I couldn’t sleep. The clock said 5:30. Then my son stirred and I went in to see him. He went back to sleep. I didn’t. I considered sitting outside for a while. It’s too wet. It rained and rained last night. More rain.
I finished reading Steinbeck’s Winter of Our Discontent recently. It takes place in 1960. A different time. I can’t stop thinking about it. The story line is not particularly complex but the characters are so deeply drawn that the story is a deep one. Our hero leads a happy life, one of simplicity and ease but his family and others, and himself, point out how his family was once a great one in the town and how he once had a fortune. This leads him to make some choices to “get rich.” I figured, half way through, that the story would have one of two endings. Either he succeeds at getting rich and shows everyone that being a good guy can pay off, or he crashes and burns and we learn how only the ruthless can succeed.
Like life, the ending isn’t so simple. He does manage to overcome some challenges and find a way to increase his financial resources. He “gets rich.” The story, however, tangles with two big questions for me. What is really important in life? And what is the nature of morality? Before he began to make any changes to make his new fortune, our hero is a grocery clerk, the only one in the local store (remember this is 1960 and the interstate highway system that feeds today’s supermarkets is in its infancy), and he is happy, mostly. His relationships with his friends and neighbors are genuine and positive. Those become complicated and darker. He keeps secrets from his wife. His son, who already has the idea that one can make it in the world by cheating, sees that maybe hard work isn’t necessary after all.
The hero, Ethan Allen Hawley, has two teenaged children and a devoted and loving wife. I couldn’t help imagining my own life when my two children grow just slightly older. What will my relationship with those three most important people in my life be like? How will the choices I make affect them? What will I teach my children with the choices I make about work, money, love, friendship? Ethan makes some decisions that today would seem acceptable to most people, almost 50 years later, but he struggles with them so much he considers suicide. Can one get rich and maintain a true moral compass? Can one do business with someone and still remain friends? Why do we need to get rich anyway?
I guess part of the reason Ethan stands out for me is that he is a thinker. He really thinks about all the pieces of his life. He carefully considers how every decision, every act, will affect otehrs. When his world is the simple one of a grocery clerk, the answers are simple ones. Once he starts making big changes, his thinking becomes tangled. He still thinks a lot but it means lots of mental wrestling, rather than mental play. Things aren’t so simple. I guess I can relate to that. I tend to think a lot as well. If I were the one opening the grocery store, I can imagine myself, like Ethan, sermonizing to the canned goods. Talking aloud helps me think better, as it does for our hero.
I keep thinking now, about the book, about my own choices, about where I might be headed. I think about morality. What is good? How does one live the decent life? And what is that anyway? I am going away for a week with my family. I will have some time to ponder these questions. My children are awake now. Water still drips from the eaves. Time to make coffee. This day, at least, will be one filled with thought, but hopefully, no great choices to make. Drip drip, the rain falls. Then everything dries. And then, at a time no one can say, it will rain again.