Routine is the Housekeeper of Inspiration

This is the time of year we all try to amend our habits – and rightfully so; habits are our best friends and should be treated accordingly. What we cannot discipline ourselves to do on an ad hoc basis, habit does automatically. I have heard it said that it takes three weeks to entrench a habit or routine, and I think this is probably true. But by the end of three months, something you could not bear to do last year can become something you cannot live without. Believe me.

My morning reading is a good example. I am, generally, an undisciplined reader. I often pick up the easy stuff rather than the hard stuff, what I like rather than what I need. Long ago, I started the habit of having some daily reading to do in the morning after my meditation time, but before the house wakes up. For many years this has consisted of at least three parts:

1) The daily lectionary reading from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, which includes (usually) an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a New Testament reading from the Epistles or Revelations, and a reading from one of the Gospels. I keep track of this through a little quarterly publication (Day by Day) that also gives a very brief commentary for the day. Probably takes about ten minutes total, unless one of the readings grabs or confuses me, wherein I go digging. You do not have to be religious to justify this; Biblical literature is at the basis of much of the literature, history, and culture of the West. And much of it is very beautiful, a good bit of it is brutal, and some of it is very wise.

2) A poem. I have used several sources, but for many years have used the three volumes of A Poem A Day, published by the Steerforth Press, started originally as a hospice project. This year I am back to Volume 3 again. Some of the poems are familiar, some are strange, and none are more than a page. Highly recommended. Other sources I have used include Harold Bloom’s The Best Poems of the English Language and Till I End My Song (poems about old age and death).

3) Another book of daily readings. I just finished the magnificent book of daily readings by Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom. This book, which Tolstoy worked on and used for years, has been recently translated by Peter Sekirin. I guess the original included stories for Sunday – and I wish someone would bring out the full text, but meanwhile this is a treasure. We get Tolstoy’s thoughts, as well as those of everyone else he reads and admires. This year, I am using a volume of daily readings by C.S. Lewis. Other years I have used Sister Wendy (on art), Rilke, you name it – very eclectic choices and I almost never keep the books once the year is over. Tolstoy might be an exception.

4) I usually have a book on the morning table that I dip into if I finish the other reading before my husband gets out of bed and breaks the spell. This year it is Easwaran’s second volume of verse-by-verse commentary on the Bhagavad Gita (Like a Thousand Suns). The Gita is another book that can be gone back to again and again, and Easwaran is at once interesting, comprehensible, and scholarly. Highly recommended.

The elderly field a lot of criticism about how mired they are in their habits. It is true that once I have acquired a habit, I become a little hard to deal with if it is interfered with. This has meant – for example – that I have sometimes had to excuse myself for my mid-afternoon meditation. But, in the long run, this is probably a blessing for everyone involved. And I get my reading done, I go to yoga class, I spend my three hours a week at the gym, and meditate twice a day (all these habits are longstanding, but were painful in their establishment). I started keeping a journal in 2004, and that is a terrific habit – more for its therapeutic value than for the accumulation of pages. In recent years, I have also had to break a number of bad habits – but I have only been able to do that by substituting a more desirable habit for a less desirable one (soda water for Diet Coke, for example). I am not holding myself up as a model, but just pointing out that almost all the positive things I do, I do because they have become habits.

Some habits need reinforcement. I force myself to work on my fiction by belonging to a writing group that expects me to contribute something every couple of weeks. I used to take piano lessons to encourage practice, but now I belong to a group of players who meet and perform for each other monthly, and that serves the same objective in a very pleasant and less expensive way. I have gotten on the scale daily for decades and – while I know it does not work for everyone – the number I see almost magically guides my eating for the day. And so it goes. While there is much to be said for habit, I know it is not a universally held value. Friends comment to my face that I am “very disciplined”; I suspect that behind my back they say I am “very rigid.” But habit only partially ties me down; habit also allows me to get those goals accomplished that mean something to me.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon said it best: “Routine is the housekeeper of inspiration.” For me it is so.
The story for this week is “Again and Again and Again,” about the value of routine and habit to keep ourselves sane, whole, and human.

Journaling in Old Age

Old man, old woman – it is not too late to start keeping a journal! I started to keep one conscientiously at age fifty-three, and I only wished I had done so earlier. These blogs are often an outgrowth of a journal entry, but the document, the content, is not my journal’s main value; it is the process of keeping a journal that is critical.

Like any good habit, keeping a journal is easy once you etch it into your life – scientific literature says this takes three weeks, but I would give it a few months. I started by disciplining myself (I know discipline is out of favor, but nothing worthwhile is ever done without at least a pinch of it!) to write a certain number of pages each month – ten single-space pages at font size 12. That has not changed. I often write more, but never less. And if I fall behind, I have to make it up by the last day of the month. In the early years, this often meant a lot of rubbish on the 31st! You do not have to write every day, but it’s easier to establish the habit if you do. I put in the date, skip a line, and proceed to discuss what I am reading, how I slept, what I am afraid of, surprised at, hopeless at figuring out. Give yourself lots of leeway. If all you can manage is a history of the day before or an agenda for the day ahead, so be it. Believe me, this will change!

You will find that having the journal to write slowly changes the way you view your life. You will catch yourself marking passages in books to transcribe (a journal works as a wonderful commonplace book) or trying to note exactly what someone says to you (pay attention!) so that you can record it in your journal as accurately as possible. More importantly, you will be turning your life into a narrative – your narrative. Not a Facebook narrative. (Can those people really be so happy? No way. They are either deceptive or deluded, maybe both.) Not a blog. You are not writing to impress anyone (and you should decide up front that you will not share). You are writing to try to narrate your own life. Susan Sontag said that “in the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.” Take your only opportunity to tell your own story.

I’m in my fifteenth year of doing this. I wish I had always done it – how edifying it would be to be able to look back on how I felt about being a new mother (scared and overwhelmed), how I navigated divorce (scared and overwhelmed) and then remarried (happy and overwhelmed). But the feelings I just put in parentheses are remembered. And we only have to have someone send us an old photo of ourselves or compare reminiscences with our siblings to realize that memory isn’t always completely reliable.

And (with my parentheses) I have just described another benefit (they are endless). You can look back a few months or years and see what you were worried about, what you fretted over – and recognize that those things have just evaporated. They either never happened or were not half as bad as you feared. There is a life lesson. There are many such lessons that we cannot learn anywhere but from our own experience – and experience not reified in words is hard to recall, difficult to grasp, and susceptible to psychological manipulation.  And the “search” function in Word gives me the ability to ascertain when I had a root canal (and sometimes even to settle arguments).

The document itself is a mixed blessing. For instance, there is the problem of what to do with all of this sensitive material – especially as I get older. I am not sure I would even want people I loved to read my daily thoughts (once in a great while you get angry with almost everyone), or have to decide how to dispose of them. I print out the journal monthly for vague reasons that may have something to do with the strange satisfaction of seeing the record of my life turned into copy, hole-punched, and piled up in loose-leaf binders in the closet. But I do spend time thinking about the appropriate moment in my life for a bonfire. But again, these problems are outweighed by the advantages.

So, try it. I recommend it and so do many wonderful writers and thinkers. The product is valuable. Salman Rushdie cautioned us to “never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things — childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves — that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.” But it is really not the product that is the most important. It is the process. The daily exercise of trying to make sense of your own life. Is there a better way that you could spend your time?

I am not posting a story this week, but if you want a smile, try Rich Schram’s blog at funreadsbyrichschram.blogspot.com. I particularly recommend his “Sheetrock Ballet.”