I sometimes wonder how many ‘easily distracted’ school pupils see the world differently because of a diagnosed or undiagnosed condition. Some may have Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Others may be on the Autistic spectrum. A pupil may have trauma at home, making it hard for him or her to focus in a classroom without extra help. Or perhaps some pupils are like me, and they cannot help thinking about lots of different things at the same time. I’m sure that’s what made me look so distracted at school, as if ‘my head was always in the clouds’.
For a lot of my life, I have tried to think about just one thing at a time, instead of ten things or more. I must have had some success because I got through school, college, university, and jobs working in factories, community groups, and as a Welfare Rights Officer. Yet, I often thought about very different things at the same time.
Years ago, when I worked in a textiles factory, I remember switching off a loom to check the warp and weft, on a giant roll of polypropylene. At the same time, I was thinking about Charles Dickens walking the streets of Victorian London. It is a wonder I did not accidentally switch the loom back on and end up woven into the fabric and sent off to America.
A few years later, I had another job – as a youth worker. One afternoon, I was playing football with a group of challenging youth, and I was also wondering how human language first developed. I learned – it is a risky thing to divide your attention in this way. It can leave you open to a brutal tackle or getting whacked on the head by a rocket ball.
Being or appearing to be easily distracted, at any age, is understandably thought of as a bad thing. No one wants an airline pilot so distracted by composing a symphony in his head that he fails to notice his jumbo jet is flying into a mountain.
There are, I suppose, different degrees of distraction and not all lead to disaster. Luckily, I learned how to focus sufficiently well on one task at a time to avoid damaging myself or others. I can ride a bike without crashing into a tree or a person or an elephant. I can research a wide range of subjects without jumbling up key terms, such as ‘do not’ and ’doughnut’. I can still look, at times, as if I am distracted to the point of living on another planet, but I usually get things done safely and well. I have learned how to allow my mind to babble on in the background like a bank of TV sets with the volumes turned down low.
I think about a lot of things at once because I am fascinated by almost everything. I estimated the other day that I have read more than 10 million words over the last decade: in books, articles, and essays about a huge range of subjects. I’m not trying to show off, and I am sure others read more than me, but the point is to illustrate my fascination with just about everything. Magic, magpies, Muppets – I wanted to know about them all at some point in my life. A full list of things which fascinate me would be very long and look just as random as the wee list above. It seemed an entirely random process to me for a long time, until I started to notice a pattern. It seems I wasn’t just interested in magic, magpies, Muppets and other things for their own sake. I was always looking out for ways to understand how we learn about anything and how some people can write about anything and make it seem fascinating. I am forever asking myself questions, like a small boy: why, how, when, what’s it for, what on earth is that? Sometimes answers come back to me like bits of stories.
A small boy, not me, is sitting in the back of a car. The car is driven by his dad and his mum is in the passenger seat. On the back seat, beside the boy, is the family cat: ‘Mouse’. Mouse is a large tabby cat. She is asleep, perfectly round, and she is snoring softly. It’s raining and misty outside, and the steady swishing of the windscreen wipers is making the boy almost as sleepy as the cat, but the boy decides to fight his sleepiness and stay awake. To help him in this task, he starts to ask his mum questions.
“How do we know stuff?” the boy asks his mum.
The boy’s mum, who was almost sleeping, wakes fully and swivels to face her son, but realises too late that she is strapped in with a seat belt. A burning sensation sears through her neck and back. “I’m an idiot” she thinks. “I should’ve realised that would happen.” So, she answers her son half-turned towards him, and she notices her husband grinning smugly as he drives, happy because he does not have to answer the long string of questions he knows will soon follow.
“Well,” says the boy’s mum. “We know stuff because we learn about things, like you do at school or when you read your books.”
“I know that” says the boy. “But how do I keep all that stuff in my head?”
The mum glances at her husband, who is grinning so much he looks like a Cheshire cat on heroin. The mum wants to punch him hard but decides it’s not worth a car crash.
“Well,” she says. “Our brains are like big cupboards, full of lots of stuff we might need.”
“How big?” says the boy.
“Um, very big, I think” says his mum. “As big as the library.”
“In our heads?” says the boy, doubtfully.
The mum decides not to look at her husband.
“Well,” she continues bravely. “Thoughts don’t really need as much space as books do, so our brains, which are clever, shrink stuff so they can hold millions of thoughts.”
The boy is quiet for a while. Then he says: “If my brain has got that much stuff in it, how does it ever find anything?”
The mum sighs and looks at her husband and is not surprised to see – he is grinning even more widely than before, with a mixture of amusement and fatherly pride.
I can imagine that little boy asking many more questions on that car trip. I’ve never stopped asking similar questions. As I grew up, I stopped asking my parents or even other people for answers. I preferred to look for answers in the world around me or in books. I get a surprising number of useful answers these days from watching our cat, Nergal. When that is not enough, I read. I’ve read quite a lot about brains and thinking, and I’m not convinced we have big cupboards in our heads or even shrunken computers. But I sympathise with the mum. Trying to answer those kinds of questions is hard, even for experts. I know because I’ve read the experts; and afterwards, I still kept asking more questions.
I have realised that to get things done in this world, whatever way your brain works, you need to focus in the right way on whatever task is at hand. Asking – what, how, when, that’s fine sometimes but – whether you are Michelangelo or a hungover bear washing dishes, you must pause any questions in order to work and give enough of the right kind of attention to whatever you need to do. Try playing a game of chess with no more attention than you give to dreaming. When you dream, you go along with whatever bizarre stuff that comes into your head. Facing your opponent and juggling his chess pieces or placing a pawn in each of his nostrils may be considered unsporting or just rude. Chess and dreams need different kinds of attention.
As I suggested earlier, I have learned to avoid such lapses of appropriate attention, despite being distracted by thinking about different things. I know how to focus on the same stuff as everyone else does, and I let my all my other thoughts babble on in the background. When I need to, I can also choose to listen to several thoughts at once. I found out it can help me to write.
The boy asking questions on a long car journey is now middle-aged. He sits by the window of a long-distance bus. It is dark beyond the window and dark inside the bus. His wife is asleep beside him. A kindle is slowly sliding off her knee, so he picks it up and puts it into a bag at his wife’s feet. She snores very quietly, like a cat, and he smiles. He sits back in his comfortable seat and listens to the sounds of the bus as it travels through the night. Someone a few feet away is also snoring, and occasionally making a snuffling sound, like a dog pushing its nose through leaves. Further down the aisle, a young couple whispers in short bursts, they go silent for a minute or so, and then they whisper again. The bus is travelling fast and steadily on the invisible road through the darkness, humming in that comforting way buses all over the world do when they want their passengers to sleep and trust that the bus will get everyone safely to their destination.
Slowly, as the man rests in his seat and gazes out the window, he notices glimmers outside – so faint they might be distant stars or points of light in a dream. The man lets his babbling ideas flow back to him from the deep darkness where he earlier banished them. He remembers a deadline in two days for sending a short story to a competition, where the theme is Time. The word chimes in his head and he whispers: “Time, time, chime, time”, but no ideas for a story come to him. A second later, he is distracted by a huge dirty white lorry passing by on the road. It seems to glow and inches past, its’ angles blurred by the darkness. It could be a great, white whale. Moby Dick. “Damned whale!” Gregory Peck roars. At the same moment, the man thinks of Einstein’s thought experiment about a train seeming to move differently depending on the observers’ point of view. As a passenger on the train, it would seem to him that the countryside is rushing by, but to an observer outside – the train is rushing by. For a second the man wishes that he had become a scientist instead of an English teacher, but the feeling goes away like a speeding train. The lorry passes and is gone. More thoughts and feelings in quick succession flow out of the astonishingly deep darkness. Working in a factory when he was young, before he went to university. Looms sounding so loud it was like time itself had become one vast metallic clatter. The ghost of the thought was vivid, then gone. It was instantly replaced by a classroom full of pupils, all looking at him. Then they were gone. A short story called ‘The Forgiving’ printed in a small magazine and he smells the page – it’s a slightly lemony smell. Gone. The big chiming clock in the shopping centre and picture doors opening to other pictures lit up inside – a butterfly, little Bo Peep, with that tune chiming. Small children look up in wonder. “Chime. Time. Rhyme.” Gone. He remembers when he was a child, and he watched tiny voles darting around on mud at the edge of the river, voles as fast as insects, and the river flowing by in its’ own slower bigger way, beneath the impossibly high Seven Arches Bridge, with shadows of leaves and the green patterns of leaves mixing so closely and thickly all along the riverbank it was like time became green shadows and cool breathing and all that words could ever do now was point towards those moments.
Like that man, I sometimes find that being ‘easily distracted’ is just what I need to help me to see the world.