At our end-of-term party the other day, a few of us got talking on the subject of routines, how they can be good or bad. Some habits are good habits, leading to virtue and happiness; others, not so much. This conversation has combined with my reading about architecture (in The Timeless Way of Building, by Christopher Alexander, which I mentioned the other day) very interestingly.
First of all, perhaps we should think of routines as patterns instead. Routine has that faint connotation of rut, the bad kind of habitual action. Pattern, on the other hand, is usually more positive, because we tend to like order and patterns are orderly; that’s what makes them patterns rather than random.
Our life, Alexander argues, is made up of a surprisingly small number of patterns, which take place in spaces which permit –or prevent– the flourishing of those patterns. Some of them lead to us being more alive, because both the place and ourselves trend more towards achieving or embodying the quality without a name, and others block that possible achievement.
One of the patterns of my life is the walk to and from the university. I usually walk there the same way, and come back along a slightly different set of roads, depending on the weather and my inclination. The morning walk is a very pleasant part of my day, and I like going along the same handful of streets because it permits me to notice small changes and developments. I can see smaller and larger patterns in the world about me because of this simple routine.
Last year I watched a house being renovated and re-shingled with traditional wooden shingles; a few other houses have been painted, a new porch has been built on one, two are in the process of being re-roofed. I have seen a puppy (who is taken for a walk about the same time I walk by) grow from a very small dog to a slightly larger small dog.
I watch the gardens coming to life, growing over the season, slowly falling asleep again in the winter: I watch the growth of fungi on the dead stump and the still-mostly-alive tree; the changing colours of the ivy leaves as the temperature drops; the house with the white gravel mulch have the gravel covered by hosta leaves and then revealed again when the leaves died and rotted away. The gradual fall of leaves from the oak trees near the junior high. The blue jays; the come-and-go pond in the bottom of one garden with particularly bad drainage.
My small routine is just a part of that, part of the life of the city. Perhaps my morning passage is part of other people’s routines; I exchange waves with a woman I know from church as she cycles by. A pattern formed out of relationships, of self, trees, plants, birds, people, houses, roads, clouds overhead, the view of the Northwest Arm of the sea when I cross Jubilee Road.