christmas, Social work, child care and history of social work, winter festivals

When the world takes time to breathe: reflections on Christmas.

Nearby  a father and husband is dying, the nurses and family are coming more regularly as the days pass. My first love posts messages between bouts of chemo and my life’s love died of self neglect and depression in an age of outcome driven social welfare unable to be reached by anyone. I  switch on the TV for light relief and it reminds me of donkeys dying of thirst carrying their heavy loads of bricks, an albatross feeding its young with plastic from our seas, of orphans living on the streets,  a toddler in a cardboard box on a main street seemingly invisible to passing shoppers, refugees with nothing and no home, the homeless and friendless. A friend posts on social media that for no apparent reason she is overwhelmed by a great sadness. I understand this. It’s Christmas.

christmas image 3

I am driving home on Christmas Eve from Christmas celebrations , the cloak of darkness is pierced  by homes and houses covered in light, trees flicker at me in the night and inside I picture the families relieved after hours of shopping but with that twinge of anxiety that something which will make the day tomorrow perfect has been forgotten. The cranberry sauce, or the rum butter or more likely the indigestion pills for tomorrow tables and stomachs  will be groaning with food. This is the season of gluttony, of overindulgence, of celebration?? Celebration is often about feasting. I guess this harks back to a time when food was basic and for many in very short supply and for most just enough to keep body and soul together. Now it is not a rare and happy occasion to sample good, special or extra food but a time for eating and drinking ourselves into a stupor and of giving the supermarkets licence to tempt us to evermore extreme delights each year. Our overindulgence extends to present buying, to the yearly increase in the number of strings of lights attached to our homes, to the party bags and the number of gin varieties in fact to every aspect of what we could consider to be our already very well provisioned lives. So what exactly are we so heartily celebrating?

The possible options are numerous, the birth of a Saviour is one. Certainly churches  see an increased attendance at Christmas and that can only be a good thing  giving people a moments quiet and respite from the stress of world at Christmas. A festival of winter is another and certainly we need something to brighten the dark days of the year as we make the slow progress towards spring and the renewal of life. There is much talk of a time for families, of valuing the things that are important to us and of remembering those who we miss or are living away from their families.  There are flaws in all of these , if you do not share the beliefs of the Christian church, are not in tune with the changing seasons and the natural world, have no family or are separated from them, are alone, old or ill then all these reason to celebrate become difficult to accept. Remembering the losses may become very real and only add to the sadness of the daily unhappiness. So what exactly are we celebrating?

Perhaps we are all using our overindulgence to celebrate or remember something special and unique to each of us and the trick is to work out what and how best to use this time of celebration. To do this we need, it seems to me, to rid ourselves of the prescriptive demands of materialism and to develop our own rituals and special moments throughout our winter festival. For me it’s great value is that it is a quiet time, a time when the world stops for a day or so and breathes, of calm and reflection. There is no other moment quite like it, driving home from a family dinner or a Christmas concert in the dark with no one else about, to quote the carol,” All is calm, all is bright.” In the brightness of that reflection I can only conclude that the message of these festivities for me is in the sharpness of the contrasts. That while I am grateful for my good fortune and can celebrate that in whatever way I choose it is also the time to recommit to ensuring that the world is a better place for all those who are sad, lonely or suffering. It matters not that this commitment come from questioning the overindulgent and wasteful materialism of Christmas.  Dying, loss, loneliness and sorrow are in fact just the same whatever time of year the experiences visit us. It is sentiment that makes it seems worse. Or dare I suggest that these untoward events somehow blight the perfection we are led to believe is so important at this time of the year. It only matters that the desire to help lasts all year round. It only matters that we offer ourselves as agents of change , of help, company and solace at Christmas as at any other time. Just  think what could be achieved if we all had a little less and used the money for charitable purposes throughout the year. Or all visited a lonely person on Christmas day or simply stopped to say Happy Christmas and chat to the homeless man who is sitting in the same spot as every other day of his life.  It would be amazing.

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I do hope that you all have had a very Happy Christmas and wish all my readers the very best for 2018.

 

 

 

Homes, Social work, child care and history of social work

Home Sweet Home?

I have had many homes and many lovers as I said in my last blog, but it is the homes and not the lovers that are the subject of this blog! Maybe the rest will come  later though perhaps not wise in the current climate. Several things that have happened recently have left me reflecting on the nature of “home”, a friend moving after twenty or so years from the house that had been her son’s childhood home, a visit to my “home” or do I mean “house” in Cornwall, a new chapter for a book about the meaning of home in relation to a children’s home, the movement of people across continents looking for a new  safe home, the rise in homelessness and the crisis in the availability of homes.

“Home is where you hang your hat”         home is where you hang your hat

I don’t think so! I have put my hat on many a coatpeg overnight but in no way did it constitute home. That may be a sentimental quotation designed to make anyone who is somewhat transient in their lifestyle feel more settled and easier about their lack of a more permanent base. Indeed all dictionaries  exclude temporary accommodation or residence from their definition of a home. This includes hospitals, prisons, care establishments and other institutions. This in itself is interesting as certainly care, nursing, convalescent and children’s homes have traditionally used the designation home. In the example of children’s homes this suggests that they cannot be that possibly amazing place we can know as home. This maybe supports the recent trend to transfer most public care for children to family based care.Both my research and experience would refute the idea that a children’s home cannot provide “a home “albeit temporary. There is a fundamental problem though with research which is based on individual experience and unable to be verified by any measurable statistical or quantitative evidence. What are we measuring? Does home mean the same to each person? Do we mean our childhood home, a geographic location, where our family live, does this change with phases in our lives, does it rely on the presence of certain people or possessions in that dwelling place, can one have more than one place that we consider as home? How we use the word may be relevant, do we mean somewhere that is homely  or feels like a home even though it is not our main residence. It is certain though that our first experience of a place called home was as a child.

 

“Home is where one starts from” (T.S.Eliot)

childhood home

Perhaps this is why it is, for better or worse, so fundamentally important to us all . Our home defines who we are  throughout the various phases in our life, it is part of our self-definition and the public face that we choose at any point in time. This need to provide an outward facing expression of our life probably accounts for the need in some for houses so much larger than required or the placing of Georgian styled porticos and reclining lions at the front of ex local authority housing after the right to buy sell off. So if indeed it is the root of ourselves what makes it so critical to each individuals life. Home can be anything from a cardboard box to a million pound mansion but it is so much more than an estate agents description of the building. It is where we find sanctuary, peace , comfort, safety and where the relationships that are the most important to us are centred. It is where we learn about the domestic detail  and patterns of living that will form the basis of our whole future life. In some ways home is a feeling rather than a description of a place which is why it is so difficult to quantify the elements that make it or to find set of general principles that would define it. Each of us has a sense of what makes our safe place, each of us can describe how it feels though increasingly it seems we choose descriptors that are to do with the style and materialistic content. However it seems so many images we might choose to illustrate home hark back to a less materialistic time and focus on family and friends gathered by the fireside in a picture of probably unrealistic nostalgia.

“Curses like chickens come home to roost” Old proverb

chickens on perch

My memories of my childhood home can be easily brought to mind by the smell of Sunday lunch cooking  as it takes me back to opening the back door after Sunday School to the warmth of a kitchen rich with roasting meat. While my memories of home are happy, warm , fun, and secure  it is not true of so many. Children and young people for whom home represents fear, hunger, pain, uncertainty, anxiety or sadness can be taken back to those times equally quickly by a wide range of triggers. For those of us who have chosen to live alongside young people in care and to make a home base for them know how sudden these changes can be and how sometimes they can be seemingly inexplicable. An excellent songwriter and folk singer from Suffolk Eric Sedge captures this perfectly in a song called “She’s the One”  when he talks of the “undertow from long ago” sweeping him off his feet when trying to reach a child who is drowning ” chained by the father’s sins”. We have to work from a very secure place ourselves to be able to work with these changes but I think we have to be prepared to recognise that whatever the horrors of that childhood place were it remains home to that child. Too often I have heard workers talk in disparaging terms about a child’s home, even tell the child that is was to awful a place to be a home.  Just about every young person I have lived alongside has wanted to go back there and many do just that when they leave care. It may be a fantasy that it will be OK or that it wasn’t as bad as they have been told, it may be that they want to make it OK somehow. Whatever the reason right there are relationships with the most important people in their lives, right there was the beginning , the defining moments of their lives. It matters not what curses there were and or even when their return is treated like a curse they have to return , to try, to see, to learn, because it is their home and theirs alone.

Make yourself at home….make yourself a home….

home sweet home 3

As adults we can develop new contexts for our home with our own children, partners, friends, lovers, and so on.  But  as adults carers we have to develop a regime that will hold those young people for whom this coveted place home has terrors and at the same time teach them new ways of living  in a place that may offer security, safety, warmth, and good memories. In this way they may be able to move forward to build homes in adulthood that do not repeat the patterns learned in early life but where they are able to hold that first experience safely.  May be I have not answered my own question about what makes a home, but Debbie when I asked her about what made 11a Corve Lane Children’s home feel like home said “It was where I could curl up on the settee and watch TV”. Maybe there is an element of freedom and choice in the definition of home too. A place where we can be ourselves.  It is an ever-changing idea, not constant but changing with time , memories, age and the people who come and go in our lives. A complex concept so much more than concrete and brick that underpins so much of who and what we are.

 

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“She’s the One” Words and Music Eric Sedge on Plenty More Fish in the Sea Broadside Boys 2016.