Sarah Sheldon’s Big Deshishions: (6) Go slowly but surely

Funny and frank Sarah Sheldon examines the unconscious decisions that have shaped her life in this, the last post in the series

Move forward in your life slowly but surely

Slowly but surely, and not even in a straight line. Laura Eades 2014

Sarah Sheldon writes:

Meet a man who missed success

I grew up in Manchester which had a music service where you could learn whatever musical instrument you wanted for free. I ended up with the flute because it fit in my bag.

I quite liked it, even if the teacher, who also taught the saxophone, was driven by two things: his hatred of children and frustration at having dropped out of a band called Brewer’s Droop over an argument about parking.

Brewer’s Droop went on to become one of the world’s most commercially successful bands, Dire Straits. On a bad day the teacher was known to pick people up by their hair, leaving the younger students whimpering into their woodwind.

Patience doesn’t come naturally to everyone

My sister learned the clarinet but she hated to practise. She would scream and shout, refusing point blank, arguing that if she had to do it, then why didn’t the dog.

The dog was old and didn’t show much interest in playing the clarinet. Instead it developed rare infections which required expensive treatment, causing different, heated arguments.

In the beginning, dogwork didn’t bother me, though

I didn’t mind practising, in part because I went along with it like everything I was told to do, like get in the car or put my coat on, now. I definitely didn’t have a sense of the bigger picture or suffer frustration at the slowness of my progress. My sister’s resistance stemmed, not from a thwarted desire to be the best, but from the belief that there were simply better ways to spend her time, like watching Home and Away, for instance, or trying to clean the dog’s teeth.

Then I decided I had to be the best NOW

Yet I soon abandoned this patient, piecemeal approach to learning, becoming only too aware of the gulf between my ambitions and the reality of my existing skill set.

I was plagued at school by two high achievers who went on to fame and fortune.

Meet John, who makes my journalistic career look like shit

Well I have written my fair share of laxative-based articles, when I worked for a drugs newsletter in Southend.

I sat next to John in primary school. While he would tease me for not knowing what pi was or how to do long division, I sat there smug in my ability to tie my own shoelaces and wipe my own nose.

John is now a leading economics editor for national TV, playing an instrumental role in exposing the Icelandic banking crisis.

The implication is ‘if he could do it, why haven’t you?’

Although we never saw each other again after primary school, my mum became obsessed with his career, fuelled by sporadic accidental meetings with his mum in Marks and Spencers.

At one particularly low point, I was working as a chamber maid at The Manchester Hilton (where I was struggling with such questions as: Is it better etiquette to pretend I haven’t seen a pair of dirty underpants lying on the bathroom floor, than to put them discreetly in the laundry basket). I heard John being interviewed on Radio 4 on the implications of 9/11 whilst I was cleaning a toilet. I then returned home to my parents’ house to find my mum had recorded the interview for me to listen to when I got back from work.

And now meet Vanessa, who had early assets

She was a couple of years ahead of me at secondary school. A few years ago I signed up to a writing course only to discover to my horror that she was one of the tutors.

We were both in a school production of The Tempest. Vanessa played Miranda, the princess. I was Caliban, the monster, and was made to wear a giant nappy and a flesh-coloured top that made it seem I was bare–(and flat–)chested. Even then there was a gulf between us. I suspected that Prospero, who I had a big crush on, was interested in her.

Despite not knowing her parents, my mum would also provide me with regular updates on Vanessa’s career, her meteoric rise to award-winning journalist, writing a Penguin-published book, giving talks at the Southbank on women in the arts. I think she even gave a TED talk on success.

There was the problem of recognition

I found it uncomfortable on the course, because I felt that we should acknowledge the fact that we did sort of know each other, even if our lives had taken drastically different turns. That two years’ gap didn’t really account for how far behind I was in my mind, writing about the gas market on the Siberian peninsula and living in a house which smelled like fruit salad.

On the last night of the writing course, and after a few drinks, Vanessa and I did establish that we had been at the same school, although I was ultimately unable to ask her the one thing I really wanted to know – whether she had got off with Prospero at the cast party.

Some things just take time, that’s all

I have since rediscovered the value of process over outcome, not least through my experience of going to Guatemala a few years ago for work, where I had to pick up Spanish from scratch.

Having failed to get much out of the Linguaphone tapes in the months before leaving, when I arrived I felt overwhelmed with the enormity of the task ahead. It soon became a humbling experience.

Learn the language of self-kindness and accept a steady pace

My first teacher there would spend our lessons telling me about the various students she had taught who had developed crushes on her. The conversations were a little one-sided as I had no idea what she was talking about, barely able as I was to order a sandwich. Sometimes when she sensed I was not following, she would supply visual aids like photographs.

Later on, I would attend classes with Danish gap year students and religious fundamentalists who, when asked to give examples of the future tense, would say things like, “Jesus will return to the world and save us all”.

This process of learning which along the way would be stymied by various complicated leg injuries, hospital visits and surgery, drawn-out insurance claims and mistaken vocab – I spent days informing my colleagues I had hurt my leg ‘crapping in the street’ (‘to fall’ and ‘to crap’ very similar in Spanish) – made me realise that there was little option but to take things a step at a time.

Can you give yourself time?

The challenge but also necessity of accommodating gradual change was most recently brought home to me in my weekly mindfulness class.

I was very struck by the fact that one of the participants, Jeffrey, revealed that he did not have time for the three minute breathing meditation set as the homework. While I had found the longer exercises challenging – struggling to ‘notice’ my leg and buttock, for example, and disconcerted at how easy it was both to empty my mind of any thoughts and remain in a state of utter vacancy, I could also relate to Jeffrey’s admission.


Far better to spend that time breathing, I think now, than googling Vanessa’s latest TED talks, or John’s take on the latest pension pot reforms.

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Sarah Sheldon is a London-based writer (journalism mainly, having covered everything from the Lithuanian laxative market to Panamanian presidential elections inclusive). Sideline in stand-up comedy. She is trying to be less ambivalent about everything, including what should and should not go into a biographical note. She is co-founder of Shake The Tree, a monthly comedy night in Islington. Twitter: @sarahlsheldon

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