A slow and internal reframing

I held strong opinions on ADHD long before I knew much about it.  When I first got into playwork, freshly impassioned by children’s rights, it seemed a horrifyingly easy way to medicate children into little boxes of conformity and obedience.  I thought of canaries in coal mines, how some suffer first under conditions that hurt everyone.  Everything I read talked about over-diagnosis, about all those boys who simply couldn’t sit still.

It was only at Parish that I met children struggling so heroically with their differences, that I saw how useful terminology might be.  But more than once, colleagues would point to a specific behavior as “so ADD” and I said some version of “but we all do that, don’t we?” then looked out over their surprised faces.  No, came the reply.  Not everyone does.

So, I started reading other stories – about how girls in particular can be under-diagnosed, how intense social training can twist ADHD into depression or anxiety.  The quizzes included questions both specific and diverse.  Feeling alarmed in busy shops?  Never quite making it to the post office, despite a thousand good intentions?  Scattered organizational systems, cycles of procrastination and panic before bursts of intense focus…  All of it, extremely familiar.

Huh, I thought, filing that away.

Then at a conference, a woman I respect enormously mentioned she’d recently been diagnosed with ADD and experienced a sense of relief.  She said that name allowed her to stop calling herself lazy or careless or stupid for the things she couldn’t change, for the difficulties she’d kept secret.

“I’ve been…  wondering about that myself,” I said.  She nodded.

“Welcome,” she said, and punched me on the arm.  I grinned.  The more I looked around the more brilliant, beautiful, fascinating women I met with stories similar to mine.  Most of all, there is satisfaction in reading a list of traits that includes both aspects of myself I love, and those I have spent hopeless years trying to eradicate.  Thinking of them as flip sides of the same coin allows me to be more generous with myself, more gentle.

Labels are always imperfect, shifting as our understanding and interpretation of differences change.  Like all tools, labels can be used to connect, empower or oppress.  But for now, thinking about this label in reference to myself doesn’t feel medicalization, it feels like the start of acceptance.

On baking as play

Suzanna reminds me to play, because I forget all the time. I might be short-tempered or vague when we’re talking or start to go weird in some other way, and Suzanna will ask if I’ve been outside lately. She’ll ask what I’m doing for fun and perhaps show some of the crafts, postcards, photography and doodles that she’s been working on. And for several years, she’s patiently encouraged me to start baking again.

When I was small, I loved to bake. The reasons all came back when I carefully leveled cups of soft flour and poured tiny scoops of fragrance. I don’t know why I resisted for so long, other than all the usual reasons why we resist what is good for us. It was fun, to look through recipes again and daydream flavor combinations for scones, quiche, cornbread. I cut cold butter into mountains of flour, and creamed it against bright sugar crystals. Everything is full-fat, sweet and crumbly. Over a few weeks, I got good at baking again, and had the joy of bringing my mother food she was actually excited about eating. It reminded me how cake is more powerful than we give it credit for.

If cake was the point though, we’d go out and buy one. Making something more difficult than it needs to be for the fun of it is a pretty decent definition of play. Baking develops skills of foresight and improvisation, and offers the drama of a sponge’s rise and fall. Like all play, baking allows people to experience large emotions in a small way – joy, disappointment, risk and triumph. And when I take a strawberry pound cake, sunken in the middle, over to a friend’s house I can watch her taste it and know it came out good.

I’ve been lucky to have Suzanna as one of the voices in my head, calm and compassionate. She reminds me to be gentle, and apply some of the warmth and non-judgment from playwork to my own self. I’m so grateful for that, and specifically for her nudges to play more. When it comes to baking, the risks are low, in time and effort and cost, but the rewards can be marvelous. In short, it’s a great choice for the chronically play deprived – such as myself, and maybe also you?

On playwork and radical humility

I spend a lot of time explaining that playwork is ‘a real thing’.  “You can get a degree in it and everything!” I say, and that’s true.  But most of my official playwork training happened in pubs.  There were reflective practice sessions that swerved beer-wards between the ranging site and tube station.  There were long evenings after conferences, when I looked around and wondered which person mentioned in my bibliography might get thrown out of Wetherspoon’s first.  All that passionate debate and story-telling was great for rewarding my early interest, but terrible for providing citations.

Someone said to me once that ‘playwork is an exercise in radical humility’, and I have absolutely no idea who it was.  That’s a shame, because it’s a phrase I’ve held onto ever since and found enormously useful.

The funny thing is, when I asked around on Facebook no one else seemed to know who said it either.  There was some discussion over what it might mean, while others felt (like with so much of playwork) that it named a phenomenon they already knew.  Many felt the concept of ‘radical humility’ was a little self-helpy.  Wayne Dyer, who is generally credited with the phrase, urged us all to:

“Practice radical humility. Take no credit for your talents, intellectual abilities, aptitudes, or proficiencies. Be in a state of awe and bewilderment.”

That sounds like a cousin of negative capability to me.  But when I connect the terms ‘radical humility’ and playwork, I think of a girl who came to sessions at the first play ranging site I worked on.  She was all elbows and fury, an absolute human tornado who wanted only to wrestle with us every single day.  One time I let her pin me and her face rose over mine, blocking out the sunlight and looking triumphant.  She leaned town close to me and said ‘huh.  I never noticed, but you’ve got spots and well as wrinkles.”  Then she straightened up.  “No wonder you’re still not married,” she said.

I was stunned but also deeply impressed.  What a compact and thorough take-down!  Her victory of me complete, she grinned and strode off.

The actual doing of playwork, the lifting and cleaning and watching and wrestling and reflecting, all of this can certainly inspire humility.  We choose to face our fears, attend deliberately to our discomforts.  In the process we may learn unexpected truths about ourselves.  That may feel rewarding, but is never the point.  In playwork, we are never the point.  Instead, our goal is to be available if wanted, to work invisibly if we can and to respond with as much presence and levity as we can muster. Supporting children’s play reminds us daily to take our work seriously but ourselves not seriously at all.

More than anything, it is in the constant pursuit of a more generous heart that playwork can turn spiritual practice.  Sometimes it feels brutal, on those days when this work sinks a crowbar into our chest and levers it right open.  It is certainly exercise, because we go through this cycle again and again.  Each time we put ourselves in the service of children’s play, we are reminded that we are no more or less than a fragment of something wild and miraculous.