Tuesday, April 17, 2012

O is for Ordinary

Things that will never fail to make me happy:
Zachary's pizza, Star Trek references.
Picture by me, from their Berkeley location.
Joy is a funny fish. Now, happiness is pretty straightforward - we usually have a pretty good sense of when something will make us happy and when it won't. Of course, occasionally it fails, and we discover that a seventy-foot yacht or a large chunk of sparkly extra-hard rock or a boyfriend who looks just like the psychic you went to in seventh grade said he would somehow fail to make us less empty inside, but when it comes to the small stuff - ice cream, making art, having the cat sleep on your stomach - it's pretty easy to say, huh, you know, no matter how rotten I feel, this will alleviate the misery at least a little bit (or, best case scenario, make everything better forever.) But joy is a thing so much of the moment, a kind of transcendent flash, that it's almost impossible to predict exactly when and where it will show up.

There are things we can do to help. For example, the redwoods of Northern California are one of my favorite places in the world. They are cathedral trees, a complete, encompassing, magnificent experience. (I'm not going to give a picture because something 600 pixels high is so far away from the experience of a redwood forest that I'd be better off writing the words AWESOMELY HUGE AND MAGICAL in ninety-point font instead for all the good it would do getting the sense of them across.) Usually I experience joy when in the redwoods. There in the shafts of green silence I often feel an almost paralyzing sense of peace and clarity. But, honestly, sometimes I don't. Sometimes I just have a very nice time and it is pretty and that's all. That unbearable lightness of being doesn't always visit just because I stand there smelling treebark. Often, yes - but, perhaps unsurprisingly, usually when I have not gone there specifically to seek it. If I travel to the redwoods looking for my nice tidy fix of joy, that evanescent feeling tends to harden into something clumsier - a memory of joy, or a longing for it. If I think too much, if I seek too hard, it's gone.

On the other hand, I have experienced moments of total, deep, transformative joy while doing the dishes. Nothing special, just a sunny morning with the soap sparkling, doing 'em before my family gets up and maybe looking forward to having a cup of coffee after. That's it. Nothing special. Raisin fingers, blue sky, heart bubbling over for no good reason.

And so I suppose I just want to put in a quiet word for the ordinariness of things, and the strange alchemical way that joy can emanate from them completely unasked. This requires you to utterly fail to see even the most ordinary things as deeply meaningful, or cherish each moment, or whatever. Every now and again I come across a book, usually some new age-y take on mindfulness, that asks you to see the beauty and rightness of all things, to celebrate the souls of objects, whatever. I admit I fall for this all the time. Except that I don't, actually, find everything beautiful. Laundromats, for example, or malls. But it's easy for people who are trying hard find meaning and beauty in their lives (i.e. me) to dutifully attempt to find the secret beauty in trash, or linoleum, or the packaging of Gushers. And when you do that, well, to be honest, I think that trying to fool yourself into seeing beauty where your heart doesn't really feel it (because a good person sees beauty everywhere, dammit! I'm just not mindful enough yet!), it keeps you away from those weird and magical moments where a completely ordinary thing (like the dishes) does become inexplicably filled with joy.

Spirit Rock in Marin County, where Jack Kornfield teaches
(and not far from my beloved redwoods)
via Wisdom Quarterly
Joy is a kind of spontaneous combustion of the spirit, something that happens to us when we cease to function completely on an individual level and become for a moment identified with something larger, and we find it glorious. With me in the redwoods, it's just the massiveness, the unspeakable quiet of the trees; they kind of take me over, and in my love of them, my admiration, I stop being me and just see. With the dishes, all I know is that there's a sense of just being wholly present with the morning. Could I get there by trying to be present with the morning? (That's a rhetorical question, because obviously I think the answer is no.) And I suppose all I'm trying to say is that I think that allowing the ordinary to penetrate your life is, well, helpful. Not trying too hard to make everything special and beautiful, but simply allowing things to be as they are, sometimes mundane and sometimes strangely and miraculously illuminated.

This is an idea I got from one of my absolute favorite books on spirituality, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path, by Jack Kornfield. The premise is just how it sounds: after the revelation, the joy, the illumination, there's still real life to deal with. What's a nirvana-loving hippie mama to do? There's some great great stuff in there, but I think one of the most important things in the book is simply the acknowledgement that ordinary life is not apart from an ecstatic life, but rather is a natural part of the cycle. I suppose I want the Museum of Joy to help in teaching this: even as we search for glorious experience, we can't forget that the everyday is also part of being human. Will I invite guests to do the dishes? Probably not. But participate in the humdrum activities of ordinary life? Yes. Baking bread, gardening, dancing, walking, singing - ya can't do these things to get to joy, because joy won't be got at like that. But if you just do them anyway, joy might come and sit down at the table. I tend to find it does.


  1. But I hate the dishes. Hate them. I think joy runs away screaming every night when I go to do them.
    But, you know, I'm kind of okay with that.

  2. Or you might read a blog post and find it joyful.

    1. Thanks, Pamela :) (That was a compliment, right? Oh god.)

  3. The Redwoods are amazing! I miss living in California.

    New follower here. I’m enjoying reading my fellow “A to Z”ers. I look forward to visiting again.


    1. hi Sylvia! I miss it too, and am moving back in July - hence all the homesick posts. Where were you living in CA?

      Thanks for stopping by!


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