I like to wake up before the sun and head to the hills to walk on trails called Dogwood and Wild Cherry and Aspen. I steep my senses in the earthiness — the rhythmic bird songs, the snappy feel of cold air in my nose — the whole collection of early morning messages from the forest. It’s a place that I treasure, especially during COVID. It’s a chance to breathe deep and let my mind wander, to feel whole and free.
A couple of weeks ago, the forest started sending a different set of signals. A massive wind storm arrived with cascading consequences. Several wildfires in the area were emboldened by the powerful gusts, eventually burning over half a million acres. It was a devastating combination of fire and wind in real time — resulting from histories of human capitalism and consumption. Our city was smothered by toxic smoke. It seeped into our homes and our bodies. My connection to the forest was felt in my scratchy throat and heavy heart.
One morning, my seven year old son woke up and said, “I have an idea! What if the smoke is the ingredient we need to chase the virus away?” Like me, he was trying to make sense of two compounding experiences — the pandemic and the wildfires — natural occurrences turned disasters due to our human choices. It’s unlikely that smoke will become a vaccine for the coronavirus. But that’s not the point.
Thomas Henricks writes that, “Play is not a flight from the world; it is inquiry into the challenges and responsibilities of social living.” We need brains that are wired to make radical connections in order to solve radical problems. I’ve noticed folks coping with the gravity of the last six months by getting stuck in if only… thinking. Another way to approach this massive confluence of loss is to ask what if … ?
What if thinking is playful and creative. It’s a way to identify problems and propose solutions. It invites our imaginative brain to play with our problem solving brain. What if thinking dwells in possibility, it’s forward thinking. What if challenges the status quo and it agitates complacency. It feels hopeful.
We got ready for school. My son sat at a laptop, beside a window with a hazy view, ready to connect with his teacher and a small group of friends. He was the first child to arrive, a minute before the others, and had trouble with his headphones so I helped him. We waved at his teacher, Hana.
As colleagues, we have a history of sharing surprising moments with one another, so without really thinking, I told her my son’s theory about the smoke. As I spoke, I noticed she was writing in her journal with a smile on her face. I couldn’t hear what she said since my son had the headphones plugged in, but he leaned forward as she spoke which was my clue that he was launched for his meeting.
I stepped back and sat down at my computer for my meeting, within earshot of him. I could hear him giggling and blurting out ideas from time to time. When I looked over, he seemed at ease, and that made me feel more comfortable about distance learning. I’ve been wondering if they would be able to dig into big ideas, real talk about what’s happening in the world. My imagination about distance learning has been stilted. I’ve been feeling the loss of in-person learning for my children. If only we could go back to school …
If only thinking is passive. If only is defeatist, past thinking. It’s kind of victimy; it feels like resignation. It’s devoid of agency and activism. It’s Eeyore.
The next day, I got a short message from Hana saying:
I just wanted to tell you something. I had a game planned earlier for our project work. After you shared the what if idea with me, I scrapped my plans. We played what if. It was a generative, inspired conversation and grounded in imagination and hope. So thank you.
I was excited to think about my son’s community learning right from the start that this distance learning experience was going to be a place where children and adults bring questions, ideas, and problems for everyone to think about and play with together, to use their nimble imaginations, to consider ways to recognize and offer solutions to problems they notice in the world.
Maybe we all need to play what if a little more. The more we practice agitating our thinking out of complacency, the more we have the ability to make real change in the world. Mary Oliver reminds us to keep some room in our hearts for the unimaginable. Hana was creating space for it in her classroom.
Yesterday we drove to the coast to escape the smoke. In the car we listened to an episode of Hidden Brain about the psychology of inequality, which included a story about a baseball player who was finalizing a deal to earn $430M over 12 years. This was mind-boggling, and my 11 year old son had a lot of questions about it. How much is a baseball ticket? Where does all the money come from to pay this player? Why do advertisers care so much about baseball? Why do players get paid for wearing a brand?
Shankar Vendentam carried on and we returned to listening. Then my older son said, “What if, instead of paying one guy millions and millions of dollars, the team invested that money into education or health care or environmental justice!” I sat there, in silence, nodding my head and thinking: Keep going. Keep asking what if.