My email spam blocker is having filtration problems. So am I. Just as the diet, mortgage, dating, credit report, e-cig and language learning messages flow nonstop to my laptop, so does every conceivable distraction flow into my brain. I want to get some work done, I really do. But then I look out the open window and there’s that purple car with the green trim and jacked up wheels, circling the block again. And in the park across the street, there are the tween-age boys playing pickup basketball, while the younger boys watch longingly. Moms with strollers and cellphones and dogs walk by like little mobile juggling acts. Tiny girls in hijab run toward the swings. Maybe I should not try to work near an open window on a spring day.
There are distractions inside, too: we all know what a dangerous Pandora’s box a laptop or a smartphone is. But what I don’t know is this: why am I sometimes better at filtering and focusing and other times, I’m just not?
Often, I think it’s a problem of accumulated experience. I know that sounds like a too-sly way of saying “age,” but stay with me. Because what I mean is this: I think my filtering problem is due to a ridiculous over-abundance, a lifetime buildup, of past references for all the stimuli outside the window or on the screen or wherever my busy brain might be.
I hear kids playing ball and my mind reels back to growing up near another neighborhood park, in another part of Seattle, where I watched my skinny big brother don all kinds of strange armor and head up the hill to play Little League Football. How I cringed, imagining him getting knocked down and trampled by all those beefier boys. And from there, my brain skips ahead to his three sons, young adults now, and—you see? How hopeless it is, to stay focused? Don’t even get me started on the stroller moms and all the memories they conjure up. And the little girls in their bright scarves and how I’ve been to so many countries, but not to theirs.
It is such hard work to filter distractions in our hyper-distracted world, especially if everything you see, hear or read can trigger a whole decades-long chain of memories.
And often, we have experiences we really need to allow ourselves to dwell on, but instead we plunge into the nearest distraction at hand.
After the Boston bombings, I thought what I needed to do was comb the Internet news sites, Twitter, Facebook to see what the latest was and what people were saying about it. But what I needed much more was simply to talk to actual humans: to my husband, friends, children. To shake our heads together, to share the shock, to mourn.
A happier example, this time of year in Seattle, is the sun finally coming out. We know what we crave: to feel it on our faces. To be out in it. We can try to lash ourselves to our desks, pretend we’re getting work done—when really we’re checking the weather websites and other peoples’ photos of the sun setting over the Olympics—but really, what is the point? Why not go outside, bask, stroll, stretch—and then take that good feeling back indoors?
Be warned: feeling the sun on your face will remind you of all the past springs of your life. It will be hard to filter that memory deluge. But you might not want to.
This week’s shameless plug: my daughter Claire Thompson wrote a great essay for Grist on millennials. Check it out!
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.