My superpower, if I could be said to have any, is being supremely ordinary. Yeah, I’m really, really good at that. Now, you may think it’s not impressive that I’m good at being so-so, and you could be forgiven for thinking it. And yet . . .
Besides that it requires massive numbers of us mid-range sorts to keep nature in a sort of balance with the various human outliers at the top (and bottom) of the spectrum, there’s also the comfort and safety of being able to travel under the radar of scrutiny and pressure to which both kinds of exceptional people are exposed.
What on earth does this mean I am good at doing, at being? Why, I do what’s expected. I go to sleep; I wake up. I eat and I walk and I get dressed and undressed, and the world carries right on around me. And though I don’t at the moment have employment outside of our home, my current occupation being Homemaker, I spend myself and my efforts, rather, on doing the small and yet significant things that might not be essential to keeping the world operational but grease the gears, instead. And keeping the cogs working relatively smoothly is as useful in its own way as being the driver, the engineer or a cog myself. I go to meetings and do Projects, too, to be sure, but mostly what I do nowadays is fix a meal, repair a door-jamb, ferry my spouse and a student to a rehearsal. I do laundry; I prune the plantings near the window. Glamorous? Just exactly enough.
Because the luster of the day comes not from being admired and lauded but from being appreciated, even if it’s hardly necessary to hear that announced constantly–after all, the proof of its value is in plain view if the needful things get done. Any reward lies in the belief that I make life that one tiny iota smoother and pleasanter for that one brief instant, even if only for this one other person. It’s borne on the smile of relief worn by him whose sheaf of office paperwork got filed at last when he couldn’t get to it himself, or whose old slippers have been mended by the time he gets home from the office at the end of the day. It’s in the neighbor being glad to have the excess garden supplies or box of art materials I’ve collected to send to school with her. It’s with me when I arrange the chairs alongside the singers before a rehearsal when I come by to listen to their work. It’s mostly in knowing that the stuff needed to keep quotidian action on course is being looked after, bit by little bit. And that I’m the person for the job.
I don’t do this selflessly, of course, because I would hardly keep it up for long if it weren’t so simply and inherently rewarding. And it certainly bespeaks no genius or courage on my part that I do it, for clearly it takes greater skill and ingenuity and bravery to do all of the shiny, showy things for which I provide my atoms of encouragement from the periphery. Maybe a jot of courage only to admit to being a homemaker and loving it. So many who haven’t the privilege of the life seem to disdain it and misconstrue its meaning, especially if it doesn’t have either children or wealth as part of the equation. I am far more fearful of having no sense of purpose than of being thought unimportant by anyone else; I care more about feeling my own worth than having it validated by any outside agents.
So if I seem to anyone to be afraid of taking a larger role in the Real World as they see it, I suppose I ought to admit that in one sense I am. I know that having this Job for a few years has given me new strength and the ability to go out in the wider world for a so-called Real one again when the time comes, yet I do dread leaving this role that has given me a feeling of vocation more than anything else I’ve ever done and risking the dimming of any of the self-worth I’ve garnered or the value I’ve learned to impute to the tasks of being normal and simple and everyday, which I’ve learned to see as so much deeper and richer than they’d seemed until I tried on the role of their custodian myself. I do, at the end of it, think that if I’m a dull, bland or unimportant grease-monkey to the cogs of the world, I’m a damn good one, and if I’m scared of giving up that high honor, then I at least credit myself with being a superior variety of chicken.
Ordinariness is not a vice. It has taken me most of my life to grasp that home truth, to recognize the sublime simplicity that what is ordinary is not inherently bad. It’s not even necessarily boring or predictable, though most of us treat it that way and make it so.
It occurred to me as, for the umpteenth time in my life, I was marveling at the biography of some outlandishly gifted famous creature and reflecting on the comparably slack bag of tricks that could be held to define me. No one, I thought, will ever have reason to pore over my biography, no, not even to write it. I never so much as kept a diary for more than a few brief delusional periods before being recalled to my senses and silence by the glaring absence of exotica to lure even its author to reread it, once written. What is the great magnetism of the larger-than-life character’s story, I wondered; why am I compelled to recount and savor the life stories of those who loom heroically or with great drama or grand style on the horizon?
And I realized my answer was a strange surprise: I am seeking my own reflection.
Doubtless wiser souls have spotted this long ago! But what a freeing moment, in a way, was the discovery that what I am always hunting is familiarity, commonality, a sense of communion with others. It’s glimpses of characteristics I can truly understand—my own—that make extraordinary people real and attractive to me.
If that’s so, then perhaps my own “universal” qualities, my being Jane Doe or Everywoman, cloak in the seemingly ordinary person that I am not only shared parts that other people would find familiar in that same compelling way but also distinctions they might find equally surprising, strange, dare I say it, impressive. In the rags-to-riches celebrity tales, it’s not entirely the thrilling alternate universe of that unfamiliar life of wealth I find titillating—that’s so often a short last chapter to the tale, revealing little of real mystery and glamor—it’s that someone who seemed as ordinary as me got there. The story of a brilliant achiever or fabulous saint is rarely of great interest unless that greatness is seen set in the contrasting frame of dimmer, plainer beginnings, the quieter greys of mortality and everyday being.
So who am I, if not merely the forgettable dust of common humanity? Perhaps I really am Jane Doe. I have no characteristics more notable or exciting than my DNA or fingerprints and dental records to separate me from billions of others on the teeming earth. No reason to complain; the great and grand, the famous and infamous, the rich and rare among humankind would have less grey to offset their glory without me, and that might be purpose enough.
But I am more. I realize that every Jane and John among us has a story, a single glittering spark of distinction that sets us apart from all others. It may be the peculiar combination of ordinary traits alone, which for the unrecorded life dies with it and may remain ineffable forever. It may be no more (though this is presumably the greatest trait one could aspire to have) than that I am loved. Or maybe, just maybe, I am more interesting than I guess, and looking at myself as a biographer should can reveal someone more impressive and worthy of note than I have heretofore imagined.