George Eliot is famously quoted as having said “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.” And if the Victorian writer didn’t actually say it, someone surely did. Exiting the state of denial for one brief moment — humor me — most of us will admit to having fervantly hoped that such a possibility could be true. Sooner or later (usually somewhere between ), a glitch occurs in our lives in which the whole enterprise feels stuck.
The glitch might be something as banal as popular culture’s current darling, the addictive habit. E.g. eating too much, drinking too much, shopping too much, languishing as a mere tourist in one’s own life. The glitch can be more serious, as when a marriage shows its craven underbelly, or a career choice emerges in the clear light of day as very, very wrong. Obsolete. No longer operative.
In the book I’m writing, my protagonist finds herself not simply glitch-ridden, but positively on hold in terms of moving herself further along a path to spiritual, emotional or even professional fulfillment. She’s stuck, enmired in a strait jacket of perspectives, habits and stock personal myths that have suddenly outworn their usefulness. Even she doesn’t believe her bullshit any longer. As an author, and therefore God, I had to come up with some means of moving my protagonist out of this existential freeze frame.
Trying out the scenario on myself, I began a thought experiment. If I were stuck, and found myself neck-deep in tired, no-longer-useful ways and means of living, if my very fantasies needed re-invention, how would I go about reviving myself? What might rescue me from the bog of tired, old, dysfunctional habits and put the spring back into my metaphysical step?
Without moving my pen from the paper, I kept on writing the first things that came to me. I always trust the immediate, first reaction — sort of like automatic writing in which some expanded consciousness has somehow possessed me and produces words, ideas, solutions that are utterly clear and distinct, (with only slight apologies to Descartes).Here’s what came to me as a solution for my heroine’s dilemma and my own frozen, predictable set of habitual strategies.
Change one thing. Perform a familiar act in an unfamiliar way. Stay with me here. By that I mean just change one daily practice that is so engrained, so mundane that it is all but undetectable. Sleep on the other side of the bed. Sounds stupidly simple, doesn’t it? Yet if circumstance — the last time I was in Italy and wanted to sleep on the side of the bed closest to the window — suddenly presents an opportunity to switch, go ahead and try it. My bed partner felt suddenly, luridly new and yes, even excitingly different. My dreams were altered, as if they were opening up in a different room, a different world, and I experienced a delicious sense of disorientation when I awoke and just for a moment wondered where I was. That was worth a lot of psychic currency. Remembering that one tiny change, I decided that my protagonist would start with putting her pillow on the opposite side of the bed from her usual one.
What else? Like most people, I take showers in a certain ritual order of soaping, lathering, rinsing and applying Vitabath. The Stations of the Shower. So I thought how titillating it might be to reverse, or at least break with, the pattern. Instead of washing my face first and working downward, begin with the feet. The feet now feel rather special, don’t they? No longer the after-thought, the last of the line, they move to the top of things and acquire new authority. If not charming, at least they become specifically acknowledged, rather than some generic platform for our lives. What if I skipped the Vitabath altogether. Whew! I was now heady with possibilities.
If showering could be altered, then what about dressing? Start with the socks, not the panties. Wear a color you always avoid. Add dangling earrings with bluejeans. Come to breakfast in stockings. Don’t laugh – this is extreme existentialism in action.
Other options sprang to mind, cascading on and on. Park the car in a new place and in a new way. Don’t look at the email until after noon. Read a different newspaper. Switch the fork to the other hand. In fact, what about having grilled cheese sandwiches for breakfast, and dessert for lunch? Use chopsticks for all meals for an entire day.
My protagonist began eating meals in a different order — salad first, pastry second. Raviolis for breakfast, eggs at night. She washed her car starting at the trunk and moving to the front. Apples were cut into round, thin slices along the entire circumferences, like onion rings, rather than into wedges. She began smiling at complete strangers and using blue ink rather than black. Even though she hated it, this last change was the one that forced her to be completely present in the act of writing, which is one act that had grown so stale for her that it had come to a full stop. And with it, her very sense of who she was.
My New Year’s resolution — which I offer for your consideration — is to change first one, and then perhaps another, of my unconscious, everyday habits until I can feel myself becoming mindful of what I’m doing. Tinker with the lens until focus returns. Not so as to produce a new, potentially stultifying self-absorption, but enough to overcome the torpor of mindless, rote behavior. After all, that torpor is what’s keeping us from becoming who we might have been.