Child’s play

My granddaughter, age four, has a touch of cold. She told her dad (my son): “I think I have a little bit of coronavirus.” Yesterday she told the family that that her new Barbie bakery had to close down because “people in her town got coronavirus.”

Her understanding of such stark realities pierces my heart. Her comments also take me back to something I learned in my final high school English class, where I sat horror-struck, riveted, as my teacher painted a verbal image of London in the bubonic plague (which also originated in China):

This was the second and worst wave … people were superstitious about a catastrophic event occuring in 1666, with the Biblical symbolism of three sixes together, but the plague struck the year before, 1665 … spread by fleas on black rats … First you must understand the condition of London at the time. The characteristic fog was mingled with black smoke from factories and the coal-fires of a terribly overcrowded city. There was no sanitation; people dumped their waste from windows—that’s where the phrase “Gardy-loo!” originated, from the French “garde a l’eau!”—”watch out for the water!” It’s what people shouted to warn those walking on the street below, so they could jump out of the way when the buckets and chamber pots were dumped. Raw sewage ran in the streets … human and animal … just imagine what was on people’s shoes, on the hems of ladies’ long dresses … and during the plague, bodies also lay in the streets, where people fell dead… this sparked the children to invent a new game: Ring-Around-the-Rosie …

—What?

Ring-Around-the Rosie? It’s a silly, giddy game. How many times had I played it as a child, with neighborhood kids or schoolmates, trying to pull each other around the circle of our joined hands faster and faster, until we deliberately made ourselves fall?

“Ring-Around-the-Rosie” was originally “Ring a ring of roses,” funeral wreaths for the dead. “Pocket full of posie” was a reference to the nosegays people carried when they had to walk in the streets—flowers held to the nose to counteract the stench, or a handkerchief doused with cologne, if they were wealthy enough to have it. “Ashes, ashes”—at the time, it was “rashes, rashes,” indicating the discoloration of the skin from bursting lymph nodes, or “buboes,” hence the name “bubonic plague.” And “we all fall down” … that’s self-explanatory. It’s what the children saw…

That’s an indelible image: Children joining hands in the streets, chanting, whirling around faster and faster— laughing—against that ghastly backdrop. It’s how they interpreted and internalized events, how they coped with their world—through play.

The game remains with us centuries afterward. In our time, it’s indicative of the carefree joy of childhood; the darkness is long forgotten.

That’s what play does: defeats the demons, diminishes fear, turns the dark into light. It’s the way children communicate their learning about the world. It’s release, acceptance, solace, safety. It’s the bright, creationary force in a child’s domain: play is within the child’s control when nothing else is.

Its value, inestimable.

Barbie’s bakery will re-open, I am sure, for our businesses will. Our times are grim at present, but we know what causes disease to spread. We understand (most of us, let’s hope) that for now we have to keep our physical distance, for our greater good. We know the value of hygiene. We shall have to join hands—figuratively— in many different ways; we shall be pulled, and strained, but as long as we don’t succumb to panic, and if we submit to wisdom, we shall not fall.

And our children?

They’ll keep on playing.

And watching.

“We should respect with humility the bright holiness of childhood.”

-Janusz Korczak

Photo: “Circle of Peace” bronze sculpture by Gary Lee Price (children playing Ring-Around-the-Rosie). Blake Bolinger. CC BY.