Starting a blog has made me think about ordinariness, because a blog offers space for an ordinary person like me to write. Maybe that’s why many of us distrust the idea of blogging; who wants to read about ordinary things? This is not going to be an argument for why you should read my blog. But I do want to convince you that, contrary to popular belief and practice, if you want mystery and adventure, if you want to find something with secrets beneath its exterior, you will find it in the things we have cloaked with the word “ordinary.”
The problem is that we have taken “ordinary” to mean “boring,” “normal,” “everyday.” But really, it refers to the familiar things that lie so close to us that we have stopped seeing them. Ordinary is what we call something or someone we no longer notice. We speak of an ordinary meal because we eat it all the time, or an ordinary day because it follows routine, or an ordinary person because she doesn’t have striking intelligence or personality. Our families and the places where we live and work also become ordinary; they begin to seem dull. And often we respond to this dullness by seeking thrill and escape.
I spent my childhood in a little Pennsylvania town, with parents who were fairly strict; but my world was nonetheless wide and full of wonders. Most children I have met also seem to experience life this way. They find hours of delight capering among the splintered forts and colorful pipes of a playground or playing in an attic. As a child, I discovered caves of astonishing depth in closets; a bike ride past the edge of town to find blackberries with my dad was the greatest adventure I could think of. I used to sit on our front porch in the evenings, watching the cloud formations and considering what it would be like to live up in the sky–or, if my mood was less sublime, imagining how those clouds would taste if they were mashed potatoes.
My first year of high school, it suddenly happened that the universe shrank. My town, which was the whole world and faerie-land besides for a little girl, suddenly didn’t have enough elbow room. I could still catch some charm in the old haunts–I still roamed the broken sidewalks and admired the broadness of the sky above the storefronts; but I began to feel scorn for my town and its cramped alleys, and the simple people who had never lived anywhere else. Like my friends, I began to feel the wanderlust.
I suspect that this belief in the ordinary is a trap into which we fall deeper as we grow older. Since I’m not very old, I can’t say, but I imagine that as time passes one needs more frequent reminders, from children or other messengers of faerie, to clear away the dust of everydayness and remember that ordinary is never what it seems.
As for ordinary people, I believe the drabness you see in them and pass over is always a mask. It is a cloth thrown over a light bulb. Some of us are fine hypocrites and know how to use ordinariness to cover sin and scandal, or a passion, or our shyness. And ordinary things–they are only ordinary because they have become invisible. To really see them, you need a new manner of looking. As a child, I used to amuse myself by lying on my back in the living room and pretending the ceiling was really the floor. Wouldn’t I have loved to live in that upside-down house, with it’s empty rooms and chandeliers sticking up at people’s feet!
We need upside-down eyes that will let us look at the world as if we had never seen it before. I don’t mean that we need to pretend closets are caves or that the backyard is faerie-land; but how many of us look twice at the canvass of the sky to observe the shades God paints on it? How many of us admire an airplane or rejoice at the green of the fields after rain? How many of us remember how to see our homes or our husbands or wives as we saw them first? With Keats, I would like to believe that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.”
There are really two ways to respond to the ordinary. We can try to escape it by traveling, seeking new experiences, or hunting for drama, like the gourmand who must add more spice to a dish each time he eats it in order to taste anything. Or we can learn from sacramentalists (like Walker Percy) to see the sacredness of the commonplace. Sometimes God speaks to us quietly, through the objects and people closest to us. Christ came to us in the ordinary body of a man, living the life of a commoner, and leaving a reminder of his glory in the humble form of the bread and wine. Like Elijah in the wilderness, we will miss the whisper if we don’t open our ears and eyes.
G.K. Chesterton tells a fable about two boys who are each offered a wish. One boy wishes to grow huge so that he can travel the world and see strange and faraway sights. To a giant who can cross the Himalayas in a few strides, however, the world isn’t so vast or interesting anymore. His end is disillusionment and death at the blade of an indignant farmer’s ax. Meanwhile, the second boy asks to become tiny, and he sets out to explore his garden. As far as anyone knows, he has not yet reached the end of that adventure. The moral of the tale, I believe, is that there are wonders yet to be seen in the world, and we must learn to become small enough to notice them.