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Jenny Odell On Escape In Parenthood

Jenny Odell’s best-selling book How To Do Nothing, which came out in April 2019, wasn’t marketed on its inherent appeal to moms and dads, but resonated with those of us feeling our time squeezed between our jobs, the ping of social media, and the needs of our children; with those of us for whom having a child was a wakeup call about our finite time on Earth. Doing nothing, in Odell’s world, means resisting the many demands on your attention — it is “the ability not just to withdraw attention, but to invest it somewhere else, to enlarge and proliferate it, to improve its acuity." And it was Odell’s mother who taught her to “do nothing” in the first place, she tells me in an emailed conversation: “When I was a baby, she would bring the stroller up to some shrubbery because I seemed to enjoy staring at it and grabbing at the leaves.”

An artist, writer, Stanford lecturer, and proud bird-watcher (or as she calls it, “bird noticer”), Odell’s book grew out of a keynote she gave in 2017 exploring the world outside our phones and offices, the trees and rivers and spaces that pre-date us.

When she tells us to do nothing, she's challenging us to reevaluate how we spend our lives, and to see this process as natural rather than a crisis of identity. At Odell’s rough age — around 30 — her father left his job as a technician to live off his savings, and hike and camp for a year. After time outdoors and with people he cared for, he went back to work with “renewed energy and a different perspective.” Odell explains that stepping away from his work taught him “about creativity, and the state of openness, and maybe even the boredom or nothingness, that it requires.” In doing nothing, he did everything. Her father still says his best ideas always come to him following long bike rides.

How to Do Nothing (which will be released in paperback this August) likewise sees caregiving as invaluable work, if not the kind of work that capitalism places a high value on. Those of us raising children know that all we have is a little time, so we had best know how to spend it well. What follows is my conversation with Odell.

People often say moms do nothing all day. On any given day, I am playing with toys, taking my son on long walks, pushing him down the slide at a park, reading to him, talking to him. How do we get society to value these kinds of interactions and activities?

Most of us were cared for by a mother or mothers or other kin (familial or not) at some point, so I think it can be helpful to remind people of that. I’m also thinking of the “Women’s Day Off” that was part of the 1975 Icelandic women’s strike — and how sausages sold out that day, because it was the only meal easy enough for fathers to make. It’s really easy to overlook things that maintain a situation until those things are gone or interrupted, at which point we really start to understand their value.

As a baby ... there are a lot of photos of me doing regular baby things but on a blanket in the backyard.

It’s also funny to me that anyone could think of mothers doing nothing. Even if I didn’t remember the amount of work my own mom did with me as a child, I now see the work she does with foster children. It’s not just industriousness but care and intuition, responding to all kinds of situations and to a changing human being. And it’s incredibly time-consuming. I recently watched the episode of Futurama where Kif finds out he’s pregnant and [adoptive mother] Amy’s calendar (filled with stuff like “Extreme Aromatherapy,” “Adopt All Puppies,” and “Tolstoy Seminar”) changes so that every day just says “Motherhood.”

I should also note that it was my mother who taught me how to “do nothing.” According to her, when I was a baby, she would bring the stroller up to some shrubbery because I seemed to enjoy staring at it and grabbing at the leaves. She also noticed that I was happier when I was outside, so there are a lot of photos of me doing regular baby things but on a blanket in the backyard. Growing up, I was allowed a lot of freedom (hard to imagine now), and I think a lot about how that helped me grow a sense of agency and a taste for wandering.

What sort of social cost comes with this societal push to multitask and pressure to constantly move from one thing to another before even completing the previous task?

In terms of a social cost, driving is a familiar example of how rushing through things or not paying attention can cause us to overlook important details or make mistakes — to sort of do a bad job at many things instead of a good job at one thing. But driving (or in my case, sitting in five hours of public transportation twice a week) is also interesting because, as you experienced, it’s an opportunity to just sit with your thoughts. When it’s assumed that we should have some kind of results to show for our time, to just be “thinking” doesn’t seem very productive or like anything at all. But it can truly be an activity in and of itself — I always think of the scenes in Hannah Arendt (2012) where she’s just sitting and thinking on a chaise lounge, smoking a cigarette. It’s so luxurious! But because “just thinking” or “just listening” can’t measure up in the same way that other more obviously productive activities do, I think it’s the kind of thing that won’t happen unless we make space for it.

Fortunately, I think many of us intuitively understand the importance of contemplation and reflection in life, even if it’s hard for us to make that space. If you think about simply doing one thing after another after another (or many at the same time), consuming information endlessly with no pause, you easily start to see how absurd that situation is.

Rather than plan our escape elsewhere, how do we invest in this space we've already been given and try to improve conditions here? How does “bird noticing” map out a way forward?

I would consider my “bird noticing” practices to be a preliminary step in the right direction, in terms of just paying attention, getting one’s bearings, and having a sense of humility about all the life you haven’t noticed. In the book I talk about getting to know the place that I’ve lived all my life, but I think you can do this wherever you are, and you’re bound to find something surprising. As you learn more, you start to feel more invested. I think it’s useful at that point to look and see what kinds of local groups and organizations [there are] and see how you can get involved. For me, that’s been the California Native Plant Society, other local users of the app iNaturalist, and the Golden Gate Audubon Society. There’s also the Bay Area chapter of the Feminist Bird Club, which leads bird walks and emphasizes diversity and inclusion in bird-watching. It’s really nice to be in a group of people all paying attention to and learning about a place together, where more familiar members can teach newcomers. I think that especially now, in the face of climate dread, these group meetings and activities give me a sense of traction and just a heartening reminder that I’m not alone. They feel like a sort of group commitment to a place.

Do you think the urge to go on forever, however widespread or not that desire may be, is another way of giving in to the attention economy? If our life is infinite, after all, that gives us all the time in the world for more TV shows, social media, etc.

I do think there is something crucial about limits when it comes to making meaning. Last year I read The Agony of Eros by Byung-Chul Han — in that book, he describes “eros” as a desire for something truly other than you, something that can’t be assimilated by or controlled by you. (It’s something similar to Martin Buber’s “I, Thou” relationship that I talk about in How to Do Nothing.) The opposite of this is what he calls “the inferno of the same,” which I imagine as the “one-click shopping” approach to a world where you can have anything, frictionlessly, and you never change.

This time is not, in fact, the same as all other time. In a similar way, stages of life take on meaning because we know they will end.

One of the effects of the attention economy is that it figures time so squarely as money, and it also gives the impression that all time is the same: You can have anything or do anything at any time. By contrast, I think of how I feel when I see certain favorite wildflowers that I know only bloom during one month of the year — or when I see a rare bird on its migration north. These experiences are beautiful and meaningful because they exist within limits that I don’t control; this time is not, in fact, the same as all other time. In a similar way, stages of life take on meaning because we know they will end.

Jenny Odell

I get maybe an hour and a half of personal time per day, and I have always felt pressure to be as productive as possible during my son's nap, and guilt if I’m not. What sort of consequences do you think society at large may face by responding to necessary downtime like this with punishment and shame?

The consequences of undervaluing rest (not to mention leisure and contemplation) obviously can’t be good for individual or collective health. I think what you’re describing points to how important it is for new ways of valuing time and “productivity” to be collective agreements, not just individual commitments. For example, I may personally decide that I’m going to rest on a certain day — great. That doesn’t mean anyone else around me recognizes the value of that rest or is going to slow down their own pace. Knowing that and feeling that pressure, I’m going to see my own rest as selfish, expensive, and/or useless. I think that on one level, we maybe need better language to talk about the “uses” of things that, from the point of view of capitalistic productivity, appear empty. But I also think we need structural supports: more collective agreements around on time and off time — such as the law in France that you can’t email after work hours. I also think something like a universal basic income or some other strengthening of the social safety net would help address time scarcity, and perhaps make it easier for some to think in less strictly economic terms about how we spend time.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.