“My Year with Eleanor” by Noelle Hancock

My Year with Eleanor

I’ve been reading rather prolifically (this is a relative term, compared to the number of books I’ve read [excluding those compulsory texts I had to complete in Bible school] over this past year) these few weeks as I’m gearing towards the middle-end part of my thesis writing (actually, still at data analysis), and becoming increasingly frustrated by the new things I have to learn about conducting analysis. So this was a book I picked up randomly from a shelf in my school library about a week ago, and from the cover, you would think it looks like a chick-lit sort of fictional account of a woman and her (mis)adventures (well except this is not a work of fiction, the word “memoir” is printed clearly at the centre of the cover page). And you know, I’m normally rather careful with chick lit, because reading a bad chick lit is akin to watching a bad chick flick (or any bad movie), it contaminates my mind, wastes my time, and leaves me disturbed for the next week or two. Thus, before embarking on the book, I went online to check on some reviews, and it turned out to be pretty positive! On Amazon.com it was probably a 4 out of 5, and on Goodreads the ratings were somewhat similar. I decided to give it a go, mainly because of two things: Eleanor in the title refers to Eleanor Roosevelt, former First Lady of the USA, and the book was written by the author when she was 29, which is around my age right now.

So basically, this book is about a 29-year old woman who, after being unexpectedly retrenched from her job as a celebrity blogger, became lost and confused about what to do with her future. Wondering along the streets, one day she happened to spot a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt written on the chalkboard of a cafe on the street, which said “Do one thing every day that scares you”. She immediately became inspired by the quote and endeavoured to learn more about Eleanor Roosevelt’s life, and in the process, caught on the spirit behind Eleanor Roosevelt’s driving force in life, took a hiatus from job-hunting, and instead planned a year where she would conquer one fear a day, every day for the year.

Her plans gave her the opportunity to try out all sorts of things, like trapeze swinging (to overcome her fear of heights), shark hunting (to overcome her fear of diving in deep waters), volunteering in the cancer ward of a hospital (to overcome her fear of facing serious illnesses), helping out at a funeral home (to overcome her fear of death), taking part in a stand-up comedy event (to overcome her fear of public speaking), taking the courage to talk to her boyfriend about their future (something she had been avoiding for a while, for fear of the worst), attempting to wean off sleeping pills (she was dependent on them almost completely for sleep), running naked along her apartment corridor (when she had nothing better to do) and finally, climbing the Kilimanjaro mountain in Africa (to push herself beyond her limits and prove that nothing is impossible for someone unfit as her). So the culmination of her project was probably this book, which chronicled highlights of her adventures.

Actually I would say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book. It was written in a lighthearted, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes contemplative way, perfect for a tea-time or after dinner read, to be finished while lying on your bed and dreaming of all the things you could be doing. Being a timid girl as I am, the book became an outlet through which I could vicariously experience all these fear-inducing activities, and I would do an inward cheer / imaginary cartwheel every time she managed to conquer these challenges. So many of these things are real challenges for me as well, and through her accounts it really did seem as if things are not as impossible as most would believe.

What I liked best about the book, though, was how she managed to weave snippets of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life stories into her personal accounts of her adventures, and in the process reveal the wisdom of E. Roosevelt for the particular situations she was in. I liked how every chapter started with a quote by E. Roosevelt, which neatly framed the main learning point/takeaway for that entire chapter; and by the end of the book my interest in E. Roosevelt was sufficiently piqued for me to want to read a few copies of her books instead. Which means, having read through 16 chapters in the book (15 chapters plus an Epilogue), I had at least 16 takeaways from the book. It really came through, from this memoir, that E. Roosevelt was an extraordinary woman, who overcame her personal limitations (e.g., lack of confidence in her physical appearance, an unhappy marriage, an over-controlling mother in law) to lead an extraordinary life.

Let me just prove it to you (heh OK, actually just for my own keepsake), some of the takeaways from the book (all quotations taken from E. Roosevelt!):

1. Life is a product of our choices and decisions. “Your life is your own. You mold it. You make it. All anyone can do is to point out ways and means which have been helpful to others. Perhaps they will serve as suggestions to stimulate your own thinking until you know what it is that will fulfill you, will help you find out what you want to do with your life.”

2. Change is the only constant – keep learning and growing! “Nothing alive can stand still, it goes forward or back. Life is interesting only as long as it is a process of growth; or, put it another way, we can only grow as long as we are interest.”

3. Facing your fears is an imperative, not a choice. “Looking back I see that I was always afraid of something: of the dark, of displeasing people, of failure. Anything I accomplished had to be done across a barrier of fear.”

4. Don’t be ashamed of pursuing your passions – and do so wholeheartedly, unabashedly, with complete abandon. “Do the things that interest you and do them with all your heart. Don’t be concerned about whether people are watching you or criticizing you. The chances are that they aren’t paying any attention to you.”

5. Keep loving, and keep learning to love better. “The giving of love is an education in itself.”

6. Don’t stop overcoming your fears. “The encouraging thing is that every time you meet a situation, though you may think at the time it is an impossibility and you go through the tortures of the damned, once you have met it and lived through it you find that forever after you are freer than you ever were before…. You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.”

7. Find contentment in what you have. “My life can be so arranged that I can live on whatever I have. If I cannot live as I have lived in the past, I shall live differently, and living differently does not mean living with less attention to the things that make life gracious and pleasant or with less enjoyment of things of the mind.”

8. Cherish your family. “The greatest thing I have learned is how good it is to come home again.”

9. Pursue meaning and passion, not happiness. “Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product… For what keeps our interest in life and makes us look forward to tomorrow is giving pleasure to other people.”

10. Carpe Diem. Seize the moment. “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called the present.” (Ohh, so E. Roosevelt was the originator of this line!)

11. Be open to different experiences. “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear, for newer and richer experience.”

12. Maturity is about perspective-taking, humility, and compassion. “A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and in all things, and who walks humbly and deals charitably with the circumstances of life.”

13. Conquer your fears – over and over again. Each little step counts. “Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”

14. Knowledge dispels fear. Never fear the unknown – instead, keep learning. “A great deal of fear is a result of just “not knowing”. We do not know what is involved in a new situation. We do not know whether we can deal with it. The sooner we learn what it entails, the sooner we can dissolve our fear.”

15. Look forward to surprises and new experiences! “We are constantly advancing, like explorers, into the unknown, which makes life an adventure all the way. How interminable and dull that journey would be if it were on a straight road over a flat plain, if we could see ahead the whole distance, without surprises, without the salt of the unexpected, without challenge.”

And lastly…

16. Imperfect as we are, we can be an inspiration to others. “About the only value the story of my life may have is to show that one can, even without any particular gifts, overcome obstacles that seem insurmountable if one is willing to face the fact that they must be overcome; that, in spite of timidity and fear, in spite of a lack of special talents, one can find a way to live widely and fully.”

Some would fault this book as being narcissistic and self-indulgent, because the author’s situation about being jobless was not actually as grim as she initially believed. After all, she is pretty (as we can see from her picture on the back cover!), well educated (a graduate of Yale, imagine that!), has a supportive boyfriend and a close-knit group of friends, physically healthy (to be able to exert herself in all those physically demanding activities), and was probably sufficiently well-to-do to remain jobless for an entire year (most people wouldn’t have this luxury), so, what was there to complain about life? Just suck it up and quit whining! It is important to keep in mind, though, that everybody’s journey on this earth is unique, and what her book reminds us is that, it is OK to feel lost or aimless or directionless once in a while, but the most important thing is that we never lose our zest and thirst for trying out new things, being open to new experiences, seeking meaning in our lives, and most importantly, knowing that at the end of the day, it is really not about us – because personal happiness is merely a by-product of accomplishing something meaningful that is of service to others. I guess this book was apt for me, given that I’ve been jobless for about a year now (studying full time), and I’ve always been a timid and shy person by nature. So the book reminds me to have hope, never quit learning, always cherish the moment, and make the most of everything!

So if you’re feeling timid, fearful, afraid, or simply just wanting to learn more about Eleanor Roosevelt through light reading, this book would be a good start for you. 🙂

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