Friday, October 19, 2012

Steinbeck and I have always been friends. We had a brief frosty period brought on by Grapes of Wrath, but overall, we are chums. This friendship has been reinforced this day.I just finished the biggest longest thing on my reading list. East of Eden by John Steinbeck ( who is a prime participator in my author schizophrenia, by the way) has officially been crossed off the list, four long years after its placement there. And this is a big ginormous deal, everybody.

When I came to North Carolina I made a specific bucket list for North Carolina. This is an ever-evolving animal, this list, because I keep readjusting my ideas about what I want to actually do with my life in general and my time here specifically, but the single thing that has not been questioned and reconsidered at three in the morning is that I want to finish my reading list while I am here. And this, my friends, was the first big effort to check stuff off that list.

As a result of this triumph against my own procrastination and the time sucker that is netflix, I feel alive. I feel like I just played sudoku with a pen. I feel like I just had the most productive day of my life. I feel really really good. My brain is awake and kicking and spitting out essay ideas from this fabulous and beautiful piece of literature. And I have to write about it right now or I will forget everything and going back over it will bring only halfhearted impressions that will never be able to adequately replace the fresh emotion of book discovery. So I thought I would type really fast instead of scribbling in my Jimmy book and invite you all to the party of lit analysis. Interested? If you aren't, stop reading and don't tell me. Here we go...

This book was first described and summarized as a retelling of the book of Genesis, replayed out by the generations of the Trask and Hamilton families in the Salinas Valley of California (where else, Steinbeck?) right before the first world war. I suppose that is the only way you could describe it in a book cover  without giving the whole thing away. But it really is a whole lot more than that.

- In a book where the generations "helplessly replay the story of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel" I find a lot of beautiful evidence that this book is, in fact, a sort of paradox where the characters do indeed play out the same fall and tragedy all over again but are at the same time a uniquely powerful testimony of the power of agency.

- I know a few feminist writers who would have a field day with all the unexpectable female characters here. The eve character? She's a murdering psychopath, y'all. All the other female characters barely even exist. There is only one female character who is a decent human being and is actually a person. She grows out of her natural manipulative nature into a wise and controlled woman of unbelievably deep perception. I like here so much I might name a child after her. "...For though I called another, Abra came." The rest of them though. Wowza. I want to write essays about it, and when I die I want to meet Steinbeck and ask him specifically to explain to me what was going on in his brain when he chose to present this view of women. Either that or go talk to McCuskey about it. Probably both.

- This is a fascinating view of the story of Cain and Abel. I have always thought of them as such black and white characters, as I suppose is common. Cain was  plain wicked, a murderer. Abel was straight up righteous, right? What if that isn't true? What if Cain was the realist and Abel was severely hindered in his abilities to  deal with the truth when it shatters the pretty pictures he has invented about all the world around him? What if Cain was wrong, but he didn't mean to kill his brother? What if he actually loved him? This is a picture of Cain and Abel which fascinates and frightens me, because I identify so much more with the Cain character even in all his badness and vindictive instincts and I don't really like the Abel character in spite of his lofty gonna-be-a-minister ideals. This alerts me to the danger that is in my own character of judging based on blacks and whites. It is easy to condemn Cain and vindicate Abel. But tell another story. Can I so easily do the same with Cal and Aron? I feel that I must not.

- Translations are vital and dangerous. One Hebrew verb, translated three different ways, can change a whole life.Thou shalt. Do Thou. Timshel. Thou mayest.

One of the best passages in the book which will demonstrate how beautiful this thing is, whilst not giving away too much of the plot: (Because the optimist in me hopes and believes that someone will decide to read this someday)

"Don't you see?" he cried. "The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in 'Thou shalt,' meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel- 'Thou mayest'- that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if 'Thou mayest'- it is also true that 'Thou mayest not.' Don't you see?"
      "Yes I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?"
"Ah!" said Lee. "I've wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and lives of innumerable people is important.....These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. The know that these sixteen verses  are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and succesful lives. But this- this is a ladder to climb to the stars."
   Adam said, "I don't know how you could cook and raise the boys and take care of me and still do all this."
   "Neither do I," said Lee. "But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing- maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed- because 'Thou mayest.'"

See? Do you see? The glory of the choice, as Lee says, is what makes a man a man, gives him stature with the gods. I read this part while I was sitting in the rain on my favorite rock in the middle of the stream at Ayr Mount. It was stormy and damp and there was no one around. I sat in solitude, nursing a bad mood, and suddenly stumbled upon one of those concepts that seems old, that you have always known, when really, you know that you have suddenly just felt the sacredness in it in a very new way. I left my rock in the middle of the river and got ready to go home. And while my body climbed up the bank to the path, my soul was coming down from some high mountain, clinging still to the unexpected shrine I had found there.

That, my friends, is why I read. It is also why I want to write. Words give me gifts. Or rather, they help me accept them. Those moments of holiness which are often inspired by books that change my life, sometimes come through my own self. And someday I will learn more fully how to transcribe such a thing and send it out to do what good it can. In the meantime, my Jimmy book is full of such things in raw form, and I am practicing, and learning to practice harder, because "Thou mayest".

Monday, October 15, 2012


Here in this adventure of self discovery which I embarked upon when I moved to the South, I am learning whole heaps. (aaaaaaaaaaaannd, sometimes I am absorbed in my mind processing the sheer amount of new stuff going on there that I get distractified and forget to blog about it. I suck. Sorry, siblings. Sorry parents. Sorry the two other people in the world who read this....)

One especially unexpected thing I have learned from this Carolina venture is that trips to Walmart often spark surprisingly strong emotional responses from me. I find that a whole lot of memories are wrapped up in this place. That's right. The superstore that is slowly taking over the world with minimum wage jobs and shameful amounts of planned obsolesence is now strewn about with sentimental value. Who have I become? 

You know what really bothers me about this? I came here expecting everything in my life to be completely different, and I planned and hoped that the one exception to this total new slate would be the Church. It's the same gospel everywhere, right? Wherever you are, there is a ward or a branch. You move. You find your ward. You belong there. This is a unique and wonderful thing about the organization of the gospel! It will be an underlying coloration transferred from my old life to an otherwise new canvas! This is the only possible thing that could posess such magical qualities of over-arching life sameness, I told myself!

I was wrong. And I feel slightly.... what's the word?  Yucked. There is exactly one other thing here in this totally new place which is exactly the same but with a new building. And that one thing is Walmart.

It was hard to feel hope for myself and humanity when I realized this. I feel torn when I go there, not only the regular feelings of tearing that come from the conflict between the fact that they are destroying the world and the fact that shampoo is super cheaper. This was the conflict that comes from my deep rooted distasteful feelings about Walmart as an institution and my feelings of sudden comfort when I find another place I can walk into and find anything, often encountering sudden memories on the way.

Did you all know that I spent a lot of time at Walmart when I lived in Logan? These days, I shop with my sister in the middle of the night, frequently. And it's this thing now. We shop, I tell stories about walking around my with my roommates playing the "Do you really need that?" game, and the time Katie and I both held one of Shane's hands around Walmart cause we had to outdo ourselves at the awkward game, or the time(s) I laid in my car in the parking lot with my music turned up way too loud as a coping mechanism for stress. I cannot suppress the nostalgia which washes over me when I walk down the juice aisle and think of Stephanie and I taking turns at choosing flavors, and I love love love the amount of endorphins that are realeased to this day when I walk past the berry colossal crunch and banana split ice cream that kept all of us in Apartment 27 alive and well. The peanut butter ice cream makes me think of Stephanie and Lance and the time we ate a lot of that stuff sitting on the floor of our living room passing the carton around with a single spoon. I love that they still have displays of ninety nine cent french bread and how it was a commandment of the gospel according to amy that you can't not buy ninety nine cent french bread. There are even reminders of stress so awful I thought I would crack and fail at school and work and life, none of which happened. And the reminder is actually uplifting. Like when I walk past the tea and think of that time I was really sick in week twelve of the semester with the nastiest part of the work week looming ahead, but instead of sleeping I was at walmart in the middle of the night on the phone with my mom asking which teas are allowed cause I wasn't coherent enough to remember. Seeing as how I survived, this has become a good memory.

Walking around Walmart is now a concentrated memory injector. So much so that last week when Daxx was here visiting and we went to Walmart to buy Mountain Dew we spent an hour and a half strolling around telling stories, and he commented on how Walmart is an oddly good place to learn about someone. 

I don't know if this is good or bad. All I know is I feel like holding up some permanent awkward hands when I realize that I just made a comparison between the Church and Walmart on the internet in any small way. ("I feel like I just found out my favorite love song was written about a sandwich!")