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From Prosaic Arises Life's Sudden Poetry

By Donna Britt
Friday, July 22, 2005

Warning: No heart-stopping news or ire-producing opinions about "important" issues will be found in this column. It's about real life, which is -- surprise! -- boring.

Blame it on the cherries. I'd found some sweet, darkly crimson ones and was removing the pits for my 9-year-old's lunch when the self-recriminations started. Was this yet another of the ridiculous, unnecessary things that I do that will only spoil my son? I wondered.

Then I remembered: Spending one minute picking out pits is preferable to spending 15 minutes spot-treating and scrubbing the resulting stains on my kid's shirt if he bites them out.

I know -- dull stuff. Then it hit me: This is my life.

My life: beating myself up over fruit for my son and other equally yawn-inducing moments.

Surprise.

We think of our lives as bigger. Looking back, we focus on the fun, the painful or the exciting: on our jobs' highs and lows, the vacations we took, our dizzying love affairs and their devastating breakups. We remember laugh-filled weddings and tear-soaked funerals; humiliating defeats, heart-bursting triumphs and hurts we barely survived.

We remember highlights.

In reality, the cherries reminded me, we spend most of our precious, unrepeatable lives more mundanely. Human existence is an endless loop of inane self-conversations: about what bag lunches -- and missed homework and our kids' careers -- say about our parenting; the world's precarious state; our fellow drivers' incompetence; our neighbors' idiocy; the dismaying state of our finances; our weight or our to-do lists.

Our lives aren't just boring thoughts. They're stultifying, endlessly repeated actions: standing in line at the grocery or department store. Sitting in traffic. Tooth brushing, hand washing and toilet sitting. Turning off the TV, picking up the underwear or washing the office coffeepots that other folks should have.

Our lives are deciding, once and for all, to skip the extra brownie, bacon cheeseburger or third glass of wine. And having it anyway.

Surprise -- those TV shows with all the grinning, hugging, dancing, hysterically happy people? They're lying. Life is . . . pitting cherries.

Until one of the big things that we tell ourselves life really is actually happens. We get pregnant. We lose our job. We meet our soul mate. A spouse leaves; an aged parent moves in.

Our only child gets married.

Patty Hurd, my cherry-eating son's violin teacher for four years, has played exquisitely for numerous organizations and events, including Wolf Trap concerts, the Baltimore Opera Company and three presidential inaugurations. Next week, her daughter Rachael, 22 -- a smart and beautiful George Washington University grad -- is marrying Michael Protos, 24, a copy editor for a Capitol Hill weekly.

As the day draws nearer, my son, violin in hand, squirms as I pepper Patty with questions: Are you terrified? Does such a huge occurrence transform parenthood's small duties into something profound?

How could everything have changed so quickly?

"Rachael told me years ago that Michael was the one," Patty, 53, says. "I was like, 'Yeah right, how can you know?' But she did. . . . The other day, I went in Rachael's room to make up her bed." Staring at it, she realized her daughter's twin bed now serves no purpose.

"If she wants to spend the night, they'll be in the guest room."

Recently, I pondered Patty's words as she taught in the next room -- how clueless we are about time's passage, about everyday life's hidden meanings. On a shelf, I noticed her high school yearbook: the East Senior High School Gray Eagle, 1970.

Peeking inside, I learned that Patty was her Nashville school's co-valedictorian. And -- surprise! -- on pages 12, 13 and others were black-and-white photos of debate club member and Miss East High runner-up Oprah Winfrey.

Oprah and Patty were among scores of black kids who in 1968 integrated the formerly all-white school. "We were friends," says Patty, who has lost touch with the celebrity. "She was gregarious and all, but there was no way to know Oprah Winfrey was going to be Oprah Winfrey . Not then."

Of course. We can't see what's obvious right now: The boring stuff -- the chores, self-doubt and mindless repetition that are our lives -- binds us to others, giving context and meaning to the Big Stuff.

Ask Patty what she's remembering these days and it's Big -- her daughter's birth.

"I can distinctly see Rachael, the first time," Patty says. "I see her eyes taking in everything going on all round her -- that's been Rachael from day one. Always soaking up what's around her. . . . Totally aware of herself but as generous as she could be. . . . She's her own person.

"And now she's decided to get married."

So is she worried for her daughter?

"No, because I know she's happy," Patty says. "Michael is a great guy and he loves her. . . . Everything that Rachael has done since she stopped living under my roof tells me that she knows exactly what she's doing."

Maybe Rachael is like Winfrey, whose magazine features her regular essay, "What I Know for Sure."

Not me. All I know for sure is that human existence isn't a highlight reel. That each day God sends, I'm struck by the vastness of what I don't know. And that life is just a bowl of . . .

Surprises.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company