In Praise of Being Ordinary

Not such a special snowflake!

If anyone had ever asked me if I wanted to grow up to be ordinary, I would have said, “No, of course not!” Being “usual, of no exceptional ability, degree or quality; average,” doesn’t sound that great. Just like everyone else, I hoped to be extraordinary: “unique, one of a kind, without equal, unparalleled, unusual.” Who wouldn’t want to be that?

Ordinariness depends on your perspective. Up close, I’m a distinct person with dark blonde hair, fair skin, and a space between my teeth. I have a yearning to write well and a tendency to be intense that’s occasionally tempered by my sense of humor.

Step back one pace, and I am a middle-aged mom who writes memoir, essays, and blogs. My shape is trim, I dress in moderately attractive (but unoriginal) clothes, and I wear quirky jewelry . . . like a lot of middle-aged women.

Step back further, and I’m part of the well-educated middle class, a woman with a long marriage, and two grown children.

At each remove, I become more ordinary, more faceless, and more similar to others in my category. Some people may think that my similarities to others define me. Everything I’ve done someone else in the world has already done and probably better.

Time sands off the rough edges of individuality. Almost no one stays extraordinary if viewed through the filter of centuries or as one of the billions of people across the globe. Even Jesus had counterparts in other prophets and saviors like Moses, Buddha, and Mohammed.

Admitting that I’m ordinary does NOT mean that I have desperately low self-esteem. Most days, my self-esteem is fine.

No, it’s more that I’m rethinking what it means to be ordinary. I don’t believe being ‘ordinary’ should mean that I’m vaguely inferior, although today the word has that connotation. Being unique (one of a kind) is not the opposite of being ordinary.

I’m a distinct individual, but a part of a collection. I’m not a category unto myself. No one is. I have a lot of company, other travelers in the pursuit of a life I’m happy with. My version—marriage, family, and work that’s meaningful to me—is a life people have chosen for centuries, a life that’s very similar to other people’s lives. Ordinary people have dreams and hope to have a lasting impact—just like millions of other people. Having aspirations and accomplishments doesn’t make a person unique.

Being ordinary should be celebrated. Certainly ‘ordinary’ is what someone who’s seriously ill or from a dysfunctional family longs for. For them, ‘ordinary’ is a blessing, just out of reach.

Which brings me back to where I started. By owning my ordinariness, I’m not embracing complacency. Instead, I’m recognizing that most people have aspirations and accomplishments—in other words, striving is ordinary.

Being ordinary is fine with me.


Celebrating Retirement

Last week I celebrated one year of retirement. “Celebrated” is a key word. While I was happy to retire last August, I felt a little undercurrent of worry—I didn’t exactly have a plan. For many people, not having a plan sounds like what retirement is all about. But to me, making such a major and irreversible move called for a blueprint. As in what I am I going to do for the rest of my life? Which suddenly seemed more finite.

Retirement is an Identity Change

Retirement is a major identity shift akin to starting a career, marrying a spouse, or becoming a parent. You see yourself differently. A wise friend advised that it might take up to a year to figure out retirement, and it has.

Who Am I Without My Profession?

Americans often identify with our professions. I have worked since I was 16, and I babysat before that, so paid work has been part of my life since I was 11. I went to some effort (getting a graduate degree, moving across the country three times) to launch my career—first as a teacher and then as a copywriter. In 1979, when I started teaching college full-time, the working world wasn’t welcoming to women, and I had to fight to belong. By the time I started copywriting five years later, I had toughened up and the workplace was less openly antagonistic. My early experiences shaped me, and having a career became an integral part of who I am.

My other roles—wife, mother, sister, and friend—have remained constant in retirement. But last August I wondered, “What does it mean to let go of the career I worked so hard to have? What happens to all the experience and skills I’ve gained?” Today, the answer is that I’m still a writer—an essayist and blogger, and I volunteer as a marketing communications copywriter.

Me in retirement--just kidding--it's Rose Totino

Me in retirement–just kidding!

That’s how I see myself, but early on when I mentioned my new status, I learned that the word “retiree” conjures up someone who’s out-of-touch and lives for coupons. Now when I meet people, I simply describe the work I do.Ellen in Hawaii








People Openly Wonder, “What do you do all day?”

It’s a legitimate question. A year ago, I too wondered how to create a life that is fulfilling and fun. What exactly was I going to do with my time? The answer is more of everything I did before. I sleep half-an-hour longer. Most days, I walk for an hour because now exercising doesn’t have to be a trade-off (i.e., either I exercise or I have fun).

Housework, cooking, and grocery shopping still exist in retirement. I’m determined not to become obsessive about any of that, but now I might take an extra five minutes to dry the pots and pans after I wash them instead of letting them air dry as I did before. Why not? I have time.

Camping in WI

Camping in WI

Today, I read, write, travel, socialize, and volunteer more. Probably the main difference is that now I have more time to explore or learn new things in classes at the University of Minnesota, the Loft, or community education.

I wasn’t planning to retire last August at 61; I expected to work two-and-a-half more years. However, when a stroke of luck gave me the opportunity to leave early, I did. I am very grateful to be retired now. Eventually old age will find me. But for now I’m enjoying the gift of retirement. I want to use my time well.

The Birth of Juan Jose’

Juan Jose' and Crystel

Juan Jose’ and Crystel

The best part of Antonio’s name change was when Crystel stood up in the courtroom and said, “I want each of you to tell me something you like about me.” She stood confidently, her hand resting on the bar that divided the gallery from the well of the courtroom. She faced the nine people, including Antonio, who came to support his name change. Aunts, Uncles, Antonio and his girlfriend, were sitting with their back against the wall. She pointed to her Aunt Kathy. “Start there.”

This surprised and delighted me. She was asking for what she needed. And, in this moment what she needed was to know that she was as important as Antonio who within minutes would legally be named Juan Jose’.

She didn’t share his need to change her name. Her Guatemalan birth mother had told her that she named her Crystel.


Waiting for the judge.

Waiting for the judge.

The birth search and visit report that Jody and I had done in 2011 when her and Antonio were 9 years old said, Mayra (her birth mom) remembered exactly the date of Crystel’s birth. Most birth mothers do not, not for lack of interest but because dates are usually not important in Guatemala. She named her Crystel Rocio. Crystel because:  “I felt she was a little fragile thing as crystal, and Rocio (dew in English), because as I was walking the day I gave birth to her, it was cloudy and it had rained during the night, and I saw the leaves with drops of dew on them”.

When Jody and I adopted our children, we felt it was important that we keep the names that they were given at birth. We wanted to honor the birth mothers. At the time we didn’t know what their birth names would be and I fretted if I would be able to pronounce their Guatemalan given names. I refused to name my baby boy even though my social worker said that I could. I didn’t want to give him, one more thing that could be taken away from him. He was already losing his mother.

IMG_0425A few months later, we received the results of Antonio’s birth search. His birth mom, Rosa, was asked if she named Antonio. She said no, that she wanted to name him Juan Jose’ (Juan to honor her father and Jose’ to honor her grandfather), but the adoption people named him Antonio. Her father Juan died in 1982 during the Guatemalan Civil War. It is estimated that at least

5, 000 Mayans in the Rabinal area were massacred in 1981-1982. Rosa is indigenous and belongs to the Mayan Achi ethnia.

Ever since Antonio learned that Rosa wanted to name him Juan Jose’, he felt that was his real name.

Jody and I supported Antonio’s name change, nudged him even. We wanted to honor his heritage and his birth mother. We understood how central a name can be to a person’s identity. Both of us have changed our names.

A door opened. “All rise. This court is now in session. The honorable Judge Bernhardson, presiding.”

Just minutes before, Crystel had each person, including her brother and his girlfriend say something they liked about her.

What I witnessed that afternoon was two 13-year-olds asking for what they needed.

They’ll do well in the world, I thought. If a person can identify and then ask for what they need, they can navigate the road ahead of them. Jody and I have taught our children well.