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Attention Must Be Paid

I’m not a detail guy. I want to be but I’m not. I used to plan out my day in fifteen minute increments but I’d be off-schedule by breakfast. When I misplace my wallet, I’ll wander around the house for a half-hour. Then Kate will get involved and find it in two minutes. If I’m looking for lost keys, I’ll check my desk, which is almost always cluttered with papers, notecards, pencils, and piles of books. But if my keys aren’t on top, I assume they’re not there. I don’t look under things. Kate’s theory — and it’s a good one — is that I look at the cluttered desk and see one single shape that includes the desk, books, papers, and so on. “Layers” and “under” are details not generally on my radar. (It’s a good thing for everybody I didn’t follow my dad, an air traffic controller, into the family business.)

I spent a couple hours working outside on Wednesday, doing jobs that required, for me, an unusual attention to detail: harvesting loganberries, pulling up weeds and grass that were invading the onion patch in our garden, and picking up unripe apples that had fallen from the tree. I’m also starting to cook more, which involves slowing down my brain, carefully reading recipes, and simultaneously managing details like a simmering pot and a hot oven. Yet those times in the garden and in the kitchen have become the most meaningful hours of my day — especially when I’m working next to Kate and Molly.

The details might never come natural to me, but I think I can develop some measure of attentiveness and vigilance. Wendell Berry wrote in “Watch With Me,” a short story, something like, “Steady work quiets the mind.” I hope my life becomes a testament to that. I think it’s possible.


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