Add a Comma
Updated: Feb 14, 2022
“Home is in your heart, and wisdom makes it a nice place to be. Learn something from every lesson and share the things you know to be real.”
Mike, my childhood ski coach and mentor, wrote this quote on the inside cover of Jonathan Livingston Seagull; a book he gave me for my 16th birthday. He remains a friend to this day.
Last fall we traveled to Europe where I facilitated Infinite Play workshops in six countries over the course of two and a half months. The first stop was Lisbon, hosted by Movement Lisboa. It was a magical afternoon on the waterfront; sun shining, faces smiling, moves and grooves with new friends. Play connects people to each other in a way that rarely ends at the conclusion of the workshop. This event was no different. The conversations and laughs continued down the tiled sidewalks of Lisbon to a late afternoon icecream and afterwards on to dinner. Over the course of the evening, I chatted with many of the participants, finding joy in hearing about their lives and experiences. My wife Alexa shared a conversation with a charismatic young dancer named Ricardo. They talked about things to see in Portugal, and she told him about the big wave documentary we'd watched about Nazaré. He told her that his parents’ home was in a town called Alvados, only 30 minutes away from Nazaré. He insisted that, if we had time, we should go to Alvados to stay with his family. He added that we were invited to stay as long as we wanted. Quietly, Alexa and I agreed we should only stay a night, not wanting to impose and having no idea where we were going. Leaving us no time to second guess our decision, Ricardo said the bus was leaving at 9am the following morning, and we should meet him at the station. We connected on WhatsApp and returned to our Airbnb to pack our bags.
The next morning, backpacks loaded, we marched down the steep streets of Alfama towards the subway, just twelve hours after accepting the invitation to a destination unknown. We would take the subway to a bus station where Ricardo would meet us. As we walked into the subway terminal, Ricardo unexpectedly emerged, energized and smiling, from behind a ticket machine. He told us he was so excited about the days ahead that he couldn’t sleep and figured he would meet us at the subway to make sure we didn’t get lost en route to the bus station. It was during that subway and bus ride, which amounted to almost two hours, that I first got to know Ricardo. He was only nineteen years old and studying dance in school. He’d connected with Movement Lisboa during Covid, which is how he found himself at my short afternoon workshop. As we spoke, I was taken by his depth and worldliness. I realized I’d have to shift my intellectual gears from third to fourth when he told that me his final project in dance school would be inspired by the book, I am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter. As we approached our bus stop at Fatima, he explained that his uncle would pick us up, we’d eat a lunch prepared by his grandfather, and then we’d go to Nazaré to spend the afternoon on the beach with his parents, who were already there. He also added that his parents, grandfather, and uncle, all of whom live at the house, didn't speak any English. Neither Alexa nor I speak Portuguese.
Prior to the printing press, the primary mode of sharing information and stories was spoken word. People would gather around an elder, storyteller, or neighbor to hear a tale passed down from an ancestor, relevant information of the day, or gossip. As a result, it took longer for the stories to spread, and they became a culmination of the input of many. After the printing press, stories spread far and wide at a rapid pace, but the fixed nature of the printed word meant that the stories would be the same for everyone. Without a storyteller, there is no unique experience or context added to the story.
The repercussions of this life-altering technology have potentially affected what we expect of stories, of any kind. We seem accustomed to the printing; the unchanging. Things are said or taught, and we treat them like they can’t be altered, rethought, or added to. This is how I once felt in movement; a game, move, or concept was handed down from a storyteller, and I treated it as if it couldn't be adjusted because the print was fixed, and any retelling must be done verbatim as if rereading from a book.
We stepped off the bus in Fatima. It was very busy town and, as I soon learned, is a Catholic destination, second only to the Vatican. While we waited for Ricardo’s uncle to pick us up, we witnessed people who’d made their pilgrimage to this sacred city to perform various rituals of worship. Knowing nothing about Catholicism, I was witnessing events that I never knew occurred in a part of the world I’d never heard of until an hour prior.
Ricardo’s uncle, João, arrived and we sped off toward their home in Alvados, aproximately twenty minutes from where the bus had dropped us off. Along the way Alexa and Ricardo discussed the in-and-outs of buying property in the area, and the cost of construction. Whenever he didn’t know an answer, which was rare, he’d share some words with his uncle in Portuguese, and then translate for Alexa. Meanwhile, I stared out the car window. Where am I? Where are we going? I observed that the space between homes began to widen. Even for someone who’d grown up in a small three signal light town in Lake Tahoe, I felt like we were entering a place where time moved slower. As we approached the family home, the car slowed to navigate the narrow winding driveway. We were amongst houses and small farms. In the distance I could hear goats moving food around in their feeding trays.
Ricardo's gorgeous family home was on the side of a small mountain looking out on a valley of farms and houses. I was taken by the deep quiet of the area. This modern white house was immersed in an ancient landscape. After showing us around, we were greeted by Ricardo's grandfather, Nono, who had prepared a welcome lunch for us. This special meal was what Ricardo called, “Nono’s Soup.” It was a huge steel pot of tomato soup made with fresh tomatoes that they grew themselves along with various farm to table additions we could put in our bowl; bread, sausage, cheese, and vegetables. As we ate the soup and drank the wine, Ricardo told us about the family and land. Even with the language barrier we found mutual laughs. Ricardo translated as Nono passed on his wisdom. He told us about his garden on the property, which is where most of the vegetables we were eating came from, as well as growing and producing his own olive oil. I had lots of questions about this, so Nono promised we would go to the garden to learn more about the process.
We sipped on espresso to finish the meal and Ricardo suggested we change into our bathing suits because we’d be hitting the road again to meet his parents on the beach in Nazaré.
I used to facilitate park jams in Boulder, CO; the early seeds of what later grew to become Infinite Play. The jams attracted all different types of players. It was an open source exploration and I often told those who joined to feel free to share and add to, anything I’d presented. Months after the final jam and our departure from Boulder, I was invited back by Block 1750, the local dance school, to teach as part of a weeklong movement event alongside an incredible line-up of teachers presenting everything from street dance to parkour, and tricking to mobility. My friend Alex Milewski, a skilled break dancer and a staple of the park jams, was teaching a class as part of the event. At one point in his class he said, “I want to share a game Kyle showed me months ago, and I’ve added some things to it.” I smiled. It was a special moment to revisit one of my stories from a new teller and experience his added twists to the tale. It wasn’t long after that that we left for the European tour, where I often presented my original game, along with his additions, which then inspired a few turns of my own. I told a story, Alex added to it, and I retold it with inspiration from what he’d added.
When I facilitate Infinite Play, I often share the experience I had with Alex to the group. I explain that whatever I’m presenting are just my stories. It’s my version of gathering around the fire and telling a tale. The stories are meant to be taken and shared. Many of the stories I’m telling are stories that have been told to me, that are always changing with my perspective, the circumstances, and the group that has gathered. Tell the stories in your unique way, add your own flavor, emphasize different sections, and allow the context it's being told in to dictate additions or subtractions.
We arrived on the beach of Nazaré in the early afternoon. We found Ricardo’s parents, Paula and Pedro, sitting on the beach with friends. They were well set up for a full day at the beach and welcomed us like we'd known them all along. Ricardo helped translate the conversation. And just like with Nono, there were smiles and laughs. The ocean was calm, as the swells that Nazaré is famed for happen only in the winter months, so we swam and laid in the sand. But we did take a walk to the well photographed lighthouse which you’d recognize from the footage of the 100-foot waves crashing on the cliff it sits on. I often found myself daydreaming, which led to wondering. How did we get here? How has so much had happened today? Maybe time did move slower here.
As evening trickled in, we packed up our towels and changed out of our bathing suits. Ricardo and his family wanted to bring us to a local bar, one that we were told was “their spot”. We strolled through the small beach town with our hosts, and along the way Ricardo shared facts and history about the land and people. A short walk led us to a bustling outdoor bar, with many end of day beach goers flooding into the thoroughfair. We hadn’t even placed our bags down when the waiter, who greated our hosts with inside jokes and laughs, presented a full tray of little glasses of beer. We each took a glass (or two) of what they told us was Super Bock, a well-known Portuguese beer. Pedro (Ricardo's dad), joked that if Alexa and I drank enough of them, we’d start speaking Portuguese. We left the bar after a few Super Bock's and ate dinner by the beach before returning to the family home. During the car ride, I felt my eyelids sliding shut.
Over the next few days our adventure continued. What we expected to be a one day stay, ended up being four days. Ricardo and his family showered us with warmth; taking us on day trips to castles and caves, and cooking meals and treating us to their favorite restaurants. As promised, Nono showed me his garden and shared knowledge on growing olive trees and making the oil. When Ricardo’s father, who is from Brazil, discovered our favorite Brooklyn restaurant is a Brazilian spot called Beco, and that we love pao de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread), he stayed up late after returning from a full day of work to prepare the batter for a morning bake. When we departed, we hugged and said goodbyes as if we were family and promised to visit again. I even joked we’d be returning to spend Christmas with them.
Ricardo is wise beyond his years, an old soul. Throughout our time together I had the privilege of sharing some memorable talks with him. We spoke about philosophy, improvisation, art, consciousness, neuroscience, and aging. He brought up the Infinite Play workshop, reflecting on what I’d said about how the material presented was meant to be shared and added to. He said, “In Portugal we have a saying for this. We say ‘quem conta um conto aumenta um ponto'. It means 'everyone who tells a story adds a comma.’” A story grows in its telling.
If we limit ourselves to printed, unchanging, stories, eventually we all start telling the exact same tales. Some of my favorite stories, whether told with our mouths or our moves, are the ones that have evolved and changed with time. We should gather with others to tell stories, then listen, add commas, and share what we’ve added. Send your stories off with listeners and look forward to the day when you get to hear their retelling. What your audience adds might just be the swerve in the conflict you were looking for.
Let’s keep the stories growing. Let's welcome the commas.