Extraordinary in the Ordinary

I’m a creature of habit. As much as I love adventure, I take comfort in the little routines of motherhood, carefully evolved over years of practice. Those small moments help center me, help me to feel at peace – knowing my babies are right where they’re supposed to be every night and morning. They are the ordinary moments of motherhood that bring me unimaginable joy.

Since August, my routines have been turned topsy-turvy. Pre-dawn tiptoeing down the hall, quietly nudging open bedroom doors, I find only one bed occupied. The other remains as it was last night, and the night before, and the night before that, white duvet pulled tautly against the black bedframe. White carpet screams vacancy at me in absence of dirty laundry, skis and textbooks. She’s not here.

When I dropped Lily off at college eight weeks ago, life had thrown those ordinary moments in the air like debris after a tornado. A flooded kitchen and broken bones combined to transform a quiet July into absolute chaos. I mourned the changes happening around me, yet at the same time, I couldn’t think about them for more than a moment. Life was just that tumultuous. Unpredictable. The ‘new normal’ was unfolding in front of me, and although I knew it was coming, I felt unprepared. Vulnerable.

As moments spun into days, I wound up at Lily’s college convocation – alone. This was it – the last official event before I would drive the six hundred miles back to reality – alone. It was a celebration of great importance in her life. It was the moment I’d been preparing for and denying for 18 years, and there was no stopping it. Time was in motion. This was really happening.

Bagpipers brusquely proclaimed the arrival of 500 new freshman, kids ready to launch their dreams and move to the next phase of their lives. To find the extraordinary in life. To celebrate their transition to a life on their own.

Life wasn’t exactly going according to plan. I wasn’t supposed to have to battle this moment on my own. I felt my body lighten as she walked down the aisle in her tie-dye T shirt, smiling  yet just a touch apprehensive. She’s California, I thought. The only one in the room.

I sat in the bleachers, fighting the tears and watching my little girl’s childhood flash before my eyes, and began to listen to Dr. Richard Badenhausen, head of the Honors College, read William Martin, The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents. In that moment, my heart lifted just enough to catch a glimpse of clarity-to cement me in the present:

“Do not ask your children

to strive for extraordinary lives.

Such striving may seem admirable,

but it is the way of foolishness.

Help them instead to find the wonder

and the marvel of an ordinary life.

Show them the joy of tasting

tomatoes, apples and pears.

Show them how to cry

when pets and people die.

Show them the infinite pleasure

in the touch of a hand.

And make the ordinary come alive for them.

The extraordinary will take care of itself.”

Have I done that? Is that the two-year-old girl down there – the one who delighted in smearing peaches in her mouth, juice oozing down her chin? Is that the five-year-old who grabbed my hand and pulled me to the jungle gym to proudly perform her latest trick? Did all the years of homework and studying and projects and sports and testing and applications prepare her for the ordinariness of life? She reached her goal, she’s attending the college of her choice – hopefully the one of her dreams, too. Is she ready to leave the moments of self-doubt, of wondering if her transcript is strong enough or her athleticism amazing enough to have a college want her? Is she ready to stop worrying about being extraordinary and just enjoy being….ordinary?

“The path to success travels through the ordinary. Life is transformative through the lens of time,” the speaker continued. He’s speaking my language. Have I not spent the last 18 years peering into this day? Have I not known that each moment we spent together would help guide her down this path? Why are these words causing me to weep?

“Listen when others speak,” he advised. “Have conversations with professors. Write second drafts of essays. Ask for help – perfection is an unattractive quality.” Grit, I thought. Digging deep – that attribute we hope our children develop over years of testing and writing and competing. What she learned on the ski hill. What I hope she left home with. What I know will see her through. What I hope she’s listening to at this very moment.

“Focus on the ordinary,” he continues. My attention is rapt-is hers?  “Build a foundation that will steady you. Have awareness of yourself and your place in the world. Focus on the ordinary. The extraordinary will take care of itself.”

He ends his speech and the crowd applauds. Bagpipers chant and drone their way down the center of the room, the freshmen following behind. She’s one of the last out – I can spot her green and yellow tie dye from the bleachers. I recognize that look on her face – the one where she knows she’s done well and that I’m watching.

Aware of her place in the world – yes she is. Her foundation is rock solid.

She’s ready.

She’s extraordinary.

She can take care of herself.


pc: Matt Chirico


Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe is a mom and middle school teacher who loves nothing more than watching kids be brave, courageous and navigate the world. Travel along with her as she attempts to simultaneously slow down and speed up time by trusting fate and the global community to teach us life’s lessons.

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