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There are days when being a parent takes up all the air in the room, days when I am carrying the weight of my children’s cares, taking more care with their hearts, attending to their needs. Sometimes those needs are physical: dinner, clean sheets, exercise, hugs. Other times, and this is the harder stuff, their needs are emotional, an unnamed current of uncertainty, a wobble in their boat and no land on the horizon, and what they need is a steady hand on the prow.
Like the rest of the country, we’ve been knee-deep in school conversations lately: what will it be like, what are our options, what if I’m scared? We have two kids, with two markedly different experiences ahead of them this fall, and though this situation is unpredictable and unusual, the work of walking through it with them is hardly different from what I’ve tried to do their whole lives. And it all comes back to this verb: to attend. But what does that mean? We attend school, we attend a wedding, we attend a Zoom meeting. Reduced in this way, you might think it means merely showing up.
Focusing on the noun attention doesn’t help matters. Funny, isn’t it, how in English, the verb-noun constructions for these ideas are often financial? We pay attention, we spend or buy or invest time, we even sometimes steal a minute of your time. By contrast, the French say fait attention! with the verb faire meaning to make or to do. The concept of an attention span (as though attention can have a fixed length) is weakened when your language reminds that you can always do attention. The structure insists on the action.
Speaking of French, the verb attendre might get closer to my meaning, translated as to wait. But not the kind of waiting you might associate with a long line and the requisite scrolling on your phone. Instead, this word has an expectancy to it, a feeling that you are pouring yourself into this moment for that which awaits you on the other side of this moment. Go further back, and you find the latin ad and tendere, meaning stretch and to, the idea being one of applying focused energy toward some new intended position.
To be a parent is for all these versions of the word to be true. Sometimes the just showing up is what matters: listening to the play-by-play of his favorite video game or watching the Marvel movie on the couch. But it is also the stretching toward, the wishing he hadn’t spent 45 minutes playing video games at all. It is the expectancy of their uncertain futures, AND it is the teaching and modeling that might help shape those futures. It is to build together, both cars out of cardboard AND a shelter for their fears. It is giving them room for private thoughts and inviting them into a common dialogue. It is never just one thing.
L. M. Sacasas (author of The Convivial Society, a deep well of thoughtful discourse) has had several pieces in the last few weeks that have bounced nicely off each other. The first, “Attention, Austerity, Freedom,” tackles lots of important issues, but ultimately lands here: “begin with your attention, because it may be that everything else will flow from this.” To do this work, we might ask ourselves,
What is worthy of my attention given what I claim to love, what I aim to accomplish, and who I hope to become?
It’s all there: the expectancy and hope, the aim and intention, the value and the investment.
Then, there was this piece, “Children and Technology” that led me to Alison Gopnick’s 2016 interview regarding her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, in which she describes the difference between types of parent: a gardener (one who hopes to provide a good environment for growing) or a carpenter (one who hopes to create a product from a set of plans). Sacasas is responding here to questions regarding “screen time” and other issues of technology, which seem to be born out of a desire for that good set of plans: Just give me the rules, and I’ll follow them! Just tell me how to help my kid! Instead, he suggests it is “better to let your choices flow from what you are for rather than what you are against.”
And here, from April when all the world was Baking Bread, which makes clear that I need to read Albert Borgmann’s 1984 Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life and which did what so many other thoughtful writers and thinkers have been doing these past months: consider the possibilities, the attendant hopes of this tragic pandemic. He writes,
the present crisis grants us with certain opportunities to better order our personal and collective affairs should we be willing to rise to the occasion. And among these may be the opportunity to examine the practices that have structured our experience and the tools, devices, and objects that have sustained these practices.
The practices he’s highlighting here, like baking bread or gardening, are what Borgmann calls “focal things,” and they are tasks that absorb us, engage us, ask something significant of us. These are the things we are turning to now to sustain us. These are the things we will have to decide to retain or let go of when things get back “to normal.” Samin Nosrat wrote about her gardening experience during the pandemic, explaining that “observing the garden became both my watch and calendar,” and I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we made that kind of time-keeping permanent.
How do all these disparate but resonant pieces fit together? They all ask us - like the best yogis - to set an intention and then do our best to align our practice to that intention. We won’t always succeed, but whether it’s questions around kids or work or relationships or how we spend our time, we do better when we work toward what we are for rather than fighting off what we are against.
As I gathered choice links this week, I realized many of them fit into this conversation, too, just on a bigger scale. If we want to do things better, “reform” is often the word that jumps to mind; perhaps we should consider rebuilding, this time with the desired outcomes in mind. Here are just two examples:
Designing a better criminal justice system: I tuned in to this radio interview with Christine Montross just as she was describing Nutraloaf, a punitive food option employed in prisons. In our ongoing conversation about social inequities and the various ways we can work toward healing, Montross’s book about the prison system feels like a vital contribution. Her book, Waiting for an Echo: The Madness of American Incarceration, offers an alternative vision to what we have now. It seems to be asking, what do we want from this system, what do we hope for and then encourages us to attend to the needs that would get us closer to that intention.
Discovering a better birth experience: This NYTimes article doesn’t offer any answers to why we have seen a global drop in premature births, but the change was significant enough to have doctors around the world wondering if this might be the start of a a real breakthrough in understanding this mysterious yet persistent risk to maternal and newborn health.
In that piece on Children and Technology, Sacasas cites the work of Robert Pogue Harrison, whose book Juvenescence expresses concern that today’s youth are being deprived of that they need to flourish. His list:
Idleness, shelter, and solitude
Spontaneity, wonder, and the freedom to fail
An expansive and embodied relation to nature
Continuity with the past
I would argue these are things we need at every stage of our development, not just in childhood. What would happen if we set a collective intention toward these goals, not just for children? How might we reset our institutions and practices if these were the goals for all of us?
Unexpected Joy Department:
This American Life and Lin-Manuel Miranda teamed up in 2012 to create a little 15-minute musical that is wildly entertaining AND asks really important questions about policing and youth:
What I’ve published this week:
Téa Obreht’s Inland was not an immediate hit with me, but I am so glad I stuck around to follow this tale of drought and survival, family and marriage, ghosts and deserts and camels to its remarkable end. It’s one I won’t easily forget.
Sunday poetry this week was a return to one of my favorites: T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
Thanks as always for reading and thinking with me. Have comments, suggestions, or questions? Reply to this email, and I promise a response. And if you can think of someone who might appreciate this sort of weekly musing, please consider sharing this post with them and encouraging them to join us. There’s always room for more around this odd table.