Learning to Fly: “Fun,” Rhythm, Child’s Play

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By: Ruth Cohn, MFT (originally posted: https://ruthcohnmft.com/on-my-mind/learning-to-fly/)

I remember when I was quite young, our mom’s stern voice and annoyed expression, saying, “You are always walking around this house with a long face. You need to have more fun!” As far as she was concerned, I had no reason to be anything but cheery and bushy-tailed. Although I subsequently had plenty of overt trauma, the “nonexistent” wound of neglect was what the wilderness outerwear people would call my “base layer.” So, I figured she was probably right. I had no right or reason to feel bad. Thinking on it now, I am struck that there was no curiosity, interest, or concern about a sad child. Rather I was left to conclude I was entitled, ungrateful, or simply “bad.”

She, of course, was no icon of levity. And she had good reason to have perennially sad eyes and a stern, critical, and generally anxious demeanor. She had a dark and scary history that I knew only so much about and a cold, Northern German intellectual mother who left her mostly in the care of nannies until Hitler blew the whole thing apart. 

I also remember both of my parents having a rather contemptuous attitude toward American-style “fun.” I don’t remember details, but things like amusement parks, cartoons, comic books, and spectator sports, although it was perhaps not explicitly stated, were petty, commercial and “below us.” I could feel that attitude, and what was most evident was that our family never partook in them. So, to be honest, I had no idea what “fun” meant, and I believe the whole repetitive litany made me pretty angry if I had known how to recognize that emotion. What I was most aware of was feeling guilty, ungrateful, and clueless. 

However, I had another algorithm working also, certainly outside my awareness. Because I explained my “unimportance and invisibility” as being because I was a blight on the planet, I developed a calculous of a handful of worthy endeavors, purposeful activities, that were worthy of time and energy, to “justify my existence.” Oddly I remember that little term as going way back, fairly big words for a young girl to come up with. I needed to earn my keep, to somehow rightfully claim the patch of earth I occupied. Oy vey, a seemingly Sisyphean undertaking.

The acceptable activities in my protocol menu were: 

  • Work – which later came to mean work that earned income.
  • Service – helping Mom, which would actually be a service to all of us as it made her a little calmer; and later service to the world, preferably of a self-sacrificing nature.
  • Study or learning – a hallmark of our cultural heritage and identity. 

Later, when I was ruled by anorexia, exercise featured on this list too. 

Clearly, there was no category and certainly no available time for pleasure. And I was busy, certainly lacking awareness and discipline of my facial expression. So, fun? Play? Who the hell knew what that was? Well, the American kids seemed to know.

Rhythm

Ours, however, was a musical household. Our dad, once he had secured a college and post-graduate education without having gone to high school, became a cantor, and he had always loved music. When we were kids, he sang in cocktail lounges and actually knew the show tunes and Louis Armstrong classics. Later he found his place with our mother in the more erudite world of classical music, and I remember having to attend his performances at the Stanford opera workshop, where he sang while prancing around on stage in tights. Not my idea of fun.

I started piano lessons when I was pretty young. Once back in California, I took lessons with Mrs. Rothschild (not her real name), who was unmistakably American. It was her husband who had the European-sounding name. She was tall and elegant, had long slender fingers with painted nails; she smoked Virginia Slims and always had an odor I somehow found intoxicating, of cigarettes and Jergen’s lotion. I loved her. She confided in me about her ongoing torrid affair with a famous jazz musician, which made me feel special and important. God only knows why she was telling these secrets to a nine-year-old student.  

Although I learned the usual piano classics, she also let me play boogie woogie, which I really loved, and I discovered my love of rhythm. As I learn more and more now about regulation, resonance, and attunement, I realize how profound and desolate the neglect experience is, of lacking a rhythmic exchange with a beloved other. I didn’t have it, nor did my parents before them — the bereft loneliness of the proverbial one hand clapping.

But rhythmic music spoke to me. I did not dance, but I did rock out, blasting the Rolling Stones while scrubbing the floors, and as quiet and meek as I appeared on the outside, I had this wild response to rough, boisterous music. Keith Richard, with all his foibles, remains on my shortlist to this day. 

Although I don’t play music myself anymore, there is always a song in my head. And I think of music, and Mrs. Rothschild, as life rafts in a roiling ocean of trauma and neglect. I am sure Mrs. Rothschild has long passed, but I still occasionally listen to YouTube videos of her illicit lover’s biggest hits. 

Rhythms, resonance, frequency, arousal, attachment: all fundamentals of what we are learning about trauma and neglect, healing, and about life really. The missing experiences of pulsing in time with another go back to our earliest time in utero, with the soundtrack of our mother’s heartbeat and breath. For so many, it is a rude awakening to emerge into echoing silence, stillness, desolation, or violence.

When I first learned EMDR in 1998, admittedly, I loved being able to move in my otherwise sedentary work as a psychotherapist. I never got one of those fancy electric lightbars that some clinicians used. And I am sure the rhythmic bilateral stimulation had a vicarious positive effect on me.

Play

Play, by definition, has no other purpose but pleasure and fun. Often it involves movement, but not necessarily. Its function is recreational, period, the end. What a concept, and astronomically distant from the lexicon and language of my little world, my “one-person-psychology,” as I like to call it. It is no wonder that I responded so magnetically and copiously to alcohol when I discovered it at 13. It worked, at least momentarily, to release me from the mandate of purposefulness. It freed me from the self-imprisonment of my own little culture of compulsivity and “productivity.” That and endurance cycling were my best escapes into or out of my body, and into at least aspired regulation. But both were, in their own ways, costly.  

What if I had learned, as a young child, to relax into play? Perhaps first a simple peekaboo type interaction with a present and loving other, then more games that might involve someone having time to spend with me? I hope this does not sound self-pitying! I am infinitely grateful that I discovered the rhythmic round and round of the bicycle, even though it sometimes became a feat of endurance, accomplishment, or pain. 

I envied the girls who had ballet or modern dance classes. I wonder what that would have been like. So be it. That is part of how I have come to really comprehend the immeasurable value of rhythm and play, not only for healing but for development and joy. I am delighted that this is becoming increasingly understood and incorporated into healing paradigms for trauma and neglect, and even better, working with kids when they are young enough to enjoy more years of regulation and fun!

I am delighted to know about the Trauma Research Foundation’s program around play and its immeasurable and life-changing value for children and adults navigating trauma and neglect, past and present. In October, they will be presenting the Play Based Healing Summit. Information is available through their website

Meanwhile, I must add that my life has changed dramatically in this regard. My face is rarely “long” anymore, Mom. And even if it is deliciously purposeful, I must admit that cheesemaking is a ton of fun! 

Photo by Caleb George on Unsplash

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