THE VIRTUES OF ROUTINE

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At many points in my life I wanted so much to be free of my day-to-day routine. Those were the years when every work day was like the next in structure and stress and when every weekend day, almost equally stressful, was filled with all the routine boring tasks for which there was no time during the week. [Ah, for someone to make the beds, pick up and vacuum, do the laundry, shopping and occasional ironing, visit the dentist for me, run the errands that couldn’t be run during lunch hour!]  When was there going to be time for me, to pursue all my interests, pleasures, curiosity, desires?

Then there was time.  Less money, but much more time.  Plenty of time for the routine boring tasks like bed making, laundry, marketing (which seemed to expand and occupy even more time than before). Plenty of time for sleeping in, lunching out, reading crap, watching television. Plenty of time for wasting time. And did I waste it!

So what about the interests, pleasures, curiosity, desires?  Well, there was certainly time for that too. Surprising how little actually got done, though — especially in that window of opportunity before “time for me” began to be time left over from doctor appointments (mine and Bill’s), “procedures,” visiting sick friends, and wasting even more time recovering emotionally from the visits.

When I flew to Florida to see one of my sons and his family earlier this month, school had already begun for his young children, ages nine and eight. I therefore had occasion to observe the value of their routine.  Since my son was still on summer break from work, the family schedule principally revolved around the children’s days: up, dress, breakfast, to school at eight, pick-up at three, after-school dance classes for my granddaughter, music lessons or practice for my grandson, homework, early supper and helping to clear, walking the dog, baths in sequence, some free time to play by themselves, reading stories aloud as a family, quiet time in their own rooms, lights out at nine.

Those children got so much done in a day!  And so did I when I was their age. As I watched them, I became nostalgic for a structured, protected day like theirs.  Not the routine of my working years, but of all the school years that preceded them — when life was about learning and growing and enjoying. Of course, that also presupposed a certain amount of luck in being born to parents who, whatever their other idiosyncrasies, would and could provide the protection for those things to happen regularly within the orderly sequence of the days. But in that particular way, I was lucky, despite my parents’ somewhat difficult life as immigrants in a country new to them.

And then it occurred to me that getting old needn’t preclude adopting a new and fruitful routine.  The fact that one can be lax and lazy when paid getting-to-work-on-time is in the past doesn’t mean being lax and lazy is a must.  All we need is to be our own parents, in the same way we were parents to our children when they were young. Get ourselves up, give ourselves breakfast, and send ourselves off on days of new experiences, mental and physical and aesthetic, as suits the “me” in each of us.

I’ve been truly slothful with the years of freedom I’ve been given. However many more of those years there may be, the sloth must stop. Of course, I’m really lecturing me, not you.  (Bill says I have a punitive superego.) But it’s true that as the weather has cooled down somewhat, I’m feeling energized and inspired by my trip.  So thank you, dear grandchildren — for unknowingly showing me how to get into harness again this fall.  A routine: who’d ever have thought I’d want one back? But what do you know?  I do.

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A TEMPLATE FOR FACING DEATH

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[Oliver Sacks is a noted British neurologist, Professor of Neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, and author of many books, including “Awakenings”  and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”  Today he published a piece in the Opinion Pages of The New York Times about learning he has terminal cancer.  I hope when the time comes I can confront my end with such spirited courage. 

The piece is now available to anyone who reads the Times, either on paper or online. But for the many of you who don’t, I’m typing it out here, in part because that will ensure I myself read it again more carefully — but also, and principally, because there are so few helpful road maps for negotiating our way towards what lies ahead for all of us that this piece, heartrending though it is, deserves to be read widely.]

MY OWN LIFE

Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer

by OLIVER SACKS  Feb. 19, 2015

A month ago I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.

I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular kind of cancer cannot be halted.

It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”

“I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution,” he wrote. “I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardor as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.”

I have been lucky enough to live past 80, and the 15 years allotted to me beyond Hume’s three score and five have been equally rich in work and love. In that time, I have published five books and completed an autobiography (rather longer than Hume’s few pages) to be published this spring; I have several other books nearly finished.

Hume continued, “I am…a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social and cheerful humor, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions.”

Here I depart from Hume.  While I have enjoyed loving relationships and friendships and have no real enmities, I cannot say (nor would anyone who knows me say) that I am a man of mild dispositions. On the contrary, I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms and extreme immoderation in all my passions.

And yet, one line from Hume’s essay strikes me as especially true: “It is difficult,” he wrote, “to be more detached from life than I am at present.”

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

© 2015 The New York Times Company