The marketing agency I work at is meeting with a local business owner in this small but increasingly optimistic Rust Belt town. We talk about packaging. They make corrugated boxes. We say we’re here to help them dream bigger dreams, but mostly they’re looking for a shinier website and a way to get a call from some new customers. The meeting runs pretty much to script—what does success look like? Who is the hero of your story? What is the process for doing business with you? What is the call to action?
I want to show them how the folding cardboard box they manufacture is printed with artwork designed to tell how the medicine inside will help soothe the frantic mother’s newborn son’s fever so they can both sleep tonight and skip the unnecessary emergency room visit.
See how much this box matters? What you do matters so much! That’s nice, these stories, but they really want to know the ROI. How’s my SEO? What’s the CTR? How much time and money is it going to take?
In the course of six months, I’ve worked with four different packaging companies, all within an easy drive of my office, all of which do things just a little bit differently. They aren’t competitors. They manufacture corrugated boxes and display cases and windowed packages. We talk about polybags, shrink film, and bubble wrap. We talk about Contact Us forms and product menus. We talk about assembly lines and shipping and why they are the superior corrugated box manufacturer in the Midwest.
I set my limit at five of these sorts of meetings a week because they take so much time. Sometimes that’s what we hit and other times there are fewer.
Everything made had to be made.
This is an ordinary time in my life. In the liturgical calendar, Ordinary Time stretches long between the last days of Eastertide until the start of Advent. It’s the season in which nothing much happens. Jesus just walks around and teaches his disciples, heals a few people, holds a few dinners for sinners and tax collectors. The Israelites just wander around a while in a desert eating something fluffy and trusting God will make a more dramatic move, again, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps next year, maybe someday forty years from now.
I work forty hours a week writing marketing plans and leading strategy sessions for local business owners. We start off with a Monday team meeting in which we pray for friends and customers, share something positive, and give an update on the week ahead. On Wednesdays we have lead team and sometimes a team lunch with whoever’s available.
In the wrap-around, my children rise and obey their teachers, mostly. My husband and I are past the days of babies being born, still five years from our oldest leaving the house. We feed them breakfast and dinner and pay for their school lunches. After work, my husband and I walk the same loop every evening so the dog will poop in the unoccupied grassy space between the road and the soccer field. Tonight we might drink bourbon instead of wine, watch Friends instead of The Office.
I turn 40 in three years and my husband is 42. We’re at the middlest middle of our middle-income, Midwest life.
One of our clients owns a number of nursing homes—or to be more politically correct, senior living communities. The primary target audience is the son or daughter, usually the daughter, tasked with finding a solution for an elderly parent, the parent who is normally stubborn and unwilling to consider the need for a change. During our kickoff meeting, I bring up the constant strain, the dread of something happening, the guilt of failing your parent, the need for necessities to be met so you can enjoy the time you have left with them.
On the way to work, my mom and I talk on the phone about her mom. My mom is the primary target audience for this customer of mine. We run laps around the same impossible solution to the problem of an elderly parent living alone. We talk on the phone nearly every morning on the way to work. It’s a short commute, but we cover a lot of distance—all the doctor’s appointments, Dad’s latest thoughts about retirement, plans for traveling, her own precarious health and all the mundane details of my life, my relationship with my husband, what’s new with my kids.
While I keep trudging along in Ordinary Time, my mom is living in Lent, or maybe Holy Week, maybe even Maundy Thursday. She is living each day in the shadow of her terminal illness. Every moment is lined with this reality: Death has already called ahead and made his reservation.
Living in a small town, I often interact with clients who are also friends, who also attend church with my family, who also listen with us to live bands at the local brewery on Friday night. One such friend comes in with a hospice care provider for a kickoff meeting. Even hospice has competitors edging in for business, and business is usually good when it comes to death. Someone is always dying, am I right? I try to take a more humorous approach and know even as I laugh that this is not going to fly. I send the brief marketing video to my friend anyway, knowing she’ll laugh, knowing she wishes we could make death a laughing matter.
In our meeting with the local hospice care provider I think about my mother. I think about the numbered days until her body loses its fight against the rebel cells it made in her kidneys and lungs and lymph nodes. And because it’s 2 in the afternoon in the large meeting room and I am not alone in the middle of the night awake with my worst fears, I think about what it would be good to see in my Facebook feed if today was the day the doctor recommended hospice care. What would I need to know? What would I need to hear? I jot down what we write on the whiteboard and nod as we discuss the best digital solutions for marketing end-of-life care.
I think about death almost every day these days. I’d prefer not to, but it doesn’t seem to want to give up its grip. There are times when I drive that my mind will flash, imagine what might happen if I just let go of the steering wheel, what would happen when my car strikes against the guard rail. Sometimes when we’re walking on the sidewalk and my son is riding his bike I picture his balance wobbling, him falling wrong and into the road and into the path of a speeding car, and I blink and panic and push away the way ordinary can become extraordinary in a hot second, just like that, just like that and everything I’ve written off as typical and mundane becomes scarce and precious and gone.
But for now, it is still my Ordinary Time.
Tonight, my boys are battling in a virtual world against some coded enemies they probably generated themselves, stacking technological blocks toward a career that probably doesn’t even exist yet. I grow weary of the real-world battles in which I’m the enemy who limits screen time and hides the devices so they have to actually interact with me and the wild life we’ve given them here, tucked between a quiet college campus and a sharp sloping hillside where trees tumble toward a creek, muting the chaos of the engineered world.
“Go outside!” I screech.
When we finally wrest the iPods and iPads and Kindles from our youngest’s hands, he crouches low to the earth and whispers to the toads and garter snakes in all of that wildness until they come to him from under the leaves. He collects what he finds in an aluminum tub someone must have made somewhere in a factory.
We haven’t yet worked with an aluminum tub manufacturer. Besides the box guys, there are custom tool people, screw people (so many innuendos), pump people, control panel people, and people who make things whose application it takes us months to understand. They make widgedidgedoos that can be used for a whole host of things! Everyone needs a thingamajig in their whatsitdo. I bet you didn’t even know it.
When the aluminum tub manufacturer comes in, I will listen to their stories. I will learn how these tubs are the most durable and solid, multi-purpose tubs you can find. But what they will not know yet is how especially good aluminum tubs can be for toad habitats made by eight-year-olds.
Our youngest son is dragging his aluminum tub toad habitat through the backyard right now, whining about having to let the toads go. It is night, the end to yet another day.
Sometimes at night I catch the sunset through the pines in the valley below our home before the next episode of The Office begins. Its bright notes rise orange and red until the green of the trees is made black. It is getting dark and now that I’ve gotten the boys to go out I worry they won’t come back.
“It’s time to come in!” I screech.
Go outside, come back in, eat your dinner faster, why are you chewing like you’re in a race? You never tell us anything. Would you three stop talking so much? Stop having fun! Why are you so serious? These are our daily efforts to manipulate time and our children to behave the way we expect them to. They need to grow up someday, so they can arrive for their ride on the carrousel, so they can be prepared… for what? This?
If I opened the windows tonight, I would hear the choir of crickets and frogs, the birds finding their final evening song, maybe even the owl known to nest between our house and the next might call, if I listen.
When I put the days and weeks underneath a microscope, the way my youngest studies the earth for movement in the fallen leaves, I find filaments growing, weaving, braiding, strengthening, becoming something of greater substance. If I listen, the days and weeks stop being so same, so monotonous with their Monday morning meetings and Wednesday morning yoga practice, Thursday afternoon kickoff session, Friday night pizza. This is the schedule, the framework for the day, not the substance of the thing. If I listen, I find life.
So much is held together, tenuous. Death for my mom, while having placed its call, is still some distance away, staved off by modern medicine. As long as grief isn’t suddenly forced upon us, knocking the wind from our guts and robbing something precious from us, we straddle the length of time right smack dab in the middle, between Advent and Lent, trudging along in Ordinary Time.
Death is distant for us, the way all of the big unknowns for my husband and I are cemented in the past, the college and career and spouse and children choices, the hometown and relocation choices, all made already and resolved, so that there’s so much time for us to fill with marketing work and swim practice and morning exercise and episodes of The Office. At almost-40 and just-over-40, we’re at the middlest middle.
Forty is a number of substance for Biblical scholars. It’s a number that means preparation. Any time it appears in Scripture you can bet that something’s happening. Forty years of wilderness for the Israelites before entering the Promised Land. Forty days of wilderness for Jesus before his encounter with the Devil. Forty days following the resurrection of Christ to prepare the disciples for ministry. At almost-40 and just-over-40, we’re at the mid-life point commonly labeled “crisis.”
But these aren’t days of crisis. They are days of preparation. There’s so much ordinary time to fill it feels a little full, a little empty, a little bit like wandering about, a little bit without a purpose. Shouldn’t something be happening?
But isn’t it all happening? Isn’t everyone doing something to make something else happen, to make something into something else, to connect this need to this solution, to help to heal to comfort to care to love? We are gathering in conference rooms to bridge the gap between the hero and the guide, the need and the solution, the pain point and the remedy. We are gathering in rooms to connect with other humans in this small town where we’ll run into each other at the bar, at church, at baby showers, at someone else’s calling hours, and we’ll be present in their Advent, and we’ll be present in their Lent.
It’s all this Ordinary Time that allows the bones to grow, because it takes rest, you know? It takes time and stillness, habit, a solid night’s sleep for all the neurons to rewire and restore and recycle the day’s memories. When nothing tragic or ecstatic is happening there’s a lot of time spent remembering. There’s a lot of time spent making meals and taking walks and taking steps that inch you ever closer, prepare you ever so slightly more for the call, the trip, the fall, the shift, the whirling frenzy, the sudden holy slip into silence, the rising.
You won’t need to remember each sunrise or sunset, every Monday morning meeting, the variations in sun salutation routines your Yoga instructor has led you through these past nine months of regular practice, but isn’t the way you breathe different now, isn’t it good, how someone Monday will pray, someone will praise, someone will be grateful. Isn’t it lovely the way the pine trees looked last night against the red of the sky, the wispy way the smoke from a neighbor’s fire weaved its way into the atmosphere and disappeared, the way wood morphs into flame and ash into dust, the way the flicker hypnotizes and stirs, the way we were moved, if only this one small inch closer?