4. Habitual Rituals
The one where I tell you why it’s called Figs for Breakfast
In this edition: ceremonies, business words, and the excavation of delight
A Message to Myself
Twice a week for the last two or three years, I’ve followed more or less the same ritual. An hour or two before I want to go to bed, I take a shower and wash my hair, scrubbing my face while I’m waiting for the conditioner to take effect, just to give me something to do. Side note here: Germans call scrubs “Peelings” which, thanks Germany, thank you for your horrifyingly literal take on things. Up until I moved here I’d associated cosmetic “peeling” masks with the mask itself setting or hardening and then peeling off, but in Germany the mask peels you. Like a freakin mandarin, if the way you peeled a mandarin was rubbing an abrasive surface over it. The whole thing reminds me upsettingly of that scene from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where Eustace (Scrubb! ha!), in his Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus-moment, tries ineffectually to rub off his dragon scales, and instead Aslan has to sink his claws into several layers of skin and rip the whole lot off in one go. Gross!! Anyway!!
Afterwards, I stand in front of a mirror with about twenty-five hair pins or clips, separate out locks of my wet hair, and wind them up into curls, fixing each one with a pin. Then I wrap my head in one of the scarves that used to belong to my grandmother, and the next morning I take it all down and run my fingers through my hair until it does something I’m more or less content with. The whole thing takes about an hour and a half, of an evening.
I’m honestly surprised I’ve kept it up this long; maintaining (non-bad) habits is not something I’m particularly good at, even for vanity’s sake – just ask every despairing person who’s been like, Caitlin, for the love of god, please put on sunscreen EVERY DAY you extremely burnable little ball of tissue paper. But there’s something very satisfying about the whole procedure. Not just in the actions themselves, although I do find something soothing in the repetitive motions, but also in the knowledge of this ritual being something that people did decades and centuries ago. Hair care and styling doesn’t have the same specific cultural significance for me as it does for – for instance – many BIPOC communities; maybe my grandmother did this at some point, maybe not, I’ve been lucky enough not to have to deal with the erasure of my heritage, to the point where I’ve had the luxury of just… not looking into it. It’s more that it simply feels satisfying in a general sense.
It’s made me think a lot in the past couple of weeks about rituals and habits, and the difference between them. Do I feel the same way about my “habits” as I do about my personal “rituals”? Rituals feel more deliberate, intentional, ceremonial. I am not (despite all the Narnia references) a religious person, but I am very interested in religion and the way that it generates rituals in people’s lives. Despite finding it extremely tedious at the time, I kind of appreciate the fact that we used to take twenty-five minutes of our school week to just sit in a very nice building, sing a couple of songs and listen to some philosophical musings on Being Alive In The World. But as I was still there more or less under duress, it didn’t – and doesn’t – feel deliberate or defining in the same way as the rituals I undertake myself.
Habits ought to be more automatic, but they’re also something – the good ones, at least – you sort of have to cultivate. Perhaps they’re just tiny rituals you hope to instil in yourself as muscle-memory. I am in the habit of lighting a stick of incense when I open the windows to ventilate my room; of choosing two different fruits to put on my Weetabix every morning; of recording long voice messages for my friends when I go out for a walk in a particularly nice place. When I do these things, I’m sending myself a little message: you care about your living space, and want it to smell like Nag Champa because they’re little Good Smoky Vibes Sticks; you need and deserve a nice breakfast every single day; you like sharing good experiences with the people you love, and your thoughts are worth sharing too. These actions and messages usually come about with minimal resistance, but I still have to make the choice to do these things.
And the insanely frustrating thing is, you do have to just keep on choosing to practice good habits. You really don’t hit a point where you’re just automatically going to be fine and well-adjusted forever. Like you literally just have to keep on looking after yourself, consciously, the whole time. It’s amazing how letting one thing slide a bit – oh, I’ll just miss a few hours’ sleep, I’ll just skip a meal, I don’t need to see people, I’ll just stay inside all day today – starts bringing the whole bloody house of cards down unless you really make a concerted effort to stop it. Equally incredible to me, though, is how doing one little thing to adjust for the better can suddenly make every subsequent thing that much easier.
That’s how this newsletter got its name. When I hit some very bleak times, psychologically, in 2019, I had to be coaxed into taking some time off from my life in general, and especially from some bad habits I’d sunk into in terms of social media and work. Once I’d finally made the decision to work on recovery, I started trying to cultivate some new habits to send myself the message that my main focus was on getting better. I moved to Berlin for seven weeks, into a beautiful apartment next to Treptower Park. I set myself some challenges I knew I’d enjoy: perform my own music in public, get back into theatre through comedy improv nights. And I started slicing blue figs onto my breakfast – a fruit I’d never really gotten into before, at least fresh ones, but was suddenly totally enamoured with. They’re kind of expensive and only available for a limited period in the year in the autumn, but given that I find the short winter days quite difficult in any given year it’s like a nice little reminder notification: you’ve got some tough times ahead, but you’re going to be very kind – lavishly, beautifully kind – to yourself and get through them as best you can.
It helped, this past autumn, to repeat the habit. A tiny ceremony of protection against the impending cold and dark.
What I’m maybe trying to get at with the habits thing is examining my feelings about routines. I have very mixed feelings about routines. I call the hair thing a ritual because then it’s filed away in a different spot in my head, along with other nice things like saunas and tarot readings. But routines… they’re a tricky one.
Like – I’m a big fan of the Tradition, as in, let’s go to our favourite pub because it’s Wednesday and we often do that on Wednesdays (as is Tradition), or let’s have one of our semi-regular Traditional Crafternoons or Cooking Weekends, etc. Love those! And right now I’m finding it especially important and precious that I have two or three fairly regular meetups with different friends for board games or movie nights every week, it saves me from staring at the calendar in panic and wondering what the hell I’m doing with my time.
And I can find a lot of charm in a nice routine – a particularly lovely walking path, a grocery shopping buddy, a favourite lunch spot. But some days the prospect of doing those familiar things just kind of sits too heavily in the pit of my stomach. Usually that will come about as a result of the thought, “What if I just keep doing this for a long time?”
And then I’ll get that itchy feeling along my spine that’s like, oh no oh no you’re trapped and stuck. Which – okay! “What if”! Okay, Caitlin!! You should be so lucky! Sounds like you’ve got a pretty nice thing going there and you’re dreading that you might get to keep doing it?? But without a defined end in sight, I get this mad thought that I’ll somehow get locked into a rhythm that’s impossible to change, that life will become tedious and unchanging, and I won’t notice the passage of time. Or something.
I talked about this with my friend David last night, as we resurrected one of our Traditions (watching Riverdale while on video chat, to gleefully talk about how terrible and full-on bananas it is; a Tradition that predates the pandemic, since he’s in Stockholm and I’m in Germany). He pointed out something very interesting to me about routines, which is that they can act as effective personal boundaries – they make sure you carve out enough time in your week as you need for yourself, and give you an easy “no” to others making demands on your resources. Since he works in Business, he used a Business Vernacular word for this, namely “cadence”. As a freshly unemployed artiste-slash-academic, business words are essentially a foreign language to me and I shan’t engage with them, but musical terms are appealing. It’s describing a rhythm, and I think the intent is to imply something a little less strict and rigorous and same-y than a routine, a little more flowy and human-centred. Of course I’m deeply sceptical about how much that actually ends up translating to better outcomes for humans when profits are on the line, but hey, capitalism. The core point remains: if you have a good understanding of your own personal cadence, it can be a useful structure around which to build your time, and a tool in communicating that structure to other people.
David’s had a lot of time to think about routine and sameness, since he’s been stuck inside his apartment for a year thanks to his asthma and Sweden’s dubious pandemic regulations. He understood what I was getting at. “But the alternative is no routine,” he said. “And that’s just… chaos.”
So I think maybe there’s a balance to be walked that involves routines that leave room for novelty – or even better, create space for novelty. I’ve started to run out of really new places to walk in my immediate vicinity, which has set off a kind of pining in me for the glory days of a couple of months ago when everything was a wonderful discovery. I coax myself out of the house with podcasts and perhaps a destination to buy a nice pastry, and sometimes I find myself just walking automatically, totally zoned out. So I really have to consciously work at cultivating a sense of wonder, even just for a few moments each day.
Berlin has been helpful, in its own ways. The snow of the last two weeks has been a real gift, bestowing on me the role of Snow Detective as I examine animal tracks in the drifts in the greener parts of town.
It’s given me the opportunity to think about the things snow covers up, and the things it reveals. The way it changes spaces. The way it changes time – the movements we can observe asynchronously, like the footprints above, and the effects of multiple snowfalls creating different layers of evidence.
And sometimes I just need to take off my headphones for a few minutes, when I get the right prompting to do so. Walking to Julian’s on Monday evening, I crossed a little bridge over a small frozen stream – actually the same one that’s in that photo up there, except it was already dark. The ambient sound microphone in my headphones picked up a faint “hoot” that cut through the This American Life episode I was listening to, so I hit pause and shifted them off my ears, leaning against the bridge railings. I waited. It was cold, there was snow on the banks, on the river. Quiet. The streetlights nearby were malfunctioning, flickering on and off. And then suddenly an owl swooped out of the darkness, right past my head, and away down the line of the river.
When we do the work of uncovering delight, the rewards are there. My friend Grace has a very active Instagram presence in which she documents two delight-excavating rituals from her own life (handily collected here in her Stories). The first is her attention to microjoys, which are small everyday objects, mise-en-scènes, interactions and the like that give her a little boost of happiness. She started posting them as a response to spending a lot of time inside her small Brooklyn apartment, as an active antidote to the rising dread in New York at the start of the pandemic. They’re not especially profound in and of themselves. They’re just really… nice. A nice doormat. A bunch of dried flowers. The way sunlight falls on a bed or a wall. They end up feeling earnest and sweet and light, which is also how I feel about the second of her rituals, the Tiny-Fridge-Cleanout Brekkie. It’s what it sounds like: she and her partner cook a breakfast designed to free up space in their very small fridge so that they can do their groceries and fill it up again. It’s a very pragmatic activity in a sense, a weekly necessity, a life-tidying chore, but every time she posts about it, the joy of preparing the meal in stages – line up the ingredients, cook the different elements, plate it up – is palpable. There is levity in it. Lightness, that feels a little like relief. Maybe it’s also just because, as you’ve likely noted by now, I really like breakfasts!
It is, I think, easy to feel trapped by our circumstances, and to feel like they’ll never change, and that repetitive routines are the evidence of that. But of course they will change, for both better and worse. Discovering what happiness we can until that change comes is sometimes hard work, but it feels really necessary.
There’s some wonderful musings on delight and its lightness in my favourite ever episode of This American Life, guest-hosted by Bim Adewunmi: The Show of Delights. I guarantee it’ll lift your mood at least a little. Please give yourself a really nice hour and listen to it.
In the spirit of Grace’s microjoys, I’d like to cultivate a new habit in taking note of something I talked about in the last Figs for Breakfast – the small and beautiful errors we encounter in the world, that paint us a window into a better reality. I don’t have a catchy name for them yet, so I’m very open to suggestions!
Here are two I’ve encountered since last issue. The first is this headline that ran on seemingly dozens of syndicated online news outlets about a week ago:
The second was in conversation: I was telling my friend Carrington about the bugs infesting my houseplants (they’re called Trauermücken in German, literally “sadness mosquitoes”) and my attempts to rid myself of them using nematodes, which are microscopic roundworms that live in soil.
“So I’ve bought some nematodes that are supposed to eat them, they should be arriving in a couple of days. You just put them in the pots and they eat the larvae.”
“But then what will you… how… what will you get to eat the toads?” He paused. “And won’t they be kind of noisy if they’re inside your apartment?”
All glory to the Neemer-Toads. I had to go home and sketch it.
I’ve also had this tab open for weeks, about Lydia Davis’ recommendations for good writing habits. I can’t remember where it came to me from (feels like something McKinley would have linked to in The Whippet but I can’t figure out where), but I just loved it. What really got to me was the bit about how important it is to write things down in the moment – observations, snippets, and so on – before you lose the immediate impression of them. Ever since I started writing this newsletter I’ve noticed how many gaps there are in my memory that I didn’t realise were there: specific exchanges or detailed recollections that would flesh out a written story, but that haven’t necessarily made it into the oral retellings of anecdotes that have happened over the years, and thus have fallen out of my head.
Mostly the only clear records I’ll have are from diary entries, but I stopped using diaries several years ago. The closest thing I’ve had recently are a series of what I called “Tiny Love Stories”, after the column in the NYT by the same name: 100-word vignettes that I write when I’m having a mildly overwhelming thought or feeling I need to extract from my brain so that I can let it go and function properly. I’m very fond of these little stories, but I would also like to observe things in a calmer headspace than the one in which they’re usually written. I’ve started using my phone’s Notes app a little more proactively to record ideas and exchanges, which is probably an easier transition step to creating a better habit than carrying an empty notebook with me that I will definitely forget about.
I’d really love to hear about your own rituals, small ceremonies, and novelty-creating routines – and how you feel about them – so please tell me about them in the comments or by replying to this email!
If you’re a new subscriber, you can check out the first three editions of Figs for Breakfast on Substack, including the last edition in which I set some Quest Items for you to seek! I’ve received one already, and I’m looking forward to getting more. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so here – it’s free.