I never wanted to live an ordinary life. In fact, I wonder if you can even live an ordinary life at all, since the very idea of “living” seems to be at odds with the concept of ordinary. So too do I question the idea that one can “lead” an ordinary existence, since leading at all would indicate deliberate thought and action…and in a world where many operate and function as society dictates, living deliberately is anything but ordinary. Ordinary is reactive. It’s seeing the status quo and continuing it with little conscious thought as to why or, in some cases, foolishly fighting against it for no other reason than to rebel. What ordinary is not is questioning, thinking, exploring, learning, growing, engaging the senses, and forging our own paths. What it’s not is experiencing and contributing to the real journey all of us begin when we are born…and which extends far beyond our individual lives. Ordinary is not what we look at, but what we see….or, rather, what we don’t see. It’s not like looking at the state of Kansas, for example. It’s like looking at the state of Kansas and seeing only flat prairie…as if prairies don’t house up to 60 species of grasses, 300 different species of flowers, and numerous species of lichens, liverworts, woody trees, and shrubs. The subject doesn’t matter. Ask any artist or photographer. It’s how we see the subject that makes a difference.
The exact moment I realized I didn’t want an ordinary life is singularly impressed upon my mind. It was in the late afternoon when I was maybe 14, during a time when I frequently took walks in the woods by my house in a small town on the outskirts of Alton, Illinois. I had just walked out of the trees and onto a nearby field when I was met with an unexpected display in the sky. Normally distant and impersonal, the sun that day reached down through the clouds and onto the land in front of me with rays that beckoned like open roads to my restless inner vagabond. Much like the scene in “Dead Poet’s Society” where Professor Keating pretends to be the ghosts of students long gone, whispering “Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys. Make your lives extraordinary,” those rays delivered a similar message. And although anyone else in the area that day could have received the message I did, it wasn’t likely. Looking toward a somewhat distant neighborhood with a collection of cookie-cutter houses straight out of Mr. Rogers’ land of make-believe, I determined that most people were too busy with “the ordinary” to be anything but completely oblivious to the magnificent show I was witnessing. They weren’t getting the message and weren’t seeing what I was seeing. And what I was seeing, I didn’t want to end. To this day, that one moment on that field serves as a reminder that there’s always more waiting there for us, if we just look. The extraordinary is there…waiting…if we just look.
“Douglas opened one eye. And everything, absolutely everything, was there. The world, like a great iris of an even more gigantic eye, which has also just opened and stretched out to encompass everything, stared back at him.”
— Ray Bradbury in Dandelion Wine
And yet, since my experience that day on the field, I’ve often wondered. At what point can one’s life be considered extraordinary? At what point would I consider my own life to be extraordinary? During the years when I (too) lived a life reflective of the lives of those in the cookie-cutter houses in the land of make-believe, did I simply fail to see how those years were (actually) extraordinary….as George Bailey failed to see the virtues of his own life in “It’s a Wonderful Life?” Did I see only flat prairie when there was so much more? Or, was I simply seeing my life as I thought others would see it….boring, typical, and nothing at all worth writing about? And writing was my objective….although I was at a complete loss for where to begin. And yet, after years of reading books on writing, I recently stumbled upon a publication that addresses how writers often believe just as I believed….that their lives and personal stories are too dull to share and tell unless they come from atypical, worldly, exciting, and/or tragic backgrounds. Despite how we may feel, however, the author points out that each individual and each life is distinctive and therefore has a distinct eye from which to see and a distinct perspective to share. Could this be the extraordinary I had been looking for?
From the time of separation from my husband and his subsequent suicide in 2010 until quite recently, I had been on a personal mission to find “the extraordinary”…..or whatever it was that called me to a higher purpose and more meaningful existence that day on the field. I didn’t know whether it was a lifestyle, a career path, an ideal person/romantic relationship, or all of those, but I finally went looking for it. I began my journey, taking many risks, daring a number of solitary adventures, and asking myself innumerous questions along the way. Was I living according to who I really am and what I really wanted and needed? And who was I and what were those things, exactly? Should I work a regular job or try to find a way to write for a living? Is it enough to be paid to write and take photos or does what and who I write about and photograph make a difference? Do I want to own a house, car, or any of the other things people tend to own? Do those things matter? Can I give up those things? Can I give up everything? Will I find the extraordinary in living more simply? Should I be investing my time in other creative pursuits? Where does travel fit into the picture? How little or much do I want to impact the planet? How much good do I want to do? Does it matter whether I am remembered after I die? What’s my true purpose? Do I have one? Is there more than one? What experiences do I want to have and consider to be extraordinary? What kind of relationship or partnership would I describe as extraordinary?
And so, I asked myself those questions (and more) and answered many of them through a decade of trial and error. I let go of almost everything I owned, moved out of state, started businesses, filed for bankruptcy, worked part-time jobs in between periods of unemployment. I even lived a winter in a motor home and a summer in a school bus. Only recently, however, did I stop to ask whether I had found what I was looking for. Did I find it…the extraordinary?
The answer is yes. Yes, I believe I’ve found it….but not entirely how and where I originally thought. In fact, I searched for quite awhile before ever seeing it, because it’s not some grand and ideal destination or even the place or point where we meet our full potential. It may, as it turns out, even be at the point where we reduce ourselves to nothing….and where we are then most ready for it. Remember what I said earlier about just needing to look….that it’s there, waiting? It’s true. It is there. Sometimes, we look and see it immediately. Other times, we might have to look for years, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s always just there….no farther away than ourselves. For, just like a good story, it’s in us….each and every one of us. Sometimes, we just can’t see it through all of the other clutter. However, we do find it when we pursue it….when we courageously venture outside of what the world tells us to do and who to be and venture inside to find who we really are and wish to become. It’s not a lifestyle, but it’s how we live….according to who we are. From one moment to the next, one task to the next, our life’s work to our relationships….it’s there and we see it when we live true to ourselves. Nothing more and nothing less. But, you have to go looking. You have to stop everything else you’re doing and be willing to risk everything else for it. Can you do that? Can you venture out in order to venture in and find it there inside yourself? Can you express it in how you live the moments of your days?
In so many ways, I’m still working on this, but I believe I finally tipped the scales these past few months as I’ve traveled, continued to take risks, visited with friends, and spent more time writing. And, of course, I’ll never stop looking….because there’s always more to see and find and that doesn’t stop until we exit this world. That’s the nature of it…the extraordinary. It’s a part of life, itself. And the more we live, rather than merely exist or survive, the more we see it….and the more it grows, develops, and expands. From just one extraordinary moment on a field to countless more until you breathe your last breathe, it’s always there and all you need to do is take a step and go looking. Start your own journey. It may not be easy, but it definitely beats a cookie-cutter house in the land of make-believe.
(The above post was written for anyone who’s ever just wanted more in life….more meaning, purpose, etc. We tend to think that life/reality is a struggle for what it holds, but Nietzsche once proposed that it can be just as much of a struggle for what it doesn’t hold….or for what it lacks. Is this why so many of us try to fill our world with things or become addicted to different substances and feelings/behaviors? Maybe we’re all looking for the same thing….)