The Art of Attention
Is it work?
Happy April and happy first week of Major League Baseball season to all who celebrate!
It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you, solo, bring both a scorebook and a notebook to a spring training baseball game—as well as a sobriety that stretches past the third inning—someone will ask you if you are a scout. On four separate occasions, in both the Cactus League and the Grapefruit League, I have been asked this.
Each time, and especially the first, I was lush with validation. Someone looked at me and saw a kind of seriousness that connoted job. To be clear, I was not scouting, but I was there to write about what I saw with the express purpose of publication at a particular time in my writing life when having someone else take my work seriously was of vital importance to me. And what a thrill to have such a reason to look so closely: someone else wanted me to report back, to see my work in the world.
(I would be lying if I said those things weren’t still important to me, but firsts have that extra weight, and though now I know enough to try to push back against the desire for external approvals, an omnipresent and yet still underpins that resolution. All that? A topic for another day.)
Looking backward at those baseball games, though, each of these moments seems odder to me for the assumption underlying the question: to be obviously paying close attention must mean I was working. To take notes, to make a record, visibly, was read as some kind of labor, despite the fact that the vast majority of the people in those ballparks had also chosen to be there.
Now, I will fully admit that there are many distractions to embrace at a baseball game. Prime people-watching, the first taste of summer for those of us coming from wintering places, the occasional blessing or curse of squirrels, and the various in-house entertainments devised by the teams themselves are draws not to be ignored. (In 100 Miles of Baseball, co-written by Dale Jacobs and Heidi L.M. Jacobs, Heidi makes a compelling study of these distractions after embarking on a 50-game tour of baseball observations in a single summer.) But paying attention to the distractions is still paying attention, albeit to different things, and I’m still hung up on interpreting attention (no matter the target) of this kind as work, especially at something like a baseball game, which has such a long tradition of reverence for minutiae.
Mary Oliver famously wrote, in Upstream, “Attention is the beginning of devotion” and, at least as it works for me, the measure of it, too. The things I pay attention to—the ones I choose and the ones I cannot help but be attentive to—are the measure of me. I still take a notebook everywhere, just in case I see something (or think something) I want to hold onto. Maybe it’s partially fear that I’ll forget, but mostly it’s indulging my inner magpie. I don’t apply the vast majority of things I write down to any particular project (even when I’m taking notes for a project); I just enjoy the shape of a shadow, the celebratory finger-waggles the player who’s just hit a double exchanges with teammates, the conversation about someone’s eccentric aunt unfurling behind me. I can’t help but try to collect them.
But one thing the pandemic has demonstrated is that certain kinds of attention are a finite resource; some come at the cost of others. (And, let’s be very clear, there are a lot of attentions, often conflicting with each other, in the context of work/jobs.) It makes those choices of what to pay attention to all the more important and, sometimes, exhausting in their own right. “How we spend our days,” Annie Dillard said, “is of course how we spend our lives”—and it’s a dictum that’s been a guide and a lash since I read it the first time in 2003, as an undergrad. Then, I didn’t find myself losing hours to anxious scrolling (there was no such thing as of yet); then, I was slightly better at making choices with my time. Then again, there were fewer choices to make.
What I’m making: After starting and unraveling three crocheted attempts, I have started knitting a blanket. Knitting, my sweet reliable. The goal of this project is to provide two things: something I can work on during baseball games and hockey playoffs and bicycle races (which is to say something where I don’t really need to count or watch my hands) and to use up a massive pile of yarn remnants.
I’m also trying to make this about spontaneity and not getting too particular about which colors appear in which order, which is much harder.
That I’m beginning a fiber arts project dictated mostly by how little attention I can pay to it and still do the thing, given the several hundred words I wrote above, is an irony not lost on me. That said, by doing something with my hands while watching sports, I’m basically writing myself a little permission slip for the activity that staves off the dividing, anxious impulse to try to do something else “productive” that would result in not really paying attention to either thing.
What I’m reading: The Sum of Trifles by Julia Ridley Smith. This collection of essays, anchored in the experience of growing up in the context of her parents’ antique business and then the process of cleaning out the family home and sifting through that legacy after her parents’ deaths, is full of the attention of devotion. From describing the way her mother’s evaluation and appraisal of art and furniture has influenced her own tastes to the touches of humor that mark the author’s voice, it’s frank and tender, and I’m enjoying it a great deal.
What I’m writing: My latest piece for the Ploughshares blog is devoted to The Affirmations by Luke Hathaway. I cannot recommend this collection of poems enough. It is wise and layered and lyrical, and I need to read all of his previous work immediately.