Thursday, December 11, 2008

Beautiful Book: Steven Nachmanovitch's Free Play

Nachmanovitch's Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Artis an amazing and inspiring book that is truly applicable to its title: life and art. (A few excerpts from an academic paper I wrote are below.)

Nachmanovitch’s perspective on play was filled with an understanding of feeling and emotion, life’s inter-connectedness, and discomforting encounters with the unknown. He says, “The creative process is a spiritual path. This adventure is about us, about the deep self, the composer in all of us, about originality, meaning not that which is all new, but that which is fully and originally ourselves.”

Flow and Embracing Emptiness
A dance professor once reminded me that a beautiful dance is not created from a sequence of movements. The dance is made beautiful in the way the dancer connects those movements. Without the flow, the dance is lacking. Life, like dance (or art), is not only about a series of milestones or singular movements, but the flow between those milestones—our unfinished work (also true in education and learning). Nachmanovitch comments, “A momentous and mysterious factor that keeps us going through every obstacle is the love of our unfinished work.” Loving and paying close attention to the "in between" moments, the flow, and the creation of the work (the process) is as important as the milestone or the finished work itself.

I also appreciated Nachmanovitch's comments on the power of emptiness:
When we face our emptiness and look at it from the outside, it may indeed appear frightening or alarming, but when we move in and actually become empty, we’re surprised to suddenly find ourselves most powerful and effective. For only empty, without entertainment or distracting internal dialogue, can we be instantaneously responsive to the sight, the sound, the feel of the work in front of us.
Life is about continually valuing our unfinished work and responding to its ups and downs, finding strength within emptiness. 

Nachmanovitch’s chapter entitled “Childhood’s End” struck a chord with me, specifically when he mentioned the school as a place that breeds conformity. His story about the young child who learned to draw the right kind of trees rather than abstract ones is something that I have seen happen throughout classrooms. Nachmanovitch reminds us that “Schools can nurture creativity in children, but they can also destroy it, and all too often do.” More and more, students are not encouraged to look outside the box, but to fit comfortably into the box hat has been created and formed by normative society and positivistic learning structures.

Nachmanovitch argues, “education must tap into the close relationship between play and exploration; there must be permission to explore and express.”

I love Nachmanovitch’s term “Heartbreakthrough.” (And think it is connected to Freire's Conscientization.) A time when “the power of creative spontaneity develops into an explosion that liberates us from outmoded frames of reference and from memory that is clogged with old facts and old feelings." Heartbreakthrough is the return to play that we need as adults. Heartbreakthrough is liberation from the pressures of adulthood, the pains and habits of everyday life and a renewed faith in what is beautiful, pure, and simple: play. It is surrender to the depth of oneself and one’s creativity.

Free Play encouraged me to understand the ways in which play permeates life, and the ways in which a lack of play can take a toll on one's life (so important to also understand as an educator). Childhood play is amazing, and at times all of us long to return to childhood's innocence. Yet, at the same time, after going through the process of hurt, disappointment, and hardship, the return to innocence and the return to play can be all the more meaningful and rewarding.

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