(To listen to the audio version of this post on SoundCloud, click here.)
Seems obvious enough, right? Pay attention to what you’re doing, especially if, for example, you’re operating a band saw, standing on a ladder, or driving a Formula One race car.
Not so easy, apparently, if you are the young mother of two—a baby in the stroller and a toddler on a ledge.
Actually, it was a brick retaining wall. A woman, I’d venture to say in her early 30s, was standing in front of the main entrance to the Missouri Botanical Gardens, stroller pointed towards the parking lot, the infant kicking its feet, toes exposed to the sun, the rest of the baby tucked under the protective UV resistant awning over the top. Another child, ringlet curls, shorts and sandals, looked to be three, maybe four years old, was climbing on the retaining wall, which was precarious in the first place because the kid was in sandals and directly above a shorter brick wall with dagger-like, diagonally planted bricks. This was some serious, poke-your-eye-out danger and mom was head down, on her goddamn phone. She was engrossed in some frantic texting or perhaps uploading idyllic photos of her darling children to Instagram.
My daughter Lauren and I were walking out of the gardens, with her own baby-in-stroller. Watching that young child, bumbling about on the top of a ledge made me nervous enough, but seeing the mother completely tuned out to what the kid was doing, made me crazy.
The words, “uh, excuse me….” were formulating in my head and on their way to my mouth when,
“Don’t,” Lauren commanded preemptively.
“But it makes me so nervous!” I muttered. “And she is completely oblivious.”
Two, three more feet we strolled. I turned all the way back around and gave the mom a death stare. She didn’t notice.
“Mom, stop. It’s none of your business,” my daughter implored.
We proceeded toward the car and not ten seconds later, the kid screams. The mom shrieks. Then there was a slight pause. You know that pause. The one where the kid is sucking in enough air to replace the wind that’s just been knocked out of him, drawing a deep enough breath to really wail. Then, he did. Screamed bloody murder. Sobbing hysterically. The mother should have been arrested.
Okay, I know, maybe that punishment doesn’t fit the crime, but we know that this goes on everywhere, every single day, all day long. To enumerate on the multitudinous instances in which people are so preoccupied by their devices that they step into traffic or fall off cliffs, or any number of similar calamities would insult the reader. It’s an irrefutable fact. Just talk to any ER doc.
I’m just glad my mother is not here to see all this. She would have a conniption fit. Long before this epic wave of digital distractedness invaded our minds and bodies to the point of turning us into drooling droids, my mother would admonish me: “Pay attention to what you are doing!”
She had good reason. I was notoriously clumsy and suffered from shiny object syndrome before it was ever identified as a thing.
“Pay attention to what you are doing!” She would remind me, whether I was chopping onions, slopping paint on a wall, driving a car or simply walking across the front lawn.
“Grace.” She would say when I’d trip on some stupid rock and fall down. Seriously.
It’s been a constant in my life and never so apparent as the time I came close to falling off a runway when I was 17 doing tea-room modeling at a swanky hotel in Albuquerque. My friend Kathleen Hanratty and I were enrolled in the Flair Finishing School and Modeling Agency, an initiative aimed at giving us poise and confidence, and maybe, just maybe (long shot here) a lucrative career as fashion models. My mother’s M.O. was to tear me away from some other ne’er do well running mates. Little did she know that Hanratty was among the most notorious of the wild girls.
Hanratty’s parents were well off. They lived in a huge house in the North Valley of Albuquerque, horses and everything. I still remember Kathleen’s bathroom. It had a hand-painted floral ceramic sink. She also had her own balcony. That came in handy for sneaking her out. Her dad was an orthodontist and her parents could easily afford modeling school. My poor mom and stepdad really didn’t have the money, but maybe my mother was hoping I’d come out of it with even the slightest bit of flair, maybe even pick up a modeling gig here or there, and at the very least, learn how to avoid tripping over my own feet. Kathleen would pick me up and we’d smoke weed on the way to class. Those lessons in walking with a book on our head, sitting erect, putting on make-up and learning how to accessorize—well the whole thing became pretty trippy—the exact opposite of the desired goal. But because I had narrow shoulders and was flat-chested and a perfect size 8 (this is before heroin chic was en vogue and models had to be a size zero) I managed to pick up a few modeling gigs. My mother actually bought a ticket to the Kistler-Collister Fall Fashion show, with all its chicken salad splendor, rubbing elbows with the Nob Hill socialites, who, under normal circumstances, she wouldn’t be caught dead with. She did that just to see me walk the runway.
Our dutiful instructor and a legit class act, Margaret Cornell, read the descriptions of the attire in which we were nattily clad. It was simple really: step up on to the “T”, stage right or stage left, turn once at the head of the stage, come down the runway, turn once in the middle, turn once at the end, come back to the head of the “T” and exit from the opposite side from whence we came. Then, we’d circulate among the tables, so the ladies could get a closer look, touch the fabric and check out the tags, which we carried in our hands. Most of them didn’t care about the price, they just wanted to know who designed it. I was doing fine until I got to the end of the runway and did my turn a little too close to the edge, caught my heel and started falling backwards. I quickly thrust my weight forward, over-compensating and stumbled. It was one of those front-falling, rolling stumbles, my head down as low as my knees and most likely showing my butt to the ladies at the eight-top at the end of the ramp. I caught myself before I actually landed on my face. I was stone-cold straight, not high at all, because I was super excited about the gig. I was, and am, just clumsy. And distracted. The problem there? I caught my mother’s eye, and looking at her instead of how many more steps there were between me and my pivot, I miscalculated. Distraction, you see? That’s always the culprit. I am easily distracted, then and now.
Mom had her share of distractions: five kids, various and assorted friends of kids; various and assorted dogs, chickens, ducks and rabbits which she kept over the years; husbands, yardmen-turned-boyfriends; touring rock bands (shout out to Brave Combo whom she hosted when they were playing a concert in Albuquerque, thanks to my promoter brother, Garrett) plus whatever civic, political or educational issue in which she was engaged at the time. Yet she had a remarkable ability to remain focused on the task at hand—painting, quilting, drawing, sewing, doing the National Observer crossword puzzle. How she ever managed to create and complete the volumes of things she produced in the midst of all these whirly gigs, I will never know.
But I have a theory. She was able to focus because that is what she’d been taught to do. Before memorization became synonymous with child abuse, children were taught to memorize things—things like multiplication tables, state capitols, chapters in the Bible, and poetry. Lots of poetry. Until the day she died, my mother could recite entire stanzas of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert W. Service, The Cremation of Sam McGee one of her all-time favorites.
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
Okay, so maybe it’s morbid that she delighted in entertaining both her children and her grand kids with such a macabre poem, but she particularly enjoyed delivering the denouement. I remember this vividly, the image it conjured in my mind.
“And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”
Maybe she just liked to show off. That’s a fair characterization. She used to preface some of her anecdotes by asking, “have I told you this story?” to which we’d reply “yes….” hoping it would dissuade her from telling it again. It didn’t. She would just say, “well, I want to hear it again,” and launch right in. She would retell a story precisely the same way she’d told it 100 times before.
This required being fully present to the source of the inspiration for the story in the first place — really being there, free of distraction, all senses present and accounted for. I believe my mother and people in her generation honed their ability to focus on one thing, because they didn’t have ten thousand other things being thrown at them every minute of their waking hours.
These days we have an entire movement teaching us how to calm the clatter, when, all along, this multi-billion-dollar mindfulness industry could have been summed up by my mother’s seven simple words: “Pay attention to what you are doing.” If only I’d thought to leverage her plain-speak approach on how to avoid walking into telephone poles when she was still alive! My mom could have been a celebrity. I could have been her manager. We could have been rich!
I mean, if Marie Kondo can make millions off of telling people how to tidy up their clutter, imagine the trust fund my mother could have set up for us by simply telling people to pay attention to what they’re doing! That would have “sparked some joy” among her descendants and attracted millions to the cause, provided they weren’t distracted.
There are degrees of distractedness, to be sure. It’s one thing to drive off with your coffee cup still sitting on top of the car. It’s quite another to drive off with your kids not quite in. I was on a business call last week with a woman who was picking up her son from school while we were on the phone. I could hear busses rumbling by, kids laughing and shouting in the background as she moved up through the line of cars.
“Hey, baby cakes!”
I knew she was no longer talking to me. Shortly after I heard,
“Oh my God!” followed by the sound of the door opening, then beeping then, “are you okay, honey?”
Her kid and his clarinet had fallen out the back seat, because she took off before he closed the door.
I hear my mother’s words in my head every day. “Pay attention to what you are doing.” Come on, as a writer, are you kidding me? There are nine-thousand rabbit holes I can go down, as I continue to yank on the leash around my own neck to follow the scent on the trail of words I am attempting to pull out of my head.
“Bring it back, here, Jean,” I tell myself, “bring it back here.”
When my mind wanders to some unrelated, stupid detail over what I need to do in the next hour, or day, or week or life and realize I’ve lost track of whether I put the baking soda in the cookie dough, I hear her reminder to “pay attention!”
When I start to make the bed, and somewhere between the top sheet and the pillow shams, I interrupt what I’m doing to go outside and water a plant, I can hear her, “finish what you started.”
One needs to focus to finish. But there’s a difference between your mind wandering and battles being waged in your head among competing attention thieves, working day and night in an unrelenting quest to get you to click, scroll or swipe. Author Jennie O’Dell calls it the “attention economy.” In her best-selling book, How To Do Nothing, O’Dell convincingly teaches us that our attention is a valuable and highly sought after commodity, because our attention drives our behavior to sign up, buy up, support or denounce certain things which aid, mostly, the forces influencing said behavior. Between email and texting, social media slathered with ads, and a full year of Zoom, where it’s possible to be in a meeting, have a private side-chat in the chat, while responding to emails and texts simultaneously, our ability to concentrate is crumbling. Maybe there’s a reason they call it “paying attention.” Our attention is something of great value and is a finite resource. I would submit that it is harder than ever to “be here now” because the attention grabbers are yanking us in a dozen different directions.
We’re complicit in all of this, though. It’s not like there is some kind of robotic hand clamped over ours forcing us to pick up our phone every 22 seconds. Well, wait, it’s more like a robotic brain.
At least I am aware of those times when my mind is drunkenly in 15 other places at the same time, especially when I am trying to write or cooking with a sharp knife. I dial it back in. I do. I dial in to what she has taught me. I dial in to something so simple as to be disregarded and yet, it’s grounding, it’s real, it’s nourishing, it’s cleansing. I even say the words out loud: “Pay attention to what you are doing.”
If we truly lose ourselves in one activity, lending our complete attention to a singular pursuit, it shuts out all the other stuff. It’s a mind wash. Our minds can resurface after total immersion in one thing, with perhaps, a new perspective on all those other things that stand at the door of our minds and holler at us. I wonder if my mother did the crossword every day, so she could set some of her worry, or sadness, or regret or loneliness out on the porch.
My sister-in-law Karen recently gave me something from my mother that I’d never seen before. It’s a colored-pencil drawing of a sunflower on a stalk. One big flower near the top, yellow leaves, outlined in black, staccato pencil dots for seeds, many leaves, green leaves, true-to-life leaves, the way they droop on the stalk. Another flower, more in profile, not as big, nor as detailed. And birds. Little, grey-brown birds, on teeny, barely visible stick legs, beak down, tails up, perched in the crescent-v shape at the top of the leaves. There is a wooden fence in the background. It’s almost as if she’d measured out the slats. They are near perfect in their vertical spacing, with the brown-black pencil marks suggesting the grain of the wood. And sky. The sky is horizontal strafes in shades of blue across the paper, which isn’t fancy, slightly torn now at the folds. There is a signature, “Gram.” And there is a letter that goes with it.
Last summer there was one really big sunflower in my back yard. There were a lot more small ones all around. Some I planted and some just came from the bird seed I throw out for the birds. This one must have come from a different species, for it was big…
Now, that big sunflower became a playground for these little birds. The first time I noticed it was after a rain and the birds were drinking from little pools of water caught in the leaves. It seemed they were sliding down from leaf to leaf like a children’s slide.
I loved watching them on their playground.
I felt a little sad when the flower began to fade at the end of summer. It was a source of pleasure for me and the birds, as well as a living grocery store for them, for they could and did eat the seeds.
I’ll bet that another one will appear next spring and we will start all over again.
Here is my drawing to illustrate my true story.
She had drawn that picture from memory. And then she sat down and typed out a narrative to go with it, the story of a summer of observation and a simple joy. I try to imagine now, how she looked, her gray hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, maybe she was still in her robe, she wore a kind of floral kimono. Maybe a cup of coffee, a leftover bite of toast, I pictured her sitting at the dining table in her townhouse, drawing this picture. I think about the time it must have taken to draw those fence slats so straight, to fill in the leaves, and get the tips of the petals just right, paying attention to every detail. I think about how she immersed herself completely in something of so little material value, but priceless to me now.