On Balance

Published on November 7th, 2016 | by Mallory McDuff



Family legends come in all shapes and scales. A friend of mine from college counts Rosa Parks as one of her distant cousins, several times removed. Closer to home, my father’s family from Mississippi recounts the tale of my grandfather’s math quizzes at the dinner table each night. Not surprisingly, several of his children received near perfect scores on the math section of the SAT, or so the story goes.

My little family of three is building a legend from the most ordinary of activities: My daughters walk through a cow pasture to catch the school bus each morning.

We are not farmers. I am a teacher at a college in the mountains of North Carolina, where we live on campus, surrounded by a working farm with students who herd cattle and drive tractors. Each weekday, my children cross our neighbor’s yard, step over an electric fence, walk down a hill, pass grazing cows, and climb over a wooden gate – to wait at the bus stop by a busy two-lane road.

This short walk involves close encounters with any number of ordinary things – light, darkness, animals, weather, cars, people – and our interactions with these variables depend on the season and emotions of each day.

With three girls, including me, in a 900-square foot campus rental, our household often resembles an emotional rollercoaster in overdrive. Last winter, when she went to the bus stop, my 17-year old Maya often left the front door wide open to the twenty-degree weather, as an ill-defined act of protest against my mere presence.


Another day, my usually composed 10-year old, Annie Sky, stomped across the frozen grass, huffing in frustration, because she didn’t have time to double check the contents of her backpack. (Our tardiness resulted when Maya called to report an outbreak of lice at a neighbor’s home. Such inconvenient news is somehow ordinary as well.)

In the cold of winter, my daughters wear their Converse sneakers since the frozen grass doesn’t soak their feet. But when spring arrives, they wear rain boots to protect their feet from the wet pasture grass and then change their shoes at the gate. Once or twice each spring, the farm manager will send a student on a tractor to mow a path for our walk. In between these mows, the grass can rise to Annie Sky’s waist, dampening her impeccably put-together outfits, culled from hipster hand-me-downs.

By the end of each week in spring, five or six pairs of Goodwill rain boots lie in a tangled pile by the pasture gate, like friends thrown together in one bed during a slumber party.


My oldest daughter catches the 7:00 a.m. high school bus with a neighbor. The teenagers’ boots – red and green paisley, blue and green striped – lie next to the pink polka dots of the boots worn by my younger daughter, who arrives minutes later with me for the 7:15 a.m. bus.

Some weeks the boots lie in a pile of mud, discarded after the girls change into their Converses. Other weeks they sit in a heap of dust by the pasture gate. At the end of the week, someone must go on a “boot run” to retrieve the plastic boots. (And when I’m feeling lazy, I’ll drive by the gate after grocery shopping to pick up the boots.)

This spring, before registration for classes, I was advising a student in my office, when she told me that she had inadvertently taken the boots to the office of the college farm. “I saw the boots when I was working in the field and thought they must belong to a college student,” she laughed. But when the farm manager said the boots belonged to my children, she dutifully returned them to the gate.

“Take a picture of that pile of boots at the bus stop,” a close friend reminds me. “The image captures your children’s lives in this place.”

We don’t have to understand our ordinary lives to encounter meaning, to walk in that space between the sacred and the mundane. We don’t have to understand how the ordinary becomes legendary, when we are a part of its unfolding.

In her book, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, poet Marie Howe captures the spiritual in the ordinary earth around us: “Once or twice or three times, I saw something / rise from the dust in the yard, like the soul / of the dust.”


In the Christian liturgical year – where we are dust from beginning to end – many people associate the major religious seasons with Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. But the longest season of the year is called “ordinary time,” the time outside of these significant seasons of celebration or fasting. During ordinary time, we aren’t feasting or in penance. Instead we are living in measured expectation, waking into unexplained mysteries. In the church, the color assigned to ordinary time is green, which seems fitting for a walk through a pasture.

Most of my time is ordinary, although I may secretly wish to make some celebrated difference in the world, to live an extraordinary life. Instead as a mother, I cook many meals. As a teacher, I write a lot of lesson plans. As a friend, I talk and listen so many nights on the phone.

Before each day begins, I try to come to peace with my own ordinary anxieties that surface when I hear the alarm ring at 6:00 a.m. The adrenaline hits me, even though my primary stress is the simple life of a single mother, lucky enough at this point to have a job, my children, and my health.

But everyday life can provoke anxiety, so each morning, I try to meditate for 15 minutes, put on my running clothes, and walk my daughter to the bus stop to face the day. (And some days as we walk, I forgive myself for checking Facebook before the end of my meditation).

In the mornings after daylight savings time, we use a flashlight, as we enter the day in total darkness. Weeks later, we walk into the day under baby blue skies, bathed in soft sunlight.

Once we arrive at the wooden gate, we watch the people pass: June and Mel Siebert, who volunteer at the college, in their blue van with Alaska plates; Meg Turner, the high school principal, who honks the horn as a hello; Jon Hettrick, who drives his daughter Rebecca to school each morning; and a middle-aged man on a bicycle, whose name we do not know, who clutches the handlebars and two plastic grocery bags, filled with items we cannot see.


The procession continues, with each person following a schedule, intersecting with ours, in one valley in the mountains of North Carolina.

And when I pause on this walk, to face the moon to the west, the blood-red sunrise to the east, the vulnerability on my daughter’s face before me, I enter into a legend larger than my little family, measured in ordinary time.


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About the Author

Mallory McDuff teaches environmental education at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC, where she lives on campus with her two daughters. She is the author of Natural Saints (OUP, 2010), Sacred Acts (New Society Publishers, 2012), and co-author of Conservation Education and Outreach Techniques(OUP, 2015). Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, BuzzFeed, Full Grown People, Literary Mama, Sojourners, and more. Find her at: https://mallorymcduff.com/

2 Responses to Mallory McDuff in DEFENSE OF ORDINARY TIME

  1. Wilson says:

    Great article. Excellent and well written article.

  2. Becky McDuff Kramer says:

    Wonderful article. I look forward to more stories.

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