Wednesday, October 13, 2021

On Habit

This morning, as I tunked my coffee filter against the side of my compost pail so I could make a second cup of coffee, all my senses told me it was autumn.  My bare feet against the cool bricks, the smell and sound of crisp fallen leaves, the empty trees lifting their naked branches aloft all said it was fall.  We've had a very strange autumn in Regina:  it's often been as hot as summer days, even while the trees shed their leaves.  We haven't yet had a frost, so my garden still needs to have beans and tomatoes gathered in.  I'm not complaining:  we needed a beautiful month after our very stormy June and devilishly hot July and August.  Around the world, this was the summer that yelled "Climate change!  Time to get on the bus and do something!"  

But the upshot is that I'm still in a September mood and only now doing some of the things I usually do in September.  Okay, I started my fall book buying on time because that's what gets one through yet another wave of COVID-19.  But I haven't chosen another Bach French Suite and Mozart piano sonata to spend the next year learning.  And I haven't finished tweaking my habits.

I've probably told you often enough that Annie Dillard tells us that how you live your days is how you live your life, but it's good to be reminded of that.  The privilege I have in retirement is the ability to take that advice seriously.  For at least the last ten years before I retired there were few choices about how you spent your days:  there wasn't much left over once you'd finished marking, preparation, teaching classes, going to meetings, and seeing students.  This, by the way, is something that we are just beginning to challenge.  Should work take over our lives?  COVID-19 has shown that all the "productivity" of long working hours isn't actually productive.  We can hope change is on the horizon.

In September and early October, which is to say before the marking starts, I often used this de facto second new year to do a bit of stock taking, mostly to adjust habits.  I hated it when students defined simple things in their essays, but I'm going to do exactly that.  A habit is, according to Merriam Webster, "an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary."  It's the tension between "acquired" and "nearly or completely involuntary" that I probe in September.  Or you can see your habits through the lens of "the traditional fallacy," which points out that just because you've always done things a certain way doesn't mean you should go on unthinkingly doing that.  What worked in one context or time frame won't necessarily still work in another. I think the "involuntary" part of habit disguises the fact that because they're "acquired," we can change them if we can just see them, not assuming they are an intrinsic part of how we live.

I think I chose September for this exercise because going back to school, even as a prof--maybe especially as a prof--was always an invitation to have your assumptions upended.  What is learning besides taking knowledge, anything from a simple fact to a philosophy of life, and adding it to your repertoire, your world view, and then seriously seeing what happens when you apply it to your daily life?

That compost pail I put my coffee grounds in was the first of the habits I changed.  I have a lovely metal compost pail that never gets stinky, though I keep it just outside the back door because the kitchen is rather small.  I've known for years that I needed to be better about composting, and I've been merely resting on my laurels, using the lovely compost I made years ago.  But that's running out and I simply can't ignore any longer that the responsible thing to do is close the circle.  What parts of plants I can't eat--the last stalk of celery that's gone yellow, the peels of potatoes and carrots, the rinds of a melon--should go into my compost bin so that it can go into my garden and feed me next summer or the summer after that.  (It takes a bit longer to make compost here because of Regina's cold winters.)  Tea leaves and coffee grounds are great for amending the soil, and egg shells provide important calcium for tomatoes.  (If you have blossom end rot on your tomatoes, put crushed egg shells underneath the plants you put in next spring.)  When I've got a cutting board full of things for the compost bin, I am so tempted to cheat and just put it in the trash because I'm in a hurry to cook dinner, but I know that when I start doing this, the habit will be compromised.  So I quote Nike:  just do it. 

I have vertigo, which may account for the time you last saw me and thought I was drunk. There are some things I can do to make it better, I've discovered, among them a simple set of exercises that don't take long.  But I had trouble working them into a day that, by 10 a.m., was running headlong through a forest of ideas that threatened to escape before I collapsed into my nap.  I have discovered, though, that while I cook my oatmeal --another habit--I have just enough time to get through them.  Doing so gives me a sense of being grounded, of taking care of the whole woman, and they turn out to also help the mobility of my arthritic knees.

 We can make some time in the turn of the year to ask questions small and large.  It's one way to transform the dim days and lower temperatures into something of a treat--very hygge.  Have a cup of tea, invite your critter to cuddle if you are lucky enough to have one, and simply take stock--the way you would take stock of your pantry if you had been making jams and chutneys.  Are your social media habits feeding you or making you hungry?  How do you take care of yourself when you are stressed or down or frustrated?  Does it work, or do you need a reset?  Do you look back at a day--do you take time to look back over the day--and feel vaguely unsatisfied? 

I've also noticed, for example, that my reading habits have changed:  I simply can't tolerate too much uncertainty.  Funny thing, that.  I think I'll just let this one go for now, since reading is one of my ways of getting through the uncertain days.  If I read more biographies than novels right now, so be it.   I've missed my friends terribly, and, given our case counts in Saskatchewan won't be seeing them soon, but one habit I want to cultivate is to listen more carefully, allowing a little silence into the conversation.  So often, we're so eager to contribute that we're not hearing half of what our interlocutor said but preparing our own witty response.

Habits can be little pot holes in our day or they can become rituals that make our lives better, both by giving us comfort and allowing us to think of time differently.  Watching too much news fell into the little pot hole category:  it didn't make my life any better and it might even have made it worse, all the while stealing time from doing things that sustain me. Rituals, though, connect us to our past, perhaps to a tradition; they let us see time differently.  I begin every writing day by reading and perhaps editing what I'd written the day before.  It returns me to the flow of thought.  It's a ritual that keeps revision top of mind:  a draft is something you make better, this practice says. And it ties me to my own writing life and to the writing lives of everyone who's given me wonderful books to read and to sustain me.  There.  I'm in a grateful mood, which is always helpful. 

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