This is the Best Day of My Life

This is what one of the youngsters in the Mill Grove family called out yesterday as he rolled down a hillside covered with thick snow. And I thought I would tell you a little bit about the day in question, because this isn’t the sort of thing I have heard him say every day and it may help me to understand him better.

Residential CareThe hillside is on the slopes of the mountain called Santis in the Appenzell Canton of Switzerland just south of St Gallen, and we had approached it by driving through the picturesque villages of Wald, Trogen, Speicher, Teufen, Stein, Hundwil and Urnasch. Over Easter a group of eight of us are staying in an old Swiss farmhouse that belongs to family friends, and the weather has been perfect for playing in the snow. (If any readers have a sense of deja-vu about what they find in this month’s column then it is important to note that this is the eighth such visit we have made to Switzerland, and that these trips have involved 36 different members of our family since 1987. I have written about them before).

The day began for the young person with the sun rising in a cloudless sky, and giving the surrounding grass and wooden farmhouses a rich hue that contrasted sharply with the patches of deep snow that dappling the countryside. Before breakfast he and a friend had spent an hour or two on the laptop used to write this column producing a Power Point presentation of our journey through France, Belgium and Germany. Like many youngsters of his age he finds Power Point as easy as breathing, and I marvel at the varieties of style and content he was able to download from my machine.

We had a traditional Swiss breakfast of yoghurt, meat, cheese, two types of bread, honey, home-made jam, fruit juices and iced tea. The room was warmed by a log fire typical in these parts. It is the only form of heating in the whole three storey wooden house, and its ingenious design means that you can warm each part exactly to the extent you choose. After breakfast we had a family time, planning the day (the boy was the one who suggested that it would be a good day for snow-play), thinking of those we had left behind in England, and checking on any practical matters such as what time to collect the milk from the adjacent farm, and where the giant key for the house would be kept throughout our stay. We also read part of the story of the last week in the life of Jesus in St Luke’s version.

Then came the drive to the mountain. We noticed all sorts of features on the way, especially the design of the houses and villages, the forests and footpaths. But it was several kindergarten children that seized our attention. They were walking along the road (there was no pavement or footpath at this point) each with a satchel, smiling and chatting on their way to school. Apart from us there was no adult in sight. Quite clearly they were relaxed and content. They took for granted their safety. We remarked on what would have happened in the part of London that we knew best had groups of nursery children been walking to school by themselves. We reckoned that it might well constitute neglect on the part of the parents. Here it was part of the accepted culture. Child abuse and formal child protection procedures seemed very remote and sad necessities in societies that had lost touch with the truth that it takes a village to parent.

We stopped by a waterfall and tested the temperature of the meltwater that tumbled down into the stream below. And then we reached the snow. Before long there were three sledges hurtling down a ski-slope (that was completely free of people except ourselves and one other English family), and the young person (who I will call Jim) walked knee-deep in fresh snow until he found a steep slope where he simply lay down and rolled.

When he came to a stop he stayed in the snow as if he had found his natural element. It reminded me of how he loves to be in water, sometimes swimming or snorkelling, but often simply “being” in the water rather like an amphibian. It was then I remembered that he had spoken earlier of laying in the snow and putting his arms deep into it. His wish had come true.

We gathered for a picnic an hour or so later and made our own drinks by mixing Diet Coke and snow. The sun was already giving us a hint of colour. Then two of the boys decided to make a snowman, and soon found out how to roll snowballs down to the construction site in order to provide the raw material for their creation. Sticks, glasses, a bobble hat and sculptured ears and a nose completed the work.

Residential CareAs it happened we spent the evening with family friends in their farmhouse, reminiscing, playing bar football (yes, one of their daughters had made a superb table as part of her college carpentry course), and enjoying a wonderful Swiss meal. But Jim was not to know that was how the day would end when he uttered his comment about the day.

So what might have been the special combination of elements that amounted to such a uniquely enjoyable time? We can rule out television and electronic games, because they were absent. I haven’t spoilt things for him by asking why and so can only offer my personal view. The group was one in which Jim felt completely at home and safe (I think for example that the experience of the little children resonated with his own feelings). At school, he had been the victim of chronic bullying, so the freedom of being accepted and valued without having to give it a moment’s thought must have been a delight to him. He had chosen what he wanted to do. He was free in the snow to go where he wanted and to do what he wanted. At no point were there any instructions or warnings: he and the others were trusted. He doesn’t find it as easy as others to move using his feet and so to have gravity helping him down a slope deeply (and safely) covered with snow must have been exhilarating. And he found the natural world just like a big adventure playground.

For over a year in these columns I have been trying to describe how we seek to create a therapeutic environment for children and young people who are part of the Mill Grove family. It is not about treatment programmes, or formal interventions, but about finding or constructing settings, rhythms and patterns of life together that provide the space and context in which the youngsters can thrive. Easter holidays in Switzerland are part of this. I know that some readers may think that life is rather like one long holiday for me. It isn’t quite like that, but I feel uniquely privileged to witness someone like Jim enjoying himself and gaining confidence and self-esteem in beautiful places. There’s nowhere I would rather be, and perhaps that rubs off on Jim too. It wouldn’t have been the same without him. I couldn’t say that I have ever been able to identify the best day in my life, but yesterday would be up there with the frontrunners.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.