I’m grateful that Igor has taken on the role of chief navigator for our trip. He has perhaps noticed my tendency to look carefully at the google maps route and then, unwittingly, but with gusto and confidence, walk off in the opposite direction. It means that I have barely noticed where we are going this morning, as we zig-zag towards our workshop space, I don't even know the name of the building or the address. I am relaxed, gazing up at the blue sky, skipping along every so often to meet Igor’s giant stride. We meet Evgeniia Arakielian, who had organised this workshop for displaced children and their parents, and head into the basement of an office block. The walls are colourful, the floor scattered with bright bean bags. The room doubles as a bomb shelter and (for the next few hours) our workshop space. When I imagined shelters before coming here, they weren’t like this. I imagined lots of fortified concrete. This is basically my old office. I am at ease.
We start to limber up, check-in with one another about the space, our plan. Evgeniia goes up the entrance to welcome participants. Her phone starts to flash and says something on speaker mode. The something is in Ukrainian and repetitive and urgent sounding. Evgeniia comes back down the stairs and says, ‘Siren’. Her tone is one of resignation rather than alarm. She looks at her phone - an app tells her where and how severe the risk is. We seem to be in an area of the map that is currently flashing RED. Red is never good when it comes to warning systems. I say, ‘Belarus?’ she looks at me and shrugs, ‘yes?’. The space beneath my ribs is suddenly ice cold and hollow. My fingertips tingle. A hideous rapid fire slide-show flashes through my mind, each image more catastrophic than the last. Darn my vivid imagination! I can feel the pulse in my neck, my mouth is dry. I look at Evgeniia - she seems nonplussed, if a little annoyed that it means people might not come to the session. Okay. At least we are in a bomb shelter, I guess. I follow her lead - I breathe and get on with it.
After some confusion, where I tried to recruit some, in retrospect, very adult looking Red Cross aid workers into our workshop for children (Don’t make assumptions about people’s age! Do ask people why they are there!), some actual children and their parents arrived, despite the siren.
We knew from Evgeniia that our participants were principally experiencing a loss of sense of self and identity since being displaced from their homes. That a lot of them were sad that they had to leave pets behind. We had tailored a workshop to fit these themes, that left enough space to incorporate whatever arose in the moment.
The young people were a mix of energies and ages, from a young boy who didn’t stop moving for the whole session, to a teenage girl who was so introverted, shoulders hunched, head down, hands clasped in front of her body that she barely moved at all. I was touched seeing the parents standing in the circle with us and imagined that they might be feeling as nervous as their children as we introduced the session. When was the last time they had played like this?
We were on a quest to find a magical portal that would give us whatever treasure we most needed to help us feel free and strong and happy. There were many challenges on the way - a magic mirror, a desert filled with cats, a huge abyss, a Tiger Forest..all animated and embodied by the group. We found playful and imaginative solutions to each problem together, making sure each idea was heard and incorporated - How to pass through the magic mirror? Find your twin and go together! How to cross the desert? Become a giant elephant! Each person plays a different body part! How to cross the abyss? Blow up imaginary giant balloons and float! How to cross the Tiger Forest? Learn how to hunt tigers!
I am interested to see how the young, introverted girl is handling this so I keep my eye on her. There are plenty of places and opportunities for her to sit out if she needs to, but she doesn’t. She stays alongside the whole time, watching, hands clasped. During the Tiger Hunt, I see her flinch at the sound of us making a drum roll on our knees. Then when a toy car accidentally hits Igor’s foot and he leaps off the ground like a cat, she giggles and looks at me and we both giggle together. Her shoulders drop about 3 inches. The next time we drum roll, she joins in, smiling.
When we reach the portal, made by our own hands, and we are finally ready to reach in and take what we need, what we’ve found on our journey together, I am trepidatious. This is a bold invitation and I worry for a moment that the game won't be accepted, that the portal will be left impotent and unused. But a moment later, a dad reaches in, ‘I take out love for my son’ he says as his son gazes up at him. Now his son reaches in, ‘a cat!’, someone else, ‘a sense of security’, ‘Friendship’, ‘cat food!’ the boy dips in again. There is a pause. The young girl who could barely move looks at me - she knows it is her turn, but she seems afraid. ‘Put your hand in’ Igor says simply, and she does, ‘a cat!’ she says, smiling, the first and only words she utters all morning. And so the portal has delivered love and security and friendship and cats and food enough to feed them.
It’s only when I get home to the UK that I read how many pets have been left in shelters and that these shelters have very scarce and dwindling food supplies. My heart breaks a little that these children might be aware of this.
A mum says at the end with tears of joy in her eyes, ‘I haven’t felt this way in years!...it was just the best, the best, the best…!’ and I find myself awestruck by this woman speaking of happiness and joy while we are all standing in a bomb shelter surrounded by children during a Red Alert siren. It’s a timely reminder;
‘Of all animal species, humans are the biggest players of all. We are built to play and built through play. When we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality. Is it any wonder that often the times we feel most alive, those that make up our best memories, are moments of play?...But when play is denied over the long term, our mood darkens. We lose our sense of optimism and we become anhedonic, or incapable of feeling sustained pleasure”
Stuart Brown, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul
We give each participant a red nose to take with them - a reminder of what they found here together, and that they can keep it with them, always. The shy girl put hers on, briefly makes eye contact and smiles.
Soon the shelter is empty again, echoing with images of a father playing at hunting tigers with his son, a mother being the trunk of an elephant, a teenage girl trying to convince a mirror that she is twins with an adult woman. Echoing with the sound of jungle birds, desert cats, tiger roars and laughter.
We step out onto the street, into the sunshine and I notice how the workshop worked on me too - from the moment we started until this moment, I had forgotten about the war, the siren, the RED threat, and I felt like myself again. A very hungry version of myself. It was time to find Pizza before our afternoon in the IDP centre.
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I am a therapeutic clown and performer. Writing here is part of my wider practice and maybe some of my thoughts will trigger some thoughts of your own and I hope that helps.