Life seldom slows down long enough for us to think systematically about our habits, except maybe to acknowledge, as my dad did, “I have enough bad ones.”
Right now, millions are sick, helping the sick, providing essential services, worrying about unemployment or poverty, teaching home school or working just as hard at jobs, albeit at home, as they ever did. Fix habits? Some other time.
But millions more of us are wondering what to do with far more time on our hands, less social interaction and much less freedom of activity than ever in our lives. We know a pandemic is awful. But isn’t there any decent use for the thing?
Everyone’s habits are radically different. But we all know our own completely. Amid such stress, I doubt many people — certainly not me — will banish comfort food and vow to get in their “best shape ever.” But some, no doubt, will learn a new language or read gigantic, serious books.
I won’t be on that ride. But after weeks in my home, walking, interacting with electronic devices and running errands, I have decided there are some habit adjustments, small at first glance, that are pandemic perfect. I want simple and semi-easy, but I want change, too. My ideas won’t be yours yet, because people aren’t really so different; they may spark your own notions on revising habits.
For example, I start and finish most days with a poor attitude. In between, I do okay. Why the gap? I don’t know. But I have spent a life not noticing the pattern.
I wake up thinking, “Another day, another punishment from God.” It’s humor — sort of — sarcastically gearing up “to face the day.” Then I slowly become myself.
But, recently, I have refused to get out of bed until I spend a couple of minutes thinking about good things: the taste of coffee, smelling the spring air while getting the paper, rubbing the dog’s tummy or deciding that — sometime today — I will finally watch the original “Shaft” with Richard Roundtree. It has helped!
At night, I have the day’s leftover worries or a low-grade free-floating annoyance. It never occurred to me, until the novel coronavirus made a vacated mind such an unfriendly midnight place, that you could try to get to sleep while feeling grateful or even thinking well of yourself, though that can require some invention. Isn’t everyone, except Tom Cruise, dissatisfied with themselves? When I first saw the book “I’m OK — You’re OK,” I thought: “Yeah? You don’t know me that well.”
Stone-cold reality won’t always let you start your day — or enter an eight-hour visit to your unconscious — in your best-available state of mind. But thousands of times, how you start and end your day is your choice; I never noticed that. Maybe you knew it. But what habit of mind — unnoticed, so unfixed — is hiding from you?
People in relationships often find it valuable to share as many common interests — or common passions — as is feasible. But it takes effort. My wife loves gardening, cooking, dancing and reading, the New Yorker magazine a weekly pleasure for decades. Do I dance, garden or cook? Precious little. But would it kill me to read a magazine that might start a hundred conversations? We’ll see how I do with “The Unproduced Plays of Kathleen Collins” and a poem titled “At the Ruins of Yankee Stadium.”
Some people are great at friendship. Distance never stops them — they email, text or Zoom the world. Odd work hours don’t prevent planning fun with those nearby — just make it a priority. Me? Confession: I’m a friend neglecter. So now with weeks on my hands, I’m happy to be out of excuses: Get going and fix it.
That’s not you, dear reader. But there’s probably something you could fix as easily — and be happy as soon as you did it — as me pulling up an old phone number.
One of the few uses of a pandemic may be the time it provides to rummage through ourselves. For years, I wondered why I remained fascinated by sports and writing about them. A habit? Of course, and not a bad one. But what else was it?
What would I miss? Excitement, press box foolishness, the narrative drama of a season or talking with players about work that matters so much to them? Yes. The games themselves? I have watched fewer “classics” each week. What I miss most is assembling the daily puzzle. And doing it amid constantly fresh material.
Underneath the interviewing, reporting, observing, reflecting, writing and rewriting, there is a search for a picture — of something, of anything (I’m not picky) — that wasn’t there until you found it in the process of piecing it together. What matters, with no other measuring stick available, is that it’s fresh to me, so it’s probably new to you. And on the good days, the whole final product is a surprise.
The best part, the part I miss the most, is the writing itself because (as in this story in the past few minutes) you find out what you really think and feel in the process of writing. Some large part of you engages that was idle until called upon.
Puzzling out your own insights, limited as they may be, is also a kind of habit.
It’s constantly said that our most precious possession is time. Yet we seldom act as if we believe it. Maybe, in part, that is because so much of it is allotted, committed, almost bound-and-gagged, by the time we awaken each day.
For millions, this pandemic has become life’s sole urgency. But for many millions of the rest of us, this period offers a challenge beyond just staying healthy. We have said, so many of us, that if only we had a big chunk of empty time, we would try to turn it to our advantage. We have said, so many of us, that our habits need a good housecleaning, a rearranging — even a tweak here and there would help.
So, here we are. Our clock, which sometimes seems stopped in coronavirus time, is in fact ticking. The early stages of a return to our next normal — its pace erratic but the destination certain — are already in progress. Later than we would like but perhaps sooner than we think, this unique dreadful period will be over.
Who will we be on the other side? We are our habits. That’s a place to start.