Ordinary Essay

by John Backman

This essay isn’t about anything. Nothing’s been about anything all summer, the whole season a thin film of dried sweat laminating my body. Here’s nothing for you: every weekday I get up, meditate, pray, pick away at essays like this one, scroll Facebook, chide self for scrolling Facebook, eat lunch, help a friend on occasion, shop for groceries/mow lawn/whatever comes to hand, snap at people, chide self for snapping, eat dinner, catch some TV with wife, go to bed, earn a few cents, maybe. On rainy days, I mix in some sitting and watching the drizzle whisper against the rail of our deck.

The word is ordinary, saith Merriam-Webster. Not

            Ordinary adj 1 of a kind to be expected in the normal order of events


            Ordinary adj 2a of common quality, rank, or ability

and especially

            2b deficient in quality.

It wasn’t always like this. Long ago, as part of my ad-writing business, I’d sweat in a tailored suit and tie en route to meetings with other tailored suits and ties in suites on the twenty-fifth floor. Back then, sweat had a purpose. It meant self-sacrifice, giving all for the client, soaking a suit coat because it was expected, goddamn it, because we’re paying you handsomely so you’d better sweat over this project. Come to think of it, this was ordinary 1. I’d return home from the meeting to my wife and daughter in our purchased home, and in America, this was ordinary 1 too.

* * *

Never let the Universe intrude on your affairs. That’s what got me to ordinary 2b.

The monastery chapel had no A/C, so the sweat covered me as I stood before the monks and became an associate—someone who lives like them but in the everyday world. As an associate, I still mowed the lawn and wrote ads and donned suits in our purchased home, but every morning I’d pray words the monks prayed, and every evening I’d read my Bible or some other book about Spirit. Here’s what they don’t tell you: All that spiritual practice? It’s a crowbar. Just a few days in, the questions started—why do I write ads, what good am I doing, how can this mean anything, etc.—and they pried me away from my comfortable life and toward something else, something good maybe, like writing my own words about Spirit. And I did so, and the questions got more insistent and then more insistent again.

In the end, the crowbar pried me wide open, all the way to ordinary 2b—to the point where my business faded and the world changed twice (you remember: financial meltdown, viral meltdown) and the clients left, and now I follow the routine of my Typical Day, writing about Spirit, helping friends find Spirit in their lives, sweating in a stained tee and ragged shorts.

* * *

There’s something else I do during my Typical Day: argue with myself that ordinary 2b isn’t right at all for describing my life, that it’s more like this:

            Ordinary n 3 the parts of the Catholic Mass that do not vary from day to day.

The Mass parts don’t vary in the same way the prayers of the monks don’t vary, an ordinary anchor securing an ordinary life. Somebody out there—the Universe, God, Spirit, Merriam-Webster’s editor-in-chief—apparently thinks this version of ordinary is important, even sacred. It’s hard for me to imagine. But then I watch myself on rainy days, not a thought in my head but the drizzle’s patter on the deck, and I wonder who the hell decided my Typical Day is ordinary 2b and not at least ordinary 1, a glorious ordinary 1, where the normal order of events doesn’t get squeezed into a suit-tie straitjacket but instead gets crowbarred wide open.

I’ll tell you who decided this: the twenty-fifth floor/sweat over this project/get handsomely paid cycle, that’s who. The cycle Americans tend to revere, me included. Somewhere along the line, I bought the whole thing—to the point where, years later, it still casts a shadow over the life I live now.

Time to stop that shit.

To hell with better or worse or, God help us, deficient. I need the other meanings of ordinary—as in normal, common, sacred, or all three—to embrace every bit of my non-ordinary life.

A bigender person and quasi-hermit, JOHN BACKMAN writes about ancient spirituality and the unexpected ways it collides with modern life. This includes personal essays in Catapult, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Tiferet Journal, Amethyst Review, and Sufi Journal, among other places. For the past two years John has been named a top 10 creative nonfiction finalist in the Wild Atlantic Writing Awards. 

Photo: “Luxury Blocks Near Campus” by David Woo