Dreadful Beauty

There’s more beauty in the truth, even if it’s a dreadful beauty.

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

I talked to my counselor about East of Eden, telling her how I am being so disciplined about not reading ahead. Seriously, I’m not even flipping a few pages ahead to see how small situations turn out. I’m reading one page at a time.

“Why did you used to read ahead?” she asked.

“The anxiety of not knowing was killing me,” I told her.

“Ah,” she said knowingly. “You struggle with regulating your emotions when you’re reading a book.”

“Only good books,” I told her.

Truthfully, if I don’t love or hate the characters, I don’t need to read ahead. It’s when I’m wrapped up in them that I feel this burning need-to-know.

My brother called me out on it. “That’s cheating,” he said, but then he went on, “Once I was reading a Stephen King book and I hated one of the characters so much that I didn’t think I could finish it, so I put the book down. About six months later, I picked it back up and finished.”

That’s basically what my counselor said, too. “When you feel those emotions rising,” she said, “put the book down and let your feelings settle.”

I’ve made it to page 485 of East of Eden using that technique. It’s slow going, but I’m being an honest reader.

And I love the book.

For so long, I have pushed my feelings aside. They’re like the handblown glass animals I used to keep on a shelf in my room when I was a kid. Occasionally, I would take them off the shelf — usually to dust — and handle them oh-so-carefully. Then I would gently place them back in the same spot they had been standing.

My feelings were too fragile to explore. What if they broke? What if I broke?

I remember one of my high school swimmers holding hours-old baby Laurel. “What if I break her?” she asked me.

“You won’t break her,” I said, knowing that holding my tiny baby wouldn’t harm either of them.

But then again, neither will sitting with strong emotions.

“It’s okay to cry,” my counselor told me early on as I blinked back tears when talking about my father.

“It’s okay to feel angry,” she said, when I told her about a terrible situation I had been in.

I just read the part in East of Eden where Lee tells his backstory. I closed the book and stared at it. It may be a day or two before I reopen it. The strong emotion button has been pushed.

The thing is Lee had known Adam Trask many years before he told him his story, and I had known the two of them for nearly 500 pages of reading. A trust had developed. It didn’t make the story easier. It did make it more beautiful — a dreadful beauty.

And I think that’s partly what I’m afraid of when reading intense books — the dreadfulness. I need to remember there’s a beauty there, too.

Truthfully, we are surrounded by dreadful beauty. Most of the time, we don’t even notice. Our eyes are unseeing and our hearts are unfeeling. Not out of callousness, but out of self-protected-ness, because it hurts to see and feel.

It hurts and yet it is beautiful.

East of Eden is teaching me.

The Beaches of Normandy — truly a dreadful beauty

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