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

Posts tagged ‘being’

An optical hierarchy: layers of seeing

It’s come to my recent attention that we tend to live in a somewhat superficial world. It’s not a new revelation of mine or anyone else’s, but it’s one that flows back in every so often.

The other day I was walking by the river in the gathering autumn. I sat on a bench in the sunshine and listened to the water and the quiet passings of people going by. As I sat, I observed the play of a young child of about four as she leant over the lower wooden railings looking into the water. She was with what I presumed to be her family (mum, dad and older sister). The father wanted the girl to catch up with them. Her focus was on the ducks. I saw that she was mouthing the words ‘quack, quack’ and, as she did so, she moved her fingers up by her face and pressed them to her thumb, and released again a few times over, as if her hand were in the mouth of a puppet maybe. It amused me. The father saw me (in what was my observation) and, though not looking directly at me, he kept looking back to let it be known (as I read it) that he thought it odd or not right that I sat there being amused at the play in front of me.

There is something of a qualitative difference between the actions of ‘observing’ and ‘watching’. I use my words carefully because I observed the play that was happening. Observing ‘the play’ is also something that should be noted here. We live in a superficial world where people mistrust others and the act or non-act that is ‘no great depth of thinking’ can get plastered over ‘observation of play’ to manipulate it into something ‘other’. I’m tired of the lack of grace.

The superficiality many often inhabit (we can also find ourselves there in that superficial layer when we don’t know we’re there sometimes, too), is something we all just seem to accept too readily. We drift along, in the analogy, just on top of the river and we’re quite content to be told what to think and feel and we’re quite happy to go along for the ride of being sucked into ‘the rules’ or ‘cultural norms’ imposed on us within it all. We don’t look beyond and beneath.

If you look closely you can see the trees sway, the water shift, the world revolve; if you look closely you can see into the cracks and the alveoli; if you peer in and beyond you can realise you don’t have to see or think or feel in all the ‘normal’ ways. Play lives here too, as does observing play because play is good and observable.

This preamble, then, brings me to what I have been thinking of as some sort of ‘optical hierarchy’ in layers of seeing. We can see deeper in, but only if we want to or if we recognise that we might be able to. We don’t have to inhabit that superficial realm. We can refine the definitions of our actions (such as the apparently simple and effortless act of ‘seeing’) as we reflect on the active verbs of our engagements with the world.

So, I reflect, I have at times used the words ‘observe’ and ‘watch’ almost interchangeably in general and maybe throwaway speech or writing, though in the context of considered playworking, I know I use the former deliberately. There is, however, a qualitative difference between those active verbs that are ‘to observe’ and ‘to watch’. There is a richness embedded in the former, which is not inherent in the latter. There is a certain action of noticing within what is ‘watching’, though this noticing can be imbued with an external perceiver’s fear and mistrust or with the watcher’s gathering attention to detail. Here we start to wade, potentially, in the shallows rather than swim in the depths.

Just as light can be perceived as both a particle and a wave, we can proceed with this optical hierarchy simultaneously as either and both in the positive or in the cynical and fearful. There are qualitative differences between the active verbs that are ‘to watch’ and ‘to look’, between ‘to look’ and ‘to glance’, and between ‘to glance’ and ‘to glimpse’.

English is blessed with words and synonyms, but really, in the context of the subject matter of an optical hierarchy in ways of seeing play, the ‘nearness or closeness’ of synonyms isn’t near or close enough for the accurate depiction of actions and their intent.

When we ‘observe’ play, we are able to access all manner of conscious and unconscious moments and memories, considerations and part-contemplations, reflections and open questions, driftings and inherent understandings. Observation is rich and replete with connections: play is a universal force, a thing-in-itself, a manifestation which we can connect with and connect to all manner of our reveries and experiences and other wisdoms. Play resides in the cracks and alveoli as well as all around, in the depth layers of our engagements with the world.

So, when I’m feeling that connect, even and especially the small moments of play and playing amuse and cause the wheels of internal refinement to start to shift. Observation (not only of play) can lift us, submerge us, move us. On one depth level, we are neurochemical beings: we can become flooded. On other levels, we’re what some call ‘spiritual’ beings (though really, in the same way as proclaiming madness precludes actual madness, proclaiming to be ‘spiritual’ may suggest there’s still a way to go in this endeavour, and there isn’t really a word in English to adequately define ‘truly spiritual’, despite the richness of the language): ‘spiritual’ beings as we may be, observation can enhance this yet further and deeper in. We can be subsumed.

I observed the play of a young child of about four as her focus of attention was taken by the ducks, and as she made puppet-like gestures with her fingers, mouthing ‘quack, quack’ and as her presumed father looked at me with ill-regard. I just felt, sadly, that one of us was paddling along in the shallows. Even the ducks poked their heads beneath the water, rooting around down there, every once in a while.
 
 

A natural therapy for political dis-ease

As unanimously expressed by playworkers who I have so far read, or heard, to relay an opinion, last Friday’s media declaration of the UK general election results was somewhat sobering: five more years of Conservative (Tory) rule. (Is it even possible to call oneself a playworker if you vote Tory? No-one I’ve come across in various playworker circles has yet put a Tory head above the parapet). I dislike the popular media rhetoric of a governing party that ‘rules’ or, as it’s often framed, the party ‘in power’, but ‘ruling’ is what it feels like will come about. This doesn’t sit easily with the way I like to live my personal and playwork lives. Friday’s media declaration was somewhat sobering.

The Tory perspective on children seems to me to be, by and large, one of ‘those who shall be educated, civilised, made into future economic units capable of sustaining the capitalist mantra of work hard, work harder, make money, every man, or woman, for themselves’. Although the late but eminent Professor Brian Sutton-Smith stated that the opposite of play is not work, but rather it’s depression (which is a stance that is appreciated), the ‘hard-working’ sound-bite ethic is detrimental to the natural elegance of play. (Where, incidentally, is the dividing line between someone who is ‘working’ and another who is ‘hard-working? I’m left somewhat anaemic, as it were, by the constant ‘hard-working’ rhetoric to fall from politicians’ mouths these past weeks).

There is a saving grace to be had though, and this is the start point in the thinking for this piece today (anathema to the Tory ideal): play has been a part of the natural flow of the world for far, far longer than Tory capitalism and material self-interest has been . . . and it will out-last them too.

In opposition to play, I had been feeling a little depressed (not, and very far from, in clinical terms, but rather in the manner of being pressed upon). Now where did I read of the exaltation of walking? It is something I’ve done for a long time: walk and be in the world. There is, you’ll find out, play out there. Here are themes I return to: that is to say, play is in the now, in the being and in the being here; play is part of the world and, in this respect, is not just of children. I walk because it helps me re-ground, re-live, but also because it helps me to think (even if I’m not consciously mapping out all the Xs and Ys of things to work through).

Something I’ve been background thinking about for a while, ‘out there’, whenever walking in the world that plays, is what would the places that we live in look like if we were to map them just by their trees? The place where I live is full of trees. When we really look at the things we’ve always taken for granted, we start to see in different ways. I walked out of town and along the river, south of all the buildings. There was copper-coloured bark, and there were trees that had been there far, far longer than anyone could really say. I sat at the edge of the shallow, narrow, slow-moving water, near to where a few birds played beneath and around a stone bridge (even man-made creations can add to the scene). The birds did play. There were two small ones (I have no idea what they were, but they moved fast and turned at impossible speeds). I watched as they skipped a few feet from the water’s surface: they flapped then dipped, flapped up, then dipped, zipped up then sheered around — all of this in erratic and totally non-efficient movements. They didn’t seem to be looking for food, or escaping from anything, or even undertaking elaborate mating dances: they seemed to be wasting their energies just because they could fly.

Of course, this is an interpretation, but I watched one of the birds (who was alone for a good five or ten minutes), and it did all the same movements over and around, and up and down, and round and round, never getting too far away, before suddenly turning hard in mid-air to dive-bomb underneath the bridge. Up again, and the whole thing repeated. Wouldn’t you do that too if you had wings?!

Up on the top of the hill, where the old Iron Age fort used to be, the start of this place way and far, far back, there is a clump of trees. The old earthworks are still heaped around the mid-drift of the site, but the wooden defences are long gone, and these trees are not the trees that used to be here, though they might as well be. I sat and just tried to listen. I write it like this because it is how it was, but I was pleased to later find, in synchronicity and serendipity, that my virtual world was offered this insight into some of the thinking of the writer Hermann Hesse (thank you Syl!):

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

Hermann Hesse, Bäume: Betrachtungen und Gedichte
 
You old hippy, I can just hear some readers saying (though I know others are smiling!). I tried to listen to the trees, though they don’t speak in words we can lay down easily. Nevertheless, the trees — in their time, in their just-being-here-ness, in their just-looking-out-ness — had the play of the world in them, as did the birds and the bugs above the water, as did the shallow, narrow, slow-moving river, as did the day, the afternoon beyond the buildings: across the grasses and fields, and across the weeds and the late spring flowers, and into the middle distance trees, there are more greens in one place than we can ever really drop colours into our seeing minds . . .

This is all ‘walking and sitting and seeing and being’ therapy. We can move from positions of sobriety of spirit, of feeling pressed upon, to those of faith: we need only the time and space to walk (or to go out and find where we can walk), to see and to listen. We can know we’re not bound by the ethic of work yourself dry in ever depleting circles, attempting enforced attainment of future ‘economic unit’ status. We can see the play of the world, and we can know that it has been here far, far longer than the rhetorics of material greed and power, and that it will out-last all of this . . .

On the playground, I see children spinning slowly on the roundabout, looking up into the sky, and I don’t disturb them . . .

One day, we can hope that a Tory might get released into the wild: an epiphany could happen . . . or he or she might spend their breaths, by means and ways, trying to straighten up the trees, trying to fix the futures of their days.
 
 

On words and of ways of using them when with children

Is it fair to say that any and every one of us is a different ‘us’ according to the person that we’re speaking with at any given time? That is, in essence we’re still the same, but we present/come across as just that slightly different when with different people. It’s not always a conscious act of wilful change of being I’m talking about here: this is often an operation below that conscious level, on the automatic level. I had such thoughts when thinking about friends in my social circle going back some twenty odd years ago now. A recent colleague conversation touched on the subject again, and this has now led me to thinking how is it that I am with various different children? Do I communicate consistently with every one of them, or do I shift my intonation or other manners of speaking and being when with each of them?

I really don’t know for sure. I’m too close and in the middle of it. How is this different to my awareness of how I’m different, still, with various other adults in my life? Of course I present in different ways when with work colleagues or with family, when meeting others for the first time or when communicating with other professionals I make contact with. However, I thought I was fairly consistent when with the children I know and share parts of my life with, work and family, but now I’m not so sure. I do make every effort not to (actually or seemingly) talk down to children, though I also make efforts to use words I suppose are part of their vocabulary; I also understand that words in children’s worlds shouldn’t just be restricted to those they already know though, and I like to think I talk with the knowledge that this particular word I’m using might be a new one for them. Family children, being younger than the children I work with, are sucking up all the new words they find and they ask questions, so I give answers. I’m also sometimes slightly amused and amazed at some of the words that, say, six and seven year olds at the playground use in everyday conversation.

Words aren’t the whole of it though: the way that I use them in my inflections comes into this. Whilst I appreciate the ways that almost sing-song, lilting ‘mummying’ language can have in bonding with very small children, it irritates me to hear that sing-song of adults with children who are older: I would hate to think I ever fell into that mode with a child who might, for example, be experiencing a need for sympathy. It can take on the mode of being patronising.

On the playground I also often have in-the-moment-of-play thoughts about the accents and the ‘local language’ of the children I’m with. By this I don’t necessarily mean the cultural background of that child or their family, I mean the wider all-embracing culture of that particular place in that particular part of London. The ‘local language’ is made up of a melge of slang (both enduring and in passing) and other fabrications that come from the play directly or get fused into it via films or TV. The point to all of this here is that I think now, as I write, that I must also become a part of that local language when in that part of London, as opposed to the place that is my home town. I have written about the children’s local accents before, being quite evident to my as-then untuned ear when I first worked at the playground. Now, though, a few years on, I think I must slip into that manner of speaking more naturally. If I push my luck though, I might end up sounding like someone who’s just trying to fit in. From some of the children here, there is a particular use of the slang word ‘innit’, I find. I haven’t yet mastered the finer nuances of this, as I hear it! I’ll keep listening until I’ve absorbed it more fully.

This is strange. I’ve had plenty of conversations in the pubs thereabouts with people who just strike up conversation asking where I’m from, and I slip easily and consciously into my London accent when I hear theirs, and I tell them that I’m from just up the road (which I am, technically, having been born not far from there). I don’t see it necessarily as an insincerity to be talking with an accent that isn’t quite what I normally go about my day with; it’s more a sort of ‘when in Rome’, a form of respectful acknowledgement, perhaps. This is how I see it with the random other adults I meet. With children, though, it seems a little more disingenuous to do this.

Recently, I recognised the way I often communicate with a particular six year old I know. I hadn’t realised this properly before I’d had those colleague conversations about how we are when with other adults. With this six year old in question, I find that I talk with her just as I would an adult. I thought I did this with all the children I work with, but with her it seems, on closer inspection, that I do this even more so. Perhaps it’s because she’s quite often got a serious look on her face, but I know her well enough to know this isn’t because of any sourness of being: it’s because she’s listening and sucking up everything that’s being said around her. She concentrates a lot. She knows some longer words I hadn’t given her credit for. She tells me things about conversations we’ve had or which she’s overheard some days on. I didn’t realise she took in so much. So, I have conversations with her about whatever’s important that day, and the words aren’t too complex but neither are they dumbed-down, and my tone is often even with her, though, as it seems, it’s more even with her than with other children.

What can we take from all of this? I think there are words, and ways of saying words, and ways of using local languages, and sincerities and insincerities, or the possibilities of either, that need plenty of thinking on, both during and after being around the children I’m with. I think there are ways we could think about how we are, more . . .
 
 

Ways of seeing: magic (notebook drafts)

I have spent these past weeks immersed in magic (whatever that should mean). It is a process of trying to understand, or to see. What this is, what we’re in, could be impossible to describe; though what we cannot always see to say, as such, we can feel. Words pile up on words: in the reading, in the notes, in observations of play. There are only so many words a brain can hold though. In the unfinished ending that this continuing process is, what it can only come down to, I suppose, is ‘connect’. I need words to try to explain the insufficiency of words . . .

‘Magic’ is a word that’s bandied around without care. This is not a post about the common or garden (or even skilled) stage illusionist or street performer: this post encompasses much other. In trying to explain what words are so far from really being able to do, I’m re-realising about the other ways we could use words. In order to be able to subvert a form, we must first understand the structures of that form. Now, and only now, can we do such as leave out words, a forming of gaps to fall into; subtly twist syntax; mix and merge the language we’ve grown up all our lives with. New meanings start to emerge between. It is rare: only those who get this get this. Magic is of the in-between.

Out there, in the world, in there, out of the world, is a depth level of magic to connect to, with, within. Last week, as the long shadows of a late September afternoon began to spread over the playground, the sun shining in, the children laughing and running in complexities of chase-tap, I caught the slightest, lightest look from one girl, who smiled and tilted her head as if to say, ‘Yes, I get you, your actions, everything of your right here and now-ness.’ Of course, I’ll never know what she actually thought, there, then, because she probably doesn’t know herself, now, but . . . here is the difficulty of words . . . what is was, was what it was. Or, what it was, was what it was. You decide. That moment was of magic (noun), a magic moment (adjective), a performance of magic consciousness shift in me (verb).

When we connect, there is no sleight of hand. Everything of everything is open. I think I’ve always believed that many children can read the open words of adults, who necessarily roam their dedicated places for play and, by extension, those of those adults out there in the fence-less streets too. I say it this way because I haven’t felt otherwise, though my ways of seeing and feeling have become more refined. Children can read us, and we can connect with this reading. I called this ‘play connectivity’, some while ago, but really, what the words are aren’t what connectivity is.

Last week, also, I came onto the playground early on in the session and there were children already there before me. Down from somewhere up the slope behind the tyre wall and around the corner came a child whose light we all seem to see. She bounded into my path and announced herself — if not with an outright ‘ta-da!’, it might as well have been! There was a flourish and a conversation, just of the ordinary details of an ordinary day at school, where the teacher, it seems, was having her usual bad day: such was the interpretation of a child who saw it fit and fine to just say, to me, because . . . because, I like to think and feel, this wasn’t a usual child-adult/adult-child communication. ‘You will tell us if we annoy you in any way, won’t you?’ I said. ‘What, anything?’; ‘Anything’. She smiled. ‘Sure.’

Many of us have had these sorts of interactions, despite their unusualness. To be fair, some teachers may get them too. What’s underneath, or within, or slightly hidden from and in it all, beneath/within the honesty, the openness, the privilege, is the magic field. This is the place where time and times converge, where there is ‘connectivity’, or the possibility of it, if we can see and feel where we are.

We may feel unconnected with our day-to-days of day-to-days: we all do; it happens. Yet: becoming/being open to the possibility of all that might be in the world is a start. Earlier, at the time of writing, after being occupied in what I perceive as the unmagic veneer I sometimes gloss along, I took a walk and there, in the late afternoon early evening haze was all that I’d not connected to, that earlier, at and in the screen. I write in notebooks to feel the page at my fingers; I walk to feel the page of the world.

The playground is an abundance of pages. None of them can be written, truly. Being there, being on the playground, is a unique experience, no matter how many times we do it. Each uniqueness is impossible to capture, really. We represent what we see with stories, but what we tell is not what it is, in the moment. The pages are in us, but we must learn to read. Reading is a magic gift, a gift of magic. If seeing is believing, believing is only possible by immersion in the moment. There, last week too (this being just a representation of a moment), I read a moment as a magic one: I met two three-year-olds, for the first time, who were unsure of me, but later, soon, after spending honest time with them, I met them again and they were as ready to tell me life stories if they wanted to. It is privilege, this ‘gettingness’, this ‘being seen’. The art is in the knowing, in the appreciating: reading is a magic gift.

What we may appreciate are levels other than the usual veneer or sheen. Sure, children can trust and love, even or especially, us who aren’t family, but what we might see beneath, behind, within this, they do too, and neither we nor they have words for this. Words are insufficient here. We have to be in it all: moment, magic field, there not here.

This week I have been acutely aware, in appreciation, of being in these children’s territory. That is, not only the place/space of the fenced-in playground but the streets around: there, that is theirs not mine. I come home, a long way home, by train, and this is my hometown. There, everything of their childhoods forms: layers upon layers of times. I feel like I should walk carefully through it. It is an appreciation of other depths, I think.

Immersed in magic, in a magic field, depth arrangement, it’s perhaps impossible to think in other ways. Words are insufficient, inadequate: after all, how exactly can we describe the way the sun shines in? We can only represent, use language in devious ways, tell our stories and hope someone, somewhere, connects.
 
 

Here there is time

Every once in a while we find it possible to step outside our usual routines and into a different place to be. Routines are, perhaps, somewhat superficial: being self-imposed in order to give some form to our own lives. What we believe is true, or true enough, and we find some comfort in our regular comings and goings. What has this all to do with play? Patience, we’ll get there. This week I’ve gone about interrupting my usual comings and goings. Summer has come and gone, and there has been an enormous amount of other people’s energies absorbed, travel to and fro, and attempts at juggling the thinking processes of what I’ve observed and felt: the clash of magical thinking and scientific rationale is an internal movement in itself.

This week I sat in the stone circle of Avebury. This trip was both a finding out of somewhere known of but never seen, and a pause. As we drove north up through the Wiltshire countryside, I realised that there just seemed to be a north-south axis to the land I was in: not just because of the route we were travelling, but because of the line of monuments and markers that we followed — from Stonehenge and Woodhenge, up to Silbury Hill and the Long Barrow, with the chalk White Horse in the distance.

There were tourists, we were tourists. The whole place is a restoration, it would seem; yet we come — what we believe is true, or true enough. Four and a half thousand years or so ago, the people who were at what was to become Avebury set themselves to the massive undertaking of a near-circular earthworks. I’m struck by time when I see such things that still exist: there are the remnants of an Iron Age hill fort near where I live — such earthworks as those that surround this can only be appreciated with a pause about what we’re walking on. There are plague pits near that fort site too, from centuries later, and time sits there. At Avebury, time sits in the huge near-circular ditches, once later filled with detritus, and in some of the stones. I wondered whether those stones, which were once felled for the preparation of new building, were desecrated relics or if it was necessarily done. I wondered if restoration should have been done at all.

So, after a while I sat down just to see what was there. At Stonehenge there’s a hideous new layer of modern life opened up in the form of its latest visitor centre (amongst other layers); at Avebury there are two rather forlorn souls sat at the end of the car park peddling leaflets. There’s the other modern layer too, but it’s somewhat absorbed in the village. In my life, I wouldn’t go without my hot water and technology on tap, I don’t think, but there’s something about modern layers that is superficial.

We sat at the base of a standing stone, looking out at the Portal Stones, or beyond, out along the line of the West Kennet Avenue. I was still juggling my magical thinking (which is rejected by sceptics as an excuse, a means of making meaning where there may be nothing there at all) and scientific thought. What is it that is here? I’d come to sit because, when walking I stopped to see a huge flock of rooks or crows (not blackbirds, I’m told, which won’t flock!) as they cascaded out from the clump of trees high above the Portal Stones. I watched them and listened to them as they formed a black wave against the sky and dispersed into the distance or into trees farther out there, I wasn’t sure.

So I sat at a stone in one of the inner circles. I saw that the Portal Stones were huge but that the trees were even greater. I listened to the German children playing in between stones nearby, picking up words of their language here and there. I watched the slow parade of beige-trousered elderly tourists as they stepped in single file along the earthworks bank as if towards their own demise. There was a small girl of about three years of age, skipping around between us and the Portal Stones. She was wearing a flowery sort of dress and was accompanied by what I presume was her father, Druid-like attired, and his large dog, and a woman who may have been the girl’s mother, though I wasn’t sure of this either. We make assumptions sometimes in the observation, and I wondered if Druid-dad had created his daughter in his image or if she was naturally so disposed.

The girl seemed completely well-at-ease here at Avebury, in the long grass between the standing stones. Whilst the adults in her party talked distantly some way away, and the dog stood at heel, the girl went to sit on a smaller stone laid with its surface just a short way from the ground. It struck me, observing her in her quiet-focused play with flowers and suchlike, for those few minutes, that here there was time. I could blur out the background line of elderly tourists on the far-off bank, the sounds of the German children playing to my right, the occasional car on the road into the village, the Druid-dressed man and his partner-perhaps and their dog . . . here was a small child playing amongst the long grass, on a stone which now has a name, but which once was part of something else. The near-circular earthworks of Avebury surrounded a playing child. Here was time. What would this play have been four and a half thousand years ago?

There may have been scenes of horrific ritual at sites like these, and this our modern selves can’t square and cannot ignore. What can we say of play though? Was there play? In my magical thinking, because what we believe is true, there is a great earthworks, a brilliant white great chalk-lined ditch, with massive stones on its inner rim; the trees have their enormous branches shaken by a swathe of rooks, or crows, flocking out in a huge black wave, dispersing into the distance; beneath the birds, a small girl sits in her quiet-focused play with flowers amongst the long grass, four and a half thousand years or so ago. In my magical thinking, here there is time: still.
 
 

Time and magic of a real persuasion

Let’s leave the adult world of money and mind games for a while. This is an exercise in time; or rather, this is an exercise in moving times around us. You are a child here in this world. It’s not a perfect place, that much should be said from the start, but it is a place of energy, of magic of a real persuasion (not the fabricated illusions of the screen), of circumstances and arrangements you don’t, as yet, have names for.

It’s a warm day today: there’s a breeze which you can only describe as soft. How else can you draw that feel? You stop in the street to think about the naming and drawing of things. The breeze has fingers at your neck and it tickles at your hair. It’s soft and you think of all the words that mean this and of all the words that are soft. The breeze has a smell, though you can’t name it. There are people in the street and they pass you by, move round you, muttering. You’re smiling because they don’t know what soft is.

By and by, some time on, you see roses. You wonder what they feel like, though you know that touching them will make them fall apart. You’re the master of the natural world: one touch or one breath from you and everything shifts. You tell the roses not to worry. Up close they have bugs in their petals. They’re curious to you, and they’re curious about you. One bug has a name though it’s a secret. You don’t touch the bugs because they have more legs than you care to care about.

Here is a wall. It isn’t very high and on the other side of it are empty things and broken things. Someone’s left them here and they may be back for them. People think it’s just rubbish, but you know that even rubbish belongs to someone. You look around and practice holding your breath. You climb the wall and balance there, still holding the urge to breathe out, breathe out. You hop and see if you can balance. From here you can see right into someone’s kitchen. They have dirty plates and so you look through the binoculars of your fingers to see what else they have.

When the dog barks suddenly, you don’t think: you jump. It’s one of those small vicious dogs, you know: you’ve heard that sound before. It’ll come skidding out, all teeth and yap and it won’t know you’re only looking. So you jump and run and you keep running until you can’t hear the dog any more. Even so, you’re wary. You know that dogs can come out of nowhere. So you squeeze through the fence of someone else’s garden, near where its trees back onto the woods beyond. You take the shortcut because the shortcut’s there. No-one sees.

In the woods you’re suddenly struck quiet by the colour up above. The sun is dripping through the leaves in glassy, shining lime arrangements. It’s like being under the sea (except the sea doesn’t have such colours, you know — you’ve seen the sea from above and you know it’s blue and dark green and white, and though it shines like tin foil it doesn’t drip). It’s more like being in a cave. There are bats nearby. There are rats and other creatures you have no names for. You take up a stick. It’s a solid stick, you find: you smack it against a tree trunk and it makes a thwacking sound but doesn’t break. It’ll be good enough for beating down creatures that have no names.

Every tree gets a good hard thwack. It’s a sound that pleases and it makes you smile. You swish it in the long grass and weeds. You need sticks in the world: they make good everythings — they measure the depth of the stream (and the stream turns the stick dark brown); they help you to walk; they let you poke at disgusting creamy off-white mounds of somethings that look like they used to be mushrooms. No creatures come after you.

There’s no-one here in the woods. It’s just you, and you need to pee. So you use the stream. You listen to the sprinkling on the water and you feel the breeze on your naked skin. The water is barely an inch or so deep here and there are stones that poke above the surface. There’s a silty mud like dirty sand and though the water is clear enough at the edges you don’t know how deep it goes farther out. There are bigger rocks and old branches nearby. So you gather things, thinking some vague plans of building a bridge. You try not to get your feet wet but that isn’t how it ends up. So you wade in because you’re wet anyway. The water slops around your ankles and makes your socks wet and heavy. The bridge turns into a way to try to stop the water coming through.

You work at it all afternoon, though there are always cracks and the water is too strong anyway. It doesn’t matter because it needs to be done. You move a tangle of bank scrub away to see what’s behind, and there’s something dead there. It takes you by surprise and you step away quickly. You’re wrinkling up your face and expressing all manner of loud revulsions. It’s putrefying and disgusting, so you get your stick and poke it. You daren’t go closer in case it does something. It doesn’t move but it stinks. You kick it and it squelches, so you cover it up quickly with a carrier bag you’ve found. You stare at the plastic grave you’ve made. It needs something else. You look around. It needs a stick. You find another one, not your good one which you can’t waste on this. You find this other stick, and you rip the end so it has a bit of a point, and you push it through the bag and the dead thing underneath. There’s not much resistance and you find you can push the stick right down to the mud. There. It’s pinned there now. It’s done. You turn your back and climb back up the bank.

At the top there’s a boy standing there looking at you. He’s about your age, though you know he’s not as smart. You can tell that by the way he’s just standing there looking at you with that ‘not as smart’ look on his face. ‘What?’ you say, but he doesn’t answer. Freak. Weirdo. You’re a little put out by him: it’s too odd that someone would just stand there and stare and not say anything. You feel a little scared but you don’t let him see it. You murmur ‘Fucko’ under your breath and hope that he does and that he doesn’t hear it. When he speaks he doesn’t speak very loud:

‘What did you call me?’

You feel the cold freeze in your veins. You don’t want to say it again. ‘Nothing. I didn’t say anything.’ There’s something about the way he doesn’t move that really troubles you. He just says quietly: ‘I’ve got a knife, you know.’ You don’t know. You just can’t tell. He could have a knife, or he could be lying. He has freak-weirdo’s hair and his eyes are too blue. He could be an alien, or a creature.

‘Yeh?’ you find yourself saying and it scares you that you’re saying it without your own permission. ‘Show me.’ So he shows you, just like that. It’s got a flick-blade and a red handle. He picks up a short stick and cuts it lengthways just like that, quickly and like the stick’s made of plasticine or something. ‘I kill squirrels with this,’ he tells you, and he isn’t lying now. You can tell. You want him to show you, and you don’t. ‘I have to go home,’ you say, and he laughs and mimics you. The boy sits down on the bank with his back to you. You watch him for a while, not going home because you can’t. He’s doing something but you can’t see.

‘What you doing?’

He doesn’t answer, so you ask again. ‘Nothing.’ He’s doing something though. You move closer and look over his shoulder and you see he’s sitting picking the wings off flying ants. You sit next to him. ‘You know that’s cruel?’

‘So?’

You don’t have an answer to this. You sit and watch the way the light falls in great chunks through the canopy of trees. The two of you spend a while there and end up throwing stones at trees on the other side of the stream. They land with satisfying clunks, and you progress to aiming at birds and other moving things in the undergrowth. ‘That was a cat,’ he tells you, though you can’t be sure because you don’t see it.

You both make sploshes of small rocks into the water for a while and then you have a sudden urgent need to leave. ‘I have to go now,’ you say.

‘Why?’

You shrug. The boy gets to his feet and helps you up. ‘I’ll come,’ he says. He doesn’t know which way is your way, probably, but you don’t see a problem with it. You don’t say anything as you make your way: you hit every other tree with your stick because it’s still good; you trail your hand in the long stems of plants you don’t know the names of, and you smell your fingers; you think about nothing much. The boy finds his own stick, though it’s not as good as yours: he’s still a freak, though now you’re not as scared of him as you were . . .

This has been an exercise in time; or rather, this has been an exercise in moving times around us. Maybe it’s my own childhood swilling up to the surface, and it’s not a perfect place by any means (this is not intended as an exercise in rose-tintedness), but there is a kind of energy in ‘play that isn’t corroded by adults’. There is magic of a real persuasion; there are circumstances and arrangements we don’t, and maybe never will, have names for (if only we could name these: we could cut away all the adult rhetoric about play as learning tools, play to reduce obesity, encouraging co-operative play to combat anti-social behaviour, etc.)

Let’s think of time and magic.
 
 

On knowing how best to be

The barmaid at my local is talking with a punter who’s obviously into her. He kisses her hand. When she’s near me, I ask her, ‘How do you do that?’ She says, ‘I smile.’ She gets me. She knows. You know? We know.

I’m still on my mystic kick. There are people out there in the play and playwork world who understand, of that I’m sure. Every so often I come across one of these fellow followers of this fashion of belief, or I re-find them and we talk these things, or linked things, which we haven’t talked before.

Arthur comments on a recent post of mine:

Penny Wilson knows this – this being the thing you said about those fellow human beings who are considered different from you or eye [sic] – she knows about that playfulness that powers, mediates, underpins and transmogrifies the play of the children ‘who are considered different from you or eye’. Maybe we should re-label the other children as ‘the children that we don’t feel the need to give a label to’.

Hugo Grinmore (who, once, under his other name, observed and analysed me in play connection with a child, a privilege to hear him tell me how I worked) wrote about children who he grouped as ‘scintillators’:

‘[Scintillators] are beyond neuro-typicality. My belief is that what we see is not a component part of [autism] spectrum disorder but rather a new emotionally transcendent type of human . . . These children have very highly developed emotional antennae. They are deeply sensitive to others’ emotional states and can respond accordingly . . . [These children] have and value knowledge that is centred on the notion of what we might properly call wisdom.’

Hugo Grinmore (2009), Scintillators. iP-Dip Magazine [print] Issue 14.

More succinctly, I sat with Eva Kane on the sofas in the car park at the International Play Association conference in Cardiff last summer. Eva, from the University of Stockholm, and I talked around this sort of thinking. She looked at me and agreed, saying: ‘Children know.’ That was all. That was all I needed to know there was affirmation of similar thoughts out there in the play and playwork world.

I was recently given a link (my dancer friend who knows about how play runs through us). She offered me the writings of O. Fred Donaldson, Ph.D:

I’m not talking about teaching children what we know.  I’m suggesting something radically different.  I’m suggesting learning from children.

from Peace is Child’s Play

Donaldson is writing about learning peace from children. OK, so it’s a case, perhaps, of ‘rose-tinted spectacles’ in seeing all children all the time in this light, but the message to me is clear enough: we, adults, should not suppose we know how best to be.

‘What’s the biggest thing in the world?’ I asked a five year old, once, in a quiet moment. Without hesitation or thought, he looked me straight back in the eye and said: ‘Love.’

Donaldson writes:

Children bring with them four basic unadulterated raw materials of life: love, belonging, an urge to thrive, and a trust in the mystery of it all. These lessons have reality for me now as they have been ground into me like dirt into a young child’s [trousers].  I have found them throughout my play with children.

His play with children? He’s not a playworker, but wait here: the world I swim around in, when it’s a difficult swim, would think very warily of him. What’s he saying here? What’s he got to hide? What’s wrong with him? Stay clear.

Stand back from the edge though. Assume the best. Be child-like in understanding. In the spirit of ‘there is no such thing as absolute altruism’, what we get from our work with children is the glow of connecting with these higher beings (as Grinmore would have it). There is much to be learnt from them.

I walk into my local and I’m looking around at what I might want, and the barmaid is standing there, dutifully, respectfully, waiting a few steps back from the bar with her hands lightly held together in front of her. She’s smiling. I feel her smiling before I even register she’s physically there waiting for me. It’s genuine. It’s beyond any other communication. She seems to know this. I know this. It is a child-like openness.

These are things I’ve learnt.
 
 

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.
 
 

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