When I was a little girl, I would spend hour after hour composing elaborate stories. The stories were little more than a record of each and every little detail of a fantasy world I had just created: the yellow French dot cotton dress that my heroine was wearing–her strawberry blond hair plaited neatly into two braids tied with grossgrain ribbon, the sun falling just so on her basket of flowers that contained roses (pink and yellow), daisies and sunflowers. The details I described were always so over the top idyllic. There was never anything dark, dreary or tense in these stories. The were simply descriptions of a beautiful life.
As an adolescent I hated those stories. They seemed to me to be just childish lists of details–the stories had little if any plots now matter how well the scenes had been set. In fact, looking back, it was when I read my plotless stories with a cynical teenage eye that I started to tell myself I had no talent for writing.
Every now and then when I am talking I revert to my childhood love of detail. I set up the points I am trying to make with elaborate metaphors and delight as much in creating the color in the comparisons as I do in conveying my thought. Sometimes my oh-so-patient friends have to gently ask me to get to the point. I have spent many years apologizing for my “circumloquation”. But now I am starting to embrace it. Because living with such detail requires that I pay attention–whether its to the here and now or the dream in my head. And paying attention means drinking in life. And that is a good thing. It will be what saves me.
Somewhere along the path to adulthood I lost my ability or rather my willingness to pay attention. Being a productive and successful somebody in Washington DC means walking quickly while on the cellphone, composing memos on the metro, working in a taxi, reading your email, making a decision, running a meeting all while walking to dentist. By age 30 I could have competed in the ultimate Multitasking Olympics. When Max was a toddler I could read whole stories to him (with feeling no less! ) and realize as we closed the book that I hadn’t taken in the story–at all. Even if pressed with my son’s life on the line, I couldn’t tell you what the story was about. I had read the story while all the while working out a sticky work problem in my head. I felt madly productive, if a little bit empty.
When my marriage went south, the inner dialogue became about that. These, however, were problems I couldn’t solve. And as my inner announcer indulged in instant replay after instant replay I started to drown. It was 24/7–all day, every day. Suddenly my ability to multitask became a liability.
And then, as if by divine intervention, I realized that the only way to survive, to stay sane, would be to pay attention to what I was doing at that exact moment. If that chatterbox inside my head was going to do a play by play it would have to focus on what was happening at that exact moment.
My inner dialogue went something like this:
I am reading a story about a bear to my son.
The book feels heavy in my hands.
Max smells like soap (or dirt). Breathe in.
Pay attention to the words.
This is a lovely story.
The colors in this book are really rich.
I am walking to the coffee place.
I am feeling really stressed.
I am feeling really tired.
The sun is shining–it must be 86 degrees out.
That lady is wearing a hideous blue suit.
At first it felt odd and stilted and a complete waste of time. And then after awhile I noticed the inner dialoge would slow down when I was caring for Max, engrossed in a book, or gardening. It stayed focused on I was doing, accept to tell me how I was feeling or to get a glass of water.
About 8 months after Juan left me I was wandering around Rio de Janiero by myself in the rain. (I had gone there for work). Drinking in the sights and smells so rich and luscious I suddenly I realized I hadn’t been talking to myself at all for over an hour-maybe two. I had just been moving silently through the day paying attention to each and every thing I saw, heard, or smelled-without comment!. When I met my friend Eddie later I was so excited to share my realization with him but I didn’t even know how to begin talking about a concept so deeply personal. I kept the secret to myself but bubbled all night from the joy of it.
I have to admit, the productivity that I had prided myself on dropped substantially when I relearned to pay attention. Frankly it has never really recovered, not to the level it once was at least. When I take a taxi, I look out the window or talk to the driver or listen to what he has playing on the radio. When I walk to the dentist I watch the people on the street. I get a lot less done, however I feel a tiny ounce more connected with the world around me and a bit more nourished, more alive–and that is worth a thousand things crossed off my to do list.
Still, now that the drama of my life has returned to the more mundane I find myself slipping into my old bad habit again. My inner voice has begun to build grocery lists while I am gardening, obsess about a deadline while putting Max to sleep. I miss the light change on the sofa, the sound of the water fountain, the squeal of the bats in my yard as they set out for the night while I play a scene with my boss over in my mind. I have been complaining lately of how exhausted I feel. I wonder if it is because I am ignoring my need to pay attention and take in every glorious detail of the world around me while I obsess over the things that bother me. I miss the glorious moment I am in while staying stuck in the bad ones that already have passed. I need to gently remind myself to pay attention. .
Max has just awoken from his nap. He stretches one little hand into my line of view. A songbird is chirping in the distance. My right foot has fallen asleep and my calf is tense. I am feeling chilly. Breathe in. Breathe out. Write