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Circles of Support

July 25, 2009

LadderOfYearsI have been reading and re-reading the novels of Anne Tyler.   One of the things that she’s known for is her attention to character and relationships, so I’m finding it fascinating – given our focus over the last few years on relationships, and, frankly, my age.  

Often, in Tyler’s books, people walk out of their lives and into something different…  just when they thought nothing could change, something shifts, and anything could happen.   “Anything” is not usually anything sensational   – no one winning the lottery but rather rediscovering or finding one’s purpose, rediscovering what what ones in one’s partner of decades – the things we forget to keep in the forefront of our relationships as the rituals of our days and years accrue… 

In Ladder of Years she writes of an unappreciated, un-noticed even, woman who is a mother, wife, receptionist, daughter, sister, caregiver, neighbour…  she’s been doing for others for so long that they just assume she will always be there.    During a beach holiday, she walks away wearing her husband’s old bathrobe and, catching a ride with a handyman, ends up in a different town, takes on a new job and luxuriates in having *no* relationships – it’s blissful to live in a rooming house with no possessions, to let go of the style of clothing that people expect her to wear, to have no family and no friends, no phone, no letters in the mail.   She can breathe again.  

For the reader, it’s a thoughtful series of chapters – what could we give up in our lives?   What would we give up?  if we started anew, what (and who) would we accrue?  

After some time in her new town, someone says to her that she’s got a great network of friends and she’s caught completely offguard – she’s gotten used to the idea that she’s alone but, “…she  was startled to see how her friends did add up, now that she stopped to count.”    

I love this sentence because I think it’s the seldom-mentioned much-missed key to our networks:  we don’t really know who’s in them.    in our support for folks with disabilities we go through a “circles” exercise (that comes out of the work of in which we work with their team to identify who is in their circle of intimacy, who they identify as friends, who is an acquaintance and what their affiliations and economically based relationships are…   this is often the first time people have done this and everyone can end up quite surprised.   Even me.   

circles redo - Copy

This conceptualisation comes out inclusion press ( and is a great way to get a sense of someone's whole network

One notable evening I met with the team of a man I’ve had a close friendship with for nearly 20 years – sincerely, one of my favourite people in the world.   His sister was also present.    He hasn’t been an easy person for many of the carers in his life, to say the least, and at various points has been deemed one of the most challenging folks around.    He’s had a wonderful family, thank goodness but at one point it seemed like only his sister and I could even spend time with him.    At the meeting were staff who’d been with him for a decade and people who’d only been there for a few months.   And when we went through this circles exercise what we discovered was that not one of us knew his whole network (until we wrote it all down).    It was powerful and transformative – we got a sense of what a strong networker he is and of how vitally important this part of his life is to him.   It changed the way everyone saw him (and his community).   We discovered that his network was larger than our own!

The other thing that Susan and I do which I think has been powerful is we get the staff who support people with disabilities to go through this exercise for themselves; to look at their own lives and relationships and be a little vulnerable, before looking at the relationships of the vulnerable folks we support.    This, for many staff, has also been transformational.  

“It seems to me that trying to live without friends is like milking a bear to get cream for your morning coffee. It is a whole lot of trouble, and then not worth much after you get it.”  Zora Neale Hurston

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 25, 2009 7:53 pm

    That actually sounds like a really good book.

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