I have a bad habit of seeing only the task before me. With grade reports due at the end of the week, it’s difficult seeing past that obstacle. Nothing exists beyond it, so why think about any other task this week?
When I’m finished, I’ll be useless. My laziest moments fall between chores, between books, between paintings, between posts.
New missions often seem too new, there before you’ve celebrated completing the last. Some people are juggling multi-taskers who keep seventeen responsibilities current and central, but the all-consuming ordeal is my favorite, something that hijacks the other sixteen and excuse me from ignoring them.
One of my old jobs included directing plays, and the last week before production was anxious but satisfying. It arranged my life around readiness. Those few days of forgiven single-mindedness felt more normal than the rest of my life. No one could expect anything else of me. The postpartum depression came not from loss but from having to reenter regular life.
Sometimes the hydra of busy-ness seems the world’s problem. In 2012, attention can’t be exclusive because multi-tasking is one of modernity’s unnatural necessities. Life is complicated—too much of a German confederacy, as Thoreau would say—to leave anything alone for long.
Or that’s my rationalization. You’d have to travel pretty far back in human history to find a time when you didn’t have to milk the goat and tend the millet. Maybe a person unsuited to balancing many concerns has always been unsuited to life.
When I complained about my quilt of responsibilities’ straining every stitch, a friend attributed my problem to “the artist’s disease,” the delusion obsessive attention is essential and good, nobler than the domestication of multiple foci. Artists don’t want to do the dishes, she says, because they are too good for them. The slightest intrusion is the grossest violation when you imagine painting another Mona Lisa. The rest of us, she says, spread our efforts wide.
But it isn’t art with me. I hold with Todd Rundgren, “I don’t want to work. I just want to bang on the drums all day.”
Jane Austen put it more genteelly. In Mansfield Park, she wrote, “Everybody likes to go their own way—to choose their own time and manner of devotion,” which may explain my being so obsessive. The only work I like is devotion. Even grade reports can become devotion. If it’s worth doing well, it’s worth neglecting everything else.
But my wife disagrees.
She points out the floor I haven’t swept, the laundry I haven’t put away, everything unanswered and unscheduled. Meanwhile I attend to tasks with the strength only a single channel can provide, wondering why I should care about what’s broadcasting far and wide elsewhere.