Friday, March 18, 2011

happy birthday, john updike

I suppose it is strange to miss someone you have never met and to actually feel a little sweep of loneliness at the thought that this unmet person is not experiencing this weather, hearing these current events, just existing as part of this world with you, but that is how I feel about John Updike. I don't love all his books (I have actually only read a small handful), but his poetry and short stories are among my favorite.

Yesterday my dad helped me transfer a lovely dresser that my mom's dad had built for my uncle probably 50 years ago. Because it was hand-made and therefore the drawers could not be interchanged, each drawer had someone's (Papa's, probably) handwritten instruction as to which chest the drawer belonged (he had built three identical) and in which order it belonged. "Philip #2."

I liked that Papa could speak to me across time, though he never meant it like that and I am imbuing a sentimentality entirely inappropriate both for my relationship with him (there was not much of one) and the actual sentiment expressed. It was only telling me which drawer went where, after all, not some life guidance from the grave ("Marry for love!").

I hate that word (grave.) I don't like to think about things like that, probably because I do it way too much. I combat these thoughts with hobbies and frivolties about decorating or crafting, and I realize even as I write this that I don't really believe that those things are totally frivolous. Despite the fairly communist aesthetic I maintained for most of my life (that anything decorative was a waste of money and time), I have come to feel the opposite. Beauty isn't wasteful and materialistic (well, I guess it can be in extremes); it uplifts people's spirits and imbues the ordinary with a sense of . . . . well, happiness, I guess. It is just the way we humans respond. And now that I have children of my own and carry around this heavy sense that I am responsible for creating their little universe of childhood, I want all of that weather to be perfect. I want to make each event special, each day happy and light, so these color choices and flowers and meals and special little birthday signs or plates, they all matter. Maybe too much, I will one day look back and see. But I am working in my here and now and this is what my sense of things tells me to do.

But regardless of the fact that the dresser was made by a man I didn't know all that well and whose handwritten numerical ordering splashes me with a dose of sentimentality that is silly, I take a sense of happiness in knowing that little Porter has a dresser that was made by his great-grandfather and that people can be connected and remembered in these small ways far beyond what they ever would have imagined for things done for an entirely different purpose. Just like my flowers or birthday plate or whatever.

Which, I totally realize, is all the more reason for me to eliminate yelling and anger from the sounds of this little world I am trying to create for the boys. Yes, I suppose cutting out the yelling should take precedence, but we do what we can, right?

I often have compared my sentiments about Updike with those for Papa. I think that in the end, and for different reasons entirely, I miss them in rather the same way.

Missy asked us all to choose our favorite Updike poem to share and though I only read it for the first time today, I do think it is my favorite. It is one of those that heightens my sense of loss that his heartbeat isn't part of the massive throng down here. Sometimes I read things and think that writing is within my grasp, with enough work and time and effort. But every time I read Updike, I see that real writing is impossibly beyond me.

One size fits all. The shape or coloration
of the god or high heaven matters less
than that there is one, somehow, somewhere, hearing
the hasty prayer and chalking up the mite
the widow brings tot eh temple, A child
alone with horrid verities cries out
for there to be a limit, a warm wall
whose stones give back an answer, however faint.

Strange, the extravagance of it--who needs
those eighteen-armed black Kalis, those musty saints
whose bones and bleeding wounds appall good taste,
those joss sticks, houris, gilded Buddhas, books
Moroni etched in tedious detail?
We do; we need more worlds. This one will fail.

9 comments:

Mer Swift said...

Loved reading this. Love your writing. xo

Ashley said...

Real writing is NOT beyond you--hello "his heartbeat isn't part of the massive throng . . . ."

Totally agree about the importance of decorating/birthday plates--in moderation--and I'm right with you on the anger. (Max's favorite line these days is "I'm scared of Mommy.")

I'm just impressed that you get beyond it all to the finer things in life like John Updike. I loved this post because it (beautiful poetry) reminded me of college--which is pretty sad!

Also, don't fear the reaper!

Jenny said...

I so enjoyed this essay, Alexandra, and completely agree with you about finding happiness and meaning in the small, "frivolous" things.

I do not exaggerate when I say you are the most eloquent and thoughtful writer that I know in real life. Plus, you make delicious chicken taco soup!

Sarah said...

You might not feel like you're on the same level as John Updike, but I love your writing just as much. I always feel uplifted by your words.
I also hope I am leaving more of a legacy than just yelling...I feel my boys have broken me and it's hard to go back. We need creative projects and things to keep sane I think. That's really nice that you have a dresser made by your grandfather for your boys. What a treasure!

Ie Li said...

Alexandra, I have been thinking about you! How is your new home? I want to see it.

I also believe that creating beauty for our family is a spiritual and worthy matter.

Tara, Doug, Isaac, and Lucy said...

What?! You have a new home and you haven't posted about the experience of moving?! Of being in a new space? I would fire you, but I liked your post and I'm inspired to read more John Updike.

alexandra said...

Tara, I know! You are right! I didnt even blog about Christmas. I want to do a good job on memorializing the big things that i don't do anything at all (which I learned in a recent podcast on procrastination is really just an excuse for laziness dressed up as perfectionism). Maybe later tonight, when I get the photos loaded on the computer. I actually took some to commemorate our beginnings in our home!

Eliza said...

I personally love your earnest, funny, honest, articulate writing! Was so glad to see you had blogged again. :)

Also. I agree about the need to create beauty around us and I think that even if you are the one who most enjoys the beauty for itself, well as my sister says, "Happy wife, happy life." (see also: "if mama ain't happy ain't nobody happy") Somehow living in a pleasant, pretty environment makes me want to be more of a pleasant, pretty person.

Matt is quick to point out to me however that pictures or curtains or a clean floor mean nothing if I am yelling at the kids, so there needs to be balance. It's true. Sometimes it seems like I can have more control over throw pillows than I can over my temper. Kind of a terrible thing to admit.

Have you read To Hell with All That by Caitlin Flanagan? It's basically about housewifery (is that a word?)/homemaking. I don't love all of it--for instance, she was a stay-at-home mom WITH a nanny, how am I supposed to relate??--but I was glad I stuck it through because she wraps it all up very nicely and it really hit home with me.

Also, she does very effectively address how "homemaking" a la Martha Stewart has replaced "homemaking" a la a mother who knows how to best really make a home (that is, one that is clean, inviting, calm, etc.) and not just with bows or appetizers or what have you. Theo was a baby when I read it...I'd like to pull it out again and see what I think now. You might enjoy it. Along the same lines I also enjoyed Home Comforts (much of which needs to be taken with a grain of salt because that author is slightly crazy when it comes to cleaning routines).

Eliza said...

BTW one thing I am terrible at which I would like to improve at for my kids' sake, is holiday traditions. I keep telling myself that by the time Theo is in elementary school maybe I will have gotten the hang of it. My mom was so great with decorating and traditions and stuff (for literally every holiday) and I, well, am really really not.