Year of Grace. Day 184. On the ordinary and commonplace

I was about to use the word “quotidian” in the title and stopped myself. Could I say it more naturally, that is, in the words I use in my day to day life, in my inner conversations with myself? I began with “On the every day” but that was a tad awkward. I reached a compromise with “ordinary” and “commonplace.”

Why did I begin with “quotidian” in the first place? It’s because one of my favourite authors, Carol Shields, has been called a writer of the quotidian, of the things that happen from day to day. And though perhaps it was meant as somewhat derogatory by the literary critic whose comment it was, it is precisely because Carol Shields writes about the ordinary lives of ordinary people that I enjoy reading her.

The website devoted to her work notes that a recurrent theme in Shields’ books is the trajectory of a person’s life. My favourite of all her books – Larry’s Party — is a celebration of how an ordinary person’s life ends up becoming rather extraordinary with maturity and consuming passions, intellectual, aesthetic, or otherwise. The protagonist is a florist (and male – perhaps a dig at customary male roles in fiction?) whose life expands in unexpected directions, intellectual and artistic, as he discovers a passion for hedge mazes on a trip to England. Perhaps as a plantswoman and gardener, and for one brief period a florist as well, I can relate to Larry and the amazing transformation of his life.

How did I end up writing about Carol Shields today? Well, yesterday I mentioned Hemda Ben-Yehuda, whose husband is noted for having transformed a dead language, i.e., liturgical Hebrew, which had not been used in daily life for ages, into a living one. She certainly deserves as much credit as he does; I see it as him providing the hardware — the structure of syntax and grammar and vocabulary — but she provided the operating manual for it.

She did it by writing a column (under a pseudonym) in the newspaper that she and her husband published to disseminate and promote the use of modern Hebrew. But instead of the more weighty topics that others wrote about, apparently she wrote about everyday life as she experienced it. And while I have yet to read any of her writing (I have to check if they’ve been translated into English), I imagine that by doing so, her readers gained a better perception of how to apply this new language in their daily life.

Imagine yourself being transported to a completely alien environment, and not having a clue as to what the strange items in the market are. Are they vegetables or fruit? Does one cook them? Can one eat them raw? How does one prepare them? I would hope that Hemda wrote about these novel vegetables and fruits and other things she saw in the market and on her way there, and named them for her readers new to this strange yet familiar land. I would hope that she described things she encountered everyday – the trees, the plants, the flowers; the games her children played. (Btw her children were the first to have Hebrew as a first language, as their family was the first to be totally Hebrew-speaking.)

Because I write about the things in my day-to-day life as well – my garden, the wildlife that inhabit and regularly visit it, whatever I am cooking or experimenting with, the fruits and vegetables that come into season, the flowers that are in bloom – I feel a certain kinship with Hemda Ben-Yehuda. And I believe she deserves more than just a footnote for her role in promoting modern Hebrew. And moreover as I had mentioned yesterday, the gift of her cakes was certainly a, if not the, great motivator in her neighbours’ willingness to learn and use the new language.

Which calls to mind a scene from the Tel Aviv market last year. Three women crowded around another buying mangold leaves. These dark green leaves on sturdy white stalks are also known as Swiss chard or blette in French. They are rather similar to what Filipinos know as pechay, only mangold leaves are much larger and coarser. What is it, one of the three asked. How do you cook it? And the one buying it then proceeded to explain how and went through the steps of her recipe. I didn’t manage to catch everything, but I really appreciated the camaraderie of women – who didn’t know each other at all – gathering around a potherb seller’s stall and discussing the merits of each of those greens, and more importantly, what to do with them. And later, a nephew-in-law demonstrated how to cook them the Yemenite way. Absolutely delicious!

One of several red squirrels that visit my garden

One of several red squirrels that visit my garden

Today I came upon a red squirrel hopping and scratching about under the hazel trees. He or she hasn’t been around in a long while. The hazelnuts must be ripe enough to eat, was my thought of the morning. Apparently one doesn’t pick hazelnuts from the tree: when ripe, they fall to the ground, and one harvests them off the ground. As I write, I see the squirrel hopping about at the other end of the garden, despite the steady drizzle. This is the second time it has rained after I’d thoroughly watered the plants (what a waste of tap water, eh?), but the white hydrangea’s leaves were wilting and I couldn’t give it water while neglecting the other plants. Watering my potted plants well or washing the windows or the car – sure makes it rain everytime ☺. It is only the beginning of August, and yet because of the rain and the gradually cooling temperatures, not to mention the squirrel starting to gather nuts for winter storage, I can feel autumn is making itself felt. And yesterday too, I detected a change, subtle but noticeable, in the quality of the light in the sky. I am loth to bid goodbye to summer, even though autumn is my favourite season.

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2 thoughts on “Year of Grace. Day 184. On the ordinary and commonplace

  1. Arriving in the Philippines in 1965/66, I think that the market was a fascinating and strange place for my mother. She was in “a completely alien environment, and” did “not hav(e) a clue as to what the strange items in the market” were. “Are they vegetables or fruit? Does one cook them? Can one eat them raw? How does one prepare them?” This in the end resulted in her book, “Tropical Fruits & Vegetables”. 🙂

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