Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Toys R Us

I have no brothers or sisters and as a child spent a lot of time playing on my own. My first playmates were the soft toys given to me by my parents and relatives. Chief among these was my golden haired Teddy Bear, “Teddy”, who accompanied me everywhere. He was short and stout and had warm, brown eyes. His paws were made of soft felt and he wore a small woollen jacket that my mother had knitted specially. During the day he was often to be found clutched under my arm, and at night would have to be on the pillow beside me before I would go to sleep. He was my guardian and protector and I felt safe with him by my side.

Teddy’s companions were a mixed bunch - a small blue dog, a giraffe, a whiskered cat, a mouse, a grey elephant - to name but a few. One of my aunts was a skilled seamstress and had made several of them herself. They were stuffed with straw or old nylons cut into pieces to fill out their soft limbs and bodies. One in particular had a big impact on me. A caricature of otherness not to be found in a child’s play box today, it was a jet-black gollywog. “Golly” had a long body and gangly limbs. Sown onto his head were white saucer eyes with black beady irises and a pair of thick red lips. He was dressed in blue and white striped trousers and a red jacket with a large collar.

Golly was the antithesis of Teddy and from the day of his arrival the soft toys became split into two factions. Teddy led the good guys, while Golly headed up the bad. Teddy’s boys were clean, well-presented, smart and polite. Golly’s gang contained the louts, the rebels, the dishevelled and the rude. Teddy’s team were orderly and thoughtful, Golly’s crew rough and physical.

In my playtime, there was often an uneasy standoff between these two camps - a very real tension between them, which I tried to handle by keeping them as far apart as possible. Teddy’s squad would be lined up on one side of my bedroom in strict order with Golly’s mob lounging on the other. Teddy’s attitude was that he was always right and needed to be in charge at all times. His men were law-abiding citizens, on constant vigil against bad and unruly behaviour. As they saw it, their job was to police the ruffians and keep them in check. Golly and his guys chafed under this bit and would tease and taunt across the divide.

Inevitably, when the tension became too much, fighting would erupt and pitched battles would ensue. Toys would stomp on each other, be buried under missiles, be flung across the room or down the stairs. Limbs would be twisted and pulled, heads pounded, bodies pummelled. There would be surprise attacks and counter attacks, with the advantage going first one way then the other. I would become totally immersed in the drama, the epic struggle for good over bad!

Finally there would be a critical moment where, with dead toys from both sides lying strewn around, the outcome would rest on a dual between Teddy and Golly. The pattern was always the same: they would go at each other hammer and tongs with Golly almost overpowering Teddy. But then, just when he seemed on the verge of defeat, Teddy would muster all his strength and beat Golly into submission. Of course, Golly lived to fight another day and all the toys resurrected - ready to do battle the next time tensions reached breaking point.

In a PBS interview with Jeffrey Mishlove, Hal Stone states, “Our different selves are at war in us”. I believe the childhood dramas acted out through my toys were my way of objectifying this war of selves. Teddy and co held the values of my primary selves that were developing in response to the norms of my family and society. I was to be a good, respectful, clever, neat and orderly little boy. Golly and co represented the parts of me that had to be disowned as a consequence - and they weren’t about to be cast into the shadow without a fight!

Two things strike me right now as I write this. First is how easily I can reconnect and identify with the toys on both sides and their clash of wills. I have a visceral sense of being with them once more as I describe them doing battle. Second is the realisation that although Teddy had to win every time, secretly I wished that Golly could sometimes triumph! Now, as then, I feel a sadness that the “bad” guys had to lose and eventually be banished into the shadows.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the values of Teddy’s team dominated much of my life. They served me very well and allowed me to survive and be successful in the world. At the same time I feel keenly that I missed out on a lot of the juice of life as a result. In recent years as I have worked with the Voice Dialogue process I have been able to invite many of those banished selves back into my life - and they have brought me great gifts. With them by my side I am not so easily intimidated. I can stand my own ground. I don’t need to accept bullshit from others. I have the confidence to stand out, disagree, be different and have the courage of my convictions. I don’t have to please all the time and I worry less about what others think. I can be more easy-going and less uptight.

In my mind’s eye I now see myself scooping the toys of my childhood up into my arms and giving them a big hug. All my toys r me!

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