Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Count Me In!

Count Me In / Emily White
Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, c2015.
289 p.

I liked this one -- an unexpected pleasure that I first heard of randomly. The idea of it appealed: in this book, White details how she adapted when she moved back to Toronto from small-town Newfoundland after a relationship crashed.

In her small Newfoundland community, she felt like she belonged, like place itself was a connection. Could she start to feel connected to others in such a large city? And if so, how?

Throughout this project, she tries various methods to form social connections, from volunteering to church-going to activism to hanging out at community spaces and events, to name a few. She gives many different things a try, and goes into what was good and not so good about each. I probably was an easy target for this book, since White chooses things that appeal to my own introvert nature -- like White, I wouldn't go about this by signing up for team sports or politics; rather, she chooses smaller, more flexible kinds of activities. She does note however:
     At no point in my year and a half of looking for belonging did I even stumble upon an opportunity to join the sorts of large groups that seem to have been ubiquitous in the past... Aside from faith organizations, large groups simply didn't surface. It's not that I was avoiding them. They weren't there.
     Without setting out to do so, I wound up confirming a major point in the research on belonging: the groups you'll find will probably be small and informally structured.
Something I loved about this book -- she acknowledges that not every activity is really for everyone. For example, everyone is always told that to find life more meaningful you should volunteer somewhere, anywhere! White points out that unless you're volunteering willingly and in a situation that meets your own specific needs as well as the organization's, it can be a draining and not very effective attempt at inclusion. To begin her project, she took time to focus clearly on what her values were, and what she would be looking for that would be personally meaningful. She decides on these values.
Dog, nature, faith, home, neighbourhood. The list felt a bit garbled, like clues to a mystery I'd have to tease out. But at least I had the clues.
Another thing I really liked about this book -- White's brief conversation about public spaces. She mentions the Great Good Space, the kind of public space that is open to all and that allows people to spend time with others in public at a more general level of engagement. This civic space supports us in a way that is wider and different than our family and friends, and the places in which we find this kind of atmosphere are the civic institutions that are shrinking -- parks, community centres, libraries --  the kind of spaces we need to support not only with our (shrinking) tax contributions, but with our communal use of these spaces. Not surprisingly I agree with her assessment that libraries are a public good, a 'third space' that provides opportunity for civic engagement for all.

White structures the book logically, even if the chapters bleed into one another as her experiences pile up and overlap. It's broken up into these general areas: Home, Local Place, Caring, Faith, Volunteering, Buying. Plus of course, a general introduction to both her own life and the genesis of her project, and an additional conclusion on what this year and a half has taught her.

Sometimes these kind of life-project books are too earnest or well-meaning for my tastes, coming across as dull and procedural. I was very glad to discover that this was not the case with Count Me In. I enjoyed White's writing style, and her narrative was self aware (and self-deprecating) enough that her search to overcome her sense of disconnection did not annoy me -- a sad occurrence in some similar reads I've tried. I think there are some interesting ideas here that readers could ponder and even discuss, as they build their own sense of connection in places like book clubs!

Enjoyable and great timing in publication date, too -- it's a perfect choice for the beginning of a year as people are making resolutions. If you've resolved to get out there and make some new connections, this is the perfect read for you. If you are simply interested in the idea of communal spaces and ways for people to live together with a greater sense of connection, you will also find this a good read.

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Further Reading:

If the idea of spending time on a self-improvement project sounds like a good idea to you, you might want to try the classic tome on happiness, Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project.  Rubin decided to spend a year seeking what she most wanted in life... happiness.

For more from Emily White, read her first book, Lonely: Learning to live with Solitude. You will discover more about White herself, and her journey toward making connections with others.


2 comments:

  1. What a lovely and thoughtful review--as usual! It sounds like an introspective book about branching out (in a discerning manner) that I'd also enjoy.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, there are lots of ideas on how to better connect and really live where you are.

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