Last week, before it became unseasonably and delightfully warm, I took a few blustery winter walks. The air was cold, the wind ruddied my cheeks and my ears burned. I felt so alive. Is this a little over-the-top? I mean–I’m talking about a couple late November walks. Most of the time when you hear, “I felt so alive” the speaker is remembering skydiving or mountain climbing–some perilous and exhilarating adventure that reminds a person just how small and tenuous our lives are.
I’m not likely to engage in many extreme activities–never was much of a dare-devil–so maybe that’s why an ordinary walk or two has that affect. Or maybe it’s the holidays which render me more than a bit sentimental. (I’ve cried more than once listening to the letters written by the late George H.W. Bush.) Why is decency so compelling when coupled with death?
We don’t talk about death very much, do we? Oh sure, we memorialize and re-humanize famous folk. We publicly mourn for those we don’t know, but the truth is we are all dying all the time. (not any time soon, as far as I know and hope) And it might not be a bad idea to remember it.
This is new to me, believe me. For the better part of my life, I tried not to talk (or even think) about death–terrified that mentioning it out loud might give the universe, god, or the goddess a big idea. In fact, for years I practiced a nightly counter-measure.
When I was a child, we prayed every night:
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
WTF is that? I was terrified. Every time I prayed that prayer out loud with my parents, I had to do a little backstopping with God when they left the room, “And dear God, please don’t let Mom, Dad, Carol, Michael, John, or me die tonight.”
Well, now I’m 51 (almost 52). And death is everywhere. I have friends who’ve suffered the tragic loss of a child with an indomitable courage. Every one of my cousins has lost at least one if not both of their parents. My parents have lost all of their siblings and their parents and many friends. My children have lost friends and so have I. We are, all of us, on a high wire all the time. And no, we can’t remember this every moment, or we would just wobble there, suspended in mid-air, too terrified to move.
And yet, (and here I go) life in all its beautiful complexity demands of us an attention that remembers how brief it is. And I think that sort of attention probably begets gratitude in its truest form.
This morning, I plucked Encyclopedia of an Ordinary LIfe, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, from the shelf in my office. There is no book, in my life, that pays homage as well to the ordinary things we all take for granted. And sometimes I need a little reminding.
Under the heading Returning to Life After Being Dead,Rosenthal writes:
“When I am feeling dreary, annoyed, and generally unimpressed by life, I imagine what it would be like to come back to this world for just a day after having been dead. I imagine how sentimental I would feel about the very things I once found stupid, hateful, or mundane. Oh there’s a light switch! Ihaven’t seen a light switch in so long! I didn’t realize how much Imissed light switches! Oh! Oh! And look–the stairs up to our front porch are still completely cracked! Hello, cracks! Let me get a good look at you. And there’s my neighbor, standing there, fantastically alive, just the same, still punctuating her sentences with you know what I’m saying? Why did that used to bother me? It’s so . . .endearing.”
And I thought, what would it be like to spend December looking at the world in this way? Is this a silly exercise? I don’t know. A part of me thinks, shut up Pollyanna! But the soft, tender side of me says, Go for it.
And I’m going with tender. So for the next couple of weeks, I will post here in an alphabetical order of sorts a few ordinary things I like. And we’ll see what happens. And if you want to join me in the comments, I would love that.
So here we go.
A Few Ordinary Things I Like
Angles of Light: The sun filtered through the wall-length window in my kitchen, warming the light blue walls and the cool gray cabinets. The blue sky through a canopy of green leaves. The ripples of shine on yellow Gingko leaves like cold fleck beneath a just bare tree. Clouds quilted with patchy light.
Apples. In particular Honey Crisp apples because crisp is the aspect of the apple most important to me. I used to be partial to Granny Smith–also crisp, but I find that as I age, sweetness has become more important to me. The Granny Smith is a tiny bit too tart, a little too edgy.
Bingo: I don’t get to play very often, but I love it. I went through a bingo faze when I was 28 or 29 and also working on my bachelor’s degree. My daughter, Sydni, who was about three thought the school and the bingo were the same thing when she told a crowd of people proudly, “My mom is going to school for bingo!” (I was perhaps playing a little too much.)
Blustery days: I like the wind. I like the chill on my cheeks. Leaves skittering across the road, trees bending and squeaking.
Books: Old and musty, new and crisp, broken spines, hard covers and soft covers, words, and lines and sentences, poems and stories and histories. I love holding them in my hands. I love sleeping with them alongside the bed and under the cover. I like the way a book meets you where you are. I like it that I can hate a book one week and adore it a year later. I have hundreds of favorites.
Carpet: I don’t have carpet anymore, anywhere in my house, and sometimes I miss it. The reason carpet is gross is exactly the reason I miss it. It hides a multitude of sins. I have two pugs, and if I had a rough beigey carpet, you’d never see huge tufts of dog hair peeking out from beneath the couch.
Okay–that’s it for today. I’ll be back tomorrow or the next day with a few more.
Afternoons. The heft of the workday feels mostly behind you, but there’s still so much possibility left ahead. You got off the school bus in the afternoon- that feeling, that was the best! Afternoon naps are the best, and afternoon tea and afternoon cocktails and How. About. Afternoon. Sex. Whew!!!
Babies. I know, I know…they’re not all cute (that poor baby at the party in the Hamptons that Jerry and Elaine just couldn’t coo over in Seinfeld…) but babies are the worlds possibility and it’s true heart swaddled up and presented in a slobbery, sticky, stinky sweet package. Who can be curmudgeonly and down on the world around babies?!? No one, not if they’re honest. Baby animals. Baby seahorses. Baby corn!!! Babies, babies, babies. Yes please.
Coins. I love the jingle jangle of change in a pocket, and remembering all the nickels my boys and I used to use for our version of high stakes poker. Old men on mercantile porches, whiling away the hours flipping pennies for curious kids. The artwork – the eagle wings, the stalks of wheat, the wind swept drapery of Lady Liberty’s gown, the chiseled jawlines of leaders long gone. The stories behind those coins of all sizes and colors and finishes, and the places they’ve been. Coins are romantic and historic. They keep threatening to do away with them, but I sure hope not.
You lady, are a poet. Yes, yes, yes. Oh afternoons. You are so right. And babies. And coins. The ordinary all lit up.