Can I Have My Attention?

Mama always said, "I feel like I live in a pinball machine." 

Summed up, adulthood is realizing that your parents' pithy catchphrases are truer than you want them to be. My mom's pinball machine metaphor comes to mind daily. My toddler is one of the many balls launched on tightly-wound springs, and she bounces off every surface, her energy creating a ripple effect that scatters toys and food and my patience around the house. My smartphone—an obstacle my pinball eyes routinely smack against—keeps my head bouncing: up and down, focusing and refocusing, screen and reality. My eyes can't land on anything long in pinball reality; dishes, laundry, fussing, mail, e-mails, errands, life.

The fastest-moving, least stationary ball in my too-bright world of sensory input: my attention. It's wanted everywhere. The morning cries of my children are the initial spring that starts my attention's wild daily careening. There's not enough of me to go around, bodily, emotionally, spiritually. Everything wants attention. And somehow, the technologies around me are stealing too much of it. 

.........

We're a society obsessed with value. Give me the ROI. Analyze the cost-benefit. Calculate my yearly worth for doing these dishes, cleaning these floors, washing these children. I'm valuable because I could be replaced with money. 

Our obsession with worth in terms of bartering and trading comes out in our idioms, and just listen to how we talk about attention: 

We pay attention. 

We give attention. 

We receive attention. 

We need attention. 

Bell Hooks: "Attention is an important resource."

This is how we talk about things that have value—things that we could replace with the right figures behind a dollar sign. And our attention is wildly valuable. 

I'm not saying that metaphorically. Every smart company in the world is battling for today's scarcest (and yet) most prolific commodity: attention. They're battling for your attention. And if my attention is a valuable asset that I own, I'm woefully irresponsible with how I spend it. I track the dollars that flow from my bank account with careful precision, but my attention? I pay it and give it and waste it all day.

I don't mean to; in fact, when my time has slipped by while my attention is arrested by the infinite Facebook newsfeed, I feel robbed. I feel cheated. I feel ashamed that I let myself trade my limited and precious resources of attention and time in exchange for—for what? A cheap pump of dopamine when a red-flagged notification popped up? A sudden sense of angst and anxiety from reading a blood-bath comment section? A fuzzy, fractured mind that can't even remember what I spent my scrolling time seeing? 

I sound addicted, right? I'm doing something I don't want to do, compelled, arrested, powerless. A few times a year—maybe once a month even—I delete my Facebook app, I mute news app notifications, I wean myself off Instagram. That week or so is always a little clearer, my brain seems to function a little better. But eventually I log back in to check on a favorite discussion group or organize my next writing group meeting, and then I'm back—subconsciously unlocking my phone and reading the newest article from The Atlantic before I realized I'd even decided to do so. 

But I also know it's not all my weakness and lack of discipline to blame. If you sometimes feel that the technological deck is stacked against your mental health's favor, you're not wrong. In the attention economy, apps and websites and screens are designed to keep you scrolling, to foster a strong sense of urgency and immediacy, to keep your FOMO alive and well. And since we use our technologies for useful tasks—keeping up with friends, coordinating social groups, planning our days, reading our news—it can feel impossible to find balance. All-or-nothing hardly works, not for long, when nothing leaves us isolated and all leaves us feeling isolated. 

.........

So, back to my pinball machine home. I want a calm heart, a clear mind, a ready hand for my family and friends. I want to stop feeling that my attention is stolen from me—I want to give it and pay it like I give and pay my money: (mostly) through my own choice. 

When I began to think of my attention as a resource, I started to feel angry. My attention is being wrested from me, and I miss it. I miss giving undivided attention to anything. I miss thinking while I'm stuck in line at the post office, instead of checking out. I miss feeling in control. I miss creating instead of consuming. I don't want to divorce myself from social media and technology. I love my Facebook moms group; I use my list app daily for groceries and other information. I value my Instagram community, and would be lost at times without Google. 

But can't I use them instead of them using me? 

emilyfisk.com

Mary Oliver writes, "Attention is the beginning of devotion." I want my attention to center devotion on my children, the natural world, things that bring me joy and peace and connect me to others. I'm tired of waiting for Silicon Valley's conscience to kick in and help me disconnect when I need to; I'm taking back control myself. 

On a practical level, this spells habit changes. No all-or-nothing, no ultimatums, no account deactivations. I've deleted apps to certain social media sites (Facebook is the number one offender) to put a barrier to access—the mobile site requires more conscious thought than the easy-to-use app. I've started using a strict no-scroll policy on sites that leave me feeling depressed, frustrated, or tempted to compare.

Instead, I use websites and apps the way I used them back before tech companies started finding ways to stop us from leaving (and I’m suddenly nostalgic for 2006): I check in. I glance at my notifications. I navigate to peoples' profiles when I want to see what they're up to. I search for a recipe instead of scrolling through edited photos of white-on-white-on-perfect kitchens. I visit websites to skim the headlines, hearkening back to a day when we sat down with a newspaper—a finite, contained dose of daily information—and read the news I need when I'm ready to digest it, instead of when it breaks. I limit technology's omnipresence by quarantining it to controlled moments of my day. It's the difference between browsing a store for impulse buys and going in with a list and a purpose: you'll spend fewer of your resources, you'll get what you wanted, you'll be a smarter consumer.

One of the best new habits I've adopted? Leaving my phone plugged in. We used to lose our cordless phone daily in the late 90s, and once my little sister lamented, "Why don't they invent a phone that's attached to the wall so you don't lose it?" (We all laughed.) Now I attach my phone to the wall so I can finally stop having constant physical awareness of its presence. I want to lose my phone.

 

.........

My youngest daughter loves attention. Sometimes we say this about people in a negative way: he's only doing this for attention; she's addicted to the attention. But my daughter, she knows the value of look-you-in-the-eye moments in a way that's not encumbered by dollars and cents. She doesn't want to be tummy-to-tummy, faces pointed over backs—she doesn't want to be toted around on our shoulders. She wants eyes met, noses close, mouths mirroring twin smiles. She watches us while we flutter around the house, busy with unnecessary necessities, waiting for that magical moment when our lines of sight match up, and then her face succumbs to an overjoyed smile.

There it is. Attention.


When I asked my Instagram friends to share their resources for healthy disconnecting, they (of course), came through. Here are some tips, tricks, and resources. 

  1. Apps: Several people had luck with apps that help you disconnect, like the Freedom app (and web extension), Checky, or Moment. There are also browser extensions such as Facebook Disconnect for Chrome. 
  2. Habits: A lot of people have done similar things to what I wrote about to change their habits. Many said they leave their phone upstairs or in their bedroom, delete their Facebook apps, and give themselves "rules" about when they are allowed to check social media or websites. I particularly like habits that are doable—i.e. you can still hear if someone is calling you, but you don't have any notifications set for social media. 
  3. Tricks: Sometimes, it's easy to trick your brain into doing what you want. In some ways, that's what our phones are already doing: tricking our brains into thinking this is something we want to do (hence the subconscious scrolling). James Hamblin suggests turning your phone screen monochrome, and I actually love it. A black-and-white screen does not have the same appeal, and when it's black-and-white I immediately consciously realize, "I don't want to be checking my phone right now." 

What do you use to disconnect?

6 Ways to Deal with the Winter Blues

January is the worst.

Somehow, the cold that made me feel cozy in December chills me right through in January; the lights that looked festive a month before now seem dim and kitschy; the warm sweaters I loved to wear through fall and Christmas are suddenly restrictive straight jackets. There's a reason that the curse C.S. Lewis dreamed up in his Chronicles of Narnia series was "always winter, never Christmas." Because if you're like me, the sole redeeming quality that winter has to offer is Christmas. 

Well, folks. Christmas is over. The letdown can be rough, particularly if you're stuck inside after all the family time after the gauntlet of the holidays. If you struggle at all with seasonal depression, this could be the time it sets in—when it's cold and dreary and spring seems like a far-off impossibility. Sometimes, while I'm bundled up on my couch staring out the window at even more snow, I wonder out loud to my kids, "Will I ever be warm again?" Yeah, I'm a little dramatic.

The other day, I wrote two lists. One was titled "Why January Sucks," and the other "What Can I Even Do About January?" It was my coping mechanism—let's plan this out and make the middle of frozen winter a little warmer. The best decision I made in my planning was to turn to my Instagram friends (man, I love those people—jump on board if you want to join in this incredible community). 

These smart people came through and had some solid ideas for me, and I've already implemented a few of them. In the spirit of sharing the wisdom, I've put their ideas and my own together into a list for you. 

1. Embrace What's Good About Winter

Several of my Insta friends suggested getting outside for some winter-only fun like skiing and sledding. I'm not a skier (*looks toward two children, deadpans to camera*), but we have gotten out to sled with the kids and the squeals were worth the cold. There are other things, of course, that you can celebrate about winter without going outside: favorite knit sweaters, long evenings inside by candlelight, being snowed in with family, more time to read... I'm trying here, you guys. 

2. Cozy Up 

Maybe you've heard about the Danish tradition of "hygge," the intentional choice to cozy up, rest, and enjoy simple pleasures. This video makes me feel like winter isn't so bad after all, as long as I have nice socks and hot beverages and a warm living room. Even just lighting a candle, pouring some tea, and using the cold as an excuse to snuggle can make the frigid temperatures bearable. 

3. Think Green

Green things are coming. Spring is on its way (somewhere under the frozen tundra). Remind yourself of that with a few new house plants. This is the time of year that I visit my favorite local plant nursery and stroll their greenhouse—it's like visiting an oasis. Bring home a few bulbs to watch grow, force some paper whites. There's plenty of research to support this—nature has been proven to lift our moods and ease depression. 

4. Seek Sun

Where I live, we have this nasty word that comes up at least once a year: inversion. We live in a valley, and "inversion" is the meteorologist's term for "tears wept into your soup in January." Or, put another way: you won't see the sun for a few weeks. Luckily, we can get out of the inversion by driving a few hours out of the valley and gaining some elevation. If there's an option for you to go somewhere sunny, do it. If not, consider buying a "happy light" or another light therapy lamp to get some indoor rays. 

5. Fight the Hibernation Urge (a little...)

I need to take this advice to heart right now because (whoa) I haven't left the house since Monday. It's Friday. (Hubs and I share a car at the moment, so I haven't been able to get out, and we've had a snowpocalypse.) It's tempting to stay inside, cancel all plans, and go under the blankets until spring. Sure, stay comfortable, but don't let yourself get too cabin feverish. Have some friends over if you can't bear to leave the house, or head down to a coffee shop and get something warm to drink. Get outside, if you can, even for a short 10-minute walk. I promise you'll feel better.  

6. Tread Lightly With Resolutions

I've found that the expectations I set for myself are correlated with how content I am with my life. If my expectations are sky-high and unrealistic, even a decent day or week will leave me deflated. This time of year is like candied poison for a type-A overachiever like me since it seems like I now have the power to plot out a "perfect" year full of lofty goals. It's good to stay focused and goal-oriented; it's harmful to overwhelm yourself with visions of unachievable ideals. Maybe give yourself some time to think about what you want your year to look like, or better yet, reflect on lessons from your previous year and move forward with intentions instead of terrifying plans. Whatever you do, be gentle with yourself. 

Spring is coming, friends. We'll make it. Until then, come sit on my couch with me—feel free to bring wine. 

Winter can be a tough time, especially if you're struggling with any seasonal depression. These ideas can help you get through till spring with a cozy, positive attitude.

If you're struggling with more than a case of the winter blues, please know that there's help. The third Monday of January is called "Blue Monday," a recognized phenomenon, and a time that sees a spike in suicide rates. You're not alone. If you're struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, please, seek help. The suicide prevention hotline is always available: 1-800-273-8255. These words from Sam Lamott are also so true. 

I Want to Write a Psalm

I want to write a psalm. 

Like David, crippled with anguish, running with fear. I want to throw on some sackcloth and ashes and write a lament—how long, oh Lord? Have you forgotten me? Don't turn your face away, please. 

I want to write a psalm. But I'm no David. David fled a vindictive, jealous friend-turned-powerful-enemy. My friends stand around me, let me cry on their shoulders. David sheltered in caves, feared for his life. I set a thermostat to my comfort level, enjoy a body free of pain. David—after God's own heart. Me—maybe I'm just weak. 

I Want to Write a Psalm // emilyfisk.com

Besides, children are dying in Aleppo. Friends are preparing for first holidays without dead parents. Lonely divorces, sick spouses, injustice, violence—they're all there, reminding me I'm privileged, that maybe I won some cosmic lottery of birth and place and I'll never know some dark truths the way others do. There are countless thousands with resumes of suffering far more impressive than mine. 

Clearly, I'm under qualified to write a psalm.

But His eye is on the sparrow—right? He loves to give good gifts, so I've read. I could use a good gift tonight. I can't quite wrap my head around it, but my heart tells me He has no litmus test for whose pain He'll give ear to. I'm in pain, and maybe the guilt I'm adding on (the guilt that says: you're fine, get over it, stop and move on) isn't helping. Maybe if I can't believe He cares about my bumps and bruises and skinned knees (in the grand scheme of creation) then I can't accept His offered comfort. 

So I'll write a psalm. And it'll say:

 

Deliver me, O Lord.

My children are well but

most days I can't love them

like I should.

 

Deliver me, O Lord.

The bills and the worries and the guilt pile up

and threaten to pull me under 

dark waves of overwhelm. 

 

Deliver me, O Lord.

I'm weak and uncoordinated 

in my attempts at selflessness. 

I falter under the burdens

I want to shoulder bravely.

 

Deliver me, O Lord.

I have these four walls surrounding me, 

but some days they're a prison, 

and I'm a frantic animal, wide-eyed within them.

 

Deliver me, O Lord.

Forgive me for seeking only human approval; 

a potent anesthetic, I'm 

delirious and numb with it. 

 

Deliver me, O Lord.

You're merciful, so you'll 

look past my pettiness, my underdeveloped 

spiritual muscles, won't you? 

You'll hear me, though my problems

fail to impress?

 

Deliver me, O Lord.

 

You are a God who rescues.

 

Selah. 

 

To My Second: A Birth Story

PC: Kimberlie Ann Photography

PC: Kimberlie Ann Photography

"I'm not ready." 

The thought ran through my head on broken-record repeat as I lowered myself into a warm bath. 

"I'm not ready." 

I combed through my tangled hair. 

"I'm not ready." 

I held my oldest; her last moments as a baby ticked by. 

"I'm not ready." 

I surveyed my home—my home with no oven, no countertops, no carefully placed bassinet. 

I wasn't ready. But ready or not, here you came. 

* * * 

As I write this, you're napping. The clock just snuck past 5:45, telling me you've napped for over an hour by yourself for the first time in a few weeks. Besides this nap, you've needed shushing, soothing, and contact with my weary body to nap well. 

So—that's how month two has gone. 

And yet, there goes month two, and I'm already nostalgic for it. Month one fled too swift—that first bleary month where all you needed was me and all I needed was you. Month two came gradually, and then all at once; it was a month of slow recovery and tired arms and short nights. 

There goes month two. 

* * * 

I had played and replayed scenarios in my head like bad movies. There were scenarios where my contractions led me—kicking and screaming, for all intents and purposes—into labor and delivery. I imagined telling a nurse, "Please stop it. Please. I don't have a house and my husband doesn't have a job." 

See, your dad got laid off in June, while we were knee-deep in our long-dreamed-for home addition. We'd already borrowed the money and we had severance pay, so we plowed ahead, pushing the deadline closer and closer to your due date. We moved in five days before you made your swift and decisive entrance, dear one. 

I tell you this because I wasn't ready. And you still came. And you were still perfect. 

* * * 

As it was, a few things had fallen into place. Our home had power as of 24 hours before I admitted the obvious—I was in labor, and it was time to go. We were hopeful about three job prospects—in fact, your dad had all but been offered a job. 

But your little bassinet—it was still boxed up in the garage somewhere. Your diapers and wipes and onesies, they were all jumbled in a pile, not carefully folded and ready for you. And your planner, doer, make-doer mommy was scared—scared that this lack of preparedness and certainty would hurt you somehow. You'd know we loved you, right? 

So I put on a sweater and briefly checked the contents of the hospital bag and told your dad in exasperation, "Yes, it's for real. Let's go." And I added, as backed out of the driveway: 

"Damn it. I needed one more day." 

* * * 

You wouldn't wait one more day, though, or hardly one more hour. We arrived, and the nurse—I can't recall her name or her face, so frazzled I was—went through the admittance procedures. She checked me and announced I was a four. "A good time to come in," she congratulated me. Your dad took a video of me, robed in a hospital gown, swaying gently, holding my belly. "How do you feel?" he asks. Watching it now, I wish I could go back and tell that terrified girl she'd be okay, that her baby didn't care about paint or bassinets or medical insurance. "Feeling like this is it," I replied, proffering a strangled smile. They monitored you, they started an IV of antibiotics for my group-b strep, they gave me cheery updates as I pursed my lips in pain. "That IV should be done soon. I'll check back in a bit!" 
 

The shakes started only an hour after we arrived. I couldn't control them and felt silly, frustrated. "Are you cold?" The nurse raised her eyebrow, surveying me. "No," I said, "but shakes are normal, right?" 

She mumbled something about "usually later," and said, "You still want an epidural? I'll page the anesthetist." 

That's when the pain started in earnest. That's when my worries relinquished control to my body and I was suddenly delirious with wave after wave of contractions. My desire to appear nonchalant and in control was still in place—but barely—when I asked about that epidural what seemed like years later. "On her way!" I heard a voice say from somewhere in the room, somewhere I couldn't focus on as I breathed through the tightened, white-hot agony. 

The anesthetist arrived and began to explain, in a low, rehearsed drone, that if I had complications from this epidural it wasn't her fault and the hospital wasn't liable and other things you care deeply about while experiencing the worst pain of your life. I inhaled sharply at a contraction, and she asked, "Need to take a break?" "No," I said, "keep telling me about liability." 

Then things got real. "I feel a lot of pressure!" I remember yelling, afraid you'd already poked your tiny head out somehow and were greeting me with a cheeky grin. When I felt a gush, I knew my water had broken and heard the words "meconium" and "NICU" and that's when mama started swearing. "Yep, you're a nine," my suddenly all-business nurse announced from somewhere under my hospital gown, and I gasped, "Does this mean no epidural?" 

My midwife was suddenly in front of me. "You can get that epidural NOW," she intoned firmly. 

Thank God. That was my thought. Because no matter how much pain I was in, at least the epidural was going according to plan. 

I held your dad's shoulders and swore rhythmically into his shirt while using all my strength to hold still as the anesthetist inserted a giant needle into my spine. I tell you this, dear, because I hope that by the time you have babies, they've made this feel a bit less barbaric. 

"Can I move?" No. "Can I move yet?" No. "Can I move now?" Yes, here, roll back on the bed. 

That epidural didn't set in until I had started, in a half-laughing, half-crying fit, pushing you into the world. 

"No need to wait for the contractions," my midwife said from behind goggles and a mask. "She's almost here. Go ahead and push however you'd like." 

So I pushed. A few times. And you were here—wailing like your life depended on it. 

Turns out, it did. I knew when you screamed with those tiny lungs that you hadn't swallowed any meconium, that you were breathing and okay, that NICU wouldn't whisk you away from me. I pulled your slimy, red body toward me and laughed. 

And all at once, I was ready. 

Let it Be Light: When Advent Hurts

Running along the river, we drew in lung-numbing air and breathed out weariness. "When I heard about the attacks," she huffed between strides, "I just sat on my bed and cried." 

The familiar weight settles in my chest again. We talk about bombings, sick children, refugee crises, the fear permeating our neighborhoods. These and other tragedies threaten to push me further downward. Advent promises to bring light after the days get darker, but it's only November and I’m sinking. The days aren't even as dark as they'll get yet. 

Last year around this time, I was entertaining visions of a nostalgic first Christmas season with my daughter. Instead, the unbearable weight of global events knocked the wind and the manufactured magic right out of me, and I felt trapped under an unbearable grief for a broken world. I felt cheated. Jesus was in the manger and the story was moving on to the Wise Men, but I wasn't ready. Where was the peace on earth? The goodwill toward men? Christmas had come, but injustice still reigned and the darkness felt tangible. 

//

Then in despair I bowed my head.

“There is no peace on earth,” I said

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

// 

There was a time when Advent meant nothing more to me than opening cardboard cut-outs to reveal the number of days between me and merriment. I subconsciously linked Advent with pleasure, comfort, and a cleaned-up baby Jesus. But it's a lie that Christmas is all smiles and store-bought magic.

Instead, Advent is painful. Jesus' entrance into this world came during war and xenophobia and genocide. Sound familiar? Only shortly after the child King was born, Herod killed every Jewish boy under two. The infant Christ turned refugee while a xenophobic ruler ripped babies from wombs. The first Christmas didn't happen in a world somehow safer or cleaner or kinder than the one we live in now. 

Let it Be Light: When Advent Hurts // emilyfisk.com

That's why Jesus came. That's why Advent hurts. All the twinkling lights on earth can't pierce that darkness. It takes a Light stronger than the coming summer sun to warm human hearts. The promise of Advent is that the Light is coming. The days grow shorter, colder, and darker—but the light always comes with the change of the seasons. It's a cyclical symbol of a bigger story. The Light is coming. 

This Advent, I'm embracing the hurt instead of covering it up with paper and ribbons. Let’s simplify the commercialism and the rush and instead quiet ourselves to listen and act. The light isn’t hanging on a Spruce tree or twinkling from a storefront: the Light is here and still coming, and someday He’ll wipe away every tear. 

//

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

"God is not dead, nor does He sleep.

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, goodwill to men."


Originally published November 2015.