[dropcap]I[/dropcap] sat down to work on my commentary piece for National Road Magazine the other day. I can’t tell you which day it was because I’ve been traveling a lot, I’ve been sick and there was that turkey holiday I spent with my family. Usually I write (type) on my Surface Pro, but for some reason I chose to use the crappy old laptop we have sitting on a makeshift desk in our living room. A Christmas movie was playing in the background. It wasn’t Christmas Vacation so I wasn’t paying attention.
Sometime a few weeks ago I read an interview with Stephen King about how he tried to isolate himself for a time as a writer. All that inspiration went right out the window, and he claimed it was his toughest time churning anything out. Wheeler put me on the publication schedule as the last “commentary” piece in December for the magazine, and I couldn’t come up with any ideas. So I guess I thought sitting downstairs surrounded by noise and Christmas lights would spark something creative.
I turned to Alia. “I feel like this is a lot of pressure, sort of wrapping up the year.”
Looking up from her phone she said, “I think you’re taking this a little too seriously.”
“Maybe,” I shrugged. I leaned back in my chair and sipped my coffee while I watched the cursor on the computer screen blink in and out of existence.
“What’s it supposed to be about?”
“It’s a commentary piece.”
“What does that mean?”
“You know, commentary. Like that last piece I did about Remender.”
“Oh,” said Alia. “Well it’s not like there isn’t enough going on. And you’re the last person to not have a comment about any of it.”
I nearly spit out my coffee laughing. “You have a point.” Then, after a sigh, “It’s hard to be positive about any of that though. I don’t want to submit something that’s, I don’t know, not hopeful.”
Shaking her head she said, “Don’t know what to tell you, love.” Then she went back to scrolling through god-knows-what on her phone.
I brushed my hand over my now somewhat longer beard, trying to think. Alia was right, I am full of comments. I’m just not always sure they’re comments people want to hear. Particularly in a national social climate where the air is so tense one can hardly walk through it. My frustration, though not audible, must have been quite visible.
“Throw something out about the year in general. You’re always talking about how this year was supposed to be a year of new beginnings,” Alia offered.
I laughed before I said, “Yeah, that’ll be great. Let’s talk about numerology and metaphysics. Because that’s exactly what West Central Indiana is thinking about at Christmas-time. Don’t you think it’s a little off the wall?”
“And celebrating the birth of a guy 2,000 years ago who rose from the dead to save us all isn’t?”
I raised an eyebrow. “You have another point.”
“Just write what you want, Wheeler will tell you if he doesn’t want to print it. Be like Stan Lee, what have you got to lose?”
“Stan Lee is an asshole who steals other people’s work, for starters. And he was trying to quit his job when he created The Fantastic Four. This isn’t even a job to quit.”
“Also a good point.”
“It’s just that,” I hesitated, “I want the year to go out on a good note. I want to have a positive commentary.”
Alia thought for a moment. “You know just about everything you write has a positive spin to it. You can’t be positive all the time.” An ornament fell off the Christmas tree and Alia leaned forward to look. “Hey, stupid cat, stay away from the tree!” Our orange cat scrambled and ran into the kitchen.
Once again, Alia was right. As much as we all seemed to be ready for 2016 to be over, I couldn’t say that 2017 has been a whole lot of fun. I’ve all but given up on watching any kind of news because it’s surpassed frustrating. Now it’s just infuriating. I looked down at the desk and sitting near the computer was a copy of John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel. It’s the collection of diary entries and letters that he kept while writing East of Eden.
Steinbeck was quoted saying about East of Eden, “It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years.” He further claimed: “I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.”
I thumbed through the pages of Journal of a Novel, stopping at random to read some of the entries. It’s difficult to read front to back, but fun to stop in and “visit” from time to time. One of my favorite entries is Steinbeck writing about repairs that need to be completed around his home. He explains that it would be easy to hire someone to do it all for him, which would give him more time to spend on writing. But, he says, he’s never believed in hiring someone to do a job he could do just as poorly himself and save a little money in the process.
If this truly was supposed to be a year of new beginnings, and everything we practiced up to this point was meant to prepare us for what is to come, then maybe a holistic exegesis is just the thing we need. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to stop practicing and finally get in the game.
That entry always makes me smile because it sounds just like me. It’s the quote about Eden that really gets me, though. Steinbeck believed everything he had done prior to his most ambitious work was just practice. Practice is just repetition, really. And for a book that is on its surface a modern retelling of the story of Cain and Abel, I find some humor there.
The story of Cain and Abel is supposed to teach us the difference between right and wrong. The power of good and its ability to overcome evil. The dangers of evil, and its ability to outwit good. It’s a tale that grants a lot of credit to the grand, unseen forces at work in the universe which leaves one to think the characters are without fault, because they are influenced by providence. Steinbeck, through conversation between his characters examines that very point. There is a long dialogue in Eden where several verses in the Book of Genesis are examined. From these verses, multiple translations have derived but fall into two categories. God either commands humanity to conquer sin, or promises that humanity will conquer sin. Eventually the examination boils down to the appropriate translation of a single word.
The Hebrew word, timshel, means “thou mayest.” After Samuel describes the word’s inference, Lee decries:
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?
Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.
In this third party exegesis, Steinbeck delves into the story of the first betrayal, the first murder, the first sin, according to biblical record. The conclusion is quite the opposite from the most often accepted version in that it is not divine planning that causes decisions to be made one way or the other, it is our own personal choice.
I sipped my coffee at my makeshift desk wondering what application this could possibly have on the last twelve months. As a person, in brief reflection, I was quite proud of the choices I’d made in the last year. Where it would have been very tempting to opt for the easy route and allow anger or frustration to rule my process, for the most part, I thought, I decided to pause so that I could arrive at a more sound conclusion using as many pieces of information as I had at my disposal before sharing my commentary.
As a country, though… Well, I don’t know. It would be curious to know what an exegesis of the year 2017 might reveal if one were to examine history, not based on interpretation, but on original intent. If this truly was supposed to be a year of new beginnings, and everything we practiced up to this point was meant to prepare us for what is to come, then maybe a holistic exegesis is just the thing we need. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to stop practicing and finally get in the game. Because if we realize, as a collective, that we are on the cusp of our greatest work and have the ability to command our existence, that glittering instrument of the human soul can never be destroyed. It will never be overcome because, thou mayst.
“Hey, are you almost done?” asked Alia.
“Yeah, I think so. Why?”
“Christmas Vacation is on.”
 I found that quote on Wikipedia. Yes, I used Wikipedia. I’m not a journalist. Jesus, cut me a break.
Christian Shuck is a Greencastle native and Hope College alumnus who works in higher education as a major gift officer. Besides his contributions here, he also writes for his own blog cmshuckstories.com. He currently lives in Terre Haute.[/author]