Thinking Makes It So: Waking up under the fifth blanket

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By Kelly LeVan

It’s chilly in our bedroom, a problem with the heating circulation in the house. I wake up each morning unwilling to stick a limb out from beneath our four blankets or take that shivery run toward the toilet.Warmer days seem to lift me out of bed but on these dark winter ones, I stay huddled, click on the lamp and read. This past weekend, covers pulled over my chin, I finished John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden.”A week later, I still want to hug the book to my chest like it, too, offers heat.What a week it’s been.I watched football. I took ballet classes. I paginated newspapers. I do all these things every week. But after finishing a truly great book, a person absorbs some of the greatness and, especially right afterward, feels the thrill of those closing lines like an exclamation point after every ordinary thought, like a refresh button clicked during every mundane experience.Life is now Steinbeckian.It’s all because of “timshel.”The word, Steinbeck writes, is the original Hebrew verb in the Bible’s Cain and Abel story. It implies that not that Cain “will” or “should” conquer sin, but that he may.“ ‘Thou mayest’ee makes a man great ee 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,” says one of the characters, a Chinese servant named Lee. “He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”Whether in Hebrew or English, “thou mayest” recurs over and over as the characters fret and dance from cowardliness to calamity to dignified courage. Steinbeck does not let it go. He seems to understand that his readers – including me – need timshel pelted into our skulls.It’s too easy to forget, as we commit ourselves to one task after another, that each moment represents a decision – we may say yes or no, regardless of what we said last time.Steinbeck’s hardly alone in his reminders. Henry David Thoreau in “Walden Pond,” George Orwell in “1984,” Viktor Frankl in “Man’s Search For Meaning” and Yann Martel in “The Life of Pi,” among many others, each encourage us to “live deliberately,” as Thoreau writes.Even movies like “Vanilla Sky” and “Fight Club” push us to really choose whether we are engaged in life or detached, strong or pitiful, happy or dejected.The idea has survived the ages. An old English proverb tells us “when there’s a will, there’s a way, and today’s bestselling motivational speakers continue to expound the idea.“Be miserable. Or motivate yourself. Whatever has to be done, it's always your choice,” writes Wayne Dyer, author of such titles as “The Power of Intention” and “10 Secrets for Success and Inner Peace.”I don’t think Steinbeck, writing in the 1950s, figured out anything new – nor do I think he aimed to.“All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil,” Steinbeck writes.The difference with “East of Eden,” as he said once in a discussion of the book, is that “nothing is held back here.”His characters do some horrible things, as awful as what Cain does to Abel.We also see them at their most commonplace: digging wells, buying homes, sewing dresses, celebrating birthdays.These events don’t offer the dramatic choices of, say, “shall I kill my brother?” but they do provide settings for profound conversations, making a smart decision for one’s family or helping people laugh.These events, because they happen so often, define us. They show who we are.We are the neighbor who turns small stories into something worth coming out to listen to. We are the son who didn’t love his father. We are the husband who sees his wife not as she acts, but as he expects. We are the wife, unable to believe in anything but weakness and greed.We may be good or evil, every day.But first, we have to throw back that down comforter and get going.

•E-mail Kelly your 10 secrets for inner peace at laeditor@lamonitor.com.