Tag Archives: concentration

Our tiny playground in the city.

Nearly every day Raj and I spend quite a bit of time on the balcony of the 13th-floor apartment where his family lives. It’s above a major intersection with a couple dozen lanes of traffic meeting and surging with cars, trucks and buses most of the day. To the east between the high-rises we can see a slice of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. When my grandson sees a jet take off he squeals; a few seconds later we see it emerge from behind tall buildings to the north, and much smaller to the eye. But he is still watching it.

Emergency vehicles sound their sirens in the neighborhood at least a couple of times every day, and sometimes we will hurry out and try to spot them. If not, we’re sure to see one or several of Raj’s favorite Metro buses waiting at a stop light just below. We’ve shared the delights of cement mixers, dump trucks, car transports and motorcycles. Once it was three police cars in a line, lights flashing. On the balcony itself is Daddy’s bicycle, a vehicle he can  even put his hands on, and examine small parts like wheel, reflector and pedals.

All of that transportation stuff would be exciting enough for a toddler, but there are a surprising number of experiences of flora and fauna as well. Pigeons and sparrows land on the rail. Spiders spin webs during the night and in the morning the birds swoop down and eat the spiders. One day we watched a slender and elegant fly as it crawled along the edge of the balcony for several feet, and as it made a left turn to cross the span and continue up the wall of the building. We watched it go all the way to the top of a window and disappear into a crack, and Raj waved good-bye. Then it came out of the crack again! He never lost his focus on that creature until it vanished again for good.

Raj doesn’t talk yet, but he uses many signs to communicate; some of these are standard sign language that many parents nowadays teach their babies, and others he has invented himself. By signs he can say “please,” “thank you,” “more,” “all done,” “Daddy,” “hot,” “cold,” “I like this food,” and at least several other things I can’t think of or that he doesn’t use as often. One experience he can indicate is of the wind.

Many times when we are looking over the balcony, a breeze will come up, and a few times when that happened I have mentioned it to him. One day we were standing at the railing in silent contemplation, punctuated by the occasional “Hmm!” from Raj that seems to be his    comment on anything positive. This time, when the wind came up, he was the one who first noted it, by making sweeping, large and circular movements with his arms.

The balcony is the place to experience (and “talk” about) the heat of the metal wall at one end, when he runs the length of its patio and bangs on it with both little hands. There is an overhang above — perhaps the balcony of the next apartment up? — but not extending so far that one can’t stretch an arm into falling rain, or find very shallow puddles to splash in. Even with many high-rise buildings all around, the sky is huge and ever changing, often with clouds that are well worth talking about.

Our boy is never on the balcony without an adult companion, and from my first time out there with him we have enjoyed and refined our game of copy-cat. First, he would merely run full speed from one end to the other and back, and I would follow exactly. Raj added a certain arm-swing to his choreography, and the next day dance-y hops. Lately he likes to lead me in walking backward the whole way, sometimes stopping suddenly to line up our feet just-so, so that we can look at our toes side-by-side.

I’ve been impressed with the richness of this child’s life overall — full of stimulation and human warmth and at the same time very ordered and routine. Having a nanny to push you to the park almost every day is a boon, and currently several adults to make sure that you can eat and sleep at regular times even when there is a new baby in the house.

For a short time in his life, his days will include this simple balcony with no furniture typical of a patio area. His parents don’t want any items that he might learn to climb up on. Until this week when a larger plastic fire truck came into the household, no toys were allowed out there, because they could fall through the spaces or be thrown over the top.

For an even shorter time Raj has this grandma to play our particular balcony games with him. That space is simple and plain, and many adults not carrying a phone wouldn’t know what to do there. But it’s a fun playground where a toddler can exercise not only his short legs but his attention span. He can tune his senses to the life of the city and participate in a vast world.

Slipping from the tedious plane.

I was telling Mr. Greenjeans about how An American Childhood by Annie Dillard encouraged me in my writing. He comes from the author’s hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is the backdrop for her growing-up adventures told from her vividly revealing point of view. I took the book off the shelf to put aside for him, and turned the pages a while, seeing passages I’d marked long ago.

Hers is a unique point of view, of course, as each of us is an unrepeatable individual looking out on our world. Whether it is her perspective that is unusual as well, or only her ability to convey it in words, I don’t know. I do know that few children today have the liberty of youth that Dillard describes as regularly offering periods of time so deep and distraction-free that you can “lose yourself.” In a chapter on her love of books and reading, she tells how she felt:

The actual world is a kind of tedious plane where dwells, and goes to school, the body, the boring body which houses the eyes to read the books and houses the heart the books enflame. The very boring body seems to require an inordinately big, very boring world to keep it up, a world where you have to spend far too much time, have to do time like a prisoner, always looking for a chance to slip away, to escape back home to books, or to escape back home to any concentration–fanciful, mental, or physical–where you can lose your self at last. Although I was hungry all the time, I could not bear to hold still and eat; it was too dull a thing to do, and had no appeal either to courage or to imagination. The blinding sway of their inner lives makes children immoral. They find things good insofar as they are thrilling, insofar as they render them ever more feverish and breathless, ever more limp and senseless on the bed.

-Annie Dillard, in An American Childhood

Trying to Focus, on a Wintry Day

Into the blowing and pouring rain I forced myself this morning, so that I could use the machines at the gym. While walking on the treadmill for an hour, I read The New Yorker Food Issue from last November. I pick these magazines up at the library for 25 cents each, and usually find at least one article, though not usually in the Food Issue, to keep my attention while I work out. (I have tried many other reading materials, and everything else is either too heady and distracting, or too boring to keep my mind off the discomfort.)

Today I learned about a cake that is baked on a spit for several hours and is called Baumkuchen, which means Tree Cake in German, because some of them are cone-shaped like a tree. These cakes date back to the Middle Ages, and currently are pretty popular in Japan.

I read about poutine, beloved especially of youth in Canada, where I think I could get into eating it, at least in winter, when one might be able to burn enough calories shoveling snow and keeping warm so as not to put on the pounds from enjoying a dish that consists of French fries, cheese curds, and gravy.

The Michelin Guide to restaurants took several pages to explain, after the author hung out with one of the inspectors for the company during a meal at a three-star restaurant. These inspectors and their identities are top-secret and incognito, so that they can remain objective and also get the same food and treatment as any old customer who is willing to pay dearly for their daily bread.

Later in the morning I read a blog about how good homeschooling can be if the family actually stays home a lot, so that the children can concentrate on whatever it is they are doing and not be constantly interrupted by having to run hither and thither to group classes and such. That got me thinking about how it is better for me, too, still a self-homeschooler, an autodidact, who always gets confused and scattered when I have to come and go.

I read another blog that linked to an interview with Makoto Fujimura, a Christian Japanese-American artist who has a lot to say about God and creativity. I remembered that I’d heard a different interview with him not long ago on the Mars Hill Audio Journal, and I was able to locate the tape and listen to him. I was not able to multi-task, though; I found that if I tried to find his website at the same time, I stopped listening.

I started to take notes on the audio interview. He was talking about how the habit of reading is even more important to cultivate now that our society is so image-oriented. Also about how all the fast-action images that people are feeding on teach their minds to avoid real concentration. They scan, instead of engaging with visual information in a more focused manner. I was still feeling distracted myself and wondering why I was picking this one topic and writer to think about. Was I randomly and shallowly scanning?

No, I had wanted to listen to him again and think more about these things. But if I hadn’t gone to the gym and taken hours to collect myself afterward, I’m not sure I’d have had so much trouble being calmly thoughtful. In the early afternoon I had to go out again and run errands–more dissipation of mental energies!

I was saved by duty–my husband’s needs were what helped me to pull myself together. We were nearly out of granola, his staff of life. And he would need a real dinner. (Without him, I’d eat eggs and toast and tea forever.) He would like to feel the warmth of a fire as he came in the door from work. When I got a fire kindled and started assembling the granola I was happy to give my attention to concrete and practical tasks.

This granola has fed the family for more than 35 years. I make a huge batch still, so that I don’t have to do it very often, even though B. often eats Power Pancakes for breakfast nowadays. The basic proportions of oats, honey and oil have remained the same, while the extras of nuts, seeds and other grains are infinitely flexible. It doesn’t make a very sweet cold cereal, as you might guess if you compare with other recipes.

GretchenJoanna’s Granola
30-32 cups of regular rolled oats, divided
3-5 cups unsweetened shredded coconut
2-5 cups chopped almonds and/or other nuts
0-2 cups each of wheat germ, sesame seeds, buckwheat groats, rice or oat bran
0-1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups oil
2 cups honey (or substitute part sugar syrup, made with 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water)
3 tablespoons vanilla, or substitute part almond extract
Put 20 cups of the oats in a giant bowl. Add whatever other dry ingredients appeal. In a pot, heat and stir the wet ingredients gently and slowly together until the honey is liquid. Pour onto the dry ingredients and stir to moisten them thoroughly. Then add the other 10-12 cups of oats and mix in evenly.
Spread up to an inch deep in pans and bake in batches at 300° until as toasty brown as you like it, stirring every ten minutes. Lately I’ve been using big roasting pans that happen to have 2″ sides, but the toasting may happen faster using pans with less lip. I use the biggest pans I have, and both oven racks, so that it doesn’t take all day. 🙂
I store a gallon jar of this on the kitchen counter, and the remainder in the freezer.

I was going to show a photo of the big bowl of finished granola, but my camera battery is spent. So here is a picture of someone enjoying an early version of GJ’s Granola, circa 1977 (notice the gold draperies and tablecloth).

Time for bed now, and thank God, I can end the day having accomplished reading, writing, and homemaking, even if I wasn’t very organized in my concentrating. I want to do better tomorrow.