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The Ordinary as a Doorway to the Extraordinary

Friday, July 26, 2013

When I was younger, the ordinary sounded boring. I wanted big success, big love, big highs and couldn’t understand anyone who didn’t.

After decades of pushing the proverbial boulder up the mountain, I reached (what I’d imagined as) the top.

And here’s what the top felt like: Immense satisfaction and gratitude at reaching so many people; exhaustion as big as the gratitude; and being so busy responding to requests for various things that I forgot (or was too busy to notice) that I had a husband, family, dog, garden, an exaltation of hummingbirds outside my window. And although I live in a forest, I forgot the trees themselves. I forgot about anything that wasn’t supporting or contributing to the extraordinary life I was too tired to enjoy.

In Into Thin Air, Jon Kraukauer writes that when he reached the top of Mt. Everest he realized (this is a paraphrase) it was just a square piece of earth with colored flags flapping in the wind. He stopped there for a few minutes and then, exhausted and depleted from climbing 57 hours, he immediately began the descent. After he returned home, he said that what he most appreciated was “being able to get up in the middle of the night, barefoot, and walk to the bathroom.”

Like many of us, I believed that there was a destination where the extraordinary (with no down sides) lived.

After banging my head against the wall of “it’s out there, it has to be out there” thousands of times, I realized I’d spent my life trying to earn something that was already mine. It turns out that the true extraordinary isn’t reserved for special people or big achievements or red-carpet-moments. It’s extraordinary to write a book, and it’s extraordinary to eat a grilled cheese sandwich with tomatoes and mustard. It’s extraordinary to meet a famous person, and it’s extraordinary to meet the eyes of a grocery store cashier. When I pay attention to what is in front of me, the seemingly ordinary things are backlit with the extraordinary: the hum of the refrigerator, the yellow sponge, the trill of a finch.

Now, instead of lurching forward, I step back. Instead of looking for the extraordinary, I look at it. If I get breathless or anxious that I am falling behind and that everyone else will get there before me, I remind myself that the top is just a square of earth you pass on your way down. And that no moment, no place, is better than this breath, this foot touching the cool floor in the middle of the night.

— Geneen Roth

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