Multiplicity

What a circus act we women perform every day of our lives. It puts the trapeze artist to shame. Look at us. We run a tight rope daily, balancing a pile of books on the head. Baby carriage, parasol, kitchen chair, still under control. Steady now! This is not the life of simplicity but the life of multiplicity that the wise men warn us of. It leads not to unification but to fragmentation. It does not bring grace; it destroys the soul.
~Anne Morrow Lindbergh

This morning, while my eggs were baking, I emptied the dishwasher, put a new plant in a hanger, filled out a health insurance form, planned the week’s meals around the contents of my weekly produce box, started a mental list of what to take to the cabin next week, and mentally re-landscaped the backyard. I don’t remember eating the eggs.

Janet Luhr writes in her Simple Living Guide that “when we try to do two or more things at once, we do none of them well, and we don’t really experience anything. We are forever distracted and not really paying attention to any one task. Then we begin to worry.”

For me, playing music is a the most effective cure for multitasking. Last Saturday night, I arrived to play in the pit orchestra for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore and the conductor immediately noticed that I was not “fine”. I explained that I hadn’t slept the night before, because I had arrived home from the theater to find the phone ringing. My daughter was frantically trying to reach me because my husband had inadvertently had a close encounter with a concrete bench and needed several stitches in his head. I dropped my flute on the couch and headed to the emergency room. Although my husband’s injuries were deemed superficial and he was soon released, the rest of my night was filled with what-ifs and guilt. The conductor said, after expressing concern, “Well, you’re here now and you can take a break from worrying about all of that.” And I did. It is impossible to concentrate on every note in a score, manage all the entrances, enjoy the delights of Gilbert’s lyrics, and still allow intrusions from outside the theater. Music keeps me from turning into Mad Margaret. In a pinch, I can always remind myself to “Basingstoke.”

Reading also works, but it is trickier. It has to be something easy to concentrate on, with little relation to anything in my normal life. Of the books stacked on my table right now, Thoreau leads me to worrying about the effects of last year’s fire on the forest around my cabin. Emerson has me planning curriculum for the class I teach at the Unitarian church. Ursula Le Guin’s Dancing at the Edge of the World inspires me to get back to writing. Janet Luhr’s Simple Living Guide has me purging and redecorating my home. The other night I reread Tamara Pierce’s Alanna: The First Adventure. Since I don’t plan to pose as a boy to become a knight in a world which still has strict sexist roles, I was able to totally immerse myself in this treasure of a story.

Getting out into nature–hiking, skiing, sitting by a stream–can also erase the rest of the world. I become part of geological time, where my fleeting concerns are of little moment. Mountains have time and so do I.

Solo adventures are best for concentrating on the experience. While I treasure my hiking companions and appreciate the mutual therapy that happens during our adventures, that can still count as multitasking. Alone, I can set my goals and concentrate on reaching them. I take my time, stop to catch a breath when I need it, fulfill the needs of my own body. I walk more carefully and pay more attention to where I am going so I can find my way back. I can take the time to compose the perfect photograph and relish the sounds around me. I let the day itself tell me when it’s time to go home.

Nature, great literature, and music are all timeless; they rescue us from our frantic lives filled with tiny details. May your retreats be filled with days which you “live deliberately.”

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