This year, though, I find myself dreading the early dark that’s coming because it means the sun’s cycle through the sky will interfere with my own new and fragile cycling habit. After many years of thinking about riding a bike to work, I’ve finally started. And I really like it: getting a bit of light exercise on the way to and from the office, time that’s chatter free (no phone, no radio, no companion), and it gets me out of doing daycare drop off! But it’s a new habit for me, so I know it’s a bit vulnerable to change. I don’t like riding in the dark, and as it gets colder, there’s more gear and effort involved in getting on the bike.
I’ve experienced the negative effects the changes in my own life’s seasons can have on other habits before. As a relatively new parent, I am still struggling to see where my yoga practice lives relative to the rhythms of my work and family responsibilities. As a childfree person, I had routines of yoga, meditation and writing that were relatively easy to maintain. But now that my pacing about the house (let alone doing a more vigorous yoga practice) in the early morning hours risks waking the baby, things have felt a bit funky.
I experimented with getting up and going to 5am class at the local studio yoga over the summer, which was okay. But now that I’m tired and the semester is back and it’s darker--whine, whine, whine—I’ve found it impossible (okay, unappealing) to rouse myself and drive in the dark to practice.
And because I’ve conceived of the 5am class as the perfect one, I’ve had a bit of a block on my practice since it’s become more challenging to get there during the school year. It’s the class that I see as being the most disciplined, the most serious, and the most authentic. It also has my favorite teacher. And yet, it’s the class I’m not going to at the moment.
I admit to being a slow learner this go round: I have a perfect class that I never go to, but there’s also an option that’s not perfect (shorter, less “serious”) that I can go to during the semester. Aha.
I’ve been guilty of fetishizing routines a bit too much. As a somewhat anxious person, I like knowing how things are going to unfold. And many of my more famous writers have hyper-disciplined practices. Writing, exercise, or meditating at the same time day after day, year after year. These lives of ticking regularity I admire and covet. I think of Stephen King, who describes writing every day at the same time, even on vacation. Or Murakami, whose routine of running and writing is a wonder to contemplate.
My fascination with such figures and somewhat panicky attachment to my own routines can backfire. I have a tendency to prefer the perfect thing to the imperfect. I’m not proud of this, but I have been known in my household to have small fits involving declarations that if we can’t afford nice furniture, I’d rather leave a room barren than have another “sad, compromise” couch. As a writer, if I’ve not been able to work during my favorite morning time, ideally starting somewhere between 6:30 and 8:00 am and finishing by 10:00, I’ll feel that the day is ruined and my writing window for the day has dissolved. And honestly, I’m a bit of a grump about it.
I do wonder, sometimes, how does Murakami’s wife feel about his routine? Does she dare disrupt it? What’s his version of grumpy look like? How do King’s relations feel about his removal from vacation activities? Does he worry that Tabatha’s family will find him selfish? Do they resent it when he doesn’t help make sandwiches to take to the beach? Whatever it says about famous novelists’ family relations or my own, I know that my family, both extended and immediate, expect more flexibility from me.
As does my schedule. One particular challenge as well as joy of the academic life is that our work changes seasonally. We have periods of break over the winter and summer holidays, our teaching calendars change semester to semester, and even within the relatively stable period of a particular semester, there are shifting rhythms of committee work, grading, conference attendance, and so on.
More broadly, as human beings who happen to be academics, we move through changing life seasons. In my own period of time on the tenure track I planned a wedding and married my partner, learned about a new health condition, got pregnant, bought a home, and had a first child—all life events that have shifted my relationship to the clock and calendar. During one’s professional career, it may be the case that a writer has to care for an aging parent or will deal with illness, whether physical or mental.
So though there seems to be a kindred relation between an intensely regimented writing practice and the mindful life—both remind us of a kind of monastic discipline—it’s also useful to remember that part of what it means to be mindful is paying attention. Paying attention, for example, to how changes—whether something as depersonalized as dwindling sunlight hours or something as deeply intimate as divorce—may affect our daily practices. As we settle in to new periods in life, it’s worth taking a pause to see what’s still working, and what’s not functioning as well as it might.
Insisting that things should go the way they always have or should be the perfect schedule is a way of layering an external narrative on top of reality in a way that’s guaranteed to produce dissatisfaction. The simple truth is that my daughter seems to have a supernatural sensor for when I’m up and about. Though I’ve developed an elaborate and panicky routine of unplugging the coffee maker just before it beeps and fixing my first coffee by candlelight, it’s as though the child can smell me. King and Murakami be damned, I cannot do my old 6am meditation and writing routine without waking the whole house. I can be mad about this, or I can recognize that in this particular season of my life, I have to adjust. I need to go to noon yoga, not 5am; my writing is shifting closer to an 8:30 or 9:00 am start time. As it turns out, things don’t have to be perfect to be just fine.
And, just as I know that come spring, I’ll be able to bike home in daylight hours again, I know, too, that the rhythms of my life will keep shifting. I’ll have to keep observing, keep taking stock, and keep shifting the ins and outs of my writing life.