From The Attentive Life
Attentiveness is a learned practice; so is inattentiveness. I learned to be selectively inattentive, and the roots of my inattentiveness go back to my childhood.
I grew up in Chatham, Ontario, a few miles north of Lake Erie, surrounded by the farmlands of southwestern Ontario – near the places in Canada where you can look north to the United States! Several years ago I took our grown daughter Debbie to my old hometown. It was October, and as we drove down Victoria Avenue, the trees that gave Chatham the nickname, “the Maple City,” were blazing with fiery fall colors. At the corner of Gladstone and Victoria the old two-story white frame house where we lived until I was in my early teens is stills standing, remodeled now into a two-family dwelling. It was in that house that my mother Ford began to shape my spiritual life and my image of God.
Olive Ford was a frustrated would-be missionary. Her childhood dream of serving God overseas was never realized, so she was committed to shaping me along those lines. The shaping involved some lengthy sessions of prayer.
At the top of the stairs in our house was an alcove where she would have me kneel on a prayer bench in front of a small lecternlike bookstand. She would hold up biographies of the missionary explorer David Livingstone or the evangelist D. L. Moody and announce earnestly, “God needs more men like this!” Then she would have me repeat after her, word for word, the prayers she wanted me to say.
So my first image of God was of a prayer bench.
During those seemingly interminable prayer sessions, I found I could escape by letting my mind wander to the outdoor hockey rink where I longed to play. I was learning to be inattentive!
My mother Ford was also a disciplinarian. She did not spank me, except once or twice. Instead she punished me with long lectures that seemed (like the prayer sessions) to last into eternity. I think I would have preferred a few swats.
“Are you listening to me, Leighton?” she would ask.
“Yes, Mother,” I would assure her. “I am listening!” But during those interminable lectures I could let my mind escape into the imaginary worlds of the Chums Annual storybook I had been reading or the serial adventures of Tom Swift or Jack Armstrong I had heard on the radio. I had to learn not to pay attention. It was my only defense!
So the legacy of those childhood days was the practice of inattention.
I could focus when I wanted to. In fact, I had an innate ability to zero in for long spans on something that interested me, which made me a very disciplined student. And I did pay attention in class. That actually may have been more important for my later spiritual life than I realized. Simone Weil believed that the discipline of “school studies” – including geometry – was an important preparation for learning to pay attention to God.
I suppose my inattentiveness lay in being so preoccupied with my own thoughts that I did not learn how to give the same attention to what was going on outside of me.
Preoccupation: that term describes inattentiveness very well. A space – whether a house or a mind – that is preoccupied is so crowded that it has little space for anything else to enter.
Was I learning to pay attention to God? Probably. I do remember “asking Jesus into my heart” when I was five. And looking back I can see that in the hearth of my heart kindling was being laid for a fire that would later be lit.
But if I did pay attention to God back then, I would have thought he was at that prayer bench, or in the Bible passages I had to memorize, or in the confines of the Presbyterian church where, on Sunday morning when the sermon was too long, I would annoy those around me by running my fingers along the carved grooves in the pew.
I would not have expected to find God present in the unexplored depths of my young heart, in the beauty of maple leaves in the fall or the excitement of the Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts that I loved. Nor would I have expected him to understand the longings that I could not put into words.
One of those longings was for a present and caring father figure. My father Ford did care in his own awkward ways. But he never seemed very present; he spent most evenings away from home, bending over the watchmaker’s bench at the jewelry store that he and my mother ran.
Some years ago as I worked through a course on creative writing, the longing I had sensed in early years came back to me quite powerfully. The assignment was to write something of a very personal nature that had influenced my life. I decided to write about a school costume party when I was seven or eight years old. More than anything I wanted to show up dressed as a Mountie, for I idolized the red-coated Royal Canadian Mounted Police. So I hounded my mother until somehow she found and laundered a second-hand RCMP jacket, and in it I set off proudly for the party.
But something went terribly wrong. My neck began to burn and turn red. Some of the cleaning fluid my mother had used was still permeating the collar, and it was scalding my neck. Before long it hurt so badly that I had to leave. I fled in tears running home as fast as I could.
My first draft of that story was factual but not compelling. A writing friend suggested I do a rewrite, telling the story to myself as if I were my own audience.
Shortly after I was waiting for our son Kevin to arrive at the Toronto airport for a visit to my childhood home. As I waited outside the airport, I decided to tell the story to myself. As I did, I remember so vividly the disappointment of that little boy that I felt tears coming. Oblivious to any passersby, I reached around with my arms and literally hugged myself, imagining I was my own father.
It’s all right, I told myself. It’s going to be all right. Let’s go fishing.
I never remember my father hugging me like that. And we never did go fishing.
As an adopted boy I did realize that I had been chosen and was loved. But still there was a yearning – what Frederick Buechner describes as “a longing for a long time from a long way off to belong.” As I grew up with a mother who was all too present (and later almost disappearing) and a father who was emotionally absent, that yearning was very deep.
In those formative years, I was an introvert, a boy who entertained myself through the inner life of mind and imagination, who found an escape route from Mother’s lectures and learned to be attentive mainly to his own preoccupations.
I remember my childhood as a happy one. But I did have a lot to learn – and unlearn.