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First Monday of Ordinary Time

MY JOURNAL ENTRY for Monday, January 6, 2020 is headed, “First Monday of Ordinary Time!” Having finished with a holiday season which in our extended family starts with Thanksgiving and runs Tough Mudder-style through Hanukkah, Christmas, and three birthdays in a one-week period around the New Year, I of course intended this heading as acknowledgement that, having had our fun, it is time to get back to work. One of the many odd and wonderful details that stay with me from my loosely Catholic upbringing in the suburban Midwest is the concept of “Ordinary Time,” and my use of the phrase here is a jocular (but loving) conflation of the church’s liturgical calendar and the secular, academic one that gives shape to my work life. In the Catholic take on the calendar, “ordinary time” refers to those parts of the year that are not part of the specially designated observances of Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter. The liturgical calendar for 2020 actually began with the first Sunday of Advent, on Dec. 1, 2019, and now that the Magi have arrived and the kids are back to school, this Sunday, January 13, is actually the “First Sunday of Ordinary Time.”


It would have been shortly after Christmas some forty or forty-five years ago that I would have noticed the phrase for the first time. A bookish, word-oriented kid, in addition to following along with the selected readings and the other scripted bits of the mass in the newsprint missal (that always reminded me of the Weekly Readers we would occasional read aloud together at school), I would have been in the habit of exploring that little booklet beyond the confines of a given Sunday’s order of service—studying song lyrics, past and future weeks’ readings, and miscellaneous other curiosities. I would have especially savored the special words and phrases, hungrily run my tongue over the remnants of Latin sprinkled throughout the missal like sweet little treats brought back from a trip across the ocean I’d not cross myself for another decade. I would have savored the strangeness of those words and phrases that must have been part of my own mother tongue but that made sense only in the church context (vestments, Eucharist, lector, offering, ...). I would have been intrigued even then, and I would not have been alone in that roomful of parishioners in assuming that “Ordinary Time” was the church’s way of signaling (or at least acknowledging) that “Yup, the fun’s over. Special time is over. Time to transition from Ho Ho Ho to ho-hum.”


These days I see it differently. I love special time. I love days off and trips and holidays and celebrations. I love having our kids around to keep us up late and to fill our life with their sense of adventure. But I also love buckling down and working long, full days.


Phillip Lopate, who has made a career of confessing his foibles, talks in the “Coda” to his 2013 essay collection Portrait Inside My Head, of writing being so central to his being that he feels “dead, empty” when he is not writing: “I wish I had a knack for living…but I am no good at it, and so I plod through the hours of leisure with a pretense of graceful participation which does not fool for a second those closest to me (my wife and daughter), and I wait impatiently for the next opportunity to sit at my desk and write.” I’m not quite that bad—I doubt Lopate is either—I actually treasure time with family, down time, socializing. Nor am I as dedicated to my work routine as Stephen King, who has joked in interviews that the only reason he tells people that he writes “six hours every day of the year except Christmas and Easter” is that people would find it especially weird to know that he also puts in a full day at his desk on those days as well. But I appreciate the sentiment: As much as I love goofing around and celebration, I crave and deeply value my routine. I love, love, love the daily grind. “Ordinary” time is when stuff gets done!


For me, when the balance shifts too far, when time for work gets too attenuated, by—well, by the rest of life—I can start to feel just a little bit crazy. My friend Jim, a teacher and writer for whom summers can be a most productive time, helped me to preserve my sanity through more than one summer as a stay-home parent, admonishing me not to judge how my writing life is going based on how utterly unproductive I felt by late July/early August, when summer camps had run their course and my kids were so damn busy being little and home and needy.


Every writer I know (I’ve never met Mr. King or Ms. Rowling) struggles to find adequate time, to carve out adequate time, for the writing. And every writer who has loved ones and some semblance of a life off the page has to find a way to make peace with that gnawing anxiety that gets louder when life shifts the balance between the writing time we need and EVERYTHING ELSE.


Which brings me back to today, Monday, January 6, 2020. The First Monday of Ordinary Time of the new year.The first real work day after a wonderful winter break both for my students (which means work has been less busy but is just about to heat back up) and for my kids (which means my personal life has been more busy but is about to slow back down).


Phew!

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