Sunday, January 23, 2011

Living life while paying attention

Recently, I've started reading a new book, The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball. Her story is Eat, Pray, Love meets The Omnivore's Dilemma. It's what happens when a Harvard-educated New York City urbanite falls in love with a draft horse driving, electricity-eschewing farmer. He woos her by cooking meals of such authenticity that dirt is literally clinging to the vegetables and the meat is practically warm from slaughter. She moves from the city to a farm that they create together, trading in her 4 a.m. lattes for 4 a.m. farm chores.

The book is engaging, and Ms. Kimball writes well. Her evocations of fragrant, fresh, succulent meals mingle with the narration of their romance.

I skidded through her words. A few chapters in, I noticed that I was tickled by a niggling feeling.

Was that annoyance?

Which made me pause for thought. (Note: this pause for thought is rare for me, but as it was Sunday, I had the luxury of a little time.)

What was bothering me about her narrative? Was it envy? After more than twenty years of marriage, did I begrudge her rhapsody over her farmer's "long, chiseled torso, the size of his callused hand over [her] breast"?

Then it struck me. Can authenticity not be found in the suburbs? Memoirs such as this one or Eat, Pray, Love seem to be founded on a fundamental premise that one must leave in order to find one's authentic self. A person must go to Italy (or India or somewhere equally far-flung) or drastically change lifestyles (from urbanite to farmer's wife).

Why can't I find myself amongst the laundry and afterschool activities?

My response came from an unlikely source: Facebook. I'd posed this question as my status, and it had generated an interesting discussion among my friends. One had surmised that it was easier to change one's pattern of thought after making a drastic change, and that it was far more difficult to find time for self-reflection in between one's daily activities.

What if you didn't pause for thought between your activities? What would happen if instead, you just paid attention to your activities? After all, isn't that what a huge change does? It forces you to pay attention. To focus on gaining mastery of a new skill. To focus on how to navigate an unfamiliar landscape. To notice little details because you haven't grown used to them.

We call it "multitasking" or "using our time more efficiently." I'm a habitual offender, routinely browsing the web while catching up on a Tivo'd show. I'm constantly juggling. When I'm folding laundry, I'm thinking about dinner. When I'm cooking dinner, I'm thinking about this blog and checking my email and making sure my son practices guitar. Etc. etc. What's coming up in the next few minutes, the next hour, the next day, this week?

I remembered an article I'd read in the New York Times last fall. "When the Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays" focuses on research that showed that people "tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else." In fact, As Dr. Daniel Gilbert, one of the Harvard psychologists conducting the study, stated, "The heart goes where the head takes it, and neither cares much about the whereabouts of the feet."

So my feet don't need to be in an ashram or on a well-tended wheat field. They can be firmly planted in suburbia, as long as my head and heart are there as well.

So, how do I go about paying attention? My first impulse was to do something big. I'd take a photo of some detail of my life every day and publish it on my blog. But that would become another dreaded "must do" on my ever-expanding "to do" list. Not exactly the road to self-awareness, joy, and my most authentic self.

My delayed new year's resolution. I'm not going to dash to Indonesia (or even Maine), and I'm not going to forge a vastly different life from the one I already live. What I am going to do is to live my life while paying attention. Which sounds simple. But I'll bet it's not. And I'll write about it. Or maybe not. We'll see how it plays out. Maybe in the process, I'll discover that you can indeed find your most authentic self in the suburbs, amidst the laundry and the extracurriculars.


  1. Great thoughts...Great advice...and a fun sounding book! Although I've felt the same frustration while reading a book or watching a movie. I'm trying to decide if looking at every life experience as a potential blog entry helps me live it and appreciate/pay attention to it more, or if it somehow detracts.

  2. That's a really good question. I'm going to mull that over. My knee jerk reaction is that it's distracting because I'm always shaping bits of my life into a narrative. Then again, I'm a writer so that's something I've done since I was little. In that case, maybe blogging provides a much-needed creative outlet. Hmmm...

  3. I find that blogging motivates me to get up and DO and TRY...and to pay attention to details and the experience. But whether or not that's good for my 'real life' in the long run, I'm not convinced. I do think writing is good for our brains, though.

  4. Love this concept...can't wait to see how the journey goes. Love yoru perspective on finding authenticity wherever you are...even "the burbs." :)

  5. Thanks. I'm not sure where the journey's going either. So many ideas. Such little time to write.


Thanks so much for commenting. I love reading your thoughts and responses.