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?
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.
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.
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.