The Charm of Routine

“Not that she didn’t enjoy the holidays: but she always felt—and it was, perhaps, the measure of her peculiar happiness—a little relieved when they were over. Her normal life pleased her so well that she was half afraid to step out of its frame in case one day she should find herself unable to get back."
- Jan Struther, Mrs. Miniver
Monday morning madness. I arrive at work later than usual, because I have some meetings that will continue into the early hours of the evening. I begin to type furiously even before I am comfortably settled in my chair. Hours pass. I answer questions. Write emails. Before I know it, I am on my third cup of coffee and fourth meeting of the day. I have worked through lunch, which I like to do, but the meal has been disappointing. Tasteless beef with stiff brown rice, under-seasoned vegetables, and limp pasta in an unappetizing yellow sauce. Coffee is better. Much better. I am back at work after two days off followed by the weekend. Four days of nothing but Eid celebrations. The holidays have been good to me. Now I am back at my desk, with my "crap-to-do" pad filling up. I check off one item and add three more in its place. I take my empty coffee cup to the Keurig. I pop in a K-cup - Newman's Own Special Blend - my favorite. As the coffee brews I lean on the counter with my elbows resting on the cool metal surface, my head in my hands, and I breathe in the steam. But back to work now. Chop, chop. And would you believe it? I love every minute of it. 

I resent Monday mornings, not because I have to go back to work, but because up until the midday epiphany I always get at the beginning of the work-week ("I love doing this."), I have the false feeling of not wanting to be there. It is nothing but a spillover effect from the weekend, but it's real on Monday mornings. The break in routine, the interruption of my weekday breakfast of badly poached eggs and creamy-sweet coffee while I check my email by two lazy mornings of getting pinched and slapped by a cute baby until I clamber out of bed to make her pancakes, disorients me. Every Monday, I have to relearn the motions. A teaspoon of water in the egg-poacher, 35 seconds for each egg in the microwave, Newman's Own, cream, Splenda, with a side of emails.

Let me tell you a short and interesting story. When I had Jahan, I devoured parenting books. I did not even have a background in vicarious learning when it came to raising babies. I went to the birthing class with my husband to gain some wisdom, but we walked out halfway through, because on the slide titled "How Dads Can Support Moms During Labor," one of the bullet points read, "Say encouraging things like 'I am so proud of you,' and 'I love you for doing this.'" For some odd reason, my husband thought that was absolutely hilarious and dissolved into badly concealed laughter. We left the class. On my first night home with Jahan, I almost took her to the ER because she wouldn't stop crying. I felt completely useless as a mother. "This is a big mistake," I thought. "I am not fit to raise this baby." Thankfully, Usman's cousin who was visiting us from Reno, took her from me, wrapped her up really tight in a blanket and swayed her in his arms until she went to sleep. She just needed to be swaddled. Simple. "OK," I thought. "If there is a logical set of steps I can follow, then this is doable." Baby 411 became my bible. I had Harvey Karp on my Kindle, Baby 411 on my nightstand, and they all said the same thing. Routine, routine, routine. You need to give your baby a dependable schedule, so she knows what to expect, so she can learn what's coming next. I marveled at this. How can a baby recognize routines, patterns? But, she did. By 6 weeks, her sleep cycle had corrected itself. By 4 months, she was sleeping through the night. And by 6 months, she was fully sleep-trained, falling asleep on her own, following a perfect schedule. 

Even babies, or perhaps especially babies, are creatures of habit. I don't think this instinct of following a routine, having a pattern or a predictable "normal life" ever goes away. This is why it's hard to form a habit, but harder to break one. This is why despite the Monday morning crisis, I always bounce back. This is also why it was strange not to be cooking on Wednesday nights for the blog after doing it for so many weeks and why for a long while after I discontinued my daily walks at work due to schedule constraints, I felt wretched. This week's Monday morning got me thinking about the importance of routine a lot. I exercised such control over my baby's routine in the first year of her life that we all simply take her good habits for granted now. They are cultivated - practically since birth. And if I do buy into this belief of routine having a lot of significance in daily life, then why do I short-change myself? Why don't I exercise the same control over my routine and guard it with the same vigilance? 

The city waking up during one of my walks
The answer is simple. I would rather make my routine malleable to fit everything I need to do in my day than adversely impact someone else. And that is simply not fair. I find happiness in predictability, in eggs and coffee on weekday mornings. I used to find it in my early morning walks with the cloud thickets in the sky, dew palpable on my fingertips, the city awake, yawning, gearing up for the day. I find it in my audiobooks on the way to work and on the way back. I find it in the game I play with my baby every day at 4:30 when I get home from work - "Mommy's gonnaaaa  geeetttt youuuu," and her squeals of delight dissolving into laughter as she throws herself on the bed resigning herself to the tickle monster. I find it in writing this. Here. As I used to twice a week at one point. My normal life does indeed please me well. Maybe it's time to make it charming again. Maybe it's time to prioritize and cross off and add to it until I have the comfort of predictability, until I am like the woman in the quote above - "Her normal life pleased her so well that she was half afraid to step out of its frame in case one day she should find herself unable to get back."

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Ghost of Eid Past

I have not posted my weekly escapades in the kitchen in observation of Ramadan, but will resume the food posts that have assimilated into the identity of this blog sometime next week. It has been a blessed month in many ways. Having the company, comfort, and distraction of family and friends after hearing about my cousin's tragic death was heartening. This is the last week of Ramadan, which means my favorite Islamic holiday of the year is only a few days away! Eid-al-Fitr, known as Choti Eid where I come from, is almost upon us! I want to make this holiday matter to my daughter like it once did to me, and I want to celebrate this particular Eid in my cousin's memory, because I remember him most clearly in his finest Eid clothes, smiling widely, eyes shining.

I cannot begin to describe what kind of excitement this holiday brought for us as children. It stretched to not one, not two, but three days of celebrations and festivities. Every morning for the three days of Eid, a holiday marking the end of Ramadan, my sisters and I would dress up in brand new outfits: Stiffly starched cotton shalwar kameez, shiny raw-silk angrakha tops with white churidaar pajamas, and one year, Jamavar lehengas! And these were only for the first day of Eid. The next day, we would have frilly knee-length dresses, with white socks and shiny black shoes, which our mother always referred to as "court shoes," or long skirts with lace borders and chiffon tops with ruffled sleeves and fancy pearl-shaped buttons. The third day was much calmer and we could wear whatever we wanted, which always ended in really inspired combinations put together by my youngest sister. A denim mini-skirt one year with a a white eyelet top and a yellow dupatta draped around the ensemble like a sari. 

Choti Eid was a time of unbridled excitement and gluttonous eating, but the best days were those leading up to the big celebration, especially the night before - Chaand Raat - "the night of the moon," referring to the sighting of the crescent moon before Eid day. Crowds rushed in flocks to neighborhood bazaars. Every year, the market in my parents' neighborhood held an outdoor shopping event on Chaand Raat. Shopkeepers set up small stalls under huge tents and canopies. The makeshift market glittered with bulbs strung along cords that ran through the length of the tents, swinging above our heads. Each stall sold the same wares, colorful glass bangles, cones and sachets of henna, shiny metal rings with cheap crystals - exciting items for little girls and easy on their mothers' pockets. 

We would get the last-minute Eid shopping done on Chaand Raat. We would match different sets of bangles to small pieces of fabric leftover and returned by the tailor after he stitched our Eid outfits. We would buy any items that were missing, maybe a pair of shoes for one of us, a belt for another. We would rush home after shopping with our mother who was invariably nervous about all the tasks that still remained incomplete. She spent hours on Chaand Raat getting the house ready for guests who would visit us the next day. She straightened up the drawing room curtains, polished the furniture, shampooed the carpet, took out cheerful new sheets for our little twin beds. When all this was done, my sisters and I took turns making intricate patterns of henna on each others' palms. My middle sister was always left with the unpleasant and interminable task of putting henna on my hands. I was so particular about each line, each dot, each curve, that she was subjected to terrible scoldings, pinches, kicks, and slaps from me if she wasn't absolutely precise in copying the design from a magazine or a book. By the time we went to sleep, tired, happy, our hands covered in small plastic bags so we wouldn't get the drying henna on our sheets, we could still hear our mother buzzing around the house like a worker bee, dusting the shelves, fluffing cushions, stirring foodstuffs that were steaming on the stove already.

The next day, we would wake up to the sound of our uncle, Chachoo, crinkling fresh notes of money next to our ears. He would be dressed in a starched shalwar kameez, having just returned from Eid prayers at the neighborhood mosque. We would look up, bleary-eyed, not remembering what day it was, our hands still covered in plastic bags, cold from being outside the covers all night and stiff from the dried henna. Then we would look at his big smile and the new banknotes in his hands, and suddenly we would remember. "It's EID!!! Which's time to get Eidee," we'd say and sit up in bed. Yes, this was the highlight of Choti Eid. All the elders gave money to the kids, plucked it from cleanly stapled piles of 10-rupee bills freshly withdrawn from the bank. We would put away our very first installment from Chachoo in our little fanny-packs or wallets or pouches and run into the shower. Once dressed and ready, the Eidee kept on coming from relatives, from our parents' friends, from neighbors. We would receive hordes of guests at our tiny house, embrace them, and say "Eid mubarak!" Blessed Eid. Several festively dressed families would show up at once, relax in my mother's immaculate drawing room, and enjoy the items laid carefully on her tea-trolley. A steaming teapot covered in an embroidered tea cosy, surrounded by her good china on the bottom shelf. On the upper tier of the trolley was all the good stuff: chanaa chaat, potato fritters, samosas, black forest cake, cutlets, macaroni salad, kebabs. We would stuff ourselves silly and almost always nap in the afternoon. 

This year, far from Lahore and my childhood, the responsibility of making Eid exciting falls to me. We're going to do Eid differently in my house this year. First off, there will be Eidee, yes, but there will also be beautifully wrapped gifts for everyone, because to me presents are more exciting, more personal. I will bake layer cakes and loaves of banana bread. I will make chicken cutlets and chanaa chaat. My baby will unwrap a lovely new toy, especially for Eid. Some things will be reminiscent of the Eids of my childhood. There will be new sheets on the beds. The house will be scrubbed clean, every last nook and cranny of it. I will take out the fancy tea service and the lace-trimmed napkins. I will put henna on my palms. All the while I will remember those who are not physically present in my home this Eid and those who are no longer in this world. I am determined to make it a good day.