Routine makes it easier to let new things in

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This morning Caroline and I dropped Jay and Wally off for their first day of daycare in Maine. They’re attending the same place they went last summer, and on the walk Caroline and I wondered whether their stay would begin as it had a year ago: Jay begging us not to leave, Wally eagerly scouting out all the new toys on the playground.

When you return time and again to familiar places, it can be hard to find evidence that time has passed at all. The cedar shingles on our house may have weathered a little grayer, but walking the streets of South Freeport with their overhanging elms, oaks, and pines, and staring down the storm drain where last summer with Wally and twenty summers before that I dropped pebbles, there are no obvious signs that anything has changed.

But then this morning we entered the daycare playground, and instead of clinging to Caroline’s side, Jay walked over to Ms. Jacky who runs the place, said hello, gave her five, and made it clear in a moment that he was more ready to meet the challenge of a new teacher and an unfamiliar group of kids than he had been a year ago.

All told we’re two weeks into our summer trip, with prior stops in upstate New York and lake country New Hampshire en route to Maine. Along the way, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way that routine, and clinging to familiar things, mixes with the desire and often the necessity to do new things.

Because in a lot of ways we’ve tried to recreate our normal daily routine while on the road. The boys do wake earlier than they usually do on account of the early New England summer sunrise, but in other ways we’re mimicking our South Carolina days: cereal and peanut butter toast for breakfast, Netflix shows during dinner prep, dinner at 5:30pm, boys to sleep by seven, lights out for me and Caroline just a few hours later. And when we do curl up to sleep, it’s beneath the same duvet and atop the same pillows we sleep on at home—one way we’ve tried to soften the sense of dislocation that comes with two months on the road.

These routines are satisfying, but they can also be limiting. A few nights ago in New Hampshire, Jay and Wally were playing outside with their cousins after dinner. By the clock it was almost bedtime, but the four boys were deep in each other’s worlds, spotting emergencies and zooming to the rescue on their police bikes. They could have gone on for hours like that, but pretty soon I called it, thinking there’s always tomorrow, and it’s hard to enjoy anything when you’re tired.  I packed Jay and Wally into our car, and we retreated into our evening litany: car pajamas, teeth brushing, two books, three songs, lights out. It seems a coin flip whether I made the right decision.

Now they’re off at daycare in another new place, and if this morning’s drop-off was any indication, it’s going pretty well. After we’d left them, Caroline and I walked back to our summer home, and made two cups of coffee using the same press I use at home in South Carolina. Mugs in hand, we sat in the backyard in someone else’s plastic Adirondack chairs, and talked about what it’s like to walk into a new place and meet new people as the boys were that morning.

I tried to picture Jay tentatively approaching a pair of girls in the sandbox, and Wally trying to get a teacher whose name he didn’t even know to watch him as he climbed quickly up a slide. In the same way it’s easier to sleep in a new bed when you’ve brought your old pillow, I thought about how it’s easier for Jay and Wally to make their way in an unfamiliar place when they have each other, a sense of themselves, memories of successful experiences coming into new places before, and the complete knowledge that Caroline and I will be there to pick them up that afternoon.

For the rest of us it works the same way, as we muddle along trying to sort the daily catch: we’ll keep this, throw that back, knowing all the while that it’s not always up to us choose the things we love, or the things we leave behind.

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