What limitations, cycle intensity and boredom teaches me about paying attention.
Guest Post by Sherry Shenoda
A Time to Talk
When a friend calls to me from the road And slows his horse to a meaning walk, I don’t stand still and look around On all the hills I haven’t hoed, And shout from where I am, What is it? No, not as there is a time to talk. I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground, Blade-end up and five feet tall, And plod: I go up to the stone wall For a friendly visit.
Robert Frost (1916)
A friend calls from the road, a suggestion. It’s an opportunity, and he has clearly turned down others. He knows how: “stand and look around…and shout from where I am, What is it?” Here you have a farmer, and he is very busy. His time is limited, as is ours. Sometimes he has to say no, to shout from where he stands, and decline a chat. This time though, he doesn’t. This time he sees his friend, and stops his work, and plods out to meet him. The key, it seems, is that this is his friend. He cannot do this for everyone, or his fields wouldn’t be hoed. As Emily Dickenson said, “The Soul selects her own Society—then shuts the Door—"
This is the necessary work of choice. People say: I don’t know how you do it all, and it’s very important to me that you know that I don’t. A wife, mother, pediatrician, and author… and I don’t have answers to the problem of limited time. But I can tell you some things that have helped me.
As Father Thomas Hopko said, “Orthodoxy is paradoxy.” We can hold two seemingly-conflicting thoughts together in our minds at the same time, and we can do it for time. We can understand that time is very limited, but also that we have an abundance for our needs. So Frost thrusts his hoe into the ground and goes to visit with his friend, leaving, for a time, his work.
My grandfather has been in a steady decline since my grandmother died 2 years ago and now needs help with many life tasks. We know he hasn’t much time left. He has a slow, shuffling walk and a diminishing appetite. He orders his day by the hands of the clock, and won’t begin his meals until the clock strikes the appropriate minute. He sits with a cooling plate of food in front of him, until the time is right; this is his personal practice. He asks repeatedly, of anyone around him: “what time is it?” He isn’t asking a temporal question, but reminding us of time’s passage, and calling us to repentance while there is still time. And yet, what does my grandfather do, with his papery skin, slow gait, and diminishing days? He sits, often for hours, his large-print Bible propped open in his lap, reading, and then shuffles outside, to sit with his eyes closed in the warm sunshine.
Our lives are lived in this tension between time-scarcity and time-abundance. It is limited, and yet, there is enough for the needful things, both the Book, and the sunshine.
Frost was working when his friend came to call, and his friend called him into a “friendly visit,” a moment of rest. My days cycle between intensity and rest. My medical residency was intensely focused on work, the postpartum period was intensely focused on the needs of my newborns, and copyediting for my recent novel, The Lightkeeper, was intensely focused on the novel. I’m never the best mom and doctor at the same time. When I’m writing I’m not engaged with my kids. I’m learning to cycle and live seasonally, and give attention to each thing in turn, the way the Church cycles through seasons of intensity, like Lent, and celebration, like the Bright days that follow the Resurrection.
Frost leaves his hoe in the field to go speak with his friend. We often think we’re being productive when we do more than one thing at a time, but we aren’t, not really. We’re having a chat with a friend, or speaking with a patient, or standing to pray, or digging in the sandbox with our kids, and suddenly our attention flies. The problem of time in my life is a problem of attention. I say this not because I’m good at paying attention, but because I’ve found it to be the human task: we have to find a way to be attentive, to be present. We have to, as St. Sophrony said, bring the mind down into the heart. We have to be lovingly attentive to the thing we’re doing, and the people we’re with.
It’s hard to do just one thing at a time, the way God is with us, in the prayerful attention of creation. Just after writing this I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth and squeezed toothpaste onto my son’s toothbrush by accident. It’s... not a normal toothbrush. It’s a baby toothbrush with Eeyore on it. The point is, being attentive is really, really hard, especially now, at this point in human history, when we’re losing our knack for it. We really have to sink our hoe into the ground, intentionally stop doing the thing we’re doing, and move to the new task, sometimes physically. There’s a reason the Liturgy is physical and engages the senses: incense, chanting, metanoia. It forces the body to attend.
Boredom and Passive Work
If you have a child, people are fond of lamenting “it goes by so fast!” as though a growing child were a swift commuter train during rush hour. “It,” being the child’s infancy and childhood, doesn’t really go by any faster than anything else. It’s just that we elevate ourselves out of experiences that are tedious or repetitive, and we have trouble sustaining attention. If we attend to each moment of our children’s lives they wouldn’t go by fast; they would go by at the speed of life. Leaning into boredom, both in creative work and repetitive tasks, is often creatively freeing, and good fodder for new ideas.
Being bored or allowing myself to rest while passively thinking about a current project is one way I solve problems. So many plot elements have worked themselves out overnight when I took myself off to bed instead of staying up late. As Margaret Atwood says, “…tell yourself the problem. Go to sleep.” Whether it’s a math equation or a character you’re trying to bring to life, this is a remarkably efficient time management tool. Your brain is still working overnight. Give it a problem to solve.
Practically, what time management looks like in my life is that I decide what the most important 2 or 3 things are at the moment, focus intently on them, and deliberately let a lot of other things go. I work in the scraps of time I have, among the clinic days, cooking dinner, caring for babies, and I allow my life’s natural limitations to enrich my work. I cycle between periods of intensity and rest in the different domains of my life, and I do my best to maintain attention on the task at hand. Sometimes this means ruthlessly eliminating distractions, whether technological or emotional. It means learning to graciously say no. I purposefully build in times of boredom and rest into my day, so my mind can sift through ideas and creative work can happen, despite my overthinking.
My final meditation on Frost’s poem: why does a meticulous poet who doesn’t waste words mention the blade-up, five feet tall? To me it is a subtle reminder of death, and that his height is still above the ground, that he is yet un-buried, and that “there is a time to talk.” It is a reminder that we should take the time to do the important things, the needful things, the creative things, while there is still time, while we can still attend.
Sherry Shenoda is a Coptic Orthodox poet, author and pediatrician, born in Cairo, living in California. Her work is at the intersection of human rights and child health. She lives with her family in a tiny, sunny apartment by the beach and has just run out of space on her bookshelves…again. The Lightkeeper is her first novel; it's a wonderful read that I highly recommend. If you'd like to read more of her work you can visit her personal website.