by Margaret Arney, a member of the Growing Black Men of Milwaukee giving circle
This summer I picked up War and Peace to read again. I felt embarrassed at my nerdy choice for beach reading when asked about it. The truth is that in times of transition in my life, I like to give my brain a task to keep it busy – a big, slow European novel to absorb the extra thoughts spinning around in my head. This past spring, my church went through a significant change – a new pastor, selling our worship space and becoming a much smaller community. I found myself seeking solace in a familiar Big Slow European Novel. BSENs have been therapy for me since I was in college.
During my pregnancy, I read the complete works of Jane Austen (in one volume) all the way through. I read the novels in order, then one by one, and then in order again. The problems of those long-ago privileged English women were at a safe distance, yet I could identify with them and follow them through the arc of their stories to happy endings.
I find that BSEN therapy only works with writers that evoke the feeling of being right there in the moment with their characters. The people and places come alive and I step into their world. I find this gift with Tolstoy. I feel like I am living with the Rostov family whose darling daughter Natasha is full of life and is making the transition from little girl to woman. It amazes me that Leo Tolstoy, an aristocratic Count from 17th century Russia, knew enough about the inner workings of a girl blossoming into womanhood to keep my attention for more than 1,000 pages.
The first time I read the book I skipped over most of the “war” chapters because they were either about men blowing each other up or Tolstoy’s thoughts about the nature of history. That was too much work for my brain. The intense level of vocabulary, the thousands of Russian names and the many different plot lines in the “peace” sections were enough for me. This time around I am reading the “war” sections with more patience. I appreciate his perspective on how the individual actions collectively become the big picture of geo-politics. As my mind opens to a deeper understanding of Tolstoy’s world, I’m gaining perspective on the current Presidential race and on the shifts in world politics. I can see and feel that we are all involved in the great arc of history, and that our choices are both the most important factors in our lives and also a tiny piece of the collective reality.
War and Peace is fulfilling its therapeutic role for me this summer. The book is so dense that it is giving me the pleasant sense of reading something new (because I skipped or forgot whole sections from the first time around) and the familiarity of knowing what happens to at key points in the story.
As my spiritual home is taking it new shape, I am feeling relaxed, renewed and ready for a new chapter. Revisiting War and Peace has been a part of the process.
I wish you all peace and blessings in your own summer journeys, in books and in life.