I’m Lorianne DiSabato–writer, college instructor, dog-walker, shutter-snapper, meditator, and asker of the Great Questions–and Hoarded Ordinaries is my online sandbox. If you’re looking for stylish opinions about the latest news and hottest trends, you’ll be sorely disappointed: click away, there’s nothing to see here.
If, instead, you’re interested in what Ezra Pound called the “news that stays news,” you might feel at home here. Have you ever wondered why we find ourselves in the particular places we inhabit? Have you ever wondered “where am I” in both a literal and figurative sense? Have you ever wanted to keep looking, child-like, at the world around you until your eyes can look no more? If so, you and I are kindred spirits. Sit down, settle in, and consider my world of plain Jane ordinaries.
Plain Jane Mundane
Originally published May 2, 2007
My mother’s name is Jane, so perhaps I’m destined to bridle whenever anyone disparages someone or something for being “plain.” What’s so bad about plainness, I want to ask? Perhaps my high tolerance for the plain ol’ ordinary comes from growing up in the Midwest, where monotony is a highly cultivated art. Here in the Northeast, natives take delight in mountains, coastlines, and the postcard-perfect vistas in between. In Ohio where I come from, the land was flat, the stares were long, and one’s daily life felt plain, like nondescript vanilla in a double chocolate world.
These days I’ve been deriving an odd sense of comfort from the familiar ritual of eating oatmeal for breakfast. You must understand that for years while I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center and regularly went on long-ish retreats at the Providence Zen Center, I refused to eat oatmeal except when it was absolutely necessary. In my Zen school, you see, oatmeal is served religiously on retreat: every morning when breakfast comes, you know exactly what will be appearing in all its plain Jane mundane-ness in the bottom left of your four neatly squared bowls. Oatmeal. Sure, you can dress it with various condiments, the adorning of oatmeal being a practice you hone on retreat. Myself, I was a creature of habit, garnishing my oatmeal every morning with hulled sunflower seeds, a mighty dollop of honey, more than a dash of soy milk, and exactly half an apple, diced. Other retreatants were more adventurous with their oatmeal, experimenting with peanut butter, raisins, and various combinations of fruit. But however you dress oatmeal, at its essence it remains the same: the blandest and mushiest of meals.
On long-ish retreats, I’d soon grow maddingly sick of oatmeal, oatmeal, oatmeal: what I wouldn’t have done for a piece of buttered toast or a hard-boiled egg. There were days on long-ish retreats when I’d have elaborate, almost pornographic fantasies about the foods I’d eat when retreat was over, and the most over-the-top of these fantasies involved breakfast foods: scrambled eggs, hash browns, buttered muffins, bacon. Is it any wonder, then, that when I wasn’t on retreat, I’d eat anything in the morning but oatmeal, leaving that bland, predictable mush for days when I had no say, days when a Kitchen Master made the menu, and that menu invariably said the same thing?
I find it interesting, then, that these days I’ve settled upon oatmeal–the easy, instant kind, perfectly packaged for a hurried party of one–as my breakfast of choice. These days, I don’t go on many retreats, and when I do, they’re usually of the single-day, not long-ish, kind. I can’t remember the last time, in fact, I’ve eaten a retreat breakfast, can’t remember the last time oatmeal sat before me in the lower left of my four-squared bowls. Is eating oatmeal, then, one way I bring a spot of retreat into my ordinary life? Or is oatmeal itself so incredibly ordinary–so quintessentially plain Jane mundane–that it seems identical to my life, something simultaneously boring and assuringly familiar?
These days, it is the ritual of my morning bowl of oatmeal that sustains me, I think, more than its actual nutritional content: we’re talking about food for the soul, not merely the flesh. On non-hurried mornings–on days when I’m not frantically grading last-minute papers or rushing together last-minute class plans–I give the dog his breakfast bowl and then boil water for my own, pouring half a glass of cranberry juice to wash down my morning vitamins and allergy meds.
There’s a monotonous regularity to it all, Reggie finishing his breakfast around the time I’m sitting down to my own. By the time my bland morning bowl is consumed, Reggie’s plopped onto his favorite spot of floor at the foot of my bed, within sight of my accustomed seat at the kitchen table. While he settles then sleeps, I (when I have time) reach for my journal and write, that half-glass of cranberry juice and the snores and sighs of the dog accompanying my pen as it fills the bland blank page: the literary equivalent of oatmeal, unadorned. There’s absolutely nothing exciting about this, this filling of lines after the filling of one’s belly…and yet I can’t count the number of days in which I mention in the same loopy script the complete and utter contentment–the sheer and simple gratitude–I feel as the dog sighs and sleeps, the refrigerator hums, and a slow single drip occasionally falls from faucet to soaking dish.
Zen practice, it seems, is all about cultivating a healthy tolerance of boredom: Zen ritual, it seems, is all about embracing the simple joy of monotonous routines repeated ad infinitum. Every morning, a bowl of oatmeal; after every meal, a bowl of tea. There’s absolutely nothing exciting about sitting, again, and following yet another breath: there’s absolutely no point, I’ve found, at which you sit up from your meditation cushion and exclaim “Yowzah! How exciting!”
And yet plain Jane can be a beauty once you’ve gotten to know her; even a daily bowl of bland mush can nourish and sustain. Both meditation and oatmeal, I’ve found, are a bit like marriage: at some point, you have to surrender your craving for the special and spectacular and lower your sights to the average and ordinary, accepting today’s bowl, this moment’s breath, or this present partner as being All There Is, for better or worse.
Excitement is intoxicating, but the mundane sustains. My mother may have been plain Jane, but the ordinary world into which I was born bears its own abundance of quotidian delights.