Obsession

  

A brief one.

One of the pleasures of living in my head is the pile of dog-eared pages of history and etymology lying on my dusty mental shelves.  

Last week, as I was taking the register in Year 2, I explained the significance of their names to as many children as I could. 

I told Matilda about a mighty empress who fought the king of England for year after year so that her son could claim his crown.  Eleanor, I said, married Matilda’s son and became queen of dominions that stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees. Alexander learnt that his namesake had ruled an empire that reached almost to India. One or two of the pupils’ heads turned at this, their history touched by this long-dead man. Lucy heard how people in Denmark celebrate the longed-for return to longer days on a day named after a saint whose name, translated, means ‘light’. Sophie gave a gap-toothed smile when I said that her name meant wisdom. Later, when I told Laetitia that her name was ‘happiness’ in Latin, one of her friends joked, “That’s not what her parents think.” So much for names.

Yesterday, I was thinking about teaching and obsession. I can be quite an obsessive person, though the sieges are brief. 

I mention this because the word ‘obsess’ comes from obsideo, to besiege. We talk about people being obsessed with things or ‘obsessing’ about things; I’d like to retain a translation that is truer to the original metaphor: we are obsessed by things. It can become a passive state of mind, one in which we lose control.  Like a medieval town, or starving Stalingrad, we allow our thoughts to be surrounded by concerns, ideas, enthusiasms or pursuits that may cut us off from wider conversation, experience and company.  Obsession can constrain or narrow thought.

I’d rather be committed. Originally meaning ‘to entrust’ from the Latin conmittere (con meaning ‘together’ and mittere ‘put’ or ‘send’), there is something more active about this. I commit myself to my job and my profession. And I commit myself to my family and friends. 

Of course, if I allow the former to become an obsession, the latter may be obliged to have me committed…

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Dogged

This handful of doggerel was nagging at me when I woke up today. It will disappear into the ephemera of blogposts and tweets, but demanded to be written down.

I wake with a tumble of problems
rolling round my snot-filled head,
so I turn myself to the other side
and dream of you instead.

I move and see your blood on my bed:
I couldn’t care less about stains;
I’ll wash the sheet but they’ll remain
when you, too brief, are dead.

Outside, while I’m caught in thought
and the throes of this filthy cold,
coriander, kitchen window-framed,
clings to life in a plastic pot.

Quite banal, but based on the morning’s anxieties and Friday evening’s worry, when I came home to hear that my dog had been bleeding uncontrollably from a wound on her chest. She’s fine, but it made me think about her mortality and the huge consolation she gives me. It’s difficult to worry for long when you have a dog beside you.  I really did look out of the kitchen window and see that coriander. Against all reason, this throwaway ingredient has survived for months on top of the sundial in our courtyard. We live, we hang on to life, we die.

My daughter’s version

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I found this story on an old memory stick. My daughter wrote it almost seven years ago, when she was thirteen.  It’s a well worn anecdote within our family (here and here are my own versions, in verse) but I’d never heard her version.  Here it is.

The crudely cut hillside was covered in dark grey slate. The roads were rough and winding, framed by irregular hedgerows. The car purred slowly along the track towards the Llanberis pass, sheep dotted randomly outside the window.  There were two passengers inside the car. A girl and her father, both silently hypnotised by the steady beat of the music playing on the car radio.  The girl was sleeping, slumped against the cool glass of the window with the crumpled map draped across her knees. The car rounded a corner and the small town of Capel Curig came into view. The welcoming lights at the windows woke the girl and the car came to a stop. The bags were unloaded quietly in darkness and the two people sleepily climbed the steps up to their usual room on the second floor without noticing anything.

The girl sat up suddenly. The loud yelp from the bathroom had signalled her abrupt awakening. The familiar, tall figure of her father sprang from the room, fingers wrapped in a fluffy white towel.

“I forgot the water was so damned hot here! Do you know where the plasters are? I think they’re in my back pack, can you have a look?” said the man, who was obviously her father. She climbed out of her bed and looked in the old, blue Vango back pack that had been to this beautiful part of Wales many times before. She saw the turquoise first aid box wedged into the side pocket. She handed it to him. He fiddled around with the box for a couple of minutes before she took pity on him and opened it herself.  She took out a large square plaster and handed it to him.

They trooped downstairs with their backpacks and walking boots.

“Two bacon sandwiches in the name of ––––– please.” said her father. They paid and left the bar, both clutching hot sandwiches. They sat outside eating their breakfast whilst choosing their route up the mountain.

“But we always take the miners track!” she moaned.

“I know but it would be easier on our legs,” he replied.

“I think we should take the Pyg track and then once we get over the shoulder, carry on round.” she said.

“Well that is a possibility, ok, well yes,” he agreed. “Shall we get going?”

She nodded. They both loaded their heavy packs into the car. They followed the road round, up the hill to the Pen y pass car park. They went into the café and bought sandwiches, crisps and biscuits, enough for lunch and dinner. They paid and went out to the car and laced their feet into big walking boots.  Then they began to walk.

The track was steep and rocky. The landscape was breathtakingly beautiful. The way the slate and grass rolled along the hills in harmony was something that she had never seen before. Every now and then the bleat of a ewe, defending her lamb from a passing car could be heard. The two walkers walked hand in hand for an hour or two, talking about the things that had never been bothered to be said before. Suddenly, the view changed. They had reached the shoulder and were looking at the glacial lake. But she thought it wasn’t as beautiful as her father had described. The surrounding area was covered in thick snow.

“But I checked the weather forecast this morning!” he spluttered.

“The mountain weather forecast daddy?” she asked.

“No, the normal one! What are we going to do? We can’t go back, the slope will be to icy.” he replied, an anxious note in his voice. “We’ll just have to keep going up.”

They dug around in their bags, searching for scarves and jackets. They glugged some hot tea from a thermos and trudged on up. The snow was getting worse and worse. As the track got steeper, it became harder to walk due to the black ice. All you could see was a blanket of white snow and black specks, marching to the summit, guarded by the white, wet sentinels people had built along the way. A few hours later, the man and his daughter reached a queue. People were shivering and crying, all desperately trying to reach the shelter at the top of the mountain. An older man was lifting his toddler whilst trying to maintain his balance himself. The ice under foot was treacherous, waiting for someone to slip and fall to their death, down to the silent, snow covered rocks below. The queue was slowly becoming shorter as people managed to clamber to safety. When the girl and her father had climbed to the shelter on the top of the summit, they sat down and huddled together. The hug said so much, there was the apology from him and the regret from her and the fear from both that this was the last time they would embrace each other and that they would die on this god damned mountain.

They saw there was only one way down. The endless, steep track was called the mountain ranger. The track was covered in snow drifts that came to her knees. The wind seemed to be determined to claim at least one of the innocent walker’s lives as it was blowing strongly, pushing everyone to the edge of the cliff. The walk was slow and seemed never ending but then a light appeared in the distance. The pair walked faster, relief flooding through them. They almost ran the last few meters, desperate to get into the warmth. The light they had seen belonged to a small, old fashioned inn. The man inside told them to sit by the fire and brought them hot tea and listened to their story. The man had a dog. The dog went and sat next to her. She ran her finger through its coat, the course black fur warming her hands and making her feel reassured. She thought of home and desperately wished she was at home, in bed with her own dog on her feet and not this stranger’s one.  She squeezed her father’s hand and he squeezed it back as if to say, “Me too.”

 

We haven’t walked the mountains together for some years; I miss that company painfully.  This brings back so much more than just a walk.