Pay Attention!

“Pay attention, G!” It’s something I’ve been hearing all my life, it seems. I can’t help it, though -my mind wanders because sometimes there are other things which are more deserving of my attention. But I don’t really think it ever required any intervention; I could focus on the activity at hand if I chose, or at least when I had finished with my other thoughts; I don’t even think I would have been abnormally positioned on a Bell Curve -although I suppose everybody has a place on it somewhere. And anyway, I don’t believe I ever manifested an attention deficit; it was my attention surplus at which the accusations were usually aimed, I think. Looking back, I believe I have had a reasonably successful life; I’ve just done it on my own terms, that’s all.

But, now that I’m retired, things are changing. I can pay attention -or not- to anything I choose, with no one to criticize me. I kind of miss the admonishments, if I’m honest, however: they meant that somebody was actually paying attention to me. Now any attention deficit is theirs, not mine… Still, in recent years I’ve come to hope that the value of attention is not always as significant as advertised -it obscures other things that might be equally important.

Of course, maybe it’s just that the mantle of years in which I find I am now dressed is heavier than I expected it to be, and the burden of wearing it weighs on me more than it used to. The ability to attend to things is falling away without the excuse of something else more important as a distraction. I can no longer claim a competition between the individual trees on which I should be spending my attention and the forest of which they are the component parts; in fact, I have come to wonder if there is actually a correct answer that doesn’t include them both…

Still, now that I am old, the questions asked of me are simpler, and despite my wealth of experience, less seems to be expected of my answers so they are more confidently offered. ‘The past and present wilt,’ as the poet Walt Whitman wrote in one of his Songs of Myself (from his Leaves of Grass). ‘I have filled them, emptied them and proceed to fill my next fold of the future… I am large’ he adds, ‘I contain multitudes.’ I think maybe I know what he meant by that observation now: perhaps it was an excuse…

A bit of a stretch? Well, you’re right, I’m not a Whitman scholar, but like many things I read, I take from them what I am able, empty them, and ‘proceed to fill my next fold of the future.’ Each thing blends with every other thing; nothing is in itself complete…

Is this a recognition that the ability to concentrate is weakened as one ages, or have I simply read my own fears into the words of others -rationalized the belief that too narrow a focus may blur the context in which it is embedded, like blinkers on a city horse? Knowing that my brain has finite resources, just how much should it concentrate on what is immediately relevant to the question at hand?

I do realize that I am sometimes desperate to rationalize my increasing inability to focus, though. Some philosophers -the contextualists– have argued that too much attention can be a dangerous thing for knowledge,[i] and if we pay too much attention to its sources, our faith in it may vanish. Overwhelmed by the data, we may be tempted to overthink things, or, by excluding all except the source in which we are interested, miss the important information surrounding it. By focussing on one impressive cedar, we may miss the huge variety of other trees that actually make up most of the forest. There is a complex link between attention and knowledge.

Unfortunately, put like that, it just seems to be another rationalization for the ravages of Age: unregarded age in corners thrown, as Shakespeare puts it. Sometimes we must be content with what we have; nostalgia can resemble the curse of the biblical Lot’s wife fleeing from Sodom: looking back turned her into a pillar of salt. Perhaps there is a reason only to look ahead. Perhaps what we remember is only what we choose, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect who we have come to be. Perhaps it is memory’s slippage, not sleep, that evolved to knit the ravelled sleeve of care.

My mother, when she reached her dotage, always seemed able to put on a proud face when asked how she spent her days in the Elder Care Facility. “Oh, during the day I read, and then most nights, I play cards after supper with my friends,” she would say with a big smile.

That would require a fairly attentive mind I thought, reassured that I shared many of her genes. But then I happened to see one of the female staff who takes care of her and mentioned how proud I felt about my mother still being able to read books and play cards in her late nineties. She smiled, but seemed at a loss for words for a moment. I assumed it was because there were a lot of elderly women in her charge.

“Hélène’s her name,” I reminded her. “Room…Uhmm…” For the life of me I couldn’t think of the number.

A light came on in her eyes at that point. “Oh Heleen…” Yes, she’s quite a character isn’t she?”

I smiled when she called her a ‘character’ -it was a facet of my mother’s personality I’d never noticed.

“She sometimes brings a deck of cards to the dinner table and spreads them around her plate to put any dessert she wants to save on them,” the woman continued with a smile. “Quite an interesting use of the cards, I have to say.”

I think I blushed. “She told me she often plays cards with her friends after supper, though,” I felt I should add.

The woman chuckled politely. “Well, she often gives them bits of her dessert after the dishes are removed from the table.” Her eyes twinkled at the memory. “She thinks ahead… You gotta admit, that’s a pretty clever plan, eh?”

Perhaps it was, but it made me wonder about my own attention span. I would have eaten all the dessert…



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close