Spelling

How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem. 

Mary Oliver

Photo Les Anderson

I’ve been writing since I was very small. My first poem was a simple metaphor.

A child clings to her mothers hand like a limpet clings to a rock

I cant remember writing the words but they gave voice to a deep longing to be loved. Unable to realise the desired level of connection at that time I turned to the comfort of metaphor. If I could not warm myself close to fires of love I could at least watch the flames through the windows of words.

I write a lot but I hesitate to share because I cant spell… very well. I also have a troubled relationship with grammar, with commas and with sentence structure. Having never been a great fan of any orthodox structure or form I decided at primary school age, after one of the teacher slapped my face as I stood on the cement steps leading to entrance of the girls wing, that attending this kind of school everyday was unreasonable. 

In the mornings I would leave my house washed and well dressed and head off down the road, my fists curled in the dark pockets of my blazer. Occasionally, I would stop to pull up my knee-length socks or snip a leaf from a hedge.

My mother would have closed the front door on responsibility once I’d cleared next doors low stone wall although I would continue to look back and check if she was still there, still waving, even though I’d passed the modest porch of the Maxwells (two well-to-do sisters – thin and shy like sparrows). My mother had a shock of wavy blond hair so it wasn’t difficult to make her out at a distance against the orange brick of the semi-detached houses. I passed Mr and Mrs Vaughn’s who had a family car, two daughters and an air of decency and then on to the end house. None of us knew or cared  much about this family who looked more down-at-heel than the O’Connells, the Maxwells or the Vaughns.

At the end of the block I would turn left and disappear into a little maze of streets huddling around a municipal park. Sometimes I would just wander aimlessly and sometimes I would knock at Johnnos, who would be at home watching TV. Johnno would let me in and we would sit in his shabby living room eating white toast spread with Blue Band Margarine. 

In the early 1970’s after 8.30 in the morning the streets were like grave-yards. The once considerable population of Liverpool were either in work, on the bus to work, or if they worked in the house, tackling the breakfast dishes or pegging freshly washed sheets to a cord line in a back yard or toy-littered garden. As I walked the streets I became aware that populations followed routines, they got up, ate toast, drank tea and went to work. I extrapolated. They would do this for how long? Everyday!! The realisation triggered a contraction in my abdomen, which I labelled ‘no’.

I missed a lot of lessons but learnt other stuff. Sometimes I would sit on the railway embankment studded with conifers and watch a blue train pass. A face that I would never see again stared back at me for a moment through a square glass window. I noticed that trains left behind a long and loud silence. Empty of people with plans the morning relaxed and the crows settled like black jewels in the crowns of the trees. The coalmen, bent and black-faced, delivered sacks of compressed time, while the milkman in his nearly white coat and black-peeked cap tinkled his way from step to step. 

I’m possibly dyslexic. Once a woman who I didn’t like offered to test me to see if I was. I told her to get lost. I couldn’t spell beautiful until I was 12. I sat poised at my desk, my middle finger stained with ink wanting to write that word. The letters seemed to stumble too close together like lemmings at the edge of a cliff. I turned around and sitting behind me was Sandra. Sandra was beautiful. She later appeared in several movies shown at a local cinema. She spelt out the letters slowly and patiently. It all added up. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. After that, I could always spell that tricky customer in the spelling test ‘beautiful’. 

I was slow to read. I could see the black bent pipe work of words set out across the pages that smelt of age and I began to bend them into shape to describe the sense of  wonder I felt when I saw the electric blue body of a dragonfly or the solar system mapped onto the breast of a starling. But. The pipe work wasn’t right. It was wrong. Red ink across everything I wrote in the schoolbook. Wrong! I took my wonder and kept it in my pocket with some twigs and a snail shell. 

Order, repetition, and the ritual of form provide a comforting alternative to the incomprehensible facts; clueless as to what will happen in the next moment we stumble across the surface of a planet that sits in deep dark space spinning around at an perplexing 1000 miles an hour. And however graceful the stumbling the finale is always the same. Spelling correctly will not save us.

I fear judgment because I put together the pipework in a slightly different way. Sometimes my very good friends check my writing before I ‘put it out there’. Sometimes they haven’t got time and so I wait and wait and sometimes I just give up or forget about it and pull on my running shoes and bob through puddles in the lanes. I read an article and it said nearly half of the people they talked to admit they judge others if their spelling is poor, while just under a quarter of people admit they have been embarrassed by a spelling mistake they made at work. Judging is so easy isn’t it? The visual stimulus of the ‘incorrectly’ spelt word can trigger a whole little galaxy of reactions, fear, embarrassment, anger, disgust, dismissal. Such a little trigger such a lot of aversion.

Many of us are just looking for any small reason to judge, to big ourselves up a millimetre by sneering momentarily at another. I do it myself, shoring up my imaginary sense of self, letting off little puffs of steam that rise from my sense of inadequacy. 

I too have felt the hot sting of shame as a teacher shouted, ‘Power! Are you stupid? Is that how you think you spell incompetant!’ In order to give you a chance to work with your judgment and me a chance to let go of selfing, I’ve decided that you’re big enough to cope with unusual plumbing. The water will still be hot 🙂

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