Three things before we start –
Apologies for the stupidly excessive amount of times the words ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ are used. I hope you don’t get lost. I admit, I lost myself a few times. So please “bear with,” as my brother would say.
And huge credit to Canon J for reminding me of the jigsaw analogy – it is one I seem to be using a lot at the moment to explain life. I will never forget the bobbing conversation we first had after sabbatical when you explained it. It really helps, and not just me.
Finally – thank you to all those special people who make my ordinary extraordinary, and who share with me in extraordinarinesses day by day. You know who you are.
We’re back in ordinary time. Though I missed it in somewhat spectacular fashion (I don’t do things by halves!), Easter is over. Pentecost has been and gone. So it’s ordinary time again. It has the capacity to sound rather bleak. Ordinary, in fact, or how the word ‘ordinary’ has come to be used. And whilst it is principally a measured and numbered time, it definitely has the capacity to drag on. When you get to the 21st Sunday after Trinity, there is no doubt you feel older. Or I do anyway. But ordinary time charts an extraordinary life. So ordinary time has the capacity to be a time for learning, growing, appreciating. And for every individual, the ordinary might just have the power to become extraordinary.
As much as the last few months have shown me that every day we are gifted is extraordinary, it’s difficult to remember. Now as I settle back into life, back into school, into exams, and slowly back into myself, I find that I am slipping into a new ordinary. I have new routine into which each day fits and becomes ordinary. It’s different than it was before Easter, it has to be. But it’s still kind of ordinary. And it certainly feels like it will become more natural as each day passes. I find it harder each day to find extraordinariness.
So I woke up yesterday to what I thought would be an ordinary Saturday. I hit the alarm at the luxurious time of nine o’clock – it is, after all, finally, half term. And I rolled out of bed and into the shower, not quite literally, but close. I checked my bloods, gave my first dosings of medications, and about an hour after waking, finally got around to eating breakfast (don’t tell my DSN!). It was Shreddies, if you’re interested. I told you this was going to be a pretty ordinary day.
I settled down to work and my desk soon turned from a blank canvass of a space into brain flow carnage. Paper covered every inch of wood, and, of course, decided to take flight onto the floor, into the garden and under the sofa, as soon as I opened the door to get some fresh air. Highlighters merged colours with bleeding ink. Arrows, asterisks and splashes of colour showed my exploding thoughts, linkages and patchy knowledge. I stepped back when I finished for the afternoon and was quite astounded by the chaos I was able to create. I am ever close to trusting in my family’s belief that ‘every space I inhabit is messy.’ Being legal types, they made me sign a document in 2015 that affirmed it. But I guess they can’t complain. Under the proviso that everything I am currently doing is ‘revision,’ most things seem to pass familial scrutiny, including eating a square of dark chocolate every once in a while: cocoa was a key export in the triangular trade originating during 17th century Stuart Britain, so it definitely counts as sensory immersion in the Stuart economics course. That’s my argument at least. Don’t you agree?
An ordinary day. I got in the car to go up to the Cathedral (it’s technically down geographically, but never mind), and it was a pretty ordinary drive, dodging weekend drivers and enduring my father’s regular exclamation: “what did he do that for?? Look where it got him… nowhere!” Suffice to say he’s not very good at channelling road rage. To be honest, hitching a lift was really just an excuse not to get the train, since my Dad had to be there anyway. So I suppose enduring road rage is sort of part of the package. And who knows – maybe I’m as bad when I drive…
I don’t know why, but I didn’t talk at all whilst we drove. I guess I just wasn’t really in the mood. Going back to places where I felt more than comfortable ‘before’ is even harder with an ‘after’ identity that’s still piecing itself back together. I hate that divide, but it’s sort of the only way I can think of to describe this. Whatever this is. It’s like before there was a jigsaw puzzle that before was almost complete, and so you could see life’s picture coming together. But now the jigsaw puzzle has been mauled, or trampled on, or broken up by someone frustrated that all the pieces of sky were the same colour. The edges are still roughly there, or at least they are the easiest bits to put back together. The boundaries of life are roughly in place. It’s the rest of the picture that’s missing or jumbled up. All the pieces are lying topsy-turvy on the floor. The picture isn’t clear anymore. You hope all the pieces are still there. But you don’t know – there could be one that’s missing. You don’t know when or if the picture will be complete again. It’s the feeling that the world has shifted under you, and you’re not quite sure where to stand, or if you are about to embarrass yourself in a spectacularly un-elegant mudslide. They are the same places, but you’re not quite the same person. I’m still trying to find where the ‘after’ person slots back in. I’m still piecing back the jigsaw puzzle.
I needed space.
So as soon as we parked up I headed to the gardens, sheltered by the body of the Cathedral itself, and shadowed with the wooden cross, the golden angel flying high above. They are the same gardens I used to play in in the transience of past summers, hoping desperately that the choristers would take 5 extra minutes, so I could have 5 extra minutes chasing the other siblings round and round, with the final strains of evensong just ever so slightly lingering as the sun slowly waned and the night crept in. The tufts of grass find a beautiful luminescence at this time of year, trapped daily between bouts of sweltering sunshine and scattered showers. It was the same grass where I would sneak a sandwich, or picnic with the other families enduring a three-service extravaganza of a Sunday. It doesn’t happen anymore, but the same gleaming grass is still there. And it harbours the same attraction to the child inside of me.
And, with an hour to spare before evensong, I took my books. Rather ordinary. It’s exam season, so I’m rarely anywhere without a book and a pad of paper to jot down any unusually inspired ideas, plans or thoughts. In fact, think my consultant was a little surprised when I came for my bi-weekly assessment this week accompanied by a hefty volume of Tacitus. But you never know about hospital waiting times, and I’ve found that a historian who is characterised by his ability to politically psychoanalyse is a great match for the joys of sitting on an inconveniently placed plastic fold-down chair that is unimaginably uncomfortable (who designed those things?), waiting for a delayed appointment to be drained of yet more blood or infused with some new IV goodness, watching doctors, nurses, paramedics, patients, assistants, relatives, children, the elderly, wheelchairs, beds and trolleys trundling past down clinically sanitary white corridors, long, maze-like and dingy. And when other spare time allows, the ducks and the adorable golden and fluffy goslings in the local lake are becoming ever well-versed in Ovid, Propertius and Tibullus. It is somewhat less awkward learning the erotic Amores in the shaded woodland than in a public space. The ducks don’t seem to mind anyway.
But whenever I go to the Cathedral, it’s normally Greek. Rarely anything else strikes me as having the right gravitas. And if I want to work on my translation, the Greek Bible feels very at home there, as I hide, tucked out of sight in the library, beavering away to the sound of organ practice, or tourists wandering and wondering what lies beyond the solid door. But I wasn’t in the library yesterday. It was too claustrophobic, too dark and too serious. Besides, Thucydides was charting the battle of Pylos, with its precipitous headland and rocky terrain. It was much more fitting to be out in the gardens, atop the hill with its views down onto the town below.
And I needed space.
And I hadn’t been feeling anything particular all day. And it would have been a completely ordinary hour to anyone else. But suddenly, sat there, on a bench in the garden, a bush shading me from the sun beating down, but still feeling the all-encompassing heat in all its glory, and with the blue sky traced not a single whisper of cloud holding my gaze, dreaming to the strikingly familiar soundtrack of children racing down the hill below, and the students sunbathing, and the birds singing joyful hymns in the budding branches, a wave of extraordinariness struck me. I can’t really describe it in a way that it merits. Except that this was a moment I wanted to capture forever. Just a single moment with all the sounds and heat and scents of summer. A perfect and extraordinary moment in an ordinary minute.
I felt so grateful to be in that moment. Grateful to be alive. Grateful for summer. Grateful for faith. Grateful for the chance to have a moment of silent solitary stillness. Grateful for hope. Grateful for youth. Grateful for strength. Grateful for survival. Grateful for the world’s beating heart.
Those moments are truly extraordinary. When you feel like all the darkness and the light and the pain and the hope just align for a single second. When you feel like the world is yours to share in. When you feel like there is a split second of ultimate peace. When you feel like all you can do is love.
Slowly, the moment melted. It dissipated before my eyes, as another dog walker turned my gaze, a child’s shriek struck me unaware, and the pages of Thucydides started to flap incessantly as the breeze picked up. And I too seemed to melt back into the ordinary routines of working. But that feeling of extraordinary power didn’t seem to leave me. And it’s still there, locked away in my heart or mind.
I can tell I was still in a haze even 10 minutes later, despite returning from dreaming to studying, since a gentle and quiet “hello” half-startled me and I jumped, much to both of our amusements. But I think the unconscious haze that followed, as I held that moment close, is indicative its beauty. It was a moment that shrouded me so completely; I was so perfectly in tune with my own thoughts to the extent that, for that one moment, I could transcend the earth’s pain.
It is the extraordinary moments like that one that you come back to when the world throws you, knocks you back and winds you. Moments which change you. Second by second.
But change takes many forms. Sometimes it comes all at once. In fact, I left school on Friday, a time tinged with so many bittersweet emotions. I’m ready to leave. So ready. But there is a part that tugs me back. It’s certainly a big change, and therefore overwhelming. Yet it seems pertinent, since, as I write this, it is my headmistress’ departing words to us that echo in my mind, that we shouldn’t feel the pressure to have to be glorious, and live an extraordinary life. “There is nothing wrong with living an ordinary life well.”
For me, it’s definitely not about living an extraordinary life. I’m about the most ordinary you get, with rather ordinary hopes and fears. But living an ordinary life well, that’s more like it. And I think it’s not always the big changes that make the difference. It’s the ability to discern the changing extraordinary second hidden in the ordinary minute, and cherish those extraordinary moments, that make a day lived well and that make an ordinary life extraordinary. In that sense, there is no better thing than living an ordinary life well.
And sometimes there are those rare hours and days when there are so many extraordinary moments that you just want to capture them all and hold onto them in your heart forever. So, what had been an ordinary studying Saturday became an extraordinary one. For that moment was just the first.
The second was like, namely this. The same bench, the same shade. The same sun, the same breeze. The same golden angel and same shadowing cross. The same blue sky, the same striking green. But two people. Two people who chose to cast books and stress aside for a few hours of just being, and enjoying living (and pizza 😊). The picture was quite ordinary: two people sitting on a bench in the sun, quite alone in that part of the garden, but not really alone at all, talking about the weather, the week and the future, laughing, and commiserating. Yet however ordinary, there was a similar wave of extraordinariness to the feeling I had experienced alone. Although, this time, the moment seemed to harbour a greater profoundness. Because it was not divine for me alone. It was the extraordinary shared.
I lay in bed later. In fact, you won’t be surprised to hear I lie in bed most nights. It is distinctly ordinary. But somehow this, again, was extraordinary. It was characterised by thoughts different to my usual angst-filled reflections on A levels, or mental essay planning. None of my usual cares seemed to cross my mind. The window, cracked half open, let in just a subtle coolness to the overwhelming heat of the room. The curtains waved, and beat ever so softly against the pane. The birds were still singing though night was swiftly dragging at the sky. But their tune was no match for the music the day had brought. I closed my eyes from the ticking of the clock and just listened to my breath fade into nothingness, arms wrapped round me in a sure embrace. I wished I never had to leave that moment.
Ordinary time is measured. It drags on. Watching the clock is a reminder of how, in the grand scheme of things, there is so little time we have left to spend together. I have lived for 9,672,480 minutes up to this point. That’s 580,348,800 seconds. I’ve roughly spent 2400 of those writing this. And probably more by the time you read this. So how many of them have actually counted? I don’t know. Ordinary time drags on.
But sometimes, in ordinary seconds, extraordinary time is found. It doesn’t feel measured. It is both ephemeral and lasting beyond the confines of time. It changes you. It counts. It is what we hold to. It is how we move through the pain. Everyday, we must try to search out extraordinary time in an ordinary second. To hold onto it. To cradle it. To come back to it when there is no one to turn to.
Though I share something of this with you, deep down, in my heart, I know no words, no language, or music will ever be able to describe the true sense of extraordinariness. Maybe it is foolish to even try to write it down. I can only ever go part of the way to acknowledging the love of it. The rest you’ll have to feel for yourselves.
This ordinary time, find the extraordinary moments. Share the extraordinary. Make the decision to live, and love living. Hold onto the extraordinary in the face of the ordinary. Look to the extraordinary when the ordinary overwhelms. Who knows, this ordinary time, you might just see for yourself the extraordinary person I know you are, and continually called to be.