What Updike Taught Me

Over the weekend, I spent some quality time with The New Yorker.

The February 9th & 16th issue was largely Updike focused, in the wake of the great man’s death, and included two obituary tributes as well as several pages of snippets from the writing he’d done for the magazine over the years.

One of the snippets, from an early short story, “The Happiest I’ve Been,” hit me so squarely that I gasped – actually audibly, right there in the salon chair, prompting the woman applying my foils to drop the whole lot to the floor – in comprehension. Once again, as I have so many times before, I felt like the tall skinny man with the big nose was speaking directly to me.

It’s partially my huge ego, partially the Pennsylvania connection.

In the story, the main character, a younger Updike, according to popular opinion, says this of his – and my – homeland:

“There was the quality of the 10 a.m. sunlight as it existed in the air ahead of the windshield, filtered by the thin overcast, blessing irresponsibility—you felt you could slice forever through such a cool pure element—and springing, by implying how high these hills had become, a widespreading pride: Pennsylvania, your state—as if you had made your life.”

This is not a sentence oft critiqued by scholars reviewing “The Happiest I’ve Been.” This is not a sentence overly quoted by college freshmen, idealistic and hopeful in the development of their own writing styles. This is nothing, really, just another Updike sentence—but to me, it is poetry.

I know that 10:00 a.m. sunlight; I know those high hills. I love Pennsylvania with a ferocity otherwise reserved for my family and furry animals, so for me, that sentence makes the piece.

In a New York Times review of The Same Door, the book in which “The Happiest I’ve Been” appeared, William H. Pritchard comments on how Updike “taps the rich vein of nostalgic, guilty affection.” And it’s true. So poignant, the memories of home, but so small now, the buildings, the distances, the dreams. Where do you go once you’ve achieved everything you hoped for – staring out the window above your desk, bored by the familiar landscape – when you were 17?

A couple nights ago, climbing with a friend, I got on a new route rated near the limit of my redpoint ability. Whether it was softly graded or just my style, I climbed the first 25 feet with unusual grace. It felt easy. As I clipped the 5th bolt, I thought, “Oh shit, now I have to keep going.”

And isn’t that telling? I mean, suddenly it was so obvious to me why I haven’t climbed anything hard for years, why I can’t seem to improve. In that rare moment of unguarded thinking, when honesty trumped expectation, I said it all: I’m terrified of success, because I don’t know what the other side looks like. I don’t know how it feels to try something, not knowing the outcome.

I used to. I spent entire years floating from one thing to the next – mountain bike racing to African drumming to rock climbing to third world travel. I didn’t know what was coming next, and I didn’t care. I embarked on a year-long solo journey to Southeast Asia without even glancing at a guidebook. My mom knew more about Nepal than I did, and even as my parents sat with me at the airport gate (pre-9/11, they probably could have walked me right onto the plane if they’d wanted to), she was telling me about the climate, the currency, the cultural mores.

But, it’s scary now. Planes seem to be falling out of the sky with increased frequency. Our snow season has been, pardon the pun, unsettling. With several in-bounds avalanches early in the season, the mountains feel like a place far wilder and more unpredictable than the Wasatch. Every day there are more job cuts and bankruptcies; industries that built this country are collapsing around us.

How can we plan for the future when we don’t know what the future will look like?

So I’ve become a planner. My to do lists include such obvious reminders as, “play with dogs,” and “vacuum.” It’s compulsive, but it keeps me calm.

Of course, it also stops me from going too far, from trying too hard, from seeing what will happen. I don’t let the day unfold as it will; I force the day to fit my needs. I say, “Take!” while climbing, because if I don’t, I don’t know whether I’ll fail or succeed, and I don’t like not knowing.

(Is it any wonder I always have hamstring pain? Look how I constantly hamstring myself.)

Maybe this spring, as I plant my first garden and learn to accept growth as it comes – or doesn’t – in its own time, I’ll also learn to release the white-knuckled grip I feel like I need to have on every single aspect of my life. Maybe I’ll decide to try – really try – to climb a route, and not worry about falling off. Maybe in letting go, I’ll learn to hold on.

1 comment:

little happinesses said...

I love this! I'm rooting for you over here: not "you can do it," because that's the scary thing, but "once you do it, you'll find that it's exactly what you should have done." :)