Is Ordinariness Essential to Happiness?

My friend Sharone showed me this card last week, from the Osho Zen Tarot deck. “I’ve been looking at this one a lot lately,” she reflected. “It’s helping me a lot.”

I felt myself recoil. Ordinary has never been a favorite word of mine. At the same time, I knew what she meant; both of us, it turns out, have spent our lives seeking grandeur, a way to escape the ordinary. Probably we thought ordinary meant bland or boring, and lumped it with other words that brought to mind a world we didn’t want to be a part of. But there’s no escaping it: the ordinary seeps into our daily lives and when we ignore it, we soon find ourselves living in chaos. 

“After the ecstasy, the laundry,” as the Jack Kornfield title goes. My version of this has been, “After the crazy youth, hanging clothes out to dry.” What I mean by that is, actually, that I find bliss in these things. 

But ordinariness can be quite hard on the ego. That’s why we avoid it in the first place, right? I get a panicky feeling when I see photos of my mother when she was my age now, and remember times when I thought she looked so grown up in them. Now I look that grown up. Now I spend my days cooking and washing and folding and vacuuming. Suddenly my identity gets lost as the frame zooms out and I blend into an endless line of women before me that also had a crazy youth, then had kids, did laundry, cooked, etc. It’s the ultimate humbling train of thought. 

Mothering is the most amazing teacher of ordinariness. What it has taught me is this: there is pure love in everyday tasks. In them lies a pretty direct path to surpassing the small concerns of the ego, at least for the moment. But look at the image on the card—it’s not the “ordinariness” you might imagine. In fact, it looks divine. Perhaps the ordinariness I truly seek to escape from is a state of mind that habitually feels unfulfilled. 

What are your thoughts on ordinariness?


5 responses to “Is Ordinariness Essential to Happiness?

  1. Tamina Quinto-Penkova

    I loved reading this Kathy! This reminded me of our years at Brockwood and how the word “ordinary” permeated our every activity there as teenagers. I remember feeling so many times that there was this pressure (that of course was completely unspoken of, like many other things in that community) to be special and unique. The people who abided by this silent expectation (the writers, the musicians, the painters,the intellectualy able) were treated differently than rest, and this inevitably added a layer of mysticism to the whole idea of being unordinary.
    These days I find myself assessing my life, how it has unfolded and how it seems to be a permanent mixture of grandeur, as you called it, and the ordinary trivialities of everyday existence.
    It seems to me that the fear of ordinariness is what drives us to achieve more, and when we do, we realize that without this very fear pushing us, we would have done nothing to change our lives. But what’s amazing about ordinariness, is not just how it propels, but how, like you said, can give you total bliss when you embrace it in its’ totality. Just the other day, my partner and I were laughing at ourselves after we had finished cleaning up our house. This may sound really disturbing, but it was like it gave us a rush to see how much we were getting done all while goofing around with one another. It was as if for a solid 30 minutes we were soaking up all that being domestic has to offer (because this generally really doesn’t seem all that much fun)
    What’s amazing too is that I often come up with great ideas, or find an answer to something that’s been troubling me right in the middle of doing dishes, or scrubbing the bathroom. And the times when I think all of these things should come (like when I’m standing on top of a mountain as the sun descends) I am usually in a sulk, tired and cold. But these are the kinds of thing that you never hear about, or that nobody writes about. I guess the illusion of unordinariness will always attracts us more.

  2. “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Flaubert

  3. Wow, Tamina, that was really beautiful. I’m so glad it resonated for you, and I love what you say about moments of clarity not coming when we think they will come; I just get this really clear image of what it feels like to go in search of clarity, like climbing that mountain, and then finding the cold 😉
    So good to hear from you, made me wish we still lived in the same town.

    Jeffrey—that is a good one. Was it considered bourgeois to be orderly? Are you reading Flaubert?

  4. You know, it’s amazing how much more grounded you seem, in your life, day by day, since Nina has come into the picture. It’s a change that seems comfortable, at least from the outside, and so I imagine that it must feel comfortable, like a relief almost, from the inside too.

    I also am the daughter of a woman who has never been able to be “ordinary.” In the sense that ordinary could means “routine” in the way that life becomes automatic, or un-inspired. Even when I was a kid, when my mom’s life (or at least the part I paid attention to, which I’m sure was actually only a small part of what he life actually was) consisted of driving us to school and cooking meals and folding laundry, gardening and taking the dog for walks—the ordinary was never “ordinary”. It was like everything was back-lit by a certain kind of creativity. Her garden was beautiful. She made these incredible curtains and soups and sometimes she woke me up singing. It was her way of keeping herself interested, I think, despite a life full of ordinary things. Because of this, my childhood has a magical quality to it, and an appreciation for inspired things is ingrained in me. Ordinary I can do. But un-inspired, I have no patience for. I get bored. There has to be life behind it.

    I think there’s a Trungpa quote or teaching about “ordinary being extraordinary” somewhere out there. Love!

    • Merete, your mom sounds amazing. I mean, I know your mom and she is amazing, but to be someone’s daughter, you get to know them in a way nobody else does. Well, and you turned out such a beautiful person, and it sounds like your sister did too. The sense of magic and inspiration your mama ingrained in you is apparent, and I’m sure it’s so fulfilling for her now to watch you and know you. It’s inspiring, because kids are tricky, I never really know how what I do affects Nina. But I try to add a little grace to the mix of human imperfection. Love you girl. Thanks for reading 😉

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