To redeem the routine
Routines are very subtle robber barons. They make us feel wealthy simply through our association with them. They fill up our day with commutes, with errands, jobs, and classes, so that at dusk we can look back and say, ''I've done such and such; I've accomplished something.'' On any given decent day, any one of us is likely to accomplish a great deal. But it's the subtle robbery of the routine to take credit for it, when in fact the credit may belong elsewhere - in the quick-wittedness, the compassion, or the applied insight of the person whose mind is working on its own timetable, no matter what the routine of the day would dictate.
I am not, as you may have guessed, a great fan of routine. I say this in spite of the fact that I have several routines that I follow fairly closely. Writing is one: I wake up early at least three days of the week, when the house is still relatively quiet and the world still relatively calm, to write a poem, or an essay such as this one. I look forward to these set periods of contemplation and work; they give an essential meaning to my week.
I also teach at a university 50 miles from my home, so I spend a little over two hours every other day commuting. This, too, can be a private time for me, a time to think over the day and sort out its problems and pleasures. It is not always like this, of course; sometimes it is simply wearisome.
At such times I can feel my restless desire for something totally unexpected, something that underlines how unpredictable and revelatory the creative life is, and how potent. But even this restlessness has its routine quality - particularly its strong preconception of what the ''creative life'' is - and so I often find that the times when I want something to happen and the times when it does happen coincide irregularly.
For me, the real value of any remarkable moment is its demonstration of how provisional all my routines are - how little they have to do with the deep currents of the spirit. And though I might subconsciously like to bend these deep currents to the shallow channel of routine thought and activity, they always refuse. They always wait until I ardently need some new direction, some particular beauty or compassion - and then they come flooding in.
Recently I invited a colleague to spend the weekend at our home. Plans were made, a meeting time was arranged. But when he showed up at my office, he was apologetic: Something had come up for Saturday morning; he would have to return to the university later that night, and since he did not own a car I would have to drive him.
This seemed no hardship for me - a small enough thing to do for a valued friendship. But the evening lingered on; we talked, and talked some more. By the time we were ready to leave, it was well after 11. I could not expect to be home before 1:30 in the morning. It had been a full day for me. As I was beginning the drive home, I felt a great rush of exhaustion; the liabilities of commuting seemed to have gotten out of hand.
But not quite. For this was not a routine commute, though the route was the same. This trip was taking place in the heart of the night, the highway nearly empty, a full moon bringing the landscape out from darkness. The night was very quiet. As I drove, I started making small discoveries: the oblique reflection of my instruments in my side window, for example, as if I were a pilot, with gauges along the side of my cockpit.
The road was smooth, the car made little noise, and I drove along the crest of a long ridge. I could have been flying, at large in the grand expanse of the night. I lost a little of my exhaustion; I caught the slight scent of adventure.
Then, suddenly, the remarkable sight: As the road bent around to the left, as I banked left, I saw, coming over the far ridge, the line of night fog from the coast. As if illuminated from within, it lightly fingered the several valleys along the ridge, not filling them but just touching the tops of the pines that, in this moonlight, could still be seen at a distance. The pines would appear, fade, and appear again, sharper - the fog continually revising them in ways that my eyes and the moonlight could not.
It was an astonishingly beautiful scene - and nothing I had seen before, because I had never traveled that road at that hour. It was almost as if this drive were showing up my ordinary tolerance for routine - showing me how a trip that so often passed unnoticed in my life could, under slightly different and more demanding conditions, give me an unexpected and restorative thrill.
I have found that these routine-breaking moments often occur at night, when many of my ordinary expectations and responses are thrown off. I can barely see; familiar daytime landmarks are invisible; I am suddenly on unfamiliar terrain. Yet this unfamiliarity keeps me particularly alert - particularly conscious of my movements, my thoughts, whatever observations I can make.
More than once, for this very reason, I have enjoyed hiking at night. It is a way of finding a new world within an old one; it is a way of forcefully reminding oneself that the seen world is not the world but only the most common way of coming to it. We spend so much of our time thinking with our eyes that thinking, as it were, with our ears - or with our hands when we touch, say, the bark of a tree at night - can figuratively show us a domain beyond our ordinary realization. As Wendell Berry writes in ''To Know the Dark,'' a poem I think of often: To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.
There is no essential reason why we should fear the dark, just as there is no essential reason why we should fear a break in our routines. The deep currents of our identity flow through us always, whether we cling to our habits or push them away. These depths may seem dark to us, impenetrable even; before our eyes they may not ''bloom and sing.'' Yet even a nascent adventurousness - any turn away from hidebound behavior - can be enough to sink a well to where the spirit flows. At any moment we hardly know how deeply our own currents already run.