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on maintaining attention
Life is a fight against entropy, I think as I gather up Waterloo sparkling water cans, half-empty mugs of coffee and three pairs of sweatpants strewn over the sofa, grudgingly restoring the apartment to order. Thanks to lockdown I've very belatedly entered some approximation of adult domesticity, and mostly I find it... hilarious. Like: you have to keep cleaning the apartment on an infinite weekly cycle in order to stop it from collapsing into disarray. You have to keep buying groceries, and keep looking up recipes, and keeping baking cookies at the same rate you consume them. Even my body requires continuous effort: I have to work out four days a week, buy winter clothes, replace my makeup, get my hair cut and highlighted, just to stay the same Ava-shaped blob I currently am.
I've never been good at maintenance. I let things slide until they're in a truly abysmal state. I'm spacey, scatterbrained: I forget to text people back, forget to schedule appointments. I've not just cracked but completely shattered the screen of every iPhone I've ever owned. My dorm room in college was a literal trash heap. My attention naturally works best in targeted bursts. It's like a tractor beam: intensely focused on one thing while leaving everything else in complete darkness.
This form of attention is both effective and flawed: it means that I can summon tremendous amounts of energy for a short duration and direct it towards whatever I'm obsessed with. When the obsession fades, however, it becomes significantly harder for me to remain interested in the task at hand. Of course, any long-term project requires sustained interest through weeks and months of boredom and hopelessness. As a result, I've become convinced in the past couple of years that I need to get better at maintenance: attending to the same thing over and over and over, even when I experience the work as rather less than thrilling.
I only set two goals for myself during quarantine: stay in shape, and finish the book I'm working on by winter. Writing is as an act of creation, but in many ways I see it as an act of maintenance in the exact same way exercise is: if I don't write every day, nothing will ever get finished. If I don't bike, I just straight up get worse at biking. When I think too much about this I get the exact same feeling I do when I'm figuring out what groceries to buy this week... this is a scam.
Still, I suck it up because there's no alternative. Writing is pleasure but it's also often just frustration and discipline. When I sit down most mornings and open the chapter I'm working on it's like... Christ, how do people do this? How do people do anything? But I eke it out line by line on the days that feel dry and frustrating. The whole point, I suppose, is that you have to make it through the dry season to get to harvest. On the days when words come easy I feel flooded with purpose. When I reread something I wrote a month ago and discover that it's not nearly as horrible as I feared, it feels like grace. I was hanging out with J the other day and he pointed out that most people he knows who’ve tried to write a book trail off at some point and get depressed. And I was like yeah I definitely empathize with that, but also I’m going to finish this book if it’s the last thing I do in my life, because I can’t live with myself if I don’t finish it, and there’s no way to become the kind of person who finishes books unless I finish the book. Billy Wilder: “The muse has to know where to find you.” So I, uh, pretty much stay in place at my keyboard and pray the muse finds me.
There’s no way around it: life is a fight against entropy. There's this line I like about how most of Western philosophy is about doing and most of Eastern philosophy is about being. In order to live a good life we have to learn how to reconcile the two. To believe we don't need anything from the material world to feel joy—to perceive the essential luminousness of everything around us, which continues with no effort on our part—and then still to choose to attend, to maintain, to force our way upstream. I think all the time about how love is fundamentally an act of maintenance: I know you love me because you choose me again and again, because I choose to attend to you out of all the people in world.
I do, of course, pick my battles. I don't know if I'll ever be the kind of person who is meticulous and precise about the state of her home, keeps up with dental appointments, emails people back instantly. But I try to maintain what I care most about, and the act of maintenance is what helps me sculpt a cohesive self. To know you have to keeping showing up forever and still choose to put in your most earnest effort each time feels Sisyphean, but on certain days it also feels like pure relief.