re-naming the normal & re-making the mundane (or, how to honor your self & neighbor)
I’ve never been a fan of the word “normal.” We use it both to build ourselves up (“At least I’m normal”) and to tear ourselves down (“I’m so average/normal”). We apply it to all manner of people, things, and events in our lives to completely bland effect. Too often we use it to dismiss important passages or accomplishments and this carries a cost.
With so many of our experiences falling genuinely into the category of “normal” it seems important to me that we develop competence in the magic of elevating, at times, the mundane and monotonous. What better super power to develop than that of re-naming or converting the normal into something of recognized value? Of infusing meaning into the every day experiences that are too often passed by.
I recently ordered spiced watermelon seeds at a tea shop. They arrived in a beautiful tiny ceramic bowl with an accompanying bowl in which to discard the shells. Having been soaked in a cardamom, anise, and green tea brine the instructions were to suck on them, shell them, and eat the insides like sunflower seeds. It struck me how elevated this typically discarded part of the melon had now become. Rather than being the thing I avoided while digging in to the sweet red fruit, these seeds were now center stage and shining. Somehow this changed how I will eat watermelon forever. That, to me, is a beautiful effect of re-naming the normal.
When we look for ways of repurposing our ordinary experiences, of elevating normal moments in order to add zip or spice or energy to our days, we give life the opportunity to teach us and bless us now and in the future. We can do this in ways large and small. We can send a text to someone affirming who they are as a person or thanking them for some amazing action they put out into the world. We can write and mail a letter to the same effect. We can buy a 99 cent poster board, a sharpie, and some fishing line and make a sign announcing to the world a wonderful trait about a friend and hang it in a tree outside their residence or work (Thank you neighbor Lynn for this amazing idea and for hanging “honk if you love doreen” signs on my tree every year on my birthday). We can surprise someone with a cup of coffee or tea with all the traits we love in them written on the cup. We can simply look someone in the eyes and tell them exactly why we are glad that they are in the world. We can honor them for simply getting out of bed or for whatever other grand things they have survived or surmounted.
Or we can notice the ordinary and normal things we, ourselves, are moving through. We can take actions from the silly to the sublime to mark these accomplishments and honor our selves. What about writing, in washable marker, all the things that you carry that are difficult or stressful all over your arms and legs, paying attention to how much effort you exert each day just to carry your responsibilities. Once you have validated and affirmed the great burden you carry, take a shower or bath with an amazingly fragrant new soap to honor all that you are carrying and to symbolize some moments of relief? Why not sit down and write out a certificate of honor, thanking your very own self for the ways you have cared for a person, task, or cause?
It’s not so much empty or one-time praise that I am wanting to emphasize here. Instead, I’m referring to paying attention to the human need for affirmation and the spiritual need for ceremony and “markings” of all kinds. Without consciously recognizing the many small (or huge) accomplishments and milestones we navigate through in the course of our every day existences our lives can become monotonous at best and seemingly meaningless at worst.
When I turned 13 my dad rented a tux, gave me money for a new dress, borrowed a friend’s fancy car and took me out for a nice dinner. My mom did the same for my brother when he turned 13. My husband and I continued this tradition when our kids hit 13 and added an element borrowed from my friend Judi, inviting important adults to stop by the house in 10 minute increments to offer blessings and/or words of affirmation to each. My nephew, Ethan, just turned 13 and I had the honor of being a part of his day of blessings. As I witnessed this through the eyes of a 13 year old boy I was struck by how rare and completely beautiful ceremonies of this kind are in today’s economy. Let me explain.
In the hyper-connected and commented-upon world that we inhabit we are more hungry for being seen, for eye contact, and for meaningful embodied connection than ever. We are also entirely squeamish at the thought of these things. Time moves quickly and asynchronously. We watch everyone’s meaningful moments in a never ending Facebook or Instagram feed but rarely stop to really let what is happening sink down deep into our consciousness. We hardly ever stop to validate or honor rites or passage or every day “normal” accomplishments in ways that don’t include a camera and hashtag.
When my brother revealed to my nephew what the “surprise” on the calendar consisted of, Ethan was pretty disappointed. He had imagined an exciting event, not a stream of people coming over to talk to him. Knowing he is people smart, we all assumed he’d be over the moon and were a bit caught off guard by his disappointment. After the second 10 minute FaceTime session and before the first in-person honoring, however, Ethan was quite literally bursting with joy. “I LOVE this!” he declared. Come to find out, having people tell you what they appreciate about you or taking some action to honor you is good for the soul. Even the soul of a 13 year old boy (perhaps especially for a 13 year old boy). His pastor came and gave him a blessing, a friend Skyped in from Sierra Leone Africa, his former teachers told him what they saw and valued in him, his little sister wrote a beautiful letter to him. A peer did a magic trick as a symbol for honoring a trait in him. People took time to stop and recognize a person. All for a normal event… that of entering into adolescence.
While honoring someone in the way that Jeremy and Judy honored Ethan takes some pre-planning, there are many ways that we can re-name the every day accomplishments of our selves or those we live among. Here are some ideas, gleaned as I witnessed Ethan’s day of honoring, that might guide us.
See and grab hold of the opportunity in every day happenings (aka Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity, instead, use the present one):
We “sleep walk” through momentous occasions every single day. We make it through grief stricken anniversaries, we get promotions (or we don’t and we still go to work), we move up a grade (or back one), we have landmark birthdays (or the ones in between), we get through another day of sobriety (the ones that aren’t marked with a coin or special noticings), we give up a habit, add a mile to our run, or tackle that closet/desk drawer/room that has been screaming to be de-cluttered. Re-naming the ordinary or normal infuses the difficult things we do every day with the meaning that is deserved. Don’t wait for some monumental opportunity. Instead, look for what you or someone you care about has managed today and find a way to honor it for what it is.
Working with what you have:
In between those that were physically present or who Skyped in to Ethan’s day of blessings, we showed him videos or read him letters that had been contributed by individuals who couldn’t be present that day. One was sent by my friend Judi. As I opened it I noticed Olympic rings and immediately wished I had a medal stand, a medal, and the Olympic theme music at hand. Rather than stopping the flow in order to seek out and physically add these elements to make it “perfect” I simply scanned the environment for a raised surface and instructed Ethan to stand on it. Once there I loudly sang the Olympic anthem and proceeded to read the letter (which was about Ethan being the youngest ever recipient of a gold medal in People Smartness) as though Ethan was winning the most prestigious honor ever. I used a loud announcers voice and my brother and sister in law played along, snapping photos and cheering. Sure, we could have stopped the process and dug up a medal, purchased the song off of iTunes, and constructed a medal stand but we didn’t need to. As long as we are willing to play things up, to possibly look silly, and to lean into the honoring boldly, what we have is all we need. We don’t need props, we just need a belief in the power of elevating the moment.
Consider the recipient:
In elevating Ethan’s birthday, the plan to involve others was intentional, given his extreme people smart strengths. Even still, before the day began he felt disappointed. In his mind, the special day marked on the calendar was filled with all kinds of things. Disneyland and an iPhone were chief among these dreams/wishes. We could have been angry with him when he seemed disappointed. We’d put all this thought into a huge plan and he was not reacting as we’d hoped. In hind sight I wish we would have thought about the fact that, even though he would love it as it happened, building it up as a surprise wasn’t in keeping with his 13 year old self. The event was perfect in the long run, the presentation at the start was less than ideal. It’s important to be aware of our audience and also to be ready to have things flop. When we hold our own efforts loosely and have the recipient’s best wishes and self in mind we will actually enjoy the experience even more, knowing we are moving past our selves and deeply into the other.
When we are determining a way of honoring someone in our life it’s important to take time to consider how they communicate and receive love/care. Are they a word person? A gift person? Do actions always speak louder than words to this person? Would they prefer to receive the honoring in private or would a public display be meaningful? In what ways do we need to move past our own preferred forms of expression to speak effectively to this other. Keep in mind, however, the point above and work with what you have. Don’t over-think it to the point of talking yourself out of taking action.
Just do it:
If you are new to the idea of using creativity to infuse energy into the every day it might be easy for you to think, “This is all too much.” Try to push past this and find your own small (tiny even) way of re-naming a normal experience for yourself or someone else. Keeping the 3 points above in mind doesn’t mean obsessing or working toward perfection. The goal here is “good enough,” taking small risks, and being willing to try something new in honoring rites of passage and small, every day, normal accomplishments. It’s not to plan or execute a huge event. It’s to usher in a new way of seeing and honoring those you live amongst (including your self).
This time of year is rife with opportunities to elevate the normal. Children, adolescents, young adults, and teachers are starting back to school. Many business people are ending fiscal years. The days are shortening. Gardens are peaking. If you find this post at a time other than summer, whatever time of year you are in is also rife with opportunities. Below are some questions that, when engaged, might help you find a person to honor and some ways in which to do that. If the person is you, that’s o.k. too. We all need recognition. We thrive when we realize the mighty in the mundane tasks we tackle every day and when we validate our efforts in meaningful ways.
Finding the honoree:
Who, in your life, has experienced a transition of some type in the last several months? Think of those who have changed homes or jobs, lost an important person, overcome an unhealthful habit, created a new healthy way of life, or some such transition.
Who, in your life, has traits about them that are counter cultural and, thus, not always valued by those they live amongst?
Who, in your community, is the person who you find always doing all the celebrating of others? This person hosts all the gatherings, brings meals, babysits, coordinates, and does all of this with very little recognition.
What, in your own life, have you overcome, walked through, or accomplished that is in need of being recognized?
Finding the method of honoring/re-naming the normal:
Consider a meaningful (words, actions, shared time, gift) way of recognizing this person keeping in mind not obsessing, taking small risks to recognize the other, using what you have (rather than stopping because you don’t have something or you want it to be perfect), and what will be meaningful to the recipient.
Set a date that doesn’t allow you to back out or obsess or put more into this than you can afford. Remember, the goal is to make this a new way of living, to fit it into your everyday, not to resent your self or the other for the effort you extend.
Carry out your plan and celebrate your own accomplishment in doing so!