The Extraordinary Is Here and Now
By: Craig Anthony (Tony) Arnold
I write from the most ordinary of places – from ordinary urban parks in an ordinary American city, Louisville, KY, located on perhaps the most ordinary river in the U.S., the Ohio River. I also sit on my screen porch in my urban/suburban backyard of trees and native plants. I’m on summer break from teaching, working on day-to-day tasks of academic research, home chores, and local hiking. But it feels like I’m in-between important things happening. Even on the Christian church’s calendar, this is called Ordinary Time, in between the periods of Lent/Easter/Pentecost and Advent/Christmas.
Even so, everything around me is extraordinary. As I walk on wooded paths, I find beauty and joy. Green vegetation in parks, lawns, and fields revitalize my spirit. With each breath of fresh air, I inhale peace and relaxation and exhale stress and worry. Hikes with vaccinated friends allow for deep conversations. Flowing waters of local streams and the Ohio River inspire me to think about justice, about interconnectedness, about how our lives are sustained, and about our environmental responsibilities. Fireflies, birds, butterflies, native wildflowers, serviceberries, foxes, deer, chipmunks, rabbits, groundhogs, and so many other living things I see in my urban/suburban surroundings – these bring me happiness and gratitude (even skunks, from a distance!).
As I remain in my hometown doing ordinary tasks, the extraordinariness of life, vitality, and growth are happening in me and all around me. Good cells in my body grow and regenerate; energy, hydration, and nourishment turn into activity. I continue to learn, love, believe, and hope. I build and maintain relationships, in-person or remotely, with family and friends. It is an extraordinary thing to convert one’s values and ethics from words into actions, but it is something that must happen in the mundane day-to-day of ordinary living in ordinary times and ordinary places. Environmental justice and climate justice aren’t just international conference topics; they’re choices I make every day. Important things are happening here and now.
The Covid pandemic taught us about how much happiness and health come from nature and the outdoors. These lessons have become warped and misunderstood, though. Those privileged with the time, money, and opportunity to travel, especially post-vaccinations and post-restrictions, have sought to find this happiness and health in traveling to what are thought to be extraordinary places, such as tropical beaches, breathtaking mountain vistas, iconic national parks, and exotic wilderness.
We often feel we need to leave our ordinary life of “here” and “now” in order to go “there” “as soon as we can” – the places that stun us with natural beauty and recreational experiences. We are addicted to experiencing nature in what our peers and culture have defined as the “wow photo op.” Don’t get me wrong: I love to travel to special natural environments elsewhere and share those diverse life experiences in diverse places with friends and family. But let’s be honest with ourselves: pride, competition, envy, and resentment also have something to do with our desire to go to the “bucket list” places. In doing so, we rob ourselves of opportunities to experience the extraordinary – to experience God – in the environments all around us and to engage in day-to-day activities that are holy and special.
“Bucket-list” travel goals prevent us from empathizing and having solidarity with those who don’t have opportunities to travel, due to health, disability, family commitments, job commitments, financial resources, discrimination barriers, location, etc. To be blunt, the traveler’s hike of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park or windsurfing in Hawaii just isn’t superior in any meaningful sense to a Black child’s discovery of a frog in their urban low-income neighborhood of pavement and deteriorating buildings. Sharing temporary residence on this earth is what gives us common humanity, not our vacation photos.
And our obsession with the so-called extraordinary places and experiences deter us from being good stewards of the ordinary places where we live, work, and play in ordinary times. We all too often are blinded, failing to see that places like Shawnee Park, Goose Creek, Coppiced Woods, and the Ohio River are special places deserving of our love and care just as much as Yosemite National Park, the Colorado River, the Florida Everglades, or the “Mighty” Mississippi River. Science tells us that local environments are important ecologically, part of natural systems that sustain our lives, our society, and our earth. Local environments also have shared meaning and value in our communities and shape us personally and spiritually. If we make the effort to experience nature here and now – in our ordinary places and ordinary times – we will come to know with deep faith that these places and times are extraordinary. This will motivate us to be better keepers of God’s creation.