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On "How to do Nothing" by Jenny Odell

12 November 2022

On How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell

Fortuitous that I’d finish this book and begin my review while dispersed camping with our tiny off-road trailer in the Cedro Peak Wilderness just east of Albuquerque. We chose this spot for its proximity to home; we wanted to try solo camping without the kids for at least one night, so we did. Because the drive home is about 20 minutes, and because we have three bars of 5G here, we thought it would be a safe, easy first outing.

Anyway, so here I am reading about escaping the attention economy and manifest dismantling from my camper in the wilderness.

Ironically, halfway through our one day (and two nights) here in Cedro, Brian went home to check on the kids and brought Grant back with him. It wasn’t lost on me in Odell’s conclusion that she fingers parents for putting our kids in front of that exact attention economy in order to occupy them. Grant sits inside the camper just now, a generator rumbling behind it, connected with a handful of friends via PlayStation. Like, what? That is not camping. I tried to tell Brain that, but we both know that if Grant’s plugged in here at the camper, at least he’s not home alone, nor is he disturbing me as I read and write, which is what I really wanted to do with my time out here (in addition to doing literally nothing but maybe listen to birds). But yeah, I know. I see it.

In fact, I feel Odell’s message – and have felt it – for years. About two years ago now, I wrote a piece about reclaiming nature, going back to nature, trying to be a part of nature, yet failing to do so. Because, at the time, all I could think was: how? How can we be one with nature when we have evolved so far from it? We cannot even walk in nature naturally anymore, donning sunscreen and bug repellant and hiking shoes and deodorant and hats and clothes and packs full of anything we might need in an emergency, to include food/water (which we no longer know how to find naturally either).

The truth I’ve been approaching for those two years since that post is that we are nature, and we need to remember that. Odell makes this point quite clearly. We assume a dualism (man/nature) that does not exist. To impose such false duality is to obliterate the ecology of our existence. Odell gives us a new way to think of ecological systems, one that shows how everything is interwoven – it’s so Taoist. Like I said, I was on that path to understanding…

Odell’s book jumped at me from the bookshelf of a tiny book store in Santa Fe while Jillian visited a few months back. It was the title. I’m not surprised, really, since I’d been attempting to do more nothing with my life each day. The idea of “doing nothing” so beautifully complements an HSP life. Slow it down. Take on less so that you can take in more without overwhelm. Still, it is not a philosophy so very far from my natural state even before cutting back: Odell uses birds as example of the ecology we can encounter if only we pay attention to our surroundings. Birds were my start on that journey as well, about ten years ago. Just this summer, I was weaving the best ecology possible for my backyard hummingbirds; by trial and error, I improved and improved their environment until, at one point, we had over 70 birds inhabiting our trees and frequenting our feeders.

My whole life, perhaps from infancy, I have noticed things others around me tend not to notice, like a katydid or a nuthatch or bulb shoots rising in spring. Not a month ago, I noticed a clash of the titans moment between a black widow and a praying mantis – on the edge of an ATM sign at our local gas station. We live in Albuquerque; this was no wilderness. Yet there it was: wilderness. Odell’s claim that the modern concept of progression could/should now be exchanged/synonymous with regression is fantastic. Yes; maybe our way forward is to revive the life we’ve destroyed.

I said multiple times to Brian as I worked my way through this book: Everything in here is just – things I’ve already been thinking but could not have put so eloquently into words, myself. Odell’s ideas, per my view, are self-evident. That is not to say the book didn’t need to be written! On the contrary, I think that having all these thoughts put into words in one single tome was valuable to me. I’m not crazy. This is real. Moreover, it is actionable in various ways.

Odell’s research was critical as evidence, and maybe some people will need it, but I hardly did. I’d say I read about a half of her research and outside evidence as thoroughly as I read her theories. I tended to just get the gist of the research, then move on back to Odell’s analysis. That’s what mattered to me. The evidence, for me, was interesting, but it was a given.

One of my favorites of her proposals was that “seeing,” or the quality of your sight, is only one-half founded in visual acuity. The other half is attention/mental acuity – what you make of what you’re seeing. You might see something very clearly, a starling, for example, yet never see it at all. It’s just a given, just a bird, and unworthy of merit, therefore it is un-seen. This Odell uses as an example of attention.

Obviously, the focus is the attention economy; how can we subvert it? Odell says we subvert it by being more conscious of our attention and guiding it with our own will (not at the whim of money-grubbing media). I feel this a lot, these days. Even while I read Odell, at regular intervals my fingers twitched toward my iPhone. Subliminally, I’ve been programmed to check, to check, to check – for what? For messages, for likes, for shares. And what are these for me, other than dopamine?

It takes willpower to overrule that programming, to feel the pull to check my device and redirect that attention back to the pages of Odell’s book. It is a willpower I have not yet been able to teach my children, and of course that’s the case! I’ve barely been able to teach it to myself. My husband is as bad as the kids.

Once entrenched in social media, Odell posits that these bottom-dollar-focused forums feed us what we want to see to keep us coming back. As a result, our feeds on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and others become static, showing us the same people, the same things, the same products over and over. People who think like us. Things we wanted to see in the past. Products we have purchased or shown interest in purchasing in the past. Before long, we are surrounded by a mind-numbing homogeneity of inputs/thoughts, and our own critical thinking is never challenged or exercised. We never have exposure to anything new or interesting, anything that might help us to grow our human experience in a meaningful way.

This got me thinking about my own life…for examples. She’s spot-on correct, per my experience. The times I’ve learned most were the times I was in the strangest (or most uncomfortable, different) situations with people vastly different from me. I think, in particular, about my best friends, a hodge-podge of people of all ages from all over the world. One of my best friends is Argentinian, a woman about my age with two children just like me, yet her understanding of relationships is so vastly different from any American I know; from her I learned that our American understanding of love is so, so limited. Another is a 23-year-old vegan kid from one of my classes at Minot State University; it was he who first introduced me to Alan Watts, which sent me on a trajectory toward nondualism. It was a Colombian about my age who taught me Spanish when we lived in Madrid; she also taught me the critical value of ending a relationship when it needs to end, and the fact that Americans so unnecessarily view divorce through a lens of negativity. Odell points out that such funneling, as forced by social media, of our inputs leads to sameness, groupthink, and often even echo chambers. I have to agree. Avoiding those funnels means I learn new things.

I’m beginning to understand why, two years ago, I began pulling away from my own homeostatic friendships within the Air Force community. Sure, we’re an Air Force family, and sure I love my Air Force friendships. I do see that shared experiences are valuable to developing community. However, my social media feeds had grown too limited in scope. I was tired of reading about pumpkin Nutella muffins and parent-teacher conferences and promotions and PCSing. I wanted to hear more about philosophy and psychology and literature, so I began to throw myself back into the realm of education – and I couldn’t be happier. At Minot State University and University of New Mexico and Central New Mexico Community College, I’ve met people from a wider variety of backgrounds with broader interests. My conversations have improved drastically in their ability to leave me invigorated instead of drained. This mirrors Odell’s experience with the public libraries and parks in which she did her research for this tome (175). In this, I find Odell is right. Moreover, I’ve pulled away from my Facebook feed, as I realized it was not nourishing; not only did it waste my time, but it made me angry over nothing with its polarizing furious news cycles (let’s not even get started on the fake news). I don’t Tweet. I don’t TikTok.

I do Instagram, yet I’ve found a way to make that platform serve my needs by curating my feed and connections accordingly. I follow literature, poetry, philosophy, psychology, coaching/therapy accounts. I allow people to follow me without following them back if they do not contribute to my IG experience. It has become a healing space for me, and it is the only social media to which I am currently attached. I’ve stopped watching the news, too. If I need it, I will find what I want online. At my own pace. My husband watches enough news for the both of us; if there’s something I need to know, he’ll tell me to go check it out and inform myself. This works for me. No unapproved access. I’m not trying to say I’ve got it all right; nevertheless, my mental health has improved since making these adjustments.

Another great point Odell makes about this is that of censorship. She quotes Ecologistas en Acción, a Spanish confederation of ecological groups:

Everybody says that there is no censorship on the internet, or at least only in part. But that is not true. Online censorship is applied through the excess of banal content that distracts people from serious or collective issues (164).

Of course, she’s right. The more inputs we get about bullshit we don’t care about, the less space there is for the important things. I mean, duh. Moreover, with rapid-fire interchanges, ideas cannot be exchanged with any wholeness of context. Basically, this is why Jordan Peterson began these long-form discussions with experts on his podcasts (available also on YouTube) – 1-2 hours of interchange to be able to get to the meat of an issue. Odell further proposes that these things need to take place in space and time, that is to say, in physical locations and scheduled meetings. This is precisely what my class is like at UNM: Advanced Creative Nonfiction Workshop. We sit physically in a circle every day and discuss. The instructor is as judicious as possible about doling out the floor to those with something to say. We must stay on topic. We must be thoughtful. We must be kind and productive. It’s the closest I’ve felt to a group of people in a very, very long time, and I know that it is developmental for us all – in our writing, but also in our critical thinking and social/cultural/political lives.

OK so to conclude this review, a few final thoughts. In her conclusion, “Manifest Dismantling,” Odell quotes Wendell Berry: “I have thrown away my lantern, and I can see in the dark” (186). This happened to me just last night, as we set up camp: Brian installed solar-powered string lights and security lights (by the door), as well as a battery-powered ball of lights for reading. He lit the fire and also started the space heater (a simplistic contraption that attaches directly to the top of a propane tank). I thought: “Is this even camping anymore?”

The fact that this thought even crossed my mind is good enough for me. There will be times, maybe even tonight, when I insist that we turn it all off and just be in the dark of the campsite. I’ve noticed before what happens when you walk away from the fire: suddenly, you can see that despite the dark, the world still exists outside the fire ring. Stars shine. Night creatures go about their business. The wind whispers.

But maybe the fact that Brian convinced Grant to be out here with us tonight is a start. One small thing leads to something bigger, and Odell makes this clear. Learning how to do nothing is not about grand gestures or political movements; it’s about shaping the smaller moments in your life toward a worthy gesture. This has been a philosophy of mine for years now: I have these kids and I brought them into this broken world and it felt like fixing it was simply too much to take on. I couldn’t do it. Something had to give, and that thing was wanting to fix everything at once. We cannot. Nobody can. But we can start small, and we can start at home. Maybe if I can keep dragging my kids out into the wilderness, keep pointing out to them the birds I see, and keep trying to redirect their attention away from their devices – well, maybe that’s a start. Maybe that’s a win.

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