five minutes of focus

All the talk recently about the blizzard to end all blizzards has me thinking about the way we classify things in everyday life, how they are named or ranked. I mean, I get it. It was a lot of snow. And while that kind of snow doesn’t come every week in the winter, or even every month, there are big snow events every year, and they are always heralded as the beginning of the end. But hey! We’re still here! (And most of our Midwestern snow has melted today.)

The reason I’m thinking about this is because our family life seems to be ordered around this weekly cycle, culminating in a Sunday that can be spent in one of three ways: lazy and relaxing mode (rare), wrap-up mode – scrambling to finish some weekend project or full of overdue errands (typical), or collapse mode (occasionally, and unfortunately). I should probably add a fourth Sunday type – traveling – a different breed entirely, but based on our typical yearly travel to family + trips, this occurs enough in numbers that average out to at least once a month.

And on any one of these “types” of Sundays, at some point I make a declarative statement on “the week ahead”.

“The week ahead is going to be a tough one.” (Or a busy one, a nutty one, a crazy one, ugh, dread, moan, curse, just ugh.)

I made this statement Sunday at dinner, as M and I were talking about our dinner plans for the week ahead. As soon as I said it (this week is going to be a busy one), I remembered saying that exact same thing last Sunday night. I probably said it the week before as well. So what really qualifies as nutty? My entire life in general?

Sometimes it’s the unpredictability of work – I might have deadlines that seem doable at the start of the week, but will eventually require an evening of working late to meet them in the end. Sometimes it’s a week that involves weeknight meetings – those screw with dinner times and family time, and in general, I’m not a big fan. Sometimes I’m ramping up for a big event, and I know my evenings are going to be full of planning and prep. And sometimes we’re just trying to play catch up in general. These days are busy, and when we start to let the small things go, they mushroom in size in no time. I know this and believe it to my core – folding that load of laundry as soon as it’s done is a small task, but as soon as that same laundry becomes a pile of unfolded laundry on the countertop, it requires twice the time and effort to address it. I know this, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t make excuses. I try to keep myself accountable, but I get tired. A lot.

There truly are epic weeks in our house – the kind that we just square our shoulders and push through. I wish we had more control over some of those scheduling woes, but it’s not always up to us. And I’m never really comfortable at just dialing things in. Still, there’s only so much I can do before I really start to lose control and exhaustion sets in. Those are the really hard weeks, the weeks that earn whatever title we end up giving them. Week-pocalypse? (It’s no worse than Snowpocalypse.)


There’s a distinctive reminder of one of those weeks in our house. That week occurred in mid-October of last year, when three major events that we play key roles in were all scheduled within a seven day period. We had the Foodie Feast on a Saturday night, Grandparents Breakfast on a Monday morning, and an Open House on the following Saturday. The Foodie Feast required several nights of planning and prep, and then a 19-hour stretch of baking / cooking / serving / cleaning with zero down time. It’s typically held much earlier in the fall, but last year it fell on the same weekend that all four grandparents come to visit from out of town. So we also had house guests. There was no time for recovery after the feast, because I was in charge of organizing the big Grandparent event at F’s school – which requires planning / decorating / baking / cooking / setting up / serving – all on a Monday morning. Again, there’s no time to recuperate – just a late start to another work week ahead. Grandparents were fed and sent along their merry ways, and then we got the house back in order just in time to gear up for the Open House event at F’s school – another big reception that I’m in charge of. By the end of that week, I was really running out of steam.

It’s not that I don’t have help – I have lots of it. I come up with a plan and I’m organized and thorough about the execution of it. I can throw a party – I’ve practiced for years on my girls – and I honestly enjoy the effort. But these epic weeks – I really think it’s about the headspace they occupy. My mind never shuts off. It’s worse than a written to-do list. It’s a constant to-do list, in my brain, where I’m mapping everything out and revising, revising, revising. My head gets so full that I stop making sense when I speak. I’m internally focused, but I’m hard to connect with externally. I forget things – why I’ve walked into a room, what day it is, where I put my wallet.

And that particular week?

I was on autoplay, running through the standard chores that I hardly think about anymore. Those sorts of things that seem to be ordered by the layout of the house. I was on the top floor, so I brought the laundry down to the second, transferred towels from the washer to the dryer, sorted the pile into the individual hamper drawers. I fished out a couple of handwash items and put them in the sink, turning the faucet on low so that the water wouldn’t hit the clothes and splatter across the counter. The sink is small, but deep, and it takes several minutes to fill. I folded washcloths and hand towels and socks and transferred the piles to the stairs a few feet away, ready to be carried up by the next person walking by. At some point my mind drifted onto the next task, and I left the laundry room, water still running.

I never close the door to the laundry room – I actually don’t mind the sound of the washer or the dryer, and the background noise seems to trigger reminders in my head that it’s time to switch over a load. We had lots of sheets and towels to wash since we’d had guests, and I was trying to stay on top of things as best I could. But M doesn’t like the sound of the machines running, and he closed the door. The water was running so slowly that I’m sure it wasn’t noticeable over the sound of the dryer, but with the door closed, it really wasn’t obvious. That door detail is a small one – this was really all my doing, but it explains just how big a mess I was in the process of making.

Time went on, twenty minutes, maybe thirty? I was busy in the kitchen, M was working in the back room with the TV on. Then I heard him yell. Before I even deciphered what he was saying, I knew. It jogged something in my overfull brain, and I was back in that laundry room reminding myself to stand right there and watch the water – there is no overflow on that sink, and it requires focus. That week had stripped me of focus, and now there were hundreds of gallons of water to deal with.

The countertop held all the water it could, until it couldn’t any longer. The water filled the three large, deep drawers below it, soaking the laundry and the batteries and the extra buttons and shoelaces. It filled the trash can cabinets, spilled out onto the tile floor, and then made its way down through the hardwood floors into the ceiling cavity below, filling, filling, filling.

At about the same time the flowing water was noticed, the seams in the newly painted drywall ceilings were becoming more pronounced. Drip, drip, drip, then pouring out, down the walls, under the baseboard, through the floor below, into the basement. So much water. Everywhere.

It was a crazy week. I gave it all I had, but it got me in the end. M drilled holes into the tops and bottoms of the walls, set up a series of high powered fans, and the house moved into drying out mode. Drawers emptied into tubs, ruined items discarded, towels everywhere.

M’s just started on the drywall repair again. Once everything was dried out it was the season of babies and funerals and holidays and travel. Every morning I walk past the track of the water as it snaked its way through the house, every night I turn the lights out on that same trail. I’m trying my best to do my best, trying to vocalize when things are getting to be too much. I speak my to-do list aloud so that everyone can pitch in and help keep me focused and catch what I’m missing.

It took me weeks before I could use that sink again. When I do, I stand in place, hands on the edge of the counter, and I think about the water and the soap and the clothes and nothing else. No folding, no sorting, no multi-tasking. Five minutes of focus. Doing my best to get the job done without complicating the rest of these busy, busy weeks.

3 Responses to five minutes of focus

  1. This is so perfectly written, and echoes so much of what I’m feeling these days. Right down to the water disaster. I had a similar one last year – we were having the house appraised for a re-finance. Our third story is a finished attic that hasn’t been updated since the house was built 90 years ago. The plaster had come loose from the lathe and fallen off – spreading plaster dust and debris all over the place – including all the boxes and piles of stuff I had moved out of our storage room to sort through and organize.

    This itself took forever to clean up. And then we had to repair. My husband was in the process of replacing the plaster ceiling with drywall, when we found out we had to have an appraiser come for the re-finance. We wanted the room to look as finished as possible, so I went upstairs to clean up the drop cloths, and the plastic sheeting that we had hung to keep the dust in, and the insulation he decided to add while he had the ceiling open. I decided to stick it all in the clawfoot tub we never used, as at least it was contained and the appraiser would have a better view of the size of the room. Then I shut the door and went about my business. That night, I briefly mentioned to my husband that he would find all his supplies in the tub.

    The appraiser came and went. Our lives got busy. And, we weren’t able to pick up with the drywall project for a while. We use that room as a guest room/office – but we had no guests coming, and because it had been under construction for months, I had moved everything I needed out of the office. I did not go up there at all. For a month.

    Then water started dripping out of our kitchen ceiling, two stories below. We turned off the water on the 2nd floor, and the drip stopped. We decided to eat, get the kids to bed and investigate further. But when I opened up the medicine cabinet in the 2nd floor bathroom that evening, I found the wood inside was soaked and warped. I started to lecture the kids about not having water fights in the bathroom, when my husband pointed out they couldn’t possibly have caused that much damage. And then he noticed the stream of water coming from the top of the medicine cabinet and ran upstairs.

    Sure enough, the clawfoot tub was full of drop cloths, plastic sheeting, fiberglass insulation… and water. Lots of water. Overflowing water. That tub has a tiny drip. I forgot about it because we almost never use that bathroom. But the drain got covered and the tub overflowed. We did the same as you- drilled holes in the ceiling, and ran fans to dry it out. Amazingly, the hardwood floor recovered from the trauma. And we will eventually patch up the holes and finish the ceiling. When we are less busy. But I’m not sure when that will be.

    Anyway, a very long way of saying I’m sorry you went through this, and that we all have those moments. This blizzard, and people’s inability to just take advantage of the snow days and slow down, has me thinking hard about how busy our lives have become. It’s such a common problem. I’m not sure of the solution, but it did worry me that it was so hard for so many of us to just relax and ride out the storm.

    Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful words – you put it all so much more eloquently than I could!


  2. I beg to differ on that last line, Andrea. What a story. Water is really something. (So is snow!) It’s so hard to imagine that a couple of drips a minute can add up to something as major as that, but all of those little decisions that you made along the way – stashing items, shutting doors, etc. – eventually we all have to address those issues. Sometimes they just get forced onto us via a tidal wave. And cleaning up big messes that could have been SO EASILY avoided is the worst feeling.

    Lots to think about, particularly your point about the effort it takes to just stop for a bit. I honestly feel like so much of the hype and hysteria around these snow events has to do with the fact that we are so insistent on being able to do anything at anytime. The vast majority of us are fortunate enough to have the luxury of flexibility – we will not starve or lose our jobs or lose our homes (or lose our lives) if we just chill out for a few days and let any reduced services and aid be solely directed to those who are not so fortunate, or find themselves truly in need of emergency services.

    I could probably write and write on this, but those deadlines are calling…

    Thanks, always, for your comments, and I’ve loved all the snow photos!

  3. Oh my friend. I am so sorry…

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