I would quite like a teapot at the moment. Not a big one; ideally, just big enough for two average-sized mugs. I have an image in mind, probably from childhood, mixed with nostalgia: traditional, porcelain, pours well, feels solid. Nothing extraordinary. Admittedly, it’s very similar to one we had a while ago but gave away.
The teapot I have is a little unusual. It’s glass, which is intriguing for the first few brews as you watch the tea diffuse, but watching transparent become shades of brown soon loses its magic. It also has a metal basket for tea leaves, which was quite exciting to use. But I’ve long since given up on the debacle of tea leaves. And it feels awkwardly fragile. Of course, it brews a nice, ordinary cup of tea perfectly well. But for some reason, I don’t like it. Not anymore.
I’ve been reading the late, and well-loved, Nick Luxmoore’s book, Young People and the Curse of Ordinariness. Reading this, it strikes me that my dissatisfactions and longings with teapots speak more than just passing fads.
Many of us want to be “normal”. This means fitting in. Belonging. Being OK. Being part of it. When people ask how we are, we habitually react, ‘Fine. Just normal.’ Perhaps we feel we can’t be anything else. So we have lived our lives trying to be normal, with normal relationships, normal careers, normal families. Perhaps this search for normality has completely suppressed any difference in us that we’ve found. For we couldn’t find a way to be different and part of it, to be unique and fit in. We needed the normal teapot.
Yet, we also find that we’re also not able to tolerate all that normality expects of us. Perhaps we realise that too much of our experience, or our personality, or our body just simply isn’t normal (particularly when normal is tied to a race, ability, gender, sexuality, class etc.). Perhaps we realise that the pressures of being normal, attaining or maintaining the normal job, or life, or family, are getting too much. Perhaps our own unique differences just keep bursting out, seeking some form of expression, and we’re fed up denying them.
Others of us have learned that ordinariness just doesn’t cut it. Perhaps we learned this young. Perhaps it was beaten out of us at school or at work. However much we tried, we were never good enough, never fitted in, still never got the recognition or attention or validation we craved. So, we gave up trying to be normal, and instead tried to become exceptional.
And we have many people who represent the extraordinary yet possible: Olympic or Paralympic medallists, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk. We have them in our cultural fantasies too: Iron Man, Captain America, James Bond. “If only we can work hard enough, dream big enough, then we could be like them.” - or so the assembly lessons go. So we chase after an extraordinary life with extraordinary relationships, experiences and achievements.
But ordinariness doesn’t let us go so easily. However, hard we try, however much we read those self-help books, however much we beat ourselves up over some mistake, relationships will find the realities of the normal struggles of power sharing and attending to each others’ misunderstandings, needs and hopes. Exceptional experiences soon lose their ecstasy and we can end up on the addictive cycle of ever increasing risk. Our exceptional life plan meets ordinary hurdles, procrastinations, setbacks. Yes, we might do all these things a little bit better, but watching the exciting transparency of the extraordinary drift into shades of brown can lose its magic.
So, perhaps we end up, having given up on being ordinary, and given up on being extraordinary, pursuing instead the exceptional ordinary. We long for home. We long for that nostalgic, idyllic teapot that our parents or grandparents or someone somewhere seemed to have. That time, perhaps not even in our personal history except when we were still in the womb, when we truly felt held, safe, nourished, happy, and when everyone got along. Nothing fancy. Just home. But that teapot, at least for most of us, is never in the shop.
I know I flip between these pursuits of normality, exceptionality and the extraordinary home. My search for belonging has meant balancing being normal yet different, finding an exceptional place in a very normal-loving family, and all the while seeking to find or build my own perfect home.
And this, at the end of the day, is what’s really normal. The dreams of something extraordinary that carry us through the normal mundaneness and frustrations and that also can backfire in guilt, disillusion or inadequacy. Holding the desires to fit in and be normal as well as our differences that push out to be seen and make their difference in the world. The regrets at all the different or extraordinary lives we haven’t lived and can’t live anymore as choices made close doors. The sometimes aching longing and grief for a home lost and yet unfound.
This betwixt and between-ness of the ordinary and the extraordinary is, perhaps, what normal really is. Perhaps the secret is learning to be OK with it. After all, the perfectly normal tea that all my teapots seem to brew can still be extraordinarily right.