There’s a streetlamp down the block that flickers ominously all night. At least, I assume it goes all night. It’s always sputtering away like something straight out of a horror movie when I walk past around eleven with the dog. As I’m not a frequent neighborhood walker, I never would have noticed this if it weren’t for Coach, the very cute dog of my friend and fellow post calvin-er Tony. I’m on dog sitting duty, so Coach and I have made laps around the block three or four times a day all week.
These adventures in dog sitting have given me a chance to revel in something I love: a habit. It’s taken a while for me to embrace my pattern-loving ways because they seem so contrary to the general character of my generation. We millennials are supposed to be full of wanderlust, never satisfied with what we have, always searching for the next grand adventure or the newest technology. But amid all the t-shirts declaring The mountains are calling and I must go, I find myself venturing only as far as the new restaurant across town. No Not all who wander are lost bumper stickers for me. In fact, the very first post I wrote for the post calvin was about choosing to stay in Grand Rapids, the only city I’ve ever really known. I was still making peace with it back then, but I’ve accepted it enough now to use words like “homebody” on my online dating profiles.
I like habits because they’re safe. It’s not that I’m afraid of new things—I wouldn’t say change is my enemy or anything, and I’m happy to try something new. It’s just that I like to know what’s coming. Fellow personality test nerds will appreciate that I’m an Enneagram Six, always looking for security and support, and an ISFJ (emphasis on the J). This manifests in silly ways—one thing I love about returning again and again to the same restaurants is that I know where the bathrooms are. God forbid I wander down the wrong hallway and end up in the kitchen. But it has also defined some of my major life choices—teaching is a career full of habit and routine. My days are run by bells and even my weekends have work-related responsibilities.
But I also hold on to habits because they give me an unexpected freedom. Habits are not commandments; they’re suggestions. Having a habitual restaurant gives me the freedom to order something unusual or new because I trust the chefs and know it will be good. Teaching has turned out to be an ideal career because I get to work with a set schedule and the same students each day, but I have complete freedom to be creative with what or how I teach.
It’s not just me. Habits, patterns, practices, rituals—these words are used and valued in so many areas of life. In religion, adherents are encouraged to pray at certain times of day, to participate in rituals or sacraments or lectio divina, or even to wear specific clothing that we’ve cleverly labeled “habits.” Exercise gurus push us to set gym schedules. Workplace efficiency guides suggest that we check our email at certain times and then set aside habitual hours in which to do our real work. The “capsule wardrobe” promises to set busy people free from the hassle of choosing an outfit so they can focus on what really matters.
And at the heart of habit, I think, is the opportunity it gives us to really notice little things. When I take a walk around the block every day, I notice flickering streetlamps or a particularly beautiful and flower-scented yard. When I mix the same cocktail every winter weekend night, I notice the different taste new brands of whiskey lend it, or whether I’ve over-measured the vermouth. When I set the same song as an alarm every morning, different lyrics stick in my head during my shower or mug of tea, offering new connections or interpretations.
“A life should leave / deep tracks,” the poet Kay Ryan writes. “Where she used to / stand before the sink / a worn-out place.” It’s my favorite poem because it celebrates habit. I don’t feel the pressure of wanderlust or a need to go adventuring when I recite these words. What it really teaches me is to be content with my habits and routines. They give me a chance to leave my mark in a really big world. “The passage / of a life should show.”