My mother always told me that it was good to have a life bordered by regular daily routines. She learned will power and firm resolve when she was in the Hitler Youth in Germany. The Youth program was all about self discipline and strong bodies. Hitler was growing a powerful army out of those school children.
My mother’s grammar school teachers taught her the importance of daily calisthenics, and of handwork and needlework. Far into her 50s, she would do pushups, sit-ups, and jumping jacks at her bedside each morning. And her entire Wall Street wardrobe from back in her early years was all knitted by hand, seemingly spilling out of the large basket of yarn she kept by her living room chair. She made coats, two-piece suits, blankets, dresses, and all my baby clothes…
But I was nothing like my mother back then. I made quite certain of that fact each day. I did my level best to be nothing like her, and so I despised routine. Routines felt like imprisonment. Chores, tasks, appointments, even hobbies—basically everything that found its way to my date book felt like an iron corset around my ribcage, constricting and binding my imagined “free life.”
Work and obligations kept me from my “free life” until retirement finally rescued me about 10 years ago. Suddenly, all my time was my own, and I reveled in scheduling none of it. I kept my days wide, wide open for whatever adventure might itself.
During my Indiana years, I volunteered for a wildlife rehab center one day a week. Funny how the mind works—or, that is, how my mind works—while I adored that work, I also felt constrained at having to be there at a regular time each week. I remember when my mom finally had no more obligations at all. She became bored and lonely and of course I suggested all sorts of activities she could explore, from gardening groups in her own apartment complex, to a walking group, to local senior bus trips all over the area. At that point in her life, she was long past the bedside calisthenics, and she said to me, “I don’t want to have to go anywhere when I don’t want to. I don’t want to join anything I have to show up for.” In her very old age, it seems she had morphed into me. And with her new commitment to almost nothing, her depression and mental frailty increased.
Yet she still was passionate about her few morning routines.
I always envied that she would naturally wake up at 5am each day. To have been born with a biological clock that allowed her the miracle of sunrise every day of her life was to me a birthright of unimaginable luck. I wanted to see sunrise, too, but my body was geared to an 8-9am wake up and by that time the birds were all chorusing, the sun was long up and moving, and the bees were flying.
Soon after waking, Mom would sit with her cat, Dinky, in the darkness before dawn and drink her morning coffee with her daily dose of pills. Later in the morning came the daily stroll to the trash containers outside the building, and then the three-times weekly aerobic exercise class downstairs. She kept her cherished routines close to home, where she could beg off anytime she chose: No exercise on days she felt poorly, but the trash always went out, and Dinky always sat close to the coffee cup and sniffed each pill before she swallowed it. Some routines just can’t be skipped, no matter how strong the internal defiance.
So, fast forward into my erratic, often chaotic life where the garden grows in spite of my efforts rather than because of them. I pull the weeds when the spirit moves me, and schedule the day around the possibility for creativity or adventure or a nap. Adventure these days is a walk in the woods, but it can just as easily be the planting of a new pot of purple heather, or collecting seeds from my cardoon. Or, heavens, the hatching of the ducklings, or finding a bumble bee nest in one of our bird houses. I’m easily tickled by life.
But—there’s nearly always a but, huh?
Although my mom is about five years gone now, her words about routine have recently found their way to my previously shuttered ears. I don’t know why they have reached me now after a lifetime of her trying. Perhaps it is because I see depression stalk me when I become too aimless, too wide open to anything or nothing. It seems that for me, and idle mind can become the Devil’s Workshop. Or perhaps it is because I am old now, and a crone mind is an entirely new world to me. Or perhaps is both old depression and a much older mind that have converged to jettison me into a life of some routine—finally.
My old mind has ideas, perspectives, insights and “ahas” that would have simply passed over my head in decades past. Of course, my old mind forgets nearly everything, thoughts flowing and gone like dribbling water from a spaghetti sieve. But I don’t think I’d like to trade this old mind for my younger one. She has great and humbling gifts, far worth the embarrassing tradeoff of forgetting names and dates and appointments.
This old mind, this crone mind seems to have an ability my young mind didn’t have at all: the ability to slow down enough to look at my life with not just the perfunctory glance. The crone mind looks with eyes that are not my worldly eyes, but perhaps my spirit eye—my third eye. She does not see with her vision, rather she penetrates. Crone watches like a hawk.
Wim and Crone
My toe-dip into the world of routine came by way of Wim Hoff, a funny and astounding Dutchman who came up with a method that uses breathing and cold to heal and vitalize the body. A kind reader suggested him to me when I was writing about my ceaseless struggles with depression and chronic fatigue. Unknowingly, she saved my life.
If you google Wim, you will find hours and hours of videos about his work and about scientists talking about him and his method. So, I started cautiously, beginning with three rounds of the breathing program. Here is a link to what I do each morning before I get out of bed (this is a five-round course of breathing, and I do three rounds):
I know myself pretty well, and know that if I get up and about with my day, I would NOT find my way back to the breathing practice because it was—for me—boring. So, I made myself this new little routine where upon waking, I roll over, start the computer and, as Wim says, “With your mind, follow your breath!”
For cold exposure, Wim suggests cold showers or submersion in icy water. I decided the shower would be a fine start and again—if I didn’t do it first thing in the morning, I would find ways to avoid it. The 2-minute cold shower is not, like the breathing, boring. It is shocking, and it’s easy to talk yourself out of doing it. For the first month of practice, my cold shower consisted of me shrieking in the stinging water for 2-5 seconds and then bolting to the space heater and a warm towel. If you are contemplating doing this, I can tell you that the shock of the showers diminishes (for me, it took about a month), and the cold actually starts to feel wonderfully refreshing.
So, the shower became my second routine. I’ve now done these two processes every morning since last March. I stopped only for a week during my kidney stone crisis. Mom would be proud. Her daughter began her first grudging steps into routine.
As an aside as to why I continue this: Wim’s work made it possible for me to come off of antidepressants after 30 years. It is not easy, but I am able to work through my “downs” now without the need of pills. I have now more bandwidth in my emotions, feeling the lows but now—suddenly—the highs, too!
Briefly, the breathing resets and stabilizes the endocrine system in part by allowing the body to become fully alkaline for a time, and by helping it release loads of adrenalin (there is no adrenaline rush with this. Your body does it gently and quietly), which is a healing for the body. The cold shower stimulates and vitalizes your entire vascular system, and forces your body to move its blood and fluid so that there is no stagnation in your system. These are the most simplistic explanations of the methods, and what they do is so much vaster than I have described here. I just don’t want to sidetrack too far from the intention of this writing, which is to reflect on routine.
But one more thing about Wim. Through the breathing and especially the showers, Wim encourages you to just “move through it. Do it! Don’t hesitate!” The training has given me the first true will power I’ve ever had. It takes a certain amount of guts to turn on a cold shower in the middle of a winter morning when the water coming out of the ground is biting and brutal, and walk right in with no hesitation—and stay there. When I leave the shower I am more invigorated and happy than at any other time during the day. Because—heck yeah!—I did it! Plus my blood is coursing fresh and happy!
I step out of that shower stall feeling like a gladiator. Okay, enough of this Wim Hoff infomercial. Let’s get back to the routine.
Routine as Ritual
Necessity has forced me now into more daily routines and as I have quit fighting the process, I find that Mom was right: Routines ARE good for you. Watch your animal friends and you will see that mostly all life cherishes routine.
Routine leads us into our lives with a sure path, a direction. Small acts undertaken daily bring comfort to a body and soul: Carter circles and spins round before he settles down with a grunt. The scrub jay comes each morning between seven and eight to sit on the snag of an old birch three two doors down and screech her morning song.
The oak tree in the vacant lot drops her leaves in her seasonal routine of rest and reflection. The river routinely swells like a breath with each rainfall and then exhales and reveals a bit more of her drenched shoreline only to swallow it all up with the next downpour. My bees share food with each other hundreds of times a day in a ritual nectar kiss, holding each other with their front-most arms and stroking each other’s antenna gently.
There are, my crone mind tells me, not only daily routines, but seasonal routines all nature follows. Bears, frogs, bumble bees and ground squirrels all routinely hibernate. Leaves are born and die in accordance with seasonal encouragement. The sun sets our routines for light and dark, for quiet and activity.
I’ve added Carter’s treadmill to the morning routine quite awhile back. Now, when I come out of my room in the morning, he is there by my door. Looking back to me over his shoulder, he trots to the treadmill, eager for his morning to begin. Over time, the whole animal family has decided to join us for this. Mazel Tov comes into the room looking for tossed kibble that I treat Carter with as he runs, so the dogs celebrate First Breakfast at the treadmill.
For some unfathomable reason, Dinky has now decided to join us, as well, leaving the comfort of his bed to sit by my side and watch Carter trot for a half hour. Sometimes even hubby John joins us and does some yoga or weights while Cater jogs and grins from ear to flopping ear.
Lately, all the family gather in the bathroom when I take my cold shower. Dinky plays with a thin trickle of water from the bathroom tap; Carter takes over the whole bathmat and wipes his face carefully on each side for his morning cleanup; Mazzie will come in to see what’s up, and sometimes John comes in to brush his teeth. I put on a song on my computer to help time me in the cold and off we go!
Here is an insight from my blessed crone mind: Routine, if you bring to it some mindful intention—becomes ritual. And ritual feeds our spirit at deep levels. Here—right here—is the golden key: I can turn each of these routine activities into ritual and ceremony simply with the words I precede them with.
We create ritual with our thoughts and words of thanks and gratitude, and with our wishes and hopes: “May this morning exercise feed my heart and Carter’s strong limbs. May we both come into this day with Vigor.” Now, the treadmill is transformed by prayer into sacred ritual.
The power in ritual is not in what you do. Its potency dwells in your intention to bring something good into the world. What you do in ritual is, in my opinion, just not that important. We move or maybe dance or sway, raise up our arms, circumabulate a towering tree, bow, say special words.
But what welcomes in the goodness is our asking, and our asking with an innocent heart: “Bring the sun to us this morning in her beauty and grace, and thanks to you for this gift of life.” “Bless this food to our bodies and your generous bounty to our hearts.” “May my hands upon this soil bring goodness and healing.” “This brush for my teeth—may the brushing bring cleansing and freshness not just to my mouth, but for my whole body.” “May this cold water freeze every ounce of Judgement out of my body now, today.”
In this way, with our supplication and our thanks, each routine or simply mundane act we perform each day can become a ritual of gratitude and healing. “May the bills be easily paid. Thank you for the gifts of electricity and water and garbage collection.” The trick is simply remembering to do this.
My mother was a zealot with her routines. But she could not teach me about infusing these tasks with holiness. Nature awareness has helped guide me to this, and also watching my sweet bees. They do so many small tasks regularly each day, and as I watch them bring in pollen, freshen up their propolis stores, groom each other at the hive entrance, I see the intense intention they bring to each task.
If you watch them through a magnifying lens where you can see their faces and marvel at the dexterity of their antennae (their sense of touch, temperature, scent, and hearing) and their busy six feet and many eyes, you will see a creature steeped in innocence, in intention, and in glory.
Let’s all be more like them in doing good and helpful work, and in our dedication to our tasks and routines. Let’s make holy the little “drudges” of the day and thus bring the out of the shadows of ho-hum and boredom into the wonder and freshness and vigor of light, and let’s do this simply with our words—our heartfelt words of “May this be…” And so it will.
(NOTE:Please ignore the date stamps on the photos. My camera back then was a berserker…)
I so related to many of your words Susan. Depression seems to bee your teacher in this life. Many times illness and health issues take us where we never would if not. I’m so fortunate to share your gifts of insight, relation, and love. Bless you….
Yes, Dear Lou, depression has been my nemesis, my challenge—and my teacher.
I love your books and writing. I sat with coffee in hand and enjoyed this piece surrounded by candles. I am inspired by you.
Lisa, thank you so much! It is interesting to me lately that while my physical challenges are so great right now, it seems to be making my writing deeper. I enjoy the writing and just let it guide me. I’m so glad it touched you!
Oh, Susan! This is my new topmost fave of all your writings — from a fan who’s rather matured alongside you, like a sister in awe of her gifted sibling, through your work these past 26 years. (We are about the same age, I think.)
Within the first few lines above, a flash-thought sparked, “I hope Susan is planning a new publication, perhaps a compilation of some of these masterly blog-explorations of being.”
After recent scariness about your health, what a joy to read this superb piece radiant with well-being!
Giant happy hugs to you — from kit/kitty w-p (on fb), a fellow rebel vs routine (unless it’s imbued with true meaning by and for moi)
PS — make that ‘in awe of her gifted kid-sister’ ’cause you are 7 years my junior, Wise One! xo
We are Kin, Kitty. We are kin!