“Where are you, my friend?” -Letters to my friend (1)

I don’t remember if I have ever told you this…

When I was in my early twenties, I was living in a house with some people whom I know from the university. Right across this house, there was a boy who was spending his time behind the bars of the balcony. Sometimes I woke up to his voice. Most of the time he was on the balcony, calling out to an unknown -never responding- friend; asking “Where are you, my friend?” till he was tired or bored of shouting. Although he was repeating this question over and over again, his tone never changed, always waiting a few seconds for a response: “Where are you, my friend?”.

I have never responded to his call.  While his voice was echoing in the silence of our street;  I was already too grown up to realize that it was a call for play, I guess. But sometimes, I accompanied him in different games. Especially, if he was out with his plastic toy gun, he used to open fire on the adults he came across. Those times, I used to join the game,  got shot, knocked down on the floor, and crawl around trying to take shelter. Of course, this game would end when there was no one left to shoot, then he would remember his long-awaited friend, and the refrain would start all over again. “Where are you, my friend?”

We were living in buildings facing one another, in the middle of a steep street that goes down to the seaside. I have never seen my friend playing out in the street. Moreover, I have never seen anyone who accompanied him on the balcony. I have to say that I have never seen any spark of life at his home except for the curtain moving slightly from time to time when he was out, on the balcony. He was very much isolated behind the bars of the balcony. He was convicted of childhood. His imprisonment was really heartbreaking to see but I used to think that there was nothing I can do for him, and kept on watching him silently from behind the curtains.

I guess he was reacting to my inaction by opening fire on my balcony. I thought, his reaction was right; so I  got shot over and over again and groaned with pain. I think this game emerged with a feeling of revenge on the adults who sentenced him or who did not help him to be free. So, it felt like, the more I groaned in pain, the more fun he had, and even more relieved. Still, I have to say that this revenge is very much naïve in his situation. In the end, I was pretending to be shot, but he was literally isolated.

It is very painful when we are not seen or feel invisible, you already know this. But what is worse, is being a child, because if you are a child “not being seen” is an ongoing experience that you start normalizing. But unfortunately, this continuity or normalization does not make it less painful. We just try to find out ways to cope with the agony.

So, my friend made up this game to get rid of his agony which was too painful for him to handle. All in all, his loneliness could not last forever, there should be someone like him, someone who also has a longing for a friend, who would hear him and accept him as he is, who would accompany him… There should be -at least one person-  out there, in this huge world, among all these crowds of people. That’s why he carried on playing, pretending that there is someone out there, waiting to hear from him.

“Where are you, my friend?”

Pretending makes it easier to endure. If you think that your “never-responding friend” is in some difficult situation, or couldn’t find you yet, or looking for you with longing and patience; then you would stop feeling pity for yourself and be concerned about your friend; while wishing him best luck to get rid of his difficult situation. Or you would think that he is hiding somewhere around the corner or chilling on a park bench then you feel and share his joy. Therefore, you walk up to any corner with excitement or keep your eyes on the curtains to catch the slightest movement and carry on playing.

And at this point, the magic of playing enters the scene. When you really believe in whatever you were pretending,  it becomes real. This is exactly what happened in our story. 

After all those days and weeks and months, without having any response to his never-ending call, asking “where are you my friend”, a little girl responded:

“Here I am, my friend”

I could not see where the girl was, but I can say that the voice was coming from the right side, probably from one of the buildings next to mine.

There was no one on the balconies and she was probably shouting out behind an open window. She sounded about the same age as my friend, both were 5 or 6.

The game was no longer the same, they were taking turns.

“Where are you, my friend?”

“Here I am, my friend”

“Where are you, my friend?”

“Here I am, my friend”

They kept on calling out to one another with a curious and joyful tone for days and weeks. I thought it sounded like a chirping, singing, or a serenade. It made me so happy; as if  I was the one who was waiting for a friend and finally found her.

I can not tell the rest of the story, because I had problems with my home mates and moved. I never went to that neighborhood again. I don’t know how long they kept on calling out to one another. Did they ever meet in the park? Did they make a picnic? Did they talk about how they had waited for one another? I have no idea. But I think these are trivial. The end of their story is not that important, because, to me, the important thing was their encounter.

Do you say,  “So what?  Why did she tell me all these?” 🙂

I know not, I just wanted to tell you; because even today after many years, their voices are still singing in my ears and I listen like my favorite song on repeat. Actually, I know what it is like to wait for a friend, who would hear me and understand me (and I know how difficult it is.)

And I guess, I was struck by the miracle of the play, which went on for months without a response, and the magic of carrying on without having any reaction…

Well, just like the sun, which does not need any spectator to rise…

Or like a blossom, which does not need anyone to bloom. Something like that.

And also, it feels good when I tell you anything that comes to my mind, my dear. 

I say to myself that, in this huge world, among all these crowds of people, there is someone who hears me and understands me, at least one person.


How to Survive When Exposed to Cyanide

This post is published on Tipping Points Magazine on the 9th of January, 2020

Reflections on “the believers in deadness and believers in life,” thoughts on how “their hateful system of punishment” will shape our society, and how or if it is possible to change it?

The fight is an unequal one, for the haters control education, religion, the law, the armies and the vile prisons. Only a handful of educators strive to allow the good in all children to grow in freedom. The vast majority of children are being molded by anti-life supporters with their hateful system of punishments.

It is a race between the believers in deadness and the believers in life. And no man dare to remain neutral: that will mean death. we must be one side or the other. The death side gives us the problem child; the life side will give us the healthy child.
 –A.S. Neill1

For quite a while, I have really had a suspicion whether the system we are living in– and that we are preparing our children to live in– is suffocating us. And as I think more about it, the more I find evidence to convince myself that this system does not serve for life but death. Just like being exposed to cyanide, without being realized, maybe just with a slightly bitter almond smell, gradually poisoning all of us and leaving no place to survive. So I call it a system of cyanide, a system interwoven through thousands of threads, which we are exposed to starting from childhood, preparing us to be dead people or at best to close our eyes and ears to the things around us and just to stay silent. And when it comes to parenting, schooling or conventional education, they make up most of these deadly threads…

I would like to note that, the analogy which I am about to draw may seem absurd, unrealistic or even nonsense to some readers. I may agree with the exaggeration at some points, yet I have to say that I cannot simply ignore the similarities. These stories which I am about to tell are true stories. And as I keep on replaying these stories over and over again, in my head, I oftentimes smell bitter almond and hardly breath…

Does having lack of community mean having lack of hope?

A few months ago, as I was reading the morning news, and I came across the news that four siblings committed suicide in İstanbul. Leaving a note on the door saying “Cyanide inside – call the police”, they were found lying hand in hand on their beds. At first sight, it was difficult for many of us to understand why these siblings aged 48, 54, 56 and 60 decided to commit suicide together. Soon it is revealed that these people had inherited many debts from their parents, two of them were chronically ill, the only wage was garnished, drowning in an ocean of debt and execution, they were not able to afford the rent, the bills– even bread. The day they were found dead, the power was cut off by the administration – due to their debt of about $100. Having no one but themselves, they decided to stop trying. Oya, Cüneyt, Kamuran, and Yaşar, were all about to be buried in a cemetery of the nameless; in the end, an old friend managed to have them buried with their names.

As tragic as it may be, the incident was discussed a lot for a week or so… The government was criticized because of the economic conditions, even some actions were held… But was that enough to blame the economic conditions? Or would it be different if they had a supporting community, both financially and socially? Would they give up hope, if there were people around them who were supportive, encouraging, or collaborating instead of an apathetic mass of individuals? That remains unknown.I am afraid that, in a society where women and children cannot decide for themselves while living, no one will ask them their own decisions about “committing suicide.”

When is it harmless to decide instead of somebody else?

After this incident, I happened to hear the death of another family with cyanide. A father, a mother and their 9 and 5-year-old children. The father left a note saying that they decided to commit suicide, but the scene was different this time. The father was holding the hands of his children but the mother was in another room, laundering. Does anyone who decided to commit suicide do laundry?

Though the father left a note saying that “they are ending their lives”- it was obvious he was the one who decided to end the lives of the others. This was a planned murder that inspired some others, and a few weeks later there was another cyanide suicide on the news in which the mother was found on the threshold while trying to escape…

In all of these cases, the financial difficulties and depression became the main topic to discuss– as if it is “normal” to decide to end the life of someone else. Actually, the fathers, justifying their superiority over the mothers and the children decided that the rest cannot survive when he dies…I am afraid that, in a society where women and children cannot decide for themselves while living, no one will ask them their own decisions about “committing suicide.” And we live in a society where it is widely accepted and even encouraged “to think that they know what is best for another person.” Besides, unsurprisingly, all these men were mentioned as “good and kind” people but where lies the evil then?Are we living in a system which is based on control of information, manipulation, constant mind control, and aggrandizing obedience, self sacrifice, and so on?

“Oh dear, it is for your own sake”

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” –Hannah Arendt2

Goebbels’ children’s story is probably one of the most dreadful stories about the murders with cyanide. On the evening of May 1st, 1945, six children of the Nazi Propaganda Minister, after being knocked out with morphine by a Nazi doctor, were poisoned with cyanide capsules being crushed between their teeth. Six of them were found by Soviet troops two days later, lying on their bunk beds, in nightclothes, with ribbons tied in the girl’s hair. Magda Goebbels, herself combed their hair just before getting them poisoned with cyanide, what a dreadfully romantic scene for a mom– preparing her own children to be found “beautifully” dead by Soviet troops! A perfectly planned “farewell”– morphine to sedate, cyanide to kill, nightgowns and ribbons to make it look nicer!

It is clear that Joseph Goebbels was one of the century’s foremost instigators, being the Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany, he obviously performed his job “successfully.” But even his wife and he too were sure that their children would be growing up, hearing their father’s dishonorable and non-virtuous actions. So they were to decide what is best for their children too, as they used to do for the masses. That was for their own sake, rather than living shamefully, dying beautifully. It is no surprise that once one legitimizes the control over the lives of the others “for they are weak or inferior”, it will inevitably spread to a larger area.

A Nazi Propaganda Minister may be an exaggerated example, but let’s not focus on the “Nazi” but on the “Propaganda”. Thinking of this as a starting point, how deep can we follow the roots of this totalitarianism? What if this example would not be a racist one but an inclusive one or a depiction of a utopia where people would live equally as brothers and sisters?That is a perfect method to create an obedient society isn’t it?

“Oh please, you don’t need to question, you just need to believe”

18th November 1978, was the day when more than 900 people died of cyanide poisoning, more than 300 of them were children. It was The People’s Temple, which was fighting for humanitarian reasons and good intentions, yet it turned out to be one of the largest mass murderings in U.S. history.

All these people were either convinced or forced to kill their own children and themselves. This cult, living in a colony among the jungles of Guyana, was completely isolated from the outer world, all the information was controlled and had no communication except the radio speaker system on which the leader Jim Jones’ preachings were constantly playing. And these everyday-nonstop preachings were aggrandizing the obedience to cult while criticism or quitting was considered as a betrayal. Does this seem dystopic?

As an extreme example of mind control, Jonestown Massacre has been examined and discussed for more than 40 years now. But is it really a unique or an extreme example? Or are we living in a system which is based on control of information, manipulation, constant mind control, and aggrandizing obedience, self sacrifice, and so on? Knowing that all the sources of information are controlled by the ones who have the power, we can only see or hear about the chosen news or propaganda. Nobody ever learns about the Kurdish children bombed and scattered in Tel Rifat, nobody hears about the siblings who died while playing with an explosive, the murder of the natives in rainforests or the murder of the activists in Chile and many many others left secret…

When I was about 13, I remember reading one of my homework assignments in writing class. It was about a murder of a journalist whose assassination still remained secret. As soon as I finished reading, regardless of what I was writing, the teacher started preaching, advising us to be wary, and not to question that much– which was quite shocking to me at that time– and yet, now it makes perfect sense.

As a conventionally schooled child I have seen many scenes in which I or my fellows were warned or threatened or punished when we were not obedient or when we just talked. Besides we were many many times given questions to be answered correctly (it is said as “correctly” but actually what is meant is “expected”) and yet hardly ever encouraged to question. I would prefer to take these experiences personally, but unfortunately, many children, in many countries still have been experiencing this every single day, for many many years. That is a perfect method to create an obedient society isn’t it?

Yet maybe that is not obedience poisoning us all but another form of ignorance– ignorance of “self”. Hannah Arendt sounds right, when she says “The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.” Considering all of the stories above, it is obvious that the dominant system (it can be called capitalism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, parliamentary democracy or whatever…) is molded by the believers in deadness.

What to do with ourselves now?

As I am about to finish my ramblings I want to go back to the beginning, to the words of Neill, saying “… children are being molded by anti-life supporters with their hateful system of punishments.” As a grown up in this system, I have come across with certain kinds of blockages in my life and in the lives of the ones I happened to witness in a way. As I became obsessed with the destruction of schooling on human beings, I realised that these blockages are somehow very similar to each other regardless of how different our lives are. Here are some of my arguments or questions about these blockages:

Just like it is not easy to learn to question things while you are being questioned all the time, it is not easy to know about your personal interests, your needs while you are supposed to spend your time on the issues which are deliberately chosen by the authority and while you are supposed to ignore all your interests for the sake of someone else (a parent, a teacher, a leader…)

It is not easy to decide or to be sure about something when someone else is constantly deciding instead for you. Or it becomes impossible to organise or plan your own time when the external obligations or motivations are always driving you to a certain point.

And isn’t it impossible to cooperate and show empathy for one another or just to be at peace with yourself, when you are constantly forced to be “better than the others” and endlessly being evaluated or graded?

Helplessly crippled starting from childhood we become the lack of an authentic self, the lack of self-discipline or self-actualisation or the lack of self-respect, self-peace, or self-love. Remembering Neill’s definition, an ill society, made up of troubled adults who are unhappy constantly at war with themselves or one another. Isn’t this poisonous for us all? We are made to believe that this is normal, and there is no other way, yet as we let our authentic selves be buried, we are content with the rest of us, if there is anything left?

Original Photo: Scott Webb

How to survive?

Considering all of the stories above, it is obvious that the dominant system (it can be called capitalism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, parliamentary democracy or whatever…) is molded by the believers in deadness. We are living in this crazy era in human history, with deepening crisis of economy, social justice, and climate… After talking about many things I have to confess that I don’t know the exact answer to how to survive when exposed to the cyanide system? But I have questions which will bring some more questions.

Are we brave enough to love the world and assume responsibility for it?

Are we able to let our lives be governed by “the wellsprings of our lives” such as empathy or love?

Are we ready to question and search for answers together?

Are we ready to cooperate and collaborate? To live as a community working for a common interest?

Are we going to forget the old corrupted morals and embrace the renewal?

Are we going to let the new and the young ones take over?

Leaving these questions here and thinking about more, as I finish, I have to agree with Wilhelm Reich in his book Children of Future:

We cannot tell our children what kind of a world they will or should build. But we can equip them with the kind of character structure and biological vigor which will enable them to make their own decisions to find their own ways to build their own future and that of their children in a rational manner.3

[1] Neill, Alexander S., çev. Nilgün Şarman, Özgürlük Okulu, Payel Yayınları, 2000. sf 131
[2] Arendt, Hannah. The life of the Mind : One/Thinking, Two/Willing. Hartcourt, 1981.
[3] Reich et al. Children of the Future : On the Prevention of Sexual Pathology. Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984.

“To Play Will Be An Awfully Big Adventure”

This essay is published on Pop-up Adventure Play Blog, in December 2019.

Özlem is from Turkey and has enthusiastically been writing to us for a few months now. Joining us on the Playworker Development Course as soon as humanly possible, Ozlem has been working hard in play ever since. Here is the journey so far.

By Özlem Arkun

The first time I read about the adventure playgrounds in Joel Spring’s “A Primer of Libertarian Education” I was truly amazed by the idea! To destroy and to build all at the same time and all in children’s hands! This was like a  depiction of a utopia for me, as it was like a training to destroy the rotten world with all of its rotten values and creating a new one; with cooperation, with love and freedom.

After the first shock wave (right after reading these pages tens of times and underlining and taking notes and daydreaming…) I found myself thinking about “How I can do that or how I can make this possible? Is it impossible?”. 

“Only if you believe it is.” whispered the mad hatter at that moment. So I started to believe it is not…

This was nearly a year ago, when I came to an intersection in my life. And to be clear, that was quite an intersection! Coming across some people whom I haven’t heard of before, but I feel like I know them since the dawn of time once I met them…  There, somewhere, my adventure started, and I came to know Suzanna and Morgan. And I came to know Pop-Up Adventure Play!

When I first met with adventure playgrounds in Spring’s book; I realised that I had been thinking about stable/owned spaces. Yet Pop Up Adventure Play was hacking this “must”. Pop-Ups were like a fairy tale, once upon a time they exist, and one moment at a time, they vanish. You can not prove that they have existed somewhere, sometime; but you can not prove the otherwise either! It can happen anytime, anywhere.

So I started to organize Pop-Up Play Days, the first one was for my daughter’s honor on her birthday, with a few children (mostly her schoolmates). Then came another and another and another and another… Soon I became addicted to Pop-Ups; maybe it is just because it is amazing to watch children playing freely. As I started to walk on this playful path I realized that Pop-Ups are a kind of alchemy, they can change the trash into anything and/or everything. It is like a miracle happening in front of your eyes.

While running a Pop-Up an adult / an inexperienced playworker may think “what am I going to do now? What is next? Oh I run out of loose parts! How can I carry out this or that? Is it a risk or a hazard? etc. etc… Yet throughout the journey a playworker learns to trust children – I mean literally! If you just let them, they show you everything! Most importantly the children always give you hope and warm your cold little heart.

From the moment I decided to open space for free play in my life, many things changed. I started to become “a more colorful” human being. At this point, the dumpsters seem like a treasure chest and I find myself hacking conventional playgrounds or carrying junk as a daily activity to design my second floor as a free play space!  (I moved my house in a surreal duplex apartment in which the second floor is just a little higher than a child’s height, (it is similar to the 7.5th floor in “Being John Malkovich”) It always made me smile when I read the quote from Alice in Wonderland: “I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.” Now I literally understand her, as I go upstairs or downstairs, growing and shrinking spontaneously…

During my Pop-Up adventure, I have learned a lot. I have learned to dream something and actualize it. I have learned to observe and let go; to appreciate all the junk I have, and to turn that junk into anything I want.

I have learned also, to realize the hazards and to take risks, to have the courage to play with fire. Now it is obvious that one becomes courageous because she is scared but still goes for it. I have learned that we all learn as we are on our way and we grow at our own pace and in our own way.

Reminding me the secret of the fox; “The truth is invisible to the eye and only the ones who look with their hearts can see the truth”,  I have seen many times that anything can come out of a cardboard box – sometimes a sheep, sometimes a journey to the Moon!

All these I have learned from children and still learning.