By Amber Noel
I don’t have an official Rule of Life, à la Saint Benedict. I don’t have a written contract with myself about how I will live each week, parse out each day, meet goals each year, complete with check boxes and multicolored Sharpies.
I admire people who do, and especially admire people who love it.
But I do have goals. I have routines and rules of life (little “r,” little “l”), more or less. We need them. Now, as we are hunkered down due to COVID-19, they can be a good reminder of our own need, as human creatures, to create meaningful order and to be ordered, to refuse to return to the chaos from which creation was originally pulled and shaped. And when we’re robbed of the norm, it can be a real spiritual practice to re-form these routines, especially for temporary hardship.
I’d like to offer some advice in this regard.
A few years ago I began living alone and working from home full time in a small, 1-bedroom apartment. With a tight budget and a love of quiet, I couldn’t go regularly to coffee shops or rent a “third space” cubicle in a renovated warehouse.
I’m an introvert, but not that introverted.
At first, the Battle of Cabin Fever was pitched. Then it got pitched. I moved in with my parents and grandparents. Then, when I found myself in a 200 square-foot room in Manhattan in the dead of winter for a writing residency, it was here, amazingly, I found an energizing stride, and probably for three reasons: 1) it was temporary, 2) I could think of the shrunken proportions of my life as a kind of cloister or abstinence, and thus a spiritual practice, and 3) with that practice came routines that didn’t solve loneliness or sadness and the feeling of being “hemmed in,” but did help make the most of it.
The following are practical techniques that helped me survive and (crosses self) spiritually grow, in small spaces, with limited human contact, during the vast majority of my hours per day, on the vast majority of my days. I hope that it will help you work (and love) in the “time of coronavirus.”
Please note: I do not have children or a spouse. I remained fully employed and was not also worrying about money or my loved ones’ safety or looming dystopian scenarios. Some days it was definitely about survival, but not literally. So prepare your grain of salt.
And, of course, concentrating on arranging or controlling little things can feel desperate, sad, or panic-inducing if you feel like your world has just shrunken to the size of a playpen. Shall we then be contented with our tiny toys? Shall we be contented with making mud pies when invited to a holiday at sea? (Thanks, C.S. Lewis.)
Control of small details can go overboard, no doubt. But if we’re here, then we’re here. That’s what monks and nuns have to deal with all the time. “Who dares despise the day of small things?” (Zech. 4:10). This may be a day of small things — days and weeks and months of small things. And one thing we know about small things from scripture: the steward who can be trusted with them will be trusted with larger things later.
So, try any of these, if they would help your rules of life during this time:
Pray every day.
No time? The Lord’s Prayer will do. If you think you really, really have no time, you really, really do. Say it twice a day when you’re extra hounded: once in a slim, quiet moment on waking, and once again kneeling at your bed at night. Can you sneak in one more at mid-day?
Don’t stay in your pajamas.
Okay, maybe the first day of quarantine, pajamas. You’re probably stressed and you probably need it. But after that, step it up. Get dressed as if you were going somewhere. Wear a nice shirt. Shave. Put on lipstick. Whatever you might do for a comfortable day at work, even if you spend an hour doing emails and the rest of the time making sure your toddler doesn’t fall down the stairs. Clothes can be a costume for the role, a uniform for duty, armor for battle.
I learned this practice from an extremely sanctified friend of mine, Debbie, who has worked from home for the past 10 or 15 years. Each morning, she gets up around 5:30, has a cup of tea, takes a prayer walk around her neighborhood, then puts on work clothes (complete with stockings and earrings) and sits at her home office and spends eight hours faithfully slaying it.
Make your bed.
Even if it’s not that great a job, get the bed looking better than it did when you first threw back the covers. A monk at Mepkin Abbey inspired me to do this. I make my bed first thing every day except Sunday. Sunday I let it lie, a heap of blanket and pillow and sheet (and magazine, bread crumbs, cat…) — a reminder that while there are some things I can control and order and make predictable, there’s plenty I can’t. One of those things is grace. Another is providence. One day I week I remind myself, with a messy bed, “Just so you know, by the way, God takes care of everything.” And I say, “Okay, thanks for the reminder.”
Walk. Nap. Make coffee, tea, popcorn, phone calls. Pull weeds. Do ten push-ups or 30-second planks. Walk the dog. Play a game in which you toss your cat through the air and onto the couch and he mysteriously comes back to you over and over and so you do it again. Watch a funny video of an otter. FaceTime your grandma. Text someone to tell them you’re praying for them. Pray for them. You’re probably already doing a lot of this naturally. What if you scheduled it in?
And make breaks for others. Do you know how the sentence “Would you like a piece of toast?” can transfigure a housemate’s spirits at about 11:15 a.m. after two hours of emails? I have seen it.
Music as “background noise”? A classical musician somewhere just shuddered. And that is fair. But after years now of organizing a working life at home and in small spaces, I know that, even in the background, music becomes company, a stimulant to creativity, a way to relax, and even, occasionally, a reminder of God’s presence and a larger world beyond my four walls. Working from home has produced a version of me that now enjoys jazz (a learning curve, sadly!). I can now tell Rachmaninoff from Chopin. Beginning as noise, it’s become an education and pleasure. Gregorian chant, the sung rosary, and the music of Hildegard of Bingen have also been great companions, especially on days when Paul’s pastoral word to “pray always” felt urgent.
But lest I get too spiritual, some Radiohead, St. Vincent, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, or James Taylor could do as well. Just not “Baby Shark.”
Rediscover nooks. Move furniture.
Not all your furniture. Well, if you want. What I mean is, find out the possibilities of where you can be in your house. Explore your own space. Sit (chair, floor, bed, stairs, bench, rug), stand, lie down, kneel, recline. Do your yard, porch, side porch, hammock, walk-in closet, get all the use they can? Eyes sick of the screen? Try dictating a paper or report from the bath or from a lawn chair, using voice typing. Do your blinds open? Can your windows let in some birdsong, some fresh air, the sound of the neighbor you have literally never before seen, now vacuuming his car? If you think, “I’m sick of my house,” have you really come to the end of what you have? For me, this is an exercise in gratitude.
Parse your day.
Look — if you’re the kind of person who needs extreme stabilitas to get work done, then brother, sister, do what you need to do! Don’t you dare leave that swivel chair. Put in earplugs and don’t you move. But if you can, and if you like, not only vary how you fill your space, but schedule when you do it: 9 to 10:30 at this desk; tea until 12 at the kitchen table; lunch on the back deck; phone meeting while you walk with the stroller or do sit-ups, etc.
Finding variations (add “The Goldberg Variations” to the music list above) and making routines are powerful ways to make life bearable when life is cramped — which, on this side of Christ’s return, it always is at some level. This is what the cloistered people know. Living as non-anxiously as possible and accepting limits tends to coincide nicely with living as prayerfully as possible. Living well in my cloister helps me, helps others, and glorifies God. A little rule of life in this time will not solve existential, relational, or financial angst, but it will be good for the body, for sleep cycles, for freshening the imagination, for getting the wiggles out, and good for a soul that’s ultimately not made for this pinching and parsing of time and space at all, but for the wide open, free-breathing fields of Heaven.
Amber D. Noel, M.Div., is a writer and communicator. She lives in Dallas, Texas, and works as Associate Director of the Living Church Institute.