After Poppy’s beautiful “That Moment When…” post, A Handy Guide for Choosing Your Institute of Magical Education , and Literary Charlie’s Angels art essays, we are so excited to have another post from her!
Poppy is a long-time fan of SBTB and loves cats, books and coffee, in that order. She illustrates The Loo Cats, an imaginative series starring her rescue cats in the most fantastical, improbable scenarios. The series is an ode to four spunky felines who survived abuse and abandonment before they found their forever home. Now they are elderly and ill, and can only travel in their human’s wild, colour-saturated imagination – but they continue to bring delight and iridescence to the lives of those around them. Join them on their adventures @geninepoppyloo on Instagram!
TW/CW: discussion of depression, loneliness, mental illness, self harm.
The holiday season can be awesome and beautiful. But it can also be a bit triggering for those of us who have challenges with the myriad family functions and social events that abound at these times as well as those of us who don’t have any family functions or social events to attend.
I’ve got my own fair share of lovely and awful memories around the sometimes-unfettered expectations for Everyone-to-have-a-bloody-fantastic-time-RIGHT-NOW-DAMMIT that get unleashed during the holiday season; I know many others have much more difficult experiences.Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.
It’s hard to review Eleanor Oliphant without giving away too much plot, but perhaps I could settle for saying that it’s an utterly unique coming-of-age tale of a young lady finding friends, a cat and herself after a childhood tragedy. (Fellow SBTB reader and guest reviewer Lara already wrote an excellent review in 2018.)
So I’ll skip all of that and focus on two mental health-related issues that the book does a great job addressing, which are also the reasons why I keep coming back to re-read (and re-re-re-read) it: loneliness and unrealistic expectations.
“Loneliness is the new cancer”
In most of her narration, Eleanor appears deceptively matter-of-fact about how alone she is:
“…if I were to run out of funds, find myself indebted, there is no one, not a single soul, on whom I could call to bail me out… I have no anonymous benefactor to pay my rent, no family members or friends who could kindly lend me the money to replace a broken vacuum cleaner or pay the gas bill until I return the borrowed sum to them on payday.”
Sometimes she pulls back the curtain on the effect this isolation has had on her:
“ … I talk to [my potted plant] sometimes, I’m not ashamed to admit it. When the silence and the aloneness press down and around me, crushing me, carving through me like ice, I need to speak aloud sometimes, if only for proof of life.”
A few years ago, I worked with an organisation that took my team on frequent visits to a low-income residential area. We visited one-room flats to discuss assistance matters with residents. I was assigned to two such flats – in one was a man in his 70s, and in the other, a woman in her 60s. Both had mobility issues, no family members who cared enough to visit, and no social network to rely on. Both told us that if we hadn’t visited, they would literally have not spoken to another person for days. They spent their days staring blankly at the TV. “Waiting to die” was a common response when we asked how they were.
Does this situation feel too remote for most of us? It might not be. Even amongst those who are younger, more mobile, have jobs, friends, money – whatever trappings of modern life we’d care to compute – loneliness might become, or already be, a feature of life. The numbers are frightening:
- In a 2018 survey, 22% of adults in the United States say they always or often feel lonely, lack companionship, or feel left out or isolated.
- BBC reported that a third of Britons said that they often or very often feel lonely, with more than half citing the television or a pet as their main companion.
- In Japan, more than half a million people under 40 said they haven’t left their house or interacted with anyone for at least six months.
[these stats are quoted from this article]
Many structures of our contemporary life create conditions of isolation – increasing time spent onscreen/online, longer and longer work hours, splintering communities from globalization, and a rapidly ageing population in most urban centres. Compounding all that, though, is our attitude towards the lonely, which Eleanor herself noted:
“These days, loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way… other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”
The emotional effects of loneliness could also be devastating: greater risks for depression, earlier onset of dementia, hallucination and others. We see this in occasional glimpses through Eleanor:
“I do exist, don’t I? It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination. There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I’d lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock.”
But here is, I think, the most important point that Eleanor Oliphant shows: rarely can those who are already feeling isolated “cure” themselves. True help must come from the social networks whose cracks they have fallen through – the metaphorical net that’s failed to catch them as they fell. But we, the knots and strings that make up the social net, can come together to patch its holes. We can reach out with a friendly word or gesture to those in our lives who might be feeling alone, especially in this coming holiday season.
Eleanor’s isolation was broken through by her colleague Raymond, a warm, non-judgmental, even brave (given Eleanor’s initial prickliness) bloke who offered her kindness and unconditional friendship. Given the rates of loneliness in society today, it’s likely there could be an Eleanor unnoticed in the midst of our daily lives; we could perhaps, in our own small ways, be a Raymond to them.
“Both nothing and everything”
This, I thought, was the most beautiful paragraph in the entire book:
“Back indoors, I helped Raymond swap the sheets on his mother’s bed for the clean ones I’d brought in from the line. Her bedroom was very pink and smelled of talcum powder. It was clean and nondescript – not like a hotel room, more like a bed and breakfast, I imagined.
Save for a fat paperback and a packet of extra strong mints on the bedside table, there was nothing personal in the room, no clue to the owner’s personality. It struck me that, in the nicest possible way, she didn’t really have a personality; she was a mother, a kind, loving woman… She was, quite simply, a nice lady who’d raised a family and now lived quietly with her cats and grew vegetables. This was both nothing and everything.”
I’ve read Eleanor Oliphant around five times now, and that last line never fails to move me. The so-called “nothing” – the small, quotidian, unremarkable things we do for ourselves and others – are they really nothing? To the wider world, all the evenings spent holding your granny’s hand as you watch screechy TV shows is nothing noteworthy.
The afterwork drinks with your mates, laughing about stupid memes and commiserating over failed Tinder dates is nothing. The daily chore of cleaning up after your kids (or cats, in my case) is nothing. The spontaneous get-togethers, the family brunches, the dry-cleaning you pick up for your partner, the lazy weekends curled up on the couch with cats and Netflix. Nothing, nothing, nothing and nothing.
And yet, collectively, they are everything that make up the tapestry of our friendships, relationships, and at the end of the day, our homes and lives. And these moments will ultimately become that net that catches us, should we fall into that loneliness we just talked about.
(If you’d like to read more, this is a wonderful piece about community and the so-called “nothing” moments that create it.)
And on the flip side of nothing? What is “everything”? Eleanor often spoke about her “unexalted place in life”. This is probably something we’ve all grappled with at some point – where do we stand in life? Are we being as successful as we ought to be? Being “everything”?
My favourite philosopher Alain de Botton has said some pretty interesting things about our modern condition around notions of status and success.
One of my all-time favourite videos, “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success” tackled that “famous iconic 21st century question: What do you do?”, which, depending on your answer, would result in people being “incredibly delighted to see you” or looking at their watches and making their excuses.
Expectations these days are high because of the pervasive myth of meritocracy: the idea that everyone’s now equal, so anyone can achieve anything, and if you don’t, then it’s all on you. Alain de Botton put it like this: It’s probably just as unlikely that you’ll become as rich and famous as Bill Gates as it was for a peasant to enter the ranks of French aristocracy in the 17th century – but the point is that it doesn’t feel that way. What does one do about this?
I’ll take some advice from Eleanor, who quite ironically failed to heed her own. (In the book, this point marked the beginning of her unhealthy, self-inflicted transformation into a so-called suitable partner for the gross musician that she fell in love with from afar.)
“…I decided to start from the outside and work my way in – that’s what often happens in nature, after all. The shedding of skin, rebirth. Animals, birds and the insects can provide such useful insights. If I’m ever unsure as to the correct course of action, I’ll think, What would a ferret do? Or, How would a salamander respond to this situation? Invariably, I find the right answer.”
It’s kinda hilarious and slightly ridiculous, but so are all these stupid expectations that we’ve put on ourselves about “everything” success looks like.
So what would a ferret do, indeed? It would live happily in social groups called business or busyness (no kidding), spend its days hunting rats and sleeping, AND, this is quite important, doing the Weasel War Dance of happiness.
Eleanor Oliphant, in its quiet way, invites us to rethink our ideas of what wider society has been trumpeting as success. It shows us that we could find success in all sorts of individuals – people like Raymond’s mother, who brought up a wonderful son, looks after her cat and herself, and embraced Eleanor wholeheartedly; in Raymond, the unkempt, unambitious IT guy who stopped to save an injured old man on the street and unstintingly stuck by Eleanor with 100% friendship and 0% creepiness; and of course Eleanor herself who, despite her apparently “unexalted place in life”, has triumphed over terrible inner demons and found her way to giving and receiving love and friendship.
So this holiday season, I wish you the joy of connection – with family, friends, or even yourself; and the celebration of the thousands – millions – of successes that have gone unnoticed in your lives.
The Pay-Your-Way Postcard Project
I’ve done some small fundraising for cat welfare/rescue groups this year, and would like to extend these fundraising efforts in a different way. So this holiday, I’m “selling” 100 postcard packs with prints of my doodles on them!
Each pack will have 5 postcards, which are all printed on 100% recycled paperstock. I’ll send them to anyone, anywhere, who wants any. In return, I’d like to invite you to devise your own “pay your own way” – make a small donation to a cause you believe in, write a happy note to a friend, reward yourself with a rejuvenating afternoon, volunteer an hour to help someone, literally anything you like that keeps to the spirit of staying connected and celebrating unnoticed successes!
Please choose your designs here, and your mode of “payment”. Confession – you’re not likely to get them for Christmas, as I’ll have to wait a bit to confirm the numbers, and mailing overseas will take time too. But you’ll get them, for sure. ☺]
Thank you, Poppy!
What about you? What were your everything successes this year?