BEING ORDINARY: What’s the Point of Trying to Be So Special?

I keep wondering about that.  I have a fairly ordinary, normal life.  This is my most prized accomplishment.   I make dinner for my husband most nights.  Because I love him so much I cook from scratch.  That involves baking and fresh garden vegetables and cooking with those things I have canned from our garden.   I enjoy planning our garden during the winter and combing over gardening websites for ideas, amassing the seeds, bulbs, corms, peat pots and supplies I need to get a jump on the short growing season we have in the Pacific Northwest.

I am looking forward to seeing roses from here.

I am looking forward to seeing roses from here.

I like living well and my definition of that is fairly simple.  For us, living well means living in a fairly well-organized, clean home that delights the eye with both its beauty and its utility.  Home is a wonderful place to be for us.  The few times that I have been able to travel have been a great joy to me.  I want to travel more than I have.  I look forward to it.

I don’t much care for whiners, I appreciate folks who are solutions oriented and rather than complain, do what they can to improve on any given situation.  When I say that, I have to also say that many really HORRIBLE things happened to me in my life.  I don’t like to be called a victim.  I don’t like to be called exceptional either.  I don’t like to be called a survivor because what happened to me isn’t like being pinned under tons of rubble for ten days before a rescue crew pries the rubble apart well enough to extract someone who when they survive will return to life in a country where they live on $500 or less each year.

I don’t mean to deny or minimize the things that happened to me.  I suffered through my difficult childhood in Southern California.  The weather is pretty good there.  I still got to hike in the hills and go to the beach.  When you’re wearing a bathing suit at the beach, social class and poverty isn’t all that apparent to others.   It is hard to characterize such a childhood as something one survived.   When you live through hellishness sometimes it simply occurs as the way life is.  You don’t know at the time that other folks aren’t going through the same sadness, the same loss of innocence.  Certainly I didn’t know what it was to have a normal, ordinary life.

I was sexually molested, raped, beaten, blamed for the sexual activity by my relatives and the mental abuse was very difficult.  I didn’t have a lot of friends because we kept moving.  I was isolated in a variety of ways.  I spent nearly a year of my teens in juvenile hall or in a receiving home for kids who were waiting for foster care.  I went through five foster homes between ages fifteen and seventeen.  I ran off to Denver with a conscientious objector from Camp Pendleton and waited to turn eighteen so that I wouldn’t have to be bossed around by screwed up, careless adults anymore.  That decision was made after the guidance counselor rather importantly informed me that I was not living up to my potential.  It doesn’t matter if I was right about them.  It was my experience that the responsible adults in my life weren’t paying attention to what was in front of them and what was important to me was not on anyone’s radar.

I have a GED high school equivalency certificate.  I took the test about eight years after that trip to Denver.  Denver came after having changed schools 27 times before I dropped out of high school.  I still did well in every part of the GED test, except math, where the discontinuity of my education reaped its grim reward.  I got only 45% of the math questions right, but I was in the high 90th percentile on every other subject in the exam.  I was always curious and read a lot and I think that accounted for my scoring well otherwise.   I talked my way into University of Maryland as a special student with those scores and no SATs when I was 25 years old.

Symons Hall U of MD

I also have a doctoral degree in religious studies and a Juris doctor degree from a small law school in California in 1995.  I am still paying off educational loans.= (Note: paid off in 2012)  I earned all of these degrees and debts on my own.  No one in my family had the means or any interest in helping me go to college.  It was up to me to make of my life what I saw fit.  Maybe it was up to me a little sooner than that idea occurs to others; but it dawned on me at some time during college that we really are all on our own, and that is a good thing, to learn to make ourselves happy.

My education is one source of great happiness to me.  Education makes me feel rich.  No matter how much money I do or don’t have, the intellectual tools and experiences I have as a result of all of that work cannot be taken from me.  If I owe taxes, the government cannot take from me what I have learned.  They can put a lien on my house, but they can’t take the store of information and skills that I have collected.  Being able to solve problems and figure things out is one of my hard earned skill sets and I’m keeping it.

Wherever I go, having done what it took to educate myself both academically and socially I feel prepared.  No matter who I may meet, whatever the accomplishments of another, they didn’t do it coming from a background like mine and I feel like the challenges I faced and mastered gave me a confidence that puts me beyond commonly used measures.  Folks might be smarter than me, and often are, and they can be more accomplished in some way, but they are never worthy of more respect than I give or demand for myself.  At some point, I no longer felt any need to ‘measure up’ because there is no ‘up’ from where I stand.  And because of a few stellar people who crossed my path I learned the importance of kindness and generosity, in addition to the practice of respect, so I’m good.

And yet, all this post childhood educational work made me happy to be sort of ordinary.  Being ordinary is also an accomplishment when the life you were born to is one that asks you to suppress your gifts and become invisible.  Learning to write so that others could get on the same page with me, that was an accomplishment.  Perhaps I don’t write like a published literary genius, but being capable of being understood by a wide variety of people, that is an accomplishment that brings me tremendous joy.

I don’t think anything that I have done is particularly extraordinary, even though I have done lots of things no one would have expected.  I was not trying to be better than anyone else, I was, and continue to try to be better than myself, to expand my understanding and experience.  Sometimes I have done things faster than some of my peers, but it was because I had some goal in mind for myself.   I took more classes than I was required to in law school out of curiosity.  When I was about to graduate I realized I had taken about one extra class per semester.  I took more classes than anyone who graduated with me.  Even then I had a garden and I cooked for my family because I was in my forties when I did my graduate studies, and families need to know that you appreciate them.  Food is a wonderful source for the demonstration of love.   And sometimes, just lolling around without any purpose with someone you love is the best tonic on earth.

Every life has its challenges.  My life started out with more of them than most Americans.  Even so, most of the time I find that I forget everything I surmounted in the past and my life is merely about what I am going to make for dinner tonight and that feels like having a tremendously privileged life.  I am free of worry about having enough money or food.  I can think about things I never knew existed or had time to consider as a girl from a family who got food stamps.

I read Heidegger, Hölderlin, Nietzsche, Sartre, W.E.B. DuBois, Shulamith Firestone and so much more.  None of which I could discuss with anyone in my family to this day.

I read poetry endlessly for a few years and fell in love with both Frank O’Hara and Sam Hamill.  I learned to meditate and to teach meditation and spiritual practices.  I learned to share the stillness I had found within.  If I had followed the expectations of my family I probably would have been a waitress for a long, long time.  And certainly, it helped me pay my tuition to be a good waitress who could remember a lot of disparate information.  But that would have been it:  I would have missed the opportunities of my life.  I would have struggled with poverty and would have missed all the things that I love the most:  All the ordinary pleasures, all the normal day to day things that come of being who I am.

I would have missed my ordinary life.  In the same way that the low expectations of my family would have held me back, I feel that so much striving to be special is an equally and tremendously crafty thief of our day to day lives.  For a long time I struggled to excel at things that other folks simply did with greater ease than I can.  Other people were intrinsically more interested in the law than I was.  I wasn’t fascinated.  Other people were more interested in being heroic than I was.   And I tried to find work that was centered on my greatest skills, but there really wasn’t anything that required that skill set but me.

And so I found work that took advantage of my best skills, not all of them, but enough that at the end of the day I had time to use those other parts of me to amuse myself and benefit my family.  And the stress of striving for some acknowledgement of my specialness began to die away and I was left here living in this wonderful home with this wonderful man who appreciates my intelligence and creativity and who could listen to every awful thing that happened to me without awe or false sentimentality so that I could have an ordinary life and put away the burden of being special.   It’s nearly impossible to relax when you’re busy trying to be or avoiding being special.

My husband, Dan McMullen, has been more transformative in my life than anyone else I know. The way that he stuck with me through thick and thin helped me understand myself in ways that nothing else could.

I’ve done all kinds of spiritual, psychological and ontological work and he has done some of it with me, including even being an excellent student in classes that I have taught as a minister myself.

There is no substitute for being loved from the hair on your head to the soles of your feet, inside and outside and even when there is stormy weather in the relationship. Dan has never, ever made me feel that I should doubt his dedication and love. That kind of love leaves me free to develop myself as fully as I am able.

Dan the Man

This song is for him…



Ray LaMontagne

SHELTER

I guess you don’t need it
I guess you don’t want me to repeat it
But everything I have to give I’ll give to you
It’s not like we planned it
You tried to stay, but you could not stand it
To see me shut down slow
As though it was an easy thing to do
Listen when
All of this around us’ll fall over
I tell you what we’re gonna do
You will shelter me my love
And I will shelter you
I will shelter you
I left you heartbroken, but not until those very words were spoken
Has anybody ever made such a fool out of you
It’s hard to believe it
Even as my eyes do see it
The very things that make you live are killing you
Listen when all of this around us’ll fall over
I tell you what we’re gonna do
You will shelter me my love
I will shelter you
Listen when
All of this around us’ll fall over
I tell you what we’re gonnado
You will shelter me my love
I will shelter you
If you shelter me too
I will shelter you
I will shelter you

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