One order of ordinary, hold the extra

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I like a perfectly shaped tree all dressed up for Christmas, wrapped in lights and spangles, gold star atop its head, pretending to be indifferent to all of the gifts strewn at its feet. A tree like that gets my attention; it probably gets your attention, too. When you’re the only tree in the room, you shine in an extraordinary way.

 

I like Christmas trees; I even admire them. But the trees I love don’t stand around in people’s living rooms doing their best to call attention to themselves. The trees I love live in groves and glades and forests. You can hardly tell one from another. They are ordinary trees, living and dying where they were planted but so full of beauty that if you took the time to learn the history of what they have seen and known and endured, your heart would break with either joy or sorrow, or more likely, both.

 

Ordinary trees sparkle sunlight across our paths; spend their lives scattering their strength to raise up new generations of trees; nurture winged delight; throw out shadows like carpets, inviting us to stop and rest awhile; whisper truth to those with ears to hear; take our breath away and then give it back. They do this every day, whether anyone notices or not.

 

 

Popular American culture values the extraordinary, at least that’s the message I hear. Ordinary is not good enough. You must be smarter, more beautiful, or more athletic than everyone else. You must write better, or be funnier, or take better pictures than other people. If you don’t, you won’t stand out, you won’t be somebody, people won’t know your name or be able to pick you out from a crowd. You will have to wander through life without the only prefix that matters, “extra.” Maybe because extra is rare, everybody wants it. People feel compelled to express their superiority, to trumpet their accomplishments, and to tell people over and over how extraordinary they are, thinking that by saying it often enough, the prefix will magically attach to their ordinary selves.

 

I appreciate and admire extraordinary people. I listen to their music, enjoy their art, read their books and poems, and enjoy the benefits of their research and inventions. I’ve even known a few I would call extraordinary, but maybe because I am an ordinary person, I like ordinary people best. If I were a tree, no one would choose me to be the centerpiece in a room of celebration. I look like a thousand other trees and even if you walked by me everyday, I doubt you would remember me or be able to pick me out. I am the small, asymmetric tree with the missing branches, standing over there in the northeast corner of the grove.

 

Twice in the last month, I have touched on this issue with two people who blog. A while back, I  nominated ShimonZ of thehumanpicture for an award. He thanked me but asked to be excused from posting the award on his blog. With his permission, I am including some of what he wrote in response:

 

Thank you very much for nominating me…I have been nominated for a few awards, and I have tried as best I could to extricate myself without offending those who wished to be nice to me. I don’t want any prizes. I come from a different culture, in which people don’t walk around with medals on their chest, and it is usually an embarrassment to one of us, to get a prize or an award. For me, it is my reward that you read my blog from time to time, and respond here and there.

 

I like those words. Behind that simplicity, I believe there is a willingness to embrace being ordinary.

 

Then on the blog The Heartbreak of Invention, I read patricamj’s essay “Why Psychotherapy Doesn’t Work for You” and when I commented I said I thought she must be a good therapist because she seems like an ordinary person. As soon as I wrote that, I realized I needed to qualify it, so I added that I meant it as high praise. I did and I still do.

 

 

The world is full of ordinary things and ordinary people, and I am one of them. I read books and stories by famous writers who knock my socks off.  Some of them are extraordinary people. But I am also left sockless by some of the ordinary people who write blogs: people like ShimonZ and patriciamj. They scatter patterns of light that brighten my day; offer shade if I need some rest; delight me with words that soar and sing; blind me with beauty, then teach me to see; whisper truth; take my breath away, and then give it back with laughter. And they do it every day, whether anyone notices or not.

 

That’s what ordinary people do.

57 thoughts on “One order of ordinary, hold the extra

  1. Snap! I find myself fascinated over the minutae of strangers’ lives, in a way that soap operas or tv shows fail entirely to do. Beverly Hills? NYC? No interest. Some small town in the middle of, oh say Idaho, would be of more interest.

    • People and their stories are endlessly fascinating. And for me, the best fiction is about ordinary people whether they are in Idaho, Middle Earth, or Troy and whether or not they look like us, or are robots, or are rabbits.

  2. This is a really beautiful post and something I needed to read. I love it. Appreciating the simplicity and very ‘everydayness’ of things done well. The extraordinary of ordinary. After I read this post, I wondered… what kind of tree am I? and had a few laughs with some of my ideas. I have always thought trees to be magnificent creations and I really love the pictures you have included. I am so very glad I found your blog.

    • I’m glad I found your blog, too. I like reading your take on things and I enjoy your humor. I know what I’ve written goes against much of the teaching about empowerment and believing in yourself, etc., etc. I think some people feel that if they are ordinary, they don’t have value. But you don’t have to be extraordinary or particularly special to love and be loved. And that’s what we are all ultimately after, I think.

  3. It is the normal folks who make up the world, and the regular trees that give it its shape and beauty. What a great bit of work for one ordinary woman. And I too mean that in the nicest possible way.

    • Thank you, Elyse. I think part of embracing ordinariness is being set free to be who we are. There’s nothing to prove, so we can enjoy creating, writing, dancing, baking, inventing, or whatever it is that we love to do.

  4. Exactly. As a teacher I always bristled at the pressure put on kids to be exceptional, especially based on nothing more than test scores. There was also the same push to prove we were “outstanding” teachers. Even in running, there is an expectation that you will PR (personal record) in your next race. I like to think that as long as you do your best each day, with the knowledge that your “best” may not be the same as yesterday’s, then it was a good day.

    • It’s a balance, isn’t it? We need to strive to be the best we can be, to learn, to grow, and to improve. But how much better it is if we don’t have the pressure of trying to prove that we are better than others, or the best, but can instead do our best because we find satisfaction in the striving. Then, no matter the results, whether I end up number 1 or number 36, I have experienced joy because my worth isn’t measured by the results.

      Maybe I’m getting off-topic here, but the two ideas seem connected to me.

  5. And my favorite plays are about ordinary people doing their best to cope with extraordinary circumstances. Small acts of heroism. Courage and grace that headlines will never celebrate but that are nevertheless the meaning of life.

    • Yes, yes, yes. The world is full of small acts of kindness, sacrifice, love, and heroism that are so easy to miss, so easy to dismiss. They are the true riches in life, or as you say “the meaning of life.”

  6. Oh this was sweet. Thank you. We could talk about trees all day!!! I love them and love to read of others who do as well. If you ever visit my city, Seattle, maybe we could walk through the woods together. That would be a treat for me.

    For so many years I turned my head away from any words of appreciation, but I am learning I too need to be found once in awhile. So thank you 😉 Sometimes I think being “ordinary” requires as much support as being the other way. Just yesterday a very talented but very sad young actress began to weep in my office. She said, “Since I was little my biggest fear was to be ordinary.” As her watery eyes reached out to my own she confessed that these tears now spilled down her cheeks were turning her into a “cliche”. My heart broke to hear that. She had asked me a personal question and I think was shocked that I had answered her so honestly. I was a little shocked too. She wanted to know how I find meaning in life. These budding Existentialists get me every time 😉

    When her composure left the room, I think we both silently rejoiced. She had come to life.

    • I hope that many others find you.

      My heart goes out to the young actress. Perhaps she thought of ordinary as a derisive word, the ultimate putdown in a place that is forever Christmas. If you’re not the decorated tree, then who are you? Without the string of lights, the decorations, and the gifts, you’re just an ordinary tree, not even worthy to be inside.

      So good that you could talk with her.

    • Isn’t that the truth. Don’t you just wish we had mandatory campfires every night where people had to sit around in the firelight and tell their stories? Instead we sit around the cold light of TV and listen to mostly drivel.

  7. It would be good if I could say this in a less cheesy way but truisms are called that for a reason I suppose – if ‘ordinary’ means being of no exceptional value then the truth is that nobody who lives now, ever lived or will live in the future is ordinary. Like trees, which are fractal-based, they have similarities as well as self-similarities but they are unique so therefore they are, literally, exceptional. Mind you if exceptional and unique and special is the commonplace perhaps that makes it ordinary?

    • I don’t think being ordinary means having no value. I agree that each human being is unique and beautiful, but I think that because cultures tend to elevate and value some characteristics and abilities above others, some individuals are viewed as extraordinary: exceptional. Those without those valued characteristics and abilities are viewed as ordinary. When I use the word ordinary, this is what I am trying to get at. And there are far more of these kind of ordinary people than the extraordinary, hence the need for the word to describe those out-of-the-ordinary ones.

      • Sorry – I knew you didn’t mean that ordinary has no value but that is one of the definitions of ordinary (I Googled). I see a huge value in the commonplace as well – the point I was trying to make (badly obviously! sorry again!) was that I think this very obsession with the ‘extraordinary’ and the belief that only some qualities are of value means that ‘ordinary’ people feel powerless to change the world or see that they have something irreplaceable and important to contribute. The fabric of reality is made up of all the ‘ordinary’ actions (the dinners and cups of tea and lines of washing) of ‘ordinary’ people – thankfully. I am a big fan of all things ordinary.

        • I should apologize. I was clarifying because I thought I had expressed myself badly and somehow gave the impression that I didn’t value the ordinary. Words are tricky sometimes.

          I agree that the overemphasis on the extraordinary can make people feel powerless or worthless. It seems to drive some people to try to be something they aren’t, so they miss out on being what they are best at. It’s hard not to avoid this pressure from our culture to “be somebody.” As if we weren’t somebody already. 🙂

  8. Now you know that it is from pure egotism (and of course hierarchical confusion) that I crowned myself Empress of the Ordinary. But seriously, I am one of the most persistent sinners in using hyperbolic language mainly because *everything*, if I examine it closely enough, and everyone, by extrapolation, seems truly astonishing, a bit unbelievable; definitely extraordinary. What is or isn’t ordinary? Must be an attitudinal thing. That which *demands* my attention usually bores me, often instantly. That which earns it, especially slowly or by stealth, is worth all of my attention and for a very long time.

    I posted about what I think is a very similar thing today, having been tapped for awards again, and thinking about the tiny flame of a candle spreading into something much more powerful when shared. And spoke of you and Shimon both, of course! So may you both forgive me but it’s precisely the down-to-earth ordinariness of your brightly shining souls that is extraordinary to me.

    Love,
    Kathryn

    • Kathryn, I love your enthusiasm and discovery of all things extraordinary. The world is full of magical things and exceptional people. I believe we are all truly incredible beings, but when I speak of ordinary, I speak of those who don’t have the characteristics or talents so valued by our culture. Those, the majority of us, are the ordinary to the world. Some people know the secret that there are other characteristics and talents just as valuable, but we don’t argue with the larger culture and just quietly go our own way, being astonished, dazzled and laid out flat with wonder.

  9. You have just given me a nice reality check – I do know some very extraordinary people. In fact, I am related to them and admire them oh….. so much. And then I usually sit and wonder where the extraordinary gene went when it came my turn to get it. I am an ordinary woman, who has a lot to give to the rest of the ordinary people like me – a shoulder, a smile, an ear. And because of my experiences, we can all relate.
    Thank you, my dear.

  10. I keep thinking I couldn’t possibly fall in love with your writing style any more than I have already, and then you go and post something ordinary. You’re really getting to me. In a good way. For the first time that I can remember, I don’t want to write like you. I want to write like me, and then keep coming back to read you, writing like you.

    Signed,
    your humble student

  11. Talk to me...I'm your Mother

    Wonderful! Great concept, beautifully expressed. I do think your writing is about the ordinary. Revel in that.

  12. Well put! I like to think we are all special in our own way. Most of us are just not special in the way that gets attention from the masses who have bought into what Madison Avenue tells them is extraordinary!

  13. Recently contemplating the feelings which arise in what might be described as an extraordinary circumstance, your posting and the responses you received as a result gave me pause to reconsider not only my own circumstance, but those which occur on both sides of the issue of what can properly be called either ordinary or extraordinary.

    It is particularly telling that we often hear about so-called “extraordinary people” longing for a return to life before they were considered so, and those whose life may be less spectacular in such demonstrative ways, thinking it enviable, wishing for something more, as if sentient life was not an astonishingly extraordinary gift all by itself.

    It may be difficult to discern at every moment the value of whatever life we do possess, and the experience of the many possible varieties of misfortune can challenge even the most optimistic and out-of-the-ordinary among us, but we need look no further than our eyes and hearts are willing to see and feel to know that there is value in every life. The extraordinary is so often right in front of us, we sometimes simply fail to recognize it.

    Thanks for a marvelously thought-provoking visit…..John H.

    • Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comments. I think you’re right that the extraordinary is right in front of us, but we are told by so many voices in our culture that most of it is ordinary. Often we believe it and fail to take a second look. But once we silence all those voices and take that second look, we are amazed, delighted, and begin to see the most extraordinary things. At least, that has been my experience.

  14. I liked this post very much, yearstricken. What you say here is important. And I think it relates to a problem we have at to how to relate to people in this period of time, in the democratic western culture. After the 60s there was more emphasis on self expression and self realization, and I think that slowly it turned into a cult of the individual. We give to little thought to the accomplishments of communities of people, and as you say, there is a certain expectation of young people, and their parents too, for something exceptional from each and every one of us. But on the other hand, there is also a sense of panic when a young person is less talented than his peers, reads slower, or isn’t too interested in study altogether. Once we were able to recognize the individuality of each person. But now we seem too eager to find the name of the syndrome of any person who doesn’t seem ‘normal’ to us, and he is soon relegated to the consolation of a few alphabet soup letters. I would say that we should have a little more patience with our fellow man/woman, and not have so many ready expectation… and most of all, should have more respect for differences, even when they are not ‘exceptional’. Thanks for a very interesting post.

    • I’m glad you liked it ShimonZ. I think the pressure to be exceptional comes down to our view of people and their worth as individuals. We tend to value people for what they do and it’s the first question we ask people when we meet. What do you do?

      You may be right that just being human is not enough these days. If so, it doesn’t bode well for people who can no longer “do” something considered valuable to society; those who by birth or accident have lost certain abilities, or those who experience limitations as they age. I agree that we do a disservice to children by labeling them so quickly, instead of accepting their differences.

  15. katkasia

    I adored this post! This is something I have been thinking about a good deal lately. Perhaps it’s something to do with coming to terms with life in my 30’s, but the push for everyone to be extraordinary seems not only somewhat deflating when you realise that you are ordinary, but also perhaps a bit damaging.
    It made me feel so much better – thank you!

  16. How did I miss this post.. Fabulousity. There is nothing ordinary about the way you write. I’m sharing again (two in one day….) and where is that Blogs I Love roll button, (I’ve been looking for it, and can’t figure out where to find it…. I’m too new at this) As soon as I find it, I’m putting it on my blog and putting your blog on it (with your permission).

    • I’m glad you liked the post. Thank you for sharing. Please feel free to post on your blog.

      Sorry it has taken me so long to reply. I’m swamped at school and barely have time to post in the mornings. Looking forward to the weekend and a break.

  17. hello, yearstricken,

    i’m a bit wisened up every time i pass by this side. i’ve heard about the idea but reading this post made things clearer. i have a feeling that you’re an extraordinary teacher who says it best because you explain things simply and ordinarily. ^^

    i love the pics you used here. 🙂

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