The Extraordinary Ordinary

From the archives.

When I was younger (well, really, until a few 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; 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.

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