We all have our routines. By that I mean that I have a lot of routines, and I hope that’s normal.
After breakfast, I feed the birds, brush my teeth, make the bed, and sit on my throne to see what happens. Now that I’m retired, I need routines to give my life a reassuring feeling of order and accomplishment, however minor. I have a routine way of shoveling snow off the driveway – a pattern I always follow. My bedmaking has a routine series of steps.
One example of my routines puzzles Kim: I usually get up in the morning before her, and I reheat leftover coffee from the day before (for some unknown reason called “sudu”) to drink before I make a fresh pot. While it is heating in the microwave, I set the breakfast table. No good reason to drink sudu – doesn’t save much money, and it certainly doesn’t taste better than fresh coffee. But it’s what I do, and my doing it makes me feel comfortable. It starts my day. Then I can go to the next part of the routine: checking my email, the weather and the news. The day begins. I could start all this with a fresh pot, but I don’t. I have no good reason why this is my routine.
My day with Kim starts with our morning hug, which we share every day unless Kim’s back and shoulders are too sore, in which case we do it later in the day. This hug is anything but “routine,” but as part of a regular sequence of events, I call it part of my “routine.” And thus our day together begins.
I prefer, however, to think of my routines, like our morning hug, as rituals – a sequence of events that have meaning and significance, sometimes religious in nature, marking something sacred. Often, they are rituals of transition. When Mr. Rogers put on his cardigan and changed his shoes, that meant he was making the transition to home. My dad did the same thing when he got home from the office, but in addition to a change of clothes, his ritual involved a before-dinner cocktail, signifying that his workday was done. Maybe my sudu is a secular communion, marking the start of a sacred day.
When I was teaching, routines were very, well, routine. The bell schedule ruled, creating a fixed pattern, and I always knew what time it was and where I was supposed to be. I took comfort in the routine. I had my little formula for starting class, something really clever, like “O.K., let’s get started.” I remember once I was teaching with laryngitis, and I could not speak to start the class. After a few minutes of standing there and looking charismatic while my students chatted away, I kicked the metal wastebasket across the room and then pointed to the instructions I had written on the board. It’s hard to break a routine.
My transition from school to home was riding my bike uphill a few miles to my house, exercising away the day’s frustrations. I would grade papers into the night, but when I turned on the television and maybe poured myself a drink, that meant that my workday was over. It didn’t feel like a ritual, exactly, but it felt pretty good.
Still does. My “workday” is mainly household chores – take out the garbage, make the bed, deal with snow in the winter or rake the beach in the summer, pay bills, etc. But after the dinner dishes are done, it’s time for a movie and, recently, at about 9:00, a drink. This doesn’t feel like a ritual. I’m afraid it’s more like a habit. I enjoy my drink, but I can’t say it has “meaning” or “significance,” though I will work hard to come up with a way to achieve that status for my habit. Maybe I am celebrating doing whatever the hell I want, which is usually relaxing on the couch with Kim, watching a movie. My ritual involves a repeated sequence of steps, which starts with my climbing the stairs from our basement television room to the kitchen, then getting out the glasses, ice, booze, etc., and usually a snack, all to be carried back downstairs on a small metal tray, perhaps making sacred our time together. I confess that lately part of the routine is my waiting for Kim to suggest drinks before I do, so that it’s her fault, not mine. She is aware of this game. Sometimes I begin by asking, “Can I get you anything?” If she says, “Water,” I will nudge her toward my destination by asking, “a snack?” Yes, this is a habit.
So, you see, there is something like a hierarchy: Routines are neutral, rituals are positive, and habits, like smoking, drinking, or my coffee addiction, are negative. It’s all how you choose to see it.
It’s now 9 p.m. – time for a ritual.