A friend shared with me that she watched more television while she was nursing her daughter than she ever had before. “There was nothing else I could do,” she told me. When I imagined what she said, I saw it as a more leisurely activity than it actually was when I experienced it myself. It takes energy to make and to convey milk to a child. The work that I did not see when my friend told me of her television viewing was the work of producing and delivering milk while you are bone tired in the wake of having given birth and then trying to acquaint this new life to the world. The fatigue from these activities constitutes the hidden work that does not make it into the appointment book. Locating and unveiling such hidden work can prove useful.
I know people, good friends, who have a talent for this sort of thing. At the end of my telephone conversations with my friends, I often ask of their plans for the remainder of the day, afternoon, or evening. Not only do I like imagining how they will spend their time, I like getting ideas from unhurried people about how I might live more creatively. Sometimes a friend might say that she will be spending some time “thinking about” a particular question or person; other times a friend might say that she will be spending some time “trying to figure” something out. While these are not activities that would typically garner a spot on a “to do list,” they most certainly are activities. Though “worrying” might not be an activity that my friends discuss, I would certainly include it among those overlooked activities that take up time.
Paying attention is another overlooked activity. Recently, I have been reading Toni and Slade Morrison’s children’s books to my son. In Who’s Got Game? Poppy or the Snake? Nate confides to his grandfather, Poppy, that he doesn’t want to return to school. He explains to Poppy that he can’t pay attention because of all of the alluring distractions that he finds around him that seem much more fun than focusing. Poppy explains to Nate that paying attention is just “another way of taking yourself seriously.” He then tells the story about a snake who nearly killed him. When Poppy tells Nate that he used snake serum as a precaution against the snake who presented himself as his friend, Nate thinks the serum saved Poppy’s life, but Poppy corrects him: “Not entirely. Paying attention is what saved me.”
I like Poppy’s story for the representation it offers of being a student. A crucial element involved in the work of being a student is learning to pay attention. Nate needs to return to school so that he can learn to pay attention, to concentrate, to focus. Acquiring this skill can save your life. Thinking about this story now changes the significance of teachers telling me to pay attention to what I was doing so that I didn’t make careless mistakes. This remark refers less to the math that I thought I would never use and pertains more to a life that I want to preserve.
Locating and unveiling the hidden work that doesn’t make our appointment books and “to-do-lists” can reveal how seriously we take ourselves. I saw the outline that J.K. Rowling made out in her own hand
for her book Order of the Phoenix. I thought it was beautiful (you can actually read the outline better by following the link). I wonder if you could outline a day exclusively devoted to overlooked activities, thought work, that typically doesn’t make the schedule? Would it need to be a reverse outline? Can you plan for a day spent paying attention?
When I think about what this outline might look like, I’m reminded of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s song “If I Only Had a Brain.” I love Harry Connick, Jr.’s version,
I admire the longing in it. You can overlook the gravity of this longing in the Scarecrow’s version of the song in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Connick’s version puts me in mind of a 1966 interview wherein John Coltrane describes his ambitions as a musician:
I want to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start immediately to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I’d like to play a certain song and he’ll be cured. When he’d be broke, I’d bring out a different song, and immediately he’d get all the money he needed. But what these pieces are, and what is the road to attain the knowledge of them, that I don’t know. The true powers of music are still unknown. To be able to control them must be, I believe, the goal of every musician.
Coltrane’s beliefs about the goals of musicians can be a model for all of us who are interested in defining the significance of the hidden work of our inner lives.