Habits

It is the end of January, so of course I have been thinking of Janus, that two faced god, Janus, that god of beginnings and transitions, always simultaneously looking backwards and forwards at the same time, forever straddling that division between future and past. Like its namesake, January too is the month of transition, from old year to new, and so it is no surprise that it is the month when people so often resolve to also make themselves into something new. Most of these resolutions fail though, and because of this I have also been thinking about habits, how we learn them, how we try to unlearn them.

It isn’t easy to break a habit. According to Psychology Today, habits are “etched into our neural pathways.” Just think about that for a moment—that there is an actual physical shape to a habit. To stop yourself from engaging in one, you must literally rewrite your brain, map a new pathway in place of the old. Habits don’t even reside in the portion of our brain devoted to decision making, the prefrontal cortex. Instead, they occur in our basal ganglia, a portion of our brain responsible for such things as coordinated muscle movement. A habit then, is a kind of muscle, as much a part of ourselves as the way our hands grasp objects, the way our feet balance our weight when standing, the way our legs work together to power our walking, our running, even our stopping suddenly.

In the beginning of March it will have been a year since my husband died. There are countless habitual behaviors I still engage in, born of living with someone for so many years that I have yet to unlearn—setting the thermostat to 68 because 66 was too cold for me and 70 too hot for him, putting my clothes in one of the dressers but not the other, sleeping on the same narrow portion of the right side of the bed where I slept when someone else was occupying the rest of the space, sitting in the same chair at the dining room table. Referring to “my husband” in casual conversation—this too, a habit. What we call ourselves, the frames of reference we give to each other for understanding us—mother, child, sister, and so on—these too can be habits.

If habits take up actual spaces inside the many folds of our brains, love then, has a physical dimension, born out of our countless repeated behaviors, a thousand iterations born of a thousand wordless interactions. Is it this then that I am afraid of? That developing a new habit would erase this, diminish what I felt somehow? That the slippage from old self to new would happen so gradually I almost wouldn’t see it, ember giving way first to smoke, then simply to nothingness?

I am a widow—I have said it enough times that it seems it should become a habit. But it hasn’t. Each time the shape of it feels awkward and unfamiliar in my mouth, like a word just learned. Perhaps that is one of reasons I have trouble connecting with new people. They will never have known me as something else. But wife is no longer a word I can use. Widow is not a word I want. I am not Janus, cannot straddle past and present equally forever. What then to call myself? What new word to wear?

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