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Honoring the Ordinary

Hooray! My kids (age 12 and 14) went back to school last week.

Boo! I have a puppy who’s on day four of diarrhea and mild depression. (The puppy has the intestinal distress. I have the depression.)

As someone with bipolar 2, I tend to spend most of my unstable-mood time in depression rather than mania. And as my husband recently reminded me, I tend to take a dip each September. I hate that about myself. By now I really should have control over my moods … you know, just like someone with poor eyesight should have control over how light rays bend as they pass through the cornea. Ha.

Beyond the current mood slide, the past ten months have offered other distractions that have pulled me from noveling: two nasty surgeries (foot and sinus), freelance projects (huge in time, dinky in money), adventures in caring for aging parents, roller coaster rides with a particular teenager whom I love very much. And of course, summer: 2.5 months during which my kids became obsessed with magic tricks. I watched a lot of magic tricks over the summer. Maybe about 450,000 magic tricks.

I wish my kids could teach me to wave a magic wand and make depression disappear. Escort it into a box then saw the box in half. Turn it into a beautiful white dove. I wish my kids could magically pump the world with a little helium so it didn’t feel so dang heavy.

I am getting to my point.

You, too, might have fragile brain wiring. You might have had recent health adventures, family obligations, loads of work. You might be an over-empathizer who feels weighty sorrow on behalf of those facing hurricanes, racism, famine, acts of terrorism and 8.1 quakes. Your heart might be cracking on behalf of refugees, immigrants, and the general state of the not-very-United States.

Aren’t I cheery today!

My point (in the form of a question) is this: When we are in one of these unwelcome periods where the world weighs too much, when we feel flat and sad and weary, when we are distracted by life’s life-ishness, how do we keep writing? Or in my case, how do I start writing again?

I might have an idea.

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a radio interview with an author named Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Kah-rel Ooh-vuh Kah-nous-gard.

You might have heard of KOK because apparently he has a cult following. I had never heard of him, perhaps because I am too busy following the cult of depressing national and global news. In this radio interview, KOK spoke of his new book, Autumn, a collection of essays for his unborn daughter.

KOK’s essays, the interviewer shared, are christened with simple titles: Jellyfish, The Migration of Birds, Apples, Ambulances, Thermos Flasks, Labia.

I know!

In the introduction, he addresses his soon-to-be-born daughter.

These astounding things, which you will soon encounter and see for yourself, are so easy to lose sight of, and there are almost as many ways of doing that as there are people. That is why I am writing this book for you. I want to show you the world, as it is, all around us, all the time. Only by doing so will I myself be able to glimpse it.

I finished listening to the KOK interview while sitting in my driveway, the car engine running, and it hit me: over the past ten months, I have been focusing mostly on the startling, overwhelming and difficult. I have neglected to notice the specific, ordinary and simple. I have forgotten to notice everyday, astounding things.

I made a mental note to look up Karl Ove Knausgaard’s book when I got inside the house.

By the time I got inside the house, I had forgotten.

My brain is a sieve.

But a few days later I was listening to Sherman Alexie’s new memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. Alexie too writes about the specific, ordinary and simple. About quilts, salmon, silverware and porcupine roadkill.

“[F]or the rest of my life,” Alexie shares, “I will think of my mother … and the dozens of times she gave extraordinary meaning to ordinary porcupines and their quills.” Alexie then asks, “How does one commemorate the ordinary?”

This time I remembered to purchase Autumn, 224 pages of commemorating the ordinary.

It occurred to me that the big events and concepts–politics, news events, human suffering–clamor and claw for my attention. Unfortunately, it’s those loud and distressing things that feel like concrete shoes and keep me from focusing on creative work. I can’t be so creative when I am constantly focused on life’s big and heavy stuff.

But aren’t we as creative people supposed to focus on the big and the heavy? Let’s face it. Ruminating about porcupine quills, bird migration and thermos flasks is silly when there’s actual important stuff going on in the world. Right?

A few weeks ago, I was filling out some medical paperwork for my son, the nascent 9th grader, and one of the sections asked me to list the dates of his developmental milestones–first words, teething, rolling over, walking, speaking in full sentences. I could not remember the dates or circumstances of those big moments, nor had I documented them. The details had vanished in between the couch cushions of my brain. What kind of mother doesn’t keep track of the milestones!

I spent two weeks feeling horrible about that. (Thank you, depression!)

But Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sherman Alexie might say those “big” moments are no more important than the ordinary moments. In fact, they might say those big moments are less important. Could this be true?

I gave it (paying attention to the mundane) a try:

Iced coffee in a wine glass on an 89 degree summer day. No A/C.

My son’s ability to harmonize with his sister’s humming.

Italian plums suspended like Christmas ornaments from the tree in our back yard.

The beautiful chocolate-colored beauty mark on my daughter’s cheek.

The smell of my puppy’s feet (somehow they smell like pretzels).

The sound of my husband spraying shaving cream into his palm.

Are these things more noteworthy than the big, heavy, distracting things happening in our world? I’m not sure. I do know they are easier to hold and savor. In those small things, beauty sparkles. When I contemplate those simple images and sensations, life feels manageable.

Maybe a thermos flask deserves as much commemoration as a baby’s first smile. Perhaps the migration of birds is far more interesting than the daily political drama. And where would we be without labia? It’s tough to say. That alone is worth some contemplation.

I think I can try to ditch the funk, reignite my curiosity and get my writing muscles back by focusing on the purely ordinary. I’ll let you know how it goes.

What works for you when you are out of shape, writing-wise? How do you keep writing when you hit life’s speed bumps? Will you write a few sentences that commemorate something ordinary? Please? We’d love to read it. 

Photograph compliments of Flickr’s Jean-François Thibault [1].

About Sarah Callender [2]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.