Reflections from a home front: 5
In a new BBC public information film, Steve Coogan’s alter ego, Alan Partridge, has been drafted in to urge us to ‘Set a routine to get through staying in’. An unlikely bit of wartime propaganda. Certainly not as galvanizing as ‘Dig for Victory’ or ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’, Although, thinking about it, we could perhaps do some useful recycling here. I propose, to encourage online shopping: ‘Click for Victory’. And one for this sunny weekend: ‘Careless walks cost lives’. But the Partridge point is well made. If we’re leading monkish lives, then it might make sense to impose some kind of order.
Of course, at a purely practical level, a strict routine just helps you get more done. I think nostalgically of the school timetable. There was something hugely liberating about it – the dread of Wednesdays with Games and double German notwithstanding. No hour-to-hour or minute-to-minute decisions about what best to do next. No exceptions allowed. All you have to do is show up, day in day out, and stick with the programme. How on earth did we manage to do all those O levels in parallel? I’m sure I’d struggle to do even one now.
But beyond simply ‘getting though’ and mere productivity, there is something very useful in the monastic idea of the Rule of Life. It originated with the Desert Fathers, a community of mystics in Egypt around the third century AD. Then in 516 it was formalised in The Rule of St Benedict, created to bring some structure to the messiness of a busy communal life with all its domestic demands, and for that to be reflected in the inner life.
Superficially, a Rule of Life may not sound very attractive. The association of ‘rules’ with things like conformity, rigidity and submission to authority is unfortunate. Because a Rule of Life is not imposed from outside but from within. It’s crafted and honed by each individual, a work of art in itself. If the outer structure is right, it holds and nurtures the inner life – the life of spirituality, intellect and creativity. As Alex Poon has documented, the trope of the freewheeling creative is a myth. A survey of creative and intellectual high achievers reveals an almost universal adherence to routine. Creativity needs boundaries. Framework creates freedom. Few put it better than the poet, Mary Oliver:
What some might call the restrictions of the daily office they find to be an opportunity to foster the inner life. The hours are appointed and named… Life’s fretfulness is transcended. The different and the novel are sweet, but regularity and repetition are also teachers… 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. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to become real.
Moreover, we are are intrinsically rhythmic creatures. Subconsciously, we entrain to rhythms at every level: the ebb and flow of the seasons; the daily cycle of light and dark that resets our body clocks; the pulse of music, the beat of another heart. We flourish when our lives are so measured.
One unexpected benefit of this time has been that I’ve been able to reclaim something of life’s natural rhythm as well as trying out new daily routines. The eerily blank diary has helped, of course. With a clear week of evenings, we’ve allocated each one to different activity. Thus, for example, Wednesdays are for learning a skill. The husband is polishing his Spanish, and I’m planning to teach myself Latin, for which there was regrettably no room in that school timetable. (Lest we sound like a couple of swats, Fridays is for Netflix.)
So to today’s not entirely serious (though not entirely frivolous) poem. Just for fun, each stanza contains at least one quotation or an allusion to a line from Shakespeare. So, if you have a space in your schedule, you can see if you can name all the plays (fewer plays than stanzas). Bonus marks for the characters.
It’s Monday, and a brave new world .
We have a plan; we’ll make it work.
First, Pilates, for a boost,
Learn Italian, start on Proust.
On Tuesday, we return once more
Unto the breach, and take a tour
Of three museums, make some bread,
Organise the garden shed.
On Wednesday we detect a sound
So rich and strange. We hunt around –
Not smoke alarm, nor mobile tone …
Aha! It is the telephone.
Friday creeps at petty pace.
The walls press in; we press escape,
Then spend a happy afternoon
Zoomed into next door’s living room.
Oh now it’s Friday. Now we see
Time’s out of joint, and so are we.
Caught in this life’s revolving door,
We stiffen our resolve once more.
No-end weekend, daily Sabbath –
Method will o’ercome the madness.
When Monday comes, we will divine
The syllables of common time.
 Esther de Waal, writing abut monastic spirituality, observes that regula, a feminine noun, carries ‘gentle connotations: a signpost, a railing, something that gives me support’. From The Way of Simplicity.
 From Darwin to Dickens, these high achievers from a wide range of fields have characteristically disciplined routines that allow not only for work but also for ample leisure. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Rest.