A small group of people from my high school class have begun to explore ideas for our fiftieth reunion. Where does the time go? Surely it was only yesterday when we sat inside the gym on Mt. Carmel Drive while our family and friends watched us graduate from our youth into the world of adults. I’m certain that each of us quietly dreamed about the future. I know that I was convinced that I would do something extraordinary. Of course I had little idea what that might be beyond a superficial understanding of what it really means to be more than just ordinary. Back then my thoughts involved fame, wealth, distinction. Mine was a vague picture of an existence that would stand out from the humdrum.
Of course as often happens real life stepped into my world not so very long after I had walked across the stage to get my diploma. I had no concrete plan. In fact, I was more than uncertain as to how I wanted to proceed. I entered college with an undeclared major and began the process of trying different courses just to get a feel of career possibilities. Nothing that I learned ignited my enthusiasm. In fact it all seemed to be just a continuation of my high school regimen. I felt lost and bored.
The world around me was on fire. A war was raging in Vietnam and the entire nation was at odds over whether or not the fighting should continue. The Civil Rights movement was on everyone’s mind. There was a sense of chaos and the generations watched an ever expanding gap separate them. In the two years that unfolded after the glory of my graduation day I would fall hopelessly in love with a young man who seemed to understand the complexities of my heart and my mind better than anyone that I had ever known. I would take a leap of faith and marry him at an age so young that my mother had to give written permission. Not long after she and I would find ourselves locked in a lifelong role reversal in which I became her caretaker during the times when she was mentally ill. Two little children entered my life in between my mother’s medical emergencies and still it seemed as though I had yet to find my true destiny. Without any clear goal I abandoned my studies and dropped out of college feeling a mix of shame and liberation.
Life filled the holes and the gaps in my everyday activities. I devoted myself to being a wife and a mom and I truly enjoyed the work. I watched over my mother and made myself available whenever she needed me. Months and then years passed until I one day realized that I wanted to finally earn my college degree. I knew what I wanted to do with my life and it was a seemingly small role that I would play. I had decided to be a teacher.
Having children of my own and watching over my mother had prepared me well for the challenges inside a classroom. To my mentors and professors I appeared to be a natural born educator. What I understood is that my abilities were many years in the making. I had grown in so many ways and yet I still wondered if perhaps I might one day gain that fame and that fortune that I had once been so sure would come my way. I had not yet given up on living an extraordinary life.
One day I stood nervously in front of my first class of students and then another day came and I saw that decades had passed. I was retiring from a profession that had brought me incomparable joy but little fanfare. I quietly packed my personal belongings in my car and drove away with no idea of what my future might bring. It occurred to me that I had indeed lived a very ordinary life but it was alright because more than anything I had been happy.
Since retiring I’ve had plenty of time to reflect and it occurred to me one day that the word extraordinary has many meanings. The dictionary defines it as something unusual, remarkable. I found myself wondering if I had carried such a constricted view of what constitutes the extraordinary that I had indeed missed the most incredible moments of my experience. Perhaps I had been waiting for something that I didn’t even want and had overlooked the magnificence of what I had.
Surely it was a breathtaking moment when I saw the look on Mike’s face as I walked down the aisle on our wedding day. Even more incredible is that he has never lost that look in over forty years. The miracle of my beautiful daughters, Maryellen and Catherine, cannot be compared to any earthly treasures. In them there is love and sweetness and the divine. That view of the sun setting in the Grand Canyon on a warm summer day of long ago is permanently etched in my brain, a sight so lovely that it still causes a swell of emotion in my heart. My mother’s twinkling eyes, brilliant smile, and infectious laughter when she was not overcome by mental illness was a priceless gift. The quiet and often unspoken love between me and my brothers has been a bulwark against all of the tragedies that have come our way. The faces of my students and the times that we shared together for what was sometimes only a brief moment in my long history has beeb a constant source of comfort and great pride. The simple gatherings with friends when I knew that I could be myself without any worries have been my salvation again and again. The unexpected gift of seven grandchildren who bring me immeasurable joy has perhaps been the greatest surprise and joy of my life.
I have to admit that my most ordinary life has been quite extraordinary. My impact on the world has been rather small and yet it has been remarkable. Like a tiny pebble thrown onto the serene waters of a tiny pond my influence has rippled outward again and again in ways that will impact the world far into the future. I now realize that when someone asks what I have done with my life I will be hard pressed to express the enormity of the many extraordinary moments that have coursed through my days. A good life is not measured by bank accounts or notoriety but by the meaning and the beauty of special relationships and honest work. It is found in the ability to really see the simple majesty of nature. It is about those incredible seconds that take our breaths away.
There will be those among my former classmates who will drive better cars than mine and who boast swankier addresses. They will have seen more of the world and perhaps retained their youthful beauty better than I have. They may bear impressive titles as well. In the end none of the trappings will matter to me. I now realize that I have more than met the goal that I once set for myself. I have indeed led a most extraordinary life and God willing it will continue for decades more.