I have been working from home for over two months now. It is late spring, and my lakeside home has been a hub of activity. It is not the sort of activity most of my coworkers have in home schooling, piles of dishes and fighting over what to binge on Netflix. The hub of activity is the birds, reptiles and furry mammals that happen by my backyard. The thing is, I must assume that all of this has gone on for the almost two decades I have lived in this home. Perhaps it is the lack of distraction of getting kids to soccer practice, or worrying about getting to work on time, or maybe it’s that the pandemic induces a pause button that has been pressed–overall, I have been paying attention to all that surrounds me a lot more recently.
Here are some thoughts on the art of paying attention:
Turn off the distractions
Turn off the television, the phone, the computer and the tablet. I can remember way back to when I first lived alone after my first divorce. I always came home and turned the television on for background noise. It helped me cope with being alone. Now, I have the compulsion to look at my phone for notifications. It’s all just distractions from being present and taking notice of what is around us. As Harriet Griffey wrote for The Guardian: “Continuous partial attention – or CPA – was a phrase coined by the ex-Apple and Microsoft consultant Linda Stone. By adopting an always-on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace behaviour, we exist in a constant state of alertness that scans the world but never really gives our full attention to anything. In the short term, we adapt well to these demands, but in the long term the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol create a physiological hyper-alert state that is always scanning for stimuli, provoking a sense of addiction temporarily assuaged by checking in.” This is difficult for me but I am trying to keep my distractions to a minimum.
I have taught a terrific class by Franklin Covey called 5 Choices. In that class, I’ve done an exercise where we time everyone task switching from writing the number 1, the letter A, then the Roman Numeral one and then back to the number 2, letter B and Roman Numeral two and so on, up to Roman Numeral ten. When they are then asked to write the list by each category numbers, letters and then Roman Numerals, they cut their time in half. It’s a dramatic example of how task switching slows you down. Multitasking is a myth. We are just slowing ourselves down and getting less done. I am completely guilty of sending a text to answer a colleague in the middle of a meeting or scanning through my emails. But when I focus on the present moment and pay attention, I feel less scattered, more involved in what is happening and much more aware of my surroundings. Try and focus on just one thing.
I’m not sure if it’s because the four walls in my house are the same every day and seem to feel like they are closing me in as I cope with working from home, but I have found myself looking outside with increased frequency. My home faces northeast and the sunrise each day is something I have always looked forward to. It may influence why I typically get up at 5AM but I really enjoy the surprise of what kind of sunrise it will be. Will there be clouds, fog or clear skies? Will there be rain or wind? Will there be pinks and orange or just deep blue before the sunlight streams through? I never know but I look forward to that moment. I meditate facing the window to look out at the sunrise and am always surprised that each one is so unique. It changes minute by minute as the colors morph and spread or succumb to the sun. Looking outside gets me to focus on paying attention.
Every year, the dynamics of my backyard changes. This year, we have had a contentious battle between three male mallards and one female mallard going on for the past week. The female seems to be mated with what appears to be the middle-aged male. The middle-aged male is constantly running off the younger male if he gets within ten feet of the female. The oldest male by contrast is sitting around napping most of the day oblivious of the fighting between the two younger males but if he walks towards the spot where the female is, the couple flies off. I can get completely caught up in whether they are parents to the younger male or if he is just the pestering younger brother. There is the gymnastic squirrel who is able to access any bird feeder known to man and the stress it causes my poor dog, Baci. There were eight turtles hanging out the other day, bobbing their heads above water. What brought the turtle convention to my backyard that day? There is the regular family of swifts who nest in a drain pipe next to the lake and they always put on a show in the early evening by grabbing insects swooping above the water. This is likely because now I am home all day every day but noticing what is going on has really connected me with the nature around me.
I put my hummingbird feeder out about a month and a half ago. It sat vacant for weeks. And weeks. I started googling hummingbird sightings on the east coast and eastern North Carolina seemed sparse. I began to panic that my feeder was clogged up. My boyfriend Roy brought me a new feeder and reported that his mother had plenty of hummingbirds just an hour east of me. I never know what attracts a species to inhabit my backyard or to not. Last year I had a nesting pair of Little Blue Herons and this year they are gone. Three years ago, I had battling hummingbirds dive bombing each other over the feeder. There is a Great Blue Heron who is a constant. They are frequently standing on my lake bank or strutting around my boat slip. Tall and majestic and glorious in flight. I am so grateful for each sighting. When I was sitting at my kitchen table yesterday, there it was, the elusive hummingbird scouting out the feeder. A tear came to my eye. They were back. Pay attention but be grateful for what shows up.
Awareness and attention to the natural world helps me escape the heaviness of this pandemic. It is ironic that I find escape in staying at home. It takes putting aside the myriad of distractions and focusing on the present moment and what is available. What are you paying attention to?