Monday, August 2, 2010

On Paying Attention

Recently I was musing about the word "care" and all its many mutations. Care free, careful, etc., and one of the most interesting to me is that of "care less." There is "I could care less," which can genuinely mean complete disinterest in a subject, or "I could care less," as in "I'm bored with this silly subject, which is an older equivalent of the more modern "whatever." Many years ago I learned an important and difficult lesson about another form of care, which was that of carelessness.
Like most writers, I have my affectionate eccentricities. My most treasured is that whenever I write anything of any real importance, I use a fountain pen. Much younger readers may have to look it up, but most of us know the fountain pen to be that wonderful writing instrument whose parts include a cap, a barrel, and a nib and one must fill it up with ink from a bottle. There is a quality and feel of writing with a fountain pen that somehow connects me to some primal, organic experience of writing that no other writing instrument can do.
I have always kept a high quality fountain pen for the writing that really matters: journaling, letters (yes, I still write them), and birthday cards, etc. I never let anyone else use it and whenever there have been moves in my life (and there have been many), I always know at all times where two items can be found, any medications I required and of course, my fountain pen. Everything else could be lost in the process of the move, but those two items have always been guarded with my life. I swear if a person needed the aid of a writing tool to sign a check to me for a million dollars and my fountain pen were the only such item around, I know I would flinch at the imposition.
There was a period in my life during which I journaled faithfully on at least a daily basis and sometimes more, and of course, I would only do so with my fountain pen. I began having problems with the pen. The ink simply did not flow in that fluid way that is so magical with a fountain pen, and day by day it kept becoming worse. Finally, one morning despite being recently refilled it would barely write at all. I became quite frustrated, irritated, and downright angry. I was ready to toss the pen out altogher.
When the strain was almost more than could be tolerated, I had the "brilliant" idea of consulting the little instruction booklet that came with the pen. To my astonishment, the instructions, which I had never before read (because who needs help using a fountain pen?), pointed out that from time to time one must rinse the nib and the ink barrel in cold water in order to keep the pen functioning properly. I felt admonished and was quite sure I now knew the source of the problem. I stopped writing and went to the sink to carefully clean and rinse the pen.
Sure enough, the pen, when refilled with ink, resumed its marvelous contribution to the flow of words I was pouring out, and I realized I had been very careless with this thing I supposedly treasured. Of course, on the scale of problems in life that confront us, the workings of my fountain pen are in reality way on down the scale of importance. Yet my failure to take care of this pen made me stop to think about other valued parts of my life with which I had been careless - relationships, time, money, health, etc. I knew that if I were to think about it, I had often been neglectful of many things I, at least verbally, would have stated I valued a good deal more than that pen. How many other instructions had I failed to read and follow?
There are many public debates and private self assurances about what our values are. Yet I know that whenever I have done in inward "power point" presentation juxtaposing the stated values I held and the actual behaviors maintained, the lack of congruence has frequently been painfully obvious. It was a humbling lesson those many years ago. It is said that our time is our most important asset. That being said, however, how many works of art, relationships, and other so-called "values" have fallen by the wayside from neglect with no more than the flick of the remote control for the television, endless shopping for things we "need," or over-scheduled calendars and to-do lists?
I have been careless. I want to care more. I want to pay attention. Of course, it means that life will not be carefree, which it never is anyway, but as Janis Joplin sang, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." It is a startling awareness to realize that the way one actually spends one's time and resources can so little reflect what is really yearned for. I want to pay more attention to that inward power point presentation. I suspect it will be instructive.

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