Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Into Focus

This is the fourth year I’ve taken part in the “One Little Word’ Challenge popularized by writer/artist Ali Edwards. As Ali explains it, “….the idea is to choose a word….that has the potential to make an impact on your life….a single word to focus on over the course of the year.”

I always choose my word, and consequently write about it, in mid-January, once I have a feel for the New Year but still close enough to January 1st to feel like a New Year’s ritual. But I always start looking for my word a little bit earlier. And this year, as I tried to think about it, I found that I kept thinking of the two-word phrase “rabbit holes.” As in “Don’t go down so many.”

This was problematic for many reasons. First of all, it’s two words, not one; but more importantly, it’s a negative, not a positive. The reason it stuck in my mind was not that I wanted it to guide me, as has been the case with past words I’ve chosen – “succeed”; “possible”; “walking”; “radiate” – but that I wanted to avoid it. And choosing a word as an admonition rather than a guidepost just didn’t feel to me to be in the spirit of the One Little Word exercise.

Then it occurred to me what the positive corollary was for the thing I was trying to say. “Don’t go down any rabbit holes.” Too negative. The positive version? “Focus.” Yes, that’s it. That’s my word. “Focus.”

It’s not the prettiest word: not like many others on the extensive list of words that participants in the challenge have sent to Ali Edwards. Her list brims with beautiful, alluring words like “serenity,” “balance,” “joy,” “simplicity,” “breath,” “acceptance,” “resolve,” “intent.” My word, by contrast, feels plain and ordinary.

But it’s “focus” for 2015 nonetheless, because my goal for this year is to overcome some of my distractedness. I’m distracted in tangible and obvious ways, like devoting too much time to social media and email; and I’m distracted in more elusive ways, like accepting opportunities I don’t really want and then having to follow through on them. My mission for 2015 is to pare down the distractions – stop going down the rabbit holes – and stay attentive to that which I mean to do. Focus on food when I’m cooking. Focus on my children when I’m devoting time to them. Focus on writing – and not Facebook – when I have an assignment. Focus on saying “No thanks” when I’m asked to do something I don’t want to do and don’t have to do.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that earlier today, I couldn’t even summon the focus to make a pot of coffee without interrupting myself. I measured the grounds, thinking about how I would write about the One Little Word Challenge, and then got the notion that maybe I could find quotes about focus. In the middle of making coffee, I hurried over to my computer to Google quotes.

It was the wrong thing to do, but it just proves there’s room for improvement. A lot of room for improvement. And the Google search that took me away from making coffee affirmed for me that many finer minds than mine have pondered the question of focus, from Henry David Thoreau to Steve Jobs. All of them affirm its importance; all of them also affirm its occasional elusiveness.

So I have my work cut out for me if I want to learn to be more focused this year. But that’s the purpose of this exercise: choose a word and weave it into your daily life. Focus. Do one thing at a time. Finish what you start. Pare away the extra stuff and avoid the rabbit holes. Like The Little Engine That Could, whose sole focus was on getting up the hill, I think I can. I’ll try, anyway.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The view from the passenger seat

I am not fond of driving. Not at all. I’ve often said that the singular drawback to living in Carlisle is all the time we spend driving places. Whether it’s for work, school, socializing, recreation, dining, or culture, we seem to be forever taking up a position behind the wheel.

Still, I never expected I’d have my own driver. I don’t even have regular cleaning help; the idea of someone to drive me around on errands or appointments was well beyond my imagining.

And yet that’s just the situation I’m in right now. My son Tim is in that narrow six-month time frame between receiving his learner’s permit and earning his driver’s license, an interlude in which the rules stipulate both that he must gain as much driving experience as possible and that he must do so under the watchful eye of a licensed and experienced driver.

So these days, Tim drives. He drives me to the supermarket and the drugstore, the post office and the library. He drives when we visit my parents. He drives when we drop off or pick up his younger sister from school or playdates. After three full decades of driving myself around, I now have someone whose assignment, and indeed whose pleasure, it is to drive me places.

This is not a developmental phase of childhood that I foresaw. I assumed Tim would want to learn to drive eventually, but as that benchmark loomed, I saw it mostly as a source of anxiety. How would I teach him the rules of the road? How would I explain how much room to give a car when passing, or what the perfect angle was for parallel parking?

But rather than being anxious, as I expected, I’m enjoying Tim’s company along with his chauffeuring services. He stopped wanting to join me for grocery shopping or other random errands at least ten years ago; given the choice, he would always opt to stay home. It’s fun spending more time together again. Moreover, it’s fun merely to see his enthusiastic response when I ask if he wants to go somewhere with me, even if I know that in truth his enthusiasm is more about the driving practice than about my company.

It’s not a time for intense mother-son dialogue. I don’t bring up college choices, or current events, or the moral and ethical dilemmas that teenagers typically face. He’s supposed to be concentrating on the road. But in a way, that’s what makes it so peaceful. It’s just the two of us, spending time close together without an agenda to cover or decisions to contemplate. It reminds me a little bit of the hours I spent roaming the neighborhood with him in a jog stroller or baby backpack when he was an infant. I was never one of those mothers who chatters nonstop to her small children. On those long, quiet walks or runs, it was all about the proximity, not the discourse.

So many developmental phases with children and teens are about growing apart, letting them finding their independence, allowing them to forge their own way. This period of driving together is one milestone that brings us closer together, even if more by regulation than by Tim’s choice. It’s a brief, tightly circumscribed interlude: only six months altogether, if he earns his license on the first try, and half of that time is already gone.

So I’ll just enjoy my chauffeur until the day he turns sixteen and a half. It’s nice to be driven around, and knowing it won’t last much longer, I’ll savor it all the more. He’ll eventually get his license, and then he’ll drive on his own, just as someday he will probably live on his own and spend even less time with me. For now, I’ll take all the time together that I can get. To me, it’s quality time, even if as far is Tim is concerned, all we’re doing is following the rules of the road.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Not finding time

I confessed that I had not read the book my mother was recommending, but that with luck I soon would. “Now that all my December deadlines are behind me, I’m hoping to find time to do some reading,” I said as our Christmas dinner conversation rolled onward.

“We don’t find time; we make time,” my father admonished gently.

He’s right, and I’ve been thinking back on his words ever since.

Surely that’s not a sentiment new to me, but sometimes when someone says just the right words at just the right time, they seem to increase exponentially in impact. I’ve been thinking about time management for my entire adult life. I’ve read books on time management, attended lectures, perused articles, interviewed experts.

But sometimes it’s the simplest words – even wrapped in the form of a father’s admonition – that carry the most weight.

“We don’t find time; we make time,” I repeated to myself as I cleared the dinner dishes and started measuring coffee grounds.

Even that act seemed to align with my thoughts. I love coffee, and I love it best of all the way I make it. If I want a perfect cup of coffee, I thought to myself, I don’t wander around hoping to find one. Hey look, maybe someone happened to leave a cup of coffee in my kitchen! No, of course not. I take out a filter, measure the grounds, pour cold water from a clean pot. Even choosing the right mug becomes part of the process.

I’m not sure what the parallel to choosing the right coffee mug is when it comes to time management, but the idea of making coffee just the way I like it rather than hoping to chance across it brought my thoughts back to my father’s words. Time won’t just appear like a magical cup of coffee in my kitchen. I will have to make it for myself, every bit as deliberately as I make coffee every day.

And what I want is specific: not endless amounts of time, not days or weeks, just a half-hour or so every day to devote to reading fiction, something I never seem to do enough of.

There are ways that I can make that time, I told myself with determination. I can get more efficient with housekeeping. I can consolidate my errands a little better. I can spend less time dabbling in social media or paging through catalogs and magazines full of products I never really intend to buy.

We don’t find time; we make time. I’m trying. The new year is less than a week old, but I’ve already managed to carve out some reading time every day. It didn’t find me; I created it. Dad was right; it’s a matter of agency. If I want time to read, I need to create it myself.

And then I’ll be able to savor it the way we savor anything we’ve made from our own hands and our own will, knowing it’s a gift not of chance but of effort. A little bit of time. What a gift to craft for myself, if I can just somehow track down the materials I’ll need to make it.