The Blind Spot

park

Today a woman lost her daughter in the park. It was a sunny Sunday, about 3pm, loads of kids kicking about a football or three, many a dog walker like ourselves and a few cyclists stripped down to their lycra shorts and soaking up the last of the summer sun.

We were throwing a stick for the dog, and drinking coffee, sitting under one of the big oaks that lines the make shift football pitches, watching a guy trying to fly a kite without any wind. This is not a remarkable day. I have done two loads of washing, put off the vacumming and berated myself for not sorting through the bathroom cabinet. A standard day. Nothing special, but a pleasant day. No rain, and it’s warm for late August. We left our jackets at home and I’m kicking myself for wearing jeans, but pleased we’ve made it out the house. The dog needs exercising and who knows how long we’ll have this weather for. Its September tomorrow after all. 

I’m feeling a bit annoyed, inexplicably so, although probably because R took too long getting the coffee or spoke in an off tone to the dog. In reality, I’m probably annoyed as its Sunday afternoon and the weekend is winding down.  My annoyance is peaked as someone is shouting and cutting across the usual park buzz. It’s not the shout of a kid retrieving a ball, or someone calling their rogue dog. Its a distressed shout. And its repeating one word over and over.

I’m not really paying attention as this stage, so I can’t make out the word, but its reached that volume so that I have noticed. I’m walking up the small embankment to retrieve a better throwing stick for the dog and as I’m walking closer to the main path I catch the tail end of a conversation.

‘…she’s 4 and she’s on a scooter. She just went over the hill and I thought by the time I caught up I’d see her on the other side, but I can’t see her…’

A calm voice, but with enough of a tremor to betray the rising panic. I put two and two together, she was shouting a name.

‘..right, and you’ve looked by the swings and the cafe?’ The conversation continues with an elderly couple who have stopped to offer help. Although I’m not sure they’re elderly, I’m guessing by the tone as I’m not close enough to tell and there’s a few hedges and shrubs between us.

I’m still not really paying my full attention as the dog has now got into a tiff with a Maltese-cross and I’m telling her off. But a few more people have now congregated around this woman and someone says,

‘I think you should call the police’ 

But the sun is shining, and the park is tranquil and its Sunday. There aren’t even that many people around –  not enough to lose someone. And its a big open park. Scenes like this don’t play out now do they? I wander back down to the oak tree where we’ve plotted up and I mention what I have heard to R. He’s just has surprised as I am.

‘Here? Did you just pick all of that up from walking up the hill and back?’

I start to wonder if I day-dreamed it, but then I see the mother, walking very fast, talking on her mobile with another child trailing after her. She must be calling the police. I start to feel a bit queasy. 

I’m almost subconsciously now scanning for a lone child on a scooter. Hoping to see her coming out from around a tree, from behind the playground steps, may she was hiding?  I’m torn between running after the mother and asking if I can help to reminding myself she is calling the police and doesn’t know me from Adam, and that I’ve just earwigged the whole conversation and I’m not holding all the facts. 

We carry on throwing the stick for the dog. Continue with our conversation. Finish our coffee. Walk a bit further around the park. I tell myself the professionals will be on the scene soon, and that she’ll be found queuing up for ice-cream with no knowledge of the drama that unfolded. But I’m scanning the park regardless. 

Sometime later, with the dog suitably exhausted we meander back past the oak, along the main track where I had overheard the conversation. I can’t see the mother, or any sign of the police. The man is still trying to fly his kite. Kids are still kicking about a ball. There’s a healthy queue for the ice-cream van. No sign of anything untoward. We must have missed the reunion. The relief. Probably some tears and then reprimanding the child for wandering off. But lots of hugs, That’s what’s happened. Otherwise we’d see some kind of gathering with men in high vis, and questioning. I tell myself its all worked out. Perhaps that child I saw with the mother while she was on the phone was the original lost child after all.

We make our way home. But it hit me again how the extraordinary things happen on ordinary days. We don’t get the luxury of ominous theme music to alert us to something coming down the road, no heads up, no warning. We do not get the chance to prepare ourselves. We cannot possibly know what will happen on a Sunday afternoon at the end of August. When throwing a stick for the dog.

We know this, of course, on an academic level, but we still think we can prepare for every eventuality, that we have no blind spots. If we save enough money, or take enough care, do all of our research, have all of the control. Or that we have the luxury of waiting for the right time. For the stars to align, for the perfect conditions. And it both scenarios there is no such thing. We are not in control. There are no perfect conditions. Most importantly, we have no guarantee that we have the luxury of time, and that it is a huge luxury.

Maybe it’s that I am hurtling head first into my mid-thirties, or that its already September, which basically means its Christmas, or that I am seeing time pass so much quicker as our friend’s kids grow up (and speak! go to school!). That many of my contemporaries are now experiencing age-related illness with parents, and we were in our teens over 20 years ago. Even though it really only felt like the other day we were scaling the walls to go clubbing past our curfews.

Unsettling, uncomfortable and disquieting yes, but a good reminder to get on with the business of living, and stop putting off all the things that I want to do ‘when I have time’ and just do them. Even if it is just a quiet Sunday Afternoon. 

 

Not in Front of the Grown Ups

Over the past few months I have found myself in a number of scenarios talking to people either finishing school, starting university or embarking on their first jobs. The excitement and nerves about exam results, waiting on job offers and the thrill of the possibilities of what comes next – it’s an infectious optimism.

It’s been 16 years since I finished high school, over ten years since I finished university but I remember the feeling well. The sheer awe of opportunity, that anything was possible, and there was so much time it almost seemed to much to take on board. Like being handed the keys to your first car and maps to every highway on offer.

Finding your feet in the adult world isn’t that dissimilar to learning to drive. You get all the qualifications but you still don’t have a clue what you’re doing. I was smug as a Persian cat having got my license on my  first attempt. I put this down to my father’s endless patience and constant presence in the passenger seat of the family Honda.  I drove in circles around the local cemetery (everyone was already dead, there was very little risk of further damage) getting my head around the clutch and starting on a hill without flooding the tank.

I passed the theory easily, moved on to take a few more formal lessons and then booked my test. Which remains, to this day, the most nerve racking two hours of my life. I nailed parallel parking, and alley docking but I stalled the car twice and nearly went through an amber light. I was distracted by my driving examiner’s spectacular mullet and the tortoise-shell comb sticking out of his knee high khaki sock. Minor whiplash aside (from sudden braking at said amber light) he handed me a brand spanking new licence. A ticket to freedom. And that was that. I was released onto the mean streets of Jo’burg without any experience of driving on the highway, in wet weather, or at night. Qualified I was, prepared I was not.

But as everyone knows, you learn to drive after you get the piece of paper  stamped and your picture taken. This goes for your career in being a tax paying individual, you learn on the job. The same advice applies for when you stall at a busy intersection during a thunderstorm as to when you go completely blank during a dream job interview: Don’t Panic. Breathe. Start again (and turn on your hazards).

Nothing can prepare you for how you will feel when you have to step up and speak at a funeral, when you have to take responsibility for a major cock up, or call emergency services. No one will tell you how to leave a relationship, how to support a grieving friend, the best way to negotiate a new salary, wedding venue, holiday discount. You learn as you go.

Twenty years ago, I was 13 and starting high school with dreams of being either a forensic psychologist or investigative journalist (I wanted to be a kick ass combination of Clarice Starling and Nancy Drew). Turns out I wasn’t all that keen on all the stats in Psych, and there didn’t appear to be any access to interviewing serial killers.

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My friend Jasna and I taking graduation very seriously

Ten years after that I ended up in media and advertising,  working with a different brand of psychopath altogether. But the fun kind. Another ten years on from that and I am working in publishing. At least now the psychos are mainly fictional.

I switched up, changed paths and tried new things. And I’m not done yet. In fact most of the most inspirational people I know and look up to have done just that. They keep learning.

Which was why I was really surprised to find that all of the younger people I have been speaking to are still focusing on becoming a ‘something’. Trying to figure out the right subjects, take the right courses, land the one job. And I remember this fear really well, desperate to choose the right mix of courses so as not to limit my career choices. The fact is that my choice of second year electives have very little bearing on what I do today other than to make very useful at certain pub quizzes that feature Greek Mythology. Few of us have a job for life. We get to make mistakes, discover new talents and pursue unforeseen opportunities.

That said, I am now 33 years old. Officially in my Jesus Year (yes apparently this is a thing now) and I am expected to get a move on and get my shit together. Or have some spiritual awakening. So I guess my choices are to have some fantastic career breakthrough or head to Cambodia to meditate.

But I still have no idea what I want to be. I am taking this as a good thing and a sign that there are still many more adventures to be had.

Any other Clarice wannabes out there? Love to hear what you lot want to be when you grow up

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