A review of Count Me In by Emily White

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Count Me In: How I Stepped Off the Sidelines, Created Connection, and Built a Fuller, Richer, More Lived-in Life
by Emily White
McClelland & Stewart
Hardcover: 304 pages, January 6, 2015, ISBN-13: 978-0771087714

Emily White, a Canadian environmental lawyer turned author, published her first book, Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude (Toronto, McClelland and Stewart) in 2010. It became a national best-seller. In it she shows that loneliness affects one out of every four people, that it is “being egged on and aggravated by our culture,” and that it is hazardous to our health.

White blended her personal experiences with an examination of the existing medical and sociological writing on loneliness. Among the studies she referenced was a 2002-5 survey from Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago, showing links between loneliness and cognitive declined. She cited research showing a sharp and continuous decline in socializing over the past thirty years.

Loneliness first hit White as a child when her parents’ marriage broke up, and was worsened when she was a young adult and her father died. Distinguishing between “depression” and “loneliness”, she says that depression feels like something “hounding and snapping at you” while loneliness is “drowning in absence.” Surprisingly, she found that the depictions of loneliness in fiction were more accurate than those she found in medical/mental health literature.

White ended Lonely by noting the few efforts here and there being made by public health agencies to encourage social connection. Her own plight was eased when she found a life partner and moved with her from Toronto to Newfoundland.

White’s new book, Count Me In, picks up where Lonely left off, with regard to her personal story, but is subtitled: “How I stepped off the sidelines, created connection and built a fuller, richer, more lived-in life.” We meet White back in her home town of Toronto, having broken up with her partner of five years. Although she had (has) family and friends in Toronto, she missed the sense of community she’d had in Newfoundland, and, because of her change of circumstances, had to abandon her work-in-progress, which was about the nature of community in small towns. Back in the city, she combined her personal quest for a social network with research into how to achieve a sense of community.

As a young environmental lawyer working on contract in Iqualuit in the Canadian Arctic, White had a sense of belonging. She walked under the midnight sun with her roommate’s dog and gained inner peace from the land. Hoping to attain that feeling again, she listed the things she needed for “belonging”: a dog, nature, faith, home and neighbourhood. Since she already had a beloved aging cat, she decided not to acquire another pet. Her project led to satisfactory involvement in a community garden, an organization drawing attention to the inhumane treatment of pigs, and a gay Catholic congregation. Other ventures proved less rewarding, and she examines why.

White’s search for community confirmed her belief, first expressed in Lonely, that social policy affects people’s sense of belonging. Her good experiences at a public pool and community garden were made possible by elected officials of the past who directed tax dollars toward construction of a the community centre that housed the pool and the park that had space for the garden. These days, governments are providing less funding to public spaces people can meet others, and White thinks it’s a shame.

White’s quest taught her several things. One was to be open and receptive to people from different walks of life. In one group, she gravitated toward people in her age group (mid-forties) with careers, until one evening she conversed with a man in his eighties who told fascinating tales of Toronto in the pre-high-rise days.

She learned, too, that, she had to start with what she cared about. She walked out of a group that was both badly led and homophobic. Much as she loves language, literature and helping others, she decided she lacked the patience to tutor students taking English as a Second Language. She rejected team sports because she doesn’t enjoy them, but notes that they are a highly praised form of social connection and work for some. White advises people to examine their expectations. Close friendships won’t blossom right away, if ever, but when relationships are lower key, as in the community garden, you can relax and don’t have to be “on” all the time.

If a group situation doesn’t work for you, don’t be too quick to blame yourself, she says. Volunteer work, for instance, is always lauded as the route toward community building and a sense of belonging, but may not be so. Fewer organizations use volunteer help these days. Some that do are very task-oriented at the expense of human connection.

On finishing Count Me In, I found myself wanting to talk to Emily White about some of my recent ventures into the community. She would probably encourage me to explore more activities. When you create a sense of connection for yourself by becoming part of a group, she says, you are helping to bring more warmth into the public realm. In her view, the world is now at a tipping point where we will either match our desire for connection with action, or turn to “private relationships, commercial experiences and pre-packaged community of the type you might find on a cruise.”

“All it takes is one step,” she says, “the first one off the sidelines.”

About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s novel, The Old Love and the New Love (Ottawa, Canada, Baico, 2012) is available at baico@bellnet.ca. For information about reviewer Ruth Latta’s writing, please visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com.