I’ve been home a lot lately. I’m guessing most of you have been as well.
For the first time in probably forever, I have nowhere to be but right here. I have no plans but to remain at home. And in the vacuum left by all my canceled plans, I suddenly have more mental space to notice a host of little things that I usually miss. Tiny things, trivial things. Things not worth writing about.
Or are they?
In a way, my life these days resembles a Jane Austen novel: lots of time at home, not a lot of excitement. In Austen’s novels there are a lot of conversations over tea, lots of small-town gossip, lots of young women dealing with family drama. There’s very little “action” pushing the story along, at least not the kind of action we’ve grown to expect from books and movies.
It’s easy to blame the slow pace of Austen’s novels on their age: her last novel, Persuasion, is over two hundred years old. And it’s easy to conclude that “old books” like Austen’s are just dull, boring and irrelevant.
Here’s the thing, though: Austen’s original audience viewed them exactly the same way. And that’s exactly what makes them so brilliant.
Drama? Or reality?
Most of the novels being written in Austen’s day were filled to overflowing with melodramatic action. There were a lot of spooky castles, supernatural threats, and helpless young maidens fainting from the intensity of their angst. Nothing about these stories was even remotely believable—and that’s exactly why people read them. People then—like people now—liked to read about wildly improbable events that were far more exciting than anything they would ever experience in their own lives.
And then comes Austen, with her novels about regular, everyday life.
It’s no accident that her stories are so prosaic, so completely believable. Her novels are dramatically different from everything else being written at the time because they contain so little drama—and the contrast is so great that it’s clear she chose to write this way very deliberately.
Austen herself knew that she would probably make more money and be much more popular if she wrote a dramatic adventure story. Such a story “might be much more to the purpose of Profit or Popularity, than such pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages as I deal in,” she wrote in a letter.
So why not write the dramatic adventure? Why focus on everyday home life the way she did?
The things we overlook…
By eliminating all the big, noisy events that usually absorb our interest when we read novels…Austen was asking us to pay attention to the things we usually miss or don’t accord enough esteem, in novels or in life.William Deresiewicz, A Jane Austen Education
Our lives are usually not made up of grand, exciting events. Sure, exciting things happen from time to time, but the vast majority of our time is spent doing small things that seem superficial and unimportant—cooking, cleaning, going to work, just doing what needs to be done day in and day out.
It’s boring, we think. It’s not worth talking about, much less writing about, the trivial little things we do from day to day.
But here’s the question: can something really be unimportant if it’s the stuff our life is made up of?
…and the things that matter
[Austen] understood that what fills our days should fill our hearts, and what fills our hearts should fill our novels.William Deresiewicz, A Jane Austen Education
In the unexpected whitespace of my now-empty schedule, I’ve started to notice all sorts of little things. Things like how comforting it is to make a pot of chili and a sit down and enjoy it with someone I love. Things like how much easier it is to drink enough water when you add a couple of lemon slices to your glass in the morning. Things like how much better I focus when I light a candle on my desk while I’m working.
These things are trivial, we think. Unimportant. Insignificant.
But consider this: these little, unimportant things are the very things that make up our lives. Most of our happiness comes from little pleasures—a cup of tea, a good meal—and our annoyances, likewise, arise from tiny inconveniences we confront throughout the day. Our relationships are shaped not so much by grand bonding experiences as by the little moments of connection—moments when we share a meal together, even if the conversation isn’t anything particularly special or profound; when we give a hug in passing; when we do an act of kindness, even one that seems insignificant at the time.
Now there are no events to distract me, no outings to fill my time, I notice at the end of the day that it is the adding up of all these little things that makes me feel I have had a good day. In the end, it is small, everyday things that really matter after all.
I don’t know what your days look like right now. Maybe you’re spending all day cooking and cleaning and keeping up with children. Maybe you’re working, whether from home or at your workplace, and the tasks you’re doing seem insignificant when placed next to all the big, noisy news stories we’re bombarded with every day. Maybe you’re home alone most of the time and you’re bored by how little there is to do when you can’t leave your house.
No matter what your days hold, no matter how dull or mundane it feels, know this: this is your life. These little, seemingly insignificant things matter because they are what fills your time and, therefore, what fills your life.
Can I offer a suggestion? Instead of resenting the tasks you’re called on to do today—instead of viewing them as drudgery, as trivial or unimportant—take a moment to notice them, to pay attention, to see them for what they are: what fills your life.
This week, I’m choosing to value the seemingly mundane things that fill my day, to see them instead as the building blocks that make up my life. Instead of rushing through tasks like preparing meals and cleaning my home, I’m choosing to slow down enough to enjoy the process. Instead of manufacturing grand projects to fill my “quarantine bucket list,” I’m choosing to delight in days made up of little things which are not, despite appearances, unimportant after all.
These are the things that fill our days. Let’s let them also fill our hearts.
What fills your days right now? How can you delight in those things? Share your thoughts in the comments!