plā′wėrk′ings, n. Portions of play matters consideration; draft formations.

Archive for the ‘mad magic and mayhem’ Category

Being one with the Universal space of play

My thinking, lately, is concerned with the ego that is ‘playworker’. I’m putting together some thoughts for a presentation that will take place, though this is focused on a different subject matter, and it’s a couple of months down the line anyway. However, the thoughts are directing me towards ‘purpose’ and ultimately about ‘I am a playworker.’ Ego. I playwork therefore I am? Opus ludo ergo sum? (I never learnt Latin, does it show?)

Now, I’m struggling with this thinking on ego. You see, when I’m with the children, it’s not about me. This is my understanding and belief. This is what’s ingrained in me. There’s a great line in a film, the title of which I forget, but the line is delivered, I seem to remember, by Bob Hoskins: ‘I’m here to serve you, but I’m not your servant.’

This is kind of the colour of what I see my playwork practice to be, as it stands. Yet, in serving, how can there be any such thing as absolute altruism? I mean, whatever we do when we give ourselves, no matter how much we truly want to do it for someone, there’s still something small that we get from it ourselves. Can there ever be such a thing as getting absolutely nothing back and being content with that no return? Even ‘being content with getting nothing back’ is getting something back: contentedness. As I say, I’m struggling with this: working with- and for- the children really isn’t about me, right?

Here’s another start point. Yesterday I wrote about a quote, about a rose, that arose in me. So, I find myself reading that book again: that transcription of a talk given forty years ago by the former Dr. Richard Alpert, about his journey of self-discovery. Here’s a story he shares, or a part-story, at least:

Ram [an incarnation of Vishnu, the Preserver]’s wife is taken away by the bad man, Ravina . . . and Ram, of course, is beside himself, because his wife’s been taken away, you know . . . He’s determined to find her. He goes to the king of the monkeys and he asks for help. The king of the monkeys assigns his monkey lieutenant, Hanuman, to serve Ram. Hanuman becomes the perfect servant. Hanuman is a representative of pure, unadulterated service. He’s not serving in order to take over Ram’s job. He’s not serving in order to get patted on the head by Ram. He’s just serving because he serves. And Ram says to him, ‘Hey, Hanuman, who are you, man, monkey?’ And Hanuman says, ‘When I don’t know who I am, I serve you. When I know who I am, you and I are one.’

Baba Ram Dass (1970), Doing Your Own Being, speaking of a story in the Ramayana, Indian holy book.

On my own journey, where I am at this exact here and now, this appeals to me. There is still the concern of the ‘I’, of the potential of ego (but maybe I’m reading this incorrectly, or maybe I’m not centred enough, or maybe our language isn’t full and rich enough to allow such expressions as those that are trying to be conveyed); there’s still the concern of the ‘I’, but ultimately I read: When I don’t know who I am, I serve you, children. When I know who I am, you and I are one.

When I don’t know who I am? Am I not playworker? No, it’s not this. When I don’t know/realise that I’m part of everything, I serve, because that’s what I can do, must do, just do. When I do know that I’m part of everything . . . well, I found this following story in my play writings:

Notebook, February:

I’m sitting cross-legged on the mat in the middle of the main room, waiting for the rest of the children to arrive. When they do, they put their stuff in the cloakroom, as usual, and – as they pass me on their way to the other side of the room – a couple of the children ruffle my hair without saying a word. It is a hello, but also more.

In Buddhist thinking (I came across the following, somewhere, once, and as I’m prone to do, logged it in my memory but forgot where it came from), the concept of egolessness is not about ‘going beyond the ego’; rather, we realise that there is no ego to start with.

If we strip away the thought of ego, the Universe can flow through all. Being conscious, egoless, connects us with the essentialness (or whatever we term it, in the here and now of where we are each at) of others.

Samadhi, from the Sanskrit, is (according to the great Wiki in the sky): ‘a higher level of concentrated meditation . . . a non-dualistic state of consciousness in which the consciousness of the experiencing subject becomes one with the experienced object, and in which the mind becomes still . . .’

Egolessness, Samadhi, could all be perceived as irrational, I suppose; though we think we live in a rational material world, seeking concrete proofs, we forget to know. I’m not talking about knowing stuff; I’m talking about the knowing that happens when you’re conscious, clear, open, at one.

So, I was conscious, clear, and the children ruffled my hair without words, knowing, I felt, and they went on their way to the other side of the room, and the moment that is became the moment that was. I knew who I was, I think. When I’m not so sure, I serve, because that is what I just do. It isn’t about me. I think.


Written on the air: the ghosts of play

In yesterday’s post, I wrote:

The garden is strewn with play detritus: not just in the stuff, but in the moments like after-images that slowly recede onto the air – this is what happened here, and here, and here.

I’m in a moment of reverie . . .

I’ve lost count of the amount of playscheme days and weeks I’ve worked on, of the amount of club sessions I’ve done, of days in the park or festivals, trips to the forest or the beach, not to mention all the play settings I’ve visited or moments of play I’ve observed in my travels or day-to-days. Yet, I remember the art of remembering whilst at those sessions. I call it an art because it’s something that needs devoting to, this process of remembering. Art doesn’t just happen on its own. This devotion needs time. It’s not a planned in thing: it’s a spontaneous ‘now, sit and see’.

Many times I’ve worked from stupid o’clock in the morning till way past my last Mars Bar of the day ceased to be of any restorative value: all the children have left the setting, drifted off from the park, or otherwise disbanded. I will sit down, amongst the physical detritus of play stuff (and I don’t use the word ‘detritus’ in a negative way, just as ‘left over’) – if my colleagues of that setting are wise enough to understand the concept of leaving things be, not ruthlessly tidying away. Or, I will sit down in the blank space that was once filled with children, and which has been deserted now by everyone but me. Either way, I sit and breathe and look.

The ghosts of play are everywhere. This is where the children crawled through on all fours, being dogs; this is the room where the girls argued over dolls; up here, we played the ‘monkey game’; there, the children lounged in the sun.

The ghosts of play are imprints on the air. For me, they remain, day after day, becoming layered and layered with more ghosts, like palimpsests. On visiting settings, sometimes years in between each visit, I could often struggle to remember staff members’ names, but I would nearly always remember the ghosts of play imprinted on the air there.

So now I’m remembering about remembering. The ghosts have these layers. I sit at my computer screen and, though I can’t see the ghosts of play directly from here, I think of the area under the trees where the children collected conkers; I think of the muddy puddle played in, one adult-brave day, children literally swimming in their school uniforms; I think, further back, back and back, to the church green we took our chances to play on, or the embankment the children ran along, in the wind, by the sea.

Yes, these are my memories in playwork, but these are all moments imprinted on the air of these places. When I pass these many, many places in my ordinary life, I sometimes wonder, for a second or two, at the ‘play that happened here’. I can still feel it, even some twenty years on.

The ‘play that happened here’ is also infused into the air of public streets in towns and cities. When Jess was much younger than her current late-teen self, she had a stuffed dog who somehow ended up in the river. Jess was distraught that Gary the Dog was floating away at some rate of knots. I often see the ghost of play of Gary as he floats down the river (and his brave rescue) by the police station, whenever I walk past all these years on.

When I sit down at the end of a session in a setting, or whilst working out and about, or after the spontaneous engagement in play by the children I’m with, it is a very conscious affair of ‘see this space or place’. It is an act of art because it must be devoted to, loved, permitted time. Play leaves marks on the otherwise invisible-scape. It’s there, written on the air, perhaps always, for those who can read it.

Objects of resonance and fade

Gack calls up the stairs: ‘Gol. Gol.’ My time at the computer screen is over for now. Work plans are suspended: Gack is calling. Downstairs, he putters around in the garden and, when he sees me, I kneel down – but he scoots straight off to the shed door, scratching at it like a cat! He knows where the play stuff is. Not that I ever tried to hide it from him: there’s a lot to clear out in there and I want to be able to spread it out so that he and his cousins can get to it easier. Later, after cake, Gack wades in there anyway, obliviously barefooted, with a patient: ‘Else?’

What else is in here? Gack uses a kind of shorthand vocabulary. He gets by on this. So: ‘Else, Gol?’ We rummage around at the light end of the shed. ‘This?’ I say, pulling out buckets or netting, cardboard tubes and old tin cans. Gack is patient. We pull out most of the play end of the shed, bit by bit, and it slowly scatters across the garden. Before it all comes out though, Gack pulls out a garden sprayer that’s upside down in the trolley I used to use for hauling hefty NVQ portfolios around in. ‘This, Gol?’ I don’t ask him to ask for things: he can have what he wants, but he’s patient and polite with me and the play stuff. He pulls the sprayer out and comes back for the other ones. A few days ago, we’d had the sprayers out and Gack sat and dismantled several of them in an attempt to find out why they weren’t working. (Maybe they weren’t working because he’d dismantled them). The ones we couldn’t piece together again (a process rather like what happens with flat-pack wardrobes and bits and pieces left over at the end), we left as playable with in some other way, but the ones that could be sprayed with got a big fat black tick on their bases. I watch Gack as he quietly checks the bases of the sprayers, these few days on.

He chooses the best one, the one with the longest spray, to cue me (whilst surreptitiously placing the other working sprayers on the decking at the top of the garden so that I can’t reach them easily!) Our previous spray play involved a few minutes of going round in circles, in the rain, dogfight fashion; today, we’re face to face, attack mode. Gack cheats.

Now, I think of those sprayers and of my previous thinking and writing on magic. If magical processes include the charging of objects with the mystic force of the universe, or if magic is here in everything all along in objects revered, devoted to, then Gack’s garden water sprayers are small magic in the making. It is a formation of the meaning of objects: not in conscious ritual, yet it’s ritual all the same. Over days and weeks it is the repetition of play, of devotion, of understanding about the objects, the moments, the people around at that time that this ‘ritual’ is. This thinking is all more than merely being about the transitional object, such as that a small child will make use of. It’s more than this because meaning is infused in the object and it lingers over time. Or potential is recognised as already being there in the object, and it still lingers. Years down the line, maybe Gack will come across one of these sprayers with a big fat black tick on its base. Maybe that will mean something.

I cleared out a lot of old stuff recently. Now, this is related to the above. During the course of this clearing out of cupboards and long-forgotten boxes, I came across objects of my childhood. Some of these objects still fizzed with the possibility or played-with-ness in them. Some of these objects, however, just didn’t. I found things I either only vaguely remembered (not all from my childhood) or things I just didn’t recall at all. Some objects still resonate with the charge of the person who gave them to us, somehow. That person, kind of sealed in a freeze frame time bubble, there in our pasts. Some objects’ resonances, though, fade to the point of becoming bare of any fizz at all.

Is it just a lack of remembering, or has the object’s magic just seeped back out to the universe around it? If the magic has seeped away, it would suggest that the object needs re-charging, re-loving, by someone the same or new to it. It would suggest that magic is not there in everything all the time. Or, perhaps it would suggest that magic is there, potential is there, it’s just too pale to be seen by this individual: or, rather, we’re too far removed from its possibility to see it. Look and you will see?

Gack systematically dismantles the contents of the play end of the shed (‘Else, Gol? Else?’) as the afternoon drifts on. The garden is strewn with play detritus: not just in the stuff, but in the moments like after-images that slowly recede onto the air – this is what happened here, and here, and here.

Gack’s got an impressive memory. When the garden was bare he looked at the empty wall where, a few days ago, we closely examined a climbing snail. ‘Snay-eel, Gol?’ (He has a way of squeezing two syllables into a word where there ought rightly to be space for only one). The snay-eel isn’t there. Its previous presence still resonates though. I don’t know which objects and moments of played places will resonate for him in later life, and which will just fade out. All that can be done is to open up the possibilities in the now.

Magic: mystic force and playwork incantation

‘What 20 years in playwork has taught me, again and again, is that extraordinary things happen in charged moments . . .’

‘We have to know and share the charged moments [so as not to] in some way lose the essence of playfulness that we are supposed to be advocates for.’

Eddie Nuttall (2012), Scribbles from the Noosphere Pt 1
At an adventure playground, once, I was talking with Ian (of a playwork persuasion) and he told me about the ‘mad magic’ in that place. Attempts to define this magic are futile really: the point of magic is that it’s magic. It’s not of the realm we usually see of the world. Except it is a part of the world, this place and planet we inhabit, the universe no less. We’re all a part of it, not apart.

I don’t wish to try to finely define magic here, strip it to its bones, but I am curious to dig a little deeper. Bear with me: this could get convoluted.

Magic is here. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either the mystic force that flows everywhere, through everyone and everything, or it’s the practice of focusing forces to make things happen, visible: or it’s both. Primitive culture and religions all around the world believed in magic. It’s still deep down in all of us: in superstition, in wish-fulfilment, in irrational attachment to objects. Magic is here. I’m not talking about illusion or trickery. Magic is of, and in, the world.

There are playwork writers out there who allude to how the act of adults observing children at play breaks ‘the spell’ – the children’s focusing of mystic forces in formation of their play?; or, at least, it changes the play. Perhaps, just perhaps, the act of observing brings the magic out into this world we move around in. Look and you will see. Sometimes, I’ll observe and the magic that is everywhere, the essence, the mystic force, becomes apparent. I spread a watery flow of paint over the hidden candlewaxed message; I sprinkle glitter on the invisible gluesticked marks.

This mystic force, this mana (as the Melanesians called it), in us, in supernatural entities, in objects, is the dark and light matter. In Guinea, western Africa, Portuguese sailors used their word ‘fetish’ to describe the natives’ reverence of certain objects. These objects had supernatural force imbued in them. Rituals were undertaken, and these rituals could make the force attach itself artificially elsewhere: a kind of ‘charging’ process. Incantations, spells if you like, could charge objects with the mystic force: objects like effigies, trinkets, charms, pieces of cloth or wood. Fetish in the reverence of object. Maybe people (person as object revered) can sometimes also be seen in such light of ‘fetish’ . . .

The reverence of the child. The child as object of wonder. The sacred child. Do not break the spell of the play of the child. Do not adulterate the play. The sacred child plays. There is magic here and it must not be disturbed. Playworkers are afflicted by primitive calls.

The Polynesian word ‘taboo’ refers to the sanctity of the ‘charged one’. Do not touch. Stay clear. Revere. Risk ill-effect and misfortune on your spirit if you breach the taboo. In playwork, purists: risk ill-effect on your playworking self – do not touch; do not adulterate; do not sully the play frame by your presence through it; stay in the shadows, phantom one.

Yet . . . the mystic force, the magic, is there all the time in the play. Will it really crumble away with the slightness of our observation?

We don’t, or won’t, always see the magic of the mystic. Do we need to evoke spells and incantations to make it apparent (‘freely chosen, personally directed, intrinsically motivated . . .’)? Stay clear of the chosen one. Or do we need to spread the glitter over gluesticked marks by our very observation?

There is mad magic, and mayhem, in the world: of that I’m sure. ‘Belief’ being what it is though, I can’t substantiate this. It’s just something that must be ‘known’. It’s irrational, but then we don’t truly live in a rational world. I touch wood that my words are understood. Magic comes in many forms . . .

A moment from my notebook, November:

I help Freida make sure the sheets stay over the climbing frame dome on this windy day: we do it in layers and the sheets stick and mould well to the frame when the netting goes on top. We’re at the darker end of the garden: the sun has long since set anyway. A little while later, I go over to see if she’s still in there. Quietly I check through a gap in the sheets. She doesn’t notice me or, at least, she doesn’t show that she does. She’s lying on her back, in the semi-dark, playing with a toy that lights up red. She’s on her own. I leave her be. 

As I write, literally as I write, a message comes through from my sister, to the effect of: that blue tennis ball [that my 18 month old nephew and I were playing with on Sunday last] . . . he hasn’t let it go since; even sleeps with it.

A reverence of object: magic imbued and charged within it. Also, though, this message comes in magic: as I write of magic, magic happens, magic is seen, presented to me. It’s a true story of now. It’s weird, but such is also the fabric of the primitive belief.

Extraordinary things happen in charged moments.

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