Essay Reader's Essay

Ordinary Grace

Fear came knocking, faith opened the door, but no one was there.

—Chinese proverb

I recall a Haida elder taking me on a short hike inland from the eastern coast of Vancouver Island to see the end of the swimmer, his name for salmon. It was a magical place. We followed a stream in which the salmon were so thick that I’m sure I could walk across the stream on their backs and not get my boots wet. In a quiet green pool, female salmon were laying their eggs, waiting for the males to cover them with milt. Eagles were perched in every cedar, fir, and spruce surrounding the pool. We hiked back to the coast and sat on the rocks at the edge of a stony beach where orcas come close into shore to rub themselves along the smooth pebbled bottom. The elder spoke to me of the swimmer. “Fred, you understand that the swimmer dies after spending himself completely for the end for which he is made.” Then he looked at me and, without speaking, asked me, “Can you be like the swimmer and spend your life completely for the end for which you are created?”

His question is not a vague abstract attitude toward humanity in general but points to a single meeting in which the miracle of life is shared. I recalled Jesus’ teaching, ”Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Mathew 22:37). And words by Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, an eighth-century Islamic saint,

“How can you describe the true form of something
In whose presence you are blotted out?
And in whose being you still exist?”

The elder reminded me of Paul. Paul was in my kindergarten class. He had leukemia. His doctors and parents were afraid that rambunctious play would hasten his death. So, for six months I included Paul in our play in a variety of ways so that he didn’t get tired. For example, when we went outside to play, I carried him around the playground on my shoulders or he rode on my back when I was a horse.

One day about six months into the school year, Paul came to me and asked me to invite his parents to school for a meeting. The four of us met the following afternoon. Paul was in charge of the meeting. He spoke calmly and clearly.  “I want to play with Fred. I know that I’m not going to live as long as the three of you. But I want to live my life as if I were.” There were three crying adults in the room with a four-year-old “therapist.” Paul went to each of us and sat in our laps hugging us. Paul knew what he was asking. I don’t know how we did it, because we never talked, but we agreed that Paul could come and play.

When he came to school the following day, it was like letting a tornado into the classroom. He was very excited and his play was exuberant, passionate, and joyful. He was exhausted by the end of the morning. He stayed home and rested the next day. Because he played so hard when he came to school, Paul could come only every other day. About a month later, Paul died of leukemia. At the funeral, his parents and I asked each other if we had done the right thing by letting him play. We agreed that it was the right thing to do. That night I thought about what Paul taught me. Paul’s trust was not in me, himself, or mom and dad; it was how he lived. Some would say that he trusted in God; Paul never used the word. Paul knew what he was doing. He chose to play and die rather than live and not play.

Such moments stand out now like lighthouses on some far distant shores guiding me gracefully into unknown encounters that cannot be found by seeking. Playing with Paul I felt the joy and sadness, the richness and spontaneity, and the tragic poignancy of childhood. A childhood that each year, bit by bit, slips away beyond memory and is gone. Paul invited me to join him. The simple, overwhelming truth is that exploring the unknowns in a child’s play becomes an exploration of an immense unknown within myself.


Paul was a fault line in my life. Nothing in my life was the same after playing with Paul. I had been living on the far side of a broken connection with self, other, and God. I was broken and Paul helped fix me. Aljebr in Arabic means “reuniting broken parts.” A similar idea is expressed in the Kabbalistic ideal of tikkun olam, “repairing the world.”  In Japanese the word kintsukuroi means “golden repair.” The idea central to these phrases is a process of repairing what has been broken. In Japanese pottery, every crack is part of the history of the object, and it becomes more beautiful precisely because it has been broken. These cracks are repaired with gold. Love is creation’s repair process in which our flaws are repaired with love instead of gold.

I have often thought about Paul and how he taught me to love fully, right now. His choice is an act of trust in life, which is given in trust. I have come to understand that when a heart is humble enough to live without fear, it is the first faint stirrings of life’s beauty seeking flesh and blood expression. Paul’s courage demonstrates that trusting in love is not merely a nice idea nor an ideal, but a no-nonsense way of living one’s ordinary life. Paul was a swimmer.

About O. Fred Donaldson

O. Fred Donaldson is a play specialist, internationally recognized for his ongoing research and use of play with children and animals for over forty years.  He has coined the term original playto describe his work. He has written the books Playing By Heart: The Vision and Practice of Belonging and Playing For Real: Replaying The Game of Life as well as many articles and book chapters describing his play with children and animals around the world.

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