Embracing the routines of a third act

Creatures of habit

Have I always been a creature of habit, I wonder? When I was young, my routine revolved largely around school, and I was habitually asked, “what did you do today?” As a young adult, where weeks followed predictable routines, it was, “how’s work going?” Now, since reaching my “third act,” the question is, “So, what’s new?”

I struggle with this one. If I say I don’t know, I’m as dull as a dishrag. If I launch into something fantastical, simply to impress or keep tedium at bay, I’m not sure people get the humour— and explaining a joke is not one of my strong points. To someone I don’t know well, I confess. “Well, I’m retired,” I admit, apologetically, “so I don’t have much of a routine.” 

Some of my days are dedicated to certain activities, but beyond that, I feel quite routine-less.

So I was brought up short recently when I stopped myself, just in time, from tutting an elderly lady. She wasn’t taking hours at the check-out, nor was she hogging the space of two parking spots; she had unwittingly beaten me to my preferred locker at the pool. I gave her the most winning smile I could muster at 6:45 in the morning. I admired her hairdo and then her bathing suit, overcompensating for my earlier unneighbourly, surly thought. This left me thinking though, what else do I feel this strongly about?

I weigh myself only on Monday mornings; I pick up my mail every Friday afternoon and limit my chocolate intake to one square a day. Some of my favourite walks take the same route, north to south, legs on autopilot. I read our weekly paper from back to front, digesting the lighter commentary first, always hoping that next week’s paper arrives before I get to the more serious front-end stuff. I’ve heard of others who share this unusual practice so, strange or not, I’m not alone.

My mum, at 88, has a solid routine. On any given day (we chat long-distance every Sunday) I know where she is and what she’s doing. There was a time when I thought this signalled the end, one foot in the grave syndrome: Monday’s the market, Tuesday’s the trip to Tesco supermarket, washing on Wednesday, church on… you get the picture. Not much happens to cause a blip in her routine — save an aching tooth or a bus strike.

Routines can be comforting. Seeing the same people at the same places tells me that all is well with my world and, presumably, theirs too. However, seeing the same people in different places causes a temporary rise in my blood pressure, as I struggle to put a name to the face. It usually helps to flip through my weekly routine and those activities said to aid memory. “Is it line dancing?” I ask myself, “or maybe ukulele practice?”

At home, our mealtimes are anything but predictable although certain foods clearly carry their own routines. Boiled eggs for example. The top of my husband’s egg is dealt an impressive machete-style swipe whereas I smash mine with the curved side of a teaspoon, scattering bits of shell every-which-way. Mum and I share this dubious talent. It’s the Yorkshire way and habits die hard.

Pancakes follow their own strict pattern. My husband stacks his 4-5 high; mine lie like cowpies, ready for rolling. He carefully cuts a square-ish hole in the middle of the stack and fills it with warmed molasses before tucking in. I delicately sprinkle sugar, then lemon, then maple syrup, then fruit and smear it all around. There is harmony at the table, tinged with smugness. Routines matter.

As creatures of habit, aren’t we all proud of our routines, revelling in the feeling of being busy and productive. Routines afford a sense of purpose and, if we take time to really listen to one another, there are stories behind all our habits.

I no longer pretend to know “what’s new” and, all too often, I fall back on my routine for an answer. Where would I be without my routine? Adrift. Without a paddle.

But a change of habit can be exhilarating. So this fall, I vow to shake things up a bit, do things differently. Just don’t ask me what’s new…  you won’t believe me, anyway!