Being neighbourly

I’ve just finished re-reading Anneli Rufus’ book, Party of One. In part it’s an exploration of the word “loner”, and particularly the media’s use of the word very freely in relation to disturbed killers.

She points out how often the perpetrator of a crime is headlined as “loner”, and how neighbours will always report that “he kept to herself”.

I took a look around at my neighbours. Not that I think any of them are deranged, but it occurred to me that what is said about the perpetrator by the neighbours after an event is utterly irrelevant because we’d all say the same thing about our neighbours and they’d say the same thing about us.

I live in a small dead-end street, and I live at the bottom of it so I see almost all the residents walking or driving past. And almost everyone goes past alone. This is not because they are all single but because they leave for work at different times.

Sometimes people will smile as they pass if they see me on my porch. If I were to report in a neighbourly way on these people, what would I say about them, and they about me? “She seemed ordinary, not unfriendly but kept to herself”. Indeed.

So either I live in a street filled with potential psychopaths, or that’s just how people in my part of the world normally behave.

Actually it occurs to me I may be living in the ideal neighbourhood for me. I have a semi retired architect who works next door but doesn’t live there. He’s been pretty unfriendly but recently we chatted a bit and yesterday he offered me a couple of spare plants. He’s there on his own during the day and I never see him with anyone else, clients or family. Across the road is a couple who I’ve spoken with a few times. Their family is well grown up and they have grandchildren although the grandkids don’t come to stay. There are a couple of singles further up the street who I don’t know but I see them walking past.

The reason this is ideal? I know by sight the people in the street, I know a couple enough to say hello to, but I’m not expected to be in and out of their homes. In an earthquake we’d know enough to know if someone was missing.

That’s neighbourly enough for me.

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Bothering the doctor

I’ve been watching a rather hilarious show, Very British Problems. Most of it is about avoiding people in a variety of situations.

One comedian had a great definition of her best friends: the ones who cancel on her. She maintains this is perfect because they keep in touch and intend to see one another but cancel so they don’t actually have to see each other.

Clearly I have a LOT of British DNA in me.

Another example: “I don’t like going to the doctor’s because I feel like I’m annoying them”. Ha! That’s me to a ‘T’.

I did go to the doctor on Friday though. I went because my taste buds had been seriously messed up after using a new toothpaste and the taste was taking a long time to come back. There’s little worse than chocolate that tastes like soap.

I decided to walk there and halfway I had to sit down on the ground because I felt like I was going to collapse. By the time I got to the surgery I was sweating, breathless and feeling dreadful.

That spun out into tests, and that was my day gone. The tests showed nothing much, which is good (not serious) and bad (no idea what’s going on). Conclusion: a virus. Thank god for viruses, they explain everything that doesn’t show up on a test.

It’s a few days later now and I’m still here, so all good. I don’t really know what’s going on but if I get worse I’ll be back to bother the doctor again.

Meanwhile, I’ve had an excuse (feeling poorly) to cancel any plans with friends this weekend.

Being alone with a friend, in a good way

Being alone with a friend sounds like either an oxymoron, or “friend” really means wanna-be partner. However, in this case, it’s neither.

Last weekend was the end of a long and and tiring week and I had reached the bottom of my battery. In an effort to recharge I spent most of Saturday in or on my bed trying to feel like doing something vaguely productive or interesting, and failing. Sunday was looking like it was heading the same way.

And then I got an offer I couldn’t refuse, from my friend and former colleague Ingrid.

Let me tell you a bit about her. We worked together for about a year, and we hit it off straight away. We worked really well together, swapping work back and forth and handing things off seamlessly. We knew we’d honed our craft when no one could tell the difference between our work.

Ingrid is far more artistic than me. She’s had a long history of design and craft, draws and paints well, makes all kinds of things, is a dab hand with power tools, and has a whole large room dedicated to and set up for making things.

One day we were discussing our idea of fun activities and I learned that she routinely packs her car with essentials of various kinds (varied according to the activity du jour) and drives somewhere with a view, preferably without too many people, sits in the back of her car and eats her chosen food and does her chosen activity – be that read, do a cryptic crossword, draw, paint, photograph, collect shells, knit, write, whatever.

I thought this was the coolest thing I’d heard. I immediately wondered why I’d never thought to do this as a regular thing.

Ingrid left work, deciding that 9-5 was not for her, so we arranged to see one another for Elevenses every week on my work-from-home day to keep in touch and just because that’s what you do with friends.

We missed the previous week’s Elevenses because I had something on, so instead she suggested we do something on Sunday. She proposed a car trip. How perfect.

We drove to brunch, then out to a nearby rocky bay she had recently discovered. We bought some cakes for afternoon tea, and parked on the foreshore to watch the waves and the birds. We went for a walk to collect shells and interesting things to draw (including two crab ‘skeletons’). We sat in the car and did two cryptic crosswords. Then we drove home. It was a perfect way to spend an afternoon.

Solo car picnics might be my new favourite thing.

Being alone with a friend is like being by yourself but better because you’re doing what you like doing but you’ve got someone there who enjoys it as much as you. You’re not at odds, one person feeling restless and bored (them) while the other (me) feels like they’re getting pressured to race around and Do Things just for the sake of it.

It was fun, relaxing and interesting, and I felt like I had Done Something with my weekend that had recharged me. A win all round.

I’m alone, I’m not lonely

Every so often, an article appears on line about loneliness, and many refer to the UCLA Loneliness Scale (here from an NIH article). The survey questions are careful to distinguish between ‘lonely’ and ‘alone’ and don’t treat them as synonyms, although I’ve seen variants of the survey that do confuse the two.

Lonely is a feeling; alone is a state. They may co-occur but there is nothing automatic about their co-occurrence. How lonely you feel hasn’t got much to do with how alone you are.

Although most people understand the difference between the two conditions when it’s pointed out to them, they routinely conflate them in daily life. If I am alone, people assume this is an undesirable state and take measures to ‘relieve’ my aloneness. This is of course kind-hearted of them – they believe they are relieving my suffering – except it’s not what I want.

I am aware that the health consequences of loneliness are serious and alarming (in one article I read, the equivalent of a 15-cigarettes-a-day habit). What bothers me is the leap from “x% of people are lonely” to “people are social animals and no-one should be alone because it’s bad for them”. Therefore, anyone who is alone should be forcibly socialised for the good of their health.

Except I’m not lonely: I’m alone and I’ve chosen to be alone because I enjoy being alone. Humans may be social creatures, but that doesn’t mean we all have to socialise all the time. For me, the consequences of forced socialisation have as harmful an impact as the consequences of loneliness: stress, fatigue, and physical symptoms like upset stomach.

I like sitting in a cafe on my own, enjoying the break from conversation and people.  At a party, I’d rather stand around the fringes and watch people than be part of a circle of people talking and laughing.

So in the nicest possible way: please leave me alone. You’d be doing me a favour.

Elections and choices

It was Election Day yesterday. I voted in the morning and in the evening kept half an eye on the results as they came in, although I didn’t wait up to see who won. There was likely to be some horse trading with minor parties to get a majority to govern and that’ll take a few days to resolve.

I was hoping for a change in government but it’s unlikely. I think it’s unhealthy for any one party to be in power too long. They get complacent and arrogant, and start believing their own hype. Although it gets messy at Election time and figuring out who won can take days if not weeks, the MMP system we use for voting does make for a far more interesting selection of candidates and wider representation of views.

All that representation means many more choices to make. It’s a lot of work to read up on parties’ policies and decide where you think money should come from and where and to whom it should go.

There’s been a bit of misinformation passing around, but nothing like the epidemic of ‘fake news’ (or as we tend to call it here – bald faced lies) seen in the last US election. It’s bad enough trying to decide between policies let alone trying to figure out if what you’re reading is true or not.

I’m not a hugely political person. I take an interest because work demands I maintain a level of awareness, and because I believe in the principle of democracy, which to me means being not just a voter but an informed one.

So I did my reading, made my choice, and instead of going to an election night party I stayed home nursing sore hands, elbows, and hips that have been giving me grief all week. I overdid it last weekend (travel on top of a heavy week of work) and I’ve been paying the price all week.

As an aside, this year marks 125 years since women got the vote here. We’re proud of the fact we were the first country in the world to give women the vote. My great grandmother was a signatory to the petition. It seems disrespectful not to vote.

Land visit

I just got home from a visit to the farm. I met with the farmer and drive around with him, discussing grass, cows, politics (he started it – our election is next week and water and farmers are hot topics), fencing and other suitably agricultural topics. He’s a nice man and clearly loves land and loves watching healthy animals grow.

The land is looking lovely, green and lush. The cows are happy and getting fat. The weather was sunny and much warmer than here, and it really was a glorious place to be.

I’ve pretty much decided where the house will go now, and I’ve discussed new fencing and planting the gullies with the farmer, who agrees it’s a good plan. So now I have to set various balls in motion.

But right now I need sleep. It’s a lot of driving, there and back in a weekend, and I was dead on my feet on Friday as it was.

A restorative sleep, then on with the planning.

Keeping things simple

My oldest friend Tracy is walking through Albania at the moment. She’s with a group and I’m not entirely sure where they’re headed or when they’ll get there, and I’m not even sure I could identify Albania on a map.

I’m following her on Instagram. She’s a good photographer, she posts frequently and it’s really fascinating to see what Albania looks like.

What strikes me in the photos is how beautiful the countryside is, and how old-world the life is. She has lots of photos of donkeys carting loads of hay, women and men looking like every peasant photo you’ve ever seen, horses and carts in the roads, and tiny stalls on the side of the road selling a handful of cucumbers, some grapes and a few tomatoes. It’s very picturesque, but it’s also real life for Albanian villagers.

I live about 10 minutes’ walk from the central city. I walked into town this morning to meet a friend for coffee, then decided to go shopping.

While walking home carrying my branded shopping bags, I got to thinking about the Albanians in Tracy’s photographs and about the purpose of life (as you do).

Something in those photos made me reflect on what life consists of, the myriad activities that constitute daily life for each of us. It’s not the economics of it that got me pondering (although I don’t know how you make enough to live on when your daily income derives from the sale of three cucumbers and a kilo of tomatoes, and your customers are whoever walks past your gate on a given day). It’s more to do with an engagement with the business of life.

What I saw when I looked at those photos was a life driven by ambitions different from mine. So much of my world is implicitly or explicitly about “getting ahead”, going up in the world, making it, keeping up with the Joneses and every other cliché you can think of. There’s not much room for simply enjoying life.

I’m not trying to romanticise the life of an Albanian peasant here. I’m pretty sure it’s hard work, uncertain and at times grim and depressing. Nor am I suggesting they enjoy their lives, struggling in the aftermath of communist rule. This is about me, not them.

But they are immersed in the activities of their daily life. I haven’t learnt how to be that immersed. I am always living in the future (or the past, when I get in those moods). It’s always about the next thing, what I need to do, to achieve, the goal to reach or the plan to make. I’ve read, and believed, too many productivity blogs and books.

I suspect this sense of frustration at feeling dissociated from one’s own life and therefore finding little joy in it is what drives people to embark on “Eat, Pray, Love” adventures. The Italians, the French, maybe the Albanians, all seem to know how to enjoy the day to day of life: meals, a glass of wine, dancing, talking, being with friends and family.

What if I’ve been doing it wrong all this time? I’ve got a house, my land, retirement savings, a good job, new shoes. What if all of that is beside the point?

Well, I’m quite sure it IS all beside the point. It’s nice, it’s comfortable, and it provides me the luxury of sitting round pondering the meaning of life. But it’s not the point of life. It’s a means to an end, and the point is surely happiness.

And the way to happiness? Not sure. But it’s not buying new shoes, nice though they are.