care experienced, care leavers, childhood, memory, social work and child care

IT NEVER LEAVES YOU

I apologise to my followers for having stopped writing but last summer seemed to drain me and left me rather lacking in passion for writing anything. I will not bore you with the details but the political situation had much to do with it.  I felt that in the face of such a move to the right the most vulnerable in our society whose life chances are few anyway were really about to be lost to the tide of populism. That being so then anything I had to say was a waste of time.

BUT

“You may leave care but care never leaves you”

This is a quote that never leaves me. Just like my childhood has never left me so it is for  those who did not have such a fortunate childhood. It was the inspiration, along with Eric Sedge’s song, for the Kinder Shores charity. This week I became engaged in an online debate with a woman who spent her teenage years in care following an adoption breakdown, she is now nearly 50 and was meeting her family for the first time in more than 30 years.

The first thing that struck me was not just the mix of huge excitement and fear about this meeting but also the desperation that this would go well.  She would, at long last, belong to a real family, her family,  and not one made up of the care experienced and professional carers. The latter is not diminished by this statement at all because families are made up of many different threads of  life.  I have seen time and time again that desperation for a blood tie, the family seen as the real family and that no matter how difficult their previous history together has been there is always that longing and the hope of reconciliation.

“The silver link, the silken tie,

                                                           Which heart to heart, and mind to mind,

In body and soul can bind.”

This is a quote from Sir Walter Scott used by the now much discredited Bruno Bettleheim in a ” Good Enough Parent”. Just for the record I still feel his work and writing has much to offer us despite his alleged dishonesty about himself. I used this in my Masters dissertation in 1989 which reading now shows that I had somewhat naive ideas. These have been developed with years of experience and with the advantage of age giving insights into the ongoing trauma and distress of those who are care experienced as children. How right it is that that silver link is so very strong and that it’s exploration , often couched as a search for truth, is critical to being able to really belong in this world. It is not always immediately seen as a route to repair and to being able to move forward but this is sometimes an unintended consequence. This requires another element to enter the arena that of forgiveness and this is most difficult for both parents and children.

This meeting may have been hugely anticipated by both parties but in a premeeting  phone call it became clear that each had developed a narrative about the initial care event and the intervening years that did not match. The most serious element of this is that her parents believed that her leaving the family for care was due to her inability to cope with being adopted not the significant and serious abuse that had been the definition of her childhood.  I am certain that it would not be advisable to share all of the events in her life since leaving her family home as they would be too much for a parent to hear in the early days of an evolving relationship. However this denial is so fundamental to the establishment of any future together and has underpinned every single aspect of life for her  being such a destructive force it is difficult to see how this could possibly be overcome. I have to ask myself as a social worker at the time of these events whether we did enough to work with both parties? Is this current situation also the responsibility of the professional who intervened in these lives as well as the individual members of the family? Should we have some obligation to assist with the reconciliation at this stage or simply ignore it and let them get on with it supposedly as “grown-ups”? This is not a question to be answered by a comment on resources but a question of humanity and professional responsibility for our actions as rescuers. I leave it open to debate.

Adoption is a difficult place to find yourself too. These are her adoptive parents who are also part of her extended family. Adoption services cannot hide behind the ” forever family” nonsense. Who exactly do you belong to? And who, when these issues interfere with your adult life in a significant and serious way is going to help resolve these complex issues? In a parallel online conversation this woman’s son,  also adopted, began a conversation on Facebook about his unresolved issues around adoption and asked for those who were in a similar position to contact him hoping to find some answers and support. His simple quest was to understand why he was so angry and how his mother was unable to offer him any support to resolve his questions.  The answer to the latter question is simple from the outside.

If we even begin to believe that care is a simple act of rescue and then finding a suitable placement preferably with that forever family, of getting reviews done on time and keeping the statistics on placement moves and exams on course, then we are deluding ourselves. We are leaving a legacy of hurt, anguish and pain for so many and offering no help with resolution. Of course not for everyone but for a significant number, those over represented in the prison population, in addiction services, mental health facilities and among the homeless. We owe them, their chaotic lives are not entirely down to them. Maybe there needs to be “forever “care teams offering specialised support to care   experienced adults. Ah….. I hear the chorus gathering about lack of resources.

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care leavers, homelessness, social work and child care, social work changes, Social work, child care and history of social work, Uncategorized

Care Leavers etc Part 2. The fight goes on.

It is sad that I feel it to be a fight, I deleted that from the title twice because it seemed so negative.  Maybe I mean a struggle. After so many years  I still seem to be repeating myself so often about the way forward with the care system. When I saw the other day an article suggesting that a new social work model was to have consistent social workers who knew the individual and in whom they could trust I was lost, temporarily, for words! Well repeatable ones as least.

However there are some things that I think we could consider without setting about a whole system change which will never happen for all sorts of reasons which I do not have time to explore in this blog. Life is often about detail and there are many smaller things we could change that would make a significant difference to the lives of our children both during their care experience and later in life.

You may have noticed that in the last paragraph I used the term “our children” and that is exactly what they are. They belong to us all in the widest sense of community now and in the future but crucially they are children that the state has been given the responsibility of parenting sometimes together with parents or so often without. So my first plea in this January manifesto would be to consider the words we use in respect of those in public care and how we use them. I don’t have a problem with the term “in care” though there are those who are in care who might and they should be asked. I do have an issue with “the corporate parent” for example. There is no way that it is possible to be a corporate parent. It is a meaningless bureaucratic term only to be understood by the non care adults working in the system. It leads them to view the child  as a corporate commodity and to feel that it is therefore ok to argue between departments and authorities about areas of responsibility, blame each other and cause frequent lack of movement in cases were disputes are underway. How about changing that to collective parenting implying that everyone has equal responsibility across the board but clearly there will be defined tasks. The second term mirrors a good parenting arrangement where both parents share equal responsibility but have also have specific skill areas, the former mirrors the chaos, disputes and blame games so often present in families showing poor parenting.

fire and flood comunity

Here’s one for the statutory children’s agencies. Stop making teams divisions based on age. It is a nonsense for children to change social workers because they reach a certain age or the stage in their care “career”. There may be convenient administrative reasons for doing this but it is anything but child centred. And I don’t hold to the argument that it is because there are different skills sets required. Basic good social work skills are transferable to any situation, and the forms and specialist knowledge available within departments and via online information systems. As an agency worker I know that it takes little time to know the different administrative systems. What is not easily transferable is the trust, benefits of a stable relationship and the intimate knowledge and details of the client’s life all of which are more important at any transitional stage in life. How often have I heard young people say it is so hard having to start again with a new person who knows nothing about you or who you really are. Come on managers this should be an easy one to solve.

Social workers please pay attention to detail. Remember always to recognise important dates, not just birthdays and Christmas but the day Mum died or the child came into care, that they are getting their exam results, or get their degree. A text is enough and a beginning at least. Keep photos of friends and carers in files, the friends in a current school with names so that when they move they can recall these people who may have been important for that time. Keep things they made at school, souvenirs from a holiday with carers they no longer live with…..you get the picture.  See it as your job to help them with their family history and story , it may not be pleasant but it is theirs and will give them a sense of belonging, a sense of a place in the world.

And to the politics of all this. Stop privatisation of children’s services across the board. No company or individual should make a profit from these children’s sadness. They are our children. And these companies frequently promise great things but deliver a service much along the lines of public services. This is about money and political ideology. It is often not even cheaper  for local authorities.

Let us accept that residential care can be a sanctuary, a place of repair and a chance to move on positively into adulthood, shared together with others who understand. Good residential care can be a real asset. It can be expensive but so is moving around and picking up the damage done in the process. Fostering, adoption and kinship care is not for everyone.

Therapeutic parenting should be the model throughout the service, and inspectors rather than measuring the administration should be looking to ways of measuring the reparenting of our children. Administration  does not parent children, it supports it and we should not make it the primary measure of success. This model should be the baseline of every intervention at each moment in the child’s in care life. A model shared by social workers, administrators,carers, adopters, schools and inspectors. And understood by politicians across the party divides. Party ideologies should not change the models of care.

Let us stop the corporate mirroring of the chaos of broken family life. No child should ever feel abandoned, abused, neglected or lost in the care system. They have witnessed enough of that by the time we become collectively responsible for them in public care.

And if that is not enough. Back to terminology. The term often used about good social workers is that they “go the extra mile”. They are just doing their job well and theirs should be the standard  not the exception.

Happy New Year.

 

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 .

 

 

care leavers, change through music, Getting older, music, social work and child care, Uncategorized

Stuck on an incoming tide.

Oh my ……..I have been quiet of late. It’s all been rather hectic, in a good way I hasten to add. Change is one of those life events that scares most of us although there are many who, probably whilst denying how difficult it is, talk about it as “a good thing” or”just an opportunity to be grasped”. There’s a school of thought that reckons we are in a constant state of change and I can subscribe to that in a very broad sense but believe me there can also be a severe lack of movement forward in one’s life . Without any technical term it’s “the state of stuck”. It is a position often not recognised until some movement has been achieved and one can look back. Psychological constipation maybe?

stuck image

Here’s one of those Hemingway writing moments coming up…. just sit at the typewriter and bleed!  I have just looked back at my last few years and begun to understand just how stuck I was. It was uncomfortable being in that place but even more painful to look back at my pathetic attempts to make my world more amenable. Don’t get me wrong it was not too awful or else I might have done something radical sooner. It was more along the lines of living in a cosy fog in a pretty graveyard. Nothing terrible, nothing challenging, no excitement, nothing to look forward to except more of the same. I lived in the prettiest town in a charming comfortable cottage among lovely people. How could I be dismissive of all of that? So many would happily choose just such an option with gratitude. My grandfather whose level of praise never rose above “nice” or “quite nice” was the most contented of men. He would have loved it . Perhaps surviving being in the Army Medical Corps during WW1 had much to do with it.

It’s a beautiful morning on the beach and the tide is coming in so are the fishermen with their morning catch. The beach is difficult to negotiate with the tractor to pull up the boats even with generations of experience.   Gently shelving with a combination of soft sand and pebbles it draws the tractor down into impossible ruts rendering it immovable. A fisherman is clearly struggling to get enough traction to pull out his boat, the tractor is stuck and the tide moving steadily towards its height. Slowly the tractor disappears under the water no longer able to struggle and the engine sputters to a halt. The fisherman turns his boat to another landing-place to save his catch, his livelihood depends on it. The tractor will wait for another tide, rescue, repair and return to its work on the beach. The dog and I watch this drama unfold in the warming early sun.

I  too was stuck on an incoming tide. Retirement and aging brought losses I could not have imagined. There’s much truth in not really knowing what you have until its gone. Trying to revive the scrap end of my career believing that my passion for my profession,my experience and former glories would carry me through left me frustrated and further devalued. Social work has changed, the tide of change had overwhelmed me but I was still struggling to stay afloat. It had given me up rather than me giving in gracefully.  In my pretty cottage that was the person I had been, I could not see myself in another incarnation. Bricks and mortar however lovely can be a trap, a prison. My history with that cottage had made it so for me. So I moved my home, myself and all that I had been and would be to another landing-place.

Moving is something that I know from experience will give me new vitality and new challenges. Its pretty drastic and financially not always wise! But if it works….. and it works for me. Here, by the sea with the constancy of the tides, the sound of the rolling stones, the freezing east winds and the beautiful classic summer days, there is a new life. Age is a great driver, time gets shorter but it does not preclude another chapter to the exciting rollercoaster ride of life. I had given my self to my career. It had left me stranded and lonely. I now have my family close by and that is an absolute blessing because as a social worker I know the damage that the loss of family can bring more than most. They can bring a sense of belonging that can never be replaced no matter how good friends and acquaintances are, or how busy and successful you have become. I have shared the care experienced child and adult’s lack of real belonging in some ways until now. It is a loneliness of a different quality to that of not speaking to anyone over a whole weekend or going to the theatre alone.

My long-term partners death , whilst desperately sad, has released me from the waiting. I can share with those who wait for change to come to their chaotic childhoods, for parents to return and how the waiting prevents moving on.  If only we could somehow all have the chance to leave the baggage of the past where it belongs. For those I have worked with in the care system and afterwards this is the most difficult aspect of recovery, a physical home and material things can be provided and measured but the psychological repair can take a lifetime and the services are simply not there for them . So the Kinder Shores project has been wonderful. Changing lives through music has been therapy for me too. My new relationship has opened doors for me to engage with music in a way that has brought me to a new world of possibilities, opened my soul to new creative possibilities and to new friendships. The Kinder Shores project for those who do not know is providing services for young adults who are care experienced. See http://www.kindershores.org for information and CD sales.

I will always be a social worker but now I can release myself to a new life backstage with music, theatre costumes, family, a great companionable partner to share these things with, the beach and even a boat on the Broads. A blog, a Charity and even a book which will now come unstuck too I expect.All these things seemed so far away a few years ago. But like the tractor I waited for a new tide, was rescued, repaired and came to a different landing-place.

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www. kindershores.org

care leavers, folk music, leaving home, social work and child care

Kinder Shores and the power of music

Can music change things? I hope so or else I am definitely heading down the wrong path at the moment. Kinder Shores is a CD and a concert to raise money for a project to provide specialist counselling for young parents who have been in care during their childhood. To find out all about it go to http://www.kindershores.org.

There were two inspirations for this project. The first my years in social work and my continuing contact with those who were in care as children and young people. I am privileged to still know them. I know that they may leave care but it never leaves them. The issues that come with being separated from parents as a child  continue on into adult life colouring a whole range of life experiences particularly those to do with relationships and parenting. I have long-held that if while in care more therapeutic help was available this would be partially resolved but I know too that sometimes we have to work on issues when we are ready. For some young people who, in their adult years, may want the help it is sparse in availability and certainly not specialist enough to deal with the specific issues about being parented outside your birth family. So this project is greatly needed in my opinion.

Having left care more than 30 years ago, and on the surface, a successful adult life, it was only when I became a father in my 50’s that I realised I still needed to talk about my childhood. I was lucky to have the ongoing support of my social worker who helped me through some of my issues. It amazes me that there isn’t counselling available to all care leavers. Not only to deal with issues that took us to care but often for the inhumane way we feel treated whilst in care, especially feelings of abandonment when we do leave, often without the skills to cope alone whilst so young.

These are the words of David Akinsanya brought up in care he is a journalist and campaigner now and they encapsulate perfectly the need for this counselling service.

The second inspiration came through my love of music. Much of the music in the folk and folk rock world is driven by exploration of injustices, by the world of the ordinary working man, of politics, of  opening up emotion and feeling, and the need to change the world for the better . Often the  songwriters observation of the world and people around them is unerringly accurate and it can connect us with  feelings we have hidden, ignored, or that simply relate to our experiences in life. More importantly they can sometimes connect us to other people’s feelings and life experience bringing awareness and understanding. And so there was a song that provided the final push to get this project underway, when I heard this song I knew exactly what it was about. It speaks of so many of the young people I have met, of their pain, their anger with the world that has treated them so poorly. It tells too,of the complex nature of the “rescue” of any adult attempts to make their world safe and secure and  of the nature of therapeutic endeavour in whatever arena. She’s the One written by Suffolk singer/songwriter Eric Sedge became both the inspiration and gave me the title for the CD, the concert and the project. Kinder Shores is exactly what I want to help to achieve for these young people, to find peace and tranquillity in their lives for them as individual adults and for their loved ones and children.  The words speak for themselves , here are the lyrics reproduced with Eric’s permission.

She’s The One

She’s the one with bad behaviour,

She’s the one who wants to fight,

She’s the one with the reputation,

She’s the one who bites.

She’s the one with all the bruises,

Tears in her eyes,

She’s the one who talks the loudest,

Covers up with lies.

Hush now Babe, I know you’re Frightened,

Hush now Babe I know you’re Scared,

Don’t you know your Daddy Loves You,

Don’t you know we all care,

 So breathe in and out again

 I saw you drowning off the headland with the waves coming in,

Shackled to your history, chained by your father’s sins,

So I raced into the shallows, to set you free,

But the undertow from long ago knocked me off my feet.

And the waters near engulfed me, but life has made me strong,

So I pulled you from the wreckage of a life gone wrong,

And we built you the finest clipper, now we’ll be your faithful crew,

So set a course to kinder shores may your path be true

Hush now Babe, I know you’re Frightened

Hush now Babe I know you’re Scared 

Don’t you know your mummy Loves You

Don’t you know we all care 

                                                         So breathe in and out again                                                          Eric Sedge

 

So can music change things? Yes it can. It can change how individuals feel, it can provide comfort in difficult times, it can offer explanations, it can make us dance and sing, give us joy, share our happiness, it can inform, explore and inspire. This CD has a narrative to the tracks that explores the issues that face these young people gthe world often without the skills and support to cope  but it also has songs that speak about the possibility that in overcoming the difficulties there will be a better future out there. This music informs and inspires hope. If we all come together and share this music it can change things for these young people and their futures.

For more information

http://www.kindershores.org      http://www.reesfoundation.org    http://www.ericsedgemusic.com

john lennon 2

 

 

 

 

 

media, Social work, child care and history of social work, Tv drama

Just wanted to say a word about Kiri….if a little late.

 

KIRI
Miriam (Sarah Lancashire)

I didn’t know whether to cheer or cry or both! My response to Miriams’s outburst to the assembled media wolf pack  was a moment of sheer delight. Forget all the stuffy, prissy nonsense in the media about the portrayal of social workers in Channel 4’s mini series Kiri, I at last saw something that represented how I feel about my profession.  How often have I wanted to openly talk with such passion and such humanity about a piece of work, about how I feel for a child for whom  I have responsibility. We cannot do it without risking the heavens falling in on us. Even in business meetings it is rare and frowned upon by others who see it as unprofessional.

If we are going to get nitpicking about our portrayal on the media, especially in drama productions, then it will never happen in a way that will make us seem a mainstream emergency service. Of course it will not be a totally precise picture, the procedures will not be complete or accurate, and there may be an added dramatic edge to some characters because it is a drama, it is entertainment and not a training video for the general public.vintage-sw-image-3

A picture of us all sat at computers, filling in forms and attending meetings and panels would be like watching paint dry the only excitement being complaining about cold coffee or the irritation of road works when we are characteristically late for a meeting. So we have to stop posting about procedural inaccuracy, dogs in offices and social workers drinking  and embrace the essence of our work that the public are more likely to engage with when more dramas are commissioned. I would give the very wonderful Sarah Lancashire a contract for a soap  around the same character.

I imagine that the police, doctors, nurses, lawyers and many others feel misrepresented from time to time and no doubt the backlash is that the public want them to behave as in the latest TV show. However they have the public ear and eye, who will have a much clearer view of what it is that they do and how they do it perhaps, more importantly, they may also get some understanding of why they do it.  Themes about complex issues around right and wrong, of difficult social issues, and the daily impossible decisions faced are all possible to explore through dramas. This becomes easier than documentaries where the personal and private issues of identifiable individuals may not be acceptable to explore so widely.  As a profession we have to sit back, embrace the possibilities and accept the flaws.

I believe the payoff will be huge. And incidentally I know social workers who have the odd drink, who take dogs to work and who have difficult and complex lives themselves. There is more that unites us with our clients than divides us however high we may wish to put our professional pedestals. I thought this was well portrayed when Miriam gets the only real comfort in her impossible situation from her ex clients. There is no warmth from her colleagues or her line manager who despite themselves settle for toeing the company line and offering her nothing by way of help, support or even a kind word. I have had great support from those I have worked with in many situations, they understand difficulty, trauma, pain, anger and all those emotions we share with them from time to time in our lives. We would all do well to remember  that in other circumstances we could be in their position in life. While the focus of any work is their situation not ours, all the pain and emotion to work with is theirs not ours there remains a place outside the therapeutic relationship for simple humanity, acts of kindness and solidarity without any negative impact on the “work”.

If Kiri did anything as a drama then it reminded me of why I became and stayed  a social worker and I hope it showed that to the watching public. Well done Channel 4 and Jack Thorne.

PS I don’t drink at work but I have taken my dog to work.

 

jo cox

 

 

 

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.

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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.