Life Unwound: Life is a matter of attention

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On Tuesday, as we stumble through the Jumble in the newspaper and eat our oatmeal at the dining room table, my husband says, “I booked an appointment with that new physical therapist. Friday at 9:30.”

His words reach me. I hear him. I say, “PT. Yay. So you’ll change your pickle ball schedule?”

On Wednesday, after we watch Lester Holt’s nightly news, I ask my husband, “what’s up for the rest of the week?”

He says, “You know, I have PT Friday morning. I’ve been to that building. I know where it is.”

I hear him. His words land in me. I say, “Right. That clinic sits in the middle of our old neighborhood. Easy parking. Great.”

Thursday night as I check my phone and he checks a Red Sox score, I ask, “what does tomorrow look like? You play pickle ball at 7:30, right?”

He says, “I have PT at 9:30. We’ve been through this.”

We laugh. I say, “Oh, ya, several times.”

It’s not that I don’t hear him. I have good ears. It’s not that his words don’t connect in me. They do. I note them each time. But “hardening of the arteries” runs in my DNA. So I Google the differences between normal aging and major cognitive decline:

Having trouble remembering what’s heard, or the details of a discussion? Normal. Becoming easily distracted? Normal. Not being able to retrieve information from the tip of your tongue? Normal. Phew.

OK. I don’t yet have worry-worthy memory loss. Why, then, do I not know what my husband plans for Friday after he tells me many times? Daily I ask a “what’s happening” question. I hear and brain-enter the answer. But do I really listen? Where are my thoughts when the answer comes? Am I here for it? Am I here for him?

I ask, “What’s on for tomorrow?”

While he talks, my awareness bolts into my tomorrow. Call Diane. Walk with Nancy. Prepare for class. Buy spinach.

Perhaps these mental slips are the stuff of attention, attention an ability that ebbs and flows, vital for survival, crucial in relationship. Still, focus waxes and wanes. Last week, I received a text from a friend saying that her son missed school, sick. I texted, at the same time thinking about the past (not seeing mom earlier) and fantasizing about the future (dessert at dinner). I typed and sent, “how’s your son?”

The response came, “huh?”

I wrote, “Your son had the flu. How is he?’

The return text said, “Hellooooo. This is me. I don’t have a son.”

Oops.

Mind full does not equal mindful. How about if we ask ourselves now and then, “Where am I?”

I used to have a knack for shared or divided attention. I could simultaneously track my daughter’s soccer schedule, my son’s theater rehearsals and my husband’s calendar. I could multi-attend. But aging has stolen some concentration neurons.

Now that I am over (let’s just say) 60, I’m paying attention to attentional skill-building, an aptitude we are told we can self-regulate. I’ve noticed that working with the rowdy noises in my head proves a tougher intervention than with the voices outside. So I practice.

When someone says, “I have an appointment on Friday,” I sit, make eye contact. Because, with focus, we have control of where our attention lands, I try to take in just what’s said. The operative word? Try. Nailing this new habit takes repetition. I don’t do it well, given my bent for multi-listening. But, the solid teachings of the ToDO Institute (www.todoinstitute.org) say that life is matter of attention. That feels kind, and if true, then caring comes through undivided single-attending.

So at meals, in conversation, I ditch the phone, I put down my spoon, pause from reading the paper, and stop doing puzzles. Then my mind unjumbles a bit, I better recall our exchanges and my husband feels heard.

Falmouth author Susan Lebel Young is a retired psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher. She can be reached at sly313@aol.com or at www.susanlebelyoung.com.

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