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.