Monday, February 05, 2007

The aging of ordinary

I just finished reading a blog posted by someone I knew at a distance during my college years. This person went on to become a professor, the professor of my son, and in the end his friend. He now blogs at the same site as Nathan. Jim posted a fine blog on the ordinary.

Here’s a passage from the post that arrested my attention:

                Much about the ordinary world has changed in my life time, though I am not yet sixty. I was born in rural Missouri, and when I was born rural telephone systems were mostly party-lines, phones were hand-cranked, electricity was a relatively new arrival (within 30 years, and often much less), and for many people water pumped by hand and out house toilets were ordinary. Before my children were all born, that had all changed. The order of the world in rural Missouri was very different than it had been. And, as an expatriate of Missouri, I have changed even more than has my birthplace. Today I seldom think about what it takes to get water, and I use my Trio for phone calls, e-mail, and my calendar, wishing at the same time that I’d perhaps waited and bought an IPhone. Though I come from a long line of people who did what they called “honest work,” day-laboring, small-scale farming, blacksmithing, and machine work, I make my living as a bourgeois professor of philosophy.
                Nevertheless, though the ordinary is common, customary, and usual, it is also not something to be ignored. Indeed, we ought to celebrate that things such as vaccination, full supermarkets, city sewage systems, treatments for cancer and epilepsy, public transportation, private cars, mobile phones, cable television, literacy and education are all now ordinary, and all deserve our praise. Our lives are what they are because so much has become ordinary, and we ought to labor and pray that what is ordinary for us becomes ordinary for many more. We live longer and more comfortably because of many extraordinary things that have become ordinary. We know more and have access to more because of other extraordinary things turned ordinary. What was outside of the ordinary has become part of it and is no longer much noticed or noted.

Reading this, I’m left contemplating aging. I remember a childhood ordinary very similar to Jim’s. Setting aside the whole Mormon thing--rural Missouri in the 50s was much like rural Idaho. Jim is describing my experience too. I grew up in a rural town of 350 inhabitants, six miles from the big city of 3000 (doctor, bank, grocery store, library, drug store, Penney’s). If anything, my adult life has pushed to the edge of the new ordinary even more aggressively than Jim’s. I work for a software company, live in a large city. It’s part of my job to play with, and document, changing technology-- Web 2.0, tag clouds, social bookmarks, blogs, flickr, podcasts, WIKIs, and so on. I have a cell phone, a laptop, an IPOD, a Trio is one click away. . .

Over time, this is what I came to resist about growing older: getting frozen at some moment in time, losing vulnerability to the unknown and to change. I knew what middle-aged women looked like and did with their time as I grew up. Once you married and joined the group: you had shorter hair and had it done at Marion’s on the edge of town. You left behind young clothes, young things. Whenever I’ve started to feel stuck, frozen, in my life. I’ve tended to make what I’ve come to think of as a “leap”--and started a new version of my life. I never became the young married woman my mother raised me to be.

In the language of Jim’s post today, a series of ordinaries have been my life. I still resist getting frozen in time. But I do find that I increasingly survey the past with indulgence, fondness, sometimes a sense of loss and regret. I’m thinking more and more that I want to approach life as I’ve always, through this life of change, approached my books. Books are the one continuing thread of continuity in my life. Reading, especially novels, narratives, stories. I have expanded my sense of books. I now listen to as many books (I love my iPOD), perhaps more, than I read with my eyes (which like everything else age).

I’ve always collected books. I keep them around after I’ve read them. I buy more than I’ll every read, keep them on my shelves, hopefully look forward to reading them some day. Love living in their company.

I’ve been contemplating the changes I want to make to my house. And I’ve decided that I’ll build book cases, in the study, in the basement, maybe even in the bedroom. I love to collect. Look back as well as forward. I love the old ordinary, the aging ordinary. I don’t want to lose it. But I hope that I’ll always be open to something new. Looking for a way to build just a few more shelves. Though I do reserve the right to throw some things out.

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