Reflections and Poem: Habit


Habits: We need them to survive.  There’s no way we could get anything done if we had to make a decision about every step and action of getting up, getting dressed, preparing breakfast, or preparing for sleep.  It was a dental hygienist, instructing me in flossing my teeth, who told me, ‘It takes four months to make something a habit.”  That’s not very long in the grand scheme of things, but it requires constant attention until the habit takes hold.

There are habits of action and habits of thought.  Prophets, I would say, disrupt our habits of thought.  Prophets are not soothsayers, tellers of the future.  They tell us things we might have seen or understood if we had been looking from their perspective.  They asked us to “think outside the box” back when that was not yet a cliché.

There are habits also of attention: stopping to look or listen as we carry on our habitual activities.  I wrote about my interest in William Paley in a blog back in May (May 9).  In his Natural Theology, published in 1802, Paley, an Anglican clergyman and theologian, asked his readers to pay attention to detail, from the smallest features of the eye and ear to the way plants and insects interact on a summer day.  For Paley this was all evidence of God’s good creation.  But such attention to nature is not bound to any particular theology; many religions suggest this approach to the world, as a way of really seeing, of paying attention to what is.  I tried to capture Paley’s approach, which suits my world as well as it does his very different world view, in this poem:


Alert to the ordinary, caught
by wonder at small creatures,
hidden muscles, as thumb or
toe is wondrous to an
infant, he has no
mantra, no method
to teach this habit of
attention, wonders at
the lack of wonder
in those who cannot stop
to look, who only admire
the new, the bold, sharply
chiseled lines, contrasting
colors that shout most
loudly in the constant press
of seen and sensed that
batters them until
like overbeaten dough
they lose their power
to rise to admiration, to
wonder at the marvels of
the bodies they inhabit.

“Habit” is included in Ascent: Five Southwestern Women Poets (2011).  See more on Books page.

A Poem for July 4


Parade Float, 2012

For many years we have celebrated July 4 at our extended family’s summer cottage in Maine. After the small town parade in the morning, we go home to prepare our potluck dish and gather with acquaintances in the afternoon for a party.  Seeing people we haven’t seen for a year can be complicated, producing the sensations in this poem:


Hail, Festival Day!

First the parade: old
cars, fire engines,
floats carry costumed
neighbors.  Then
the party: annual
acquaintance makes
conversation hard.
Even the names slip
from these not quite
strangers: is this
the grandmother who
reported two weddings,
or the mother whose
child had cancer?
An interior parade
imprints names,
connections: she’s
Mary’s daughter, he’s
Frank’s houseguest.
Is Joan the artist
or the realtor?
Brain tires with
body: oil of politeness
cannot loosen stiff
ligaments, strained
from standing
so long at attention.

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