Years ago, when we lived in Columbus, Ohio, I regularly read columns by Kirsten Chapman, who often echoed my own concerns in her thoughtful pieces. In one column, she lamented having lived life as “an ordinary woman,” and quoted lines from the poem “the thirty eighth year” by Lucille Clifton. I have never forgotten the poem, nor its author, nor the message, in the 25 years since.
“i had expected more than this. i had not expected to be an ordinary woman,” Clifton said, and she told of her young dreams of being smaller, more beautiful, wiser, and more confident by adulthood. That poem and those thoughts have come to mind often as I ponder what, exactly, I expected of myself. Did I expect to be an “ordinary woman” as I grew up? I doubt it. I think I had greater expectations for myself, but I never was clear about exactly what those were. I still am not clear about that, but at 72 I believe it’s probably too late to fulfill dreams to be extraordinary (I don’t have Grandma Moses’s talent, for example). However, my thoughts about what it means to be “ordinary” have evolved.
If being ordinary means being a decent, kind, loving human being who does what (s)he can to make the world a better place—even if that effort may appear inconsequential or even invisible—then ordinary is OK. The world needs many millions of these ordinary people! If being ordinary means pouring oneself into being the best possible parent, and providing unwavering love to children who grow up to be fine adults, then ordinary is more than OK. If being ordinary means devoting as much of one’s time as possible to young grandchildren, so that their memories of their grandparents are always warm and we serve as an example to emulate—well then, ordinary is just fine.
And who are the “ordinary” women I know? Who are the women who don’t make the headlines, who don’t serve on boards, who don’t even gain the recognition they deserve from their own families? They are women like my friend who has given up all of her personal dreams to care for her disabled brother and, until her death, her dependent and chronically ill, bipolar mother. In addition to being a 24/7 on-call caregiver and fierce advocate for these fragile family members, she raised her own children while prioritizing her husband and marriage and somehow fitting everything into her very busy life. Everyone felt important and loved. This “ordinary woman” was responsible for extending the life of her quadriplegic brother to nearly three times what doctors said someone in his condition could expect. Her mother also lived a good 15 additional years because she had someone always looking out for her best interests. Her father’s death was with dignity, because his daughter, my ‘ordinary’ friend, drove to his apartment regularly, often several times a day, to care for him until it was no longer possible. She did this while caring for her brother and mother, counseling a grown child in crisis, arranging her life around her busy husband’s schedule, and making gingerbread houses with grandchildren. She will never make the headlines. She will never be known outside of her own community, and even within that community, she will only be known by a small circle of friends. But is she ordinary? Not to my mind. She lived true to her Christian beliefs, always serving others. Extraordinary devotion to the highest principles, under the most difficult conditions, always tested.
And my friend who belongs to Al Anon, who struggled in a losing cause trying to hold together a marriage for 30 years with an alcoholic devoted to his alcohol and not to his family. Was she ordinary? She nearly singlehandedly raised two wonderful sons, she got her PhD, she had an important job for a period of time, and she finally worked up the considerable courage it took and got the divorce she should probably should have gotten 15 years earlier. Is she ordinary? Not to me. I have learned from her the lessons of co-dependence, and the insights I’ve gained have guided my own life and brought me greater inner peace. She will never make national headlines, and though she has a wide circle of friends, she will not be well-known outside of her community, either. But is she ordinary? Is ordinary the ability to make a decision to be kind in the midst of a bitter divorce, and to never say one negative thing about the man you once loved who is furious and degrading her character at every turn? The ability to turn the other cheek, while frightened and completely uncertain of her future, was extraordinary. Not ordinary. I often tell others about how she conducted herself, always with kindness, in a way that gained her the respect of her grown sons in spite of what their father was saying. When it was all over, and both had remarried, her sons remained close to her (perhaps closer) while still loving their father. Her letter to her ex-husband after they’d been divorced for years was a full and loving account of their past history, with apologies for her part in what went wrong. He replied that he never stopped loving her, and appreciated her letter so much. Then days later, he died unexpectedly, too young. Is she ordinary? Not to me. To me, her everyday life was heroic.
Is anyone really ordinary? What IS ordinary? Is ordinary getting on with life, day by day, and doing the best you can? Is ordinary like a colony of ants, each one doing its unspectacular job well, so that the entire colony succeeds? If this is ordinary, and it feels more and more like it to me at 72, then I am just fine with being “ordinary.” Ordinary is what keeps the gears turning smoothly in our lives. Ordinary is what is civil, respectful, diligent, observant, caring and kind, and above all, loving.
I married a man who is not ever going be called “ordinary.” He was able to achieve extraordinary things in his career, which was rich and rewarding. I know that part of his success is due to me. I know that he could not have achieved all that he did if he had not had a partner dedicated to managing the details of everyday life. One doesn’t get credit for that “ordinary” life. It was once hard for me to see that I had not fulfilled my potential as something “more important” than being a homemaker and working at jobs that, with one exception, did not allow me to reach my potential. I often pondered what I “should have been,” or “could have been,” if I had not chosen to marry and have a family.
But all of a sudden, at 72, I see myself differently. And I see “ordinary” differently, too.
It’s perfectly OK to be ordinary, to make a small, personal contribution that makes the world run more smoothly, and above all, to raise decent, kind, and loving human beings.
There really isn’t anything ordinary about that.