Hymns in Ordinary Time

Ordinary: (n.) What is commonplace or standard

               (adj.) With no special or distinctive features; normal.

—the Oxford Dictionary online


When Mark and I come home from picking up the rug, the floor has dried to a soft, rejuvenated sheen. We cut the thick band of transparent tape the clerk—a rather manic and annoyed young man—wrapped vigorously around the 7 by 10 foot area rug at the store before he thrust it at Mark and hurried away. Now, Mark wrestles it to one end of the dining room.

We unroll the rug as if we’re part of the Fixer Upper crew—Mark gives it a neat kick, and we watch it spill out over the newly polished floor. The end that lands by me, though, the edge that’s right near the kitchen, is kind of crunched under itself.

I run and grab stacks of books. Jim comes to help, and we position heavy tomes all around the edge of the rug to flatten it. Any resemblance to Fixer Upper has ended right here.

We waggle-walk the heavy oak table onto the new carpet. Jim and Mark bring in the old chairs. The curtains are tucked away in the guest room; I retrieve them, and we slide them onto rods and hang them.

There is more to do; there are small jobs that will keep me busy for another few days, but the dining room is restored—drop cloths whisked away, table a clear, clean space.

I pause a minute, taking in the newly painted (“Roasted Cashew”) walls, the fresh white ceiling and trim, the softness of the white curtains and sheers, the colors of the framed posters—an antique map of Sicily, a photo of a worn blue rowboat beached in northwestern Scotland—that still need to be hung. Mark comes in and we stand together, assessing.

“I LIKE this room,” he says. And I agree.

Tonight, we will eat, altogether, around this table. So we chop and slice poultry and veggies, and we measure and steam rice—a chicken stir fry, a family-cooked endeavor. We pour sauces and stir and sample and soon declare rice and chicken and veggies perfectly done. We heap plates and carry them into the dining room, where we eat together for the first time in about three weeks—since I started the dining room project, since the drop cloths appeared.

Jim cleans his plate and sits back and sighs.

“This is like the old days,” he says. “This is like…ordinary time.”


Ordinary time. The phrase tolls loud in memory, loud from a Catholic childhood. In ordinary time, there are no feasts and there is no fasting.

I know just what Jim means: eating in the dining room is part of everyday life, ordinary, expected, taken for granted. And ordinary days, as the dictionary definition says, have no distinctive features; they are commonplace and not special.

Ordinary days are normal.

A memory heaves up through the flotsam. I am asking my mother if we can do something—go shopping, go visiting,–something.

We can do that, she agrees, as soon as things get back to normal.

She pauses, then adds, “Whatever THAT means.”

So this is an ordinary dinner, an ordinary evening.

Whatever THAT means.


I think about ordinary time, and I think about distinctive changes. There have been some in the last year: Jim has gone back to college, has gotten a job he enjoys very much in the college library. This summer, with renovations anticipated in the library, Jim is not working, and he struggles to create orderly days without the structure of work. 

This summer probably seems to Jim like the old days, but he has created for himself a new kind of ordinary time.

This year, every weekday morning, Mark gets up before 6:00 a.m., and he drives himself over to the rec center and works out for 45 minutes. I drag myself out of bed, too, and I lace up sneakers and take myself a good stretch of a walk. This is new; I can’t remember when we decided on these new practices, but they were certainly not ordinary when we wrestled them into our lives.

Now, if the day doesn’t start with exercise, we get antsy. The gym, the walking—it’s part of our new normal, a thread in the weave of what is now our ordinary time.

Ordinary time has to do with the pattern of the days, I think: the waking and rising, the steaming mugs that start the day, the work undertaken, the meals shared, the everyday things accomplished. The waning hours are important, too: sharing, maybe, a Netflix movie, a show on Hulu—a segue, always, into time spent with a book.

The shape and heft of each day seems, basically, same, and we try to remember. Did we go to the library Monday or Tuesday?

Are there markers we can use—that was the day AFTER the doctor’s appointment, right? And that appointment was on Monday, so the library MUST have been Tuesday.

We leave tiny blazes on the trail, but mostly, days are pretty predictable.

And then an event or project—painting the dining room, say—inserts itself, and the rhythm is shaken. I forsake regular housework to get this job done…and I discover that I don’t work as quickly as I used to do. I estimate the painting as a three-day job; but I am still doing touch-ups three weeks later.

The slowing is a change from what I think of as ordinary; the slowing is my new normal.

In the interim, tables and cabinets are covered with cloths, and chairs are shoved up against the bookshelf in the living room. The chaos bothers Jim; he takes his meals down to the basement, eats at his computer. Mark and I grab quick meals together, sliding the table cover back far enough to clear space for two plates, dragging two chairs into the dining room, putting them back when the meal is done. The paint paraphernalia does not invite lingering after a meal.

On nice mornings, we take breakfast outside and ignore the dining room altogether.

Through the bare windows, anyone passing by can see the old wooden ladder, which has, seemingly, become a permanent dining room fixture.

And just when the clutter and chaos start to feel ordinary, the painting is done; the floor is scrubbed and polished. The new rug, soft and pliant, accepts the table; the room is put together.

It is NOT the same; but using the space once again in the way we always have feels like a return to normal. It feels, as Jim says, like ordinary time.


But days can return to the regular pace—days can be times without feast or fast—and still not feel normal. This week, we pack to travel to Toledo, to attend an anniversary memorial service for a dear friend’s son. This son, a talented, vibrant 40-year old husband and father and college professor, died a year ago from an invidious, virulent cancer.

I know that my friend’s days may have returned to a routine in the year that passed. But I am quite sure those days will never quite seem, again, like ordinary time.

Just as they won’t for Ott, or Debbi, or Kathy or any of us who have lost people so closely woven into our lives that the fabric is unutterably altered.

If ordinary means with no distinctive features, then ordinary is gone. Each day bears the very distinctive feature of loss and absence.

And what of those, I think, who have endured illness or accident and come out changed—unable, maybe to live quite the way they did before? They must create a new ordinary; their normal has moved to a  very different point.


Even healthy, happy changes—new relationship, new job, a move—even these things, in their joyful transformations, morph our ordinary times.


“Ordinary time” seems to imply a return to what has always been usual, to the way we always lived before the monumental event happened. And how, I think, can that ever be? We are not the same people we were before the event. We are older; we have changed. We may be sadder or wiser or filled with the joy of accomplishment or we may be feeling any number of ways, prompted by the Thing that happened.

We may share our thoughts with the same people we talked to before. Or we may find that the Thing changed relationships, too. We may live in different places.

I open my laptop and look up “ordinary time—definition,” and I find that, although those times in the Church are indeed times without feast or fast, that is not the reason for their name. The Church weeks derive their name from ‘ordinal’; they are numbered and counted—the first week of ordinary time…the fourth week of ordinary time…


We may do same things, we may celebrate the same holidays, we may walk the same path, year after year. This Christmas, once again, we will hang the old ornaments on the tree—the stuffed mouse my mother made; the ‘best teacher’ ornament a special sixth grader gave me back in the eighties, Jim’s ‘Baby’s First Christmas’ orb. We’ll hang picture ornaments of grandkids and grand nieces and nephews—and the kids in the pictures have round cheeks and wide eyes. The kids in real life have tall, slender frames and independent streaks. Because they have grown and matured and changed; that is what is ordinary now.

Tradition reminds us, but it doesn’t paste us in place. Ordinary life has an ordinal bent—we are in our 35th year of marriage; I am in my 64th year of life. We have been seven years in this house. The dog has been gone, Mark realized today, for just over a year.


And yet. I know what Jim means—know the comfort in restoring the thing that’s askew to its original purpose, in returning the function to a room, in connecting with the people with whom we love to share certain times and holidays and events.

Because there is loss and there is awful wrenching pain, and there are even unforeseen joys that take our breaths away and alter the way we live. Of course these things change us. Of course they do. They must.

But maybe it’s the ordinary things that help us make it through—the yearly visit, the planting and the harvesting, the celebration of birthdays, the shopping for winter boots.

The meal shared around a family table.

There is a comfort in that, in knowing that, despite us and without us, some things—things that are important to us and to others,—will continue. We will never be the same; we will never unknow what we know now, what we didn’t know last year.

But in the threads of custom, of tradition, in the search for some kind of daily grace, there is safety. No matter how tenuous they may be, I find I still seek shelter in the ordinary times.

‘Twas the Last Week of Advent

The final Sunday dawns, in a season of anticipation, and the last candle is lit.  A circle of glowing, those four candles form; anticipation intensifies. Those who found the feasts find themselves kicked into hyper-drive. All last minute details must be accomplished–the cleaning, the last bit of baking, the clothes for the parties. Stocking stuffers must be bought or crafted and wrapped accordingly.

For some others–for dreamers, believers, lovers, and children (who oftentimes are all of the other three), time opens out into a fluid, pristine pool; it flattens and extends. There are wonderful tasks to take care of: a carefully chosen gift to wrap for a beloved teacher. The sparkling bauble to be picked up at the jeweler’s–both gift and signal of commitment to a whole new level of bonding. Packages arrive, delivered by the harried but cheerful UPS person,–packages that need to be swept off the steps and into the house before anyone else notices their arrival.

Some prepare for travel, a careful time of careful packing; they bear important treasures that can’t be left behind.

There are special dishes to be made–that cheesecake that has the sweet tart cherries and chopped cashews and carved chunks of dark chocolate swirled into its creaminess, maybe. The store-bought sandwich cookies dipped into melted chocolate and drizzled with glaze, finished with sprinkles. The meat that must marinate for 48 hours. The pasta that must be carefully stuffed. These important tasks become a focus.

For children, the waiting becomes almost unbearable, those four glowing candles, those constant television specials, the swift, hushed steps of grown-ups performing secret, essential chores.

For those that celebrate Christmas, this week becomes a time of readying, in both physical and spiritual senses. It is a special, solemn prelude to a special, hopeful joy.

And yet.

There are those who celebrate the holidays who also tend to other things.

The week before Christmas can be both sacred and ordinary time.

He has an empty stool by his hearth.

It is his first Christmas without his wife of fifty years; she passed in the spring, and slowly he has been learning what life is like–and how to live it–without her. But Christmas–this was her holiday. She knitted and sewed for months before; she decorated every nook and cranny. She was especially invested in personal gifts; the thought of sticking cash in an envelope or tossing a gift card someone’s way was anathema to her.

He has tried to honor her spirit, and he has shopped for the kids and grandkids. He hopes he has done a good job,–done it for her, almost with her. But it has been a trudge through viscous muddy swamps and not a joyful journey. Next year, he thinks, he’ll learn to order on-line and avoid the piped-in music, the raucous crowds.

He has put up the tree, and hung the ornaments, aching, by himself. He has put a wreath on the door and dug the holiday dish towels out from where she always kept them. Just that much exhausted him.

His kids are great; they call and visit, and his dance card is filled for Christmas Eve and Christmas.

But this final week, when all the rest of the world seems to be gearing up and frenzied, he stays home at night, and he turns the TV on, looking for an old war movie or a murder mystery. Tears fall through a haze of cigarette smoke. He wishes the holiday would just be over.

She is at Starbucks, sipping her dark roast and making it last, trying to decide how she can tell her family she has no job after the first of the year.

He is in the parking lot, the car idling, warming up. He is absorbing the awful, harsh diagnosis.

He’d been so sure that all was well–Wouldn’t I know, he thought, that something was catastrophically wrong? Wouldn’t my body tell me?

Apparently not. The doctor had been gentle and caring but very, very clear. The treatment options. The prognosis. The time he probably had left.

His wife had wanted to come; he told her, Nah, it’ll be fine. Why waste your personal time?

He doesn’t know if he wishes she were here, or if he’s glad she isn’t.

This, he thinks, is probably my last Christmas.  A kind of numbing sets in and he puts the car in gear.

Last year, she was in combat at Christmas. This–being home, and enfolded–was all she could think of, all she wished for.

But in some ways, she thinks, this is much, much harder.

He takes his pill and tries to shove the dread away, to stifle it. He does not want his illness to ruin everyone else’s Christmas, but oh, this is ridiculously hard. He knows he has to get on with the day, but having depression is hard enough. Having depression in the holidays feels like a burden too heavy to drag along.

The expectation of the miracle is the gleaming heart of the season. It shines through child eyes and through the eyes of those newly in love. It thrums like a rhythm through the secret tasks of busy parents. It carries the grandparents, readying their house for an onslaught of celebration, through their holiday chores. This is, and it should be, a time of great joy.

But there are some for whom the miracle has receded, whose hearts are made heavy by their inability to share in the joyful preparation. Anticipation transforms into dread, and they bear the guilt of being unable to fling themselves into the preparation.

We light our candles and we sing about city sidewalks and we dust the ceramic baby Jesus in his finely crafted manger. We feel the surge: oh, the holiday is coming: coming fast. The light cracks open the darkness; it’s all happening again.

It is the week before Christmas; We anticipate the joy. And we pray,–ah, we pray and open our hearts to,–those for whom the joy, this year, will probably not come.