Education by Consent

Don’t wanna

He looked like the toddler offspring of Paul Simon and Crazy Frog: all exuberant curls and a rubber-band mouth stretched across his small face. It was at breaking point when I saw him, eyes clamped shut, Jagger lips flopped open in an unceasing howl. His tiny body, taut as a tug-of-war rope, pulled against his grandma’s hand.

My class, older by a few years moved into the classroom and settled into worksheets. The image of the tiny frog-face and its owner’s belly-roar of anguish distracted me from the grammar presentation.

What good is there in forcing a tiny, hysterical child into an ESL class, or any class? His brave, futile resistance was engendered by a dangerous notion: the tone-deaf, compassion-free insistence “education” was more important than his distress.

Agency

The little boy was experiencing education as an affront to his agency and personhood. He won’t understand those words for another decade or so but children, like all animals (human and otherwise) understand the difference between agency and imposition.

“So what?” you might ask. “Kids never want to go to school. You have to make them.”

If that is the case, instead of accepting it as a fact, we need to ask, why?

Children are curious to the point of being maddening, not to mention fearsome mimics. They will dog your steps demanding to know how things work, how to do things, imitating your words and actions until you’re half-afraid to move. They don’t hate learning. If they hate school it is a sign that education, as it is currently conceived, doesn’t serve them.

Coercion versus consent

Despite his protests, this little boy had “education” imposed on him by force majeure. 

Nobody, but nobody, likes to be coerced. Not even if the activity is ultimately something they would have chosen any way. We adults hate being pressured, bullied and ordered around. Children are no different (if anything, I suspect, more sensitive to it, because they haven’t yet had their spirit deaden by years of “education”).

Coercion leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Activities that we might have sought out and enjoyed of our free will become tainted, unpalatable.

When education becomes an object of coercion, we create an ugly frequency that distorts the interaction of teachers and students; parents and children. Curiosity atrophies into suspicion as the act of learning is irredeemably conflated with authoritarianism — with long-term repercussions.

One of my close friends is an intelligent, organised, motivated, assured woman whose self-perception is that she is not a good student. Why? Because as a child and teenager, she was obliged to endure rote, deadening conventional education. Unable and unwilling to conform, she adopted the label they imposed: poor student.

As an adult, she went back to school and performed astonishingly well, earning high marks and taking on leadership roles. Now, she returns to her university every year to give a talk to incoming students.

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Photo by Santi Vedrí on Unsplash

Freedom to learn

Children, like adults, need to be active participants in their learning. The first duty of an educator is to inspire them with the possibilities and delights of learning, not drag them screaming into classrooms and force them to fill out worksheets.

Once learning has been established in kids’ minds as a positive, rewarding experience, in which they have agency and the freedom to express themselves, they will be willing and able to cope with the inevitable patches of boredom and incomprehension.

Seeking consent in education doesn’t mean we have to entertain children, or pander to their every whim, but it does mean giving them a fair say.

 

Man being … by nature, all free … no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent. –John LockeChapter 8

 

 

 

How to Make your Best Students Better

The one percent

As a kid, and through high school, I loved standardized tests. Because I was the maddening specimen who scored in the 99th percentile without a flicker of effort.

Given the bias in standardized tests, it’s not surprising. I was a white kid who had been reading voraciously since age four. I was going to ace anything that measured “verbal” skills, which are, of course, in the context of the tests, reading and writing skills.

Being a killer test taker had advantages. My high school SAT and ACT scores got me into an Ivy League university, and scooped a National Merit Scholarship to help pay for it. Not bad for a poor kid from a decaying seaside town in Oregon.

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Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash

Feeding the need

Being Little Miss 99th Percentile felt good. My teachers liked it because I brought up the class average. I liked it because it got me positive attention. My parents? They didn’t care, which is perhaps why cared so much. Acing those tests was more than an academic achievement, it was much-needed validation. Terrified of losing that, I gravitated towards subjects that came easy: English, history, communication, psychology.

Unfortunately, one thing they didn’t teach in first-year psych was that effort counts for more than “intelligence”. Though, to be fair, the results of Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck’s landmark study on the relationship between praise and motivation weren’t published till 1998, my second year of college.

Mueller and Dweck gave kids a series of tests. One group was praised for their intelligence, the other for their effort. They found that the children who were praised for intelligence were reluctant to try more difficult tests, while those praised for effort were eager to try harder tasks.

Kids singled out for “intelligence” were afraid of doing anything that might show them up. Like those kids, I avoided challenges, got good grades and learned almost nothing.

Opportunities lost

Each month, as I make my student loan payment (still chipping away at that. Thank you American tertiary education system), I think about the classes I avoided: Spanish, math, organic chemistry. I went to university planning to major in chemistry and go on to med school. Sophomore year, I changed to English lit.

It was the right decision, made for the wrong reasons. My motivation wasn’t love of literature and language but fear of math and science. If I couldn’t waltz into an exam and out with an A, I wasn’t even going to try.

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The teacher’s view

Looking back, I wish teachers had pushed me more — especially in the subjects I was good at. Maybe, then, I would have realized my skills weren’t “innate” and would have learned to apply myself.

But, as a teacher myself, I can’t blame them. Having a “good” student, one who enjoys and seems to effortlessly absorb the material, is a treat. S/he is one student you don’t have to worry about, one whose enthusiasm and aptitude makes you feel good about yourself as an educator, even if you don’t really deserve the credit. It is tempting to praise the student and more or less leave them to his/her/their own devices.

Tempting, but an abdication of responsibility. Perhaps the student is doing well because h/s/t are an adept learner. In that case, you should see the work gradually improve. If you don’t, chances are they’re coasting on an existing skill set. And without intervention, they may well be self-limiting to stay within that safety zone.

Breaking out of the success trap

How do you challenge a student in an area where they excel? Here are three ideas:

Process

Once, in a job interview, I was asked: “How do you write?”

It was the first time anyone had asked about my process. Formulating an answer made me realize that I had one, and that it could be applied to other tasks.

If you have a student who shines at art, trigonometry, whatever, as them how. They might think it’s a dumb question (I did) but they will discover the work that goes into their accomplishments. Recognizing their own effort and process will help them see themselves as learners, and start to generalize those skills.

Cross-pollination

Use your students strengths to address their weaknesses. If, for example, your  student loves history but hates math, have them research the history of a mathematical concept, e.g. Who was Pythagoras and how did he come up with his theory? Thus tackling something hard becomes a chance to show off what they are good at.

Let them be the expert

Once your students have assessed their own process, reinforce that by giving them an opportunity to be the expert. Pair or small group work is a good setting to allow students to display their strengths. Set up assignments where they teach each other and grade them on how well their classmates do.

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Life-long learning

We tend to think of “life-long learning” in terms of adults but, to deserve the title, it has to start in childhood. The best, that is highest-achieving, students are necessarily the best learners. They may, in extreme cases, be learning very little.

Helping them uncover their process, use their skills to address new challenges, and share their strategies with others will develop those crucial skills.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 Things I Love about “The Bold Type”

I’ve just finished binge watching all three series of The Bold Type. The only thing between me and mourning is the news that it’s been renewed for a fourth season.

Because this show won me over like no glossy American TV drama ever has. (I loved The Wire but glossy that ain’t).

For someone who veers inflexibly towards cynicism, The Bold Type might seem an odd affection. It is relentlessly, almost Pollyanna-ishly upbeat. Every problem is solvable with a bit of elbow grease and woman power, within the span of 41 minutes.

That should annoy me. Or I feel like it should annoy me. But it doesn’t. In a world where basically all news is bad news, and humanity is collectively excavating to find a new rock bottom, believing problems can be solved is a radical notion.

Believing that, as The Bold Type holds, love, friendship, integrity, hard work and learning from your mistakes is enough to craft a meaningful life verges on revolutionary.

I love me some revolution.

So here, in no particular order, are 10 things I love about The Bold Type.

  1. Sisters doing it for themselves

    Praise be: A show with three female leads whose priorities are A) career and B) friendships; and who are actually making a go of it. Disaster comedy is a dime a dozen (though, Fleabag…) but I cannot think of another female-focused show where the main characters are so functional. Jane, Sutton and Kat have their moments of doubt and despair but mostly, they have their shit together. And when it gets out of hand, they huddle in the fashion closet and figure out how to fix it. And do.

  2. Sisters doing it with each other (oh, and Lesbian. Muslim. Artist.)

    The Kat-who-thinks-she’s-straight-figures-out-she’s-not-by-falling-in-love-with-a-lesbian-Muslim-artist story-line makes me happier than a hamper of spaniel puppies. Everything about this is amazing, from how hard Adena rocks a turban to Kat’s punching a racist guy in the face for hassling her. The scene where Adena calls her out for not going down on her, followed by a conversation where cunnilingus is not a punch line should be required viewing.

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    Photo by Juliette F on Unsplash

  3. The powerful lady boss is not a bitch

    As a newbie journalist, I would have given my left leg for a boss as wise, fierce, insightful and supportive as Jacqueline Carlyle. I still would. Scarlet’s editor is an ideal we’re too rarely shown: a take charge, takes-no-prisoners woman who is also compassionate, self-aware and able to admit her mistakes. Oh, and she has a handsome, adoring husband and a couple of cute kids. Hey, girls, you can have it all.

  4. Old white guys are the enemy

    When trouble comes to Scarlet it’s usually because of the board. A coterie of aging white men who don’t understand women, media, or social media — yet hold disproportionate sway over all three. Since forever, unless you were a rich white due, rich white dudes were there to do you harm. The Bold Type accurately reflects this universal experience, yet holds out hope.

  5. They say “I love you” a lot

    Kat, Sutton and Jane are always saying: “I love you” — to each other. Which I love. How often do we hear platonic female friends say, “I love you”? Not often enough. How often do we say it to our platonic female friends? Not often enough. If you take nothing else from The Bold Type, take this: Say “I love you” to the people you love, say it when you’re happy or sad, when they’re happy or sad. There is nothing going on in the world that won’t be improved by sharing the love.

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    Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

  6. Nobody runs to mommy & daddy

    Sutton, Kat and Jane are each other’s biggest support. Kat’s therapist parents pay bills, but not much more. Sutton’s mom is an alcoholic with money issues. Jane’s mom is dead. This feels a lot more real than shows where benign parents lurk in the background, waiting to pick up the pieces. For me, and most people I know, parents ranged from merely absent to active liabilities. That reality shaped our lives, and it’s nice to see it reflected on screen.

  7. Supportive boyfriends

    Shows about asshole guys and terrible dating experiences are amusing. For a while. Then they are just discouraging. The Bold Type skips this trope entirely. Jane has an a douchey ex but in no time she gets over him with a gorgeous, clever man who proceeds to become a better person, fall in love with her and write a hit novel. Sutton is dating a company lawyer, 15 years her senior, who is respectful, supportive, and worships the ground she walks on (as he should!) Loving, equal, communicative, positive on-screen partnerships are the hens’ teeth in popular entertainment. The Bold Type is poultry dentures.

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    Photo by Kristina Litvjak on Unsplash

  8. Open relationships

    Speaking of positive relationship portrayals — Kat and Adena’s open relationship story-line is just. so. fucking.cool. A mainstream TV show portraying an open lesbian relationship as intimate, wholesome, and empowering? Yes!
    Honestly, if I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed.

  9. Body positivity

    This one is almost there. Kat, Jane and Sutton are all conventionally slender and feminine with curves in the approved places. Nevertheless, the show makes a point to discuss body positivity in so many words, with a story where the girls pose for a fashion shoot showing off their scars, freckles, stretchmarks. Better still, their colleague, Scarlet’s sex columnist is heavyset and mousy — a face and figure that would relegate her to “fat friend” status in a standard rom-com. Instead, she’s the one having the hottest sex and dishing the most divine gossip.

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    Photo by Matthieu Joannon on Unsplash

  10. Booze

    When the going get tough, the tough knock back some white wine. Or tequila. Or mix a little whisky into their ice cream. America is stupidly puritanical about alcohol, and especially about women drinking. It is refreshing to see characters who can raise a glass to commiserate, or celebrate, without the next plot point involving rehab. They’re young, fun, gorgeous women who like a drink. And that’s cool. Gorgeous Muslim lesbian artist Adena doesn’t drink, and that’s cool too. Which makes the whole thing extra fucking cool.

Go on then, what’s your latest televisual delight? 

 

 

Should I Have Come Out to My Students?

“Do you consider yourself part of the LGBTQ community?”

The text caught me off guard. Of course. Then I realized: Why would he know — I never said anything. 

I’d shared a link to an article about queer culture witha former English students (let’s call him Jay). He’d responded with an applause emoji — and the question.

Jay is out and proud as a Catholic teenager in a small, conservative Spanish town. His joie de vivre made every class a delight. I admired the hell out of him, but never said anything about being bi.

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Playing safe

I’ll just be supportive, I thought.

So I taught poems by Mary Oliver and CP Cavafy, brought Attitude magazine to class along with Vogue and Wanderlust, and expressed due reverence for the fierceness of Queen Bey and Lady Gaga. That’s cool, right?

Keeping quiet

Jay’s question got under my skin because, really, he shouldn’t have had to ask.

“Definitely,” I responded. “Wasn’t quite sure about bringing it up in class.”

The more I’ve thought about it (and it’s been a lot) the poorer an excuse that seems.

I didn’t want to distract from class. My personal life isn’t important. Blah blah.

Yet I had no qualms talking about my husband, or dating men. I just elided the fact I also date women. That’s not being “appropriate”, it’s cowardice.

Taking it easy

Truth is, being straight is easy. Despite short hair and a penchant for Doc Martens I am a cis woman married to a cis man. That is so socially acceptable it obscures anything ambiguous or complicated. It brings the perpetual temptation to not mention anything that would threaten my hetero privilege.

Once, a woman I was seeing was verbally attacked over her holiday plans. My date said she would feel uncomfortable going to Russia. Instead of sympathizing this woman railed at my friend for trying to “flaunt her lifestyle”. Basically, she thought if my girl didn’t fake straightness for the benefit of Russian bigots she deserved to be gay bashed.

This conversation, which took place at a party in Ibiza, shook me. If people are like that on an island renowned for anything-goes hedonism, I don’t want to know what the rest of the world is like. So, it was/is, easier to don the invisibility cloak of straightness.

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Photo by Tomas Robertson on Unsplash

What makes an ally?

Self-identifying as queer and a queer ally to myself means jack if I play it straight to the world at large. My silence amplifies jerks who think love is “flaunting your lifestyle”.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m proud of introducing my students to Cavafy and Oliver, of watching Gaga videos with them and discussing gay representation in mainstream media. But it wasn’t enough.

If I were 100% straight, it might be. As a (married) bi woman, I have a responsibility.

Cleaning out my closet

Being married is part of what stopped me from saying anything. If I were single, or dating, saying “I’m bi” probably wouldn’t raise too many awkward questions.

But I could imagine…

Wait, aren’t you married? Does your husband know? Is he bi? Do you date other people? Does that mean…? 

My students are sharp — a thousand times more woke and with it than I was at their age (or a decade later). They could have asked questions that I don’t have answers for.

That unnerved me. Which is precisely why I should have opened up.

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A real education

Being a good teacher means not pretending to know all the answers. I’m comfortable not knowing a grammar construct, or the meaning of a word, so why so awkward about admitting I haven’t solved the mysteries of love?

I’ve asked myself over and over, Should I have come out to my students? The answer is, insistently, yes.

Not just because Jay deserved to know I consider myself part of the LGBTQ community, as he gracefully put it, but because they all deserve to know that love and attraction are fluid and multi-faceted. They deserve to know that you can try things, change your mind, fall in love with one person and still be attracted to others. They deserve to know that you never have to stop exploring, questioning, loving. They deserve to know that marriage doesn’t have to be a house in the ‘burbs and 2.4 kids (though that’s available).

Like I said, they’re sharp. Chances are they already know (or suspect) much of this. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make it okay for me to sit back like, you’re on your own. 

Be there for each other

We all need allies. Every single day. And in our increasingly mean-tempered world, unity and kindness are the life-rings we have to throw to each other.

That means owning who we are, in all its delicious complexity, so others (especially, if we’re teachers, our students) have space to claim their own delicious, complicated selves.

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Photo by Mercedes Mehling on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

On Integrity

Jenny Odell, in her manifesto: How to do nothing: Resisting the attention economy (the book), quotes Mark Zuckerberg saying: “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and the other people you know are probably coming to an end… having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

Integrity is a word that means a lot to me, so this claim caught my eye.

A few years ago I sat down to work out what attracts me to my (superficially) disparate friends. Most them to I met as an adult, so childhood bonds weren’t it. Apart from the odd freelance collaboration, none are or were colleagues. We’re scattered across continents and time zones, so it isn’t proximity. And we don’t always see eye to eye on culture and aesthetics. So what is it I look for in a friend?

Three things, it turns out: integrity, generosity, and curiosity.

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Integrity can be hard to define. Joan Didion writes (in On Self-respect) that the word “character” has been unfairly relegated to describing homely children and unsuccessful political candidates. Similarly, “integrity” has been softened into a synonym for ‘honesty’, a bloodless approbation for people who don’t fiddle their taxes.

My guess is Zuckerberg used it in this sense. In his two-dimensional, blue-bordered world, having more than one way of relating is dishonest. By his definition, Zuckerberg has mounds of integrity as his smug, Bond-villain-bland facade rarely flickers.

That’s not my idea of integrity. Nor a quality any of my friends share – nor one I’d value.

Integrity, the kind that makes my synapses pop when I get near someone who has it, is internal consistency. People who have it are like those wobbly toys you can shove over in any direction and they always right themselves. Integrity is the weight in the centre, the internal gravity that keeps a person true to themselves.

Plants are a wonderful example of internal consistency that is not rigid. Let’s take wheat. When I left southern Spain a few weeks ago the wheat fields were already dry and bleached to pale gold. In the north, they are still fresh, damp, and bright green. Neither gold nor green is dishonest, it is simply responding to its environment according to the mandates of its deeper purpose: which is to grow and ripen.

 

My friends have grown. They’ve changed careers, faiths, relationships, locations, hobbies. They are not the people they were. Yet, they are. Because – integrity.

They have internal consistency. All the external changes, however far-reaching, arise from deep roots of character (in the full, Didion-endorsed sense of the word). The qualities of their integrities (which are legion) include self-awareness, critical thinking, dark humour and responsibility. Whatever they do, or don’t, I can count on them to be true to these fundamentals.

My husband often admiringly quotes a friend who said: “I may have low morals but I have high ethics.” This gets to the heart of why integrity matters.

Morals are something imposed from outside; one obeys out of fear or a desire to please. Ethics, though, are a manifestation of integrity. Internal consistency creates an intrinsic framework for relating to others, which is expressed as ethics.

“Ah!” you say. “But without morality, what will police integrity? Are you saying that serial killers and child abusers should be allowed their internal consistency?”

Right. That.

Needless to say: of course not. The point of integrity is that it is internal – a relationship to oneself. People who exploit and abuse have relinquished the relationship to self in favour of externalising their anger, disappointment, etc. They have traded the possibility of integrity for the ugly, fleeting gratification of brutality. They are ethical failures. Though, tellingly, they may not be moral failures. Just look at the Catholic church cheer-leading for Fascism during and after the Spanish Civil War, or the fundamentalist Christians murdering doctors.

Letting someone else think for you, even in the name of “morality” makes violence more, not less, likely. As Germaine Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch:

To abdicate one’s own moral understanding, to tolerate crimes against humanity, to leave everything to someone else, the father-ruler-king-computer, is the only irresponsibility. To deny that a mistake has been made when its results are chaos visible and tangible on all sides, that is irresponsibility.

One’s own moral understanding is an important phrase. It implies that we have to be aware of our fundamental beliefs. It isn’t enough to have internal consistency, we need to interrogate it. It isn’t enough to know what we do; we need to know why we do it. Self-study is a safety mechanism. It helps us articulate who we are, which then determines how we relate to others.

Self-knowledge is what prevents internal consistency from becoming routine. Without it, we can mistake superficial interests or habits for something intrinsic. When we know our foundations, we can build, tear down, rebuild. If we mistake décor for structural support, we get trapped in an unchanging space.

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Photo by Daniel Peters on Unsplash

What does it matter, integrity? (Who cares how I choose my friends?)

It matters because we live in uncertain times. I’m going to go not-very-far-out on a limb and say that many of us are, or will be, in political situations where personal integrity may be the only way to avoid abetting crimes against humanity.

I cannot look at what is happening at the U.S. southern border, specifically; or American prisons, generally; or the farce that is British “democracy”; and believe that things will work out. We may yet halt the slide to full-blown Fascism, but it won’t be by chance.

Odell also quotes from “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau: “If [the law] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.”

One person of integrity can’t stop the machine. But, if we band together, our collective friction might just be enough.

Rediscovering loneliness

Three years ago, if anyone had asked, I’d have said: I don’t get lonely.

Running away from it all

I’m a stone introvert – the kind who doesn’t just like to be alone but needs to be alone. In my 20s, I lived with friends or partners. Then, about the time most people start pairing up and shopping for pushchairs, I moved to Ibiza.

Time alone became the norm. Freelance writing, never the most social of professions, was a ticket to a lifestyle that, in retrospect, verged on isolation. But I was content. Or at least didn’t experience my situation as lonely.

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Photo by Marc Zimmer on Unsplash

A slow tide

Discovering my capacity for loneliness happened gradually. Prior to meeting Chris I was happy to be a leaf drifting in the wind. Alone but not lonely.

When we fell in love and started rearranging our lives to be together, and I found myself lonely without him.

Acknowledging that should have been scary. What about my hard-won freedom? But it was so obvious, so inevitable, that I accepted it without a tremor.

Loneliness is not finite or discrete though. Our need for companionship extends beyond intimate relationships. When my internal barricade of plausible deniability/wishful thinking/calling it something else came down it made way for a tide of emotion.

Losing the everyday

Our abrupt move across the country taught me that the loss of familiarity – even routine, irritating, rubbish-strewn familiarity – can trigger paralysing loneliness.

The longer Chris and I have together, the more I crave the unthinkable: roots.

One big reason for moving was that we didn’t feel our last home was where we wanted to be long term. That’s still true, but it hasn’t stopped an onslaught of anxiety.

There were many good things about where we lived and it was comfortable. We didn’t have close friends or a lively social circle, but we had amiable neighbours. We knew their routinesroutines, signed for their packages, petted their dogs.

The old men sipping sherry at the corner kiosk waved hello as I walked to work, when my cat jumped out the window the kids playing outside banged on my door to tell me, the delivery drivers knew my ID number by heart.

Mundane treasures

Ripping myself away from all that revealed just how much energy goes into every day life. Snug in my routine, I forgot how draining, and how lonely, it is to have to think about everything. Thankfully, my intimate relationships and close friendships are intact, but that soothing web of mundane friendliness and ordinary interaction is gone for good.

Acquaintance, basic community, depends on presence. When you’re there you are part of it by default. If you leave you can come back as a visitor, or guest, but you’re not a thread in that particular tapestry any more.

Rebuilding

On the one hand (what we were thinking of as we hired a van, gave away old clothes, packed our life into boxes) a new setting is freedom. We can, in theory, rebuild the network any way we like. If we’re lucky, there will be new work, different perspectives, people who become dear friends.

On the other, leaving a place is a hard, expensive, exhausting enterprise that has no guarantee of coming good. I am lucky to have never, in the long term, regretted a move. Even Glasgow, my nadir, brought me cherished friendships and self-awareness.

One can, and does, rebuild. I’ve done it before. But those muscles are atrophied and honestly, all I want to do is curl up with my newfound-friend loneliness and cry.

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Photo by AJ Yorio on Unsplash

Opening up to more

From an individual point of view, loneliness is maladaptive. Why face something that makes you miserable? (And stunts your health, motivation and productivity.)

Yet as people, we need loneliness. Otherwise, what becomes of empathy and cohesion?

Loneliness is fundamental to emotional development — along with heartbreak, happiness, disappointment, anger, and everything else that makes us human.

Maybe not in the short term (right now, I feel about as empathetic and giving as The Grinch) but over time, it inculcates an awareness of how fragile happiness is, and how much we can contribute to each others’ well-being.

When we open ourselves to loneliness we invite anxiety, insecurity and sadness – but we also, just possibly, make space for something new.

“It is not only indolence which causes human relationships to repeat themselves with such unspeakable monotony, unrenewed from one occasion to another, it is the shyness of any new, incalculable experience which we do not feel ourselves equal to facing.”

– Rainer Maria Rilke

Routine benefits

One of the many things repeated moves have taught me about myself is that I need routine like bees need flowers. This flies in the face of the cherished self-perception that I am fearless, free, and endlessly flexible.

My youthful fantasy was to fit everything I owned in a backpack and earn a living with a typewriter (yep, it’s been that long).

To an astonishing extent, I managed it – at least for periods of time. This let me kid myself into thinking my spirit is free.

Trekking across the country, life crammed in a rented van, again disabused me of this wishful thought. That I mourn its loss suggests a reckoning. Why is routine a dirty word? What is freedom, really?

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When routine is wrong

My mental resistance to routine – despite the fact it is essential for my mental health and productivity – springs from the fear of being trapped.

Growing up with an authoritarian father and Evangelical mother, my ability to make decisions based on my own wants and needs was basically zero. They told me what to eat, when to sleep, what to wear, what to believe, with hellfire and damnation to come if I disobeyed.

Physical, intellectual and emotional oppression tainted my understanding of routine. Instead of seeing it as positive and reassuring, I thought it was prison.

Real-life routine

As an adult, I’ve never quite lost my fear of it. Yet, despite a peripatetic life and work-style, routine finds me. When I was writing a book and had no outside obligations, I woke, drank coffee, ran, showered, worked, ate, slept at the same times every day. For the past nine months, I left the house at exactly 15:55, Monday to Thursday, to walk to work.

Writing, eating, yoga, walks with the cats, happened as if to a factory clock. Being displaced from them feels like be yanked from a deep salt current onto baking sand.

The geographic change has pushed sunset back an hour, the cats are disorientated; I don’t yet have the structure of out-of-home work. Worse, there is a mountain of one-off tasks: hoovering, mopping, washing, unpacking and packing. Rattled, my brain is creaking along in fits and starts, adding anxiety to the general feeling of unsettledness.

Lacing this is my stubborn, though discredited, notion that I should be able to carry on as if nothing happened. To my dream self, moving a thousand kilometres would be as easy as crossing the street.

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Routine = daily ritual

Routine carries connotations of repetition, boredom, drudgery, lack of imagination. Ritual, on the other hand, has overtones of ceremony and celebration. When we think of rituals we picture weddings, christenings, funerals (even sombre rituals are elegant).

Part of readjusting my attitude towards routine is giving it a proper title: daily ritual.

Waking up, feeding the cats, boiling water for coffee are small, valuable rituals. Drinking coffee from our matched mugs (mine’s the chipped one) while the cats poke around the yard, also ritual.

The order of work, chores, movement, even grocery shopping, can all be appreciated as a part of the ongoing ritual of sustaining a meaningful, productive, satisfying life. That’s no small thing, when you grow up with no concept of what that kind of life looks like.

Routine can make us part of something bigger

Routine helps us create a collective life, too. Work, education, society and politics couldn’t function with the rhythm of ritual. That’s not to say existing patterns are sacrosanct – there are many routines we would be right to change – but the move would have to be in the direction of a better routine, not chaos.

“You hear every day greater numbers of foolish people speaking about liberty, as if it were such an honourable thing,” wrote the Victorian critic John Ruskin. “It is, on the whole… dishonourable, and an attribute of the lower creatures. No human being, however great or powerful, was ever so free as a fish. There is always something that he must, or must not do; while the fish may do whatever he likes.”

He continues: “A butterfly is much more free than a bee; but you honour the bee more, just because it is subject to certain laws which fit it for orderly function in bee society.”

Being “fit… for orderly function” isn’t just a social benefit, it is a personal good. Human beings need community and a sense of purpose. Positive routines nourish the relationships and responsibilities that make for a rewarding life.