For the last week and a half, I’ve mostly been away from the internet. I like to do this sometimes, especially when I’m traveling or working on a large writing project. In this case, it was both–a book proposal due at the end of the month and a trip back home to attend an awesome conference for the internet-based radio station that hosts my podcast. The whole trip was a wonderful mix of visiting familiar friends and family, networking with new colleagues, and writing.
On the (long) bus and train ride from Toronto to Wisconsin, I finished re-reading Anna Karenina, which I started all the way back during Lent and only now finished.
But my belated conclusion of the novel was fitting in several ways.
First, it meant I got to read the conclusion of the novel while sitting on a train–and if you know anything about Anna Karenina, you will know why this gave me goosebumps (promptly before falling asleep book in hand, because Quiet Cars on Amtrak trains are one of the best, most relaxing transportational inventions I know of!)
More importantly, I got to read the last pages on my native territory.
This basically amounts to what Oprah would call a “full circle moment,” because this was where I read the novel the first time, the summer before I entered graduate school. Like a perfect bookend, I found myself finishing the novel the first summer after graduate school–nearly nine years to the day after finishing it the first time.
In the meantime, I’ve completed two advanced degrees in two separate disciplines, I’ve moved across the US once and from there to two different countries, I’ve made a major religious conversion, gotten married to someone of a vastly different cultural background than my own, and I’ve started my own business. In short, it’s been a decade of MLCs (Major Life Changes).
I wasn’t sure how it would go, reading Anna a second time around (Yes, we’re on a first-name basis by now). The first time, I loved it. It felt so real, so familiar, so relevant. I always looked back on the novel as though it were an old, familiar friend that I could return to at any time.
But with all these changes, I wondered if maybe it would be awkward. I wondered if we were the type of friends who could pick up right where we left off, or the kind that spends their time constantly sipping from their water glasses to mask the lack of flowing conversation.
Paul Coelho once said, “I’m someone who is constantly trying to understand my place in the world, and literature is the best way that I found in order to see myself.” Like holding up a mirror, Anna Karenina has always been one of those novels that allows me to see myself.
The first time I read it, I saw myself most in the character of Levin. A highly educated landowner (and avowed atheist until the very last pages), Levin spends much of the novel basically disgruntled by the concerns of his intellectual peers: politics, science, intellectual pursuits etc. Instead, he gravitates towards the simplicity of agriculture, of bringing bounty from the land, and the rich family life he cultivates in the country with his wife, far from the grasp of urban life that seems to spoil the marriages of everyone they know. It is this appreciation for the simple gifts of life that softens Levin’s soul by the end of the novel. I saw myself in Levin because I hoped graduate school–with all its intellectual demands–would not turn me into someone who was too high and lofty to appreciate the tiny beauties life has to offer.
Now that graduate school is behind me, I see I have more in common with Levin than before. Academia did not harden me to the softer, quieter joys of life: family, friends, cultivating beauty and simplicity. In fact, I think it was the ability to maintain my appreciation for these joys that helped me eventually to see that academia and I were not going to work out long-term. For me, it was too much solitude, too much laying aside of my relationships and self to fit the mold of something I wasn’t.
Choosing to embark on my own path–editing, writing, consulting–was akin to Levin returning to his land, his peasants, and giving himself permission to just be. I find beauty here, and connection. I find freedom in the patchwork quilt of diverse clients and projects and people I encounter. I’d still much rather have an actual farm to manage (yet another character trait I share with Levin) but… urban sprawl. For now, my work is my farm. And for now, it is beautiful.
It’s not often one has the experience of reading a novel that feels so near and immediate to one’s own life. It’s even less common that the same novel will continue to speak to one’s circumstances nearly a decade later, after numerous changes in lifestyle and geographic location.
Have you ever read a novel that felt like home?