When Son 1 was in high school, he asked to take a plane trip by himself. He had flown solo before, that time with grandparents waiting to collect him from the airport. This trip was different. He was going to the Bay Area to meet up with some friends.
We said yes to the trip. DH and I don’t have tons of things in common, but we have both been fiercely independent from a young age. We agreed that this was an opportunity for Son 1 to exercise his independence.
In true Son 1 form, this was not a simple trip. The ultimate destination was a ways from the airport; the public transportation availability was unclear; he would be arriving pretty late. My mind raced with pieces of advice on the topics of how to read the transit map, what to do if you get on the wrong bus or train, and what to do if your flight is delayed and the trains are not running. As I was thinking about how to communicate all of my great advice, it occurred to me that it wasn’t much use to rattle it all off. What with the not listening and all.
I decided to boil it down to the most important guidance. In an easy-to-hear-and-remember format. And here I am sharing it with you.
There is one rule of travel.
I stand by that rule for all kinds of travel.
Because of the importance of this “one rule of travel” in our family, I noted with great interest a book called How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell. Resisting attention? What did that mean?
I came across this book in the fall, just before a trip DH and I took. A vacation. I love my job, and I don’t do so well on vacation. I am easily bored without the delightful chaos and consequential demands of my usual routine.
I thought a nice self-help book on “How to Do Nothing” was just what I needed, especially for this trip. We went to northwestern Spain to walk the last 100 kilometers of the Camino de Santiago. For me the walk was a chance to step out of my chaos, which I had heard might be good for me. The trip leader asked us to set an intention for the trip. Mine was “to not be in charge.” You can see how a book that promised to coach me on “How to Do Nothing” could be just what I needed.
I didn’t have to get very far in the book to see that Jenny Odell and I were not on the same page. She explained that “the villain here is…the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.” And then, “capitalism, colonialist thinking, loneliness, and an abusive stance toward the environment all coproduce one another.” I don’t share Odell’s negative attitude about commercial activities. She never did convince me of the connection between loneliness and environmental abuse. And I don’t think I learned how to do nothing.
But the book did give me a chance to reflect on attention. Her broad point is that there are a lot of things competing for our attention in modern life. And it’s a valuable skill to be able to control that competition.
In her own words, a summary of her key point:
What is needed, then, is not a ‘once-and-for-all’ type of quitting [like leaving Facebook] but ongoing training: the ability not just to withdraw attention, but to invest it somewhere else, to enlarge and proliferate it, to improve its acuity.
And in my reflection, I realized that her point about controlling attention is the essence of our simple rule. Further, I realized that our rule is an example of its own success. In the moment of its origin, I withdrew my attention from the flood of warnings and worries swirling in my motherly mind. I refocused, investing my attention in distilling the essence of my message into a form that, so to speak, travels well.
I agree with Odell’s point that electronic devices are distracting and addictive. And that it is healthy and powerful to resist the distraction and addiction.
As I wrote above, I stand by our rule for all kinds of travel, even the day-to-day journey of life. But for the day to day, I release it from its capitalized and punctuated urgency: “Pay Attention.”
So there you have the one rule.
Know what is important and pay attention to it.