Self Portrait

Self Portrait

I met her at a conference. You might recognise her easily because she sits in the front row and asks questions. She has a tinny voice and asks questions that have the ring of the non-sequitor about them. She is of average height, with curly fair hair that must be coloured given her age. Mid fifties you would say, thin and pale skinned. She is friendly in a sometimes over the top way that can be off putting especially for others who might be shy. She thrusts herself forward to introduce herself to complete strangers. Bold, I say.

She is a note taker, the whole way through every talk you see her taking notes as if her life depends upon it. I look over her shoulder from my position in the second row and I see that her handwriting is virtually illegible. I could never read it. I ask her about it at morning tea.
‘I’m a compulsive note taker,’ she says. ‘I have to take everything down; otherwise I fear I will miss out on something. I never know when I might need it.’

She has the feel of someone who is hungry for more. She moves through a room at a fast pace. You do not often see her dawdle. Always in a hurry. Again you wonder what is she running from, or where is she running.

She is good enough with her words but she seems to lack confidence in herself sometimes, at surprising times when you least expect it. She is forever qualifying the things she says, as if she is fearful of offending people.
‘At the risk of generalising,’ she will say. Or, ‘I don’t want to polarise positions,’ or, ‘I know, it’s not exactly like this…’

She turns around from her place in the front row to introduce herself to me. She is the only one in the front row. I could never do that it would bother me too much, stick out like a sore thumb.
‘I sit here so I can hear better,’ she says. ‘But people don’t seem to like the front row. I wonder why?’ she says.
‘Perhaps it’s too close to the speaker,’ I say. ‘Perhaps they like to have some distance between themselves and the other person.’

That is the strange thing about her. She gives the impression of being open, open like a book, and yet I get the sense sometimes that she is a dark horse. She keeps stuff to herself. She will tell you her story all right. She will tell you all these things about her life and her family. But I am not sure I can trust her. There is something about her. Something underhand. Is it dishonest perhaps? I often get the sense that she is sizing me up, sizing the situation up and if I am not careful she will use it somewhere else.

Writers do this all the time I know, but she has the look of a writer who will plunder another person’s deepest secrets, the ones she does not even know herself and put them in a book somewhere. This is scary. It is scary to be with such a person. Nothing you say can be taken for granted. Nothing she says can be said without feeling that you are skating on thin earth. Yet she is okay to be with.

She has blue eyes and she looks at you intently while you speak. She looks at you meaningfully as if she is taking in your words, as if what you say matters to her, though there are times when I see her eyes close over as if she has had enough of me and there are other times, like when I talk about my interest in spirituality, when I sense a shift in her focus as if she does not want to talk about it with me, or she does not take me seriously anymore.

She likes to come across as someone without prejudice, but she is prejudiced all right. You can feel it. The way her shoulders stiffen when someone talks about god and religion, the way her lips come together as if she is trying to press them shut in order to not let anything out, for fear of what she might say. You can feel it in the tension that rises up out of her that she is intolerant here.

Sometimes I imagine she is just bursting with the wish to tell someone else to shut up. Shut up, she would like to say to someone else who has taken the floor for too long. Shut up, give someone else a turn. She is like that. She is into turn taking in a big way. If someone has gone on for a while, she will try to shift the focus onto someone else. She says she hates groups. She tells me as much during our lunchtime break.
‘I’m sixth in line, she says, ‘an ignominious position,’ as if this accounts for everything about her.
‘Groups are dangerous things,’ she tells me. ‘Things happen in groups and sometimes it’s hard to know what’s going on. All these people talking together going in different directions and all these undercurrents that people can’t or won’t talk about it.’

I have noticed this in her. The way she sometimes wants to bring these undercurrents to the surface and sometimes her words come out with a jolt as if she has come from some unexpected tangent of her own, as if she has followed a long windy chain of thought to get to where she is at and suddenly she lets it all out bang plop into the middle of the conversation and it is disturbing like a big wind that picks up suddenly and knocks over chairs and tables in your outside garden, a wind that knocks over anything that is not fixed to the ground.

She seems to know a lot and when she does not know she will ask questions so that she can at least have something to say. If she is not interested, and it happens, her eyes glaze over for a while. Then I catch her casting glances around the room as if she is looking for better company. She is ruthless like that. She does not like to be bored. She does not like to sit with people who do not interest her. She will take herself away rather than sit with people with whom she cannot connect.

I do not know how she sees me. She puts up with me I suppose. She must. I am her mirror image.

Write about your obsessions

In her book, READING, WRITING AND LEAVING HOME, Lynn Freed tells a story of how at one time while she struggled to find something on which to write, a friend said,
‘Write about your obsessions’.

Our obsessions lie deep within, Freed suggests. They are so familiar and non-obvious to us that we almost do not recognise them.

Freed is obsessed with her theatrical and moody mother, she writes. My obsession would have to be with my father. I write this with certainty, but can I be so sure? If I ask myself then what else obsesses me I might start a list.

I have said it already, first on my list: I am obsessed with my father, the sheer size of him. The way he would take over a room the minute he entered it. The way his voice boomed above all others, the way he needed to place himself at the centre, the way he seemed unable to share. His will was all, his militant will, his will that ruled like a sergeant major, that crossed over any preconceived ideas about what we might do or how we might do it.

And yet brooding underneath his militancy, I sensed my father’s dissatisfaction. He never believed his will had been followed. He felt cheated by life, by the very existence of the children that he had helped to bring into the world because the only way he could marry my mother was to convert to Catholicism and in converting he had agreed to obey the church’s rules about the non-use of contraception. Given that he had struggled to practise abstinence or so it would seem in view of the number of pregnancies throughout my parents’ fertile years – twelve in all, and at least five of those each a year apart – my father failed to practise abstinence. And yet, ‘He loved it when I was pregnant,’ my mother has told me. ‘He was always gentle then.’

My father was not a gentle man. There was a cruel streak in him that I fear I have inherited though I try to keep mine in check. I try not to let mine slip out. But it does. The other night, a woman in our small writing group who chattered on endlessly and would not be silenced, told yet another story from her extraordinary childhood, one for which she provided thorough and well rehearsed details, as a statement of fact, and all from her memories and experience as a child.

In response, instead of applauding, I could not resist the comment:
‘Have you heard of the notion of the unreliability of memory?’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but all this is true.’
She was silent after that and went to bed early. Since then she has not dominated conversations with her endless detail. The conversation has become more inclusive.

This brings me to my second obsession: the stuff of fairness; my belief that everyone must get a go and that hopefully everyone’s go is proportionate to everyone else’s. Though I know I fail at this too. I know it rarely ever happens.

Perhaps the wish that everyone should get a fair go, and here I speak about fairness in conversation when together in a group. Turn taking, it is called. If the person in charge of a group in situations where there is such a person, does not take his/her responsibilities seriously and fails to move around the room and give each person approximately equal amounts of air time, then I become incensed. However, if by chance, I get more than my share – if I am one of the lucky ones – then I feel guilty.

I derive the greatest satisfaction from the illusion that a group is in harmony, that we all agree with one another; that we are having a wonderful time; that whatever experience we are enduring is equally wonderful to all. Even as I know that all of this is impossible, an approximation only and one that does not preclude the possibility of world wars.

This brings me to my third obsession, my family, not so much my present family as the one from my past. My preoccupation with my children and husband is more a constant force in my life, something I imagine I will never lose. I do not consider this to be a true obsession, more an ongoing love, but my preoccupation with my family of origin borders on obsession.

Just as my father held the size, my family holds the numbers. There are so many of us and I have never known a life without at least one or two or three of my siblings in the picture. My dreams are still haunted by my siblings, they feature nightly whether in direct form or even in the form of the people with whom I work, or my friends. I can always tell when a character in my dream has taken the place of a sibling. There is a particular feel, a peculiar mix of love and hate.

In her book, Lynn Freed quotes Marguerite Duras’s consideration of her childhood:

‘In books I’ve written about my childhood, I can’t remember, suddenly, what I left out, what I said. I think I wrote about our love for our mother, but I don’t know if I wrote about how we hated her too, or about our love for one another, and our terrible hatred too, in that common family history of ruin and death which was ours whatever happened, in love or in hate, and which I still can’t understand however hard I try, which is still beyond my reach, hidden in the very depths of my flesh, blind as a new born child. It’s the area on whose brink silence begins.’

This would have to be true of all my obsessions: they signify the tension between love and hate, between the desire to be at one with and the desire to get away from, the desire to caress and the desire to kill.

‘Kill ’im off,’ my father said repeatedly to my mother during his nightly drunken rambles. I did not understand his meaning at the time, but now I wonder whether he too felt as I sometimes do, shut out, unwanted, a wound to be excised.

This brings me to my fourth obsession: the desire to belong. I love nothing more than to walk into a building, a house, and to sense the familiarity of location – this is where I belong. I have sensed it after years of working in the one place. I sense it whenever I walk through my own front door. I know it is illusory – most things are – but it is a comfort to me and one that contrasts with the sense of alienation I feel when a place no longer feels welcoming. A place ceases to be welcoming when there is conflict, or when there are things going on behind the scenes that cannot be addressed.

This then brings me to my fifth obsession: the sense of wanting to get below the surface to what is really going on. To deal with the version of whatever elephant is in the room at any given time. There is always an elephant in the room. There are always in any situation subterranean rumbles that people work hard to skirt around and ignore. Most of the time I do likewise, especially when it does not matter – to me at least – in superficial situations when it is okay to float on the surface.

But when it matters, when we are meant to be having a meaningful conversation but we are not because we have been given the message that we cannot speak the obvious, the obvious to me at least, then I am like a restless ant, scurrying from one thought to another. I find it hard to settle in the room. I hunger for some sense of anchoring and it will only come when someone has said something about what appears to be going on underneath. Often, more often than not, this does not happen and once again I am left dissatisfied.

This brings me to my sixth obsession: connection. I long for connection, a sense of getting through to another person however momentarily, a sense of sharing, a glimmer of intimacy where we can share an affinity and a sense of at oneness, again however illusory.

Connection is illusory. It is like the truth, it is something we can only sense, we can only glimpse, we can only hold close to us in our minds, but it can never be grasped firmly. As soon as we try to get too firm a grasp on it we lose it.

Connection turns to possession, possessiveness; and truth turns to doctrine. Doctrine is dangerous, as is possessiveness. We must hold loose to our loves. I suspect it is our hates that enable us to do this.

Have I run out of obsessions? Perhaps the list should end here.

And you? Do you, too, write into your obsessions? Can you share yours?

For me this list becomes a deep and endlessly fascinating source of ideas and I thank Lynn Freed for sharing her friend’s suggestion.