After five or so years of putting it off, we’ve begun to redecorate our family home. My wife and I moved in together about a year before our wedding, and at that time did what I assume many in our situation do; we packed up the contents of two separate family homes and tried to shoe-horn it into every nook and cranny we could find.
The trappings (and clutter) possessed by two adults, each bringing two kids into the newly formed, blended family were considerable. These were packed with varying degrees of rigour and order, and save for a little deduplication and decluttering, boxes were stacked into every storage space available. Five years on, it was clear that before we could redecorate the home, we’d need to sort through all the stuff and get rid of the majority of it if we were ever to feel a semblance of order.
The process has been very worthwhile. Aside from the freeing-feeling that naturally accompanies throwing away, selling-on or donating things that are no longer required, some treasures have also been unearthed. There are the family photos that I’ve not sat back and enjoyed since they were taken down in my old home. Then there are the cherished gifts given to me by my kids when they were little, during the inter-marriage years when it was just me and them against the world. Most precious of these is a little ornament that my girls gave me depicting a father and his two daughters, their arms around each other in a group hug. I remember them presenting it to me on Christmas Day many years ago, and its significance and symbolism are as precious to me now as they were back then. It reminds me when I look at it that although life has moved on, I will always be part of a complete unit made up of me and the two of them.
There was also lurking in the box, an original Transformers Megatron toy, bought for me by my Dad during a business trip away, which is also pretty cool.
Aside from the trinkets, I also discovered a box of long-forgotten files that was buried deep in the back of a cupboard. I must have been going through a phase of nailing my personal-admin at some point in the distant past. Within it there were several cardboard files, each containing a selection of statements from old bank and credit accounts, rental-agreements for houses where I used to live, old work contracts and payslips, and letters and other records that I must have felt were important enough to warrant keeping. There was also a file full of samples of the kids early school-books and in one file I found proof of my Canadian Citizenship that I and my parents have been looking for, for years. That’ll come in handy if Brexit leads the UK to anarchy.
Sorting through these files prompted me to reflect on the period of my life covered by the documents contained within it. These spanned from as early as 1998, when I considered my true adulthood to have begun; I graduated from University in Summer 1998 and less than a year later was living with my now ex-wife, with our first daughter on the way. The files concluded around 2008 and as such served as a pretty comprehensive record of many aspects of my life for the first 10 years of adulthood. I want to share with you now some of the lessons I’ve learned as a result of going through those papers (most of which have now been shredded in a gesture of finality!)
I had no clue about money, how to manage it or its role and purpose in life
If the file box were to be labelled descriptively, a suitable title might be
“1998 to 2008 — The Age of Financial Fecklessness”
Within it were statements from numerous credit cards that were used liberally and seldom paid-off, bank statements showing regularly overdrawn balances and signed finance agreements, accepting punitive and ridiculous interest rates. There was the finance agreement for my BMW, a car that (at the time) was ridiculously out of my range, but which I convinced myself that I deserved and that I was certain would make me happy.
I didn’t, and it didn’t.
The credit cards recorded numerous purchases of homewares and building materials for home renovation. These misguided purchases ensured that my ex-wife and I managed to create negative-equity in a rising property-market during the course of our ill-fated marriage before selling our home when we parted. I don’t blame anyone but myself for this, and these purchases together with many others that were clearly for clothes, consumer goods and excessive eating and drinking out, all testify to a life misguidedly-lived pursuing happiness from external sources.
This financial impudence has taken many years to rectify, and while I appreciate the lessons that it yielded, I now feel a burning sense of pressure to convince my own kids not to follow the same path. Where the challenge of an easily-accessible consumer culture and readily available credit was a pitfall largely-unique to my generation, I fear that the current obsession with materiality and shallow-pleasures will draw the kids of today into thinking that happiness can be achieved by slapping down a credit card. I’ve learned that it can’t.
I have always strived to make a house into a home
Also within the box were the rental agreements for properties that I lived in once divorced, along with sales prospectuses for houses I have owned. I reached the sad-realisation during this life-laundry that over time I could very likely have owned at least one of those houses outright by now, had I simply been content to stay in one place (stability of marriage permitting) given how cheap property was back then.
On the positive side, being reminded of some of the many places I’d lived caused me to recall some very happy memories that are forever associated with each and every one of those houses. I have always subscribed to the idea that I don’t want to feel temporary about anywhere I live. To this day I live a somewhat transient life, split between two homes due to commitments around our blended family, but I still maintain that wherever I lay my head should feel like home. I firmly believe in this and can see that even though there was a great deal of uncertainty that has accompanied my adult life, much of it through my own making, I’ve always managed to feel grounded and settled wherever I was living.
This is a trait that I will continue to value and hope to pass on to my kids as they approach adulthood. Home isn’t just about being surrounded by ‘stuff’. It’s a state of mind and about allowing yourself to feel settled, self-assured and comfortable wherever you may be.
A childhood is a long-time and it brings many rewards and challenges.
I know it’s cliched for parents to get dew-eyed as they leaf through their kids’ old school books and marvel at mis-spelt words and clunky accounts of weekends spent playing at the park and finger-painting. Nonetheless, I found myself reminiscing once again about times past when my girls were little and when the world seemed simpler as a result.
Hindsight compels me to think that it was a simpler time and yet I know that I’m kidding myself. Today, my biggest parental worries are about trying to support my eldest adequately as she transitions to living overseas while still allowing her the freedom, independence and responsibility she needs to develop. Back then, I was more worried about her ability to build and maintain friendships and about her over-sensitivity to events around her. For my younger daughter, I’m currently fixated on overcoming the ambivalence and indifference she seems to display towards me, much of the time. Back then, I was worried what the lasting impacts of my parting from her mother might be when she was just 3-years-old.
The challenges evolve as kids get older and comparing where we were then, to where we are now was mostly heartening as I reflected on the amazing young women we’ve raised between us in spite of divorcing many years ago.
There were, within those folders some hints of the people they’d go on to become in later years too. The examples of neat, insightful and diligently-produced school work from my youngest, attested to the scholar she’s continued to be. There were many examples too that exemplified the creative and sensitive nature that my eldest has displayed throughout her life, such as that below.
A career is a long-time too.
There were a number of files relating to my career post-university, chronicling the various jobs I’ve had since starting in the world of work. When I began my career as a consultant for Oracle Corporation back in 1998, I remember being full of enthusiasm and impatient to build my skills and experience as I worked to earn the riches that I believed would be mine. Little did I know that I’d be laid-off less than a year after starting, in part since Oracle had over-estimated the demand for consultants triggered by the impending threat of chaos caused by the millennium-bug. My own arrogance was undoubtedly another factor.
The paperwork reminded me of the many twists and turns my career had taken since then. There were the many different jobs, the periods of unemployment, the management buy-out from a bankrupt dot-com consultancy and the eventual exit from that firm as I struck out on my own as a self-employed contractor. Each of these changes taught me something, and each contributed to me ending-up where I am today. I don’t recall loving (or hating) any of those jobs at the time. What I was never prepared for, was the exact way in which it would all happen, leading me to where I am now. I feel I’ve reached as far as I want to in my field, and am now seeking to diversify into work that is more creative and meaningful, hence my writing.
If I’d been told in 1998 that this was where it would all have been leading, I don’t think I’d have believed it, but I also don’t think I’d have been disappointed. In fact, I’d have embraced it as my destiny without hesitation; that is a heartening conclusion to reach.
Past performance is not necessarily an indication of the future. Nobody really knows what their future holds in any aspect of their lives. The future of relationships we’re blessed to enjoy, our health, prosperity, the challenges we will need to overcome and the events, both positive and negative that the future holds, are all a mystery at any point in our lives.
I am a big fan of living in the moment, here in the now and not being too wrapped up in events of the past that can’t be changed, or in the future which may or may not bring what we desire.
The experience of clearing through those old files has been an extremely positive one though. It has helped me to recognise just how much the passing of time can bring in life. Events that seem like hardships at the time (of which there were many for me in that period) go on to have lasting effects which seem almost universally to be for the better, provided we can move on positively from them.
It’s also good to have got some cupboard space back!
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