In the Little League days of my youth I spent most innings crouched beside third base drawing nude stick-women in the dirt. The baseball bats would crack like lightning and balls would zip past my ear or between my legs on a high-speed chase to the right fielder. With each ignored baseball, my coach, on the verge of a self-induced heart attack would bark from the dugout, get your head out of the dirt and into the game Draper! Yet time and time again, batter after miserable batter, I struggled to pull myself from the roar of my wandering eye. And as one should have predicted, class was no different. Teachers lectured on about Honest Abe and the importance of integrity while I penciled makeshift guns into my note margins and shot soggy spitballs into my friend’s ear.
By the end of middle school baseball dumped me like a girlfriend who wouldn’t put out, but not before I learned that harnessing my attention at the things I loved could bring me immense satisfaction. My 5th grade teacher encouraged me to sit in the back of the classroom where I was able to read Huckleberry Finn and scout out my first girlfriend. By the time I reached college, looking for inspiration was the only way to force myself to write and a course I was taking in travel writing pushed me to make tedious notes of my surrounding environment.
In the first two weeks of class our teacher organized a trip to a nature reserve on the hushed outskirts of downtown Chattanooga. The Jeep, winding down a gravel road, rolled over the loose rocks and they popped like bubble wrap. We backed the SUV into a parking space near to the entrance. The air was humid: a basement under the sun after spring rainfall, but I was determined to make the most of my pocket-sized trip into the arboretum, to enjoy this escape from the classroom setting.
Everyone ventured off around the same time. I let the group go on ahead settling at the tail end of the line. The sounds of warbling blue birds sent music swirling from the limbs of damp oak trees. A small pond appeared to my left and nostalgia brought me back to those halcyon days when I last visited the arboretum ten years earlier on a field trip. Back then I stood in the pond, the surface of the water at my knees and tested the P.H. with strips of peach-colored paper. I remembered staring out across the pasture, the land appearing to me as something from a distant country – a pastoral of soft grass stretching as far as my imagination could take it.
Through adult-vision the arboretum appeared small and trivial. The clang of iron boxcars being loaded onto trains in the distance polluted the quiet of the land and the constant brush of time-to-get-in-shape-before-the-beach-trip runners insisted on reminding me that Nike and Rebook existed with their factories full of rubber.
I searched for a spot of solitude, and on my way around the bend of the trail – at the edge of the forest – found a gazebo to rest in. I laid my pack against the railing of the gazebo using it as a headrest. I lit a cigarette. A bumblebee whizzed by and settled on a wilting sunflower. She stared me down bug-eyed before excusing herself to pollinate another flower.
I stuffed the cigarette butt into my backpack with other crumpled homework assignments and fractured pencils. I leaned my head back. Dozens of hornet’s nests were glued like plaster to the inside of the roof though each one looked vacant. A hand crafted bird’s nest hung from a beam in the roof and rocked like the pendulum on a grandfather clock. I peeked inside but found only hatched eggshells, the cream brown of my grandmother’s palms.
I looked into the woods as far as I could see and day dreamed about leaving the class behind. I imagined running into the thick of the wilderness, my half full pack of Marlboro lights and can of Coca Cola bouncing like jumping beans inside my backpack. I would elude the police department on their tedious search by living in caves and eating wild berries. And as the years passed on and people asked of my whereabouts the community would gaze out at the distance and respond with a timeless,
“He’s gone into the wilderness.”
But I’m no Thoreau. I need people. Shoot, I spend most my time trying to get people to need me. And while his adventures elude me at first glance I can’t ignore the satisfaction garnered from sharing conversation with a childhood friend, air conditioning or the nightly news.
In my late teens my attention deficiency led me to avoid silence. I moved around it – kicked it under the bed – dropped it in the trash can at the edge of the driveway. I’d become foreign to tranquility, unable to witness the sublime. I’d shut out the quiet in myself and forgot to listen to the flutter of my own heartbeat, the calm of my breath, abandoning those days in the dust beside third base.
Many parents berate their children for not paying attention – a reminder that staying focused pays off. But these parents fail to define one thing, to elaborate on one extremely important detail: What is worth regarding? Attraction breeds attention. When someone sees something that speaks to their soul, they’re not just inclined but obligated to focus on that most singular spot of interest – to distinguish this interest from all others. Some students will listen to their teachers lecture on statistics and think God this is interesting while another sits in the back of the classroom and observes a hummingbird as it floats outside the window, flapping its minuscule wings more than a hundred times each second.