“First Sunday in Ordinary Time…”
Saturday evening. Five-o’clock mass. I am eight. Squished into a pew between one of my brothers and my mother. Half-listening to the priest while I watch the last of the slush drop off the rubber sole of my boot and fall into the widening black puddle in the carpet.
Ordinary Time. That January evening, I feel the weight of the phrase. Outside, the holiday lights have been plucked from trees and windows, and the houses that once glittered are now plunged in darkness. Carcasses of pine trees line the sidewalks like so much road kill. School has resumed, and with it, the beginning of those bundled-up mornings, waiting at the stop for our school bus salvation, surrounded by plumes of our own white breath.
Ordinary Time. Why couldn’t they have named it something else? Cruel, it seems to me, to name the days of midwinter according to…well, what they are. Bleak and unmagical. Uninterrupted and unremarkable.
I want to believe that words are like lights in windows. Meant to decorate, to garnish, to brighten. Meant to reshape and reconfigure darkness. Meant, above all, to transport us from this every day.
And to summon the Ordinary by its name? Well, the whole thing lacked mercy, I decide, yanking my hand from my brother’s grip when he squeezes it tight enough to make me yelp during the Lord’s Prayer.
Twenty-five years later, the term comes back to me.
I am driving through the streets of Portland, Maine. The celebrations that brought me here are over, and I feel as though I am leaving the place to itself for the first time in months. Over is the parade of summer beachgoers, the leaf-peepers, and the holiday shoppers. The movement of people on the streets is not idle or meandering, but conserved and deliberate. A shifting from known place to known place.
Only winter lies ahead now.
The sound of this time: a kind of low, echoing hum not unlike that which follows the gentle latching of the door when the last guest has gone. Dishes in the sink. Kettle on. Feet up.
As I roll away from Portland, back to my own ordinary life and to the manuscript on the desk in need of revising, I perceive the weight that I knew as a child but not the indignation. Ordinary days are good days for writers. Days of regularity and routine. Days of turning inward. Days of securing the latch and returning to the places and pages that are strengthened by all the Ordinary affords: privacy and familiarity and reflection.
From a writer’s perspective, it may be encouraging to know that the Ordinary and the Epiphany are closely related. James Joyce, for one, loved both. His short story, “The Dead” (1914) takes place on the night of January 6, at the home of two aunts who host annual dinner to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. But the revelation that takes place in that story has little to do with feasts or holidays and everything to do with the common, the every day, the Ordinary. From this story and others in The Dubliners, Joyce shows us what he means by his secular definition of an “epiphany”: the “revelation of the whatness of a thing,” moment in which “the soul of the commonest object…seems to us radiant.”* To Joyce, bursts of profound understanding are derived from the texture of our daily lives. It was the artist’s responsibility – and indeed, the artist’s privilege – to recognize and to give life to such moments.
According to Joyce’s definition, I suppose I wasn’t too far off in my youthful understanding of the purpose of words. They are tools of transport and reconfiguration. Tools of light. But not the glittering, LED, battery-powered sort of light, but this kind: the luminous gray of these Ordinary Days.
* “Epiphany.” Encyclopedia of Literary Modernism. Ed. Paul Poplawski. Greenwood Publishing Group. London, 2003.