I am a very self-disciplined and routine-oriented person. This has been true of me from a very young age, and my experience of college and grad school actually reinforced it. In college, I had a very generous but very stringent scholarship that I could lose irrevocably if I fell below a 3.8 GPA. Hence the typical startegies of cramming and all-nighters felt too high-risk to me. After choosing a PhD program with inadequate funding — and then getting the rare opportunity to write a book before my dissertation — I felt pressure to build some kind of routine to grapple with the great looming maw of unstructured free time, so that I could actually finish.
These experiences have led me to view monastic routine with a kind of nostalgia, as a way to achieve a great deal without ever becoming overwhelmed by excessive demands. I have proven to myself over and over that slow and steady work, even work that feels phoned-in much of the time, can lead to great results. Doing a 45 minutes or an hour of language work for several months can give you a baseline comfort and familiarity with a foreign language to the point where you can easily dip into the original text to check translations, for instance. More dramatically, write a page or two a day, and before long you have a chapter and then a whole book. Real life doesn’t allow such neat and tidy sequences, of course, even during summer vacation. Yet I often think of my life as asymptotically approaching that ideal state, even if the progress is continually interrupted.
In many ways, this idealization of routine is strange, because the times when I had the steadiest routine were among the most miserable of my life.
I learned a lot and made great friends in both college and grad school, but looking back I was extremely frustrated and isolated much of the time — not to mention debilitatingly financially insecure in grad school. Looking back, my heroic self-discipline clearly was not “the thing itself,” but a compensation for a life that often felt empty and precarious. I could assert some control over my time and my activity in a broader context where nothing — how I would pay rent next month, whether I would make authentic human connections, whether I could turn all my hard work into a real career — was actually in my control. I could claim to be achieving something unique and impressive when I was objectively an unemployed loser who didn’t get out much.
And that brings me to the last twelve months, when I finally got my wish: a life of totally self-structured routine. It wasn’t quite how I pictured it, of course, most notably because I wasn’t totally alone — and in fact, it scares me to think how this last year would have played out for me emotionally if I didn’t have My Esteemed Partner with me. Even during teaching times, though, there was a vast abyss of unstructured time. Without my commute, the hard line I had drawn between teaching days and off days didn’t make sense, and meanwhile a weekly Zoom reading group made my non-teaching Thursdays increasingly indistinguishable from the standard MWF.
As with college, grad school, and a very monastic summer spent in San Francisco for My Esteemed Partner’s internship, I got a whole lot done. With my reading group, I have closely studied almost the whole of Hegel’s Science of Logic (we will finish a few weeks after the pandemiversary). I have studied approximately a third of the text of the Qur’an in the original Arabic — reading about a page almost every single morning over coffee, first thing. I even managed to put together a book, the essay collection What is Theology?, over half of which is new material. I have read a lot of books I was always meaning to read, deepened my knowledge of some relevant fields, recorded numerous podcast interviews, read a seemingly infinite number of comic books, and watched more TV than I would have believed humanly possible — all in the context of a steady rhythm of chores and dog walks and trips to the grocery store.
What always impresses me when I go through phases like this is how my emotions start to drift free of any objective conditions. Some mornings I am happy and optimistic when reading my page of the Qur’an, fully alert to the unique beauty of the text. Some days I am frustrated and almost angry at myself for ever looking at the Qur’an, continually “cheating” by looking at the translation. And it doesn’t matter — I make progress either way. Some weeks I am energized by our Hegel readings, some weeks I feel completely baffled, and it doesn’t matter. I read it, I review it, we discuss it, and lo and behold — I am that much closer to a synoptic view of Hegel’s entire project in the Logic, something I would have previously seen as impossible. The same goes for my writing. Whether I feel motivated or I slog along, whether I barely squeeze out a paragraph or have a great day where the pages flow, it steadily accrues into a full manuscript.
I live in the dialectical tension of hope and dread at being finished with anything. I simultaneously long to be “done” — with Hegel, with the Qur’an, with whatever I’m writing — and also fear that moment when the abyss will open up again. (My fellow reading group members seem to experience something similar, as we alternate between imagining what we will read next and being unable to imagine ever being finished.)
In all cases, I’m sure it’d be nice to have something new to think about and work on, but that would also mean making a fresh decision, and I feel as though all my wherewithal for making meaningful decisions has been drained for an entire year. I feel weirdly fragile, so that a broken glass, a delayed take-out delivery, a set of muddy paws seem like insuperable obstacles, sometimes reducing me almost to tears. If I have grown more emotionally steady, it’s because of a certain kind of resignation and hopelessness. This summer was so hard because it seemed like there could and should be things to do, yet there were not (or at least not things we were willing to risk participating in). Once winter came and cases started rising, it was almost a relief to “shut it down,” to circumscribe our entire lives within the distance between our apartment and the dog park, to enfold every action into the diversely articulated and yet singular task that is every week. It was hard to learn, in retrospect, how much I depended on that weekly trip to the grocery store, simply to see people — just to see them, not even to interact with them — but I let go of that. I let go of a lot. And I kept plugging away at the things I was doing because I was doing them, things that alternated between feeling like a relief and feeling like a trap and sometimes feeling like both at once.
I will be the first to acknowledge that we have had it easier than almost anyone this pandemic. We have both kept our jobs. We have had no worries about where we would live or how we would pay our bills. No one close to us has gotten the disease and we never had any serious suspicion that we had it, either. [We are both very committed to remaining childless as well, to the point where the possibility of us having kids didn’t even occur to me when I wrote the first draft of this post.] In a weird way, we were experiencing the pandemic lifestyle as such, with no complications — and I can verify that even the best case is no way to live.
Last weekend I got vaccinated. North Central College — with its typical genius for logistics — had started the process of connecting the faculty with a health care provider that would administer the vaccine, and I had dutifully gone through every step while never imagining that it would happen any time before this summer. Then one day I got the notification that I could set my vaccination appointment, which I did within minutes, at the earliest possible time I could reasonably get out there. And let me tell you — I have never felt such profound relief in my entire life. I didn’t even realize how much weight I was carrying around the last twelve months until it was suddenly just… gone. I know I’m not fully protected yet, and I haven’t done anything too out of the ordinary. But simply knowing that, some time in the next few weeks, I can go to the Art Institute for the first time in a year, or sit down at a bar and have a drink, or — most importantly — attend Ted Jennings’ long-delayed in-person memorial service without taking my life into my hands… I can’t describe it.
I’ve been euphoric all week, probably obnoxiously cheerful. Nothing has changed concretely, and in fact the time when my full vaccination will kick in is going to correspond to the busiest weeks of end-of-semester tunnel vision. But simply having a horizon beyond this repeated cycle of seven days — beyond marking time as my one finite life on this earth slips inexorably away from me — has made all things new.