You gotta go forward to go back.
You gotta go forwards to go back.        

Welcome! Listen Look Watch Read Code Get Give
Badges? We Ain’t Got No Badges   Ordinary Essay   Rosemary Dunn Dalton: Introduction   WWJD?   The Case of the Missing Parenthesis   When in Rome

Get back to where you once belonged. Reading is fundamental. Go forward. Move ahead.


by Melissa Lórien Michaels

This essay was first published in a collection of essays titled Word Tastings (Santa Barbara Review Publications, 1998).

“If she will not bless the ordinary,
if she will not sanctify the common,
then here I am and here I stay and then am I
the most miserable of women.”

—Eavan Boland, “Envoi”

When I chose the word “ordinary” — or rather, when “ordinary” chose me, for it hit me with the inexorable force of fate on a Sunday afternoon, unasked, unsought — I was thinking of it in the most, well, ordinary sense of the word. I had in mind those habits, those daily occurrences, those irksome necessities — sleeping, eating, bathing, etc. — that have gradually, imperceptibly, come to order and define our lives. “Of common or everyday occurrence,” as the OED puts it. But there was something else lingering in the back of my mind when I thought of “ordinary,” some vague, but resolute, conviction about finding the so-called sacred around and amidst and inside the ordinary. And I wanted to get to the bottom of this quasi-religious premonition.

There’s something about the word “ordinary” — its roundness, its dull, muted edges, its earthiness — that emanates wholeness for me. That a four-syllable word can remain so grounded, so modest, is reason enough to admire it. But the thought that the same little word can actually envelop, and faithfully convey, the bulk of my experience, the bulk of everyone’s experience, astonishes me.

It was this realization, in part, which led me to write in my journal, nearly four years ago, that “my characters are the ordinary and the common, the oft-neglected and forgotten, the vessels of beauty and originality that go unnoticed or ignored.” At the time, I was frustrated by the dearth of ordinary people — tired, plain-looking, and financially-challenged people like myself — in the literature, film, and art I was currently exploring. Where were people who delighted at locking gaze with a bluejay, who nibbled hangnails, folded laundry, bounced checks, and overslept? Sure, they were there. But only as secondary characters, only as mundane silhouettes, as expendable anecdotes or paradigms of boredom. They were never the center of attention, never what the story was about. That is, until people like Eavan Boland, Brian Friel, and Mike Leigh came along. These artists dared to make the ordinary their stock-in-trade. I discovered in Boland’s poetry, Friel’s plays, and Leigh’s films precisely what I had been craving in art. Not only does each of them portray authentic, everyday lives and situations, but they seek to expose in these ordinary matters something transcendent, something all-encompassing and yet utterly personal.

To me, one of the more intriguing and distressing roles of the “ordinary” is as a foil to “extraordinary.” As the OED so aptly puts it, “ordinary” is “applied to various things of the more or most usual class or type, to distinguish them from others of some special sort.” So what is the “ordinary” here? The riffraff, the mediocre, the banal. The mongrel masses. Those people and things termed inferior, run-of-the-mill, unremarkable, plain. For a culture obsessed with individualism and uniqueness, “ordinary” represents everything we should struggle to avoid, and “extraordinary” everything we should wish to become. “Ordinary” takes a back seat to the more flamboyant “extraordinary,” and its significance is reduced solely to the emphasis it lends the latter. Ordinary people and situations in art cannot hold the public’s attention, because it is forever lusting after the exotic, the romantic. Most people go to the movies to escape, not to watch their mundane, neurotic lives paraded before them on the screen. This proclivity is perhaps best exemplified by the obsequious, odious homage paid to The English Patient during the 1996 Academy Awards, which overshadowed the far-more-deserving Secrets & Lies, a testament to the miraculous, transforming powers of grace, compassion, and forgiveness in awkward, scarred, and ordinary lives.

Perhaps this is where I differ from the bulk of Americans. Extraordinary, quixotic characters and scenarios hold no interest for me, for there is nothing of substance to connect me to them. I do not watch films or read books to escape from my life but to dwell on the infinite complexities of human nature and to learn something about humanity, and subsequently myself, in the process. I revel in the faithful depiction of the ordinary in art; it is what makes for the most hilarious, most poignant moments in a book or film. In these instants of self-recognition — of cringing identification with an embarrassing or delicate situation, of surprise and delight at hearing one of my own obscure thoughts, fears, or observations articulated by one of the characters — I am authenticated, humbled, and moved to compassion and contemplation.

What is so astonishing and, I daresay, miraculous, about this word “ordinary,” is that it may be the one thing in this universe that applies to every living and created being. Because ordinary experience is ubiquitous, because everyone participates in these common, menial tasks, it seems insignificant. And yet, the very fact that every human being engages in these common activities is what lends the ordinary cosmic significance. It is the supreme archetype, and thus the most worthy of being documented and revealed in art; certainly more so than ethereal, intellectual subject matter, which has little or no bearing on our daily lives. It encompasses the simplest, most rudimentary elements of our experience — breathing, blinking, swallowing, digesting — as well as the most complex and baffling — the paralyzing nature of rage or pride, the mysterious and tenuous quality of love, the paradoxical implications of salvation and grace. And it is precisely at this intersection of the particular and the universal that the ordinary takes on heroic, indeed spiritual proportions.

The very thought that you can find, can experience the holy, the presence of God — ‘inscape’ as Hopkins would call it — in a pomegranate, in a bowl of — as Zooey would say — Bessie’s “consecrated chicken soup,” or in one of Hopkins’s bluebells is an idea that has been rattling around in my head for years. I have experienced it periodically throughout my life, this sensation and awareness of something sputtering and simmering beneath the surface. And these hierophanies, to use historian Mircea Eliade’s term, always occur at the most ordinary moments—whether it be while, as a four-year–old, I am inspecting a deer-gnawed twig in the snow in a forest in Belchertown, Massachusetts, or nearly twenty years later, while I am washing and peeling potatoes for potato soup, when I suddenly become aware of the millions of others who have peeled and removed eyes from potatoes, or who will go on doing so in the future. At this particular moment, I think of the millions of Irish women who had prepared potatoes as I was now doing, whose families had subsisted on potatoes for generations, who themselves suffered evictions, unemployment, dispossession, malnutrition, and starvation during the Great Famine. It was this ordinary task of scrubbing potatoes that connected me to these women, that offered me a faint intimation of their unrecorded lives.

This dynamic — the revelation of the historical and particular (and hence timeless and mythic) in raw, ordinary life — is one of the relationships Boland explores in her poetry. When I first encountered her work nearly three years ago, I was overcome by a sense of familiarity and affinity with her spirit and language. She was the first poet I had ever read who ventured into the commonplace, who sought to capture the daily rituals of domesticity and the significance of everyday objects in her poems. Yet she could find no models for a poetry of the ordinary in her own national tradition. What she could not find in Irish literature or myth, she discovered in the genre painters of the French eighteenth century, in Chardin, whose paintings “were ordinary in the accepted sense of the word. They were unglamorous, workaday, authentic” (Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time, 253). Instead of romanticizing his subjects by painting goddesses or wispy maidens or idyllic, Elysian landscapes, Chardin recognized, and captured on canvas, the tender, luminous beauty of the ordinary.

The ordinary plays itself out in our billions of separate, but parallel, lives. Like connective tissue, it fills the spaces between us and imbues those spaces with something indescribable, something hallowed. This ordinariness that we all have in common creates a community out of disparate individuals, nations, and epochs. It is what links me to each of you reading this, and us to William Faulkner, or van Gogh, or to that unidentified Australian or Laotian or Eritrean woman bearing a child, or to that elderly man collapsed from exhaustion, malnutrition, or despair at Bergen-Belsen, or to that man propped up on a hill in a Middle-Eastern town not far from Jericho.

And there’s something else that just occurred to me. If the ordinary serves as the connective tissue among human beings, as the one unifying element that enables us to related to one another, then how absolutely essential the Incarnation was to completing that link between God and us! For God to become fully human — to assume physicality, the limitations of time and space — was for him to enter into ordinary human experience. I guess you could say it’s the difference between empirical and intellectual knowledge of a thing. Now, because of that event, our community based on shared ordinary experience expands to include God.

Recently, I was thumbing through a book on contemplation lent to me by a friend. I flipped it over and read these words: “The key to Benedictine spirituality lies in the word ‘ordinary.’ Benedict insists that no moment is too small for nearness to God. Life in Christ does not necessarily involve something dramatic or heroic. It may simply engage the everyday stuff of my life, which Benedict suggests is what actually matters” (Vest 6). And then it hit me. What is it about those quiet moments, my hands puckering in the warm dishwater, that seems meditative, verging on sacred? This ordinary task of washing the dishes not only connects me to other people, but, in a similar fashion, it also connects me to God. In my silence, as Benedict taught, I am more receptive and attuned to God’s presence. Beyond this, there is something about the ordinary that makes it an ideal vehicle for God’s glory: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9), you might say.

I think this idea of inward glory, of a holiness indwelling the ordinary, is exactly what Hopkins was referring to when he wrote “God’s Grandeur.” For Hopkins, nature exudes the sacred and points backward to its Creator. How different is this, really, from Zooey’s revelation to Franny in the final pages of Franny and Zooey: “There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady…. And don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? … Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy” (200). Whereas Hopkins apprehends God’s presence in a divine creation, Salinger applies this same principle to human beings. Not elegant, pure, brilliant human beings, but ordinary ones — like Seymour’s Fat Lady. Christ himself. Which really boils down to Jesus’ statement that whatever we do unto the least of these, we do unto him (Matt. 25:40).

So the ordinary is endowed with sacred significance. So our ordinary world and experiences do connect us to each other and to God. So ordinary objects can offer us a little peek into the kingdom. This makes all the more fascinating the multiple definitions for the noun, “ordinary,” which directly link it to religious, contemplative life. Besides a priest, “ordinary” can also refer to a “book containing the order of divine service” for the mass, “a devotional manual containing instructions for the conduct of life,” and, the one I find most intriguing, “a diocesan officer appointed to give criminals their neck-verses, and to prepare them for death” (OED). Even the etymology of “ordinary” points to the intimate connection between our daily lives and spirituality, between our immediate surroundings and that invisible, ineffable realm, and between ourselves and God. Most of us make the Platonic mistake of dismissing the former in favor of the latter, of elevating — at least morally — the eternal above the temporal, the ethereal above the corporeal, the extraordinary above the ordinary. When we do this, we overlook that magnificent, symbiotic relationship between these opposites — a relationship without which neither state could exist. In some wondrous, Hegelian dialectic, the ordinary and the extraordinary enter into a sacred communion with one another, and out of this communion our world is born.

Works Cited

The Oxford English Dictionary.

Boland, Eavan. Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time.

Boland, Eavan. Outside History: Selected Poems, 1980–1990.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems and Prose.

Salinger, J.D. Franny and Zooey.

Vest, Norvene. No Moment Too Small: Rhythms of Silence, Prayer, and Holy Reading.


Get back to where you once belonged. Reading is fundamental. Go forward. Move ahead.
Badges? We Ain’t Got No Badges   Ordinary Essay   Rosemary Dunn Dalton: Introduction   WWJD?   The Case of the Missing Parenthesis   When in Rome

Welcome! Listen Look Watch Read Code Get Give

Little Clear Eyes(Light)