In praise of routine

“A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days … a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time”

– Annie Dillard

For the past few weeks I have been eating the same breakfast every morning: a sandwich made of two slices of wholewheat raisin bread, tomatoes, green olives, pesto, and cheese (sometimes cheddar, sometimes gouda, sometimes havarti, but cheese all the same), paired with coffee or cultured milk. It takes me about thirty minutes to make and toast the sandwich, pour coffee, eat at a leisurely pace while browsing my newsfeed for the latest social outrage, and clean up. So begins a series of rituals that bookend my day.

For the longest time, I kept a schedule, revised every couple of months, allocating each hour of the day to specific activities: waking, eating, bathing, dressing, traveling, exercising, working, reading, writing, unwinding. Living virtually on my own and having a flexible work schedule allowed me to exert great control over how I spent my time, and I aimed to pack each day with as much activity as I could bear, and to minimize interruptions (such as unplanned socialization) to my timetable. Having many goals, I liked knowing exactly what I was supposed to be working on at any given minute. (There was a time when my day began at three a.m. and ended a little after midnight. I don’t want to go back to those days.)

2ndsem 2013-14

Timetable from 2013

Now that I am a little older, and a little more settled into my habits and preferences (even as I still move from one rented room to another every year or so), I have ceased to keep a rigorous timetable, though I find that my days tend to fall into a steady rhythm, a regular pattern of practices cultivated over the years. I am actively a creature of habit, for habit is what regulates the tumult of my inner world, the excitability of my mind; it is what disciplines the heedlessness with which I am wont to move through time, so easily is my attention caught by whatever seems, at present, to deserve it. And these days, so many things seem to warrant attention.

My solution to the problem of the scarcity of my attention is to limit that which needs attending to. Recently I read Marie Kondo’s (in)famous book on the art of tidying, and promptly discarded, as instructed, clothes, papers, miscellany and memorabilia, even books. I moved on to cut down on unnecessary tasks and commitments, then I unfriended three scores of Facebook acquaintances and hid about as many contacts from my newsfeed.

One way to create space for desired complexity (of thought, of feeling, of being) is to simplify, as much as one can, the other aspects of one’s existence that are not essential to one’s identity: to wake and sleep at the same times, to dress the same way, to prepare the same meals day after day. To forgo activities beyond what decent living demands, like sweeping the floor and washing the dishes and earning one’s keep, that no longer incite growth or happiness. To be constant and ruthless in the process of curating the elements that make up one’s world–objects, places, people, memories, sensations–retaining not only what feels pleasant, but what evokes meaning, what inspires a sense of purpose, what actually contributes to the richness and dearness of life. Because every choice precludes other choices, and time spent on a fruitless endeavor, an unreasonable longing, is time one won’t get back.

Kathy Acker was wrong–one simply can’t want or have everything; else, things would cease to mean in the resulting chaos. And if wanting is suffering, then in the end, maybe the good life consists in not having all that one desires, but in one day being able to point to a house, a room, a bag, a box, or to nothing at all, and say, now this is all that I need.

That is one of the struggles of my everyday- and life-time: to whittle down activity and the anxiety that arises from the nagging sense that one is never doing enough, never moving fast enough. I feel like if I could only determine a time and place for everything–and forgive myself when my determination falls short, and to plan again–then there shouldn’t be any hurry.

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