The Uses of Enchantment

I recently bumped into a wonderful book called The Game, by Ken Dryden, a Hall of Fame NHL goalie and uncommonly thoughtful writer. On the surface, it’s about sports, but underneath it’s about learning — specifically, the special moments when it begins to accelerate. At one point, Dryden is reflecting on the skills of the great players he’s met.

It is in free time that the special player develops, not in the competitive expedience of games, in hour-long practices once a week, in mechanical devotion to packaged, processed, coaching-manual, hockey-school skills. For while skills are necessary, setting out as they do the limits of anything, more is needed to transform those skills into something special. Mostly it is time unencumbered, unhurried, time of a different quality, more time, time to find wrong answers, to find a few that are right; time to find your own right answers; time for skills to be practiced, to set higher limits, to settle and assimilate and become fully and completely yours, to organize and combine with other skills comfortably and easily in some uniquely personal way, then to be set loose, trusted, to find new instinctive directions to take, to create.

I love that phrase: time unencumbered, unhurried, of a different quality. That’s a type of time that seems in  tragically short supply these days. I’m not going to add to the chorus of people decrying our hurried, overscheduled lives, but I will point out that the main barrier to achieving more of this unencumbered time is the mistaken sense of emptiness; the anxiety that we’re missing out on some important activity, the nagging worry that nothing’s happening. In truth, everything’s happening.

Two of our kids go to a Montessori school, whose founder coined a terrific term: “enchantment with materials.” This refers to the relationship between a learner and the physical elements of the environment – the blocks, the violin, the tennis ball, the pencil and paper. Those things – those simple, everyday objects – are seen as magical, worthy of reverence and care.  (Think about what you’re good at, and your relationship with those materials.) The enchantment powers the process – it’s the fuel tank, that keeps someone coming back, experimenting, playing, doing what Dryden so eloquently describes – creating their skill.

I think these two ideas work together — unencumbered time and enchantment.  They’re the yin and yang of learning: unencumbered time allows the enchantment to happen; the enchantment fills the time with engagement and learning.

So with that in mind, I’d like to wish you all an enchanted, unencumbered holiday.  Thanks for reading and commenting this year; I really appreciate it, and you. Merry Christmas, Dan