On Habit

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between different meanings of the word  ‘habit’. Dictionary.com offers 11 (slightly Americanised) different takes :

  1. an acquired behaviour pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary: the habit of looking both ways before crossing the street.
  2. customary practice or use: Daily bathing is an American habit.
  3. a particular practice, custom, or usage: the habit of shaking hands.
  4. a dominant or regular disposition or tendency; prevailing character or quality: She has a habit of looking at the bright side of things.
  5. addiction, especially to narcotics (often preceded by the ).
  6. mental character or disposition: a habit of mind.
  7. characteristic bodily or physical condition.
  8. the characteristic form, aspect, mode of growth, etc., of an organism: a twining habit.
  9. the characteristic crystalline form of a mineral.
  10. garb of a particular rank, profession, religious order, etc.: a monk’s habit.
  11. the attire worn by a rider of a saddle horse.

It is meaning numbers 1-8 that most concern me, though when I looked up the history of the word, (Online Etymology Dictionary) I was interested to see that it was early connected to the Monk’s habit from the Latin, habitus “condition, demeanour, appearance, dress,” and that made me think that, of course, the special habit worn by Christian monks in the 13 century was not just a form of dress but an outside marker to the habits of the wearer  – appearance as a form of being.

Thinking about this sent me looking for poems about habits ( got some? let me know please via comments) and I found this, from Gerard Manley Hopkins, which touches on the habitual daily practice, the habit of one’s body and the connection of this, for GMH  to the habit of a priest:

The Habit of Perfection

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

I’m interested in the way habits of the body (silence, for example) begin as sensory practice, but build to inner reality in this poem. Hard for Hopkins, who loved the beauty of the world so much, to force himself into this  retreated blank of sense! Yet through  not hearing, not speaking, not seeing, he finds  music, eloquence and sight… Something in me (as no doubt something in Hopkins) shies away from this rejection of sensory. Balance up your sense of him by reading this poem alongside one of his madly-loving-the-world poems, such as Pied Beauty.

I’m taking delight in gardening at the moment ( yes, despite the weather) mainly thanks to Emma, who has been clearing back the overgrown stuff for me, and it’s the plant-related meaning that has been pulling me toward these thoughts. In plants ‘habit’ is still deeply connected to that very early meaning  – that how a thing looks/lives is what it is  – for example, a plantswoman might tell you that the Hardy Geranium, ‘Anne Folkard’ has ‘a lovely trailing habit’.  But what your plantswoman would also mean is that ‘Anne Folkard’ is lovely and trailing. She grows in her characteristic, habitual way.

While I’ve been thinking about the habits of certain plants, I’ve started wondering how the word connects to our more common usage of the word, as in good or bad habits, or, leaving moral judgements aside, just plain things you do, characteristic behaviours. (And as my own habits, good and bad are of enormous and frustrating interest to me, I’m signing up for wayoflifeapp and will report back on how I get on with it).

The habit of a plant  – its general form or mode of growth – is both how it grows and essentially, from one point of view, what it is. The word ‘habit’ seems to exist at that point where something that is not fixed – but rather, growing – becomes fixed.  That’s an interesting place.  Does Jane Davis have a habit in the same way Geranium ‘Ann Folkard’ does?

This usage of the word points to Nietzsche’s thought that ‘we become what we are’. I’ve always liked the two sides of that aphorism, which seems to determine us even as it denies determinism. As a human individual in process of growing, or as a member of a family, that is surely often how it feels.  People grow into themselves.

It’s been surprising to me to realise that some of  the habits and practices I unconsciously built into the Get Into Reading model come from things I learned as a child. My mother, divorcing in the mid-1960s, aged about thirty and with four children  – the oldest, me, not yet 10, the youngest a babe in arms – took a pub, because it seemed a good way of earning a living with the kids on the premises. Childcare, work and social life all wrapped up! Our pub was Parliament Place, just off Liverpool’s Upper Parliament Street, in Liverpool 8.

That’s my little sister in the centre of the group of girls on the far pavement, and that’s our pub on the corner, the pub with no name, affectionately know to its friends as The Little House. My sister says the two tiny tots in the back of the mini pick-up are our brothers. Where was I?  In the long hot summer of 1968…I’d be 12. I had a job in the Arab grocery shop round the corner in Stanhope Street. That shop man, name forgotten, let’s call him Ali, cooked a fine mutton and potato stew which he used to share with me. It tasted unlike anything I’d ever eaten. I’m thinking as I write, cumin? Coriander? I worked there and on a cooked meat stall in St John’s market. Later, but not much later, it might even have been later that year, Saturdays consisted of walking down into town and hanging out in the International Section of Central Library or the Walker Art Gallery.

There were kids behind the doors in our street who didn’t go out until they were five and had to be sent to school. Florrie Bird, aged nine and going on forty, would sell you her granny, they said, for sixpence. Patsy Flanagan was one day a teenage girl in our street and then the next a bruised prostitute on the corner of Hope Street, with dead, drunk or narcotised, eyes. We lived, in that two bedroom flat above the pub, with mice, scabies, lice, fleas. Our Mum drank heavily into the night – what times! what lock-ins! what parties !  -and fought with Tony, and became, in a couple of years, addicted to alcohol. They were the worst of times, and yet while we lived them, they seemed the best of times.

I think she felt free, after her divorce, and enjoyed the sense that she was good at something. And she was: in the pub, there were huge social differences and yet a rough equality before the law and, usually, a social tact which meant that people’s deficiencies were overlooked or turned into bearable jokes. Wit in conversation was prized above all, along with any kind of storytelling, good singing or comedy, and, though we laughed at it, snappy dressing was also a talent. But everyone, even those with no social offerings, had a place here. Barry, in his filthy coat, always had that corner by the door of the bar. Margaret and June drank port and lemon disapprovingly in the parlour. Chinese Jim, Paddy and Molly, the Lucas boys with their acne and greasy hair, handsome Bo, Ace and Jimmy in sharkskin suits. It’s a small pub on a corner in a very small street and was a local for I guess about sixty households, many of whom even then were still connected to the  sea, the Port of Liverpool, the docks, and lived within a couple of hundred metres walk. And we had the itinerant drinking wanderers and occasional repertory actors from the old Everyman. People knew each other’s habits.

Occasionally the social order broke down and a fight would erupt and I’d wake up to that excitement, scuffling and shouting, tables and chairs scraping the floor, banging over, then the pub door slamming. One night I looked out of my top floor garret window to see two men squaring up to each other, circled by everyone else. One of these guys took off his jacket and handed it back, then put a hand to his head and removed a toupee and handed that back, before dancing forwards, stepping sideways, fists up. Everyone laughed at the toupee-lift but Gerry was too angry to hear them.

If someone had a talent, whatever it was, it was appreciated; poker, stolen goods, even lying. Sailor John might recite John Donne or a Shakespeare sonnet. A drunken old actor would do us a great Shakespeare soliloquy, or Marv could do a Johnny Cash. All offerings received with gracious pleasure by your host, my mother, Betty, a lovely barmaid landlady, welcoming and witty.  There were boundaries about nastiness and violence: Prue and Margaret, posh old birds both of them, who had fallen or drunk themselves down into very hard times, were welcome when relatively sober and restrained, but when they got pissed and snooty, lording it over everyone and shouting  ‘Ignorant uneducated people!’  or yelling at Mum’s boyfriend Tony, ‘You’re nothing but a kept man!’  they were barred out. Violent men were tolerated to a point, in that we might  all be scared of Ronnie, but  people would eventually team up to eject him. Most of the time my mother created an atmosphere in which these disparate people would accept and enjoy themselves and each other. Her recipe for life was written into me as habit: ‘enjoy it’.

The single-minded pursuit of pleasure is often the sign that someone is on the run from pain. My mother’s determination to be happy soon tipped over into not taking on the challenges of real life, which, after all, is a very tough one and needs solutions more creative and complex than whisky.   I spent a large part of my early adult life unlearning a lot of blot-it-out stuff I learned at my mother’s side in the pub. But when what was left of Betty was cross-fertilised with my experiences in the literature tutorials of Mr Brian Nellist (learn by loving things, learn by appreciating), and the mind-set of my husband Phil, with his insistent demand that reading should be about finding what moves you, then – wonderfully – the new created thing, this gracious species that is the Get into Reading model, was generated. Pub, and pulpit, and personal. I’ll talk about pulpit  bit another time.

Meanwhile, for this habit of pleasure in the shared human, I thank you, Mum.

9 thoughts on “On Habit

  1. fongmcc June 17, 2012 / 9:43 pm

    Re. habits, Larkin’s poem Dockery and Son, the lines in the fifth verse: when habits harden into “all we’ve got and how we got it”.


    “Dockery was junior to you,
    Wasn’t he?” said the Dean. “His son’s here now.”
    Death-suited, visitant, I nod. “And do
    You keep in touch with—” Or remember how
    Black-gowned, unbreakfasted, and still half-tight
    We used to stand before that desk, to give
    “Our version” of “these incidents last night”?
    I try the door of where I used to live:

    Locked. The lawn spreads dazzlingly wide.
    A known bell chimes. I catch my train, ignored.
    Canal and clouds and college subside
    Slowly from view. But Dockery, good Lord,
    Anyone up today must have been born
    In ‘43, when I was twenty-one
    If he was younger, did he get this son
    At nineteen, twenty? Was he that withdrawn

    High-collared public-schoolboy, sharing rooms
    With Cartwright who was killed? Well, it just shows
    How much…How little…Yawning, I suppose
    I fell asleep, waking at the fumes
    And furnace-glares of Sheffield, where I changed,
    And ate an awful pie, and walked along
    The platform to its end to see the ranged
    Joining and parting lines reflect a strong

    Unhindered moon. To have no son, no wife,
    No house or land still seemed quite natural.
    Only a numbness registered the shock
    Of finding out how much had gone of life,
    How widely from the others. Dockery, now:
    Only nineteen, he must have taken stock
    Of what he wanted, and been capable
    Of…No, that’s not the difference: rather, how

    Convinced he was he should be added to!
    Why did he think adding meant increase?
    To me it was dilution. Where do these
    Innate assumptions come from? Not from what
    We think truest, or most want to do:
    Those warp tight-shut, like doors. They’re more a style
    Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,
    Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got.

    And how we got it; looked back on, they rear
    Like sand-clouds, thick and close, embodying
    For Dockery a son, for me nothing,
    Nothing with all a son’s harsh patronage.
    Life is first boredom, then fear.
    Whether or not we use it, it goes,
    And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
    And age, and then the only end of age.

    • drjanedavis July 3, 2012 / 9:20 am

      Thank you for this – that’s a great stanza and I will find it useful in my thinking.
      All the same, something in me always kicks against Larkin – his deliberate sad grimness. Life is not ‘first boredom, then fear.’ Or at least nowhere near entirely so. I suppose the thing about Larkin that I have to accept is that he does push me to into considering just how far some of his grimmer statements might be true. Anyhow – thank you.

      • Fong July 4, 2012 / 12:10 am

        Yes, his deliberate grimness is awful, but feels a bit like a case of … Say it/think it first before it gets there before you. A bit false, and a bit like warding off something even deeper. Anyone who’s had, or been around a kid, knows life is very far from boredom first! Everything is fascinating. It’s more like regret dressed up as ideology? Agree with the habit bit though – very dangerous things!

  2. circlecitadel June 19, 2012 / 12:19 am

    I do not know of any other poems about habits, though I do know of philosophers who spoke on the subject. You might want to take a look at the philosophers Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. Their treatise can be long… But there are some articles floating around that are good summations.

  3. lynn glyn July 3, 2012 / 8:59 am

    this is the most wonderful piece of writing. thank you Jane. Have you thought of writing your autobiography – when you have the time.

    • drjanedavis July 3, 2012 / 9:04 am

      Hi Lynn – thank you – I’m glad you like it. I am trying to write a piece every couple of weeks and post it here, in the hope that it will build up to something approaching a book – telling my story and The Reader Organisation story at the same time. Thanks for the encouragement.

  4. fiona August 24, 2012 / 7:46 pm

    I’m really interested in your idea that we ‘grow into ourselves’ but don’t feel or think that it is so – or maybe it is my own interpretation of the meaning – ‘grow into ourselves’. If for instance I thought of myself and how I’m growing I realise it doesn’t necessarily mean a reflective thought, I mean how I think/act also on ‘moment time’ as to the growth of ‘myself’ so for me it’s this complicated mix of my ‘roots’ and how they grow (deeper I hope in which ever way they have to) and whatever there is above the surface becomes something of a mix but one that is always changing and that’s what tantalises/provokes/confuses yet challenges me to try to marry the constant flux with the idea of who ‘myself’ is – it always seems to be in flux?

    Not come back with a poem – sorry, I keep moving around some well known ones (by that I mean ones that keep seeming to be part of me) but can’t be actually specific.

    Really liked the post!

    • drjanedavis August 28, 2012 / 7:08 am

      I agree about flux !
      I don’t think the growing into our selves is conscious, which is why I like the plant analogy. There may be conscious bits… As plants sometimes have stakes and ties etc but those things unless truly consistent don’t change the plant’s habit… Not that I would want either to suggest that anything is fixed. So, back to D.H Lawrence’s motto and ‘balance as we go’…

  5. Keri Costigan May 4, 2014 / 6:13 pm

    My sister and I were born in the pub in parliament place my mum told me it had been knocked down. If anyone had any information or further pictures maybe of the inside I would be really grate ful if they could pass them onto us. I was Aldo told it was extremely haunted so any other experiences other than the ones my parents had would be lovely to hear . Many thanks Keri x

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