Thursday, January 22, 2004

Falling into place 

Some say their schooldays were the happiest days of their lives. Free of cares, no responsibilities to drag them down, all needs taken care of, freedom that has never been matched since (although not recognised as such at the time!), security – surely a recipe for happiness. I had a very fortunate childhood – I had all those things, yet behind my schooldays lurked a dark shadow, something that the brightest sunshine was never wholly able to dispel.

I had a speech impediment – a stammer. I’ve no idea how it came about; I can remember not having it at about five, and having it in a very big way at seven, but I have no recollection at all of the transition. I think there may have been some trauma that is locked inaccessibly away in some heavily barred recess of my mind, but I can’t be sure. Anyhow, the source isn’t relevant.

Sometimes it was so bad I was physically unable to talk – unable to form words; the only sound that came from my mouth was a rapid staccato er…er…er…er… Then maybe a few words would get spat out, only to be halted violently at the next impossible sound, vocal chords locked in spasm.

Junior school was tough, but secondary school was hell at times. There were occasional playground taunts, but nothing I couldn’t cope with by the simple expedient of turning my back and walking away. It wasn’t the anarchy of the playground that gripped me most; it was the formality of the classroom prison. Worst of all was the “creeping death”, when the teacher would go around the class person by person, asking each a question. My turn would get closer and closer; a juggernaut rolling ponderously but inexorably closer, ready to crush me; a malicious spotlight creeping nearer and nearer with evil intent to expose me, chained in its path. As the moment drew near, the nervous tension became unbearable, which of course only tightened the constricted muscles further and guaranteed complete incapability of coherent speech. But what joy, should the class end before my turn came!

Those were the worst days. Thankfully, they weren’t all as bad as that. I had a few close friends, a loving family, plenty of interests – I wasn’t unhappy, I just experienced those moments of extreme apprehension, awkwardness, discomfort and panic.

And isolation. That was the killer. I was always quiet in social groups. Not completely silent, but quiet. So I never developed the social back-chat skills of childhood. Speech was always a pre-meditated, almost formal, affair – never free and easy chatter. In group conversations such as in late teens at the pub, by the time I’d summoned up the courage to butt in with my thoughts, the conversation would have long since moved on and my piece was irrelevant, belonging to a point five minutes in the past. So I stayed silent.

Things are very different now. With speech therapy and the increase in confidence that comes from growing up, I largely grew out of it. In early years at work, the telephone was an instrument of torture – I would devise all manner of subterfuges to avoid using it – but now it is a real friend. I love talking with people (although social chit-chat is still not my strong point) and although the stammer occasionally surfaces to trip me up – especially if I’m tired or nervous – mostly people are totally unaware of it.

Why am I telling you all this?

One of the magical things I see as the years go by is how previously inexplicable parts of life seem to find meaning and fall into place, as though they belonged to some plan. All it takes sometimes is a change of perspective.

Through that stammer, I’ve learned to listen. Knowing that I’m not going to get to say my piece, not being so intent on putting forward my own point of view, I have by default learned more easily to hear what others say. Not always, but perhaps more than is typical.

I’ve been able to observe, to forget self and just to absorb what I see, hear, touch, feel.

I’ve learned too how to create a space between ideas and words. Sometimes it can be good to bounce words back and forth as they spontaneously appear in consciousness, but at other times it’s good to allow ideas to germinate freely and grow without being forced into the straightjacket of spoken words.

Have you spotted the connection yet?

Only in the last couple of weeks has the value of that uncomfortable past dawned on me. How those characteristics of listening, observing, contemplating, match so perfectly the needs of a writer. What yesterday seemed a curse today seems a blessing.

And if those characteristics give writing a powerful forehand stroke, in a beautiful display of symmetry, with a deft sweep of its backhand, writing dismisses the residual risk that, on their own, they might give rise to a disconnectedness.

Funny how things fall into place…

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