Beautiful Distractions

Andy Rash from the Times

Andy Rash from the Times

Small confession: I was interrupted three times during the first paragraphs of Verena von Pfetten’s piece in the Times last month about—you guessed it—being distracted.


Twice my daughter asked me to refill her water gun for an ongoing arms race with the neighbors. Once my dog brought his ball to me, prompting me to add more treats. I am, after all, well trained.


By the time I returned to the second paragraph, to resume where I left off, my coffee was cold and I couldn’t remember what I had read.


I have a memory etched into my brain. I was in college, visiting my parents for a long weekend with nothing planned, the kind of extended relaxing time that unrolls sporadically like an uneven sphere coasting down an incline. I was sitting in the front room, curled in a swivel chair reading A Thousand Splendid Sons by Khaled Hosseini. This was during a time in my life when I didn’t simply fall asleep any time I started to read, when a moment of relaxation actually meant just that, and I was so enveloped in the story, I didn’t notice my mom enter the room. I didn’t notice her, in fact, until she touched my shoulder and I jumped countable inches in the air, certain that the hand belonged to Mariam’s evil husband.


Uninterrupted time is a luxury. Distraction-free living is a luxury. It is meant for certain points in our lives. I’m not in one of those.


I’ve never been one to multi-task well. I rarely listen to music as I work, except for the occasional classical collection. I never seek television or radio to play while I complete tasks as “background noise.” Even a baseball game calls my attention away from whatever it is I am doing. I find it insufferable to look at my phone while holding a conversation, even if I’m seeking information that will prove a point. I’d rather engage than confirm.


Naturally, I consider myself a superior human because of this. And I really wanted to read von Pfetten’s article to confirm my suspicions. But I kept getting distracted.


Some distractions are completely out of our control: The water gun arms race, the dog whose primary motivation is peanut-butter flavored treats, the hour my husband returns from work. But it doesn’t stop there: The phone call from a panicking client with a “quick question” that is rarely quick. (It’s also rarely the reason for the call; usually it’s something deeper.) The student who “pops by” my office hoping for a quick moment. The colleague who asks if I’ve “got a sec” to talk through a problem.


At some point these distractions will end. I’ll become seasoned enough that my point of view will no longer be helpful or relevant to students or colleagues. The children around us will no longer need our support or validation. The dog will be too tired to request peanut butter treats. Then I’ll be able to read an article, or a book, or a tome without interruptions.


That’s when I’ll get back to von Pfetten’s article. In the meantime, it remains unread, at least by me.


Instead of reading it, I reheated my coffee and then joined my daughter outside. She had cast her water gun aside while the other kids continued playing. Instead she begun digging for treasures in a waterlogged flowerbed in our yard. She found a crystal, an old brass knob, and a worm.


What a wonderful distraction.


April 2016 Tasks

Columbus, Ohio

Columbus, Ohio

To persevere. To continue, even in the face of difficulty. To persist with determination. To carry on. To follow through.


Perseverance is powerful. It is important. It is why we continue to do the important work we do, even—and especially—when it is hard. We should celebrate our perseverance, our tenacity, our endurance.


We should celebrate this beautiful messy process that often—but not always—leads to something better at the end.


And we know that. Our children and students are praised for their perseverance when a task is challenging. Our teaching anecdotes highlight failures on the path to major successes (Steve Jobs, for example). Our quotable sayings emphasize perseverance (“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” or “Practice makes perfect” or “If you are going through hell, keep going.”).


Our best-seller lists (How Children Succeed by Paul Tough and Grit by Angela Duckworth) emphasize building perseverance and grit. Our TED talks (also by Angela Duckworth) and pop culture writings do the same (see, for example, Kevin Ivester’s musings and the Tim Elmore’s take on the subject in the related Huffington Post article).


And nature has taught us this. After all, April showers (and occasional snow flakes) bring May flowers.


We know it’s a thing. We knew it was a thing before it was a trendy thing.


This month, persevere. Persevere with your art, with your writing, with your performance, with your creativity. The “newness” of the new year is over. The transitional agrarian change to summer hasn’t yet happened. The fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t quite ripe. The sunshine isn’t quite predictable.


But you can still persevere. And you can do it patiently.


Because building a creative practice takes time. It can happen intentionally (and it should), but it also must happen organically. You can’t force creativity any more than you can force a market for your creativity.


But you can persevere with patience. Not by being passive. Being passive is something complete different. It is waiting. It is hoping, often without direction. Perseverance is taking action. It is seizing control and reclaiming empowerment. It is not passive. It is exhausting. It is so exhausting we feel it should end long before it does.


So we remain patient. We persevere. Patiently.