What a difference a decade makes

Apparently it’s 2013 now. I’ve mostly been preoccupied with being a horse owner and so have only just managed to find a moment to notice that it’s 2013. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one thinking “Twenty-THIRTEEN?! Surely the millennium only just happened?! How on earth did that get to be thirteen years ago?!”

This probably doesn’t paint me in the most intelligent light, but my thoughts continued:

“Woah … 13 years is more than 10 years … 10 years is a decade … so it’s more than a decade since the millennium. Woah!”

You might be tempted to point out that it’s been more than a decade since the millennium for a while, but you see, I’ve only just noticed.

So my decade-fixated brain wanted to consider what I did and who I was in 2003.

2003 was the beginning of the end of my childhood. I was 21. I’d finished my degree the year before and in the autumn I would begin my Masters. I had a job in retail, in a menswear chain, in a shop with so few customers the main challenges were thinking up things to do to make the day go by. Even on a Saturday you’d be stood wondering how long it would be before anyone came in. This was made more depressing because the salesmen were on commission. If no one comes in even the best salesman is going to struggle to make his money.

I was in the workforce, for the first time (aside from temping and cleaning holiday jobs), which was a bit of a shock to the system.  It was a lonely job. Aside from 1 day each week I was the only female and I was “posh.”* Their word not mine. The day I left the manager said to me “When you started we didn’t talk to you because we didn’t know what to say to a posh bird.”

During 2003 I moved from my dysfunctional student household to a somewhat more functional post-graduate household. I moved from the no-customers, no-conversation, no-work job to work in a flagship department store and I began my Masters. It was a step towards growing up…

But I had no hope.

I didn’t think about tomorrow with anything but fear.

I didn’t think about other people with anything but fear.

And I didn’t think about anything that scared me.

I acquired a boyfriend. Over twice my age, from a different nation/culture, ex-military special forces, built like the proverbial, he was not exactly boyfriend material. But, looking back, I think I was with him because I thought he could keep me safe. Under his enormous wing I wouldn’t have to face the fear. But it was probably fortunate that he stood me up on Christmas day, contributing to our breaking up in early 2004.

I thought I was worthless. But I had to hide that. I lived in constant fear that people would see the worthlessness and I felt slightly scornful if they didn’t.

I was functioning. Just.

I was all fear. It was my only motivator; my constant companion. All I could do was get through each day dodging the fear.

If you had told me that in 10 years I would have a loving husband, a home, a horse of my own, 2 cats and thought patterns that didn’t revolve around fear, ever, I would have laughed in your face so hard you would have seen the desperation.

If you had only told me that I would have riding lessons and a pet, I still wouldn’t have believed you. I didn’t believe there was anything good to live for. I didn’t believe anything good would ever come my way. I had no hope.

If I wrote a letter to my 21-year-old self I don’t think I’d be able to make her believe any of it. I wonder if anyone could have done. In some ways I believe I had to hit rock bottom to learn to change and to see that change was possible, but in other ways I wonder … 2003 was a few years away from rock bottom – could it have been preempted at that point?


What a difference a decade makes.



* I.e. had a southern accent and a degree.

On treasure boxes

As a child I used to have several treasure boxes, “magic” boxes and musical boxes. While the box itself was usually a thing valued in its own right, the priceless contents were the true wonder.

A few items once contained in my treasure boxes:

  • A key, dug from deep in the chalky soil of my primary school’s playing field and known secretly by my friend and I as The Key to Dream Land
  • A stripy blue feather from the wing of a jay
  • A glass bead (which I was convinced was a diamond)
  • A white pencil with delicate flowers printed on it in fine multicoloured sparkle
  • An indescribable jewel – even now I do not know what it was. I can only think it was made for a doll’s house and was supposed to represent a tiny tapestry (ca. 1 cm. across) under a glass dome.
  • A tiny sliver of off-cut grey carpeting from when my primary school had its entrance hall recarpeted.

As you can tell, each item was priceless, and each item was all but valueless.

I’ve been thinking about what’s in all the other treasure boxes out there; the ones still being collected by children, the ones forgotten at the back of cupboards and drawers and the ones long scattered to the rubbish dumps of the world. I remembered a fictional treasure box in Ian Serraillier’s book The Silver Sword (AKA Escape from Warsaw). I can’t remember much of the contents of Jan’s treasure box apart from the silver sword (a paper knife) and three dead fleas from the chest of a chimpanzee he befriended – a perfect item for inclusion in a treasure box as it has the excellent qualities of having a strong association with a friend, being valueless to adults and also being repulsive to adults.

So why do we grow out of our treasure chests? Well I don’t think we do. An Englishman’s home may be his castle, but it is also his treasure box. As adults we have more wealth at our disposal to collect more valuable treasures. These days I am the proud owner of a diamond or two, not just a glass bead. We have computers and televisions, designer watches and shining cut glass. Instead of digging in the mud of the playground and picking things up off the floor we fight through the crowded aisles of the shops to discover our latest treasure, carrying it home in triumph. We have more space in the treasure box of our houses than we used to in a discarded cigar box or a ballerina musical box so we can have bigger collections of wonders.

But perhaps sometimes we could do with remembering childhood treasures. Joys worthless to others but precious to us. Often the most beautiful item in the shop loses its lustre when we bring it home in a way that my jay’s feather never did.

I found an unusual black and white spotted feather a few weeks ago. I gave it to a friend because I knew she would appreciate it. Her flat is her treasure box and it is closer to a children’s treasure box than most adults will ever understand. Some people would find my friend’s flat cluttered but I feel at home there because I know I have been invited into her special treasure box and I knew she was sharing her treasures with me.

On work and play

When I was a child someone said to me:

For a child work is an interruption of play; for an adult play is an interruption of work.

While I see the truth in that I wonder if I’m still a child because I still see work as an interruption of play. Of course, now I’m 30-ish I play differently from the way I played as a child (mostly) and I work differently as well, but when it comes to hanging the washing out or going back to the office after a break there’s no doubt in my mind that I am inconvenienced by the intrusion into my life.

I imagine that I may continue like this unless I have children in which case I suspect my existing play time will become none existent as I believe they bring unprecedented amounts of washing, sterilizing, sleepless nights, cleaning, shopping, etc., all of which definitely counts as work. While I hear that people do play with their children I can quite imagine that at that point play does become an interruption of work.

Of course not everyone without kids has as much playtime as I do. I do not worry if my house is dusty and untidy and, it being a fairly new building, it does not demand maintainance like an older property could. I prefer the garden to resemble a meadow with perennials that look after themselves and have that wild and un-manicured look. (The vegetable gardening is more cultivated but that counts as play.) If I were house-proud I wouldn’t have so much play time!

There’s not always a clear-cut division between work and play: an enjoyable task for one  person is another’s dreaded chore and even within your own life there will be things that you enjoy in the right mood yet despise in others. Even being at “work” can be play sometimes, particularly when that Friday-afternoon feeling hits the office and ludicrous conversation is the norm.

I’m know I’m not the only adult I know who still thinks work is an interruption of play. A colleague asked me last week why we had to return to work after morning break. I replied that she had to go back to work in order to have a lunch break. She was happy with the reasoning – surely that’s a case of treating work as an interruption of play?

I hope that I can remain a child by this definition for a long time, even if I do more work than I do at the moment. I’d rather think of life as a series of play-times, punctuated with work, than think of it as a long spell of drudgery with the occasional game. I feel sorry for people who feel they have to work all the time – I hope they don’t forget how to play.

On the education system as a preparation for life

School is no preparation for life.

I can only see two ways in which it prepares you. The first is that it makes you get up and leave the house every day. The second is that it puts you in close proximity to other people every day.

The academic system has conditioned me to expect a renewal in the autumn. At the very least I want new exercise books, crisp-leaved and un-sullied. On a less conscious level I expect my entire life and being to be raised to a new level, to gain more respect from those around me and to have more answers to the questions life poses.

Strangely that never happens. Instead the russet leaves and whorl-grained conkers herald the beginnings of seasonal affective disorder and the dull, cold and unforgiving winter.

While there are many jobs in which you are expected to take your work home with you, it is generally recognised as “a bad thing” in terms of work/life balance, health and wellbeing. School homework and coursework has reached a level where some children and teenagers cannot do all their work and maintain any leisure time. At my senior school 13-year-olds were expected to have 3 hours of homework each night, increasing as they went up the school to culminate in the GCSE years. Assuming a finishing time of 4, 45 min. travel time home and a bedtime of 9, the 13-year-old only has 1 hr. and 15 min. to eat dinner, interact with his/her family, undertake any household tasks and relax before it all begins again. Is it any wonder that mental health problems are on the increase when children are taught they have no time to rest, relax, socialize or even exercise?

School teaches you to conform with procedures and rules but most successful businesses are successful because they adopt new concepts and challenge old working habits.

The “cheating” that is so frowned on at school becomes “collaborative effort” in the workplace. If you can take what another business has done and build something new on the back of it (as long as it’s legal) everyone will applaud you.

In the world outside the maths lesson, no one wants to “see your working”. It doesn’t matter how you get results and in general people are more impressed by seeing the conclusion without the three pages of crossing out it took to get there!

I will concede that a lot of the things I learned at school are useful but the ways I was taught to think about them were not helpful.


Got to go – that’s the bell for the end of lunch. Has anyone seen my timetable?