Life in Balance

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Tobias Jones: Creating a Space for People

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Recently, this came up in the news, a wonderful experiment in community and acceptance. I will post some excerpts from the excerpt, you may wish to read the full one here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/21/tobias-jones-communalism-antidote-sorrows-modern-life

Tobias Jones: ‘Communalism can be an antidote to the sadnesses and sorrows of modern life’

In 2009, Tobias Jones turned his home into a retreat for troubled people, a process he documented in a series of articles for the Observer magazine. In an extract from a book about his experiences he tells how his children reacted to some of their new housemates

In 2009, my wife, Francesca, and I set up a woodland sanctuary in Somerset with the sole purpose of offering refuge to people going through a period of crisis in their lives. We hoped to emulate a community we knew down in Dorset, a place that was a haven for those struggling with addiction, bereavement, separation, depression, penury, eating disorders, homelessness, PTSD and all the other ailments, illnesses and misfortunes that beset us in life.

We’re doing this because we believe that communalism can be an antidote to many of the sadnesses and sorrows of modern life. Not just addiction, say, or homelessness, but also the issues that lie behind those more explicit ones; problems such as loneliness or simply dismay at modern life. Communal living offers the chance to find belonging instead of rootlessness, commitment in place of impermanence and purpose rather than despair. It allows a deeply satisfying, paradoxical combination of anarchism and traditionalism, of counterculturalism and conservationism.

Inevitably, when people hear of our woodland sanctuary, the first thing they ask about is our three children [Benedetta or Benny now 10, Emma, eight, and Leonardo or Leo, five], about whether it’s wise to expose them to all sorts of obvious and less obvious threats. Over the years, we’ve had to be pretty shrewd to ward off some insidious dangers. But the many advantages to our children of a place such as this are another reason why we’re doing it in the first place. We noticed when we were travelling around various communities before setting up this refuge that the children who had grown up in radical, open-door groups were remarkably mature, eloquent and unfazed by the most weird or eccentric arrival. They were non-judgmental, but at the same time they were able to make some fairly sound judgments and appeared less susceptible to the seductions of drink, drugs and other temptations.

I’ve got to admit that after five years of living like this I can certainly see the attractions of being a nuclear family again. But we still believe it’s been great for our children: they share every meal with half-a-dozen others – recently arrived strangers or long-term guests – which gives them first-hand experience of the wonders and excitements, and the dangers and deceits, of life.

In those first few months, we were still unsure of so many things. At that stage, we were simply a family home and we didn’t have any legal structure. Windsor Hill Wood was not a charity, or a social enterprise, or a community interest company, or anything else. I could tell visitors all our theories about communal living, but it was still just chatter. We hadn’t decided how long people could stay or on what terms. Our aim was to resolve those issues in conversation with guests, not impose them from the outset. But back then, at the outset, it made people think we were underprepared, if not in fact rather capricious.

Of those who shared their ideas about how the place should work, some were aggressively forthright, others simply asked suggestive questions. But it did mean that over those first 12 months we took some key decisions that have never really changed. We knew we had to become a dry house, meaning there would be no alcohol on site. I had volunteered at a couple of recovery communities where people who lived in dry houses were still allowed to get hammered off site and it made recovery very difficult. If we were serious about helping people battle addiction, we knew there could be no alcohol off site either, meaning none of us could head out, have a drink and then roll up back here. The same went for all non-prescribed drugs. The third golden rule was no physical or verbal violence. Being a drink- and drug-free house also, I think, sent out a message to everyone who suspected we were whimsical hippies or junkies: this was a serious and safe place.

There were other important resolutions. We decided on a common purse to pay for food, each person contributing £30 a week, and kids paying half. It meant nobody had their own shelf in the fridge or the larder. All food was communal and people could eat whatever they wanted. As we were beginning to have people with eating disorders spending time with us, we all ate together, sharing every meal and making it clear that attendance wasn’t optional. Apart from that contribution, however, we decided we would never charge rent. There were two main reasons: we had seen, in many communities, that people paying rent are, understandably, reluctant to do communal work as they feel they’ve already paid up; we wanted to make Windsor Hill Wood as accessible as possible.

The 9pm watershed became a lifeline for us, as we came to understand the importance of privacy. We decided that anyone not living here had to be off site by that time, and that no one would ever go in anyone else’s room without permission. Everyone had their own sanctuary. There was a door they could shut. Likewise, guests would never come upstairs into the children’s rooms. Francesca and I also decided that we would close the door to our side of the house at 9pm. Over the years, it was one of the things that kept us sane.

Encouraging our children to be accepting and non-judgmental like that had always been one of the aims of this place. We were happy to have them surrounded by people who were born on, or had consciously moved to, the wrong side of the tracks. They were surrounded by conversations about all sorts of topics and almost nothing was off-limits. I realised, one day, how many adults we’d had discussing love, politics and religion around the table when seven-year-old Benny, her hair in bunches, stood up on the pew behind the new table to make an announcement.

Freddie was a thin, wan character who hadn’t washed or shaved for a few months before he arrived here. With him, it was as if there was no one home. He looked blank and bored. He stood vacantly in the kitchen and couldn’t work out where the fridge or dishwasher could be. He didn’t ask either, just stood still and stared. The lights had gone off inside. In the workshop, I asked him to hang up a mallet next to the others on the tool board, but he shuffled along the line of tools – the froe, the adze, the auger bits – and couldn’t identify the mallets.

“To the right,” I said and he turned slowly, like he’d got a crick in his soul.

In the end, I took it from him and showed him where it lived. He said nothing. At lunch, he ate dry bread. Even the most hardened guest was looking at him with sympathy, unable to get any sort of reaction from him. We offered cheese or salad or omelette, but he just munched on his white bread, staring at his lap. He was on anti-psychotics and I wasn’t sure how much that slowed him down.

“He’s less than monosyllabic,” Maggie said to me.

To begin with, all he could whisper was “yes” and “no”. After a couple of days, he would say short sentences, looking at the floor timidly and whispering so quietly you had to ask him to repeat what he had said. When we did have brief exchanges, he told me he needed to come here because he had to find his voice again. He had retreated so far into his shell he didn’t know how to get out, he said.

For that first week, one or two people were wondering why we had Freddie here. Any rational community would have said “no thanks.” But others thought we could help him, that he was going through a crisis, and that he might emerge from it by being here. After a trial week, we told Freddie he could stay as long as he needed.

Slowly, he began to speak in full sentences. He looked us in the eye. He smiled and started to make jokes. I would see him wandering around the pig pens, patting the broad sows and talking to them. He would sit with us in the chapel. The children took him by the hand down to the pond to look at the tiny frogs, the size of a fingernail, crawling through the damp moss on to dry land.

He began to open up to us, explaining about the breakdown he had been through. He had taken too many recreational drugs and was eloquent about his paranoia and delusions. He had been, he said, full of anger and pain at the idea that he had no free will, so kept doing things to prove he was free. For a few years, he was an ascetic wanderer. He walked and hitched thousands of miles without money, getting as far as Moscow before turning round and heading back. He had done the same round much of Africa. He had smoked too much weed and began to get paranoid, thinking that his expressions of his freedom were in fact being forced on him. “They were expecting me to do it,” he kept saying. He had hoped to be enlightened but had sunk into darkness. When he stopped travelling, the whole experience of years as a wandering beggar caught up with him and he collapsed into a silent stupor.

It was clear his brain was still struggling. He was holding an apple core one day and looked over to Gav.

“What shall I do with this?” he whispered.

“What do you want to do with it?” Gav smiled.

“Get rid of it.”

“Put it in the compost then.”

“But that’s in the other room.”

“Put it on your plate then.”

“But that’s the other side of the table.”

“Well, hold on to it then.”

“OK.”

So he held on to it for the next half-hour until he finally got up and put it in the compost. He hadn’t been joking; he simply didn’t know what he should do with it and didn’t want to do something that required any effort.

I watched him over the next few weeks, never sure when to indulge or when to challenge his eccentricities. He would spasm a lot, shivering and raising his shoulders.

Other times he would stand in the kitchen and contort his body into extraordinary shapes, almost like a clown or a comic.

It felt as if his fanatical expression of freedom was a tilt at mortality and that the reason he wanted to avoid responsibility was to avoid ageing. But the fact that it was spoken, and out there, meant it could now be looked at. Freddie seemed to grow in the next few weeks. He did small things like lay the table. He was good at carpentry and helped in the workshop.

His [NHS] psychiatric nurse came to visit him after a month and couldn’t believe the improvement. She, like us, could see that Freddie was emerging, like a butterfly from a chrysalis.

“What have you done?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Gav told her. “We’ve just created a space for him.”

This is an edited extract from A Place of Refuge: An Experiment in Communal Living, published by Quercus on 2 July (£20). To order it for £16 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846

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