Season 2, 001: (Re)Claiming our creativity - share a memory of a favourite childhood game.
When I look at pictures of myself as a child
I see so much that I still carry.
The downward gaze
The anxious little please-don’t-hate-me smile.
Shoulders shrugged and stiff,
one foot placed slightly ahead of the other
in a clumsily coquettish pose.
The boyish bob, because nobody wanted to play with my hair
or with me, for that matter.
The little grown-up fully formed,
Primed not to take up too much space,
The only defiance a turning away
to a daydream, a doll or a book.
When I look at pictures of my grand-daughter
what stands out is the openness of her smile, her body, her innocent gaze,
Excited by each fresh encounter
with the loved familiar
or the completely strange
The confidence that all she has to do or say is interesting
enough for somebody to listen with unfeigned enthusiasm.
The readiness for a ride in the bicycle-basket of life,
pedalled ahead by her mother’s smile and steadied by her hand on the handlebars,
A view of the road ahead into a world where she’s allowed to take up space,
with a shoulder to bury herself in just for fun, or closeness,
or occasional comfort,
whenever she feels herself not-quite-whole.
She doesn’t need to give the illusion
that she can figure it all out herself.
She’s never going to be certain, first time,
exactly how the pieces fit.
But nor is anybody else.
The fun is in the puzzling
and if she gets it wrong at first,
nobody’s going to tell her off.
There was a yard in front of the rural cottage we lived in from when I was aged six to about nine. Hens pecked their way around it during the day, Rhode Island Reds going, 'Bok awk, bok, bok' and then teasing us by sometimes 'laying out', meaning we would have to search the surrounding fields for their eggs. Enclosing the yard in a horseshoe shape were some sheds and outhouses, dusty relics of past labour. In one of the sheds I can remember seeing tiny chicks hatch one night by the light of my dad’s torch, all yellow and fluffy, pecking their way out of their shells. Most of the outbuildings were missing a door, or the door hadn’t been closed in years. In one we had a swing, where we could aim to reach the swallows nesting high in the rafters if we kicked off powerfully enough. In another there was an old timber cart, with its shafts for the horse pointing up towards the spider-busy rafters. In the cart itself was an old mattress. We played all kinds of games there, my brothers and I, far from other children over the summer holidays from school. We built imaginary, to us ‘real’, worlds that had us occupied and absorbed for hours. One afternoon visitors arrived and the children tumbled out of their car and came over to us in the barn. They asked us what we were doing. We stood around self-conscious and foolish, suddenly tongue-tied and awkward in the face of their fresh-faced townie curiosity. Our make-believe world had instantly dissolved. @margaretwriting
I remember one summertime, where the grass was turning yellow and dry, so it must have been a heatwave. We made up this game, where we were part of a royal family, and were taking part in athletic competitions. I remember spending a lot of time out on the lawn taking part in long jumps and javelin throws, in my five year old body, with imaginary poles, medals and sand. In my memory the game lasted several days and even weeks. It seemed to be our reason for getting up and going outside for a long time.
I think it was the feeling of being special, unique and gifted that made this game so memorable for me. I relished these internal experiences. So far from the world we were being reared in.
Being in the sunshine all day long, in our bare feet, made it memorable, almost confirming that we were in an alternative world.
There were no adults involved. This game was ours. And ours alone. We were inhabiting a virtual reality that our parents could not access. And I did not want to share it with them.
They would have not been able to join in this world of dreams. And, their half enthusiastic nods, and smiles would have cracked our crystal ball of a universe.
I still feel like this with my creative life now. My playful side doesn’t think about the next steps but wants to give it a go. But I don’t like telling other adults, as they will likely take away my childish sense of possibility.
So I keep my ideas to myself and just try to do them. I trust I will find likeminded children in adult bodies, who can clap with delight.
After school I paddle in the chalk stream til my feet go numb. I search for life and colour and collect it in a bucket. Turning over stones, I ease tiddlers from the gravel. Stoneloaches with barbels like mini catfish, patterned like sunlight glancing off ripples. Miller’s thumbs, with broad heads, bulging lips and spiny armoured fins. A tiny walking house made from twigs glued to grains of sand carries a caddis fly larva. At the end of my session I count my haul and release everything.
As the days shine longer my task becomes more sparkly. Massed wriggling balls, enthralling and metallic, are spawning brook lampreys. A shoal of breeding minnows flashes ruby, sapphire and gold, bright as neon tetras.
One day I slip my net under the concrete ledge beneath the bridge. It comes out gross and heavy. A trout! I show my family. My mother declares it plate-sized. The name brown trout is disappointing. This fish, so cryptic in flowing water, is bejeweled with spots of red and black on gold. Its gaping desperation is ugly in my bucket but I feel like its saviour as I pour it back, free.
I had no company at the river, preferred it that way. When I think of people in that spot I remember a schoolboy who created his own sparkle by pissing an arc into sunshine. And a boy old enough to be a man cornered me under the bridge when I was ten and said ‘show me your cunt’. I retreated, fearful but nonchalant.
I don’t remember the last time I took a net to the river. With my curiosity for nature I play and delight every day, but I’m more afraid now, afraid of all the things I won’t find.
Jo Sinclair on Twitter
I'm so thrilled you're continuing to do this--selfishly I suppose. I know it's work for you and that you hadn't initially planned on it if I remember correctly. It's been the one thing that has helped me be a bit braver in submitting my work even if I don't meet with success. I keep striving. And I revel in all the voices that join in. This bit on play is one of my favorite parts in The Cure for Sleep...how play of one kind then begets another that you so desperately need. May all of us who need it find it...reclaim it.
I was once a builder.
Sticks, leaves, the debris other humans left behind: I weaved together nature’s and man’s detritus giving form to what the ancient celts called ‘thin places’, spots where the earthly and spiritual collide, seen and unseen.
I built stick and crisp wrapper cathedrals that reached towards the sky.
This building spark had been lit during a rustic furniture-making workshop I took one August in a small town gray barn, just 45 minutes north of NYC. The $100 a day price tag for “Making Rustic” didn’t initially yield any of the promised fruit—building furniture out of sticks was not as easy as it looks in the books. Crooked lines vs straight; knotty vs even, eyeballing vs precision.
I managed to mortise (hole) and tenon (tongue) some lichen-rotted branches into the back ladder of a tiny chair on the third day, but I knew it would not hold so sacrificed it to the campfire god that same night. And all the next workshop days I let go.
I listened to that gray barn; and it taught me how to sing and dance Tree.
I explored its nooks of mica and acorns, feathers, seeds, and birch curls.
I knelt inside a hollow tree and climbed another that was 250 years old.
I wandered through dragonfly-filled air the day after a hurricane.
I pulled back layers of loam and earth in a road kill deer dump with rubber-gloved hands searching for bones picked clean by bugs and time, a smear of Vicks eucalyptus beneath my nose.
On the last workshop day with the gift of an in-process chair back of mountain laurel, I chose eight driftwood gems and beaver chews from the barn’s trash-barrel inventory to complete my art. In a state of flow and with the help of a table-sized drill press, tenon cutter, glue and clamps, my hands fashioned a forest throne worthy of the Green Man.
Play...to build a chair.
Thanks to Covid-19, my wonderful niece was eight months old before I met her. Shortly after that first meeting, I sat her on the couch beside me. She fell over onto her side; I said “Whoops!” (as you do!), and tickled her; she giggled happily and I sat her up again. She immediately fell over again, and I repeated the performance. When she fell over for the third time, I finally realised that this was now a game (I don’t have children; I was slow to catch on!) Eight months old and she was already able to create a game and draw me into it.
She and her older brother have restored play to my life; their visits home are filled with games of hiding, chasing, building and re-building, as I watch in awe at the development of their imaginations.
Where did mine go? As a child, I had endless hours of fun in my head with my imaginary fairy friend (named, imaginatively, Fairy) and her side-kick, Elfina. I made food for them, I left out clothes made of leaves, I got up early to collect dew-drops from the grass for them. I built little swings in the garden for them to play on. I imagined them hanging out in the fascinating fungal constructions attached to trees in the local woods when they weren’t with me, or under toadstools at certain times of year, or floating on leaves in the river nearby. Fairy doors were not a thing in rural Ireland in the early 1980s, but I saw my own everywhere I looked.
This imaginary world brought me comfort, safety and joy. It was all of my making; I was in control and nothing could go wrong except by my design.
Oh the shame of it! when I recall my cheeks burn with the audacity, humiliation and deep flow of the pleasure of play. My sister and I loved horses, and aged 12 or so, stabled a whole collection of them in our garage. They were ridden out every day, gleefully, seriously. Though we were not oblivious to the cat calls and hooting laughter of the local lads, the pull of play was too strong. Rusty was my favorite, a soft yard broom with an orange head, a "cob" my sister rode the heavy horse, a stiff large brush, a Clydesdale or Shire perhaps. There were various other Shetlands and Welsh Mountains. Some we would have to do battle with, as they were flighty and feisty and we would tug on the belts and banding we had fashioned as bridles and head collars.
No rural idyll was this, but a 1970's housing estate, where the gleeful eyes of the neighborhood were on us. One day we started to care about the laughs and taunts, started to think about how we looked, what we were wearing and blushing with shame, returned the horses to their mundane household duties, pain felt in the end of childhood innocence, that tipping point and realisation that adolescence and adulthood held none of the joyous bewitching wonder of play. Then we discovered boys...
The last time I played was on my local beach where someone dumped tumbles of bricks. Yes, I was alone. Was it playing? I was researching local bricks and their history for some writing about the movement of the families who made them. I was making walls and knocking them over, filming the gradual blocking-out of the view.
When I was 10, after a lot of pleading, we got a swing. It was painted smooth-green when it came out of its box, turning rough-rusty afterwards. My cold palms grasped the solid metal rods, and I remember the gallows above my head when I tilted back, elbows stretched, toes pointed in front. It was ecstasy: the wheee of swinging towards the house, and the lurch of my tummy on the return, seeing the worn-out grass blurring through my legs. It was the dangerous bounce as the frame left the ground when I really went high that thrilled.
When dad built the extension, he sourced old bricks which matched the main house, reddy-orange ones which had a hollow knocking sound when you stacked them. They left terracotta chippings to blow into corners when the weather turned. From my swinging vantage point, I could see my little brother squatting next to the brickie, begging to be allowed to build one too. After that, mini walls of childish bonded patterns appeared, irregular and full of kinks so that the cat walking past might topple them.
When I was solo-walking the Pilgrim’s Way in 2020, I came across a tree swing on a hilltop. I looked around but no-one was nearby. I dropped my backpack and hoiked myself up onto the wooden slat, hoping not to get back-of-the-thigh splinters. I swung nearly into, then back away from the unfamiliar Hampshire countryside - a moment in motion.
I made a deal with my youth. Never! Never! Lose the narcotic effect of playful times. Don't let the tocking clock tick away desire for strong flavoured, unguarded fun.
Four discarded pram wheels, a plank of wood and an old fruit box. " Bogey" status. Wheels took me places, brought me out of the shadows into visible energy filled light; masculated me, allowed me to belong.
A labyrinth of alleyways was my racetrack. With untethered abandon I flew around concrete and brick corners, indulged in delicious, dangerous manoeuvres. Raced around red, glowering faced adults ready to guillotine my youth; cut off my arterial flow of fun.
A Spring tide of innocence flowed through me, bogey racing around my alley homeland; pathways that sliced up hundreds of terraced houses into neat regimented rows, all interconnected. A pleasure palace devoid of the weight of adulthood.
A primal lust gathered inside me driving me forward on a hedonistic, head wind that cart crashed me into saturated levels of absolute, joyous fun; ridiculously unserious and carefree.
The uncomplicated days weakened, adulthood beckoned. It's harbingers scavenged my dreamscapes; my playscapes and diluted the recklessness of my youth. Seriousness crept in under the front door and stalked my unfettered freedom to roam through long, outstretched days.
I now stand heron still, as clear, cold river water pushes hard against my waded legs undermining my tenuous grip on slippery pebbles. I watch my orange tipped quill glide with the rushing flow. "I" dare to outwit millions of years of evolution with my modern toys. It's an exercise in patience. I close my eyes and feel the unbroken neurone thread from childhood hum and pulse through me as I delightfully sink under the weight of nature's forces; my yoke of adult poundage lightened.
Sea Play at 9
Heat injured grass crackled yellow spikes into my bare feet. I leapt from their taunt into mallee shaded patches of cold sand. Sea breeze dried the sweat from my face faster than I could run through the next stretch of burning sand, drop my towel and finally launch like a missile into the salty waves of froth.
In my frenzy of wave jumping I suddenly lost something. My new gold bangle, the gift I’d waited all year for. My very own. Gone. Swallowed by the enormous sea of crushing rhythm that cared nothing for my golden circle of all I wanted for Christmas. Salty spray mixed with tears as I was rolled and battered by the relentless pounding of insensitive water, no longer playing fair. I stretched my feet to the sand below but currents lifted me then dropped me, pulsating ridicule at my hope, like a cat with a mouse. Now that it was gone, my treasured gift meant so much more.
The sea turned dark and unfriendly, a sinister fun thief. A taunting bully mocking my sadness.
Again, I forced my feet to the ocean floor and felt a shell beneath my toes, no, not a shell, a stone, no, not a stone. I took a massive 9 year olds breath and scrambled below the surface with stinging eyes to feel beneath my foot. Incredible joy filled me. I had it back. I had the golden bangle in my hand. Relief, then excitement filled me more than when I was first given it. I ran from the waves and snuggled in my warm towel.
I am 9,7,12 and in-between. I am heading to our beach most probably on a bike and unlikely to be without friends. A rote route of up hill, over railway, past dandelion borders and council house turf, right past the ghosted youth club, across the car park that rarely sees a car, then skirt the swings. We have arrived at Green Lane Park, an uninspiring expanse of grass, daisies and the bald earth of last season’s football pitch, all flanked by ferociously unforgiving nettles. A concrete path pours a harsh line across the park, the only interruption, a bridge over the brook part of Cole. The brook is largely ignored, partly because it is estranged from the path, and it flows a metre and a half below park level. Back then it was lined with the long grass the mowers didn’t turn to, and now the satellite shows me clumps of shrubs hussling to meet, forming an umbrella over the water. From above, the brook, let alone our beach, is truly hidden. We scramble down its sandy bank in a familiar place where the water is skinny and in return for our attention it offers us a sand and stone seat. We dispose of shoes and socks to wade light in its trickles. We are largely hidden in its cleft and content in the long hours of our afternoon. Our young hearts embraced the land as our partner in play, with our backs to the municipal offerings of fun, the swings, skate park, football pitch. Instinctively we moved to the edges, to inhabit the hidden spaces that the suburban wildness afforded us. I hope there are others now making wonder with the Cole as I continue to seek unadulterated spaces elsewhere.
(This was the third part of something I wrote a while back, the first part was about the women in my family, the second me as a mother. This is where play re-enters my life.)
Isostatic rebound – the rise of land masses that were depressed by the huge weight of ice sheets during the last ice age
I will go feral, slog off the domestication and responsibility that I willingly surrendered to when I entered motherhood, spend days in the woods, less constricted from others as well as my own tightly cocooned constraints. I re-wild my mind, learn to lean into the sun and let go in the wind, to bite when necessary, to sink into creek beds and to wallow in dirt like a buffalo, assured that where I wallow the deepest will become a vernal pool. No technology beyond a wooden clothespin, I will read stones and practice erosion, I will huff and stomp like a deer and run when life closes in. I will map wildflowers and sing to stars, read spots on fawns like the gypsy reads tarot cards, and be tossed like a willow in wind. I will uncurl, loosen like a fern, arch my back, further, further, opening up to the sky, I will receive. I will wrap myself in moss. I will be the pig digging and rooting through layers of soil to find what I want and devour it whole. I will be the cow that refuses to be prodded back into the barn, the cow who will face the elements and eat all the grass, trusting that it will regenerate. I will relax in the pasture, conversing with birds as they pick bugs out of my hair and absorb the day and the sunshine and the shade and the gray storm clouds and the rain, all of it.
I won’t be the squirrel who buries the nut and hopes something will be there when she returns.
I will rebound.
There was a slight downward slope in our side alley between our house and Mrs White's next door. In ran the whole length of the house from front to back culminating in a wee square courtyard with three dangerous steps to the garden. No softened asphalt here, just granite-like concrete.
The trick, as I pedalled furiously to build up speed, was, legs akimbo, to skid to a halt just before being catapulted into oblivion.
Or there was the washing line. A budding gymnast, hanging upside down with legs hooked over the strong white plastic, I could pick up some momentum to swing back and forward alternating between the sky and earth. How was I to know it would not hold my meagre weight.
Where did that bold, risk-taking adventurer go. I hope I'll find her again in my pen.
On it Like a Car Bonnet
The track down to our cottage, high in the North Pennines, was steep and had filled in, to the tops of the dry-stone walls with snow. I pulled on my wellies, which were covered with an old woollen sock, to give traction on the ice, heaved a rucksack full of books to mark on my back, and headed down the narrow cresta run Tim had dug through the snow. It had been a hard day’s teaching, and all I longed for was a warm fire, some food, and to cuddle my own kids who had been fast asleep when I left in the dark that morning.
I could hear them as I got near the bottom, excited voices, squealing around a chunk of metal on the ground. They were in the field that sloped down towards the river. Tim had taken the car bonnet from the abandoned Fiesta and all three kids were sat on it.
‘What on earth are you doing?’ I asked.
‘Mummy!!’ three voices shouted in unison.
‘Climb aboard,’ Tim said.
I left my bag there on the track, climbed over the wooden fence and joined them. We sped down the hillside, the middle one shouting ‘hasta la vista, baby!’, taking flight as we cleared a ramp the eldest had built from snow.
Who knew that a Fiesta car bonnet made the perfect sledge for a family of five?
I just love the connection between those gorgeous games you devised from your bed, and the revelation of your inability to play. I know that. How I loved watching your little ones facing around after that light, or fixing their rusty mum through your words!
Thank you so much for your encouragement. That terrified me.