Spelling Out My Story

Spelling Out My Story

“Bernard! If you don’t stop that, I’ll go get the sack.” That was all Marie said, and her son stopped, looked up in fear, and apologised. Marie relaxed back into her seat and explained, “He knows I’ll hang him in the sack from a tree for an hour. It’s funny, he is so scared of the sack. I can get him to do anything.”

My mother’s colleague had brought her family for a Sunday BBQ and she was happily sipping on her cocktail. I sat next to my mother and thought, “When I am grown up, I don’t want to be a mommy like her. I want to be a mommy like mine. One who sits at my dolly-tea-parties and pretends to drink imaginary tea and reads bed time stories.”

As a child I was not a good reader. I was not a good writer either. If my life depended on spelling, it would have had a very sad outcome. I would carefully write the words that I actually knew how to spell. And I used up a lot of energy finding ways to trick my teachers into believing that I had bad handwriting over bad spelling habits. That was until I was sixteen years old and an English teacher told me to stop focusing on spelling. Grammar, he said, was for cowards. “I want to know the story. If I can’t imagine it, then no good-spelling is going to get me there anyway.”

I took his words as gospel and I began to tell stories.

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About Xanti

Xanti was born in South Africa in the late ’60s. She enjoys travelling around the world, which is why she has lived in seven different countries. She believes in equality for all people. Xanti gave up on a single career path when it became necessary to choose between travel and career. After seeing the shadows and the light of abandonment and abuse, she adopted her two children. She has always been interested in understanding why people do what they do. This helped her when her experiences as an adoptive mother shaped her view on parenting.  She’s been through earthquakes, a volcano erupting and a couple of fires. Currently, Xanti lives in Mauritius but continues to travel the world whenever possible.

You can visit her website at www.xantibootcov.com
Or her Facebook page.

As a mother desperately trying to find the middle ground between the dreaded sack and the imaginary tea-parties, I turned to writing to get me out of some of my saddest moments. I was a mother who felt like I was failing every test, but I found acceptance and healing in the words I banged out on my keyboard. My spelling was bad. I couldn’t grasp the active voice and I wasn’t even sure if I could remember an adverb from a pronoun, but write I did. Tears dripped some days. Giggles filled the house on others.

I found meaning and understanding, and I found my place in my story. Don’t get me wrong, I still think spelling and grammar are important. There is a whole world of meaning between “a part” and “apart”. Don’t even get me started on the difference between “your” and you’re”, but here is the thing: Words are important. How could you explain that your heart is sore if you don’t know the word for heart? How would you say that you are in love if you didn’t have the language to express the emotion?

As for my parenting skills? Well, you’ll have to ask my children if I ever brought out the sack. I know I tried to give my children the best life I could offer. I know I had good days and I know I had bad ones. Days where I succeeded and days when I felt I was worse than the tree-sack-hanger. But through all of that, I repeated the same message that I was given all those decades ago. Let me hear your story. Tell me your story. Write your story.

Give it a try and maybe you will find yourself in between the lines. Or even more meaningful, perhaps someone else will find themselves between your paragraphs. What could be better than that?

Being able to spell onomatopoeia?

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So I started writing, in earnest, in the place I thought was the beginning. I wrote some more, and the beginning fell in love and became the middle. Then the end went off to boarding school and became the beginning of the end. The bloody middle lost weight and became invisible, and I killed the darling. The end got cancer and became the beginning.

It was like trying to teach overwrought grasshoppers to line dance.

I found myself walking up a hill every afternoon with “how do I solve a problem like my memoir” echoing in my head to the refrains of Rodgers and Hammerstein. I just wanted my story to stand still a moment so I could pin it down. But it wouldn’t. It kept on with its manic bouncing until one morning, I stopped trying to control it and allowed myself to rest in the confusion and chaos. This wasn’t a science experiment; I didn’t need to have a hypothesis on how it was going to end when I threw sodium into the swimming pool.

I learnt to focus less on line dancing classes and control, and to think more deeply on what was emerging and presenting itself in the writing. Writing memoir is a moving target. Maybe it is supposed to be a moving target; maybe it’s supposed to shake things up.

Maybe that’s the point: so as the target moves, you see the stuff behind, underneath, beyond.

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About Barbara

 

Very little in Barbara Matthews’ life has turned out the way she thought it would. She certainly never thought the right side of her brain would amount to much – it seemed superfluous in a world of numbers and the periodic table. A midlife career change into the practice of Palliative Medicine in rural South Africa forced Barbara to find language for experiences resolutely resisting the boundaries of science. Her writing has become a practice of self-care and meaning-making as she makes friends with the angel of death.

It wasn’t only the story that was moving and growing and changing. I was moving too. I stopped standing in one place and began shifting my view. Something happens when we extract feelings, emotions, and memories from our neurology and metabolise them and set them down on the page. It’s a curious alchemy. Writing about your life is not about noting what you did on Friday the 14th of March 1986. Who cares? Unless it was the day you swallowed a shard of glass and your gut exploded and you had a near-death experience on an operating table in Cairo. Unless it was the day you turned down a marriage proposal from the boy next door who became a murderous stalker and opened a cake shop. Even then, the details only matter if you can pull meaning from them. Things start to settle when you begin to make meaning, and sometimes they may jiggle some more, until you look again. It’s okay, the moving and jiggling; it’s how you know you’re finding the good stuff.

I am no longer alarmed when the ground begins to lurch. I get out the trekking poles, put on the hiking books, and keep on climbing. It is the only way to get to a high vantage point, away from the emotion and participation of the moment remembered, to a place where I can glimpse the landscape. 

The writing is changing me. The changing me is changing the writing.

When I started, I thought I knew what it was all about. I didn’t know. The knowing can only come with the work, the reflection, the practice. Be brave, be bold, be curious. It’s the only way to hit that moving target.

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