In the war between the Yellow Jackets and the Gardner, the victory undeniably went to the winged beasties. I—said gardener—devised stealth attacks, striking nests in the cool of morning, double fisting cans of pesticide. Even so, I adopted a “flee after four stings” retreat strategy. And despite my best efforts at controlling pests near populated buildings, I confidently assert that there are just as many nests and aggressive airborne minions as when I began.
These battles, along with a cyclic effort to stave off encroaching weeds, punctuated my work as a grounds keeper over the summer months. I am grateful for many aspects of this job: it is in a beautiful location; I delighted in working outdoor for most of the summer; I learned how to operate machinery and replace sprinkler heads, which I completely anticipate will become helpful skills at some point in the future.
Perhaps most importantly, the rhythms of weeding, mowing, tending, pruning, and then returning to each task in its time, provided a space for reflection and contemplation at a time when I deeply needed them.
A rather abrupt plot twist in my life afforded me the opportunity to relocate to Washington, a landscape that helps me breathe, and people whom I love and have missed living among for several years. Every shift, no matter how good, requires some sort of yielding and letting go. So it is that I arrived in the inland Northwest stripped of many trappings I had worked so hard to accumulate.
I was now, at least for a season, not a successful working artist or excellent teacher. While grateful for the work before me, I was humbled by it, too. Keeping the grounds is not prestigious, nor glamorous. The work I accomplished this summer did maintain the basic aesthetic of a training facility, but that effort will fade with time; no students were transformed nor was there any lasting legacy brought about through my labor.
I began the job a couple of weeks after the feast of Pentecost, and am wrapping it up approximately six weeks before the liturgical season of Advent. It occurred to me that my very ordinary work inhabited one of the two liturgical seasons known as Ordinary Time. With the color green for its vestments, symbolic of life, growth, and renewal, this season is one in which the church community is mindful of time, almost painstakingly so.
In Ordinary Time, weeks are counted by the repetition of gathering, sharing in the Holy Scriptures, in communion, and fellowship. It is peppered with the feast days of saints, but nothing so grandiose as other liturgical seasons. And that’s the point. There is something sacred about returning again and again to tasks and routines that are less than spectacular, that might even seem mundane, because these are the habits that nurture faith, and commitment, and the ability to receive and love our neighbors as they are.
As artists and writers, most of us are well acquainted with the notion of habit. We don’t mind tending to menial, daily practices in our creative work because we have seen time and again that they produce something good, eventually. I am however keenly aware that we live in a society that glorifies the notion of celebrity—dare I say…lusts after celebrity.
Perhaps the creative disciplines are especially susceptible to the seduction of celebrity, because often notoriety is one of the standards by which our work is measured. So what happens, then, to our sense of vocation in a creative discipline if our work does not end up at Pace Gallery; or receive a Whiting Award; or receives accolades far, far less prestigious; or receives no attention at all?
As I tended hedges and flowerbeds, I listened to lectures and audio books. One phrase from a presentation Brené Brown delivered in December 2013 to an audience at the 99U Conference arrested my attention: An ordinary life is not the same as a meaningless life.
I hazard a guess that very few people strive to be ordinary. We have learned that ordinary is synonymous with some sort of lack—lack of talent or ambition, lack of opportunity or education, lack of effort, lack of relevance or significance. But the lineage of the word suggests that it originally connoted regular order. To be ordinary was not initially to want for some version of uniqueness, but rather to exist in a state of ordered living—of making your bed daily, turning the compost at regular intervals, and gathering with people even when there is no great reason for celebration.
Ordinary Time for the church, therefore, is not a season of afterthought, a placeholder because early celebrants did not know what to do in between the “really important” annual events. It is a season of orderly living, and of bringing a sense of order into the world, both of which are often easier said than done! It’s a season of tending faithfully to the mundane because God is at work there, too, if not more so than in the spectacular.
I offer that we could replace the word “life” in Brené’s statement with any other noun from our disciplines. An ordinary poem is not the same as a meaningless poem. An ordinary painting is not the same as a meaningless painting.
The invitation I received while wearing my floppy gardening hat and driving a tiny tractor mower was to receive as a gift seasons of ordinary work. The invitation I extend to you is to reclaim a definition of ordinary that allows us to enjoy the gifts God has in the midst of creative anonymity, and see those as seasons for rich growth rather than of any level of failure.
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