"In order to play, you have to prioritize yourself. You have to build it. You have to then occupy it."

Romaissaa Benzizoune
Nov 13, 2020 @ 4:14 pm
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Credit: Romaissaa Benzizoune, HelloGiggles

When I was asked to try a “virtual playdate” for this story, I was intrigued. As someone who is prone to dropping adult obligations for sample sales, pop-up concerts, and swing-set adventures, I’m no stranger to spontaneity. One of the reasons why quarantine has been so difficult—aside from the ordinary things, like losing my job and having my life plans snatched away—is that there has been a dramatic reduction of the random. Suddenly and overnight, there were no more coffee shop flirtations, midday excursions to the museum, or party invitations from strangers I had just met. 

So, of course, when presented with the very random opportunity to spend time with Grace Harry, a current “joy strategist” and former music industry powerhouse, I agreed. The assignment was a spark of joy in and of itself: It is rare for a freelancer of color to be booked for fun pieces, to be considered anything more than an eloquent political mouthpiece or a commentator on whatever recent tragedy has struck their communities—which is a shame, because some of us have personalities, just like white people. 

However, I had no idea what an adult playdate looked like, much less one hosted by Usher’s ex-manager/wife, but I was down for the ride—with joy. And I’d be lying if Usher’s song “Yeah!” didn’t blare in my head when I made the choice.

I touched up my lipstick and Zoomed Harry on a balmy Wednesday. Even virtually, her energy is infectious, and her aura is bright. Flashes of color caught my eye as I watched her move with her purple-tipped fingernails, gold-accent jewelry, and a red scarf in her curls. As she spoke she clicked magnet tiles together, waved her hands to punctuate a point, or twisted her body to point something out. She moves quite a lot.

A typical, non-Zoom playdate with Harry—a one-hour session that can be booked through her website, along with other joyful services—looks exactly the way it sounds. In a Lower Manhattan playroom, you and Harry play with toys you wish you had as a kid, make various arts and crafts, and talk through life. Harry does her homework in advance: Before the session, she sends you a survey asking about your favorite toys, movies, and music as a kid. This way she can customize the playdate to fit your needs. 

As Harry speaks, I imagine myself in a COVID-19-less dimension, crawling inside her playhouse on my hands and knees, careful not to bump my head.

I imagine sitting on the floor nearby, criss-cross applesauce, surrounded with various objects of play. In my mind, I play with blank easels and pastel paints, pink-green glitters and sunken silly putties, and tarot cards and board games, plus stickers in the shape of African masks. When she speaks of her sessions, she admits, “We play hard.” However, in our case, we Zoomed hard.

While there is no actual play, I still get the life coaching component of the session. We imagine things together: where I see myself in five years (in a city, with someone, writing full-time), what the circumstances around my last laugh were (a Nicki Minaj music video, Thai food, and dear friends), and what things bring me joy (doodling, baking, reading). Harry also churns out optimistic little phrases throughout our session: “Make how you want to feel your North Star,” “Out of your head and into your heart,” and “Feeling juicy inside is really important.” 

The theme of our conversation feels resonant, both personally and politically. Harry returns again and again to the same thought: “We have to get back to play.” She explains that the “we” is all of us, but more specifically, it is Black women. “Black women need this the most,” she says matter of factly. “We’re so hard on ourselves. So many shoulds, can’ts, and don’ts that it’s tragic.” 

Credit: Romaissaa Benzizoune, HelloGiggles

Especially when other people don’t see you as joyful, or as capable of joy, or as deserving of it—as is often the case for Black women, especially when they’ve made a point to be committed to social justice on their social media platforms—it might make sense to try to access it. You can be angry and devastated and outspoken—and there is a lot to be angry and devastated and outspoken about, especially in the wake of the grand jury’s decision on Breonna Taylor’s murderer and the recent shooting of Walter Wallace Jr.—but you can also, sometimes, choose frivolity. 

Harry tells me that during quarantine, she has taken to trampolining. “I realized I needed a lot more silliness,” she says by way of explanation. Every morning, for half an hour, she has a trampoline dance party. If she “breaks play” or gets distracted, she restarts the timer. She treats this time as a commitment.

This was jarring to me at first: Is joy not the brief respite from rigid structures of time and space, from obligations and pressures of achievement?

In its ideal form, is joy not a state that exists almost outside of reality? As someone who is very impulse-driven and generally allergic to rigid scheduling, casual Google calendar invites, and the concept of linear time, it has been an adjustment to try to plan joy for myself. However, talking to Harry helped me realize that there’s no shame in very consciously and calculatedly fighting for moments of happiness. And during quarantine, isolated from other people in addition to the random whims of life, I have found it necessary to do so. 

In order to play, you have to prioritize yourself. Whether the playroom is real or imagined, you have to build it. You have to then occupy it. You have to own that mental space, that free terrain. You have to have the time to do so or fight to make the time. For some of us—perhaps caretakers, or full-time workers, or activists, or those of us extended in other ways—a moment of joy is more feasible than an afternoon of it. But that moment is crucial still, and sometimes it has to be built very consciously. Especially if you’re in a slump. 

When the random moment dramatically reduced back in March, I found myself, like many, in a sort of depression. And while I’m far from jubilant now, I have found ways to cope, some unplanned and some penciled in (I still can’t deal with online calendars). It is the small things that bring me joy: letters, poems, phone calls, a cup of coffee flavored with cloves, a bright pink novel about a love affair, or a perfect run route that I never noticed.