The Sovereign Potency of Habit

There is no greater force to effect change than the repetition of tiny tasks. The poet Mary Oliver, in her book Long Life, wrote:

In the shapeliness of a life, habit plays its sovereign role ... Most people take action by habit in small things more often than in important things, for it's the simple matters that get done readily, while the more somber and interesting, taking more effort and being more complex, often must wait for another day. Thus, we could improve ourselves quite well by habit, but its judicious assistance, but's more likely that habits rule us. 

The belief that routine is insipid and uninspiring runs counter to the evidence that an overwhelming number of creative people owe the completion of their greatest works to the unimaginative world of monotonous routine. Alice Walker adopted the routine of regular meditation during a time of intense personal crisis and credits the daily practice to the completion of many of her novels, including The Color Purple

The Color Purple owes much of its humor and playfulness to the equanimity of my mind as I committed myself to a routine, daily practice.

Mary Oliver continues, "The patterns of our lives reveal us" [emphasis added].  Our habits and patterns spotlight who we are, the tedious tiny tasks culminate in our actual life's work while our imagined life's work remains an unrequited passion, relegated to our somedays. "Someday" always exists just out of reach, at the end of our fingertips. We can see it but not touch it. Tiny tasks remain within our sovereign grasp, we exercise complete control over tiny tasks, regardless of our daily obligations and responsibilities.  

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton translated a poem by Chuang Tzu entitled "The Need to Win":

He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting - 
And the need to win
Drains him of power. 

The inference is clear: focus on shooting, not winning. Baudelaire: 

Nothing can be done except little by little.

William Least Heat-Moon, author of one of my favorite books Blue Highways, wrote about failing to meeting his objectives while working on the book. His "failures" ultimately culminated into success: “Taped to the door was a sheet with dates on the left and opposite a figure corresponding to a page number indicating where I planned a chapter to be on a specified future day. Over the next many months, I drew up a half dozen more of those sheets, every prognostication failing to match its presumed date of completion, each goal predictably falling short; yet, while the words didn’t flood forth, they did accumulate - about like a 1 percent savings account; pennies and nickels. Or a moonshiner’s still: drippity, drip, drip.”

Shot by shot. Drop by Drop. Little by little. "A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules" (Anthony Trollope).  

Why Unpublished Writers Write | Elie Wiesel

Authentic writers write even if there is little chance for them to be published; they write because they cannot do otherwise, like Kafka’s messenger who is privy to a terrible and imperious truth that no one is willing to receive but is nonetheless compelled to go on ... Were he to stop, to choose another road, his life would become banal and sterile. Writers write because they cannot allow the characters that inhabit them to suffocate them. These characters want to get out, to breathe fresh air and partake of the wine of friendship; were they to remain locked in, they would forcibly break down the walls. It is they who force the writer to tell their stories.

- Elie Wiesel, "A Sacred Magic Can Elevate the Secular Storyteller", from Writers [On Writing]

 

Video of the Week(end): Life and Death of an iPhone

In Rick Bass's essay "To Engage the World More Fully, Follow a Dog", he ends with the statement, "The dog is my partner in this part of the journey." Though our iPhones are not even remotely as lovable, they are certainly as ubiquitous a companion and are a window to our worlds, they each tell a unique story. Paul Trillo crafts a brilliant narrative using the point of view of the iPhone-as-storyteller in this wonderful film (shot entirely on an iPhone). The transitions, so cleverly executed, became my favorite supporting actor: