Care That Is Attentive
The little head, covered in long, shiny hair the colors of a raven’s wing, was bent over the table. So focused on the work in front of her, the young girl did not glance up as I walked into the room. “Lisa,” I said gently as I settled into the tiny plastic chair next to hers, “Whatcha doing?”
She did not pause to look at me, but continued writing diligently on the piece of red construction paper in front of her, the thick pencil gripped tightly in her tiny fist. “I have to write this 20 times before I am allowed to play.”
I glanced down to read the words on her page:
I will pay atinchin.
It took me a moment to decode her creative spelling, but once I did it became a visual reminder for me of a particular kind of attention -- the forced, stiff watchfulness most of us can summon when we know we must. I imagine all of us as tin soldiers, our little chins set in rigid fashion, directing our focus toward something we may or may not find interesting.
That is how many of us were taught to pay attention, but the image in my mind and the type of attention it makes me think of do not feel attentive at all.
Lisa was a four year old participant in the pre-school program where I worked in Greece one summer during my high school years. And I draw on this specific memory of her frequently when I consider the ways I want to care for others and the ways I want to be cared for by others.
Lisa was paying very close attention to the task of repeatedly writing that line, but her intent was not to learn from the exercise or to write neatly. Rather, she was attending to this chore so that she could do what she really wanted to do, which was go outside and play.
How often do we as caregivers “pay atinchin” to the tasks of caregiving just the way that Lisa did -- in order to get through them and get on to what we would rather be doing?
I have been on both the giving and receiving end of that type of care, and I know that it can breed frustration, distance, even resentment in all persons involved.
I have returned to that hot summer day in Greece may times in the intervening decades. And what I feel quite certain of today is that Lisa WAS paying attention when the pre-school teacher thought she was not. She was just attending to something that was not what the teacher wanted her to be attending to.
Maybe it was the new outfit she was wearing or her friend’s sparkly nailpolish. Perhaps it was the ice cream she would have after her mother picked her up at the end of the day or the fun she had playing with her brother that morning before school.
Or maybe it was the physical pain she was experiencing. Later that summer, we learned that Lisa had intense headaches; and eventually the source of those was found to be heat on her head created by her glorious, long hair pulling in the blazing sun. Once her parents had her hair cut into a short pixie style, her headaches disappeared.
Often I wonder how much attention we were all paying to Lisa. We may have been paying “atinchin” to her, with our rigid ideas of how things should run in the classroom; with our little tin chins, we likely were on the hunt for deviations from those plans for perfect student behavior.
But were we attending to her? Rather than scold her for the direction of her focus, could we not have directed our awareness to her with curiousity and openness? We might have asked her what she was thinking about or feeling. Perhaps we would have learned that she was excited or afraid or in discomfort.
As caregivers, choosing where we place our attention and how we attend to things is vitally important. I have learned that I am able to provide the most present, loving, compassionate care when I attend to both the person whom I am serving and to myself, when I do so not with a tin chin but with humility.
French mystic, philosopher, and political activist Simon Weil says that “Humility is attentive patience.”
Humility. Attentive Patience. None of that is easy.
I frequently feel pulled to react to situations like Lisa’s pre-school teacher did, to find out what is amiss and fix it in ways that may lack grace and skill, to speak too quickly or sharply.
And then I see that little head bent over the red paper and the hand tightly gripping the pencil, and I pause.
I remind myself to attend to what is happening in and around me in this moment.
I do the same thing when my husband is caring for me. I attend to him; I wonder what his experience is in this moment. I ask. I share with him mine.
Zen teacher Ezra Bayda notes that, “When you really pay attention, everything is your teacher.”
When we attend to who and what are here right now, we are blessed with an abundance of teachers.
That person you are companioning? Teacher.
The grumpy person you may be acting as right now? Teacher.
The dog barking outside? Teacher.
The smell of food cooking in the next room? Teacher.
The flowers in the vase? Teacher.
The machines monitoring blood pressure? Teacher.
The little girl, not paying atinchin? Teacher. My teacher still.