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.