The Extraordinary Ordinary
A Black Eyed Story
Henry Ossawa Tanner | The Thankful Poor. 1894
Be leery bout your place in the world
You're feeling like you're chasing the world
You're leaving not a trace in the world
But you're facing the world
—Solange, Seat at the Table, Track 2: Weary
Find an audio reading of this Black Eyed Story above.
I’m an ordinary person.
I hold no degrees, no letters of certification. But this skin I’m in has given me a whole, wide-eyed education.
To live a full and happy ordinary life without the benefit of excellence, without awards or mentorship or fraternity or sorority or fame or fortune or keys to executive offices, is to live a life within but without.
The “without” surprises me daily.
When you’re a have-not living in the neighborhood of haves, any good thing that happens to fall upon you feels like a mistake, a sudden thump of a pothole for you to bump over. You wonder from whence it came and you grip your steering wheel all the tighter preparing yourself for the possibility of running over it again.
Any day that I please, I can stroll right on by a home owned by the Obamas. With nothing but dreams and lint in my pockets, I can visit their Black Camelot. Just the other day, my husband called me with starstruck wonder while he was out walking our dog. “I’m pretty sure… I’m about 99% sure, I just walked by the Obama girls. I’m sure it was them.” We were broker than a joke that day and yet felt communally wealthy by means of proximity and happenstance.
If you’re one of the haves, you might find it unbelievable that there’s an existence of have-not-ness that isn’t unhoused and in need of shelter. You might be surprised to know that even though your next-door neighbor’s property value is the same as yours, their net worth on this earth doesn’t match the trim of their home. You might even find those of us who rent on your block to be a little appalling, like ticks or fleas jumping on board for a property-tax-free ride in your illustrious neighborhood.
Before moving to Obamaland, when we lived in Austin, Texas, I looked into renting a home in a wonderful neighborhood with gardens at every street corner and a private community pool and clubhouse. And even though me and mine weren’t much for swimming, we were informed that if our rental application made the cut, we would be welcomed as a part of the community but not the pool or the clubhouse. Those perks were exclusive for landowners and their guests, of which we would be neither.
When I see a Country Living, House Beautiful or Architectural Digest magazine spread featuring some idyllic nuclear family with a boy and a girl and a dog, I wonder what it would be like to be that child or that dog living a whole existence in an actual model-home accessible to only the few, the have-iest of the haves. I wonder if that dog knows how good they got it. I wonder if those kids know they’re one of a handful of plenty. Do they know that their lives are the bits of chocolate in a bag of trail mix? Do they know that most of us rummage through the seeds, the cranberries and the nuts in search of their little chocolate-chip-of-a-life? What must it be like to be the decadent thing in a mouthful of ordinary flavors?
“Why aren’t we rich?”
Have you ever watched a real estate show and realized that your tiny apartment with it’s white subway tile backsplash and it’s quartz kitchen counter tops and stainless steel appliances would be worth a couple of mil if it had a New York Tribeca zip code? I have.
While attending an out-of-our-league, richy-rich private school that promised to hatch our have-not egg into a rooster, our kid bemoaned aloud, “Why aren’t we rich?” I bolted upright from my reclined rest on our sofa as if I’d forgotten I was supposed to be someplace else. “I know!!! Right?!?” I gasped at them with wonderment. “I thought I was going to be so rich. I can’t believe it never happened.” It was the first time I’d frightened my kid with nonplussed honesty. There we were in our 2 bed, 2 bath luxury apartment with a view of a courtyard with a private community clubhouse and swimming pool, with walking paths lined with mature live oak trees and perennial garden beds, with a dog park, with a community garden and with ample parking, and still… we were broke most days.
Within but without.
Henry Ossawa Tanner | Still Life with Fruit. 1910
It’s no crime to be ordinary.
I have beat my past roads dotted with miles and miles of have-not choices to a bloody pulp like a cop interrogating a suspect. I ask: where were you on the night common sense went wild, murdering all your potential? Where did you hide the bodies of could have and should have? Why did you veer left onto Main Street and not right onto Wall Street? I demand: take me back to the day in question! Take me back to the day when you lost all control of the vehicle and ran over your every opportunity to be an extraordinary wonder! Where’d you bury the weapon?
It’s no crime to be ordinary. There’s not a thing wrong with having an ordinary life infused with extraordinary meaning. I’ve seen such lives and wish I could know such contentment. But if your ordinary life is ever invited to come and sit at the table of the elite few, if I were you, I’d decline the invitation - if I could go back I sure would. I never would’ve rang that doorbell and been a guest at that table.
But if you decide to accept the invitation (which of course is the polite and gracious thing to do) you should know that you’ll need to bring your own plate, bring your own silverware, bring your own napkin. ‘Cause while you were invited, your acceptance of the invitation was surely unexpected. So mind your manners. Take your place at the end of the table and bow your head in grace. Be sure to thank God for the food and raise a glass to the host. Be sure you make polite conversation. Remember: it’s rude to ask the well-fed for seconds.
My sisters have lived ordinary lives that are so ordinary they’re indeed extraordinary. They’ve each held more than one job at a time. Something full-time, something part-time, and some sort of side hustle. They’ve done this while raising kids, having husbands, divorcing husbands, burying husbands and burying kids. They see my life as a curious one, if not a downright strange and peculiar one.
Over the phone, I say things to them like, “Hold on a minute. Let me call you right back. I gotta buzz in the delivery guy with our groceries.” Or they‘ll call me and I’ll answer, “Can I call you later? I’m being interviewed in a few minutes.” Or, mid-conversation, I’ll let my have-not upbringing slip, and I’ll say something outlandish like, “I can’t believe there’s not a good sushi place near us.”
Thank goodness they’re inclined to forgive my insufferableness and politely pretend not to smell the nonsensical BS of able-bodied folks who get their groceries delivered to their doorstep. I’m grateful that they don’t even sigh at my sushi predicament. Instead, they hold their tongues, which I’m sure almost chokes them. And they wonder what is my life, while graciously choosing to still love me.
Back in the day when I worked for a celebrity chef, my middle sister called me with a rapturous recommendation and review of portobello mushrooms. It was at least the early 2000s, but portobellos were as new to her as curry to Christopher Columbus. “Marcie. They. Are. Good,” she informed me - which is about as high a compliment as anything so new and foreign could receive from anyone in my family. “I’m telling you,” she said, “you gotta go and try some.” I hadn’t the heart to tell her that in my extraordinary, ordinary, have-not, BS existence portobellos were has-beens. The new rage was morels.
For the past couple of weeks I’ve missed the extraordinary interior of an ordinary life. Though I reside amongst the ordinary, I’m a resident alien of the exceptionally blessed, living in a prosperous neighborhood where I rent. I’m an unknown author who’s been named on coveted booklists alongside some of the brightest and most lauded and renowned writers of my generation.
So I can say that I mingle with the upper crust of society. I can impress some somebodies with my number of followers even though, honestly, I’m sure my followers’ net worth and credentials outweigh my own. And yet, they follow. To this day, it’s a wonder to me. Could it be that slumming with regular folk like me is a pastime for the influential, the prestigious, and the celebrated? Perhaps following the likes of us have-nots reminds them what could’ve been their own existence but for the grace of God.
I suppose, like me, they enjoy the drama of witnessing a life just on the cusp of soon-to-be greatness. I imagine they might like the thrill of watching me perch on a shiv’s edge of a possibly-maybe windfall of have and have and have. It seems like I always know someone who knows someone who knows someone who has something that could be of use in my precarious situation in the world. But of course, I’m polite enough not to ask for a hand-up in our pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps America. I know well enough not to ask for handouts or favors.
I’m the possessor of a Genie in a lamp - I just haven’t yet figured out what’s the right way to rub it to release its magic. I keep right on rubbing. And when the day comes that I’m granted my three wishes… what then? What will I demand of this big-ole trickster of a world? If not the obvious “three more wishes” or “everlasting life,”—which we know are against the rules of genie decorum—then what? What haves would make me whole? What haves would not become regrets? What haves do I need to be an extraordinary ordinary?
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