Things I Didn’t Know I Loved:

Carrie Poppy
7 min readMar 16, 2022
Habit tracker, March 2022. The hash-marked days are days I didn’t do the thing. The hashes remind me that I am still connected to the last time I did that habit. That I have not magically lost my progress by missing a day or six.


I have a story I have told myself for many years. It is that I am incapable of doing the same thing, every day, most days. That building a habit is impossible for me. There was a time when it seemed absurd that anyone could get up, spend an hour — or even fifteen minutes — on something that wasn’t even demanding their attention with urgency. Learning to play the piano? Memorizing phrases in French? How could you honestly look a friend in the eye and say, “I didn’t find time for your call, but I did find time to learn a language I will never be called on to use unless I take a one-week trip on a gas-guzzling jet?” Absurd. Selfish. Self-respecting in a way that you should feel ashamed of. This is how I really felt. The people at the gym were spending their time on something foolish, selfish, when their time on this planet had only been allotted to them, not given. Our big challenge was to redistribute the wealth. Habits were theft. This was a convenient myth, since I was bad at forming them anyway.

At first it was my friends, Abe and Natalie, who were learning Spanish on their phones. They played it on an app and the app told them how many days in a row they had practiced. It didn’t matter whether they had practiced for five minutes or two hours. If they had checked in on the app at all, it gave them credit for the day. Natalie had a five-day streak, and this seemed impossible. Some people had streaks of fifty days, or one hundred. They were different animals than I. How on Earth were they doing it, and what else in this world were they ignoring in order to do it?

But because it was Spanish, I could not keep this lie alive for long. President Trump was imprisoning Mexican immigrants at higher rates than we had ever known, despite being a country that had imprisoned Mexican immigrants for as long as we had the border police to do it. I lived in Los Angeles, for god’s sake. They needed Spanish-speaking volunteers in my city, and further south at the border, to help. I had a few words and phrases from high school,, but that was it. Learning a whole language would be impossible, and too far away. The children were imprisoned NOW, the families were struggling, NOW. It would take years to learn the language.

But, on the strength of that urgency, that awareness that there was nothing else I could contribute save the few hundred dollars I had already donated, I got the app. I promised myself I would do it for thirty days straight. Day two, I almost crumbled. By day three, I was fighting with myself to pay attention to the little game on my phone that represented the future, and not to the clawing, gnawing present. It felt impossible. But behind the impossibility rose a new, other feeling. The joy of overcoming. The realization that my higher brain could overrule the panic and inertia of my lower brain. Ha ha, fucker, you didn’t win. Ten days. I started pegging my Spanish to something I knew I would do every morning: walk my dog. I took her to the dog park in my apartment complex, and she ran around and pooped while I learned the words for “ball” and “necktie.”

How would this serve my purposes? Would I be asking the families imprisoned at the border about their plastic balls, about their neckties? Shouldn’t we be starting with words like “water,” “shelter,” “safe,” “guards,” “weapons”? But my brain was the tool we had, and my brain was evolved in a certain way, and the algorithm of the app had generally figured it out, and if I really wanted to help those future families, I would give in to the process. Ugh. Twenty days.

I started telling people about my progress. Twenty days!

This is not like me. I am the creative one who comes up with ideas everyone else must execute because I am not going to answer emails and keep spreadsheets. I am not the one who keeps a 20-day streak on an app, for a goal years in the future. Would they even still need me at the border in twenty years? Trump would be gone, unless he managed to overturn term limits, which would essentially be overthrowing democracy. I remind you that this felt like a very real possibility. Thirty days.

Thirty days came. It felt like a new life. A new truth. Thirty days had been random, a number chosen by the average number of days in a calendar made by people centuries before me. I had imposed it on my brain, and I had forced my disorganized, muddy mind through the process, even as everyday demands yelled at me from the sidelines. I had promised this to those future families. I had followed through. I kept going.

If it hadn’t been Spanish, I don’t know if this ever could have given me a new life. But it did. That secondary benefit — that feeling of grit, of overcoming my base impulses, of giving myself over to habit so that long-term, big-range goals could be achievable… this took on a life of its own.

I started to learn the banjo. I had tried to learn guitar in college, but I dated two male musicians who both made me feel like a dummy who couldn’t even get her fingers to form a D7 chord. I quit before I really began. This time, I would choose my favorite instrument, the banjo, and hell to all the haters. I took one class, which I finished, but decided I wanted to continue on my own. I learned chords on the internet. I let myself stumble inartfully through the process. Maybe one teacher would say I needed to learn plucking simultaneously, or it would all go to hell. Oh well, I chose to keep going. I would do this whatever way would keep me doing it. The biggest challenge would always be the inertia.

I didn’t compare myself to anyone. What banjo player would I compare myself to, anyway? Steve Martin? There were no casual banjo players in my orbit, so I lived — and live — in a little world in which it’s just me and the masters, and they don’t judge me for not knowing how to pluck.

I started exercising, the ultimate in selfish, time-wasting activities. yes yes, I get it. As long as I live a long time, I can do more for others. But this isn’t REALLY why we exercise. We do it for us, for a clear head and healthy body. Creeping into my day was a new thought: maybe it was GOOD to do things for me. Maybe it was good to make one more person happy, even if this person was me.

I started keeping a habit tracker. Spanish, banjo, exercise. Maybe a little writing. Maybe make sure I do one task for my upcoming wedding every day. Each month, I change the daily habits, but the first three are always the same: Spanish, banjo, exercise. In that order, because Spanish is the easiest. I have done it the longest, and it is the easiest to stay motivated with, even though some days it doesn’t seem worth it.

The other day, the woman who cleans my apartment spoke to me in Spanish. It was fast, and I didn’t understand her. I felt demoralized. All that work, and I couldn’t understand simple words, spoken to me by someone who knew I was learning. Who was probably choosing the simplest words she knew how. I nodded and smiled.

“Muchas gracias,” etc.

The following week, an olive branch. She must have seen my sorrow. She came with a question. Slow, earnest, pretending she needed my help when really she was offering hers.

“Una pregunta,” she said, very very slowly, her eyes locking with mine. “Here we go,” she was really saying. “You can do it.”

“Esta copa,” she said. “Donde compraste?”

A huge pause, as she let me file each word away.

“Me gusta mucho,” she said.

To my shock, I understood her.

“This cup, where did you buy it? I like it a lot.”

I reveled. The children at the border would not be asking me where I bought my cups, but here we were. I had, after all, needed to first know about cups and the paste tense for “to buy.” The app was right!

“Ah, si! Es muy buena. Pero no sé donde, porque es un regalo de los padres de mi prometido.”

“Ahhhh,” she said, emphasizing her understanding. I had been understood! She got it! We spoke!

“No sabes. Que malo! Quiero comprar una.” So slow, so loving.

I had told her that the cups were a gift from my fiance’s parents.

“Ahh, too bad,” she said. “I want to buy one.”

But really she had said,

“You are doing a good job. You are doing a good thing. Keep looking to the future, every day, for five minutes. Fifteen, if you can manage it. Zero on a tough day. Just keep going.”

It has been 931 days. I keep going.

The children at the border are still there. And so is my banjo. And so is the bike I bought myself for Christmas.

I didn’t know I loved to do the same thing, again and again. I thought I was a wild thing.