Closing the door on the dryer, happy to be finishing the last household chore in time to watch slivers of afternoon sunlight ride up over the east-banked clouds, I thought about the turning of the year and what an unusual day it had been. New Year’s traditions once considered inviolable had been forgotten or set aside. No one watched the Rose Parade, or football. Generally weary of houseguests, bored by corporate socializing and constant activity, no friends gathered for barbeque or buffet, preferring to stay home with their leftovers. My own visiting kinfolk were on their way toward home. With no obligations for the evening, supper, I thought, could be a bit of that nice chicken casserole…
Until I remembered. It was New Year’s Day and I hadn’t eaten a single black-eyed pea. Walking into the kitchen, I opened the pantry and surveyed my stash. Corn. Butternut squash soup. Fire-roasted tomatoes. Oats. Cannellini. Sour cherries in brilliant ruby syrup. Coffee. Kidney beans. But not a single can of black-eyed peas. For 35 years I’d eaten black-eyed peas for luck on New Year’s – first because new Texas neighbors put them on my plate and insisted, later because of habit, eventually by compulsion. This year I’d had none, the cupboard was bare and even the small bag of fresh peas I’d tucked into the freezer was gone, consumed as part of an unremarkable and forgotten meal.
I felt my anxiety begin to simmer. It seemed irrational to make a run to the grocery for a can of peas. On the other hand, who knew? Tempting fate never is a good thing, and if black-eyed peas hadn’t brought anything resembling significant luck to my life, who was to say their absence might not occasion some really bad luck? Not willing to play the odds, I changed clothes, grabbed a jacket and headed to the car. Even if I only opened the can and ate a cold spoonful, I had to have them. Astonished by my own reaction, I skulked into the store and down the vegetable aisle thinking: I’ve become a Texan.
It didn’t happen suddenly. When I moved from California to Texas, I was driving a mustard-yellow Toyota that sported Iowa plates, no air conditioning and an I Love NY sticker on its rear bumper. Eventually, the car was murdered on the freeway by a hit-and-run driver. After I was released from the hospital and returned home, the police stopped by for a visit. The driver, they suggested, had been going well over a hundred. I could have spun out, but I didn’t. The gas tank didn’t explode. I was lucky.
Later, when I went back to take photos and gather up a few teeth from the car’s interior, the attendant at the storage lot offered his own assessment of the situation: “Y’all might oughta gotten rid’a that bumper sticker a’fore comin’ to Texas”.
Maybe he was serious, or maybe not, but I never replaced my little memento. Letting it go may have been my first conscious step onto a path leading to inevitable change and acculturation. Since personal transformation always is more process than event, it would take some time, and taking on my new identity would be far more complicated than pulling to the side of US 271 south of the Red River, belting out a chorus of San Antonio Rose and declaring, “OK. This is the year I become a Texan.”
My own path toward Texanicity wound through a maze of small, everyday happenings. Almost imperceptibly they began to mold and shape my life as I ate barbeque and peeled shrimp, pulled fence and two-stepped my way through dancehalls and wedding receptions. Amused by armadillos, I was in awe of Blue Northers. I learned to recognize cracking towers and cotton fields, and developed my own list of “must-haves” for la dolce vita, Texas-style: porch music at sunset, limestone hills, the Sabinal river and roadhouses.
Eventually, isolated experiences became the habits of a life. I searched out bluebonnets every spring and pecans in autumn river bottoms. I took my morning coffee at local gas stations and cafes, sweetened with a little conversation. I learned to inquire about the health of peoples’ families and not to take offense at being called “Ma’am”. I waved to folks in pickups and picked up kids with fishing poles. I began to appreciate gravy on my biscuits, boots on my feet and a twang on my tongue. If folks were fixin’ to leave, I never forgot my manners or the importance of extending the invitation. Y’all c’mon back now, y’hear?
Thinking about the new year in the context of my Texas transformation, I’m increasingly convinced New Year’s Day is less a time to make resolutions than an opportunity to begin nurturing new habits. Despite the success of Steven Covey’s book, the very concept of “habit” can sound hopelessly old-fashioned. Who wants to limit themselves to doing the same thing, day after day? On the other hand, while committing to lose ten pounds, read fifty books, learn a new skill or finish an old project is admirable, such resolutions can be the New Year’s equivalent to a rousing roadside chorus of San Antonio Rose – once the singing’s done, it’s easy to get back in the car and drive on, utterly unchanged.
Knowing this, my last year’s approach to resolutions was somewhat different. A friend who spent years in the classroom mentioned a sign she posted as a reminder to her students of her expectations for them, and a suggestion of what would be required for success in life. Quite taken with the words and their relevance to my own life and goals, I adopted them in lieu of resolutions for the year. Enlarged and framed, they spent 2009 sitting atop my printer, where I could see them easily and read them often, if not daily.
A beautiful presentation of six of the sixteen “habits of mind” educators Bena Kallick and Arthur Costa present as critical for learning and understanding, they function equally well for a writer. Openness of mind, discipline, careful listening, structure, clarity of thought and simple effort, when cultivated, can bring surprising results. Combined with other habits recommended by Costa and Kallick – cultivation of the senses, creativity and innovation, humor, accuracy and a sense of wonder – they easily could nudge a writer onto a path of on-going change and development. Seriously pursued, they could transform a writer’s life.
No writer understood this more clearly than Flannery O’Connor. In her letters, collected and edited by Sally Fitzgerald and published under the title The Habit of Being, she explores the implications of Jacques Maritain’s concept of the “habit of art” for her own writing and, implicitly, for her life. Maritain’s insistence that the virtue or habitus of art has an intellectual component and demands cultivation and practice clearly was congenial to O’Connor, whose quirky correspondence reveals a toughmindedness and steely discipline not always apparent to a casual reader.
Habits of mind, art and being – how we think, what we create, who we are -don’t develop because someone demands them of us, any more than they arise from our passing impulses. For something to become a habit, it must become second nature to us, and that takes time, repetition and awareness. As O’Connor herself says, the good always is under construction, whether in our projects or in our lives.
As for 2010, my journey down the path toward who-knows-what goes on with few changes to the map. The framed bit of inspirational imperative is back in its accustomed place on the printer. A small sticky note with a few refinements is close at hand, suggesting I remember to choose “less of that, more of this”, not to mention “fewer of those and more of these”. Not precisely resolutions, neither specific nor measurable, the jottings are meant only to support development of the new habits I cherish – habits worth every bit of time, repetition and awareness I grant them. After all, good habits transform life, and a transformed life endures.