The Ups and Downs of Autopilot

The only thing I consistently do every single morning is get out of bed. Once my feet are on the ground, nothing is off limits.

Sometimes I crave routine. When I have a slow morning every now and then I think to myself, as I steep some tea and eat oatmeal in my underwear, if only I could do just this, every morning. I would sleep well past seven and let the sun wake me up. I would listen to acoustic covers of all my favorite songs while I put on my makeup. That’s what I would do every morning, if only. These calm moments are rare gems, never deliberately placed but rather stumbled upon.

Most mornings I’m not so fortuitous. Some begin at four-thirty a.m.; I dress and brush my teeth, lucky if I don’t trip into any furniture in the process, and bike to the diner I work at in the dark. Others I might spend on-call for my other job as an RA or meeting a professor. Some mornings follow late evenings at work and don’t begin until well past sunrise, and still others begin with an early morning run. With my schedule about as stable as my footing at five in the morning, the concept of routine is lost on my planner.

I once happened upon somebody else’s routine. One morning I found myself blissfully free, so I joined a friend for a cup of tea as she readied herself for work. I perched on her bed while she methodically curled her hair and her eyelashes, selected some earrings and a pair of shoes. Something intangible caught my attention in that room. So practiced, so rhythmic were her movements. So quiet was the sunlight pouring through the windows. In that still and magnificent moment I had time to notice the dust particles floating in the air. It occurred to me that my presence in the room was all that set this morning apart from any other. I thought of the dust particles that must float through the sunlit air in my room each day, even in my absence.

With me, though, there’s always something disruptive, always a little calamity. I leave my packed lunch on the counter. I realize midday that I’m not wearing deodorant. Once I looked in the mirror to find that I had mismatched my earrings. There is no logic or design to the way I live my life. Sitting in my friend’s room that morning gave me a taste of what I was missing.

In light of my sudden craving for some consistency, I launched a careless Internet search of the word “routine.” Between abdominal workouts and dictionary definitions I found a word, an interpretation of the idea of “routine,” so terrifying and so threatening it brought my search to a screeching halt:

“Autopilot.”

That which is routine is a task we can perform mindlessly. Something we could do in our sleep, without care or consciousness; something we can do on autopilot. By the time I graduated high school I could drive home on autopilot. From the student parking lot to my driveway I would be deeply entranced, unaware of stoplights and crosswalks. I would pull up to my house and awaken, trusting that I hadn’t hit any animals or small children on my way (surely I would have noticed then).

I’d drive home the same way my friend applied her makeup and curled her hair. If I wanted a routine, I realized, I essentially wanted to spend more of my time on autopilot.

Is that something I really want? I’ve got to wonder: if I spent seven mornings a week drinking tea in my underwear, would I eventually forget to enjoy it?

My lack of routine keeps me on my toes. I am wide-awake for every moment of my day. Every microwave breakfast is an adventure, every swipe of mascara an experiment. You might even call my life exciting, my mismatched earrings edgy. I could be proud that I fit it all in and get it all down. I could call myself Supergirl. But most days I don’t feel like Supergirl. Most days, in fact, kick my ass. I euphemize the chaos, opting for words like excitement and adventure, and truck on through.

I am grateful to be young and free of an autopilot setting, to be up for anything and down for everything, but at times I must ask, is this calamity worth the satisfaction I feel knowing I didn’t take the easy route? At times I want to shout out, enough is enough already. Get me an alarm clock and a steady bedtime; sign me up! At times I would give anything for the chance to just tune out, so distracted as I clutch a steaming cup of tea that I can’t feel it searing holes in my palms while I watch those sunlit dust particles float lazily on by.

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