The Water of Attention

credit: Lisa Fotios

If you know me, then you are probably aware that I am 1. An unreformed dilettante, and 2.  Mother to two small girls.

My girls are four and one, which means that just as my older daughter Eloise is adjusting to no longer being the central focus of her parents’ lives,  little Clementine is coming on line as a human being and getting much more demanding. I actually find little babies relatively easy, despite the lack of sleep. They don’t move, so you can stick a bottle in them and plop them wherever and go back to drinking your whole pot of coffee while staring blankly at the television. One is comparatively harder, what with the walking, the grabbing, the relentless pursuit of the dog bowl, and an all-around commitment to pulling heavy things down on top of oneself. And so, just as Eloise has gotten used to sharing attention a bit, her sister has started demanding much more.

To no one’s surprise, the attention sharing has made Eloise frustrated with the tall people of the house. And, to be fair, we’re grumpier and more frustrated, too. Mornings and evenings can take on a horrible sameness of hustling the girls through routines while simultaneously attempting to get ourselves cleaned, fed, packed up, and maybe even steal a moment for adult conversation or to look at what’s happening on Twitter. No one is fully getting to do what he or she wants, and at any given moment, one of us is liable to blow.

BUT. There’s still loveliness in these early childhood days, and, most often, they occur when Eloise has some special one-on-one time with a parent, whether that’s reading in bed, or out on a special trip to the playground or library. I felt this especially on a warm, windy day last weekend, when I took her out of the house for a bit so my husband could work while the baby napped. I intentionally left my phone and all work materials at home, deciding that this was going to be full-on Mom and E play time.

Eloise has been fascinated (obsessed?) with all things temporal lately. She likes to know about days of the week, what’s a weekday or a stay-home-day, when the sun or the moon are out, what natural signs mark the seasons, and so on. On this day, we were talking about what happens in the summer, and I mentioned that we go to a weekly picnic in July at which we eat watermelon.

On our playdate, watermelon grew large in Eloise’s mind, becoming simultaneously a food, a time, and a destination. As we clambered up ladders and jounced across the bouncy bridge, Eloise would say breathlessly, “Come on, mama, we have to get to Watermelon.” Not just a food, but a destination, watermelon would get located in the tunnel, where Eloise would say, “phew, we made it to Watermelon. Now we’re safe.”

With some guilty feeling, I registered once again the way in which little kids turn on when they have full and sustained attention. It’s something I know. But in the grind of daily life, which involves having to keep the little people and the adults alive and well, this knowledge needs to be constantly refreshed.

So, what does this have to do with my general dilettante nature? It’s a condition that gets worse as I age, not better. I have always juggled multiple writing projects. At the moment, those projects include: this blog, a blog post for our state humanities organization, the proposal for my next academic book, an introductory essay for an online archive, a self-help article, a cover letter for a new position at my institution, a conference proposal, and the next chapter of my book.

In general, I like juggling writing projects and writing in a number of styles and registers. When I get bored or frustrated with one thing, I just flip to the next. As a result, I don’t tend to get bogged down in any one thing and I end up writing and publishing at a pretty good clip.

On the other hand, when I have too many balls in the air, which is the case at the moment, I feel projects starting to act up. Without attention, the projects behave badly, turning a little weird. Job application, I think, why did you get so ponderous and stale? You, book proposal, what are these funny little sentences? And, as they curdle, I start to resent them: uggh, why are you still kicking around? Isn’t it time for you to graduate or get a job or something?

So, I’m trying a new strategy, inspired in part by Charlie Gilkey’s book Start Finishing. Although I can’t give up the desire to juggle, I am going to try to give my projects a fuller attention by limiting the number I work on any given week. I’m not abandoning any of these children—just shifting them ahead in my calendar so that I’m limiting my attention to just two or three for any given week. By committing my attention in this way, I’m hoping for more flourishing and fewer tantrums. More water, more watermelon?

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