I Could Have Been Someone?

Deborah Sloan
6 min readDec 18, 2023


Photo by Edgar on Unsplash

(I have stopped publishing on Medium and can be found at https://deborahsloan.substack.com)

There were pink flamingos in Wonka. This isn’t a spoiler if you haven’t seen the film. They’re not integral to the plot. In fact, there’s not much of the plot I could spoil. We can relax as we consume our popcorn or in my case loaded nachos, truffle and parmesan fries and a medium pepperoni pizza washed down with a glass of prosecco because we know Willy won’t end up trapped in Olivia Colman’s laundry forever. There’s a chocolate factory in the future and a musical and a world of pure imagination and of course, good will eventually overcome evil. Blink and you might miss the flamingos. Willy and Noodle¹ are at the zoo and I’m still pondering how they could get across London but not escape their imprisonment. I asked my husband about it. “They had to get back every night for a headcount,” he said. It made no sense. Anyway, Willy needs to milk a giraffe. “Why do they not fly away?” asks Noodle. “They’re flamingos,” says Willy. “They need someone to show them the way”.

I have an official statement now. “Do you miss work?” they ask, and I recite my here’s-one-I-prepared-earlier. Sometimes I miss being part of an organisation, I say and being easily validated by it, and maybe a boss who occasionally tells me I’m doing a good job and obviously the salary because not earning my own money² still causes me angst and it’s hard to hand over the festive aftershave knowing that the person you are giving it to has paid for it themselves.

And, very occasionally, I have wistful thoughts about being part of a team and I remember things like those office gatherings where everyone contributed to the festivities and someone always brought party rings and even though everyone else drifted off to do emails, I’d stay to the bitter end and finish the cheeses.

But then I tell those that ask that there’s just something about no one telling you what to do.

And sometimes people try to validate my choices for me. “I’m sure four girls keep you busy,” they say. And I nod and think how I managed motherhood and full-time employment for eighteen years. Then there’s the regularly being judged by the boxes I don’t fit into on application forms and what to call myself when witnessing powers of attorney and all those semi-retired conversations³. In fact, those who worry that they used to be someone and aren’t someone anymore seem to be specifically seeking me out. And I’ve said all this before, but can I just reiterate that work is neither a role nor a title and that my working week is very full as I have to think from Monday to Thursday about what I’ll share on a Friday.

I went to a carol service on a Wednesday evening when I was trying not to panic about what to write about in the second week of December. It was in a cathedral and O Holy Night got a round of applause which it deserved because it does go awfully high. We stood for the reading of the fifth lesson which was odd. It seemed no one told us to sit down after the offering and so no one had the courage to go first, and we were kind of like flamingos needing someone to show us the way. It was quite nice to be sociable at the post-service mince pies, but I spent the whole time wondering how I was going to get out of the multi-storey because the man who had parked my seven-seater on the 25th floor had enjoyed mulled wine. When I met some people I used to ‘work’ with, I went a bit misty-eyed when they mentioned anticipating me popping into their inbox on a Friday afternoon. “I feel like I’ve already met you,” said one to my husband when I introduced him. And when a woman left a self-contained, heated, ‘has room for eight people’ restaurant pod at great speed because she did know my husband but not me but luvvved my writing, I hugged her which is unlike me because occasionally I miss having a boss who tells me I am doing a good job. I’m not sure what I’ll write about this week, I said. All I could think about was the multi-storey⁴.

Wonka was all about following dreams. Willy’s dead mother⁵ said “every good thing started with a dream” and I’ve always been mindful of that comment The Killers made about it being some kind of sin to live your whole life on a might’ve been⁶ and Pádraig Ó’Tuama who quoted Saint somebody or other when he said in his book⁷ that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive” and when they sang Fairytale of New York at Shane MacGowan’s funeral, it was quite clear that he was not a could have been someone. He was someone to a whole nation and poets and writers matter because in them and their creativity, the glory of God can shine most. So, when I tell people what I miss about a workplace, I also tell them that I don’t miss it and I stop there because it’s too hard to explain that I feel fully alive now and quite relieved that I didn’t not do the leaving because I’m never thinking I could have been someone. And I wouldn’t exactly say I’m following my dreams, or that I could be someone because what does that actually mean, but I am following my vocation and Elizabeth Gilbert⁸ explains the deep, deep relief of vocation better than I ever could.

“Somebody can take your job. Somebody can take your career. Nobody can take your vocation away from you,” she says. “I wrote every day because it was a holy calling. I needed to put my handprint on the wall of my life and say that I was here. I had a commitment to my vocation that said I will do this as long as I breathe regardless of whether anything ever comes of it”.

And freedom is basically not having regrets and so I look ominously at those people who ask and wonder if they need someone to show them the way.

And I suppose it did make sense why Willy didn’t escape when he could because he didn’t bring down the chocolate cartel and Rowan Atkinson and all the monks on his own. He did it with a little help from his friends, the accountant and the comedian and the telephone exchange operator and the plumber who knew where the storm drains were. He wanted them to taste freedom too. And, when everything concludes neatly outside a cathedral, the flamingos are there because they’ve discovered they can fly away or maybe someone told them they could.

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But the flamingos were never just a flamingo. They didn’t travel alone. And I’ve been thinking about my team, not the official one I used to have, but the unofficial one I have now and how although we’re not planning cheese and party rings because most of my ‘team’ don’t know each other, it’s every single person who tells me to “keep writing” and everyone who shares my writing and P who first put my writing in front of an editor and S who has kept publishing me and L and K and M who pushed doors for me and the two J’s who invited me on to their podcasts and A who put me on the radio and the thing is, we never get lucky breaks, we only ever get lucky with the people who show us the way.

[1] An orphan who lives in the laundry.

[2] The Final Taboo — She Who Earns No Money https://deborahsloan.substack.com/p/the-final-taboo-she-who-earns-no? (external link).

[3] There’s A Hole In My Bucket — Why It’s Important That Work Is Not Everything https://deborahsloan.substack.com/p/theres-a-hole-in-my-bucket-why-its? (external link).

[4] I made it out ok but best not to look at my alloys.

[5] Hope this isn’t a spoiler…

[6] Caution

[7] In the Shelter

[8] Distinguishing Between Hobbies, Jobs, Careers, and Vocation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0g7ARarFNnw (external link).



Deborah Sloan

I am no publishing here but am now on Substack at https://deborahsloan.substack.com. I write about leaving things in midlife.