MARCH ISSUE: On Play

Tanya Shadrick as a child, with her mother
Tanya Shadrick as a child, with her mother

Welcome to the first issue in Season Two of The Cure for Sleep: Stories From (& Beyond) the Book. This month’s theme concerns play: how we might (re)claim our creativity.

Readers were invited to respond as follows: When did you last play? Describe a favourite childhood game – solitary or shared. What made it so potent?

Any stories received on this theme will be curated below. Click on each name to go direct to that reader’s contribution.

Tamsin Grainger

March extract

At this new distance from my girl and boy, I understood of a sudden what was missing in my own development: children who are safe know exactly what they need, and are unafraid to ask for it. Again and again. Their desires are not always being sandbagged or buried or rationed. What might be obvious to others had for me, there and then, the force of revelation. I came back off the hillside at the end of that week with it ringing inside me, as if I were a bell being sounded.

How would it be to give to myself, for even a short while, such kindness? To spend time learning or recovering what I loved, what I yearned for? To ask for exactly what I needed, as my children were able to do? I’d been so concerned in my first life on becoming safe and secure, and intent since the birth and its aftermath on giving care – to the children, other mothers, hospice patients.

Could I do it? Learn how to play, and not for others’ sakes, but my own?

[Full extract on Substack]

THE CURE FOR SLEEP

Reader responses

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.

tamsin grainger

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 made a ‘Bogey’ that 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 past red, glowering-faced adults ready to guillotine my youth and 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 headwind that cart-crashed me into saturated levels of absolute, joyous fun; ridiculously unserious and carefree.

Then the uncomplicated days weakened. Adulthood beckoned.

Its harbingers scavenged my dreamscapes and play places, diluting the recklessness of my youth. Seriousness crept in under the front door and stalked my unfettered freedom to roam through long, outstretched days.

Now I 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 sink delightfully under the weight of nature’s forces; my yoke of adult poundage lightened.

Steve harrison

Oh the shame of it!

When I recall it, 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 favourite, 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 this, but a 1970s housing estate, where the gleeful eyes of the neighbourhood 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…


Helen Callear

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, 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. 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 like-minded children in adult bodies, who can clap with delight.

Fionnuala O’shea

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

Making Rustic

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 grey 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 grey 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.

Amy millios

‘Play!’ she said. Instructing my two-year old son.

But play cannot be instructed.

Play is a felt thing. A thing that starts with safety, creativity and allows for risk – and takes you by the hand, becomes visceral, brings pleasure. It has no particular end.

As a mother, play became a word for something I lacked. Written out by a child mental health practitioner who noted: ‘Mother needs help with play’.

In my attempts to feel competent in a world in which I had lost my bearings, I had become so focused on ticking off all the motherhood tasks that I allowed myself no time for play. Too much to do. And I came to believe in my deficiency.

The games I remember as a child were the ones that were shared, freeing and energetic. Outside. Ten-year-old me and my brother – and our neighbours – out still at dusk calling ‘forty-forty home’ until reluctantly called in to bed. And, too, a different kind of play – the absorption of making. I still make because I have the feeling of being closest to myself then. Most at ease.

Where to meet my children in play then?

I learnt to trust in delight. To follow an impulse to go to the park on a summer evening, staying out late because everyone is content. To get lost on a walk. To share with them the hours I have spent wondering how it would be if I had to live on a land the size of the sofa, or if the world was turned upside down and living happened on the empty ceiling.

Play is place where inhibitions leave. A place where connection to yourself and others comes through attention. Never give that up. Never believe that you don’t know how to play.

Genevieve Dutton

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.

Tracey Kennedy

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.

MARGARET O’BRIEN

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.

MIRANDA R WatERTON
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