Compulsion and Instinct

by Maria Theresa Maggi on July 13, 2018

"Golden Pollen Outside My Window," pastel memory sketch by Maria Theresa Maggi

“Golden Pollen Outside My Window,” pastel memory sketch by Maria Theresa Maggi

The other day a dear neighbor stopped by on her way to the beach with her dog. We had waved at each other through my window and she came up my drive to the door, smiling and saying, “How are you today, Honey?” and “I need a Maria hug!”  She also said that she would ask us to come along but that she knew it was close to my nap time. I joked about being OCD and how that was reinforced by the dogs coming to expect the same routine every day. And then I went back into my house to finish my smashed potatoes, broccoli and pinto beans, brush my teeth and get ready for my nap.

Routine is very important to me. I like it when I know I’m going to get a ride down the coast to the grocery store once a week. I like it that no matter how early or how late I wake up I almost always end up sitting down to my bowl of oatmeal and fruit between 8:00 and 8:30. The times it’s not like this can be a source of humor, though, instead of anxiety. This 8:30ish time is usually when a rotating group of people known as “the walkers” in my neighborhood pass my my house in the morning, visiting with each other and or sheltering under their umbrellas or coaxing their dogs along. I’m usually seated at the table at the window with my oatmeal and my computer open, checking e-mail and social media. I often wave if someone I know is in the group and they happen to look at my house. The dogs and I are not usually ready to get out the door for another hour after that.

But one morning, when the days were getting longer and the sun coming up earlier and earlier, we were ready early. I had not checked the time. But when I opened the front door for the three of us, there were the walkers, right in front of my house. We all burst into laughter. “This doesn’t usually happen!” I exclaimed, and we walked a few blocks at the rear guard of all of them.

It isn’t that I’m thrown into a tizzy if the schedule is “off,” so my compulsions don’t seem particularly anxiety driven. I’m aware of it, and often it makes me laugh beyond any irritation about being behind that might arise, along with the knowledge that I’ll need to rest sometime, if not at the appointed time, to get through the day. So after my joke to my friend the other day, I noticed I began to reflect on how I had described myself to her. I found my description incomplete, and possibly, profoundly inaccurate.

It is true that I end up doing things at pretty much roughly the same time in any given day. It’s true that I prefer to schedule walks and errands and sometime gardening work from after breakfast to before lunch–because for as long as I’ve had MS that mid morning to early afternoon slot is when I have the most energy. It’s true by 2:00 pm I need a nap or a rest with my feet up for a good two hours. That’s why it’s been best to schedule the dental appointments I’ve needed to use oral sedation for at these times. My body is already cued to relax and rest at these times. I’ve learned to follow my energy curves without needing to know what time it is. In fact I don’t really do much of anything by the clock, a gift I gave myself when I had to stop teaching. So after all, what seems like compulsion is, at the heart of it, a refined and innate sense of the ebbs and flows of my capacity and stamina; it is a compulsion, whenever possible, to match activities along this spectrum in order to harmonize my effectiveness with the rhythms my body needs.

It’s true I have my distinct morning ritual: awaken, hold points, use the bathroom, take my magnesium and B12, do yoga, let the dogs out, make oatmeal, check e-mail and social. But doing all those things BEFORE  I hit whatever is on the pages of the news or the so-called newsfeed enables me be more ready for what might be coming at me either in my personal life or in the world at large. And within that routine, I have found hidden delights, I now look forward to, or am delighted by in the moment over and over; the intuitive insights that come on the yoga mat, whatever they might be, the big hug I give Cotton before he goes out the door, the way Romeo knows to move over so I can begin my yoga stretches on the bed, the delight of opening all the blinds and shutters to let in the daylight, foggy or sunny or dotted with rain. But the most surprising little gem of all is the way the hot water coming out of the tea kettle sings a song into the stainless steel measuring cup as I fill it to pour over my little pot mounded with oats, fruit and ginger. It sings, its sound moving up a scale only it knows.

I don’t perform these motions in any particular order so these things will happen–sometimes the order varies, or I forget about one or the other, or decide it’s not needed that particular morning. But  in the general arc of this routine, I am greeted with serendipitous and lovely surprise and delight I cherish. Maybe it is a kind of orbit around which I turn to the light of my soul.

Following instinct and intuition that creates a routine, and the force of compulsion share a nebulous border. Liking something that has proven to be delightful or useful or healing can make me want to repeat the way it came about in the first place, or to hold onto a practice that once literally saved me but that I have not yet realized might not be serving me best in the present. A food example that comes to mind is my discovery in 2014 that I could, indeed, make spelt sourdough starter and bread and eat it, without detriment. That in fact I felt betterstronger at the time eating my own bread.  I think that bread and that discovery was a kind of godsend given the fact that the gas fireplace had been leaking and I had, unbeknownst to me for quite a while, been absorbing too much carbon monoxide from a very slow leak. Once that was fixed I immediately began to feel better. And before I knew it and long after the most intense edge was off, I have no doubt that bread helped me to absorb and eliminate the toxins that may have lingered in my body, just like years ago I’d given our golden retriever a baguette the Christmas she ate one of Mike’s chocolate bars off the couch, which saved us from having to find a vet on Christmas afternoon.

The bread also brought me a comforting routine and continuity through all my moves. When I finally settled here at the coast, it helped me ground and feel at home to raise the little yeast babies and then transform them into bread again. It gives me pleasure to see my kids eagerly dive in and say how much they love the bread whenever they come to visit.

But I started to notice in the last couple of months that I was beginning to try to eat enough bread each week to keep up with feeding the starter and making a weekly loaf. I noticed I started to put some in the freezer. I noticed as much as I like it, I started not to care whether I ate it or not. I noticed that maybe I didn’t care if I ate it or not.

So I decided to perform an experiment. I would put the remaining bread in the freezer, I would feed the starter once a week, and I would make a new loaf when I knew the kids were coming for the weekend.

I liken discovering something is not as hard as I once thought or believed to peeling apart a section of banana peel to put into the compost. I used to believe the stems of the banana were hard and unforgiving. But if the banana is ripe enough when I remove it from the peel, and you pull from the bottom of the section of peel toward the top, the stem simply comes apart as a section of the peel. I was amazed by that (and it’s making my composting experiments work better too).

"The Peel and the Stem Are One," hastily drawn pastel diagram, by Maria Theresa Maggi

“The Peel and the Stem Are One,” hastily drawn pastel diagram, by Maria Theresa Maggi

Putting the bread away allowed me to experience, to my surprise, that it is no longer necessary like it once was, to help absorb those toxins. In fact, not eating it is now making it easier for me to digest what I do eat, and to shed the few pounds (still on my own regular spectrum) I had accumulated over the moves around Oregon. That feeling of being light and buoyed up by my food choices is accentuated once again. And all because I was able to shift out of a routine that had once served me and at the moment is better kept to the side.

All this is to say that within my rhythm of routine I always allow room for discovery, for epiphany, for noticing something new and even revelatory. It’s all because the pattern is familiar and the pace is slow enough that I am allowed to recognize these opportunities for variation and innovation. It’s widely believed that the more widely we cast our nets, the greater our chances of new and expansive opportunities. But I also find that circumscribing my daily habits allows me to discover intricacies and surprises from the seemingly “same” view points that are anything but limited–in fact they seem infinite–they just occur at a different interval than obviously outward expansion and activity.

I’ll leave you with a little gem of an example that’s presenting itself as I write, and providing me serendipitously with the perfect end to this post.  While most of the rest of the US has been struggling with very hot weather, in the last couple of days here on my bit of the Oregon Coast we have been enveloped in a cold wind and banks of mist floating through it, making it hard to see very far on the beach. But this morning some sun is breaking through our revisitation from winter. I am currently sitting at the same chair that allows me the view out my window that you see in the pastel at the top of this post, minus the golden pollen wafting through the air. What I do see is the alder in full leaf, shifting it’s long, old arms on the breeze, and through it, shafts of sunlight, moving in the same lilting rhythm as the branches full of green. There are literally streams of sunlight dancing in the wind. I’ve been in this chair at roughly this time looking out this window nearly every morning since I moved in a year and a half ago, and this is the first time I’ve seen this particular mesmerizing dance of light, wind, and trees

I rest my case.

Maria (moonwatcher)


Leave a Comment

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Donna July 15, 2018 at 12:13 pm

I love reading your posts and often take a lesson to heart. Today I thought of how smart you are to live where it is cooler. I must get out the door for my hour long walk before 7 if possible because the heat of the day increases my fatigue. I found a park where I can walk under the shade of trees if I get there before 8:30. Moving to Oregon, to a cooler climate would be good for my MS. For a while I had planned to move to Oregon, but I now know, that at my age, 65, my friends are the most important part of my community. So I will stay put and make the effort to get out for my walk early in the morning.


2 Maria Theresa Maggi July 15, 2018 at 10:33 pm

Thank you, Donna, for letting know how my posts affect you. That means a lot to me. I admire you for getting out there so early in the morning so that you can walk comfortably. Good for you! I completely understand wanting to stay in a community of friends. That makes a lot of sense. If my son and daughter-in-law didn’t live in Oregon and relatively close by, I wouldn’t have braved it. I’ve been fortunate all along the way to make new friends, and keep in touch with old ones back in Moscow. My dearest long time friend there has visited me twice and will be here again later in the Summer. I’m lucky she likes to travel! Blessings to you on those early morning walks!


3 Veronica July 16, 2018 at 2:46 pm

Ah, routines and rituals – I similarly have the morning process down. But there’s a separate weekend process where there is no alarm clock. 😉 It is sometimes nice to break from it – like when you met the walkers outside – and a bit refreshing to see how things could also be! I try to be more flexible, break some not-so-great routines (namely focused around the internet and that I need to get away from it more!!), because as you say, otherwise, where would be the innovation and variation, which makes things interesting. Thanks for a lovely post, and reminding me to keep straying every now and then from my routine; or at least notice things a bit more, where they’re even just slightly different. Enjoy the cooler weather! It’s getting to be “winter” here in the Bay Area… xoxo


4 Maria Theresa Maggi July 16, 2018 at 7:17 pm

Thanks Veronica, I always love to read your feedback–the kicker for me is that within the rhythms for my routine I discover variation–maybe that’s because allowing myself to stray and wander a bit–is part of my routine!! hahaha . we had a few days of “winter”–it’s overcast now but warmer. Still nothing like practically everywhere else. Very grateful to be here. xoxo


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