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Multitasking in Utopia

September 11, 2010

At three my daughter learns to fold laundry. She learns it from me. We live in a small house on a tidbit of prairie furnished like a movie set with two apple trees, a clothesline and a grapevine. When spring comes I have it all planned. We’ll carry a basket of wet sheets and clothespin them on the line. The wind and sun will dry them, and we’ll bask in their warmth and our virtue. I can’t wait.

These days we are reading from Little House in the Big Woods. I tell myself it is never too early to introduce my daughter to the pleasures of simplicity and thrift.  From the perch of a new mother I see materialism and other distractions gathering over her sweet curly head like a cloud of hornets. I owe it to my darling to offer her an antidote – in the form of an eight book series.

We are on the first volume and it seems like it will never end. Laura and Mary go to town. Pa kills and strips a bear. Pa builds a smokehouse. The girls wash the cups and plates and put them back on the shelf.

I want to kill myself — or maybe just get cable.

We are folding said laundry when the phone rings. My daughter picks it up. She tucks the handset against her small shoulder, says hello, and continues to fold with both small hands.  She keeps at it for a good five minutes, getting downright chatty and piling up a neat stack of towels.  In a single day, she’s outstripped me in charm and efficiency.

My little one is multitasking, and well.  She’s picked up what I never meant to teach.  The scene in my bedroom makes me teary.

I’d like to cry for a time and place I never lived: those days on the prairie where one did everything, but only one thing at once.

There was the shearing, and spinning, and the carding. There was the sowing, and the reaping. I don’t know what these words mean, but I feel sure they mean one thing at a time.

I return to reading the book with a new vigor. It is not any more interesting, but I find it soothing.

Laura and Mary did one thing at a time. I marvel at the simplicity of the scenes, the slow and perfect way in which they unfurl. How could Laura remember that she picked up one cup, dried it and put it on the shelf? How could she remember the tune her father played on the fiddle as they sat under the stars?

Multitasking has not gotten me far. If anything, it has only brought me trouble. Having outstripped the age by which Mozart had written his first scherzo, risen to greatness and died of consumption; by which Kennedy had been elected president, served, and been assassinated, with only a child to show for it (except great love, and great love can’t be measured), I wonder if a less complicated life might be the one for which I have real talent. At least, I figure learning to do one thing will be an improvement.

When my daughter has reached the age of consent, I take her to a camp where she learns to climb trees, make bread and milk goats.  I drop her off with a sleeping bag and a straw hat and strike out on my own.

Alone, I visit Amish country. Sure enough, there is nothing — as we know it — to do.  I see people in buggies and on bicycles, boys fishing in ponds, and people — mainly cheerful — walking up and down roads. I find a windmill maker, a birdhouse maker, a chair maker, and a blind broom-maker. None seem particularly anxious to sell anything. The signs are easy to miss.

I pass Flat Ridge Elementary School, Knob View Parochial, and Brushy Creek School, and — in the small town of Charm — Charm School. The schools are small, square, and built of glazed brick.

In Charm there is a yearly festival where children race caterpillars up a string. It is called the woolly worm race, and it is a Charm tradition.

In Yoder’s bargain store I buy a few hand-drawn coloring books. At the front desk is a small index card with writing, in script: Newlywed Special. 10% off furnishings for all newlyweds, to set up your new house. To be used by your first anniversary. In one room are cups, and bowls, and plates, and coffeepots. There are dishtowels and trivets. In another room are dresses, socks, sweaters, and overalls for children. There is, in this small set of rooms where the only sound is that of a ticking clock, everything one could need for a house, or a life well-lived, for that matter. I buy a bag of clothespins I may never use, unless I decide to make them into miniature people for a craft project. Still, buying them makes me feel I am on the right track.

I want to burrow into this life and forget my own. If I could lose my modern consciousness and still be myself I would. I would put on the dress and the bonnet, put up the birdhouse, rock in the chair, and sew the clothes — whatever it took. With my short hair and smart car I am the picture of a modern heathen in the landscape; but I could change. I want to jump into the postcard.

Still, one day I drive off because it is time to return to the life I know.

My own kind of work is calling me, the conveniences to which I have gotten used are floating around in my head: the icemaker, mainly, and the movies, and the telephone, and the friends, and the remarkable skill with which all of us have learned to do two or three things at once — these facts glisten collectively like sugar plums, and summon me back.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Matt Nicodemus permalink
    September 11, 2010 9:34 pm

    Michelle, how wonderful to be given the blessing of your writing, your news and views from your beautiful life! It’s been a while, no?

    As almost always, your thoughtfeelings bring up many in me. Multitasking, something I’ve been reflecting on a lot, even as recently as this morning, when I found, for the umpteenth squared time, that I got a lot more good work done on the computer when the TV wasn’t on in the background. Sure, I must have missed all sorts of programming, at the least CNN news, but then, who cares, really?

    Way back, decades ago, maybe back when I was in university, I came across an Archie comic, and I’ll never forget the one-page story it contained featuring Archie, Veronica, and Veronica’s super-successful and ‘old-fashioned’ father. Archie and Veronica were up in her bedroom (with the door open at least a crack, I’m sure), doing homework while chatting up a storm and listening to loud music. I wouldn’t be surprised if the TV were on, too. Anyway, Veronica’s father, bothered by the racket, goes up to her room and starts lecturing the two teens about how when HE was a student, he got all of his work done excellently and efficiently. He then sits down with their assignments and, still pontificating, begins to demonstrate the proper way to operate: with no background noise or other external distractions. He continues this project, now talking to himself, until, before long, he’s completed all of the homework, finishing with a comment like “And THAT’s the way it should be done!” Meanwhile, Archie and Veronica have snuck off to another room, where they’ve been doing some of their own concentrated activity — of a romantic nature. I remember that when I first read that comic book story, the truth of Veronica’s father’s philosophy struck me immediately, solidly. But how often do I practice that philosophy? Well…..

    One thing this Archie incident tells me is that the tussle between multi- and mono-tasking is nothing new. I think it’s just that the new technologies, and our attention spans already shortened by the old ones, make it possible and compelling to do even more things at close to the same time. Think of the Buddhist masters centuries ago, urging students to get past the “monkey mind” and experience one-point awareness. The issues are old, but we’re now moving centuries’ worth of faster, so it’s probably harder than ever to slow and settle down even a small fraction of our time.

    Which brings me to one antidote to high speed and polyactivity which I returned to and introduced my fifteen-year-old son to this morning: the folk music of Tom Paxton, who’s one of my heroes of the universe. Watch some of his videos on YouTube — we saw That Was the Last Thing On My Mind and Ramblin’ Boy — and I wager you’ll calm down and want to pay full attention to the Paxton’s sweet, pure sound and disposition, at least for a spell. His mid-1960s black and white TV recordings are especially nice.

  2. whatsizname permalink
    January 26, 2012 12:00 am

    -Nothing like the smell of sun-dried laundry. I don’t multitask. I’m no good at it. Take your eyes off those sheets, drying in the breeze, for one minute and all heck can break loose!

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