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Break Up the Habitual

“We need habit to get through a day, to get to work, to feed our children. But habit is dangerous too. The act of seeing can quickly become unconscious and automatic. The eyes see something—gray-brown bark, say, fissured into broad, vertical plates—and the brain spits out tree trunk and the eye moves on. But did I really take the time to see the tree? I glimpse hazel hair, high cheekbones, a field of freckles and I think Shawna. But did I take the time to see my wife?
... The easier an experience, or the more entrenched, or the more familiar, the fainter our sensation of it becomes. This is true of chocolate and marriages and hometowns and narrative structures. Complexities wane, miracles become unremarkable, and if we’re not careful, pretty soon we’re gazing out at our lives as if through a burlap sack.
… I open my journal and stare out at the trunk of the umbrella pine and do my best to fight off the atrophy that comes from seeing things too frequently. I try to shape a few sentences around this tiny corner of Rome; I try to force my eye to slow down. A good journal entry—like a good song, or sketch, or photograph—ought to break up the habitual and lift away the film that forms over the eye, the finger, the tongue, the heart. A good journal entry ought to be a love letter to the world.
Leave home, leave the country, leave the familiar. Only then can routine experience—buying bread, eating vegetables, even saying hello—become new all over again.”

— Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome

A long quote, but honestly I could plug the entire chapter of this delightful book in here and call it a day. This is a song I know well. We are creatures of habit, and a good habit will save us as much as a bad habit may be our ruin, but this often puts us on autopilot with our senses. There’s a fine line between being fully aware and being overwhelmed. A bit of focus on the task at hand is just as essential as being aware of everything around us. Situation awareness can quite literally save the day for us, but awareness of every situation can make us completely useless.

Still, so many of us miss the details for the routine. How much of a drive do we ever remember? What of the miracle of commercial flight? Most people simply resign themselves to the screen in front of them for the duration, never glancing out the window at the world of wonder just outside. What of home? Do we ever immerse ourselves in something we once gazed at lovingly, like that picture we once cherished and now barely see? How many marriages end in just such a way?

We know the Latin phrase: “tempus fugit carpe diem” (time flies so seize the day). Seizing isn’t just an action statement to go out and do bold things, though surely that’s a big part of it. It also means being fully aware of the world around us while we’re living this day. Well before the Romans began creating such memorable phrases, that old Greek sage Seneca had his own take on this, saying “As each day arises, welcome it as the very best day of all, and make it your own possession. We must seize what flees.” Indeed we must.

Doerr seized his day moving to Rome for a year, grabbing the opportunity of a lifetime just as he and his wife were navigating the challenge of raising newborn twins. That’s quite a one-two punch to anyone’s routine. His call to leave the familiar comes from his own experience in doing just so. But even under such extreme change in his and his wife’s lifestyle, he found routine he had to break through to find full awareness. What of us?

“Rise free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures.” – Henry David Thoreau

At a party of the weekend I was introduced to someone as “a blogger” and was asked what I write about. I write about everything, I explained, but didn’t go much deeper out of… habit. We rise to meet our moments or we simply go through them. Writing is a form of heightened awareness of the moment. So is photography, for that matter. I tend to be the unofficial photographer at family events and during travel because I see opportunities either to capture or create the moment. In the end, moments are all we have.

This blog is a call to arms for myself as much as it is a collection of observations and thoughts. Tempus fugit, sir, so carpe diem. Pay attention to the moment, friend, but do note the days gone by on this journey too. We waste so much of it, don’t we? We must be aware, and be productive with our days while we have them. Make each day new all over again.

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