by Geneen Roth
When I was younger (well, really, until two years ago) the ordinary sounded boring. Just the word “ordinary” made me feel cranky, as if I was being sentenced to a lifetime of wearing faded brown muumuus that could fit my aunt Lucy, my cousin Poppy, and me. I wanted big success, big love, big highs and couldn’t understand anyone who didn’t. When my friend Maria told me that she had no desire to stand out and preferred raising her children and growing dahlias instead, I felt sorry for her. I secretly believed that she’d given up on having an extraordinary life and was now settling for a dull-brown-muumuu existence. And that in doing so, she was missing the point–the exhilaration–of being alive.
After decades of pushing the proverbial boulder up the mountain, I reached (what I’d imagined as) the top. Or, at least, a very tall mountainette. The place where the extraordinary was supposed to live. Where I could finally have The Big Life.
And here’s what the top felt like: Immense satisfaction and gratitude at reaching so many people; relief and more gratitude at making money after losing almost every cent to Bhagavan Bernie Madoff (as Eckhart Tolle calls him); exhaustion as big as the gratitude; and being so busy responding to requests for various things that I forgot (or was too busy to notice, which is the same thing) that I had a husband, family, dog, garden, an exaltation of hummingbirds outside my window. I forgot to listen to the whistle of the wind in the redwood trees. And although I live in a forest, I forgot the trees themselves. I forgot about anything that wasn’t supporting or contributing to the extraordinary life I was too tired to enjoy. By trying to have, and then keep up, the life I dreamed about, I was missing the life I already had.
In Into Thin Air, Jon Kraukauer writes that when he reached the top of Mt. Everest he realized (this is a paraphrase) it was just a square piece of earth with colored flags flapping in the wind. He stopped there for a few minutes and then, exhausted and depleted from climbing 57 hours, he immediately began the descent. After he returned home, he said that what he most appreciated was “being able to get up in the middle of the night, barefoot, and walk to the bathroom.”
Walking. Being barefoot. The fact of night. Stars. Salamanders. A sip of tea. A bite of chocolate. My husband’s face. The ordinary things we pass by on the way to wherever it is we think we will finally be able to relax—and enjoy the ordinary things.
Like many of us, I believed that there was a destination where the extraordinary (with no down sides) lived. And part of my fuel to get there was the conviction that if I worked hard enough, lived big enough, my Life dues would be paid and I would be allowed to stop. To be.
I was passionate (and still am) about my work, but I began to understand that working eighteen-hour days did not automatically give me permission to stop working eighteen-hour days. And splashy success didn’t automatically translate to allowing myself to rest. They often led to being worried that if I stopped pushing, success would escape me and I’d fall behind. The Big Get kept eluding me, kept being one step ahead of me. If only I could catch it by trying harder, living bigger and running faster. After banging my head against the wall of “it’s out there, it has to be out there” thousands of times, I realized I’d spent my life trying to earn something that was already mine.
It turns out that the true extraordinary isn’t reserved for special people or big achievements or red-carpet-moments. It’s extraordinary to write a book, and it’s extraordinary to eat a grilled cheese sandwich with tomatoes and mustard. It’s extraordinary to meet a famous person, and it’s extraordinary to meet the eyes of a grocery store cashier. When I pay attention to what is in front of me, the seemingly ordinary things are backlit with the extraordinary: the hum of the refrigerator, the yellow sponge, the trill of a finch.
Now, instead of lurching forward, I step back. Instead of looking for the extraordinary, I look at it. If I get breathless or anxious that I am falling behind and that everyone else will get there before me, I remind myself that the top is just a square of earth you pass on your way down. And that no moment, no place, is better than this breath, this foot touching the cool floor in the middle of the night.
20 responses to “The Doorway to the Extraordinary”
So beautifully said. I enjoy everything Geneen writes, but this one was particularly touching.
One of my favorite postings of yours… beautiful. THANK YOU.
This post was perfect timing. I am already signed up for your retreat in March (Redwood City). I am both excited and scared. I told my sister yesterday I feel like an alcoholic right before going into rehab. Though I am going to exercise class, I am totally overeating right now and don’t know why until I realized that I maybe don’t like downtime. I don’t find peace in “getting it all done”, rather than being needed and productive. I have it all, but am still unsettled. Thank you for the blog and see you soon! Hugs, Marcey
Beautiful truth. Thank you.
Geneen, I have been following you from afar for years…reading your books, admiring your beauty. And now, I want you to know how much I appreciate your writing. This article just took my breath away!!! After reading it, I dashed out onto my balcony to look at the stars. There weren´t any, just a dull city gray– but I should have known that, had I taken a moment to look upwards on my way in, just five minutes ago.
When I get up in the middle of the night tonight ( I always need to:-) I hope I think of your words and that they infuse my dreams and the ordinariness of the coming day.
Thank you Geneen…as usual…for a deliciously extraordinary article…
I welcome the readers who have enjoyed your wise article–and, you as well–to read the poem, “Having a Coke with You” by Frank O’Hara. It reinforces the truth of how splendid the “ordinary” is…
Love this Geneen!
That everyday is extraordinary! And that embracing the blessings all around you you not only value them more, but you experience their extraordinary-ness now-instead of pushing past them on the way to ‘more’. I also believe you can have more of what you want by embracing and experiencing what you have and that brings more blessings -it also means if you want more/other/different experiences you strive for them from a place of being already enough, already blessed, already extraordinary <3
Geneen.. you continue to remind me that like the cat..happiness is in my tail which goes with me everywhere..
I send you Love and gratitude for an endless bowl of marvel…Beverly Myers
What a timely and thoughtful reminder about what really matters in this life ‼
Thank you very much for your open heart story!!! It helped me by reading.
I am since 4 weeks in a crisis called depression and fear.
I know this mude. I learned in the last years to handle it, but it is very exhausting to handle it. The basic feeling, it started very early in my childhood, is ” I am not good enough ” or worth ” I am a bad human being and I should be away from this earth “. These believe sentences are like in my blood. For a longer time they are very silent and in a specific moment they shout out very loud and overwelmes my whole system. (You know the effect of triggering..)I had since my 16 age a big problem with eating. all excesses…. you know better than anyone. Because of that I registered in your newsletter. I notice the food itselve is not longer a big problem, but every single thing in my life (in our lifes) invites me to be aware, carefull, lovely, friendly, with myself, like a loving mother. It is not easy. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. When I am be able to love myself (to kill the destructive bad past energy in my blood and nerv system)!!!! I am naturally aware with my food. Than I can eat as much I am hungry, or I eat a complete chocolate, for instance when I have fear or just fun, to eat it, without the massive destructive voices afterwards (which punished and hurted me for a lot of years), it is fine. Than it is fine to live here. Just as a natural human being without if or if not. Than I am happy when I just notice I breathe and nothing else happens in that specific moment. So I go on breathing and loving myself and love not longer these people, which are not good for me, even they are good for themselves. In expectation of further mails from YOU Geneen, with the best wishes for all human beings, Gaby Horn from Germany.
This. is. perfection. Thank you.
a fine reminder for resetting our values and boundaries, Thank YOU
I love that last paragraph because I SO know the feeling of anxiety that “everyone else will get there before me” – something that’s probably endemic to writers…Sigh.
This is so beauty-full. I am surrounded by amazing grace, amazing blessings and I am now seeing the love that I have been looking for for all 66 years of my life.
Thank you for helping me to open my eyes and my heart to the here and now of my life in gratitude, awe, and wonder.
Bare feet on floors, rugs, tiles are immediate paths to the present; a tactile reminder to pay attention to what you are experiencing now.
Could I please have your permission to include this article in our local AAUW affiliate newsletter?
Approved. Thank you Anita.