Most of us live fragmented lives.
No matter which way we turn, someone is clamoring for attention: spouses, children, parents, friends, clients, employers, pets, neighbors, co-workers, opponents, team members, fellow congregants, people who replied to our tweets or posts. They need, they demand, they want. And responding (or ignoring) requires our time and our energy.
If it’s not the living creatures demanding our attention, it’s the other responsibilities. If we don’t mow the lawn, do the laundry, run the errands, change the car’s oil, pay the bills, fix the leaky faucet, refill the prescriptions, and clean the house, who will? Granted, we can hire some of these chores out, but it’s still up to us to see to even that.
For those of us with careers, we have not only the workday itself, but professional development obligations, marketing, education (initial or continuing), and whatever else we do to keep current with the constant changes wrought by technology and shifting markets. People looking for work—new graduates, victims of layoffs, those returning to the workplace after a hiatus, those seeking to change careers—can add to this list the inevitable stress of sorting out strategies and weighing options, which may include deciding whether to relocate and/or pursue another line of work.
On top of the burdens of our own lives are the lives of others, known and unknown. Like it or not, we are citizens of the world. It is virtually impossible for anyone in the U.S. to have missed the recent news cycles about the families being torn apart at the border. I submit that it is equally impossible not to experience emotional reactions to such stories, to watch and listen and read and yet remain unmoved. Still, for many, this travesty takes second place to the dramas playing out daily around them in their social circles, their neighborhoods, their schools, their towns and cities, their states and provinces. No sooner do we focus on one story than another demands our attention, our energy, our strength.
For many of us, the fragments feel like tiny shards of glass. Some people, though, seem to master the art of arranging them into a beautiful mosaic. They move with admirable serenity through life, their homes orderly, their children impressive, their work-life balance in perfect equipoise.
I am not one of those people.
As an unmarried self-employed writer, it might seem that I should have larger fragments. Alas, appearances are deceiving. Take my profession, for example. On the legal writing side, I have multiple clients, all with their own projects, deadlines, sensibilities, and invoice-paying preferences. On the creative writing side, I have a completed novel and a completed novella, and I need to decide what’s next for each: find an agent, find a traditional publisher without an agent, publish them myself, do a hybrid arrangement. Since I know next to nothing about any of these options, they all require substantial research. Also, I need to figure out a way to keep the creative writing going while learning about the business side so that I’ll have more pieces to publish once I’ve decided which approach works for me. And not for nothing, but the bills still need to be paid, so all this work needs to have concrete present-day payoffs as well as long-term benefits.
Granted, I have fewer intrinsic demands on my life than many: my children are feline, and I do not share my residence with another human. On the other hand, this means that there are fewer hands to pitch in. While I have never been required to spend hours at (or driving between) unending soccer games and practices, I also have no one to whom I can say, “Remember to pick up milk and eggs,” or “Would you drive Dad to the doctor on Tuesday?” or “Don’t forget to clean out the garage!” I have no one with whom to share life’s obligations. If anything is to be done, I must either hire someone or do it myself.
Also, not having the built-in social life that comes with family life means either creating one or doing without. Some of the people I most enjoy live in different time zones, which means our visits tend to consist of phone calls and emails. Others who reside locally spend a good bit of time traveling, which can make arranging outings difficult. Still others are juggling their own fragments which, at this juncture, do not include much time for socializing. And so I continue to develop the skill of solo outings, such as my recent foray to my beloved Tanglewood, where lush greenery, incomparable artistry, and notoriously poor cell service combine to create an escape from the demands of the world.
My current to-read (or to-finish-reading) stack offers a glimpse into the fragments of my attention span:
But for the first time in too long, on this one precious weekend, I had no time commitments. No one and nothing required me to be at any particular place at a specific time. For two days, my schedule was my own.
Granted, the world still imposes time limits. My church’s services start at 8:30 and 10:30. The bank closes at 2:00. The library is not open on Sundays during the summer. The pharmacy closes at 6:00. The vet closed at noon, meaning that I cannot pick up the cat’s prescription food until Monday.
Also, this is not to say there were no obligations. To the contrary, life demands much: last year’s leaves need to be raked out of the garden and replaced with mulch; dusty windows need washing; cluttered basement needs cleaning; ditto for the garage; out-of-season clothes need to be cleaned and stored, while current-season clothes need to be placed on shelves; general housecleaning needs to be done; boxes of unsorted papers need to be reviewed and filed, shredded, or recycled. Any of these jobs could easily have consumed Saturday afternoon, which instead melted away as I sat in my recliner with the computer on my lap and a cat’s tail flicking my ear.
Here’s what happened. My original plan for Saturday was simple: mow the lawn, finish the front gardens, and run a few errands. Except between getting to bed late (even by my standards) and sleeping late, I essentially lost the morning. By the time I finished checking email and social media, fed the cats and myself, read the paper, and perused the downstairs freezer to see if it contained anything that could be turned into Weight Watchers-friendly meals, it was well past two o’clock.
Still, it was 64 degrees and cloudy, making it a perfect day for yardwork. I might have headed out, except that my ancient oversized recliner beckoned and I found myself thinking about the benefits of taking a break. A real, unscheduled, unfettered break. Which, of course, led to contemplation of all the things that would sit undone if I took such a break.
And then a curious thing happened.
I took the break.
This is not the first time I have shirked chores in favor of creating. On a summer’s day ten years ago, I looked around and assessed the housecleaning that needed to be done. Then, I took my laptop out onto the porch and wrote a story about a family that engaged in an annual spring-cleaning ritual and the reasons why they did it. The story was published in a fan fiction anthology, and while I received no payment (and my name was misspelled), the publication somehow vindicated my decision not to wash the kitchen floor that day.
By the time I headed out to do the most urgent of errands (procuring cat food), most people were likely in the midst of preparing Saturday dinner. Not me, though. The cats had spent the day dozing or bathing as I wrote. The mulch remained in the bags. The windows were still dusty. The dishwasher sat unemptied. The weeds grew unchecked. Fitbit showed my step count as 1,394.
But turning away from the obligations, even for a few short hours, left me feeling more rested, more peaceful. A two-hour vacation from the shrillness of social media really can help to settle the spirit. An afternoon with Bach trios and a cup of tea, when the absence of bright happy sunshine seems a tacit approval of quieter pursuits, when searching for just the right word or recrafting a sentence is a perfectly reasonable way to spend time—such a time refreshes the spirit in a way no amount of checking off items on the to-do list can hope to do.
When I first began to write this post, I still thought I might spend Saturday evening tending to some of the indoor tasks. One advantage to sleeping late is the ability to stay up late. When I returned from Tanglewood the other night, it was nearly midnight, and yet two hours later, I found myself tucking flannel sheets and comforters into storage bins and placing cotton sheets on the shelf in the linen closet. So maybe, I thought.
Instead, I returned from my errands, unpacked my purchases, fed everyone a late dinner, and crashed on the sofa with the most recent season of Grey’s Anatomy. This morning, I went to church, did a couple more errands on the way home, and settled in with lunch and the Sunday paper. Around the time I thought I might head outside to mulch, my rational brain surrendered to the fact that I was exhausted. And so I opted for a long, deep nap, followed by the deliberate choice to curl up in the recliner with Elmore Leonard until the rain started and my mother called and one of the cats puked.
Now, here I am. Sunday night, and my weekend to-do list has nearly nothing checked off, but that’s okay. For this lovely, largely unscheduled weekend, my fragments melded into chunks. Instead of trying to accomplish a thousand little things, I invested more time into fewer tasks, including the task of resting. And it was delicious.
Tomorrow, the world will clamor again. Tomorrow, I will conduct research, draft briefs, prepare bills. Tomorrow, I will answer phone calls and respond to emails. Tomorrow, I will research agents, study publishing, edit a story for submission. Tomorrow, I will follow up the vet about the cat with intestinal issues. I will begin the search for a carpenter to work on my kitchen cabinetry. I will take out the trash for pickup. I will go to Weight Watchers and see what measurable progress, if any, I have made in the journey toward being healthier. I will plan my week’s meals in an effort to balance weight loss and cost. I will finish unpacking summer clothes. I will go to the optometrist to order computer glasses. I will begin to learn the music for a worship event late in July. I will review my financial advisor’s proposal for my retirement. I may even mow the lawn.
Tomorrow, the fragments will swirl like a cloud of dust. But tonight . . . tonight, I have quiet. I have peace.
I know how fragile this is. I know that at any moment, the phone could ring with news of a crisis, a demand, a request. It’s happened before, and it will happen again.
And so, I will cherish this rare, unfragmented time.