THE BLOG
01/22/2015 06:08 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Playing With Fire and Facing Death in Savage Park

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It was the subtitle of Amy Fusselman's new book, Savage Park, that got my attention: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die. As a restless American who is tethered to her chirping phone, and who picked Atul Gawande's Being Mortal (for all the horror it evoked) as the best read of 2014, I would qualify as the target audience for this book.

I wasn't disappointed. Savage Park is a thoughtful, erudite work, a long personal essay that isn't as breezy as its title suggests.

The book was inspired by a trip the author took to Tokyo with her young children. Exhausted from the punishing travel, and unable to speak or understand Japanese, Fusselman was further dislocated by the unusual playgrounds she visited with her friend and host. Their first stop was Haginaka Park, known as the Junk Playground, which contained various abandoned vehicles--fire trucks, bull dozers, boats--for children to play in, which her own children dove into with glee.

Even more startling was their later trip to Hanegi Park, the Savage Park of the title, where kids are free to build their own structures on ground or in the trees, paint with abandon, and cultivate fires as desired. The park provides the tools, including nails, saws, hammers, and wood, and young visitors create and destroy at will. She describes looking up in the trees during her first visit and being stunned by the sight of children playing up above the ground: "There were children, preteens, crouching fifteen feet up on the roof of the playpark hut and then--I gasped to see this--leaping off it into a pile of ancient mattresses."

The way the children and adults interact in this alien space mesmerizes Fusselman, and she returns to the park on another trip to further explore her ideas about space, safety, and risk. Woven in with her larger story about Savage Park are vignettes that touch on these ideas. She takes a wire walking class with Philippe Petit to gain insight into his mastery of space, managing the "baptismal walk" when she happily surrenders to Petit's authority and moves with him across the wire. She marvels at the way spectators gather when a cyclist is hit by a car, "behaving as they would in a cathedral's huge space," and then disperse when the injured man is carted away. After stealing off with her husband to one of Tokyo's "love hotels," she realizes that space is best understood through sound rather than sight, "to music, to speech, to yelling, to singing, to gasping, to silence."

It's in these digressions from Tokyo's parks where Fusselman loses me. I can't follow the thread that ties the vignettes together, and I'm not sure I understand how the meandering mob near the fallen cyclist is connected to Petit's wire walking expertise or her sensuous experience at the love hotel. It's entirely likely that her epiphanies on space feel pie-in-the-sky to me because I'm just too thick (or distracted) to understand them. But it's also possible that these meditations on everyday life, while beautifully written, don't fully advance her ideas.

My muddle cleared when she returned to the city's playgrounds. Savage Park, in all its vibrant chaos, prompts a clear and thoughtful reflection on how we navigate our existence with finite time. In this seemingly anarchic setting, children immerse themselves in deep play, all the while figuring out how to manage the risk of falling, getting burned, or slicing off a finger with one of the available saws. And this is what Fusselman loves most about the park: its embrace of a "full and complete allowance of self, including all the ineptness, failure, and possibility of death, because it is understood that only with this allowance do we have the capacity to be great."

It's obvious that no such public park exists in America. Here, children are bubble-wrapped to protect them from possible harm, our play parks boring zones of cushioned metal and safety swings, denuded of danger and fun. Not long ago, my children's favorite place to play, a splintery haven of castles and fortresses and steep slides, was swept away for safety's sake, replaced with plastic horses and low, reinforced bridges. My children never went back. And parks are but one place where parental anxiety over their children's safety is revealed. In Dubuque, Iowa, local officials just instituted a ban on sledding in 48 of the 50 city locales. In Silver Spring, Maryland, the parents of a ten and six-year-old are under investigation for allowing their kids to walk home from a park without an adult.

We Americans are terrified of death, and with that fear we lose what makes life worth living, the kind of immersion in experience that exists so vividly in Savage Park. Rather than acknowledge life's uncertainty, we try to secure what we have with safety helmets and air bags, all the while avoiding the discomfort of our impermanence with distractions and stuff. Here Fusselman complements a theme in Gawande's Being Mortal, which focuses on the later stages of life. Even among the sick and elderly, he writes, we avoid talking about death, subjugating ourselves to a medical system that views dying as a kind of failure. For want of courage to confront the inevitable, we put those with no hope for recovery through awful and futile procedures. And as with the very young, the grown-ups in charge of the old and frail care more about the ill one's safety than his autonomy or quality of life.

As much as I fret over the End and quake at the thought of my children in peril, I can't disagree with Fusselman's lament. Still, I wonder how much our culture of safety is less a fear of death than a dread of lawsuits, a kind of living death for those served with papers. Maybe the Japanese aren't quite so quick to identify culprits and demand restitution when tragedy strikes, allowing places like Savage Park to exist. The sledding bans in Dubuque were prompted in part by lawsuits brought in Omaha and Sioux City, Iowa, over sledding accidents there. And the army of instructors, life guards and "helpers" at the pool where Fusselman's son learned to swim were surely hired with litigation avoidance in mind.

Our national reflex is to hold somebody responsible when tragedy strikes, as if suffering is ipso facto the product of someone else's screw up. And sometimes it is. But we would be wiser to acknowledge our finite existence and to make the reality of our brief time on earth a guide to how to live. Like Rilke, who called death "our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love," Fusselman wants us to see that accepting death is what makes life sweet. Even the sturdiest protective gear won't keep our children from dying one day. Rather than huddle in safety, we're better off living playfully in our chosen space--diving into mattresses, swinging from ropes, and toying with fire.