DON’T LOOK DOWN – May 2014

My year with Eleanor by Noelle Hancock

Tompkins_J_LReviewed by Jane Tompkins

More and more I’m coming to the conclusion that books affect you as much by their energy as by anything they might have to say or any story they might tell. Noelle Hancock’s memoir, My Year with Eleanor, is a case in point. The minute you start reading it you feel better than you did the minute before, not so much because of what happens, but because of the author’s spirit.  Right off the bat she loses her job. Bummer! Well, you might think so, but it doesn’t feel that way. Even when she’s describing how lost she was, how clueless and semi-depressed, you’re aware of the life force throbbing through her. This communicates itself. No matter how down you might be when you pick the book up, stick around, and you’ll be carried along on the current of Hancock’s youth and vitality, entertained, instructed and companioned as she relates her adventures. The book is a combination of action-adventure, self-help and memoir. My year with Eleanor

What sends her off on her adventures, makes the book distinctive and gives it its characteristic flavor are the writings of Eleanor Roosevelt. One day, while sitting in a café drinking lattes and wondering what to do next, Hancock sees a quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt scrawled on a sign: “Do something that scares you every day.” Intrigued, she goes to Barnes & Noble, finds a whole Roosevelt section, plops herself down, and, after riffling through numerous volumes, buys three autobiographies and a self-help manual with eleven tips for better living.  She gobbles them up. Roosevelt’s life makes a profound impression on her, and it made a big impression on me as I read her account of it.

Though she came from a family of wealth and distinction, Eleanor’s childhood was difficult, to say the least. Her mother was openly ashamed of her frumpy looks, and her father, though he doted on her, made her feel bad for being so fearful. Both died before she entered her teens, her mother from diphtheria, her father, a suicide. Her life, arguably one of the most productive of the 20th century, was an exercise in self-construction. Eleanor Roosevelt, for all her inherited advantages, was a self-made person. Each chapter of Hancock’s book begins with a quotation from Eleanor’s writings that contains some piece of her hard-won wisdom. Here, for instance is the quote which opens the book:

“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 to find out what you want to do with your life.”

Roosevelt’s writing makes you feel you had better step up to the plate. No more shilly-shallying. No more whining and complaining that things didn’t turn out the way you expected; the ball is in your court and it’s up to you to do something with it. This is certainly the effect she produced on Noelle Hancock.  Noelle knows that there’s a lot wrong with her life besides needing a job. So instead of looking for paid employment—she has some money saved and can free-lance if need be–she makes a pledge to do something that scares her every day for one year.

It’s genius, really. The course of life she sets herself stretches her in countless ways, shows her things about herself she could never have learned by going back to work and ends by giving her a sense that, as far as her future is concerned, the sky’s the limit. You learn to like the young woman—she’s only 29—who puts herself to so many tests; she’s honest, a straight-shooter, unpretentious and all-round good company. You have to admire her for her physical courage, for being willing, over and over, to risk looking foolish, and for just being game. I found myself thinking that I wouldn’t have had the gumption to take on half the challenges she sets herself—stand-up comic, karaoke appearance, going down into the ocean in a cage with a dive suit on to look at sharks that can attack. Reading the book made me realize there were important things I’d been avoiding doing because of anxiety. It made me wonder how much of life I had missed out on because I didn’t realize my fears were holding me back.

From time to time I also wondered where all this effort and activity were leading. The focus here is on action, not contemplation. There’s more about the details of taking trapeze-lessons than about how the author learned to handle her fear. The assumption is that you’ll grow more from engagement, participation, and putting yourself out there than from emotional awareness, honest self-scrutiny, and disciplined thought. The quotations that start each chapter dispel any notion that Roosevelt herself wasn’t a wise and powerful thinker as well as a committed activist. Still, I think even she underestimates the importance of reflection and understanding, not to mention the cultivation of inner awareness, as elements of a fulfilling life. She writes:

“The most unhappy people in the world are those who face the days without knowing what to do with their time. But if you have more projects than you have time for, you are not going to be an unhappy person.”

Having projects that structure your time and give you a sense of purpose is a good idea, but Roosevelt lived before the age of workaholism had arrived in this country, so perhaps she hadn’t had the chance to observe the effects of constant busyness and over-commitment on people’s lives.

All in all, this book is inspiring and useful. The job the author lost at the beginning was a writing job, so she knew how to tell a tale before embarking on her adventures, and she’s good at keeping us on the edge of our seats. The example she sets is provoking and instructive: It makes you look at yourself, and the way she writes gives you the energy to act on what you see. I haven’t taken the pledge but I’m thinking of doing some difficult things I’d been putting off. It’s funny: I’d always thought of myself as a courageous person, but now I’m not so sure. ~