Bobbi in the window

Last week, our credit card company contacted us, suggesting our card had been compromised. There were no unauthorized charges on the account, but apparently there had been a breach at a business where we had used the card, so the company cancelled our cards and sent us replacements just to be safe.

Where's breakfast? #catsofinstagram #hillarythecat #SNELovesPets

I’ve often thought my credit card account must be incredibly boring to monitor for fraud, as I typically go to the same places again and again, often on predictable days and at predictable times. I go grocery shopping at the same store every Friday afternoon, for instance, and I typically stop for gas on the way. During the summer when I’m not teaching, J and I frequently go to lunch at a handful of places, always at the same time. I frequently buy things on Amazon, I take one or another pet to the vet every few weeks, and I occasionally buy shoes on Zappos. Any charge outside those predictable parameters was Probably Not Me.

In Frankie-speak, this translates as "Please scratch my head, but don't you dare touch my belly."

Spending habits aside, J and I are predictable by nature: I’ve always thrived on routine, and recent circumstances have only deepened that already-existing rut. Tending a houseful of pets, for instance, is good reason for regularity. Dogs in particular thrive on routine, and we’ve trained ours to rely upon a religious schedule of meals, walks, and exercise times that is almost monastic in its regularity: a domestic liturgy of the hours.

Bobbi chills out. #catsofinstagram #bobbithecat

Having three diabetic cats–our Insulin Girls–only underscores the need for predictability. Whatever else might be happening on any given day, J and I know that one of us has to be at home to give Bobbi, Hillary, and Frankie their meals and twice-daily insulin injections at the proper time. This routine has become so regular, the Insulin Girls are trained to follow me into the kitchen when I sing “Breakfast” or “Dinner” while our non-diabetic cats stand back, knowing they get second-dibs at mealtime.

She knows she's queen. #catsofinstagram #hillarythecat #SNELovesPets

When we adopted Hillary, the shelter said her previous home was chaotic, with a constant coming and going of roommates who were never quite certain whose responsibility it was to feed and give her insulin, or when. An erratic meal and medication schedule is disastrous for a diabetic of any species, and Hillary, Bobbi, and Frankie have all thrived under the steady routine of our household.

Bobbi in morning light

Last week, J and I rented The Incredibles, as we wanted to watch it again before seeing its sequel sometime this week, when J has time off from work. After revisiting the animated adventures of Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Violet, Flash, and Jack-Jack, I announced to J that we too are superheroes. “We’re The Predictables!” I declared. “Our super power is extreme punctuality.” J laughed and ran with the joke. “Our uniform is matching T-shirts with Red Sox hats…and no capes!”

It's been just over a year since we adopted Frankie. She has one eye and twice the attitude. #catsofinstagram #frankiethecat #oneeyedcat #SNELovesPets

Imagining oneself as a superhero is fun, but being the king and queen of dependability has its downsides, too. J and I can’t (and don’t) drop everything for spontaneous social events; if we want to be away from home for an evening, we have to gradually adjust both the Insulin Girls’ medication schedule and the dog’s exercise routine accordingly. Because of our pets’ special needs, it’s been years since J and I have traveled together. Like farmers who can’t leave the livestock for long, we can’t trust the household to just anyone, so we take turns going places so there is always one of us here tending the pets.

You know you want to pet me. #catsofinstagram #hillarythecat #SNELovesPets

What J and I lose in spontaneity, however, we make up for in reliability. There is a great security in routine, as any monk would tell you; when Thomas Merton entered the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, for example, he described himself as taking shelter in “the four walls of my new freedom.” J and I lead a fairly boring life, but we see more of the outside world than a cloistered monk does. We’ll go see Incredibles 2 at a movie theatre as planned this week; we’ll just make sure to go to a daytime showing so we’re back home in time for the Insulin Girls’ dinner.

Half submerged

A colleague recently told me he’d explored my blog and admired my discipline, a word I don’t really associate with myself. “What discipline,” I quietly wondered. On a good day, my blogging feels like so much twaddle; on a bad day, I don’t blog at all. But I guess all the years I’ve been keeping both a journal and a blog amount to something: at least these entries reflect an intention to show up and chronicle what I can, as I’m able. It’s an intention to be faithful, most days, to my commitment to my craft, regardless of what kind of product that commitment produces.

Mongoose

I don’t consider myself to be a particularly disciplined person in the sense of having willpower to force myself to do things I don’t enjoy. I’m not particularly disciplined when it comes to exercise, diet, or other things I know I “should” do, and I’m a terrible procrastinator when it comes to things I find monotonous, like tackling a grading pile. When I’m doing things I like or find intriguing, I can concentrate for long stretches, but otherwise I’m antsy and easily distracted, finding all kinds of ways of filling my time with the things I shouldn’t be doing rather than the things I should.

Profile

But if remaining faithful to something I enjoy counts as discipline, then I guess my colleague’s remark is true. I suppose there’s a certain kind of discipline involved in returning to one thing over and over for a long stretch of time, “writing” being a thing I always find myself coming back to. Still, I think there are other, better words to describe this kind of blind, unswerving faithfulness: “tenacity” is one word that comes to mind, and “stubbornness” is another. “Bull-headed” is the term my mother often used to describe my headstrong teenage self: I don’t know if bulls are particularly disciplined, but they are renowned for having hard heads.

Sea lion

I do sometimes think there’s something ox-like in my plodding commitment to the monotonies of my daily routine, writing and blogging included. Young cattle are flighty and skittish, so the way to train a young ox is to yoke it to an older and more steadfast one. A mature, well-trained ox knows to pull straight and steady in his harness, but a youngster will champ and frolic after every butterfly. Farmers know, though, that mature oxen are both stronger and heavier than youngsters, so with one shake of his shoulders, an old ox can yank frisky Youngblood back in line. There’s no moving or budging an old ox who has settled in his traces, a lesson that generation after generation of youngsters has learned in the yokes, and I think my daily writing routines serve as a kind of metaphoric “yoke,” bringing me back to more or less the same thing almost every day, regardless of what other distractions beckon.

Three mergansers

My challenge as a teacher is to serve as an old ox to my young and energetic students, who much of the time would rather do anything in the world rather than schoolwork. I try instill a kind of creative discipline in my students by following the furrows of our course syllabus, acclimating them to the “yoke” of reading, writing, and revising assignment after assignment. Old oxen can become obnoxiously stubborn, however, with “discipline” quickly becoming “drudgery” if there is no spark of interest enlivening our steps. There’s a fine line between being disciplined and being too predictable, and that line is, I think, one of the roughest rows to hoe.

Click here for more photos from last week’s trip to the Central Park Zoo. Enjoy!

Dry docked

These days are perfect for walking. The mornings are as cool and crisp as the bite of a fresh cucumber, and the afternoons are filled to overflowing with sunlight, the air as dry as paper. On bright, brilliant days like these, I feel as if I could walk forever, my feet light and suntanned in my sandals, the way ahead of me smooth and wide as I settle into a long-gaited September stride.

Layered

It’s easy to feel healthy on days like today. It’s the second week of the semester at Keene State, and already I feel settled into a regular rhythm, rising in the morning with a clear sense of what I need to do and what can potentially slide. Slipping back into my weekday, academic-year schedule–the life I live in Keene on Monday through Thursday versus the life I live in Newton the other days–has felt like changing from one pair of comfortable, well-worn shoes to another. Here, in both places, is a schedule that has grown to fit me, a schedule that curls around the curves of my psyche like a well-worn glove. There is no burden and little effort in wearing a glove that fits, a glove that remembers the shape and movement of your particular hand. A good schedule, like a well-fitting glove, molds to the shape of your being; a good schedule, like a well-fitting glove, is as snug as a hug.

This morning I got up at 5 am without effort or complaint, as if my body already has been trained: “On Thursdays, we get up at 5:00.” It helps to have lived at a Zen Center, albeit years ago. Like riding a bike, the routine of getting up at five, bowing, and then sitting is something you never forget: you might fall out of the practice, but resuming it, once you’ve burnt off your initial inertia, feels like coming home, a single step into your own skin.

Pokeweed

My routine in Newton is entirely different from my routine in Keene, and I’ve come to accept and even embrace that. It’s all about following my situation, recognizing that one morning regimen doesn’t fit all, nor does one morning regimen work for every morning. One of the most practical, helpful outcomes of my Zen practice is this flexible acceptance of routine. Every day at a Zen Center, you know exactly what you’ll do from 5 to 7 am, and every day on a Zen retreat, your entire day will be clearly and inexorably charted for you. On early days of retreat or when you’re new to Zen Center life, you might bridle against this routine, seeing it as monotony. In time, you’ll learn to embrace it, recognizing that nature’s most basic, life-giving, and creative rhythms–the inflow and outflow of breath, the regular beat of a heart, the daily cycle of sleep and awakening–are themselves monotonous. When you fight the schedule of retreat, it’s brutal and oppressive. When you grow tired of fighting and instead surrender to your situation, letting the schedule move you through your day as you simply show up at every allotted task, you find and tap into the Universe’s own energy, which can be spent but not irrevocably exhausted.

So at 7:15 I type these words, illustrating them with photos I uploaded last night; at 7:40 I’ll walk to campus to teach my 8:00 class to sleepy-eyed students. I will, in other words, simply show up for my life, not fighting or bewailing it. On a sunny September day that dawns in due time after its predecessor, I will naturally settle into the stride of clear-shining days.