Attractions of ordinary life

bed to make

Two nights before Christmas, Betsy and I sat at the bar at Legal’s in Chestnut Hill, having a quick drink and bowl of chowder before we went to see The Fighter. That now seems ages ago. For a while she and I talked about our attraction to cinematic portrayals of ordinary life: the food, routines, chores, and even squabbles of the everyday. B. also mentioned the fiction of Alice Munro; I thought of Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens. And yet to say those works are only about the quotidian is to reduce them.

Because we never travel farther than New Jersey during the Christmas week — I’ve never spent my holiday in the Virgin Islands, Costa Rican rainforest, or Hawaii as some families do — and this time we haven’t traveled at all, the last week has been lush with the quotidian. Laundry. Tidying. Mail sorting. Reading. And cooking, especially cooking.

clementines to simmer and preserve

When the hands are busy, the mind is free. As I’ve chopped or made beds or run errands or wrapped gifts that I have since returned, sometimes with a clenched jaw, I’ve been thinking of the pressure on some of us to turn one’s own everyday life into an art form: concentrated, heightened, shareable. I both succumb to and participate in that.

As a child, my favorite bag lunch consisted of two hard-boiled eggs with salt, bread and butter, an apple, and cookies if possible. My own children want “something good” for lunch — and this may be a result of our having occasionally provided the show-stopping lunch — and it’s not enough, for example, to have an apple in a bag. The apple must be cored, peeled, and packed with sliced lemon. (Yes, I initiated that.)

last year's skates to sell, in the back room at the Ice House

Incrementally over time, the bar has been raised for all of us with a stable income. We are surrounded with labor-saving devices — vacuum, dishwasher, clothes dryer, car — and we use them to make more labor possible.  This week, Grace and I drove out to the Ice House to upgrade her skates and get hers and mine sharpened, and then we drove miles back to the rink for skating. Sometimes I long for (or perhaps romanticize) the hours spent on the frozen swamp ice deep in the woods that surrounded my childhood neighborhood. In its surface were embalmed sticks and leaves and air bubbles, which made for a pebbled glide, and here and there boulders and rotted trunks made interesting obstacles that we could do nothing about but skate around or over. Dulled blades were not a concern.

a fine girl to skate with

Once, seeing me crouching in the dirt in the front, my neighbor Gail, who never gardens but knows more the names of plants than I do, said to me, “You’re Martha Stewart.” I think this was a compliment, but I felt it as a stab. To convert everyday life to something that can be packaged, photographed, and sold is not my intention. If this is life, I want to make it into something, for me, yes, but also to share with others.

What causes the clenched jaw is when there is a collision between what I want to make and what others want me to make. Many nights, not very hungry, I’d be happy with a potato and fried egg for dinner. I am even often tempted to make a dish my father invented when we were kids and my mother went to night classes and he had to feed us, normally her job. It is the briefest recipe, not even deserving of a list or adjectives for that matter. Take a package of hot dogs, slice them into coins, saute them until crisp, stir in a jar of Prince or Ragu tomato sauce, and heat through. Boil water and cook a pound of spaghetti. Voila, dinner. My brothers and sisters could attest to how delicious this is, although not much to look at. Would my kids eat it? Maybe once, as a novelty.

Meanwhile, too, you know, much of the human population is malnourished, 40% of the world’s children do not go to secondary school, and the planet’s fossil fuel reserves are boiling down. And still here I am worrying about what I’ll plant in my backyard come spring, and also the expectations that both drive and thwart self-actualization.

to read, to drink

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Photographs taken on the iPhone using ToonCamera. Only $0.99.

10 thoughts on “Attractions of ordinary life

  1. Right after reading this post with its statement “I’ve been thinking of the pressure on some of us to turn one’s own everyday life into an art form: concentrated, heightened, shareable,” I went into our kitchen and noticed that on the side of the Whole Foods bags it says “Every Meal has a Story.” I don’t think that’s true. Or at any rate, most meals have stories that one really would not want to hear.

    • If “Every meal has a story,” our meals would be telling a story about what a crappy parent I am. (Another bowl of chocolate frosted mini-wheats? Sure! They got 2 stars on the grocery store 3 star rating system.) Lucky for me, no Whole Foods, Wegmans or even Trader Joes out here in the non-hipster hinterlands.

  2. Martha Stewart sells a kind of practical elegance that you *do*. I’m in the midst of cleaning out junk drawers that we’ve neglected for years, and I’m wishing you (not Martha) were here to help me think through how to organize them and better use their space. Having spent a few very comfortable days in your house, I know you could help me think through this problem, and if we wanted to put pretty labels on things after getting things sorted out, you could help with that, too. But you, unlike Martha, would understand if I felt tapped out, if I said, No, I’ve put enough energy into the sorting, I don’t need to make things pretty for just Doug and me. Martha would foist an intern on me to finish the job. You would agree with me that we’re done, and our reward should be coffee.

    One more thing: the “pebbled glide” on the frozen swamp is a great image.

    • Thank you.
      I’m very flattered by the characterization “practical elegance.” Most people just see the practical in me.

      That is a good distinction between me and Martha. I think I reach the limits of done way before she does, and I recognize that. An hour having coffee with you after completing a clean-out of your junk drawers would be so much more satisfying than spending an extra hours lining the same drawers with scented linen paper.

  3. I would have felt the same way about being compared to Martha. She is, as you note in your post, an industry, not an individual (despite the carefully stage-managed illusion that she–and not her legions of minons–does it all).

    But what I really love about this post is the way it functions as a timely reminder of how superficial most new year’s “resolutions” are–especially if the “expectations that both drive and thwart self-actualization” run counter to our actual *selves*.

    • Fortunately, I haven’t heard any superficial resolutions from anyone around me, although I see them all over the web. So many of them are about the beautification of the person, which to me is not really actualization of the self.

      I have only one resolution, partly inspired by something James wrote about his reasonable resolutions. I am keeping a once-a-day writing log, in the hopes that, by doing one thing a day (even if tiny) for my non-work writing, it will accumulate over the year in a way that I can recognize.

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