Sunday, November 21, 2010


I've been complaining to anyone who will listen that I'm so tired this term.  I've never been a wonderful sleeper; ask my poor mother who was overwhelmed by my refusal to nap so she could have a few minutes to hear herself think.  I'm a very bad sleeper when I travel, whether to Calgary for the CCWWP conference, to Calgary and Edmonton to read, to Saskatoon tomorrow.  Then my youngest cat developed some new habits while I was away in Alberta and now wants to play in the middle of the night.  Some nights I can get her out of the bedroom easily by simply walking into my study where I keep the treats.  Knowing what's in store, she follows me eagerly. Other night she stands in my doorway metaphorically sticking out her tongue and saying "I'm on to you.  I want to smell the real thing before I do what you want." 

But my daughter Veronica has the most intriguing response to my complaints.  She tells me that I need woolgathering breaks in my day so I don't work 8 hours straight. Of course my brain doesn't feel like it fits in my head if I haven't taken a break.

Apparently she doesn't mean that I need to daydream.  Matthew Killingsworth, a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard, has done research on daydreaming that has recently been published in the journal Science.  We spend an awful lot of time daydreaming.  (Other people spend an awful lot of time daydreaming.)  But it doesn't make us particularly happy.

What we need is woolgathering.  British teacher Sue Humphries and University of Michigan brain scientist Marc Berman have discovered that the best woolgathering happens in the natural world--even when you're simply looking out the window.  Dr. Berman explains that we have two kinds of attention.  One, according to an article in The Globe and Mail "is directed and takes effort and concentration....[We] only have a certain amount of it."  "Attention restoration therapy,"  a.k.a. woolgathering,  happens when we walk into a rich natural environment that captures rather than directing our attention.

This last Saturday was a perfect day for woolgathering.  Here in Regina, we were so fogged in that there was no time:  you couldn't sense time passing because the light didn't change all day.  At the same time, the hoarfrost created an entirely different world.  Nature made herself strange for us, turning herself into black and white photographs, emphasizing the architecture of every leaf and branch. 

I suspect that some nights when I cannot sleep, I need a dose of woolgathering; indeed, part of my learning to live with my insomnia is learning to enjoy the added quiet time it gives me.  I don't know how else to explain why curling up to knit complicated lace is a perfect way to make myself sleepy.  My purposeful attention is very lightly tethered to the counting of stitches, to listening to the mantra that helps me remember the pattern of the row I'm working on.  Meanwhile, some other part of my attention floats free to revisit scenes from the day or to think about the next novel or to figure out how I'm going to inspire my creative writing students.  I'm knitting with silk right now, so should I call this "silkgathering"?  Intriguingly, the pattern I'm working on right now is called "Frozen Leaves."

Frozen Leaves is free from Ravelry

Here are the articles on daydreaming and "attention restoration therapy."

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