Bolin: In awe of the ordinary

Do you always get caught up in “the next big thing”? I know I do. The danger for me is that while I am always on the lookout for whatever that “next big thing” might be, I often overlook the wonders I have before me every day in the here and now. In fact, when I pause to think deeply about the life I have been given, waves of guilt wash over me in the face of the suffering of so many others all over the world. Although even she suffered from debilitating depression before her untimely death at 47 in 1995, the New Hampshire poet Jane Kenyon recognized the gifts of the ordinary in her poem “Otherwise”:

“I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.”


Yep, it might have been otherwise for each of us had we been born in Mogadishu or Khartoum or Basra. Carrie Newcomer, Quaker singer and songwriter, believes that the everydayness of our lives, times that we could take for boredom, yet what might be yearned for by someone on the other side of the globe, should be considered as holy experiences. In “Holy As a Day Is Spent,” she wrote:


“Holy is the dish and drain
The soap and sink, the cup and plate
And the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile
Showerheads and good dry towels
And frying eggs sound like psalms
With a bit of salt measured in my palm
It’s all a part of a sacrament
As holy as a day is spent
Holy is a familiar room and the quiet moments in the afternoon
And folding sheets like folding hands
To pray as only laundry can
I’m letting go of all I fear
Like autumn leaves of earth and air
For summer came and summer went
As holy as a day is spent
Holy is the place I stand
To give whatever small good I can
The empty page, the open book
Redemption everywhere I look
Unknowingly we slow our pace
In the shade of unexpected grace
With grateful smiles and sad lament
As holy as a day is spent”


And so, I live out my days, in the classroom teaching students, in my University office, chatting amiably with students and my colleagues, and in my home with my family, each moment of quiet and calm elevated to a holy experience, the everydayness of my life, not taken for granted, but cherished and even sacred.


Column by Duane Bolin, professor of history