Six Life Lessons from Jane Austen

I’ve loved Jane Austen’s works since I first received “Emma” as a Christmas gift more than 20 years ago. But I only recently began reading essays and books on why we love her stories so much 200 years later, and what they mean to us on a personal level, beyond the basic lit class critiques.

I just finished reading “A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter” by William Deresiewicz. The author begins the book by explaining how when he began graduate school, he had never even glanced at one of Austen’s novels because he felt above them, and above her style. But when he had to read “Emma” in one professor’s class on 19th century English literature, his view of Austen, and himself, started to change.

Deresiewicz reads and rereads all six of Austen’s novels over the course of a few years of graduate school and even incudes a chapter in his dissertation. But even more important than learning to like Jane Austen and all of her heroines, he learned more about life, love, and literature than he ever imagined.

Although I thought the author could be a bit rambling and repetitive, each of the six core lessons he pulled from Austen’s works resonated with me, and I found they applied in my own life. They are as follows:

“Emma”

Many think the plot of one of Austen’s most popular novels, frequently translated into film, is lacking. But the author latches on to Austen’s ultimate goal to get people to pay attention to the little stories and happenings of the people in our lives, no matter how small and ordinary they may be.

Deresiewicz says, “She understood that what fills our days should fill our hearts, and what fills our hearts should fill our novels.” Instead of just focusing on the big milestones and events and drama, Austen encourages us to remember the small stuff and to talk about it, perhaps again and again, if that is what brings us closer to our community.

“To pay attention to ‘minute particulars’ is to notice your life as it passes, before it passes,” says the author, and of Emma, her father, and their best friends. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always valued the little things like snuggling on the couch with coffee and my dogs, frequent chats by phone with my parents, or hearing the “minute particulars” of small town life from my family in Louisiana.

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Love actually is…

petit fours

Valentine’s Day is a “holiday” that I don’t have strong feelings for either way – it’s nice if acknowledged when I have a significant other, and if I’m single, I don’t really spend time thinking about it.

But love…that’s another story. Although I will happily accept (and send) cards, flowers, chocolates and other gifts as an expression of affection, I’m much more about those displays, and more, being spread throughout the year.

For me, expressions of love come in many forms, and most often, they are not grand gestures or public declarations waiting to be “liked” and shared, they are not meant to evoke envy or shame, and they are not meant to be one-upped or outdone.

So, where does that leave us? Love is romantic, friendly, passionate, tender, devoted, nurturing, familiar, familial, respectful, and cherished. It’s seen and unseen, subtle and straightforward.

Love actually is…

…a letter from a friend you haven’t seen in years.

…a freshly roasted cup of coffee from Dad, and an extra $20 from Mom.

…an adorable pair of corgis waiting to greet me at my bedroom door each morning.

…a friend sending you a surprise gift that is “so you” just because.

…a long-time mentor encouraging you to reach your full potential.

… anytime anyone has shown me they love me for who I am. My parents always let me march to my own drum beat. That’s love.  – Leslie F

….a handwritten note — whether it’s a Post-It on the mirror, a note in my lunchbox, a thank you card, a love letter. I’ve received them all over the years, and the more thoughtful and heartfelt the sentiment, the more loved I feel.  – Julia R

… my husband, performing his nighttime duty as human blanket as he spoons me to sleep.  – Patti N

…when I found out I was pregnant with #1 on my birthday and #2 on Christmas. – Jessica K

… the first time Madeline said “I love you mommy.” We were on her bedroom floor lying on our belly reading “Olivia.” We finished the book and she said it. I’m in tears remembering the moment.  – Sarah D

…the first Valentine’s Day after a bad breakup, a friend who knew how much I was dreading the day sent me a very early morning text to wish my a happy Valentine’s day and that my friends all loved me.  – Sally-Anne K

What does love mean to you?

Here’s to love, fulfilled

Photo credit: yokohama.progressionstudios.com
Photo credit: yokohama.progressionstudios.com

At the beginning of the year, I gave a toast to love in 2013. Love of family, of friends, of my career, of me, and, not to be left out, romantic love. Halfway through the year, I’m drowning in love, overwhelmed in all directions by it. Some of it has been tough love, some of it deliriously happy, some of it sweet, and a lot of it confusing. My parents, my friends, and my colleagues have all played a big role in supporting me and loving me, and for that, I thank you.

When I began the year, I knew some changes would be coming in my life, but I wasn’t quite sure how it would play out. I knew I would be leaving DC, but I didn’t know when. I knew I would be changing career paths, but I wasn’t sure how. I knew I would be leaving friends and making new ones, and that was both sad and exciting. What I definitely wasn’t sure of though, was where the romance would come in. I felt I had hit a roadblock in that department, and my impending move made it even more of a challenge. It didn’t seem to make sense to try to date in DC at that point, but it would be perhaps months before I was settled into a new area and meeting new people. I was pretty sure that my romantic life would just be dormant for awhile, and that the love in my life would be filled in other ways.

But life has a funny way of throwing curveballs when you don’t expect it. Spring was wedding season for me, and right in the middle of celebrating the nuptials of a close friend, a chance connection with someone I didn’t even see coming bloomed, and suddenly, I was like, now what?!

All the reasons not to start a relationship with someone when I was moving across the country in two months stared me in the face: it would be hard, time was short, I didn’t want to do long distance again, we just met, I have no idea what I’m doing in a few months, etc. But there was no denying that we enjoyed spending time together and felt an intense connection that we wanted to keep going, even if it may end just a few months later. We weren’t the same people we had been a few years ago in our previous relationships, and as adults, we decided to just go with it and see where life and love took us for the ride.

Two months go by quickly, especially when you’re in love. It had been more than three years since I had felt loved in that way, or loved back. It was happy, it was simple, it was tender, it was comfortable, it was without drama or egos, and it was exactly what we wanted and needed. It caught me off guard at first, to be treated the way he treated me, with such affection and consideration. It wasn’t flowers and fancy dinners and adventures, but it was words and touch, and all heart. Not everyone gets to experience that – no matter how old you are.

The days inched closer to me leaving and I stressed about what to do. Should we give it a shot and see what happens? Should we end it and say we had a great time? In the end, we said “see you later” instead of goodbye and decided to try it out, even if for a few months, until we could check in and figure out next steps together. We talked, we texted, we wrote, we missed each other.

And again, life does what it will.

After a month apart, the magic had begun to fade, as had our feelings, and the distance had started to do its damage. No amount of communications or respect for each other can beat out what our hearts tell us, no matter how much we try. It’s not about rights or wrongs, or one person or the other. Sometimes, it’s simply time, distance, circumstances, and where we are in life that shapes our decisions and our feelings. And as adults who cared (and still do) very deeply for each other, we knew that it wasn’t working, as much as we didn’t want to admit it.

Who is to say that it would have worked if I hadn’t moved? Or if we had met earlier and had more time together as a couple? It may not have, or it may have, but we can’t dwell on the what ifs. What we can cherish and remember is the time we did have together, and what life will bring us in the future, whatever that may be. I don’t regret for a single second that I was able to experience love again, even if for just a short time. I don’t regret meeting someone that made me very happy in a time of transition, in a time of anxiety, a time when I was leaving so many things and people I loved behind and trusting myself to a new adventure and a lot of unknowns.

We can’t know where our hearts will lead us – sometimes it’s across the country or the world, sometimes it’s to different people than we imagined. I’m not a strong believer in fate or destiny, but I do believe that people come across our path for a reason, and their time may be long or short, but their impact may last forever. That’s how I feel about this experience.

So, with much in store this year, here’s to more love, from wherever it may come. And thank you, for loving me, and giving me the chance to love again.

2013: Here’s to love

Love at midnight
Love at midnight

You blink and you miss it… 2012 is gone, and a new year is here. When I look at what others are saying about 2012, I notice a lot of things like “Good riddance,” and “2012 wasn’t good.” There were some moments in 2012 that weren’t particularly happy or positive, but what year has ever been only good things? The bad and the sad come with the good, this we know. For every destructive storm, there are people that show up to help out, together. For every person that left us too soon, there is a welcome addition to a family. It doesn’t mean that these moments of pain are replaced or easier to bear, but it’s a reminder that life can bring just as much joy as we let it, despite hard times.

So how do we start 2013 with an eye towards joy and fortune? How do we make sure that we’re loving as hard as we can, and living as hard as we can? In the past, my resolutions have been themed around mantras like “No Excuses” and bringing more happy into my life. This year, it’s all about love. Not just in the romantic sense, but in every sense of the word. What do I mean? Here’s a taste:

  • Love my current friends in the way that they deserve, and love making new friends.
  • Love my family for all that they are, no matter our past, no matter our differences. Love every moment I have with them.
  • Love my job and my team, and change paths if I don’t feel it.
  • Love my city and all that it has to offer.
  • Love the places I travel to, and the people I travel with.
  • Love my hobbies and passions, and if they don’t make me happy, find something new to love.
  • Love myself — my flaws, my successes, my failures, my quirks, my body, my dreams, my growth.
  • Love what the future holds, wherever it brings me, whatever I may do — and know that it will all fall into place.
  • Fall in love and be loved back.

And what are some other folks resolving to do? A sampling from those who answered my question on Facebook and Twitter below; add yours in the comments!

-spending/focusing more of my time and money on experiences than material things.

My sister adopted a policy of only making fun, achievable, non-self-pounitive resolutions, like “get more manicures.”

-Maybe I should try picking one thing, just ONE THING, throwing all my energy and brainpower behind it, and then letting the other chips fall where they may. So, to that end, my goal for 2013 (the year, not coincidentally, I turn 30) is to get published. Be it a short story in a journal, or a magazine article, or an agent signing, anything will count. The aim is to be fearless and take the next huge step toward my writing dreams.