Writing Prompt: Creatures of Habit

In the eighties, I worked summers on the eleven to seven shift in nursing homes as a nurse’s aid. Alzheimer’s was newly discovered, and part of the treatment was severe reality therapy, with huge calendars everywhere and patients constantly being re-told the current circumstances of their lives. The therapy had a harsh side, with women re-living afresh the death of their husbands and men being told over and over that they were not at work, that they no longer had a job. Treatment has changed for the better. But even then, in a home where reality was the rule, there was one room where we were told not to change the date on the calendar when the month was nearing an end. Bob’s room (not his real name) was exempt. Why?

On the first of the month, Bob went back to Roxbury to collect the rent. He had owned an apartment builing that he lost when he lost his memory and his wife. But for so long, going door to door to collect the rent envelopes was part of his life, that he could not lose the habit even when he had lost everything else. The head nurse on the shift had a soft spot for Bob, and had given her number to the new tenants, so if Bob managed to escape supervision (and he was creative!) and take the bus to his former home, she could go get him. Seeing her triggered him to remember the year. But Bob’s calendar sat on the 28th for two days and the 29th for three and then was switched to the proper date a few days into the new month, for safety’s sake.

Writing: What routine do you still have burned in your brain, even though circumstances have changed? My husband was rector of various parishes for more than two decades, and I was in charge of editing his monthly bulletin. As the first of the month draws near, I share Bob’s anxiety — there is a job that I haven’t done yet! The email hasn’t arrived for me to look over! Then I remember that we have moved on, our current rector has that taken care of already, I don’t need to do anything, and I relax.

If you write fiction, one way to open your story is for a creature of habit to realize that habit is no longer required. Like Mole abandoning his white-washing in “Wind in the Willows,” a character can reject a habit. A former monastic can hear a chime and consider that it is time for prayer. A retired teacher can enjoy a second cup of coffee and look out on the school bus arriving for the neighbor kids on the first snowy day of the year.

Or the habit can be different. In Bible class with Mr. Merrill at Commonwealth School, he pointed out that the Jewish custom of shaving the heads of women who were enslaved meant that every time a woman reached for her hair and it wasn’t there to tuck behind her ear, she had to remember and adjust, once more, to her new reality. A patient who has had something amputated may go to wash or dress that limb.

Writing prompt: A habit or routine has ended. What happens when your narrator hears the traditional prompt?

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