What did you want to be when you were fifteen?” asked the avuncular presenter on Radio 4; he also pointed out that while he knew he had a few listeners who were not yet fifteen, nevertheless the average audience age was 58. I felt younger for a moment, when being below average seemed OK, then chided myself for ageism. The article was related to a survey of teenage aspiration which had proven to be mismatched against predictions for future labour market demand.
“Since when did that matter?” I wondered. “Surely most of us wanted to be something extraordinary, but knew deep down it may never quite work out>”
What I meant was, I knew. I didn’t mind either. I always saw something honourable and even desirable about being ordinary.
When I was fifteen I was torn between options. I wanted to get married, have six children and live in the country baking bread, keeping hens and raising artists.
The other option was to be a teacher. I understood I would need to make myself a living, that I was unlikely to get into astronaut school, given that I was too fat to be an air hostess and also decided to take German instead of Physics. Xenolinguistics would be brilliant but I am still waiting on NASA discovering (or admitting to) more than evidence of water on Mars billions of years ago implying that there may have been organisms there once, or fossilised nanobacteria in meteorites.
Teaching appealed to me on a number of levels. I had had a happy experience at primary school, and thought teachers were great. I liked keeping an eye on younger children. Finally primary school teaching did not require specialisation in a single subject. You didn’t become a maths teacher or an English teacher or a biology teacher. You just were a teacher, and taught everything. That suited me completely because I was what the call an “all-rounder” (and not just because of my endomorphic propensities).
So there I was being a sensible teenager, a thing of vanishingly small probability. But I listened to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” on the radio and knew that in an infinite universe anything was possible, and indeed could even be extrapolated from a fairy cake. So I also knew it was possible, if improbable, that dreams could come true.
I wanted to be either a full time mum or a teacher because they were realistic options that I thought I might achieve. What I dreamed of being was different.
No one asks you that, though, do they? They don’t say “What do you dream of being when you grow up?”
I dreamed of being a time traveller, or the first person to walk on Mars of the Moons of Saturn or an as yet undiscovered planet out past Alpha Centauri. I dreamed of being a famous explorer, a starship captain, of discovering the cure for cancer in the Amazon rain forest, or the cure for war at a Tibetan monastery high in the Himalayas. I dreamed of saving the rhino and the giant panda and the Siberian tiger. I dreamed of being a witch who could cast spells to bring people to their senses, solve murders and thwart evil villains in their lairs. I dreamed of going back and stopping Hitler. I dreamed, you see, of making a difference.
Some days I still do. Mostly I encourage other, younger, folk to dream. “It’s too late for me,” I try to tell them, “but you can still do it. You have time.”
Pathetic, my dears. Absolutely pathetic.
Why should I give up just because time and gravity have ganged up on me? In the end someone has to beat the odds. “Look at Catherine Cookson,” I tell myself. “She only wrote her first novel in her forties.”
Well, we haven’t had any poetry in the Bag o’ Bits ™ for a few days now, so I’ll let Milton chip in. In his poem, “On His Blindness”, particularly appealing to me given my own struggles with visual decline, he wrote:
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.
Milton was a bit of a bore to my mind, but my dears, he was right and sometimes we must be patient. It’s a pain, I know, and I detest it. I am not a person with great reserves of patience. It’s as well that I became neither a full time mum nor a teacher. I can see I am not suited for such things. Milton knew what his talent was, and was frustrated at not being able to use it fully. I am yet to discover mine, and so am frustrated at not using it fully. Life, eh?
Today I remembered that bright, hot feeling I had at fifteen when the world lay before me to be plundered for experiences. I plundered a little. I am glad of that. I didn’t choose a path and follow it, but came adventurously by winding, unexpected roads. That has been the fun. I’m keeping a blindfold on, because knowing what comes next would be too dull.
It seems a bit of a paradox that a bright future is best seen with a blindfold, but that’s just the way it is, out here on the Moons of Saturn.