I don’t remember when I first realized that the word “routine” didn’t have a negative connotation for most people, but I know it must have been a shock. Growing up with a mother who never drove home the same way twice (who knows what you might discover down a different street), “routine” was a little bit of a dirty word; it was something necessary but distasteful, like poop or taxes. I can remember her tone as she would groan, “Back to the routine,” at the end of every school vacation.
I grew up to be the sort of person who becomes depressed if a passport goes unused for too long. As an office employee, I could always tell you exactly how many days until the next three day weekend or off-site meeting. People are always surprised that I have a graduate degree in horticulture, because my garden is always pathetic. I can never maintain the kind of consistent, regular care that keeps a garden healthy throughout an entire growing season. Something always comes along to distract me, and two weeks later I look up to discover most of my plants are dead.
So naturally I had kids who lose their shit if dinner is fifteen minutes late.
Because a parent’s job is to do what’s right for their kids, I have had to learn to live with set mealtimes and fixed bedtimes, complete with elaborate rituals of stories, kisses, and “tell me tomorrow” so that no day brings surprises. As this school year approached I asked them if they were excited. My 10-year-old solemnly responded, “This summer was fun.” She paused, as if looking for a polite way to say what she really thought of my summer activity planning, “But I think I do better with a routine.” My 5-year-old echoed, “Routine!” in a tone that I thought children reserved for “Dessert!”
Of course I recognize that routines are inevitable. I could never get out the door in the morning without a routine. My brain doesn’t function before about 10 a.m., so I have to be able to make coffee, cook breakfast, shower, and dress on autopilot if I’m to get to an office or school on time every day. But I hate having to be at the same place at the same time every day.
Of course I recognize that routines are useful. I would spend a lot less on late fees if I could stick to a regular bill-paying routine. I’ve already mentioned gardening, and my house would certainly benefit from regular maintenance instead of delayed repairs.
I imagine a seesaw, with my craving for serendipity on one seat and my family’s rigidly structured security on the other. Somewhere in the center Aristotle sits, beckoning. But I haven’t figured out what it looks like from there.
[Wow! As I was writing this, the band Tennis was performing an in-studio on KEXP. Just as I finished, they answered a question about their last album, stating that they only overcame writer’s block by forcing themselves into a rigid routine of 9 to 5 work on the album. It was like a serendipitous response from the universe, even though I hate the answer.]