Ritual Is Routine Made Sacred


Daily Rituals How Artists Work

Think about daily habits. Walking the dog, sipping a morning cup of coffee, mad-dashing it to the car with keys and bag, savoring an evening glass of wine, bedtime story reading with the second grader, whispering in noontime prayer, breathing in five minutes of meditation, sweatily running around the neighborhood. Some habits get us to the next part of the day, some are not so much habits as zombie routines, some are those we look forward to, and some, if not performed, make the whole day feel weird and uninspired.

Right before the dawn of 2014, a friend of mine sent me a link to an article with a quick note saying that he thought I might enjoy reading it and that it might help with my then-flu-like-case-of-procrastination. The article, from Forbes, reviewed the book Daily Rituals by Mason Currey, but mostly highlighted the wildly varying routines of highly productive people. I read the article, took a couple of the suggestions, and got out of my procrastination funk. I forgot about the book, though.

A few months later, in happy coincidence, I ran across the book at my public library. The cover and title first caught my eye and then I sat down to read it in the lobby near the children’s section. It was a few pages in before I made the connection between this book and the Forbes article. The book, as the author Currey notes in his introduction, started as a fit of procrastination while he was trying to finish writing an article with a deadline breathing down his neck. Murray started a blog that afternoon in 2007 and it came together in a book, published in 2013. While the blog superficially looked at the habits of writers, artists, thinkers, and musicians, the book is “a vastly expanded and better researched collection.” The charm of the book is that he lets the subjects “speak for themselves.” It is a well-packed and eye-opening glimpse into the habits of people who are responsible for much of our society’s art, science, music, entertainment, and thought, if we could see them alone and behind-the-scenes.

I have always found things behind-the-scenes fascinating, whether it’s the break room of a busy office, the storage room of a restaurant, or the stock room of a grocery store. I remember using the restroom as a toddler at our neighborhood supermarket, and it wasn’t the clean and well-lit public restroom I am used to now. My mother and I ventured back into the dark and cavernous (at least in my memory) rear of the store, past monoliths of boxes, past honking fork lifts to a tiny and dreary bathroom. Once we had fulfilled the mission of our back room adventures, I wanted to stay and watch the hidden work. It was an endlessly fascinating and unfamiliar contrast to the flourescent-lit-muzak-playing grocery store I knew so well from toddling along on my mother’s errands.

People’s jobs and how they do them intrigue me. What does their day look like? How are the minutes and hours whiled away in tasks and projects? Career days at school, where friends’ parents would come to class and talk about their jobs, were always my favorite. Books and plays and shows that explore the workplace are the ones that seem truest to me. For a couple of years, I dated a software engineer and he talked of writing code. All I could picture was him sitting in front of five computer screens with gobbledygook streaming across the monitors and that image is still in my mind when we meet up for an occasional meal. For people who work alone at home, I can imagine lots of breaks, time in sweats on the couch, and then a mad flurry to meet a deadline. Perhaps, that is the way I would work and why a full-time career at home is not recommended for me.

As I try to write more, feverishly finish a blog post, tackle completing a book of short stories, ruminate over journal entries, and nervously send articles to editors, I think of my routines and squeezing in writing time with my own full-time job as an educator. I envy those who seem to have large pockets of time. I realize, though, time is what you make it. The book highlights that very idea and it is a wonderfully quaint and curious look into the lives and routines of creative geniuses.

Did they need routine? Did they need lots of time? Was there superstition involved? How did they spend the day? What did they think of their routines and rituals? Did they need variety? This book looks at 161 writers, artists, musicians, thinkers, politicians, scientists, and other creative types. My only critique of the book is that there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the order. It’s not alphabetical, it’s not in order by birth date, it’s not arranged by creative categories. There is a long, seemingly random table of contents, but it was also fun to hop around finding my favorites and discovering interesting routines of people of whom I had never heard.

Here are a few of the people who inspire me who were included in the book. I like surrounding myself with the books and music and artwork of these creative beings and I love knowing some of the secrets behind their work.

Maya Angelou – The writer, who recently passed away, could not work at home. She said, “I try to keep home very pretty, and I can’t work in a pretty surrounding. It throws me.” She rose early and had coffee with her husband. He left for work, she left for the motel room she kept as her office. She arrived by 7 am and left by 2 pm, unless work was going badly, then she left by 12:30 pm. The room was stark and she stocked it with four primary items: a dictionary, a Bible, a bottle of sherry, and a deck of cards. After working, she arrived home and read over what she’d written and then put it out of her mind. She went about her home routines, enjoying dinner with her husband. Occasionally, after dinner she read her work to her husband, but she only accepted comments from her editor. Reading her words aloud helped her find the parts that needed improvement, which she would then work on the next day. Angelou was highly prolific and produced books, plays, poetry, movie and TV scripts, and sometimes she had inexplicable physical symptoms from her work: back troubles, eyes swollen shut, and knee injuries.

Issac Asimov – The writer known for science fiction wrote hundreds of books and included religion and science as his subjects. He referred to his hours as “candy store hours.” Growing up in Brooklyn, his father had a series of candy stores, open 7 am to 1 pm, seven days a week. As a writer, Asimov woke early and worked “as long as I can” and even worked while on vacation or in the hospital. He wrote that “there were certain advantages offered by the candy store that had nothing to do with mere survival, but, rather, with overflowing happiness, and that this was so associated with the long hours as to make them sweet to me and to fix them upon me for all my life.”

Jane Austen – The author of Emma and Pride and Prejudice, Austen was particularly productive in the last eight years of her life. She finally had a steady home, instead of constantly visiting and staying with relatives. She rose early, played piano, was responsible for making breakfast, and then spent the morning and early afternoon writing. She constantly hid her writing from everyone, but her immediate family, including household guests and servants. Disruptions and company meant hiding away her writing. In the evenings, she read aloud her writing to her family.

Ludwig van Beethoven – He rose early and drank coffee, which he prepared for himself meticulously with 60 beans per cup. He worked at his desk until two or three in the afternoon and then had a large midday meal. Afternoons and evenings he took walks, bringing along a pencil and music paper. He would stop and read the papers at a pub, sometimes drink beer or wine, and went to bed by 10 pm. His bathing habits were as unique and beautiful as his music; he poured pitchers of water over his hands while singing scales, not noticing copious amounts of water on the floor, and continued this routine almost daily.

Agatha Christie – The maven of mystery and author of 91 books, numerous plays, and other works, never had a writing room or desk. She said her needs for writing were small, “All I needed was a steady table and typewriter.” She wrote in “spells and bursts” while most of her time was spent in “ordinary living,” but when there were no interruptions, she could close herself up in a room and write for hours.

Benjamin Franklin – The renaissance politician outlined a routine for “moral perfection.” He focused on one aspect a week, figuring that was enough time to create a habit. Over time, he repeated his course, until he only needed the thirteen-week routine just once a year. He even outlined an ideal schedule for the day, but he wasn’t always able to follow that due to his busy print shop and work in politics. The one habit he struggled with throughout his life, though, was messiness and disorganization. He later discovered his favorite ritual, an “air bath” in cold air. While bathing at the time was common in cold water, Franklin thought it was too much of a shock to the system.

Maira Kalman – An artist, illustrator, and writer of mostly children’s books, she rises at six, makes the bed, and reads the obituaries. Her studio is in the same building as her apartment, and there are no distractions like food, phone, or e-mail. She does, though, have a green chaise for napping. She might go for a walk in Central Park or to a cafe, but she always finishes in her studio no later than 6 pm. When she is not working on a project, and when there is no deadline, there can be days or weeks when she never enters her studio.

Georgia O’Keefe – The painter, known for her paintings of the New Mexico desert, woke up early, made tea, built a fire, and sat in bed to watch the sunrise. She enjoyed the solitude and said, “My pleasant disposition likes the world with nobody in it.” After breakfast, on painting days, she went to her studio to paint to all day with a break for lunch. On other days, she gardened, answered letters, did housework, and received company. She ate an early dinner, around 4:30 pm, so that she had the evenings to take a drive in the landscape she loved best.

Charles Schulz – For 50 years, the creator of the beloved Peanuts did all of his own writing and drawing for the comic strip. He created a routine that helped with the daily demand of work and also helped with his chronic anxiety, working five days a week for seven hours a day. In the mornings he showered, ate breakfast, and took his kids and the neighborhood kids to school. He then began each work day by doodling with a pencil and just letting his mind wander. Once he had an idea, he went with it, drawing and writing quickly before he lost his inspiration. He ate lunch in his studio, often a ham sandwich and a glass of milk. He stayed working in his studio until 4 pm when his kids came home.

What do we do with the knowledge of these routines? How can that help us in our own creativity? What does it tell us about genius, talent, and effort? If nothing else, I take comfort in knowing that even the geniuses struggled. I like knowing that I am not the only one privy to bouts of procrastination. We can stop, take a pause, and find the sacredness in our routines. We can use the rituals to frame our lives, our creativity, our love, our service. We can find inspiration in the ordinary, in the small.

Whether it’s Asimov’s “candy store hours,” Kalman’s green chaise for napping in her studio, Beethoven’s sloshing of water while singing scales, Schulz’s regular office hours scheduled around his kids’ routines, Franklin’s air baths, Christie’s lack of need for an office, Angelou’s sparse motel room, Austen hiding her writing from all but her immediate family, and O’Keefe’s early mornings in bed to watch the sun rise, we can see beauty in their inspiration, in their work, in their routines.

We see the sacred, the creativity.

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