A few years ago at a Sheep and Wool Festival amid stalls of colorful yarns of all kinds, my mom and I stood there and agreed: weaving was off the table. At least for this lifetime, this was one fiber art we were going to forgo. Though we both found looms and their products tantalizing, we knew that, for us, there simply wasn’t enough time for it.
I have made more decisions like these lately—especially as I have trying to pare down my belongings. I am not, by any means, a hoarder, but I have often had difficulty getting rid of a thing because of the fear that I might someday, in the vast unknowable future, need or want it. Reading Marie “KonMari” Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Cleaning Up (like just about everyone else) earlier this year, gave me the impetus I needed to try again. I liked the idea of not being weighted-down by objects and of surrounding myself only with things that, in her words, “spark joy”. Did I follow KonMari’s method to the letter? Uh, no. But I did, almost three years after I moved, finally open every last box I had stowed in the garage and edited many crafting supplies and several books.
As I contemplated each piece, I again felt the familiar tug of anxiety at my chest. Am I being stupid getting rid of this? What if I want it later? I don’t have a lot of money and it might be expensive to replace. In these moments, I did not hold the item quietly and ask myself if it sparked joy as KonMarie would have had me do. Quite frankly, I forgot all about that. Instead, I thought about what I was giving up by holding onto any given item.
I, like all of us, have a limited amount of time on this planet. If I choose to do X, say make rag rugs from old fabric, that will take energy and time away from doing Y, say writing. Is making rag rugs important enough to me to take time and energy away from writing. Would it help me in any way? Well, the answer for me is no. Like weaving, rug making could only be considered a backup plan to the other things I am more passionate about in this life. And, the problem with holding onto the fabric that would be perfect for rug making only keeps the possibility of doing it, however faintly, alive in my mind. One could say, (and I have) okay, you don’t want to do it now, but maybe in the future . . . So the idea gets still more life, a tiny trickle of energy gets siphoned off to maintain something that, in all likelihood, I am never going to do and, for which, I feel only a minor excitement for anyway. I don’t know if there is any physical truth to my energy drain theory, but there is sociological research that indicates that people who commit fully to a goal are more motivated to fulfill that goal than those who have “backup plans.” It makes sense, I mean, how committed to something can you be, if, somewhere in your mind, you are still entertaining other options? Plus, I think most of us probably have enough anecdotal evidence that single-minded people tend to be the ones who get the most done.
Narrowing one’s focus is effective in writing, too. When I was 15, at Oprah’s urging, I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved for the first time. It was my initial foray into reading contemporary literature and, holy smokes, what an introduction. Considered by many to be the best novel of the 20th century, its narrative about slavery and love is as brutal as it is beautiful. I felt breathless as I discovered how amazing and powerful prose could be. How a mere 95,000 words, strung together like a magical incantation, could change me so profoundly. Shortly after reading Beloved, I saw an interview with Toni Morrison in which she explained that her purpose, in writing the novel, was to examine slavery in a way that she had not seen it done before. So many books had tried to capture the immensity of the American slave trade, but she felt their scopes were too wide. She decided to go narrow and go deep. By telling the stories of a few individuals with whom a reader could feel a sense of intimacy, she was able to convey the horror of slavery so much more poignantly than by rattling off numbers that, no matter how big and atrocious, had difficulty making it past the mind and into the heart.
Go narrow and go deep. I think of this when I am confronted by the huge swathes of possibilities presented to me each day. When I open my email account and see a plethora of urgings to go in any number of different directions. I can’t do it all, and trying to will likely mean that I end up doing nothing. So often when we think of investing in our futures, it’s about obtaining something—classes, books, materials—which, in many ventures, is important. But, for me, right now, narrowing my focus is the best form of self-investment. As I say no to many things that are not quite right for me, I am making my yes to those things that are most significant to me that much stronger.
This is becoming my practice: I look at each item in my life—physical and psychological—and I ask myself, Is this what you want to spend your life on? It’s tough when it’s something that looks cool, when my anxiety flares up that maybe I’m missing something (which is ridiculous since we are always missing many things!). But it’s wonderful when, for example, I am hugging my niece—her buoyant spirit flowing out to meet mine—and the answer is like a chorus of bells all tolling, “Yes!”
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2 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Narrowing”
I agree with you wholeheartedly. Choice is a wonderful thing but committing to what is really important to us is essential and rewarding.
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