The concept of one’s attention being fixed upon a particular object plays out musically in Berlioz’ famous Symphony Fantastique. Berlioz wrote the symphony at the height of his infatuation with an actress named Harriet Smithson, who would not give him the time of day. (And frankly, who could blame her since at that point he was essentially a crazed musician/fan/stalker sending her creepy love letters? Eventually, by the way, he won her over with his persistence and musical tribute – some guys write ballads; he wrote a fully-orchestrated, five movement symphony – and they did marry and within a few years, he had tired of her and moved on because what else did you expect from a musician?).
So. Berlioz’ autobiographical symphony tells the story of a young man of “ardent disposition” who becomes positively ill with love for a woman he hardly knows. (Eventually he tries to kill himself with an overdose of opium, dreams he murders her and is marched to the scaffold where they chop off his head, which is the not-so-autobiographical part). Berlioz represents the unattainable image of his beloved throughout the symphony by a single melody that shows up in various forms – enticing him here, taunting him there, howling along with an infernal dance of witches who do a line dance on his grave elsewhere. Berlioz called it (and here’s where the connection with Frankenstein comes in) an idée fixe: a fixed idea. The phrase, when used in a non-musical sense, means an obsession that dominates the mind, a fixation that you return to again and again like a true love, or a mosquito bite you can’t help but scratch or the taste of a sweet pork burrito that has you addicted.
I’ve been thinking about my various obsessions (which like Berlioz’ sadly quenchable passion for Harriet often wax and wane) and how they engage my heart and soul, and battle each other for my attention. What frustrates me most is that sometimes my obsessions complement my family, which is the most permanent (or fixed) passion of my life. But sometimes they detract from it. For example, at one point, when Ethan and McKay were much younger, I became preoccupied with, to quote the title of one of the many books I read, Raising Brighter Children. While I am growing more certain, as my children get older and I’ve acquired a couple more of them, that their intellectual strengths and weaknesses were mostly hard-wired before arrival and less shaped by my efforts than I’d like to believe, I do think that the Brighter Kids phase was a good thing for our family. Likewise with my brief Fly Lady phase (first shiny kids, now a shiny sink!), and my occasional Chef Julie phases, and my obsession with wardrobing my whole clan with nice clothes bought cheaply at the thrift store. Then there’s quilting, which on its lovely stippled surface looks and feels like a sensible domestic craft but turned out to be addictive, time-consuming and expensive. There’s something less than sensible in the process of buying 50 quarter-flat pieces of fabric that you then spend weeks cutting apart and stitching back together. Besides, of the seven quilts I have made, only one of them was intended for my own family; the rest I gave away. And I spent so much time making that one single quilt that when finally finished, it was clearly “too nice” to wrap around my son in his crib or spread on the floor where it might possibly get dirty. It now rests in all its pristine, completely useless glory, draped tastefully across a now also unusable rocking chair: a small shrine to the domestic goddess that I once aspired to be.
I have found a kind of delicate balance between my passion for teaching and my love of motherhood. But the truth of it is that were I free to obsess about one to the exclusion of the other, I would be much better at it. As it stands, I feel inadequate and over-taxed at both, and moments of pure, confident joy are rare. I walked to my car after last night’s class on a high. My lecture went very well and the class discussion was lively and thought-provoking. Some days I grasp for words to convey my meaning but last night I was articulate and witty, apparently visited by some kind of teaching muse from the gods. It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does, I think: this is why I teach!
This morning I was struck with the question: Did I teach well last night because I happened to have spent the entire day in meetings discussing how to be a better teacher? Or did I teach well last night because I happened to have spent the entire day in meetings? (i.e. not at home reading board books and scraping petrified Corn Chex off the tile with a spatula just before grabbing my books and notes and sailing out to the car with a frantic wave to the kids). Then again, maybe it was just the incredible mint brownie I ate on my way out of the meetings, which is the option I’m kind of hoping for since that would be the easiest factor to recreate.
“As mother is in the throes of creative fervor, baby tumbles head first into the bathtub”
From the Bluestockings Series by Honoré Daumier
From the Bluestockings Series by Honoré Daumier
And then there’s my writing. Lately it is my Frankenstein’s monster, the pursuit that consumes my thoughts and keeps me up late into the evening, when the children are asleep and only the moon is out to gaze upon my labors. There is truly an obsessive quality to any creative endeavor. Ideas come to me at intervals all day long and late into the night. And if I’m lucky, sometimes I wake up with another one waiting for me at the edge of my brain, plated, garnished and ready to serve. But I can’t allow my fixation with finishing my writing project (and finding a publisher which is a whole other monster Frankenstein never had to worry about) to hurt my family. And believe me, the irony of the situation – writing about parenting while neglecting my children to do so – has not escaped me. The above caricature by Daumier pops into my mind so often it might as well be tattood there. So like a mad scientist skulking about the graveyards collecting an elbow here and a foot there, I piece together my creations at random and I proofread drafts at red traffic lights and I dream of seeing my name printed on a book with a dedication page that says: to my family with love.