Some years ago in the UK there was an advert for Hamlet Cigars that revolved around the idea that if you had two concurrent problems, one way of dealing with the resulting crisis was to connect the problems (in this case two people who were seethingly angry, both phoning you on separate lines at the same time). You put the two phones together so they are now shouting at each other, and in the ensuing argument or chaos, you sit back, light up a cigar and relax.
If you can forget about the cigar, then I suggest you have a way of responding to two or more concurrent problems or challenges that I have sometimes found of inestimable value in my life in a residential community caring for children and young people. Put simply, rather than keeping the challenges apart (for example, in separate rooms) you allow them to meet each other. I would not advise it as a panacea for all seasons, but from time to time it works. What’s more it can result in creative and unforeseen positive outcomes.
Here is an example from this evening. I was sitting down at my computer ready to write this column. I had allowed 45 minutes to do so, and had opened a new Word document, when the doorbell rang. On the doorstep, without any warning, was a family of four. This was not just any family, but one whose father had lived with us as a boy, and whose youngest child, a beautiful baby girl of four months, we had not yet seen. Joy unspeakable! This is what Mill Grove is all about: a place where those who have become part of the family can take it for granted that they are welcome for the rest of their lives. So I abandoned my computer immediately, and was quickly into a richly layered conversation involving these four people, and several others in our lounge!
It is possible at this stage that you are wondering whether I have lost the plot in my story. Surely, you may be thinking, a Hamlet approach would be to invite the family to write this column and for me to retire quietly into the background leaving them to it. Not so. Follow me into our family lounge and try to imagine the scene: there is nappy-changing, mugs of coffee, a child of two playing with a double-decker and bendy bus, photos being taken, a mobile phone ringing, and news being swapped at a frenzied rate.
At this moment the doorbell rings. In a flash I realised that it would be a young man and his carer. He is on the autistic spectrum, and comes to Mill Grove once a fortnight to have tea with us, to relax (often by drawing repeated meticulous representations of Thomas the Tank Engine), and to spend the early evening in an environment in which he feels comfortable and secure.
Oh no! The scene which he is about to enter is exactly what we try to avoid. He thrives on stability. He relies on the fact that our home is predictable and peaceful. He is about to encounter exactly the opposite. There is no doubt that it is going to seem like chaos or bedlam to him.
So what to do? Yes, you’ve guessed it! This is the time for the Hamlet method. He is welcomed right into the middle of the scene, and unsurprisingly he reacts by dancing around several rooms and the passage. It’s his rather precise way of letting us know that this is not what he expected. But we have no option on this occasion. We have surprise visitors that we are delighted to see, and a nappy change means that the room he would normally regard as a safe haven in such situations, (I will refer to it as the ‘harbour’ from now on) is being used for a nappy change at that very moment.
I attempt to use the space of Mill Grove inside and out as creatively as possible, but try as I might there is nothing for it: the visiting family and he are going to be in each other’s company for a couple of hours. So why don’t I just introduce them and relax?
The Hamlet Moment
Well, strange to say, it did work a bit like that. The two-year-old daughter wanted to play with some of our toys in the ‘harbour’ room, and the young man with a form of autism also retreated there. I was engaged with the parents and the baby: the door between the lounge and the harbour was ajar. And do you know what? When I slipped into the harbour to see how things were a scene of tranquility greeted me: the little girl was playing on the carpet and beside her at a comfortable distance was the boy. No words were expressed but they were perfectly happy in each other’s company.
When I ventured a little further into the room with her father, the little girl told us to “go away”. For some reason she seemed to think we might take her toys away from her. But she had already worked out that the boy would not do that. He had communicated to her (I don’t know how) that he was only too content to let her continue playing.
I retreated to the dining room where it was soon time for tea. And there was nothing for it: the family and the boy were going to be sitting at the same table. This could have been a recipe for disaster. But I shouldn’t have worried: the little girl and the boy silently poured oil on potentially troubled waters simply by their presence. And when the baby wanted a cuddle the boy with autism was happy for this to happen just beside him while he munched a cake, and then an apple.
It turned out to be a very happy evening for him and, what’s more, he left with a copy of our yearly newsletter in his hand. It was an issue that contained one of his drawings of a toy train of ours filled with cuddly toys! He was thrilled with it and clutched it as he said goodbye.
A Model for Others?
I hasten to add that I can give no guarantee that the Hamlet method will always work: but it is a resource worth having to hand when other options have all but evaporated.
And in a residential community it is so important to bear in mind that residents and visitors are not always a threat to each other’s well-being, safety and protection. Sometimes they may contribute to each other’s happiness and fulfilment in ways that we can neither script nor predict.
That was an hour or so ago. And so I have come back to the computer and written a completely different article to the one I intended to write. The former one was about the natural environment and the role children have to play in leading the way to responsible living on our beautiful, but fragile planet. I’ll see what I can do next time! If you find this article disappointing than perhaps you will try the Hamlet method for yourself.