Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dibs in Search of Self

Dibs in Search of Self: Personality Development in Play Therapy

A year or two back, one of my daughters was obsessed with playing 'grandma'. Both of her grandmothers had died before she was born, and she was acutely aware of the deficit in her life. So day after day, for months on end, she'd announce me that I was grandma and ask me to tie a scarf on my head; then she'd provide the script: 'Now you say, 'hello darling, would you like some cake?'', and I'd dutifully parrot the words, holding a plate, while she worked out her next move. That play was incredibly important as she processed a grief she couldn't otherwise articulate, and I thought of it recently as I re-acquainted myself with Dibs.

I first read the story of Dibs while I was in high school, and he touched my heart. While he never quite left me, it's only this year that I found my own copy of the book. It was wonderful to re-read it now I'm an adult with her own young children.

Dibs was an almost wholly uncommunicative little boy. He did not play with other children in his pre-school; he would not communicate with his teachers or his parents except by way of tantrums. He refused to do anything for himself; he sat passively under tables or on the outskirts of the group, ignoring everything that went on; he did not speak. Some, including his parents, feared he was intellectually impaired; others suspected he was intellectual capable, but stuck in an emotional quagmire.

So Dibs was sent to play therapy. The book is the non-fiction account of his time there, drawn directly from transcripts and the observations of his play therapist, Virginia Axline. Dibs visited the play room weekly, and at each visit teased out a little more of emotions which suffocated him. As he became relaxed in the room, his imaginary world unfolded: he buried a father doll, locked up the mother and sister doll, and developed a great imaginary city in which he acted out his experiences, worked out how he felt about them, and developed his sense of self.

While Dibs worked, the therapist sat with him quietly reflecting back to Dibs his comments in a non-committal way. This makes the book a little stilted at times: 'I did it!' said Dibs. 'You did it,' remarked the therapist. It looks rather idiotic when transcribed; and yet it is clearly liberating and affirming for the young boy to have his comments and actions noticed but not judged.

The book suffers a little from over-explanation. When Dibs buries the father doll, it is pretty clear what is going on; we really don't need the symbolism explained. But this stylistic quibble aside, it's a tremendously moving experience to travel with Dibs as he slowly names his grief and rage; decides who he is and what he can do; and finds ways to transcend and even transform the family structures that have led to his emotional asphyxiation.

As a teenager, I found Dibs captivating. In the safety of the playroom, he revealed himself to be a very capable, articulate and resourceful boy; I only wished I could understand myself so well! Now I'm a parent, I'm still captivated; but I also found the book enlightening as I think about how I parent. While I'm not my children's therapist, the book makes it clear that there are modes of interaction that are more or less helpful in a child's self-development.

For one thing, it was good to realise that the simple reflection of a child's comment is often enough. I have noticed that many of my daughters' statements seek no further questioning or clarification from me; a comment such as 'I did it!' only needs me to reflect back, 'you did it yourself, huh?' for my child to nod with a satisfied smile, and move on to something else. Nothing more is required; in fact, further commentary is often brushed off as intrusive or unnecessary. But sometimes I feel a little silly merely reflecting back what my child says; it is helpful to see how empowering it was for Dibs, and to realise that my instinct to reflect here is good.

For another, the story affirms the time young children spend in free play – a rarity in this over-structured era. What may look like mucking about or daydreaming to us is actually their work. Watching Dibs use play to understand and forgive his family and work out his role within it helps me notice how much my own children inhabit a rich imaginative world in which they go about much serious work every day. It also makes clear just how imperative this play is for a child to develop a means to understand the world around them and develop a strong sense of self within that world. Kids need simple toys (sand, boxes, blocks, dolls, cars, trees, tea sets: things that reflect, or can be made to reflect, the world they inhabit), as well as opportunities to use paint, play with water and make a mess, in order to do their work. The simpler these toys are, the more their imaginations can use them. As parents, we have a responsibility to enable that work by providing the tools and, just as important, the time and space for it to happen.

Given the opportunity simply to be: that is, given the chance to work out what they want to do and how they want to go about it, then, like Dibs, our children will develop a profound sense of self, and find surprising solutions to the difficulties they are presented with.

Such a child is an absolute delight to be around. Even more, such a child becomes a powerful agent in the world: as we see in Dibs, and as I have observed in my own household, they can challenge adult behaviours and revolutionise family, even community, dynamics. And while living with an empowered child may be somewhat uncomfortable at times, overall I have found that providing the space for a child to become deeply grounded, and sharing my life with such a child, is one of the great privileges of parenthood.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Oliver’s Travels

Oliver's Travels

Question: What does a lover of books and word games do when she's stuck on the crossword and too tired to read? Answer: Watch an episode of Oliver's Travels , available on DVD.

After being made redundant from his job as a university lecturer, Oliver, a man obsessed by trivia, jokes and the mighty anagram, and a two-time question setter for Mastermind, decides to go on a journey to meet his favourite cryptic crossword compiler, Aristotle, with whom he has corresponded for years.

Soon after setting out, he encounters an intelligent and feisty policewoman, WPC Diane Priest. She does him a favour, and in return he offers to solve any outstanding local mysteries. She suggests that of the farmer found floating face down in the river. Oliver, a great lateral thinker, comes up with a plausible if outrageous explanation, and he and Diane stumble into a web of murder and corruption, aided by the clues they find planted in newspaper crossword puzzles.

As their joint quests – solving the mystery and finding Aristotle – take them north, they pass through a stunning landscape and meet a host of fascinating characters: an insecure and officious university chancellor and his 'wife Norma' (anagram: Fire Woman); an oracular maintenance man; a tramp who claims to remember the Restoration dramatist, George Farquhar, 'in his little coracle'; the jazz-loving 13th Baron ('Dizzy blew in here!') Kite and his insignificant other, Sara ('but I'm his bimbo, really'); a stonemason who fondly remembers Jimmy James, Hutton Conyers and Bretton Woods; a knock kneed pigeon toed geologist; an elfin computer hacker; a motel owner who talks with his ghosts; and, of course, the sinister Mr Baxter who follows them wherever they go.

Like all good journeys, the joy is in the travel: the people they meet, the stories they share, the jokes they tell. Oliver's favourite joke is about frogs; his second favourite, about the horse that liked to sit on eggs; and his third, about a man walking in the forest, naked except for a bowler hat. He tells the latter when posing as a lay preacher to a small evangelical Scottish sect.

Absolutely incorrigible and utterly defensive, Oliver uses his quick wit to keep people away. Diane, his chosen and predestined companion (thanks to an anagram of 'Diane not Priest'), sneaks in through the chinks to become an energetic, passionate and grounding counterpart.

For all the jokes, overt and otherwise, the series is bittersweet. It is tinged with the sadness that often accompanies middle age. Oliver and Diane are both affected by marriage breakdown; minor characters have experienced grief, failure, and other losses. While the characters reflect on religion, class and inheritance, the series as a whole is about paying homage: to the past, to one's family, to one's gods (in Oliver's case, Beethoven, Lester Young, George Farquhar and Aristotle), and to each other.

This is television by, for and about intelligent, mature, good-humoured people. Like a good joke, it can be relished again and again. This particular intelligent, mature, good-humoured person likes to watch it late in the evening with a cup of tea, and the thought of some Chocolate Digestives.

(Oliver's Travels was written by Alan Plater. It features Alan Bates as Oliver, Sinéad Cusack as Diane, Bill Paterson as Mr Baxter, and a host of wonderful supporting actors too numerous to mention.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dead Man’s Chest

Dead Man's Chest: A Phryne Fisher Mystery

The kids are asleep, and my husband's out at a work function. In the supreme effort of getting three tired kids, two who have been sick, into bed on time by myself for the second night in a row I skipped the enforced clean up, and now dozens of tiny slips of cut up paper litter the back room rug; the lounge room floor is dotted with pieces of a marble run, a dolly pram and a heap of blocks. Books are stacked in a teetering pile next to the Big Green Chair, and the kitchen table – my writing desk – has a jungle jigsaw and a kid's code book at the other end. As for the mysterious fever which affected my daughters last night and today, well, it broke; but now I ain't feeling too hot. So I'm sitting here in trackie dacks and singlet, mysterious viral aches in my elbows and backbone, fingers pruny from the washing up: not exactly the height of glamour.

It could be depressing. Actually, it is a little depressing. Fortunately, there are means of escape. Tonight I am playing old jazz, sipping a glass of port and reflecting on Kerry Greenwood's most recent offering, Dead Man's Chest. It's the latest in a series of novels set in the roaring twenties in and around Melbourne. Her heroine is the racy Phryne (rhymes with shiny) Fisher: ferociously intelligent, terribly glamorous, deliciously sensual, fabulously wealthy, and drop dead gorgeous.

Phryne is a Lady Detective with a pearl handled gun and a penchant for danger. This time, the story begins as Phryne, her maid Dot and her adoptive daughters Jane and Ruth decamp to the seaside town of Queenscliff for a holiday. They arrive at their accommodation to find the housekeepers missing and the house mysteriously empty. Meanwhile a pigtail snipper is terrorizing the young women of the town; a fisher boy needs a household and a purpose; and three spoiled toffs must be sorted out. Phryne gets to the heart of everything, unravelling mystery upon mystery, with her usual aplomb.

The book is packed with interesting characters: Irish fisherfolk, surrealists, nasty crooks, a film crew and a delightfully awful genteel neighbour, Mrs Mason. Phryne observes all with her insouciant eye.

As we can expect from Greenwood, Dead Man's Chest is a deliciously light confection, packed with loyal servants, good cooking, designer dresses, dangerous episodes, terrific metaphors and even, this time, buried treasure. It's escape, pure and simple... hallelujah!

You can read more about the Phryne Fisher novels here.

Cocaine Blues