Ordinary

January 31, 2016

ordinary (adj.) early 15c., "belonging to the usual order or course," from Old French ordinarie "ordinary, usual" and directly from Latin ordinarius "customary, regular, usual, orderly," from ordo (genitive ordinis) "order"                                                      

I was sitting on the edge of my bed the other morning getting dressed when I glanced up and saw nothing out of the ordinary.  A ratty old pair of blue pajamas and a black T-shirt were bunched up on the windowsill, awaiting the hamper.  The slats of the venetian blinds were still closed.  A soft, silvery light seeped into the room.  Fortunately, I was able to break away from my thoughts long enough to really see what I was looking at, and I realized it was beautiful.  I ran downstairs to get my camera and tripod, which I set up by the side of my bed.  I took some shots of my laundry on the windowsill, bathed in the soft morning light.  My wife was in the adjoining bathroom getting ready for the day.  It occurred to me that I would have to explain to her what I was doing taking pictures of my dirty laundry.  But my wife has gotten used to odd behavior of this sort by now.

Normally when we speak of something being ordinary, we mean it is commonplace, like a pile of dirty laundry on its way to the hamper.  So why bother to take a picture of it?  In this case, I took the picture because I saw that the early-morning light falling on the folds of my pajamas and T-shirt was beautiful.  Yet it was nothing I hadn’t seen a thousand times before without noticing how beautiful it was.  Why not?  The short answer, I think, is that most of the time we are too busy getting on with our lives to take proper notice of such things.  In Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, a young woman named Emily, who has died in childbirth, is allowed to return to her life for a day and is dismayed at how distracted everyone seems.  "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize,” she laments.  “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?"  

Aldous Huxley provided an answer in his long essay, The Doors of Perception, which chronicled an early experiment with the hallucinogenic drug mescaline.  When we say that such drugs heighten awareness, we assume they act as some sort of brain booster.  But Huxley arrived at the opposite conclusion.  He hypothesized that the brain functioned as a “reducing valve” to filter out the otherwise overwhelming volume of sensory stimuli coming at us from very direction.  Brain imaging experiments have since confirmed that hallucinogens bypass the brain’s sensory-inhibiting mechanisms, enabling us to experience reality as it is actually presented to us.  To paraphrase Timothy Leary’s famous mantra, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” we tune in by turning down our brains.

British researcher Robin Carhart-Harris notes that “a lot of brain activity is actually dedicated to keeping the world very stable and ordinary and familiar and unsurprising.”  No doubt the brain has sound evolutionary reasons for doing this.  How are you ever going to get on with your life if you are constantly mesmerized by such things as a pile of dirty laundry on the windowsill in your bedroom?  The stakes were even higher for our Pleistocene ancestors, who had to keep their senses narrowly focused on the business at hand, whether it was to find something to eat or to avoid being eaten themselves.

For a visual artist, a world that is stable, ordinary, familiar and unsurprising is a problem, because it is boring.  The good news is that the world doesn’t have to be this way, and you don’t need to take hallucinogenic drugs to undo the brain’s sensory-inhibiting mechanisms.  Nor do you have to twist yourself into a pretzel on the floor staring at a wall for a thousand lifetimes while counting your breaths.  Reality as it actually presents itself to us isn’t invisible, and it’s not hidden behind some impenetrable psychic barrier.  It is hidden in plain sight, and if we don’t see it, it is only because we have dismissed it as ordinary and have turned our attention elsewhere.  With a little patience we can train ourselves to turn our attention from elsewhere to here, and then we just might discover there is no such thing as ordinary.