game; there were no constraints.

Teenagers are universally unconscious or lacking in self-awareness. At least, that is what I hope is true when I consider who I was and how I interacted with my peers in high school. I had a best friend and a close group of mates, but when I look back at my memories of sleepovers and weekends away from my family, I seem to have spent a hefty amount of time with people who were not in ‘the gang’: the teen mother, the yuppie girls with their scooters, the weed smokers, the drinkers, and a couple of goodie-two-shoes. I enjoyed my time with all of them, but strangely none of them seemed to interact with one another. How did that make my best friend feel, I wonder? What did those girls, the ‘other’ ones, think of me just cruising in and hanging out in their bedrooms, eating dinner with their families? Did everyone do that… cross-pollinate? On reflection, young Natalie did a lot of ‘flitting’ from person to person. I must have offended someone? I don’t think I played well in the sandbox; I was sandbox promiscuous.

Oddly, I also have memories of being alone for hours, days, at a time. I walked around town alone. On one occasion, I remember my mom bursting into my room shouting that I must be up to no good, frantically looking for drugs: I had been lying on my bed for six hours straight, thinking, just thinking about life— the sounds of Crash Test Dummies and Counting Crows playing on a loop in the background.

Back then, in the early nineties, there were no screens, no distractions. Books, they were my only other occupation. I was either fully engaged or utterly disengaged. This strange concoction of extremes— extroversion and introversion— meant that my imagination, my capacity to focus on ideas and narratives that I saw in the world, was never depleted or overloaded. I had a well-practiced brain rhythm. Strange that it took me so many years to figure out that I had a writer’s mind; the knack of being both an active participant and an observer in life.

I spent twenty years playing in a single sandbox. The feeling I got from others in that box was that visiting other sandpits was a betrayal of those who were committed to building the big, eternal castle. If, by happenstance, I made a friend outside the box, it was my duty to bring them into the best box, our box. I got bored. And the sand we were building with, the beliefs and attitudes and life-styles, became abrasive… and invasive. I love submerging myself in the stuff, but getting stuck in sand is intolerable and can sometimes lead to a long sinking death.

Deep Work, a book by Cal Newport, has given me a bit of a beating. The idea— that any original, creative work can only come from a place of deep concentration— has become an overwhelming conviction for me. And the truth is, I cannot concentrate anymore. Not more than ten or fifteen minutes at a time. In my previous blog post, I mentioned that I had stopped watching the News and using Social Media for Lent. Well, Lent came and went, and still, my skin crawls. Just lying and thinking for 6 hours at a time? Impossible. I must google what I’m wondering about. Or I must read an article… or do anything other than just let my brain meander down the shore. I can now go all day without checking my phone, but when I sit down to write, I get about twenty minutes of focus before my mind kicks out. And that is okay, concentration is an accumulated skill, I’m working on it. Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, they were the ‘other’ kids from my youth. I loved hanging out there. I got a kick out of making social commentary, watching other people’s lives and getting a view of the world outside of my little enclave. I miss it. And I’m always super tempted to go back on for a day or two, just for kicks.

The problem with using social media as a substitute for a large, varied social life, is that I NEVER went home to think. My ‘friends’ on social media… they bloody well came with me where ever I went, and they talked incessantly. And I loved it; gobbled that shit up— tea parties 24/7. Not good for my brain though, I was always fully engaged, and almost never disengaged. If I’m ever going to write something worth reading— something with original thought, not some ‘influencer’ version of the world— I need to find the brain rhythm I had as a teenager.

Building sandcastles on beach was most often a group effort. My sisters and I dug together and collected water together and piled up the sand together. But on occasion we’d separate ourselves and focus intently on making dribble castles: these little unstructured mounds were formed by using the wettest, heaviest sand. We’d scoop up a handful and then let the sand dribble out the bottom of our little fists; the sand would plop down it clumps making little mounds that grew into tall towers of wet cemented beach. The feeling of making dribble castles is glorious. And it’s simple and solitary. I want to learn how to play like that again… all alone, in wide open spaces.

You won’t find me hanging out on Social Media any more. I’m truly bummed about that (and experiencing more than a little FOMO). I will be blogging if and when I get the urge— follow the blog if you’d like to know what’s happening in my head… it’s a fun place to visit, scary place to live. And I’ll be writing, please God, let me be writing.

Words and ideas and stories, these are the earth particles I play with everyday. I never want to draw these materials from a single, boxed source. And though being social is vital for any creative mind, too much of it becomes a drain on its ability to weed out noise and focus on a single idea. Doing anything worthwhile requires sacrifice and hard work. And writing is worthwhile, for me, at least.

6 thoughts on “Playing Alone

  1. I’m always amazed at your ability to pursue deep thought! To dig deep into the ‘sand’ and build ideas, opinions and seek answers, never accepting the status quo! On this your 42nd birthday, you have drawn a line in the sand and have committed yourself to the life of a writer. I know that you will achieve that which you seek! Yes Nicci, book tours are in your future!
    Love your very proud mama


  2. I’ve been off social media and sorry I missed your birthday! Happy Birthday Nats! I will never forget your dream! Pop in sometime in real life please . And yes ….an awesome read!


  3. Awesome read Nats. I’ll for sure miss you on social media. Stick with it friend… book tours are just around the corner 😘


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