Gabie has a hard time concentrating during prayers. To be fair, he’s a typical 8 year old and he has a hard time concentrating in general (with the notable exception of when he’s reading a Percy Jackson book and then he sits spellbound on the couch for so long I have to locate him and check his breathing because the house seems too quiet). But it’s a special kind of torture for Gabie to close his eyes, keep them closed, and DO NOTHING but listen to someone else pray. At the dinner table last night, Gabie dutifully folded his arms and, as I said the blessing, he slouched down in his chair and began slurping the juice out of the cup of fruit he had deliberately arranged at the edge of his plate within neck-stretching distance. After the prayer, I made him demonstrate proper Prayer Behavior for one minute before he could eat. Even worse, I forced him to squirm through a mini-lecture on how prayer is a holy act of talking to God and—using an analogy I hoped he'd appreciate—I suggested if a Greek hero had insulted Athena by slurping his food while talking to her, he’d be in big trouble.
Maybe I was a bit hard on Gabie. I mean who doesn’t find it hard to focus sometimes? Especially when we’re basically praying for the same things over and over with little variation? One prayer, to Gabie, is much like another, but this fruit cup in front of him…this is something entirely new, and syrupy and seriously in need of tasting.
Coming off the tails of a semester in which I had to multitask every moment to fit it all in, I’m finding new joy in focusing on one thing at a time. What a concept! Sometimes it’s hard to set aside distractions and think about only the task at hand (admits She of the iPod Addiction) but when I’m able to do it, I feel far more peaceful. I admire Zen philosophy for its emphasis on mindfulness. Everything we do, no matter how mundane or repetitive, deserves thought and care. As Zen master Dogen said, when you’re washing the rice, wash the rice.
Or maybe, since I don’t wash my rice, if you’re making the bread, make the bread. And maybe it's a joke trying to be totally single-minded with a Gabie by your side offering assistance and advice, but I made whole wheat bread this week for the first time in months and it was a true pleasure. I enjoyed the whole process especially the part where we ground the wheat and got to smell the warm, fine dust that rose from the drawer each time I pulled it open to peek at the little mounds of flour forming under the stone millwheels. Gabie helped me load everything into the mixer and flip the switch to knead it (I’d like to say we went all Zen and kneaded it by hand for several minutes, but sorry, the Bosch just makes it too easy). Gabie checked back every couple of minutes between chapters to ask “Is it dough yet?” And then we shaped five big loaves and Gabie made his own mini loaf, which still sits on the counter, two days later, in its pristine condition, wrapped in plastic, like an offering to the gods of bread and childhood, too beautiful and precious to be consumed.
I think my love-affair with art can at least partly be explained by its ability (its demand, really) to make me focus. A good painting forces my attention. It expands my experience by temporarily limiting my vision. (Jasper Johns’ famous paintings of targets take this point to an extreme) And what is art, anyway, if not a process of narrowing the scope of life in a way that asks us to look very carefully at a privileged moment, or a face, or a pattern? It’s not just painting that does this. Theater frames a couple of hours’ worth of cause and effect on a stage, well-lit, boxed-in and elevated for our consideration. Literature puts it all in a book that must be held close enough to the eyes to block out everything else happening on either side. I can relate to Gabie’s single-mindedness about his books because I grew up in a large, noisy household and I developed early the skill of tuning everything out with a good book. But paintings especially make me focus. And not to put too spiritual a point on it, I think the correlation between the evolution of framed altarpieces and framed canvases was no accident. Art museums are pseudo-sacred spaces. Don’t you think they’re even church-like sometimes? The quiet voices. The meditative staring. Lots of people with their arms folded.
I’m beginning to worry about my students and wonder how many of them are really capable of this kind of focus. I’m having more and more trouble with them playing with cell phones in class. I can swallow the fact that my lectures are not captivating enough to demand their full attention, but really, it’s not even me I want them to pay attention to. It’s Van Gogh and Vermeer and the ancient Greeks who carved the faces of their gods into marble. But some of my students just can’t do it. They can’t go a full hour without sending a text or checking their mail. It’s downright painful for them. How can I teach them about art when they’re only half-listening or half-looking? There’s almost nothing you can learn about art with half your mind. The artists who created the pieces we study put their whole souls into their work; they were notoriously fixated, even to the point of sacrificing their health and, in more than a few cases, their sanity. The least we owe them is a few minutes of our undivided attention. Maybe I need to make my classroom more Zen like. I’m seriously thinking about taking a bowl of rice the first day to wash in front of the classroom just to prove a point.
How does one wash rice anyway?