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Kick – and keep – the habit

The truest statements about human beings are paradoxes.

Yesterday, I taught Harvey, one of my pupils who is preparing for his English Literature GCSE, about the wonderful use of paradox by John Steinbeck in Of Mice and Men. We were looking at the character of Lennie, the gentle giant who shows his affection for all living things by holding, stroking and cuddling them (mice, rabbits, women…). He is profoundly kind.  And yet, unaware of his strength, he crushes the things he treasures most. He kills what he loves.

A paradox: two seemingly incompatible things that, when held together, are nevertheless true. My deep respect for and fascination with paradox lies at the heart of my thinking and my writing – and makes me deeply suspicious of extremism, fundamentalism and absolutes.  The latter leave out too much: they give us a distorted understanding of the truth.  In some cases, they obliterate the truth altogether.

One of the paradoxes I’ve been musing on, both in relation to my baby daughter, Tennessee, and my writing, is the paradox of habit.  As the cliche goes, we humans are creatures of habit.  We love rituals, routines, rhythms.  They make us feel safe.  They contain us in time and space.  They make life a little more predictable, a little more stable.  We need habits to get things done: to get my novels written I had to structure my days around my writing – getting up, Radio 4, cup of tea and porridge, sitting down to write, going for my 7km power walk, writing some more, dinner with my husband, an HBO episode (I’ve learnt more about plot from Breaking Bad, True Blood, Dexter, Six Feet Under, The Wire, The West Wing, House of Cards, than just about any novel) reading, bed… We need habits to get fit, to lose weight, to perform at work, to sleep well, to maintain good oral hygiene.  Habits allow our brains to go into autopilot so that they can cope with the inevitable surprises and stresses of life.

The reason my 10 week old Tennessee needs routine is because her world is in constant flux: everything around her is new.   Every shadow on the ceiling, every new face, every sound and sensation (heat, cold, friction), creates a little shock-wave to her system. Routines are hard come by with these little creatures but when they succeed, their effect is transformative.  Tennessee’s bedtime routine (a feed at 5pm, a bit of play, a bath at 6pm another feed at 6.30pm and sleep by 7pm) is vital because it gives her the confidence to lie in her cot and settle for the night.  Without some routine her days and nights would be a jumble of chaos that would never give her the moments of calm and rest to thrive.

Similarly, in the realm of work, constant change is the enemy of productivity.  I have worked in a wonderful, innovative school that is forever launching new initiatives: it is thrilling and yet the pace of change is so great and so fast and so constant that teachers have little time to breathe, consolidate and get used to the new.  Just when they’ve mastered something new, the ground is pulled out from under them and they have to readjust.  It’s like trying to find your footing on the deck of ship in the midst of a storm.  The result is exhaustion and nervousness.  Too much unpredictability leads to nerve-fraying stress that damages our physical and emotional health.

And yet…there’s another side to the story – the paradox.

Immanuel Kant is one of history’s most influential philosophers.  Without the stability offered by the minute by minute routines which dictated his days, he may never have come up with those world-defining ideas.  And yet, one wonders what more he could have come up with (ideas to refute the critics of the future) had he, every now and then, taken a detour, slept in, had a midnight feast.  By all standards, Kurt Cobain was an iconically brilliant musician – and yet, perhaps he could have lived to write more songs, new and different songs, had he eaten a few more square meals, had the occasional regular bedtime – and kicked that drug habit.

Just as too much change leads to the kind of stress that stunts growth, being chained to our habits, our rituals, our routines, leads to stagnation, boredom, lethargy, a lack of imagination. Innovation is what has made the school I work in one of the best in the country.  Human beings are creatures of habit – but they are also creatures of surprise, of the unpredictable, of change.  The new shakes us out of ourselves and helps us look at things afresh, triggers new neural pathways, helps us grow, fall in love, make new friends.  Change gives us energy and joy.  It makes us come up with world-changing ideas.

It’s often when I break a habit that I come up with new ideas for my novels.  Nothing has shaken my habits – my sense of stability – more than having Tennessee.  Being awake at different times of day – and night – has made me notice new things.  The colour of the sky from my bedroom window just before dawn.  The sound of my neighbour’s car springing to life outside the nursery window as he goes out to get a morning coffee for him and his wife.  Bumping into Robin, the gardener who looks after the communal bits of our small terrace of houses, as I take Tennessee out for a stroll mid-morning – chatting to him about his life, his wife, his daughter.  Taking new paths on my power walks because there are some place the buggy just won’t go – which allows me to notice a derelict house with dandelions growing through the paving, a lone horse in a field, a dog-walker with whom I never used to cross paths.  Less romantically, when I’m in town, the buggy has forced me to take lifts rather than stairs and escalators. Lifts put you in close proximity to other human beings – often other mothers and fathers and babies, or old people (babies and the elderly – the two groups for whom stairs are prohibitive) – and this close proximity leads to conversations that I magpie away for stories.

Having Tennessee has made me look at the world anew.  In the style of an old children’s TV presenter, I give her a running commentary of everything I do – how I unload the dishwasher, how I brush my teeth, straighten my hair, make the bed, put a ready-meal in the microwave (my days of cooking and baking are on hold!).  Explaining the mundane makes me look at these tasks afresh.  It creates a state of mindfulness as I notice the details of what I used to do without thinking.  I’ve found my singing voice again too – I make songs up (‘Good morning Tennessee, it’s a whole new day’ I sing first thing as I open the curtains and show her that it’s light outside); I sing her some of the classics (she loves the Hokey Cokey, Yankey Doodle, Hush Little Baby…).  It’s the first time I’ve sung in years.   And as I observe her every expression, her every burp, fart, bowel movement, kick, smile, coo, uncurling of fists, the way she opens and closes her mouth when she’s hungry like a little bird, the way she rubs her eyes when she’s tired, how she craves close physical contact – she is happiest when snuggly curled up in my arms, close to my heart – I reacquaint myself with the workings of my own body and mind, with my emotional needs. By jolting me out of the familiar, she is reminding me of what it means to be human.

I miss my old habits.  I am experiencing one now: sitting in Reading’s Costa Waterstones drinking a Latte, eating a biscotti, while my mother-in-law, Sue, looks after Tennessee – and it’s bliss!  When I was pregnant, I used to sit here for hours working on Home Again, the novel that will follow What Milo Saw.  My life is a little too topsy turvy at the moment – I need more sleep, more time to write, a little more predictability from my deliciously contrary daughter.  And yet I know that this time of change, of being shaken out of my habits, has made me grow emotionally and creatively.  Whenever I lament not having the time to write, my best writing buddy, Helen Dhalke, tells me – ‘it’s all material, it’ll all feed into your writing’.  And I know she’s right.  I’ve experienced a time of habits and routines and now, for a while at least, I must abandon myself to this new world which Tennessee unveils for me each day.

It is this paradox – the keeping and kicking of habit – that makes me the person and writer I am and hope to be.