Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Routine, be it ever so humble…

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 04•21

There’s  often gloom outside my windows as I sit here lately, punctuated with storms and downpours. Sun breaks do occur, but mostly I’m grateful for this infernal wet after last year’s droughts and too-close-for-comfort wildfires.

And these smudgy skies are good for reflection and planning. Now that the holidays are over I’ve been shoring up my routines and habits. Like many people, the pandemic threw off  me off balance.  I found myself exhausted, wooly-headed, and gripped with bouts of lethargy. Distracted and resentful that a trip to the grocery store was fraught with life-threatening danger.

Now, I don’t have kids at home squinting over laptops and emptying the refrigerator. I also don’t live with annoying housemates, nor have I been suddenly cut off from work buddies since I’ve worked at home for years. But in the Before Times I lived among fictional dystopian scenarios, not living through actual ones. This particular dystopian reality has shaken me and sometimes isolation is chokingly real. As the pandemic death toll climbs and new strains are morphing, I’m venturing out less and less often. Sure I text with my besties, but I’m also taking part in fewer live conversations and actual gatherings. Did I mention it’s been raining a lot?

Which means I’m rethinking things so I don’t lose connections to people who mean a lot to me. Which means I cannot drift, waste time, or ruminate too much on sad news and wretched circumstances.  Which means I cannot spend hours doomscrolling or switching on CSPAN or newscasts, agitated and worrying about might be.

Passionate about politics for decades, this whole political mess in Washington has been a distraction beyond description. On days when it seems more theater than reality I can scarce turn away. On days when it seems democracy itself is on the line, I’m bedeviled and pissed off. I follow House votes, Senate floor arguments,  committee hearings, pundits pontificating, historians explaining, Justice Department machinations,  protests growing shriller, and study reporting,  political columnists, newsfeeds, Twitter feeds, voting lines, and lawsuits. The list goes on and my inbox runneth over. The drama, the stakes, the ire all draw me in like a cartoon magnet until too often I look up guiltily to acknowledge another hour has vanished.

While smugly informed, gentle reader, you might recognize the results were chronic stress. Making me jittery and struggling to concentrate.

Too often missing the poetry of everyday life, including its wonders and tiny miracles.

Enter routines and habits to the rescue. Routines are a lifeline. Scaffolding. I’ve written about it here before. I’m starting small on re-upping former habits because small successes are easy to keep repeating, laying the ground for bigger accomplishments. For example, for some odd reason I stopped wearing earrings. It doesn’t seem like much, but I love earrings, own many pairs, some dear to me. So I’m wearing earrings as I have for years.

This might sound trivial, but this bitsy practice still shifts energy,  gives me a pick-me-up.

My life unspools best when my surroundings are orderly. Since childhood I’ve made my bed every morning. I vacuum regularly, give the house a good cleaning every season, washing curtains, moving furniture to vacuum behind, cleaning windows. My Midwestern ancestors were good housefraus, lives structured around meal making, housework, and laundry. Their houses smelling of lemon Pledge and baking bread. Despite this upbringing and spending years in restaurant kitchens, I’ve also fallen into a wee bad habit of abandoning dirty or greasy pans to soak in the sink. Sometimes a day or two passes and I ignore them or guiltily replenish the sudsy water from time to time. I hadn’t realized how much I dislike scrubbing pans until my energy was depleted. So I’m no longer allowing pans to fester no matter the elbow grease required.

As long as I’m confessing, I’m also removing clothes from the dryer right after it jingles merrily. Because I’ve been ignoring it, though I did step into the laundry room and push the button to send the clothes round for another fluff. This too might sound trivial, but I’ve noticed that procrastination leads to more slacking. Mail and recycling piles up. Clothes and items to be donated mound on the only chair in my bedroom. Or I end up with an office cluttered with papers and detritus. Which is why I’m starting small.

My bedtime routine that begins with turning down the heat and checking the locks and ends in bed with a book is a comforting anchor to end my days, so now I’m homing in on my mornings. For years I woke at dawn and wrote first thing until about 11, then showered and took a break. But my sleep habits these days are erratic, my editing projects demanding, and the aforementioned obsessive news consumption highjack my mornings. Thus, I’m avoiding my  phone and iPad first thing. Leaving the TV off.  Writing before editing. It’s blissful.

Because I’m re-establishing structure throughout the day. Foundations. Sanity-producing order. Which leads to productivity.

I’ll report back here as I rebuild my scaffolding, limit my doomscrolling, and wrest back my time for more writing. Because this all has to do with peace within and accomplishment. And I’ve got some fabulous, positive writing techniques to share, so stay tuned.

What I’m reading: Alison Luterman’s essay Fire All Around in the January issue of The Sun.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

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  1. Your household routine sounds like the “broken windows” crime reduction theory in action! Somewhere toward the end of 2020 I truly grasped how much it took from me to stay aware of the news–and even more, the country’s inexplicable reactions to the news. I finally quit jumping into comment threads to l’arn somebody sumpin’. I read headlines and more as required, and went about my day. I feel better now.

    • Jessica Morrell says:

      My news consumption will be going down….it’s got to. The center will not hold. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Your story and its admissions resonate, Jessica. I’ve spent far too much of the past ten months simply marking time, waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel to get brighter before I could see my way clear enough to move on. Of course, it hasn’t brightened. Other than the reality of new vaccines, the pandemic rolls on, gathering new momentum in some places, and family concerns continue, too. it’s hard to feel optimism. I do agree that small efforts contribute to bigger changes though, so I should try to follow your example and pick up on the abandoned routines.

    • Jessica Morrell says:

      Thanks for reading. I understand. I’m already feeling better from making small changes, like returning to Grownup Land. 2020, of course, sucked but I actually worked a lot, coped with wildfires and air quality so bad I couldn’t go outdoors for two weeks, taught via a live feed for the first time, and have been grieving a serious illness. But the dirty pan habit was just getting weird–especially first thing in the morning when I’m making tea.

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