Open at the Edges

There was a time when children and young people either lived at Mill Grove or in their own homes and families.  There was a very clear divide: as clear in fact as that between Indoor and Outdoor Relief under the Poor Law, or between those described as inmates and others by Erving Goffman in Asylums, or Michel Foucaultin his Histoire de la Folie.

I have spoken with both those who lived at Mill Grove and also neighbours (that is those who lived in their own homes), and no one was in any doubt about the dividing line and who was which side of it in daily life or at school.  This includes the War years (1939 -1945) when we all lived in the Essex village of Tiptree.

And worldwide there is still that division in our minds: there are those living “normal lives” in families and communities, and those who unfortunately live in what are usually termed “institutions”.  My family home, Mill Grove, is labelled by Her Majesty’s Government a Voluntary Home under the 1989 Children Act, and therefore I and those who live with us are deemed to be living unusual lives away from their families and communities.

Us and Them

There isn’t time to go into why human beings need this simple binary framework within which to experience their worlds and social life, but there is a universal tendency to think of insiders and outsiders: normal and abnormal life.  (If you want to pursue the sociology of this I commend the work of Zygmunt Bauman to you, notably Modernity and Ambivalence.) 

You will find that every culture and social group from family to nation conceives of the world in terms of “us” and “them”.   Consequently it is difficult for us to cope with those who like the Jewish people are both citizens of a variety of nations, and also Jewish at one and the same time.  History is a reminder of how difficult it is to cope with the ambivalence posed by any who are simultaneously both “insiders” and “outsiders”.

Mill Grove melange

That, as I said, was how Mill Grove used to be, but for ten or twenty years it has defied such categorisation and spanned the inside/outside divide.  And just recently we had a special weekend that was an embodiment of what this means in practice.  It was our annual reunion and day of thanksgiving.  Among the couple of hundred people present were some like me for whom Mill Grove is home in the sense of being the place where we live day by day.  Then there were those who used to live here as children as long as seventy years ago (yes, I mean that).  There were spouses and partners of those who have lived here.

Then there were children and grandchildren of those who have lived at Mill Grove.  There were also neighbours and their children.  And lots of people who have known the place and supported what happens here in a variety of practical ways.

At one stage there were nearly twenty children riding bikes and tricycles in the playground.  I happened to know them all by name, but if you had seen them go to the garage and get out their favourite bikes, ride around and interact with each other, you would have had no way of knowing the insiders from the outsiders.  And you would have found the same challenge wherever you went: sitting in the lounge, chatting over a cup of tea or coffee, washing up in the kitchen, strolling in the garden, or having a meal in the dining room.

Making communities work

None of this shakes the prevailing ideology of the inside/outside divide, yet groups that are open at the edges are what make civil life possible.  You have only to think about examples in history of families, groups or nations that have tried to live completely independently or unspotted by the rest of the world.  It always ends in failure and often in tragedy: the massacre of Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978, is a chilling example.  There has to be some give and take, some blurring of the edges, some permeability.  Better still: genuine respect for each other and the desire to learn and adopt different ways of doing things.

So how has this openness come about at Mill Grove?  There are several interwoven reasons.  First there is the fact that the family/community has been in the same place and neighbourhood for over a century: that makes for personal relationships through the generations.  There is always a blurring of boundaries when people know each other by name irrespective of their labels and origins.  Second there has always been an attempt to keep the links between “insiders” and their own families and roots (rather than trying to get the children to start life again as it were with a clean sheet).

Then Mill Grove has offered its resources to the local community for over thirty years, and there is plenty of shared activity and knowledge.  And part of this process is not just about formal groups like the pre-school nursery, the mother and toddler group, and the lunch for senior citizens, but also when families turn to us for help and support.  Over time these families and their children come to see us as their second home, or “other family”.  It is as if we have become like an extended family inclusive of their nuclear families.

Then there are mothers and their biological children who live with us: that’s an immediate challenge to any categorisation of the children!  They are neither insiders nor outsiders.

Labels v. reality

So what is the point of this observation?  What is the punch line?  I guess that we should be sensitive to the possibility that there might be any number of places that are open at the edges.  I can think of schools, churches, hospitals, clubs and associations like that.  They may have neat labels but the reality of their social life is much richer and fuller.

And I think that every neighbourhood and community needs such places to function effectively.  You can’t set them up for this purpose in my view: they evolve.  I was told recently that there used to be an advert in Mexico for Kool-Aid that featured the household in a street where everyone knew they could go for a free drink.  The door was always open. 

I can think of places like this all over the world: flats and apartments in urban areas; farms and crofts in the countryside.  There isn’t a collective name for them, and if a government tried to impose one, it simply wouldn’t work.  And not everyone can function like this.  Put another way you couldn’t have every family home operating like this.

Such places don’t do this for reward: some aren’t even conscious of what they are doing.  It is an extension of their way of life.  I think of a family in Kuala Lumpur where a minister and his wife seem to have a household always bursting at the seams.  Recently I was asked by a mother in Brazil if I knew of somewhere where her son could stay in Malaysia while she studied for a month in a seminary. The seminary could not accommodate them both, so I suggested the pastor and his wife. Immediately they agreed.  I knew that they would: this was their metier.

And in the Philippines I was completely stuck for three days unable to get an internet connection.  Eventually I was introduced to a family who I was told would be able to help me, and when I arrived I quickly recognised the sort of place where everyone knew that they could go: where children could play; where teenagers could meet and chat; where adults knew they would be welcomed.

The formula for success?

This reminds me of one of the surprises that greeted me on arriving back at Mill Grove after a few years away at university: people knocked at the door or phoned and always assumed that we would say yes to their request for help.  It just didn’t dawn on their minds that we would turn them away.  And it didn’t matter what hour of day or night either!  Over time it became a way of life.

It doesn’t matter what we call these places as far as the people themselves are concerned, but we need to recognise that without them life together in neighbourhoods is not possible.  I wonder if you could identify and describe such places from your experience.

Oh yes: they are always characterised by a lot of laughter and fun; a relaxed attitude to life; and generous hospitality.  And the people who make it all possible are self-effacing and do not see what they are doing as particularly virtuous. I wonder if child development can ever be complete without a child being part of such a place for at least part of his or her life.

Let me know what you think and whether this chimes with your experience.

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