Routines are funny things. They function to keep us engaged in our world, in touch; they are steps, one after the other, built into the staircase of life. Routines keep our teeth from rotting out of our heads. They keep our children fed and our hair combed, our bodies clothed, armpits bathed, and, if we’re wise, remind us to show up in church once a week on Sundays. Routines keep us sane and the world turning. Routines keep us coming back for more.
My wife and I took a trip to Sacramento today, stopping in Willows on the way home to spend some time with her family. I like coming here because it represents for me a break from those times routines stop being helpful and world-turning and turn instead on their masters like a pack of rabid dogs. Routines can do that. They’re fickle friends.
But even this small break is itself part of a larger routine cycle. We come down from our mountain home every couple months and sojourn to Sacramento to deal with some recurring medical appointments for our youngest son, Aaron. He was born three years ago with some minor physical defects, had his first plane ride to UC Davis on day one and his first operation on day three of ‘life on the outside.’ Since then, this gem of a child has endured DNA testing, additional surgery, multiple therapists a week, the ominous rumblings of autism and, this weekend, his second MRI. The bottom-line is the doctors don’t know why our dear boy is ‘delayed’ the way he is. So… we keep praying, keep sojourning and keep embedding ourselves willingly into this larger cog of a routine in hopes of eventually figuring out... ‘why?’ and then, presumably, ‘what’s next?’
In the meantime—each time we make this trip— we stop here, in Willows, at the In-laws. Their home is situated almost exactly halfway between ‘here’ and ‘there,’ an oasis of crazy and quirky and calm that sits like the last flashlight with batteries on the way across the valley of the shadow of death. And while we’re here, we settle into other routines. While we’re here, our boys always feed the horses. And chase the cats. And get yelled at for chasing the cats. While we’re here, our dog always tries to run away when he’s left outside, and when he’s brought inside he always sits staring at the guinea pigs in their cage. He drools when he does this. Always. It’s his routine.
We disrupted our routine-away-from-routine slightly today by deciding to stay overnight in Willows. This agitates Joey, one of my brothers-in-law who was adopted as a child from Ecuador. He’s mostly deaf and has albinism, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and many, many other delays of his own. The normal time of our departure comes and goes, but we haven’t left yet, and Joey becomes agitated. My father-in-law comments on this as we watch Joey pace. If routine for the rest of us is a seatbelt in a crashing car, for Joey it is the car itself. Crash the car and you potentially crash his day. Our youngest son Aaron can be the same way. Once you initiate the ‘goodbye sequence,’ for example, the lift-off cannot be aborted, or we risk total and complete meltdown. Routine keeps the world turning, but it can turn on you too. Like I said, it’s a funny thing and a fickle friend.
On the topic of funny routines now, my father-in-law tells me about his two little Dachshunds, Russel and Tucker, and how every morning when he lets them outside to use the bathroom they go running to the far fence to bark at the horses and donkeys that… have lived with the family for years. But still, they do this every morning. Then, having sated their primal need to prove their ancestors were indeed wolves and not rats, they come waddling back to the front porch, pencil-thin tails waving proudly behind them. There is a sacred beauty in routine, no doubt about it. Like the reassuring lap of waves on a seashore, some measure of predictability is a gift to fragile psyches trying to survive in an ever-changing world. But today, just at dusk, I glimpsed the beauty in change, the glory in broken routine.
We had moved outdoors to lawn chairs as evening came on, and a steady breeze blew the heat and mosquitoes northward towards Redding. I watched as encroaching shadows made the top leaves of a giant pecan tree dance like silhouette puppets against the pale blue backdrop of the valley sky. To the left of the tree, a crescent moon played hide and seek with Venus as it rose behind clouds of pink elephants fading. And that’s when the children ran.
Our oldest son Nathan loves playing with Aaron, and their favorite game is tag. Of course, little Aaron almost never catches Nathan, who runs like a gazelle, but does he care? To Aaron, the joy is in the running, and to parents who prayed to God our little boy would someday walk, our joy is in the running too. So they ran, and our hearts felt full, but as beautiful as that was, it wasn’t yet the glory. While our boys ran and shrieked, their uncle Joey sat mute and pensive, watching. I’ve never seen Joey do anything even remotely approximating a run. ‘He has balance issues’ explained my father-in-law, apparently reading my thoughts—“running is uncomfortable for him.’ Just then, however, Joey made a sign for ‘running’ at his father. His dad looked genuinely surprised, but nodded his head in encouragement. Joey then turned, facing my children, and seemed to collect himself for a moment. Then, with a gait both awkward and beautiful, he began running towards them and out of the shackles of routine. Instantly, he was accepted into their game. Shrieks of laughter, huge smiles and simple fun made magical, they all stumbled around together in a shabby circle of joy.
We live in a world of routine, and it helps us to survive, but I wondered as I watched their faces how many times it also keeps us prisoner? Because I’ve never seen running look so much like dancing.
Surrounded By Grace,