Getting older, memory, Social work, child care and history of social work, Uncategorized

Sitting still.

How hard can it be to sit still for a morning to have your portrait painted by a group of budding amateur artists? Well actually not too hard but occupying the  mind while remaining still  can be a bit tricky. I began to think about the resultant pictures and how these artists would interpret me,not just the physical ,the outward presence but what would they see of me, of my soul, of who I was.

Perhaps nothing past the hair colour, the wrinkles, laughter lines and grey hairs but I hoped that they would see something else, something that maybe each individual would recognise and connect with, something that only they would see or better still something universal that anyone would see. They all knew very little about me other than a few public facts. I own a dog, who my partner is, a few friends maybe in common, that I am retired, and a few of the class knew that I was once the manager of the children’s home in the village only a few yards from where the class is held. And a guess at my age I suppose.  Of course they can make up a back story from these few facts but it would be a bit thin and say nothing of the real me.

But what would I want them to see or not see . I would want them to see more than the good bits,more than the ready smile and kind word generally offered. I want them to see that those open parts of me are borne from many hard experiences not from an easy path through life because that is where I believe compassion and kindness spring from. If we are genuinely to understand the desires, wishes and needs of the vulnerable and less fortunate in life then we need to have experienced some hardship ourselves. This does not mean that only those who have experienced, for example, homelessness can aid the homeless or that you must have had your own children to be able to work alongside children and families. I have often been told that I don’t understand because I am not a parent . I recalled a young person once asking me if I was running a children’s home because I couldn’t have my own children when asked where she had got that idea from it transpired that this was a commonly held view among the staff. A back story born out of very few facts and a bit of imagination which fitted their own life scripts. They were mostly married women with children.

It is not the exact or similar  event that must be experienced but the transferable feelings and emotions that are important to understanding. If I have felt loss, abandonment, hatred, overwhelming sadness, hopelessness, guilt, pain, anger, misery, then I can feel compassion for those with similar emotions. I can also believe that they are survivable even in the most dark and difficult circumstances. For those of us who can say that we have had good childhood who have experienced warmth, affection, security, friendship and unconditional love and always known our connection to the world we can just begin to understand all of these blessings in their absence if we can stand the pain for a moment. Because probably all of the people I have met during my career have and continue to experience the exact reverse. We can be brave enough to use our imagination and intellect to reverse our own story in order to share their pain. Because it is not our story we can return safely to our reality with renewed understanding. I have always tried to get in touch with the pain of those I worked with and I hope they knew that in some way. I know I can return safely to myself and that is probably why I have survived better than many of my peers and colleagues.

sitting still and thinking 3

But can all this be seen in the lines on my face or in my demeanour while I sit for my portrait painters? We are none of us simple, straight line life stories. We are hugely and endlessly complex. My mind racing through these thoughts has kept my body still but now I am allowed a break and to see the end products. The colours in my hair proved a challenge apparently and I see nothing of my thoughts while sitting in their work except for one that showed a distinct stoicism in my posture and another that made me look rather far away in my thoughts which was indeed exactly where I was.

Sometimes sitting still and letting ones thoughts meander is a really good thing to do. I enjoyed my morning sitting still and I hope the artists did too and invite me back again.

art class 1

care leavers, christmas, homelessness, leaving home, media, memory, Social work, child care and history of social work, winter festivals

A Window on Christmas

It was nearly 8am this morning when I walked the dog. It was dark, wet and as thoroughly unpleasant a morning as it is possible to be at this time of the year. The dark dank days of November and December are only brightened for most of us by the prospect of Christmas. The expectation of a light-bright, warm fun-filled Christmas with our families, presents wrapped with jolly paper and love. As I walk past the Crescent with the dog, the sea rolling stones at near high tide to one side I can look in windows of the Christmas houses, with their beautifully decorated trees, blazing lights, presents under the trees and can imagine even smell the breakfast being cooked in the kitchen. I peer in not with the sentimentality of the bedraggled street child on a Victorian Christmas card  but with sadness, with concern,  and a heavy heart.

The media is full of a strange mixture of standard news and items asking us to think about the lonely elderly, the homeless young people, those struggling with physical and mental illness, animals left to fend for themselves during the festive season and to be a good neighbour, to check to see all is well, spend a few minutes of conversation or even invite them into our homes for dinner on Christmas day. Is this the same sentiment as that Victorian Christmas card?  Our wish to share our own good fortune with those less fortunate at this season of the year. Some time ago when I read the archives of St John’s School, once a reformatory built in the 1850’s, I recall reading an account of the Christmas day menu which was to include oranges,apples and plum pudding donated by the great and good of the county. The rest of the year the diet consisted of bread, potatoes, porridge, and occasionally a little cheese and meat; the same  every day. These were the poor children of the county who had landed in the reformatory usually as a result of criminal acts brought about by extreme poverty, hunger and homelessness. And so we continue the patronage of the more fortunate today. There are more of us  to donate today as living standards for the majority are so much better than in the late 1800’s so we are able to give even when we have overspent our credit on presents and Christmas extras. Here comes the BUT!….. But nothing really changes. We overindulge and give the leftovers to the poor and destitute.

I include myself in this and it is not intended as criticism of the excellent schemes, projects and charities who do such wonderful work all year round and who provide extra support at Christmas. I am simply dismayed that we cannot begin to tackle the root causes of the homelessness and poverty that plagues our society. I am equally dismayed that the focus for our charitable efforts should be Christmas and not the rest of the year. Bringing the issues into such prominence at this time somehow exposes the depth of despair that those who are without family, friends, good health , means or a home must feel. It exaggerates the loss and failure.

A few minutes later on  my dog walk I pass Michael, I do not know if this is his name even though I see him most days. Every day he walks the town slowly, very slowly so that the time should pass at a quicker pace to fill the day. I see him read the paper, or a book, raid the bins or wait at shops for charity, he stops for a chat with the dog who is always pleased to see him, he meets his friends for a drink they too are homeless, washes in the public toilets and sleeps I know not where. He once had trials  to be a professional footballer. This morning he is heading into the church carrying his food bank Christmas bag.  A Waitrose bag no less! I know what is in it as I saw them being packed up. The church as ever provides sanctuary  and a warm welcome and cup of tea at the end of the service. This morning it is probably the only dry place to be. I like him he has a friendly smile and a kind face. A gentleman of the road. My father always used this expression not in a patronising way but to convey, I thought, respect and a sense of dignity so often denied. Is Christmas Day any different for Michael? Well the world is shut and may become his alone but he will be able to witness the festivities through those windows while we all play Monopoly and get indigestion.

What does it bring back for him, or does he choose not to remember as the memories are overwhelmingly  painful. I don’t know his story. Maybe he has no family, in care as a child, moved around the care system, many people who said they would provide him with a home, rescue him from his own abusive family only later to reject him. Time in prison learning new tricks to survive , harsh treatment to punish him further and reinforce his sense of lack of worth, attempts to make a family of his own lost through mental ill-health or addiction. Only he knows, but the shadows of his past may be remembered through the haze of drink and the windows of the rest of the world. He may brush it all aside as just another day and drink until he can sleep. I do know from my own experience that loneliness at Christmas takes on an added dimension even when you know there are people who care and who would welcome you unconditionally. I cannot imagine how it feels without that backstop( how dare I use that word at the moment!!!). I too would drink untill I could sleep.

So my wish for Christmas is that we keep the sense of charity that Christmas imbues in us for all the year and do not return to demonizing Michael and his friends in the New Year. Also that we can find a way to tackle the causes of poverty, homelessness, despair and hopelessness in this our affluent society. It is a scandal of our modern day. I will not forget while I am feeling lucky to be with my family sharing good food, companionship and love because there will remain with me that underlying sense of sadness that there are other windows on this world.

traces and memory 2

A very happy Christmas to you all .

 

 

change through music, folk music, memory, music, social work changes, Social work, child care and history of social work, Uncategorized

Traces and feathers falling……..

traces and memory 2

Sometimes a hint of something is enough to bring back a very strong memory, enough to bring you  to the moment with all the senses and feelings that it engendered in its original being. Scarily strong ,the sensations can be almost physical. It can  be a pleasure to revisit a past love or special moment equally if it was traumatic in origin then it can be sad, upsetting, and painful. Sometimes we do not have control over what triggers there are and what they will bring to us.

For me music regularly transports me to a memory, though sometimes that brings sadness mostly it brings delight and joy. Occasionally it leaves me with a question which may simply be I wonder where that person is now,  a piece of my personal story that is left unfinished or perhaps an unanswered question from the past that remains into the present but long since buried.

I recall being shocked by a strong recollection of my first husband being brought back in a Norwich street. It was the way this man had walked and I  gasped and for a split second I  was certain that it was him although there was no way it could have been. But I was shaken by the strength of the feeling. Later playing Traces ( Ralph McTell) I understood.The wonderful Ralph McTell who can so simply and elegantly capture the essence of humanity in his writing explained it. I have been fascinated by this phenomena ever since.

“Maybe it was the way she rose from her chair, a trace of something in the air”

Walking the dog recently the scent of the damp grass and the coldness on my feet of the dew took me back to camping with Jack when we had spent the night ” laying on our backs watching feathers fall from angels” to quote one of my other favourite song writers Gerry Colvin. Jack and I had lain there till the dew fell and the grass smelt sweetly of the damp of the evening. It was a flash of a memory before the duties of a dog walker returned me to reality. I wonder where he is today?

I return to Essex fairly regularly so one might expect that the memories would come thick and fast.  I sometimes pass somewhere and think Don lived there or whatever but a couple of weeks ago I was driving down the A12 over that horrid concrete slab road surface which has been an uncomfortable feature of part of Essex for as long as I can remember. The bumps in the road took my thoughts to another era of my life and events I had long forgotten.  In the days when the new Social Services Department was responsible for homelessness there were in Essex homeless persons units, as there were all over the country. Often based in old workhouse buildings, or surplus forces accommodation they provided families shelter. Frequently we were present at evictions and transported them from there to the allocated unit. One such unit was at Stanway just outside Colchester, this had  been a workhouse and was by this time an Elderly persons home and the homeless unit.

St Albrights. It had indeed been a workhouse for the Lexden and Winstree Union, just off the A12 it was built in 1836 for 330 inmates. It had later been a hospital, Elderly persons home and Social Service department offices. Sadly as with many of these wonderful buildings, often of innovative and notable design at the time, it now lies mostly unused and unloved hopefully destined for housing rather than a spa or other leisure facility. I always feel that if they continue as housing or in some other community usage then they continue to fulfil the original mission of the build and the design. There is some justice in this for such a wonderful old building in whose walls so many have lived, suffered, died and frequently been offered safe sanctuary from a world in which they had become vulnerable and alone.

Look where the bumps in a road have led my thoughts. But to return to homeless persons units for a moment. I recall as a child watching the family opposite our home in Balmoral Avenue, Stanford le hope being evicted. All their possessions piled onto the side of the street and they sat there Mum, Dad, kids and the dog. My father pulled me away but I worried about them for days. Where did they go? What happened to them? I was about 10 or 11. I didn’t understand. Later I attended several evictions and transported what I could of their possessions to a unit providing grim, multi occupied accommodation with shared cooking, washing and toilet facilities based in huts once used for the forces or buildings in ex workhouse complexes. It was the saddest of jobs. The smells and noise of those units, the fights , the poverty and hopelessness hanging in the air stays with me today. And we charged them rent! And used to visit to collect arrears from the homes they had prior to eviction!!! When I visited Southwell, the National Trust workhouse there are rooms from when it took in homeless families. As I entered I stopped, caught my breath and fought back the tears, I was literally brought to a standstill. I had condemned people to this,albeit in good faith and it did have the benefit of keeping the family together unlike some other homeless policies. Small comforts;  the sickening smell returned to my nose and throat .

The train of thoughts came from those uncomfortable bumps on the A12. These are powerful traces from our story and for me they are containable, understood and controllable. Imagine how it must then be for those who have associations from those traces of trauma, disaster, pain and so on, for those for whom the hint of something in the air does not bring warmth, happy memories, laughter and love but anger, misery ,pain and sadness. No answers just some thoughts. And I am still wondering about where we “watched the feathers fall from angels” and where Jack is now.

References

  1.     Traces. Ralph McTell.   Slide the Screen  Away 1979
  2.     Watching Feathers Fall. Gerry Colvin. Back and Forth 2018
  3.     The Workhouse. English Heritage pub 1999
  4.      Southwell, Nottinghamshire. National Trust.