The grandfather clock struck one as I read the final word in East of Eden, the solitary gong hanging in the air just like that final whisper on the page. Timshel. Everything seemed to stop.

An hour before, the stroke of twelve reverberated in my head, echoing itself beyond numerical recognition. I didn’t keep track of the numbers at the beginning, so at the end, they seemed everlasting.

My coffee grew cold and I drank the last bitter dredges. I felt in my heart something I’ve known for a lifetime in my head: thou mayest. Timshel. The ability to choose between right and wrong, truth and lies, good and bad. Conscience versus concupiscence. What we should do, versus the choice that may be easy at the moment. What is easy now may lead to personal destruction later on, through idleness or dishonesty or selfishness.

Timshel. I felt that word in my heart. I felt myself become a part of the glory of the choice.

“Death is at your doorstep, and it will steal your innocence but it will not steal your substance.” I’m not sure if the Mumford song is about the Steinbeck novel, or if I just found similarities between the two because of their sequentiality. I did that with Macbeth and “Viva la Vida” my freshman year of high school. This one is a lot more similar than that, though. More than a chronological coincidence. “As brothers we will stand, and we’ll hold your hand.”

It’s hitting hard. The choices, the brotherhood, the greatness, the mountains, the cold. I felt it all this year. It’s like a 3-minute, 600-page tribute to 2017. The year in review.

The year was punctuated by loss. Sorrow, felt in isolation, from losing my dad’s oldest brother, and from losing my childhood dog, who was more of a brother than a pet. The doldrums of losing ideas and dreams as time changed and focus shifted. The year that used cold as its bookends, and mountains as obstacles to face.

I’ve heard several friends and several news outlets refer to the year as a “garbage fire”. But again, there is a choice. What did we gain? What are the golden, burning embers that will rise from the ashes?

Despite the losses of the year, I know those embers burned. They came in the form of climbing mountains, roping calves, discovering new country and embracing the old, seeing how my family banded together during loss. The friendships cultivated, the cattle moved, the bison worked, the laughs over coffee in ranch trucks. Bundling up on chilly mornings, and the feel of the sun breaking over the mountains to warm my back and shine gold on the dew in my horse’s mane.

All the good in the small, seemingly-meaningless everyday tasks. All the good in the year’s larger blessings.

The dreams that seemed lost were re-aligning, until a new, grander plan could begin to take place. Embers that seemed dim flickered, then crackled back to life, taking flight. They lifted into the darkness, like the lanterns we launched into the frigid New Year’s Eve night, higher and higher until they were mistaken for stars.

Weeks later, in the Hancock building, I was pushing past surface thoughts of the last year’s memories, staring out at the city a thousand feet below. Zac Brown nailed it when he sang, “The city lights look like a country sky, like staring at the stars turned upside down.”

Maybe I’ve become jaded, but realizing the size of the universe, that every star is another sun and that our sun is just another star, seems juvenile now. It still rings true and remains a cornerstone for me, but it’s also become something of a crutch. When I’m in these situations, reflecting in solitude upon something much larger than myself, it’s become a basic foundation to begin. Unfortunately, I don’t often get very far past it. The foundation remains just that – a foundation, never built up further.

But now, it’s a springboard. The choice between basic and foundation is just that – a choice. Thou mayest. The choice between positivity and negativity, slothful ease and fruitful challenge. Steinbeck called free choice “a ladder to the stars”. With each choice to fight, to dive deeper into our own humanity, we climb another rung on the ladder of may or may not. We become greater.

It’s always about the hard way. The things you lean into and learn and gain from the experience. Facing things that leave a mark: Scarred hands and crooked fingers, evidence of the last year’s work laced across my knuckles. Glaring pinks and purples against suntanned skin, faded by winter. Choosing not to hide them in gloves or fold them in my lap. The frost creeping its way up the windows of this old house, focusing my attention on its fractal beauty and appreciating my vantage point.

Puffs of breath release into the bitter, biting air. The cold hurts my lungs, but it’s my favorite time of year. It’s so cold that you can’t help but be reminded that you’re alive, invigorated with the air’s freshness. Restored. Focused on the choice between the cold on the outside, and the warmth within. Watching warm breath mix with the crystalline chill in the air, making the choice. Valuing the warmth, seeing the good in cold.

It’s all perspective. Choosing joy over sorrow, choosing to see the greatness among the grit. The glimmering embers refusing to be buried by the ashes. Rising, warming the cold, becoming great.

The glory of the choice, the staircase to the stars. Thou mayest.

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“Drive east of Eden ’til we start to feel the west…” – Josh Ritter, Homecoming

Timshel – Mumford & Sons

Young & Jaded – Corb Lund

“I bet my mother’s proud of me for each scar upon my knuckles and each graze upon my knees.” – Ed Sheeran, Bibia Be Ye Ye

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