One of the effects of sheltering in place, as most of us must do these days, is that our day-to-day routines—which we barely even notice most of the time—disappear into thin air pretty quickly.
For people who work a regular job and have other regular responsibilities—picking up the kid at school, walking the dog twice a day, taking a yoga class—being without routine can be disorienting, even frightening. What to do with all of this suddenly free time?
For those of us who live on the gig economy, a lack of routine can be the routine. Work changes every day or every week. We work at multiple and ever-changing sites, or online for multiple companies, even in varying vocational fields. Who am I today? Oh, yeah, today I’m Hollis the writer/editor. . . .Hollis the minister/counselor. . . .Hollis the personal assistant. Oddly, for me, some work has dried up with the virus, while other work has appeared. I am just as busy as usual.
Still, without a social life, I have newfound time on my hands. And that’s just weird.
Every retired person already has gone through what active workers are now experiencing in terms of loss of routine due to COVID-19. I have watched a few friends retire and proceed to create new routines as volunteers that are just as demanding as their work lives, albeit they can “call in sick” any time they want. But even retired folk can’t follow their usual routines these days, unless they are done in seclusion.
I called one 80-plus friend, a single man who is an artist, and asked how he was doing.
“My life hasn’t changed,” he said. “I take my two-mile walk every morning. I work in my studio. I have enough food in the refrigerator to last me.” This friend grew up in Germany during World War II. COVID-19 is not phasing him.
Another, younger friend is in exactly the opposite situation. She has been forced to create an entirely new routine. A state employee who is now working from home, her workload has increased to 12- and 14-hour days since the crisis began. And she is the single mother of two young children who are constantly at her elbow, Mommy-ing her like crazy. The first thing she did was to create a routine with rules about time for schoolwork, time for meals, time for naps, time to leave Mommy alone. The latter doesn’t work so well, as it turns out, but everyone is trying.
“During the first week I was getting angry and yelling,” she said. “I thought, wait a minute. That’s not the kind of parent I am.”
She’s developing new parenting skills by the day to meet the demands of the situation.
“Now when they start fighting, I say, ‘How can you put some love on that?’ ” She’s created a sticker chart detailing what the children’s new responsibilities are, and what rewards they get for meeting those goals. Friends who are teachers are giving her home-schooling tips. And it could be worse, so much worse, she acknowledges.
Routine and habit can be an excuse for truly engaging in life. But they can also be a lifeboat when the ship has capsized. Maybe now is the time to create new habits, a new routine, as my young friend has been forced to do.
I’ve taken up making my own salad dressing. With the current grocery shortages, lines, and attempts to avoid stores altogether, I’ve been cobbling together dressing from whatever is in the fridge—cilantro, parsley, green onions. I vary the recipe each time (woohoo! horseradish!), but I’ve made this marvelous elixir twice now, and I feel a habit coming on, one that might stick. I could do worse. Salad dressing is expensive, and the glass bottles are wasteful.
The poet and writer Mary Oliver offers this on habit, from an essay on the topic in her marvelous book, Long Life:
“And if you have no ceremony, no habits, which may be opulent or may be simple but are exact and rigorous and familiar, how can you reach toward the actuality of faith, or even a moral life, except vaguely? The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us.”
Oliver reminds us that habit is at the heart of spirituality and all religions. In the climate of coronavirus, even making salad dressing can become a spiritual ritual, an acknowledgment of this “new normal” we are all creating. We have an incredible opportunity to make new choices about our lives right now, and it won’t last forever.
May your new habits and routines make you laugh with wonder and melt with gratitude. May you dress your salad with tantalizing new tastes and a dash of morality. And may you try doing Downward Dog on FaceTime with a friend, at least once.