The Hands-On Life How to Wake Yourself Up and Save The World

  • Cascade Books (Wipf and Stock)
  • 2018
The Hand's-On Life cover

“Brilliant…I was seized by its quicksilver prose and blessedly non-academic readability. We (the world, that is) need Amy Weldon’s clear thinking and lucid writing.” – Dave Eggers, author of The Every

Stressed out? Swimming in a sea of screens? Worried about our beloved, endangered earth yet uncertain how to work for change? If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.

In this intelligent guide to mindfulness in the digital age, writer and teacher Amy Weldon describes how practicing life as an artist can help you wake yourself up and take back control of your attention, your money, your time, and the health of our society and our planet.

Traveling from farm to protest march to classroom, and engaging a range of thinkers from Hannah Arendt to George Orwell, John Keats, and Henry David Thoreau, The Hands-On Life is a book for students and for everyone who dreams of building a better world.

From The Hands-On Life:


The classroom’s dim when I walk in, because my students are already staring at something glowing on the overhead projection screen. Windows to the east frame the two-hundred-year-old cottonwood tree our college is famous for. Outside, raw March rattles its branches, but soon there’ll be new leaves, fluttering with the music only Iowa cottonwoods can make: a liquid busyness like birdsong, urgent and lively and made to ride the air to any listening ear.

What are my students hearing here, right now? Pausing in the door, I look at them. They’re shucking off jackets, un-mittening, and letting backpacks slump to the floor. Some are slipping earbuds out of their ears. Smartphones in bright plastic cases dot the desks. Sticker-plastered laptops hum. But all their eyes are rooted on that screen, their faces worshipful.

A familiar irritation flowers in my chest. For God’s sake, this is a creative writing class. We’ve discussed how glowing screens like this one get between us and art. Each day we observe the living world in reality and memory, scribbling in notebooks by hand. My students and I develop real bonds with each other and with our art, even as they gently mock my flip-style Tracfone. “Dr. Weldon’s got a burner!” they cackle. “Just like on ‘The Wire.’” To be sure, they’re ironic about screen-addiction. They go mountain biking and string up hammocks in the trees on campus during finals week when the warm weather arrives, reading, rocking, and gazing at the sky. But maybe their cocoon of technology is thicker than even I can pierce. Glued to a screen on such a day, in such a world? I thought I’d taught them better what’s at stake.

And then I turn to see what they’re looking at.

Enormous on the screen, a pale eggshell quivers in a latticework of twigs. Cracks appear, a dimpling-outward, then the egg-tooth ridge of a tiny beak. And then the head, slate-colored feathers plastered to its curve. Bright hooded eyes are already turning, taking in the light. The bony body wobbles forth from between two halves of shell – out of a space unknown until right now. A parent bird bends its head into the frame, wind parting its white feathers to the root. And the baby lifts its face to meet it.

Gasps and cheers erupt into the room. Overtaken by joy, my students and I grin at one other. A bald eagle chick is struggling forth aboard a wide, flat nest in a cottonwood tree three miles from this spot. And we are here to watch.

So is the world. Our Decorah Eagle Cam, live-streaming from that nest, is the most- viewed live stream of all time. It’s all over Facebook, magazines, TV. A woman in Seattle’s so obsessed with the Eagle Cam that she calls the school board to make sure everything’s OK when she doesn’t see the yellow bus rumbling past on the dirt road below the nest at its usual time. Even my parents, down in Alabama, get into it. “Have you biked out there and seen the nest this week?” they ask eagerly. More often than I want to admit, the answer is no.

Maybe this makes me just another hypocrite, nagging Kids Today about their zoned-out ways but telling myself I’m too busy, and too important, to be any different. Of course, I’m not. On my campus-visit interview, an eagle flew right past the window, its white head stained gold in the morning light. “That happens all the time,” my now-colleagues said. I marveled: how could anyone get used to that? Yet eleven years on, I’m in the habit too. Although my heart always lifts whenever I see an eagle, I’m caught in post-tenure breathlessness: six or seven courses every year, advisees on and off the books, and the bog of meetings and box-checking known as “service.” Oh, yeah – and writing. Looking to the sky can be a luxury when we feel stuck in lives like the old joke about Midwestern extroverts: sometimes we’re doing well just to be able to look at someone else’s shoes.

Or maybe this state of life makes me normal. I’ve got a lot of thoughts about that. But they cluster around one conviction: we’re in for some real trouble if we let ourselves get, and stay, this distracted. Technology’s an obvious scapegoat, but not a simple one. Just consider the paradox of the Eagle Cam. Watching an eagle chick hatch in its nest is a greater lesson in wonder and particularity for my students than I could ever design. And it’s made possible by a drably painted camera bolted to the cottonwood trunk eight feet above the nest, its gaze fixed downward to stream to the Internet, and thence to our devices, the daily lives of eagles: nesting, feeding, wobbling forth into the bright early-spring day. But technology’s also one of several forces tuning us out of the living world that human and nonhuman beings can’t afford. It’s stealing from us a thing I can only call plenitude of self, an inner life that’s echoed in and nurtured by the endangered plenitude of the natural world, a certain capacity to be alone but also to be meaningfully engaged with, even lost in wonder at – not just entertained by – all that isn’t you.1 Things with screens blind us to these losses even as they offer us illusions of pleasure, connection, and something called “efficiency,” fostering an inattention that’s fatal. And young people, like the beloved students with whom I spend my days, will bear the weight of this inattention and come to grief if we can’t act against it now.

I care about all this because I’ve watched screens crowd out of our days things that used to be normal – looking up and around at sidewalks and trees when you’re walking, actually listening to the person in front of you, respecting the privacy of strangers – and replace them with habits that reroute the connection between me and what’s not me down a corporation’s greedy gullet: constant texting, constant browsing for something-else-than-what’s-right-here, Twitter wars with people you’ll never meet. At the same time, climate change has altered beloved places before my eyes, corporate money in politics has distorted our democracy, and even students who choose to come to college face new uncertainties about what education means and where it will lead. I don’t think these things are unconnected from each other, or from our new screen-focused normal, which feels different in degree and kind from the distractions humans have historically sought. A life online streams your whole consciousness as bits and bytes and monetizable data, offering you up for sale while concealing that fact (and the profits) from you and presenting this state as just the way things are. And for digital natives, perhaps it is. But I learned to use email as a college sophomore (in 1994), so, for better and worse, I’ve got a built-in sense of the world before and after the Internet.

Sure, my screen brings me knowledge and fun: music on demand from Missy Elliott to Mozart’s “Champagne Aria,” former students’ baby pictures, literary magazine editors Skyping in to my creative writing class, historical archives that peel the lid off the marvelous, strange past, and – yes – Netflix. Online, people can find community they need; for a young Egyptian in the Arab Spring or a queer person in deep-red America, Facebook can literally be a lifesaver. But our screen-focused mode of life is stealing from us something we need to be real human beings, and, even more specifically, to be artists, thinkers, and doers – what I spend my days helping students, and myself, become. Let’s face it: adulthood is about doing the right thing as much as you can, often without rewards from anyone but yourself. So is life as an artist. Both rely on the capacity to be self-reliant, to live without that constant stream of glittering, artificial external reward that traps us in immaturity. And immaturity – based in the basic inability to be alone with ourselves – makes us prime targets for the feelings of discontentment and loss that enrich corporations, because those feelings make us want to buy something to feel less alone. Technology makes it easier to skip away from the present moment and to soothe our inevitable emotions with things, or entertainments that reduce people to things, or with simulacra of human interactions that become profitable for everyone but ourselves. But art, and making art, immerse us in encounters with the non-commercial and, ultimately, the non-controllable.2 Art trains us for the long game rather than the quick payoff. It teaches care, rigor, heartbreak, uncertainty, and how to be surprised by joy. It teaches the value of sustained observation of and attention to the world beyond ourselves. It immerses us in our own humanity – including our kinship to other humans, past and present, and to nonhuman beings too – and in the emotions which, even when painful, lend depth, texture, and immediacy to our lives, the only lives on earth we’ll ever have. And, crucially, art gives us an attitude of self-reliance with which we’ll always be able to examine what we’re doing, renovate our perspective, and rededicate ourselves to what really matters. It gives us back our lives. That’s why, as I’ll argue in this book, learning to pay attention and to practice life like an artist also means learning how to wake yourself up and save the world.

1 See Michael McCarthy’s discussion of the natural world’s endangered abundance in his wonderful book The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy (New York: New York Review Books, 2016).

2 I think this is true of those practicing any craft, even something we might not define specifically as “art” – surgery, nursing, veterinary medicine, farming, engine repair, woodworking, masonry, fly-tying, and cooking (just to name a few) call upon the same blend of intellectual and hands-on knowledge that art does. I’m indebted to philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford’s work, especially his first book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (2009),for my thinking about this, and to its philosophical ancestors, Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman (2008) and Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958). (Sennett was Arendt’s student.)

Praise for The Hands-On Life

Amy Weldon’s new book The Hands-On Life is a tour de force. It skillfully interweaves the personal with the political, and the pedagogical with the poetic. . . . In so doing, she helps every reader—student, teacher, community leader, or gardener—better navigate the ‘choppy waters of fear and hope in which we all bob.’ Read this book—you can’t afford not to.

Jacqueline Bussie, Professor, Director of the Forum on Faith and Life, Concordia College-Moorhead

In this age of distraction, commodification, and misinformation, Amy Weldon's The Hands-On Life is a brisk, wise, necessary tonic. It woke me right up. It'll wake you up too. Read it. Share it. Try—and I'll try with you—to live it.

Joe Wilkins, Author of The Mountain and the Fathers and When We Were Birds

In this era of political assaults on the sciences, humanities, and arts, it is bracing to read Amy Weldon’s feisty, full-throated defense of the human capacity for learning. As a teacher, she celebrates the awakening of imagination and conscience in students. . . . Readers who are seeking a right path through thickets of technology, money-worship, and consumerism will find here a wise and appealing guide.

Scott Russell Sanders, Distinguished Professor, Department of English, Indiana University