Mary’s reading to herself around the corner, a careless gesture spanning the length of our old, second-hand sofa. It’s the kind of display that makes me want to draw again; one wrist behind her unbrushed hair, ankles crossed in mismatched socks over the opposite armrest, her brows pursed in adorable unmeant concentration. There are some things a Nikon just can’t capture like a pencil on thick relief paper. I must have done something right this morning because Matthew and Scarlett are with her, out of my way, and aren’t fighting over the six open books between them. They look busy, mirroring their sister’s unbending focus, even though one of them can only sometimes count to three.
The pages gossip between themselves every few minutes. A page turns in pretty repetition, like the very slow, predictable drip of ice melting outside of a window on a warm enough afternoon. Broken only by the crackling interjection of old library book jackets in the grip of small interested fingers, the house is warped in a comfortable emptiness of sound we aren’t blessed with anymore but in small intervals on very lucky days.
This is one of them.
I’m at the doorway of the kitchen watching the three of them read together quietly while my mind wanders in and out of unimportant things, cashing in on the silence like a kid who just found five bucks on the ground and can’t wait to blow it on a handful of candy bars. There are always better things I could be doing with my time than standing around watching them – but it will always be my favorite, even though Mary’s at an age where it makes her feel needlessly self conscious. For that reason only, I pull my hair back. Instead of eating breakfast in peace or reaching for the strap of my Nikon, I turn to the dishes. If I don’t do them now, they’ll eat away at anything else I try to start.
I think about grabbing my phone “just” to check the time but I don’t. I’m always thinking about doing it and then stopping myself.
It reminds me of an article I read months ago about time fogs – the reason I stop myself from keeping the internet too close when I’m at home with the kids. It’s this believable phenomena that tricks society into believing we’re busier than we actually are. The article said that our minds stretch and bend our perception of time depending on the value of how it’s spent, which makes sense. Having no time to spare makes us feel valued and significant, while idling away on the internet every time you sit down to pee doesn’t.
This study, logging even the most mundane, insignificant activities into a journal, carried out by subjects who considered themselves to be busier than most, concluded that people with a perfectly decent understanding of basic math worked as many as ten to even twenty hours less than they always thought they had, but slept and snacked and read the backs of shampoo bottles significantly longer. We really are not half as consumed with life or bogged down by responsibility as we like to think we are. Not surprisingly, checking out in front of our devices for six to ten minutes every time we pull up a chair, or sit down to eat or wait for something else to finish happening (ever), accounts for vastly more time than we’re likely to give it credit for when we’re lamenting about our schedules over dinner with our spouses. Not because we think we have anything to hide, but because our minds literally shrink it next to other, more grueling parts of the day.
The first time I tried to log my day as the article suggests, I did what I always do and I forgot. I started logging the stuff I did that morning and when I blinked my eyes and the sky was purple, I tried to retrace my steps. I’d only just recently gotten internet on my phone and subscribed to Pinterest; obviously I’d spent at least a few times, leaning against the kitchen counter, ankles crossed, scrolling websites with my thumb. But, even though I had images in my head of everything I’d seen and clicked on and read within those pockets of time on the internet, I couldn’t trace them back to an actual time in space that day. It was like those sci-fi movies where experiences are downloaded onto your brain and instantaneously, you know things that you never experienced being taught. I didn’t see it as a investment of time, even though (without being on for more than a minute or two a pop) I suspected it was probably to blame for my day slipping past me like someone in a rush trying not to be noticed.
Basically, it freaked me the fuck out a little. And that was good because I stopped pulling my phone out so much. But then, that was before facebook – which has taken all the renewed will I perfectly expected it to when I signed up for the damn thing a good four years after everyone else. Fucking facebook is all anyone talks about anymore, and I’ve avoided it precisely because I didn’t want to turn into that.
That article changed me because by paying closer attention, I also realized I looked back on my days and saw wayyy more time standing in line at the bank with a crying toddler for eighteen minutes than the thirty-four I got to idle around the garden section of Home Depot when they were perfectly under control. Our “me” time is fleeting, but it’s more repetitious than we credit it with coming around. There are just too many things nowadays that impede us from taking full notice. From experiencing the gift of a great moment to it’s maximum capacity.
I like the internet, but I think as an introverted artistic-type, I tend to notice moments when I’m unplugged, and experience them deeper. Like, way more than I even need to. I just always have. I’m the type to trip over my own shoelaces because I’m busy inside my head trying to understand the way that a shadow bends around the surface of a tree the way it’s doing in front of me… so that the next time I try to draw it, I can get it right. The next time I take a picture of it, I’ll know how to capture the light from a new angle. The next time I write about it in the scrapbooks I keep for each of the kids, my words’ll do it some kind of justice.
Even so, we all know how easy it is to slip into the habit of “just checking reeee-al quick” more often than would be necessary for a doctor to peek in on a dying patient. So I put a conscious effort into staying unplugged any time the kids are awake. I write and paint and upload pictures and do all of those things that kind of center my weird-ass, artsy-fartsy spirit while the kids are asleep early in the morning after Spencer leaves for work at 4:00 a.m. I’m proud of that, too.
In less time than it takes to wash three mugs, it’s gone. The elusive quiet of a lucky weekday morning. A barrage of screeches, peels and unnatural grunts drill into my wandering thoughts and I have no choice but to stop the hot, hissing water, and to go run interference. Keeping peace between them is not a crippling labor, but an effort that certainly feels like it won’t let up all day. Funny how not putting phone to face like an asthma inhaler at every break in the day actually helps you to see that it will.
Before I know it, it’s the end of an easy school day and Scarlett’s waking up from her second nap. Her head is still warm and heavy with the thick weight of sleep that hasn’t completely worn off. She’s a dream in my arms. But if I put her down now for even the best of reasons, she’ll stab into the air with a scream that’ll rock the fucking house to it’s concrete foundation. As such, it’s our routine at this time of day – no matter how many more pressing things there are to attend to – to meet on the couch in a huddle while Matthew finishes reading; her head turned to see the pages but not plucked from my chest. She’ll pretend to join in as the drowsiness wears away, and almost as if set to some kind of internal clock, Mary’ll gravitate to our side from somewhere else in the house.
“Pig-gie is saa-ad.” Scarlett will say, pointing to the illustration with wide, gorgeous eyes. “Pig-gie is cry-ing,” this time mimicking her brother’s more boistrous level of literary skill rather than her big sister’s quiet concentration from before. They are the wrong words, but she’s scanning them convincingly with her index finger (nails painted for the very first time ever) and she’s mirroring the rhythm that we make when we’re doing a story justice with verbal inflection and pretended suspense. We read a story next that’s in the form of a poem because that’s what Mary’s studying this unit in writing. It’s also about the holocaust, which is still searing in my brain like a pulse of unfinished business from letting her read the last chapter of “Number the Stars” without me just two weeks prior. As I read — Scarlett trying her hardest to drink in every illustration before I turn the page; Matthew asking a million thoughtful, ill-timed questions; and Mary uh-huh-ing when I break to point out examples of repetition or how a thought is broken down to it’s barest essentials — I know that this is a moment worth sinking into completely… the kind that won’t notify you of it’s existence, the kind you’ll miss out on if you aren’t paying close enough attention.
There is nothing pressingly significant about having this experience with them. Nothing that would press me to put the phone down if I had it in my hand instead of a book, or Scarlett’s bare foot, or Matthew’s knee. But somehow, nothing under the stars is worth missing even a beat of them having me all to themselves. This is when they come alive. This is when our family does it’s growing.
It’s that little, almost invisible moment she looks up at me and says, “Look, Mommy. Piggie is sad.” That little moment that tells me she knows that I care enough to pay very close attention.