As regular readers of this column will know, August is the month when the extended family of Mill Grove sets off for our annual holiday in North Wales. This month is for us rather like April, “with his shoures sote” (sweet showers), was for Geoffrey Chaucer and the Canterbury pilgrims. What’s more, as I write this piece, a shower is drenching our garden, and preparing us no doubt for one or two periods of what we call “hints of dampness” in Snowdonia!
Preparing for Holidays
It was a week or two ago when it began to dawn on me that I could not recall a Webmag column on the subject of preparation. So here, hours before we set off, trailing our Mirror dinghy behind a heavily laden and meticulously packed vehicle, is that piece. We have been getting ready for weeks, if not months. Much of this has been in the mind as we have chatted at meal times or on other journeys together about what we are going to do: which mountains we will climb, which boats we will use for sailing, whether we will have an overnight expedition in the hills, the area in which we will hold our ‘treasure hunt’ and a host of other related questions.
But there has also been a good deal of practical preparation too: a dinghy needed to be repaired to make it seaworthy, a crucial part for the Wayfarer had to be secured, food was set aside, equipment checked and tested, new clothes purchased, numbers sorted out, bedrooms earmarked, the theme of our family prayer times identified, a policy on mobile phones agreed upon, and so on.
Earlier today we filled up the cars with fuel, and checked oil and tyre pressures before the real packing began.
None of this will come as much surprise to any readers who have enjoyed such a family summer holiday. So why might our preparations be significant enough to merit a column?
The Five Points of Preparation
My musing has led me to consider the following lines of thought. First, preparation is an integral part of the experience of anything valuable in life. It entails not only active work, but expectation, planning and imagination. This is helped immeasurably when those involved know something of what to expect. One of the huge benefits of having a holiday home in Snowdonia is that two generations of the family of Mill Grove know pretty much what to prepare for. If everything were to arrive unexpectedly, unbidden and without effort, then the experiences associated with the anticipation of an event would evaporate.
Second, preparation draws people together: we need to think not only about what each of us is taking as an individual, but what we will need as a family. We set goals and dream dreams. It is inherently a team effort, and in time creates a momentum that encourages us all forward. We deliberately prolong some meal-times in order to allow more time to chew over ideas and possibilities.
Third, preparation involves reflection on past experiences, often recounted in loving detail. Inexorably we are drawn to what happened last year, and the year before that. We decide to continue treasured traditions, or to break new ground, to recall those who were with us years ago. Past adventures and humorous incidents are recounted in exotic tones. We build on the experience of the thirty-five years holidaying in the very same place.
Fourth, preparation for particular events helps develop a skill vital for every area of life. It is not inaccurate to describe much of what we call education as preparation, whether for life, or for a profession, or even the next stage of the learning process. It has been observed that humans are most fulfilled when working together in what might be called a joint project. So we deliberately try to involve everyone in the preparation at however rudimentary a level it may be for some. In time each will develop a greater sense of confidence and then seek greater responsibilities.
Fifth, preparation is a part of life that is vital if humans are to be both realistic and responsible about preparing for death. After all we know it’s coming, and it would be strange if the one species that has intimations of its own mortality (and immortality) simply ignored them and continued living as if life were endless. To suggest that this is a morbid subject best left for another day would be to abdicate responsibility for the one part of life that is completely predictable.
This line of thinking helps to set a particular period of focused preparation, in our case a holiday in North Wales, in a much wider context that recognises the considerable value of the whole experience.
Preparing for Children in Care
So what has this got to do with children and young people who spend some or most of their childhoods in extra-familial care? It is a reminder of what little, patchy experience many of them have of such purposeful preparation and pleasurable anticipation. So much of life is uncertain, unplanned and unpredictable that preparation spanning several months, full of reasonable expectation is rare, if not absent. They, and significant others in their lives, may not know what the next step or stage is, and so there is inevitably no chance to prepare for it, or anything else.
But then we need to realistic and acknowledge the fact that often it is others who do the planning and preparation for them. The most they are involved in may be a bit of packing and shopping: preparation as a rounded, exciting process, tingling with possibilities and even dreams, is unlikely to be an option commonly available to them.
And as for the wider issues and horizons I have mentioned (education as preparation for life, and for death): those engaged with the children and young people will be constrained in any number of ways to tick boxes (whether actual or imagined) that are far more specific and short-term.
Are there any practical implications of all this? If so, what? Part of me wonders whether the “care system” ought to build in some way of asking what project children and young people are actively participating in month by month and year by year. This might help to counter a culture of passivity and fatalism. On the other hand I suppose one risk is that this might appear on a list of well-meaning tick-box options!
Preparing for the Wider Community
Recently I was reading a book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (an author for whom I have much respect). As the realisation that “multi-culturalism” is not a viable way of life in the long term for any community or society dawns on all but the most starry-eyed dreamers, he ponders at length what options are open to us. We cannot go back to the “good old days”, but how can we conceive of an alternative?
He suggests that we see the society in which we live (let’s leave the idea of a “big society” for another day) as “the home we build together”. In essence he describes social life as a project: and the key to life together is planning, working together, not always looking over our shoulder to keep an idea or tradition going, but to build something new. It is a dynamic idea that sees what we do as preparation for and expectation of a new era, unlike any that there has been before in its details, if not unparalleled in human history in its nature and patterns.
What if children and young people (in care, looked after) were to be encouraged to see their lives as something that they were building along with others? They would be active agents drawing from past wisdom and experience, alert to contemporary insights and resources, and learning by their mistakes.
I have mentioned before how challenged I was by the pioneering work of Anton Makarenko described in his book The Road to Life: an Epic of Education (two volumes, 1955). Charged to care for ‘delinquents’ in the Soviet Union in very harsh physical circumstances, he engaged with them literally in building a home together. He never managed to recreate later in his career the constructive relationships and sense of community and purpose that this period of their lives required.
If we want a working model today, Habitat for Humanity offers one: the key lesson is not to offer people a finished product (however pleasing or attractive) but to engage them in building their own future.
Our trip to North Wales (now very imminent!) is a very modest two-week experience of life together, but I still see in the preparation the basic elements of home-building. Perhaps before we try anything on a grander scale in social policy we might have a bash at this sort of thing: life together for two weeks in which everyone is an active planner, as well as participant in the event itself.
Last Minute Preparations
I’ll try to remember to let you know how it went. For now there are still one or two last minute things to do, despite the very best planning and preparation!
 Jonathan Sacks, The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society (London: Continuum, 2007)