THOUGHTS ON THE ACT OF CREATION
By Judith Sarah Schmidt, Ph.D.
I first saw Irena on a video tape brought back from a Romanian orphanage by her prospective adoptive mother. She showed me the tape because of her concerns about the developmental intactness of this seventeen month old girl. When I viewed the video, I understood her concerns about returning to Romania to complete the adoption process.
Irena, a wistfully beautiful blond haired child, appeared ghostlike, registering nothing across her blank sleeping-beauty like face. As the potential mother held Irena’s hands, moving her as if to dance and awaken her, Irena followed with the dead weight of a wraith.
Was this child autistic, retarded, suffering from an irreversible attachment depression? The answer was hinted at in the one moment in which Irena came into contact. Contact not with a person but with a wooden box whose cover lifted and lowered. The cover had cutouts of circles, squares, and rectangles into which blocks were to be inserted. Irena became enthralled with the box and used it in her own way, ignoring the geometric shapes. She lifted the cover, stuffed the blocks inside, lowered the cover to close the box, lifted the cover and peered into the box to see that the blocks were still there. Over and over she ‘played the game’. She was engrossed with her whole self and, I thought, could have continued to open and close that lid forever, losing and finding those blocks over and over again.
Still concerned, the mother returned to Romania. Once there, seeing Irena again, she knew that this was her daughter and she was the mother. Her concerns faded in the spark of connection and in the light of maternal love and preoccupation. And so she brought Irena to her new home in America.
The second time I saw Irena was two months later when mother and child visited my office. Irena, still without language, showed a new light of aliveness in her face. Recalling her play in the orphanage, on the carpet I placed a ball and a box of blocks. Irena pulled her mother’s hand toward the little rocker into which she was lifted. Mom sat beside her on the floor and I across from both of them.
Irena pointed with determination to the ball that was between us. Over and over again, her intently pointing finger let it be known that she must have the ball at this very moment. She would hold it tight to her body and then release it and let it roll to her mother and to me. Irena squirmed and pointed, almost unbearably awaiting its return. Over and over and over again, the rhythm of the ball to her mother, to me, back and forth.
Then, Irena stopped her play. Holding the ball she became totally stilled and quiet, inwardly absorbed. We all sat in this quiet for some time. Then, as if from out of nowhere, Irena suddenly propelled herself out of the rocker, tossed herself upon her mother, forcing her flat onto her back. At this very moment, astride mom, Irena squealed with glee, her face radiant as she looked into mom’s face and saw mirrored there the joy and crystal sound of her accomplishment.
As I sat and watched, I could feel the tears that come when hope and an act of creation are witnessed. For this moment, Irena had triumphed over the attachment depression and despair that had cast her into an abyss of silence. For this moment, her soul and her sound had returned to animate her.
How shall we understand the nature of Irena’s play?
Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, tells of the game his eighteen month old grandson played over and over again. Attached to a piece of string was a wooden spool which the child threw away from him, saying “o-o-o-o” and pulled it back saying “da-da-da”.
Freud called this game the ‘fort da’ game. Fort for ‘gone away’ and da for ‘there it is’.
Freud interpreted this game as one in which his grandson was attempting to have mastery over what he could not control, namely the comings and goings of his mother. Freud observed the boy’s attempt to transform passivity into empowerment. Given that Irena’s mother had died when she was eleven months old, all that Freud saw in his grandson’s play, can be see tenfold in Irena’s.
Is this very serious fort da game played only by children? I think not.
Consider the fort da of the bed time prayer: “I pray the Lord my soul to keep”.
And the Jewish morning prayer: “Thank you for returning my soul to my body”. Fort da
Consider the bulbs intentionally planted in fall, hidden in winter, to be returned come spring? Fort da.
Consider the game of the Afikomen played at the Passover sedar, when the matzah is broken and half of it is hidden and later found by the youngest at the table. And why the youngest? To express our hope that the young shall restore what is lost and broken. Fort da. =
What about the crucifixion at Easter. Christ dies and is brought back to life. Fort da.
What about replacing the world trade center with an even taller structure? Fort da.
What about the many wars of these times in order that lost glory and self esteem be returned? Fort da.
D.W.Winnicott takes our understanding of Irena’s play still further.
Winnicott, a British psychoanalyst and pediatrician, described what he called the ‘spatula game’. As a child sat upon its mother’s lap during examination, on the table was a container of spatulas or tongue depressors. Mother was asked by Winnicott not to interfere with the child’s movements. The baby, initially restless, in short order began to look around for something to want. Locating the spatula, the child looked from the mom to the doctor as if to check: is this something I want to take hold of? And then, Winnicott tells of how the child becomes very quiet, hesitant, and how out of that hesitation there arises the strength of his desire which propels him to reach for the spatula and play delightedly with it.
Winnicott tells us how these moments of subdued hesitation are crucial for desire to arise and lead to spontaneous, creative gestures. He warns us not to push desire, to allow for the other to find the doorway to his own desire.
These spaces between the lost and the found are critical to the formation of the capacity for hope and creative living in children and adults. These are the spaces into which we fall in reverie, in which we lose and find and gather ourselves, without need to act or react. These are the silent spaces in which we may begin to experience the deep pulsations of how and what our body knows beneath thought, where we open to be moved and guided by the life force. These are the spaces in which we find the faith to let things fall apart and come together in new ways.
These pulsations moving through us, as we surrender to the spaces- between, put us in touch with the hidden source of creation that moves within us and within the universe. This source is what I understand Winnicott to call the incommunicado self and what the Kabbalists call the Ein Sof, the hidden, never ending source of life.
The glee that I witnessed in Irena sprung out of her as a spontaneous soul gesture. That gesture and that sound could not have arisen without the resonant presence of mother. The quality of her loving attunement created the energetic field in which Irena was supported to come to herself. What shone out of her arose from within her hidden self, hidden even to her.
I think of other gestures of creation which have arisen out of the spaces between despair and new hope.
Consider the forty years in the desert journeyed by the Jewish people between enslavement and freedom.
Consider the empty space of the tomb of Christ between his crucifixion and his resurrection.
Consider shunyata, the empty space of the Buddhists, and the empty mirror in whose spaciousness one finds one’s original face.
Consider the country of South Africa where, from out of the painful spaces of the trials of Truth and Reconciliation, emerged the death of apartheid. Upon the site of the jail notorious for human rights violations, in which Mandela and others were imprisoned and tortured, has been created the home for South Africa’s Constitution. It is my thought that because the South African leadership was able to live in the spaces of agony, guilt and truth telling, they were able to create healing without bloodshed.
Consider the three women, known as the “Jersey women”, survivors of husbands lost in the World Trade Center bombings, who have spearheaded the 9-11 commission’s investigations. Out of the spaces of their grief has arisen a courage and dedication to their loved ones to create a search for truth and a voice of ‘never again’.
Consider the World Trade Center itself and the crater left by its destruction. That crater is a gaping space that calls us to stand in the personal and collective inner spaces of shared inexpressible grief. A rebuilt, taller tower looming over that broken hearted crater, casts a shadow of denial upon it, foreclosing the potential space for a healing ritual to arise.
Only out of breathing in a shared collective heart space can a portal open to a deeper spiritual reality out of which the sounds of new hope may be heard. So it is for the ever so serious play of little Irena. So it is for the ever so serious games being played by adults in our time.
Judith Sarah Schmidt PhD is a clinical psychologist in Westchester, New York, a writer, teacher and co-director of the Center for Intentional Living. firstname.lastname@example.org <http://email@example.com/> , 914-232-7370.