life Reflections Writing

The Year of Habits

black and white image of a narrow suspension bridge
Shaky Bridge, Cork

This time a year ago, I felt like my creativity had died of COVID. Died of boredom. Died of exhaustion. Suffocated under the weight of… everything.

In the struggle of this, I felt caught between the should of, I should be able to do this, and the recognition that the world was on fire. I felt called out by all the people using their extra time to achieve incredible things, and comforted by the people who admitted they too could not create in this timeline.

And then sometimes, I would just feel overwhelmed by the sense of loss. Loss of this medium, loss of the spark, the loss of connection – I would joke that I could “barely write a text message”, pointing at the emotion that was much too raw to actually touch.

I used to roam the world and mostly never feel too far from anyone.

Constrained to a 5km radius, by myself, was the loneliest I had ever been.

With another person – a special person, my person – was better, but still not enough.

I could not write. But worst of all, I didn’t want to write. Did not believe I had anything to say. I published just 20 posts in 2020, and my memory is that each one was a fucking ordeal.

So for 2021, I picked the word Habit. Each month I set myself an intention. In my weekly list I tracked my successes, and failures.

It took months for me to even try to set myself a goal of writing. But, each week I published. Every Monday (except one, which slipped to Tuesday, and was the better for the extra time). I started writing on Sunday nights, forcing myself to do it to end out the weekend, sitting in a corner on the sofa, at the counter in the kitchen, as my partner went to bed without me. It got worse when I gave in, and started writing on the Monday. Write and publish – normally late in the night. The habit of suffering. The habit of showing up – reluctantly, begrudgingly, at the last possible moment. The habit of believing in a future Cate and trying to support her, even if it’s just by writing something I think is a bit shit, eaking it out just inside the deadline.

When I was nomadic, people used to find my life so bizarre. They would think that surely all that moving around was disruptive, make it the goto for any sign of stress.

But, when I was nomadic, I was always grounded by habit. I struggled the most in the places where those habits were hard – this is what I remember about Santiago, and why I hated it so. I would create this frame to exist within – the gym, the cafe, the places to explore. I would orient myself in my habits, and pick up where I left off, from wherever I was before.

Far more destructive to my habits was the constant change and inflexibility of pandemic life. The first two months, I took the same walk every day. Then, I got a new job. Then things reopened. My partner moved in. Then things closed. Reopened again, bit by bit. Then we got vaccinated, felt more free. Then we moved. Then the world started to close in, again.

And now I look back over the past year, and I see – the habits were the grounding. They rooted me down, gave me a structure to determine what I cared about, to set my intention. Lowered the bar for myself that I just need to show up, no less, but also no more.

I’m rounding out the year of habit with a three week break from work. It took me the first few days to work through the life admin, but after that, I felt so free. Each day, I do three things.

I exercise. Peloton spin and yoga. The time and breakdown varies, it can be as little as 15 minutes / 10 minutes, but most days it is much more.

I cross-stitch. I listen to podcasts, and I follow instructions.

And I write.

I told myself, that all I expected from myself was to sit in front of a text editor for at least 30 minutes. That producing nothing, producing complete garbage was acceptable, as long as I tried.

It went better than that – much better – but I realized, that the act of sitting in front of the empty text editor is the hardest habit of all. I realized the problem wasn’t that I couldn’t write – I did write, week in, week out – the problem was that I didn’t believe I could, didn’t believe I had anything to say.

The first lockdown, I spent alone. So, so very alone. My friend and I used to go to the grocery store at the same time, just to have some semblance of human connection, when none was really allowed.

When the next lockdown came in, even though I was no longer alone, I realized that that first lockdown had been traumatizing.

The second lockdown, I got a horrific chest infection. Two rounds of antibiotics and a steroid. I barely remember any of it. I missed the whole thing.

The third lockdown, I shut down. Did a lot of crafting. Hunkered down to wait it out.

As we enter into the fourth lockdown, I finally see the spaciousness that can exist when “normal life” is cancelled. Finally, I understand how someone could use this time well.

But, I also see how what we have endured shapes everything around us. I see the hole that is left in the absence of other people, other perspectives, other ideas.

I see that for me, creativity has often meant something to push against, and that I have been existing in something of a void.

I see that I need to come out of the void, sit in front of the text editor.

I see that when I act as-if I have something to say, I can make it so.

I see that it can be easier to write an entire article than a text message. That these two things are, in fact, not comparable.

The way that I existed before the pandemic, there was so little space in my life. I was here and there and everywhere. Working hard in time but perhaps even more so in energy. I used to reclaim space where I could, slotting in a long weekend between commitments for an adventure, making the most of a day before a late flight. Writing in cars, in airport lounges, on planes, in the space between the meetings. Eaking out in bits and pieces, because I needed it, and that is all there was.

The start of the pandemic coincided with a level of exhaustion so overwhelming, that it made it clear that I needed to leave that job.

And then, I never really figured out how to recharge. Spent two months addressing the mountain of life debt that constituted my life. Thought that once that was addressed, I would create space for something better to come. Which, I guess it did, but that was a relationship – the last thing I expected in this timeline. The level of creative exhaustion remained, unchanged.

I kept coming back to the question of what it means to recharge. I did not find a neat answer crafting, on vacation, or in the pool. I could never be sure if the problem was the power source or the faulty battery.

And so, I committed to the habits. The things that ground in the day to day. The things that I know are good for me, even if they don’t always feel that great. The things that I believe in. The things that have worked before.

And finally, I started to want to sit down to write. Finally, I believe I have something to say. My creativity did not die of COVID. It just took a break, got some R&R, did some self-reflection, got ready to do something better – or at least from a better place – than before.

I do not know what changed. But I choose to believe that it is the habits that brought me here. Back above the baseline, ready to expect more from myself – even as the world continues to burn – in 2022.

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