For a minute or so, try to remember moments in your life when you thought you saw something extraordinary in yourself, and you really wanted to believe that you were born to be a part of something big — a global game-changing event.
Now, just for a few seconds, maybe you can recall a moment when that idea imploded, and you were left with the crushing certainty that you are, after all, as ordinary as they come.
And maybe you’ve made peace with it, telling yourself that there are advantages to being invisible. You can slip away from a boring party unnoticed (unless you’re someone’s ride, or you happen to be the reason for the party, which probably doesn’t happen very often — if at all).
Maybe you’re still trying to figure out whether there’s something about you that sets you apart — SO much that no one who spent an hour getting to know you would call you ordinary.
But, then, any of us, if we take a good look at ourselves, will find something that sets us apart from others like us in some way — but not enough to make us really stand out. Maybe that something won’t land us in the newspapers, but it still matters to us and to all those who benefit from it in some way.
But sometimes, maybe, you wish someone would say something like, “Wow! You really have a gift!” I don’t know about you, but when someone compliments my writing or my latest crochet project — or my pie — it makes my day. I’m easy like that.
But sometimes we wait a good long time before someone notices or cares that we can do more than sweep floors and scrub countertops.
Someone could talk to you — or could even work with you — for hours, days, even years and proudly proclaim to everyone within earshot that “<your name here> is just an ordinary <guy/gal>, like me.”
Camraderie is nice. It takes away some of the sting.
At least until someone in the crowd says something like, “Oh, <name of person who just called you ordinary>, you are anything but ordinary!”
And that someone then laughs good-naturedly and . . . says nothing.
And the moment ends, and people go back to their business, and you’re left thinking, “Did that just happen?”
And that second helping of mashed potatoes drowning in gravy is looking mighty good. Or that extra slice of pizza. Or pie. Pie is amazing! Forget about the pizza and the mashed potatoes. Now, I want pie.
But now I’m thinking about the woman I met at Mother Teresa’s House for the Dying in Vatican City. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time there — long enough to write a letter for her to her spiritual director and to sit down for a talk. I couldn’t say I knew her very well, but I knew that she was working there, tending those who had no one else to tend them during their last days. And she felt alone and uncertain about her vocation. She didn’t write English very well, and when she asked if I would please write a letter for her, I was thrilled to have some way to help. She dictated, and I sometimes suggested words that seemed to be what she was trying to say. She’d nod and smile and thank me, and eventually we were done, and she showed me the address so I could carefully write it on the envelope for her. And then, we talked for a while.
I thought about the sacrifices she’d made that had led her to that place — and the sacrificial life she was living there. My letter was nothing compared to what she did day in and day out. We had something in common, though: she and I were both asking questions about where God wanted us to be. Both of us knew the pain of uncertainty about our vocations. That’s something that doesn’t necessarily go away when a vocation is picked and lived for a while.
I still ask questions of God about my vocation. I’m married with four great kids, whom I attempted to homeschool for a while.
But years ago, I worked in a monastery kitchen, helping to prepare meals for about fifty monks and about a hundred seminarians. Some of those seminarians were like older brothers to me — kind and protective. Some of the priests were like protective uncles to me.
Maybe it was the protective part that made some of the seminarians say things like, “So, Sarah, when are you going to become a nun? Because you really should, you know, . . . You should become a nun. Have you thought about joining the Benedictines down in Mt. Angel? . . .”
I hadn’t. Not even once.
I hated when one of them asked that question right in front of Sister Patricia, who worked with me in the kitchen and who was, you guessed it, a Benedictine from Mt. Angel.
The art of interrupting or changing the subject without seeming deliberate is an art not appreciated nearly enough.
I didn’t dress to impress anyone. I generally wore black pants with the white uniform top and a white apron. I didn’t usually wear make-up, either, at the time. I probably looked like someone who hadn’t the smallest interest in attracting a man. The nun at the switchboard even addressed me as “Young man” once, which was probably the lowest point of that day.
So, maybe I was asking for it. I don’t know.
Still, her eyesight wasn’t great, so there’s at least a chance she wasn’t looking too hard at my face or . . . about a foot below it.
For a while, though, I was afraid maybe God wanted me to be a nun.
I even wrote to a couple convents — a group of Poor Clares in Florida and a Carmelite Convent in Terre Haute, Indiana. They replied — one of them rather tersely in regards to a question of mine that was probably impertinent.
Eventually, though, I became determined to NOT become a nun. I started dressing in a more feminine way, wearing at least lipstick and blush most of the time. I couldn’t ditch my glasses, because they’re easier to keep track of (for me) than contacts. Plus, my dad’s eyes became too dry for contacts, and one of them stuck to his eyeball. Just thinking about that makes me feel faint. In case that was hereditary, there was no way I was wearing contacts.
Besides that, my glasses help to keep my rogue left eye from wandering — which makes some people uncomfortable. I had to wear eye-patches as a kid, to make my left eye work more. Our eye doctor thought it would improve the sight in my left eye, so maybe it wouldn’t wander off and let the right eye do all the work.
I hated wearing those things.
Glasses I don’t mind. My first pair of glasses had rainbow-colored frames.
And I sucked my thumb ’til I was 12, which did unpleasant things to my front teeth, but they straightened out on their own. Mostly.
When I was in Spain — no matter how little I tried to draw attention (so as to explore new places without being bothered), I found out that sometimes, even for a wallflower, being invisible isn’t a given. Even when I was pretty sure I wasn’t likely to get a second look, I met some characters who really weren’t all that picky when it came to targets — and I wasn’t as invisible as I’d thought I was.
I started out comfortable with the fact that I was traveling alone. It wasn’t long before that changed.