Lonely by Emily White (2010)

I have always loved reading memoirs. I find that one person’s deep journey into her or his personal experiences uniquely informative, all the more so if those experiences are vastly different from my own. Memoirs offer us an opportunity to think — sometimes for the first time —  about how different lives have been lived. Lonely is a perfect example of reading a memoir that brings into focus something that I never thought too deeply about before: loneliness. Lonely is raw, vulnerable memoir that brings the author’s battle with chronic loneliness into the light for intense examination.

“Given the choice, [loneliness] is not a journey I would have gone on. I would have preferred to have lived a life of connection, one in which loneliness did not assault me on a daily and yearly basis. But we don’t get to choose the main facts of our lives. Loneliness was something I was born into, something that claimed me as its own.  The only thing I could do in response was to try to follow and understand it, to chart it as fully and cleanly as I could. If it was clutching me, the last I could do was twist in its grip and really look at it. If I couldn’t ward it away, I could at least see it as clearly as it saw me.” 6

Like everyone, I have suffered from bouts of loneliness on and off through my life, but my experiences are what White terms “situational loneliness:” short-lived moments of loneliness that arise out of a huge life change, such as a move or a new career. White’s affliction of chronic, lifelong loneliness is vastly different; a state of living that is physically and emotionally dangerous and puts the sufferer at great risk for illness, depression, anxiety, and (paradoxically) even more intense bouts of social disconnectedness.  This work opened my eyes to a struggle that so many face, but that I was largely unaware was such a huge and lasting challenge.

White’s book is a honest description of her own battles with loneliness; first as a child of divorce, then as a college student battling depression, and finally as an adult lacking in deep and meaningful relationships. From the beginning, White disputes the common belief that loneliness is a “punishment” for social awkward or inept people, but rather a sense of social disconnection that causes the person to feel unhappy and isolated.  She paints a picture of herself — and a cast of fellow sufferers who populate the book through interviews conducted and reported on by White — as people with adequate social skills but who nonetheless find great difficulty in forging deep and lasting social bonds.

It is also further noted that solitude and loneliness are not the same thing.  Even though those who identify as lonely do admit to being comfortable with a certain amount of solitude, there is a line in which lonesomeness is no longer nourishing. White writes, “the relationship between loneliness and solitude can be hard to delineate: the former is often seen as canceling out the legitimacy of the latter, as though a lonely adult or child is simply not entitled to want or need time alone. But the feelings of isolation that accompany loneliness are entirely different from the more sated and creative feelings that accompany solitude.” (13)

“What lonely people find is that they are drowning in absence. They have to struggle with the unnerving sense of being too much on their own, and having to rely on themselves in an effort to meet their own needs. And once the self has been searched and patted down for a sense of companionship — which is something it can’t provide — the the lonely person is left with is a worn out sense of insufficiency.” 28

White’s book  draws not only on her personal experiences, and that of her interviewees, but from a vast trove of data from research studies and social-psychology experiments which back up her claims of the risks lonely people face. These risks include impaired physical health, mental and emotional strain, anxiety, stress, and fear.  She notes that the human need to connect with other people — to share, touch, talk– is a deeply rooted, biological need that has serious consequences for those who are lacking. The longer the state persists, the greater the risks and the harder the sufferer must work to overcome their fears to reach out to others. “Loneliness can start to feel rooted in your life, as central and definitive as your work or your marriage.” 81

Although she does not spend too much time on making distinctions between the types of loneliness — lonely for a romantic partner; lonely in a new city; lonely for someone to have deep conversations with; lonely for a person’s ‘quiet presence’ — they are mentioned through out the book as separate but equally important connections to restore. White highlights all of the ways we need to find like-minded people to share our lives with in order to remain healthy and happy

“What I needed was someone at home with me, some whose breath I would hear as I sat reading, whose footfalls would sound in the hallway, whose voice would reach me from an adjoining room. I needed the strong, steady companion that a friend, lover, or family member could offer and without it my loneliness persisted.” 73

A truly thought-provoking discussion of a problem so deeply stigmatized it is almost overlooked, but one that is clearly an enormous challenge for millions of people suffering without being able to voice their need for fear of social condemnation.

The podcast that brought Emily White’s memoir to my attention, Episode #110 of “Happier with Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft,” can be found here: http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2017/03/podcast-110-lonely/

A thought-provoking examination of the different strategies for battling loneliness, by author Gretchen Rubin, can be found here: http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2013/11/feeling-lonely-consider-trying-these-7-strategies/  and here http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2016/01/lonely-5-habits-to-combat-loneliness/

A Place of My Own by Michael Pollan (1997)

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“What is a place after all but a bit of space that people have invested with meaning?” (38)

In this book, the outstanding non-fiction writer and journalist Michael Pollan has created a completely unique piece of work: one that is part memoir, part how-to, and part complex cultural commentary about the abstraction that we call “place.” The novel chronicles the author’s efforts to design and build — by himself — a cottage in which he can conduct his work as a writer. Along the way, Pollan educates himself — and all of us — on the various disciplines that inform our ideas about place, home, and ownership; including discussions of history, geology, geography, science, architecture, sociology, literature, and carpentry…to name just a few. The resulting book is a rich, in-depth discussion about our place in the world and the places in the world that we attempt to make our own.

At the start of the book, the author lays out his reasons for wanting a work space that is wholly separate from his living space. “A room of one’s own,” he argues, allows for privacy, solitude, and freedom from interruption — all elements that he deems essential for daydreaming, daydreaming being the heart of all creative work. By carving a space from himself away from his home, rather than in it, he seeks to gain an entirely different perspective on the place he calls home. Pollan’s decides to build the house on his own (with one helper) in order to meet a need he has to build something that will exist in the physical world, not just the intellectual one. He longs to do “work that involves very little intellect, but all the senses. It reminded me just how much reality slips through the net of our words, and that time spent working directly with the flesh of the world is the best antidote to abstraction.” (25)

The idea of abstractions versus concrete realities runs throughout the book and offers readers an examination of the physical act of building a place, as well as a dissection of its emotional and cultural importance of trying to lay claim to a piece of the earth. Pollan discusses building codes as well as daydreams; the realities of weather, soil, and climate versus the desire to build a place that suits our whims regardless of its practicality; or even the abstraction of “lumber” that allows him to separate himself from the discomfort of cutting down living trees to meet his needs. The greatest contradiction, though, comes from Pollan’s ruminations about whether any piece of land can ever really be considered ours, or whether it is on loan from nature, and who may reassert her claim at any time.

When we lay claim to an area, and call it “ours” we suddenly infuse that place with a tremendous amount of meaning. Far beyond just ground, air, light, and plants; our “place” comes to represent our goals, dreams, ideals, and our sense of ownership of a piece of the earth. While it may be just a cottage on one level, it is also a place of refuge, safety, comfort, wealth, and a place that tells the world the work you conduct there is completely your own.

“Houses only comes into their own in bad weather, when the poetry of shelter reaches its fullest expression…’I will be an inhabitant of the world, in spite of the world.'” (18)

Quiet by Susan Cain (2012)

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

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In this fantastic and immensely informative book, Susan Cain introduces readers to the historical, social, psychological, and scientific aspects of the introvert-extrovert dichotomy and offers in-depth explanation about why the distinction is important for everyone to understand. Cain uses a wide breadth of research-based examples to demonstrate that introverts are not a personality subgroup that is less than or lacking in comparison to extroverts; but rather they are a group of people who have a unique and equally important set of skills and strengths that they offer the world. Introverts should be included, not forced to convert or conform, in decisions about how to design our classrooms, workplaces, and relationships.

Cain argues that beginning at the start of the 20th century, the long-valued character strengths of commitment, reliability, determination, and long-term goal setting began to give way to a “new” model of the ideal American: loud, outgoing, talkative, aggressive, comfortable with strangers or crowds, and quick to make choices. In other words: an extrovert. These skills allowed Americans living during the enormous changes of the Industrial revolution — including the rise of corporations, mass immigration to cities, decrease in work in single pursuits (farming, shop-keeping) in favor of working for large businesses — and workers who exemplified these new ideals were better suited to succeed in 20th century versions of education, business, and social life.

The worship of extroversion, and the demonization of introversion, soon had transformed education, advertising, religion, and psychology and even pediatrics. Quiet, reflective, people (especially children) who took time to make decisions, preferred to single-task, and needed quiet time away from others were seen as lacking and needed to be forced to change. As the century unfolded, American culture began to more and more reward extroverts and demand that introvert learn to “fake” skills of extroversion or accept lesser social and professional success. As of result, more than one hundred years later, the skills associated with extroversion have become the skills that represent “universal success.” It is has become widely accepted that louder, more outgoing, more assertive people are the ideal workers and partners.

Cain’s book seeks to transform that idea. She offers evidence that introverts, with their more subtle skills — long-range planning, aversion to risk, contemplative problem solving, and comfort with delayed gratification — can, if allowed to flourish, transform businesses, classrooms, research labs, and even personal relationships. Offering examples of well-known but successful introverts — Rosa Parks, Bill Gates, Albert Einstein — and presenting fascinating new research from social science, psychiatry, and neurobiology; Cain presents an alternative way of viewing the traits of introversion; she offers examples of ways that introverts are a valuable resource in all areas of life; and she even offers concrete ways that introverts can set up their environment for success…and ways that the world can better accommodate introverts.

You can find Susan Cain’s wildly popular TED talk about her research into Introverts here: https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts

You can hear the author interviewed on the March 8, 2017 episode of Happier here: http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2017/03/podcast-107-happier-susan-cain/

 

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (2014)

The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

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Two different people who saw me reading this book asked me, “are you reading a book about cleaning?” The answer is yes and no. Marie Kondo’s book is, on one level, a book about how to tidy up your home; but on another level it is about the psychological relationship we have with our possessions and the ways that those items might be interfering with our happiness. The result is a book that deep and insightful, as well as practical.

“When your room is clean and uncluttered, you have no choice but to examine your inner state. You can see the issues you have been avoiding and are forced to deal with them.”

Kondo introduces readers to an extremely simple two step process for tidying your entire home (or office) which she promises will never need to be repeated: discard all but your most beloved, useful possessions and then find a specific home for those remaining items to permanently reside. Her argument centers mostly around her belief that we all own far too much stuff and that mountain of stuff is making us unhappy and disorganized. By unburdening ourselves of all of the surplus in our homes, we can reveal our true selves: the books we truly love and use; the clothes that make us look and feel our best; the mementos that bring us true joy; and the tools that help us live our best lives.

Tidying is the act of confronting yourself; cleaning is the act of confronting nature.”

Told in a no-nonsense manner, Kondo explains why we need to discard almost everything we have been struggling for years to organize or store and then we will have no need to find a place for all of it. Gone are the mementos we have convinced ourselves we must keep to remember friends and events! Gone is the “aspirational clutter” that does not inspire us to learn new things, but rather causes us to constantly reflect on who we are not! Broken items, duplicates — gone and gone! Paperwork — all gone! Books pared down to just a few most treasured volumes!

The end result is, Kondo tells us, a home that is a place filled only the few treasured items that bring us joy every day. With so few possessions, she argues, there is no need to tidy…simply put the remaining items where they belong and your done.

While it does seem excessively simple, there is something profound about Kondo’s approach. The connections she draws between our mental state and the state our home feel momentous. If our home is messy and crowded, if we are in a constant battle to find things or methods to corral all our junk, then we live a life in which we are too busy to reflect deeply on our choices. By overcoming our messes, we can create room for our true values to shine through.

This is a wonderful book filled with great ideas and lots of interesting insight in to modern Japanese culture. It might be worth picking up a copy if one of your New Year’s resolutions is to tidy up your home.

“When we delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear of the future. The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”

marie-kondo-photo-book-cover

The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman (2010 Edition)

“Keeping love alive in our marriages is serious business.”

I completed a second reading of The Five Love Languages this week as part of an Internet book club of sorts, in which I am participating — along with thousands of others — whom follow the “Happier with Gretchen Rubin” podcast with hosts Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft.

You can find a link to the episode of “Happier” that discusses The Five Love Languages here http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2016/08/podcast-80-five-love-languages/

My first reading of this book took place years ago, as part of a now hazy class that I participated in. The reason for the class has been lost to the sands of time but I still remember the lively discussions the class and this reading provoked between my then brand-new husband and I. This time around, I read it a bit more quickly, with an eye towards tips for tuning up our fifteen year old marriage in those areas where we may have let our “love language” communication slip. All these years later, I found the book (and the podcast) to have loads of really useful information that I can put into practice today to improve my already-great marriage tomorrow.

A note to readers: Although grounded in Chapman’s Christian faith and his examples are exclusively presented in terms of “marriage” and “husband and wife,” the book’s lessons are universal to all couples (married or not, gay or straight).

Chapman presents readers with a method for understanding why some couples find it hard to maintain the “in love” feelings they felt for one another at the start of their relationships. He suggests that once the passion and thrill of the courtship have worn off, and the partners settle into their day to day lives, they sometimes fail to express love to their partners in they way that they partners need to hear it. Therefore, Chapman recommends that we take the time to learn the Five Love Languages; determine what language our partner “speaks,” and then find ways to speak to them in their language; and lastly learn our own language and communicate to our partner how we could feel more love from them.

Of importance in this rubric is the understanding that we need to seek out ways to show our partner love simply for their sake: we cannot set out to find ways to communicate better with them in order to manipulate them into treating us differently. The choice to choose to speak your partner’s love language is a selfless one: “Real love requires effort and discipline. It is a choice to expend energy in an effort to benefit the other person, knowing that if his or her life is enriched by your effort, you too will find a sense of satisfaction of having genuinely loving another.”

The Five Love Languages, and some thoughts from Chapman on how to express them, are:

  • Words of Affirmation — telling your loved one how much you care, love them, appreciate them; recognize their efforts, praise their appearance, offer compliments, brag to others. This is never harsh words, demands, nagging, or snappish “about time” comments…just simple words of recognition, encouragement, and thanks. “Love is kind…we must use kind words.”
  • Quality Time — spending one-on-one time, sharing activities, share meaningful conversations, listen without interrupting, and reconnect with one another.
  • Receiving Gifts — surprise acts of gift giving to show you care and have been thinking of them, items or tokens or handmade crafts that show you have been paying attention to their preferences. (Hints for things your partner may like lie the gifts she has given others, in the things she has expressed interest in, or are similar to things she likes to pick out for herself.) “Physical presence in the time of crisis is the most powerful gift you can give if your spouses’ language is receiving gifts.”
  • Acts of Service — these are acts you do unprompted to make your partner’s life easier, less stressful, or to make them feel pampered or taken care of. (Taking our the trash, watching the kids so she can nap, volunteering to run errands on your way home from work)
  • Physical Touch — these are any physical connections, including but not limited to romantic touch (sex, kissing, hand holding, hugs) and simple closeness (cuddling or snuggling on couch.) Chapman insist those of us whose partner’s use this language remember, “Your best instructor in loving touch is your partner, she is the one you are seeking to love. Don’t insist on touching her in your way or in your time. Don’t make the mistake of believing what brings you pleasure will bring pleasure to her. Learn her dialect.”

Despite feeling a times a bit dopey discussing our relationship in terms of the love languages — for the record, I hear love through “Acts of Service” and to a lesser degree “Words of Affirmation;” my husband is “Touch” and “Words of Affirmation” — we had a hours-long conversation on Saturday of ways we could improve our relationship by remembering one another’s love language. We also discussed the book with our three sons and found that each of them easily identified their love language as well, sparking a lively dinner debate about how to be more loving to one another. We rarely do things that outwardly self-help-esque and so I was thrilled at their willingness to talk it over, especially our teenager.

In all, there is no circumstance in which putting extra time and thought into how to strengthen your relationship is not a worth-while investment. The book is worth a glance if you have never read it, and the framework it presents is a unique and valuable way to think about being more loving.

“Being sincere is not enough. We must be willing to learn our spouse’s primary love language if we are to be effective communicators of love.”

 

A Pattern Language (1977)

By Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, Max Jacobs, Ingrid Kiksdahl-King, Shlomo Angel

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“A Pattern Language is the second in a series of books which describe an entirely new attitude — a complete working alternative — to our present ideas about architecture, building, and planning.”

There does not exactly exist a category of book that A Pattern Language could be completely contained within: it is part textbook, part manifesto, part psychological treatise, and part how-to guide…as in: how to organize one’s surroundings to maximize pleasure and contentment. Within its more than one thousand pages the authors of A Pattern Language present readers a mind-bogglingly complex and potentially life altering set of “rules” by which they can reorder their rooms, their homes, their towns, their world and therefore their lives.

In the introduction, the authors’ set forth their hypothesis: much is wrong with the communities in which we live because no attention has been paid to the psychological and emotional affects the open spaces, roads, buildings, and interior spaces have on the humans that inhabit and use them. Instead, an entirely new way of thinking about city planning, architecture, and living is proposed through two-hundred and fifty three rules of design, called the Patterns.

The book begins with the very broad patterns, “A Distribution of Towns” (which discusses the ideal space between cities, suburbs, country towns, and rural villages) and narrowing down to the widely specific “Different Chairs” (a discussion of why varying styles of furniture is most soothing and comforting to a home’s inhabitants) and covering every possible space and design decision in between.

This is much, much more than just simply a collection of rules about how to lay at streets (in the country laid out to maximize open space; in cities in “webs” that connect areas of dense shopping and entertaining to quieter areas for living) and how many windows a day care center should have (answer: many, all low to the floor, and with views of a garden and play area). Those straight-forward rules are there, for certain, and they offer detailed guidance, but each pattern also strives to go further and solve bigger social problems that poorly designed spaces can contribute to.

Within each of the Patterns are in-depth discussions about the affect that each and every decision made in city planning, or the way one family might chose to live within their own home, might be best arranged for maximize contentment of all residents. There are discussions about improving our lives: why we should not ignore the sole-destroying affects of long work commutes; ways to lessen the isolation of stay-at-home parents; ways that city buildings offering services to the poor can bring people together in positive and uplifting spaces that improve their heath and well-being rather than further depress and degrade those seeking help; why we should consider the mixing of children, adults, and older persons when we create open spaces; why it is important to have places to exercise, dance, shop, and relax that meet the needs of various groups and respect their individual cultural and age related wishes (idea: have family oriented and less rowdy dance halls in town but have wilder dance clubs for the young far outside of the neighborhoods populated by seniors and children.)

There is scarcely one aspect of design and planning that has been overlooked by this book. Each aspect of life — in city, suburb, town, and rural village — has been given equal importance and serious consideration. The author’s want to see us build a world where we can be happy at work, out on the town, in our parks, in our hospitals, in our schools, and in our homes and they propose a set of specific changes — many which could be made easily — to correct deficiencies and improve these spaces.

I cannot begin to explain the draw this book has on me. I find myself opening it often and sometimes reading for hours. Even when I am not reading it, I find myself thinking often about the Patterns that speak to me most: create secret “caves” for my young children to make their own; preserve my bedroom as a sacred “couples retreat” to increase martial happiness;  create outdoor rooms to ensure my family enjoys both the inside and outside of our home, and hundreds more.

While I completely understand few readers are going to track down this hard to find, 1000 page book, but I urge you to consider doing so. You might be surprised by the profound insights an architecture textbook has to offer.

Happier…On Vacation

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Photo my husband captured on our beach trip of the full moon over the Atlantic Ocean.

“We should be working to discover the laws of our own nature. I had to build my happiness on the foundation of my character; I had to acknowledge what really made me happy, not what I wished made me happy.”

I cannot think of a better way to spend a beautiful, relaxing family beach vacation than to relax, oceanside, and deeply contemplate happiness. Last week, I did just that by re-reading my three favorite non-fiction books of all time: The Happiness Project, Happier at Home, and Better than Before…all by Gretchen Rubin.

Even after multiple re-readings (my copies are dog-eared, heavily underlined, and battered from use) Rubin’s books still offer me deep insights into the nature of happiness. Throughout the week, read-aloud passages from her book sparked deep and heartfelt conversations with my family about ways many ways we can welcome more happiness into our lives and the lives of our loved ones. I cannot begin to explain how, well, happy it makes me to be reminded that I can have a profound affect on everyone around me simply by making small decisions every single day to be more kind, loving, enthusiastic, and fun.

Here are my three original posts about her books, enjoy!

https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2015/09/29/gretchen-rubin-part-1/

https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/gretchen-rubin-part-2/

https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2015/10/01/gretchen-rubin-3/