How to Sum up the Year: Just an Ordinary Day

December 31, 2014

I’ve thought a lot about this entry because it falls on a calendar date of some significance.  Of course, calendar holidays aren’t usually the ones that make big dents in our memories (unless we’re talking about bicycle gifts for holidays or a wedding celebrated on Valentines).   The days you hold on to, good and bad, aren’t marked on someone else’s calendar.  And of all of the marked days, New Year’s Eve isn’t anticipated by loads of people outside of the liquor business.  Still, it has significance and so does the book, Just an Ordinary Day despite it’s title, because its author was no ordinary writer.

Just an Ordinary Day is a selection of stories written by Shirley Jackson.   Some of these are previously unpublished stories that seem to go back to her college years and the final one was published three years after she died.  She created a lot of material between those two events that fall into several different genres.  There are the psychologically disturbing stories that made her famous, the domestic ones that made her loved and several tales that resist categorization of any type.  As a guess, I suspect Ms. Jackson would like that.  Her stories tended to show the dichotomies of life.

For example, take the title story of the volume, “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts.”  The central figure, a Mr. Johnson spends his day doing good deeds everywhere.   He smiles at people, looks after children and shares his peanuts and money.  He turns strangers into friends, helps the poor and directs the lost.  No apparent reason, no motivation.  He’s just a very kind, generous man.  At the end of the day he sees his wife, a smiling comfortable woman who reports on her day.  She accused an innocent person of shoplifting, sent three dogs to the pound and probably got a bus driver fired.  Is Mr. Johnson angry at his wife’s behavior?  Here’s what follows:

“Fine said Mr. Johnson. “But you do look tired.  Want to change tomorrow?”

“I would like to,” she said.  “I could do with a change.”

 In other words neither one of them is, by nature, good or bad.  Good and evil are behavior choices people make and the results of those choices make up the yin and yang of our lives.  Life isn’t one thing or another, it’s a bunch of things all mixed up together and so are most people.  Just like no ordinary day is really ordinary.

Think about it.  What was your yesterday like?  Was it good?  Bad?   Let’s say it was an ordinary day for you.   But yesterday (odds are) someone fell in love and somebody got married.   Other people fell out of love and someone got divorced.  A baby was born that was wanted.  Another unwanted one was too and we can only hope those parents change their minds.   Someone old died.  Someone young died.   Someone took their first step.  Someone probably took their last one.  It all happened yesterday, during your ordinary day.  A day that wasn’t ordinary at all.

That’s a bit far afield from Shirley Jackson except her stories make a person comfortable with profound thoughts.  Those stories had the habit of standing some ordinary convention on its head so the reader could look at it in a different way.  If the reader didn’t like what he or she saw,  well, maybe the convention needed rethinking or the reader could shut the book.  What he couldn’t do again was accept the convention at face value.

So think about your last year with all of its calendared holidays and non-holidays with singular memories.  If you want, read some Shirley Jackson stories and remember life is varied and convention is seldom as it seems.  Share your peanuts or don’t but remember if you get tired of who and what you are, you are free to change tomorrow.

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